How not to “do innovation”

A case in point

Back in 2003, a small team made the recommendation that eBay should offer blogs to buyers and sellers on the site to enable them to share their experiences on eBay and also make eBay more of a home than just a selling location. The idea was rejected.

Around 2006 (not sure of the exact date), eBay decided it was time to offer blogs. These blogs were not integrated with the seller’s experience. It was a separate place, off to the side, something random and clunky.

In 2009, eBay decided to close the blogs since they were merely a distraction from the core business (I am extrapolating this from the language in the announcement seen below).

eBay Blogs Announcement

Let’s assume for a moment, that closing the blogs was the right business decision. But I was taken aback by the sentence “we encourage you to print out or save your blog entries before we close this section of our site”. Print or save? Do people even know how blogs work? How about offering a very easy xml export?

This kind of thinking has been the issue at eBay and likely many large companies trying to “do innovation” for the sake of it.

Large companies and the innovation circus

In most large corporations, a small team is tasked with innovation. But they are not empowered in any real way. The buy-in is limited and they run around trying to convince people of “little” ideas that seem “far away”.

When someone is finally is convinced, the implementation is usually an issue – “Oh, this is cool and hot, let’s throw it on there”. No thought on how it can be different or game changing. No new thinking. Copy, slap on. And, very late. After everyone else in the world has already done it. Of course the original team that came up with the idea is not involved…

It continues with the ongoing execution – “This is not core, don’t waste time”. Pushed off the side, no integration, no support.

It finishes with the end-of-life decision – “Told you this was going to fail. This is not what we do. Close it down”. And the customers, who had no idea the execution and ongoing management were going to be so poor are left even worse off than if they hadn’t invested the time and effort in the new product.

Frustrating for everyone involved and it reinforces the idea that innovation can’t be done.

At some level, having a team focus on innovative ideas is acceptable (versus the dream goal of every person being empowered to innovate). But the issue is how this team is empowered and enabled. And the real tolerance for trying things. The first idea may not be perfect – but which startup has the perfect first idea?? The team has to have the time and ability to morph the idea just like a startup does. And the powers that be really have to believe this is worth it. Not just pay lip-service to the idea because then they’ll seem cool and hip. And every large company that wants to stay relevant has to solve this problem.

It is frustrating and depressing to think of the ideas that were “out there” and therefore not invested in – like digital goods in 2002/2003. And where is eBay today in the digital goods space? The space that’s seeing explosive growth? No where. This one still causes physical angst when I think of the opportunity lost. Most people in other large companies could probably list their pet

Yes, eBay probably has to focus on the core business. But it can’t be at the expense of all other innovation. The companies that survive for decades and keep innovating don’t think like this. eBay needs to change the way it thinks or it will remain a solid e-commerce site which milks the core business. Not a bad thing, but a terribly uninteresting place for anyone interesting driving innovation. And every large company that wants to stay in the lead and keep its best people has to figure out how to do more than just “bolt on” innovation for the sake of checking a box.

  • Nowadays every Mom&Pop store is using the word “innovation” that the word has lost its true meaning. It's time merriam-websters came with a new word for this kind of pseudo-namesake-innovation.

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  • pan

    didn't know ebay had blogs !in the end it's all about the money right? btw your blog layout is awesome ! 🙂

  • jeffreymcmanus

    Q: How do you know if you're not doing disruptive innovation?
    A: If your company forms a “disruptive innovation” team.

  • very well said…one needs to keep innovating to survive.. Apple got a new life with Ipods and very few people know that Ipods were developed by some othr company which was acquired by Steve Jobs who spent every day of 3 years working alongside his engineers to tweak Ipod's design.

  • Well, I'm not sure I completely agree because in a large organization the reality of everyone innovating (like game changing innovation) is tough.

    For example, I doubt the iPhone came out of a regular Apple team. It was probably a “disruptive” team set up for that purpose.

    But in this scenario, it's not like they were shut down when the first prototype didn't work and they certainly didn't do a half-assed job and abandon it after that…

  • Great post. And I can relate to your description of the innovation process. The blog is an example of how not to do innovation. I also believe that eBay has changed a lot since then. With the new organizational structure it has become easier to align globally on the goals eBay wants to focus on in 2010. This is necessary to implement innovation within the core experience and not create something outside the user flow as it had been the case with blogs. I guess we'll have to wait and see how “innovative” eBay will be this year, but I am confident.

  • Glad to hear it. As a former employee who loved my time there and a current stockholder, I want only good things for eBay. Look forward to seeing some cool stuff this year…

  • D&G

    Hi Shri,
    Although we have never met, I have heard only good things about you.
    Still it your message is somewhat confusing to me.

    As you have been around at eBay for quite some time, and on significant important positions, it would be the case you had every chance of influencing the course of the project you are referring to AND even change any of the processes which hold back any of the real innovation.

    My confusion comes from the fact you speak up now, after you have left the company, while you should have had every opportunity to make a chance.

    I agree with you that he blogs were a failed attempt to accomplish user engagement. Idea was good, execution was not.

  • Hi Dennis – I said all of these things while I was there. Numerous time and to pretty much everyone. There were a few successes – like elevating the dialog and showcasing some of the ideas to the highest level. But by and large the willingness to execute effectively was not there at that time for various reasons.

    Changing an entire organization, even if you have some seniority, is much harder than it sounds. Not accomplishing that would count as a personal failure for me (and others who felt this way.)

    Blogs are a small failure in the scheme of things. It caught my eye and I used it to help make a larger point – that the opportunity is still there – but it does require a change in thinking. Airportibo's comments give me hope.

  • jonnicc

    hi

  • Ouch 🙂

  • I thought they were a good idea at first but most ebayers are not savvy bloggers to begin with. They are mostly small time entrepreneurs selling a couple of items on the side. Of course it would benefit them to start blogging about the items they sell and become experts but that requires more work, time without getting paid. eBay blogs were never that user friendly anyway.

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  • Interesting… however, more than blaming organisations, it should be individuals in those organisations should be blamed for. There is a famous story about subway ad campaign (from Made to Stick book) about how one ad idea (using a very fat guy who lost weight with a diet plan eating subs only) was turned down initially by marketing director but it was picked up by some chap above him. That particular ad made millions for subway and also pushed subway to #1 franchise.

    Cheers
    Bharath
    http://interndynamics.in

  • hey
    great post and very good information
    thanks for sharing it with us:)

  • Neither did I, seems a bit strange eBay having them in the first place!

    Mbop Megashop

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  • Spot on Santa – totally agree with you.