By: Asger Daugbjerg
‘Innovation starts from the top’ is a frequently used phrase; but there are many steps involved in a successful innovation strategy. What unfortunately I too often see, and in many organizations, is a huge gap between top management thinking and the understanding in the rest of the organization about innovation. Everybody might agree that innovation is important in principle. They might even be in agreement about the particular process that could bring new ideas to fruition, and implement new thinking in an innovation. This is all fine – but what if there are no new ideas?
A personal anecdote from the mid-1980s
Let me start with an anecdote. Fresh out of business school in the mid 1980s, I attended a number of job interviews. In this process I met a manager of a successful advertising agency, who was looking for a new junior Account Manager. Even more than 20 years later I remember vividly my surprise when half way through my interview, this manager declared that the agency was content with status quo: lots of big, and big-spending clients. So the focus of the agency – and potentially also my focus – was on servicing these existing clients and keeping them happy. Nothing more, nothing less!
I obviously had little work experience at the time, but I could perceive the weak long-term perspective of this business model, which I spelt out to him. I did not get offered the job! Five years later this agency closed down. No more business; no new products or services resulting in the end of the existing clients. And no new clients to replace them since this was not in the agency’s business plan.
My lesson going forward
I thus had an important lesson reinforced: ‘innovate or die’ – as true in the 1980s as it is today. If complacency sets in, the business will die. And in today’s high-speed and global competitive business environment, it will not take five years. The business will die much faster.
‘Innovate or die’; as true in the 1980s as it is today
Hence, innovation is key to long-term business sustainability. Innovation must be embraced and endorsed by every organization’s top management for the business to flourish. However, this is only the beginning of a successful innovation strategy in which bringing people from different cultures together is a crucial step towards this goal.
Generating new ideas requires a number of fundamentals to be in place – fundamentals that often are disregarded or not understood by top management. I see three as being very important.
Allow mistakes, in order to remove fear
First, many managers find it surprising that employees are afraid to suggest new ideas. What if it is a bad idea, does this mean I may lose my job? Unless managers openly support new thinking, and displace such fears, innovation will never take off. Fear is a very powerful and real factor and unless it can be removed, management can forget about unleashing new fresh thinking within the organization.
Implement criteria to make ‘mistakes’ positive
Second, even though the workplace culture might encourage suggestions from everyone, all organizations look for ‘the right’ new ideas, not the wrong ones. The right new ideas are those that will bring in new revenue streams, reduce costs or increase efficiency. Managers must share the overall business strategy with the whole organization. Employees need to know ‘the plan’ and how the organization wants to deploy resources to meet its business objectives.
Leverage organisational creativity to screen new ideas
Through the establishment of relevant criteria against which initial ideas can be evaluated before being officially submitted, management can leverage the organization’s creativity and collective wisdom. Depending on the type of business, these criteria might include how well the idea fits with the company’s overall strategy; and are the resources in place to implement the idea? Sharing the overall strategy and establishing a few criteria will minimize the amount of time spent investigating and discussing inappropriate ideas.
Break free of the current paradigm to generate the right ideas
Some people need more support to spark their creative genes
Third, it is important to provide an environment that fosters new ideas. Managers – and others – need to abandon the common misperception that only creative people generate ideas. Coming up with new ideas is not the preserve only of so called ‘creative people’, or rather, being creative is not the birth right of only certain people. Anyone can be creative: but some need more support to kick-start their creative thinking. Also, if organisations put together teams encompassing a variety of skills, job functions, experience and personalities, I believe that this will provide fertile ground for fresh thinking and new ideas.
The Cultural Context
Work experience in both Europe and Asia has allowed me to see how innovation is processed in different cultures. It might be assumed that innovation is an easier concept in a Western cultural context: it was, after all, the Greek philosopher Aristotle who said that curiosity is the uniquely defining property of human beings.Debating of different viewpoints has been a major part of Western culture since the time of ancient Greece some 2,500 years ago.
In contrast, Asia has been strongly influenced by Confucianism, which stresses harmony and discourages any form of confrontation, such as debate. Nevertheless, some the greatest innovations in the world originated in China, for example, the magnetic compass, deep drilling, immunization techniques and acoustics.
Some of the greatest innovations in history originated in China
Despite the two cultures being very different, my experience tells me that innovation is accepted as a key instrument for moving the world forward, by both West and East. However, there are huge differences in how innovation is processed as two episodes from my time in the advertising industry illustrate.
Combining Asian determination with Western free thinking
In Europe, I often participate in brainstorming sessions in which people are encouraged to be controversial, to bring forward fresh thinking. Edward de Bono and his six thinking hats’ methodology is popular since creativity is seen increasingly as a mindset, not a function.
In Asia, I was never part of a brainstorming session. Creativity and innovation are more compartmentalized: they are seen as the responsibilities of the Creative Director and perhaps a few, senior, creative employees. Creative Directors might ask junior staff to produce nice-looking storyboards to convey their thinking, but rarely encourage these same junior staff to participate in generating ideas.
Creativity as a mindset, not a function
Discipline in Asia receives greater emphasis than in Europe. So whilst to a Westerner, the Asian innovation process may seem awkward, the ability of Asians to ‘keep on going’ is quite amazing. Brainstorming sessions may seem a great tool, but if they do not generate new ideas, frustration sets in and the process grinds to a halt. Asians, on the other hand, do not abandon a task out of frustration: once set, the task will be completed.
If we can combine the Western free thinking and inclusive ideas management process with the Asian discipline, innovation could reach higher levels. If we can bring together teams that encompass both different skills and job functions and different cultural backgrounds, I am confident that our power for innovative thinking would be immense.
By Asger Daugbjerg, Innovation Director, Monday Morning Innovation
About Asger Daugbjerg
Asger Daugbjerg is Innovation Director of Monday Morning (mm.dk), a leading Scandinavian think tank. Monday Morning helps government agencies and public as well as private sector leaders to turn risks into new opportunities by supplying new insights, information and perspectives on key agendas in society. This includes Innovation, Leadership, Climate Change, Green Business and New Growth.
Asger Daugbjerg, MBA, MSc, has worked for almost 25 years in advertising and consultancy, focusing on developing and implementing business/brand/communication strategies for clients around the world. He has worked in both Europe and Asia, assisting clients to build strong brands and navigate in highly competitive markets.