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Gmail offers surprising innovation lessons for the Fortune 500

If you’re familiar with the story of Gmail, you know – for a fact – that it was a 20% time employee project by Paul Buchheit. A little bottom-up experimentation that grew into something big.

Surprise! That story is wrong.

It was a desire by Google, the company, to offer its own email. From Harry McCracken’s great piece How Gmail Happened: The Inside Story of its Launch 10 Years Ago:

Gmail is often given as a shining example of the fruits of Google’s 20 percent time, its legendary policy of allowing engineers to divvy off part of their work hours for personal projects. Paul Buchheit, Gmail’s creator, disabused me of this notion. From the very beginning, “it was an official charge,” he says. “I was supposed to build an email thing.”

Gmail’s creation has more in common with innovation inside large enterprises than it does with the start-up world. Read on if you recognize these:

  1. Job-to-be-done thinking
  2. Reports of the death of company innovation are greatly exaggerated
  3. Corporate antibodies are everywhere
  4. Senior executive support
  5. Big Innovation takes time

Job-to-be-done thinking

Yahoo email screenshot

Image via Variable GHZ, “Why Yahoo Mail is Still an Epic Catastrophe

Anyone remember life before Gmail? We had low storage limits. ‘OK’ search. Poor spam control. Yahoo, one of the dominant players at the time, pursued the freemium strategy that required paying for more storage and better controls. Which isn’t unheard of, mind you.

It’s just…

Think of the core job-to-be-done: When I want to update others, I want to send and receive communications. Some key job tasks that define that job include:

  • Easily send pictures to others
  • Read emails from real people and organizations that I care about
  • Find old emails when I need them
  • Expand my usage of email economically

Yahoo, Hotmail, AOL were fine as far as they went, but they each were challenged on these key job tasks. Back when I had a Yahoo email, I remember the spam being awful and it seemed impossible to control.

Google looked at the offerings in the market, and recognized an opportunity to better satisfy people’s expectations for these important job tasks. Larger size limits, stellar spam control, excellent search and ongoing improvements through Gmail Labs.

Lesson: ABI (Always Be Improving) on the customers’ jobs-to-be-done. Think of the entire job flow and determine which areas are ripe for a better service and experience. Big companies can too easily focus on executing what they have rather than thinking about customers need. 

Reports of the death of company innovation are greatly exaggerated

Image via Family Life Resources

Somewhere along the line, a narrative has emerged that pretty much every big company cannot innovate its way out of a bag. Admittedly, the increasingly rapid turnover of the S&P 500 and the fast rise and decline of companies fuels this narrative. But it’s glib to say companies just don’t do it.

Google’s 20% time is espoused as the antidote to this issue. Middle management stifling innovation? Let everyone experiment on their own. But Gmail wasn’t a 20% time project. It was actually something planned and resourced for development for the organization at large.

This is an important point. If companies set their mind to innovate in an area, people will contribute and provide fantastic ways to get there. Tony Vengrove advised on a key element for success here:  “A compelling vision statement describes what the company wants to become in the future. It not only needs to inspire but ideally it should inform the innovation agenda.”

Lesson: Innovation is not dead inside companies. It does require leadership to set a vision that employees can focus on.  

Corporate antibodies are everywhere

Google is rightly perceived as one of the most innovative companies on the planet. Given that, one might assume that the innovation wheels are well greased there. But I was struck by these quotes from McCracken’s story about the birth of Gmail:

“A lot of people thought it was a very bad idea, from both a product and a strategic standpoint,” says Buchheit of his email project. “The concern was this didn’t have anything to do with web search. Some were also concerned that this would cause other companies such as Microsoft to kill us.”

Within Google, Gmail was also regarded as a huge, improbable deal. It was in the works for nearly three years before it reached consumers; during that time, skeptical Googlers ripped into the concept on multiple grounds, from the technical to the philosophical. It’s not hard to envision an alternate universe in which the effort fell apart along the way, or at least resulted in something a whole lot less interesting.

Inquisitor vs. Corporate AntibodyIn those two quotes, you see critiques that aren’t really about specific elements of Gmail, the concept.

