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Innovative Move by Marissa Mayer - Charlie Warner

Charlie Warner
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Published: March 7, 2013 at 11:38 AM GMT
Last Updated: March 6, 2013 at 11:38 AM GMT

By Charlie Warner

The blogsphere is rife with opinions about Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer's decision last month to have everyone who telecommutes at Yahoo come into the office. Most of the opinions I read were complimentary of Mayer's decision for a variety of reasons.

Michael Schrage wrote on the HBR Blog Network that "Marissa Mayer Is No Fool" and Greg Satell's headline in a Forbes blog was " One More Reason to Applaud Marissa Mayer." Max Nison wrote in the typically curmudgeonly Business Insider that " Marissa Mayer Got It Right – You Can't Fix a Broken Culture When People Aren't In the Office ," and in the more august Atlantic, Ann-Marie Slaughter (a professor at Princeton) opines that " Marissa Mayer's Job Is to Be CEO—Not to Make Life Easier for Working Moms ."

Admittedly, it might well be confirmation bias that I read items that were positive about Mayer's decision, but there are two reasons (among many) that I thought were particularly important about her decision to bring telecommuters in out of the cold, so to speak.

One reason, mentioned in several blog posts and articles, was that Mayer's decision was not based on the notion that "this is the way it's always been done" or gut feel, which is typical thinking in most legacy media companies, but was based on hard data.

Apparently, Mayer looked at data that indicated telecommuters were not logging into the Yahoo VPN and recognized that a large number of the WFH (Work From Home) people were not fully engaged or not productive.

Another reason I believe Mayer's decision was right is not one that was indicated (certainly not stressed) in the blog posts and articles I read, and that reason is Yahoo's desperate need for innovation. And, as pointed out in many books, articles, and research studies, innovation occurs when people mix with other people.

Steven Johnson, in his brilliant book, Where Good Ideas Come From , writes about the vital importance of "the adjacent possible" and liquid networks for innovation to occur, and gives the example of MIT's famous Building 20:

…the temporary structure build during World War II somehow managed to last fifty-five years, in part because it had an extraordinary track record for cultivating both breakthrough ideas and organizations like Noam Chomsky's linguistics department, Bose Acoustics, and the Digital Equipment Corporation.

Breakthrough ideas usually don't come from people working alone at home. Innovation comes from people bumping into each other, from water-cooler discussions, from open-space areas between cubicles, and from buildings like Pixar's that Steve Jobs designed with typical obsessiveness so that people couldn't avoid random encounters – sort of like Google's offices, where Marissa Mayer famously worked before she became CEO of Yahoo.

Google and Steve Jobs' Apple are companies where sustaining and disruptive innovations come by the truckloads. Yahoo has been stuck in the past and hasn't innovated much, so Mayer had to change the company's culture and kick-start its innovation engine. She had to kick people out of the isolation in their homes and bring them back to company offices where they could collaborate and innovate.

I have not been in Yahoo's offices, but I have been in the New York offices of Google and Facebook. The walls in the halls of most of Google's NY offices are floor-to-wall whiteboards full of ideas and formulas (no pictures allowed), and Facebook's NY offices are open spaces with rows of tables with people sitting side by side working on their computers.

Google's and Facebook's offices are nothing like those of Viacom, CBS, Hearst, or Time-Warner, whose fancy offices more often reflect the overblown sense of self-importance of their executives rather than reflecting the importance of openness and collaboration for innovation.

As legacy media executives struggle to deal with the disruptive innovation of the Internet, and as they lose their distribution advantage to the Web, they should take a page from Marissa Mayer's playbook, get out of their plush offices, and make a move for innovation.

Charlie Warner teaches sales, media ethics, and innovation in the graduate Media Management Program at The New School and is author of Media Selling, 4th Edition. From 1998-2002 he was Vice President of AOL's Interactive Marketing division. Before joining AOL, he was the Goldenson Endowed Professor at the Missouri Journalism School and a highly sought-after media sales and management consultant and trainer. Charlie can be contacted at charleshwarner@gmail.com.

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