Most major technological innovations do not occur in the linear mode that more formal planning mechanisms might suggest. They emerge form a relatively chaotic sequence of events typically involving an early vision; numerous fits, starts, and lapses in progress; random interactions with outside parties; frequent intuitive insights and personal risk taking; and even some lucky breaks, which ultimately lead to success. While in retrospective a technology may seem to progress (worldwide) doggedly up a Gaussian curve towards its ultimate theoretical limits, detailed observers see a series of “relatively small steps marked by frequent unanticipated obstacles and by constant random breakthroughs interacting across laboratories and borders. Initial discoveries tend to be highly individualistic and serendipitous, advances chaotic and interactive, and specific outcomes unpredictable and chancy until the very last moment. Even the highly planned first communications satellite blew up when it was deployed.
If formal planning were all that was required for innovation, many more companies would be successful at it. Most fail because they can neither tolerate nor manage innovation’s bubbling, probabilistic, intuitive processes – which are more akin to a disorderly fermentation vat than a sequential production line. Divisions seeking strategic advantage through significant technological innovation need to recognize the turbulent, long-term realities of how this process operates, and design specific organizational and management practices to motivate and guide it properly. Our multiple-year studies show how some of the world’s most innovative large companies both tolerate – indeed stimulate – such chaos and maintain the strong strategic focus and practical controls so essential to efficient operations.