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Loose Cannons

It never fails. Someone from engineering joins the interdisciplinary team and the shoulder pad thumping begins:  tales of sales teams bartering local currency for booze in exotic locations or bailing customers out of jail for busting up a hotel lobby. Sometimes it’s that hilarious story about dressing up like a chicken, sacrificing dignity for a greater cause.  It usually has all the authenticity of  late-night, one-upmanship, “I can top that!”  fraternity bull sessions or maybe the battle scar competition between Quint, Brody and Hooper in Jaws.   I don’t remember that any of these stories had the dramatic impact of Ken Follett’s retelling of the rescue of Ross Perot’s  EDS employees from Iran [1]. But it sends a  WWC signal: “We business guys risk it all.  We’re dedicated. We live in a different — and way more exciting — world than you do.”  Maybe all the engineers need is a story like this one.

We were within hours of defaulting on the delivery schedule for an important contract.  My team was working around the clock to test and package software on a magnetic tape because those were the days when bits had to be sent from place to place in back of a truck. It was late Saturday afternoon and the only one who knew how to get to the Federal Express office in North Atlanta before it closed was our graduate student assistant, Walt, who, as we found out, was not only ingenious and loyal but had some experience in, umm,  navigating back roads.  Walt just wanted to be reimbursed for gas.  “Sure,” I said, “send me a short trip report.”

From: walt@gatech.edu  Sat  Sep 26  16:58:15  1987

Message-Id: <8709262147.AA17782@gatech.edu>

To: rad

Subject: the chase

Status: R0

well, it is on its way — but not without some work!!

i flew to fedx, speeding, running lights, etc. i ran the light at northside in front of oga’s bbq in the turning lane at 60 mph. there was a cop just gettin out of his car at the trajik markup.  i lost him by cutting thru the kroger parking lot and slipping across i-75. then i cut the big star lot to collier. next i had to get passed  the police station on collier — which i did with no trouble but then i came to the light on defoors ferry an met one comming the other way. i bit my lip hoping the other one had not radioed ahead, but he didn’t bat an eye. finally i get down the road to fedx and the truck was waiting for me. did my business and started back out.  there was 4 or 5 blue boys crawling up and down collier and defoors! i hid behind a dumpster til the coast was clear and then slipped 200 ft up defoors to bohler — an old trick — thru the residential section up to moors mill onto 75 and gone!

anyway — if they come get me tonight you may have to contact cathy for any more developments. i really don’t think they got my number.

signing off

walt — in hiding

My Thanksgiving request to all of you who would like to share a story that our dramatically challenged engineering colleagues can haul out as proof of  physical courage and personal commitment is that it be true.  Or at least someone should assure you that a friend of theirs swears that the story is true.

Like the time we took sausages in trade for network hardware.

[1] Ken Follett, On Wings of Eagles, William Morrow & Co 1983

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

Dilbert.com

Being “technology driven” is often not the best path to real innovation.  Part 1 of this post was distilled from a conversation with George H. Heilmeier, former director of DARPA, CEO of Bellcore, inventor of the liquid crystal display and winner of the 2005 Kyoto prize. It was based in part on the “Heilmeier Catechism”, an approach to technology strategy that begins, not with the technology but with the business problem to be solved.  It was shared widely with the many younger managers who came under George’s influence over the years, and I have heard from a fair number of them in recent weeks.  All had their own stories to tell about why the approach of “selling to investment bankers” was exactly the right way to think about positioning R&D in a larger organization.  In all of our discussions, George has always been insistent about two things: the negative power of vested interests and the failure of  technology transfer by “throwing technology over the transom”.  Out of this came his notion of an “interdisciplinary team” with representation from R&D, product engineering and manufacturing, where leadership and balance shift as time goes on. This is the dinner table.   As important as these ideas are for day-to-day management of R&D, they are critical when it comes to initiating projects that are transformative, where commitment to change comes from handshakes at the top of the organization.

Shortly after the Regional Bell Operating Companies began divesting themselves of Bellcore, but before George stepped down as CEO, the appetite for applied research began to change.  To some extent, this was part of a natural evolution of the company from a captive R&D Lab to a stand-alone corporation whose owners – eventually the employee-owned defense systems integrator, Science Applications International or SAIC — demanded not only profitability but also growth in a market that was already growing at 15% per year.   The “30/30 Frontier” (30% revenue growth with 30% operating margins) was a wake-up call for all R&D managers in the company and it was a personal lesson for me in how to engage corporate management with initiatives that were tied to  bet-your-job objectives.

