Archive

Innovation

The technical presentations were over and a distinguished panel of inventors had given the audience some take-away messages, when Bob Lucky began his trademarked summary of the 2010 Marconi Prize ceremony. There were already empty seats as some of  the locals started heading for the SRI visitors lot when I was roused from a cookie-induced, end-of-conference stupor.  I had heard someone up front call my name.

Bob announced to everyone who was left in the room, “Rich DeMillo is writing a book on the subject.  Rich, how do you know when innovation has occurred?” There’s a mental “passive-to-active” switch that needs to be tripped in situations like this, so it took me a second or so to respond.  In the meanwhile, I said something witty to fill in the time.  “Thanks a lot, Bob,” as I recall. But it was obvious what the answer should be.

Every speaker had said it, and most of them were Marconi Prize recipients themselves.  I have said it many times here: invention without  impact doesn’t count as innovation. And this was a conference devoted to impact on telecommunications.
  • John Cioffi had described the insight that  inserting modems on both ends of a normal telephone lines allowed you to bypass switches and get direct access to the Internet. It was the key innovation in the development of  DSL .
  • In addition to telling the story of how he and  Whit Diffie invented public key cryptography, Marty Hellman talked about the “Who am I to do this?” moments of self-doubt that all inventors experience.
  • Federico Faggin made it pretty clear that the real invention in creating the first integrated circuit (the Fairchild 3708) with self-aligning silicon gates was not having the idea, but actually making it work.
  • Adobe Systems co-founder John Warnock–who shared the Marconi prize with Charles Geschke, the other Adobe founder–said that it often boils down to one person: “Apple without Jobs cannot innovate,” he said.

It had also been a day of sharing stories about Guglielmo Marconi. According to Warnock, Marconi could not stand John Ambrose Fleming, the inventor of the vacuum tube diode, whom Marconi had hired to design Marconi Company’s power plant.  In fact, Marconi was trying to  figure out a way to fire Fleming.  Marconi’s grandson, journalist Michael Braga, was there as well,  so there were also intimate and sometimes surprising family stories.

But everyone had said that you can tell when innovation has happened by its effect on people. In the world of industrial innovation, the impact that matters is economic, so I shot back to Lucky, “Wealth creation!” It was something I believed in deeply and I knew Bob felt the same way. I had worked directly for him at Bellcore.  In Bellcore’s research labs just publishing another journal paper didn’t count for much: everyone was held accountable for translating their ideas into inventions that would matter to the company, its customers, or their customers.

Lucky has a way of nodding when he is processing information, but it’s not necessarily because he is agreeing with you.  Sometimes it takes a little while to find out what his verdict really is. After few seconds of nodding he repeated: “wealth creation.”  I had given the right answer. I really had not intended that to be the closing line of the meeting, but it was. It was true, but it wasn’t the most creative insight of the day. Almost immediately, I thought of a much better answer to Bob’s question, but it was too late.  The SRI auditorium was emptying out.  The moment had passed.

Here’s what I really should have said:

You’ll  know that you have innovated when there are LIARS!

It was a term that John Cioffi had thrown into the discussion at the start of the day.  A L.I.A.R. is a Large Institutional Autocratic Resister.  John had said that you knew when an innovation was real when LIARs said it was their idea. Faggin had said that bringing something important into the world generates resistance.  You have to plan for it in advance. Hellman had talked about the wisdom of foolishness.

Fiber optics pioneer and winner of the 2008 prize, David Payne, said two things that were especially insightful.

  • If you innovate, someone will make a lot of money and someone will lose a lot of money
  • Innovation thrives on being different.  A manager wants efficiency and conformity

In fact, everyone had talked about the biggest impediment to innovation: large established organizations.  John Warnock and his colleagues at Xerox PARC had been charged with creating the office of the future.  They succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.  PARC created color displays, mice, networks, word processors and email. But Xerox was obsessed with the quality of the printed page, so LIARs dug in their heels. They would not adopt PostScript until all Xerox printers could use it, for example.  In other words, it was never going to be adopted.

LIARs are everywhere.  It’s even worse in academia. A couple of years ago, I was an ed-tech panelist at a large trade show when a vendor of software for higher education told me that in his industry university faculty members are called CAVEmen: “Colleagues Against Virtually Everything.” I wasn’t quite sure how to take that.

Pat Crecine died a few years ago. He was the innovative Georgia Tech president who was instrumental in bringing the 1996 Olympic Games to Atlanta. Crecine recognized the future impact of computing on science, engineering, and technology and created the College of Computing where I was employed as dean from 2002 to 2009. When it was created in 1990 it was only the second such school in the world.

Crecine reshaped Georgia Tech and the LIARS had to lay low while he did it.  He was just too effective at changing large institutions. But it caught up with him. He was unceremoniously booted out a few years later.  It was a devastating personal blow to Crecine, and I don’t think he ever really recovered. At his memorial, former Atlanta Mayor and U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young said of Pat: “He was always right, and he always got everyone mad.”

A few weeks ago, I reminded Andrew Young of this remark, and he said that it was a role that Martin Luther King had given him.  He was supposed to be the irritant that kept them focused on a change agenda.

He said also that it was Jimmy Carter’s concept that political innovation is the result of three ten-day cycles.  First, everyone who is going to have to give something up, gets their forces aligned to kill a new idea, predicting that it would mean the end of civilization as we know it.  That lasts about ten days.

