Want to Innovate like Google?  Be Careful What You Wish For.

Want to Innovate like Google? Be Careful What You Wish For.

 A few weeks ago, a Google researcher leaked an internal document asserting that Google (and open AI) will lose the AI “arms race” to Open Source AI.

I’ll be honest: I didn’t understand much of the tech speak – LLM, LLaMA, RLHF, and LoRA are just letters to me. But I understood why the memo’s writer believed that Google was about to lose out on a promising new technology to a non-traditional competitor.

They’re the same reasons EVERY large established company loses to startups.

Congratulations, big, established industry incumbents, you’re finally innovating like Google!

(Please note the heavy dose of sarcasm intended).

Innovation at Google Today

The document’s author lists several reasons why “the gap is closing astonishingly quickly” in terms of Google’s edge in AI, including:

  1. “Retraining models from scratch is the hard path” – the tendency to want to re-use (re-train) old models because of all the time and effort spent building them, rather than start from scratch using newer and more flexible tools
  2. “Large models aren’t more capable in the long run if we can iterate faster on small models” – the tendency to want to test on a grand scale, believing the results are more reliable than small tests and drive rapid improvements.
  3. “Directly competing with open source is a losing proposition” – most people aren’t willing to pay for perfect when “good enough” is free.
  4. “We need them more than they need us” – When talent leaves, they take knowledge and experience with them. Sometimes the competitors you don’t see coming.
  5. “Individuals are not constrained by licenses to the same degree as corporations” – Different customers operate by different rules, and you need to adjust and reflect that.
  6. “Being your own customer means you understand the use case” – There’s a huge difference between designing a solution because it’s your job and designing it because you are in pain and need a solution.

What it sounds like at other companies

Even the statements above are a bit tech industry-centric, so let me translate them into industry-agnostic phrases, all of which have been said in actual client engagements.

  1. Just use what we have. We already paid to make it.
  2. Lots of little experiments will take too long, and the dataset is too small to be trusted. Just test everything all at once in a test market, like Canada or Belgium.
  3. We make the best [product]. If customers aren’t willing to pay for it because they don’t understand how good it is, they’re idiots.
  4. It’s a three-person startup. Why are we wasting time talking about them?
  5. Aren’t we supposed to move fast and test cheaply? Just throw it in Google Translate, and we’ll be done.
  6. Urban Millennials are entitled and want a reward. They’ll love this! (60-year-old Midwesterner)

How You (and Google) can get back to the Innovative Old Days

The remedy isn’t rocket (or computer) science. You’ve probably heard (and even advocated for) some of the practices that help you avoid the above mistakes:

  1. Call out the “sunk cost fallacy,” clarify priorities, and be transparent about trade-offs. Even if minimizing costs is the highest priority, is it worth it at the expense of good or even accurate data?
  2. Define what you need to learn before you decide how to learn it. Apply the scientific method to the business by stating your hypothesis and determining multiple ways to prove or disprove it. Once that’s done, ask decision-makers what they need to see to agree with the test’s result (the burden of proof you need to meet).
  3. Talk. To. Your. Customers. Don’t run a survey. Don’t hire a research firm. Stand up from your desk, walk out of your office, go to your customers, and ask them open-ended questions (Why, how, when, what). 
  4. Constantly scan the horizon and seek out the small players. Sure, most of them won’t be anything to worry about, but some will be on to something. Pay attention to them.
  5. See #3
  6. See #3

Big companies don’t struggle with innovation because the leaders aren’t innovative (Google’s founders are still at the helm), the employees aren’t smart (Google’s engineers are amongst the smartest in the world), or the industry is stagnating (the Tech industry has been accused of a lot, but never that).

Big companies struggle to innovate because operating requires incredible time, money, and energy. Adding innovation, something utterly different, to the mix feels impossible. But employees and execs know it’s essential. So they try to make innovation easier by using the tools, processes, and practices they already have. 

It makes sense. 

