Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

September 22, 2009

In the irreverent, satirical movie Brain Candy the scientist who is responsible for the eponymous drug that takes the world by storm and briefly turns an ailing pharmaceutical company into a global powerhouse is invited along with his team to the CEO’s house for a celebration.  While his nerdy team members are left at a dismal affair of chicken salad and soggy potato chips, the scientist is escorted to the real party, a sophisticated Bacchanalia complete with caviar, Champagne, celebrities, super models,and swimming pools.  Few Champagne-and-caviar parties in today’s corporate climate, but there is still a sense that when dinner is served for top decision-makers, R&D does not have a seat at the table or is – at best – a distraction.  R&D is a somewhat curious, uncomfortable, and frequently unwelcome guest.

There are obvious signals when the worlds of technology innovation and business execution are on collision courses.  There are early warnings that reverberate through organizations, but they tend to go unnoticed because corporations make  it  easy to set up effective filters.  Warnings can show up in the very language that R&D management uses to talk about the rest of the company.  In “Are R&D Customers Always Wrong?” I quote former GM research chief Robert Frosch talking about the

…ocean of corporate problems

as if they were the problems of some alien world into which the GM R&D Center had been dropped.  In “Well, what kind of fraud is it?” Edward clearly lived in a different world, and the many “Loose Cannons” who I still hear from were never able to bridge the gulf.  Everyone seems to be a helpless observer to a catastrophe over which they have no control.

My experience is that senior executives, starting in the boardroom, can too easily focus on events that are rushing at them — too fast for effective reaction — ignoring the events that are still far enough away to anticipate.   There is, for example, an overwhelming feeling  that, since the time of a chief executive  is so precious, every step should be taken to avoid diluting the CEO’s time with minutiae.  To be perfectly honest, technologists tend to do that – passion for a technology project can fill a briefing with flourishes that are meant to be savored and admired by peers, not convey actionable information to decision-makers.  But that doesn’t excuse what in my view has become the regrettable practice in large companies of filling virtually all executive time with managing cash, debt, and other financial indicators of performance.

Financial performance in a technology company rests on other factors, too. Market disruptors, for example, are rarely predicted by financial analysis.  Even annual strategic planning and investment is a barren exercise without the participation of an educated team to make sense of the alternatives.  In an industry with many acquisition targets the ones that should occupy the attention of senior management are not necessarily the ones that have the strongest near-term business cases because those may not be the ones that advance long term goals.  Intel chairman Andy Grove once said that a Board’s responsibility is to

…insure that company success is longer than the CEO, market opportunity, or product cycle.

I will have more to say in later posts about the collision between decisions that really advance long term goals and those that are simply chosen from a list of predetermined alternatives.  What starts in the boardroom is inevitably replicated at other levels.  To deal with all of the important factors that determine success of a technology company  technology leaders must have a seat at the table.  Avoid collisions by inviting them to dinner.

I’ve worked with many senior executives who have set a technology place at the table with oftentimes-spectacular results, but today I want to focus on my Bellcore mentor CEO George Heilmeier, winner of the 2005 Kyoto Prize for his invention of the liquid crystal display.  George, along with Bellcore research chief Bob Lucky and head of the software business Sanjiv Ahuja led the remarkable transformation of Bellcore from an inward looking R&D consortium to the profitable stand-alone supplier of telecom software and services that was divested by the Bell Operating Companies and acquired by systems integrator SAIC in 1997.   Bellcore generated enough cash in the first quarter after being acquired to pay back the entire purchase price. George took particular delight in his mentor role.  Even during his busiest days at Bellcore, he would wander into my office, put his feet up on the coffee table, and ask what was going on in the labs, a conversation that often went on long into the evening.

