Saturday, April 19, 2008

More from less ...

In 1970, at its Palo Alto Research Centre, Xerox had arguably assembled one of the most creative groups of computer scientists the world has ever seen. This team created a computer system that most would consider to be more than a decade ahead of the rest of the industry. Email, laser printing, graphical user interface and a mouse. No-one else came close. Over 1500 of these computers were in active use within Xerox

So why doesn't Xerox own the computing industry today? As Steve Jobs famously described, they effectively “grabbed defeat from the greatest victory in the computer industry".

Whilst PARC played its role and brought the future to Xerox, the senior management of Xerox failed spectacularly to take advantage. The more I research into this subject, the more I discover that this is not an isolated incident. This phenomenon appears to be widespread. Whilst failure is an intrinsic part of the process of innovation, and that includes failing to act or implement an idea or take advantage of it, there are also many often unnecessary obstacles in its way.

Despite senior executives calling for more innovation, in most organisations it doesn’t seem to get an easy ride. Reasons for this include a lack of experience with radical innovation projects at senior levels, a growing mismatch between R&D productivity and cost, and a disparity between how long innovation takes and the immediate demands for ROIs. Added to this are common excuses used to stonewall innovation, from the ever faithful tyranny of current strategy (“it's not core”), to arbitrary financial hurdles (“it’s not worth our time”). Even if your innovation manages to navigate this minefield, it often receives the coup de grace from internal politics or simple fear.

As Machiavelli once said;

"the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order".

Almost everyone who has ever tried to do anything innovative in a large organisation has at some point collided with the organisation as "super tanker" metaphor; we might have no idea what lies ahead but we certainly can’t (or more likely won’t) change course quickly.

I've become increasingly convinced that what CEOs should be crying out for is not more innovation but fewer self-imposed obstacles.

Now that is something they can fix.