Innovate, Adapt, or Die

Innovation“Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It’s not about money. It’s about the people you have, how you lead them, and how much you get it.

This quotation from S. Jobs was floating through my mind as I perused the enjoyable read of the recently published “Adventures in Innovation: Inside the Rise and Fall of Nortel” by John Tyson. The book is a fascinating personal account by one of the key R&D executives who has been there for most of the ride since 1966 until 2001, almost the end. There are many facets to his story but at the heart of it is one of universal interest to anyone in the high-tech community: the eternal tension between creativity and innovation on one hand, and the need to maximize revenue and profits.

It does not matter whether you are a start-up or a billion dollar company. All for-profit organizations powered by innovation experience this built-in tension. There is nothing wrong with it, quite the opposite. Its existence is healthy and helps to right the ship as it sails through turbulent waters of the forever changing business seas – as long as it is constructive, kept in balance and supported by the trust and mutual respect of the members of the crew.

This tension, between, as Tyson calls it, “pinstriped executives driving sales and white-coated lab engineers pursuing ideas for products a decade away”, is not difficult to maintain in balance as long as both camps talk to each other and the top leadership listens. But it is easy to stop listening as sales grow through the roof, the stock price is exploding and you are in the midst of a wild binge of acquisitions and hiring waves.

Putting R&D spending under the control of the operating businesses focused on immediate products and profits carries a huge risk that research will become just another cost, rather than an investment in the future. In the battle between the operating, money-making arm of the organization and the R&D operation, the scales are tipped towards the former. At the end it will win this unless there is a strong structural protective cocoon around R&D and the enlightened top leadership which does not waiver. Arguably, Nortel collapsed because the conversation stopped  between the two camps.

In one of his recalled stories, Tyson asks Scrivener, Nortel’s CEO at the time, about managing business strategy and tactics. It is instructive, that as CEO he owned the strategy and the vision, and considered the operating and marketing plans to be tactical. Consequently he advised aspiring executives to learn to manage the strategy and delegate the tactics. Even more memorable, when asked for his planning horizon, he answered: “10 years.”

Now, this is truly mind-boggling stuff in today’s business environment when very few business leaders have the guts to think that way without quickly giving up to the pressures of short-term expediency. In terms of planning with 10 years horizons, well…, possibly, just possibly the Politburo of China might be able to afford it 🙂 And yet, one feels this inner itch, a tiny voice whispering that he was right and that’s the way to do it…

When a CEO loses it and falls prey to the short-term expediency rather than viewing R&D as long-term investment, that delicate tension balance will break-down and the internal fighting will start over marketing as an expense versus an investment. This leads to a waste of a lot of money, resources, and time. Ultimately, the collapse will be in sight.

Under these circumstances, there is only one more potential saviour: the enlightened, competent Board of Directors which takes seriously its fundamental responsibility to proactively set the strategic direction of the company. However, if the Board allows itself to become too remote from the corporate culture, shielded by executives who consider the directors a necessary evil, it will turn itself into ineffective caretakers as in Nortel’s case towards the end when “Board members were little more than well-meaning, part-time sophisticated  contractors who were well compensated to meet the minimal legal requirements.”

There are many valuable lessons from Nortel’s story – the biggest tragedy in Canadian high-tech – which are worth pondering to help other tech organizations, Blackberry and re-modeled NRC come to mind, avoid snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. After all, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

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