Is Google Innovative or Just Unfocused?


Most of us don't lack good ideas. What we lack is the focus, motivation and discipline required to transform those ideas into tangible products or services.


So maybe many of us aren't so different from Google. Of course, Google has been wildly succesful. But it has struggled mightily -- and unsuccessfully -- to move beyond its bread-and-butter search engine advertising business.


As Fortune writer Adam Lashinsky notes in an article published on CNNMoney.com, Google appears to be struggling with a classic conundrum:

Which is more important, process or innovation?

Lashinsky offers a fairly lengthy list of former Google employees who left to found their own companies. He's not the first to notice the trend. Last year, tech pundit Robert Cringely speculated that the search giant's famed 20 percent policy, which encourages employees to devote that much of their time to personal projects, would lead many of them to start their own companies.


Recently, the exodus of employees has grown to include high-level executives like CFO George Reyes, CIO Doug Merrill and Sheryl Sandberg, VP of global online sales and operations. As I noted in a December blog post, some observers saw Reyes' exit as a particular problem, since it seems to point up the company's lack of long-term strategy. (It's been nearly a year since Reyes retired, and he hasn't been replaced.)


Google encourages autonomy in its employees, as I wrote in March. Problem is, writes Lashinsky, this frequently results in a "laissez-faire mess." He cites the example of Dave Girouard, the executive in charge of Google Apps, who has been unable to get some desired tweaks to Gmail because he lacks any real authority with the engineers needed to produce them.


Google also hasn't hit home runs with any of its acquisitions. YouTube, which Google bought in 2006, has more than doubled its market share of online video since the acquisition. But Google hasn't gained much profit from it. As maybe should have been obvious, writes Lashinsky, "advertisers simply see little value in selling their wares next to dancing cats."


It's also far from clear how Google's ad business will fare in a slowing economy, as Lashinsky points out. The company turned in a strong first-quarter financial performance, despiteslow growth in its pay-per-click business in recent months.


The good news, writes Lashinsky, is that Google can tighten its belt if and when needed. Simply asking its employees to pay for their own gourmet meals -- one of Google's famous perks -- would save the company some $67 million a year.


And the idea that Google is creating what Lashinsky calls "an entirely new way of doing business" simply cannot be discounted. He quotes Bruce Jaffee, a former Microsoft excutive:

It may be that they're in a whole other world from everyone else. They could be such pioneers that no one will know for years.