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Canada Needs To Take A New Approach To Innovation

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Canada has had a productivity and innovation "challenge" going back at least to the turn of the century. It has been written about in depth many times. In a 2008 Federal Government document, "Compete to Win" it was announced that "Much of Canada's poor productivity performance can be attributed to the comparatively poor performance of Canadian firms with respect to innovation. We rank poorly across almost all areas of innovation: the creation of knowledge, the diffusion of knowledge, the transformation of knowledge and the use of knowledge through commercialization."

Now, to 2017, and in Chapter 1 of last week's Canadian Federal Budget we can read:

"For Canadians, innovation is nothing new. For the past 150 years, Canada has tapped into the creativity and ingenuity of its people to solve problems. Some Canadian inventions, like the electric oven, improve our lives; others, such as insulin and the artificial pacemaker, can help to save lives. Women and men across the country continue to dream, invent, test and bring to market products that are changing the world."

This paragraph is written in a "the cup is half-full" type of way. These three innovations were made in ~1892, ~1921 and ~1950 respectively. Does it not make you slightly uneasy to think that the government needs to stretch back almost 70 years to provide examples of what it is seeking to achieve?

Should Canada's economic future really be dependent on a researcher hitting a "home run," that is, finding the next "electric oven, insulin or pacemaker"? In the field of strategic management, such a move is called a Big Bet. When it pays off, you look great. The problem is, it rarely does. If your retirement plan is dependent on you winning the Lotto 6/49, you tend not to sleep (or live) too well.

So, what is the solution to this very real "innovation" problem we have in Canada?

The OECD definition of innovation is "The implementation of a new or significantly improved product (good or service), or process, a new marketing method, or a new organizational method in business practices, workplace organization or external relations."

Innovation is therefore a very broad term. It does not necessarily have to take place in a scientific laboratory. In fact, I would assume that there have not been very many amazing new marketing, organizational or business practice ideas developed in laboratories. Indeed, this type of science-based R&D is not what has driven many of the great business innovations that we have seen emerge over the past few "digital" decades.

The innovations behind such companies as Microsoft, Google, Uber, Airbnb, Facebook etc were not developed in a lab. Such concepts can, however, emerge in conversations guided by such tools as Theory U, Six Hats, SCAMPER, Contrarian Assumptions, Social Presencing Theatre, Art of Hosting or Business Model Canvas exercises. And, the use of such innovation processes is a much cheaper endeavour than financing scientific laboratories. I have written about different aspects of these "innovation" conversations in other articles, including "Smart Workplace Conversation" and "10 No-Cost and Contrarian Solutions to Canada's Innovation and Productivity Challenges"

The key elements in such innovation processes is to address new questions, in new ways, with new people, with new assumptions and in new spaces. It is all about holding and facilitating new, innovative conversations -- and then piloting, piloting and more piloting of the emerging innovations -- in an open and iterative manner. It is not (rocket) Science.

I believe that it is time for the country to teach such an innovation process and tools to each Canadian -- so that he or she has the tools to think innovatively irrespective of their position or occupation. Think of such tools being taught in every elementary or secondary school. Such a national education strategy could facilitate truly Canada-wide "Open Source" innovation!

Having some participants in any conversation with a university science or technology background will always be useful, but so is having people from different types of organizations, industries, cultures, socio-demo-economic backgrounds, from music, the other arts or with only "street" experience -- or with no experience at all. Every Canadian would be able to take part and add-value. Wow!

David Usher, the Canadian musician, entrepreneur and innovator, captured the new innovation process very well in his book Let the Elephants Run. Mitch Joel, Seth Godin, Douglas Copeland, Otto Scharmer are others (among many) who understand how the innovation process works in the digital world.

If innovation is going to be taught in our schools in Canada, who should decide the content? Who should be planning and managing the innovative ways by which it might be packaged and delivered? I suspect it should not be politicians, economists or academics sitting around a board table. There are others, more qualified for the task, who should be involved.

If you want to see how creativity (and the accompanying innovation) is currently "killed" in education, I suggest you watch Sir Ken Robinson's classic TED talk. We all probably lived what he describes. I know that I did.

If Canada is going to avoid obtaining the same poor "innovation" results in another ten years time, it needs to be innovative itself. Canada certainly does need a national strategy on Innovation. We could continue to make a "Big Bet" in the sheer hope (or desperation) that some, as yet unidentified, researcher in a laboratory is going to shout "Eureka" and create the seeds for the next Nortel or Blackberry. Alternatively, if we educate all our children to remain creative and become innovative thinkers, we can choose instead a strategic move that would be termed a "No Regret" -- that is, a move where Canada can simply not lose!

If, as Einstein is claimed to have said, insanity really is defined as doing things the same way and expecting different results, Canada has been acting in an insane manner on the issue of innovation for much too long. The time for the Government to try something innovative is long overdue.

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