On My Radar | Innovation: The quest for the Holy Grail

Dion Chang (picture supplied)
Dion Chang (picture supplied)

Dion Chang gives us an insight into the mindset of innovators and those that stifle innovation

The elections this week might seem like a culmination of months of campaigning, but once the results are announced, the real task of fulfilling those election promises begins.

“New brooms sweep clean”, as the saying goes, and the post-election period is when operating systems should be reviewed and management styles altered.

The most challenging will be to guide a workforce to embrace the change.

This kind of change is difficult for the public sector, but it is a process the private sector has been battling with ever since “disruption” became a buzz word.

Business sees it through a different lens, but it boils down to the same thing: innovation.

If you don’t innovate, you can’t evolve and this is especially true in a digital era.

The avalanche of new technologies means that everything from an industry’s value chain to a company’s operating system changes constantly, hence the accompanying buzz word ‘agile’ in business.

It’s no longer about big companies versus small, but the fast versus the slow.

‘Agile’ is not a word you associate with government, or the civil service, but in the wake of these municipal elections, the public sector will need to learn a few lessons from the private sector.

‘Innovation’ is another favourite buzz word that is being bandied about in corporate circles, and some corporations have the luxury of having an innovation hub as a separate department, dedicated to looking for ways and means to innovate the business.

But innovation hubs are somewhat problematic.

The task and responsibility of innovating is left to that department, as if they will devise a silver bullet that will magically provide that one thing that will change the trajectory, and therefore the fortune, of the company.

The rest of the company then sits and waits for this Holy Grail to be discovered, divorcing themselves from the process.

I’ve just returned from an intense tour of the most innovative companies in New York, across industries, ranging from food to hospitality, and from architecture to advertising.

While the industries differed vastly, there was a common thread that made them innovative and therefore at the top of their game: leadership and company culture.

While most companies search for innovation as an entity, these companies create an enabling environment for good ideas to emerge, and that requires a different form of leadership and management.

It’s clear that hierarchal structures are not only fast becoming a relic of the 20th-century business, but that they inhibit creative thought.

Flat management structures allow for ideas to emerge from any employee, no matter how “lowly” their position in the company.

But for ideas to emerge, departmental silos within companies also need to be removed. There needs to be a free flow of communication inside a company.

Currently, in many companies, the right hand inevitably does not know what the left hand is doing, which means less of an understanding of the company’s operating system and in which direction it intends to grow. Without the latter, innovation is meaningless.

When good ideas do arise, they need the backing and support from decision-makers, not only financially but in terms of resources as well as commitment.

In many cases, innovation fails because a decision-maker, who championed an idea and kick-started a process of change, leaves the organisation, only to be replaced by someone who does not share the vision or appetite for change, and derails the process.

The cost of this derailment doubles for the company: there is a financial cost as well as an emotional cost as employees feel increasingly demotivated.

These management mistakes are playing out at the SABC.

Hlaudi Motsoeneng might believe he is innovating with the various “decrees” he has issued of late, but his style is hierarchal and dictatorial, which spreads fear and dissent: a very barren environment where innovation simply retreats, withers and dies.

In terms of employees, innovation also requires a different skills set. There is a fast-growing trend of “hiring for attitude and retraining for skills”.

New, agile businesses require “makers” and problem-solvers with soft skills such as communication, ownership and teamwork, and less emphasis on academic credentials.

Gerald Seegers, director of human resource services at PwC Southern Africa, notes: “The gap between the skills of the current workforce and the skills businesses need to achieve their growth plans is widening. Chameleon-like employees who apply their skills whenever and wherever they’re needed are now in high demand.”

The current corporate (and let’s add government) mind-set neither encourages “chameleon-like employees” nor values hybrid skills.

We need to rethink leadership if we are to innovate. Nelson Mandela understood leadership and the quest for innovation could be summed up in his words:

“A leader is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realising that all along they are being directed from behind. Lead from the back – and let others believe they are in front.”

Chang is the founder of Flux Trends. For more trends, visit fluxtrends.com. Join him on Metro FM tomorrow at 6.30am, when he discusses these trends on the First Avenue show

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