17 Jul INNOVATION IN TWO VISITS
Today, innovation isn’t just a luxury for businesses. Innovation, in fact, is the critical difference between success and failure, between survival and extinction. As Peter Drucker once said: “Business comes down to two thing: innovation and marketing.” And today, marketing won’t do your business much good without innovation.
Unfortunately, in terms of innovation, the myth of the solitary genius persists, in spite of the fact that research shows lone geniuses have very little chance of bringing a project or product to fruition-without help and collaboration. The legend of the uber-intelligent creator working in lonely isolation convinces many observers that innovation is not for them. But nothing could be further from the truth. History, in fact, shows that innovation by teams generally works far better than innovation by a single individual. This is demonstrated, for example, by two famous historical events in the computer’s development: First, John Mauchly’s visit with John Vincent Atanasoff at Iowa State University and, second, Steve Jobs’ visit to the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (Xerox PARC).
Today, when so many carry smartphones that exceed the computing power of the machines that guided the Apollo astronauts to the moon and back, it’s hard to imagine a time when the desktop adding machine, or the slide rule, constituted cutting-edge computational devices. In the early 1940s, when our first historic visit happened, modern devices like the pocket calculator existed only in the pages of science fiction magazines.
In the early twentieth century, there was an urgent need for machines to do fast computations for industrial, scientific, and military uses. Many scientists and engineers tried their hand at inventing super-fast devices to do these computations. And, in 1939, one aspiring inventor, John Vincent Atanasoff, finished a prototype of a fast-calculating machine and was building a full-scale model when he met another eager inventor, John Mauchly. In 1941, Mauchly visited Atanasoff’s lab at Iowa State University and was shown Atanasoff’s computing model. Apparently, Mauchly was at first unimpressed-but he nevertheless picked up a few peripheral insights to join the large file of ideas he’d already accumulated. Following the visit, he returned to Pennsylvania, where he was chairman of the physics department of a small college, and he continued his own work-still not forgetting what he’d seen in Atanasoff’s lab.
At this point, the fate of the two inventors diverged sharply. Atanasoff’s machine never worked properly, and he received little support from his university or colleagues; and by 1942, Atanasoff’s proto-computer literally was stored in the basement of the physics building at Iowa State University, never to be completed.
Mauchly, by contrast, enrolled in a summer course in electronics under the Engineering, Science and Management War Training program offered through the University of Pennsylvania’s Moore School. Thanks to a connection Mauchly made at the Moore School, he and electrical engineer J. Presper Eckert were invited to present a proposal for an advanced computing machine to the U.S. Army Ordinance Corps at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds. The U.S. Army accepted the proposal, and, in 1943, began work on Eniac, the world’s first electronic general-purpose computer. Eniac, completed in 1945, weighed 30 tons and took up 1800 square feet. Currently, it’s in the Smithsonian-but it represented an important milestone in the progress towards the smartphone in your pocket and the computer on your desk.
Today, Atanasoff is credited as one of many pioneers in the development of modern computers, but his machine literally never got out of the Iowa State University basement, and his contribution to the development of modern computers was relatively minimal.
The key difference between Mauchly and Atanasoff is the presence or absence of a team. Atanasoff worked almost alone, far away from a team that could collaborate with him, a team that could work synergistically on his inventions and contribute material support. Mauchly, by contrast, made connections with people who could help him at the University of Pennsylvania; he linked up with Eckert, an expert collaborator; and he made sure his proposal was accepted by one of the largest teams in the world, the U.S. Army.
A second visit with major consequences for the future of computing is far better known. Steve Jobs’ famous visit to Xerox PARC is now legendary in computer history. In 1979, Apple traded the right to purchase a large block of stock at a bargain price in return for allowing staff members, including Steve Jobs, to visit Xerox PARC, Xerox’s elite blue-ribbon research station.
Scientists at Xerox PARC enjoyed generous budgets and minimal bureaucratic interference, and they responded often with brilliant technical innovations. In fact, the technology of Xerox PARC was used in two flagship products: the Xerox Alta and the Xerox Star. At the time, both computers utilized the most innovative computer technology, including the graphic user interface (GUI), the mouse, Ethernet, icons, a file system, and email; in short, the machines closely resembled today’s desktop computers.
Jobs appreciated the value of the new technology, but it was obvious that something had gone very wrong at Xerox. The fabulous Xerox technology didn’t work as well as it should in the actual computers, which were slow and vulnerable to crashes. The mouse was expensive and fragile. And, worst of all, the Xerox computers were expensive and poorly marketed. Xerox’s main line of business was copiers, and few executives in the company seemed to know what to do with desktop workstations or cared enough to promote them. Little effort was put into advertising or selling the Xerox computers.
In effect, the company neglected the second component of Drucker’s advice: marketing. A promotional video for Xerox workstations still exists on YouTube; it’s a monument to lost opportunities and a far cry from Apple’s dramatic and effective TV ads, print ads, and events.
By contrast, Jobs and his Macintosh group shared the objective of making a computer that wasn’t just marketable-but was “insanely great.” “Our goal,” he later declared, “was to make the best devices in the world.” And the Macintosh group shared Jobs’ goal of creating an excellent, but reasonably priced, computer for the masses-and they were determined to make a machine that members of the public could actually use. As Jobs himself said: “You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work back toward the technology, not the other way around.”
The Macintosh group was a collection of quirky, brilliant individuals with diverse specialties who loved working with computers. As a member later wrote: “We all thought we were going to change the world with our little computer, and we worked 90 hours a week to do it.” And, of course, they did change the world of computing: The Macintosh set the standard for consumer-friendly computers and, today, the interface on your laptop, your tablet, and your smartphone is a direct descendant of the first Mac.
Not surprisingly, as a product, the Macintosh was orders of magnitude better than the Xerox Alto or the Xerox Star. And Jobs and the Macintosh group had the one final piece of the puzzle that Xerox PARC lacked-an effective and determined marketing team. Thanks to the Macintosh technical and programming staff, the marketing team had much to work with: A compact, well-designed machine that was easy to use, that was relatively inexpensive, and that incorporated many appealing new features (such as multiple fonts, an easy-to-use word processing program, and a drawing program). The Macintosh computer was introduced to the public by the famous Ridley Scott “1984” commercial during the Super Bowl on January 24, 1984-and the rest is history.
These two visits-Mauchly’s trip to Iowa to see Atanasoff’s model computing device, and Jobs’ visit to Xerox PARC-exemplify one of the crucial ways that Mauchly and Jobs fueled innovation: they collaborated with teams. Again, Mauchly made personal connections with other experts, worked collaboratively, and linked up with teams, notably the U.S. Army. And Jobs not only managed brilliant technical and design teams, but also included the final piece of the puzzle in his innovation strategy: a marketing team.
For twenty-first century businesses, innovation is no longer optional; it’s necessary for survival. And, as Mauchly and Jobs show us: joining or creating a team is an essential part of innovation. Today, teamwork is the only way to survive, prosper, and win.