Google at 10: Interview with Marissa Mayer: Small Teams and Leapfrogging (Part 4)

by David Eckoff · 0 comments

Marissa Mayer photo I had a chance to conduct a one-on-one interview last year with Marissa Mayer, Vice President, Search Products & User Experience at Google. In honor of Google’s 10th birthday, I’m publishing excerpts of the interview on my blog.

DAVID ECKOFF: If you were to go to work at a company more mature in it’s lifecycle, what would be your approach to innovation and new product development?

MARISSA MAYER: I think a couple of things transcend. I think 20% time, letting your employees know that you trust them and that they’re empowered to work on the things that they think could have the biggest impact on the business or that they think could be most impactful for the world is an important idea and I think works largely everywhere.

And there are key elements that we look at in terms of overall metrics and trends that you want to coach the organization towards. One of them is small teams.

When I joined Google, there were 9 engineers and we organized in 3 teams of 3. And we knew we were going to add 9 engineers by year end, so there’d be 18 of us. And Larry and Sergey said, “You know what? By year end, we don’t want to have 3 teams of 6, we want to have 6 teams of 3. Let’s keep the core team at the size 3. Because if we have twice as many engineers, we don’t want to be doing all the same things twice as well, we want to be doing twice as many things.”

So there’s a conscious decision to sacrifice some element of quality and polish for the sake of doing more things and having more of a breadth of efforts going on.

The other nice benefit this has is it keeps the culture much more entrepreneurial and much more motivated. Because when you’re working on a smaller team you have a much greater sense of ownership. You’re not sitting there thinking, “If I don’t do X today, someone else will pick up the slack or it can wait for tomorrow.” Because it’s important enough for one of the 4 of you to do it. Or it’s not. So I think by creating a culture that has those small teams, you’re much more likely to get innovation.

That’s true in start ups, that’s true in large companies.

And then there’s the concept of leapfrogging. We’ve noticed that as Google has matured as a company, some teams, while they may be structured in smaller teams within them, they’re large teams. Our search team is a large team. We have more people working on search now than ever. The same is true for ads.

What we’ve noticed there is when we add a small disrupter team, that’s supposed to think about things in a new and different way, two bad things happen.

One, the large, experienced, mature team wants to talk with the disrupter team, and say, “I know that seems like a good idea, because it seemed like a good idea to us too. But we tried it, and it was a waste of a year. So please, don’t bother to do that. Skip that idea and move onto the next thing. So they’re trying to influence what the disrupter team does.

The other thing that happens is usually that big team is successful, and they have a lot of tools and infrastructure that the disrupter team wants to draft off of. So as a result, in a big company with a large successful team, it’s difficult for the disrupter team not to get sucked into the larger team over time.

So what we started doing as we rolled out leapfrog initiatives, we structure them organizationally and from a communication standpoint where they’re out of touch with the core team. They’re in a different reporting structure, a different engineering VP. And also physically diverse.

We’ve had a bunch of attempts at leapfrogs, such as in search, with a team in Kirkland trying to build a better search engine than Google itself. And I’m not allowed to talk with them [laughter]. And that’s a good thing, because I know they’re wasting time. I know they’re doing things we tried that just don’t work [laughter].

I’d love to talk with them and I’d love to save them that effort. But that very action of me doing that would ultimate change their outcome and change how disruptive they can be. So it’s really important that I not talk to the Kirkland search leapfrog and let them do their thing.

And who knows, maybe they’ll build a better search engine. But we do think that with a few years under their belt that they will have different features and different ideas that maybe could stand on their own and be stronger than Google itself. Or maybe it [the features] should be folded into the main search engine after they reach a level of maturity and have proven their value. We have similar efforts in Maps and Advertising.

Again, you want to keep a small team. But you also want a disrupter to be far enough away that they don’t get overly influenced or voluntarily pulled into the larger, more successful team.

DAVID ECKOFF is President of Revolutionary Ventures, a consulting company that helps businesses create new growth through innovation. Previously, he was Vice President, New Product Development & Innovation at Turner Broadcasting (CNN, TBS, TNT, Cartoon Network); Senior Director at RealNetworks; and Senior Vice President at He is currently developing a new online business dedicated to aggregating the explosion of news and discussion on the web and filtering/organizing that content by niche topics of interest to passionate fans.

Photo credit: eirikso

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