National Performance Review
I was asked to talk about innovations in construction. Innovation is difficult. Joel Barker says, “Your successful past can block your vision of the future.” Let me try and give you some advice, not because I know about construction but because I have this reputation as an innovator.
My reputation as an innovator comes from following three principles. The first is freedom. Give the people who are doing the work freedom. Ronald Reagan inspired me in my last job when he said, “Freedom and incentives unleash the drive and entrepreneurial genius that are the core of human progress.” The people doing the work need freedom, and leaders have to get the rules and standard operating procedures out of their way. Tom Peters, when challenged with the need for consistency, says, “What we need is a relentless pursuit of inconsistency.”
The second principle, after freedom, is observation. This one is not hard. Yogi Berra said, “You can observe a lot just by watching. Just watch what others are doing.” History's most creative people have. August Rodin said, “I invent nothing. I rediscover.” Franklin Jones said, “Originality is the art of concealing your sources.” Goethe said, “Everything has been thought of before. The trick is to think of it again.” And, of course, this all goes back to the Bible, Ecclesiastes: “There is nothing new under the sun.” My favorite description of the observation issue came from an army general I admired named John Stanford, who talked about the three kinds of innovations. He said there are “ things that are invented here, things that are not invented here but are useful, and things that are stolen but improved here.”
After freedom and observation, the third principle for innovation is encouragement. You have to encourage people to try their ideas. I had a man working for me at the Pentagon who was full of ideas. I was never sure whether his ideas were any good or not, and they always made me kind of nervous until one day a friend advised me how to deal with him. He said,
“Whenever he comes up with something, just pat him on the back and say, 'Great idea, Pete. Go to it.' ” I started to do this. That was the genesis of the Commander-in-Chief 's Award for Installation Excellence and the Model Installation Program, two innovations that I didn't think of. The main credit I deserve is for patting somebody on the back who did. Encourage people. Don 't let “it won't work” strangle innovation in the womb. Those are my three principles for fostering innovation: freedom, observation, and encouragement. Innovation inevitably leads to mistakes. If you don't get mistakes, you're not trying hard enough. Mistakes will happen.
One of the things the vice president is fond of talking about is this little coupon handed out by the commissioner of reclamation. It is a forgiveness coupon, and it says on it, “Forgiveness Coupon. It is easier to get forgiveness than permission. Offer expires December 31, 1995.” He has given each of his managers two of these coupons and told them that part of their job is to mess up at least twice by the end of the year. Now, some of them will try a few things before they mess up twice. Some of them won't have to try so many. But he recognizes that you need to not only tolerate mistakes, but if you don't have mistakes, you won't have innovation.
Finally, just let me recommend that whatever mistakes you make or you allow, just see that it leaves the building standing. If it does, you can then follow the advice of Frank Lloyd Wright who said, “ A doctor has to bury his mistakes, but an architect can always advise his client to plant vines.”
ABOUT THE SPEAKER
John W. Fisher has been a professor of civil engineering at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, since 1969. He was named to the Joseph T. Stuart Chair in Civil Engineering at Lehigh in July 1988 and has been Director of the National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center on Advanced Technology for Large Structural Systems (ATLSS) since its establishment in May 1986. The center acts as the national focal point for scientific research and as an agent for innovative change needed to advance technology developments that will dominate large structural systems in the construction industry in the twenty-first century. In 1986 he was elected a member of the National Academy of Engineering. Dr. Fisher received the Construction-Man-of-the-Year Award from the Engineering News Record in 1987, the first member of the academic community to receive this award. In 1989 he was elected an Honorary Member of the American Society of Civil Engineers, a Corresponding Member of the Swiss Academy of Engineering Sciences, and the Institute of Bridge Integrity and Safety's Engineer of the Year. In 1992 he was awarded the Frank P. Brown medal by the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. Dr. Fisher received his B.S. in civil engineering from Washington University in 1956 and his M.S. and Ph.D. degrees from Lehigh University. In 1988, he received an honorary doctorate degree from the Swiss Federal Institute in Lausanne, Switzerland.