For the next ten days they grudgingly disect the plan, acknowledging that parts of it  actually make things better but that overall it will be a disaster.

The final ten days is spent taking as much credit as posssible for the plan, with a special effort to make it clear that the original idea was something completely different and remains truly awful.

I had drinks in Menlo Park  with Chuck House a few days before Thanksgiving, and we eventually got around to trading stories about Hewlett-Packard innovators we had known and worked with. Chuck is working on a case study of an intense, disruptive,  strategic refocusing of the company that occurred when it was about one tenth its current size.  I said I didn’t think it would be possible today, that there is very likely a law that limits innovation of that kind.

I brought up the idea of  LIARs and he started laughing immediately. Stamping out LIARs was one of the reason Dave Packard and Bill Hewlett tried to keep business units small: the biggest impediment to innovation is large established organizations.

One of the strongest arguments for shoring up the nation’s public universities, increasing graduate offerings, and expanding the role of expansive research plans in determining institutional priorities is the effect that investments like these have on America’s ability to innovate. It’s an argument that rings true, but as facts accumulate, it is beginning to look like public universities are not doing much to secure the future of innovation in the United States.

The nation’s supply of scientists and engineers is fed by a pipeline that extends from the undergraduate programs of colleges and universities to the graduate programs that educate the next generation of PhDs.  The massive investment in research at public universities should have had some impact on the health of this pipeline, but it has not.

A couple of weeks ago, I cited a depressing  CCAP ranking of universities that placed many of the country’s most highly respected research universities near the bottom of value-oriented rankings.  Now there is a new survey from UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute that adds more details to this portrait of failed priorities.

On a per capita basis the schools whose undergraduate programs are responsible for the most PhDs in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) disciplines are the ones that are also highly regarded by students and alumni for the value they deliver.  There are only three public institutions in the top fifty: UC Berkeley (39), William and Mary (45), and a surprisingly strong 15th place showing for tiny New Mexico Tech.  Who is at the top? Caltech is number 1.  Private research universities like MIT, Princeton, and Chicago are also in the top ten. But so are schools with virtually no research funding.  Harvey Mudd is ranked number 2.  Reed, Swarthmore, and Carleton — all liberal arts colleges — are among the top ten as well. Many in the top fifty are small, but there are a couple of  large institutions like Berkeley (35,000) and Cornell (21,000).  About half enroll between 10,000 and 15,000 students.  All are highly selective, but so are the most of the public universities that are members of the AAU.

In a recent post, I asked “Why universities do research?”  This data makes the question even more pointed. The largest consumers of federal research dollars should be directing their energies to insuring the health of the STEM research pipeline.  All of the schools in the top fifty manage to do it — some with little or no help from the federal government.  So it makes perfect sense to ask what is going on at the other institutions.  I have my own ideas — and I talk about them in my book – but I am also interested in hearing your thoughts.  Is this another indication of a damaged pipeline?

It’s funny how the same reading of  history leads to different conclusions. The young investor in the 1840s Punch cartoon above stands in a back alley outside the Capel Court stock exchange asking a purveyor of dubious scrip how to honestly make £10,000 in railways. It is the end of a technology hype cycle in which the modern-day equivalent of $2 trillion was pumped into an investment bubble.  The picture on the right is a desolate and economically insignificant outpost connected by some of the 2,148 miles of railway capacity that entrepreneurs built during the British railway investment mania of the 1830s. The conclusion is that early investors in British railway companies were played for suckers.

The mania probably started with an announcement in the May 1, 1829 edition of the Liverpool Mercury:

“To engineers and iron founders

The directors of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway hereby offer a premium of  £500 (over and above the cost price) for a locomotive engine which shall be a decided improvement on any hitherto constructed, subject to certain Stipulations and Conditions, a copy of which may be had at the Railway Office, or will be forwarded. As may be directed, on application for the same, if by letter or post paid.

HENRY BOOTH Treasurer Railway Office, 25 April 1829

The Liverpool and Manchester Railway was not the first railroad in England, but the competition drew enormous interest.  Contestants used everything from “legacy technology” — horses on treadmills — to lightweight steam engines that could reach up-hill speeds of 24 miles per hour. The legacy technology defeated itself when a horse crashed through a wooden floorboard. It did not hurt that Queen Victoria declared herself “charmed” by the winning steam technology.

Business innovation  — ticketing, first-class seating, and agreements allowing passengers to change carriers mid-trip — was rapid and fueled as much by intense competition as by a chaotic, frenzied stock market in which valuations soared beyond any seeming sense of proportion, causing  John Francis in 1845 to despair: “The more worthless the article the greater the struggle to attain it.” When the market crashed during the week of October 17, 1847 — in no small measure due to to the 1845-6 crop failure and potato famine — and established companies failed, financiers like George Hudson were exposed as swindlers. Thomas Carlyle demanded public hanging.

The collapsing bubble is not the end of the story. Between 1845 and 1855 an additional 9,000 miles of track were constructed.  By 1915 England’s rail capacity was 21,000 miles.  British railways had entered a golden age. The lesson that observers like Carlotta Perez and others draw is that there is a pattern to technological revolutions:

  1. Innovation enables technology clusters, some  of which transform the way that business is done.
  2. Early successes and intense competition give rise to new companies and an unregulated free-for-all that leads to a crash.
  3. Collapse is followed by sustained build-out during which the allure of  glamor is replaced by real value.
  4. This leads to a golden age that results in more innovation as lives are structured around the new technology.

