Google Wave Fail... Implications for UMC and Your Leadership?

It's official.

Google Wave, which promised to be a revolution in online synergy, marrying real-time collaboration and social networking and image sharing into a single, seamless platform, has washed up on the shore. The machinery will still be out there for a while, at least to the end of 2010. But after that, and even now, its code is being chopped up for repackaging by others.

ZD Net, one of the technology news sources I regularly follow, posted a piece analyzing what went wrong and what "big dogs" like Google should learn from it. The lead line of the article is this: If you’re going it alone you better have a business model. Or have something truly innovative. Even if you’re ginormous. The whole article is here. It's worth a read, and the comments there should be interesting.

Here's how the ZD Net article "parses" it's opening statement:

Going It Alone — An individual or small group going it alone is courageous. A behemoth going it alone is suspicious. Without allies, without external support, a Google project run by Google alone is in trouble.

Business Model — Google has a tendency of going with cool stuff first and worrying about how the money will come back later. That’s how it bought Blogger and YouTube. That leads to trouble.

Truly Innovative — Wave sounded innovative, but it really just combined a lot of services that already existed. Was it a service or a user interface — I was never certain.

Ginormous — Google is huge, humongous, enormous, the 800-pound gorilla. It bought fiber when it was dirt cheap, it innovated on server farms, it focused like a laser on electricity costs, it became the low-cost producer of all Internet services. But that also put a target on its back. 

I'm thinking there may be some implications here that we might draw both for leadership in our own sort of "small initiatives" and "small group efforts" in our local contexts, and perhaps for the ways that United Methodist leadership functions at a macro level. I don't think there are direct connections either way-- but rather that these four points may provide a sort of platform for some interesting-- and I hope fruitful-- conversation.

So here's a bit of a start to where some of that conversation:

Going It Alone
Frankly, I wonder whether an individual or small group in the church context "going it alone" is in fact all that courageous, or whether it may really set us up for rather savage defeat. Yes, Google's "cannonball splash" was rather dramatic here. It was one colossal failure on their terms. But anyone in the open source world who is honest about how things really work there will tell you that going it alone as an individual or a small group tends to generate thoursands if not millions of failures. The only reason they don't show up is because they're not big-- they're small. And then they just disappear. But they do add up.

So I'd say, without allies of some sort-- whether you believe in the power of "Connectors" like Malcolm Gladwell does, or whether you follow social network theory that says the generation of "tipping points" may be essentially random most of the time-- almost everything is doomed to fail-- whether by individuals or small groups or large companies-- or not get much beyond the level of influencing a very, very small number of people.

Business Model
Frankly, trying stuff to see what happens or what sticks IS a business model-- and often a fairly good one, if you have the resources to pick up the pieces, learn what you can, and then try something else tomorrow. Or the next day.

And Google does. And it likely will for a while to come. And based on their blog entry about the closure of the Wave project, it sounds like they really are going to repurpose large chunks of this technology. Already they have done bits and pieces of this with GoogleDocs and the incorporation of similar code from the EtherPad project to allow for real-time instant collaboration.

Still, that's the question isn't it. Do you go into a true experiment not only recognizing it can fail, but with the capacity to keep delivering at least some of the promises-- or the guts to walk away from them!-- you made when you started out even if it will have to be by other means?

A business plan does not mean "a roadmap to surefire success." Only business consultants who want you to pay them for their "secret sauce" will try to sell you on that bit of snake oil! It means much more about being wise as serpents, gentle as doves. We Christians might be a bit better on the second part than the first. Let's remember that Jesus was not complimenting "the children of light" when he said that the "children of darkness" seemed to have more savvy about how to get things done well in the world than they did. Following Jesus does not mean checking your brain at the door. It means using your brain-- with those of others (like-- whom did he EVER send on a solo mission-- ever?) in ways that open you and others to the possibility to see the reign of God breaking into our midst and re-align your behavior accordingly.

Truly Innovative
The emphasis here is on the first word. Truly. No one actually does "a new thing" because they say they're doing a new thing. And frankly, if we don't actually know enough about what we're doing, we may well think we're coming up with something really new and therefore great, when in fact we're coming up with something old and at best half-baked. That whole "tyranny of the present age" stuff that G.K. Chesterton liked to talk about.

And in fact, a "new thing" is not actually always the best thing to try. At least not when there really are a lot of old things that get the job done pretty effectively still.

Back to Jesus in Matthew 13:52-- "Therefore, every scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a houseowner who takes out of the store room old things and new things."

Yes, the UMC is still Ginormous! We are a multi-million member and multi-billion dollar set of entities, if you add it all up, from congregations through General Agencies. Ginormous isn't bad. It's also not necessarily good. But Ginormous we are. We are still the 800 pound gorilla in American Mainline Protestantism. And among the mainlines, we're actually the ONLY significantly global denomination as such. With such great size and scope comes great responsibility.

And it does in fact put a sort of target on our backs-- through frankly, as fewer and fewer Americans care about us or any religious group, the importance of that target continues to diminish.

What the article goes on to say is the existence of that target should give Google pause before launching anything significant-- make sure it gets all its ducks in a row, as it were, so that failure is not an option. Or at least it is the last option ever likely to be taken.

I couldn't disagree more. Yes, as mentioned above, we need business plans-- openings and awareness of all the best ways in a variety of contingencies to deploy our resources and develop new ones. And yes being ginormous means that we ought to have enough sense not to do terribly stupid things, or even to think that WE ourselves can be the purveyors of THE disruptive technology. We Christians, if we're confessing our own faith, consider God to be the ultimate disruptor, and God's reign to be the disruptive technology of human history. Humility is in order here.

So yes-- circumspect but not fear-bound. Always, always love-bound-- which sometimes means prophetic, sometimes means listening, and sometimes means we admit we have no clue or that the clue we thought we had turned out not to be what we thought it was.

What implications for your leadership and for the leadership of The United Methodist Church do you see here?

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards