Designing disruption with Thunderbird Professor Glenn Edens

Silicon Valley veteran discusses what it takes to foster innovation and how you can do it too

A blueprint of an imaginary idea machine

Blueprint of an Idea Machine. Stock image credit: mustafahacalaki


Talking about creativity in business via Zoom, Glenn Edens sits close to the laptop camera. He listens intently and speaks thoughtfully. Discussions with Edens bounce comfortably from subject to subject, due in part to his palpable excitement when he expounds on innovation, even after all his years working in a variety of industries.

Edens is a researcher, entrepreneur, corporate strategist, artist and consultant in telecommunications, entertainment and information technology. His work includes co-founding GRiD Systems, creating the first portable computer, now in the permanent collection at the MoMA, as well as holding positions at Xerox, Apple Computer, AT&T Strategic Ventures, Hewlett Packard and Sun Microsystems. He’s currently president of Art2Technology, where his consulting clients include Apple Records, Sony and Citigroup. He teaches the popular class Global Innovation at Thunderbird School of Global Management at ASU.

His background ranges from software and hardware development to management research and art, including changing the way music is made, sold and listened to. His past job titles include CEO and president, but Edens jokes that he just can’t hold a job when explaining how different industries hold some universal principles when it comes to disruption, which can displace workers at all levels.

Edens welcomes all questions, prefacing thoughtful answers with phrases like, “That is a great question” or “Thank you for asking.” He references his famous acquaintances such as Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos or the late Steve Jobs, but only when there is something to teach.

A humble leader, Edens reiterates that inventing something means standing on the shoulders of giants, and he has left his name off many papers to which he contributed. His impressive resume and life experiences animate his quick-paced teaching style with compelling stories, a few of which he referenced in our interview with him about designing disruption. 

Question: What are some reasons for innovation that people may not think about?

Answer: Innovators are seeking change and are fine with a little bit of risk, whereas noninnovators hate change. Innovators are looking for discontinuous innovation, also called disruptions. Noninnovators want things to be continuous and incremental. So it’s about loving change vs. despising change.

Q: There is so much value added to companies that innovate, but what are some personal drivers for innovation?

A: Innovation is rewarding. You’ve accomplished something big, or even changed the world, which I suppose is the ultimate outcome. It is a personal journey and a learning journey. By taking risks, making mistakes and learning from those mistakes, you will probably grow faster than your noninnovative colleagues. You can be labeled a troublemaker or annoyance, so there is a cost. You want to be with a company or entity that has some ability to deal with failure, because if you are innovating and doing something new, there is a range of successes, from unbelievably successful to disaster. So you may have a career cost to manage. It is rewarding. And inspiring to the rest of the company. The inventor of the 3M Post-It wouldn’t accept no for an answer and did some brilliant things like putting the Post-It notes on all of the staff's desks so they could experience it. He rallied support, and that gave many other people at the company the opportunity to innovate.

Q: Researcher Brene Brown says vulnerability is key to innovation. Do you agree with this sentiment?

A: I think vulnerability is related to taking risks, and your willingness to fail. So if in culture or your own values you can’t fail, you will be less willing to take risks. I would say the two go together.

Q: What are the biggest barriers to innovation? How are these overcome?

A: That depends on the context. Innovation in your personal life is easy because it is just one person and your choices, but humans have an unbelievable capacity to overcome limitations. In an institution, whether it is a government institution, a nonprofit, or a for-profit, you will have wildly different contexts and barriers. In a government setting, it is always going to be about policy and a very long and drawn-out process that makes it very slow. If you are in a for-profit company, your challenge is going to be competing with other ideas and for funding. All innovation ideas in a for-profit context are competing for funding. So the question becomes how resourceful can you be? What can you get done with influence and volunteer labor whereas if you are trying to innovate a new medical vaccine, for example, you will need a lot of resources, so it becomes the scale of the problem, where you are doing it, the context, will determine how hard it will be. 

There is a notion called paradigms, and that word means a model for how to do something. In computer programming, there are different paradigms. They are important because they tell you what you can’t do and give you structure. If your space is unlimited, where do you start?

Q: How can disruption be designed?

