Alright, so why am I rambling on about innovation again. Recently I ran across a great example of the culture of innovation (or to be precise the impact of culture in a negative way on innovation). I recently transitioned from AT&T / iPhone for my family mobile ser vice to Verizon (not the subject of this post, but a very good transition). As a part of that shift my two daughters (11 and 14 yrs old) had the chance to pick new phones. They were moving from a Nokia slider (the 11 yr old, the slider replaced the 1st gen hand-me-down iPhone by her choice btw) and an iPhone 3G. I allowed them to pick whatever they wanted from the current Verizon phone portfolio (including the HTC Incredible) and they both picked the new Microsoft Kin although different models, the 11 yr old took the Kin One and the 14 yr old took the Kin Two. Their only real complaint was the lack of apps but the social integration of the OS more than made up for that shortfall (and my older daughter has an iPod Touch so she didn't really miss the iPhone at all). They both required full data plans but then both had already been on full data plans on AT&T so I didn't really think about it.
The Kin has been much maligned in the blogsphere in recent weeks. Microsoft discontinued the phone a couple of weeks ago after a really poor showing with something less than 10K sold. I've heard and read lot's of stories about why the phone wasn't popular but my own experience leads me to believe that the phone did in fact have the potential as a disrupter, but fell short on two fronts...the lack of an apps store and the requirement of a full data plan (so pretty expensive for a phone targeted at teens). Now the funny thing is that both of these issues were created when the phone fell victim to some internal politics at Microsoft. The original Kin (or Project Pink as it was known internally at Microsoft) the brainchild of J Allard and with technology from the 2008 acquisition of Danger was something of a darling project and operated independently of the Windows Mobile OS division led by SVP Andy Lees. The project was on a short timeline for delivery in 2009 and included an apps store concept. Verizon won the bids to carry the phone and had promised a lower price data plan to make the phone attractive to teens (and parents). Allard, who is also credited with the Zune, used bits from Danger and from Zune but did not include the legacy Win Mobile platform (which was later scrapped and rebuilt as the Win 7 mobile platform). Not to go through this whole debacle play by play, you can do that here in this Engadget Post, but the problem was politics. Lees wanted control of this rogue project and eventually got control. Thus begins the end of innovation, the project was re-scoped, the apps store was out as were other innovations and the delivery date was slipped. Verizon, faced with the new longer timeline reneged on its promise of lower pricing and the phone was released to its now predefined failure.
From the reaction I've seen the phone had potential but politics and the desire for control smashed the innovation and set it on a path of sure failure. This is to me, a great example of what happens in companies when they value the organizational structure and power over innovation. It also points to the evolution of a company and its ability to innovate. Culture is one of the most critical elements that allow people to develop and launch innovative ideas. Microsoft, and executives like Lees, do not foster innovation if it threatens their political power and control. Often we see larger software companies in the continuous innovation camp, but rarely as creators of discontinuous innovation. The open culture that is required to create disruptive products is much more prevalent in start ups. Not that larger software companies can't create disruptive technologies, but often those technologies come through acquisition, not internal development. Politics make it very difficult for the culture of innovation to thrive.