There is an inevitable friction in bringing ideas to life within a company. That friction can polish an idea and make it stronger, sand the edges of the idea and make it weaker, or kill the idea altogether. Anyone who works in innovation is familiar with that tension. Navigating it is part of what makes innovation so difficult.
Malcolm Gladwell wrote an illustrative New Yorker article on the mythic 1979 story of Steve Jobs and Xerox PARC. After negotiating with Xerox, Steve first saw a demo of a mouse-enabled user interface at Xerox PARC, which inspired the development of the Macintosh.
Xerox has been widely critiqued for not recognizing the full potential of the personal computer and for letting this idea pass by. Gladwell profiles one Xerox engineer in particular, Gary Starkweather, who epitomized the tireless innovator trying to bring ideas to life within large companies. Starkweather summarizes his career frustration as, “it was like me saying I’ve discovered a gold mine and you saying we can’t afford a shovel”.
Yet Gladwell also profiles the other side of the story. Even though Xerox was not well placed to commercialize a personal computer, that bleeding edge research led to the invention of laser printing, which fit the Xerox business model and was a booming success.
“The interests of the innovator aren’t perfectly aligned with the interests of the corporation. Starkweather saw ideas on their own merits. Xerox was a multinational corporation, with shareholders, a huge sales force, and a vast customer base, and it needed to consider every new idea within the context of what it already had … It was ever thus. The innovator says go. The company says stop — and maybe the only lesson of the legend of Xerox PARC is that what happened there happens, in one way or another, everywhere.”
The modern day Xerox PARC replied to Gladwell’s article with a fascinating post on the merits of open innovation as one way to resolve that friction. They make a distinction between “invention” as the manifestation of an idea and “innovation” as an idea that reaches the market and impacts people’s lives.
“If Steve Jobs came to PARC today, there would be a much better understanding of his goals, our goals, and what we would want to accomplish – together – through open innovation. Because that’s what’s different: open innovation provides a framework for these conversations and interactions. Through the pioneering work of Henry Chesbrough and others, there is now widespread awareness and practice of Open Innovation as a means for companies to leverage inventions and innovations from external parties. This can range from simply licensing IP (from or to others) and relying on outside organizations to help you see what’s possible, to co-developing and leveraging someone else’s investment to be tailored to your needs.”
There is no longer merely a “go” or a “stop” in innovation, as Gladwell originally characterized. There are other options for the golden eggs.