Built to Leap

One of the questions I’ve been asked most frequently in the past year is whether I think Google+ will put Facebook out of business. Or vice versa.

Either way my answer is no.

Some context: I am an early adopter and daily user of both platforms. I’ve studied their businesses and believe they work very differently. I predict both companies will continue to thrive for a long time.

But there is one distinction I would make.

I think Facebook today, for all its current success and momentum, is in a trickier position than Google.

In the past year, Google has signaled its intentions on multiple fronts, and launched several major initiatives, Google+ included, that are just starting to bear fruit.

One could extrapolate from today’s evidence, even against a backdrop of incredible technology change, what Google’s business model and suite of resilient offerings will likely be in a year or two or three.

But Facebook’s future state is far less clear. After its IPO, what will its next move be?

My admittedly simple assessment is this:

Google today is facing execution risk. Facebook is facing strategy risk.

Everything that rises must leap, and leap again

Here’s what I mean.

The mathematician Geoffrey West has modeled impressively the trap that all successful global enterprises are in: they must continually reinvent their core strategies to avoid endgame.

See in particular his comments at the 14:52 minute mark in the talk below, and the graph entitled “Unbounded Growth Requires Accelerating Cycles of Innovation to Avoid Collapse.”

Hockey stick growth in other words is not just a blessing and an accomplishment: it’s a wake-up call that a reinvention is imminently needed.

My interpretation is that Google in the past year has jumped to a new curve, while Facebook has yet to do so. Facebook’s business will continue to evolve, but I would keep an eye out for a major leap, not ongoing linear advances.

Leading while leaping

Facebook and Google are just examples, of course. Anything written about them instantly becomes dated.

West has identified the real trend, which is that for global enterprises “always-leaping” has become the new norm.

Last year, Ram Charan and Michael Sisk wrote an excellent piece describing how Dow Chemical and other global enterprises had navigated these kinds of daring, bet-the-farm jumps.

What I loved best about the article is how the authors explore in detail the cross-sector conditions that make these leaps necessary, and also how our notions of leadership and culture must adapt to these new circumstances:

“The need to make strategic bets, and be prepared for them, will ultimately change the way many business leaders regard strategy. In addition to their existing concerns — their company’s functional strengths, arrangement of business units, and portfolio — there will now be the presumption of a more dynamic, ambiguous, and difficult business environment. The only way to manage this environment, in a collected and capable manner, is to think in terms of external strategy, to continually cultivate an outside-in view of the company in which strategic bets are not automatically resisted, but are instead dispassionately evaluated.”

For large enterprises, this is the new reality. For some, this new time will be very exciting, for some it will be too much. But there is no real alternative.

Rise of the indies

At least for enterprise.

Startups and SMBs, and new networked collaborations—what Bryce Roberts together calls “indie businesses” —are growing very differently.

Startups can have real exits, and SMBs can have gentler growth curves than what West describes.

Enterprise is still extremely important, given that it drives our economy and creates context for future innovation. But that is changing.

For a great thought piece on this, see Chris Devore’s recent post on the future of work, where in addition to quoting Roberts, he talks about the unique opportunity spaces that are opening for individuals.

So: it’s worth asking yourself regarding your current company direction or personal career path: are you facing execution risk or strategy risk?

And… is it time to take a leap?