Everyday Innovation

You don’t have to be an entrepreneur to be an innovator. Becoming a startup CEO may not be your thing, but changing the world is always within your reach.

There is a frenzy of late among those longing to lead business startups, and that is exciting. Entrepreneurs are a special breed, and while the successful ones are rare, no one really knows who is going to be successful in advance. Naysayers will tell you what you can’t do, and only you can prove them wrong.

When we talk about innovation, that undoubtedly points to entrepreneurs, but I’d like to think it not exclusive to them. Innovation is a process where creativity is harnessed, often galvanized through the building of momentum and the sharing of a vision. Often a new project or the reinvention of a product type begins with very few people involved, perhaps only one. The idea is refined and vetted, resources are added, more people get onboard, a consensus around a feature set emerges, and eventually it comes to be owned by a team. If you’ve ever been a part of this kind of team, you know how invigorating the process can be.

A subset of this process is the highly competitive world of funded startup companies, and that is a different beast entirely. In a quite insightful op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about the trials and tribulations of Uber, Andy Kessler recently noted the sometimes seething nature of a startup CEO who makes it through the hurdle of significant investment in their ambitions to excavate a gold mine:

Hubris becomes an asset. Startup CEOs are always saying the goal is to “suck the oxygen out of the room” of their competitors. Success requires a certain bravado. That should be encouraged, but most entrepreneurs have no idea when to turn it off.

There’s nothing wrong with being competitive, embracing ambition, and wanting to do the impossible. Does the goal of that have to be the annihilation of those who currently populate a market segment? Maybe because it’s the holidays, I wonder how that thinking aligns with Give Peace a Chance, but I think you can change the world without an ethos of leveling good chunks of it.

It is important to our economy and financial well-being that new companies are constantly born, that creative destruction replaces old opportunities with new ones. It is also limiting to evaluate innovation on this metric alone. If the only creativity that receives our highest praise is the moonshot IPO or breathtaking acquisition multiple, perhaps we send a difficult message to our colleagues and children that commercial success is the most important success. Do we really believe that it is somehow less noble to be part of reinvention that is not about clubbing a competitor over the head and walking away with his or her bounty?

Innovator's DilemmaMuch has been written around the concept of disruption, where traditional ways of doing things are derailed in almost unbelievably short periods of time. We saw it happen with music and video, where digital media disrupted the business model of selling and renting physical media. We’re seeing it happen with the news business, most recently evidenced at The New Republic, where the economics of professional journalism are colliding with the realities of recovering its cost. Disruptors are a very real force as author Clayton Christensen so clearly taught us in his landmark book The Innovator’s Dilemma, but is it an end unto itself? What if someone doesn’t want to be a war-declaring disruptor?

There are all kinds of ways to define admirable innovation. Truth be told, very few of us are going to draft a business plan and schlep from angel to venture to institutional investors with an all-or-nothing mentality. If that’s not you but you still feel a hunger to join the reinvention movement, here are seven concrete ways you can embrace innovation right now:

  1. Give Yourself a Stealth Performance Review: Secretly write down exactly how you think you are doing at work. Be as candid as possible. Conclude with a set of recommendations for improvement. Pick one. Do it.
  2. Ask Your Boss for a Problem: Walk in and say, “How can I take a burden off your back? Give me something on your to-do list that is important but you don’t have time to do. Let’s brainstorm it together.” Always remember that every problem is an opportunity.
  3. Clarify Your Brand Promise: If you don’t know what your company stands for, ask someone in senior management for some evangelism around your company’s brand. Then look at the work you are doing every day. Does it align with the brand promise? If not, what tweaks can you make to your daily tasks to bring you personally more in line with your company’s expressed mission?
  4. Help a Non-Profit: Find an organization near you whose values and mission you embrace. Contact someone there in a leadership capacity. Tell them you want to help and what skills you have to offer. Ask them what is on their plate that isn’t being addressed. Address it.
  5. Fix Your Personal Budget: Develop a formal income statement for yourself or your family. Write down all sources of revenue and expenses. Look for areas where money is leaking out that needn’t be. Plug the holes. Get your credit under control. If you have longer-term needs, create a formal plan for getting there.
  6. Get a Hobby: Right, you don’t have the time. Yet a hobby allows you to abstract so many of your daily thoughts and tie back that problem solving to your everyday responsibilities. Plant a garden, bake, follow a sports team, adopt a pet. Don’t think of it as a diversion, think of it as a commitment to lifelong learning and self-improvement. Push yourself to approach it slightly differently from those already doing it.
  7. Coach a Friend: Look around your circle of acquaintances for someone who might be struggling a little. Offer to be a coach or mentor for the next six to twelve months. Ask nothing in return. I promise you the ideas that will emerge from your discussions will be as valuable to your personal growth as they are to the friend. Ideas and energy compound when shared. You may forget who is coaching whom.

