The Innovation Delusion

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From The Wall Street Journal:

‘Do you ever get the feeling that everyone around you worships the wrong gods?” So ask Lee Vinsel and Andrew L. Russell in the first pages of “The Innovation Delusion.” They are consumed by this question, convinced that America has been seduced by the false charms of innovation, causing us to chase novelty and pursue disruption while neglecting maintenance and infrastructure in both the public and private sectors. We end up discounting the value of “the ordinary work that keeps our world going.” Anyone compelled to “ideate” at a corporate breakout session can surely relate.

Agitated by Walter Isaacson’s triumphalist portraits in “The Innovators” (2014), Messrs. Vinsel and Russell, scholars of the history of technology, became increasingly troubled by what they saw as a broad cultural emphasis on “the shiny and new.” They started to wonder why no one ever celebrates the “bureaucrats, standards engineers, and introverts” who manage to keep established systems running smoothly. We live in an inverted world, they say, where “our society’s charlatans have been cast as its heroes, and the real heroes have been forgotten.”

In this dystopian view, we’ve mistaken novelty for progress and, in the desperate pursuit of growth, confused true innovation—creating things that work—with fraudulent “innovation-speak.” The result is, as the authors put it, an “unholy marriage of Silicon Valley’s conceit with the worst of Wall Street’s sociopathy.” Champions of change—like the late Harvard professor and father of disruptive innovation, Clay Christensen, and the influential thinkers at IDEO, the Palo Alto, Calif., design firm—have garnered hefty consultant fees while offering, the authors contend, little of true substance in return. Despite the frenetic pursuit of innovation stoked by the fear of missing out, “we should resist the notion that anyone on this planet knows how to increase the rate and quality of innovation.”

Privileging innovation, the authors note, costs us all. Localities find it far easier to attract federal funding for new infrastructure projects than to secure support for maintaining what already exists. And the funding for new development typically comes without the resources for downstream maintenance, saddling municipalities with unmanageable future obligations. Better for communities first to fix what’s broken, Messrs. Vinsel and Russell argue, and practice preventive maintenance. In any case, resources should be focused on what matters: Transit riders, one survey revealed, care most about service frequency and travel time, not power outlets and Wi-Fi.

The authors’ most emphatic recommendations involve talent—and our perception of it. When we overvalue innovation, they say, we forget that the vast majority of engineers will wind up maintaining existing systems, not coming up with the next Facebook. While we revere and reward data scientists and algorithm developers, we overlook the humble IT workers who keep our networks humming. Many students who might find “more joy, meaning, and pleasure” working in maintenance roles are shunted toward innovation careers sure to make them miserable. A rebalancing of our priorities is in order, Messrs. Vinsel and Russell contend.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

6 thoughts on “The Innovation Delusion”

  1. The work that matters *most*?
    Selling books at B&M, perchance?

    Sounds like he thinks the rest of the world wouldn’t be inventing *their* idea of a future if we stood still.
    Bet he wishes Fleming hadn’t innovated.
    Or Bernard.
    Or Henry Ford.


    • Well, here’s one aged Hippie who’s active and obsessed with BOTH what’s new and the work that matters most. Or, as Stevie Ray Vaughan—not a Hippie—would say: walkin’ the tightrope.

      • Hippies were before my time.
        But I wouldn’t have qualified; my interests lie in what’s next.

        The current is old news in my circles. 😉

        The OP is for the change-phobic, who dream of stasis in their time.
        Not happening; the world moves on regardless of tbeir dreams.

        • There’s an aged Hippie around the beach who manages to keep a 1965 VW Micro Bus running. This guy is good. That was possibly the worst car ever built, but he has it clattering down the road with about 50 years of sunflower decals and bumper stickers.

          • Hey, be careful. 😉 I learned to drive in a ’60s VW bus (the one with the little windows along the top). I even took—and passed—my driver’s test in it. Sunflower decals were a few years off. My Dad used it to haul the lane lines for our swim meets. And I kissed my first girlfriend in it. Awesome vehicle!

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