I was in charge of computing research at the time,  and three things were important to me.  First, was Heilmeier’s  commitment to funding forward-looking work at the corporate level, which meant that annual spending goals had to be set by reaching a consensus among product, research,  sales, and marketing teams.   Second was the freedom that Bob Lucky  — Bellcore’s senior VP of Research —  gave to his senior leaders to push the boundaries of the business. Third, was the collaborative but demanding relationship that I had with Chief Operating Officer Sanjiv Ajuha, who was himself a veteran software development manager.

Sanjiv was in turn looking for three business advantages that at first blush seem to be mutually contradictory.  The first two were obvious: near-term competitive advantage for the company’s large software systems and  game-changing inventions that would shake up the marketplace in the long run.  The third was revenue against which corporate R&D investments could be scored.  Near-term objectives were rolled up into product R&D costs while long-term objectives were used in 3-5 year investment planning.  Scoring R&D spending against revenue hardly seems like a competitive advantage but in my view it was the critical piece of the puzzle because it forced us to run a business.  It forced us to operate a business unit with profit and loss goals, not just another corporate cost center (which tend to develop unhealthy  entitlement cultures).   It also forced us to be very hard-nosed about tracking research contributions that led to revenue in existing product lines.  I would like to think this is a classical WWC strategy because it made us  focus externally on business objectives that affected the entire company.

I’ll have a lot more to say in later posts about some of the tools we used to do this, but the example that Heilmeier kept in front of us – because it took some convincing to make sure the lessons stuck – is for me the most compelling part of this story and the one I returned to time and again as I found myself inventing new frameworks in other organizations.

As DARPA Director, George reported to Nixon’s Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger.  Schlesinger himself had impressive academic and technology credentials.  He had served as head of the Atomic Energy Commission and Director Central Intelligence. Schlesinger’s DARPA operated like a technology incubator full of “technology entrepreneurs” as Heilmeier called his staff.  Under Heilmeier, DARPA settled on six over-arching themes, all of them aimed at somehow changing the nation’s military posture in ways that would be understandable not only to the Secretary but also to the staff and line officers who were frequently unhappy with DARPA’s “help”:

  • 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.

Each of these “silver bullets” was so directly tied to a military objective that it took only a single meeting with Schlesinger to get his buy-in on the entire agenda.  In my next post I will describe how these technology challenges were turned into military capabilities and why it’s an important lesson for today’s climate where innovation and execution often seem to be at odds.

In the irreverent, satirical movie Brain Candy the scientist who is responsible for the eponymous drug that takes the world by storm and briefly turns an ailing pharmaceutical company into a global powerhouse is invited along with his team to the CEO’s house for a celebration.  While his nerdy team members are left at a dismal affair of chicken salad and soggy potato chips, the scientist is escorted to the real party, a sophisticated Bacchanalia complete with caviar, Champagne, celebrities, super models,and swimming pools.  Few Champagne-and-caviar parties in today’s corporate climate, but there is still a sense that when dinner is served for top decision-makers, R&D does not have a seat at the table or is – at best – a distraction.  R&D is a somewhat curious, uncomfortable, and frequently unwelcome guest.

There are obvious signals when the worlds of technology innovation and business execution are on collision courses.  There are early warnings that reverberate through organizations, but they tend to go unnoticed because corporations make  it  easy to set up effective filters.  Warnings can show up in the very language that R&D management uses to talk about the rest of the company.  In “Are R&D Customers Always Wrong?” I quote former GM research chief Robert Frosch talking about the

…ocean of corporate problems

as if they were the problems of some alien world into which the GM R&D Center had been dropped.  In “Well, what kind of fraud is it?” Edward clearly lived in a different world, and the many “Loose Cannons” who I still hear from were never able to bridge the gulf.  Everyone seems to be a helpless observer to a catastrophe over which they have no control.

My experience is that senior executives, starting in the boardroom, can too easily focus on events that are rushing at them — too fast for effective reaction — ignoring the events that are still far enough away to anticipate.   There is, for example, an overwhelming feeling  that, since the time of a chief executive  is so precious, every step should be taken to avoid diluting the CEO’s time with minutiae.  To be perfectly honest, technologists tend to do that – passion for a technology project can fill a briefing with flourishes that are meant to be savored and admired by peers, not convey actionable information to decision-makers.  But that doesn’t excuse what in my view has become the regrettable practice in large companies of filling virtually all executive time with managing cash, debt, and other financial indicators of performance.

