A culture of innovation: Change we can believe in

Innovation demands that we all throw our ideas in the pot. Fear not. Act based on evidence, not dogma. In this economy, it’s the perfect time to prepare for the next one.

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A key reason the United States has been for the most part successful is that we don't often grant obsequious respect or titles to older people as they have tended to do in Japan, China and Europe. This meant a lot to me when I was 25. It still means a lot to me now at 64, and it may be the last thread of youth I can hang onto.

Innovation demands that we all throw our ideas in the pot. In Japan, they say, "The nail that stands out gets hammered down." We must avoid this and keep having fun and thinking in new ways, realizing we can't all have good ideas all of the time. It is important to note that incessant whiners without good ideas of their own should, of course, be thrown out of the boat.

Now and then, we must go with our gut feelings and fix things later. Doing nothing is frequently the worst choice. Deliberating for many months in a planning exercise may be equated with doing nothing. I fear our multiculturalism is a threat to the frank exchanges of ideas. We need thick skins to disagree with a person who may then assume we are doing so not on the basis of the idea itself, but because we are trying to disparage their country of origin, religion or taste in clothing.

We need even thicker skins to listen to those who suggest ideas that are different than our own and give them an honest hearing. I've known men, for example, who simply cannot acknowledge that a woman can have a good idea beyond fawning over themselves. Insecure Neanderthals, or abusers of testosterone?

In China, if the Premier or the system is criticized, people can just disappear to jail for a decade. I doubt the food is very good, although I've not tried melamine of late. I suspect in Iran and North Korea, food would no longer be necessary for those who speak out too much.

Fortunately in North America, we don't have it quite that bad, but along the bell curve, there surely are those who can be too cautious for my taste and yours. Achieving daylight savings time in Indiana was clearly a victory that came only from decades of debate. Much was lost in both heat and light.

The following are among my favorite quotes for those resistant to change and those who often are resistant to even discussing the possibility of change:

"It is not necessary to change. Survival is optional."—W. Edwards Deming

"There is the risk you cannot afford to take, and there is the risk you cannot afford NOT to take."—Peter Drucker

"Imagination is more important than knowledge."
—Albert Einstein

"In times of profound change, the learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists."
—Eric Hoffer

The last of these reminds me of a number of retired executives on boards of directors and professors in tweed coats who rarely venture off campus. They do provide some balance, and that's not all bad. Among these people, I often hear, "We've never done it that way here before" or  "We tried that 20 years ago and it didn't work." I ask, "Why not?" and hope for a good reason so we can put forth other ideas. 

After all, we only know if we decide quickly in the face of those who decide slowly. So many things are relative, including creativity. Fear not. Act based on evidence, not dogma. In this economy, it's the perfect time to prepare for the next one.

Peter Kissinger is Chairman Emeritus of BASi, CEO of Prosolia, Indianapolis and Professor of Chemistry at Purdue University.

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