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Impediments to innovation

The computer storage industry seems interesting to many on the outside. Fellow engineers I associate with who are in different disciplines often ask pointed questions when we get together. The most consistent questions are why there are so many storage startups, and why don’t the big-name storage companies innovate more so there would not be so many startups.

That is really a long discussion rather than a simple answer. The reason for startups is they are the best vehicles for bright people with great ideas to bring their visions to reality. The fact that big vendors don’t innovate at a level that would eclipse startups is really an indictment of the organization or structure of companies. I’ve worked at a number of these large companies, and I usually relate some examples I’ve experienced when we are in this discussion. It doesn’t take long for my friends to become somewhat disillusioned as to the state of those companies.

The easiest thing to talk about is the set of characters that are impediments to bring an innovative idea to fruition. I’ll name a few and I’m sure anyone who has tried to achieve something inside a big company can add to this with additional examples. Here are a few types:

• The Blockers. These people believe their position is to make all new ideas go through their process and that nothing can advance unless they are satisfied that process has been met – to everyone’s satisfaction. Usually, they set up a series of gates that must be passed, which is really their way of forcing their process be followed. Passing these gates or even contemplating what it takes is enough to drive anyone with a great idea out of the company.

• Diffusers. These people typically don’t understand the idea or the potential value and hide that lack of knowledge by adding many tangential points to a discussion. These additions dilute the value of the good idea, misdirect the conversation, and give credence to another other idea that is not relevant. Diffusers usually know what they are doing and are intentional in their effort to avoid dealing with the knowledge necessary. Or, they are dangerously clueless people.

• Nitpickers – These near-OCD people want to have every detail covered through sales and support when the discussion is at the concept state. They do not understand how to bring forth a new idea with great potential value. They can cause tremendous delays and require a great deal of work be done that is really meaningless because it is being done before the cake is ready to be put into the oven. Nitpickers add little value and create more problems than they solve.

I also frequently raise the issue of how an established company has different requirements than a startup does for bringing a product to a customer. I only have to show a one-inch thick copy of the “Safety Guide” for installing a storage system from a large vendor to make my point.

These impediments make up what I call the “Department of Revenue Prevention,” and drive many of the best and brightest to take their ideas to the startup route. A startup probably will not be ultimately successful for them, and the idea they worked so hard to bring to market may ultimately not be successful. Still, working twice as hard when there is a chance of success is still better than dealing with the institutionalized impediments most large companies put in place.

It is interesting that established companies did not start out that way. They built in these impediments as their organizations grew by adding processes and people to create the blockages. It is also unfortunate. But if you try to change that, there’s someone standing in the way from that happening.

(Randy Kerns is Senior Strategist at Evaluator Group, an IT analyst firm).

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