Jeff Immelt ran GE for 16 years. He radically transformed the company from a classic conglomerate that did everything to one that focused on its core industrial businesses. He sold off slower-growth, low-tech, and nonindustrial businesses — financial services, media, entertainment, plastics, and appliances. He doubled GE’s investment in R&D.
In his Harvard Business Review article summing up his tenure, Immelt recalls that the two things that influenced him most were Marc Andreessen’s 2011 Wall Street Journal article “Why Software Is Eating the World,” and Eric Ries’s book The Lean Startup.
Andreessen’s article helped accelerate the company’s digital transformation. GE made a $4 billion bet on connecting industrial equipment via the Internet of Things (IoT) and analytical software with a suite of products called the “Predix Cloud”.
In response to reading Eric Ries’s The Lean Startup, GE adopted Lean and built their Fastworks program around it. Beth Comstock, GE vice chair responsible for creating new businesses, embraced the lean process. Over a period of years, every GE senior manager would learn the Lean Startup, and GE would be the showcase for how modern companies use entrepreneurial management to transform culture and drive long-term growth.
Innovation at GE was on a roll.
Then it wasn’t.
Automobile manufacturers shipped 88 million cars in 2016. Tesla shipped 76,000. Yet Wall Street values Tesla higher than any other U.S. car manufacturer. What explains this more than 1,000 to 1 discrepancy in valuation?
Too many people compare Tesla to what already exists and that’s a mistake. Tesla is not another car company.
At the turn of the 20th century most people compared existing buggy and carriage manufacturers to the new automobile companies. They were both transportation, and they looked vaguely similar, with the only apparent difference that one was moved by horses attached to the front while the other had an unreliable and very noisy internal combustion engine.
They were different. And one is now only found in museums. Companies with business models built around internal combustion engines disrupted those built around horses. That’s the likely outcome for every one of today’s automobile manufacturers. Tesla is a new form of transportation disrupting the incumbents.
Here are four reasons why.
Electric cars pollute less, have fewer moving parts, are quieter and faster than existing cars. Today, the technology necessary (affordable batteries with sufficient range) for them to be a viable business have all just come together. Most observers agree that autonomous electric cars will be the dominate form of transportation by mid-century. That’s bad news for existing car...
We just finished our second Hacking for Defense class at Stanford. Eight teams presented their Lessons Learned presentations.
Hacking for Defense is a battle-tested problem-solving methodology that runs at Silicon Valley speed. It combines the same Lean Startup Methodology used by the National Science Foundation to commercialize science, with the rapid problem sourcing and curation methodology developed on the battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq by Colonel Pete Newell and the US Army’s Rapid Equipping Force.
Goals for the Hacking for Defense Class
Our primary goal was to teach students entrepreneurship while they engaged in a national public service. Today if college students want to give back to their country they think of Teach for America, the Peace Corps, or Americorps or perhaps the US Digital Service or the GSA’s 18F. Few consider opportunities to make the world safer with the Department of Defense, Intelligence Community or other government agencies.
Our second goal was to teach our sponsors (the innovators inside the Department of Defense (DOD) and Intelligence Community (IC)) that there is a methodology that can help them understand and better respond to rapidly evolving asymmetric threats. That if we could get teams to rapidly discover the real problems in the field using Lean methods, and only then articulate the requirements to solve them, could defense acquisition programs operate at speed and urgency and deliver timely and needed solutions.
Finally, we also wanted to show our sponsors in the Department of Defense and Intelligence community that civilian...
Light a path for the better angels
Thank you, Chancellor McLellan, President Florizone, Dean Charlebois, Dr. Hewitt, and Dr. Kilfoil for the invitation to speak today and thank you for the honorary degree.
I’m honored to speak at a university whose motto is: Pray and Work.
It’s pretty close to the one I had as an entrepreneur, which was – Pray it Will Work.
First, my congratulations. Your degree is a big deal. This is your day, not mine.
At worst, a commencement speaker is all that stands between you and lunch. At best, I can give you something to think about as you embark on the next chapter in your life.
What, I wondered, would I have said to a group of graduates living on the edge of a revolution the day writing was invented, or the year after Gutenberg printed the first book, or when radio reached into the homes of millions. What advice would I have given to those about to enter a world no one had ever experienced?