Financial performance in a technology company rests on other factors, too. Market disruptors, for example, are rarely predicted by financial analysis.  Even annual strategic planning and investment is a barren exercise without the participation of an educated team to make sense of the alternatives.  In an industry with many acquisition targets the ones that should occupy the attention of senior management are not necessarily the ones that have the strongest near-term business cases because those may not be the ones that advance long term goals.  Intel chairman Andy Grove once said that a Board’s responsibility is to

…insure that company success is longer than the CEO, market opportunity, or product cycle.

I will have more to say in later posts about the collision between decisions that really advance long term goals and those that are simply chosen from a list of predetermined alternatives.  What starts in the boardroom is inevitably replicated at other levels.  To deal with all of the important factors that determine success of a technology company  technology leaders must have a seat at the table.  Avoid collisions by inviting them to dinner.

I’ve worked with many senior executives who have set a technology place at the table with oftentimes-spectacular results, but today I want to focus on my Bellcore mentor CEO George Heilmeier, winner of the 2005 Kyoto Prize for his invention of the liquid crystal display.  George, along with Bellcore research chief Bob Lucky and head of the software business Sanjiv Ahuja led the remarkable transformation of Bellcore from an inward looking R&D consortium to the profitable stand-alone supplier of telecom software and services that was divested by the Bell Operating Companies and acquired by systems integrator SAIC in 1997.   Bellcore generated enough cash in the first quarter after being acquired to pay back the entire purchase price. George took particular delight in his mentor role.  Even during his busiest days at Bellcore, he would wander into my office, put his feet up on the coffee table, and ask what was going on in the labs, a conversation that often went on long into the evening.

One of George’s most enduring contributions to the R&D culture at Bellcore (and, as I later found out, to Texas Instruments, Compaq, and DARPA) was the Catechism.  I tried many times to get him to call it something else because I really believed that some in our multicultural environment would be offended by the term, but he always ignored my suggestion and in the end nobody seemed to mind very much.  The Catechism was George’s way of framing every strategic discussion, but he took particular care to make sure it was used to manage technology.  I later found out that others, including former Intel research head David Tennenhouse, who had also been swept into George’s wide path, had also carried the Catechism tradition forward.  According to the Catechism every strategic proposal in the company had to answer the following six questions:

  1. What are you trying to do? (No Jargon)
  2. How is it done today and what are the limitations of current practice?
  3. What is new in your approach and why do you think it will succeed?
  4. Assuming success, what does in mean to customers and the company?  This is the quantitative value proposition.
  5. What are the risks and the risk reduction plan?
  6. How long will it take?  How much will it cost? What are the mid term and final exams?

At Bellcore, George personally ran a Quarterly CEO Technology Council Review, where R&D managers from around the company would present their best ideas – always using the Catechism — for innovations to heads of the strategic business units, sales, and marketing.  Sometimes to the consternation of both the CFO and  the head of sales, George would reward skunk works projects that had terrific answers with additional resources to continue their work.  I wondered many times about the metaphor mixing in Question Six, but again it didn’t seem to both others.  There was no complicated process.  If you answered the questions well and the value proposition made sense, you got enough to get you going.  If the project was a little further along, you needed business unit heads to also buy in, and so on until it made sense to tie cost and revenue goals to the project. By that time the balance of the authority for the project was in a product group so the Technology Council could disengage. Amazing ideas came out of this process including the word’s first e-commerce products and an amazing quality transformation among the company’s more than 6,000 software engineers.

George Heilmeier’s Catechism was the inspiration for my Loose Cannon escalation process at HP.  HP was about 50 times larger than Bellcore so the idea of a quarterly CEO review was not feasible.  However my Technology Council was a direct pathway to the Executive Council so the effect was the same.

I sat down with George last spring for a wide-ranging conversation.  Much of what he had to say about both the Catechism and seats at the table has also appeared elsewhere – most notably in his five public speeches in conjunction with the Kyoto Prize.[1] The work that won him the Kytoto Prize was done in the 1960’s at RCA’s Sarnoff Laboratories in Princeton, where he had recently completed his PhD.   This included the discovery of electro-optic effects in certain kinds of liquid crystals that would be used to build  the first liquid crystal displays.   George always claims that he just “stumbled upon it” but he quotes Vladimir Zworykin, a television pioneer  with commenting:

“Stumbled, perhaps, but to stumble you must be moving.”

