Leadership Lessons From the End of Google Reader

Google Reader's creator says he would've gone solo with his idea today. How do you help ensure your staff shares its best thinking with the organization?

Last week a good chunk of the planet collectively mourned the demise of Google Reader, my RSS reader of choice for the better part of a decade, and probably yours too. Is “mourned” too strong a word? For me it did feel a little like the passing of Fred, a goldfish I once received as PR swag. (Note to marketing professionals: Do not use living creatures as PR swag!) Fred survived four years and one move halfway across the country, a better record of longevity than I had any reason to expect. But one quickly moves on from such modest sadnesses, and I’m settling in just fine with Feedly as my replacement. (Ernie Smith has a few other suggestions if Feedly isn’t serving your needs.)

Stories like mine typify the discussion about Google’s eighty-sixing of Reader—most people want to discuss what it means for the end user. But an article at Forbes provides an interesting shift in perspective on the discussion: What does the end of Google Reader mean for Google and its own employees, who may now be thinking that their best, most enduring ideas can be killed in cold blood by management at a moment’s notice?

It will be interesting to watch how Google communicates to its own employees about this.”

Chris Wetherell, the creator of Google Reader, told the magazine’s website that if he’d had the idea for the product today, “I would absolutely not do it inside of Google.” The thrust of the article is that Google has now to some extent disincentivized its employees; if you know management will take a good idea and sunset it, why not strike out on your own instead and start your own company? Google has long celebrated its “20 percent time” policy, in which employees are free to dedicate time to new projects that aren’t strictly connected to their job duties. Are those employees as excited about that freedom if they think they might be better off hitting the road?

As an association executive, it’s unlikely that you have an employee working on a skunkworks project that can scale into its own startup. But you do certainly encourage your employees to bring their best ideas to the table, and if you dismiss or fumble your employees’ best thinking, you risk encouraging them to start looking for the door. What are your options as a leader, then? A few thoughts:

1. Stifle your employees’ ambitions. I’m being sarcastic, but only slightly. One of the reason the end of Google Reader has the potential to cause so much internal consternation is that it was a big, popular product that had a noisy fall. Rather than pressure employees to come up with ways to boost nondues revenue by 20 percent, encourage more modest improvements, and more of them, and make sure you can test them quickly. This seems to be the thinking at LinkedIn, where its InCubator program avoids quick-hit hackathons or long-haul 20-percent-time projects. “LinkedIn seems to be trying to find a middle way by making medium-sized investments in the most promising hacks,” Wired reports.

2. Rethink incentives. “I think the reason why people are freaking out about Reader is because that Reader did stick,” says Jenna Bilotta, another former Google staffer who now works with Wetherell at a new company. If the pitch to employees is that producing big innovations is the standard by which they’ll be measured, then a shuttered innovation can only sow disappointment. In a better environment, employees feel like they have multiple ways to get ahead, involving not just raises but more opportunities to present, lead, and learn. Better still, ask your employees themselves what their ambitions are; you may not be able to accommodate every career goal, but knowing what they are can only help you be a better manager.

3. Deliver some straight talk. “It will be interesting to watch how Google communicates to its own employees about this,” Wetherell says. That’s an understatement. The needs of every organization changes, and sometimes those changes mean getting rid of a product that, however much admired, doesn’t serve the needs of the organization. Explaining to staff that the health of the organization will occasionally demand some unpopular decisions is increasingly important. And ensuring that staff is prepared for those sorts of ups and downs is essential as well.

What do you do to encourage your staffs to share their best ideas? Share your experiences in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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