‘Coach’ Bill Campbell on Cultivating Innovation

More great stuff from the McKinsey Quarterly today. This time it’s a Q&A with Bill Cambell, a tech titan who, McKinsey writes:

“has experienced firsthand the spectrum of Silicon Valley scenarios, ranging from technological breakthroughs to the rocket trajectories of new start-ups to failed spin-offs—and the mountains of cash that go up in smoke when products don’t catch on.”

Campbell founded Claris in 1987 (acquired by Apple in 1990) then ran GO, the pen-based software shop, and eventually became CEO of Intuit (1994-2002). He remains on the boards of Apple and Intuit.
More important, Campbell is a “low-profile, high-level counselor” to many tech companies, including Google. CEO Eric Schmidt has called Campbell “priceless beyond belief” adding, “our basic strategy is to invite him to everything.” John Doerrsimply calls him “The Coach.”
This Q&A discusses how to cultivate an innovative culture at your startup . It is behind the pay wall, so we’ll offer a few highlights.
Sustaining innovation is no easy task, as all founders eventually learn. But Campbell has experience with endeavoring to beat the odds, too: He coached football at his alma mater, Columbia University, for six years in the ’70’s — a football program best-known for its 30-year losing streak!
First, “innovation can occur in a couple of ways,” Campbell says. You can invent new technology (The Google School), or you can apply it in order to make products better than they were before (The Apple School).
Both have value, you just need to know which School you want to belong to.
Then McKinsey inquires about “The Campbell School” for cultivating innovation.

McKinsey: How does an executive build and support an innovative culture?
Campbell: It’s where the crazy guys have stature, where engineers really are important…The Campbell School is that engineers need to have clout.
When I went to Intuit, I would have the directors of engineering have lunch with me every Friday. We’d bring in pizza; we’d sit there and shoot the bull. And I wasn’t in there talking about new ideas. I was in there talking to them about how we could do more things the same: I wanted standards … What are the languages we’re going to use? How are we going to do quality assurance?… Later, as we got closer, I’d get sushi and take the four of them in my car. We’d drive to one of the engineers’ houses, watch Monday Night Football, and eat and talk about what we could do to make our engineering environment better…

Says Coach: Honor and spend quality time with your engineers — they are the startup’s equivalent of the left tackle, the guy who protects your “blind side.”
And most important, don’t let business heads talk them out of their creative work, with budgets or marketing directives.

Campbell: Engineers should have the ability to say, “This is what we want to do, and all the product managers in the world aren’t going to talk us out of this.” One day, [a product manager] came to a meeting that included me and banking engineers and says, “I want these features.” And I replied, “If you ever tell an engineer what features you want, I’m going to throw you out on the street. You’re going to tell the engineers what problem the consumer has. And then the engineers are going to provide you with a way better solution than you’ll ever get by telling them to put some dopey feature in there.”

So there you have it. Engineering first. There is much more good stuff in the McKinsey piece. Read the full text here.