Saturday, November 7, 2009

What's Thwarting American Innovation?

Those of you who know me, know that I grew up "corporate." Over the years I've acquired a passion for helping businesses grow and transform. And I have had some great opportunities to do that at companies like Andersen Consulting (now Accenture), Braun Consulting (now a division of Fair Isaac) and Humana.

After working for the last two years under Jack Lord and Grant Harrison in Humana's innovation center, I have totally changed the way that I think about growth and transformation ... and about innovation. I was intrigued by a headline in Fast Company this week ... "What's Thwarting American Innovation? Too Much Science, Says Roger Martin." The headline caught my eye for two reasons ... first, I knew that my colleague Miguel Encarnação, PhD, would hate it. As he already considers me a Philistine of the first order, I forwarded it to him for the sheer entertainment value of his reaction (I wasn't disappointed). The second reason is that I had the opportunity to hear Roger Martin speak at the Business Innovation Factory's 5th annual collaborative innovation summit last month.

Roger's warning for American business is not against science ... far from it. His warning is that innovation doesn't necessarily come from America's vaunted MBA mills (McKinsey is called out specifically in the article - though I certainly have nothing against McKinsey).
"The business world is tired of having armies of analysts descend on their companies," he says. "You can't send a 28-year-old with a calculator to solve your problems."
While I think that Mr. Martin (it's really, really hard not to call him "Dean Martin" a la "Back to School") is a little rough on the big strategy firms, he does have a point: Their job, and their foundation, is not innovation. Innovation comes from a completely different place. I've had great experiences working with McKinsey and other strategy firms, but I haven't asked them to design any products for me. And Martin's argument is that design thinking is much more important to teach for companies who are truly trying to differentiate themselves and drive long-term competitive advantage.

I have a feeling that there's a lot more to say on this subject (I may just turn a book review of Martin's tome into a series of blog posts), but in the meantime I can send you back to my favorite personal example of how design thinking (rather than "corporate strategy") changed the way my team at Humana approached innovation: "Why wellness doesn't work" from the blog.

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