Like millions of American families, ours went to the movies over the holidays. We saw The Imitation Game, a great picture that tells the story of computer scientist Alan Turing’s heroic battle to crack the Nazi’s secret coding machine, Enigma. It also reveals the British government’s deplorable handling of Turing and his homosexuality, highlighting a sad chapter in the treatment of human rights. I suspect few viewers will note the juxtaposition of the good government can do with the bad it often does.
I knew Turing’s story having just finished Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. Isaacson weaves together the tales of different innovations—the personal computer, the microchip, the Internet—and teases out lessons one might learn from the trial and error that produced these breakthroughs. It would be a fascinating tale without it, but Isaacson draws out and highlights these lessons in unambiguous relief. They’re lessons not just for the entrepreneur, inventor, or engineer. They’re also good ones for government.
The major conclusion Isaacson draws from his study of the digital age is that progress came not as the result of any one or even a number of geniuses. Rather, it came as the result of collaboration built on progress from previous advances. In any endeavor, especially those that require navigating the government’s vast bureaucracy, it’s always been important to clarify who has the lead. But Isaacson ascribes progress not to leadership, but to collaboration. In almost every innovation he describes, he tells how the result was accomplished by the feverish work of a number of innovators occasionally working together, but often working separately, sometimes very far apart in geography or even time.
“An invention especially one as complex as the computer, usually comes not from an individual brainstorm, but from a collaboratively woven tapestry of creativity,” writes Isaacson, who also says effective management “need not always come from having the right combination of different talents at the top. Like a metallic alloy, if you get the right mix of elements, the result can be strong.”
Proximity, a factor in many of today’s discussions about workplace design, seems also to play a role in innovation, at least according to Isaacson. The story of the transistor, for instance, evolved from embedding the developers “in an environment where they could walk down a long corridor and bump into experts who could manipulate the impurities in germanium, or be in a study group populated by people who understood the quantum-mechanical explanations of surface states, or sit in a cafeteria with engineers who knew all the tricks for transmitting phone signals over long distances.” Whether virtually or physically, fostering this proximity can quicken the pace of innovation.
Of course, simple collaboration without a point or goal is not likely to produce a productive result, much less the intended one. And Isaacson makes this point clear. “The most successful endeavors in the digital age were those run by leaders who fostered collaboration while also providing a clear vision,” Isaacson writes. And the quality of the teamwork may depend, Isaacson asserts, on the special qualities of the leader. “One problem with successful teams, particularly intense ones, is that sometimes they break up. It takes a special type of leader—inspiring yet also nurturing, competitive yet collaborative—to hold teams together.” In the history of digital progress, many efforts stalled because of a gap in some of these qualities.
An additional, apparently necessary ingredient is execution. Success requires not only “a great idea,” but also “the engineering talent to execute it.” Clearly, teams must have a combination of creativity and the experience and capacity to bring good ideas to reality.
Government’s role in innovation in the digital age is not hard to parse out, especially as Isaacson describes it. I’m confident government could not have produced the innovations of the digital age alone, but it did play an important role. Of the Internet, Isaacson writes, “Over the course of more than three decades, the federal government, working with private industry and research universities, had designed and built a massive infrastructure project, like the interstate highway system but vastly more complex, and then threw it open to ordinary citizens and commercial enterprises. It was funded primarily by public dollars, but it paid off thousands of times over by seeding a new economy and an era of economic growth.”
The digital age itself “included a research ecosystem that was nurtured by government spending and managed by a military-industrial-academic collaboration,” Isaacson writes. “Intersecting with that was a loose alliance of community organizers, communal-minded hippies, do-it-yourself hobbyists, and homebrew hackers, most of whom were suspicious of centralized authority.” Government did not produce, but certainly had a hand in, the advances of the digital age.
The lessons from Walter Isaacson’s book, The Innovators, are worth the time it takes to read the book and more. But the refrain in the movie The Imitation Game is also worth repeating. Early in his life, Turing is inspired by the aphorism “it's the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.” Many Americans, unfortunately, can’t imagine the government doing much of anything. If government took some of the lessons from Isaacson’s book, it could very well enable a new wave of innovation.
Robert Shea is a principal at Grant Thornton’s Global Public Sector and a fellow at the National Academy of Public Administration. He was formerly associate director for management at the Office of Management and Budget and counsel to the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs.