What Can Dancing Teach Us About Innovation?

Many organizations treat corporate innovation as a child: unpredictable, capricious, and difficult to control. And as it often happens to us adults, we feel an irresistible urge to pontificate, to teach the child a lesson.

I’m amazed at the popularity of the idea to teach innovation a lesson. The sources of the lessons could be quite unorthodox. History? Of course. Art museums? Sure. Animals like elephants and monkeys? You bet. Soviet-era production? Without question. Hollywood movies like “The Karate Kid” and “Back to the Future”? How can one forget? And then comes my absolute favorite: a parking lot full of meat lovers.

Inspired by these examples, I decided to contribute my fair share to the list. As a competing amateur ballroom dancer, I would like to argue that dancing, too, can teach us about innovation. To prove my point, I want to share with you some wisdom that I have learned from my dancing teachers.

Make every move your own move

In a sense, there is no right way to dance. True, textbooks and competition guidelines describe recommended sequences of steps that every basic dancing move should comprise. Yet, every dancer knows that it is her or his body—its structure, flexibility, and responsiveness to music—that ultimately defines the choice of dancing moves and the way they are performed. You succeed in dancing only when every move fits your physical and spiritual abilities; you become a dancer only if every move becomes your move.

When launching innovation initiatives, organizations—especially those with a shorter innovation history—often look for “best practices,” a set of supposedly proven approaches that can guarantee a successful outcome of any given innovation project.

The truth is that there are no “best practices” in innovation management practice (remember Steve Shapiro’s “Best Practices Are Stupid”?). Instead of chasing chimeras, the organizations should try many different approaches to identify those that best fit their corporate strategy, organizational structure, the level of innovation maturity, and corporate culture.  Only after finding the moves that are its own moves, can the organization successfully perform an innovation dance.

You move with your feet, but you dance with your body

When I was taking my first dancing lessons, I was sure that once I memorized the sequence of the required steps – quick-quick-slow; quick-quick-slow – the art of dancing would be mastered. But then, I was told that my arms mattered, too. Later, I understood that without moving hips (not something taken for granted for a man of my age), my dance would look bland. Finally, I realized that it was my brain (or guts?) that ultimately drove my dance – bringing together my feet, arms, hips, shoulders, and, yes, my face expression. Curiously, the more experienced I became, the less I thought about steps as such.

Usually, organizations begin experimenting with innovation by creating a dedicated innovation unit—be it within R&D, business development, or IT—whose responsibility is to learn the first “steps” of innovation dance. It is crucially important for this group to not stay indefinitely focused on the pure technicalities of the innovation management process. Instead, the innovation group should rapidly reach out to Marketing to make sure that all planned innovation initiatives do incorporate customer feedback. In parallel, it should talk to human resources to ensure that employees who made significant contributions to innovation projects are properly recognized and rewarded.

And do not forget corporate communication whose help with celebrating early successes may play a crucial role in changing the way the organization views innovation. Finally, little will come out even of a brilliantly conceived innovation initiative, if the senior management team, the organization’s brain, would fail to support the innovation team. It is definitely for a reason that innovation is called a team sport.

Motion creates an emotion

I would lie telling you that I’m always in a dancing mood. No, quite often, I do not feel like dancing. But sometimes, I simply must practice, for example, to get prepared for my next lesson. So, like it or not, I get up, turn on the music, and take my first step. Then another. Then one more. And magic happens: my body sheds the rust and gets filled with life. The rhythm of the music begins pulsing in my blood vessels. My dancing motion has created a dancing emotion, and, fueled with this new emotion, my next step is getting better than the prior.

There are so many excuses for organizations to place innovation at the bottom of their to-do lists. “We don’t have time,” “We don’t have resources,” “Our CEO doesn’t care”—have we all not heard this before?

The only way to shake off the innovation lethargy is to leave the proverbial couch and take the first step. Then another. Then one more. Trust me, sooner or later, the motion of repeated innovation “steps” will change the spirit of the innovation group and then gradually take hold of the emotional state of the whole organization. Repeated acts of innovation will become a habit of it.

So, as they say in TV commercials: what are you waiting for? Turn on the music and go to the dancing floor. Better yet, invite a colleague of yours to dance with you. Quick-quick-slow. Quick-quick-slow.

Check out my eBook, “We the People of the Crowd…,” a collection of stories about crowdsourcing reflecting my personal experience in working with corporate and nonprofit clients.

 Image credit: from the author’s family album

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Innovating With Competitors

(This piece was originally posted to the HeroX blog)

With the waves of disruption rocking every corner of the global economy – dethroning powerful incumbents while skyrocketing to fame brazen startups – innovation isn’t a luxury anymore. It’s a means of survival. The slogan “Innovate or die” may sound like a cliche, yet it correctly reflects the contemporary business environment in which companies must relentlessly create new products and business models to stay competitive.

The prevailing innovation “doctrine” postulates that in order to innovate effectively, companies can’t restrict themselves to exclusively internal sources of knowledge and expertise. They should engage external sources as well: customers, suppliers, startups, academic, and business partners.

The competitive nature of the innovation process seems to exclude from the above list one important constituency: the company’s competitors. Why would you work together with your competitors and potentially help them take a bite of your market share? 

And yet, strange as it may look, one repeatedly witnesses examples of fierce competitors working together to solve a complex problem. A classic case of such cooperation has been Ford and General Motors teaming up to engineer a new type of transmission to be used in their vehicles. Another example was cooperation between Sony and Samsung to develop an innovative type of an LCD flat TV panel. (A term “coopetition,” a combination of “cooperation” and “competition” has been coined to describe this type of interaction.)

An interesting approach to engaging existing and potential competitors has been used by Tesla Motors. In June 2014 Tesla announced that it was opening up to anyone its portfolio of patents related to electric car technology. Explaining the move, Tesla Motors’ Elon Musk wrote that Tesla’s competitive advantage didn’t need to be defensive; instead, Tesla would compete and win on the merits of its talented engineers. In a similar move, Microsoft open-sourced more than 60,000 Linux-related patents in 2018.

One of the driving forces behind the idea of coopetition is the concept of “innovation ecosystems,” a business paradigm postulating that a sustainable innovation process needs the engagement of a wide range of interconnected actors: governments, civil society, the private sector, universities, startups, and individual entrepreneurs. Each member of the ecosystem is important for its ultimate success, and such an ecosystem is impossible without bringing together participants with competing interests.

As Michael Docherty wrote in his book “Collective Disruption,” in the very near future, competitive advantage will mean not who has the best technologies but who has the best relationships. 

One can consider crowdsourcing a form of coopetition. When you crowdsource, you become agnostic to the identity of the potential solvers of your problem. They can be anyone: folks working in a different country, or in a different industry – or, yes, for your competitors. The only thing that matters to you is whether your problem will be solved. 

Sun Microsystems’ co-founder Bill Joy reportedly said: “No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else.” Using crowdsourcing can help you mobilize the smartest people in the world, including those working for your competitors, to solve your most difficult problem. 

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Innovation’s “Uncharted Waters”

(This piece was originally posted to the HeroX blog)

A few years ago, Wazoku, a UK idea management software company, sponsored an innovation survey. The results of the survey are a cause of concern for anyone interested in corporate innovation. 

Full 85 percent of respondents to the survey –  board members, senior and middle managers, and line workers within large UK enterprises – considered innovation important to their companies. Yet 53 percent of surveyed managers were unaware of their organization’s definition of innovation and how it fits into wider corporate goals; 38 percent of them said innovation wasn’t their responsibility because it wasn’t in their job descriptions.

A lack of understanding of what innovation means – in general, and for any organization, in particular – remains one of the most serious problems facing corporate innovation. Even many CEOs aren’t immune to this “disease,” but at the lower organizational levels, almost everyone is affected.

No single fix exists to solve the problem. However, the organizations that are new to the structured innovation process – or the ones that experience troubles in running effective innovation programs – may consider a solution that looks deceptively simple and yet may prove surprisingly effective. 

This solution is to create a corporate Innovation Charter. There are at least three reasons why the Innovation Charter could help organizations innovate better.

The Innovation Charter outlines major aspects of the company’s innovation strategy.

The major objective of the Innovation Charter is to outline what innovation means for this specific organization. It should explain where the company stands today; where the company wants to be in a few years; how the gap is to be bridged, and what role innovation should play in this process. The clarity about the place innovation occupies within the framework of the general corporate strategy will help select and support appropriate innovation programs. 

Equally important, the Innovation Charter would help create a common innovation language, the lack of which often results in a communication wall between the innovation team and the rest of the organization.

