“Every business must understand how what it is doing empowers humans. This, plus operational excellence, can make a company almost unstoppable.”
— MIT’s Randall S. Wright, writing in the Sloan Management Review.
Any reference to “empowerment” risks sounding hokey or new-agey, but Wright points to specific advances that qualify as far more than mere inventions. In 1979, upon seeing the now legendary graphical user interface developed by Xerox’s PARC labs, for example, Apple’s Steve Jobs immediately intuited how it would empower people. “Within 10 minutes, it was obvious that every computer would work this way someday. You knew it with every bone in your body,” he told Rolling Stone.
Empowerment was also central to Henry Ford’s vision of the Model T, Wright argues. “I will build a motor car for the great multitude… It will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one,” wrote Ford in My Life and Work.
So, if you’re wondering just how big your big-picture thinking should be, remember: For an invention to rise to the level of a genuine innovation, it must change — and improve — the way we live.
Xerox PARC is legendary both for the scope of its innovations — or, you might say, its originations — and for its parent company’s tendency to license them away for a song.
Speaking of songs, another useful anecdote is available from NPR, in its profile of Karlheinz Brandenburg, a.k.a. “the father of the MP3.” The story traces his development of the digital music format to 1982, long before Napster and iTunes came along. The song that Brandenburg primarily used to test sound replication? Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner.”