This is a Schumpeterian analysis of innovation that is reflected everywhere, but particularly in the economics of the new technologies of the late twentieth century.  The stamp of the the 1840s British railway mania can be seen in Gartner’s technology hype cycle and in nearly every discussion of the 2000 dot-com collapse.  It is an analysis that is a special problem for angel and other early-stage investors because there is no real guide to tell you when the bubble will burst. Unless you are George Hudson, what investor will find the risk acceptable? A rational early investor will steer clear of technologies that radiate this kind of exuberance.

But what really happened to all that investment in the 1830s? I was amazed to see the recent article by my long-time colleague Andrew Odlyzko at the University of Minnesota who analyzes the British railway mania example and concludes that the early investments did quite well:

The standard literature in this area, starting from Juglar, and continuing through Schumpeter to more recent authors, almost uniformly ignores or misrepresents the large investment mania of the 1830s, whose nature does not fit the stereotypical pattern.

Andrew enjoys taking contrary — often cranky but always well-thought out–  positions on conventional wisdom, so I approached his article with cautious interest.  After all, I thought I knew a little about the railway mania episode.  I had used it myself to illustrate innovation cycles. Like most people, I had focused on the disaster of the 1840’s, so I was drawn immediately into Odlyzko’s argument that during the mania of the 1830’s,  “railways built during this period were viewed as triumphant successes in the end.”:

After the speculative excitement died down, there was a period of about half a dozen years during which investors kept pumping money into railway construction. This was done in the face of adverse, occasionally very adverse, monetary conditions, wide public skepticism, and a market that was consistently telling them through the years that they were wrong.

In other words, the end result of the wildly speculative exuberance of the  1830s was the “creation of a productive transportation system that had a deep and positive effect on the economy.” Investors saw great returns. A shareholder in London and South Western Railway (LSWR) who in 1834 paid a £2 deposit on a share worth £50 and who paid all subsequent calls (totaling £95.5) would have watched the investment grow to 2.31 shares valued at  £200 by mid-1844 and would have received in 1843 alone £4.62 in dividends — a 9.68% annual return.  This defied the more rational demand and cost forecasts:

at the start of the period…in June 1835, such investor would have paid £10, and seen the market value it at £5.5. In fact, over most of the next two and a half years, the market was telling this investor that the LSWR venture was a mistake, as prices were mostly below the paid-up values.

Andrew Odlyzko is a seasoned mathematician who knows better than try to prove a general principle by example.  He says as much in his paper. On the other hand, railway mania has been used for years as an illustration of an innovation cycle, and  Odlyzko has a very different reading of history. The conclusion that is usually drawn from the Railway Mania may lead markets and investors astray because it seriously misrepresents actual patterns. The whole point of a cycle — hype, innovation, or investment mania — is that it can be used as a risk-averse template for rejecting sales pitches that start with “This time is different“.  But that does not mean that it is never different.

I enjoyed reading  the new book about innovation at Hewlett-Packard  that Chuck House and Raymond Price just published[1]. It’s quirky and curiously researched, but, most of all, I was happy to read their account of Carly Fiorina’s tenure as CEO at HP.  History was in need of some fact-based revision.   If ever worlds collided, it was at HP when Carleton S.  Fiorina took over the reins after a stunning rise through the executive ranks at ATT/Lucent.  Chuck  points out that, although Carly was not well-liked by her employees (even her direct reports, many  of whom  ultimately undermined her), she sowed the seeds for Mark Hurd’s success.

The executive suite at HP Headquarters on Page Mill Road in Palo Alto was in those days a row of large cubicles, and, in keeping with  the HP culture, there were no doors and no outer offices.   Everyone’s office  — including Carly’s — was really just a cubicle. Carly insisted that I have two offices: one in HP Labs adjacent to the museum-like offices of Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard — these were not cubicles but were real offices,  impeccably maintained in their original 1960’s orange-and-brown Madmen decor —   and the other next to hers overlooking  a Japanese garden.    Carly’s executive council met nearly every week in a nearby conference room whose glass wall looked out over the same garden.

Several   council members had offices elsewhere, but those of us who had direct access were within a thirty-foot radius of her office.  These were the Gold Badge days at HP when a favored few retirees were granted the privilege of unrestricted, lifetime access to any building and any office suite in the company. The daily comings and goings telegraphed events that would not be visible outside the CEO’s office for days or weeks, even among business heads who had broad authority over multi-billion dollar enterprises.  This turned out to be an important vantage point from which to view sand being  thrown in the gears during HP’s acquisition of Compaq, but I will save these stories for later posts.

Chuck House had been gone from HP for some time when Carly arrived, so his account is based on interviews with a relatively narrow slice of insiders who were his colleagues — an impressive number of people, to be sure, but in a company with 80,000 employees not enough for a definitive portrait.  But House has never been shy about charging ahead when the terrain looks interesting, a personality trait that once earned him a medal from Dave Packard for “Extraordinary Contempt and Defiance Beyond the Call of Duty.”  It was awarded to commemorate a mutinous tour of customer sites to demonstrate a new display monitor after HP management in Colorado Springs had decided to shut it down.   Nevertheless, House’s account gets many things right.  One of the things he misses was what Fiorina brought to HP:  a WWC focus on the customer that was foreign to HP’s engineering culture before her arrival.