In Four Personality Types that Determine Innovation Success or Failure, a distinction is drawn between Inquisitors, who reflect thoughtfully on issues facing an idea, and Corporate Antibodies, who just want the idea dead. Here are hypothetical responses to Gmail by the two different personality types:

Inquisitor: “Won’t we spook people when they see ads related to the email they’re reading?”

Corporate Antibody: “Email has become a commodity. There are other products we should be building.”

Lesson: Corporate antibodies will always be with us. Recognize legitimate probing for faults versus efforts to undermine the idea in total. Spend time figuring out how to get around Corporate Antibodies, not appeasing them.

Senior Executive Support

Senior executives matter in innovation

In a land of radical transparency and holacracy, the traditional top-level support needed for initiatives is a thing of the past. Alas, we are not in that land. For the 99.9% of people who live with today’s reality, top-down support continues to be the effective way things get done.

It does put pressure on top executives then. They are held accountable by the C-suite, the Board and shareholders. Already in this post, senior executives are called on to ensure innovation moves forward in two different ways.

Set the innovation course: Leadership – be it in business, community, military – has a role in establishing the objectives for people. Indeed, set objectives and get out of the way. In Gmail’s case, Larry Page and Sergey Brin saw a future that extended beyond just search. Paul Buchheit was charged to figure out what a Google email app would look like.

Remove obstacles to innovation: We saw previously that Corporate Antibodies are alive and well. But they didn’t stop Gmail’s progress. From McCracken’s article: “Fortunately, the doubters didn’t include Google’s founders. ‘Larry [Page] and Sergey [Brin] were always supportive,’ Buchheit says. ‘A lot of other people were much less supportive.’ “

Lesson: If senior management isn’t paying attention to innovation, it’s a safe bet no one in the company is either. Employees respond to the agenda set by executives. Organic growth comes from a clear focus that involves executives and employees.

Big Innovation takes time

One of my favorite perspectives on innovation comes from Jeff Bezos. In an interview on Harvard Business Review:

ADI IGNATIUS: Jeff, you’ve said that you like to plant seeds that may take seven years to bear fruit. Doesn’t that mean you’ll lose some battles along the way to companies that have a more conventional two or three-year outlook?

JEFF BEZOS: Well, maybe so, but I think some of the things that we have undertaken I think could not be done in two to three years. And so, basically if we needed to see meaningful financial results in two to three years, some of the most meaningful things we’ve done we would never have even started. Things like Kindle, things like Amazon Web Services, Amazon Prime. The list of such things is long at Amazon.

2014 2019Note that he’s referencing Big Innovation. Concepts that are market changers. There are plenty of opportunities for small-ball innovation (or improvements). But for the really big stuff, executives need to back away from the notion that it can be done in one year.

This was seen with Gmail as well. It was in the works for three years before it was launched to consumers. Continual effort was applied to the product features, the user experience, the business model and the infrastructure to support it. During this time, the project was assailed internally, but as noted previously, senior management supported its ongoing development. Similar to the way Bezos sticks with groundbreaking projects for the long term.

Lesson: Senior management must recognize the magnitude of the innovation it seeks and commit the right time horizon, resources and support to it. This applies for small ball innovation and Big Innovation.

Google, of course is now a HUGE company, on par with the biggest in the world. Its Gmail experience provides valuable lessons for Fortune 500 firms seeking to innovate.

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter, and I’m a Senior Consultant with HYPE Innovation.

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My Ten Favorite Tweets – Week Ending 103009

From the home office, waiting for the Great Pumpkin in the pumpkin patch…

#1: NIH grants $12mm to create a national, Facebook-like social network for scientists http://ow.ly/xtAD Goal? Find collaborators

#2: RT @jowyang Ritz Carlton’s mktg chief says hotel mgt at each property spends 1 hour reviewing online convos each am –even tweets #forbescmo

#3: The Time I was Written Up for Blogging http://ow.ly/x3ph by @tacanderson Lesson on employees and social media

#4: Skating to where the puck will be – Apple & advertising http://ow.ly/xnXJ Apple has offered to rebuild a Chicago mass transit stop?

