Canadian politicians have concluded that the observed deficiencies in the Canadian economy stem from a root cause of Canada having a lower level of innovation than almost every other G7 country. Steps are now being proposed to bring innovation up within Canadian society. These notes are a response to some of the suggestions.
Why Successful Enterprises Fail
In my studies of why successful companies fail, the single common determinant is the loss of innovation. It is no different for businesses, small and large, or for countries small and large. For innovation is needed to survive the common driver of the universe – change. Innovation is nothing more than responding to change. If we do not change, we do not survive. It’s that simple. And it applies to every individual, every group, every enterprise and every country.
Pointing the Finger at Others
While the suggested canvassing of the leaders of IT sectors, heads of universities and government officials is a start, most of these very same people suffer from a universal malaise – a failure to institutionalize innovation within the domains that they, themselves, oversee. However, to their credit, they suggested creating a new culture that embraces innovation, which is one of the first steps towards dealing with change – the ever-present, unavoidable, common and universal threat to existence. The problem I see for these leaders is similar to the one I have experienced in ‘corporate America’ – which is that while, like those who may agree that the city needs a garbage dump, they carry an almost universal refrain of “However, don’t build it next to my home”. Most of these leaders talk of solutions without applying them in their own back yards.
R&D is a Band-Aid Solution
R & D has been identified as a clear element of innovation in this study. While that is obviously correct, it is but one element. Addressing it alone is a band-aid solution. Throw money at it and watch it fail – again. As in all situations, there must be balance of all the variables. However the key is that, whatever those variables may be, they must stem from and be supported by common core values. Are Canadian core values consistent with the creation of an innovative society?
Not Business Skills, But Innovation Skills
Suggestions that we should teach business skills miss the mark. Business skills are a subset of what we really need to provide – innovation skills. Fortunately innovation skills are a natural human element that will flourish given a little bit of water and sunshine. We all have different degrees of innovation, but irrespective of our personal amounts, it should be allowed to flourish across the board and it should not be discouraged. Presently it is more discouraged than encouraged in Canada; innovators are scorned at, unless they are very successful.
Goal Keeping or Goal Scoring
The owner of a property takes far better care of the property than the tenants or anyone else. So we need to create a nation of owners rather than a nation of tenants. This reverts to what I call one of the natural human behaviors. I remedy this tendency in a company by guiding the decentralization of authority and responsibility down to the individuals. Governments and universities must do the same thing – down to divisions, to departments and to individuals. The owners are the goal scorers creating new goals for themselves. The tenants are the goal keepers – maintaining the status quo and not wandering too far a-field. Understanding this is an enormous step towards instituting innovation described below.
Look After Your Own Property
Moving upwards from the individual, to the departments, etc., each sector should look after its own bailiwick. We can improve ourselves, but we have no control over others. So governments should look after governments, universities should look after universities, etc. All of us begin by cleaning the weeds in our own garden first. The rest will fall into place far more easily. Telling others what to do absolves us of taking action ourselves where needed – “They are the problems; they need to fix things up and we will all be OK,” is the diversionary song.
The goal of having the common objective of developing the best-educated and most innovative citizens in the world is highly desirable. It is doable. Politicians are to be congratulated.
How can we meet the challenges of creating an innovative society? First, get back to basics. Education alone is not the answer. Nor is increased R&D spending. Do not view single-dimension solutions. Doing so will lead to premature failure.
The key to innovation is the personal drive of the individual. We are all human – we take the path of least resistance. We can intellectualize at what we should do, but then go down the opposite path for convenience. Diet and exercise are common examples. They are relatively simple, but how many of us feel these are under our control? TV watching instead of reading is another. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
If the key to innovation is personal drive, then the key to personal innovation is to create and apply systems to overcome these all-too-human tendencies that rob us of our drive. If the superior bodies (governments, academia, business management, etc.) confine themselves to creating an overriding environment that monitors slippage from the agreed-on path, corrections can take place. (We can better control our dieting if a personal coach is along to monitor and to help.) If individuals remain in control of their own domains, innovation will be allowed to survive. If it can survive, it can prosper. And it can do so if innovation is institutionalized to become part of the everyday fabric of Canadian society.
Key elements of an ongoing innovation strategy, step-by-step are:
- Recognize the need for innovation (as a response to change).
- Start by identifying house-cleaning problems – those of your own doing or under your “own control. E.g. Public Education.”
- Tackle each problem in isolation. (Keep it simple and therefore manageable.)
- Engage all key parties to each problem, especially those with opposing views.
- Install an objective, respectful listening system within each problem-solving group.
- Take the time to eliminate the past baggage and create improvement. – an already unplanned instilling of innovation. So far, we only have laid the groundwork.
- Measure results to be sure we are satisfied with our foundation’s progress.
- With baggage removed, clearly articulate our mission or purpose – doomed to failure if baggage remains.
- Set the goals or objectives and the plan to achieve those.
- Create the infrastructure, being careful to conserve innovation within it – the delicate creature that is so easily demolished by poor structure.
- Create the feedback systems that tell us if we are meeting the goals down to the level of the individual.
- Install clear rewards and punishments to close the feedback loop; extend them from the individual up to the sector.
- Monitor effectiveness of our progress against simple unequivocal goals.
- Create means to maintain the innovation achieved, once the progress is clear.
- Create systems to spin off new levels of innovation (and not burden them with old bureaucracy of existing larger systems).
Bill Caswell [email protected]
© W. E. Caswell Sep 2002