Innovation drives society forward, but everyday competence keeps it on the road.

Over the past five years, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about the importance of disruptive innovation, but today I’d like to talk about the framework that allows disruptive innovation to be a net positive to society.

The coronavirus pandemic has some people looking for innovation and others for stability. However, examining how Japan and the rest of the world are getting though it shows us something very important about innovation. Something that is almost always overlooked.

Show Notes

  • Life in Tokyo during the pandemic
  • Why you don’t want to cough in Singapore
  • Why we probably can’t innovate our way out of this pandemic
  • The very real dark side of disruptive innovation
  • Why innovation depends on everyday competence

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Welcome to Disrupting Japan, straight talk from Japan’s most successful entrepreneurs.

I’m Tim Romero and thanks for joining me.

Things are not normal in Japan right now.

Japan is one of the countries that is being been hit the hardest by the coronavirus. And the rest of the world is watching Japan because it has a modern health-care system, an active response to the virus, and a government that can be trusted to release .. reasonably accurate information about infection and mortality rates.

How things play out for Japan over the next few months is quite likely how they will play out for the rest of the world over the next year.

So yeah, everybody is watching Japan; as they should be.

People are nervous in Japan, but things are calm and orderly. Of course, Japan tends to do calm and orderly really well. Public gatherings like graduations, business conferences, and sporting events have been canceled. As I record this, no decision has been made about the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, but it seems likely they’ll be postponed.

Two weeks ago Sunday, I was walking back home through nearly deserted streets around Ark Hills and saw a young couple doing their wedding photography in the atrium there. Masks nervously being taken off and put back on between shots. It’s got to be a frustrating time to have had a wedding scheduled.

On the business side, most large companies including Dentsu, Panasonic, Mitsubishi and of course Google as well, are either requiring or encouraging their employees to work from home. Which is good. Almost all business travel is canceled, and that’s for the best.

In fact, three weeks ago when I was returning to Japan from Singapore, I coughed while walking through the airport on the way to my gate. Not like a big, sick, hacking cough, but just like a, I mean I’m a human being, and sometimes we just cough, right?

A few seconds later, someone from security wearing a mask walked up to me with a heat sensor to take my temperature. He was very polite about the whole thing, and I was fine of course. It’s good to know that Singapore is taking things seriously, but FYI, don’t cough in the Singapore airport.

In terms of Disrupting Japan, well, I have not been scheduling interviews for the obvious reasons, and honestly, right now most founders are focused on coronavirus countermeasures. If the situation continues, I may try video-conference interviews again, or I may do more commentary episodes. The feedback I received on my last few was overwhelmingly positive, so maybe.

Today, however, I want to talk about the nature of innovation itself. You see, the coronavirus has the potential to teach us a valuable lesson about innovation. No, no. It’s not the one you think it is. It’s not the standard fare about innovation and ingenuity will get us through even humanity’s worst problems.

No, it’s something a bit less on-message. But it’s an insight that is for more important, and in a way, far more reassuring than the standard trope about innovating our way out of a bad situation.

Unfortunately, it’s also a lesson that I think all us innovators will completely forget the minute the coronavirus crisis has passed, and the world returns to normal.

Innovation Won’t Save Us

The thing is, innovation is almost certainly not what is going to get us through this pandemic.

Innovation is great. The ability to innovate and to widely pass on that learning is something uniquely human. We like to say that modern society is based on layers and layers of past innovation, but that is not quite correct. That leaves out something very important.

These days we talk about innovation in general, and disruptive innovation in particular far too casually. In fact, over the past 20 years, the word “disruption” has been diluted to the point where it is practically lost all meaning. We frequently hear people say things like “We are disrupting the Japanese gaming industry.” when they mean that “they are competing in the Japanese gaming industry” or “Their game is for sale in the Japanese app store.”

I’m not blameless here. The name of this podcast is “Disrupting Japan”, and I’ve had plenty of promising and interesting, but non-Disruptive startups on the show. But when I actually refer to a technology or a company as disruptive, I try to use the term in at least something like how Clayton Christensen originally defined it in The Innovator’s Dilemma.

We are enchanted with the idea of disruption, but disruption has a very real and painful dark side. People suffer. Companies and industries disappear. People lose their savings and their health. We tend to brush aside those negative aspects of disruption because over the long-term and on average, that economic disruption leads to a greater overall good. We gain more than we lose.

But it doesn’t have to work that way. It’s not an iron law.

Of course, our fascination with disruptive innovation is easy to understand. There’s drama. There is conflict. There are winners and losers. And when we are talking about technological disruption, the innovators are almost always the winners. And everyone loves to root for a winner.

But the thing is, the innovators are not the ones who are going to get us through this coronavirus crisis. Oh, some CEOs and politicians may get some credit when its all over, but innovation won’t be what gets us through. What gets us through is going to be everyday competence. It’s the doctors, nurses, schoolteachers, janitors, and millions of other people who have been doing the same job the same way for decades and doing it well.

They are the ones who will get us through the disruption caused by the virus, and as you’ll soon see, they are actually the ones who get us through disruptive innovation as well.

That might seem like a strange claim to make, particularly from an American where there is practically a cult of innovation.

The Purpose of Everyday Competence

While innovation is what drives us forward, everyday competence is what keeps us on the road. It’s the teachers and taxi-drivers, and maintenance workers, and mid-level managers, and health-inspectors, and waiters, and nurses who keep society functioning.

Everyday competence provides the stability and direction that allows disruptive innovation to utterly destroy an entire industry without damaging society as a whole.