Whether you like it or not, or know it or not, you’re coming of age at just that extraordinary time in human development.
Let me be honest about my bias. I love technology. I’ve spent my life at the center of innovation in Silicon Valley – doing eight startups in 21 years,...
I did a fun fireside chat with one of my most favorite people – Sebastian Thrun – at the Udacity conference. Sebastian is the embodiment of a renaissance person. I first heard about him when his driverless car won the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge. He founded Google X and led the development of the Google self-driving car. He was a Professor of Computer Science at Stanford and before that at Carnegie Mellon University.
And he asks great questions.
If you can’t see the video click here
1:17 Hacking for Defense (Why did we create it? What is it?)
3:30 Lean Startup (What is it? How it started, How did the class get on Udacity)
5:30 Pricing (Customer Validation, Sales, Pricing)
8:30 Customer Discovery (What is the Lean Stack)
10:13 What Advice Would You Give to Yourself at 18?
12:37 Small Businesses vs. Scalable Startups (Should I take Risk Capital)
15:48 Can you Teach Entrepreneurship?
19:03 What’s the Craziest Problem I’ve Ever Seen? (The Navy SEAL’s)
21:25 How Do You Find Out What Customers Really Want? (Customer Discovery, Pivots)
I gave the Alumni Day talk at U.C. Santa Cruz and had a few things to say about innovation.
Even though I live just up the coast, I’ve never had the opportunity to start a talk by saying “Go Banana Slugs.”
I’m honored for the opportunity to speak here today.
We’re standing 15 air miles away from the epicenter of technology innovation. The home of some of the most valuable and fastest growing companies in the world.
I’ve spent my life in innovation, eight startups in 21 years, and the last 15 years in academia teaching it.
I lived through the time when working in my first job in Ann Arbor Michigan we had to get out a map to find out that San Jose was not only in Puerto Rico but there was a city with that same name in California. And that’s where my plane ticket ought to take me to install some computer equipment.
39 years ago I got on that plane and never went back.
I’ve seen the Valley grow from Sunnyvale to Santa Clara to today where it stretches from San Jose to South of Market in San Francisco. I’ve watched the Valley go from Microwave Valley – to Defense Valley – to Silicon Valley to Internet Valley. And to today, when its major product is simply innovation. And I’ve been lucky enough to watch innovation happen not only in hardware and software but in Life Sciences – in Therapeutics, Medical Devices, Diagnostics...
I was having coffee with the CEO of a new startup, listening to her puzzle through how to communicate to potential customers. She was an academic on leave from Stanford now selling SAAS software to large companies, but was being inundated with marketing communications advice. “My engineers say our website is old school, and we need to be on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, my VP of Sales says we’re wasting our marketing dollars not targeting the right people and my board keeps giving me their opinions of how we should describe our product and company. How do I sort out what to do?”
She winced as I reminded her that she had gone through the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps. “Painful and invaluable” was her reply. I reminded her that all the Lean tools she learned in class–Customer Discovery, business model and value proposition canvases– contained her answer.
Define the Mission of Marketing Communications
Companies often confuse communications tactics (“What should my webpage look like or should I be using Facebook/Instagram/Twitter?”) with a strategy. A communications strategy answers the question, “Why are we doing these activities?” For example, our goal could be:
(Marketing communications is a subset of the Marketing department’s mission. Read the post about mission and intent here.)
Audience(s), Message, Media,...
When Colonel Peter Newell headed up the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force (REF) he used lean methods on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan to provide immediate technology solutions to urgent problems.
Today, his company BMNT does for government and commercial customers what the Rapid Equipping Force did for the U.S. Army.
Pete and I created the Hacking for Defense class (with Joe Felter and Tom Byers.) One of the problems our students run into is that there are always multiple beneficiaries and stakeholders associated with a problem, often with conflicting value propositions and missions. So how do you figure out whose needs to satisfy?
Here’s Pete’s view of how you do it.
Unlike businesses, government organizations don’t sell products, and they don’t earn revenue. Instead, they have missions to accomplish and very hard problems to solve. They use a variant of the Business Model Canvas – the Mission Model Canvas – to map their hypotheses, and they get of the building to do beneficiary discovery. (A beneficiary can be a soldier, program manager, commanding general, government contractor, stakeholder, customer, etc.) And just like in a commercial business they are trying to determine whether the value proposition solves the problem and helps the beneficiary accomplish their mission.