Until you wake up and realize you’re Google.

Banks, Basketball, and Banana Splits: Failure is Everywhere?

Banks, Basketball, and Banana Splits: Failure is Everywhere?

When asked to describe his test for determining what is and isn’t hard-core pornography, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart responded, “I know it when I see it.”

In that sense, pornography and failure may have a lot in common.

By accident, I spent the month of April thinking, writing (here and here), and talking about failure. Then, in the last week, a bank failed, two top-seeded sports teams were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs, and the New York Times wrote a feature article on the new practice of celebrating college rejections.

Failure was everywhere.

But was it?

SVB, Signature, First Republic – Failure.

On Monday, First Republic Bank became the third bank this year to fail. Like Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank, it met the definition of bank failure according to the FDIC – “the closing of a bank by a federal or state banking regulatory agency…[because] it is unable to meet its obligations to depositors and others.”

It doesn’t matter if the bank is a central part of the entrepreneurial ecosystem, is on the cutting edge of new financial instruments like cryptocurrency, or caters to high-net-worth individuals. When you give money to a bank, an institution created to keep your money safe, and it cannot give it back because it spent it, that is a failure.

Milwaukee Bucks – Failure?

Even if you’re not an NBA fan, you probably heard about the Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo’s interview after the team’s playoff elimination. 

Here’s some quick context – the Milwaukee Bucks had the best regular season record and were widely favored to win the title. Instead, they lost in Game 5 to the 8th-ranked Miami Heat. After the game, a reporter asked Antetokounmpo if he viewed the season as a failure, to which Antetokounmpo responded:

“It’s not a failure; it’s steps to success. There’s always steps to it. Michael Jordan played 15 years, won six championships. The other nine years was a failure? That’s what you’re telling me? It’s a wrong question; there’s no failure in sports.”

If you haven’t seen the whole clip, it’s worth your time.

The media went nuts, fawning over Antetokounmpo’s thoughtful and philosophical response, the epitome of an athlete who gives his all and is graceful in defeat. One writer even went so far as to proclaim that “Antetokounmpo showed us another way to live.”

But not everyone shared that perspective. In the post-game show, four-time NBA champion Shaquille O’Neal was one of the first to disagree,

“I played 19 seasons and failed 15 seasons; when I didn’t win it, it was a failure, especially when I made it to the finals versus the (Houston) Rockets and lost, made it to the finals for the fourth time with the (Los Angeles) Lakers and lost, it was definitely a failure.


I can’t tell everybody how they think, but when I watch guys before me, the Birds, the Kareems, and you know that’s how they thought, so that’s how I was raised.


He’s not a failure as a player, but is it a failure as a season? I would say yes, but I also like his explanation. I can understand and respect his explanation, but for me, when we didn’t win it, it was always my fault, and it was definitely a failure.”

Did Antetokounmpo fail?  Are the Bucks a failure? Was their season a failure?

It depends.

College Rejections – Not Failure

Failure is rarely fun, but it can be absolutely devastating if all you’ve ever known is success. Just ask anyone who has ever applied to college. Whether it was slowly opening the mailbox to see if it contained a big envelope or a small one or hesitatingly opening an email to get the verdict, the college application process is often the first time people get a taste of failure.

Now, they also get a taste of ice cream.

Around the world, schools are using the college application and rejection process as a learning experience:

  • LA: Seniors gather to feed their rejection letters into a shredder and receive an ice cream sundae. The student with the most rejections receives a Barnes & Noble gift card. “You have to learn that you will survive and there is a rainbow at the other end,” said one of the college counselors.
  • NYC: After adding their rejection letters to the Rejection Wall, students pull a prize from the rejection grab bag and enjoy encouraging notes from classmates like, “You’re too sexy for Vassar” or “You’ve been rejected, you’re too smart. Love, NYU.”
  • Sydney, Australia: a professor started a Rejection Wall of Fame after receiving two rejections in one day, sharing his disappointment with a colleague only to hear how reassured they were that they weren’t alone.

“I know it when I see it” – Failure

I still don’t know a single definition or objective test for failure.

But I do know that using “I’ll know it when I see it” to define failure is a failure. 

It’s a failure because we can define success and failure before we start. 

Sometimes failure is easy to define – if you are a bank and I give you money, and you don’t give it back to me with interest, that is a failure. Sometimes the definition is subjective and even personal, like defining failure as not making the playoffs vs. not winning a championship, or not applying to a school vs. not getting in.

Maybe failure is everywhere. Maybe it’s not.

I’ll know it when I define it.

Yes, You CAN Fail Your Way To Success.  Here’s How.

Yes, You CAN Fail Your Way To Success. Here’s How.

“Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly”

It’s a meme and my new favorite euphemism for getting dumped/fired (as in, “There was a rapid unscheduled disassembly of our relationship.”  Thank you, social media, for this gem)

It’s also spurred dozens of conversations with corporate leaders and innovation teams about the importance of defining success, the purpose of experiments, and the necessity of risk. 

Define Success so You Can Identify Failure

The dictionary defines “fail (verb)” as “be unsuccessful in achieving one’s goal.”

But, as I wrote last week, using your definition of success to classify something as a failure assumes you defined success correctly.

Space X didn’t define success as carrying “two astronauts from lunar orbit to the surface of the moon,” Starship’s ultimate goal. 

It defined success in 3 ways:

  • Big picture (but a bit general) – Validating “whether the design of the rocket system is sound.”
  • Ideal outcome – “Reach an altitude of 150 miles before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii 90 minutes [after take-off].”
  • Base Case – Fly far enough from the launchpad and long enough to generate “data for engineers to understand how the vehicle performed.”

By defining multiple and internally consistent types of success, SpaceX inspired hope for the best and set realistic expectations. And, if the rocket exploded on the launchpad? That would be a failure.

Know What You Need to Learn so You Know What You Need to Do

This was not the first experiment SpaceX ran to determine “whether the design of the rocket system was sound.”  But this probably was the only experiment they could run to get the data they needed at this point in the process.

You can learn a lot from lab tests, paper prototypes, and small-scale experiments. But you can’t learn everything. Sometimes, you need to test your idea in the wild.

And this scares the heck out of executives.

As the NYT pointed out, “Big NASA programs like the Space Launch System…are generally not afforded the same luxury of explode-as-you-learn. There tends to be much more testing and analysis on the ground — which slows development and increases costs — to avoid embarrassing public failures.”

Avoiding public failure is good. Not learning because you’re afraid of public failure is not.

So be clear about what you need to learn, all the ways you could learn it, and the trade-offs of private, small-scale experiments vs. large-scale public ones. Then make your choice and move forward.

Have Courage. Take a Risk

“Every great achievement throughout history has demanded some level of calculated risk, because with great risk comes great reward,” Bill Nelson, NASA Administrator.

“Great risk” is scary. Companies do not want to take great risks (see embarrassing public failure).

“Calculated risk” is smart. It’s necessary. It’s also a bit scary.

You take a risk to gain something – knowledge, money, recognition. But you also create the opportunity to lose something. And since the psychological pain of losing is twice as powerful as the pleasure of gaining, we tend to avoid risk.

But to make progress, you must take a risk. To take a risk, you need courage.

And courage is a skill you can learn and build. For many of us, it starts with remembering that courage is not the absence of fear. It is the choice to take action despite fear. 

When faced with a risk, face it. Acknowledge it and how you feel. Assess it by determining the best, worst, and most likely scenarios. Ask for input and see it from other people’s perspectives. Then make your choice and move forward.

How to know when you’ve successfully failed

Two quotes perfectly sum up what failure en route to success is:

“It may look that way to some people, but it’s not a failure. It’s a learning experience.”- Daniel Dumbacher, executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and a former high-level NASA official.

