Saw Paul Saffo Thursday also, at Stanford. he’s a wonderful, funny speaker. The way he talks about innovation was particularly enlightening– he points out in the natural world innovation is called mutation, it’s usually in response to extreme stressors, and is typically fatal.
He also talks about the unique nature of the silicon valley, particularly in its (tolerant-to-positive) attitude toward failure, and why that attitude is critical to innovation. Because the percentages are so poor on innovation succeeding, failure has to become a badge of honor or else no one will keep doing it. He points out in France bankruptcy is a shame that is spoke of in hush toed three generations later. In SV, if you haven’t gone bankrupt, you aren’t a player.
He also spoke quite eloquently on California being the land of dreams (using extensive historical precedent, starting with 15th century romantic novels about a amazon island named “California”) and how critical dreaming was to our failure tolerance… it was far less mushy than it sounds.
Saffo also claims the reason so much innovation happens in the valley is because companies are badly managed, and gives the example of java and sun. The story goes, some engineers were working on java (with being assigned to it), and showed it to Scott Mcnealy who said, well, it’s kinda interesting, but not useful, kill it. But the engineers kept working on it, and they showed it to him again later, and he said, well, it’s interesting but we decided to kill it, so kill it. Then the engineers kept working on it off campus, they show it to him again, and he said “Hey that’s great, I’m glad I backed it” Which is a bit of a joke, but his point about neglect and chaos being good mulch for innovation is a pretty insightful one, I think. Although the idea that (good management)=(controlling employees every activity) is a questionable premise, one he doesn’t even fully subscribe to, since he spoke admiringly of David Kelly saying “hire well, hands off.”
Saffo also talked a bit about how horrid many SV managers are: tyrants, managing by shouting not walking around, using the HR as a dating pool– and nods to Steve Jobs, a genius but not a pleasant manager. But no connection of abuse and innovation is made. I’d like to see him explain how bad management beyond just neglect fuels innovation.