The Competency Trap and Xerox

Farewell, my lovely. A Xerox copier from the 1960s, now at the Museum of American History in Washington, DC.

Xerox, a giant of my generation (its name had become a verb) seems to be breathing its last, as it is acquired by Fujifilm (story in today’s NYTimes).

“How Xerox fell so far is a case study in what management experts call the “competency trap” — an organization becomes so good at one thing, it can’t learn to do anything new.”

Somewhat undercutting this thesis, the writer mentions that Xerox did try to do a bunch of different things as the environment changed, just not all that successfully. Still the later point, made by a comparison with Apple, is that experience can actually inhibit certain kinds of innovation.

To wit: Xerox famously did pioneering work on computer interfaces, the mouse, and other technology well before the personal computer revolution. A young Steve Jobs visited Xerox Park in Palo Alto, a story that is now one of the foundational bed-time stories for Silicon Valley, and saw some of this technology, which later made into his products.

The Times piece concludes,

Over the years, Apple has had its own ups and downs. But whenever Mr. Jobs became convinced that something new was afoot, he moved forcefully and refocused the company. He did not fall into the competency trap, and today Apple is the most valuable corporation in the world.

Jobs was all kinds of things no doubt, but just yesterday I read this bit from a memoir of working with him, tweeted by Bethany Bongiorno, formerly an engineering director at Apple.

At one point Steve wanted to turn UIKit elements orange. Not just any orange, he wanted a particular orange from the button on a certain old Sony remote. We got a bunch of remotes from Sony with orange buttons to try and find the right one. in the end, Steve hated it.

That’s sure not the competency trap, what it is exactly probably couldn’t be summed up in a management concept, but it does hint at the pure wildness and level of detail the late CEO of the world’s most valuable tech company engaged with.

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