Judy Estrin is a serial entrepreneur, a Disney and Fedex board member, an ex-CTO of Cisco, and the author of Closing the Innovation Gap. I read this recently, and was then fortunate enough to hear her give a keynote at SIIA NetGain 2009 in San Francisco. The talk followed the contents and spirit of the book fairly closely.
The “gap” of her title derives from the fact that we are today living off the fat of the 1950s and 60s, when government and commercial spending on genuine R&D was way higher than it is today. She argues that we have an “innovation deficit”, whereby current gains are really incremental and based on past achievements. Meanwhile, management philosophies such as “You can’t manage what you can’t measure” have hurt our ability to fund exploratory work that does not meet immediate business goals.
Her concept of “sustainable innovation” goes beyond any single idea to encompass an environment, or ecosystem, that supports novel approaches to problems. “Innovation doesn’t just happen,” says Estrin, “you have to nurture it.” The ecosystem she identifies consists of a nutrient environment of funding, policy, education, culture and leadership that supports the activities of research, development and applications building.
She identifies the following as core values – questioning, risk, openness, patience and trust – and states that these values need to be in balance. For example, too much trust leads to blind faith, while too much risk leads to recklessness, as we have seen with innovations on Wall Street. She also stresses the need to move beyond silos and false dichotomies, e.g., science versus arts, research versus development, and recognize the value of people who have some breadth and function as connectors in organizations.
Estrin distinguishes between three types of innovation: breakthrough (totally new idea, e.g., light bulb), incremental (tuning a new idea to generate a product, e.g., flashlight), and orthogonal (combining existing ideas into something new, e.g., sneakers with lights). She points out that only the second is customer-driven; customers are not going to do real innovation for you. I think this is certainly true of the Internet publishing space.
Speaking for Corporate R&D, I like to think that we practice what I call “serial innovation”, producing a steady stream of incremental and orthogonal improvements that satisfy customers while waiting for the “big bang” of a breakthrough. Genuine breakthroughs are few and far between, and you can’t plan for them. But staying as close as you can to the research literature and being conversant with the latest methods are good ways to improve your chances.
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