The ‘supercommittee’ and innovation in the shadow of the clock


U.S. Representative Mike Simpson (R-ID) wipes his brow during a press conference on, November 16, 2011. (JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS)
November 17, 2011

Braden Kelley is the author of Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire from John Wiley & Sons. He is an innovation speaker and trainer, and the editor of Innovation Excellence. Kelley advises companies on connecting with their customers and embedding innovation across the organization.

The clock is ticking on the congressional “supercommittee” – a panel comprised of 6 Republicans and 6 Democrats charged with issuing a plan to balance the nation’s budget. The bipartisan gathering has, as of the writing of this piece, only six days until their deadline to submit such a plan. But how well can they, or anyone, innovate while the clock is ticking?

Before looking to the “supercommittee’s” dilemma, let’s look back to the Bob Dole/Jack Kemp 1996 campaign, which posted the following on their Web site:

“America now has a national debt of more than $5 trillion dollars. That’s enough money to buy a new car for every man, woman, and child in the country. In other words, every baby born in America today starts off nearly $20,000 in debt.

Balancing the federal budget is essential, absolutely essential, to real and lasting economic growth. In 1995, the federal government paid over $230 billion in interest on the national debt. Today, nearly 40 cents of every dollar the federal government collects in personal income taxes goes to pay interest on the national debt. We now pay nearly as much in interest as we do for all law enforcement, education, environment, energy, transportation, agriculture, and technology programs combined. And every dollar spent on interest is a dollar that cannot be spent on making our streets safer, our environment cleaner, or our schools stronger.”

Fiscal catastrophe has been around the corner, on and off, for 15 years. In that period, Dole and President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, came together to produce a record-breaking $230 billion surplus. That was later depleted by actions undertaken by both sides, bringing us to the tense situation we have today.

So, before we answer the question of how to innovate under the clock, it’s important to establish how serious that clock really is.

Several factors indicate that it’s pretty serious. Our national debt has nearly tripled in the past 15 years to more than $15 trillion dollars. Now, Republicans and Democrats must work together again, like Dole and Clinton, to establish the future direction of the country and stabilize the economy before investors lose confidence, interest rates skyrocket and all discretionary spending is crowded out by interest and entitlements. Because of the giant deficit the federal government is running, the longer we wait, the harder the problem will be to solve.

What does this have to do with innovation?

As the profession of innovation management matures, we are learning a few key things, including that constraints can be a good thing — and the “supercommittee” clock is a big constraint. Given this, what is the best strategy when you need to innovate in a hurry?

When innovating under the gun, the first thing you must do is assemble a small, diverse team to own and attack the challenge. The “supercommittee” team is handicapped from the start, since it is neither small (think 4-5 people) nor diverse (neither in age nor expertise). Second, successful innovators envision what success looks like and pursue it single-mindedly – failure is not an option.

Innovators also divide big challenges into smaller challenges that a small team can feel passionate about and assault on an even shorter timeline than the overall challenge. This requires that you put as much (or more) effort into determining the questions that form the challenges as you do into trying to solve them. Innovators ask big questions that challenge the status quo, such as “How could we generate revenue without taxes?” or “What spending could we avoid and how?” or “How would my son or my grandmother approach this?”

To solve the challenges, successful innovators recruit people not only with expertise most relevant to the challenge, but also people with expertise in distant specialties, which, in innovation, is often where the best solutions come from.

But probably most importantly, all nine innovation roles — the revolutionary, the conscript, the connector, the artist, customer champion, troubleshooter, judge, magic maker and evangelist — must be filled for an innovation effort to be successful. I believe we have yet to see a revolutionary emerge, like Dole was in 1995, that is willing to risk his or her political future to do what is right for the country, or an evangelist like Newt Gingrich to step forward to rally support for the outcome. I also have trouble believing that the “supercommittee” can serve as the impartial, non-partisan judges that the country needs them to be. And, finally, we need a president who is willing to engage, like Clinton did – a customer champion, with the customer being the American people.

From what we’ve seen so far, it is doubtful the “supercommittee” will meet their deadline. This 12-person “team” is too big, lacks diversity, and seems to lack the courage to challenge the status quo in a way that will lead to innovative solutions. As a result, we are likely to see a lukewarm partial solution — an attempt to turn the hands on the clock and kick the can farther down an ever-shorter road.

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