Startups can be cool, but all innovation does not require a startup environment. Creativity is a process that leads to all kinds of new stuff, and it also exhausts dead ends around stuff not worth doing or not ready to be done. Instead of making a hollow new year’s resolution, pick a path to one of the above suggestions or come up with your own idea for reinventing the world around you. Everyday Innovation is there for the taking. Go make change happen, and I’ll see you at the starting gate!

Eyes on HP

Hewlett-Packard is not just any company. It is iconic. Like Disney, Ford, General Electric, Apple, Microsoft, and a few others, it is not only part of business history, it is deeply wound into the fabric of American history. Modern Silicon Valley pretty much begins with Hewlett-Packard—the foundations of information technology as a new sector of productivity, the power of innovation, the hardware/software product life-cycle, the beginnings of west coast venture capital, and the splitting atom of employees spinning off from the mothership to become founders themselves. The Hewlett-Packard story until recently is a magnificent tale.

HP WayBill Hewlett and Dave Packard really did start in a garage. One of the very first products they sold was a precision audio oscillator, to of all people, Walt Disney. They captured their thoughts in a book, The HP Way, reinforcing the need for a company to have a mission and a vision. When we talk about a job being more than a paycheck, a lot of that comes from the work ethic and values of Hewlett and Packard. They set the stage for a generation of entrepreneurs. They made it okay to fail, as long as that failure contained learning that was honestly disseminated. HP on an engineer’s resume was gold. The sales and marketing team was second to none.

It is almost impossible to understand the impact of a global company with over $125B in annual revenue and 325,000 employees changing CEOs four times in six years, not including the interim CEOs between hires. Carly Fiorina, Mark Hurd, and Leo Apotheker each left the company for different reasons, and while the HP board is now taking a lot of heat for perhaps not scrutinizing their decisions around these leaders carefully enough, that is unfortunately water under the bridge. The company is now under the direction of former eBay CEO and recent California Gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, who will need to move quickly and definitively to steady the ship.

HP has seen numerous mergers, divestitures, and acquisitions throughout this period of seismic change, and each time one strategy replaces a previous version, the impact is costly. Whitman has said she believes the strategy in place at HP now is largely correct, so if the issues she is facing are managerial, perhaps we will see a positive impact sooner rather than later. My guess is she will dig into strategy a bit more in the coming months, and then move aggressively to make her mark. The sooner she can restore confidence with customers, employees, and shareholders, the better it will be for all those who do care deeply about the company’s future.

Why is HP so important in the scope of business enterprise? When you dig into exceptional business books like Built to Last and Good to Great, both by Jim Collins, you realize just how hard it is for even the strongest corporations to go the distance in an environment of creative destruction. As Collins points out so often in the data he cites, only 62 of the original Fortune 500 companies named on the original list in 1955 remain there in 2011.

The great former CEO of Intel, Andy Grove, talks at length about the “strategic inflection points” facing companies at every stage of their evolution—particularly technology companies—in his critical study Only the Paranoid Survive. Grove makes it all too clear how easy it is for a well established organization with vast resources and expansive markets to miss a fundamental change in the continuum of progress, only to catch its error to late to be fixed, having been lapped by any number of competitors.

Where Collins approaches the challenge largely from the aspect of defining and reinforcing a brand, Grove looks at it from the point of view of ceaseless innovation and refusal to accept the status quo as satisfying. Both approaches are vital, but neither has a chance in the face of organizational chaos. Products, features, and benefits must remain in constant flux, but ideals and values are their balancing counterparts. Remove the rudder from a very fast ship and it really doesn’t much matter what is powering the engine room.

