Feb
13

Three Paradigm Shifts Needed for Innovation

“We need to make 2010 what Obama should have made 2009: the year of innovation.”
~Thomas Friedman in the New York Times

As I continue to speak out, discuss with others, and read/hear thought leaders grappling with how to make our culture more innovative, I am struck by common themes and agreements. Clearly, almost all of us see the need for change, and the need to support efforts that will bring about more creative solutions–in education, in organizations, in cities. We need more stimulation (rather than just stimulus) to get us excited about innovation and entrepreneurship, wrote Thomas Friedman in the New York Times a few weeks ago. “The best way to counter the Tea Party movement, which is all about stopping things,” he writes, “is with an Innovation Movement, which is all about starting things.”

But an innovation movement needs to shift our quite-stubborn mindsets that are currently not serving us well or promoting creative action. Here are the three key paradigm shifts necessary for cultural innovation that I see, with recent confirmation in the pages of a couple of our few-remaining national publications.

1. The valuing of the right brain. It’s one thing to say we need to be creative, but it’s quite another to support, value and honor those things which improve our creative, right brains. Corporate America in particular still has a hard time valuing anything that appears too “touchy-feely” or that can’t be measured easily through profit and loss. But as Einstein said, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” Recent commentators have been championing liberal arts–which support this blog’s emphasis on right brain power–in order to boost innovation. “If the country is to prosper–economically, culturally, morally,” wrote Jon Meacham in Newsweek recently, “we have to trust the institutions, old and new, that nurture creativity.” Even MBA programs are beginning to find ways to increase right brain education, according to a recent New York Times article. Roger Martin, the new dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, describes his goal as a kind of “liberal arts M.B.A.” and other programs are increasing focus on thinking differently and using design thinking to solve problems. The next step is for companies to put actual money behind programs that increase right brain thinking of their employees.


2. Collaboration across Disciplines. We are realizing that new solutions must come from a kind of collaboration that breaks down silos of expertise and combines perspectives and wisdom from many. We are currently set up–in academia, in business, in government–with very little communication between departments and domains. It’s time to be multidisciplinary. CEO of IBM Sam Palmisano recently wrote, “We will need ongoing, structured collaboration among city agencies; across business, the nongovernmental sector, academia and communities; and among cities and regional authorities. And that’s going to require that we develop new skills for both managing people and leading organizations.” Both because innovation comes most commonly from the intersection of disparate ideas, and because our economy demands now that we share best practices and help each other solve difficult challenges, collaboration across disciplines must become a real priority. That means working on our collaborative skills, as some MBA programs in the aforementioned article are doing. It also means we need more people who are comprehensivists, able to facilitate dialogue and problem solving among different groups.

3. Act for the long term and not just the short. This is currently America’s Achilles’ Heel, perhaps the one change of mindset with which most people wholeheartedly agree, but often feel helpless about. To become an innovative culture, we must insist that the quarterly earnings report, the short-term R.O.I., and the next primary election cannot solely determine our behavior. A company can’t be innovative if every new R&D project must prove its worth within a year, a requirement of one local large company that is handcuffing an employee I just spoke with. Short-term thinking, especially one ruled by data and numbers and not human values (Google getting out of China appeared to be a rare exception), is killing us as a culture. It limits creativity and prevents the adoption of unpopular-though-healthy policies and practices, regardless of how much the current system is limping along. Every expert in innovation knows that only by allowing for failure and taking risks, even during hard times, is innovation possible. And yet right now as a country we can’t solve any of our persistent problems–you name them–because of the suffocating idolatry of the short term.

The truth is, given the continued partisan ineptitude of our government, I’m not feeling particular hopeful that we can shift paradigms, despite some convincing clamoring for it. How about a little help from you, my elusive reader? Can you share any signs you see that we are valuing the right brain, collaborating across disciplines and acting for the long term?

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