From our experience with different Asian organizations, many people talk innovation but few would dare to risk it all to pursue it to the end. That is why the challenge is not in the ideas but how to make innovation work. For seasoned innovators, the journey to innovation success is akin to a journey undertaken by the character Frodo in the epic tale, Lord of the Rings; filled with uncertainty, sustained only by faith in the impossible and the support of a few to achieve success.
Just like the characters in the story, people who pursue innovation for the wrong reasons will end up being crushed by it. While those who are truly inspired by a meaningful purpose must be prepared to pay the price. Perhaps you are about to undertake a long journey towards creating a new product or service, do you have the two critical perspectives in order to reach the ‘Mordor’ of our times so as to cast your ‘ring’ to bring down the market leader and change the world:
1st Perspective: The necessity of purpose in the journey of Innovation.
Many companies in Asia embark on innovation with an emphasis on quantity without discerning deeper about the development of society or about the potential transformative role of their products and services. This then leads to more evolutionary type of innovation rather than taking the risks and achieving breakthroughs. This quantity approach is the result of the need to rush innovation in terms of volume so as not to lose out. It is very common to find Asian companies touting their various tracks of development instead of emphasising on the insights that they have learned about a particular trend. This is why in terms of the significant trends that are affecting our times, from data, design to devices, few in Asia has yet to offer an insightful view of the future. No matter how many ideas that Asia seems to suggest, they will be of low quality if our region does not develop deep and penetrative insights to lay claim to lead the future. Here are three aspects, you need to ask before you embark on a journey of quality innovation:
1) Purpose: The important question to ask is, what are you fighting for? We have found that when employees are clear about what they are fighting for, they will be forced to focus as they understand that the stakes are high. Samsung’s rise as a technological powerhouse is because they recognised that they could no longer have many mediocre ideas; they had to give it their all or forever remain second to Japanese and Western companies. Today, even Apple has to rely on Samsung for some of the advanced technologies in memory chips and screens.
2) Consequence: It is important to clearly consider the consequences of innovation and to identify the stakes. An innovation programme without clear stakes in terms of what does it mean for the industry makes it hard for employees to value the business at hand. President John F Kennedy laid out the stakes when he declared that the United States must prevail in the space race or the implications will be unthinkable if the US cede that leadership to the Soviet Union. That renewed the resolve of everyone involved and when the US placed the first man on the moon, this was because everyone understood what was at stake if they were to fail.
3) Team: When you are clear about your goals, it is important to get the best talent possible. Many Asian companies are not as aggressive as their western counterparts in pursuing talent and this limits their ability to compete. But the few Asian companies who do understand this are moving fast, the recent example of Chinese mobile phone maker Xiaomi in recruiting Hugo Barra from Google is a positive sign in this direction. Deng Xiaoping once said, “Don’t bother about whether the cat is white or black, so long as it catches mice, it is a good cat.” This certainly is a good rule to take note in terms of acquiring the best talent in the world to create disruptive innovation.
2nd Perspective: The Art of Staying Focused
Asian companies tend to like to accumulate innovation projects and after a while, it starts to get rather distracting. Though it is good to provide a report that the company is pursuing different tracks; soon it gets ‘noisy’ and the teams get confusing signals on priorities. In fact what should happen is, there should be a very clear relationship among the different projects that are being developed. And as these projects emerge, what does it mean for the evolution of the company’s business model? If you are not achieving clarity as you innovate, most probably it will not add a real difference in enhancing the company’s competitive advantage. Here are three ways to clarify and stay the course on innovation:
1) Clarity of Purpose: As the innovation programme move on, there will be many temptations to change course. This happens either when no success has been found or when some initial successes have emerged but in other aspects of the business rather than the core subject of innovation. We have seen many companies waver mid-way when actually they are on the path of achieving breakthrough. Therefore, it is important to have an annual strategic review, with an emphasis on the goal of the programme and how the programmes reflect this rather than take on a life of their own. When the current CEO of IBM, Virginia M Rometty took over from Samuel J Palmisano, she emphasised continuity because she was very much part of the transformation programme that has seen IBM emerge as a strong player in consulting and data solutions. From here, you can certaintly see how far they saw in terms of their transformation programme to turn IBM into a force to be reckoned with for advanced consulting.
2) Clearing clutter: Another important thing to do as the innovation programme evoke is the ability to cut unnecessary activities so as to remain on track. This is not easy to do and is a clear sign of strong leadership when CEOs are willing to cut so as to achieve better outcomes. Steve Jobs is often touted as the innovator of our times but he often cut programmes if he did not think Apple could make a difference. During an interview on the need to stay focused, he even lamented that Google is becoming like Microsoft with its various interests and programmes which will one day threaten its own leadership. Steve Jobs can certainly claim that he perfected the art of focus because when he returned to Apple a second time, he cut off many development programmes, including ‘Newton’ an early version of the iPad of today. And when he does believe in something, he throws everything into it. Phil Schiller, the Senior Vice President for Marketing at Apple, recently gave testimony at a trial to claim millions from Samsung said:
There were huge risks [with the first iPhone],” Mr. Schiller said. “We had a saying inside the company that it was a ‘bet the company’ product…We were starting to do well again in iPod…Then here we’re going to invest all these resources, financial as well as people, in creating this product.”
But because Steve Jobs was able to focus the company, they not only created an amazingly simple to use product but virtually every competitor had to copy their approach in order to stay relevant. Steve Jobs approach of deep focus to win significantly is surely better than spreading out too thin.
3) Building an Eco-system: Warren Buffett once said that a great business is like a castle with a great moat. The deeper the moat, the more likely the company will stand the test of time. At the end of the day, the collective projects in the innovation programme should all be able to work seamlessly with one another to aid in the defence of the business model. But very often, Asian businesses have innovative projects that increases their exposure instead of strengthening their current value proposition. This whole idea of spreading out rather than building entrenchment makes it difficult to defend the ‘castle’. The fight of our times is increasingly about who knows the customer better and who is the host of the customer’s transaction of ideas or content. So if your innovation programme is constantly giving you a more holistic view of your customer in terms of insights and it gives you a greater leverage in terms of giving an exclusive and yet totally immersive experience, then you are most probably on the right track. But if your innovation does not enlighten you in terms of insights to your customer, does not give you greater control over influencing how the customer use your service then you might want to carefully discern, why are you here in the first place and is it worth the struggle?
This article is part of a weekly column called Shaping the World where Lawrence and Shiraz share insights and ideas about building innovative Asian Brands. It is published by one of the leading dailies in Sri Lanka, Ceylon Today.
Lawrence Chong is the CEO of Consulus, an innovation consultancy specializing in helping Asian companies transform their business models to rise up the value chain through business design, organisational development and designing new brand experiences. Consulus’ country representative in Sri Lanka is Shiraz Latiff who is also the CEO/Lead Consultant of Hummingbird International, a regional knowledge house specializing in coaching, consulting & outsourcing through global partnerships & collaborations.