The story of Edwin Land and Polaroid is a familiar one to those who read often about business leadership — Steve Jobs was notably a big fan of the man — and for good reason: Land is a great example of both a winning inventor, but also a cautionary tale.
In “Loonshots,” the Wall Street Journal-bestseller from SURGE Growth keynote speaker Safi Bahcall, Land is lauded for his ability to seize upon seemingly crazy ideas and see them through to completion. Under his stewardship, Polaroid created 3D map capabilities and polarized lenses, which contributed to the World War II effort through anti-glare goggles and glasses for pilots and sailors, as well as the instant camera and other forward-thinking technologies.
“The contributions Dr. Land has made to national security are innumerable, and influence he has made to national security are innumerable, and the influence he has had on our present intelligence capabilities is unequaled,” said then-CIA director William Webster in 1988, according to Bahcall’s book.
But one of the most notable photographic inventions of Land’s time, digital photography, did not come out of his shop. Why is that? Was Land blindsided by the development of the technology? Did he simply not consider the idea?
As Bahcall recounts, Land actually lobbied for the technology to President Richard Nixon in 1971, arguing that it would work and present an unparalleled asset to national security satellites. But Polaroid did not lean commercially on digital photography until 1996 when it released its first digital camera, well after the first consumer digital camera was released in the mid-1980s. So, what happened?
Land was, in Bahcall’s words, a Moses, not a gardener.
Distracted by an endeavor to create instant movies. The result — Polavision — was too expensive for at-home use and never caught on with consumers. Instead of seeing the potential for digital photography, Land was obsessed with making Polavision work.
Bahcall describes the issue, which he calls the Moses Trap, this way: “When ideas advance only at the pleasure of a holy leader, who acts for love of loonshots rather than strength of strategy.” In other words, Land couldn’t see the benefit of further developing still photography because he was so besotted with something bigger and flashier.
“Land and his magnificent team dismissed digital because for 30 years they had made money from selling film: their cameras generated much less income than their instant print cartridges. With digital, there was no film. ‘There’s no way that can make money,’ they said. Land dismissed the new technology because he didn’t look for … all the ways digital could enable new streams of income.”
So, how do you make sure that as a leader you’re making room for the next great idea?
As Bahcall writes, you have to manage the transfer of technology, but not the technology itself. A skilled manager will nurture those in their organization tasked with coming up with new ideas and technologies, and will ensure they’re getting feedback to and from the people who actually put those ideas into use. But the manager will not meddle in the ideas themselves.
“Managing the touch and balance is an art,” Bahcall writes. “Overmanaging the transfer causes one kind of trap. Undermanaging that transfer is another.”
Read more about Bahcall’s ideas in blog posts about how to create a “loonshot nursery” in your organization, and why it’s important to crowdsource development of new technologies. Then, hear from Bahcall himself during SURGE Growth Nov. 6-8 during our free, three-day virtual conference.