Innovation Is a Weed

Flower-Weed215 years ago, MIT Technology Review invited Robert Metcalfe to share what he learned as he followed “the trajectory of innovation” from Xerox PARC to the boardroom of 3Com and beyond. Bob’s talk is a nice piece of advicethe sort of advice that, by now, everybody has heard about but most actually don’t understand.

He develops his talk in 8 brief and clear lessons. You can read them here. Let me pick a few pearls in an absolutely arbitrary way (emphasis mine):

Most successful entrepreneurs I’ve met have no idea about the reasons for their success. They were thrown-like rocks.

Most engineers don’t understand that selling matters. They think that on the food chain of life, salespeople are below green slime (…) Sales may not matter in invention, but it matters-in a very big way-in innovation.

First, don’t “hire” anyone. B people hire C people (…) A people recruit A people. The people you need for a growing startup already hold jobs much bigger than the ones you need to fill.

Consider operating ranges. Everybody has one (…) How can you tell when the person who did such a great job six months ago has hit the upper limit of his or her operating range? (…) You have to be able to say, “If you can’t do it, we’ll just have to find someone who can.” (…) By 1990, 3Com had outgrown me. Fortunately I had a board smart enough to know that I had succeeded in moving 3Com out of my own operating range. You should be so lucky.

Don’t Listen to Your Customers. (…) Well, of course I’m taking some license by saying that the lesson is you shouldn’t listen to your customers. The real lesson is that you have to choose which customers to listen to very carefully.

Nobody wants visionaries running companies. (…) Here’s the difference between a visionary and an entrepreneur. Both have visions, which are a dime a dozen. But an entrepreneur has, in addition to visions, plans. In addition to plans, actions

Of course, Bob’s advice may be biased, as he recognizes at the beginning of his essay:

Silicon Valley-style high-tech entrepreneurship is certainly not the only way to innovate. It’s just that, right off, I can’t think of any others.

or paraphrasing Churchill’s famous dictum: Silicon Valley style is the worst way to innovate except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.


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