#5: Very cool: Los Angeles adopts Google e-mail system for 30,000 city employees http://ow.ly/x3hP Cloud makes inroads #saas

#6: 84% of firms say #innovation is important to firm success. 51% of firms do not have anyone who is steering the innovation ship. #iai09inno

#7: 10 examples of minimum viable products http://ow.ly/xbi1 Cool list of minimalist approaches to engage customers & build product

#8: Stuck trying to write that next blog post? 100 Ways to Find Ideas for Your Blog Posts http://ow.ly/wA1T from the LifeSnips blog

#9: Geek alert! RT @PaulSloane: @DougCornelius RT Awesome T-Shirts for twins: http://bit.ly/14LYeI

#10: OK, figure this one out. @gaberivera created a tweet that links to itself. See for yourself: http://bit.ly/2IIkJG

Bonus just for this week…

#11: Small change to my Twitter bio…I’m now VP of Product at Spigit. Carry on…

Gmail Tasks Are a Good Start. Now Please Integrate with Google Calendar.

The folks over at Google announced a new Labs feature, the Task Manager for Gmail. Typical of Google, the feature is a simple, easy-to-use interface. You can type a task right in the Tasks panel.

As Google says on its blog announcing this feature:

People use Gmail to get stuff done, so we’ve added a lightweight way to keep track of what you need to do, right from within Gmail.

The other cool, but incomplete, thing is that you can add an email to the list of tasks. This is a great idea. I know I get a lot of emails at work in Microsoft Outlook that require some follow-up. But I don’t use Outlook’s Task panel to track them.

Rather I use the Actions > Follow-up > Add Reminder menu. This lets me stay in my email, while scheduling the follow-up day and time. Here’s a shot of that feature in Outlook:

outlook-email-task-manager-with-scheduler

For me, this is a terrific feature of Outlook. The follow-up notifications get my attention. I’ve used the Task panel before to record tasks. You know what happens to them? I never bother returning to look at my list. Email is where I go for my notifications.

Gmail Tasks do support associating a date to a task. That’s not bad, and it’s an improvement over my current follow-up methodology…starring the email. But what’s missing are:

  • Ability to set a time
  • Integration with my Google Calendar

My concern is that without the Calendar integration, Gmail Tasks will end up like Outlook Tasks for me. A place where written notes go to die.

I tweeted this idea about Calendar integration:

Added the Gmail ‘Add to Tasks’ feature (http://bit.ly/MVO). Would be great if that integrated with Google Calendar for scheduling.

And as is typical, a good discussion ensued. Stupid Blogger (aka Tina) noted that without Calendar integration, the Tasks feature is essentially useless for her.

She then added this thought:

Not just that, Hutch, but if it integrated somehow with the calendar then it would show up on my G1 as a notification. This would be BRILLIANT.

That’s right. Turn those task into reminders that come through on your T-Mobile G1 Google Android phone.

It’s a Labs feature, so certainly it’s a work-in-progress. Let’s hope they get Calendar integration out of the Lab soon.

*****

See this post on FriendFeed: http://friendfeed.com/search?q=%22Gmail+Tasks+Are+a+Good+Start.+Now+Please+Integrate+with+Google+Calendar.%22&who=everyone

Imagining an Email Social Network

Email has been proposed as a nearly ready-to-go social network. Just how would that work?

In September 2007, Om Malik asked Is Email The Ultimate Social Environment? And in November, Saul Hansell wrote, Inbox 2.0: Yahoo and Google to Turn E-Mail Into a Social Network. Both looked at the idea that email providers have most of what was needed to build their own social networks. There is potential there, but it’s not a slam dunk.

The Social Network Stack

If an email system is to become social, it needs to address the social network stack. To keep things simple, let’s assume there are three parts to the social network stack:

  1. Self-Expression = who you are, what you like, what you’re doing
  2. Relationships = people connections, of all different types
  3. Interactions = how you engage your network

Within each part, there are components that define the experience of the social network. This diagram describes those:

Self Expression: Email Needs a Profile Page

There isn’t a profile page in email systems. You log in, and you see your email. Adding a profile page really shouldn’t be too hard for Google or Yahoo. Even issues of privacy for the profile page are quite manageable for the two Web giants.

