Success for companies like Yahoo! can oddly be an innovation killer. Success makes some companies stop innovating, people (leaders and everyone else) get comfortable and the focus becomes on maintenance instead of new ideas. If there was one company that should have created Instagram, it would be Flickr, but it wasn’t. There are many other companies that have come before Yahoo! like Kodak, Motorola and Microsoft who have arguably not lived up to their potential because they ceased to innovate (even though Microsoft has tried like hell). This is also due in part to the sheer size of these companies. Small companies, specifically small teams are much better at being nimble and innovative. Large companies lose their ability to do this because there is so much more overhead, unnecessary processes, inefficiencies and red tape.
Everyone has been talking about who will be Yahoo!’s next CEO. This is an obvious topic of conversation but what people should really be talking about is how will Yahoo! become a relevant company again and who will be the person that can create a culture of innovation at Yahoo!. Many articles written about Yahoo!’s CEO dilemma focus on the one person who will save the company. While there obviously has to be someone in charge, no one person will save Yahoo!. No one person builds this kind of success on their own and if they tell you otherwise, they’re lying.
In many of the articles written about Yahoo! the focus also almost always shifts towards online advertising and making sense of it enough to make Yahoo! earn greater profits. While this may also be an obvious direction given the history of Yahoo!, online advertising will not be the one thing to reinvent Yahoo! nor should it be.
Yahoo! is stale. Yahoo! has become a company that cannot get out of its own way enough to do something great again. This company needs to do more than find a great CEO. They need to find a way to think like a small company and build a culture of innovation and creation. A culture where anyone (not just people sitting in a boardroom) can have the time, space and resources to build and test experiments and ideas. Here are some suggestions:
Step 1: Find the Thinkers
There are two types of people in most companies. People are passionate about what they do and that are hungry to create and make things better (the “Thinkers”) and people that are not. The thinkers are driven, resourceful and motivated to succeed and often times make great leaders and entrepreneurs. The Thinkers are usually not hard to find but you have to looking for them. These people are not necessarily already the heads of teams and or in management positions. They can come from anywhere. Yahoo! should first and foremost find a way to identify the Thinkers.
Step 2: Create Small, Balanced Teams
One of the cruxes of innovation and specifically product development and the UX process is having a balanced team. What is a balanced team? A team comprised of different yet complementary skills who share a similar goal. In the product development sense and for Yahoo! this might be one person who can represent each of the following roles: design, development and marketing. Yahoo! should focus on building small, nimble teams with Thinkers scattered amongst these teams whose main goals is to focus on innovation.
Step 3: Train These Teams
Once Yahoo! has an army of small, balanced teams – it’s a good time to set the expectations. “You are here because we are trying to build a culture of innovation from within. We created these teams, such as yours so you can have the time, space and resources to focus on innovation and ideas.” Teams need to be trained to think like a startup, specifically think like a bootstrapped team. To think like, we are short on time and money but we want to build great products knowing that failure is inevitable and it’s OK as long as we don’t spend a lot of time and money failing. Teams need to adopt the thinking of “what can we design today that we can build tomorrow?” It’s OK to have the BIG vision but the big vision needs to be boiled down into something management and executable in what is days and short weeks, not months. Teams should know how to:
- Identify a pain point
- Identify the difference between a mosquito-sized pain point and a shark-bite sized pain point
- Identify customers and users (customers pay for things, users don’t)
- Identify a monetization strategy
An important part of this process is bringing in the right people (on a consultancy-basis) that can train these teams and oversee them until they can “walk on their own” so to speak. Teams that are new to this need the right type of support and training to know that they’re doing it right. They need to be trained on what essentially is the User Experience process – which I like to think of as what is just product development and solving specific pain points that can be monetized.
Step 4: Let Them Loose
At this point you’re probably thinking “these people have full-time jobs that we’ve hired them to do, who is going to do their job?” There is an obvious time investment up front but you don’t create a culture of innovation overnight or with the click of a finger. However, the beauty of this is, it’s addictive. It changes the way that people think and approach everything. It creates better employees because once you adopt a problem solving frame of mind paired with a process focused on efficiency and execution, it can be applied to literally anything.
Give these teams the time to devote to this. It doesn’t have to be a full-time job, nor should it be. Think of all the people that have created things. They’ve usually done it while working a full-time job. When you’re in bootstrapping mode, you have no choice. Teams may need a half a day once or twice a week to get started. Put a deadline on the process and ask teams to not just come up with on idea but a multitude of potential ideas in which to present and talk about. Once they learn the process, teams should be able to brainstorm many ideas while being able to articulate the following:
- What specific pain point are we solving?
- Who are we solving this pain point for (who is the customer?)
- How do we monetize this idea (what is the business model?)
If each team has three weeks to dedicate to this and brainstorms 10-15 ideas each and there are seven teams that’s roughly 70-105 ideas you have to talk about, WOW!
And this is just the beginning. The book Little Bets by Peter Sims highlights this point exactly in the context of Bill Hewlett, cofounder of Hewlett Packard:
Just as Pixar storytellers must make thousands of little bets to develop a movie script, Hewlett Packard cofounder Bill Hewlett said HP needed to make 100 small bets on products to identify six that could be breakthroughs. So, little bets are for learning about problems and opportunities while big bets are for capitalizing upon them once they’ve been identified. [Link]