The Innovation Charter creates the innovation “law of the land.”

CEOs are routinely blamed for the lack of attention to innovation. But let’s face it: they are very busy people in charge of everything, and it’s plain unrealistic to expect them to pay undivided attention to innovation, a continuous process with no evident need for day-to-day executive control.

So, instead of asking the CEO for constant intervention, the innovation team should create the Innovation Charter and ask the CEO to explicitly endorse it. With this endorsement, the innovation team can claim executive support even when the attention of the executive leaders will inevitably shift to other priorities.

In other words, the Innovation Charter establishes the innovation “law of the land.” Sure, like any other law, it needs periodic re-enforcement, but it still helps maintain order even when “the cops are away.”

The Innovation Charter makes innovation “everyone’s business.”

Corporate innovation can only succeed if it’ll expand from the traditional R&D or product development units to departments that are not directly involved in innovation programs (manufacturing, finance, HR, etc.). Unfortunately, very often, the corporate structure is too rigid, too “anti-matrix,” to allow innovation to become “everyone’s business.”

Realistically, not everyone in the company will be willing to assume an extra-load that participation in innovation activities demands. But even those who are, often can’t get involved because of the pressure of their everyday tasks. Here, the Innovation Charter can help too as it provides an explicit mandate to get involved in innovation activities, something that even all-powerful mid-level managers can’t easily ignore.

In other words, the Innovation Charter sends a message to the whole organization: “Yes, you can and you should!”

Image credit: https://callnewspapers.com/charter-citizens-bill-of-rights-is-rejected-wont-go-to-voters/

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Democratizing Innovation with Crowdsourcing

(This piece was originally posted to the HeroX blog)

In 2006, Prize4Life, a Cambridge, MA-based nonprofit organization dedicated to finding the cure for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, a.k.a. Lou Gehrig’s Disease) launched a multi-stage crowdsourcing campaign, the ALS Biomarker Grand Challenge. The purpose of the Challenge was to find a cost-effective biomarker that could measure the progression of the disease in ALS patients. 

Three years later, Prize4Life awarded two “progress prizes,” $50,000 each, for solutions that had made the most significant progress towards reaching the ultimate goal of the Challenge. The first prize was awarded to Dr. Seward Rutkove, a neurologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and a prominent researcher in the field of neuromuscular disorders, such as ALS. Dr. Rutkove went on to win the $1 million Grand Prize in 2011.

The recipient of the other “progress prize” was Dr. Harvey Arbesman, a private practitioner in a suburb of Buffalo, NY. Although his biomarker did not fully meet the Challenge criteria, Prize4Life chose to recognize Dr. Arbesman’s valuable insight into the fundamental mechanisms of the disease.

Interestingly, before receiving the “progress prize,” Dr. Arbesman was virtually unknown in the ALS community. Why? Because he was a dermatologist by training, with no formal connections to the field of neuromuscular diseases and no prior publications on ALS.

Was there any chance that Dr. Arbesman would have been selected, as an expert, by any organization that wanted to work on ALS? No. But Prize4Life didn’t start its quest for the ALS biomarker with looking for ALS experts. Instead, it began by formulating a problem it wanted to solve (“We need a biomarker for ALS”); it then proceeded to ask anyone capable of providing a solution – regardless of their education, professional background, or place of employment – to submit their proposals. Prize4Life didn’t look for people who had the solution; instead, it arranged for a person with the right solution to come to them.

This is a fundamental difference between crowdsourcing and other problem-solving tools. By posting your problem online, you become agnostic to the sources of potential solutions. They may come from anywhere and anyone, and you don’t have to do much to “target” your search to a potential solver – given, of course, that the crowd you’re approaching is sufficiently large and diversified. In other words, when running a well-designed crowdsourcing campaign, you don’t have to spend time and resources on finding solvers to your problem; you only need to analyze the solutions that these self-selected solvers are sending your way.

By creating the conditions when ideas no longer belong exclusively to subject-matter experts, crowdsourcing is democratizing innovation. It is leveling the innovation field by opening up new channels to the folks who have been barred before from innovation activities by institutional or educational barriers. 

Of course, the ascent of crowdsourcing as a new innovation tool results in changing the rules of how new knowledge is generated, collected, implemented, and protected by organizations. I’ll touch upon these important topics in the upcoming posts.

