Xerox invented the core technology that made personal computing easy and fun—the mouse, the graphical user interface and the ethernet—but it was Steve Jobs who built the Macintosh and profited. By now, the story has become so well known that it’s almost a cliche.
The story resonates because it ties into two recurring themes: The wily entrepreneur outmaneuvering the bloated corporate behemoth and the primacy of business acumen over the development of core technology. Yet there’s a lot more to it than that.
PARC—Xerox’s legendary Palo Alto Research Center—was vastly more than a mere collection of tinkering eggheads. In fact, it was an investment that paid handsome returns and generated profits long after the decline of the core copier business. To see why, you only have to know the story of Gary Starkweather and the invention of the laser printer.
What do the Hydrogen bomb, the Minuteman missile and precision guided weapons all have in common? They all provided crucial financing for technology that we now carry around in our pockets. It is a curious fact of modern society that civilian life, in large part, is powered by the technology of war.
Many believe that the enormous impact the military has on technology is a moral dilemma and they may be right. Leaving that aside, however, we can also learn a great deal about innovation by studying the history of war. In War Made New, Max Boot gives us the chance to do just that and it does indeed deliver great insights for anyone interested in innovation.
Charles Erwin Wilson, Eisenhower’s Secretary of Defense is credited with the quote, “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country.” In fact, what he said was actually the inverse (that what was good for the country was good for GM), but no matter, both statements had an element of truth.
Firms like GM needed a strong government to provide extensive industrial infrastructure and effective economic governance. Governments, for their part, needed large corporations to run the economy productively, raise living standards and expand the tax base.
Today, according to Gallup, we’ve lost our faith in large institutions, including government, religious organizations and labor unions (though we never had much faith in big business). Many attribute this trend to high profile scandals and the financial crisis, but the reality is that the decline is longstanding. In truth, large organizations are fundamentally broken.
Marketing used to be pretty simple. You developed a compelling message, used mass media to broadcast that message to large audiences and grew market share. Mostly, you aimed for the meaty part of the curve, where the law of averages conspired in your favor.
Then came the cable TV era. Audiences fragmented and targeting became the order of the day. Instead of starting with the message, marketers thrived on consumer insight and tried to identify a specific emotional trigger that would win them loyal customers.
Now mass marketing has shifted to mass personalization and messaging and targeting have given way to activation. It is no longer enough to simply grab attention, we have to hold attention. Today’s marketers need to inspire movements in which their customers become their best salespeople. We need to make a fundamental shift in mental models.
In 1892, George Eastman formed the Eastman Kodak Company to “make the camera as convenient as a pencil.” The idea took off and by the early 20th century, Kodak had become one of America’s largest companies and Eastman one of its most successful entrepreneurs.
What made Kodak so successful was not just its products, but the ecosystem that it developed around them. From chemicals to specialized paper to specifically designed processes, the firm became a centralized platform for connecting people to the resources they needed to capture moments on film.
Unfortunately, a new technology came along—digital photography—that transformed Kodak’s model into a burning platform. Despite pioneering the technology, the company was unable to move to a more decentralized model, found itself marginalized and ultimately bankrupt. If you want to avoid the same fate, here are three things you’ll want to look out for.
Everyone wants to innovate these days, but it wasn’t always that way. Google’s Ngram shows that, although the term was commonly used in the 19th century, it didn’t become popular in the 20th century until the early 1970’s. Before that, managers valued tradition over novelty.
Now, however, things move way too fast to stand still. Globalization and technology have abolished barriers to entry in most industries and since 1960, the average lifespan on the S&P 500 has fallen from 60 years to less than 20. If you don’t innovate, somebody else will.
Yet creating real change takes more than happy talk. Mantras and buzzwords are no substitute for solving real problems. All too often, we become so enamored with a new idea that we don’t do the hard work of making real change happen and nascent innovations fail to make an impact. Here are three barriers to innovation and how you can overcome them.
Do you enjoy picking groceries up in your electric car? When you get to the store, do you prefer to pay with bitcoins? Do you have solar panels on your house? If the answer is “yes” to any of these questions, you’re in the distinct minority. So much so, that a lot of people probably think you’re weird.
Why is it that the “next big thing” only really gets big once it has become boring? Computers were exciting when they were used to put a man on the moon, but when we put much more powerful devices in our pocket and use them to send tweets and play games, they become mundane.
In their new book, Bold, Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler posit a theory: Technology is only able to gain traction when it acquires a “simple and elegant interface,” because that’s what “plucks a technology from the hands of geeks and deposits it with the entrepreneurs.” So if you want to know what will take off, don’t look at the technology. Look at the interface.
In 1945, Vannevar Bush, the man that led the nation’s scientific efforts during World War II, delivered a proposal to President Truman for funding scientific research in the post-war world. Titled Science, The Endless Frontier, it led to the formation of the NSF, NIH, DARPA and other agencies.
It’s an impressive record, but the future doesn’t look nearly as bright. Part of the problem is funding, which has fallen off in recent years. Yet the practice of science also needs to be updated. Much has changed in the 70 years since 1945. In order to honor Bush’s legacy—and maintain our technological leadership—we need to adapt it to modern times.
Mark Zuckerberg’s first selection for his book club, Moises Naím’s The End of Power, was an apt one. The book, as the Facebook CEO put it, “explores how the world is shifting to give individual people more power that was traditionally only held by large governments, militaries and other organizations.”
That would also be a pretty good description of Facebook. We’ve seen social media tip the scales in everything from US political campaigns to revolutions that upended powerful dictatorships, like the Arab Spring and Euromaidan. So, in that sense, the choice might seem self serving.
But, the title is a misnomer. Naím does not argue that power has ceased to exist or even that individuals necessarily have more of it. His central point, which he repeats several times throughout the book, is that “power is easier to gain, but harder to use or keep.” That’s a different matter altogether and it points not to the end of power, but a change in its nature.
I first became a manager in my 20’s and, back then, I probably wasn’t a very good one. Nothing really prepares you to lead other people. There is, of course, no shortage of advice out there, but most of it is more myth and lore than anything else and not very helpful.
Henry Mintzberg wrote, “The great myth is the manager as orchestra conductor. It’s this idea of standing on a pedestal and you wave your baton and accounting comes in, and you wave it somewhere else and marketing chimes in with accounting, and they all sound very glorious.”
“But,” he continues, “management is more like orchestra conducting during rehearsals, when everything is going wrong.” In many ways, being a manager is the art of figuring out all the stuff that nobody ever told you. Your job is to solve problems that no one else can and there are no hard and fast rules for that, but here are 6 things that I wish I had known starting out: