Failed Innovation

UnknownWe celebrate successful innovation but rarely look back at the failures. Since Apple is a great example of successful innovation it is good to remember that not all things they tried were a big success.

  • The Apple QuickTake 100, one of the first commercial digital cameras.
  • The Newton, one of the very first smart pen-based computers.
  • Cyberdog an OpenDoc-based suite of internet applications.
  • Activity Based Computing.
  • The Hockey Puck Mouse.
  • The Macintosh Portable.
  • Pippin, a gaming console and PC.
  • G4 Cube.
  • ROKR Phone
  • OpenDoc, a multi-platform software componentry framework standard.
  • The Apple Lisa.

In fact as I sit in my office today, surrounded by Apple products and working on a Mac, I am reminded that the Mac itself almost failed and was saved only by the fortuitous arrival of Adobe’s development of Postscript and Canon’s introduction of low-cost laser printing. Poor targeting, bad marketing, and internal politics all conspired against the Mac and enabled the Microsoft infused IBM PC to become the dominant personal computer.

There are three types of people in the world:

  1. People that are afraid to fail so they never try anything new
  2. People that fail at something and then just give up.
  3. People that fail often when trying new things and go on to become successful because of those failures.

Which one are you?

The Innovation Disconnect

UnknownI’ve been out talking to a whole bunch of companies in the corporate training space about innovation wondering all the time why they aren’t using more tools such as digital media in extending their  training offerings. I got a very interesting insight as to how market leaders think about innovation in talking to one of them.

When presented with the idea of using digital media in training, one training company responded that they thought that using digital media now was just too risky and that they couldn’t afford to take such risks. I asked them how this could be when one of their stated company values was innovation. Their response was that they love to innovate but only when all of their customers are asking for something innovative.

The next day I happened to be talking to one of their largest customers about the same subject, using digital media in training. Since this company was clearly interested in the subject I asked them whether they had asked  their training supplier for solutions that included digital media.

Their reply: ” Oh we know they can’t supply solutions like this so we don’t even bother talking to them about it.”

To me this was an ‘ah ha’ moment. Big companies aren’t innovating because their customers aren’t demanding it and their customers don’t demand it because they know their suppliers can’t deliver. Perfect disconnect.

Wake up and smell the innovation!

UnknownDid you wake up this morning, resolved to do exactly the same things you did last week? I hope not. It’s time to do something new but you better ask the question: Are you being courageous enough to wake up and smell the innovation?

Every morning you need to wake up thinking that everything you know could potentially be wrong. Yes, that’s right, everything you know could be wrong. Scary isn’t it?

But if you don’t think that way, if you think instead that there is something that you know that for sure is absolutely right then you’ll be reluctant to change and fail to innovate in that area. To be able to innovate you must think that everything you know could potentially be wrong and set out to challenge and question all that you know.

Playing Moneyball

imagesIf you haven’t had a chance yet, then watch the movie Moneyball. It’s about the Oakland Athletics baseball team and its general manager Billy Beane. While other general managers made their decisions about player personnel using subjective and flawed criteria, Beane went so far as to see what evidence he could get on what actually worked. (Evidence Based Baseball).

Using rigorous statistical analysis he found that on-base percentage and slugging percentage were better indicators of success than other more commonly-used statistics. This allowed the As to compete against much richer teams by signing players that other managers undervalued.

How can you play Moneyball at work?


Aaron Swartz

Aaron SwartzI was upset yesterday to learn of the suicide of Aaron Swartz, the founder of Reddit and RSS particularly so because it ties into society’s debate about internet freedom. Swartz had been charged by the US government essentially for stealing academic papers in an attempt to make them freely available.

I find this somewhat disturbing as for the most part the taxpayer pays for academics to conduct research which is then published in private journals for which the taxpayer must pay again for access.

Even worse, universities pay faculty to conduct and publish research which is given away to the private publishers for free, and then purchased back from them by the university to put in the library.

This is just perhaps one more facet of the education system that is desperately in need of innovation. While some attempts at innovations such as the flipped classroom model, massively open online courses, online textbook publishing, and open journals have been tried it is still a very closed system.

The system protects who gets in, who gets out, how they learn, how they teach, research and publish. Because it is publicly funded we should deserve more but the system is entirely closed, expensive at every entry point, and self protecting.

Aaron’s death is a pathetic reminder of how a closed system can bully those who try to innovate from within or without.

Is a lack of business passion stunting Canada’s innovation economy?

I promise I’ll get off this Passion soapbox next week. Meanwhile, just one last post in the series.

For a long time, I’ve been trying to figure out reasons why Canada’s innovation economy may be under performing that of the US. Someday someone smarter than me will figure it out. Meanwhile it just forms part of our national angst and I’ll keep chipping away at the subject.

This week, I’ve determined that business passion and its dampening of product passion may be contributing to Canada’s weak performance. Bear with me here.

One thing that bothers many in the innovation economy is our inability to grow large public (or private) companies that dominate markets, are category busters, star performers. RIM was one of those and still may be again. Nortel was one. What typically happens is that good fast growing Canadian companies are bought out early in their development, before going public. While they may leave a development team in Canada, for the most part, the growth of the enterprise occurs elsewhere.

Here’s what I think is happening to cause these premature exits. The rising stars are funded by, for the most part, the canadian venture capital community. Most Canadian VCs have backgrounds in finance, not in technology or entrepreneurship whereas in the US, there is a more even mix. In Canada, I suspect that VCs are replacing the founder earlier in the company’s evolution with adult supervision, those MBA types that have been though the startup tech war and got an exit or two.

The problem with replacing a founder with a “business professional” is that the company loses the passion that brought it into being in the first place. The passion for people or product is replaced by a passion for process. The “professional” CEO doesn’t care so much about changing the world but about getting the job done for the VC. That means reducing risk and getting out early. That way the CEO can earn a few bucks and go on to doing it again. One more tick for the resume. The founder might have stayed the course a little longer as the founder was not so much interested in the money but changing the world.

Thus a passion for business is trumping a passion for product and stunting the company’s potential. Going back to RIM and Nortel. It is interesting to note that neither of these two got early VC backing, RIM getting it just before going public. In RIM’s case, this allowed the founders to stay at the helm until very recently. In Nortel’s case, it had a parent that was more interested in building a business than an exit.

We are replacing product passion with business passion, going for quick exits, and stunting our innovation economy.