A short but interesting look at the early days of Xerox PARC (1970s). The author Alan Kay, was one of the original employees and his research and development created the first ‘Object-oriented” software that is the foundation of all software that is developed today.

One of the most interesting comments he makes is:

“Quite a lot of the inventions Parc is most known for were done in the first 5 years by a rather small pool of researchers … the first 5 years (were) “effectively idyllic”… and the second 5 years (were) very productive but gradually erosive”

This is a pattern one sees in many corporate innovation initiatives, the five-year cycle from inception and excitement to dissolution and disappointment. It’s interesting to see that this was true even in the early ‘70s.

Kay’s list of what made Xerox PARC ‘special’ in its early years is the following.

  1. Visions not goals
  2. Fund people not projects
  3. Problem Finding — not just Problem Solving
  4. Milestones not deadlines
  5. It’s “baseball” not “golf” (e.g. batting .350 is great)
  6. It’s about shaping “computer stuff” to human ends
  7. If you can make your own tools … then you must!
  8. An important part of the research results are the researchers

This list is as relevant for companies today as it was for Xerox PARC in the early 70’s. Of course, what has changed in corporate America since the early 70’s the relationship between R&D and the business side of the enterprise. One could imagine, however, that if corporate R&D had followed Kay’s principles, it would be in much better shape today than it is.

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