Post-SOTU Challenge: Convincing a Nation of Scared People to Innovate

Last night's State of the Union address laid out our country's vexing conundrum: how does a nation of scared people innovate its way back to prosperity?

First, the fear: It's real and is causing us many of us to search for security, not embrace innovation. As the President pointed out last night,

"Many people watching tonight can probably remember a time when finding a good job meant showing up at a nearby factory or a business downtown. You didn't always need a degree, and your competition was pretty much limited to your neighbors. If you worked hard, chances are you'd have a job for life, with a decent paycheck, good benefits, and the occasional promotion. Maybe you'd even have the pride of seeing your kids work at the same company. That world has changed. And for many, the change has been painful. I've seen it in the shuttered windows of once booming factories, and the vacant storefronts of once busy Main Streets. I've heard it in the frustrations of Americans who've seen their paychecks dwindle or their jobs disappear—proud men and women who feel like the rules have been changed in the middle of the game."

Therefore, it's not surprising that the 2010 Towers Watson Global Workforce Study of more than 20,000 full-time employees reported "Greater job security" ranked #2 behind "Increased base pay" as the most important factor influencing the decision to whether to leave your current employer.

Even CEOs admit they are scared. According to IBM's 2010 CEO Study, "The vast majority of CEOs anticipate even greater complexity in the future, and more than half doubt their ability to manage it (my emphasis).

Okay, so at least we are all afraid. But here's the rub… As the President candidly admitted, innovation is the only answer if we want to prosper in a radically transformed world. That means risk and tolerating uncertainty. The exact opposite of searching for security:

"Now it's our turn. We know what it takes to compete for the jobs and industries of our time. We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world. We have to make America the best place on Earth to do business. We need to take responsibility for our deficit, and reform our government. That's how our people will prosper. That's how we'll win the future. And tonight, I'd like to talk about how we get there…The first step in winning the future is encouraging American innovation. None of us can predict with certainty what the next big industry will be, or where the new jobs will come from. Thirty years ago, we couldn't know that something called the Internet would lead to an economic revolution. What we can do—what America does better than anyone—is spark the creativity and imagination of our people. We are the nation that put cars in driveways and computers in offices; the nation of Edison and the Wright brothers; of Google and Facebook. In America, innovation doesn't just change our lives. It's how we make a living."

The CEOs in the IBM study agree, "CEOs believe creativity is the most important leadership quality. Creative leaders encourage experimentation throughout their organizations. They also plan to make deeper business model changes to realize their strategies, take more calculated risks and keep innovating in how they lead and communicate."

That brings us back to the vexing conundrum: As I've written before, you can't just put a nation of scared people in a room, flip the switch, and say, "Innovate." They won't take the risks necessary for innovation because they don't trust that there will be tolerance for the inevitable failure that's also natural part of innovation.

I don't have the answer, only the question: How do we get a nation of scared people to innovate?

We can do it, but it requires an open and honest discussion about that fear. Because as President Obama reminded us in his closing remarks,

"From the earliest days of our founding, America has been the story of ordinary people who dare to dream. That's how we win the future. We are a nation that says, "I might not have a lot of money, but I have this great idea for a new company. I might not come from a family of college graduates, but I will be the first to get my degree. I might not know those people in trouble, but I think I can help them, and I need to try. I'm not sure how we'll reach that better place beyond the horizon, but I know we'll get there. I know we will. We do big things."

Yes, but are we too afraid?

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2 Comments

  • judy martin

    Cali,
    I covered the POTUS' SOTU and heard every word but what ran out were these: Innovate, Educate and Infrastructure. All needed remedies for today's dragging marketplace, but fear can paralyze. We're living in a perpetual state of uncertainty. That calls for leadership to take risks as you mention. It also means being comfortable with the uncertainty. The only way through that is to have a secure intuitive base of comfort. We have to create an individual peace and stillness so we can tap that when chaos erupts. From that well of resilience emerges creativity and innovation.

  • kathy kacher

    America was at its most innovative when there were fewer rules around how we work and create. Opportunity was bigger than the Rocky Mountain range and our appetite for risk was high. Now what I see is a national policy prison. We have worked our way into a corner in an effort to keep safe and compliant with the rules that... rule us. The only way to change it is one person at a time, to have the ability to say, "I'm going to try it" and have the people around them say, "how can I help?" instead of "how can I stop them".