“Would it have been awesome if it didn’t explode? Yeah. But it was still awesome.” – Launch viewer Lauren Posey, 34.

What is failure?

What is failure?

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about my hatred of failure while acknowledging that there are things I hate more (inertia, blind allegiance to the status quo, unwillingness to try) that motivate me to risk it.

In response, I received this email from my friend and former colleague Daymara, now the Founder & CEO of Rockin’ Baker in Fayetteville, AR (shared here with her permission)

I’m the opposite. I love failing! That’s when I learn the most, that I question what and how I could better, question more and more. It triggers my brain to look back, re-evaluate, assess and spring forward. I wouldn’t be here today if I had not risked. I don’t think anyone starts anything thinking when they’d fail. But some of us aren’t afraid or hate it. I wouldn’t be here if I hate failing, wouldn’t have left my country looking for a safer place, wouldn’t have launched RBI because I didn’t have any entrepreneurial experience not even in the hospitality industry, wouldn’t have switched to focus on neurodiversity and so much more.


Because I came to the US, I got to meet you. Yes, I failed at seeing the signs & lost over 60% of my savings just 2 weeks before leaving Venezuela. I could’ve decided to stay because maybe it was going to be harder and the risk of failing in a country I didn’t know higher. I had a plan. If it didn’t work, come back home & start all over again.


I started RBI understanding that I could fail. I told myself, if I did, at least I would have an answer. Yes, I’m failing terribly at making this social enterprise work. Yet, I’ve gained so much knowledge about humanity, our differences, the unfairness that neurodivergents have to live daily, running a social enterprise and so much more. If I had hated failing, I wouldn’t be sharing my experience with other entrepreneurs so they don’t make the same mistakes I made. I wouldn’t be advocating for more equitable places for all, including women.


Failing feeds me to do better, to ask more questions, to explore more, to lead me to become better. I don’t love failing, I welcome it.


My first thought was, “Wow, this is so healthy! I wish more people felt and acted this way!”

My second thought was, “I wouldn’t apply the word ‘fail’ to any of these situations. You’re trying, learning, changing, and trying again.:

Just because you don’t get the expected outcome the first time doesn’t mean you failed.

Or does it?

What the Dictionary Says

According to Oxford Languages, “fail” (verb) means

  1. Be unsuccessful in achieving one’s goal, “he failed in his attempt to secure election.”
  2. Neglect to do something, “the firm failed to give adequate risk warnings.”
  3. Break down; cease to work well, “a truck whose brakes had failed.”

True but contextual:

  1. If success is defined as launching a new product, but customer feedback proves there’s no demand or willingness to pay, is shutting it down a failure?
  2. If you neglect something that isn’t important or doesn’t have significant ramifications, like not eating breakfast, did you fail or simply forget, run out of time, or make a mistake?
  3. If something works but not well, like an expense reporting system, is it a failure or just burdensome, a pain, or a necessary evil?

Also, incomplete.

What People Say

“Fail” has so many definitions and meanings in Daymara’s telling of her story. In addition to some of the dictionary’s definitions, she also uses “Fail” to mean:

  1. Take smart risks, “I could’ve decided to stay because maybe it was going to be harder and the risk of failing in a country I didn’t know higher. I had a plan. If it didn’t work, come back home & start all over again.”
  2. Get new information to facilitate learning, 
    • “I’m the opposite. I love failing! That’s when I learn the most, that I question what and how I could better, question more and more. It triggers my brain to look back, re-evaluate, assess and spring forward.”
    • I started RBI understanding that I could fail. I told myself, if I did, at least I would have an answer.
  3. Adapt and change based on learning, “wouldn’t have switched to focus on neurodiversity”
  4. Grow, improve, evolve, “Failing feeds me to do better, to ask more questions, to explore more, to lead me to become better. I don’t love failing, I welcome it.”

What Do You Say?

