In his State of the Union address, President Obama declared that "the first step toward winning the future is encouraging American innovation." Innovation is the President's top priority in rebuilding our economy and maintaining our preeminent position in the global order.
Innovation is America's competitive advantage. As Obama put it, "in America, innovation doesn't just change our lives, it's how we make a living." But the rest of the world is catching up. Obama called this our "Sputnik moment," calling on America's innovators to step up to the challenge in the same way we did in the space race with the Soviets.
It turns out the President's message is nothing new. As Justin Elliot explains at Salon.com, innovation is a theme that's been harped in nearly every State of the Union address for the past 30 years. Reagan talked about innovation and technology opening up opportunities, George W. Bush talked about encouraging innovation, Bill Clinton talked about the economic importance of innovations in science and technology, and Jimmy Carter talked about the American genius for innovation." And in fact, our own President, Jay Terwilliger, anticipated this theme in his post on Monday.
Why hasn't the tune changed? If presidents have been banging on the innovation drum for decades, why have we not yet been able to declare "mission accomplished"? The reason is that innovation is like losing weight; it's easy talk about, but hard to do. It also cannot be a crash diet. Innovation is not something you achieve and then forget about. Innovation is, by definition, an ongoing effort. Everyone wants to be more innovative, but they do not know how. Here are a few reasons innovation will not happen organically just because the president says so:
"Innovation" is a Broad Term - It is not possible to innovate by mandate. What I mean by that is, simply saying "we need to be more innovative" is not going to cut it. Part of the problem is that there are several types of innovation. There is new product development, there is process innovation, and there is business model innovation, just to name a few.
Leaders Need to "Play" - Another reason that innovation doesn't happen by mandate is that leaders need to get their hands dirty and be involved in the process from start to finish. As Jay put it, they need to "have skin in the game." They need to commit the necessary time, resources, and leadership necessary to usher an innovative initiative all the way from Discovery to Execution. They also need to be visibly involved in the creative process, demonstrating to the team that they have permission to venture into uncharted territory.
Innovation Does Not Happen Between 9:00 - 5:00 - Innovative initiatives require the coordination of a dedicated and focused team. People who have full time jobs have day-to-day responsibilities they need to fulfill. Employees cannot be expected to squeeze in a little innovation here and there as part of their normal workday. It is better to create distinct innovation work teams that will plan to devote a substantial percentage of their time to the effort.
Innovation and Bureaucracy Don't Mix - It will come as no surprise that bureaucratic structures are not particularly well suited for innovation. Bureaucratic organization are designed to eliminate irregularities and mitigate risks. They are essentially built to hinder innovation. Innovation requires giving individuals the freedom to experiment, tinker, and play.
It is great that President Obama is focused on innovation, but just saying it will not make it so. Those who are ready to rise to the challenge need a blueprint to follow.