Innovation Has Deep Roots That Require Constant Tending

3/16/11

In the 15th century, British noblemen decided that they needed brighter colors for their coats of arms to help their armies more easily distinguish them on muddy battlefields. They naturally approached suppliers in their own nation. But when British tradesmen refused to accept this innovative approach to their traditional ways, the noblemen turned to Germany, where tradesmen were more than willing. This in turn helped spawn the German chemical industry, then the German petrochemical industry, then the German pharmaceutical industry. The British were left on the competitive sidelines.

Five centuries later, Otis Elevator, which had dominated its business until the 1970s, found itself in a war with GE, Westinghouse, Hitachi, and Fujitsu. The challenge was how to respond. After all, weren’t elevators just motors and bent metal? Then a member of Otis’s internal IT department made a breakthrough: Otis developed software that could automatically configure elevators and gave it to architects so that they could conform to local building codes, thus gaining market share for Otis. By putting computer chips in elevators, Otis could also send repair crews before systems broke down. Since the real money in elevators is maintenance, those who win the installation battle end up with a cash flow that will continue for as long as the building is standing.

Though separated by a half millennium, these examples show how innovation has always driven new technology, which drives new companies, which create economic growth and jobs. But innovation does not just happen. It requires far more than just inventors: it needs the entire organization. The messianic belief held by many organizations that they can lead in innovation by increasing research and development spending is simply not true. Apple, for example, trails its industry in R&D spending, yet it leads in innovation. And large companies that brag about their research departments by day often end up having to make large acquisitions because their own R&D departments continue to fail them.

America cannot maintain its dominance in some sectors and regain it in others without innovation, the importance of which has been hailed by everyone from the President to the local manager. But innovation does not occur automatically. To produce workers, managers, investors, and others who recognize and reward innovation requires making innovation a state of mind. Innovation should be taught, beginning in kindergarten. Properly run business schools combine … Next Page »

Howard Anderson is the founder of The Yankee Group and co-founder of Battery Ventures. He currently holds the William Porter Chair of Entrepreneurship at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Follow @

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