American Innovation: Can We Get Our Groove Back?

It is often said that as individuals, we can be our own worst enemies. We do things that seem like good ideas, but aren’t, or perhaps just take one too many short cuts. The result is that we sometimes we end up hurting ourselves. This will put us behind the proverbial “eight ball,” and leave us worse for the wear. Every one of us can probably point to an individual we know who may have taken some sort of self-destructive behavior, let a few things go, or we might even realize we have done it ourselves. Nations can do the same thing and it is worth the discussion that perhaps America has done just that.

Many commentators think that while the United States has clearly been the world’s idea engine for the last 70 years, we have lost our edge. Some have said our vaunted innovation explosion is simply gone; others think through over-regulation and legal red tape, we kill it at birth. Others even say we still are the center of innovation, but that our best ideas are stolen so quickly (mostly through cyber espionage) that other countries are the true beneficiaries of our ideas. Then they use their state-supported industries to get it out on the market before we can. The combination of these positions gives a dim view of our chances to maintain our top position in the tech world.

So how did this happen? Have we stopped trying? Clearly not. Companies large and small across America are striving to develop novel ways to address the problems and challenges that face our government and industry. Have we lost our edge? This could be the result of slipping educational excellence, failure to produce enough math science and engineering graduates, simple sloth on the part of our population. Have others learned too well from us? Again, this may have more explanatory value. We cannot expect a world with growing access to modern means and education to be satisfied remaining beneath the United States. In the past we opened our university doors because most of the non-U.S. citizen graduates stayed here. That is no longer so. Now they return home to opportunities that did not exist before. As a result, we train and educate many of the folks who ultimately lead companies and organizations that are our greatest competitors. 

I’m not saying we should stop educating everyone who wants it. We all benefit to a certain degree when the world improves. Nor should we think it a bad thing that others want to develop and innovate in their own countries. Again, we all gain from that. America used to welcome competition, as it drove us to do our absolute best.

But still we must address our slipping position at the top of the innovation hill. I teach a course for George Mason University on leadership in the midst of rapid change. I use as a text the seminal book “Leading Change” by John Kotter (Harvard Business Press, Boston, 1996). In it, Kotter outlines eight steps for leaders to not just survive in changing environments, but to flourish. I will not attempt to teach the entire course here, but I think three of Kotter’s points are absolutely crucial to fixing the innovation issue in this country. These are the sense of urgency, vision and strategy, and empowered employees.

It’s Urgent

There’s a problem. Now we must establish a sense of urgency and let everyone know there’s a problem. Many blissfully assume that we’ll stay on top forever. Our lack of urgency is dangerous and we need to acknowledge it quickly. When we equip our own competitors, and fail to foster innovation (all while allowing others to steal our valuable intellectual property with impunity) we will not stay on top. A sense of urgency does not mean that we panic, but it does mean we need to take action.

Having a Vision

To have a sense of urgency, we need to have a vision of what we want. Our leaders, in both the public and private sectors must develop a sense of urgency for this to happen. Look, I know our leaders have a lot on their plates, but they must address these issue now. A new sense of urgency is critical to returning the United States to it place as the world’s innovation giant.

We need a vision on how to do this, and then plot out a strategy using both the government and industry leaders’ best ideas. It must be broad and flexible, but it must point the direction for our tech sector.

Industry must be freed to execute this vision. I don’t mean “no regulation,” but we have to clear the weeds. Right now, we ask our businesses to “fight” their international competitors with one hand tied behind their backs. Government needs to act as a partner with the tech industry, not an enemy, and not a disinterested bystander. I do not expect our government to change our entire system and begin subsidizing our industry or acting as an agent of the private sector as one often sees in Europe or Asia, but they should take positive action to remove regulations and policies that hinder companies (large and small) from successfully pursuing business opportunities.  Today, there is not a level playing field, because the government is the only one who plays that game.  The time for them to stand back in over as a pure honest broker are over.  U.S. companies need help, and should be given a competitive advantage on U.S. contracts.  During his first foray into the public sector, my old boss, Donald H. Rumsfeld faced a government agency that was deliberately holding up a decision on approving a product. He sued them to force a decision. He was told he “could not do that,” because it would forever poison the relationship. He did it anyway and won. Their product was approved, and the company made a fortune. Where are these captains of industry who refuse to accept “you cannot do that” for an answer?

Power to the Employees

Lastly, we must empower our workers and lower level managers. It cannot be an Industrial Age solution. It must be done in a manner that unleashes the creative potential of the American workforce.

Some Fixes

How can we break this cycle? We need to fix our education system that seems to regularly steer students to useless majors rather than skill sets we need in the math, science and engineering fields. Every year we fall further behind in the needed numbers of potential workers in these key specialties. This requires a partnership between industry; offering financial incentives, and government; through awareness campaigns and pressure on universities to drop the remnants of the 1960 mind-set.  I realize we are proud of our wide-open “options” for students who can study things like “Incan Musical Theory,” or who can join the legions of cultural anthropologists and communications majors who populate the ranks Starbucks’ professional baristas, but we really need to grow some folks with the professional chops to work in the tech industry. Government should lead this portion of the campaign.

We must fix the government acquisition system. Like it or not, the scale of government tech contracts can and should push innovation in the tech world. Today, if a company shows too much innovative thought and imagination in responding to a government Request for Information (RFI), they run the risk of being disqualified to compete for the resulting contract due to organizational conflicts of interest, and loss of their great ideas to others. At the other end, government Requests for Proposal (RFP) are so specific that they offer little incentive or chance for industry to offer “better” innovative ideas. You must give back exactly what the RFP asks for, or lose to the competition. Is that crazy or am I being unreasonable?

Innovation has always been America’s strongest suit. We must develop a sense of urgency to get it back – fast. We need a plan to do so, we need it to empower of the American workforce, and we need to tweak the educational and government acquisition systems.

Let’s not become so old, stuffy, and set in our ways that we continue to lose ground. Let’s get our groove back.

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