Here’s a case where The Mothers of Invention were really mothers of invention.
Rod Smith, an IBM Research Fellow and Vice-President of Emerging Internet Technology, referenced 1960s rocker Frank Zappa and his band, The Mothers of Invention, in comments today about the true nature of innovation that he made to students participating in this summer’s IBM Extreme Blue internship program. “Innovation is a messy process,” he said. “It’s more about collaboration and building relationships than it is just about the technology.”
To make his point, Smith referred to an article in this weekend’s New York Times about how the wah-wah peddle became a hit technology in the rock music world. After Del Casher, an inventor and electric guitar player, invented the wah-wah peddle for Vox, the music technology company, his bosses first tried to market the technology for trumpet players. It was a flop. But Casher had built relationships with a number of guitar players, including Frank Zappa, and he introduced the wah-wah to Zappa–who loved it. Zappa, in turn, turned on guitar trail-blazer Jimi Hendrix, who did incredible things with the technology. Before too long, every self-respecting garage band guitarist owned a wah-wah peddle.
Smith told the students that building deep relationships with the users of technology and listening carefully to them has been essential to him in his career. “There isn’t a technology that I worked on that didn’t start with customers telling a story,” he said. Often, he said, the customers didn’t really know what they wanted. They just knew they had problems that needed to be solved. Only by listening as customers became better at telling their stories did Smith and his colleagues come up with the solutions they needed.
This is good advice for young technologists and future business leaders like the Extreme Blue participants. But it never gets old or out of date–just like Hendrix and Zappa and The Mothers of Invention.