• 11.26.08

Leadership Drove Innovation in the Great Depression (and other downturns)

Brave leaders in past downturns bucked the trends and committed to innovation to their firm’s long term benefit.



Have some innovative impulses but afraid to take the leap? For anyone needing a dose of courage to commit to new undertakings when all around you are retracting like cost-cutting terrapins, I direct you to a terrific piece in the December edition of Wired (16.12).  “Back to the Garage” by Daniel Roth is too fresh to have a link yet, so let me intrigue you with some key points and encourage you to read the detail when you can lay your hands on the magazine, or when it becomes available on line ( .

Roth’s central point is that a period of economic disarray presents unusual opportunity because the barriers come down to moving forward in new ways, and a hungry (and less expensive) workforce has to succeed – the alternative is disaster.   He references Tom Siebel’s famous founding of Siebel Systems in the depths of the 1993 downturn.  He harnessed the skills of “some inexpensive, underworked software engineers,” secured some cheap office space, set up his folding table, and the rest, as they say, is history.  

Siebel followed a proud tradition that has a direct line to the Great Depression and other downturns.  According to Roth, many a brave leader laid the groundwork for decades of success based on what their leaders committed to innovate in those tough years.   His examples: Du Pont “set aside basic research and … came up with nylon, the first synthetic fabric, revolutionizing the way Americans parachuted, carpeted and panty-hosed.” Tom Watson committed IBM to built a new research center, a move that posiitoned them at the forefront of their peer group. A generation later, Bill Hewlitt of HP “committed to building the pocket calculator – at the time, a supposedly impossible task – during the 1969-1970 recession.” For a full list, see the article.