Deconstructing Innovation for IBM’s second century

My first impression of IBM being a desirable stop to set roots and perform innovative work were formed in mid 90s during those iconic Deepblue-Kasparov games. I was young and it was hard not to be gripped by the historic moment and start to form a mental model of the sort of organization (people, processes, systems, ..) that had to come together in order to achieve a feat of that magnitude. Fast forward to today, I recognize that given IBM’s size, scale and longevity (350K+ employees, 170 countries, 100+ years), opinions on the topic of innovation would be numerous and varied – so, I’d just state my perspective as someone who has observed innovation at IBM from outside as well as inside.

Firstly, I think any discourse on innovation requires a degree of context to properly situate it. Something that may be thought of as being innovative for a child, might be mis-construed or laughed-off as triviality for an adult, yet re-considered as novelty for someone older. For instance, visualize this:

A baby stands straight by supporting herself on a toy that she’s meant to play with – ‘Hey, that’s so cool.. where’s the camera!  This goes on Youtube!’.

What if it were a young adult?  ‘Uh, you’re going to break the toy.. Did you pull a muscle?’ (perhaps he did..)

How about a 90-year-old?  ‘You just stood up all by yourself today, good job!’

Leaving some room for anecdotal imprecision above, finer point is that there can be distinct innovative actions that are being performed by entities in distinct lifecycle phases, using the resources at hand and with a point-in-time/best effort interpretation of their needs.

In our industry, innovation at an early stage startup might be a combination of survival, bootstrapping and profitability. As it starts to mature, perhaps raising multiple rounds of funding over time, context shifts and expectations change. What was once considered innovative, ends up being routine and mundane. Then, at some point, the startup IPOs or is acquired and becomes a large corporation. Then, one day the technology landscape shifts – perhaps moving away from large-form PCs to mobile, or computing silos to a fully networked world. Context shifts, forcing a shift in interpretation of what it means to be innovative.

For an enterprise that’s over 100 years old (average Fortune 500 company hasn’t lasted over 15-20 years), IBM has not only needed to innovate on what it’s building/selling, but also re-invent itself organizationally several times over (circa 1980, 1993). Add to that, billions of dollars spent on research, an unparalleled patent record, Nobel laureates in the ranks and technology that underlies some of the world’s most critical systems and infrastructure, IBM is undeniably one of the most innovative organizations.

But, what does it really mean for an organization that has a 100+ year history, 350K+ current employees across 170 countries, to be innovative ?

Well, what does it mean for a nation state or a very large institution to have a certain characteristic trait?

Arguably, it means that a majority of cities/towns/villages or disciplines/labs/departments have the right systems and infrastructure put in place that nudge the people to cumulatively reflect that trait – somehow, the weighted sum of that one trait at least equals any other.

Perhaps the real (and only) way that an innovative strain can run through such an institution is through the collective framework of the systems that have been put in place to help its members innovate — and that brings us to the actionable part of this write up:

IBM has long focused on protecting its core technology and freedom of use by encouraging employees to actively invent, which in turn also ensures having the freedom to shield the open source ecosystem. It has systems in place to achieve this thru a controlled idea disclosure and review process. It also has systems that subsequently let those employees turn into experts at the art of identifying and/or developing novelty, with an expectation to mentor colleagues.

If people use the systems to amplify the characteristic trait for which those systems were put in place to begin with, then that trait as well as those systems should invariably survive the test of time.

It’s true of all such systems – like democracy, they survive iff people exercise them.

So, the call-to-action for early-tenure IBMers is to make use of systems like – IBM Master Inventor Program – that are available to every employee, to help continue the innovative legacy into the second century. IBM has been a patent leader for 23 years straight with a small fraction of its employees contributing. If for some reason you happen to not believe in software patents, I’d suggest reading this essay on why we invent. I’ve also shared a few tips focused on this specific program.

More importantly though, one can leverage these systems to understand how to think innovatively during day-to-day work – effectively a life-skill that is worth learning in itself even if the end result does not take shape in the form of a patent. Additionally, there are several other systems to drive innovation – applying design thinking, acting as an intrapreneur, participating in Academy of technology initiatives, etc. Equally, these systems go beyond engineering/research, and can span offering management, design/UX, lab services, consulting, data science, sales or operations – the idea is to discover and utilize the systems that exist within one’s discipline to innovate.

Ending this call-to-action on innovation by circling back to my prelude and sharing a short video on the classic Deep Blue versus Kasparov match-up.

If people use the systems to amplify the characteristic trait for which those systems were put in place to begin with, then that trait as well as those systems should invariably survive the test of time.

Take care & Onward.