Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center

The 3 walls that imprison great ideas

Here are some great ideas that didn’t sell themselves: the mouse, the GUI operating system, the personal computer and ethernet networking. One company was responsible for generating these ideas in the 70’s. It wasn’t Apple, Microsoft, IBM or even Al Gore. No, the one company that created all these ideas was actually Xerox.

Their PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) was responsible for inventing these exciting multi-billion dollar categories. Yet, why wasn’t Xerox able to commercialize any of these ideas?

Were the technologies flawed? No, although still in their infancy, they proved to be fairly advanced and the early prototypes easily communicated the promise of the ideas.

How about the concepts? No, the ideas tested well with consumers since they offered new benefits that addressed known and unmet needs much better than existing solutions.

What about budget? Again, no. PARC was one of the best-funded research institutes. Numerous ideas were being developed and piloted with fairly robust resources.

At the end of the day, PARC’s innovators found their main challenge to be with people. And not consumers. Instead, the problem lay with their internal business leaders.

Good ideas get walled-in

Unfortunately, the innovators in the organization ran into challenges, not because the ideas didn’t have merit, but because of insurmountable internal hurdles. Specifically, they ran into three walls: a wall of fear, a wall of apathy and, lastly, a wall of disbelief.

In some instances, the ideas they shared, although groundbreaking, seemed threatening to the existing business. Business leaders feared that the new ideas could potentially cannibalize their existing sales by shifting demand away — resulting in a wall of fear.

In other instances, business leaders found the ideas quite promising and on the surface gave them support. But the pressure of meeting quarterly targets, mixed with the stress of daily firefighting and harsh deadlines, meant these ideas were often put on the back burner. When faced with a portfolio of growth initiatives, it’s hard to blame anyone for choosing those ideas that are closer in, easier to do and more proven — resulting in a wall of apathy.

Lastly, any innovator pushing the limits has heard the proverbial “prove it” as a requirement for further funding and support. Too often business leaders have been burned by “great ideas” that didn’t succeed and cost the organization precious time and resources. On top of that, most organizations are designed with a focus on “reliability” — resulting in optimizing what’s proven to work. Big ideas, no matter how great or promising, are tied at the hip with risk. Often the bigger the idea, the greater the risk. This results in a wall of disbelief.

Speak softly and carry a sledgehammer

So what does one do when facing such walls that block great ideas? Break them down, of course. Beyond identifying new opportunities that spawn great ideas, and beyond developing new best practices to better commercialize these opportunities, one of the main responsibilities for any innovator is to champion their ideas through courage and influence.

So beyond being a great innovator, you need to become an even better influencer.

A “T-shaped” leadership model is required, where the vertical represents the subject matter expertise (the creative, integrative thinking skills required to develop new ideas and the experience and know-how to address desirability, feasibility and viability issues to commercialize innovation) and the horizontal represents the ability to influence across the organization to win hearts and minds. The vertical is critically important since it serves as the pillar required to have influence. But additional skills are required to create influence.

Selling? That’s not my job!

I often hear folks tell me they didn’t sign up to be a salesperson. Well, influencing and selling, which on the surface appear similar, are different in one important aspect — the desired outcome. One is transactional with the goal of having something bought and sold, the other is focused on articulating a vision with the goal of co-creating that vision.

As innovation champions, it requires mastery of behavioral leadership versus positional leadership skills. Mastery of these skills helps great ideas go beyond being sold to being embraced and promoted by those that matter most.

In the next article, we will take a closer look at the innovation influencing skills required to create organizational momentum for great ideas.

Soon Yu

Soon spent almost 20 years in the field of innovation, design and marketing, both as an entrepreneur and as a business leader. He started his career as a Bain consultant before becoming a general manager for both Clorox and Chiquita. His most recent role was Global VP of Innovation at VF Corporation (parent company to over 30 brands including The North Face, Timberland, Vans, Wrangler and Jansport). Now he’s consulting and working on his new book, Iconic Advantage.

Originally published at on October 12, 2016.