Tweet Line: Without transforming leaders and redesigning internal approaches, an organisation cannot profit from innovation.
On the glistering waters of Inle lake, surrounded by scenic mountains, our boats sped across the vast water body with the roar of diesel engines. We were spending a few days in Inle as part of a 3-month research project across Myanmar for a hospitality group. Like other places we have visited, there is always something to discover.
Our boats soon slowed to a halt and we stopped at a long house where we saw something extraordinary. A woman had cut the stem of a lotus plant and pulling them apart, fine threads appeared. From these threads, the women – known as lotus weavers – would go on to create beautiful clothes and accessories. If you thought this was interesting, wait for the story.
About a century ago, a woman named Paw Sar Ou wanted to present a special robe to the Abbott at the Buddhist temple where she prayed. In her desire to do something special, she discovered this process of obtaining threads from a lotus plant, a revered symbol of Buddhism. From that first robe, a whole new industry rose and the humble lotus plant is no longer just a symbol but a source of livelihood for the people of Inle.
The story of Paw Sar Ou is one that we are familiar with in our work, to understand why some Asian companies succeed in innovation while others fail miserably.
Our conclusion: Companies succeed in innovation not simply because of a new idea or because they thought differently. The companies who are best able to harness their strengths, make decisions from a relational point of view tend to succeed better at innovation. We call this, the inside-out approach.
There are three key aspects in this approach:
First, identify a meaningful purpose, then build an organisational model that enables unity. Finally the ability to express ideas through meaningful experiences is essential to close the deal with the customer. This approach then sets up the right conditions for innovation to thrive so as to create advantageous outcomes. Here are its 10 rules.
1) Know Thyself
Many organisations are fixated about their competitors but know little about their internal strengths. Whenever we conduct strategic reviews, we found that organisations who evaluate their own capacities often and are clear about their weaknesses, tend to be better positioned to profit from innovation. This is because they know exactly how to deploy the right talent and resources to go at the problem, giving them a higher probability for success.
2) Turn Jungles into Gardens
Many cultures are left to evolve like jungles, with no plans or purpose. It may surprise some but many organisations rely on template approaches and materials with no attempt to customise them to shape a unique culture. Template frameworks are used for human resource, for core values and few are even interested to put those into practice. Many companies have organisational charts that do not reflect actual power centres or emerging creative clusters that are thriving in their midst. In summary, most are not designed for collaboration. We found that when leaders bother to tend to their cultures like a gardener, spend time to identify those who are influential and deploy talents accordingly, it will have the most impact on innovation.
3) Believe in a Cause
Paw Sar Ou was inspired by a purpose she believed in. So many companies have vision and mission statements and assume that staff will simply believe in them. Unfortunately, most staff are either cynical or find few reasons to subscribe to those statements. So if you want innovation, then you need to invest time to share your convictions, shake your team up and push them to take sides. Because if you don’t, then you deserve the rubbish that you are getting because you have been peddling gibberish.
4) Uncertainty is Bliss
In every electoral cycle, the buzzword is change. And when authors try to sell you business books, they say disruption. But in every age, as different conditions emerge, change and disruption are always with us. So if people are really keen about innovation then they need to embrace uncertainty. But too many organisations behave as if the world operates according to the weatherman, predictable. We found that when leaders are taught to appreciate and enjoy the challenge of constant change, then they are better positioned to help others see with new eyes even in difficult moments.
5) The Humility Factor
Many Asian organisations talk about humility but few practice it. The humility to acknowledge that ideas can come from anyone, to accept that we need to constantly reassess our state in the world is critical. This is perhaps the hardest thing to implement in most organisations. And yet the lack of it, is the reason why so many people, who probably know the answer to solving a problem no longer speak up. The traditional notion that the boss or the senior knows best still prevail in our boardrooms, becoming a barrier for quality discussion. Therefore it is common to hear this during strategic workshops: “We have known this all along but no one took action.” So companies should seriously consider ways to redesign practices to make space for humility.
6) Mean it
If organisations want their staff to care then they have to show that they mean it. Too many symbols, statements and strategic plans are being adopted without any follow-up to show that management is committed to putting them into practice. This affects credibility and diminishes the goodwill between management and staff. Some CEOs ask, why is it so hard to keep good people these days. My reply often is, why should they care if they don’t know what you care about. So if the strategy, the new logo, product or rituals matter then show that you care. Make an effort to participate and get involved.
7) Relational Design
Too often, people think that design serves no purpose other than make things appear nicer. But the definition of nice or beauty is relative. In certain parts of Asia, if you have fairer skin, you are considered beautiful but in the West you might be seen as unfit. Having people within the organisation who understand the role of design is so important today. Companies need to have leaders/designers who understand the role of design in their industry before working with external designers. This is the key to designing experiences which will be relevant and transform the value of the company.
8) Many Ways of Seeing
Traditional silos are increasingly irrelevant because the challenges have grown in complexity. So companies need to be able to look at issues from different perspectives before they miss the wood for the trees. Teams will need go beyond their own departments of marketing, sales, product and work together in order to develop wholesome solutions. Many times in our effort to redesign user-experiences, the biggest challenge is getting people to see the value of working as one and to sustain that effort after we leave.
9) The Will to Win
Many organisations give up on innovation after a while citing failures. After investigating further, we found that many organisations gave up too easily or expected instant results. But break-throughs in innovation do not happen everyday, and it requires leadership and sustained commitment. So even if there are many companies who might be working on the same idea, perseverance is often the decisive factor.
10) Weave it together
Ultimately, a company might be able to produce a great product but without a great user-experience, still it won’t sell. Many thinkers tout the importance of big ideas and creativity, but this is actually the easy part. The more difficult thing is, how to design a whole new system to profit from a creative idea. From decision-making, to dealing with suppliers, realigning internal staff, educating customers, all these have to come together as one seamless and coordinated experience. This is perhaps the biggest dilemma facing innovators, dealing with the hard and mundane process of making it all work in a coordinated fashion.
These thoughts will be further elaborated in my upcoming book.