By ROSABETH MOSS KANTER
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
Consumer confidence has fallen. The Dow has hit a five-month low, the NASDAQ a six-month low. IBM's weak earnings are a sign that the tech sector (and business spending) hasn't fully recovered from the downturn. American job creation continues to be anemic, while India can't find talent fast enough.
With the economy in the doldrums, innovation should be high on everyone's agenda. Fresh ideas are the lifeblood of entrepreneurs whose businesses bring new jobs. Innovation is America's strength in global competition -- not the lowest-cost nation but the one with the best and latest innovations.
Today's business leaders crave innovation. But some of them worry that America is headed for a shortage of thinkers who dream up fresh ideas. The culprit is no longer just the public schools; it is the increasing war between science and religion.
The same week that Silicon Valley executives from the nation's innovation capital asked me if America has lost confidence, the most popular national television program was a religious drama about the end of the world. Last week also brought a New York Times editorial accusing Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of pursuing a "religious war" over federal judge selections, by portraying Democrats who block the president's nominees as "against people of faith."
Pushing orthodoxy over inquiry is anti-innovation.
Innovation is essential to secure the future of our economy. This involves more than technology (wireless communications, medical devices, hybrid cars) but also includes creativity in the public realm.
Here's one example of how innovation can provide a breakthrough solution -- but only by challenging orthodoxy. My friend Cindy Laba has received wide acclaim for a new concept with national promise: a school that offers an extra 15 months of education between eighth and ninth grades, to help low-income public school students compete for entry to elite private and public high schools. Beacon Academy will enroll its first batch of students in July, with the approval of the Boston School Committee.
Beacon Academy challenges taken-for-granted educational assumptions. In conventional wisdom, spending an extra year in school is a punishment for failure to make the grade. In the Beacon Academy vision, spending an extra year in school is a reward for demonstrating high potential, an investment in the students with the greatest potential, and an opportunity for them to transform their lives. In conventional wisdom, if urban kids plan to leave the public schools, they are potential drop-outs. In the Beacon Academy vision, if urban kids plan to leave the public schools, they might be heading for something even better.
I call the mind-set required for innovation "kaleidoscope thinking." Kaleidoscopes work the way our brains do when we dream, or when we have creative breakthroughs. A kaleidoscope is a device for making patterns. If you shake it, twist it, change angle or change perspective, the same fragments form an entirely different pattern. Often it's not reality that's fixed; it's our perspective on reality. Minds can become closed to even modest changes if rituals and rules require only one correct pattern.
Kaleidoscope thinking is essential for innovation. Innovators question the status quo. They imagine how things could be, rather than feeling stuck with today's options. Every new idea starts out as someone's silly thought -- silly only because previously unthinkable. I picture people in Kitty Hawk, N.C., a century ago, taunting the Wright Brothers that their idea will never fly.
It's one thing to be skeptical of new ideas. It's another to forbid people to think them in the first place. That's my fear -- that our kaleidoscopic brains will get locked into one set of "correct" beliefs, stifling innovation.
The tension is not between religion and science per se. Both can contain rigid assumptions, and both can support the search for insight. The real tension is between orthodoxy and creativity.
I don't know if faith can move mountains, but I do know that imagination can move economies. I hope that politicians drop holier-than-thou posturing and encourage more kaleidoscopic thinkers to build businesses and solve America's problems.
X Moss Kanter is a Harvard Business School professor and author of "Confidence." She wrote this for the Miami Herald. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune.