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Adventures in Innovation: Inside the Rise and Fall of Nortel Paperback – January 12, 2014
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About the Author
John Tyson is an industrial designer, inventor, angel investor and accomplished senior executive who spent over 35 years with Bell-Northern Research (BNR) and Nortel Networks. During this time he focused on product design, R&D, marketing, and advanced technology. His principles on user-centered design, innovation, and design-based thinking have been detailed in numerous publications and his work has been featured in museums and galleries including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Art Gallery of Canada, the Canadian Museum of Science and Technology, the Canadian Museum of Civilization, and the Toronto Design Exchange (DX). His work has also been featured on two Canadian postage stamps.
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I knew you as a colleague and one of my "wild and crazy" friends... but not as a boy, and so from your book I learned how you became the genius who created the "essence of purple" that transformed staid Northern Electric to a hyper dynamic BNR-Nortel with your many wondrous bedazzlements.... bringing art, new forms and lyricism to the products, marketing and culture.
For two "golden" decades BNR-NT was the go to place for inspiration, innovation and value creation, all with distinction and unprecedented market success, and you have brought this to us in an insightful, and delightful chronology.
Unfortunately, as you have described the last decade and a half saw a collection of fools move to decentralize and neuter BNR's core research and development capabilities, and you have with more forbearance and grace than I could ever muster succinctly captured the byplay and shenanigans of the beginning of the end for Nortel.
The decade preceding bankruptcy was a "clown fight" of epic proportions, and the CEO's and boards of record should have been hectored, throttled and tarred and feathered along with the Harper government.
Perhaps, you will consider an examination of this period for your sequel.
That innovation in the wireless and optical research domains continued in this period is a credit to the durability of core BNR's capability co-fathered by you and great leaders like Don Chisholm and George Smyth. Your description of Bob Scrivener, and Walter Light evoked my own reverence for these two great men and their Vision "thing" was the great enabler for the Purple gangs many successes.
Your conclusions are relentless in their precision, and your wisdom on inspiration-based innovation are marvelous guideposts for the alert.
My old pals at Bell Labs and BNR Nortel will surely shed a tear at your telling of this great tale of triumph and tragedy.
Well and truly done
This tension, between, as Tyson calls it, “pinstriped executives driving sales and white-coated lab engineers pursuing ideas for products a decade away”, is not difficult to maintain in balance as long as both camps talk to each other and the top leadership listens. But it is easy to stop listening as sales grow through the roof, the stock price is exploding and you are in the midst of a wild binge of acquisitions and hiring waves.
Putting R&D spending under the control of the operating businesses focused on immediate products and profits carries a huge risk that research will become just another cost, rather than an investment in the future. In the battle between the operating, money-making arm of the organization and the R&D operation, the scales are tipped towards the former. At the end it will win this unless there is a strong structural protective cocoon around R&D and the enlightened top leadership which does not waiver. Arguably, Nortel collapsed because the conversation stopped between the two camps.
In one of his recalled stories, Tyson asks Scrivener, Nortel’s CEO at the time, about managing business strategy and tactics. It is instructive, that as CEO he owned the strategy and the vision, and considered the operating and marketing plans to be tactical. Consequently he advised aspiring executives to learn to manage the strategy and delegate the tactics. Even more memorable, when asked for his planning horizon, he answered: “10 years.”
When a CEO loses it and falls prey to the short-term expediency rather than viewing R&D as long-term investment, that delicate tension balance will break-down and the internal fighting will start over marketing as an expense versus an investment. This leads to a waste of a lot of money, resources, and time. Ultimately, the collapse will be in sight.
Under these circumstances, there is only one more potential savior: the enlightened, competent Board of Directors which takes seriously its fundamental responsibility to proactively set the strategic direction of the company. However, if the Board allows itself to become too remote from the corporate culture, shielded by executives who consider the directors a necessary evil, it will turn itself into ineffective caretakers as in Nortel’s case towards the end when “Board members were little more than well-meaning, part-time sophisticated contractors who were well compensated to meet the minimal legal requirements.”
There are many valuable lessons from Nortel’s story – the biggest tragedy in Canadian high-tech – which are worth pondering to help other tech organizations. Tyson's book by focusing on the innovation and the achievements of Nortel rather than its tragic demise puts the weight where it needs to be and serves as a refreshing reminder of what was achieved by some very talented people. An inspiring legacy indeed!
What I didn't know until reading the book was of the rich history of what was there before - particularly from John's perspective.
That being said, it is John's perspective and I don't know if he was that connected with some of the innovation coming into Nortel through acquisition that was ignored - but then again, there were the "suits" that controlled that interaction.
For anyone that wants to pursue innovation - read this book. For anyone that wants to understand mismanagement (not by John) read this book.
Thanks for taking the time to write it John - there were plenty of people who've rode on, and enjoyed, the rollercoaster that you helped build.
Most recent customer reviews
A few salient messages and questions came out of this book for me:
- The author was quite...Read more