It takes both leadership and strategy to steer one of these mammoth ships through the rough seas of business change, and simply taking those notions for granted is the easiest way for a company to fall from grace. Robert Burgelman, a colleague of Andy Grove who teaches strategy at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (and is also a former board member of mine), tells us that strategy becomes real when we apply resources to concepts. We see that very much in action now at HP, but we see those resource decisions changing too frequently in real-time. The leadership of the CEO drives that strategy from concept to action, from white board idea to investment cost center, and if strategic shifts are reversed before cost centers become profit centers, value can be destroyed at an astonishing pace.

No CEO or strategy is meant to last forever, but change them too often, and costs pile up without reward. The toll on staff morale is immeasurable, and the lost jobs from reversing decisions may never be recovered. Employees feel the impact in loss of income, shareholders get pummeled. Customers just move on.

It’s time now for HP to turn the corner. As I said, HP is iconic, it is Silicon Valley. We need it as an example in the tech sector of a company that is Built to Last and can continue to grow from Good to Great. HP dates to 1939. It is the standard-bearer for all the great companies that followed its mantra, were born in garages, and now have office space in the adjacent neighborhoods. If we want to believe companies like AOL and Yahoo can find new creative life through reinvention, we have to have models for long-term success. We need succession plans that show great companies can transcend their founders and achieve new levels of success by ensuring that values are more than words in the employee handbook, and that they are liberating, not confining, as long as the leaders who embrace them help guide their teams through increased commitment to innovation with coherent planning and rigorous evaluation. No shooting from the hip, but no fear of change.

On a pragmatic level, we also need the jobs, particularly in HP’s home state of California. Surely the majority of new jobs in our nation will come from small business and startups, but we can’t afford to lose the ones we have in the enterprise, not for the families who depend on them, not for the state budget that needs the payroll tax. Because of its deep history in the community and legend, HP leads the ethos in Silicon Valley in so many ways, its stability is a reflection of hope, its instability a drag on the headlines when we need a shot of optimism.

This is a once in a lifetime career and company defining opportunity for the new CEO at HP. It’s like getting the chance to manage the NY Yankees after three bad seasons no one saw coming. They might be on a losing streak, they might have made a bunch of bad trades, but they’re still the Yankees. Everyone knows they can win, that they have the resources to win and a history of winning. Meg Whitman just needs to ask herself, what kind of game does she want her team playing, who does she want in the line-up, and where does she need to better read the competitive landscape. A little consistency in management will go a long way.

Let’s hope Hewlett-Packard has it right this time. There is already new criticism of HP’s board that they acted too quickly in hiring Meg Whitman, that she should have first been named interim CEO, or that her background is not right for the job. Their decision has been made, so I am rooting for the new CEO. This isn’t politics, this is P&L. It is critical that Meg gets this right and succeeds. A win for her in this role is a win for all of us.

Thoughts About Steve

Steve Jobs 1955- 2011Everyone who has worked around technology the past few decades has a Steve Jobs story. Some have observed Jobs at a distance and felt the impact of his creativity and decisiveness, others have worked with him directly and more explicitly experienced his creativity and decisiveness. No meeting with Jobs is forgettable. Most meetings with him begin with a non-disclosure agreement, and since no one is quite sure of the statute of limitations he expects, I shall tread carefully through this post while still sharing some of my own observations.

So much has been said and written about Steve Jobs in the past week it is almost daunting to try to add to the collection without being redundant. In a recent profile on CNBC Titans, Jobs was portrayed in a balanced manner, fully celebrated as the Thomas Edison of our time, of course not without a few bumps in his long and winding road, personal and professional. The day after the announcement that Jobs would no longer be CEO of Apple, Walt Mossberg in the Wall Street Journal expertly assessed the legacy of Steve Jobs as someone who changed the way we live. Coverage and analysis have poured onto the web from professional and citizen journalists, the very volume of which speaks to the somewhat incomparable significance of his contributions.

My personal experiences with Jobs were mostly tied to the launch of the iMac, right after he returned to Apple in 1997. We had just launched a games label at Broderbund Software called Red Orb Entertainment, and Jobs invited us to be part of his new beginning. Riven: The Sequel to Myst, developed by Cyan Worlds, and The Journeyman Project 3: Legacy of Time, developed by Presto Studios, were both largely created on Macs by Mac devotees, so it was easy and natural for us to get onboard. Everything Jobs promised us happened, from the billboards to the print ads to inviting Cyan President Rand Miller to share in the keynote at the Macworld Expo. The iMac was unique, Jobs’s vision was unique, and he wanted unique products to be associated with its beauty. That was the beginning of Apple’s resurgence, and it was magical.