House and Price defer to old-guard HP employees in characterizing Carly as a marketer, a fiction that was rooted more in style than in substance.  Fiorina was unnervingly accurate in her assessment of general  market trends,  like the importance of the internet to HP’s mainline businesses,  but, in fact, she was a consummate saleswoman.   What she brought to the table was not the “let’s-see -what -they-think-about-this” arrogance of corporate marketing organizations,  it was the ability to listen to customers, sift through encyclopedic  knowledge of internal plans and projects, and  envision a solution.  Sometimes a  solution was forthcoming.  Sometimes it took a little while longer than customers were willing to wait.  But sometimes solutions were sabotaged.   To have an HP outsider from the East Coast — a telephone equipment salesman, not an engineer — propose a solution to customer problems was an unpardonable sin to some.   It was a WWC culture class that she was slow to recognize.

She was widely criticized for her lack of operational experience, but  the truth is that Carly delegated operational authority too widely and to managers with suspect motives (including past and future pretenders to the throne).  As a newcomer,  I tended to apologize for injecting long-range thoughts into the very operational discussions of the Executive Council, until one day Carly stopped me and said: “You don’t have to apologize for that.  It’s true that we’ll never get to the long-term without taking care of the short-term, but it’s the long-term that makes the short-term worth doing at all.”

Council chemistry changed in the months before the Compaq merger. Vyomesh Joshi took over as head of the imaging and printing business unit.  V.J. is not only a brilliant executive, he is a skilled engineer, whose technical  insights  were mainly responsible for transforming ink jet printing.

The other major additions were Pradeep Jotwani and Iain Morris.  Pradeep had control of worldwide consumer  sales.  He was fond of  long discourses —  sometimes literary, sometimes merely speculative — but their effect was always to slow down a speeding train and turn the discussion in a direction that was more productive.  Iain is a big, brash, Harley-riding  Scott  who Carly recruited from Motorola to carve out emerging businesses  like handheld computers and  entertainment.  Carly quickly transferred   the personal computer businesses to Iain from Duane Zitzner’s  computer business unit where they had languished as unprofitable also-rans.  Morris knew hardware, software and manufacturing from his days at Motorola, and he was also a great salesman.

At one of his first Council meetings, Iain walked in with an HP laptop and stopped everyone cold when he opened it up and bellowed: “What’s wrong here?”  When you  looked at an open HP laptop from the back, the “hp” logo was upside down. It read “dy”, and of course,  that was the way most people saw the laptop:  open and  from the back, inverted logo.  If anyone before had noticed this, it never made it to the upper reaches of management.  The order went out immediately to invert the logo and all of the millions of HP laptops produced since that time now display the logo right side up,  so that it reads “hp”.  It upset some of the industrial designers who argued that laptops were closed a lot of the time and that the orientation of the logo doesn’t matter when a laptop is closed.  It took a salesman’s eye to recognize that it was stupid to have millions customers staring at a “dy”  laptop.

This episode followed on the heels of two other quick-shifts.  One involved HP’s always painful  Federal sales performance.  I will talk about this more fully in a later post.  The other involved architectural consistency,  a concept that bridged customer issues and product design.

Shortly after VJ took over the imaging and printing business, he held an advanced projects review for me in San Diego.  I was struck but the ubiquity of infrared (IR) connectivity ports on HP printers and cameras, and mentioned it to VJ.  He had many compelling reasons for insisting on IR, but complained that Zitzner’s PC division had recently removed IR ports from HP laptops.

To Duane’s immense displeasure, I called  a meeting with some of his design engineers, ostensibly to review the component cost envelope for laptops.  At the end of the meeting, when everyone was worn out,  I asked about IR, and they had a string of good reasons to throw it out.  When I pointed out that HP printers, cameras, and PC’s no longer worked together, they just sat there blinking at me.  Carly overruled engineering objections and IR ports made  a miraculous (albeit short-lived) reappearance in HP laptops.

It would  not be apparent outside the CEO suite for months, but architectural consistency was a technology theme that would drive many R&D investment decisions, both near-term and long-term.   In an effort to jump-start a consumer-facing initiative, Carly had approached Sony about sharing some key technologies.  One of Sony’s success stories was the introduction of memory stick technology into a broad range of Sony products from hundred-dollar consumer entertainment devices to studio-quality video cameras that cost a half million dollars or more.  My counterpart at Sony was a CTO named Mario Tokoro, a computer scientist and engineer who had spent time at the famous computer science department at Carnegie-Mellon University.  Mario had been instrumental in arranging for memory stick technology across a staggering array of Sony’s consumer and business products. The idea of arranging product strategies around this kind of architectural unity would have sped up HP’s brief surge in Internet and Web technologies.  It was an idea that was undone by colliding worlds on a much different scale.


[1] Charles H. House and Raymond L. Price, The HP Phenomenon: Innovation and Business Transformation, Stanford Business Books, 2009

Eiríks saga rauða (Saga of Eric the Red) Icelandic manuscript (17th century)

Eiríks saga rauða (Saga of Eric the Red) Icelandic manuscript (17th century)

In Murder, Starvation and Catastrophe, I drew a line to connect the historical behavior of doomed societies with the business performance of large enterprises.  One of the most compelling of Jared Diamond’s stories is the saga of Eric the Red, the 10th Century Viking who founded Greenland.  The preposterously named colony was eventually home to 10,000 Norse settlers who were perhaps fooled by the name into thinking they were heading off to some sort of North Sea resort for Vikings. The story of Eric the Red is a parable for how the human factor in WWC  promotes or stifles innovation.