Discovery for both business and government is similar in that the only way to...
If you don’t know where you’re going, how will you know when you get there?
I was having a second coffee with an ex student, now the head of a marketing inside a rapidly growing startup. His company had marched through customer discovery, learning about the customer problem, validated solutions and was now scaling sales and marketing. All good news.
But he was getting uneasy that as his headcount was growing the productivity of his marketing department seemed to be rapidly declining.
I wasn’t surprised. When organizations are small (startups, small teams in companies and government agencies) early employees share a mission (why they come to work, what they need to do while they are at work, and how they will know they have succeeded). But as these organizations grow large, what was once a shared mission and intent gets buried under HR process and Key Performance Indicators.
I told him that I had learned long ago that to keep that from happening, you need to on-board/train your team about mission and intent.
Why Do You Work Here?
I had taken the job of VP of Marketing in a company emerging from bankruptcy. We’d managed to secure another infusion of cash, but it wasn’t going to last long.
During my first week on the job, I asked each of my department heads what they did for marketing and the company. When I asked our trade show manager, she looked surprised and said, “Steve, don’t you know that my job is to take our booth to trade shows and set it up?” The other departments gave the...
Uber, Zenefits, Tanium, Lending Club CEOs of companies with billion dollar market caps have been in the news – and not in a good way. This seems to be occurring more and more. Why do these founders get to stay around?
Because the balance of power has dramatically shifted from investors to founders.
Here’s why it generates bad CEO behavior.
Unremarked and unheralded, the balance of power between startup CEOs and their investors has radically changed:
20th Century Tech Liquidity = Initial Public Offering
In the 20th century tech companies and their investors made money through an Initial Public Offering (IPO). To turn your company’s stock into cash, you engaged a top-notch investment bank (Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs) and/or their Silicon Valley compatriots (Hambrecht & Quist, Montgomery Securities, Robertson Stephens).
Typically, this caliber of bankers wouldn’t talk to you unless your company had five profitable quarters of increasing revenue. And you had to convince the bankers that you had...
Innovation, disruption, accelerators, have all become urgent buzzwords in the Department of Defense and Intelligence community. They are a reaction to the “red queen problem” but aren’t actually solving the problem. Here’s why.
In the 20th century our nation faced a single adversary – the Soviet Union. During the Cold War the threat from the Soviets was quantifiable and often predictable. We could specify requirements, budget and acquire weapons based on a known foe. We could design warfighting tactics based on knowing the tactics of our opponent. Our defense department and intelligence community owned proprietary advanced tools and technology. We and our contractors had the best technology domain experts. We could design and manufacture the best systems. We used these tools to keep pace with the Soviet threats and eventually used silicon, semiconductors and stealth to create an offset strategy to leapfrog their military.
That approach doesn’t work anymore. In the 21st century you need a scorecard to keep track of the threats: Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, ISIS in Yemen/Libya/Philippines, Taliban, Al-Qaeda, hackers for hire, etc. Some are strategic peers, some are near peers in specific areas, some are threats as non-state disrupters operating with no rules.
In addition to the...
The Office of Naval Research (ONR) has been one of the largest supporters of innovation in the U.S. Now they are starting to use the Lean Innovation process (see here and here) to turn ideas into solutions. The result will be defense innovation with speed and urgency.
Here’s how the Office of Naval Research (ONR) was started. In World War II the U.S. set up the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) to use thousands of civilian scientists in universities to build advanced technology weapons (radar, rockets, sonar, electronic warfare, nuclear weapons.) After the war, the U.S. Navy adopted the OSRD model and set up the Office of Naval Research – ONR. Since 1946 ONR has funded basic and applied science, as well as advanced technology development, in universities across the U.S. (Stanford’s first grants for their microwave and electronic lab came from ONR in 1946.)
Rich Carlin heads up ONR’s Sea Warfare and Weapons Department. He’s responsible for science and programs for surface ships, submarines, and undersea weapons with an annual budget of over $300 million per year.
Rich realized that while the Department of Defense DoD spends a lot of money and has lots of requirements and acquisition processes, they don’t work well with a rapid innovation ecosystem. He wanted to build an innovation pipeline that would allow the Navy to:
Innovation theory and innovation in practice are radically different. Here are some simple tools to get your company’s innovation pipeline through the obstacles it will encounter.
Pete Newell and I’ve been working with Karl, the Chief Innovation Officer of a large diversified multi-billion-dollar company I’ll call Spacely Industries. Over the last 15 months his staff got innovation teams operating with speed and urgency. The innovation pipeline had been rationalized. His groups whole-heartedly adopted and adapted Lean. His innovators and stakeholders curated and prioritized their problems/idea/technology before handing them off.
Karl’s innovation pipeline had hundreds of employees going through weekend hackathons. 14 different innovation teams were going through a 3-month I-Corps/Lean LaunchPad program to validate product/market fit. His organization had a corporate incubator for disruptive (horizon 3) experiments and provided innovation support for his company’s operating divisions for process and business model innovations (Horizon 1 and 2.) Karl’s innovation process looked like this:
(Read our last post for the details.)
Given all this activity we were surprised that in our last call with Karl he started with “I think they’ve beaten me down.” He listed the internal obstacles his teams continued to face, “We’ve created innovation teams in both the business units and in corporate. Our CEO is...
A shorter version of this post first appeared on the HBR blog
I just watched a very smart company try to manage innovation by hiring a global consulting firm to offload engineering from “distractions.” They accomplished their goal, but at a huge, unanticipated cost: the processes and committees they designed ended up strangling innovation.
There’s a much better way.
An existing company or government organization is primarily organized for day-to-day execution of its current business processes or mission. From the point of view of the executors, having too many innovation ideas gets in the way of execution.
The Tidal Wave of Unfiltered Ideas
Pete Newell and I were working with a company that was getting its butt kicked from near-peer competitors as well as from a wave of well-funded insurgent startups. This was a very large and established tech company; its engineering organization developed the core day-to-day capabilities of the organization. Engineering continually felt overwhelmed. They were trying to keep up with providing the core services necessary to run the current business and at the same time deal with a flood of well-meaning but uncoordinated ideas about new features, technologies and innovations coming at them from all directions. It didn’t help that “innovation” was the new hot-button buzzword from senior leadership, and incubators were sprouting in every...
Annual note to self – most of the world exists outside the tech bubble.
We have a summer home in New England in a semi-rural area, just ~10,000 people in town, with a potato farm across the street. Drive down the road and you can see the tall stalks of corn waving on other farms. Most people aren’t in tech or law or teaching in universities; they fall solidly in what is called working-class. They work as electricians, carpenters, plumbers, in hospitals, restaurants, as clerks, office managers, farmers, etc. They have solid middle-class values of work, family, education and country – work hard, own a home, have a secure job, and save for their kids’ college and their retirement.
This summer I was sitting in the Delekta Pharmacy in the nearby town of Warren having a Coffee Cabinet (a coffee milkshake). It’s one of the last drugstores with a real soda fountain. The summer tourists mostly come through on the weekend but during the week the locals come by to gab with the guy behind the counter. There are four small wooden booths along the wall in front of the fountain, and as I drank my Cabinet I got to overhear townie conversations from the other three booths.
Unlike every cafe I sit in the valley or San Francisco, their conversations were not about tech.
While they own tech, smartphones and computers, most can’t tell you who the ex-CEO of Uber is, or the...
I was in Boston and stopped by the Harvard Business Review for their IdeaCast podcast. I shared my current thinking about innovation in companies and government agencies. The interviewer, Curt Nickisch was great and managed to get me to summarize several years of learning in one podcast. He even got me to tell my Steve Jobs interview story.
It’s worth a listen.
Listen to the entire interview here:
Or listen to just parts of the interview:
3:29 Entrepreneurs make their own luck
4:35 The difference between an idea and an entrepreneur
5:18 Why entrepreneurship thrived in Silicon Valley
7:10 The pay-it-forward culture
7:53 Failure as part of the process
9:32 When I was more wrong than anyone on earth
11:20 Steve Jobs on Customer Development
12:38 The first time I did customer discovery
14:49 Engineers built products for themselves and the “next bench”
15:27 Why MBA’s avoided Silicon Valley
16:01 20th century investors were not entrepreneurs
16:45 Startups are not smaller versions of large companies
18:18 We needed a management stack for innovation
I was at Stanford in the Graduate School of Business and was interviewed by Peter Gardner of StartGrid for his On The Road podcast. I shared my current thinking about innovation in companies and government agencies.
