David Brooks, one of our better columnist/thinkers, in his 7 October column in the New York Times, “Where Are the Jobs?” addressed the state of innovation I am sure the title of his article refers to “Jobs” as in Steve Jobs rather than jobs. His column was basically around “innovation slowdown” or “innovation stagnation.” While there has been incredible innovation in information technology; “the pace of change is slowing down in many other sectors,” including transportation and energy, where Brooks cites Warren Buffett’s “$44 billion investment in 2009…in a railroad that carries coal.” And in pharmaceuticals “where big pharma companies have very few blockbuster drugs in the pipeline … and are slashing their research departments.”
Every company in the world today seems to be promoting innovation, expanding staffs and creating senior management positions to drive innovation. This begs the question, Can innovation be institutionalized? Or does it literally take organizational “renegades” like Jobs, whose natural thinking was out of the box. Brooks attributes Jobs’ success to “three asynchronous idea spaces — the counterculture of the 1960s, the culture of early computer geeks and the culture of corporate America. There was LSD, ‘The Whole Earth Catalog’ and spiritual exploration in India. There were also nerdy hours devoted to trying to build a box to make free phone calls.”
Somehow, real innovation — not just repackaging, adding new colors or features to a product — needs to be driven by excited, dedicated individuals who believe deeply in their ideas, be willing to stick their necks out and fail within an environment that tolerates failure.
The challenge: how to create an environment that fosters innovation among talented individuals within the large organization?
Let’s hope Brooks is wrong and that are, indeed, nascent Steve Jobs lurking among the cubicles; the challenge is to find them and nurture them.