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“I divide every disagreement into two classes,” Bob Taylor was telling me. “Class One is when two people disagree and neither can explain to the other person’s satisfaction that other person’s point of view. A Class Two disagreement is when each can explain to the other’s satisfaction the other’s point of view.”

He paused. “Class One is destructive. Most wars and pain and suffering in the world are based on Class One disagreements. Class Two disagreements enable people to work together even when they disagree.”

The key to his management style, he said, was to avoid Class One disagreements, and when he encountered them, to turn them into Class Two.

This technique worked. The team Taylor led in the 1970s at Xerox PARC, the company’s fabled Palo Alto Research Center, invented the Alto, the world’s first personal computer, as well as the laser printer, the Ethernet local area network, the graphical computer display, and other pioneering advances in computing hardware and software. It’s safe to say that the computerized world that occupies our attention from millions of desktops, laptops and smartphones can be traced to Taylor’s leadership and his vision of the computer as an interactive communication device. That includes the Internet, the earliest version of which Taylor funded in the late 1960s as a civilian research director at the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Taylor’s death last week[1] at the age of 85 should prompt us to contemplate this legacy, along with the management skills Taylor employed to create a team out of a disparate group of preternaturally smart, willful, self-confident and competitive young scientists. There are lessons here for managers of any research team, especially nowadays when the competitive challenge in corporate research is greater than ever and corporate demands even more intensive than when Xerox established PARC in 1970.

That brings me back to that conversation in 1998. I was working on “Dealers of Lightning,”[2] a book about PARC, and met Bob at his home in Woodside, in the hills overlooking Silicon Valley and the Stanford campus, a residence he shared with a hyperactive giant black poodle named Max. Strapping himself into his BMW (bearing the license plate “The UDM” for “ultimate driving machine”), he led me in my rental car on a hair-raising race along winding forested streets to a restaurant down the hill.

In 1981, the company appointed as PARC’s new director Bill Spencer, an experienced research lab manager. Spencer marveled at Taylor’s personal management style. Every day, Taylor “would go in his office, break out a Dr Pepper, and for the next eight or 10 hours, individually touch every member of his lab,” Spencer recalled. “As a consensus manager he was extraordinary.”

But Taylor’s relentless battle to protect his own lab within PARC had made the whole organization dysfunctional, Spencer concluded. PARC’s output of revolutionary technology had slowed markedly, although it was plainly an error to blame that on Taylor — the arc of technological progress was bound to peak, at least for a time, after the immense advances of the 1970s. “You’d had this wonderful burst of imaginative things,” Spencer recalled later, but by 1980, “it was dead. … The place needed a change.

Spencer provoked Taylor into resigning in September 1983. That opened the floodgates to a torrent of resignations from Taylor’s lab and others at PARC. Of Taylor’s lab members, 15 joined him at Digital. Others went on to populate Apple Computer, Atari, Microsoft and their own new entrepreneurial ventures.

Taylor’s career shows how much can be achieved by assembling the best staff, giving it maximum latitude to select its own goals and maximum resources to reach them. It’s also a reminder of the natural process by which supernovas such as the computer science lab at PARC inevitably burn out.

But when an inspired team comes together with an inspired leader, the results can be spectacular. Taylor’s team members showed by their devotion and their words how much they owed to him. In 1998, when I was first deciding whether to write my book, Chuck Thacker — the third of the three-man team that conceived and designed the Alto — described concisely what Taylor meant to the project.

“If you’re looking for the magic,” he said, “it was him.”

Keep up to date with Michael Hiltzik. Follow @hiltzikm[3] on Twitter, see his Facebook page[4], or email michael.hiltzik@latimes.com[5].

Return to Michael Hiltzik's blog.[6]


UPDATES:

2:52 p.m.: This post has been updated with the correct date of Taylor’s resignation from PARC.

References

  1. ^ Taylor’s death last week (www.latimes.com)
  2. ^ “Dealers of Lightning,” (michaelhiltzik.com)
  3. ^ @hiltzikm (twitter.com)
  4. ^ Facebook page (www.facebook.com)
  5. ^ michael.hiltzik@latimes.com (www.latimes.com)
  6. ^ Return to Michael Hiltzik's blog. (www.latimes.com)