What does it take to render the success of breakthrough ideas plausible? How do corporate entrepreneurs achieve credibility for their new ways of thinking within established social systems? How is a shared understanding of contexts, goals, and individual worldviews created to get any significant idea passed through? Gary Starkweather’s radical invention of the laser printer at Xerox is a marvelous case study.
Founded in 1906 in Rochester, Xerox came to prominence with plain paper photocopiers. Their products were so successful that the company’s revenues leaped to over half a billion in the mid-1960s – the time when a young engineer named Gary Starkweather entered the company.
Gary began to work on the idea of a laser printer, a machine that would replace conventional copying technology by printing any image created by a computer. Different to the analog technology that used a photographic lens to copy an image from one sheet of paper to another, Gary used a laser beam to carry digital information to make a print. Although his invention eventually became Xerox’s fastest-selling and most profitable product ever, management’s resistance to commit to the laser printer continued for almost a decade!
Starkweather’s only option to continue developing his idea was to transfer from corporate to supportive Xerox PARC, the company’s research center in Palo Alto, California. In just nine months after joining PARC, finally given the freedom to conduct his research, he completed the first working laser printer. Two years later, he had a fully working prototype that led to the Xerox 9700, the industry’s first commercial laser printer.
How could Gary suddenly convince corporate executives to give the green light to the laser printer, which finally hit the market in 1977?
At PARC a group of world-class engineers and scientists were looking at personal computing possibilities that we got to know almost a decade later through Steve Jobs’ commercialization of the Macintosh computer: They invented the world’s first modern personal computer, the graphical user interface, or the Ethernet among other breakthrough technologies. Gary’s laser printer naturally fit their vision of the “Office of the Future.”
Confronting Xerox’s executives with their working prototype of how the business world would eventually deal with documents in the future helped to reframe their view of the world and how it might work in the near future. It allowed managers to agonize over what a laser printer would do for all these new office technologies—a mind changing experience Xerox’s headquarters in Rochester, NY, with all its traditional copy machines could never generate for Gary’s laser printer.