A 40-Year IBM Vet Talks Spurring Innovation for Decades
Our Q&A with Bernard S. Meyerson, PhD.
PHOTO BY KEN GABRIELSEN
IBM’s chief innovation officer emeritus, Bernard S. Meyerson, PhD, may just be the most innovative thinker currently working in Westchester. The 40-year IBM vet has spent his entire career at the forefront of cutting-edge engineering and technical developments. Among numerous other accomplishments at IBM, Meyerson helped bring wireless technology to life through the development of high-performance silicon:germanium chips, founded and led IBM’s highly successful analog and mixed signal business, and oversaw the firm’s global semiconductor development alliances. Meyerson created the role of chief innovation officer in 2010, serving as such until January 2019, when he handed over the reins to longtime IBMer David McQueeney.
In an engaging and wide-ranging recent conversation in his surprisingly modest office at IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, Meyerson shared valuable insight on what drives innovation at IBM and how other companies can adopt similar approaches.
What is the main factor that drives IBM’s success when it comes to continued innovation?
The art of success — and the reason IBM has been so good at innovation — is we have this incredible diversity of people here. Really, what IBM is about is a huge focus on diversity in all forms: technical diversity, personnel diversity, etcetera. We’re known for supporting radical innovation and a culture of “Just do the right thing.”
Is that where the Chief Innovation Officer role comes in?
The thing that led me ultimately to create the role of chief innovation officer is that I am an expert at what I don’t know. There are some things that I know more about than anybody else in the world, but that’s a very small set. Luckily, we have some 240,000 technical people in this company. So, one of them probably knows the answer.
Chief innovation officer is not a narrow role. There’s got to be someone who just says, “Look, it's broken; let’s fix it — or it’s not broken; let’s go like hell and use it.” The other thing is not only seeing the future but recognizing what part of it is going to be material and making sure we’re good at it at that time. You have to have a forward-looking view.
How do you make sure an innovation mindset permeates throughout IBM?
We make innovation penalty-free. But it’s got to be intelligent innovation. If it works, great, but if it doesn’t work, suck it up and move on. I have a two-word war cry that we’ve used for decades with good success: “Data wins.” So, “I love your theory, but the data says otherwise; move on.” The other thing is you enable people. We don’t beat anyone up. I’m not a judge. If an idea doesn’t work, let’s move on to the next big thing. You have to have this kind of attitude up and down the management chain. And you have to keep people engaged. It can’t always be about profit or growth; there’s got to be education opportunities, opportunities for growth, opportunities for movement within the company.
Also, open communication is vital. At one point we had really bad coffee in the office, so I went and bought a Keurig machine, and I told my team: “I’m going to spend a couple of grand a year on coffee because you guys drink puddles of it. However, if you come to my office to get coffee, you have to sit down and for 15 minutes explain to me why I’m an idiot and what I did so badly that you could have done better.” I’ve done this with everybody; I don’t care how junior. And it works.
What are some of the challenges IBM faces when trying to innovate?
Like every company, of course, we have focus areas — storage and software, and hardware and services, etcetera — and they are verticals, which they have to be. You need that specific expertise. The trouble is that the killer solutions are all horizontal. The stuff that rewrites the book usually takes everything from hardcore physicists, to chemists, to electrical engineers, etc. That’s where most companies really struggle. [To address this:] We move our technical people around a lot — I mean I’ve had about eight careers at IBM. And there are very senior people in leadership who have technical backgrounds, so they understand the necessity [of innovation]. You don’t have to lose your technical chops here to be part of the operation. That has helped.
And we’ve had to change direction so many times. We have no illusions; we have great competitors out there. But what we do differently — we basically made the PC business, but we also recognized when it became a commodity and exited the market. And we have done that time and again, and we’ll keep doing it. When you’re at our scale, it doesn’t happen overnight. The battleship turns slowly, but the good news is, boy, when you align that sucker up at the target, the target has a really bad day.
Another challenge is the need for depth to drive innovation. I have so many colleagues that I have known for 30 years. They have saved my life on more than one occasion, I have saved their lives on more than one occasion. That is invaluable. What terrifies me is the notion that employees now are going to basically run in and out of companies every two to three years. If you look at the organizations that have moved the needle for the world, [that approach is] not typically successful. Because you don’t ever develop the network you need to really know at the ground-level what is going on.
“Innovation is it. Period. The companies that shut it down die in large numbers.”
How much of innovation is just taking calculated risks?
It’s a fair amount. If you see something that’s out of the ordinary, you have to chase it in spite of the fact that everybody else thinks it’s a done deal. Sometimes, you have very preliminary data, and you need to have the guts to make a wild extrapolation and hope for the best. We did that with Watson. [At the time when IBM committed to using the Watson system on Jeopardy] the numbers were like this: The typical Jeopardy champion got something like 90 percent of the questions right in three seconds. Our system, at the time, got 10 percent right in three hours. Nonetheless, we said, “Yeah, we can do this.” And when we did the System/360 [IBM mainframe computers that were in use during the 1960s and ’70s], we invested an entire year’s revenue in one system — revenue, not profit. If it had failed, IBM would not be here.
Can you foster the same innovation mindset when you’re a small business that doesn’t have the support and resources of an IBM?
The answer is yes, but you have to be focused. You have to keep the focus at a level that you can support to get something hot. One of the problems is companies wander. That’s where they lose it; they chase the flavor of the month.
So for companies today, is innovation a luxury or a necessity?
Innovation is it. Period. The companies that shut it down die in large numbers. The world is moving at an ever-accelerating pace. The volumes of data that you’re dealing with are going up; the speed at which it arrives is going up; the veracity, the accuracy is going down because there are bad guys out there. You need to step back and say, “How am I going to solve these challenges?” Anybody who stops doing that is done.