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Innovation is a Banquet! –So Why Are So Many Leaders Starving to Death?!
Posted on August 23, 2012

I’m actually taking great liberties with the classic quote, “Life is a banquet, but most poor suckers are starving to death!" from Patrick Dennis’s book and Broadway hit, “Auntie Mame.”  

My point being that although there are countless ways to engage our creative problem-solving brains to innovate day in and out, I am not optimistic that the majority of Americans in the business, non-profit, or governmental sectors will access this cornucopia before a lot more damage is done to our economy, environment, quality of life, and future potential.

For many, the word “innovation” is just a buzzword.  They fail to understand that innovation is a state of mind and an approach, not a commodity that one can just order up, like a pizza, or flip on with a switch.  Thinking that one can just make a few minor adjustments within one’s organization to become innovative is like having an argument on the cell phone while driving 90 miles an hour to get to a retreat center, and expecting serenity or enlightenment to be waiting at the door upon one’s arrival – It just doesn't happen that way.

And this is why it is projected that by the year 2020, only one out of five S&P 500 companies will still exist (findings of a comprehensive study published in Creative Destruction by R. Foster and S. Kaplan).  The majority of companies simply will not have adapted to the changing world, and will therefore make themselves vulnerable to being taken over, sold off, broken up, or bankrupted.

I’m currently listening to the audiobook, That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, co-authored by international journalist Thomas Friedman (author of the blockbuster The World is Flat) and American foreign policy professor Michael Mandelbaum.  Like the authors, I consider myself to be a “realistic optimist.”  By which we mean that it is only by clearly taking in the “bad news” — the looming threats facing our companies, institutions, and economy — that we have any chance to do what is necessary to adapt our mindsets and correct our course.

Like Friedman and Mandelbaum, I too, still believe in “Yankee Ingenuity” and that we have the collective capacity to rise to the occasion and deal with great challenges, just as Americans did in The Great Depression, World War II, and the race to the moon.  But we can’t even begin until we pull our heads out of the sand.

When it comes to business, I am enough of a capitalist to believe in the survival of the fittest.  On one hand, I believe that companies led by short-sighted, arrogant leaders and managers should fail.  It’s best for them to get out of the way to make room for other ventures led by those who are wiser, more humble, and better attuned to both the world around them and to the intelligence and talents within their ranks.

The tragedy won't be the auctioning off of the brick and mortar and mastheads of these companies themselves over the next decade.  Rather, it will be the human costs resulting from the bad choices made by those leaders: the millions of talented people who will lose their jobs and livelihoods, as well as the loss of tax revenues that will further cripple our society.

And then “four out of five” of these US companies will fail?! – Even if it were half that (e.g. 51% of CEO's in the 2010 IBM CEO study expressed concerns regarding their companies' futures for lack of creative thinking abilities) — what part of economic catastrophe do we still not understand?!  Neither manufacturing jobs or increasingly outsourced pink and white collar services will be returning from our lower-cost overseas competitors in any significant numbers.  That leaves American creativity and inventiveness to carry our economy forward.  Yet we allow Brazil, India, and China to far outspend us in innovation (Boston Consulting Group Report, 2010) as the previously unchallenged lead we held in patent application filings now steadily shrinks. http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/10/06/china-poised-to-lead-world-in-patent-filings/ & http://www.wipo.int/pressroom/en/articles/2012/article_0001.html

Even among those in management who are talking about innovation, many don’t seem to grasp the irrefutable causal relationship between management style and innovative culture.  I don’t believe that most American managers or the consulting professionals upon whom many of them rely, understand this fundamental reality: sustained innovation cannot exist in hierarchical, siloed, watch-your-back organizations.

“Management innovations” are necessary in order for other forms of innovation to see the light of day.  It has been stated in numerous ways throughout these blog-posts that an organizational culture that fosters an innovative mindset and which produces winning results requires authentic mutual trust and respect throughout the organization.  As the stand-out CEOs in the IBM 2010 Global CEO survey (“Capitalizing on Complexity”) indicated, trust and innovation are the means and ends and involve:

  • Cross-departmental and external stakeholder collaboration
  • Efficient and open communication in which mistakes are valued as educational opportunities rather than something to be covered up or blamed on someone else
  • Comfort with ambiguity, experimentation, and trial by error
  • Encouragement to question the status quo for the sake of continuous improvement
  • Processes and reward systems for fully engaging employees in contributing ideas for continuous improvements and increasing problem-solving autonomy throughout the ranks.

All of these necessitate a collaborative, versus a command-and-control style of management.  Evidence abounds that the most successful U.S. companies (like Southwest Airlines, Google, and Apple) flatten their organizations and, far more than average companies, value and foster both the creativity and critical analysis of “whole brain” thinking at all levels.

Yet evidence and logic do not persuade many in leadership whose perceptions continue to be clouded by barriers of their own making.  I am not optimistic that most organizational leaders in the U.S. are willing to trust and develop their employees’ abilities enough to relinquish control, because, as is said in Twelve-Step programs, their pain isn’t deep enough yet.  –If only their poor choices wouldn’t inflict so much pain on the rest of us.

 

However… despite my concerns expressed above, as a dedicated realistic optimist, I will continue to focus my attention not on those who stubbornly fail to grasp the paradigm shifts that are necessary, but rather on the great innovators in all walks of life working with their creative muses and collaborating all over the world.  I will feed my spirit and mind by exploring and learning along with those equally excited by the possibilities and the array at the banquet table!

Bon appetite!

 Mangia!

The next post will further explore management innovation with a review of Gary Hammel’s great Harvard Business School article, “The Why, What, and How of Management Innovation.”

 

 

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