Monday, March 9, 2015

Going Against the Grain

I've struggled for the past two months to write this entry.  It started with the topic of innovation and why companies are struggling at it, but that quickly devolved into a "how to be more innovative" treatise.  However if you're like me, you've already read several great articles and heard numerous speakers lay out a foundation for innovation.  And at some point you realize you're reading the same thing over and over again because, for whatever reason, nobody's listening to the message.  So another person jumped into say it a second time.  Then a third time.  Fourth time.  Fifth.  Well that's obviously a broken path, so rather than be the sixth I realized I needed to take a new direction.

In that moment of despair after endless edits, thinking perhaps my argument was flawed (which would explain why it was so hard to capture), it dawned on me to go back to the basics.  Yes, innovation is a struggle. But why?  Is it really just because innovation requires a willingness to invest in failure which is anathema to a company focused on quarterly results?  I don't think so.  I think the problem is more basic and has to do with the cultural proximity of the smart people who invent, the entrepreneurs who innovate, and the public who wants everything better, cheaper and faster.

Through the 1960's in the US we had a healthy habit of churning out earth shattering inventions which drove economic growth for decades.  However invention requires patience, a tolerance for failure, and funding.  As companies tightened up their bottom lines through the 1970's and 1980's we subdued this habit in the name of global sourcing and cost cutting, moving our research off-shore to locales with lower cost labor.  Of course nobody considered the opportunity cost of this shift.  One of the most often discussed result of this approach is how billions of dollars in economic growth have been shifted from the US to foreign countries, raising their standards of living and education while ours have remained stagnant or dropped.  However there is another opportunity cost rarely considered; what happens when you move research half-way around the world to a new culture which doesn't share the same appetite for change and risk as the United States?

Our culture in the United States has an acute case of individualitis.  In fact the "American Dream" is based on the concept of the individual controlling their destiny through dedication and hard work.  Our government was established to protect the rights of the individual from tyranny.  The reason a free market capitalist system works in the US is because it's the only system in which the talent and effort invested by the individual delivers a powerful dividend.  Capitalism is the great equality engine because it rewards innovation.  The rise of American economic power started with the Industrial Revolution, but it wasn't fueled by invention as is so often argued.  Innovation, the use of inventions to solve real problems, was the real rocket fuel.  Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, but the switchboard was the innovation which connected people over great distances.  On it's own the phone did very little.  Morris Tanenbaum invented the silicon transistor, but the silicon wafer was the innovation which brought microprocessors to the masses.

Our American culture embraces innovation.  We like cool, new technologies which purport to make life better, even when they don't.  Although there are certainly pockets the world over, there is no better market for launching new products that challenge the status quo or establish entire new segments.  Our software businesses prove this on a daily basis.  Despite repeated efforts by large companies to move software development off-shore, the most innovative software is still largely developed in the United States for the US market.

So back to the question then, why are companies struggling with innovation?  I believe it's because we've added noise between each step of the invention to insight to innovation process by separating the functions on a cultural plane.  I've learned over the past thirty years not to underestimate the importance of culture.  If you want to sell on anything other than price, you have to innovate.  But to innovate, you need access to invention, and that access is much more than reading whitepapers and listening to lectures.  People need to share more than a language, they need to share cultural experiences.  How are we as leaders enabling cultural exchange to occur as part of our daily routine?  How are we growing ourselves by creating interactions with other cultures at work and at home?

We need to consciously choose to go against the grain; to recognize even when we speak the same words, we can mean two different things when cross the culture divide.  Now that my eyes are open, it's incumbent upon me to make the time to move forward.  I'm sure to many this is all very obvious, in which case although I'm admittedly late to the party, at least I'm on my way.

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