Eric was a scoundrel.  A suspected murderer, he fled Norway for Iceland around 980 AD.  It was a short, but violent, stay.  He was ejected from Iceland, and, sailing west, discovered an island of fjords, glaciers and grasslands. He returned to Iceland long enough to kill a few people and recruit an expedition of 25 ships to build a settlement on Greenland. Despite their violent beginnings,  the Greenland settlers established a farming economy and a humane society, including a government that provided for the poor in times of scarce crop production.  The Viking settlers had sporadic wars with the Inuit natives, but apparently flourished for hundreds of years until sometime in the early 1400’s when they just disappeared.

It was one of the great anthropological mysteries of all time:   how could fierce competitors — apparently successful  in a new environment that was not much different than the one they left behind – suddenly fail so catastrophically that their entire society was wiped out in only a few years? When archaeologists excavated the Greenland settlements, they found the usual trash of human civilization:  tools, debris, the remains of livestock,  and garbage from cooking.  But they found no fish bones.  The Norse Greenlanders were expert seafarers who lived in the world’s richest fishing waters and inexplicably starved to death because they did not eat fish.

The Vikings brought with them the culture and preferences from home. They brought food:  pigs, cows, goats,  and sheep.  The Norse knew how to grow crops in cold climates, so they planted crops like barley, oats, wheat, rye, cabbage, onions and peas. They hunted seal for food and  traded  walrus ivory with Europe  for material not available on the island.

By 1400,  demand for ivory, polar bears, and other luxuries from Greenland fell. Black Plague had wiped out nearly half of Europe’s population.  The Crusades opened new sources of ivory and spices to the now smaller market in Europe. The early 1400’s also marked the beginning of the Little Ice Age, blocking natural water inlets and delaying the arrival of migratory seals.  Deforestation left Greenlanders short on lumber, fuel, and iron.  Climate change and poor crop rotation led to crop failure, so the settlers consumed pigs, cows, and sheep to the point of extinction.

They had cultural inhibitions.  They did not eat their pets, for example.  They could have learned to hunt fish from and traded with the Inuits, but the Norse regarded the natives as pagans. Greenlanders were Norse, and they thought of themselves as dairy farmers.  When Eric the Red founded Greenland, it was uncharacteristically temperate —  a special time when their cultural preferences led to success.  They relied on past behavior and — when the climate changed, relations with friends and enemies faltered, and their environment was damaged —  they starved to death.

15th Century Greenland has something in common with IBM  in 1980:  a belief that historically successful behavior will succeed in the future. The Norse preference for pigs and cows required them to dedicate more time and grazing land to those animals than to the heartier goats and sheep.  Their Euro-centrism prevented them from learning from and adopting the eating habits of “pagan savages.” The thinking appears to be that their lifestyle was successful in Norway, so there’s no reason it shouldn’t be successful in Greenland. On the other hand the Norse settlers were not great innovators.

Thomas Watson Sr, understood the role that innovation would play in the company’s future. He opened IBM’s  first dedicated research center next to Columbia University in 1945 and the results were immediate, spectacular innovations including time sharing and  magnetic core memories.  Thomas Watson, thinking it was too risky to continue having its research done in the relative open environment of a joint university lab, and using Bell Labs as a model, established dedicated corporate research labs in New York and Zurich. This ushered in a golden age for IBM.  By any measure of success—sales, market cap, profits, patents, R&D budget—IBM,  and  in many ways,  defined the industry.

Then came the 1980’s and its disruptive changes to the computer industry. These  changes were not kind to IBM and in 1992 the company reported the single largest annual loss in U.S. corporate history to that point: $4.96 billion after taxes.

How did this happen?  Unlike the Greenlanders’ demise, this one isn’t a great mystery.  The Watsons believed fervently that doing the things that had made IBM a great corporation would make it successful in the future.  IBM knew how to profitably sell computers and to whom.  After all, they defined the industry.  There is a widely known internal 5-year forecast of worldwide PC sales that shows shipments peaking  at less than 80,000 units in 1983 before settling into a comfortable rate of 40,000 per year by 1987.  Less than 250,000 over the five year period.  5% to business customers who would continue to rely on IBM mainframes.  In fact, over a million PC’s were sold by 1985.  The industry was in the midst of explosive change and not only did IBM did not recognize it but they believed that past success was a predictor of future success.

But by 1982 it was all over. If IBM had recognized the value of the PC, they would have kept it proprietary and the computer industry would have developed very differently.  Without its IBM  licensing deal, Microsoft would have withered early.  Intel would be a niche player.

IBM, Xerox,  AT&T, and Nortel were all  innovative companies.  They hired the best and brightest – and there was low employer mobility since after all how many places were there for a computer science PhD to work?  The IBM Research Lab in Yorktown Heights developed and incubated products in the historically successful vertical way.  The barriers to entry for IBM’s  competitors (especially the small ones like Compaq and DEC) were huge. How could a small competitor build a direct sales network to rival the famed Xerox sales force?  What did an academic startup like Cisco,  aimed at the tiny data network market, have to do with the output Bell Labs or the market clout of Nortel?

