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.