Why Corporate Innovation is Harder Now

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
26:32     Why Innovators Leave Companies
27:30     We can’t afford to have our government go out of business
28:54    Why I turn on the Beach Boys

National Security Innovation just got a major boost in Washington

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 in Political Science had the world’s best title: “Taking Guns to a Knife Fight: A Case for Empirical Study of Counterinsurgency.” I wondered how this academic knew anything about counterinsurgency.

This was another reminder that when you reach a certain age, people you encounter may have lived multiple lives, had multiple careers, and had multiple acts. It took me a while to realize that Joe had one heck of a first act before coming to Stanford in 2011.

As I later discovered, Joe’s first act was 24 years in the Army Special Operations Forces (SOF), retiring as a Colonel.
His Special Forces time was with the 1st Special Forces Group as a team leader and later as a company commander. He did a tour with the 75th Ranger Regiment as a platoon leader. In 2005, he returned to West Point (where he earned his undergrad degree) and ran the Combating Terrorism Center. Putting theory into practice, he went to Iraq in 2008 as part of the 75th Ranger Regiment, in support of a Joint Special Operations Task Force. In 2010 Joe was in Afghanistan as the Commander of the Counterinsurgency Advisory and Assistance Team. At various points his Special Forces career took him to countries in Southeast Asia where counterinsurgency was not just academics.

Ironically, I was first introduced to Joe not at Stanford but through one of his other lives – that of an entrepreneur and businessman – at the company he founded, BMNT Partners. It was there that Joe and I along with another retired Army Colonel, Pete Newell, came up with the idea of creating the Hacking for Defense class. We combined the Lean Startup methodology – used by the National Science Foundation to commercialize science  – with the rapid problem sourcing and solution methodology Pete developed on the battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq when he ran the US Army’s Rapid Equipping Force.

My interest was to get Stanford students engaged in national service and exposed to parts of the U.S. government where their traditional academic path and business career would never take them. (I have a strong belief that we’ve run a 44-year experiment with what happens when you disconnect the majority of Americans from any form of national service. And the result hasn’t been good for our country. 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, State Department, Intelligence Community or other government agencies.)

Joe, Pete and I would end up building a curriculum that would turn into a series of classes — first, Hacking for Defense, then Hacking for Diplomacy (with the State Department and Professor Jeremy Weinstein), Hacking for Energy, Hacking for Impact, etc.

Hacking For Defense
Our first Hacking for Defense class in 2016 blew past our expectations – and we had set a pretty high bar. (See the final class presentations here and here).

Our primary goal was to teach students entrepreneurship while they engaged in national public service.

Our second goal was to introduce our sponsors – the innovators inside the Department of Defense and Intelligence Community –  to a methodology that can help them understand and better respond to rapidly evolving asymmetric threats. We believed 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, then defense acquisition programs could operate at speed and urgency and deliver timely and needed solutions.

Finally, we also wanted to show our sponsors in the Department of Defense that students can make meaningful contributions to understanding problems and rapid prototyping of solutions to real-world national security problems.

The Innovation Insurgency Spreads
Fast forward a year. Hacking for Defense is now offered at eight universities in addition to Stanford – Georgetown, University of PittsburghBoise StateUC San Diego, James Madison University, University of Southern Mississippi, and later this year University of Southern California and Columbia University. We established Hacking for Defense.org, a non-profit to train educators and provide a single point of contact for connecting the DOD/IC sponsor problems to these universities.

By the middle of this year Hacking For Defense started to feel like it had the same momentum as when my Lean LaunchPad class at Stanford got adopted by the National Science Foundation and became the Innovation Corps (I-Corps). I-Corps uses Lean Startup methods to teach scientists how to turn their discoveries into entrepreneurial, job-producing businesses. Over 1,000 teams of our nation’s best scientists have been through the program. It has changed how federally funded research is commercialized.

Recognizing that it’s a model for a government program that’s gotten the balance between public/private partnerships just right, last fall Congress passed the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act, making the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps a permanent part of the nation’s science ecosystem.

It dawned on Pete, Joe and me that perhaps we could get Congress to fund the national expansion of Hacking for Defense the same way. But serendipitously, the best person we were going to ask for help had already been thinking about this.

The Congressman From Science and Innovation
Before everyone else thought that teaching scientists how to build companies using Lean Methods might be a good for the country, there was one congressman who got it first.

In 2012, Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Il), ranking member on the House Research and Technology Subcommittee, got on an airplane and flew to Stanford to see first-hand the class that would become I-Corps. For the first few years Lipinski was a lonely voice in Congress saying that we’ve found a better way to train our scientists to create companies and jobs. But over time, his colleagues became convinced that it was a non-partisan good idea. Rep. Lipinski was responsible for helping I-Corps proliferate through the federal government.

While Joe Felter and Pete Newell were thinking about approaching Congressman Lipinski about funding for Hacking for Defense Lipinski had already been planning to do so. As he recalled, “I was listening to your podcast as I was working in my backyard cutting, digging, chopping, etc. (yes, I do really work in my backyard,) when it dawned on me that funding Hacking for Defense as a national program – just like I did for the Innovation Corps – would be great for our nation’s defense when we are facing new unique threats. I tasked my staff to draft an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act and I sponsored the amendment.”

(The successful outcome of I-Corps has given the Congressman credibility on entrepreneurship education among his peers. And it doesn’t hurt that he has a Ph.D and was a university professor before he ended up in Congress.)