Heilmeier became disillusioned with the slow pace of change at RCA and left to spend a year as a White House Fellow, an assignment that turned into an appointment as Special Assistant to Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger and later to his appointment as head of DARPA.  Schlesinger and other White House mentors gave George a seat in senior policy discussions from the earliest day, and his growing comfort with proximity to important decision-making shaped his outlook on the value of a seat at the table. Two lessons stuck with him.  First was the negative power of vested interests:  in times of change those with the most to lose will fight tooth and nail to undermine it and those with the most to gain do not yet realize how much they have to gain.   Second was the negative aspect of “technology transfer”.  George was never a fan of throwing technology “over the transom”.  His commitment to providing an equal voice for innovation grew out of his experience that it was much better to form what he calls an “interdisciplinary team” with representation from R&D, product engineering and manufacturing  (he still believes that marketing is best done organically with all members of the team interacting with customers).   The leadership and balance of this team shifts as time goes on.  This is the dinner table.

In my next post, I’ll give you an example of these principles in action: a transformational event that could only have been successful with a seat at the table and that would have been killed by a distant CEO, undiluted with the minutiae of technological disruption.


[1] A Moveable Feast: Kyoto Prize Lecture (SD Version), 2005

Dilbert.com

This is my all-time favorite Dilbert cartoon. Anyone who has ever worked in a large corporation like Hewlett-Packard understands immediately what’s going on here.  I always used it in CTO coffee talks when I wanted to show our engineers that I was really one of them — that I  wasn’t from another world (although I  suspected that many of them were already convinced that I was the pointy-haired boss and some thought I was Blob).  After a few hours, like clockwork, the email would start pouring into my inbox.  The subject line was always something like: “From a Loose Cannon.”

Some of the messages were very strange and a few (like the ones talking about contacting aliens from space) were downright disturbing, but most of them were respectful notes to let me know of  legitimate ideas that hadn’t made it through internal management gates.  I knew the engineering managers well.  They were smart and careful and for the most part they were very successful.  I didn’t want to second-guess their investment decisions, but I started wondering whether another sort of investment analysis would give a different answer, because these were obviously colliding worlds.

I was not popular with some of HP’s general managers because I had invented a new sort of escalation path for engineers, inviting ideas that had already been turned down at some point in the management chain.  I created a Technology Council consisting of the CTO’s of each of the major business units, the Director and Chief Scientist from HP Labs and some  HP Fellows to help with technology strategy and road-mapping, so it made a great deal of sense to use this team to take one more look at some of the Loose Cannon Ideas.

One of the Loose Cannons proposed using HP’s Jornada Pocket PC “to control my TV and VCR or other IR devices – that way you could store stuff in there and program those things simply and easily.” Another L-C wanted to create a document management system for the “growing home genealogist market”.

The company already had a rich history of encouraging risk-taking by its technical staff, but at HP business objectives were never far from sight.  There was a 60-year history of combining risk with rational investment.  It was a strategy that worked well.  It was lightweight, and I think that’s why cool new products and sometimes whole new product categories continued to flow out of R&D activities.  I am not only talking about the research labs. At that time there were over  12,000 engineers, many of whom had advanced degrees and were rewarded for patents, publications and other creative work; there was incredible bench strength. I will have more to say in later posts about how this process of identifying and nurturing creative ideas was carried out, but today I want to concentrate on the very specific calculation that virtually all R&D managers in the company learned.  I think that the legendary Joel Birnbaum was responsible for it, but my friend Stan Williams, who for many years now has guided HP’s nanotechnology and quantum computing research nailed the analysis in a dramatic way[1]:

…Why don’t we put together a program to become the world’s best center in quantum computation?

The answer is that even in the research labs we have to be ‘cold blooded’ businessmen…The first question is this: what is going to be the total world market for the technology?…The answer is, looking 15 years ahead, $1 trillion per year…we then have to ask what fraction of the market will belong to quantum computation…Now, how much could HP capture if it went after it very aggressively…[then] the question is if we could sell that 15 years from now that is the appropriate level of investment for that income stream?

