Economists Thomas Friedman was on CNBC today explaining that innovation was needed to fuel the fires of the Economy and not the bail outs. He argues that Steve jobs should come to Detroit and the ICar will be designed and ready in a week. This was of course I hope tongue and cheek. I semi agree with him that of course innovation is needed but we also have to worry about the short term as well as the long. Innovation should have been a priority at the ailing car companies, and they clearly went for the brass ring with pumping more gas guzzling SUV’s on the market rather than looking for the Diamond in the rough with energy saving vehicles. But innovation just doesn’t happen, no matter how much money you pump into something it’s not going to magically spring out ideas.
If you want a good example of that case just look at who Friedman is holding up as the savior of the car industry, Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs is a one of kind leader that sparks imagination and wonder out of his employees, he did at Apple, later at Pixar, and then again at Apple. Now look at his major competition, the behemoth known as Microsoft. Microsoft is not known as being an innovative company. Their mantra has always been taking an existing product and make it better and more user friendly. Although I think they have several innovations that they do not receive credit for, this is what they are good at. They have a much larger R&D budget but yet Apple still beats them to the punch every time with a shiny new product that becomes the new cool thing to have. Apple’s hallmark is innovation and that comes from your business culture and not spending. This is the reason why Steve Jobs would do horribly in the automotive industry.
Computers and the entertainment industries allowed Steve to go wild with his imagination and go from paper to product in a fairly short amount of time, no matter how far out there the idea was. The car industry is a totally different kind of animal. Innovation takes decades within the automobile industry. There is serious government regulation to deal with, not to mention environmental concerns as well as physics and a host of other obstacles. Just like Michael Jordan’s failures when it came to baseball Steve would be in an industry that he is not comfortable with and doesn’t allow him to best make use of his abilities. What Detroit really needs is the Steve Job’s of automobiles not Steve Jobs himself. We need superstars like in the days of Lee Iacocca who had his problems as well but helped bring Detroit to some of their best years.
This problem is not going to go away and what we need in the future is to make sure that we can find the next Steve Job’s no matter where he might be. Malcolm Gladwell argues that opportunity cost as well as talent goes into whether someone becomes successful or not. He cites as an example Bill Gates living next to Washington University so he could get thousands of hours of practice time on the computer where during that era others couldn’t. We have to make sure that opportunity cost are well lowered for this next generation coming up. We need to make sure that from the tenements of Harlem to the corn fields of Iowa that we are able to find the next Steve Job’s no matter what the industry is and allow them to have the educational tools needed to succeed.