Like “Innovation,” “Failure” is a word we all use A LOT that no longer has a common definition. In the dictionary, failure is bad and to be avoided. To Daymara and scores of entrepreneurs and innovators, failure is wonderful and welcome.

Progress, either towards or away from failure, requires us to define “Failure” for ourselves and our work and agree on a definition with our teammates.

So, tell me:

  1. What is failure to you?
  2. To your team?
  3. To your boss?
Cede or Seed: What’s Your Innovation Strategy?

Cede or Seed: What’s Your Innovation Strategy?

To Cede, or to Seed, that is the question:

Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of a down quarter or year,

Or to take arms against the Tyranny of Now

And by opposing overcome it.

To Cede – to withdraw,

Spend no more; and by stopping to say we end

The innovation and the thousand natural insights

That pave the way: ‘tis a necessity

Stoically to be endured

To Seed, to spend;

To spend perchance to grow – ay there’s the rub:

For in that spending on innovation what revenue may come,

When we have emerged from this uncertainty,

Must give us hope – there’s the advantage

That makes success of such a business

  • Hamlet, if he were a senior executive making budget decisions during periods of uncertainty (and with my deepest apologies to Shakespeare)

The Question

To cede or seed is the question facing so many executives right now.

The same question faced executives in 2001, 2008, and 2020.

And an answer is required.

But what’s the right answer?

As a friend likes to say, “It’s contextual.”

To Cede

Cede is the most common answer for two main reasons: (1) executives feel they don’t have a choice because super-senior executives mandated an x% budget, or (2) executives need to boost results by allocating resources to things with “guaranteed” ROI.

Whatever the reason, innovation is a luxury the business can no longer afford, and the core business is a necessity to be supported at all costs. As a result, rather than scaling back a little in a lot of places, managers believe it is safer and easier to eliminate innovation entirely and maintain, or even increase, resources for operations.

Sometimes, this is also the right answer.

If the business is hemorrhaging cash, its value is plummeting, and people are questioning whether or not it can stay in business, then Cede is the right answer. There’s no sense in investing for success in one, three, or five years if there’s little chance of seeing the next day, week, or month.

But odds are, you’re not in that situation.

To Seed

The Dot-com bubble. The Great Recession. COVID-19 recession. 

The 21st century has allowed us to study the impact of different decisions during and after economic crises.

And when it comes to innovation, evidence shows that companies that continue to invest in innovation during times of economic uncertainty outperformed the market by 10% during the crisis and by up to 30% in the five years immediately following the crisis.

But not all companies.

A study of 4,700 companies during three global recessions (1980 – 1982, 1990 – 1991, and 2000 – 2002) found that “Businesses that boldly invest more than their rivals during a recession… enjoy only a 26% chance of becoming leaders after a downturn.”  However,

“Companies that master the delicate balance between cutting costs to survive today and investing to grow tomorrow do well after a recession. Within this group, a subset that deploys a specific combination of defensive and offensive moves has the highest probability—37%—of breaking away from the pack. These companies reduce costs selectively by focusing more on operational efficiency than their rivals do, even as they invest relatively comprehensively in the future by spending on marketing, R&D, and new assets. Their multipronged strategy…is the best antidote to a recession.”

The takeaway – Seed, don’t splurge.

The Answer (sort of)

It’s easy, and incredibly biased, of me to assert that there is one and only one right answer. That the executive who cuts innovation spending (along with travel budgets and probably a few other things) is woefully short-sighted and dooming his business to a never-ending cycle of cutting back, losing ground, and racing to catch up, only to cut again when the next downturn hits.

It’s also very unfair because I’d be using history and theory to judge an executive grappling with the reality of organizational mandates, limited resources, and very real responsibilities.

The right answer is the one you can live with.

Ceding makes sense in the short term, but it’s a liability in the medium and long term.

Seeding pays off in 2-3 years, but you’ll endure skepticism and risk your bonus or job while waiting.

Research says Seeding is the right answer.

Reality often dictates Ceding.

