The Problem with Google’s New-Look Headquarters

Internet superpower Google recently released on its blog plans for its new-look headquarters in Mountain View, California. It will continue to house traditional Google distractions such as foosball tables, yoga studios, massages and a long list of other less than necessary accoutrements. The proposed new campus, however, takes superfluous opulence to a whole new level. Woven through the actual buildings will be gardens, bike paths, a running track and cafes – all sheltered beneath a network of translucent canopies. I suppose there are no boundaries in Silicon Valley – and that seems to be point.

But there is a deeper calculous on offer here from Google management. The conventional wisdom is that these trappings are necessary to recruit the “best and brightest” – and to create an environment that somehow helps spawn innovation. I think the opposite is true.

Messer’s Brin and Page certainly did not create their wonderful company in such lavish and distracting surroundings - nor were any other technology juggernauts similarly hatched. While talent is undeniably a key ingredient in maintaining a relatively high-functioning organization, so are basic commercial values – such as thrift and efficiency. One without the other is surely a Witch’s brew that can easily dull competitive senses.

Who, in fact, are the recruits that are seduced by such things? High IQ engineers, technicians, marketers, and business minds? Perhaps so, but also individuals that value such things. And herein lies the rub: These are people that are very different than the entrepreneurs who founded Google (at least during the time they founded it). On the continuum between being innovators and managers – they are (almost by definition) more like managers. Indeed, the more superfluous stuff on offer, the more “manager like” I would argue they are likely to be.  With these types of recruits increasingly in the fold, Google’s founding culture of genuine innovation is at risk of being diluted.

Some of this slide is unavoidable to be sure. After all, Google is already a giant company. But in this new era, the challenge for Google management will be to resist cultural hubris and complacency. Intentionally propagating excess in this manner strikes me as exactly the wrong remedy – and technology history is littered with cautionary examples – IBM, H-P, EBay and a long list of others.

Hastening the day of reckoning with excess seems unnecessary – not to mention unwise. Call me old fashion, but count me as one who believes Google would be much better off if its management resisted such frivolity rather than indulging it.