Today Google announced they’re closing Google Labs, their collection of living prototypes and experiments. It will be overstated in the press how much this means or doesn’t mean. It’s common for successful companies to close R&D groups (or more accurately in this case, portals for discovering R&D work), or start them, depending on the winds of politics in the company at the time. The effect of killing or starting these groups is always hard to measure inside, much less outside a company.
I wrote about the futility of having a VP of Innovation and sometimes I feel the same way about research groups. Some groups earn their keep, but few do. It’s hard to invent whether you’re on the front lines or in ivory towers, and all things equal, I’ll put my money on the people on the front line. As I understand Google Labs from their FAQ, it was a place for the world to discover the pet projects employees were working on for their 20% time. How the world will discover these things in the future is something of an unknown.
But what is telling from the short announcement posted today, is how mature Google has become. We have on our hands a very straightforward, positively spun, corporate press release, that reads much like what Microsoft or Procter & Gamble might say:
Last week we explained that we’re prioritizing our product efforts. As part of that process, we’ve decided to wind down Google Labs. While we’ve learned a huge amount by launching very early prototypes in Labs, we believe that greater focus is crucial if we’re to make the most of the extraordinary opportunities ahead.. We’ll continue to push speed and innovation—the driving forces behind Google Labs—across all our products, as the early launch of the Google+ field trial last month showed.
When you see phrases like ‘extraordinary opportunities’, ‘prioritizing’, ‘process’ and ‘huge amounts of learning’, in reference to something being killed, you know you’re in the fantasy land of press releases. Winding down sounds oh so graceful, like winding down a party. And mentioning Google+, their current darling, is a well-played card.
And the kicker of course is the by-line:
Posted by Bill Coughran, SVP for Research and Systems Infrastructure
When a company has two levels of VPs (SVP = Senior Vice President) you know the days of free willing autonomy and entrepreneurial inspiration have faded. I remember the day at Microsoft when I learned there were over 100 VPs in the company – My mind was blown – I realized all at once how it was no longer the company that hired me. It had more than tripled in size, and quadrupled in bureaucracy. David, as much as Microsoft was ever a David (see OS/2) , had now become a Goliath.
Success breeds unavoidable changes. Better leaders minimize the downsides, but only so much is possible.
The question is whether the people working at the old company are the right ones to keep working at the new company formed by success of the old. And when the path for how ideas get out the door changes, for better or worse, all the wise creatives ask “where is it exactly that I’m working?” When that path gets too long, it’s time to go. Google, despite its size and success, still has a better path for ideas than most corporations in the world, but for anyone who has been there too long, that might not be good enough.