Apps on the profile page? Google’s got iGoogle widgets and OpenSocial. Not a problem.

Yahoo has demonstrated with its durable portal that it can pull together information from different sources. Wouldn’t be too much of an issue for them either. According to the New York Times’ article, Yahoo’s Brad Garlinghouse already has an idea for the profile page:

In this vision, people have two pages: a profile they show to others and a personal page on which they see information from their friends as well as anything else they want, like weather or headlines.

Relationships: They’re in the Emails, But Handle with Care

This is the biggest advantage the email providers have: they know your relationships. They’re sitting on a mountain of information about people’s connections to others. As the New York Times’ Saul Hansell wrote:

Web-based e-mail systems already contain much of what Facebook calls the social graph – the connections between people.

This is the killer advantage Yahoo and Google have over other social networks. They know your connections right off the bat. And that’s not all. They know how often you email those contacts.

Imagine how this could work:

  • Email frequency is used to set your initial relationship level with someone else. Lots of recent back-n-forth means strong bond. Lots of one-way emails to you means it’s a company. Few two-way emails means you have a weak relationship.
  • Your address book categories – personal, work – can become relationship definition metadata.
  • If you don’t have your email address book organized by relationship types, the email provider analyzes the words to categorize the relationship. Romantic, friendship, professional. Yes, this is Big Brother scary, but Gmail already does this to display ads. Still, if not done right, this might backfire big time.

I do wonder how much value this really has though. Email address books are used to kick start your enrollment into social networks like Facebook. It’s not hard to import these.

The assessment of your email connections – strength and type of relationship – is cool, but don’t you know that already? Arguably, such analysis really is a way to save time on making your own decisions about these relationships. But if you’re engaged with your network, you’re probably going to take control of this.

Subscribe or Dual Opt-In: Twitter or Facebook? FriendFeed or LinkedIn? The recent stars on the social apps scene have a subscribe model. Your can read the updates of people on Twitter and FriendFeed, just by declaring that you want to. Pretty wide open. But a key factor here: when you join Twitter or FriendFeed, you do so knowing that anyone can read your updates. People with whom you email never had that expectation. So every user either needs to opt-in to having their updates read by their email contacts, or you must send a friend request to whomever you want in your social network.

Type of Relationship: Friend, common interest, professional? This is another one that requires thought. I’ve argued previously that different social networks are good for different types of relationships. Being a one size-fits-all is not easy. It requires a decent amount of management for the user: do I share my kids’ pictures with my colleagues and the people in my Barack Obama 08 group? Dedicated purpose social networks make managing the different aspects of your life easier. Otherwise, all your co-workers will know your political preferences, party pictures and relationship status. Email providers have all of your email contacts; they need to either pick a focus for their social networks or let users create their own types.

Interactions: Watch Those Activity Streams

Most of the Interaction stack is well within the range of Google and Yahoo. Yahoo’s been in the groups business for a long time. Google relaunched the JotSpot wiki as Google Sites. A wiki can be a good group site.

Apps were already discussed under self-expression. Messages? Of course – this is email.

Activity updates are an interesting concept. The biggest current activity in email apps is…email. But I’m not sure those qualify as updates you want broadcasted:

Should emails be shared?

Emails are pretty private, aren’t they? Not really something people will want to broadcast out to their social network…

Google and Yahoo could integrate activity streams from other parts of their social networks pretty easily.

So What Are Email’s Advantages as a Social Network?

I’m not sure there are intrinsic advantages email enjoys that make it superior as a potential social network. Rather, it has these two user-oriented advantages:

  • People wouldn’t have to go to a lot of trouble to set them up. Just present them with the opportunity when they log in to their, with very few clicks or decisions initially.
  • We tend to check our email daily, hourly. So recurring engagement with your social network is a lot easier than with destination social networks.

That being said, Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Bebo, Ning and FriendFeed have a tremendous head start and brand. They also have clearly defined, different experiences.

If they choose to roll out their own social networks, Google and Yahoo will start ahead of the game. But success won’t be because of the email. It’ll require a differentiated social network experience. Just like anyone else entering the space.