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Yahoo! Brickhouse Post – Take 2

So, my initial post was spurred by a desire for a quick response to the grousing I was seeing about the Brickhouse shutting down, grousing I thought unfounded. But my response was not as constructive as it could have been, so let me try again, after having put some more thought into it.

Why do I care about this stuff? Well, my job is about delivering great experiences, and recently I’ve been thinking a lot about what it takes for organizations to be doing that. Also, I know/knew a lot of folks at Brickhouse, and while I admired their talents, vision, and, perhaps most important, humor, Brickhouse, as a component to an organization, never made sense to me. And I think we can learn something in its passing.

In my prior post, I referred to Brickhouse as a research and development arm, and that’s not wholly accurate. It was more of a product incubator (research and development was the charter of Yahoo! Research, which still seems to exist).

As I understand it, Yahoo! wanted to do less acquiring of innovative products like Flickr, Upcoming, and Delicious, and more creation of them from within. Additionally, I believe that as the bloom was coming off the Yahoo! rose (in light of Google’s ascendance), Yahoo! needed an offering for its talented staff, so that they’d be discouraged to leave. (In conversation with a friend very familiar with Brickhouse, I learned that Brickhouse never was large enough for it to serve this purpose. So I’ll recant my supposition).

The problem with Brickhouse was there from the start. Innovation centers separate from the main functioning of an organization pretty much never work. The two key reasons for this are: a) by being outside of the main functioning of the organization, they’re not hooked into the warp and weft of product development, so they don’t get into the pipeline for delivery and b) people in the main organization are jealous/envious/frustrated that innovation supposedly happens in a different group, so what they must be doing is drudgery/maintenance.

Steve Jobs got this, and among the first things he did when he joined Apple was kill the Advanced Technology Group, because the bulk of its work was going to waste, and that creative energy needed to be focused on the main products. It seems to have worked well for Apple.

Another approach is Google’s 20% time, which implies that everyone has innovative capabilities, and everyone is free to express them. Google’s 20% time lead to Gmail, Google News, Google Reader, Orkut, and AdSense, among other things.

From what I could see, Brickhouse never needed to justify its existence. For something so potentially precarious, that’s dangerous, because it becomes an easy target when times are hard. I think about this, because the same is true for user experience. We have to demonstrate we add value. We have to make it clear we are not simply a cost of doing business, but provide the potential for significant returns.

Anyway, I think there are important object lessons in Brickhouse’s closure, lessons that we seem to need to learn again and again. And while I’m sure it sucks to get laid off, I have trouble feeling too much sympathy for folks working in that group, because it was so obvious that it wasn’t delivering value to an organization that desperately needed it. I hope the folks who were in that group walk away not disgruntled at its being shut down, but thankful that they were given that much freedom in the workplace, and got to work with amazing people, because such opportunities are rare.

One more thing (written the following morning) – I don’t mean to suggest that the folks working in Brickhouse weren’t working hard, and weren’t committed to developing great stuff. But when working in a group like this removed from an organization’s main thrust, and in an organization as clearly troubled as Yahoo, you have to recognize that the group’s existence is tenuous. Though, as Susan Mernit predicted, Yahoo! is laying off group by group, and not recognizing that that there are remarkably talented people in Brickhouse who could help Yahoo! in other ways.

  1. Hi Peter,

    Good comments all around(both Brickhouse posts). As a now former ‘hoo, I completely agree with your thought on Brickhouse and integrating innovation into the rest of the company.

    I’ve spent some time thinking about this subject as well. I think Google is in a rather unique position with their 20% time. I can’t think of too many other organizations where the 20% model would work as well as it does Google, primarily because Google is so engineering focused. This focus makes it much more likely that the same people who spend 20% of their time working on side projects are also the same people who are going to build, code and ultimately have ownership over them. If you tried this at Yahoo!, or especially any other media/product/design focused company, you would get a large imbalance of ideas from product managers/designers/etc., who would still need to rely on engineers to build and code their ideas. I think this would make a Google-like environment much more attractive to engineers, and would stall 20% time at other companies.

    Don’t really have a solution to it all, but I do think it’s an interesting problem to think about.

  2. There are interesting comparisons here and I’d like to see more of the reasoning behind them.

    “Steve Jobs … killed the Advanced Technology Group, because the bulk of its work was going to waste, and that creative energy needed to be focused on the main products. It seems to have worked well for Apple.”

    Here I am to understand that a specific part of Apple’s success would not have happened if they hadn’t killed that group. Your line of reasoning is one of the things that make people think you are in a cult. I’d really like to understand where you got this.

    I don’t know Brickhouse too well, but your description of it is almost identical to Google’s 20% time, which I believe incubates Google Labs. Most of those projects never come to anything either. The major difference is that Yahoo tried to get specialists into their group, which they do a lot (anyone remember the Tiger Team c. 2005?) and that actually *increases* the accountability of the group members.

    I imagine you can probably just follow the money (Yahoo doesn’t print it as easily) and the management style (when I consulted there it was pretty bureaucratic/unpopular) to understand this closure. The idea is usually the same all over, and the devil is usually in the details.

  3. I’m curious what your thoughts are on Adaptive Path’s R&D projects, which, it can be argued, divert talent from AP’s revenue generating projects.

  4. This seems true w/ Microsoft Research. If you read their output there’s so many awesome ideas / insights that never seem to get productized. But I’m sure there are examples of a centralized “innovation incubator” that has worked – maybe Phillips?

  5. I worked in the same office and did some of the early org work for the space, but I was not directly involved in brickhouse, just a spectator. I worked on a project there for Yahoo that was canceled, my fault as much as anyone’s (and as for Yahoo’s troubles, I agree there’s something very wrong there, but all I could say would be the same things other people have said). But for this stuff, I gotta say, I’m scratching my head. You’re clearly very smart and fearless about ideas on this area, but I’m surprised you’d write this if you really do know some folks who worked there; it was much more convoluted than that. One of the people who got it funded said it was akin to working in developing countries; lots of pointless delay and difficulties, strange, off-base reactions of different interest groups, valleywag-bombs, patience of a saint and enthusiasm needed to put up with it all. This post looks at the entire thing through the lens of big company resources and big company politics, which was just baggage, not the motive for the group at all. They tried to make something new, which is hard, then they ran out of time. Inventing things is arbitrary; it looks like failure until there’s a success (and if one of those extremely talented people had hit on something, we’d all be talking about exactly the same decisions as smart). I’d try to look at it from that angle instead of attempting to read Yahoo politics, or infer some broader point about organizations and innovation, etc. The truth is closer to a “every unhappy family is unhappy in it’s own way” thing, not really applicable to much else unfortunately…

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