Image Credit: https://unsplash.com/photos/ZFYg5jTvB4A

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Crowdsourcing: A Decade In Review

(This piece was originally posted to the HeroX blog)

In 2004, James Surowiecki published a highly influential book, “The Wisdom of Crowds.” The central idea of the book is that the decisions made by a large and diverse group of people are intellectually superior to the ones made by a few isolated individuals, no matter how smart and well-informed. 

Crowdsourcing is one of the most popular applications of this idea. Numerous organizations around the world, including corporations, governmental agencies, and not-for-profit foundations, now use crowdsourcing as a tool to address complex technical and business problems.

A Short History of Crowdsourcing

Although crowdsourcing got its official name only in 2006, thanks to journalist Jeff Howe, it has been around for quite some time. Some peculiar examples of “crowdsourcing” could be found as far back as in ancient Babylonia. Yet most pundits would agree that crowdsourcing was born in 1714, when the British Parliament launched the Longitude Prize, soliciting a reliable method of determining a ship’s longitude at sea.

The beginning of the modern history of crowdsourcing can be traced to the early 2000s, coinciding with the birth of “open innovation,” a business concept postulating that organizations should combine both internal and external sources of knowledge and expertise to advance the development of new products and technologies. Along with co-creation and web scouting, crowdsourcing represents a practical open innovation tool that organizations can use to meet their strategic innovation objectives. 

The appreciation of the value that crowdsourcing can bring to the marketplace was helped by the appearance of first commercial crowdsourcing platforms. It took a few more years, however, to fully realize that crowdsourcing can only be effective if careful consideration is given to identifying and formulating problems to be crowdsourced as well as to precise matching of these problems with the most suited crowds. 

The Past Decade

The past ten years have been the time crowdsourcing has finally begun coming of age. Although it’s virtually impossible to even list all successful, high-profile crowdsourcing campaigns carried out over the decade, some examples are worthy of mentioning. One of the most exemplary, both in purpose and design, was the 2014 Grand Challenge launched by the U.S. Agency for International Development to crowdsource the safe and comfortable protective equipment for healthcare workers battling Ebola.

Brands have been increasingly using crowdsourcing to advance the development of new products and also create lasting relationships with their customers. Many folks remember the 2013 Super Bowl Halftime Show featuring Beyoncé. The introduction to the show used more than 500 high-quality images that Pepsi, the sponsor of the event, crowdsourced from its fans. 

Crowdsourcing has entered the realm of public policymaking, too. For example, in 2016, Mexico City asked its nearly nine million residents to help draft the city’s new constitution through social media. 

Of course, crowdsourcing has had its share of critics and detractors. They routinely point to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Challenge. Following the oil spill accident off the coast of Louisiana, BP invited members of the public to submit their ideas for sealing off the ruptured well and cleaning up the millions of barrels of spilled oil. Some 123,000 people from 100+ countries have taken part in the challenge and submitted more than 43,000 suggestions. Unfortunately, none of them, according to BP officials, has proven to be useful for plugging the leak, although some of the ideas related to the subsequent clean up were later considered.

There are a number of factors slowing down the speedy adoption of crowdsourcing. One of them is the lack of trust in the intellectual power of the crowds and their ability to tackle complex problems. Almost everyone would agree that crowdsourcing can be successfully applied to accomplishing a “simple” task, such as crowdsourcing a corporate logo or choosing the name for a city landmark. However, when it comes to answering a question that requires specialized knowledge, organizations often prefer turning to experts. And the reluctance to replace experts with crowds is widely shared by the experts themselves who’re understandably scornful of the idea that someone with no immediate experience in the field can solve a problem that they could not. 

Another factor is an expansive use of the very term “crowdsourcing” and blurring the line between crowdsourcing and other problem-solving tools, such as brainstorming. As a result, crowdsourcing is often used in a suboptimal way, and when the outcome proves disappointing, it is crowdsourcing itself that gets the blame for being ineffective. Periodic calls to “rethink” crowdsourcing regularly appear on the pages of the most respected business publications.

The importance of Crowdsourcing Platforms 

The burden of promoting the effective use of crowdsourcing – and facilitating its further adoption in the marketplace – falls on crowdsourcing platforms. This was one of the objectives behind the creation of HeroX, a 2013 spin-off from the XPRIZE Foundation. HeroX’s mission is to enable anyone in the world to launch a challenge that addresses an important problem, build a community around that challenge, and then create the conditions that would lead to breakthrough innovation.

HeroX has an impressive track record. Since its creation, the platform has amassed a crowd of more than 125,000 dedicated Solvers, has launched over 140 successful challenges, and has hosted challenges with prize awards as large as $1M! 

Arguably, one of the most successful challenges posted on the HeroX platform was the Space Poop Challenge. The objective of this challenge, sponsored by NASA, was to design a system for spacesuits that routes human waste away from the body, hands-free. More than 200,000 innovators and 152 teams took part in the competition. Two individual contributors and a team have shared a $30,000 prize.

In December 2019, HeroX signed a strategic partnership agreement with Ideanco. The purpose of the agreement is to augment HeroX’s platform expertise and robust community of innovators with an AI-integrated crowdsourcing model developed by Ideanco. Two challenges focusing on climate change and food security are now being developed to test the combined tool.

The Future

Crowdsourcing is here to stay. Its future as an effective innovation tool is ensured by its proven ability to deliver value to many organizations that use it. Moreover, crowdsourcing is being organically incorporated in the “gig” economy, providing independent workers with the ability to be paid by a task or a project as opposed to a salary or hourly wage.

And yet, to be widely adopted in the business environment of the future, crowdsourcing needs to overcome certain barriers. Crowdsourcing platforms, including HeroX, will need to do a better job of explaining what crowdsourcing is and, equally important, what it’s not. A crucial aspect of this job is helping organizations understand how to correctly identify and formulate problems suited to crowdsourcing and how to run an effective crowdsourcing campaign.

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Innovation: The Role of Money and Government

Over the past couple of months, I have attempted to assess the role of a few major socio-economic factors on the national innovation potential. To do that, I ran a series of simple regression tests to estimate the correlation between these factors (as measured by appropriate indexes) and the 2019 Global Innovation Index, a database that analyzes global innovation performance of approximately 130 economies.

First, I analyzed to which extent the ability of a country to innovate correlates with the level of political freedoms. Second, I looked at a possible role of the country’s prosperity and education spending.

The above findings can be summarized as follows:

  1. There is a strong correlation (R2=0.46) between a country’s innovation potential and the level of democratic development (as assessed by the Democracy Index 2019).
  2. This correlation is only valid for democratic countries (R2=0.45) but is absent in the case of non-democracies (both groups defined per Democracy Index 2019).
  3. Although all five individual components of the Democracy Index positively correlate with innovation, the strongest correlation occurs for Functioning of Government (R2=0.53).
  4. Poor correlation (R2=0.14) was observed between a country’s innovation rankings and its nominal GDP.
  5. This correlation was strong, however, when GDP per capita was analyzed instead (R2=0.54).
  6. A very solid correlation (R2=0.68) exists between innovation and what a country spends on Research and Development (R&D) expressed as the percentage of the nation’s GDP.
  7. Somewhat surprisingly, a poor correlation (R2=0.17) was observed between the Innovation Index and a country’s expenses on education expressed as the percentage of the national GDP. However, I have some concerns about the quality of the education expenses data that I used.

One might argue that political freedoms and democracy affect innovation only indirectly, via the country’s prosperity and R&D spending. The argument would go like this: the freer the country, the more prosperous it is (as measured by the country’s GDP per capita); the more prosperous the country, the more it spends on R&D; and the more it spends on R&D, the more innovative it is.

A more sophisticated statistical analysis is needed to see whether this argument is valid or not.

Check out my eBook, “We the People of the Crowd…,” a collection of stories about crowdsourcing reflecting my personal experience in working with corporate and nonprofit clients.

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Innovation and Money

In my previous post, I further explored the notion that the ability of a country to innovate correlates with the level of political freedoms in this country.

In particular, I showed that no such correlation exists for non-democratic countries (as defined by the Democracy Index 2019 composed by the Economist Intelligence Unit). It appears that a “threshold” exists below which no improvements in democratic development would lead to more innovative economies.

In contrast, a reasonably strong correlation was observed for democratic countries (with a plateau seen for the most democratic). Further analysis suggested an important role of government in promoting national innovation programs.

Before exploring this “government” connection in more detail, I wanted to check other, seemingly more trivial, factors that could affect a country’s ability to innovate.

