More than ten years ago, when I was just getting started in innovation research, I had the opportunity to interview Ray Stata, then the chairman of Analog Devices, a Massachusetts-based semiconductor company. Mr. Stata left more than one lasting impression.
I was there to study the company’s venture to commercialize modern-day crash sensors, devices that look like ordinary computer chips but contain a microscopic moving part that detects a crash. It took years for the company to figure out how to reliably manufacture these devices — longer than anyone had anticipated. And, when I interviewed Mr. Stata, the company had yet to fully recover the tens of millions of dollars it had invested in the venture.
Nonetheless, there was no mistaking Mr. Stata’s pride in his company’s work. The investment may not have paid off yet, but Analog Devices would eventually recoup the investment, he believed. Further, there were many other potential applications for the technology, beyond crash sensors, that could stimulate further growth. (Indeed, the same devices are now the motion sensors inside certain video game consoles like the Nintendo Wii.)
But Mr. Stata’s satisfaction was not fundamentally rooted in any return-on-investment calculation. Though earning money was certainly a driver, the core ambition was far simpler than that. It was to improve the world. After all: Crash sensors save lives.
It was a reminder to me that innovation is business at its best. It is through innovation that we solve unsolved problems, create jobs, and raise living standards. As Mr. Stata himself put it in a graduation address at MIT, “As MIT graduates we are all innovators and entrepreneurs at heart. We search for opportunities to do things better, to make things happen, and to change the world.”
It’s part of what has kept me fully engaged in studying innovation for nearly 13 years now. Innovation matters most. Everything else just keeps the trains running on time.
Mr. Stata said something else to me that was equally memorable. He said “The limits to innovation have nothing to do with creativity, and nothing to do with technology. They have everything to do with management capability.”
I believe he was spot on, but I’ll leave further thought about it for a future blog.
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Chris Trimble is an expert on making innovation happen in large organizations. He is a frequent speaker on the topic — keynote, roundtable discussions, and executive education programs. Chris is on the faculty at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth and at The Dartmouth Center for Health Care Delivery Science. He has written four books: How Stella Saved the Farm; Reverse Innovation; The Other Side of Innovation; and 10 Rules for Strategic Innovators – from idea to execution.