You can’t innovate if you’re focused on the present

Last week Ken Olsen, the brilliant entrepreneur and founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, passed away. He was 84. I had the privilege of meeting him a few times. We were Digital’s ad agency in its declining years. And I started my career working for Data General, another minicomputer giant founded by ex-Digital engineers.

Olsen was the visionary who realized that mainframe computers needed to come out of the back room and into the lab and office. That foresight launched a $12 billion dollar company that defined high-tech for two decades. But despite his early prescience, Ken Olsen failed to anticipate or even acknowledge the personal computer. In fact he insisted that no one would ever need a computer in his home. And of course the rest is history.

In our industry — advertising, marketing and media — there is no shortage of innovators who subsequently lost out to the next innovation. Why? Like Ken Olsen, they had a tendency, as well as a need, to focus on the business at hand. There were numbers to make, deadlines to meet, work to produce, clients to serve, awards to win. Of course this short-term mindset — a focus on current clients, an obsession with known competitors rather than emerging foes, and a determination to leverage existing competencies instead of developing new ones — was a deterrent to preparing for the future.

Granted predicting what’s next is impossible. But if we’re paying attention, we can certainly see a number of trends — a diminished reliance on messages, the emergence of networked storytelling, and the growing importance of real time information are but a few. They suggest we’ll need a host of new skills even if we’re not yet sure what we’ll need those skills to do. Design thinking, modern collaboration, a mastery of new tools and technologies might help us stay relevant and #buildshit that matters.

In addition to learning new stuff, we may also want to forget much of what we already know so that we can invent the future in what’s referred to as Box 3 — a virtual place and mindset where we can escape linear thinking, take a leap and create something original without any of the people or processes from Box 1, which is where we conduct our day to day business.

At Mullen we actually think about this stuff.  So above I’ve shared a deck from a recent management offsite where I talked about the trends that will affect our business and some of the ways we might deal with them. Would love any thoughts you have on ways to keep an organization from becoming another Digital Equipment Corporation.

photo credit: Yunghi Kim/Globe Staff/File 1988

10 comments
DaneFindley
DaneFindley

I know what you're saying is true. I feel it in my guts. I'm very aware that if I had started curating my lifestyle blog in the year 2002,my site would already be *HUGE* by now! That's okay, it inspires me to keep my eyes peeled for where digital is going next, so I can be out in front. I already know that mobile, video, and quality content will continue to become increasingly important -- but what else am I missing? What's next?

{ twitter = @danenow }

Kinga
Kinga

Great post, really enjoyed reading it.
One thing we are doing at our agency is working on getting everyone invovled & empowered in trend watching/innovation, rather than making it the responsibility of a few strategey/senior people.
The power of an agency is it's people & inspired, passionate & empowered people will result in innovation.

adscientist
adscientist

Thanks for keeping DEC's memory alive Edward. :)

I grew up on DEC because my uncle was the company's COO. After high school, my aunt paid his way through college at Bentley while she worked small jobs. As the 13th employee he started as a wire wrapper, but many of the first employees became the senior heads of the company as it grew.

There were many great things about the company.

One was the culture. At the time was like no other. Today, DEC is woven into the Bay State's history. I've had DEC employees as college professors and I have met former employees on the commuter train. Even with all the internal problems of the company, they all talk as if DEC was a good friend of theirs. They do it with a smile too. It is really fascinating to hear about their connection with the company or being DEC Alum.

Another DEC great was that they were not afraid of taking chances and the ideas of the employees. To some great degree, this drove the company forward. It is a real shame about Ken and the quote he is forever known for. It isn't what you want to be known for in a HBS business case. They were never the organized machine as IBM, but they were certainly as innovative for their time. The Alpha Servers and minicomputers put them on the map, not to forget about their great service support. You are 100% right on your blog post, thus the downfall of a great company. They missed the golden opportunity.

CarolWeinfeld
CarolWeinfeld

Slide #5 is key: Be useful. To achieve that, companies must anticipate customers' needs through understanding and empathy.
@clweinfeld

LizBelilovskaya
LizBelilovskaya

Hey there,
I really enjoyed this post. One, I learned something, thats always nice. Two, I have to agree completely that looking ahead is extremely important in business. It is the only way to be able to predict what type of machinery/equipment (whatever it is) will emerge next and take control of the market. The survivability of the business is usually determined by how quickly it is able to adapt and stay current, which means not focusing only on the current trends but attempting to foreshadow what is to come next.

BruceDeBoer
BruceDeBoer

I lived in Boston from "80 - '88, and worked freelance for Digital, Prime, Wang among others. Ahhh, nostalgia - there is consistant value in an outside partner - like Mullen - bringing fresh thinking into the box. I'm not sure myopic thinking is all that avoidable because one has to be thoroughly committed to their vision for a long enough duration to succeed.

WIthout someone doing the fringe thinking for you and whispering in your ear, isn't it inevitable that your industry will move beyond your reach? It's like driving the highway at night in the rain, without a navagator it's very easy to drive by your exit.

pensato
pensato

An excellent post, Edward! My own thinking is that agencies may, in fact need to disintegrate entirely. The way of the future is purpose-based collaborations, made to order for the client/project/campaign at hand.

In my own work, I pull together teams as needed for clients as needed, based on the needs at the time—each client essentially gets a custom-built agency just for them.

Much of what I see around the corner is predicated on our increasingly changing mindset, which I have expressed, coincidentally enough, in a recent blog post, here: http://blog.davidpensato.com/2011/we-are-no-longer-your-audience

I'd love to hear your thoughts on it.

edwardboches
edwardboches moderator

@adscientist Great comment. Thanks for sharing that. I, too, grew up in their shadow. Ken and his colleagues fueled the entire entrepreneurial movement in Massachusetts. His presence, as you note, was felt everywhere.

edwardboches
edwardboches moderator

@BruceDeBoer Agree with that. But I also think -- my point -- is that in our business we have to do the same for ourselves. Forget what we know, move into Box 3. Interestingly, we just changed a lot -- move to Boston, new space, new offerings and capaibilities, new ways of doing things. They've been working. So, we decided to change it up again: space, model, processes, etc. Not at expense of present, but in hopes we don't miss too much going forward.

edwardboches
edwardboches moderator

@pensato Left a comment. Well written, but a little bit stating what we all know (or should know; perhaps some still don't.) Trick is to take it somewhere with ideas, platforms, tactics and engagement that works. Look forward to seeing any work you have that does that.