What conditions make innovation possible?
Growing up in California, during the early days of the personal computing and internet revolutions, it was easy to identify with the state’s official motto “Eureka”. An era of seemingly limitless discovery helped create the Silicon Valley myth of a pair of rebels creating the future in a garage. These duos, Hewlett-Packard, Jobs-Wozniak and Page-Brin, embodied this myth and created a model that the world has followed ever since. But, what this myth doesn’t explain is the unattractive hard work that was part of all this success.
Standing on the shoulders of giants
As attractive as it may be to attribute success and progress to the discovery of individuals or small teams, we must consider the reality expressed by Isaac Newton - “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” This is as true in our industry of computing and communications as it is in scientific endeavors.
Today’s innovators, software developers and new platform builders, stand on the shoulders of another kind of giant. They build on the foundation of stable and affordable cloud platforms and data centers and they rely on the fast and reliable connectivity provided by global IP networks and undersea cables. While consumers may only see the app on their mobile phone, their experience relies on all the components from deep under the Pacific ocean to their last-mile mobile connectivity.
You may be familiar with Stephen Dubner, the author of “Freakanomics”. On his podcast he recently spoke about maintenance and incrementalism.
DUBNER: Generally we are encouraged and trained, really, to look for big-bang successes, in all realms — education, health care, politics, you name it — and while I understand the impulse to find these magic bullets — it’s exciting, it’s sexy, it’s all those things — it strikes me that much progress if not most throughout history has really been a series of incremental gains.
For me, the important thing to keep in mind is that there is no “one best way” for the activities of your company - not for each one individually and not for all of them collectively. Your company is probably a collection of different groups with different rules and ways of getting things done. The most important trick is finding a way to allow breakthroughs and innovation coexist with maintenance and incremental gains.
What is the best path to success?
As mentioned previously, your company is not a monolith. Within it there are activities common to many, probably most, other companies. These are not the activities worthy of your creativity. At the “top of the stack” are the activities that set you apart – your flagship products or your unique service. In between is the infrastructure, the machinery that keeps your company running – line of business systems, policies, processes, etc. What IS common to all of them is the need for maintenance and incremental improvement. So focus on what sets you apart, channel your innovation and creation to these activities, but don't forget to take care of the underpinnings. Even if incremental change and maintenance aren't the areas that get the headlines, they're critically important to the success of your company.
Generally we are encouraged and trained, really, to look for big-bang successes, in all realms — education, health care, politics, you name it — and while I understand the impulse to find these magic bullets — it’s exciting, it’s sexy, it’s all those things — it strikes me that much progress if not most throughout history has really been a series of incremental gains.