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Knowing When to Say When

What you can learn from an Internet giant, a product that didn’t live up to expectations, and a ton of media attention…

The entire blogosphere exploded over past few days on news that Google was discontinuing its Wave product. Google Wave, for those of you who are unfamiliar with it, was a web application for real time communication and collaboration that was introduced last year at Google I/O, and was heralded to change the face of online collaboration as we know it. It was designed to bring together e-mail, instant messaging, wiki, and social networking, with a strong collaborative focus, mixed with spellchecker and translator extensions, which were able to work in concert, in real-time. To put it mildly, not only did it set a high bar for what type of interaction was really possible in a web browser, it also got the tech community pretty excited.

Early adopters and tech-junkies clamored to get early invites – which were doled out slowly – and the demand itself generated even more buzz. Based on this alone it looked like Wave was going to be a stunning success and another feather in Google’s cap.

Note: If you want to know more about Google Wave, take a look here:

But like many solutions in search of a problem, Wave suffered from a number of issues, not least of which was a genuine identity crisis stemming from trying to be something to everyone, which in turn led to a lack of adoption by end users. That isn’t to say that people didn’t find it to be a great utility – quite the contrary – one of my favorite bloggers Chris Brogan absolutely raved about it a few months ago. Even a few companies figured out how to use it effectively. Personally, I only scratched the surface of what was possible with Wave, so I can’t say that I will or won’t miss it, but as with any technology, there is always something to replace it.

However, my point in writing about Wave isn’t to add to what’s already been said – you can read more here, here, and here – rather it’s to elaborate on my reaction on Twitter when I learned about the decision to pull the plug on it. While some were disappointed that the product was discontinued, the mainstream and popular media seemingly were celebrating the fact that Google had failed at something. I think that type of perspective missed the bigger picture message: Google may have failed, but they recognized it and knew when to say when.

All too often, companies think of their products/services as “sacred cows” and wrongfully keep those that have either failed to achieve viability or are well past their prime. While Google is a huge company that possesses tremendous resources and a pretty sweeping product portfolio, they could have fallen victim to that same trap. Instead, they demonstrated a lot of thought leadership and common sense in doing what they did from my perspective. With a handful of exceptions, I think Google does a great job of being exceptionally strategic about the way it manages its product portfolio. It has a good understanding of what’s working, what’s not, when features and functionality are a better fit elsewhere and most importantly, when to say when.

That’s not to say that Wave was a total waste, quite the contrary, innovations introduced by Wave have already begun to be integrated into existing products. Take the drag-and-drop functionality recently added to one of Google’s flagship products – Gmail – I’m sure that it’s the first of many. Google’s willingness to take some risks, push the envelope and learn from their mistake is a competitive advantage that can’t be replicated by many other organizations.

So instead of fixating on what Google could or should have done differently, or what the Wave did or didn’t do, I’d rather focus on what we can learn from the whole situation. There’s some pretty powerful lessons:

  1. Don’t be afraid to take risks that make sense, to innovate where there is opportunity and to try to make a difference if you can.
  2. Don’t think that just because something doesn’t work out the way you had expected that it’s a total failure. There is always gems of wisdom to be discovered through
  3. Don’t keep a failing program, project or product alive just because you can. Make sure that it’s adding/creating value or actually serving a higher purpose.
  4. Do conduct a post-mortem on all failed initiatives to see what was working and what was not. Be sure to document all of the lessons learned. If you don’t learn from lessons and mistakes of the past your bound to repeat them
  5. Do exhibit the willingness to take bits and pieces from failed products, services and projects and either begin anew or look at how you can integrate them into other more successful initiatives.

Especially in the U.S., we react pretty viscerally to failure and either avoid failing, or making decisions where the outcome isn’t certain. You establish a competitive advantage by being willing to take risks, evaluating what is working and what is not, and changing direction decisively. Acknowledging when something isn’t working is a sign of good leadership, strategic vision and an agile mindset. It’s also a determining factor of which companies are successful and which are not. I think that what Google did this week is a powerful lesson – personally and professionally – for us all.