Is Google still a one-trick pony?

The Google logo is seen at the Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. KIMIHIRO HOSHINO/AFP/Getty Images

Commentary:

(MoneyWatch) Recent financial results from Google suggest that Steve Ballmer was right: The company, for all its much vaunted creativity, really just makes money selling ads. It does this very well. Or at least did it very well; last month's company results suggest that even adapting this relatively simple task to mobile platforms is proving a bit of a struggle.

But business consultants the world over have been singing the praises of this company for its stunning levels of creativity and innovation. Where are they? Buying Motorola wasn't novel and Android isn't much more than a decent copy of Apple's iPhone. Although Google (GOOG) didn't invent the idea of giving employees a day a week for new projects, it's been widely lauded for doing so, with the expectation that this will fill a pipeline with dazzling new inventions. But I can't see them. Sure, the Google search page decorations are cute and YouTube has experimented TV-style programming but this isn't exactly what most people would consider to be cutting edge creativity.

Don't get me wrong. I love the idea of 20 percent time for new projects and I've seen companies where it works. But it is expecting too much of a single policy to expect it to cure the innovator's dilemma, to erode the tunnel vision that develops within highly successful businesses. Corporate cultures are always powerfully conformist, even when they strive not to be. Success always takes on particular biases and hues and ambitious employees necessarily strive to second-guess their bosses. Often the most radical thinkers leave, not because they are unhappy but simply because they don't like having bosses, processes or rules.

Google has been very successful at seducing many business commentators, professors and consultants that it is the most creative company on Earth. I can only guess they serve very good lunches that make people who are intimidated by technology feel smart. Because the only truly great idea I can see coming out of Google is the driver-less car. But is it a great new product -- or just a metaphor for leadership?

  • Margaret Heffernan On Twitter»

    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.

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