The Doom of Yahoo?
If creativity were simply a matter of having a bunch of people in an office, well, IBM of the 1980s and 1990s would have been the most creative business on the planet. The company employed close to 300,000 people worldwide, all working out of offices. As we all know, IBM went on to invent Windows, the Internet, online search, social networking, and the mobile phone. Oh wait, maybe not.
Creativity is an odd beast. According to the New York Times, Marissa Mayer at Yahoo decided that the reason she had to end Yahoo’s telecommuting policy was to make the company more creative. Another article in the Times claimed that the reason was because Yahoos weren’t actually working at home: the article mentioned Yahoo employees founding startups while on Yahoo’s payroll. At least the explanations for Mayer’s actions are creative, so maybe her policy is already bearing fruit!
Unfortunately, the idea that forcing everyone into the office will somehow enable managers to “keep an eye” on employees is both pointless and counterproductive. Again, if that were all it took, we’d be seeing a lot more amazingly productive employees at all those companies that don’t allow telecommuting. Yet, the reality is the other way around, provided the organizational culture and metrics for measuring performance actually encourage the appropriate behaviors. Frequently they don’t, which certainly appears to be the case at Yahoo. Bringing people into the office isn’t going to change that. Fixing a culture trapped in a cycle of defeat is much harder than a few slogans and forcing people to all mix at the water-cooler; however, forcing everyone into the office certainly feels like Taking Action. It is an Exercise of Power. It feels good, even though the actual results are likely to be both less positive than its supporters believe, and less negative than the naysayers are predicting. In short, a few people will probably leave and the rest will get used to working in the office again. At that point, all the old problems will still be there and will still be killing Yahoo. If Yahoo wants to fix that, perhaps they should learn how to set actual effective goals, with a well-defined strategy that they can then evaluate. I’m sure that’s what they think they’ve already done; I’m also quite sure that if they had actually done it right, they wouldn’t be having the problems they claim they are trying to fix.
Let’s face it, if you have effective goal setting and measurable strategy, then an employee who founds his own startup while on the payroll should be picked up simply because he won’t be meeting his objectives. Moreover, employees with goals they believe in and who are working for an organization they value do not, as rule, start their own companies on the side. Forcing people to sit where they can be watched over may force some people to behave, but it won’t make them enthusiastic or creative. If Yahoo is looking for compliant employees, they’re on the right track. If they really want creativity, maybe not so much.
As far as creativity, again that’s a tricky problem. In the 1990s, Yahoo was so far outside the box that they created a new box. Since early 2000, however, Yahoo’s been stuck in that very same box of their own creation while other companies, notably Google, thought outside of it. As I discuss in my talk, “Organizational Culture and Innovation: A Two-Edged Sword,” creativity is largely a function of environment and culture. Individuals do matter, of course, but even the most creative people will be stifled if the culture doesn’t truly support innovation. Even in organizations that claim that their culture supports innovation, what they really mean is that they support innovating in what they already do, not coming up with something radically different: the desire to protect existing products is very powerful, although it won’t stop your competitors from eating your lunch. Thus, after a certain point organizations become better and better at making what they already do more and more effective, but become equally resistant to doing something that’s really new. In other words, you can improve your better mousetrap all you want until someone shows up with a cat. You have to know how to change your culture and build up the four elements that support creativity if you really want to see serious innovation.
Google built a creative culture from the ground up. That culture involves people working closely together. Yahoo does not have that culture. Just bringing people back into the office isn’t going to change that. Yahoo is far more likely to end up not with creativity but with compliance.