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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?

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