Yahoo!, innovation and remote working

In case you hadn’t noticed, there’s a bit of an uproar in the media regarding Yahoo!’s recently announced (ostensible) ban on remote working. It’s a thorny issue in this day and age, but I’m rather stunned at how negative and derisive much of the reaction has been, particularly from generally well respected thought leaders. Maybe this is an illustration of why I’m not (yet) one of them, but I beg to differ quite vehemently.

From afar, and with my historical knowledge of the company and my existing connections therein, I’d contend that this is a very wise move by Yahoo! At the heart of it, I suspect, is a desire to rejuvenate the company and create an environment that is conducive to innovation.

Innovation is a tricky beast. Large companies have a tendency to try and force it, often by instituting defined processes by which people are expected to innovate. Amusingly, these processes are typically named along the lines of “The Innovation Process,” which is perhaps a clue as to how successful they tend to be.

Innovation is not something that can be forced, in any environment. It happens, and most people would be hard pressed to genuinely explain how or why. You can’t sit down and decide that you’re going to think innovative thoughts for the next week, and expect to emerge from your cocoon in a state of enlightenment. More often than not, the truly innovative idea strikes over a cup of coffee with a friend, or a hallway conversation with a colleague about something else altogether.

The reason for this is because it ultimately boils down to connecting the dots in a way that they haven’t been connected before. In order to do that, you need three things.

First, an awareness of what all the dots are, which comes from experience and domain expertise. In my case, this explains why I’m a lot more likely to impact the mobile local payments industry than I am to impact the semiconductor industry. Simply put, I have a lot more dots at my disposal to find connections between.

Second, an innate sharpness of mind that allows you to quickly form connections between what might be ostensibly disparate concepts or entities. This is a rarer gift than we might care to admit, and it’s why most of us so often respond to the latest successful startup by saying things along the lines of “That’s such a blindingly obvious idea. How come I didn’t think of that before?” My experience is that some people just have an ability to comprehend and dissect a lot faster than others. We’ve all heard or lived stories about the executive who is able to stop at slide 2 of the 20 slide deck and give everyone an hour of their lives back by cutting straight to the chase.

Third, you need the cues and triggers that spark you to make those connections. Apocryphally, these triggers are droplets of water from a showerhead. More realistically, they are comments and thoughts from other people that set off an almost inexplicable chain reaction in your mind that leads to a key insight.

It’s that third one that I suspect Yahoo! is trying to address now. It won’t work on its own, and I doubt that’s the plan. The company has struggled in recent years with epitomising Peter’s Principle, and the weak hiring of B and C players that tends to go along with that. As an organization, it is, or should be, gearing up for rejuvenation and innovation. To do that, Marissa Mayer and her team need to act as forcing functions and that is what I see them doing here.

The remote worker can absolutely contribute to an execution play – and that is why it is a red herring for people to bring up Yahoo!’s offshore teams in India and elsewhere. The function of those people is typically tactical and execution oriented. But the core of the company needs to be looking ahead and connecting the dots, and a group of B players working from home are not going to deliver against that need, however unwilling they may be to admit it.

Bottom line – I don’t think Yahoo! is saying that remote working is a bad thing. They are saying that given their particular circumstances, it’s not appropriate. And I couldn’t agree more.

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