The Innovator’s Dilemma and the impossibility of remaking an organization

One year ago today (2014-03-03):

During Tech budget and resourcing meeting for the 2014-2015 Annual Plan, one of the ideas proposed was possibly sourcing an incubator group to (re)“build Wikipedia or other major project in line with the Vision from the ground up, without prior constraints from existing technology, processes”, or communities. The idea was, even if it didn’t succeeded it would cause the organization “to think differently, to create energy around being BOLD,” and catalyze the movement.

This had some currency from many of the participants1, even the C-level2 involved, that was until a director argued that this was infeasible due to the Innovator’s Dilemma. Ignoring the obvious misreading of the book, he argued that because this might destroy the existing order inside the organization, it couldn’t be done by the organization itself, and thus the proposal died despite never going up for consensus consideration.3

Deciding that it is politically stupid to point out their Readers’ Digest understanding of a deeply-flawed business text, I instead argued that an organization built around vision, rather than profits, does not have the same constraints that allow disruptive technologies to spell their undoing.

That argument didn’t carry weight because people with more experience than me were sure that this initiative would be defunded in the next annual plan and that no one would ever get behind a project that is a direct threat to them. Incubation outside the WMF is only possibility.

It’s sad that people don’t bother to know the most basic lived history of their own industries (or have a terribly short memory).

I give you the history of Firefox:

The Mozilla Firefox project was created by Dave Hyatt and Blake Ross as an experimental branch of the Mozilla browser.

The Phoenix name was kept until April 14, 2003, when it was changed because of a trademark dispute with the BIOS manufacturer, Phoenix Technologies (which produces a BIOS-based browser called Phoenix FirstWare Connect). The new name, Firebird, met with mixed reactions, particularly as theFirebird database server already carried the name.

The project which became Firefox started as an experimental branch of the Mozilla Suite called m/b (or mozilla/browser). After it had been sufficiently developed, binaries for public testing appeared in September 2002 under the name Phoenix

Hyatt, Ross, Hewitt and Chanial developed their browser to combat the software bloat of the Mozilla Suite (codenamed, internally referred to, and continued by the community as SeaMonkey), which integrated features such as IRC, mail and news, and WYSIWYG HTML editing into one software suite.

Dave Hyatt would leave Netscape4 for Apple in 2002 and go on to architect the number one competitor to Firefox, Safari and WebKit (the core of Safari and Google Chrome). Blake Ross would work at Netscape/Mozilla until 2004 and be nominated the next year for Wired magazine’s top Rave Award, Renegade of the Year as all of Mozilla’s resources had were redirected to Firefox, a project started internally by two employees to combat the poor direction of original Mozilla project.

So yeah, Fuck you.

One Year later

It really is astounding when you think about the level of incompetence that was on display.

There are only two large-scale consumer-facing Internet non-profits: The Wikimedia Foundation and Mozilla Foundation (which owns Mozilla Corporation). Someone makes a statement that everyone accepts and affects the entire annual budget. Meanwhile, the only other company that shares organizational affinity with yours is a living counterfactual to the statement.

I didn’t say anything as I was sitting on my resignation letter and didn’t want to humiliate my colleagues, but the disappointment I had back then was immense. Now that I’m gone, that disappointment has turned into relief.

  1. In the months since this time whenever I mentioned this to a WMF staff member, often you’d pretty much have to hold him or her back from wanting to switch into this team if it were to exist. 
  2. Chief level, as in CEO, CTO, Vice President, etc. 
  3. Not that it would have won that given that this would have required a resource sacrifice among all the Directors… Still, it would have been worth it just to see who cared more about the mission and who more about their fiefdom (or their job). :-) 
  4. Mozilla Foundation before it was separated in from Netscape in July 2003. 

11 thoughts on “The Innovator’s Dilemma and the impossibility of remaking an organization

    1. What do you do when you are part of a movement that values openness, but the people that power it do not have the courage to accept the consequences of it?

      I wrote things like these exactly a year ago privately to myself when I was frustrated. I was trying to balance the fact that I can be open at the WMF, with my desire to be loyal and not create fodder for trolls. Once I estimated my resignation window and the 1 year window would overlap, I started post-dating them instead of just deleting them as long as they didn’t call out specific people. Any coincidences between then (and current) world are just that…coincidences.