A: I started looking at this question in 1992 when I was working for Paul Allen's organization. Silicon Valley was getting wise about what it did well and why, and I felt that if you narrowly define disruption in a business context of a new innovation that disrupts the existing marketplace, that narrowness is key. If that is your definition, you should have a set of principles to look at the marketplace, figure out where the weaknesses are, and where to spend your best innovation resources, whether that’s time, dollars, engineering efforts, marketing efforts, etc. Over a period of about two years, we started to develop a model, we saw patterns. There are many books on this, so my work is built on many other people’s work, but what we came to is there is a small set of disruption principles and it had to do with how you look at an existing marketplace. We asked how do you look at the economics of that marketplace, and how do you create a substitute that will move customers? 

Everything is a substitute, the iPhone, an incredible product, is a substitute. There were products that came before it that did roughly the same thing, like Blackberries. And cell phones were substitutes for landlines. Landlines were substitutes for telegraphs, which were substitutes for smoke signals and the Pony Express. In the course of human endeavor, while we take on new technology, we pretty much largely do the same things we did 30,000 years ago. I think the key insight we had is that if you can understand the substitute and what it has to achieve to be compelling where you fit in the value chain of that industry, then you can design it, and have a statistically high chance of being disruptive.

Q: What are some everyday practices that people can do to see things as an innovator?

A: There are three forces you must overcome to innovate: uncertainty, ego and bias. Uncertainty can be solved by knowledge and experimentation. Ego is addressed by being more honest and open about what your place in the process is. It's about data and learning, but it's also about adopting an open mind. You might think you have the answer, and you might have the answer, but you have to test that. You have to constantly fight your own success. Bias is closely related, it's the downside of your belief systems, and it comes in many forms. And specifically around innovation, it has to do with assumptions you are unwilling to challenge. You have assumptions you take as fact. There’s really no right answer to too many things in life, so you have to experiment to overcome uncertainty and you need experience and knowledge to overcome bias and ego. 

Companies have these same problems. Companies that are really successful often develop the identity of overcoming uncertainty, ego and innovation bias more and more, which can give a false sense of security. So as they become more successful, they can actually become more brittle. So that is one of the biggest innovation challenges in a company.

Q: What are the areas/industries you foresee having the most opportunity for innovation in the next five to 10 years?

A: Being both creatively oriented, an optimist and an innovator, I think every industry is still ripe for transformation. Humans are learning more everyday, increasing the total sum of our knowledge and our access to it, so I would say no one is safe from disruption. But if you look at the biggest challenges that humanity and society face, we have to solve the problem of climate change, sustainability and better use of our resources, health and health care as well as humanitarian issues such as equal opportunity and dignity — there are so many big issues, but to me those are the big five. Any innovation that can help solve any of those planetary problems is going to reap incredible rewards for society. 

We’re at the start of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The First Industrial Revolution changed what people did and how they lived. But it was a pretty rough time; people were putting children to work, which subsequent generations later decided was unacceptable. So I think over the next decade we will make some pretty fundamental changes. Many of them will be driven by innovation, many will be value-based, and they will all unfold in an economic context because right now, any innovation has to be funded. I think all those things work together, so I would say energy, health care and food production are probably the three biggest. After that, you get into other issues such as the construction industry, how can it be less wasteful? How can we build better buildings? You could probably pick any industry on the planet, and I could probably give you five things that need to be innovated in that industry.

Q: You have worked across so many industries, do you find many of the same principles apply to all enterprises?

A: Everybody thinks their industry is so unique and there is always resistance to change upfront. But I’ve been lucky to have been doing this for a long time across many different industries from railroads to mining to food to high tech, which was the bulk of my career. But each industry thinks they are unique, and they do face different challenges. If you are in the mining industry, for example, there is a limit to the amount of resources you can extract, so there can be scarcity. But in my experience and the places I’ve been able to apply it, any company can learn to be more innovative and create a culture that either inhibits or supports innovation. That is a choice. And many make it consciously but some make it unconsciously.

Q: You're also an artist, so how do the two work together in your professional life?

A: Science makes art possible and art informs science. They’re inextricably linked. I was lucky that my father was in aerospace and my mom was an artist. So I had two very different views of the world. So they weren’t different for me. My guidance counselor asked me which side I wanted to choose and I didn’t know. I had a summer job at that time at one of the most respected design firms in the country, and I got to see that you don’t have to make a decision. One day this firm is making a movie, one day they are doing industrial design, one day they are doing toys, next designing parts for an IBM computer, and then a trade show for mathematics, so I think my luckiest break in my life was discovering that you don't have to choose.  

Written by Christina Furst, Thunderbird branding and communications coordinator.

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