Tuesday, February 12, 2013

lunch with an old HPite

Yesterday, I had lunch with Beatrix Infante, who started at HP in the mid-seventies, left in 1989 when she got fed up with the interminable Quality matrices put in by John Young and team to manage the company "Japanese-style".  Saying that she never got used to the 100 x 100 spreadsheet arrays that supposedly told you where to focus, she left to become one of the Valley's historic woman CEOs, carving an enviable career path with several companies, including a stint on Larry Ellison's exec staff and some great start-ups and turn-arounds.

She and a wonderful colleague, Deborah Barber (whose own service at Cray Research was at a fulcrum time for that one-time supercomputing leader), have teamed to "help mid-sized corporations recover the innovative spirit."  Sounds a lot like a call for Intrapreneuring to me.

We spent an engaged two hours, reminiscing about HP and what once was, and where did it go awry.  More importantly, could it be recaptured, even in some small ways?

One of the secrets of the "old HP" was its ability to spawn new endeavors, to 'cut them loose" from the mothership, and let them flourish in a near-start-up mode, far removed from the 'conventional wisdom' and the 'conventional culture' for that matter.  We marveled that Carly Fiorina's strategy may well have been good or even great, but her insensitivity to the nuanced HP Way (or more precisely, the five or six HP Ways that peacefully co-existed) was catastrophic, not just for her own tenure, but for the company.

We differed a bit on Mark Hurd; she didn't challenge the assertion that he is essentially unethical, but did argue that he is operationally deft.  I certainly agree with that, but the cost was huge for innovation where he gutted the R and D units of the company.

Beatrix knew Leo long before he joined HP; she likes him, but thought he was completely out of his element in this supercharged environment.  I suspect Leo would even nod on that one.

But the central question -- what should Meg do?  Or Ray Lane, with whom Beatrix had a long and satisfying association?  And the conclusion we reached was that $120 billion companies have a hard time 'pivoting' to handle new challenges, and boy, are the challenges magnificent.  They are, at bottom, cultural.  Are people really (yet) ready for gut-wrenching change?  Gut-wrenching in direction, in approach, in style, in products and services.  And the clear answer at Kodak who did indeed have the patents for the 'new age', was that the old culture won, until the patient was on life-support.

Whither HP?

PS.  She did find a month ago that Building 3 Upper, at 1501 Page Mill Road, still has free coffee.  And she and I still applaud that vestige of the "old HP"

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