This is how innovation looked at the end of the last century. It is too easy to draw conclusions about why old models stumble.  An apparently obvious lesson from the story of Erick the Red is that  the Little Ice Age caused the Vikings to die off in Greenland. Current conventional wisdom is that the technology giants stumbled  because they were too old or rigid or bloated to compete smaller, nimbler competitors who were themselves innovating although in very different ways.  Actually neither is really true.

It is simply built into the fabric of innovation that the marketplace is an environment – you have to adapt to it to survive.  If people want low-cost computers then drive cost out of the manufacturing process and learn to prosper on thinner margins. There are occasionally companies that try to change the environment.  Hewlett-Packard grew for 60 years on a simple business model:  innovate to create a product category and ride market growth until the margins shrink.  Then exit.  The ink jet printer is such a product — and there is much discussion in HP about exit strategies for ink jet printing. So was the hand-held calculator.  Most companies cannot imitate those successes. HP eventually faltered when it tried large scale environmental engineering with its failed acquisition of PWC and the gut-wrenching merger with Compaq.

So, if adjusting to the environment is the answer, why didn’t the Greenlanders just start eating fish?  The Greenlanders damaged their environment through poor livestock selection, clear-cutting forests and poor crop-rotation. There was significant climate change brought on by the Little Ice Age. The Inuit qualify as hostile neighbors.  They had friendly trade partners for many years, but eventually lost them.  But above all,  the Norse Greenlanders’ response to these factors was culturally based.  They didn’t eat fish  because it was not viewed as a reasonable option in their culture.

Innovation is frittered away because it is not viewed as a reasonable option in a company’s culture.  The structure of leadership accounts for a lot in determining the role that culture plays.   Distant, authoritarian, decision-making tends to rely excessively on the past as a predictor of the future.  Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer said as much  in a 2008 speech at the Stanford Graduate School of Business:

One of the biggest mistakes I’ve made over time…is not wanting to nurture innovations where I either didn’t get the business model or we didn’t have it.

Examples abound. The HP Jornada™ pocket PC could play MP3 music files before the  iPod™  hit the market.  But there was no HP music store. Running an online music store was not an HP competency.  There is a certain — sometimes irrational —  optimism that past success engenders in leaders at the precipice.  When Mike Zafirovsky took over as CEO of Nortel Networks in late 2005, it was a company on the brink of failure.  Massive layoffs had decimated the iconic Canadian company.  In early 2006, I was escorted for the last time through its cavernous Toronto facility — a building laid out as a city with streets and parks — just before it was shut down.  All you could hear was the click of heels reverberating down the empty faux boulevards. Mike Zafirovsky wanted to communicate his energy and sense of the future to the demoralized employees who remained.  His first email  in December 2005 to Nortel employees defined the tone of his administration and sent the company down a path that emphasized execution of a plan that emphasized ideas that had worked before:

To Nortel employees,

Last Friday night, as I was flying back from a very productive trip to Europe following several customer and employee visits, I came across a newspaper article entitled “Optimism Puts Rose-Colored Tint in Glasses of Top Execs.” Included in the article were quotes like:

“99% of CEOs thought they could lead their companies from crisis;”
“Optimism is all about possibilities, change, hope…without those qualities, how can any leader succeed?;” and,
· “By definition, leaders are slightly delusional.”

My first reaction was to take exception to the word “slightly” . . . .

Seriously, the question of our confidence in ourselves—and as members of Team Nortel—is something I will begin discussing today and a topic I will continue to raise in the coming weeks and months. Confidence in ourselves and each other will be critical factors in how far and how fast we take this 110-year-old company..

I discussed with you in a previous letter our plans for the BIG initiative (Business Transformation, Integrity Renewal and Growth Imperatives), our new leadership values, and our focus on people that will be rolled out as part of Session I in the first quarter. In my first few weeks, I have also spent time evaluating our relative strengths and weaknesses and pinpointing areas for improvement.

My strong take-aways and beliefs are that our positives are significant and difficult to replicate. At the same time, our challenges are also significant but, I would argue, very fixable. I don’t believe I am looking through rose-colored glasses, but rather have adopted what I describe as an attitude of “forceful optimism.” This is a mindset, a belief and an attitude that I expect from everyone at Nortel—a combination of positive anticipation for the future combined with a determined approach to maximize positive impact.

Forceful optimism is one of the 30 action attributes supporting our recently-defined Nortel leadership values. And as promised in my last letter to you, I worked with select members of the Leadership Edge program and cabinet members to finalize these attributes before year-end.
[…]

As a positive heads-up to the many people who were hoping to be on the Business Transformation teams, we will be kicking off the Six Sigma Quality Program in the first quarter, and there will be opportunities for involvement and leadership. We will be looking for Six Sigma champions and master black belt, black belt, and green-belt candidates (much more on this early next year).

The combination of the Business Transformation initiative and the Six Sigma Quality Program will improve the basic equation of our business, including higher customer satisfaction, simplified processes, lower cost-of-rework, fewer quality issues and lower costs for our products and business structure. And we’ll see teamwork inside the company improving as a result. We will continue the focus on forceful optimism, leadership and our people agenda by launching our Session I program in the first quarter. The programs and initiatives we deliver as part of Session I will ensure we are building strong leadership capability and bench strength across Nortel.

