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.

Yahoo! Brickhouse closes – People get upset – I think it’s okay

(I’ve updated my thoughts on this here)

Among the announcements coming from Yahoo! today is the close of Brickhouse, the “new product development” incubator set up two years ago. Reading tweets and notes in the blogosphere, a lot of folks are upset, thinking this is a foolish decision.

I think it makes perfect sense, and I’m surprised they hadn’t done it sooner.

Brickhouse essentially served as Yahoo!’s research and development arm. The thing is, stuff in Brickhouse rarely, if ever, made any impact anywhere else in Yahoo! Over four years ago, I wrote about the folly of r&d groups, and it still holds.

I’ve always been suspicious of the value of Brickhouse. From the outset, it seemed to be where Yahoo!’s most talented designers and developers went in order to avoid working on anything with accountability — and Yahoo! let them, because they didn’t want to lose that talent. The same thing happened to Yahoo!’s Design group back in February — when it became clear they were delivering no value to the business, they were let go.

So, unlike many of my friends and colleagues, I have trouble shedding tears over the demise of Brickhouse. It was apparent for a very long time that most of the efforts within Brickhouse were not delivering value, and it seemed as if the majority of folks within Brickhouse were perfectly fine with that. We have to accept the consequences of our decisions, and if we decide to work in an organization that has no demonstrable connection to value, we have to be prepared to be the first with our backs against the wall when hard times come.

Andy wrote that Yahoo!’s management “would be better served firing themselves,” but that’s true only to the extent that management should have never let the playground that was Brickhouse exist in the first place. Those who were in the Brickhouse should consider them lucky to have been able to play for 2 years while their colleagues turned the cranks that kept revenue coming in.

(this was dashed off in haste, and I’m sure it’s missing much nuance.)