Amanda Lang discusses the power of why with Peter Mansbridge

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First aired on Mansbridge One on One (9/10/12)


Amanda Lang loves to ask the question "why?" This question led to innovations, both big and small, that make our lives better, including FedEx, curved shower curtains, table saw safety, and "control-alt-delete". It also propelled Lang to find the stories behind her favourite innovations and ask how -- and why -- they came to be. The result is Lang's new book, The Power of Why.

Initially, Amanda wasn't planning to write about innovation. She was planning to write about productivity. "Nobody would let me write about productivity because it's too boring," she told Peter Mansbridge in a recent interview. Canada has a productivity problem. Our productivity levels are below other developed countries and even though "it's the most important economic problem we face," Lang said, "nobody wants to read about it." So Lang tried to figure out another way to approach the productivity problem facing Canada and what can be done about. That's when she stumbled on innovation. "Innovation is the answer."

Innovation is the desire to solve problems and to make businesses better. But it's too often thought of in concrete terms, like "objects, research and development, a new product, [and] improving a product." This leads to inventions and developments that makes our lives better, but innovation is more than that. It's also about ideas. Included in The Power of Why is the Four Seasons hotel chain, which stays ahead through their explemary customer service, and Canadian Tire, which got ahead by figuring out what their male customers wanted -- then offering it. Innovation "is a willingness to keep pushing forward."

Lang believes everyone is an innovator. They just need to be invested in the problem. Why? "You were once two," Lang explained, "and when you were two you couldn't keep yourself from being curious. you asked why." lang believes our workforce needs to tap into that curiosity again to increase productivity. Exploration and questioning needs to be encouraged at all levels of development, from the inquisitive two-year-old to the top CEOs in this country, and a focus needs to shift away from measuring success to experiencing it.

In both education and business "the minute you measure something, that's what they are going to work towards," Lang said. "As soon as you make something important by measuring it, thats what people are going to be focused on." By abandoning measurements and encouraging connection and creativity, workers will become more invested in their jobs -- and in turn. fuel more innovation. Lang saw this again and again in her research, from the dishwasher at the Four Seasons to the student server at McDonald's: people who felt valued and responsible at their work, no matter what the level, were invested in their performance and in making the entire company better. Invested employees are innovative employees and innovative employees are happy employees. That, Lang discovered, was the key. "What the end product really is is personal happiness. It connects to to what you are doing in a new way."

Most of the innovators Lang spoke to were people just like that. They weren't award-winning scientists or Rhodes Scholars or Mensa members. They were everyday people who felt empowered to solve the problems they saw in front of them. Lang hopes this is the message readers will get from The Power of Why: that we all have the power to ask questions, to solve problems and to innovate. We just need to want to.

"Most of us could do less sleepwalking, less passive behaviour and more connection, more searching and probing," she said. "It feels good. It is the way to be happy."

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