Stan then incorporated development costs, risks and barriers and the time value of money to conclude:

…even when addressing a significant share of a $100 billion market that is 15 years in the future, the amount of money we should be spending now is about a million dollars per year.  In an industrial laboratory environment that’s about three researchers with their associated overhead costs.

Every engineering manager in the company knew how to play this calculation in reverse:  if we fund one full time engineer to pursue a new, untested idea, what is the possible income stream we would see from that research 3, 5, 8, or 15 years from now?  Many – maybe most – of the technical staff understood it, too. And yet, there were these L-C ideas that just never seemed to go away. A generation earlier Dick Hackborn had been a management champion for inkjet printing, a crazy, complicated way of spraying colored water on paper, that even today accounts for most of HP’s financial success. As far as I know Dick was not in the decision chain for printing solutions, but he was a very influential guy and his sponsorship swayed many opinions at the topmost levels of management.

So what was the Technology Council’s role in all of this?  The company was much bigger, and a consequence of size is a decreased reliance on individual opinion and an increased reliance on quantitative processes.  As a result new ideas needed to be accompanied by a business case analysis that supplied both the decision model and the critical financial and market parameters. The difficulty was that business managers were making decisions mainly about their markets and their risks which affects the starting point for Stan’s calculation and may dramatically underestimate the role that organizational barriers play in estimating the total risk.  The Technology Council was in a position to combine information from a number of business units and recalculate the business case.

Here’s one example. HP was at that time organized into four large business units:  one for personal computers, one for services, one for large servers, and another for printing.  The software in HP’s most expensive servers was a version of the original Unix developed at Bell Labs in the 1970’s called HP-UX.  It was one of the most important profit drivers for HP’s high performance business systems but it was under pressure from the high volume Microsoft-based market on one side and other Unix variants such as Linux, Solaris, and AIX on the so-called “value” side of the server market. The Printing Group also was in the software business, designing drivers and user interfaces for printers and scanners that were attached to personal computers and workgroup servers.  The focus of printing software was on the large and very profitable market for Microsoft-based PC’s, workstations, and servers.  By comparison, relatively few of the much more expensive HP-UX systems were sold.  The Printing Group did the Williams calculation and concluded that investing in software for HP-UX was not warranted.  The Server Group meanwhile was being starved for printing solutions.  Customers were asking for it.  Lack of HP-UX printing support meant lost sales, but HP-UX software developers would have needed engineering support from their colleagues in the Printing Group in order to make any headway.  Printing did not see enough downstream revenue to justify such an investment.

A Loose Cannon proposed that my office should fund a cross-business initiative in HP-UX printing solutions.  When the Technology Council looked at the opportunities that were being lost, it was clear that even a modest investment would pay off in the very near term.  Although we didn’t realize it at the time, it turned out that HP’s investment in Linux would quickly  take hold in the marketplace, so the investment in HP-UX printing had a big impact on that market as well.

There were worlds smashing into each other all over the place in those days, and there were two organizational decisions that made a difference.  The first was Carly Fiorina’s decision to make the CTO a member of  the company’s Executive Council – the half-dozen executives who ran the company.  This added a technology voice to the most significant decisions made at HP. Having a seat at the table is important when worlds collide, and I will give many examples of this in later posts. The second was the decision to charter the senior technologists in the company to spend an entire day every quarter looking beyond their own business plans for new technologies and products that would have been dropped or gone unnoticed because they had not survived Stan Williams’ cold blooded calculation within a business silo.

Many other developments grew out of these Loose Cannon discussions including HP’s aggressive entry into open source software, supercomputing, and commercial printing.  Successfully bringing Loose Cannons into the fold really requires you to squarely face  two important issues.  The first concerns the role that organizational barriers play in affecting overall technology strategies, The second is why technologists don’t more often have a meaningful seat at the table in executive suites and boardrooms. More on how to deal with these issues later, but I will give you a hint right now: there are no clean solutions because worlds are in collision.

I arrived at HP long after Steve Wozniak sent his letter asking for permission to commercialize “hobbyist” computers (see my last post Proposition 13 and Innovation).  If  he and I had overlapped I wonder if he would have been one of my Loose Cannons and whether his letter would have been needed.


[1] “Nanocircuitry, Defect Tolerance and Quantum Computing: Architectural and Manufacturing Considerations” by R. Stanley Williams in Quantum Computing and Communications edited by Michael Brooks, Springer 1999.