Joe Felter and Pete Newell mobilized a network of Hacking for Defense supporters. Joe and Pete’s reputations preceded them on Capitol Hill, but in part a testament to the strength of Hacking for Defense, there’s now a large network of people who have experienced and believe in the program, and were willing to help out by writing letters of support, reaching out to other members of Congress to ask for support, and providing Congressman Lipinski’s office with information and background.

Congressman Lipinski led the amendment. He brought on co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle: Representatives Steve Knight (R-CA 25), Ro Khanna (D-CA 17), Anna Eshoo (D-CA 18), Seth Moulton (D-MA 6) and Carol Shea-Porter (D-NH 1).

On the floor of the House, Lipinski said, “Rapid, low-cost technological innovation is what makes Silicon Valley revolutionary, but the DOD hasn’t historically had the mechanisms in place to harness this American advantage. Hacking for Defense creates ways for talented scientists and engineers to work alongside veterans, military leaders, and business mentors to innovate solutions that make America safer.”

Last Friday the House unanimously approved an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act authorizing the Hacking for Defense (H4D) program and enabling the Secretary of Defense to expend up to $15 million to support development of curriculum, best practices, and recruitment materials for the program.

This week the H4D amendment moves on to the Senate and Joe Felter moves on to the Pentagon. Both of those events have the potential to make our world a much safer place – today and tomorrow.

Why good people leave large tech companies

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 CFO’s reply: “Too bad, but we need the space. They’re lucky they work here. If they leave at least they’ll have ‘name of our company’ on their resume.”

WTF? I wasn’t sure who was more shocked, the director or me.

After the director left, I must have looked pretty surprised as the CFO explained, “We have tens of thousands of employees, and at the rate we’re growing it’s almost impossible to keep up with our space needs in the Bay Area. You know for our CEO, ‘love us or leave us’ has been his policy from day one.” (By coincidence, the CEO was an intern at one of my startups more than two decades ago.) I asked, “Now that the company is public and has grown so large, has the policy changed?” The CFO replied, “No, our CEO believes we are on a mission to change the world, and you really have to want to work here or you ought to leave. And because we’re inundated with resumes from people who want to work for us, he sees no reason to change.”

I don’t know what was more sobering, thinking that the policy which might have made sense as a scrappy startup, was now being applied to a company with 10,000+ employees or that the phrase, “…we are on a mission to change the world, and you really have to want to work here or you ought to leave…” was the exact same line I used when the now-CEO was my intern.

Adult Supervision
Before the rapid rise of Unicorns, (startups with a valuation over a billion dollars), when boards were still in control, they “encouraged” the hiring of “adult supervision” of the founders after they found product/market fit. The belief then was that most founders couldn’t acquire the HR, finance, sales, and board governance skills rapidly enough to steer the company to a liquidity event, so they hired professional managers. These new CEOs would also act as a brake to temper the founder’s excesses.

In the last decade, technology investors realized that these professional CEOs were effective at maximizing, but not finding, product cycles. Yet technology cycles have become a treadmill, and to survive startups need to be on a continuous innovation cycle. This requires retaining a startup culture for years – and who is best to do that? The founders. Founders are comfortable in the chaos and disorder. In contrast, professional managers attempt to bring order to chaos and often kill the startup culture in the process. Venture firms realized that teaching a founding CEO how to grow a company is easier than teaching the professional CEO how to find the new innovation for the next product cycle. And they were right.  It was true in the company I was visiting— and in the last five years over 200 other Unicorns have emerged, and most still have their founders at the helm.

And so, this startup found itself with a “founder friendly” board that believed that the company could grow at a greater rate if the founding CEO continued to run the company. This founder’s reality distortion field attracted a large number of employees who shared his vision. It was so compelling, everyone worked extremely long hours, for little pay and some stock. They were lucky, they got the timing right, and after a painful couple of years figured out product/market fit, and went public. And those early employees got rewarded as their stock turned into cash.

The problem was that at some point past employee 1000, the big payoffs ended from pre-public stock and the stock’s subsequent run-up from their IPO. But the CEO never noticed that the payoff had ended for the other 95% of his company. Flying to his remote company locations in his private jet, and surrounded by his early employees who were now worth tens of millions of dollars, the mantra of “you really have to want to work here or you ought to leave” rang hollow for the latest employees.

The company was now attracting interns who did want the name of this hot company on their resume. But since compensation was way below average, they stayed just long enough to pump up their resumes and left for much better paying jobs – often in a startup.

And because fewer senior engineers considered it a great place to work, the company’s initial technology advantage has started to erode.

Wakeup Call
The downside of founders running large companies is that there are no written best practices, no classes, no standard model at all. And given that in the past, founders as a group were rarely in charge as startups became large companies, it’s no surprise. Reprogramming founders who grew their business by being agile, relentless, tenacious, and often aggressive, and irrational and at times, into CEOs that can drive organizational growth, is tough.

This means quickly learning a new set of skills; sublimating large egos, working through direct reports, when their span of control can no longer encompass the entire company; and building repeatable processes that enable scale. At times this comes only after a crisis that provides a wakeup call.

As a startup scales into a company, founders and the board need to realize that the most important transitions are not about systems, buildings or hardware. They’re about the company’s most valuable asset – its employees.

Founders of great companies figure out how the keep their passion but put people before process.

Postscript
I can tell this story now, as the director left the company and founded his own startup in a different market segment. Over the next six months 55 of the 70 employees in his group that were asked to relocate left. 25 of them joined his new startup. And of the other 30 who left?  Six new startups were formed.

Lessons Learned

  • Be careful of unintended consequences when you grow
  • Recognize the transition boundaries in company size
  • Recognize that what drove an Innovation Culture when you were small may no longer apply when you’re large
%d bloggers like this: