Innovation is Not Just a Word in a Powerpoint Slide

by Dan Blank on October 21, 2006

The Washington Post has yet another article on the Google offices, and why the company is so envied. Innovation is the key, but at Google, innovation is not just a word in a powerpoint slide:

“If you’re not failing enough, you’re not trying hard enough,” said Richard Holden, product management director for Google’s AdWords service, in which advertisers bid to place text ads next to search results. “The stigma [for failure] is less because we staff projects leanly and encourage them to just move, move, move. If it doesn’t work, move on.”

I have read similar quotes over the years, often from the likes of Edison, who was *somewhat* innovative himself. I am not going to make a judgement over whether diligent research is necessary before one proceeds with product development – there are many sides to that issue.

However, there is something to be said for not just following the pack. It is like the stock market. When a high profile stock takes off, more people keep buying it. Whereas, someone like Warren Buffet looks for the undervalued unpopular stocks, knowing that they will eventually catch on. Google does this in a different way, with ideas.

I have been thinking a lot lately about the transformation media companies are making right now. I just hope that many don’t proceed out of Google-envy. The path ahead should be clear, if they truly understand their mission.

I always remembered the TV-movie version of The Late Shift, which followed “rivalry to be the successor of Johnny Carson as the host of “The Tonight Show.”

At one point in the movie, Dave Letterman is offered the coveted hosting job taking over for Carson. This is Letterman’s lifelong dream. However, the deal offered to him is less than ideal, and is obvious that NBC is simply hedging its bets – that they really don’t have 100% faith in him, and are not treating him with 100% respect.

While mulling this decision, he calls up Carson and explains the situation, asking for advice. He asks Carson, “Would you take this offer?” Carson, not missing a beat, said “No, I wouldn’t.”

And in that simple response, you suddently understand the difference between a leader and a follower. Carson was a leader because he had ideals. Those ideals made “The Tonight Show” the institution it was.

Letterman’s response was, “No Johnny, of course you wouldn’t,” as he realizes that he (Letterman) has lost sight of the point – to be a part of top quality late night television – not to stand in the hollow shadow of NBC’s TV show.

How many media companies are followers, losing focus? There can certainly be profit going this route, but often, it does not last, and the company is always struggling to guess how to do what the other guy is doing.

A real leader follows their singular vision, and the answers are always easy, even if the road is bumpy at times. One thing I have learned in life, is that knowing what you want to do, is 99.9% of getting there. So many people simply look for opportunity that they can take advantage of. Whereas those who have decided to live a deliberate life, can muster every resource available to achieve their goals.

It is easy to disregard Google’s high minded and description-free mission: to organize the world’s knowledge, and their one rule: don’t be evil. But if you look at everything they do, from dealing with government requests, to pushing boundaries with copyright holders, to buying companies, to launching new products, and so on – every one of these actions speaks to that simple mission.

It is like Curly’s advice to Mitch in City Slickers: Life should be about “one thing.” If you do this, the path ahead will make itself clear.

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