      When I see these posts pop up, I have mixed feelings. One one hand, I am ashamed of my emotional state back then. On the other hand, there dozens of simple insights that would have caused people to think (the purpose of this blog) that I have flushed away because I was worried some delicate fee fees would be hurt.

        1. I did resign before the bombs went off. 🙂

          I’m mentioning it because ironically a C-level who was part of Mozilla joined the WMF, and I thought people might not notice the date means it is a coincidence I’m using Netscape/Mozilla as an example (in this time positively, but in other posts… not so much).

  1. Hey Terry — thanks for the post. In spite of some hopefully cathartic vitriol, this mirrors conversations I remember well. Poor old Clayton aside, I think the Firefox analogy is not exactly right. I remember, as an end user, switching over to the Phoenix builds as soon as they stopped crashing. It was an easy switch to make — the cost to me, as a user, was basically just some amount of instability and missing features. And the context here was that Netscape had lost the browser war, and many people were hungry for a real alternative to Microsoft controlling the web.

    In Wikipedia’s case, you have a bunch of different but related problems — the outdated tech & UX, the communities stuck in existing patterns, etc. — in the context of a still-dominant website run by a highly regarded nonprofit. Solving for all of them in a single from-the-ground-up approach could work (and I wrote a related discussion paper), but it’s definitely a longer haul than building a better browser. And so I do think it’s worth considering alternatives that help more users sooner.

    In the latest native apps, we are showing that you can build a complete read/edit experience outside of MediaWiki even with the current clunky APIs. But apps have to be installed, so they’re not a good way to showcase the latest & greatest UX to the largest possible number of users (the apps are pretty good now — iOS is lagging, but a forthcoming release will bring it closer to feature parity with Android). An alternative search/read/edit UI for the web — but layered, to begin with, on top of existing wikis like Wikipedia, may be a good way to showcase and test new UX, which can then be graduated into MediaWiki. In addition, new wikis can be approved more quickly, and get the best-available experience by default.

    That’s the way I’m thinking about these topics nowadays, anyway. What have you been up to since you went AWOL? 😉

    1. And I should say to Brandon — Winter is an excellent precursor demonstrating how this could work. With the new REST content API that just went online and similar new services, and with a proper team in support of building a new web UX outside MediaWiki, this kind of approach can be more than a prototype — it can be a true alternative UI that an increasing number of people are using to search/browse/edit.

    2. The central issue is whether or not a company can remake itself from the inside without going organization-wide with the idea. Netscape (and later AOL Netscape) had all their resources invested in the Mozilla Suite and almost no organizational support for what became Firefox until it had proven itself in the marketplace independently of Mozilla. That is a counterfactual to the “organizations cannot remake themselves from the inside with an independent team because …”

      One does not even have to go to an affinity organization before one finds that the tech world is littered with such counterexamples. On they tell of the Macintosh team at Apple flying a pirate flag over their building (Apple ][ sales surpassed Macintosh sales at Apple for almost a decade after the introduction of the Macintosh), the LaserWriter (a product that saved the nascent Macintosh business) was made by a few engineers swimming upstream from the corporate current at the same company. We all know the Project Marklar (switch to Intel), iPhone, iPod, and iPad were from idea to launch kept secrets within and from that company—Apple was in no danger of dying when those four reworks occurred to the point we laugh at Michael Dell’s “If I owned Apple, I’d sell it off in pieces and give a dividend to the shareholders.”

      Bill Gates famously called the Internet “a fad” only months before Microsoft broke ground on a new building that would house the team that would obtain the license to Mosaic and introduce Internet Explorer.

      Three decades ago(!), I read Tracy Kidder’s, Soul of a New Machine about a similar company-saving move at Data General. This book that influenced me to go into tech and one that won the Pulitzer Prize.

      To not know of and recall in times of need at least one of these stories and be in tech is playing at this business, not doing it.

