Amanda Lang on how to get ahead in business

Broadcaster says Canadians need to stop being so polite


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.