The choice is yours.

Just remember that, like Hamlet, you live (or die) with the results.

The 3 Types of Innovation Are Not What You Think They Are (But They Do Determine Your Success)

The 3 Types of Innovation Are Not What You Think They Are (But They Do Determine Your Success)

The Official Story

“Innovation” is not peanut butter.  

You can’t smear it all over everything and expect deliciousness.

When discussing innovation, you must be specific so people know what you expect. This is why so many thought leaders, consultants, and practitioners preach the importance of defining different types of innovation.

  • Clayton Christensen encourages focusing on WHY innovation is happening – improve performance, improve efficiency, or create markets – in his 2014 HBR article.
  • The classic Core/Adjacent/Transformational model focuses on WHAT is changing – target customer, offering, financial model, and resources and processes.
  • McKinsey’s 3 Horizons focus on WHEN the results are achieved – this year, 2-3 years, 3-6 years.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the options and worry about which approach is “best.”  But, like all frameworks, they’re all a little bit right and a little bit wrong, and the best one is the one that will be used and get results in your organization.

The REAL story

Everything in the official story is true, but not the whole truth.

“Innovation” is not peanut butter.  

You can’t smear it all over everything and expect deliciousness.

When doing innovation, you must remember your customer – the executives who make decisions, allocate resources, and can accelerate or decimate your efforts. 

More importantly, you need to remember their Jobs to be Done (JTBD) – keep my job, feel safe and respected, and be perceived as competent/a rising star – because these jobs define the innovations that will get to market.

3 REAL types of innovation

SAFE – The delightful solution to decision-makers’ JTBD

Most closely aligned with Core innovation, improving performance or efficiency, and Horizon 1 because the focus is on improving what exists in a way that will generate revenue this year or next. Decision-makers feel confident because they’ve “been there and done that” (heck, doing “that” is probably what got them promoted in the first place). In fact, they’re more likely to get in trouble for NOT investing in these types of innovations than they are for investing in them.

STRETCH – The Good Enough solution

Most like Adjacent innovation because they allow decision-makers to keep one foot in the known while “stretching” their other foot into a new (to them) area. This type of innovation makes decision-makers nervous because they don’t have all the answers, but they feel like they at least know what questions to ask. Progress will require more data, and decisions will take longer than most intrapreneurs want. But eventually, enough time and resources (and ego/reputation) will be invested that, unless the team recommends killing it, the project will launch.

SPLATTER – The Terrible solution

No matter what you call them – transformational, radical, breakthrough, disruptive, or moonshots – these innovations make everyone’s eyes light up before reality kicks in and crushes our dreams. These innovations “define the next chapter of our business” and “disrupt ourselves before we’re disrupted.”  These innovations also require decision-makers to let go of everything they know and wander entirely into the unknown. To invest resources in the hope of seeing the return (and reward) come back to their successor (or successor’s successor). To defend their decisions, their team, and themselves when things don’t go exactly as planned.

How to find the REAL type that will get real results.

  1. “You said you want X. Would you describe that for me?” (you may need to give examples). When I worked at Clayton Christensen’s firm, executives would always call and ask for our help to create a disruptive innovation. When I would explain what they were actually asking for (something with “good enough” performance and a low selling price that appeals to non-consumers), they would back away from the table, wave their hands, and say, “Oh, not that. We don’t want that.
  2. “How much are you willing to risk?”  If they’re willing to go to their boss to ask for resources, they’re willing to Stretch. If they’re willing to get fired, they’re willing to Splatter. If everything needs to stay within their signing authority, it’s all about staying Safe.
  3. “What would you need to see to risk more?”  As an innovator, you’ll always want more freedom to push boundaries and feel confident that you can convince others to see things your way. But before you pitch Stretch to a boss that wants Safe, or Splatter to a boss barely willing to Stretch, learn what they need to change their minds. Maybe it will be worth your effort, maybe it won’t. Better to know sooner rather than later.