SAN JOSE, Calif. – August 18 has become a sort of Day That Will Live in Infamy at Hewlett-Packard. For Phil McKinney it was the day he started re-thinking his future, decided to retire as chief technologist of the company's PC group and resumed his career as an innovation guru.
It was no Pearl Harbor, but Leo Apotheker did drop a couple big bombs that day last August. He killed HP's WebOS smartphone and tablet business and said the company would consider splitting off its PC division. Weeks later, Apotheker lost his job as chief executive over the decisions which were widely criticized by observers including yours truly.
Meg Whitman mentioned August 18 a handful of times last week in the company's quarterly earnings call, her first as the new CEO. "Some people thought we were getting out of hardware entirely," she said of the confusion Apotheker created.
In her short time at the helm so far, Whitman has ended discussions about splitting of the PC unit (it stays), increased R&D spending ten percent and pledged to get the company back on track. Whitman reportedly gave herself until early December to decide what to do with WebOS.
For McKinney the brouhaha was a cue to segue back into full time work as a consultant and finish up work on "Beyond the Obvious," his book on innovation due out in February.
"With the [Apotheker] announcement and everything going on and the book coming out I decided now is a good time to think about what's the next thing I want to do," said McKinney speaking in his San Jose home office the day before Thanksgiving.
Many readers interpreted McKinney's August 22 blog post on seven laws of innovation as his veiled take on what was happening at HP. It talked in part about the need for patience to support innovation in ways that resonanted with the WebOS team that got the axe just weeks after its first product launch.
But if there will be any direct comment on his nine years at the IT giant it will come after his tenure officially ends December 31, perhaps in a subsequent book. In the meantime, he's giving guarded praise for Whitman, the fourth HP CEO in nine years.
"She is saying the right things, now it's just a matter of execution and walking the talk," McKinney said, citing her moves to rebuild R&D budgets.
He also offered Whitman some unsolicited advice: "Be aware of the power of culture; It can be helpful or a roadblock.
"Culture eats strategy for lunch," said McKinney. "You may think the CEO makes the calls, but culture has at least as huge an influence as any strategy you come up with," he said.
"HP has an incredibly strong culture--Bill and Dave still walk the halls," he said. "It’s a heavily engineering-driven organization fueled on innovation, so when you shortchange innovation whether through suddenly stopping programs people committed to or reducing budgets, it runs very counter to the culture and builds resistance to anything from the executive suite," he added.
In other words, in the wake of scandals and missteps around Carly Fiorina, Mark Hurd and Leo Apotherker, HP's good people are about four times bitten so ten times skeptical these days.