The Observer Effect: Bringing Innovation Back to Silicon Valley

It’s an artificial difference really, the ticking of clock hands from 11:59:59 to 12:00:01.  But what a difference it really is. On one side of midnight, we  ruminate about what was; on the other, what might be.  It is – to borrow an over-used word – our annual pivot, full of resolution and (at least for a short time) resolve.

Perhaps I’m too cynical, but I don’t much believe in midnight resolutions.  I’ve had the same one for the past 28 years: to finally read Moby-Dick.  I am on page 185. About 12 pages better than the start of last year, but still a long way to go.  I do, though, think there is value in introspection, the left side of the ticking hand.  The kind of reflection that  drives real resolve.

I spent a good bit of time over the last two weeks reflecting on the past year, its challenges, the opportunities ceased and missed, and perhaps most importantly, the context of it all. I live in Silicon Valley, by most accounts the Olympus of Innovation.  I work with technology startups and with the Fortune 1000 companies that want to be more like them.  I have occupied this privileged observation deck for much of the past 20 years.  I’ve seen trends ebb and flow, spotted a few breakthroughs ahead of the curve, missed as many others.   Most of the time, I’ve been tremendously gratified to hold this vantage point and to be able, in small ways, to influence a few outcomes for the better.

Lately, though, not so much.

At first, I blamed menopause. In an environment that skews to the young, I am old. I grumble about “kids today,” sounding like the elders I promised I’d never become.  I am deeply at risk of becoming a grumpy old broad.  Surely, I have changed.

But so has Silicon Valley.

Far from the Center of Innovation it once was, the Valley has become the Center of Iteration.  The Next Big Thing is an endless parade of Little Things that, in aggregate, seem like mass and substance, but at their atomic parts are a lot more heat than light.

I first wrote about this phenomenon fourteen  months ago.  My contention was that the startup culture of Silicon Valley had become so focused on the app that developers had abandoned the hard problems of our day in pursuit of the quick flip.  I implored entrepreneurs to “make it matter.”  I wrote:

“Building a startup, regardless of the target market or customer, is crazy hard work.  It can suck the life out of you if you’re not careful.  So if you’re going to work that hard, why not work on someting that matters?  Solve tough problems, make an impact.”

The post got a lot of attention, particularly from old goats like me.  A few entrepreneurs took note, though, mostly those who felt they were getting lost in a sea of startups building the next mobile, local, gamified social apps.  The International Startup Festival even took Make It Matter the theme of its 2012 event.

So what’s changed in the last 14 months?  Not much.  If anything, Silicon Valley is even more the bubble and blender. A culture that inflates questionable value and grinds smart ideas into sometimes unrecognizable, if more easily digestible, form. It is a community chasing easy ideas and presumably easier money.  It is a place optimized for investment, rather than innovation.

It’s not the Silicon Valley I prefer, although I admit that it works well for some investors and the very, very few entrepreneurs who get very, very lucky.

It was this realization that brings me to this new blog, Bubble and Blender, with a simple aspiration:  that by observing more closely the behaviors of our local and global startup culture, and sharing those observations beyond the walls of my office, that we might better understand the root causes of – and challenges to – real innovation and thereby affect positive change.  The Observer Effect. 

It’s the sort of resolution worthy of pursuit.  That and another dozen pages of Moby-Dick.

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