It’s worth a listen.
BTW, it seems every podcast has a trick last question. This one was, “if I was on a road trip what’s the destination and what’s playing on the radio?”
Listen to the entire interview here:
Or just parts of the interview:
01:59 What drew me to entrepreneurship
03:43 What motivates me about innovation today
05:25 Entrepreneurship in the 20th century
06:30 The difference between large companies and startups
07:13 The Lean Startup Lightbulb moment
07:44 An MBA meant Master of Business Administration
08:18 Agile Development and Lean – Eric Ries
09:05 Business Model Canvas – Alexander Osterwalder
12:32 Innovation in Large Companies in the 20th Century
13:05 Startup Capital at Scale threatens large Companies
13:58 Startups operate with alacrity, agility and at times a death wish
15:06 Companies can only do things that are legal, while startups can do anything
16:00 Corporate defcon level – the wartime footing level
17:41 Innovation Theater
18:23 Did you move the top or bottom line?
19:50 Two types of 21st century corporations
20:55 Hedge funds and dual-class stock
22:28 Innovation pipeline not silos
24:25 Innovation Outposts
Two good things just happened in Washington – these days that should be enough of a headline.
First, someone ideal was just appointed to be Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense.
Second, funding to teach our Hacking for Defense class across the country just was added to the National Defense Authorization Act.
Interestingly enough, both events are about how the best and brightest can serve their country – and are testament to the work of two dedicated men.
Soldier, Scholar, Entrepreneur
Joe Felter was just appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia. As a result, our country just became a bit safer and smarter. That’s because Joe brings a wealth of real-world experience and leadership to the role.
I got lucky to know and teach with Joe at Stanford. When we met, my first impression was that of a very smart and pragmatic academic. And I also noticed that there was always a cloud of talented grad students who wanted to follow him. (I learned later I was watching one of the qualities of a great leader.) Joe had appointments at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), where he was the co-director of the Empirical Studies of Conflict Project and at the Hoover Institute where he was a research fellow. I learned he’d gone to Harvard to get his MPA at the Kennedy School of Government in conflict resolution. But the thing that really caught my attention: his Stanford Ph.D thesis...
If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the people to gather wood,
divide the work, and give orders.
Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
I was visiting with an ex-student who’s now the CFO of a large public tech company. The company is still one of the hottest places to work in tech. They make hardware with a large part of their innovation in embedded software and services.
The CFO asked me to stay as one of the engineering directors came in for a meeting.
I wish I hadn’t.
The director was there to protest the forced relocation of his entire 70-person team from Palo Alto to the East Bay. “Today most of my team walks to work or takes the train there. The move will have them commuting for another 45 minutes. We’re going to lose a lot of them.”
The director had complained to his boss, the VP of Engineering, who admitted his hands were tied, as this was a “facilities matter,” and the VP of facilities reported to the CFO. So, this was a meeting of last resort, as the engineering director was making one last appeal to the CFO to keep his team in town.
While a significant part of the headcount of this tech company was in manufacturing, the director’s group was made up of experienced software engineers. Given they could get new jobs by just showing up at the local coffee shop, I was stunned by the...
As more and more companies face disruption from globalization, new technology, and startups that have more capital than the incumbents, the continuing cry from Wall Street investors is, “Why can’t companies be as innovative as startups?”
Here’s one reason why:
Startups can do anything.
Companies can only do what’s legal.
Startups can do anything
One of the unheralded advantages of a startup is what at first glance appears to be its weakness. Initially, a startup has no business model and no market share to defend. Its employees and investors don’t depend on an existing revenue stream. If they select a business model that targets industry incumbents, they don’t have to worry about upsetting existing customers, partners or distribution channels.
Yet those very weaknesses give startups an overwhelming advantage in innovation. Startups can try any idea and any business model—even those that are on the surface patently illegal.
At times laws and regulations are in place for the health and safety of consumers. But often the legal obstacles confronting startups have been put in place by companies that look to the government and regulators as their first line of defense against new market entrants. (Existing companies also use network effects of monopolies/duopolies, distribution channel kickbacks, etc., to stifle competition.)
In the past, these anti-innovation tools were sufficient...