What was most impressive about the return of Jobs was how quickly he brought the core values back to the company that seemed to have evaporated with his initial departure. Meetings at Apple in the non-Jobs years had become, to say the least, painful. Apple had forgotten what was special about it, that its publishers and developers were a unique bunch, and that fully democratizing the Apple universe would serve no one customer well if the core values of Apple were not embraced. Upon Jobs’s return, those core values returned in real-time and included with stunning mandate:

• Intuitive user interface is not optional. If a customer needs a manual, something is wrong. I remember when we received very first prototype iPod, no one in the house knew what it was, but within five minutes of it landing on our doorstep we had it synched and working with iTunes. How much more intuitive does it get than getting a new high-end gadget that never previously existed and have it working flawlessly without instructions?

• Innovation is meant to leapfrog entrenched competitors. The iPod wasn’t a better MP3 player, it was a new vision of how music could be enjoyed. The iPhone wasn’t a better cell phone, it was a lifestyle device that put a computer in your pocket. The iPad wasn’t a better tablet, it was an all media delivery system that is light, fast, simple, and elegant. If Jobs was going to make incremental change, it would be on later versions of his own products. The products he introduced to market were to be leapfrog inventions.

• Think Different is much more than an advertising campaign. Think Different is an intellectual construct that begins by defying grammar and doesn’t end until we have exhausted elimination of the ordinary. It is sometime said the difference between a cult and a religion is how long a movement lasts, and for many devotees, Think Different is something of a religion. It forces us to challenge ourselves to achieve the impossible, and then when we achieve it, make it look simple to everyone else.

When I worked at Disney, I remember well the weekend we had a staff preview at our new theme park in Anaheim, Disney’s California Adventure. Disney had not yet bought Pixar, that was years away, so the relationship between the companies was quite separate. One of the attractions at the new theme park was a whimsical movie about the history of California hosted by Whoopi Goldberg that delved into what made California unique. That attraction no longer exists, but what I remember most about it was the section on Jobs, largely painting him not only as part of California’s history, but our nation’s economic advancement. The portrait was magnificent, because his contribution to the world through the Silicon Valley miracle was magnificent. It was more than California, it was more than technology, he was settling the new frontier. What felt weird to me was that what I was seeing was indeed history, but it was happening now, current events, a real man and a real life changing the lives of all of us with each new idea and grand leap forward. I never got to meet Walt Disney or Henry Ford or Sam Walton, they were more icons to me than tangible people. Steve Jobs had become part of our lore while he was still young and his legacy was unfolding in our time.

Yet of all the emblematic impact of Steve Jobs, what resonates most with me is what he means to the notion of reinvention. Here is a guy who was driven out of the very company he founded by the very fellow he had invited to help him run it. Had he done nothing else after that event he would have forever been part of the Silicon Valley story. Then he founds another company, then Apple falls on almost unrecoverable hard times because it has lost its way and he returns, embracing that new-new thing called the Internet and helping chart its hockey-stick future. As a sideline, he buys a small computer graphics company from George Lucas and helps guide it to become one of the most successful entertainment production studios of all time.

Like so many others, I am trying hard not to write a tribute, but instead capture the spirit of what the contributions of Steve Jobs can mean to every one of us, whether or not a devotee. The point is that reinvention is possible no matter how hard we fall on our face, and that is a lesson always worth re-learning. Reinvention is not the stuff of storybook fables and pep talks, but the stuff of necessary and vital resilience. We need concrete examples to see that reinvention is possible, that lives and devices and ideas can be reinvented if we have the will and commitment to Think Different.

For me, that is the legacy of Steve Jobs. All that he has accomplished in a lifetime is astonishing, but like his very small peer group of great visionaries who have led our economy forward, it is the abstract notion of reinvention that I see and feel whenever he is present, nearby, referenced, or invoked. No matter how many English teachers correct us, I hope we will never stop saying the words Think Different, attributing them appropriately, and giving all we can to reinvent the legacy.