One of such factors is money. Innovation costs money, so more prosperous countries should theoretically be more innovative. To test this simple idea, I plotted the countries’ innovation rankings from the 12th (2019) edition of the Global Innovation Index against their nominal GDP (as per World Bank, 2018). Poor correlation was observed (R2=0.14).

This correlation was evident, however, when instead of nominal GDP, GDP per capita, which is considered a bona fide measure of a country’s prosperity, was used. The results are presented below:

One can see that the correlation between a country’s Innovation Index and GDP per capita is especially strong up to approximately $60,000; a plateau seems to be formed after that. There are also two outliers with the GDP per capita exceeding $120,000: Luxemburg ($123,892) and Qatar ($126,898). With these two countries excluded, the correlation becomes even stronger (R2=0.68).

Perhaps, the best way to see how money affects innovation at the country level is to look at how much this country spends on Research and Development (R&D). To do that, I plotted the Innovation index against the national R&D spending expressed as the percentage of the nation’s GDP (as per World Bank). The results of this comparison are presented below:

A solid correlation is indeed seen. This correlation seems to be especially strong until R&D spending does not exceed 2% of the country’s GDP; a plateau seems to be forming after that – which intuitively makes sense.

Finally, I decided to see how the country’s expenses on education may affect its innovation abilities. To do that, I plotted the Innovation Index against the country’s educational expenses expressed as the percentage of the nation’s GDP (as per World Bank). Somewhat surprisingly, a poor correlation between the two parameters was observed:

There is a problem with the education expenses data that I used: many data points are not current, so data for different years were often used to compare countries (although I didn’t use the data points collected prior to 2014). I do not know to which extent this may or may not affect the quality of the comparison.

Regardless, the lack of a strong correlation between the country’s Innovation Index and its spending on education looks surprising. Whether it reflects the fact the relationship between education spending and its quality is complex – or that some additional, more subtle factors play a role in innovation – needs further investigation.

 Check out my eBook, “We the People of the Crowd…,” a collection of stories about crowdsourcing reflecting my personal experience in working with corporate and nonprofit clients.

 Image credit: Micheile Henderson (Unsplash)


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Innovation: Governments Matter

In a recent post, I presented evidence that the ability of a country to innovate correlates with the level of political freedoms in this country.

To make this argument, I used innovation rankings from the 12th (2019) edition of the Global Innovation Index that analyzes global innovation performance of approximately 130 economies (Y-axis) and plotted it against the political freedom rankings taken from the Democracy Index 2019 composed by the Economist Intelligence Unit (X-axis). The results are presented below:

As one can see, a reasonably strong correlation exists between the countries’ innovation prowess and the level of democratic development.

A careful examination of the graph reveals, however, a certain degree of “non-linearity,” implying that the relationship between innovation and freedom might be different at the lower and higher ends of the freedom scale (X-axis). I decided to explore this opportunity.

The Democracy Index 2019 assesses the countries’ level of democratic development on the scale 0 to 10.0, marking them as authoritarian regimes (0–4.0), hybrid regimes (4.0–6.0), flawed democracies (6.0–8.0), and full democracies (8.0–10.0). I pooled the data for authoritarian and hybrid regimes to mark them “Non-Democracies” (0-6.0) and the data for flawed and full democracies to mark them “Democracies” (6.0-10.0) and plotted them separately. The results can be seen below:






Amazingly enough, for the group of non-democratic countries, there is virtually no correlation between the level of democratic development and innovation. But a solid correlation can be seen for the group of democratic countries.

Outliers occur on both graphs. For the non-democratic countries, the most visible is China (democratic index 2.26, innovation index 54.82). Among democracies, these are Hong Kong (6.02; 55.54) and Singapore (6.02; 58.37); excluding Hong Kong and Singapore from the “democracies” graph makes the correlation even stronger (R2=0.59). The presence of outliers suggests that even countries with a less than stellar level of political freedoms can be innovative – apparently by inventing some “compensation” mechanisms. I will study such “compensation” mechanisms in the future.

I must admit that the above results came to me as a surprise. First, I didn’t expect that there appears to be a “threshold” in democratic development below which no improvements would lead to more innovation; I expected at least some level of positive correlation at the lower end of the political freedom spectrum to exist.

