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.