      Specific, but irrelevant responses follow…

      Clayton is not poor. He got a lot of mileage on an interesting observation that most organizations and he himself have misunderstood. Furthermore, I fail to see how rethinking Wikipedia is a “disruptive technology” as outlined in the book. Since we don’t know what would have happened, it’s hard to be definitive, but it’d be difficult to claim that such a rework wouldn’t be heaviliy influenced by past and long-established “disruptions”: mobile first, social networking, gameification, developer operations, responsive design…

      I too was an early user of Phoenix and later Firebird and even an obscure David Hyatt Mac spinoff called Chimera and later Camino. My memory was a bit different, but I’ll admit it may have been colored from working from the same university building that Marc Andreessen was in when he wrote Mosaic. I recall Netscape as not dead but Netscape 4.x’s marketshare was rapidly declining. However, before Phoenix, I remember downloading and using many iterations of Netscape Mozilla beta, which was the post-AOL acquisition direct successor of Netscape Communicator. Basically what got me to switch to Phoenix was my frustration with Mozilla beta which was slow, had a funky UI, and full of software like an e-mail client I didn’t need nor want. The people “hungry for an alternative” were looking toward the Mozilla Suite when they (and Mozilla itself) got blindsided by the success of what became Firefox.

      I don’t know the right way to solve the “different but related problems” of Wikipedia. Personally, I’m of the camp of “burn it all down.” In this, I tend to feel the Firefox story is very relevant. By the open-source nature of the Mozilla’s approach and codebase allowed Hyatt and Ross room to breathe and create something that would supplant the browser the rest of the organization is building. There exists the same room in the core of Wikipedia. Google and Apple repurpose Wikipedia’s entire content in search results on the web and in Siri, why can’t Wikimedia repurpose the same content on a new model that lives on it but opts-out of direct fixing of “outdated tech & UX, the communities in existing patterns, etc.”?

      How is that different from a lightweight m/b browser branched from the core codebase? Or a new computer with a radical UI and no software or hardware compatibility with the bread-and-butter eponymous company-making computer? Or creating a new division at a soon-to-be-declared only legally-defined abusive monopolist in tech to survive the disruption of the Internet? Or creating a “backup team” to make a 32-bit minicomputer?

      As you know, back then I didn’t see any issue with trying both short term direct and long-term maybes. I still don’t now. I certainly don’t buy a non-sequitur and provably false argument that the latter couldn’t also be done within the Wikimedia Foundation. This is especially true if Wikipedia is really a “still-dominay website run by a highly regarded nonprofit.” If one is a student of recent history and the “art of the parlay,” to act sustainingly only. To ignore the trend lines and not act aggressively to parlay a dominant-but-declinging position into a new one that isn’t doomed is almost criminally incompetent.

      As to native (mobile) apps specifically: I think the market has spoken that you can’t take the desktop experience and shrink it to the iPhone (or Android), one has to think of new experiences: it’s not a robust image repository of enthusiast and professional photography, it’s sharing square photos with crummy filters; it’s not reviewing your purchases, it’s pinning your future ones; it’s not dating, it’s “swipe left.” With mobile, I valued my observations with the cost of me giving them (nothing), what people have done with it there or elsewhere is theirs to own. I only gave them at all to prevent going down paths I knew were obviously wrong. I never acted to point out the right paths because mobile, as you know, was specifically not my area of responsibility at the organization.

      As for what I’ve been up to: I am doing what I said I was going to do, just as I joined for the reasons I said I was going to join. I joined to practice management, and I’m gone to live in “the wilderness” for a while. I’ve spent 14 years during tumultuous times at 7 organizations, now is the time to find meaning in that. The thing about being in the wilderness is you can’t stay in it forever, but right now, it is the place for me.

      On the flip side, I continue to wish all the best for you, the Wikimedia Foundation and the Wikipedias. I’ll refrain from asking about them, because what you’re up to is in open-mailing lists and publicly available on wikis. 😉

  2. The aim of the WMF is to share in the sum of all knowledge. I have often argued that we can and should share in the sum of all knowledge available to us. This is not done because the WMF is about Wikipedia and apparently it does not champion the knowledge it is the guardian of.

    PS another old argument

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