Will Company Conformist Cultures Limit the Impending Supercycle of Innovation?

In the 1930’s when the world was in a great depression, innovation creation excelled in the form or jet engines, televisions, synthetic materials, and even early computers. John Michaelson’s goes on in his Wall Street Journal article, “Prepare for a New Supercycle of Innovation”, to document how historically economic downturns are followed by intense periods of industrial growth led by inventions and increased productivity. This can only occur in corporate cultures that question the status quo, encouraging outside-the-box thinking. But are we encouraging this non-conformist attitude?

Francesca Gino of the Harvard Business School notes that “across industries and jobs, employees are feeling pressured to follow established norms and practices in their own organizations. They tell of being frustrated by the lack of opportunities to speak their minds, to be the best versions of themselves, to bring their ideas to the table or suggest ideas for changing the status quo for the better.”  Are companies truly encouraging a culture of conformity, thus stifling a culture of advancement and invention needed for a strong post-recession super-cycle of innovation?

Michigan Technological University graduates over 80% of its students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) related fields, a majority being in engineering disciplines. Eager to take their newly acquired knowledge for a test-drive, many engage in co-op’s or internships before graduation, starting as early as the summer after their freshmen year. So are they experiencing this conformist atmosphere during these corporate experiences?

A young Mechanical Engineering student who worked spring semester at Polaris was tasked with realigning instructions and illustrations being used in their productions processes with the goal of improving quality and efficiencies of the processes. He found that “quick thinking and innovative approaches from my side ensured he could find solutions” that were vetted, endorsed, and then implemented by his supervisors.

Another Mechanical Engineering student worked at Expera Specialty Solutions. He was tasked with reviewing their chemical delivery system used for their specialty paper orders and discover what was causing defects in their customized orders. The culture encourages innovation and understands that trial-and-error is accompanied by mistakes which he addressed in his comments “although I know I have made mistakes along the way, everyone easily dismisses the mistakes and focuses on what you have done to resolve the problem.”

Finally, a Chemical Engineering student was assigned to a team at Bemis that is developing a food-packaging product with high barrier properties. This innovation would be used to keep certain chemicals, flavors, and nutrients inside a package, opening up vast new markets for the company. She was encouraged to communicate her ideas, no matter how far outside-the-box which were welcomed and considered by all on the team. She did realize that “there is monotonous work that comes along with the job, but it needs to be completed in order to get to the exciting innovative tasks.”

Michaelson’s is predicting an upcoming Supercycle of Innovation, while Gino’s observations indicated an existing corporate culture of conformation will stifle this creative cycle. I argue that cultures of non-conformity still exist in companies like Polaris, Expera, and Bemis. If indeed this culture of conformity exists, it is not comprehensive. It is also possible that STEM focused graduates are being hired in greater numbers into these non-conformist cultures, for they have the tools to make innovation occur. The number of STEM graduates could be the ultimate limiting factor on the degree of economic success associated with the coming Supercycle of Innovation!