Why can’t we seem to innovate?
For the last decade I have been looking at innovation around the globe. I am seriously distressed about the total lack of innovation on a global scale. Less than 20 years ago we had think tanks such as BBN, Xerox PARC, Bell Labs, SRI and others, whose sole purpose was to bring thousands of brilliant engineers, mathematicians and computer scientists together and let them innovate. The atmosphere was completely uninhibited and collaborative across multiple disciplines.
Each company boasted thousands of the best and brightest minds and talent. Graduates from all over the world could not wait to be recruited by these companies and for several decades, they defined the edge of disruption. It was a thrill being at BBN in this period. Every day would challenge us, teach us and challenge us again.
Then, starting with the bursting of the dot-com bubble, everything changed. Many historic innovators stopped innovating. Companies spent money on research but not innovation (which is basically applied research). Some continued pushing the envelope (Apple, Google, Salesforce.com) because they understood instinctively that companies that want to remain great must continually reinvent themselves. They can never come to rest or get too comfortable. They must engage in what is known as “creative destruction.”
Others just quit innovating. Hewlett-Packard is one, and it’s a heartbreaking story. Name the last industry-redefining innovation you saw from HP. Think about it.
Nothing, right? The company that set the bar for Silicon Valley innovation has gone dark in that regard.
Then there are those who innovated, became cocky and blind, and can’t seem to recover. Research in Motion, maker of the BlackBerry, is the patron saint of these companies. RIM invented the smart phone category, but now it’s going down the tubes because it decided too late to chase after the iPhone.
Companies are all too happy to spend billions on marketing but nothing on innovation. Why? In part because innovation is HARD:
- It doesn’t come from pure theoretical research
- It doesn’t happen in engineering. We aren’t giving our engineers the time and resources to do anything but code Version 26.0 of an already-outdated product
- It doesn’t come from the C-suite or the Board
- It won’t come from academia unless we invest in it
- It sure as hell won’t come from random, panicked acquisitions
Innovation comes from entrepreneurial people who know the markets working in tandem with engineers and scientists, because innovation is fundamentally about using research to meet a need or solve a problem. But that takes time and risk and resources, so we don’t do it. Instead, talented, passionate engineering and technical people go brain dead.
Unless we create a culture where engineers are secure and encouraged to think freely, openly and disruptively, we are simply giving them a paycheck until they find a better job. Also, if we want to innovate, we need to listen to a forgotten constituency: salespeople. Nobody knows the needs and concerns of the market better than the sales force. Creating a Culture of Disruption and making Sales a part of it would only help companies rediscover their innovative spirits.
Picked up a copy of Provoke yet? You can find it on Amazon. All my best,