What Schmidt and Jobs teach us about innovation

The two big players in computer innovation have given us a lot to think about over the last week or so. Eric Schmidt’s MacTaggart lecture was quite scathing about the state of British innovation. The man from Google chided us for our lack of polymaths (doesn’t he know that Martin Amis has nearly finished his particle collider?) and presented the idea that we Brits can do the inventing but have no idea what to do next.

One of my favourite industrial stories does bear that out. Remember the Advanced Passenger Train? Developed by theorists who lost interest once they’d sorted the, er, theory. Meanwhile the technically simpler High Speed Train was being built by engineers who wanted to build a great train. It has given nearly 40 years of service while the government dithers over its replacement.

The writer von Stamm argues that ‘innovation = creativity + commercialisation’. The idea is no good on its own. You need to decide which ideas to pursue and which to cull, and everyone needs to know the process and criteria by which the decision will be made. In my own organisation we’re bubbling with ideas but we’ve become more effective because we’re not pursuing all of them. You can’t just hope you get innovation. You have to actively manage it.

Apple under Steve Jobs is a great case in point. Jim Carlton’s great book, ‘Apple: the intrigue, egomania and business blunders that toppled an American icon’ was published in 1998, just after Jobs’ return to Apple HQ at Infinite Loop. As the title suggests, Apple’s survival was in no way guaranteed. Carlton describes how millions of dollars were squandered on an ill thought-through operating system, on abandoned projects such as Star Trek (the original project to port the Mac operating system to run on Intel chips), and on inventing complete product categories such as digital photography and PDAs, only to pull out before they matured. These days, Apple behaves in the opposite way. They didn’t invent the portable music player, the smartphone or the tablet computer, but they have known better than anyone how to commercialise them. And some analysts rate Tim Cook’s chances of success as Apple CEO as high specifically because the board and senior management team spend a great deal of time working out which projects to pursue and which not: a great way to ensure strategic clarity. If your senior team isn’t paying attention to finding the best way for your organisation to innovate, what is it doing?

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