Lastly, and arguably most important for the long-term health of the business, here are my thoughts on customers and the Growth Imperatives, which you will be hearing much more on throughout 2006. I am meeting and speaking with an increasing number of our customers (e.g. the four largest European customers last week) and our go-to-market and product management teams, and I can’t wait to attend our global sales conferences in January. In my straightforward view, good, profitable growth is to a business as air and water are to flowers. We have much to build on and also much work to do, including how we develop meaningful value propositions for our customers. To this end, I am excited to report that we will be introducing our new business mission at the sales meetings. It will guide much of our behavior externally and internally, and keep the focus where it belongs—on our customers.

Let me wrap it up by saying how privileged and proud I am to be leading Nortel and to be working with all of you. I wish you and your loved ones a relaxing holiday and warm wishes for a healthy, happy, and prosperous 2006.

Thank you for all you are doing for Nortel.

Mike Z

Mike Zafirovsky is a capable senior executive, an alumnus of Jack Welch’s CEO boot camp at GE.  He was part of a long string of strong leaders that Nortel recruited to put the company back on track.   He could not have anticipated the Little Ice Age of late 2008, but by New Year 2006, Nortel was already hurtling toward disaster.  Its stock was delisted and the company was shrinking.   I asked Mike about industry changes, but he did not react.  There was no sense of urgency at Nortel. There was a sense that the telecom equipment market was not an environment at all and that what really mattered was the company’s belief that its current direction would take them back from the edge: “a combination of positive anticipation for the future combined with a determined approach to maximize positive impact.”

In January 2009, Nortel filed for protection from its creditors. Its main businesses are being sold. When that is complete,  it will cease operations. Zafirovsky stepped down as CEO in late 2009.

One of my first projects at Bellcore  was to redefine its core software business for the emerging ISP and Cable markets.  The climate was changing in the early 90’s.  Bellcore sold  operations support systems – a sort of ERP for telcos.  A typical sale was in the $25-30M range and $100M deals were not unheard of. So we rolled up all the functions that we could think of – customer acquisition, provisioning, engineering, support – and came up with a product that we thought we could sell for $15M.  When we showed the requirements to cable operators, they just shrugged.  They were using Excel spreadsheets which cost them essentially nothing.  Today, Bellcore — operating under the name Telcordia — leads in none of the operations support or business support markets that defined its core business in the 1990’s and is not even in the top ten in cable and ISP markets.  What they really wanted help with were the services that they could sell to their customers.  One of those services was search.  Another was customer aggregation.  Both were areas in which Bellcore had fundamental patents.  One for the “seed” that underlies virtually all search engines today.  The other for “recommender” technology that underlies all social networking. The search technology was given away to Excite.  The recommender technology was assigned to MIT’s Media Lab and eventually became part of Amazon’s recommendation engine.  We were not in the lightweight database business – although there were many smaller competitors who were.  We were not in the search engine or social networking  businesses, although we had friendly relations with companies that were and had many university collaborations.  We were in the software business.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found myself reading more and more history. I am told that the way to appreciate history is not to “play it in reverse” – that is don’t look at history from today’s perspective where you already know what happened.  You have to “play it forward” – what was it like to live in that place and time and to have to make the big decisions of the day?  It occurred to me several years ago that we think of historical trends as big things.  Nations moving against nations.  The rise and fall of societies.  Then I realized:  Many of the big events took place in  familiar terrain  – collections of people organized around a more or less well defined set of goals and working toward a common purpose. And if you go back in history far enough – say 1,000 years or so — the numbers are also pretty familiar,  usually less than a million people.  In fact, nations and societies with 10,000 to 200,000 people were the norm.  In other words, they were in many ways like the modern business enterprise.

That’s worth saying again:  except for the details of time and place, there is really not a whole lot of difference between  modern enterprises and  societies of antiquity. The fate of large groups of people is determined as much by human aspirations and failings, reactions to threats, wise use of resources, and  the emergence of leaders as by anything else.

So with that as a backdrop I want to ask a couple of questions that seem to be completely unrelated to each other.

Question 1:  Why didn’t the 1940’s Western Electric  videophone make it?

Sure, the structure of the industry mattered, but it wasn’t lack of innovation that doomed the videophone.  After all. Video conferencing is ubiquitous today. So why didn’t that technology make it when today, for a hundred dollars,  you can stream high quality video to another hundred dollar device?  The culture of innovation is fundamentally different today than it was when the videophone was developed by Bell Labs in the 1940’s.  In fact the species of innovator that Bell Labs represents is today very nearly extinct.

My Second Question is:  What was the person who chopped down the last tree on Easter Island thinking about while he was doing it?

In truth, I can’t claim credit for the question. It was posed by Jared Diamond in Collapse:  How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, an historical and geographical tour-de-force that poses a framework for looking at decisions that societies make on their way to success or failure.  Those decisions invariably relate to:

  1. environmental damage
  2. climate change
  3. hostile neighbors
  4. friendly trade partners, and
  5. cultural response

Let’s take the similarities between ancient societies and  modern enterprises seriously – they involve similar numbers of people, they define their own value systems.  The historically successful route for both was a kind of vertical integration that made it reasonable to work and innovate in relative isolation. The way that 21st century companies innovate in the face of environmental damage, climate change, and hostile neighbors is very important in their long-term prospects for survival.  On the other hand, how they treat their friendly trading partners determines how much of the work for survival has to be carried on their shoulders alone.  And what about cultural barriers?  The whole point of WWC is to learn from companies that innovate around the right values but are culturally unable to execute effectively.  Diamond’s language is anthropology, not business – but we’ll see in upcoming posts that the difference between success and failure is often rooted in the same factors that led to  murder, starvation and catastrophe in the ancient world — and ultimately to the collapse of societies.

