Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The IBM PC - Catching up when you are way behind with very little time...

How did IBM build the PC in just 12 months, after being 7 years behind the rest of the world?

In 1980 IBM realised it was missing out on the booming microcomputer market worth $1B/year and dominated by the likes of Apple Atari, Commodore and Radio Shack. At the time commentators predicted that "IBM bringing out a personal computer would be like teaching an elephant to tap dance".
Large and tall organisations can be hard to get moving when they need to. Facebook’s Vice President of Engineering spoke about how there can “be a lot of people that say no, and a lot of policies, and the window in which you can do something tiny" (Warman, 2010). One option is to create a separate project unit with its own culture, allowed to move more quickly and avoid the two-speed friction that can occur with a dynamic project. IBM’s PC team was separated from the main organization geographically and culturally to free them from the usual bureaucratic processes that had prevented it from catching up previously (Lambert, 2009).  They used an independent business unit, a flat structure, the smallest possible team (12 staff), off-the-shelf instead of bespoke components, external suppliers, and had explicit permission to break some traditional rules. The first prototype was thrown together by “half a dozen engineers in less than 30 days” (Cringely, 1993, p. 181). In July 1980 they began work and by August 1981 they were finished.

Have a look at the Spaceship One case study for similarities with the IBM PC project.

Simon Collyer

Cringely, R. X. (1993). Accidental Empires. New York: Harper Business.
Lambert, C. (2009, August 15th, 2009). The History of Computing Project - Philip Donald Estridge from <>
Warman, M. (2010). Facebook's echo of Gekko: speed is good Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved from