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Thomas Friedman To United States: Innovate Or Else

The blockbuster author and New York Times columnist talks with Fast Company about his new book, "That Used To Be Us," which contends that prioritizing innovation can turn around America's free-fall from superpower status.

"Where change is happening quickly, who best sees the openings, opportunity, and necessities of change? It's not always the CEO," Thomas Friedman tells Fast Company. Friedman, a New York Times columnist and best-selling author, co-wrote a new book, That Used To Be Us, which argues that empowering innovation from every worker must become a priority for employers, the military, schools, and policy makers, if America is to retain (regain?) its superior international standing. From the use of iPhones by bootcamp trainees to shopfloor innovation at DuPont, That Used To Be Us shows that the future of work is already upon us, presenting interviews with global influencers from every corner of society to paint a world blindsided by the need for creative production—and prescriptions on how to learn from those ahead of the curve.

The principle driving forces behind the need for a more inventive worker is "access to more automation, more software, more machines and more people, and more talent of an above average quality," says Friedman, noting that even "cheap genius," is a click away. The implication is that workers who just fulfill their job description are finding themselves left behind in the recession. "If I have to make tough compensation choices between lawyers, a significant factor now for me is their ability to invent," Nixon Peabody partner Jeff Lesk told Friedman, in his response to a question about which lawyers he was retaining at his law firm.

As if on cue, the New York Times recently reported on the scores of lawyers being replaced by automated legal software that can sort and analyze court documents for a fraction of the cost.

As a result, Lesk's law office now profits from creative innovations, such as finding legal-friendly ways of combining renewable energy and low-income housing tax credits to finance community real estate projects. The legal solutions have been a big cost-saver for clients, and Nixon Peabody has assigned a new "Chief Innovation Officer" to foster more creative thinking throughout the firm.

Nor is innovation confined to the private sector. "The army's on to all of this," says Friedman, "their lives depend on it." In an eye-opening interview, America's top armed forces official, the future Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Martin Dempsey, tells Friedman that the need to innovate is eroding the hallmark of the military: hierarchy. In the past, "we would have said we want men who are physically fit, educated, and disciplined. Now, what we way is that we want someone who wants to belong to a values-based group, who can communicate, who is inquisitive, and who has an instinct to collaborate."

For instance, army manuals are now being ported to a wiki format, a drastic change from the tradition of an expert-crafted tome of knowledge. The army has also turned soldiers who were once just shooters into intelligence analysts, gathering executable information for the very missions they were sending themselves and compatriots on. The process "created guys who were entrepreneurial and always fighting for more information. They owned the mission much more," emphasized General Stanley McChrystal.

The need for soldiers 2.0 has brought with it a change in the training of modern day warriors. The old model for the military's teachers, the drill sergeant, was what Demsey calls the "Sage on the stage." "You sat there and he yelled at you and you took notes and you got out of book camp," describes Friedman. "Now, instead, [Dempsey] explains, we give you an iPhone and the Sage on the Stage tells you to download the app and you teach the class tomorrow."  

While Friedman argues that the army "tends to be pioneer in a lot of education stuff," the civilian side of America is catching up. At the Nueva school in Hillsborough, California, nestled between the high-tech hubs of San Francisco and Palo Alto, children are actively encouraged to follow their passions, while teachers serve as investigative encouragers. For instance, in a class studying ancient Egypt, writes Friedman, "They first study all the fundamental information in depth, and then each student is encouraged to explore whatever aspect of that society intrigues him or her—science, the pyramids, economy, culture—through collaborative project-based research."

Nueva's playful approach to education, commonly known as "Reggio Emilia," has been a hot-button issue for years, torn between the intellectual battle over how much control teachers should wield over classroom direction. In some cases, technology giants have taken it upon themselves to create schools in their own image, such as Google's ritzy play-oriented daycare or the Gates Foundation-funded Quest2Learn.

Timely enough, Friedman analyzes a sizable chunk of Steve Job's famous commencement address to Stanford, where he explains how becoming an intellectual nomad after dropping out of college was instrumental to Apple's trajectory.

Friedman admits that though some colleges have appended innovation education as an extracurricular activity, it's a struggle to make new job skills training a fundamental part of the college classroom. When asked whether he thinks his expectations for changing college are unrealistic, Friedman argues that "eventually the market will do it. As the market demands these kinds of students, students are going to demand that kind of education."

He concludes, "I can't tell you what percent of 9.2 unemployment is part" of the changing demand for innovative workers, "But I tell you, it's part of's jobs that are never coming back."

For more, watch an interview between Walter Isaacson and Thomas Friedman at this year's Aspen Ideas Festival:


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  • David Kaiser, PhD

    innovation is fun, too. Doing the same stuff day after day, trying to just Work Harder and Faster is not fun. Work should be enjoyable, nothing says it has to suck. 

    David Kaiser, PhDExecutive Coach www.DarkMatterConsulting.comHeroes and Heroines always have a Guide:Arthur had MerlinLuke had Obi-WanBuffy had GilesYou have MeTime to be Extraordinary!

  • Paul B. Silverman

    Excellent article
    Greg- thanks.

    Innovation is absolutely
    a critical economic driver and I find it is counter-intuitive to many that
    innovation is really driven by smaller, entrepreneurial firms (less than 500
    employees) rather than our nation’s largest corporations as many believe.

     I recently posted comments “Think Small. Create Jobs. Win-Win” on Fareed Zakaria’s Washington Post blog thread
    related to Job Creation Fareed
    Zakaria Wash Post Blog, reinforcing the point that we need to look at the
    numbers to build defensible new policies. I find the media has missed the mark
    here on the role innovation plays in our economic growth and Tom Friedman’s
    book sounds like an excellent vehicle to help jumpstart discussions. Here are 3
    key highlights from my perspective:

    need to reinforce the point that smaller, entrepreneurial firms (less than 500
    employees), more so than major corporations, are the real drivers of U.S. innovation,
    job creation and economic growth. SBA statistics show that during the past 15
    years, entrepreneurial firms accounted for 64 percent of net new hires in the
    U.S. and pay 44 percent of the U.S. private payroll. Exact percentages vary
    year to year but these are the facts.

    technology innovation is really driven by smaller, entrepreneurial firms who provide
    the rocket fuel driving our technology innovation engine. SBA statistics show
    small firms produce 13 times more patents per employee than large patenting
    firms; and these patents are twice as likely as large firm patents to be among
    the one percent most cited. Many other statistics also support this fact.

    corporations do account for the bulk of U.S. exports, representing 71.1 percent
    of total exports in 2006. But of the total number of firms exporting goods and
    services, 97.3 percent of the total were entrepreneurial firms with less than
    500 employees. And in 2006, the entrepreneurial firms with less than 500
    employees accounted for 28.9 percent of the total $910.5 billion in U.S.
    exports.Again, a statistic not widely mentioned in the media.

    The above
    provides support for developing new national incentives and policies for
    driving innovation and economic growth. And we should not forget that while we
    proceed, other countries, such as China, recognized these same points long ago
    and are well ahead of us. Again look at the numbers, always a good starting

    In a Washington
    Post OpEd several years ago (“New Ideas Needed as Jobs Shift”, Washington Post,
    Mar 3, 2008), I noted China’s smaller businesses drive economic growth,
    employing about 75 percent of all urban employees, holding about 60 percent of
    all invention patents and accounting for about 80 percent of new products.
    China is also pursuing a comprehensive plan to create 10,000 mostly small and
    medium-size companies each year, hoping to create 100,000 new jobs. And China’s
    growth was not by accident but through careful planning- we have lessons to
    learn here. I also noted Malaysia’s MSC initiative, managed within the prime
    minister’s office, has an impressive track record, attracting 2,006 companies
    representing about 63,000 knowledge workers- creative entrepreneurial policies
    such as R&D credits, tax incentives, strategic financing are some of the
    policies used to drive innovation and growth here.

    Tom Friedman’s
    book hopefully will play a role in helping shape new policy initiatives to
    address our global innovation economic growth challenges. I may be more
    passionate than most about entrepreneurship driving innovation, value creation
    and economic growth and do have a vision here. Clearly exciting times lie

    Paul B. Silverman
    is the author of a new entrepreneurial management strategy book Worm on a
    Chopstick: Understanding today’s Entrepreneurial Age: Directions, Strategies,
    Management Perspectives; serves as CEO of Sante Corporation creating a new
    vision for personal health care management; and is an Adjunct Professor in the
    Center For Entrepreneurial Excellence in the School of Business at George
    Washington University

  • inowits

    Yes innovation is must for every country and everyone. To sustain in the world you must have to innovate. There are many companies spend huge amount for R&D. 

    Inowits Technologies

  • Kristine Beisel

    I have volunteered for a program for over 12 years that teaches kids the business innovation process - Destination ImagiNation. Kids learn to work as part of team to creatively solve a challenge. Each year, Destination ImagiNation, asks teams of 2-7 kids to solve a Technological, Scientific, Fine Arts, Improvisational, Structural, Service Learning, or Early Learning challenge. They work together to create their independent and unique solutions and bring them to local, state, and global tournaments. As schools focus on test scores, DI allows the kids to use what they learn in school to create something new! The future is ever-changing; DI gives students the skills they need to be successful!

  • Peter Sims

    Great article, Greg!  I reviewed Tom's and Michael's excellent book for Reuters here, as a complement to this very good article and call to arms:  Time for us all to RISE UP and to take ACTION to accomplish the much needed change the authors call for from the bottom up.
    thank you for writing this--
    Peter Sims

  • Albert Thompson

    Great piece Greg.  The military innovates well because "losing is not an option!"  Nothing is more powerful than the need to do more than just survive, but to thrive and win!  But we as a society in the U.S. simply don't want it as bad as other cultures and other countries.  Complacency has become our norm served up with a side of "getting by is good enough."