Note: This is a continuation of my Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner posts about the power of including innovators in strategic decision-making.

It took George Heilmeier an afternoon to convince Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger of the value of DARPA’s six “silver bullets”, capability-changing technologies that could guide system designers for the next decade:

  • Create an “invisible aircraft”.
  • Make the oceans “transparent”.
  • Create an agile, lightweight tank armed with a tank killer “machine gun”.
  • Develop new space based surveillance and warning systems based on infrared focal plane arrays.
  • Create command and control systems that adapted to the commander instead of forcing the commander to adapt to them.
  • Increase the reliability of our vehicles by creating onboard diagnostics and prognostics.

“Invisible aircraft” refers to the stealth technology that led directly to the F-111A Nighthawk and is good illustration of how innovators can influence events by focusing on business objectives.  In those days, half of the aircraft in a strike mission were there, not to fire weapons, but to detect and disrupt enemy radar.  Reducing aircraft radar cross-sections by a factor of 10,000 would lead to a ten-fold reduction in radar detection range and a corresponding increase in mission effectiveness.  Classified research in stealth technologies – mainly materials science – had been under way since the 1950’s, but DARPA’s idea was to use stealth as the primary criterion for aircraft design.  Performance and stability are the first casualties in this kind of design, so George knew that, not only would he have to integrate all of the component technologies it would take to produce a flyable, battle-worthy airplane, he would also have to convince the Air Force – run by and for pilots – of the usefulness of this way of designing an airplane.  Pilots understandably wanted to think that aerodynamics would be uppermost in the minds of designers, but DARPA wanted to turn that principle upside down.

The world changed after that.  By the 1980’s many high-performance military planes operated so close to the their performance envelopes that they were difficult or impossible to control without computerized assistance.  There was, in fact, a sort of dark  murmur among military pilots who understood both avionics and computers.  I was directing software test and evaluation oversight projects for the Director of Defense Test and Evaluation at that time.  One of our systems was an advanced fighter aircraft that was being retrofitted with computerized flight controls.  Some of the test pilots had done graduate work in computer science, and were clearly comfortable shifting between flying jet fighters and thinking about computer software.  One of them had a poster taped to the wall of his cubicle.  It showed a mocked-up  pilot’s eye view from the cockpit of a military  airplane that was clearly spiraling into the ground.  On the heads-up display was a graphic that looked something like this:

>>ATTENTION. FATAL ABORT.

>>GENERAL EXCEPTION FAULT 1080XX.

>>PROGRAM ABEND AT LOCATION 001001010111011.

>>RESTART PROGRAM? Y/N

We were talking about an operational test that he would be flying the next day, but all I could do was stare at the poster. I was a software tester.  I knew that fatal error messages like this were common. They came bundled with the price of the software. Most graduate students knew it, too. I thought to myself “This is the bravest guy I have ever met.”

In approving the silver bullets Schlesinger had promised to keep Pentagon staff off  Heilmeier’s back, but the Air Force resisted DARPA every step of the way:

During this period, the Air Force was not at all supportive of DARPA designing and building aircraft and would not cooperate with us.  We needed their help but received none.  As a last resort, I went to see AF Chief of Staff, Gen. David Jones to plead the case. When I entered his office, I was shocked to see that the general, who had refused to help us in no uncertain terms, was present.  I thought that the program was dead and me with it.[1]

Jones listened to George’s pitch, turned to his reluctant General and said, “We’re going to help these guys.” It was not a question.  Whether this was a directive from Schlesinger or a result George’s powerful presentation is not really important.  The Air Force cooperated from that point on, and on the morning of December 1, 1977, George watched from the end of a runway at Edward Air Force Base as the first prototype of a stealth aircraft took off.

Tying a technology agenda to business goals empowers both sides, and it puts both the passive and active resistors in an organization in a bind.   The cost of resisting change is to put their own goals at risk, often with unpleasant career consequences.  It also allows technology leaders to form new agendas that bypass an unmovable bureaucracy.  Here is how Heilmeier summarizes these lessons:

  1. When you really believe in a concept and the people involved, practice “no excuses” management.  The meaning of this is that you must remove all of the bureaucratic impediments to success.
  2. “Breaking glass” and going around the bureaucracy can be done if you believe in your cause and refuse to quit.
  3. In a game changing initiative, a small group must take on a larger group who won’t always “play fair”.

The danger in this approach is  that success depends almost entirely upon personal commitments, and those commitments can easily be undermined by a change in leadership.  When that happens — as I know from personal experience —  entrenched interests  come roaring back, hell-bent on toppling whatever was achieved.  The time frame for achieving goals has to fit within the tenure of the “small group” because worlds will inevitably come crashing together.

I will have more about this is a later post.


[1]George H. Heilmeier,  “A Moveable Feast – Kyoto Prize Lecture (SD Version)” 2005

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.