We don’t tend to think about everyday competence much. The stability it provides is like air. It’s mostly invisible. You don’t think about it much. It’s just always there. Until it’s not, of course, then we start thinking about air a lot. Then we start to panic.

We can’t really help it. Our brains are hard-wired to seek out the new and to discount the familiar.

One of the most powerful ways we have of containing the spread of this virus is simply washing our hands a lot. But it’s hard to get people to do it, because when we hear this advice our brain’s reaction is “Yeah, I already know that.” and so many people discount the information. They don’t change their behavior because our instincts tell us that new problems require new solutions.

But our instincts are wrong.

And hey, maybe some pharama company will innovate to come up with a treatment that will reduce the symptoms or speed recovery. That would be great. They’ll make billions of dollars, and the international press would proclaim them heroes.

“Hero”. That’s another word that has lost almost all of its original meaning. Let’s face it, the people who are really getting us thought this pandemic, are the thousands of doctors and nurses working 70-hour weeks, the consumers who remain calm and don’t buy hordes of masks and toilet paper, and millions of school teachers who are getting the kids to wash their damn hands.

It’s not heroes or innovators. It’s just good people with everyday competence.

But our love for innovation, particularly in America, often leads us to overlook that.

Right now, President Trump is being, quite rightfully, criticized for his firing of the American pandemic response team back in 2018. After all, they were just sitting there, sucking up taxpayer money. They were not producing or innovating anything. Who needs everyday competence.

But this is not unique Trump. We all tend to elevate innovation and downplay everyday competence, but we Americans in particular practically fetishize innovation.

Actually, perhaps the best example of valuing innovation over competence came in 2018 when 12 Thai teenagers and their soccer coach became trapped in a cave. The rescue effort started with a small team of divers and eventually involved several thousand people trying to apply their individual decades of skill and experience to come up with the best way to rescue those boys.

But a frustratingly large percentage of the US media coverage focused on innovator (not just innovator, but billionaire innovator coming though! Step aside!) Elon Musk, elbowing his way into the spotlight to teach these so-called competent experts how things should really be done.

When he was politely told that while his efforts were appreciated, they would not be needed, Musk lashed out insulting the intelligence, morality, and even the sexuality of those who did not hail him as a hero or proclaim his innovation as the obvious solution to the problem these thick-skulled plodders were trying to solve. He was innovating for God’s sake. Why weren’t people appreciating that?

In the end, of course, all of the children were rescued, not by daring innovation or disruption, but by a team of people working together and using the skills they had. They were saved by everyday competence. In fact, two divers gave their own lives in order to save the lives of 12 boys they had never met. The word hero may have lost most of its original meaning and gravity, but I mean yeah, I think that qualifies.

In times of crisis, people don’t come running to the innovators for help, nor should they. What holds society together through crises like this, and through disruptive technological innovation is everyday competence.


One Lesson Innovators Need to Learn

We innovators tend to downplay everyday competence because that’s what we are disrupting right? Our whole identity as innovators is being the people who replace today’s everyday competence with something better and more efficient.

And that’s great. Innovation drives civilization forward, and everyday competence holds it together.

And let’s step back and take a hard, honest look at what we call innovation. Lets, for the sake of argument, say that San Francisco is the most innovative place on the planet.

What percentage of the population is doing anything that is actually innovative?

Not competent or creative mind you, but actually innovative. Be honest now. I think 1% would be a gross over-estimate. Maybe 0.5%. Probably less than 0.1%.

Most people in Silicon Vally, just like most people everywhere else, are not innovating, but operating with everyday competence, or in some cases exceptional competence. They are driving cabs, writing code, making sales calls, giving status reports, fixing plumbing, teaching kids, and just generally keeping society running. The companies and cities that always seem to be asking about how they can create more innovators, would be better off if they focused on empowering and connecting the innovators they already have.

And we innovators? Most of us should probably be a lot more thankful than we usually are. Because the truth is, we need them a lot more than they need us.

A society made of only of innovators, rule-breakers, and disruptors could not survive. It would fall into chaos immediately. But a society without innovators? There would not be a lot of progress, but society could be just fine.

There have been plenty of cultures that thrived without innovation. Many consider the Edo period to be the high-point of traditional Japanese culture, and that came about when Japan was closed to outsiders and all innovation pretty much stopped for hundreds of years.

Turns out people can get along just fine without us innovators.

Now, maybe someone will innovate a way out of this pandemic, but probably not. In all likelihood, this will be solved by competent people using existing tools that they already understand. Because in reality, that’s how most problems get solved.

I love innovation. It’s what I live and breathe. But now might be a good time for us innovators to reflect and acknowledge that disruptive innovation can only deliver value when there are a lot of competent people holding society together and repairing the damage caused by the disruption.

Innovators take bigger risks, and when those risks pay off, they receive oversized rewards. And that’s a good thing. Money and recognition motivate innovators, and for the system to work and for society to move forward there has to be winners and losers.

But that doesn’t mean that only the winners are important.

After decades of playing the innovation game, I’ve come to realize that the goal is not really to win the game.

The goal is to be able to keep playing.


If you want to talk more about innovation or competence, or just how you are doing during this pandemic, I would love to hear from you. So come by Disrupting and let’s talk about it. If you leave a comment I guarantee I’ll respond.

Hey, and if you like the show please leave a review you iTunes or Spotify or your favorite podcast platform. That’s one of the best ways you can support the show and help get the word out.

But most of all, thanks for listening, and thank you for letting people interested in Japanese startups an innovation know about the show.

I’m Tim Romero, and thank’s for listening to Disrupting Japan.