I’m reading a fascinating book, The Innovators, by Walter Isaacson. In addition to describing the evolution of the digital revolution, the book focuses on the innovators themselves and the societal impacts that led to (or detracted from) the development of technology.

Today’s nugget was about the Alto computer — an early prototype of what came to be the personal computer. It was developed at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), specifically designed for innovation apart from the bureaucracy of headquarters in New York. The brilliant scientists and engineers at PARC did exactly what they were assembled to do, but Xerox corporate managers were not ready to embrace change at the rate it was occurring.

At a corporate conference, there was a display of Altos for attendees to have hands-on experience with the amazing new machines. The all-male executives were uninterested in experimenting with the Alto, but their accompanying wives embraced the machines and began playing with them as intended. “The men thought it was beneath them to know how to type. It was something secretaries did. So they didn’t take the Alto seriously, thinking that only women would like it,” said PARC director Bob Taylor. Because of this narrow mindset, Xerox failed to capitalize on the inventions of its scientists and fumbled the opportunity to be a financial and global leader in the billion-dollar personal computer industry.

Think about your comfort with change. Are you like the Xerox leaders who say they want change — even fund an expensive research park specifically to promote it — but then revert to old habits and fail to take risks when change is presented? Or are you like the male executives who see only one application for something and are unable to consider new possibilities and audiences? Or (hopefully) are you like the wives who could see potential and were anxious to experiment and learn?

As Isaacson points out, being an innovator goes beyond just having good ideas. Push through the discomfort of change to truly embrace innovation in all of its glorious, messy forms.

The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson, 2014

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