Rods, Cones, PARC, and Google’s “Errant Strategy”

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.


  1. billyjoerobidoux says:

    the Google employees will come up with a good idea on the company time, take their stock options and set up their own company with their good idea. trying to organize playtime is not a good business plan.

  2. i’m surprised to see this .com bubble fallacy indulged again and again…
    well it must be said i work in engineering at google’s biggest competitor…and when i am looking for new hires, brains are nice but i put them second to someone who will not fart around cruising the web, will come in to work at a reliable time every day, gets stuff done, etc etc. see where i am going here?
    remember at&t had bell labs and that didn’t save them. xerox had parc and it didn’t save them. the brain trust factor is vastly overstated mostly by the commentators of the tech industry…those inside it often don’t fall for this. google has one breakthrough – link analysis. everything else there is good, but not ground-breaking. i admire them for reintroducing simple page design and a focus on algorithms, but these advances have been digested by the entire industry at this point, and their recent forays have been less ground-breaking.
    hiring a brainiac is a nice bonus, but execution is more important, and ads still pay the bills online…which is why ad salespeople are still the unsung heroes of the web.

  3. says:

    Just too add a note to my last comment. I usually enjoy your postings, but this last one was a bit much. The assumption of Google’s hiring and your post is that creativity can be fostered. But can it? Or do good ideas usually come when you’re hammering away at a bad idea? And then the question becomes, is management willing to hear new ideas? The employees always have ideas about how to run the business better, it’s a matter of management being willing to take advice from subordinates and run with ideas they didn’t come up with. Second, the overabuse of metaphors in business writing is annoying. Analogies are always misleading, and a business is not like an eye. Not even close.