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Whining should not get in the way of innovation

Nicholas Carr is at it again. He's making sensational, not entirely accurate, extrapolations about the future of IT in business based on current conditions, which is nice work if you can get it.

In May 2003 the Harvard Business Review published an article by Carr titled “IT Doesn't Matter.” The gist of the article was that IT is now ubiquitous and available to all who want it and therefore can't contribute to sustainable competitive advantage.

Even discounting that sustainable competitive advantage is something of a myth in modern business, it's hard to follow the leap from IT being easily available to IT being reliably well applied. We've got a ways to go before IT reaches the level of broad and casual competence we have with, say, the television, the automobile, or electricity.

2003 is ancient history, but he's back, in a January 22, 2005, New York Times opinion piece titled “Does Not Compute”.

From the launching point of the recent $170 million FBI terrorist tracking software snafus and McDonald’s nearly $200 million write-down for bad software adventures, he reaches the conclusion that we should quit trying to be innovative with technology. It's just too expensive and too risky, or in his words, “When it comes to developing software today, innovation should be a last resort, not a first instinct.” Oh, my.
In a world where Paris Hilton can get famous for, well, being Paris Hilton, I guess I shouldn't be surprised that Nicholas Carr can get air time in what passes for our national newspaper for being, well, Nicholas Carr. However, the whimper that innovation is just too hard and too risky and too expensive and that we're bound to fail so why try at all hardly sounds like a clarion call to leadership in a global economy or a new world.

Get over it.

Of course there will be stunning failures in the process of innovation! The biggest risk in any failure is not that one learns no lesson, but rather that one learns a false lesson with great conviction.

It's not a coincidence that the venture capital process and the business innovation process are so closely related. Think about it. Venture capitalists invest in a lot of things, many of which do not pay off. But every once in a while, one does pay off in a big way that more than makes up for all the ones that didn't. Successful venture capitalists are really good at managing their financial experiments to minimize the risk, raise the probability of return, and learn everything they can from every investment they make. Last I checked, they don't work by not making any investments at all or only as a last resort.

That approach serves as something of a recipe for innovation, not for getting that transformational idea, but for how you respond when the light bulb goes on. Venture capitalists rarely bet everything in the first round of financing.

I don't know the details of the FBI situation or the McDonald's projects, but I'm willing to bet they made the leap from identifying core requirements and specifications to full-production implementation without doing much, if any, on-the-ground experimentation to find out how that theoretical analysis played out in the actual day-to-day practice of their businesses. You might recall a time when Microsoft was famous for using the first for-sale version of its products as the field test. That approach will never work for enterprise applications.

The FBI and McDonald's are just the latest installments in a long litany of big-ticket IT failures. No business can consistently squander hundreds of millions of dollars on failed IT initiatives and survive. It's hard to digest any lesson that comes with that big a price tag.

But the lesson here isn't that we should quit trying to be innovative with software (or anything else for that matter). The lesson is that we need to find ways to make the essential failures of innovation happen more quickly, be less expensive and preferably a little less dramatic.

True innovation is almost always revolutionary, and reliable predictable business performance is almost always not. Bringing the two together successfully requires patience and a willingness to experiment, to have small failures in the service of a larger success.

Byron Glick is a principal at Prairie Star Consulting, LLC of Madison Wis. Prairie Star specializes in managing the organizational impacts of technology. He can be contacted via e-mail at or via telephone at 608/345-3958.

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.


R.L. Kane responded 10 years ago: #1

I saw Carr's article in the New York Times, and I thought it was quite level-headed. He didn't say we should stop technological innovation. He said most big software-development projects have big problems, and one of the main reasons is that companies are too quick to try to reinvent the wheel and end up in software quicksand. Amen to that.

michael schrage responded 10 years ago: #2

i confess i smiled at the 'innovative' comparison between paris hilton's 'celebrity' and nick carr's 'notoriety' usual, nick has a pony of a point buried beneath the manure flawed argument...too many organizations spend too much money seeking 'innovations' that are unproven along every single measurable dimension...glick's point about the inferential 'leap of faith & folly' from requirements to uber-roll-out is spot on...i'm not ashamed to admit i've made a better-than-good living getting clients to cheaply rethink and retest their deployment methodologies so they can learn from cheap mistakes instead of pay top dollar for excruciatingly expensive ones...

Sean Pritchard responded 10 years ago: #3

The FBI's director this week announced that the FBI would now likely use commercially available software to create its system rather than take the innovation route. It looks like Carr's analysis was on the money here.

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