While I’m as entertained by Google’s aptitude test in the current MIT Technology Review as anyone, the comments here on the company’s underlying fondness for hiring way-smart people are worth thinking about:
…Google misses the point of its next evolutionary stage. Finding the next great search algorithm isn’t what it’s about ….diversifying beyond the company’s core strength is.
Absolutely. But that said, the two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. It is easier to hire smart people than it is to forecast the future and figure out where the market is going. And if you have smart people, then, all else being equal, there is a better chance that you will notice exploitable market opportunities as they arise.
In talking about this sort of thing I often make an analogy with the eye. In your retina there are two types of light receptors; rods and cones. The former are found in higher densities at the retina’s center and are better at picking up colors and fine details; rods — which you find more at the retina’s periphery — are better at picking things out in dim light.
Most of the time we are using cones, but if you want to get a sense of how rods work go out at night and look at stars. You will quickly notice that there are all sorts of faint stars at the periphery of your vision that disappear when you turn and look directly at them. That is, in essence, your rods at work, picking up faint light so long as you don’t turn your retina squarely at the star.
There are parallels with innovation and competition. In the same way that you often have your best ideas in the shower while fishing for runaway soap, and that you see faint objects best when you don’t look at them, companies are most innovative when they don’t over-focus on the real goal.
Put more directly, Google, rather than trying to find the Next Big Thing, whether in the market or in technology, is likely better off trying to get smart people to solve interesting and more tractable problems. And then, one day when someone is off looking at a star, so to speak, something really, really interesting may just pop up in their peripheral vision.
None of this, however, is an excuse for turning into a market misadventure like Xerox PARC, which should be the real concern in any “hire the smartest people” adventure. While Googlers should be free to play and ruminate, such play must be tied to markets. That, in short form, was PARC’s error. So if you ever get the sense that Google Labs runs Google, or that employees are free to spend ever-growing percentages of time on personal projects, then that would be the time to worry.