The surface of your smartphone is probably a type of glass that was first developed over 60 years ago, when the technology was set aside because no one would pay for it. After Steve Jobs pushed to include it in the iPhone, the glass become a large and profitable business for Corning.
I had seen the Gorilla Glass commercials on tv, but hadn’t really realized what was behind it until I read the Wired article by Chris Gardiner. The full text is available online, although I subscribe to the magazine.
One of the things that struck me was that this “overnight success” in response to Jobs’ demands in 2007 not only wasn’t overnight but was also built on research conducted decades ago and then set aside. The steps to make that happen, although not the focus of Gardiner’s article, are also not trivial.
Innovation at Corning is largely about being willing to take failed ideas and try them somewhere else. – Rebecca Henderson, Harvard professor
Invest time in experimentation
When the work on this project began it was basic research by the R&D department intended to expand their knowledge. What can we do based on the science at our disposal? Any business case put forth was probably speculative and focused more on the concept of this is our core strength, we need to do this. No matter how it really happened, the experimentation came first.
Capture what you learn
The product didn’t turn out to be salable at the time. But it couldn’t have been used later if it hadn’t been recorded properly. Based on other parts of the Wired article it sounds like Corning retains people so long that there could have been someone wandering around who remembered. But that’s not something you can count on, even when it’s your own work over a much shorter time span. A written summary when a project is closed or a yearly review report filed properly can serve the same purpose.
Review past ideas periodically in relation to current needs
Corning had started working on the glass again a few years before Jobs came calling. They had pulled the idea out in 2005 with the thought it might work for portable electronics. That means that somebody had spent some time thinking about what the market might need in relation to Corning’s capabilities and probably reviewed the archives of what those capabilities would be.
Be willing to adapt what you did before
The product as it had been developed originally and worked on for a few years after still wasn’t suitable for Apple’s needs. In order to meet the requirements for a salable product, the scientists and engineers had to formulate further and scale it up in an extremely short time frame. It is likely that this wouldn’t have been possible if the marketers had insisted that this was the product available and they wouldn’t change it or if the technical folk hadn’t thrown themselves into the challenge.
Beyond physical products
Each of these ideas can apply to expanding a business or making any sort of other change. Experimentation doesn’t have to be about science. It can be about writing headlines, trying different ways of approaching someone, creating a new offer to sell something, trying a small social program or many other things. The thing that makes it different from simply failing fast is the record keeping and reviewing so that you can adapt your results at some point in the future instead of hoping what you learned bubbles back up from your subconscious.
Neat science note – there are two ways to add strength to glass, both involving compressing the edges in relation to the center. One is thermal, carefully cooling the sides down. One is chemical, using larger ions to push against the smaller. This is the method used in Gorilla glass. Gardiner explains both in more detail in the Wired article.
There are a number of videos on Youtube showing the strength of Gorilla glass both in and outside of devices.
A different, more innovation focused, approach to the story in Strategy + Business – Five Gates to Innovation by William Holstein – and Corning’s website has some nice history of their other innovations over the years.