Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Why innovation dies

By Steve Blank

Faced with disruptive innovation, you can be sure any possibility for innovation dies when a company forms a committee for an overarching strategy.


I was reminded how innovation dies when the email below arrived in my inbox. It was well written, thoughtful and had a clearly articulated sense of purpose. You may have seen one like it in your school or company.

Skim it and take a guess why I first thought it was a parody. Its a classic mistake large organizations make in dealing with disruption.

The Strategy Committee

Faculty and Staff:

We believe online education will become increasingly important at all levels of the educational experience. If our school is to retain its current standards in terms of access and excellence we think it is of paramount importance that we develop an overarching campus strategy that enables and supports online innovation.

We believe our Departments play an essential leadership role in the design and implementation of online offerings. However, we also want to provide guidance and support and ensure that campus goals are met, specifically ensuring that our online education efforts align with our mission, values and operational requirements.

To this end, we are convening a Strategy Committeethat is charged with overseeing our efforts and accelerating implementation. The responsibilities of the group will be to provide overall direction to campus, make decisions concerning strategic priorities and allocate additional resources to help realize these priorities. Because we anticipate that most of the innovation in this area will occur at the school/unit level we underscore that the purpose of the Strategy Committeeis to provide campus-level guidance and coordination, and to enable innovation. The Strategy Committeewill also be responsible for reaching out to and receiving input from the Presidents Staff and the Faculty Senate.

The Strategy Committeewill be comprised of Mark Time, Nick Danger, Ralph Spoilsport, Ray Hamberger, Audrey Farber, Rocky Rococo, George Papoon, Fred Flamm, Susan Farber, and Clark Cable.

A Policy Team, which is charged with coordinating with the schools/unit to develop detailed implementation plans for specific projects, will report to the Strategy Committee. The role of the Policy Team will be to develop a detailed strategic framework for the campus, oversee the development of shared resources, disseminate best practices, create an administrative infrastructure that provides consistent financial and legal expertise, and consult with relevant campus groups: and the the Budget Office. The Policy Team will be led by two senior campus leaders, one from the academic side and one from the administration side.

We are extremely pleased that Dean Tirebiter has accepted the administrative lead role of the Policy Team. Dean Tirebiter brings to this position a deep knowledge of the online environment. He will be helping to identify a member of our Faculty to serve as the academic lead of the Policy Team.

The Strategy Committeewill be meeting for a half-day retreat at Morse Science Hall in the coming weeks to begin work. We will be sending out an update to faculty and following this retreat, so stay tuned for further updates.


President Peter Bergman

We can figure it out in a meeting

The memo sounds thoughtful and helpful. Its an attempt to get all the right stakeholders in the room and think through the problem.

One useful purpose a university committee could have had was figuring out what the goalof going online was. It could have said the world expects us to lead so lets get together and figure out how we deal with online education. Our goal(s) could be:

    Looking good

    Doing good for all [or at least citizens of California]

    Doing well by our enrolled students

    Fixing our business model to fix our budget crisis

    Having a good football team or at least filling the stadium

    Attracting donations

    Attracting faculty

    Oh and yes building an efficient, high quality education machine

    But the minute the memo started talking about a Policy Team developing detailed implementation plans, it was all over.

    The problem is that the path toimplementingonlineeducation is not known. In fact,its not a solvable problem by committee, regardless of how many smart people in the room. It is a NP complete problem it is so complex that figuring out theonepossible path to a correct solution is computationally incalculable.(See thediagrambelow.)

    If you cant see the diagram above clickhere.

    Innovation dies in conference rooms

    The lets put together a committee strategy fails for four reasons:

    1. Online education is not anexisting market. There just isnt enough data to pick what is the correct overarching strategy.
    2. Making a single bet on a single strategy, plan or company in a new market is a sure way to fail. After50-years even the smartest VC firms havent figured out how to pick one company as the winner. Thats why they invest in a portfolio.

      Committees protect the status quo. Everyone who has a reason to say No is represented.

    3. Dealing with disruption is not solved by committee.New marketproblems call for visionary founders, not consensus committee members.
    4. My bet is that there will be more people involved in this schools Strategy Committee then in the startups that find the solution.

      In a perfect world, the right solution would be a one page memo encouraging maximum experimentation with the bare minimum of rules (protecting the schools brand and the applicable laws.)

      Lessons learned

        Innovation in New Marketsdo not come from overarching strategies

        It comes out of opportunity, chaos and rapid experimentation

      • Solutions are found by betting on aportfolioof low-costexperiments
        • With a minimum number of constraints

          The road for innovation does not go through committee