Innovation is a hot topic in the United States, especially now as we search for ways of igniting our economic engines. From business publications to the main stream press, legions of voices are elevating the attention brought to the subject.
Based upon the research, it’s clear that innovation is a requirement of healthy, vibrant, growing economies and businesses. The challenge, however, is how to create an environment that allows it to thrive.
The fact is that innovation creates mixed feelings. Looking back, the great innovators are heroic. We put their faces on magazine covers, write books about them, and build statues in their honor. We salute the visionaries of yesteryear because they stood fast in the face of naysayers and adversity and courageously marched forward to make their dreams real. Innovators change the world.
But in the present, what do we do with these unique individuals? We brand them as irritating malcontents. They are the reckless idealists who simply won’t be quiet and play by the rules. They are not team players. They don’t show much corporate promise because even when all is well with the status quo, they are tinkering with the system. They are never defined as high potential.
How many of you would hire Thomas Edison or Bill Gates or Steven Jobs or Fred Smith? Not until Joseph Juran and Edwards Deming created success in the upstart, post war nation of Japan did their ideas catch on back home. And before Walt Disney created the world’s first media conglomerate, he faced rejection from the Hollywood mainstream that thought Mickey Mouse would never appeal to the public.
What’s interesting, however, is that no matter how we marginalize innovators, they keep reappearing. They are persistent, resilient, and unfazed, if not motivated, by those who count them out.
That’s not just a warning. It’s an expression of gratitude that should be a strong call to action.
More than ever, we need innovators to reappear in our businesses, our schools and our nation. For years, the United States was the world’s dominant innovator. But as we begin the second decade of the 21st Century, we can no longer rest on our laurels. Here are a few facts:
- Research by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation reported that out of the 40 countries and regions it examined, the U.S. ranked dead last in innovation.
- In 2009, patents issued to American applicants dropped by 2.3 percent. Those granted to foreign-based applicants increased by over 6 percent.
- The WEF ranks the United States third for corporate investments in R&D when relying on its opinion survey, but in comparing 37 nations in corporate R&D spending as a percent of GDP, the United States ranks fifth2 and ranks even worse, 17th, in terms of growth in corporate R&D investment.
- Until 1979, around 50 percent of all research and development funds were provided by the federal government. That number has fallen to 27 percent. And, during the 1990s, the bottom fell out of U.S. funding for applied science, dropping by 40 percent.
- The United States is ranked 29th of 34 in percent growth of scientific researchers in the last decade.
- United States falls behind in several relevant indicators such as: 11th in broadband leadership, 36th in corporate tax, 32nd in foreign direct investment (FDI), 32nd in trade balance, 9th in higher education, and 5th in productivity.
- The United States no longer ranks first in venture capital as a share of GDP, but fifth among 37 nations.
- America once led the world in high school graduation rates. We are now ranked 18th out of 24 industrialized countries.
- And the percentage of 15-year-olds performing at the highest levels of math is among the lowest. South Korea, Belgium and the Czech Republic, among others, have at least five times the number the U.S. does.
- Over the past decade, literacy among college graduates has actually declined. In fact, among recent graduates of four-year colleges, just 34, 38 and 40 percent were proficient in prose, document, and quantitative literacy, respectively.
We need to get serious about innovation. There is no doubt that it’s a critical item for our national agenda, but there is much to be done at the ground level, too. We need to create work environments that allow innovators to thrive. In part, that’s about recognizing the Joy of Failure. More importantly, it’s about some simple, yet powerful, changes we can make in the way we manage and engage the people in our organizations.
More on this in my next post . . .