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(originally published by Booz & Company)


Five Gates to Innovation

As the Gorilla project raced toward its last stage gate, it soaked up more and more resources at Corning; as a result, other projects had to be pared away. Keeping business units motivated in the face of cutbacks is one of the toughest challenges in managing innovation. Corning’s response is to maintain the backlog of development efforts as live but unstaffed and to avoid laying off researchers in favor of moving them to ongoing development programs. “If there is an absence of pull in the marketplace, a fundamental flaw in the technology, or if the investment is unaffordable, the project manager is responsible for bringing that information forward,” CTO Miller says. “He’ll do that if he feels safe that if we shut it down, his people are going someplace else within the company. Otherwise, self-preservation kicks in.”

Add it all up, says Harvard’s Henderson, and Corning is able to maintain an equilibrium that other companies struggle to find. Some companies have the right processes in place, but employees don’t trust one another and don’t cooperate; other companies encourage a close-knit culture but lack the systems and processes to wring innovation out of the staff. As an illustration, Henderson notes that researchers at 3M are allowed to take 10 percent of their time to pursue personal interests. But despite the oft-cited Post-It Note example, a prominent instance in which a successful item emerged from a 3M employee’s idea, a very low percentage of researchers’ creativity is turned into an actual product. “If there is no place to plug that work in later, it tends to dribble away,” Henderson says. “But at Corning, they have a perfect loose–tight balance: looseness when it comes to creativity but tightness when it comes to making decisions.”

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  1. Davis Dyer and Daniel Gross, The Generations of Corning: The Life and Times of a Global Corporation (Oxford University Press, 2001): A company-approved but nonetheless revealing history of the Houghton family and the company.
  2. Margaret B.W. Graham and Alec T. Shuldiner, Corning and the Craft of Innovation (Oxford University Press, 2001): A history of the research and development process at Corning.
  3. William J. Holstein, “Trial by Fire,” Business 2.0, February 1, 2003: A look at how Wall Street urged Corning to dump all non-fiber optic businesses, which the company resisted.
  4. Michael Mandel, “Corning: Lessons from the Bust and Boom,” Business Week, May 4, 2009: An interview with Corning CEO Wendell Weeks on how the company navigates its way through technology cycles.
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