One of my favourite pastimes since I arrived in San Francisco a few months ago is telling people I'm Canadian and waiting for their reaction. I never tire of the 'I went to Canada once' anecdotes, where misty-eyed Americans tell me about the great chocolate they ate in Saskatoon, or how taxi drivers from foreign countries presume I know more about the world than the average American ('Of course you've heard of Uzbekistan,' said a recent driver, 'you're Canadian!').
The jokes continued at a recent TechCrunch party in Menlo Park, Calif. hosted by a venture capital firm. "You Canadians think you are so special with your ironed on flags," chided a local lawyer. I responded with, "Well, we need to distinguish ourselves from the likes of you."
Another thing I enjoy is the sense of camaraderie here, from official Canadian organizations, such as the consulate, which invited me here under the Canadian Technology Accelerator program, to random Canadians who generously offer their contacts or time to help me feel at home. While their love of all things Canadian seems clear, underneath I keep encountering the same, worrying message: To innovate and thrive, don't go home. It seems Canada has an innovation problem, and – real or not – we need to tackle this perception.
A recent study reinforced this issue, showing that Canadians feel less able to contribute new and useful ideas in the workplace compared with their American counterparts. In the study, 64 per cent of American workers believe that leaders in their organization value the people and processes that create useful change, compared to only 58 per cent of Canadian workers. That gap widens for workers under 45, where 70 per cent of Americans agree with that statement in contrast to only 58 per cent of Canadians. Women in Canada were even less likely to think that leaders value people emphasizing change.
Doug Meredith, president of consulting firm Meredith Page and Associates, which published the study, warns there is a leadership issue in Canada where workers feel less encouraged to be creative on the job, which is stymying innovation.
"Innovation can occur anywhere; everyone has the capacity to be creative. A key challenge is to create innovative organizational cultures and ensure that people have the training, the tools and the encouragement," said Mr. Meredith.
In addition to his company's research, Mr. Meredith referred to a World Economic Forum report that showed Canada slipped from the 12th most innovative country in 2010 to the 25th in 2014. The U.S. ranks 6th.
"Clearly, Canadian employers need to do a better job of listening to creative and innovative ideas from their base of younger employees. This might help to explain why 350,000 Canadians are working in the Silicon Valley," he added.
Don Gillis, who runs Montreal-based IT consultancy, ZapWerx, which provides cloud and mobile collaboration systems to mid-sized companies said small, creative companies struggle in Canada.
"There are many small innovative companies in Canada, but they often have to seek markets for their products elsewhere – at least until very well established," he said. On the flipside, larger Canadian companies, he said, tend to be late adopters of new technologies, perceiving that their risks are not worth the rewards.
In his experience at ZapWerx, Mr. Gillis found three themes that differentiated U.S. companies from Canadian ones. Canadians companies, he said, seem less inclined to believe they would benefit from outside, technical expertise and are often less willing to collaborate across internal, organizational boundaries. "Often more effort is put into siloing information than into sharing it. This can lead to poor customer experiences. Unfortunately, this can also lead to less cross-discipline understanding by new leaders," Mr. Gillis said.
Lastly, the sense of urgency he sees in American companies gives them a competitive edge, leading small Canadian vendors like his firm to seek American and overseas customers more willing to adopt their services.
But it's not all bad news. David Ciccarelli, chief executive officer of Voices.com, an online marketplace that connects businesses with professional voice actors headquartered in London, Ont. cautions against these wide sweeping generalizations.
"This is a topic that should be considered on an industry-by-industry basis," stated Mr. Ciccarelli. "Sure, it's easy to point to Silicon Valley as a hub of Internet technology, but innovation goes far beyond hardware and software."
Regardless of whether you believe Canada is really behind in innovation, the fact that this conversation is even happening should worry us more than a little bit. If the future hinges on successful innovation, Canada has some remedial work to do in its relationship to risk, creativity and innovation.
Getting corporate leaders to really buy into the value of innovation would be a good start. This way, when Canadian entrepreneurs look abroad for growth, they can advertise our innovative culture. Let's wear it like a badge, but one that means more than friendly faces, universal health care and Tim Hortons' coffee.
Leah Eichler is founder and CEO of r/ally, a mobile collaboration platform for enterprises. Twitter: @LeahEichler