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4.0 out of 5 stars Pick the Right Dare . . . for Lasting Greatness, 16 May 2004
This review is from: Insisting On The Impossible: The Life Of Edwin Land: Life of Edwin Land - The Inventor of Instant Photography (Paperback)
This book contains the most detailed information I have seen assembledin one volume about the life of Dr. Edwin "Din" Land, founder of Polaroid Corporation. Although I long have read public accounts of Dr. Land's work, this book greatly added to my knowledge.
Forthose who would like to understand the rise and fall of Polaroid andits stock price over several decades from 1937 through 1980, this book makes fascinating reading about some of the do's and don't's of running a high technology company that depends on developing new technologies and an on-going stream of innovative products.
If youwant to understand the techniques employed by Dr. Land to make scientific breakthroughs, there are many insights here into his method of goal-oriented empiricism. Interestingly, it parallels the approaches used by Thomas Edison, the most prolific inventor of the 20th century. Unfortunately, Dr. Land left little in the way of writings to draw on other than patent applications and speeches, so these insights are limited primarily to recollections by colleagues. On the other hand, the empirical approach is often guided by instinct based on experience, which is hard to capture. Most scientific thinkers dislike empiricism, so those who use this method can expect many rebukes . . . as Dr. Land received in his work on the nature of color perception.
Those who want to understand the scientific breakthroughs that Polaroid made will probably come away confused unless they already have a great knowledge of optics and chemistry related to photography. I learned a great deal from the book, but would have liked to learn more. I graded the book down one star for this weakness.
If you want a fascinating, new look into the emerging arms race with the Soviet Union in the 1950s, there is much interesting material here about Dr. Land's role as a national advisor on defense surveillance.
I was a guest at a dinner hosted by Dr. Land in the mid 1960s during which he demonstrated his new technology of instant color photography. His good humor, generous attitude toward his guests, and his sincere desire to transform the world, however, left me with a more profound lesson -- seeing much more potential for what a company can be than I would otherwise have had. Dr. Land explained his vision that night in terms of releasing the human spirit and encouraging all of us to create and appreciate more beauty. Although glimpses of this side of Dr. Land come through in the book, they are overshadowed by the overall theme of a flawed genius.
I dislike books that argue for flaws in geniuses. That approach serves to make them more human, but not in away that makes us appreciate them or their good points. Geniuses are by their nature obsessed by their work, and their personal quirks canbe quite negative. By the standards of 20th century geniuses, Dr. Land was a regular guy. In fact, the extent to which he retained his humanity is part of his greatness.
I think an alternative explanation to the one in this book of Dr. Land's limitations as a leader is entirely possible and appropriate. Whenever he was engaged in endeavors where strong leaders were involved as colleagues or partners (such as on national defense issues), he was astonishingly effective. Whenever he was totally given his head, he sometimes strayed into areas where his vision exceeded the true opportunity. Clearly, his talent as a technical problem solver vastly exceeded his talent as an evaluator of product potential.
The story of Polaroid's rise and fall as depicted here could just as easily bere written as the story of a board of directors and financiers who did not do their job of providing limits. For example, when Polaroid was originally taken public in 1937, the investment bankers granted Dr. Land a 10 year period of total control through a voting trust. Although every company founder would like such control, that's simply a bad idea. Management has to be and feel accountable. His authority seems to me to have been much greater than that normally granted to a CEO in taking a new product forward. Hopefully, a future book will look at the fascinating governance challenges and issues related to being on the board of a company led by a scientific genius who has provided most of the company's historic value added.
After you have finished reading and thinking about the fascinating issues in this book, I suggest that you consider what you would like your legacy to be. Then, consider what mistakes you will have to avoid in order to accomplish that legacy. How can others help you overcome your weaknesses to accomplish more?
Be willing to insist on the impossible, when it's the right thing to do. You can do it!
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