Are Data-Driven, Lean Approaches Impeding American Innovation?

Political leaders and captains of industry in the U.S. like to paint America as a land of opportunity based on a simple premise: work hard, be somewhat ingenious, and you will have the chance to do well. Easy as all-American pie. Of course, things are more complicated in practice, but the straightforwardness of this simple message points to a penchant for individualism that underlies many aspects of our society, and which evolved into its present state far more recently than many Americans suspect. At its best, the cultivation of this quality entails a sense of responsibility and self-awareness that are not as natural to many other cultures. At its worst, putting the individual above all else has resulted in forms of self-interest—and a misguided belief that any policies helping those faced with challenges we do not share verge on socialism—that go against many of the founding fathers’ reasoned principles. The second facet of this phenomenon is a relatively new interpretation of American values that may in fact have been encouraged by a form of active engagement that has had unforeseen consequences.

Part of what has made America one of the most innovative nations in the past century has been an ability to take concepts further than elsewhere (and sometimes precisely born elsewhere but turned into innovations in the U.S.), which has required not only deep knowledge but also a unique form of persistence and optimism. There exists a decidedly American mentality of rolling with the punches and—where other cultures might be more accepting of the realities facing them or funnel them into different types of output—picking oneself up no matter what the failure, and trying again. (In some instances, this is of course nothing more than a foolish inability to acknowledge an idea is bad, but in the cases where the basic components of a concept are in fact meritorious, such persistence can yield great results.) The so-called “new” entrepreneurial spirit of recent decades is defined by features that are a continuation of this longstanding tradition. Such a mindset is something we should continue to value, yet it is also at risk precisely because of its success.

Data-driven companies have been heralded and emulated in recent years by companies and organizations of all types. The near-universal admiration of executives for companies like Google and Amazon (whose successes and revenues are certainly impressive) has resulted in a desire to be just like them, while failing to realize that one size does not fit all. The Red Cross should not necessarily operate like Google, nor should your local pizza restaurant run its business like Amazon. Nevertheless, this is what is happening across many industries. As for the favoring of quantitative over qualitative metrics, the very entrepreneurs who first came up with many of the now-standard concepts underlying use of big data in enterprise have come to the realization that it is smarter to be data-informed than completely data-driven. This is to say, relying exclusively on numbers and statistics creates a false sense of certainty that is dangerous in the long term.

The mindset of quick adjustments based on data from the last thirty seconds is nimble in some cases, but obfuscates the bigger picture in others. Similarly, activity—you might call it hyperactivity—has come to be valued above all else in other facets of society, leading us to forsake important considerations as a result. Almost as a measure of self-protection, we have gradually extricated all passivity from our worldview. For example, in schools and universities, we see flipped classroom models putting constant interactivity at the center of the learning experience. The approach works well for many learning activities, but has sometimes resulted in undervaluing qualitative reflection and in-depth consideration, two hallmarks of great thought.

This is accompanied by a growing emphasis on results over thought processes, which in turn endorses shortcuts (whether explicitly or implicitly) and might well be one of the root causes of that new form of extreme individualism. In business, fast-paced pitches focused on gains and solving immediate issues are increasingly replacing procedures that require greater knowledge and reflection. As a result, leaders are increasingly failing to take  into account a bird’s-eye view and consider long-term factors. The development process has in many cases become a frenzied series of iterations that can be effective in the right setting, but all too frequently mask flaws in fundamental premises when implemented outside of contexts such as the prototyping phase of a startup company.

Just as American fast food eventually led to a “slow food” movement that attempted to recapture the best of what had been lost, and eventually resulted in a middle ground of quickly-prepared foods using high-quality ingredients and valuing such principles as local sourcing, so too will over-reliance on data-based decisions or the favoring of constant activity and instant turnaround likely be tempered in the years to come. When this shift happens, perhaps it will be accompanied by a realization that American individualism as it is too narrowly defined today is in fact a much broader notion that includes a deep sense of responsibility towards one’s fellow human beings.

Image: class exercise response by a six-year-old boy / irishchck14