How to Destroy Innovation: Treat Your Most Innovative Employees Like Children

Published: by

For many years, Yahoo was a poster child for the Internet boom. It was the first successful Internet portal, did a lot of innovative work on the technology front - both server-side and Web browser-side - and hired and gave lots of room to some great people. For example, while Brendan Eich is the father of ECMAScript (the official name for the language known as JavaScript), which enables all of those dynamic applications in your browser, like Gmail and Google Maps, Facebook and Twitter, and many more, the acknowledged guru of JavaScript nowadays is Douglas Crockford, a longtime Yahoo employee.

As is well-known in tech and business circles, Yahoo has been having a hard time of late, and has been trying hard to reinvent itself. This past summer, it hired star Google VP, Marissa Mayer, as its fifth CEO in as many years to lead the turnaround.

A CEO has just a few key jobs: lay out a vision; hire great people to implement that vision; remove roadblocks from those great people in implementing that vision; and make sure there is enough cash on hand for them to execute. In truth, one job matters more than the rest: hire great people. Great people will implement the vision; help you define it; challenge you on its realism; find ways to get the cash you need. This is not limited to top executives reporting to the CEO; The best ideas often come from the people in the trenches.

Tech sector workers are known to be sensitive, temperamental... and highly innovative. To be fair, this is true of all creative and innovative workers: ad agency creative directors; artists; and brilliant scientists. The number one way to push these great people away is to treat them like children. Give them difficult and rigid rules that do not help them perform their jobs, and inevitably the innovative ones leave for greener pastures, while the ones who remain are those willing to follow the rules, as long as they can clock in and clock and collect a paycheck.

In light of all of this, it is more than a little puzzling to read the latest missive from Yahoo's HR department, reported by AllThingsD's Kara Swisher. Apparently, all remote working at Yahoo is now banned. Not just for full-time work-at-home parents, or remote employees, but even those who work at home one day a week, or even half a day, or just waiting for the cable guy.

If Yahoo's core problem had been a lack of consistent productivity in known activities, and study had shown it was due to lack of discipline in working from home, I could see how this might be a solution (although hopefully better handled than the email that Yahoo's HR sent out). But it is pretty clear that Yahoo's failure is a product failure. They simply have lost massive ground in the market. They need innovation in their products to draw in users, or perhaps whole new markets (which is even harder innovation). I am at a loss to come up with a single reason why they believe they can address this problem by upsetting their employees. Usually, I can come up with something, but I really have none. To boot, they are begging for lawsuits from those employees for whom remote work was part of their employment agreement.

My bet? Yahoo will be going for a sixth CEO within six years....