One of George’s most enduring contributions to the R&D culture at Bellcore (and, as I later found out, to Texas Instruments, Compaq, and DARPA) was the Catechism.  I tried many times to get him to call it something else because I really believed that some in our multicultural environment would be offended by the term, but he always ignored my suggestion and in the end nobody seemed to mind very much.  The Catechism was George’s way of framing every strategic discussion, but he took particular care to make sure it was used to manage technology.  I later found out that others, including former Intel research head David Tennenhouse, who had also been swept into George’s wide path, had also carried the Catechism tradition forward.  According to the Catechism every strategic proposal in the company had to answer the following six questions:

  1. What are you trying to do? (No Jargon)
  2. How is it done today and what are the limitations of current practice?
  3. What is new in your approach and why do you think it will succeed?
  4. Assuming success, what does in mean to customers and the company?  This is the quantitative value proposition.
  5. What are the risks and the risk reduction plan?
  6. How long will it take?  How much will it cost? What are the mid term and final exams?

At Bellcore, George personally ran a Quarterly CEO Technology Council Review, where R&D managers from around the company would present their best ideas – always using the Catechism — for innovations to heads of the strategic business units, sales, and marketing.  Sometimes to the consternation of both the CFO and  the head of sales, George would reward skunk works projects that had terrific answers with additional resources to continue their work.  I wondered many times about the metaphor mixing in Question Six, but again it didn’t seem to both others.  There was no complicated process.  If you answered the questions well and the value proposition made sense, you got enough to get you going.  If the project was a little further along, you needed business unit heads to also buy in, and so on until it made sense to tie cost and revenue goals to the project. By that time the balance of the authority for the project was in a product group so the Technology Council could disengage. Amazing ideas came out of this process including the word’s first e-commerce products and an amazing quality transformation among the company’s more than 6,000 software engineers.

George Heilmeier’s Catechism was the inspiration for my Loose Cannon escalation process at HP.  HP was about 50 times larger than Bellcore so the idea of a quarterly CEO review was not feasible.  However my Technology Council was a direct pathway to the Executive Council so the effect was the same.

I sat down with George last spring for a wide-ranging conversation.  Much of what he had to say about both the Catechism and seats at the table has also appeared elsewhere – most notably in his five public speeches in conjunction with the Kyoto Prize.[1] The work that won him the Kytoto Prize was done in the 1960’s at RCA’s Sarnoff Laboratories in Princeton, where he had recently completed his PhD.   This included the discovery of electro-optic effects in certain kinds of liquid crystals that would be used to build  the first liquid crystal displays.   George always claims that he just “stumbled upon it” but he quotes Vladimir Zworykin, a television pioneer  with commenting:

“Stumbled, perhaps, but to stumble you must be moving.”

Heilmeier became disillusioned with the slow pace of change at RCA and left to spend a year as a White House Fellow, an assignment that turned into an appointment as Special Assistant to Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger and later to his appointment as head of DARPA.  Schlesinger and other White House mentors gave George a seat in senior policy discussions from the earliest day, and his growing comfort with proximity to important decision-making shaped his outlook on the value of a seat at the table. Two lessons stuck with him.  First was the negative power of vested interests:  in times of change those with the most to lose will fight tooth and nail to undermine it and those with the most to gain do not yet realize how much they have to gain.   Second was the negative aspect of “technology transfer”.  George was never a fan of throwing technology “over the transom”.  His commitment to providing an equal voice for innovation grew out of his experience that it was much better to form what he calls an “interdisciplinary team” with representation from R&D, product engineering and manufacturing  (he still believes that marketing is best done organically with all members of the team interacting with customers).   The leadership and balance of this team shifts as time goes on.  This is the dinner table.

In my next post, I’ll give you an example of these principles in action: a transformational event that could only have been successful with a seat at the table and that would have been killed by a distant CEO, undiluted with the minutiae of technological disruption.

[1] A Moveable Feast: Kyoto Prize Lecture (SD Version), 2005


7 Responses to “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”

  1. cognitivecomputing Says:

    Nice post. Heilmeier’s questions are still core, see:


  2. […] Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner […]

  3. […] the Catechism to get people to focus on the real “care-abouts” when making investment decisions and […]

  4. […] Have a happy and safe New Year, and, by all means, don’t get caught when worlds collide. [1] […]

  5. […] Heilmeier was a master  of getting a seat at the table for R&D (see “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner“), but worlds can also collide when they expand, and as the 2009 Grace Murray Hopper […]

  6. […] “technology driven” is often not the best path to real innovation.  Part 1 of this post was distilled from a conversation with George H. Heilmeier, former director of DARPA, […]

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