Innovation Goes Beyond Buzzwords

Trends in management and change might come and go, but innovation remains a common thread.
October 31, 2014
By Ron Littlefield  |  Senior Fellow
Ron Littlefield, a former mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and its lead analyst on the City Accelerator initiative. A city planner by career, he also consults to government through Littlefield Associates.

As I take stock of the dusty books on my office shelves, I am reminded of the trends and fads in planning and management that span four decades. Key words spark memories of movements that held the spotlight for a time and then faded – some to a quiet oblivion and others retaining a more lasting impact, perhaps serving as a basis for a new movement or idea.

For example, do you remember the quality movement? It traces back to the teachings of Dr.  W. Edwards Deming, coming to prominence as Japan struggled to rebuild and repair after the damage it suffered in World War II. While his philosophies were originally scoffed at by American scholars, Deming instructed top executives and engineers in Japan on statistical and quality control principles and is widely credited with helping Japan become an industrial powerhouse after the 1950s. Almost too late, the American industries woke up and started applying the principals themselves, with Ford Motor Company fighting back against Japanese automakers with the 1980s ad campaign, “Quality is Job 1.”
 
Among my favorite quotes is one by Deming: "It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory." And another that more directly relates to our current topic of innovation: "Innovation comes from the producer, not the customer." I must admit I possess a few books with quality in the title, including "Quality Without Tears" by Philip Crosby – a slim text that we used back in the 1980s in efforts to spark innovations and improvements at the (then) rusty and backward Chattanooga Department of Public Works.  
 
The quality movement led to Six Sigma and then to lean manufacturing and to other variations on the theme, engaging great thinkers like Peter Drucker, who invented the concept of management by objectives, and popular business gurus such as Tom Peters. In his 1989 book, "The New Realities," Drucker concluded, "Compassion is a legitimate function of government and so is the protection of the poor and oppressed." He then went on to praise and propose privatization of public housing such as that implemented by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher – a somewhat outrageous idea at the time. On the broader issue of how management can facilitate change, he said, "Any organization develops people; it has no choice. It either helps them grow or stunts them."
 
Tom Peters and Robert Waterman Jr. were co-authors of the 1982 international bestseller, "In Search of Excellence," which focused on examples of best-run companies that had mastered the art of modern enterprise through innovations in management. Even today – more than 30 years after publication – the book overflows with inspirational gems of wisdom. One of my favorites: "There is good news from America. Good management practice today is not resident only in Japan. But more important, the good news comes from treating people decently and asking them to shine, and from producing things that work." What could be simpler than that? 
 
The concept of visioning was another trend that swept over the country beginning in the 1980s. My city, Chattanooga, was an early adopter of visioning and we credit it with changing the attitudes and outlook of the population. Books and studies on this concept are too numerous to mention. It might be fair to say that over the past 30 years, visioning has become a somewhat overused term. Most people are now familiar with the often-dreaded and sometimes-maligned vision statement that has become almost mandatory as a precursor and guide for all efforts to effect progressive change in stiff and tired institutions of business and government. 
 
In spite of the fact that visioning has lost much of its sparkle to the point that we have almost exhausted the utility of the word, we in Chattanooga are evidence that visioning can change hearts and minds and set the stage for effective implementation of new ideas. Through visioning, Chattanooga learned to listen to its citizens and went from being the "most polluted city in America" in 1969 to a community that regularly ranks in the top 10 cities for livability today.
 
Next up, about 25 years ago, the nonfiction publishing world was caught up in a frenzy of re-engineering, re-imagining and sometimes simply renewing corporations and governments. David Osborne and Peter Plastrik took on the same subject but with a different play on words in their 1998 book, "Banishing Bureaucracy.” 
 
With all these terms in mind, it might be tempting to dismiss the present innovation trend as just one more buzzword in the passing lexicon of terminology used by planners, consultants, motivational speakers and social engineers. It is worth noting, however, that innovation is a timeless concept woven throughout the fabric of all these terms and topics.

Fast forward to the present time. Scanning through the various published lists of today's bestsellers in planning and management it is obvious there are a number of current titles that would fit seamlessly on my bookshelf and continue the effective change theme. Whether we are trying to achieve new measures of quality to meet the challenge of international manufacturing; envisioning a better community and implementing ways to make it happen; reinventing, re-engineering or renewing our public and private institutions; or seeking to remedy the intractable problems of society such as poverty, homelessness and hunger, the answer remains the same. The secret to innovation and positive change lies with inspiring the individual and empowering him or her to step forward, speak up and take action.

Everything old is new again. Some things about the process of change have not changed – and never will.

 
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