Nor did I expect that there will be no “plateau” in democratic development. I thought that when a country reaches a certain level of political freedom, any further improvement will not affect innovation, the level of which will be defined by other factors: investments, education, etc. Instead, what the data suggests is that at all levels of democratic development, there are factors included in The Economist’s Democratic Index that still positively affect innovation.

What these factors could be? To probe this question, I plotted the innovation index against each of the five individual components included in the Democracy Index: Electoral Process and Pluralism, Functioning of Government, Political Participation, Democratic Political Culture, and Civil Liberties. The results of this analysis are presented in the table below:


Although all five individual components positively correlate with innovation, the strongest correlation occurs for Functioning of Government (R2=0.53).

I will return to factors affecting Innovation Index in my future posts, but for now, we can leave the topic with the following statement: when it comes to innovation, functioning governments matter.

Check out my eBook, “We the People of the Crowd…,” a collection of stories about crowdsourcing reflecting my personal experience in working with corporate and nonprofit clients.

 Image credit: https://www.historynet.com/book-review-the-first-congress-by-fergus-m-bordewich.htm

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The Fallacy of Predictions

There is a popular joke (attributed to Niels Bohr): “It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.”

I remembered it when I picked up the March-April 2020 issue of the MIT Technology Review.

Subtitled “The prediction issue,” it showcased 10 predicted breakthrough technologies of the 2020s. In addition, the Review invited a dozen or so leading futurologists to predict which technology trends will dominate in 2020-2030. As Gideon Litchfield, the editor-in-chief, wrote introducing the issue: “…the point of futurism isn’t to guess the future; it’s to challenge your assumptions about the present so the future doesn’t catch you off guards.”

Characteristically, none of the predicted breakthrough technologies – and none of the proposed future trends – even mentioned the threat of worldwide pandemic like the one that is currently ravaging the globe.

No, I am not criticizing the writers and the editorial staff of the MIT Technology Review for making “wrong” predictions. My question is, have they been as caught off guard by the COVID-19 pandemic as the rest of us mere mortals?

The fallacy of predictions struck me again when I opened the 2019 Global Health Security Index, the first comprehensive assessment of the health security capabilities across 195 nations. The Index specifically focused on nations’ preparedness for infectious disease outbreaks that can lead to international epidemics and pandemics.

To the credit of its authors, the Index finds no single country fully prepared for epidemics or pandemics: the average overall score among all 195 countries was 40(!) of a possible 100.

But what genuinely surprised me were the scores that the Index assigned to individual countries. The United States led the world in the overall preparedness score (83.5) with the United Kingdom coming a close second (77.9). The U.S. also scored the highest in a few specific categories, including Prevention of the Emergence of Pathogens; Early Detection & Reporting of Epidemics; and Sufficient & Robust Health System to Protect Health Workers. The U.S. was second after the U.K. in the category Rapid Response to the Spread of an Epidemic.

What is the predictive power of the Index given the fact that the U.S. and the U.K. are among the countries with the highest per capita numbers of COVID-19 infections and COVID-19-related deaths?

In contrast, countries that did a reasonably good job in preventing the spread of the virus and keeping the death toll at a reasonably low level did not score particularly high. For example, the Czech Republic was only 48th on the overall score, and Iceland even lower, 58th. The Czech Republic was 57th in the category of Rapid Response to the Spread of an Epidemic, with Iceland being lower again, only 66th.

What were the assumptions about the present that led to the low rating of both countries that responded with admirable agility when facing a real, not imagined, crisis?

Like every normal human being, I love guessing about what will happen tomorrow. And I know that organizations need to predict the future to plan the next steps and foresee upcoming threats and opportunities. Yet, before we rush into a new set of predictions – as some consultancies have already begun doing – let’s pause and first explain to ourselves what happened.

As the next step, let’s challenge our assumptions about the present. Real present not assumed. And then – only then! – carefully resume predicting. Perhaps.

Check out my eBook, “We the People of the Crowd…,” a collection of stories about crowdsourcing reflecting my personal experience in working with corporate and nonprofit clients.

Image credit: https://www.mediabullseye.com/2017/05/global-communications-report-predicting-the-future-of-the-pr-industry/


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Innovation and Freedom

With waves of profound technological change rocking every corner of the global economy, innovation isn’t a luxury anymore, not even a matter of choice – it’s a means of survival.  The mantra “innovate or die” may have become a cliché, yet it correctly reflects the contemporary business environment in which companies must relentlessly innovate to just stay in business.

