Google's "Labs"

Google gives all its engineers Fridays to work on their own pet projects. With this one stroke they have tackled two thorny problems:

  1. Converting from the "rubber meets the sky" of corporate R&D labs to the "rubber meets the road" of product development has been a hit and miss proposition at best. Xerox, AT&T, IBM, NEC and others have gone through waves of success and lack of success at monetizing their labs investments. Lately IBM has been doing a terrific job with fundamental R&D leading to developments in hard drive storage and super computing, among other things, but for most labs the record is spotty.
  2. Finding opportunities at the edges requires a lot of smart eyes and ears and hearts and minds to be on the look out for the next big thing while it's still very small. Converting your whole organization into a trend-spotting machine is the ideal, but has never (to my knowledge) been done. The Google approach gets pretty close and gives it great peripheral vision.

It's clear from its behaviors that Google is working on a wicked problem. What that problem is, no-one really knows, perhaps not even inside Google. 

The drawback is that you potentially have an overwhelming number of ideas to sort through, not all of which are necessarily applicable or viable from a business point of view. There is a risk, in other words, of a hefty innovation surplus, which can be distracting and a drain on resources.

Google addresses this by having a single person, Marissa Mayer, act as a first-pass editor of what makes it further up the chain for review by a committe including founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Mayer was featured in a BusinessWeek article a few months ago which describes her as bridging the gap between MBA's and PhD's:

 

She helps decide when employees' pet projects are refined enough to be presented to the company's founders. Such decisions are often made through an established process, with Mayer giving ideas a hearing during her open office hours or during brainstorming sessions. Yet she is also good at drawing out programmers informally, during a chance meeting in the cafeteria or hallway.

 

Mayer's hybrid background is ideal for this position as it provides her a well-rounded perspective from which to view the nascent ideas and consider their viability: addressing user needs, business fit, brand fit, technology fit. On the one hand this approach avoids the heavy bueracracy that can plague large organizations' innovations efforts, but on the other hand its hard to see how this will scale as Google continues to grow at a prodigious rate. More Marissa Mayers will be needed at some point, and they will need a similar mix of pattern experience that lets them see how new ideas connect with top-level business goals.

But Mayer also describes a mode of understanding through practice that involves rapidly and cheaply making solutions to see if they've tackled the right problem (or if there's really a problem at all), and not worrying too much about failing on the way (easy enough when you've got Google's market cap, but let's keep in mind it's how it got that way):

What Mayer thinks will be essential for continued innovation is for Google to keep its sense of fearlessness. "I like to launch [products] early and often. That has become my mantra," she says. She mentions Apple Computer and Madonna. "Nobody remembers the Sex Book or the Newton. Consumers remember your average over time. That philosophy frees you from fear."

These attributes make it clear that Google is working on a wicked problem. No-one knows what it is, exactly, outside of Google (and even within the company not many might), though guesses are starting to be made, such as displacing Microsoft by coming at its core OS and applications businesses from a very different angle than head on. That's the nice thing about wicked problems - they can be fiendishly difficult to decode from outside, which makes being a competitor very tough and tends to put you in a fast-follower position. As Google's master plan continues to play out, more of the wicked problem will become evident. I expect at the end we'll all slap our heads at the obviousness of it, but so far they're doing a good job of playing their cards close to their chest.