Today on Unleashed we welcome Lee Vinsel, a Professor of Science, Technology, and Society at Virginia Tech. He studies human life with technology, with a particular focus on the relationship between government, business, and technological change. His first book, Moving Violations: Automobiles, Experts, and Regulations in the United States, was published by Johns Hopkins University Press in July 2019.
In 2015, with his collaborator Andy Russell, Vinsel has organized and led The Maintainers, a global interdisciplinary research network that examines maintenance, repair, and mundane work with technology. Much of this work led to his latest book, The Innovation Delusion.
Vinsel’s work has been published in several major history journals and has appeared in or been covered by Aeon, the New York Times, The Atlantic, Guardian, Le Monde, and other popular outlets. Today, he lives in beautiful Blacksburg, Virginia, with my wife, daughter, son, dog, books, and many trees and mountains.
Addicted to Innovation.
Lee’s work began by observing the attention innovation and disruption was receiving in business and society over the past 50 years. Books like The Innovators seemed to be implying that groups of young hacker entrepreneurs were working in garages everywhere planning to take over the business world. But as a scientist, he asked the provocative question, “Is innovation always better?” Surprisingly, he found that often the answer is no.
He cited many examples. In education, for instance, he referenced a study which found that children given tablets performed worse on standardized testing than those who were not given the new technology. He also noted that some of General Electric’s struggles that culminated with the stock pricing tanking in 2018 had to do with organizational changes they made to be more like a Silicon Valley start-up.
For the modern reader, these examples seem like outliers because we have been conditioned to think that innovation and technology are always superior. But in fact, most innovations and start-ups fail.
By extension, topics like operations, maintenance, status quo, and tried-and-true are overly neglected at great cost to our companies and society
Part of the problem is language. According to Vinsel, the word innovation has ramped up significantly since the end of World War II in common conversations. But there were significant innovations before that through history and time periods like the Industrial Revolution. He suggests that another label, progress, was commonly utilized then and implied a more holistic and moral definition of change for the greater good.
We tend to automatically equate innovation with good or better, but not all innovations are good. Crack cocaine and easily accessible opioids are innovations, but they aren’t good for people and our society.
Lee also referenced that innovation and disruption language is fear-based. The shock-and-awe tactics used by many speakers and thought-leaders motivates us to feel we have to innovate or we are doomed. Stories of disruption in industries like video rental (Blockbuster versus Netflix) and photography (film versus digital) have many leaders fear that they are next. But according to the research, a very small percentage of significant innovations result in the fundamental restructuring of industries.
And it’s not just business leaders that are getting caught up in innovation-speak. Politicians, policymakers and media are spending much more time talking about innovations, incubators and start-ups than the mid- and large-sized companies and basic infrastructure that provide a much greater proportion of opportunity and societal benefit.
What Can Leaders Do?
Changing the narrative is not easy, but it starts with knowledge. Leaders need to understand the fundamental economics of contribution in their organizations. They need to look at the real, lifetime costs of innovation and changes versus maintaining the existing processes or systems that work. Innovation for innovation sake, or due to fear of the unknown, is not a rational strategy. Similarity, there can be huge wins in incremental improvements to existing processes that are yet untapped because of the distractions of transformational change.
At the same time, leaders don’t want to quash innovation thinking. But they can model a behaviour of discernment, and work with the initiators of new ideas to fully vet all the costs and consequences of a change.
Finally, leaders need to shine a light on maintenance. The profitability of maintaining an existing process, piece of equipment, and the people doing the maintenance work are easily overlooked. These people are the unsung heroes, the drivers of the economic wellbeing of companies and societies.
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