In 1977, at the Xerox World Conference held in Boca Raton, FL that year, the company’s senior executives got a glimpse of the future. On display was a new kind of computer, the Alto, that was designed for a single person to use with nothing more than a keyboard and a small device called a “mouse” that you operated with one hand.
They were not impressed. The tasks that the machine performed were mainly for writing and handling documents, secretarial work in other words, which did not excite them. And for executives who measured their performance by how many copies they generated, they didn’t see how the thing could make money.
Times have changed, of course, and today it’s hard to imagine any executive functioning without a computer. We’re now going through a transformation similar to that of the 1970’s. Today, every manager needs to work with data effectively. The problem is that most are as ill equipped as those Xerox executives in the 1970s. Here’s what you most need to know:
For decades, managers have been focused on efficiency. From Frederick Winslow Taylor and his Principles of Scientific Management early in the 20th century to more modern practices like Six Sigma, executives continually honed their operations to achieve maximum productivity at minimal cost.
For the most part, this type of approach can be amazingly effective. Even a relatively small improvement of a few percentage points, if repeated annually, can produce amazing results over the long haul. Multiply that process in multiple areas across your business and you can build a significant competitive advantage.
Yet the single-minded pursuit of efficiency can also backfire. If you’re not careful, you’ll end up getting better and better at things that matter less and less. This is especially true with innovation, because anything that’s truly new and different can’t be graded by conventional metrics. We need learn how to manage the tradeoff between efficiency and innovation.
Traditionally, technology has strengthened the advantages of large enterprises. Only the big guys could afford sophisticated systems and teams of consultants to streamline their business processes. More recently, big data has also allowed corporate giants to use their market footprint to derive insights about consumers and markets.
For the most part, small businesses were cut out of the loop. Sure, they could go to their local electronics store and buy a shrink wrapped product like QuickBooks to help them manage basic processes, but these were limited. If small proprietors wanted something that catered to their specific business, they were mostly out of luck.
Yet cloud computing is now evening the playing field. Today, even the tiniest of enterprises can access nearly unlimited computing power on the cloud for an affordable price. Perhaps even more importantly, entire ecosystems of applications allow proprietors to build custom solutions for any scale or scope of activity. For small businesses, it is truly a new day.
“Agile” has become the mantra for the digital age. If you don’t move fast, so the thinking goes, you can never be any good, because your competitors will get there first and you’ll be left in the dust. In many circles, this notion has become so well established that no one even thinks to question it anymore.
While agility is a good thing for any organization, innovation is never a single event. For example, while Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928, it didn’t arrive on the market until 1945 — nearly 20 years later — and that span was shortened because of massive help from the US government.
The problem is that we tend to focus on the commercialization stage, when agility can be an important advantage, but often ignore everything that comes before. And that, unfortunately, leads us to ignore much of what that makes a transformation happen. The truth is that important innovations are rarely created in weeks or months. It usually takes about 30 years.
Internet security, once considered to be strictly in the domain of the wonkiest tech experts, has become central to public discourse over the past year. Besides the attacks on the DNC, even tech savvy business like Snapchat, Oracle and Verizon Enterprise Solutions have had significant breaches in the last year.
For the most part, these attacks were preventable. Often, hackers use a technique called social engineering, to trick people into allowing them into a system. Other times, they exploit a vulnerability in software to give them access to confidential data. In most cases, more stringent procedures can prevent attacks.
However, there is a more serious crisis coming. In five to ten years, we are likely to see quantum computers that are so powerful that they are able to break even the strongest encryption in use today. That means that soon, even our most vital and well protected data will be at risk. So if you want to protect your businesses, you should start preparing now.
Steve Jobs is, in many ways, the prototype for how many innovators see themselves. Brash and headstrong, he had an unfailing commitment to his vision and steamrolled anyone who dared to stand in his way. While he had failures as well as successes, no one can deny that he made a profound impact on the world.
So while researching my upcoming book, Mapping Innovation, I was surprised to find that the vast majority of great innovators I talked to were nothing like Steve Jobs. In fact, rather than ego driven megalomaniacs, I found them to be some of the most helpful and humble people you can possibly imagine.
The notion of a lone genius has always been a myth. As W. Brian Arthur observed in The Nature of Technology, innovations are combinations, so it is unlikely that anyone ever has all the pieces to the puzzle. Even Steve Jobs depended on a small circle of loyalists. Today, however, the ability to collaborate is becoming a key competitive advantage.
It’s been a crazy year, but look back a century and it’s interesting how many parallels there are. In 1916, the US was still recovering from the Panic of 1907, which led to the Federal Reserve Act of 1913. There was a lingering stream of William Jennings Bryan’s populism and a mistrust of institutions, especially large corporations.
Yet there were also nascent forces which no one could foresee that would shape the future. Starting in the 1920’s, electricity and the internal combustion engine would soon combine with other technologies, such as refrigeration, home appliances and the automobile, to bring a half century of unprecedented prosperity.
We may be in a similar era now, with new computing architectures, such as quantum computing and neuromorphic chips poised to power entirely new fields, such genomics, nanotechnology and robotics. These are also the things I wrote about most over the past year. For those of you who might have missed them, here’s my top posts of 2016:
Books have been very much on my mind this year, even more than usual. Full-length books provide a depth and a breadth that you just can’t get from an article or a blog post. A good, thoughtful book is a profoundly important thing and I’ve always been an active reader and enjoy letting new ideas wash over me.
This year though, I wrote my own, Mapping Innovation (coming out in May), and that’s given me new perspective. I had no idea how much went into writing a book. Not just the writing of it, but the extensive editing, design, production and marketing are all extensive processes in their own right and involve teams of specialists.
So while like in past years, this list reflects what I have written and thought about on Digital Tonto, it also includes those that shaped my own book, including some I used as source material. So, as the end of the year approaches, I hope you find a few that that you can read and learn from as you get some rest after a really crazy year. Have a great holiday!
Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 Presidential election stunned just about everybody, but especially those who are focused on innovation. CNBC reported that the mood in Silicon Valley was “like a funeral.” An article in the prestigious journal Nature called him “the first anti-science president we have ever had.”
It’s not hard to see why. The President-elect has questioned the science behind climate change, calling it “a hoax” and has been hostile to immigrants, many of whom are our best scientists and entrepreneurs. Even for a politician, Donald Trump seems wholly uninterested in science and technology.
Yet what he actually does remains unclear because, as an analysis by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation observed, he has taken few positions related to innovation. Most probably, the real estate mogul hasn’t given the matter much thought. Still, if Donald Trump wants to support innovation in America, here’s what he should do.
Most Seinfeld fans are familiar with the concept of “yada-yada-ing” sex, like when Elaine met a lawyer, went out to dinner, had the lobster bisque, went back to her place and yada, yada, yada… she never heard from him again. It’s funny, because we all know — or think we know — what the yada, yada yada means.
Unfortunately, as Jerry pointed out (see video below), sometimes we yada yada over the best parts. For example, we can say that “Elon Musk had an idea for an electric car, yada, yada, yada, Tesla transformed the auto industry,” but that tells us very little. Lots of people had ideas for electric cars, but none have succeeded like Musk.
This is especially common with stories about innovation, because while we like simple stories with clear lessons, innovation is an incredibly messy business. It can never be distilled down to a single event because it often involves hundreds or even thousands of people working across decades to take an initial insight and create a significant impact on the world.