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From the archives: The innovator’s dilemma through the ages

Our needs for long-term solutions are often at odds with the short-term pressure for profits, but sometimes that tension is a good thing.
June 17, 2020

April 1987 

From “How to Keep Mature Industries Innovative”: Basic American ways of thinking must change. We are used to the notion that the only way to encourage innovation is to remove obstacles to competition, including private agreements by firms to limit their freedom of action. Recently, economists, public officials, and business managers have begun to concede that the idea of competition as unlimited freedom can be a barrier to innovation. Through joint ventures and participation in collective research efforts, firms are learning that cooperation can be crucial in developing profitable ideas. States such as Michigan and Massachusetts have instituted programs aimed at revitalizing the automobile-parts, cutting-tool, and apparel industries. These programs are helping the state governments understand how to foster the necessary cooperation among firms, and between management and labor.

September/October 1998 

From “Bell Labs Is Dead, Long Live Bell Labs”: Basic research has not disappeared, as the critics claim. Scores of scientists continue to pursue dreams that may not pay off for decades … [Astrophysicist Tony] Tyson says the dynamic for discovery may actually be better now than at any time since the 1950s. An increased focus on relevance has put short-term pressures on researchers and made it harder to pursue “pure” science. However, he states, “I think it’s healthy to have this tension. Otherwise you’re just sitting in the Ivory Tower doing nothing for anybody. It really does help to be immersed in the needs of the corporation at the same time you’re trying to make some new discovery. If you’re immersed in other cross streams of technology, of ideas, of demands ... that’s a very rich environment for completely new ideas to spring forward.”

May 2004 

From “Sparking the Fire of Invention”: Nathan P. Myhrvold has no interest in competing with Microsoft—but he does mean to challenge the very method of innovation practiced at the company he left four years ago. The 44-year-old founder of Microsoft Research and former chief technology officer of the Seattle giant argues that virtually all corporations, even wealthy ones, lack motivation to pump money into projects outside their existing product lines. In other words, they tend to discourage invention, the often subversive effort to isolate new problems and generate unexpected solutions. “Invention is a side effect [ at corporate labs], not the focus,” Myhrvold says. “When it comes to mission versus invention at most companies, mission wins.” 

Yet this very reluctance has opened a world of opportunity, Myhrvold believes. “You can’t outdevelop Microsoft,” he says. “But you can outinvent Microsoft.”

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