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Harnessing the power of Why

Young children have a sometimes irritating urge to ask, “Why?” This inquisitiveness usually disappears as they grow up — and our economy is poorer for it.

Amanda Lang, CBC’s senior business correspondent, offered this analysis to a Red Deer audience on Tuesday. Speaking at Farm Credit Canada’s annual forum in the city, Lang said innovation as one of the keys to increasing productivity.

“And productivity has been going down for decades in this country.”

That, she said, is eroding our wealth and condemning our children to a lower standard of living than we enjoy.

Lang, who co-hosts The Lang & O’Leary Exchange on CBC-TV with celebrity entrepreneur/investor Kevin O’Leary, recently published a book called The Power of Why. It delves into the issue of innovation and why Canada is struggling in this regard.

Despite being one of the world’s most connected nations when it comes to information sharing, and having a highly educated and technically advanced population, Canada hasn’t been able to keep pace with its rivals when it comes to innovation, she said.

The problem begins early in life. Children’s natural curiosity is stifled by impatient parents and then by a formulaic school system that discourages searching for anything but the one right answer.

Workplaces are also not why-friendly, said Lang. Most favour the status quo and seek only to become more efficient at what they’re already successful at.

She described a conversation she had with a former chief operating officer of Canada’s Research In Motion, who acknowledged that RIM became so focused on its successful BlackBerry products that it failed to evolve with the market.

Many of us are also guilty of having a “status quo bias” when it comes to our personal lives, said Lang.

“We do things the same way, we don’t take risks we don’t leave ourselves open to change.”

The best way to foster innovation is to become engaged in and happy about what you do, she said. Studies indicate that about 14 per cent of employees are connected to their jobs and want to be there, 62 per cent are there only for the paycheque, and 24 per cent are disengaged, and a drag on the rest.

Money will buy employees’ obedience, diligence and intellect, observed Lang. But their passion, creativity and initiative only comes when they’re engaged in their jobs, and it’s those latter three ingredients that really brings value.

“The curiosity that sparks innovation, the curiosity that can change things, really only comes once we’re engaged. It’s not going to come if you’re drifting, either at work or in your personal life.”

Everyone has the capacity to be innovative, said Lang. Most people aren’t because they won’t give themselves permission to take that leap.

“The fear of failure is imbedded in us,” she said, offering examples of how Canadian children are sheltered from failure in school and sports, and as a result don’t know how to accept failure later in life.

Lang also commented that many companies claim to embrace employee innovation, but actually discourage such initiative — either through subtle or overt roadblocks, or by failing to act on ideas.

“The most toxic thing you can do to somebody is say, ‘Bring me your ides,’ and then ignore them.”



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