Whatever Happened to Innovation in the USA?

Or, why the difference between innovation from above and innovation from below matters

In a recent interview on NPR’s Science Friday program, everyone’s favorite astrophysicist* Neil deGrasse Tyson talked about innovation. Tyson has written a new book which discusses, among other things, the way that society benefited from innovation in the space race of the 1960s. With this post I want to tell you about my own experience with innovation in the USA and the two different types of innovation there are, an idea that should be raised more often.

Tyson argues that the innovation needed in space travel – the innovation needed to go farther and farther every single day – brought untold benefits to society through the engineers it needed, the products it created (which were applied elsewhere), through the economy it stimulated, etc. He has a point, but I’m interested to see if he mentions that the reason society benefits from such innovation is because it is the type of innovation that is writ large over society. The space race was innovation on a large scale. It was the driving force (and in some ways the weapon) of the Cold War. Hence everyone in society was indebted to this large scale innovation. When everyone has a stake in the innovation of a country, as they did in the space race, there is a collective agreement of the benefit of innovation. It doesn’t matter what it is, so long as it is innovative.

Innovation on a small scale, however, is a different story. Innovation from below, as it could be called, takes a entirely different mind set. In business, it sometimes comes out of necessity – innovate or go bust. This is similar to the innovation of the space race. But micro-innovation (let’s settle on this term, shall we?) also comes about unforced. Sometimes a clever person, whose business is more or less fine the way it is, recognizes the benefits of an innovative idea and, to use the official business-speak term, capitalizes on it. More often than not, however, micro-innovation is passed over. Allow me to offer an example.

I used to work for a company in the US. This company had a program to welcome new employees into the fold. The program was called something like Welcome, New Employees, Into The Fold™. In this program, new employees were asked to read a chapter from a best-selling business how-to manifesto. The chapter talked about the real-life innovative leader who built an innovative tech company on innovation. Naturally, I assumed the take-away message was supposed to be “Innovation. We like. So should you.” I was informed later that it was “Do as we say, not as our favorite manifesto chapter tells you.” Makes you wonder why they bothered to waste the paper, but then again, that’s what manifestos are all about.

Shortly after I left this company (on good terms), I offered them an innovative way to increase their sales. I would use my training in linguistics to study their marketing campaigns and I would to do it for free. The benefit for me was that my research would allow me to write my master’s thesis. It was a win-win. (I’m intentionally being vague about my master’s thesis since, so far as I can tell, it really is innovative. It’s at least the kind of research that could launch a career in either business or academia, depending on the results. Interested parties can feel free to contact me.)

And yet, like most micro-innovation cases, my idea was denied. It’s hard to believe, I know, but there are some obvious answers as to why. First, business professionals are a cautious to cowardly bunch. If you told them of the chances that they would be killed in a car accident on the way to work, they would find a reason to work from home. So when faced with the opportunity to increase their sales by doing nothing but allowing a post grad student to analyze their marketing texts, they find ways to say no, to brush it off, or to disregard it. Creating one’s own misfortune is not unheard of, even in the business world.

A second reason why my idea was turned down has to do with the “business as usual” mind set. My former employer makes millions each year, They fear change because they assume it’s going to be change for the worse. More importantly, while there’s no telling what kind of profit my innovation could have brought them, it’s safe to assume it would have been in the thousands of dollars. That’s chump change for mid-sized American companies. Why should they take on my idea when business as usual is already bringing in millions?

Finally, and most relevant to the macro-innovation that Mr. Tyson talked about, is the fact that micro-innovation is not established in the US. There is no culture of post graduate students doing research for companies to complete their degree. There is a culture of small innovations making big waves, but these are all either start-ups or internal happenings at large companies (like 3M). There is no zeitgeist of micro-innovation, no pressure from society on creating it day after day, and no agreement that it brings untold benefits to those who seize it. Yet it comes up all the time.

This last notion is related to the type of micro-innovation that comes out of necessity because companies can live or die on it. Most people with an innovative idea have a very good reason for why it will be successful. If they are declined by one company, they are not likely to give up on the idea. They are simply going to move on to the next company. And that spells danger for the companies who passed on the innovation. So instead of companies living by the “be innovative or die” motto, there are also those remembered by the “we died because we were not innovative” warning.

And nobody writes chapters in business books about those companies.


* Except maybe this guy.

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Author: Joe McVeigh

I'm a linguist who researches email marketing. I also teach at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland. I write about language and linguistics on my blog, ...And Read All Over, and I write about language and marketing on my other blog, Email and Linguistics.

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