Everyone knows they should be proactive about change. Everyone says “We need to innovate before the anticipated crisis hits us.” Even so, no one acts until they’re finally forced to. Why? Well, when people use the word “we’, they invariably mean someone else besides themselves. In other words, we see little real innovation today because few people are ready to own the issues. There always seems to be something more pressing, like this quarter’s results or a budget crisis.
Could you be missing something really important in your vision for systemic innovation, just because you can’t tolerate bible thumpers and fundamentalists?
Now, before you stop reading because the R word was mentioned, understand that the man provoking the question, philosopher Alain de Botton is an atheist. In a persuasive RSAlecture (and book ‘ReligionforAtheists’) he suggests too many of us have thrown the baby out with the fundamentalist bathwater. And our culture is poorer for it.
I love how this discussion revolved around the idea that there is so little real innovation going on right now because you and I are too afraid to aim really high. The same thought rolled over to fixing the economic mess. As Peter Thiel says, the question should be reframed. "What are you doing to end the recession? And the question about technology is, what are you doing to try to accelerate technology? And as long as it's a problem that's seen as a problem that will be simply solved by other people, it's not going to get done."
It's time to Occupy business innovation and research commercialization in Canada.
In response to reports that Canada has slipped badly in global rankings of innovation and research commercialization, the federal government asked industry for ideas on how Canada might fix the problem. The result is the Jenkins Report, which is stirring up some debate in business circles (see Globe & Mail column and comments).
The report offers a number of solutions to the problem of lagging innovation but the main thrust seems to be better targeting and distribution of the billions of dollars we already dole out to businesses every year. Strangely, since I’m more left than right, this has me feeling a little Kevin O’Leary about it all. It smells like tweaking a perpetual government bail out of business.
My point is the report and the debate completely disregard the concerns of the Occupy movement, which is pointing to the same broken business finance system. This disconnect is strange because so many of the business people arguing about improving Canada’s innovation financing are also sympathetic to Occupy, especially the younger startup crowd. But they seem unable to recognize their own power and this unique opportunity to influence both issues at once.
The Occupy movement says big money and corporate power can’t be trusted to run the world anymore. Capitalism, if it ever was a noble beast, has devolved to a rigged game of elite cronyism, manipulation and greed. We’re seeing examples of that in the way so many companies and consultants are gaming government innovation funding now.
Occupy supporters say the metrics used by the financial elite to pick winners and losers ignore everything but money. Aren’t those the same metrics used in the innovation funding game?
And Occupy says if corporations are indeed people, as recognized by the courts, then too many of them are psychopaths. Well, how many fat cats just take government money to pad their bottom line and run without a second thought?
While many old-school business people may sympathize with these Occupy issues, they are fearful that speaking out could cast them as socialists or threaten their jobs. Or jeopardize funding for their startups.
Others, though, are not so fearful of speaking truth to power. Their businesses are being built on ecosystems of social networking. They are broadly supported and connected – constantly sharing not only the cold information of transactions but also their feelings about how the world could become a better place. Being in touch with so many kindred spirits, they are not so easily divided and conquered.
So, here’s the thing: Plans for the future of innovation funding in Canada are being made now. These plans call for more or less of the same old same old. No one discussing these plans is connecting the dots to issues raised by Occupy. If you are a socially-networked business person and you sympathize even a little with the Occupy movement, then you have the power and the opportunity right now to influence Canada’s approach to business innovation.
If the M2M B2B industry continues to muddle along with business as usual then someone might someday get lucky enough to have an impact that is “in some ways disruptive.” But who can do anything disruptive if everyone is playing the same game with the same tools? Disruption is about changing the game - not just working harder, faster and smarter.
This is a response to Bob Emmerson and his recent post at m2m: Modules: A Constant in a Fast-Changing M2M Environment. The post is a helpful weather report for today’s M2M development environment. Fortunately though, unlike the weather, enterprise mobility is still very young and we do have some hope that we can change the weather. We have a plan for operational innovation in enterprise mobility and Bob's seven points provide an opportunity to position some of our key ideas.
