Innovation lessons from the first computers

You can learn innovation lessons from the pioneers of computing. Hint: It takes vision and project management skills to achieve success.

The ENIAC Computer

The ENIAC Computer - a key innovation in the history of computers.

Credit: U.S. Army (Wikimedia Commons)

Ideas have the power to change the world. For example, the political ideas expressed by the Magna Carta of 1215 have spread far beyond England. Those ideas about the rule of law and human rights have impacted America, Canada and many other countries. In the case of technology innovation, we can't wait centuries for good ideas to take shape.

The solution? A partnership between visionary ideas and the practical execution skills of project management. As The Innovators by Walter Issacson puts it, partnerships and collaboration have long been an essential attribute to world changing technology. In the following passage, Issacson describes two of the men behind the ENIAC computer constructed in the 1940s:

"Knowing that great conceptions are worth little without precision execution (a lesson Atanasoff learned), Eckert was not shy about micromanaging ... Eckert and Mauchly served as counterbalances for each other, which made them typical of so many digital-age leadership duos. Eckert drove people with a passion for precision; Mauchly tended to calm them and make them feel loved.. Although he was not an engineer, Mauchly did have the ability to connect scientific theories with engineering practicalities in a way that was inspiring." (Pages 74 and 75)

The visionary contribution

The courage to develop new ideas, find support and continue pushing are key contributions made by the visionary. In many cases, visionary innovators have strong sales and influencing skills to get their project funded and supported. Let's explore their innovation qualities further.

1. They are curious and seek out new ideas

Innovation rarely strikes as a single, fully formed concept. Instead, many visionaries build revolutionary products by taking ideas and examples from multiple sources. For example, Steve Jobs's design vision for the computer was informed by kitchen consumer products. If you are in the technology business, consider reading about design, entertainment or the restaurant industry for new ideas.

2. They are determined to put innovation into practice

For many organizations, challenging visions do not come easily. British computing pioneer and mathematician Alan Turing (1912-1954) struggled to build a computer at Bletchley Park to break German military encryption during the second World War. Without a doubt, it was a visionary project. Fortunately, Turing was dedicated to working through the problem with his colleagues. And fortunately for the Allies, he was determined to succeed. Historians estimate that the information gained significantly reduced casualties in the second World War.

3. They know the value of seeking a pro-innovation environment

Many of the innovators of the 1940s had the benefit of significant government and military support for their projects. The U.S. military establishment has played a major role in supporting the development of new technology. After 1945, large companies created departments such as Bell Labs in New Jersey and Xerox PARC in California. 

While there will always be some innovators who create their ideas in less than ideal conditions, those are the rare case. 

The project manager partner

Innovation visionaries rarely succeed on their own. That's a lesson that plays out over and over again in The Innovators. In my view, project managers are well suited to focus on execution (though they can also play the role of visionary). Here are a few of the skills project managers bring to innovation. Without these contributions, visionary ideas will never leave the drawing board.

1. They bring strong organizational skills 

Whether you are a project manager seeking an opportunity or an visionary seeking one, personal organization is vital. Poor self-management raises questions about whether one can manage greater responsibilities. For example, skilled project managers use the Weekly Review to maintain control and perspective on their work. Personal organization is one of the best ways to demonstrate credibility each and every day.

2. They connect the strategic dots

The strategic mindset is vital for project managers working on innovation projects. There are many approaches to strategy. For project managers working on innovation, I suggest focusing on the organization's stated goals. Once these goals are understood, a thoughtful project manager will continue selling the benefits of the project. After all, the organization's executives have many matters on their minds — they may not remember the merit of your project unless you connect the dots for them on a regular basis.

3. They work through conflict effectively

As described in the opening section of this post, innovation often leads to conflict. The time pressure to deliver a brand new product to the market and solve new problems are common occurrences in the pursuit of innovation. If you struggle with conflict, don't despair. There are many conflict management resources available to help you grow your your skills.

Concluding thoughts

As you start to work on your next innovation project, think through these points. Do you have a strong visionary who can inspire and sell the project? Likewise, is your effort supported by a capable project manager? In rare cases, you may find both capabilities in a single person. 

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