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Sun Ray's struggle to overcome innovation trauma

Jay Moldenhauer‐Salazar (Former head of Sun Microsystems' Human Resources Labs, is Vice President of Human Resources at Barclays Global Investors in San Francisco)
Liisa Välikangas (Professor of Innovation Management at Helsinki School of Economics, was formerly head of research at the Woodside Institute which she co‐founded with Gary Hamel (

Strategy & Leadership

ISSN: 1087-8572

Article publication date: 9 May 2008




Until now there has been little attention paid to the emotional costs of innovation failures, and in particular, how prior innovation failures hinder subsequent new, related innovation. The saga of Sun Microsystems' Sun Ray computer illustrates the devastating impact of institutional innovation failure trauma. This paper aims to investigate its development.


The authors trace the development of Sun Microsystem's Sun Ray offering, which replaced its failed JavaStation product. As it was launched, the Sun Ray endeavor encountered the classic “innovator's dilemma” problems that are well known to those who attempt to champion disruptive innovations.


But despite its many strong competitive advantages, the Sun Ray computer has unsuccessfully struggled to catch hold with customers. To a large degree the causes are Sun Microsystems' inability to learn from its earlier innovative JavaStation failure and to recover from the trauma of that failure.

Research limitations/implications

To understand Sun Ray's story, the authors interviewed nearly 40 key people and compiled nearly 300 documents, from internal memos to market analyses to press releases to meeting minutes.

Practical implications

Companies can develop proactive management practices to prevent major trauma and consequent innovation paralysis. Six ways to do so are offered.


This is a study of a radical innovation that could have changed computing history. But Sun Ray, Sun's computing innovation was too closely associated with an earlier, highly traumatic and publicized failure of JavaStation and never really got a chance to prove its mettle. Overcoming such innovation trauma is a critical but underappreciated aspect of innovation management in companies such as Sun Microsystems that depend on continuous innovation for their competitiveness.



Moldenhauer‐Salazar, J. and Välikangas, L. (2008), "Sun Ray's struggle to overcome innovation trauma", Strategy & Leadership, Vol. 36 No. 3, pp. 15-20.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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