The Power of Impossible Thinking
By Yoram (Jerry) Wind and Colin Crook with Robert Gunther (Wharton School Publishing)
From Chapter 5: Seeing a New Way of Seeing
When Richard Stallman spoke to researchers at IBM in the 1990s, he must have seemed like a drop-in from another planet. The bearded MIT hacker who founded the Free Software Foundation was invited in to speak about his radical ideas on software development. In his “GNU manifesto”—which created the foundation for work on GNU, an open-source alternative to the UNIX operating system—Stallman envisioned a world in which “everyone will be able to obtain a good software system free, just like air.”
The problem was that Microsoft, IBM and other companies had built their software businesses on a very different model. Their software was not open, but proprietary. That meant that the source code was developed by internal programmers and locked as tight as a safety deposit box. Sharing software was the same as stealing it, a point that software companies hammered home in their licensing agreements and through the pit-bull growls of their attorneys. The company that sold the software held the code, and users paid for licenses for every breath of this “air.” At the point when Stallman made his first presentations, even the “crazies” in IBM’s research labs couldn’t see a way to build a business model around this extreme view of open source. It was a totally foreign model.
“We had been following what he had been doing ever since I was in research,” said Daniel Sabbah, Vice President of Application and Integration Middleware Development at IBM. “But there was no business model.”
At the same time, IBM researchers recognized the benefits of the open-source model. The software was created by a community structured as a meritocracy, in which developers competed to add source code and users fixed bugs so that the system was self-correcting. Distribution was easier because it was free, and the community that created it helped to spread it. IBM continued to watch this new development and think about it.
Ultimately, this radical idea would transform the way IBM approached its software development. The shift came as IBM was fighting an uphill battle to market its Domino Go software for Web servers based on a traditional proprietary model. By the mid-1990s, Microsoft had captured more than a quarter of the HTTP Web server software market, while IBM had only about 2 percent – a serious concern for a company that was increasingly building its future around e-business. But while large companies battled it out on proprietary server software, an open-source alternative called “Apache” had quietly captured about half the market. The open-source model had moved from a radical idea to a force to be reckoned with, and IBM had no choice but to pay attention. “The horse was already out of the barn,” said Sabbah, who is a Wharton Fellow.
Yet, the next act was far from certain. The company could have dug in its heels and fought for the old model of proprietary software. Instead, it transformed its entire thinking about software development. IBM developed a less extreme open-source model than Stallman’s, allowing for the creation of a profit-making business model. Still, the biggest challenge for IBM was overcoming legal concerns. The lawyers objected, “If you don’t control it and don’t own it, we don’t want to do it.” They pointed out that, as a deep-pocketed player, IBM faced significant risks by climbing into the sandbox with the open-source community. Instead of accepting the objections as a reason to reject open-source, open-source proponents within IBM engaged in rigorous due diligence about licensing agreements and even the origins of the code.
IBM developed a business model based on building more advanced software and service contracts on top of the open-source code. Apache creates the “ecosystem” in which IBM and other companies can build their businesses. Apache creates a standard foundation for the house, making it easier for IBM to build the roof.
“The biggest objections were legal objections, and there were business risks. But in order to be a viable business, you take risks and sometimes those risks pay off,” Sabbah said. The move to Apache also meant walking away from investments in IBM’s proprietary Web server project. “If you are going to love every single one of your children to the point that you never give them up, you are not going to have a successful business,” Sabbah said.
It turned out to be a win-win situation for both IBM and the Apache project. IBM contributed equipment and programmers, giving the open-source project added credibility and the service support to increase the comfort level of large clients. At the same time, IBM now had solid software and an easy distribution platform for basic server software, which was never going to be a high-margin business anyway. By early 2003, Apache was running on more than 60 percent of all servers and IBM had launched other successful open-source-based projects such as WebSphere and Eclipse.
How did the recognition and transformation to this new model take place? First, the research division was constantly looking for new ideas.
“We have a vital and vibrant research division,” Sabbah said. “And they listened to us ‘crazies.’ ”
The project also had support from the company’s leadership, people like Sabbah’s boss, Steve Mills, “who ran interference with the critics and was actively egging me on.” It also helped that IBM had such a small position in the proprietary market that it had little to lose. Still, there were many opportunities for second guessing along the way, as they bet a significant part of the business on this new model.
“Now, you tend to forget all the isolated times along the way when you wondered if you were right,” Sabbah said.
How to See Differently
Most of the time we ignore so much of the world around us. We are sleepwalkers in our own lives, relying upon crib sheets and lecture notes in place of the full spectrum of experience. We walk through the world and don’t pay attention to it. We see without seeing. We quickly classify others as “others” and don’t see them as individuals. We classify new ideas as “crazy” and don’t give them a second thought. We tread the same old paths and don’t look to the left or right. Like the magician’s daughter Miranda in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, we are prisoners of our own islands of thought until some foreign intruders come to our shores. Then we realize the wonder and perils of interacting with this “brave new world” outside the scope of our former mental models.
How do you cultivate the ability to see things differently? How do you remove your own blinders and come up with new perspectives? How do you take these perspectives seriously enough to transform the way you see the world, but not so seriously that you lose touch with your past or your current reality? How does a company like IBM adopt an open-source mindset without losing its focus on making a profit? This chapter examines a variety of approaches to broadening your thinking.
Listen to the Radicals. You need to be able to listen, as IBM did, to the radicals and look for the wisdom and opportunities within their “bizarre” ideas.
Although Canon President and CEO Fujio Mitarai is the nephew of one of the company’s founders, he has a reputation for thinking very differently than his Japanese peers. After working 23 years for Canon U.S.A., Inc., he was able to blend Japanese and American approaches to business challenges, so he was neither a gaijin (foreigner) who would be rejected out of hand nor a traditional Japanese executive. This hybrid approach helped Canon bring radical ideas and approaches into the executive office and achieve record profits at a time when its Japanese peers were faltering.
Who are the radicals in your world and what are they saying to you? What are they seeing that you don’t see? What can you learn from them? Is there some wisdom in their ideas, and how can you bring it into your life in a way that won’t appear quite so bizarre to those around you?
Embark on Journeys of Discovery. At age 22, Charles Darwin embarked aboard the HMS Beagle on a five-year circumnavigation of the globe. There were other sailors aboard, but Darwin was the only one who saw the journey through a distinctive perspective. For the young man, this was a journey of discovery and adventure, a rite of passage, a coming of age, a nineteenth-century scientific “grand tour.” To spend five years of his youth sailing around the world was a stupendous investment of time and energy. From the Amazon jungle to the now-famous Galapagos Islands to the Blue Mountains of Australia, sailing across vast distances in the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic Oceans, Darwin was exposed to an unbelievable number of new experiences.
Beginning his Beagle voyage as a doubting creationist, Darwin subsequently became a firm evolutionist. His training as a geologist had left him pondering the conflicts between the creationist view and the geological evidence. The Beagle voyage and its associated expeditions and scientific activities gave him an immense amount of stimulation and intellectual material. He was a powerful observer and kept meticulous and detailed notes of just about every experience. A combination of keen observations and novel experiences provided Darwin with raw material for his subsequent grappling to make sense of what he observed. This whole process yielded one of humanity’s greatest intellectual achievements—evolutionary theory.
Interestingly enough, Darwin never left Great Britain again after returning from the Beagle voyage, but because he was open to the experience, his mind was stretched in ways that not only transformed his own thinking but also transformed scientific theories more broadly.
It is not just where you go but how you see the experience that counts. Darwin would have been merely a tourist had he not recorded and thought deeply about his new adventures. Beyond that, if he hadn’t brought a Western scientific perspective to his travels, he might never have extracted new insights from them.
Journeys that could offer new ways of looking at the world might be into new lands but also could be into areas such youth markets or video gaming. Listening to the emerging segments of consumers, employees and investors can offer fresh perspectives on your organization or industry.
Where do you need to travel to see new ways of seeing? What journeys of exploration can you embark on? In what places are the new ideas emerging? What perspectives do you need to bring along to make sense of what you are seeing?
Look Across Disciplines. The University of Cambridge’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology has produced many leaders in the field of biology, with a dozen Nobel Prize winners including DNA pioneers James Watson and Francis Crick. Part of the genius of its original thinking was that the lab “welcomed researchers who wandered across disciplines and then encouraged them to interact closely.” This interdisciplinary reach and collaboration has made the laboratory a center for a series of key advances—from identifying the structure of myoglobin and other proteins to developing a method for making monoclonal antibodies.
Similarly the legendary medical treatment of the Mayo Clinic is based upon the insights of teams of physicians, facilitated by a culture, an incentive system and interactive technology that support collaboration. The organization pulls together the expertise it needs from various perspectives and clinic sites to address a patient’s specific problems.
Part of your own familiar territory is your education and training, and you can make new discoveries when you cross these borders. Education and training create communities that have an approved way of seeing and understanding the world. This shared view makes it easier for community members to work together. Doctors have a common mindset and language that facilitates working with others within their professions.
Medical doctors and chiropractors, on the other hand, live in separate universes. They often don’t have this common education and training, so they inhabit separate, and often mutually exclusive, worlds.
A student of physics or medicine will approach the world in a very different way than a student in the philosophy department. How often will these two be found conversing with each other? Eventually, in fact, they may lose the common language they need to communicate at all. As the two students pursue doctoral degrees, they may become so immersed and concentrated in their respective disciplines that they actually inhabit separate worlds. One of the perils of specialization is this isolation.
Some of the advances in physics or medicine, however, have a direct impact on philosophy, and vice versa. For example, researchers are using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and other scientific tools to assess brain activity while addressing ethical dilemmas that have long been a concern of philosophy. With genetic research and other innovations, many of the breakthroughs in biology depend upon computer science or engineering. Biology has been transformed in the process. Its approach, once very “soft” and qualitative, has become much more “hard” and quantitative. But these types of connections will only be recognized if the students have access to one another’s worlds.
While business schools have historically been organized based on academic disciplines (such as management, marketing, finance, etc.), management problems cut across disciplines. The Wharton School has reshaped its MBA program to create a much deeper interdisciplinary approach. Today’s students are empowered to develop more creative solutions to problems by looking at the same challenges from multiple perspectives.
A lot of the progress in different fields is at the intersection of other disciplines. How can you cross the boundaries of your education or practice to see the perspectives from other parts of your organization or other disciplines?