Thoughts about innovation on the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s speech to congress committing the US to put a man on the moon and return him safely to earth.
(excerpted from The Innovation Zone)
The Apollo Generation
How old were you when the first man landed on the moon? If you can answer that question then you are part of the generation that is stuck in the last century of innovation. I’m part of that generation. I call us Apollos, named after the space program that put the first man on the moon. Like the footprints of astronauts that are still, and will be for millennia, etched on the lunar surface many of us are stuck in time. Sure we may have moved on in terms of keeping up with the latest technologies and we have all certainly learned new things, but that’s not what I’m referring to. We are stuck in terms of how we understand the mechanics of innovation.
What if I were to tell you that innovation is, in the words of John Lennon, “What happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.” What if innovation was more about dealing with uncertainty than predictability? If you’re an Apollo, does this sit well with you? Probably not. It’s not the way we Apollos have been educated to think. After all the better you can predict the future the better you can tell what needs to be innovated. This is what Drucker meant by working in periods of prolonged predictability. But that only applies if you believe that the future is simply a continuation of the past and somehow the result of only the experiences that you have had to date. It’s not.
When I speak to executives or address large audiences I can instantly spot the Apollos. All I need to do is see the look at their faces when I talk about uncertainty. Apollos like to set an objective for a known problem. They are obsessively objective driven. They hate to invest without a firm and unequivocal objective in mind. No surprise there, it’s they way we learned to approach the biggest challenges of our age. We knew our enemies. In war it was clear who we were fighting against. You were either one of our allies or you were the enemy. In the cold war you were a communist or you were not. In the space race you either set foot on the moon or you didn’t. You were a flower child or you were “the man.” The world was black and white.
The “Now” Generation
The current generation could care less about the objective. Their joy and passion is in exploring with no definite end in mind. It’s why so many of them put so much time into social networking sites like FaceBook with no definite return. The joy for them is in the social journey, not the destination. It has to be; the world has become a continuous spectrum of gray with few stark contrasts. Terrorism is amorphous and insidious, with no single geographic border or national enemy. Economies are merging in vast global coalitions, sometimes explicitly as is the case with the European Community, in other cases implicitly as is the case with Asia and Latin America.
The Journey from Here
Understanding how innovation is changing and how to build it into our businesses, attitudes, schools and very culture requires rethinking much of what we’ve been taught and have experienced about invention and innovation. We need to look beyond the glitz to the tools, processes, and behaviors that create value through innovation. We need to build the skills of innovation into our children, our organizations and our leaders. Most importantly, we need figure out ways to sustain innovation in order to create enduring value rather than the periodic flash in the pan that has typified innovation to date.
The good news is we have no choice. You need not ponder the call to be more innovative as if it were being posed as a question. Kennedy’s call to action worked because we had no choice. We were willing to endure any pain and pay any price to put a man on the moon. Today’s global challenges are no less demanding, and far too complex to allow us the option of standing still.
We need a new set of rules for innovation – now.