Amanda Lang on how to get ahead in business

Broadcaster says Canadians need to stop being so polite

COLE GARSIDE

Amanda Lang, CBC’s senior business correspondent and the co-host of The Lang & O’Leary Exchange, knows a few things about reinvention. After originally setting out to become an architect, she ended up as a print journalist instead, and later made a successful leap to the small screen. Her new book, The Power of Why, examines the relationship between innovation and success, both in business and in people’s personal lives.

Q: Why a book on innovation? It doesn’t seem like that novel a topic.

A: Productivity—as I spend time persuading our national news desk—is not a boring subject. It is the key to our economic prosperity. And we’re failing miserably at it—it’s tragic. So for years now I’d been giving these speeches about productivity and afterwards people would come up and say, ‘Great, now you’ve scared us to death. But what can we do about it?’ And I didn’t have a response. So I started to dig into it and what I discovered is that there is an easy answer and it’s innovation. If we can find a way to spark more innovation we’ll get greater productivity.

Q: One of the things your book argues is that we tend to view innovation too narrowly. What’s your definition?

A: It’s not mine, it’s borrowed, but the best definition I’ve seen is an old idea meets a new idea and the outcome changes behaviour. The change in behaviour is critical to the whole thing. If you create something and it doesn’t have any external influence, it’s useless. But even very incremental innovation can change people radically.

Q: You talk about things like cost-efficiencies being innovations. Should that really count?

A. Yes. The beauty of the way businesses work is that they are endlessly innovative because there is a profit imperative. I just bought a new toaster and this morning I realized it has a timer on it. Think about it. When you are waiting for your toast, the wait seems interminable. You have no idea how long it’s going to take. It’s frustrating. Now if I move the dial to four I know it’s going to take 45 seconds, and if I move it to six, that it’s going to take a minute. It’s that kind of incremental innovation that businesses do to keep us buying products, but that also make our lives better.

Q: There are a lot of fun sketches of innovators in your book, but almost all of the people you describe are Americans, or Americans who work in Canada. Are you telling us that you think that Canadians aren’t that good at innovation?

A: I don’t think Canadians have given themselves permission to innovate the way Americans do. Do I think there’s something cultural in Canada that inhibits us? Yes, 100 per cent. The very traits that we hold dear—our politeness, our collaborative tendencies, our unwillingness to let people fail badly—are all things that inhibit innovation. But one of the things that I discovered—and I hope it’s clear in the book—is that anybody can reawaken their own innovative instincts. So it’s not that Canadians can’t do it, it’s just that we may be less likely to do it than some other cultures.

Q: Do you think that has something to do with our country’s founding cultures?

A: That’s way beyond my area of expertise. But I was talking about this to a group of executives, and three Americans who moved up to Canada said it was like cold water being dashed on them. One talked about how his kid came home from school with a “Canadian A,” it was 82 per cent, but in the U.S. that’s a B+. Another one coaches basketball and spoke about how when a kid is at the free-throw line, the whole gym goes quiet. Unlike in the U.S., where the other team’s supporters are going nuts, trying to throw him off. And the other told me how a meeting that requires four people draws 12 in Canada. And everyone wants to agree: it’s all yes, and no buts. That feels good, but it doesn’t work.

Q: You’ve identified the school system as being one of the barriers to innovation. Is that a uniquely Canadian problem?

A: No, it isn’t. When you think about it, everybody’s system was designed for the industrial age and it’s still really geared around these outcomes, whether it’s standardized testing or core subjects. We’ve ignored the fact that textbooks aren’t scarce anymore, information isn’t scarce anymore. There’s no reason why the teacher has to have all the answers and give them to the kids. The challenge is, how do we create people who know how to think, rather than people who have learned what you want them to learn?

Q: There are still an awful lot of people who are in jobs where their performance is rated on how well they follow procedures. So why is it necessary that they become innovative?

A: One of the things I discovered—to my horror—is the way we’ve become disengaged. They’ve done global studies that suggest 62 per cent of us are just showing up for a paycheque. And we all know intuitively that it feels better when your brain is turned on, and you’re focused. If you allow yourself to actually connect with your work, you will find ways to innovate. But there’s another aspect. Organizational behavioural theorists believe that increasingly, no matter what your job is, you are going to be tasked with complex problems. So if we’re not actually training people to absorb and process information in a way to meet that challenge, then we’re creating a whole group of people who are in another class. Not just socio-economically, but mentally, too.

Q: In the book, you cite examples of companies like GM or Microsoft, or one could even argue Apple now, who are no longer quite so innovative. Why is it so hard for companies to remain inventive?

A: The status quo bias is the biggest threat to a successful company—and it’s arguably what happened to Research In Motion. Companies get to a point where they have all this money and pride tied up in a product and they can’t afford—psychologically, mentally—to stop coddling it. The pace of a product cycle now is so fast, that if you do that for weeks, not even months, someone else has come out and replaced you in the marketplace.

Q: Walter Issacson’s recent biography of Steve Jobs painted him as a very difficult person. Does innovation at a corporate level require a chief jerk?

A: No, but it does require permission up the chain. If what you want is everybody in an organization being innovative together, you need buy-in from the top. The biggest impediments to innovation are structures—IT, HR. Anyone who can say no to where the money goes is most likely to put a stop to that sort of creative process.

Q: But isn’t there a confrontational aspect to getting innovation started and keeping it flowing?

