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Jeff DeGraff

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The Innovation Do-Over List

Posted: 02/10/2012 3:30 pm

Each year around this time the calls and emails start -- magazines, associations, think tanks. "What are the most innovative companies in the world?" Of course the first challenge is to discern what exactly they mean by innovation so I can pander to their readership or membership -- elegant product design, profound social impact, money making or over the top kookiness. Actually I do what most academics do -- develop criteria, consult the research, talk to the good folks down at the lab before coming to the realization that it's really just a beauty contest. Do I go for the miracle drug collected from the asparagus residue in the handlebar mustaches of the dancing Peruvian Emperor Tamarins or that new phone app that scans your lover's pupils from afar to determine if they are in the mood?

Recently I've been thinking about what products, services and organizations haven't made my list but are due for a makeover -- no -- a complete do-over.

First, there is endless and pervasive road construction. The infinity of this activity challenges the space-time continuum but provides an almost spiritual sense of continuity. Things may pass but road construction will never end. The entirely of the activity seems otherworldly to me -- drunken orange cones stumbling out of line, barrels with the blinking yellow eye of Sauron seeing you, plumes of cement dust rising like the mist on some post apocalyptic Mount Wudang and of course the noise of breaking infrastructure. When I get to a particularly nasty stretch of road under construction, I wonder: If we can make a dream liner out of composite materials that will fly for decades through the most inclement of weather, why can't we make a road that will last more than one winter? If we can tear down a block of historical buildings in Hong Kong and replace them with the 'skysore' like the Lippo Centre in less than a year why does it take eons to gentrify a bit of the turnpike? If we can design uniforms for the Oregon Ducks that can be seen from outer space, why can't we create one for the workers who are constantly at risk in this most dangerous of professions? Yah, I know it's complicated and expensive. What isn't these days?

Second, there is the great cable mystery that Hercule Poirot could not crack. I walked into a Radio Shack shortly after Christmas to find a cable adaptwr from my HDTV to the soundbar that Santa brought. What followed was an esoteric discussion with several technicians that would rival the assembly of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Schematics were reviewed, databases searched and owner's manuals perused -- you can't get there from here. When a hard solution was finally plotted the cost the morass was more than the speakers I was trying to connect. Maybe that's the catch. Give away the razor and stick it to them on the blades. I would love to see one standard universal connector or adapter but of course it's less an issue of technology and more of free trade running naked through your living room. How un-American. Next thing you know there will be one world standard for electrical outlets and flush toilets -- the end of democracy as we know it.

Third, I believe there should be a Congressional hearing about hotel check-in times. It's a scandal. I traverse this planet with the best of them and can state as a fact that arrival times are incongruous with the 3:00 p.m. bewitching hour. Wander around the streets of Jakarta for half a day after you've been in flight for 27 hours and you will understand the importance of the matter. My Michigan colleague Gordon Hewitt points out that hotels suffer from the dominant logic that housekeeping directs all other functions in the hospitality industry -- no on-demand service, no handheld technology to keep availability up the minute, no price premium for an extra three hours of shut eye. Lose the jacuzzi and just get me in a room when I arrive -- try not to knock three minutes after I drift off.

Finally, I too believe the BCS (Bowl Championship Series to the disinterested) is in serious need of a do-over but not for the conventional reasons -- "That's-not-the-two-best-teams-two teams-from-the-same-conference-shouldn't-play or I-hate-authority-and-will-turn-any mention-of-rules-into-a-Constitutional issue"; it's the usual. No, my objection is that more and more these aren't student athletes no matter how many Kodak moment ads the NCAA puts on in between Go Daddy commercials. According to the NCAA 2010 Federal Graduation Rate Report as well as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's College Sport Research Institute's 2011 Adjusted Graduation Gap Report (college football fans are really into statistics) many of the top football programs have abysmal graduation rates for eligible seniors. This means they are not talking about superstar players who come out early to join the NFL. More so, several of the top conferences are actually slipping backwards. A case in point, a year ago, two teams with graduation rates hovering around 50 percent played for the national title. I know it's all about the money -- duh. So let's fix it at the root by changing the algorithm used to calculate the rankings by simply weighting the score to include audited graduation rates. I can see it now -- Duke and Northwestern playing for it all next year. This idea has been kicked around in various forms for years. So I guess it's less about the innovation and more about the willingness to shall we say Just Do It.

I know I've missed quite a few -- the communist plot known as shrink wrap, the problem of rogue ketchup and other anarchist condiments and the impending Malthusian catastrophe from the proliferation of grocery store and coffee shop discount cards. Innovation isn't just about what we need to start -- it's equally about what we need to stop.

Jeff DeGraff is a Professor of Management and Organizations at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. To learn more about his book Innovation You and PBS Special by the same name, visit his web site at www.innovationyou.com or follow his blog on innovation at www.jeffdegraff.com.

 

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