Incremental Illness Claims Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer

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‘Incrementalism’ only sounds like the next horrible religion to captivate Tom Cruise. It’s actually a chronic condition that’s claimed countless corporate careers. Its devastation can be measured in thousands of yards – of yacht downgrades. Before donating to your local Adopt-a-Yacht chapter, let’s study incrementalism’s latest victim, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer.

Ms. Mayer opened the door to infection by engaging in high risk behaviors. For about $42M a year, she agreed to give mouth-to-mouth to a drooling tech cadaver called “Yahoo!” Ignoring every red flag, like a pre-punctuated name and five dead predecessors, Ms. Mayer quickly contracted full-blown incrementalism. She shunned big bets for smaller, safer ones. And now, only a scant $158M exit package stands between her and having to pleasure Charlie Sheen for pizza money.

In all fairness, even those considered immune to incrementalism – Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Napoleon – might not have survived prolonged exposure to Yahoo? The company’s greatest asset is tens of millions of everybody’s dad, poking around on Yahoo? Mail and Yahoo? Finance, doing their best to send their social security numbers to some hard luck Nigerian general.

So why does incrementalism hurt so many?

1. Yachts make great pacifiers.

According to the Yacht-Innovation Index, the more feet of boat owned by the top 20 executives, the less innovative the company. It’s a known fact. Or, words that could be facts – with actual research and effort. Regardless, YII – nay, YII! – is just a nautical way of saying big bets are not only up to the CEO.

Over time, incrementalism hobbles corporate culture.

  • Some fear the unfamiliar. In Yahoo’s case, anyone not in mom jeans.
  • Others surrender and coast. This might be why Marissa rightly ended Yahoo’s Work-In-Your-Panties Program. Everyone had to hustle back to the office, despite a hail of #hashtag heroism by expendable idiots with no knowledge or stake in the matter…but just enough money for web access.
  • According to , tribes of “Survivors” nest deep inside organizations. They defend fiefdoms and the status quo until the bitter end. They’ll be clutching their 401K’s and offsite tchotchkes as their office is repainted for Woohoo!! – the app that will disrupt disruption.

2. Corporations have a massive shortage of visionaries.

Visionaries rarely climb corporate ladders. They’re who take risks and ‘don’t play by the rules,’ like Mel Gibson in every 90’s movie.

Those who commandeer the battleship are a different breed. They favor strategy over imagination, brains over balls, consumer research over an eccentric designer with a crate of Captain Morgan.

This vision shortage leads many flailing behemoths to nuzzle back into the arms of founders or past CEO’s.  It worked for Starbucks, Dell and Apple. We’ll see if it works with Jack Dorsey at Twitter, Mark Pincus at Zynga, and Steve Huffman at Reddit. Struggling brands like KFC, Sears and Macy’s would need a séance and a shovel to get their daredevils back.

pablo (22)Ironically, Jerry Yang, who co-founded Yahoo, made two big bets that comprise all of Yahoo’s value today. Without investments in Alibaba and Yahoo Japan, Yahoo? would have to send you cash and blood diamonds to buy its worthless shares. But it was Jerry’s last big bet that cost him his job. He failed to sell Yahoo to Microsoft for $47.5B. What looks like a massive blunder was a natural risk of gambling with visionaries – if they lose, they’ll do it betting on themselves. This time, Jerry lost.

 “I brought you into this world and I can take you out.”
– God, the Bible (or Al Bundy, ‘Married with Children’)

Like famous comedians testing new material, even revered visionaries have a narrow window of goodwill. They need to find a good idea, bet everything on it, and make painful adjustments before the audience resumes sexting, as it has with Marissa Mayer.

3. In the end, incrementalism is a form of denial.

For years, Lady Gaga tried to out-dance, out-shock, and out-sex the Mileys, Taylor Swifts and Rihannas of the world. It wasn’t until 2012 when she sat down, alone, at a piano to sing Edge of Glory for Howard Stern that so many realized she was Michael Jordan playing baseball. Since then, she’s slowly crawled out of Tim Burton’s closet and into her own skin.

In the end, Ms. Mayer’s incrementalism was Gaga-ism. Yahoo needed to bet big – on itself. There were maybe four assets still drawing a crowd at Yahoo – its maligned home page, Mail, Finance and Sports. Of course, to bet big on one of them would mean coming to terms with who was in that crowd. It wasn’t sexy Instagrammers, YouTube sensations, or the blue and black (or white and gold) dress.

Yahoo became the sad, creepy 50-year-old texting 20-somethings on Tinder with baffling Love Boat and M*A*S*H references. Dad never wanted Tumblr or episodes of Community. (The stars of Community didn’t want episodes of Community.) Dad wanted Patriots scores, financial security, and counterfeit Cialis refills.

Yahoo missed the chance to be the one thing no one in Silicon Valley dares to be – old and proud. There are plenty of big bets to be made in “Gray Tech”, but likely not by Yahoo. It died here. Slowly. Incrementally. Gray.

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Also read Farhad Manjoo‘s terrific New York Times piece that inspired this monstrosity.

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