A: There doesn’t have to be. It’s more important to agree that failure is part of the process. In some organizations the very structure of compensation affects innovation because if you fail your bonus is cut. That’s really easy to fix. Don’t tie people’s compensation to risk because that keeps them in a little box. And on a personal level, give people permission to fail—say it’s okay to have a bad idea sometimes.

Q: You also argue that these principles have an application in people’s personal lives. How?

A: I think these lessons can be super powerful. You can absolutely apply business theory to your relationships. How often do we think, ‘What does this person want from me, and what am I delivering?’ We just sort of let people drift around us in our orbit. To me, the same way we can engage better with people at work, we can engage better with the people in our lives.

Q: You end the book with a series of myths about innovation. What’s the most pervasive one?

A: The idea that not everybody can innovate, that you are somehow born to it. There are visionaries, just like there are great artists or athletes. But most people are incremental innovators. And if there’s a message I want people to take from this book it’s that there is a spectrum and you are on it somewhere.




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Amanda Lang on how to get ahead in business

  1. This article reminds me a Dilbert cartoon where the despised boss says “Ok, everybody come up with a new product everybody wants!” then says to himself “phew, the visionary hard part is done.”

  2. The Power of Why is a fascinating book! It’s full of interesting stories of entrepreneurs, their “aha!” moments, and what we can learn from them. I’ve just finished it, and have already found myself asking more questions, paying closer attention to how things work, and making new connections. It’s opened my mind to new possibilities…even made me feel a bit more creative. These effects were a complete surprise — and pretty cool.

    The Power of Why is entertaining, important, and useful all at once. It’s a joy to read, and I highly recommend it.

  3. I was surprised and mildly impressed that Gatehouse actually asked why Lang, a Canadian author, didn’t bother using any Canadian examples in her book—but he should have pushed it much further.

    If Lang wants Canadians to be more innovative, then I suggest she should inspire her fellow Canadians by using Canadian examples, rather than regurgitate the same tired lines that we are inferior to the States. I don’t at all buy her claims that we are not yet awoken to innovation. Of course there are countless examples of innovation in Canada. This is just another exhausting example of a Canadian selling out to the United States, probably for money. If that were not true, there would at least be included examples of innovation from a broad spectrum of countries. Lang instead proves her own lack of innovation and spunk, and only furthers the Canadian cliche by taking the same tired lazy, overdone approach of meekly deferring to the US.

    Talk about being dashed with cold water. I don’t know why anyone would read her book when her own lack of loyalty not only doesn’t work—it doesn’t even feel good.

  4. Dear Amanda, I read about the three Americans who moved up to Canada said it was like cold water being dashed on them. “One talked about how his kid came home from school with a “Canadian A,” it was 82 per cent, but in the U.S. that’s a B+”. This true only in the GPA system. Most of the time, teachers are left to their own devices and the marks suffer from grade inflation to make the school and/or teacher look good. “Another one coaches basketball and spoke about how when a kid is at the free-throw line, the whole gym goes quiet. Unlike in the U.S., where the other team’s supporters are going nuts, trying to throw him off”. In Canada, perhaps we call that good sportsmanship and respect for the athlete making the attempt at the free-throw line. Yes, we can actually cheer on a player from the opposing team for doing well. “And the other told me how a meeting that requires four people draws 12 in Canada. And everyone wants to agree: it’s all yes, and no buts. That feels good, but it doesn’t work.” Yes, sometimes, our meetings are over-attended but maybe we enjoy consensus even though it may take longer, keeping people in the loop.

    I find this to be a typical American attitude of arrogance and superiority – we should all be like them. Were these people challenged on the U.S. rankings for longevity, medical coverage, ethics, school retention, grade inflation, academic standards – especially in math, English, and science, murder rates, incarceration rates, gun deaths, individual freedom, world respect for the country and not just the capitalism which appeals to people’s baser instincts, the expensive political system where the rich reign, their military being in over 100 countries, and their running about 50% of the world’s total military budget? Whose banking system is in better shape?

    Do we really want to be like them – so insecure and in need of constant chest-beating that they demand constant reassurance that their country, their achievements, and their values are extraordinary, even when untrue?

    It was disappointing for me to read that it took you so long to be “horrified” about our “disengagement” and showing up mainly for a pay cheque. You’re a bright woman but… where have you been for the last few years? Stuck in a journalist’s ivory tower with a good paycheck? Many of the manual jobs have been eliminated by robots but these jobs did offer people a sense of accomplishment, a visible end-product, a chance to socialise, and good pay cheques. The service industries – tend to suck money out of the economy – tend to offer lower-paying jobs, harried working conditions, unpredictable hours, and nothing in the form of a visible end-product. One can take only so much pleasure in the evanescence of the whipped-cream pattern on a cappuccino. Much of the time, these workers are serving wealthier customers and can’t, themselves, afford the very products being served in their place of work. So… we show up for the pay cheque to keep going.

    Your book is topical but cannot be extrapolated to the rest of society.

  5. Great interview. I agree with the author that there is something imbedded in our culture which inhibits us to perform more productively. I think we have a lack of strong leadership in Canada and one solution is to get more people aware of what’s happening around their environment and get more involved. I Haven’t read the book myself yet, but if it can get Canadians to become more entrepreneurial and innovative, even if incrementally, then that would be a help to our country :)

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