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August 6, 2010

Failure Is Always an Option at Google

Google is a company that has a lot of ambitious projects and it's inevitable that some of them will fail. Eric Schmidt says that failure is actually a good thing.

"We try things. Remember, we celebrate our failures. This is a company where it's absolutely okay to try something that's very hard, have it not be successful, and take the learning from that."

Google's Peter Norvig has a more detailed explanation for this attitude:

"If you're a politician, admitting you're wrong is a weakness, but if you're an engineer, you essentially want to be wrong half the time. If you do experiments and you're always right, then you aren't getting enough information out of those experiments. You want your experiment to be like the flip of a coin: You have no idea if it is going to come up heads or tails. You want to not know what the results are going to be."

In fact, Peter Norvig says that Google is a company where failure is always an option:

"I think Google was early in accepting hardware errors. Other companies have tried to say, 'Well, if you can buy big, expensive computers that are more reliable, then you'll have fewer breakdowns and you'll do better.' Google decided to buy lots of cheap computers that break down all the time, but because they're so much cheaper, you can design the system with multiple backups and ways to route around problems and so forth. We just architect the system to expect failure."

Why there are so many Google products discontinued after a few months or a few years of development? Peter Norvig thinks that's a by-product of Google's rapid development model.

"We [try] to fail faster and smaller. The average cycle for getting something done at Google is more like three months than three years. And the average team size is small, so if we have a new idea, we don't have to go through the political lobbying of saying, "Can we have 50 people to work on this?" Instead, it's more done bottom up: Two or three people get together and say, "Hey, I want to work on this." They don't need permission from the top level to get it started because it's just a couple of people; it's kind of off the books."

{ via Google Blogoscoped }


  1. to be frank, google is such a company to do experiments, because people do and people produce products that are useful for people

    in most companies, SE people need to get permission from top management to work on some thing new, google is total opposite, many features and out of all in short time, these products are picking up and see how people interact to create a product, to run a product to check the feedback and run if sucess stop if failure

    its as simple as it is

    Thanks & Regards

    Sai Pothuri

  2. I knew this altitude; you don't have to waste a whole post for it.

    What I would like to know is: what does Google learn from this failure.

    What if buzz is not embedded in Gmail? Will anyone use it?

    What if they put Wave in Gmail? Would it gain expected attention?

  3. Hmmm ... what I learn from my mistake :
    useing wave EVERY day so that I depend on it.
    do I learn : Never adopt Google Produkts early again !?
    Dont belive in I/O talks, because when the Managers fart the engineers get blown away!?
    Google just care for the 'dumb' masses not for me !?

    I will need some time before I try developing things for Google products again!!

  4. Thanks for this look, Alex, I think it's quite insightful and far from a "waste [of] a whole post."

    @Banzai. I'm sorry Google's mentality offends you; I agree that it can sometimes hurt to feel like one of the "little people."

    On the other hand, I take heart in knowing that Google has enough courage to pull the plug on failing projects, while admitting its failure. As a former business finance undergrad, I can tell you that the large majority of business ideas fail. Miserably. MS Kin, anyone? It's difficult to forecast what people as complex and diverse as humans will value on a large scale.

    Google's in it (business) to make a profit for its shareholders, even if that means some people fail to realize their own expected Nirvana, as a secondary byproduct.

  5. The only reason why Google can afford to work like this is because the company does not make its living from its products. Google makes money off advertising, and the nice thing is that it uses a big portion of that money to finance R&D, but if R&D had to actually EARN money by making products that work and appeal to customers, they'd be singing a different song...

  6. @Nikola. Interesting thoughts. I agree that Google's business model is quite unique.

    I also feel like it puts tremendous focus on its products because they feed back into the adverts. If people love Google and want to use it for everything they do, chances are there will be some successful ad revenues there, as well.

    I believe this is a large part of why Google's the world's number one brand right now, and if it can continue to do so, it will continue to have marked success for the foreseeable future. (About the #1 brand claim.)

  7. as a structural engineer, if i'm wrong half the time, i'm in big trouble. i think the word engineer is used improperly here. in science, you don't "want" to be wrong half the time; you need to accept the outcome of your results, whether or not they match your hypothesis. as an engineer, applying science to bring a product to fruition, you want to be 100% right. of course no one ever is, but that's what you shoot for.

  8. If I remember my business courses the companies that used be cited for attitudes like this were IBM and 3M! 3M even pioneered the whole 20% thing were engineers could work on whatever they wanted (but ofcourse it belonged to 3M). And IBM Labs have something like a 90% failure rate - but they also hold more patents that any other company.

  9. thank you for this post, i like it very much. very good and useful information.
    everyone who experienced maintaining of experimental but complicated and long-term projects should look with equal interest, attention and pleasure of investigation at both succeeded and failured steps. all of them are valueable facts as parts of the whole development strategy.
    this strategy needs the highest balance of being inside and outside things at the same time with keeping high detalisation in the smallest elements without loosing adequate priorities control in global movement.
    Alex, thank you again for this post and for many other articles, lot of useful published info with your interesting way of thinking and kind attitude to all. but especially for this small article (one of my favorites) that changed a lot inside and outside of me during these years:
    (i was reading by random its printed version sticked on one of the walls inside my working enviroment)

  10. I think that even not working as good as it looks at the begining the idea of wave is amazing. I though that Wave would be a revolution but 1 year later it doesn't look like as revolutionary. It doesn't really matter because I am completely sure that something new will come better and the expirience will be use as a process of learning. Thanks to Google and to its wonderful team.

  11. Now that they got that out of they way Google needs to learn from its image search failure and put it back to the old way

  12. Hmmm...Let me remind you a saying that hit my mind when I read this post...

    "Remember the two benefits of failure. First, if you do fail, you learn what doesn't work; and second, the failure gives you the opportunity to try a new approach."

    I'm sure Google would cross all the barriers heading their way...Google Rocks!!

  13. "we celebrate our failures" is one of the wisest things I've heard and it shows google's intelligence; your life would become better if you'd apply the same principle


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