eBay – incredible growth driven by bureaucracy?

There was a fascinating article in last week’s Fortune magazine – it made the cover of the European version at least – titled “eBay’s incredible growth machine”. Someone, somewhere is banging eBay’s drum as they are getting a lot of coverage this month. Maybe it’s the stock split.

This was so good I made everyone in my team read it. I’d like to be able to point to it here but despite searching several strings on the Fortune.com website, I came up with nothing. Can’t think why that might be.

The para that really struck me goes like this:

women’s shoes were accounting for an increasing share of traffic … getting them their own category took two months … when women’s apparel wanted to add a way to narrow down shoe searches – say size 5 blue pumps for less than $50 – the change took ten months

Now, leaving aside that the ladies I know don’t wear pumps that cost only $50, what I wanted to know was what they were doing for 10 months. Were the folks at eBay thinking about the look and feel of the section, the design of the search button (always a hard choice between rounded corners and hard edges), the dialogue that would occur on the screen, whether to sort by date or by price or by something else? It’s not at all clear from the article, but it sounds like they were deciding whether they even wanted to make such a change – and parading the decision through all kinds of management levels.

In the public sector world of websites, we’re often told that there’s a need to add a new section to a site tomorrow, or maybe even inside an hour. The kind of analysis that eBay are talking about doesn’t even get considered from what I’ve seen – that might be good or it might be bad. But it boils down to a decision taken to add something or change something without perhaps fully understanding the issues, limits, options and decision points. I did wonder though whether the eBay technology folks still get an afternoon’s notice of a decision that’s floated around the org for the previous 10 months – that would be par for the course.

I’m still sitting here wondering whether seat of the pants (repeat until false) is better, or whether there’s some merit in staring at a decision for nearly a year before making it. Which one wins? If you look at eBay, it’s hard to see where they’ve lost.

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