Innovation - Being Bred Out Of America?

In the years I've been working in the high tech industry I've seen wondrous innovations created by a select few that were truly mind-boggling. Sometimes it would be the application of a new technology or the use of an existing technology in a fashion the creators had never envisioned.

It is innovation that has driven the US economy for decades, something that rolled on year after year. Unfortunately the conditions that allowed Americans to innovate such things has slowly been dismantled, primarily by those not understanding the creative process. They have tried to mandate innovation and schedule it, all to no avail. It doesn't work like that.

Managers need to hire innovative people if they want to get innovative ideas. But innovative people will be dreamers and tinkerers who often make mistakes and are not rigorous in their documentation or calculations. They refuse to wear the blinders required to complete day-to-day tasks. They become obsessed with ideas and work in bursts. If they can be paired with detail-obsessed workers who will document and keep projects on track, companies will get good products.

Unfortunately, we are plagued with managers who traded imagination for ambition and got ahead through aggression and checking boxes. These people create innovation programs that require committee approval before each step, so only the safest and most-obvious changes ever get through.

Innovation isn't always about asking “What if?” It's also about “Why not?”

Today not enough people are asking either of those questions because they would never make it past management, so they don't bother.

There's a story told about Henry Ford when he was showing some stockholders around one of his factories. As he was escorting them around they passed by an office in which a man was sitting behind a desk, leaning back in his chair, his feet on top of the desk and his hands behind his head, staring at the ceiling. When asked by one of the incredulous stockholders why the man they saw wasn't working, Ford replied, “He is working. He's thinking. The last time he thought he saved this company almost $2 million.” ($2 million back then was equivalent to $23 million today.) The man was an innovator, finding new and better ways to do things. Most of his innovation process consisted of sitting back and pondering over a problem until he came up with a solution. It didn't matter if it took him a lot of time to do so, because in the end he helped the company make more money by making it less costly to build automobiles.