11/26/12 - a low level employee wins the nobel prize

In today's excerpt - sometimes you have to win the Nobel Prize to get noticed by your boss:

"Business history is dotted with stories of opportunities lost because people within companies were unsuccessful in pitching their ideas. And those neglected opportunities were consequential. Competitors seized market share that could have been kept and increased if the good idea had been adopted. Take the minivan. Who came up with that idea -- Chrysler? No. Ford engineers came up with that idea -- they called it the van-wagon -- but they couldn't convince management that customers would buy it. In fact, one executive who endorsed it, Hal Sperlich, was fired and went on to lead the effort at Chrysler, which then dominated the minivan world for many years. Ford lost out. ...

"Companies unreceptive to advocacy efforts often discover that their brightest 'idea people' leave in search of more hospitable homes elsewhere. Some of today's most successful companies were created by individuals who were unable to convince movers and shakers within their former organizations of the merits of their ideas.

"Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart, started his career as a franchisee in the Ben Franklin chain of stores. Walton tried to convince the Ben Franklin executives that his model of buying directly from manufacturers and offering deep discounts would lead to incredible opportunities. They didn't listen, Walton implemented the idea himself, and Walmart became an international phenomenon. ...

"Eugene Kleiner and many other early innovators left William Shockley's Semiconductor Laboratory in the late 1950s when they failed to convince him of the merits of silicon. Joining a small company named Fairchild, these rebels soon dominated the semiconductor industry. Later Gordon Moore and other creative thinkers at Fairchild left to create Intel for a similar reason. Moore recalls that he was frustrated at Fairchild because 'it was increasingly difficult to get our new ideas into the company's products. As the company grew, it became more and more difficult to transfer the ideas and the new technology.'

"Steve Wozniak, a cofounder of Apple Computers, was working at Hewlett Packard when he and Steve Jobs designed their first personal computer. Wozniak had signed a document at HP saying that whatever he designed as an employee belonged to HP. He said, 'I loved [HP]. That was my company for life. So I approached HP .... Boy, did I make a pitch. I wanted them to do it. I had the Apple I, and I had a description of what the Apple II could do. I spoke of color. I described an $800 machine that ran BASIC (an early computer language), came out of the box fully built and talked to your home TV: And Hewlett-Packard found some reasons it couldn't be a Hewlett-Packard product.'

"Later, when HP began work on a computer, Wozniak approached the project managers and asked to work on it. 'I really wanted to work on computers. And they turned me down for the job. To this day I don't know why. I said, 'I don't have to run anything,' even though I'd done all these things and they knew it. I said, 'I'll do a printer interface. I'll do the lowliest engineering job there is.' I wanted to work on a computer at my company and they turned me down.' Think how different the computer industry would be if Wozniak had successfully pitched his ideas to HP. ...

"At first reading, you might think that the real issue in these cases is not advocacy but rather the unwillingness of companies to listen to gifted employees. You would be right. These organizations weren't attentive enough, and brilliant individuals jumped ship in search of more receptive audiences. It is essential that executives create cultures in which good ideas are recognized and supported. Leaders too often have no idea of who is doing the most innovative work. Koichi Tanaka, for instance, shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2003 for his work on protein-molecule analysis. The company he worked for, Shimadzu, a Japanese precision-engineering firm, saw little value in commercializing his invention until after researchers in other nations had done so and had given Tanaka recognition for the work. In fact, until he won the Nobel Prize, he was a low-level 'salary man.' Afterward, the president of Shimadzu told reporters that although he had met Tanaka a few years earlier, he 'could not have imagined' that he would ever be a Nobel laureate. Only after receiving the Nobel Prize was Tanaka promoted to a senior position."


John A. Daly


Advocacy: Championing Ideas and Influencing Others


Yale University Press


Copyright 2011 by John A. Daly


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