In my last post I took a shot at executive complacency. Granted, it was a bit of a shock-jock tactic to grab attention but the sentiment is worthy. Change and innovation are being stymied by complacency. If we are going to discuss ways of improving innovation at the national level, we must start at the personal level. The buck must stop with someone and in most challenges in a democracy, it must stop with the individual. As Pogo said of our environmental challenges, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Complacency is about being satisfied with myself or the way things are. If I’ve got a nice job, steady income, a supportive team and I’m rewarded to align with corporate objectives, then why rock the boat? Besides, I’m too busy and stressed with execution in my domain to worry about things that are “not my job.” On top of that, I can point to activities that prove I am helping to change things for the better.
So when hints of disruption (disruptive innovation) arise from any corner, I don’t want to deal with it until I have no other choice. I linger in denial of both the crisis and the opportunity.
That denial is largely unconscious. It is also a matter of genetic predisposition as described by Dr. Gregory Berns in his book Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently. Berns describes the brain as a “lazy piece of meat” because it draws on past experiences to make perception easier. Such “patterned thinking”, often distorted by the fear of repeating painful experiences, impedes innovation. You could say humans are naturally complacent, lazy and apathetic. It’s not hard to imagine that survival in human prehistory was often dependent on not rocking the boat or challenging the alpha males. Today, winners are those that overcome their fears (mostly of rejection) and do it anyway.
A colleague, discussing resistance to adoption of Cloud storage and applications, recently expressed the thought that IT departments generally resist such innovation because they usually take the fall when things go badly. Well, what does that say about the management of such companies? They nurture a culture of fear? They’re more afraid of errors of commission than errors of omission? Such thinking does have painful results. Companies slow to move to the Cloud are losing fortunes in lost operational savings and market share to competitors.
The truth about their thinking is probably closer to ‘they didn’t really think about it much at all’. Their lazy piece of meat simply remembered a pattern - people get fired for errors of commission immediately; if they get fired at all for errors of omission, it will be in the distant future.
Real thinking is, in fact, hard work requiring time and energy for learning. Long before money and other resources are invested in innovation, the first investment must be personal time and energy. In a culture biased towards action, how many executives will actually give themselves or their delegates serious time to think and learn?
Executives today cost their companies too much money to let them think too much. If someone is making hundreds of dollars an hour, we certainly don’t want to see them learning on the job.
But I’m thinking that this is the heart of the innovation gap problem. We really need quantitatively more thinking and learning. And two $100,000 a year executives can certainly think and learn a lot more than one $200,000 a year executive. Perhaps that is a good place to start if we really want to improve innovation. It would certainly help improve the problems we have with both national employment figures and the growing income gap. And it would dilute a lot of the fear hobbling significant innovation.
Innovation today invariably raises issues of great complexity that require solutions that can come only from deep learning across disciplines and domains. If you want the fantastic rewards of operational disruption, which requires systemic or radical innovation, then you need more people with the time to fearlessly study ideas that high-priced lazy meat dismisses as cockamamie.
I heard it in two different conversations today and I’ve been thinking the same thing for awhile. In essence, the idea is expressed in a Tweet by Christian de Neef, (http://cdn.fasttrack.be ) a knowledge management consultant in Belgium: ”Innovation is an ongoing battle against apathy, complacency and laziness.”
It may not be totally the fault of those responsible for innovation. More often, I suspect, it is the fault of the money people – the senior executives, CEOs and board members who are too lazy to do the hard work of learning the details of innovations proposed by others. So they’re never pursued. As an advocate of education transformation, I am struck by the parallel between so-called “lazy” high school dropouts and complacent executives.
Wal-Mart shoppers and other big-box store customers don’t seem to recognize that buying the same products from the same low-cost vendor tends to make them the same as everyone else. Sure, it’s good that big box stores save their customers money but in the long run I’m not sure that’s a good thing – especially if it means we simply buy more. The environment certainly doesn’t need us producing and ultimately trashing more cheap stuff. The selfish lack of reflection on the part of consumers like me is criminal but the real problem is with corporate leadership. With them, the lack of diversity in their buying habits is only partly an environmental challenge. The big issue is that companies are forsaking opportunities to radically improve the way they operate - for the benefit of the environment, their customers and their shareholders. Sadly, all because they have been drinking the Kool Aid of lowest price is everything.