What you can learn from the sad fate of OLPC

LESSON: Your mission is the goal. Your model is the method. Do not confuse these two things.

The sad story of the One Laptop Per Child project (OLPC) is like a case study in what not to do. I know it’s a non-profit, but in the misguided strategy and execution here are plenty of lessons for you, not the least of which you’ll glean from this interview Nick Negroponte gave to Business Week in the Mar. 17 issue, 0306_mz_negroponte.jpg
in which he said the organization he founded 3 years ago has been operating “almost like a terrorist group” and that it now needs to be managed “more like Microsoft.”

I suspect one reason OLPC has had to operate as an outlaw (if Negroponte is to be believed), is that the mission of delivering a $100 laptop was totally inflexible to practical realities of commercial business models. The goal wasn’t “the cheapest laptop possible without running a deficit” but rather, a $100 laptop “at all costs.” Yet, to succeed, OLPC depended on partnerships with for-profit companies like Intel. When the market economics couldn’t be made fit into the $100-mold, ultimately, Intel walked. Now OLPC employees are, too.

Read the Business Week story for more perspective, but the main lesson here is this: Your mission is the goal. Your model is the method. Confuse these two things at you peril.