INNOVATION. EASIER SAID THAN DONE.By Michael D'Antonio
There has been much written about start-ups, entrepreneurs and companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter driving most of the innovation in America. In fact, the National Science Foundation documents only about 9% of all U.S. companies innovate. Experts further explain, in and of itself, this information technology-based innovation has not led to the manufacturing of innovative products – in either industrial or consumer products, bioscience, nanotechnology or the alternative energy spaces. In other words, our significant investment in innovation has not led to a commensurate amount of “valuable” output. As a result, it has produced sluggish job creation, real declines in income, an increasing trade deficit and overall, anemic growth.
Truth is, America’s rise to the top of the economic food chain – albeit innovative and valuable – was built on the scale of production efficiencies. Our recent humbling economic experience has only reinforced such measures. Further, even as most large American companies conflate globalization and efficiencies with true innovation, there is little argument that building stuff is the foundation from which our great prosperity has come. However, while all of this may be jeopardizing America’s status as the world’s leader in traditional economic value, it is important to understand that economies, like countries and businesses, evolve. It is how we develop through this maturation cycle that will ultimately decide our fate.
Trained in the value of efficiencies, we are taught the pillars of success are titles, awards and profits. Companies, like individuals, are graded on such metrics. Have you ever wondered why organizations have so many sovereign departments – all with independent yet interdependent objectives? Why so many people are apprehensive to do things differently within this hierarchical construct? We learn to be good at something. We become specialized and masters of our domain. We pad our pocketbooks. This ferments in silos and is reinforced by habit and acceptance. But, all too often it manifests into close-mindedness – protecting all that challenge it.
Innovation is a perspective – a way of life. It is about a process, not the product it ultimately yields. It is fueled by participation, not approval. It chooses the path of most resistance. It seeks uncomfortableness and embraces weakness. It is inspired by passion and sustained by resolve. It lives by the notion that good is never good enough. It is non-linear. Its dynamic path ebbs and flows and adapts to new generations, environments and problems. Like change, it is contrary to conventional wisdom and corporate and social culture. It threatens human truths and innate human instincts. No wonder why it is so damn hard.
Often the best ideas are the most ridiculous. Usually they are counterintuitive. New approaches to handle traditional needs appear ignorant. They defy common logic and the status quo. They are immediately rebuffed, constantly denounced and given an unlimited number of reasons for failure – in fact, they almost always fail. But, innovation is learning by trying, ideating and making – and failure is an unfortunate requisite for change. It teaches us, builds character and serves as the compass for a direction not yet traveled. For those who innovate, they have learned one vital lesson; above all else, you can never – ever – lose the faith.
The new digital landscape has provided an infinite number of platforms for us to explore. Unlike our predecessors who produced the great American Industrial Revolution, current generations now have the ability to gain immediate access to global perspectives and learn how to learn on their own. Knowledge and education, the mother of all innovation, has been democratized for all.
It is true, information technology innovation may not directly generate new widget factories in a neighborhood near you and we do need to make more stuff once again. However, companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter constantly innovate as a result of their culture – because they plant the seeds of ingenuity – which is the foundation for many more American revolutions indeed.
Brands win when they can engage all of the senses and create a space in which the face-to-face experience amplifies its inherent value. Apple stores are always popular because their Genius Bar offers real value – experts who listen, take notes and answer specific questions with live product demonstrations. Many new car dealers are hiring local high school students to help customers with their cars’ high-tech infotainment systems and telematics. And even Match.com, the quintessential online dating service, has started hosting “offline” events where singles can meet socially out in the real world. Online shopping is here to stay. But smart retailers and OEMs are learning that physical experiences can crystalize emotional connections and position their brands as living, personally relevant consumer assets. We may feel relieved to quickly dispatch a purchase on Amazon. But we’ll remember the sales associate who found us a more flattering jacket, the barista who always remembers our favorite brew and the corner merchant who sets a bowl of water outside for passing pets. It’s not a big deal, but it’s real, it’s memorable and it leaves us with a smile.