Conflicting Perspectives on Detroit

Out here at the combined annual meeting of Independent Sector and the Council of Michigan Foundations, I'm struck with the potential of Detroit to be reborn as the leaders in Wind energy and other green technologies that need to be designed by really smart people and then manufactured at scale.  Detroit's human capital has been solving problems like this for years.

We've really enjoyed our stay in Detroit.  We've ventured away from the Renaissance Center several times and been delighted by the art and culture of this city.  And now that we've been here, we know we will be cheering Detroit on as it works all the levers and switches to get back to greatness.  But just to put things in perspective, I want to share with you an article by Imaginatik advisor Rowan Gibson.  Rowan is the author of the Harvard Business School press book "Innovation to the Core," and a frequent speaker on innovation topics.  Here's some important thinking from Rowan about Detroit and innovation, that are a little tough to read, but worth the effort:

How Lack of Innovation Led to Detroit's Dismal Decline and Fall -- Rowan Gibson

In March 2008, British Airways discontinued its decades-old daily service between London Heathrow and Detroit.  Not exactly world-shattering news, you might think. But BA’s decision was quite significant. They made it because passenger numbers had dwindled so pathetically low that the flights were no longer profitable. This is just one of a whole kaleidoscope of symptoms that signal Motor City’s dismal decline.

...It seems the Big Three have taken an excessive, heavy-handed approach to almost everything they have touched over the last few decades. Including innovation. While Toyota, for example, took a careful, staged approach to building alternative powertrains (and scored big with its hybrid technology), GM famously blew billions of dollars on its massive but so far failed forays into electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles. In the late 1980s, Ford's top brass tried to push the company's engineers to be more innovative by setting up a high level "Committee for Creativity".  Yet rather than making the cultural environment more conducive to innovation, this initiative actually had the reverse effect. When engineers were brought in to report to the committee, they found that they were being judged, criticized, and ordered to work on their boss's pet projects. It became just another example of the massive hand of authority imposing itself and intimidating people. Instead of fostering or facilitating creativity, the committee was trying to command and control it. No wonder the structure was eventually scrapped.

For the full article click here.

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