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GP5May04: Enemy of the People: Innovation

Enemy of the People.  The great Scandinavian playwright Henrik Ibsen reminds us that the pursuit of unpopular truths is an ever so lonely business.  The messenger of the gods who brings us any new idea worth its salt is always perceived as slightly dangerous, alien, and threatening to our self-interest.  In Ibsen’s Enemy of the People, Dr. Thomas Stockman, Medical Officer of the Municipal Bath, inconveniences the townspeople.  The baths had brought new prosperity and employment to the whole region.  “But,” says the good doctor, “The whole place is a pest-house!”  The water, he has found, is highly polluted—a clear and present danger. 

Everybody’s against him and wants him to be quiet.  He cries out, “A minority may be right, and a majority is always wrong.”  The truth-teller is perceived as an enemy, and he is shouted down.  He threatens their prosperity which they hold dearer than their health.

Lest We Forget.  Again and again, we find, medical evidence is ignored because one or more powerful interest groups tries to shunt it aside.  In our Brain Stem section on Global Province, we cite Sharon Begley’s article about Alzheimer’s that shows the medical generals to be so immersed in the now increasingly discredited “plaque” theory that they have barred publication of alternate theories and have killed funding for some very promising ideas about its fundamental cause.  Alzheimer’s now blights 4,000,000 in the U.S. and is slated to grow exponentially.  The obstinacy and inertia exhibited by the “plaque” community is not a trivial matter.

Likewise, we are slowly discovering that we have focused on symptoms, instead of causes, in respect to heart disease.  For the last 30 years we would have been addressing  infection and other aspects of heart disease if we had not become so fixated on unplugging the vessels of the heart with angioplasty and the like.  Nor can we forget ulcers, which were treated as problems of stress or diet for most of the 20th century, until an Australian doctor finally got it right when he focused on pylori bacteria (see Gods, Heroes, and Legends).

Embedded Wrongs.  All this has led us to our Theory of Embedded Wrongs: “If a problem has been around a long, long while, and there’s a dominant prevailing notion as to what will cure it, the answer is almost inevitably wrong.” 

Strong, wrong-headed notions particularly achieve a stranglehold in mature societies such as the United States.  Lobbies and interest groups can summon up enough staying power, dollars, ideological fervor, and adherents to turn their idiosyncrasies into supposed cardinal truths that capture the popular mind.

Our business schools and consulting firms have popularized copious theories about change management and change agents.  But we find that they change very little, their tedious efforts at reform unable to effect a revolution.  Their flyswatters just have not had much impact on entrenched ideas.  Surely these change nostrums themselves are part of the useless baggage that needs to be swept aside, so that better ideas can supplant them.

Imports.  The best antidote for bad ideas is good ideas.  In many instances these will come from abroad; we would hope this will cause us to strongly revive the American tradition of collecting much of our intellectual capital from other nations.  Small nations in particular, here and there, have gotten it right, and we need to steal their wisdom.  Finland has dramatically lowered heart and cancer affliction rates by capitalizing on a well-founded public health program that grew out of studies originating in the United States.  Finland has also put together a first-class education system that has made its people very able, while Cuba, oddly enough, has racked up a 97% literacy rate that is the envy of the developing world.  Denmark, headquarters to a leading producer of windpower equipment, is producing something like 10% of its energy from the wind now.  Singapore has wired itself to better diffuse knowledge around the city-state and is putting aside some portion of its autocratic ways in order to cultivate industries driven by intellect such as biotech enterprises.  In  places such as these, places that don’t make the news everyday, we can find practical, not-invented-in-the-U.S. ideas in action, which are our best hope for overcoming our own entrenched biases and the outdated infrastructure of the United States.

GE Healthcare.  GE, which is large enough to be a nation unto itself, has grasped that the way forward will have to be imported.  Jeffrey Immelt, GE’s Chairman, realizes that only rampant “innovation” can competitively sustain enterprises based in advanced economies.  He has just added Britain’s Amersham to GE’s Healthcare group and made Amersham’s Sir William Castell head of the whole shooting match.  (For more, see Agile Companies.)  Already Castell has charged his executives to think bigger and longer, going beyond GE’s 3-to-5 year planning timeframe, and looking out 10 to 15 years.

It’s been said that GE has an awesome grasp on the process of business, but we and others suspect it is not always pointed at the right goals.  Process thinking has led to smalltime objectives that do not put it on a trajectory into the future.  It dwells on Sigma 6, but needs to think about 2066.  To get on target, it needs Amershams that have enough velocity and scale to turn it around. 

Falling Behind.  Despite the vast amount spent on research in the United States, other countries are chewing into our lead in the R & D arena.  In particular they are filing for patents and authoring scientific articles at a faster clip than we are.  William J. Broad of The New York Times highlights all this in “U.S. is Losing Its Dominance in the Sciences” (May 3, 2004, pp A1 and A19),a significant article that charts our decline as measured by a number of yardsticks.  Given our continuing huge outlays, this would suggest that something’s askew in our climate for innovation and that some changes need to be made. Certainly we need to loosen the hold of bad ideas, clearing the plaque out of our academies and our government agencies.

Devil’s Advocate.  Should we lose our optimism that the truth can and should prevail, we can always take up with the wonderfully cynical Italians, who have never gotten over the Fall of Rome.  Umberto Eco, philosopher and novelist of The Name of the Rose, claims that “Fakes change the world….  Ptolemy created a false idea that the Sun revolved around the Earth, an idea on which people based their lives for several centuries….  Who knows how many false ideas we entertain today?  Lying about the future produces history.”  See Harriet Rubin’s, “Monthly Column on Power, “ October 1, 2002 in “Fast Company.”

In his view, faith, even faith in something false, is what makes man soar.  Faith itself is more important than the quest for truth.  But faith misplaced, faith chained totally to myth without substance, won’t buy us much innovation.  To innovate, you need to have your head in the clouds—but your feet on the ground.  If the truths you hold dear are only lies, then you will be a decorator, not an innovator.

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