Unfortunately, managing the innovation process in a sustainable way turned out to be difficult for a lot of organizations. Many corporate innovation leaders have failed to establish the infrastructure and processes needed to run efficient innovation programs and instead are wasting time talking about the elusive “culture of innovation.”

Sure, it’s impossible to ignore the importance of the human component in any corporate process, including innovation. But it’s much more important to identify specific factors affecting the innovation process to be able to improve it in a systematic way.

One such factor that, quite surprisingly, doesn’t get much attention is freedom. Yes, freedom. It’s very simple: in order to innovate, one needs freedom – and this applies to innovation at the individual, organizational, and national levels.

Freedom from being discriminated  

A case in point is the effect on innovation of U.S. anti-discrimination laws. A 2016 study showed that U.S. state-level employment nondiscrimination acts (ENDAs)—laws that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity—spur innovation. U.S. public companies headquartered in states that have passed ENDAs experienced an 8% increase in the number of patents (and an 11% increase in their quality) relative to companies headquartered in states that have no ENDAs.

Another study showed a positive effect on innovation of two social liberalization policies: the legalization of same-sex civil unions and medical marijuana. In contrast, the laws setting additional restrictions on abortion had a negative effect on innovation at the state level.

It’s therefore hardly a coincidence that the two arguably most innovative U.S. states, California and Massachusetts, have traditionally been drivers of social liberalization: California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996, and Massachusetts the first state to legalize same-sex marriages in 2004.

No, I’m not saying that sexual minorities or people smoking weed are intrinsically more innovative. My point is that innovation implies a certain level of individual freedoms, including freedom from being discriminated for whatever reason.

The labor laws of innovation

Interestingly, labor laws have also been shown to have a positive effect on innovation. For example, the staggered passage of wrongful discharge laws (WDL) (the laws providing employees with greater protection than employment-at-will) across the U.S. states created a “natural experiment” assessing their impact on the innovation output. And this impact turned out to be quite impressive: the adoption of WDL resulted in a rise in the annual number and quality of patents issued to a state, an effect starting to emerge two years after the WDL passage in this state.

The above data indicate that innovation is fostered by limiting firms’ ability to discharge their employees at will.  The authors of the study call this phenomenon an “insurance effect”: feeling increased protection from negative consequences of failure, employees are more committed to the engagement in risky innovative projects. In other words, providing employees with immunity for failed innovation projects might be a better way to promote innovation than by “celebrating failures.”

Innovation and political freedoms

There is one more level at which innovation can be affected and which is almost never considered in the literature: the level of political and individual freedoms in individual countries. I first came across this point back in 2014 while reviewing the 2013 Global Innovation Index, a collaborative project of Cornell University, INSEAD, and the World Intellectual Property Organization. The Index ranked the innovation capabilities of 142 countries by using 84 indicators, which included, among others, the quality of higher education, availability of venture capital and government support.

Even a brief look at the Index led me to a curious observation: the top of the ranking was heavily populated by countries representing established democracies (according to the 2013 Freedom of the World Report). The reverse was also true: the bottom of the Index was stacked with countries with an extremely low level of democratic development.

To give this observation statistical support, I used the data from the 12th (2019) edition of the Global Innovation Index that analyzes global innovation performance of approximately 130 economies (Y-axis) and plotted it against the political freedom rankings taken from the Democracy Index 2019 composed by the Economist Intelligence Unit (X-axis). In the latter case, the countries are measured on the scale 0 to 10.0, marking them as authoritarian regimes (0–4.0), hybrid regimes (4.0–6.0), flawed democracies (6.0–8.0), and full democracies (8.0–10.0). The results of the regression analysis are presented below:

A reasonably strong correlation does exist indicating that the ability of a country to innovate correlates with the level of political freedom in this country.

A careful examination of the graph reveals, however, a certain degree of “non-linearity,” implying other factors affecting the innovation index. I’ll delve into this issue in follow-up posts.

But for now, let’s just state aloud what we always intuitively knew: to be more innovative, you should live in a free country.

Check out my eBook, “We the People of the Crowd…,” a collection of stories about crowdsourcing reflecting my personal experience in working with corporate and nonprofit clients.

 Image created by Tatiana Ivanov

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