Maintaining the insurgency

moon-shotAs Wired magazine pointed out in a 2013 interview with Larry Page, the Google cofounder and CEO “lives by the gospel of 10x.” While most companies are happy with a 10% improvement in a given product, Page presses to create products and services that are 10 times better than the competition’s. To get there, he devotes a significant portion of R&D to what he calls “moon shots”—the development of driverless cars or Internet-enabled glasses, for instance. (Interestingly, Louis Gerstner also used the term moon shot during his turnaround of IBM.)

“How exciting is it to come to work if the best you can do is trounce some other company that does roughly the same thing?” Page argues. “That’s why most companies decay slowly over time. They tend to do approximately what they did before, with a few minor changes.”

Page explains that a big part of his job as CEO is to focus the company on change that is monumental, not just incremental. “Take Gmail,” he said. “When we released that, we were a search company—it was a leap for us to put out an email product, let alone one that gave users 100 times as much storage as they could get anywhere else. That is not something that would have happened naturally if we had been focusing on incremental improvements.”

A focus on small-bore change is particularly dangerous in a fast-moving sector like technology where disruption is commonplace. “It’s natural for people to want to work on things that they know aren’t going to fail,” he said. “But incremental improvement is guaranteed to be obsolete over time. Especially in technology, where you know there’s going to be non-incremental change.”

The interviewer went on to ask Page whether Google’s emphasis on moon shots distracts management from the core search business. Page makes two important points:

  • First, moon shots are directed at future growth: “I feel like there are all these opportunities in the world to use technology to make people’s lives better,” he said. “At Google we’re attacking maybe 0.1% of that space. And all the tech companies combined are only at like 1 percent. That means there’s 99 percent virgin territory. Investors always worry, ‘Oh, you guys are going to spend too much money on these crazy things.’ But those are now the things they’re most excited about—YouTube, Chrome, Android.” (For an interesting take on Google’s battle with Apple for that 99%, read Dogfight by Fred Vogelstein, reviewed here.)
  • At the same time, Page is careful to stay relentlessly focused on the core: “A great deal of my effort is spent making sure that we have a great user experience across our core products,” he said. “Whether you’re in Chrome or Search or Gmail, it’s just Google, with one consistent look and feel. (You can read more about how Page kick-started initiatives to redesign the core products here.)

Like any company founder, Page’s challenge is to keep Google’s insurgency mindset alive even as his company evolves into a major technology incumbent. He is focused on a dual mission, and there is a natural tension between the two imperatives.

On the one hand, he is trying to keep his people focused on really big things. He wants to ensure that the organization doesn’t get “settled” by encouraging continual experimentation; fostering wild, disruptive ideas; risking distraction; demanding moon shots. On the other hand—and notwithstanding his dislike of incremental change—he is, indeed, focused on continually improving the user’s experience with core products. As we’ve argued in these posts before, founders like Page do well to encourage this internal debate between the forces represented by the Greek gods Kairos and Chronos. The risk is an encounter with their disruptive counterpart—the goddess Chaos. But it is a risk well worth taking.

In following Google’s progress, I’m often reminded of Oliver Sacks’ wonderful essay about one of his patients, “Witty Ticcy Ray.” Ray suffered from Tourette’s syndrome, which threatened his marriage and made it almost impossible for him to hold down a job. But the condition also defined his winning personality: He was witty, musical, funny—the life of the party. Ray was determined to treat his condition and started to take the drug Haldol, which helped suppress his Tourette’s. But it also smothered his creativity to such a degree that he felt he was losing an essential part of himself, which he found intolerable. Eventually, Ray chose to be two people: a “Haldol self” during the workweek and a “Tourette’s self” on weekends. “There is the sober citizen, the calm deliberator, from Monday to Friday,” Sacks writes, “and there is ‘witty ticcy Ray,’ frivolous, frenetic, inspired, at weekends.” In striking this essential balance, Ray managed to live the fullest life possible.

The lesson of witty ticcy Ray applies to organizations and in many ways is analogous to what Page has been doing since he took over as Google’s CEO in 2011. He is ensuring that at least part of the time, Google is “off the Haldol,” maintaining the chaos, ambition and extravagance of its early days and setting its sights on 99% “virgin territory” so far underserved by technology companies. But he is equally intent on making sure that Google focuses on its workaday challenge of delivering market-beating services to its customers without becoming too deliberate and dull. What’s essential is bringing energy to both sides of the company. For Google to hide behind a moat and defend its current 10% of the 1% would eventually lead to stagnation and paralysis.

This is a major focus of our work on the Founder’s MentalitySM: How do you keep the insurgency alive as you become the incumbent, moving from being the revolutionary in your industry to a key representative of your industry? Over the next couple weeks, we will explore this balancing act by looking at how companies develop an original sense of insurgency and the strategies they can use to maintain it.

As a starting point, let’s define the insurgency mindset—the initial spark that characterizes most great companies in their early years, when they set out to redefine their industries on behalf of an underserved customer. It typically has four elements:

  • The founding insight. Why did your company need to exist? In other words, what was the core insight that led to its launch and who was the underserved consumer that needed its products and services?
  • The core proposition. What was the original offering? What promise did it make? What promise did it keep?
  • The strategic foundations. What were the three or four key activities that were required to deliver on those promises? How were these developed over time? (As we will discuss, these foundations are built over years and are almost never in place on day one.)
  • The defining capabilities. What were you spectacularly good at? What capabilities led to your success? Where did you become world class over time?

To keep the insurgency alive, founders and (crucially) the professional managers that follow them have to maintain the currency and relevance of these four elements within their growing organizations. They need to be vigilant against the natural forces of complexity and inertia that threaten to dull the company’s edge as it strives to achieve the benefits of scale and scope.

Companies in their early days are typically far more adaptive to customer feedback. They are willing to swap out big chunks of their strategy if it is not working. They are able to move quickly and embrace constant change. They relish turning chaos to their favor. In stark contrast, large incumbents are often far more reluctant to adapt. They have too many people who are too comfortable with the status quo. In Page’s words, “They tend to do approximately what they did before, with a few minor changes” and then risk obsolescence. He is fighting that by keeping the insurgency alive, forcing continual disruption. It is like witty ticcy Ray holding off the Haldol for the weekend.

This entry was posted in Death of the nobler mission and tagged , by James Allen. Bookmark the permalink.

About James Allen

James Allen is a senior partner in Bain & Company's London office and recognized as a leading expert in developing global corporate and business unit strategy. He is co-head of Bain’s Global Strategy practice and a member of Bain & Company's European Consumer Products practice. He is co-author, with Chris Zook, of Repeatability (HBR Press, March 2012) and Profit from the Core (HBR Press, 2001 and 2010).

One thought on “Maintaining the insurgency

  1. Great stuff here. My brother and I have been discussing our dad’s peanut and cashew business. Early on, he was absolutely the insurgent, hopping in the car and driving miles to fight for floor space at a grocery store after a bigger competitor pushed management to have his product moved out of sight. Over the years, the company didn’t feel like an insurgent. We’re trying to get back to that. I look forward to reading the rest of the series.

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