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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Early Exits – way to go!

“Today, the optimum financial strategy for most technology
entrepreneurs is to raise money from angels and plan an early
exit to a large company in just a few years for under $30 million.”
That’s the essence of the message from Basil Peters’ book “Early Exits” which I have discovered for myself recently. Coming from the Vancouver-based well experienced entrepreneur, operator, CEO and investor, this is one of the best reads for  high-tech entrepreneurs and early-stage CEOs that I have come across in the last decade.
This book, available in hardcover or as an eBook here: http://www.early-exits.com/, is brief, no BS, to the point – almost like an instruction manual for high-tech start-up operators, providing blueprints on how to design your venture for today’s economic environment.
The book is entirely focused on the end game: the exit. It provides a succinct background of the current economic climate for early-stage companies as well as the evolving business models for both traditional venture capital and individual angel investors, with an honest disclosure and discussion of their conflicting interests.
Having lived and managed through several M&A transactions myself, I have found interesting examples, debunked myths, dirty M&A industry secrets exposed as well as several useful case studies of real life exits which are good lessons for investors and entrepreneurs interested in selling companies for more money, sooner and with a greater chance of success.
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