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The business conference season is in full bloom this month, and you've probably noticed that many of these get-togethers are focused on the current hot topic of corporate innovation. I'm delighted: It's wonderful that creativity is back in vogue.

I hope the attendees pick up some useful insights at the various events. I also think that they could benefit taking a moment to peek back into history and learn from the innovators from another era.

I created and produced the very first "Innovation In Industry" conference 25 years ago in Palo Alto. I think that the sentiments shared by the speakers at that gala event still have significance for the innovators of today. Read along, and you'll see that there's still value in what they advocated.

First, here's some background: it's October 1981. Reagan is in his first year as president. Interest rates are over 20%. Inflation's high. There's a deep recession. Silicon Valley has yet to become the darling of the national media. I'm 33 years old and have been doing creativity seminars in business for four years.

Earlier in the year I thought: Why not get the best and brightest of Silicon Valley's entrepreneurs together for a two-day innovation conference? The theme was: "Some people have ideas and carry them into the world of action: these are the innovators."

I attracted a large group of innovators and venture capitalists to hear my speakers. To make the event fun, I had a three-piece jazz band play at 6:30 in the morning, and introduced each of the speakers with old TV commercials. Here's a bit of what each speaker said, and also a brief comment on the relevancy for today.

Bob Metcalfe (inventor of Ethernet at Xerox PARC, and founder of the then-quite-small 3Com): Bob said that there are two kinds of people in the data processing world: (1) those who draw a box with lines coming out of it; and (2) those who draw a line with boxes coming off of it. The former are computer-centric, the latter network-centric. At the time, most investment was going to the first group, but Bob said the second group would win. He was right.

Relevance for today: Don't be afraid to go against the conventional wisdom—unconventional wisdom is where many of the opportunities lie.

William Perry (undersecretary of defense for Carter, and later Clinton's secretary of defense): He was my lead speaker, and initially he was a bit shaken because his friend, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, had been assassinated that morning. Perry emphasized the ongoing importance of the federal government's investing significantly in primary R&D. Without it, there would be no Silicon Valley as we know it, and no budding new technologies like the Internet.

Relevance for today: As in the past, the US Federal government's funding of R&D today will provide opportunities for innovators tomorrow.

Roger von Oech (yours truly, president of Creative Think): I said disruption to our mental processes—"A Whack on the Side of the Head"—is a good thing: It stimulates people to think differently. I also said creative thinking would be a vital survival skill for businesses in the 1980s. At the time, corporate America had not yet bought into the idea, but it would soon.

Relevance for today: A creative company is seen as having a competitive advantage, more so than ever before.

Rene McPherson (dean, Stanford Graduate School of Business, and former CEO of Dana Corporation): He said: "Get as close as you can to your customers—your business will grow and you will learn new ways to serve them." This was a very new concept in the early 1980s. (McPherson inspired a lot of Tom Peters's ideas).

Relevance for today: "Getting and staying close to your customer" are still words to live by. In fact, today's emphasis on blogging, social media, and the like all emphasize the importance of "listening" to your customers.

Eugene Kleiner (founder, Kleiner-Perkins venture capital firm): A recession is a great time—probably the best time—to start a new business. People will return your phone calls, and there are more engineers available.

Relevance for today: Successful innovators will find the positives in any situation, even if others see only the negative.

Ed Catmull (vice-president of a technology group at Lucasfilm, which five years later Steve Jobs bought from George Lucas and turned into Pixar, where he has been president ever since): Cheer for your industry's success. Movie studios love it when the competing studios are successful; that means that the public is in the mood for your product and the market is growing.

Relevance for today: In working with competitors, think "win/win." A rising tide lifts all boats.

Regis McKenna (PR guru to Apple, Intel, and others): PR is not an event, but an ongoing process. A company needs to think about investing in its PR image for the long term.

Relevance for today: Thinking beyond the "one-shot" PR hit is still good advice.

Jim Treybig (president and founder of Tandem Computers, later sold to Compaq): "People ask me why Tandem—a $1 billion company—has 12 vice-presidents. I say that very soon we plan to grow to be a $10 billion company and I want to have seasoned people in place to handle that growth."

Relevance for today: "Think Big." Put a structure in place that will allow your large, innovative visions to be successful.

Steve Jobs (then chairman of Apple): I asked Jobs why he started Apple, and he said something like this: "We make what we want for ourselves. I wanted a personal computer, but I couldn't find one available to me so I had to put myself in a position to help create one—the result was Apple." In addition, IBM had introduced the PC just five days earlier. Jobs said something like "Welcome aboard IBM; we welcome the competition. It will make the market grow."

Relevance for today: A huge passion for your product can help you—the innovator—make that product a reality.

My final speaker was Nolan Bushnell (founder of Atari and Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theatre, and AT that time called "the Pied Piper of Silicon Valley" by Fortune magazine): "Microprocessors are going to put the old guard out of business. Innovators will go to the telephone book and find a company that says 'We've been around since 1836,' and then find a way to put chips into their products. And they'll stomp them into the ground."

Relevance for today: You'll gain a great competitive advantage by taking one of today's disruptive technologies, and applying it to a previously successful product or service. Indeed, that's what much of innovation is all about!

* * *

The conference was a lot of fun and a big success. But, more important, the sentiments put forth by these speakers 25 years ago still have relevance today for today's innovators.

Good luck, and happy innovating!

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Roger von Oech is president of Creative Think, Menlo Park, California, and the author of A Whack on the Side of the Head. His most recent product is the "Ball of Whacks," a creativity tool for innovators. Reach Roger and his Creative Think blog by going to www.creativethink.com.