When Worlds Collide

August 15, 2009


Welcome to my blog  about the  interesting things that happen when technology innovation and business execution are on a collision course.  These collisions are not always pretty, but sometimes they have useful outcomes and in my experience they are almost always instructive.

I like to use When Worlds Collide as a metaphor not because the story itself is particularly relevant — I am not really suggesting that we all flee Mother Earth before it’s too late —  but rather because of the classic illustration on the book jacket  of the 1933  novel by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie.  It shows the occupants of a space ship watching in helpless horror as the Earth is destroyed in a cataclysmic collision.  I sometimes think that business leaders and innovators live on different worlds.  They are trained to to look at the future differently, and they are rewarded differently.  They think about their relationship to the business in fundamentally different ways.  When strategic choices have to be made, these are the worlds that collide.

We will see our share of businesses that are poised for success but are ultimately doomed by colliding worlds.  “I can tell you about train wrecks that I’ve seen up close,” said a CTO of a major IT company.  “The last thing I want to see is another science fair project,” said the CEO of an East Coast software company. But we will also see examples of technology leaders who took control of business objectives or heads of major business units who realized that today’s immature technology can be the dominating force in a market that does not yet exist.  These are the success stories — companies that prospered even when innovation and execution seemed  hopelessly incompatible.

Business leaders, CEOs, CTO’s, Boards of Directors, Research Directors aren’t helpless observers of catastrophes.  Sometimes — too rarely in my view — general management tries to understand why innovators act the way they do, and innovators channel their creative energy into commercially meaningful pathways.  When that happens,  magic can occur.


11 Responses to “When Worlds Collide”

  1. Mike Miller Says:

    Awesome! Great idea and a great format! Maybe down the road you can take a closer look ((a really closer look (inside accounts & case studies, etc)) at what happens when entrenched and change averse corp cultures collide w/ disruptive technologies or event/individual game changers. I recently attended a G Tech Exec MBA class on the subject of innovation. Prof spent 4 hrs leading a discussion on how Immelt tried to introduce a way of doing business that embraced innovation and “imagination breakthroughs” in the face of Welch and GE’s culture of metrics and well planned project timelines. Innovation always involves a bit of a gamble, so GE has definitely had some growing pains associated w/ the new way of doing things. A really cool conversation! Anyway, thanks for carrying the torch so to speak and for providing a forum.

    • richde Says:

      Absolutely, Mike. Disruption can come from any direction and there’s a lot to be learned from how it’s handled.

  2. Tucker Balch Says:

    I look forward to learning more Rich. This blog matches my experience in business.

    In addition to the business lessons, I’m interested in insights regarding how business strategies map (or don’t map) to academia and vice versa.


  3. richde Says:

    Thanks Tucker. That’s a very rich area right now, and I’m working on a book that explores exactly that subject. I will get into a few of those topics in WWC.

  4. Jeff Offutt Says:

    I want to read this book.
    We have several interesting world collisions at George Mason. Most of our MS students are part-time and work in the IT industry in Northern Virgina. Every class meeting, somebody, using different words, asks me the same question “How can I use this tomorrow?” It’s a hard question for an academic, but very useful in focusing my teaching and research.

    Most of our IT industry is government contracting (one world), and I often poke in ideas that are getting more traction in commercial companies … recently agile and test driven development … it’s a big pill for some of these people.

    • richde Says:

      Higher ed is really fertile ground for WWC. Please share the stories. I am working on book that talks about the future of universities that also touches on these things, so I may end up devoting some posts to the topic.

  5. Jeff Offutt Says:

    Okay here’s one.

    I’ve heard it said that the global economy imposes a tax on young people: They must learn English.

    At universities that welcome foreign students (most US universities), professors are required to further the globalization of young people. We refine their English, teach them universal views of right and wrong (usually relating to plagiarism), and teach them professional communication. My kids learn these things in high school, but many of my graduate students do not. My students are sometimes shocked when I make a fuss over cheating, and some are insulted and offended that I punish them for cheating, despite repeated warnings. A strange collision indeed!

  6. Mike McCracken Says:

    I reread your first post that outlined the conundrum of innovation and business leadership. That got me to thinking about the government and what happens when either lower people have good ideas or administrators try to make changes. The government desperately needs innovation, and yet it appears it’s whole reward structure stifles it. Might it be that they do everything than can to prevent collisions, good or bad? I’d be interested in your and others comments on that.

  7. […] had said it, and most of them were Marconi Prize recipients themselves.  I have said it many times here: invention without  impact doesn’t count as innovation. And this was a conference devoted to […]

  8. […] had said it, and most of them were Marconi Prize recipients themselves.  I have said it many times here: invention without  impact doesn’t count as innovation. And this was a conference devoted to […]

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