Friday, October 29, 2004

Is it true that "good management kills innovation"?

Yesterday, during one of a series of forums at PARC on invention and innovation, Paul Saffo, a forecaster and strategist at the Institute for the Future, spoke about the Silicon Valley and about why it has been and continues to be the center of so much technological innovation.

According to Paul, technological innovation is "extra-logical," and in the Silicon Valley, "advances from failure to failure, not from success to success." As such, according to Paul, "innovation gets killed by good management."

I discussed Paul's claim with a friend following the forum, and though we accepted Paul's claims as being valid in the context of the tech sector and what Silicon Valley has been and is still largely about, neither of us believe the statement that "good management kills innovation" is always true.

I had the privilege of interviewing Paul on stage with Jaron Lanier back in 1997. Paul is an amazing fellow and much brighter than I can ever hope to be. But I don't think that Paul himself even believes that statement is always true.

Whether or not it is true depends, my friend and I agreed, on what one considers good management to be. Perhaps what is often considered to be good management of engineers tends to kill their ability or attempts to innovate. But good management, in the context of fostering good "user experience" and "design," facilitates innovation -- my friend and I humbly believe ;-). And does so in the Silicon Valley.

Is the impressive innovation achieved over and over again by, for example, IDEO (see The Art of Innovation, by Tom Kelley with Jonathan Littman) a product of "bad" management? Or is it, instead, that the kind of management that fosters innovation is difficult to replicate within most companies, particularly in the tech sector?

During the opening plenary session of the first Designing for User Experiences conference, Bill Buxton pretty much agreed with Paul Saffo by arguing that after software companies develop their initial products, new, innovative products tend to come from those same companies only via acquisition rather than from internal development. And when they do emerge from internal development, "it is generally due to a skunkworks project, rather than something that is 'managed' and part of the organizational process." Bill also talked about how installing a good design process that is distinct from engineering can be upsetting to a company, even when the process results in a new product that proves to be successful in the marketplace.

Why is this true? Does it have to be true? Is it not possible for "good" management to foster innovation beyond initial offerings in more companies?