Harnessing collective genius for innovation

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Harnessing collective genius for innovation

30 Aug 2017

The Business Times

BY VINCENT CHONG

WE live in exciting times. The rapid pace of technological evolution has led the world into the age of digital transformation. With the increasing inter-dependence of different disciplines and the advent of technologies applicable to almost every industry, innovators have much to look forward to when creating and engineering breakthrough real world solutions that can impact society, businesses and lives in positive ways.

Against this backdrop, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has announced that Singapore aims to be a Smart Nation. The Future Economy Council led by Minister of Finance Heng Swee Keat is also rolling out recommendations proposed by the Committee on the Future Economy, which includes the strengthening of Singapore's innovation ecosystem.

Previous commentaries have called for the pace of innovation to pick up further, saying we need more original creations and made-in-Singapore intellectual property (IP). Startups are usually seen as the bright sparks that can do this, but some face challenges in funding, the right product development team, or even the business networks to see their products go to market successfully. Larger enterprises, on the other end, have been perceived as having the funds, expertise and business networks, and can partner startups or small and medium enterprises to create new innovative solutions. The government plays a central role by encouraging innovation to happen through the implementation of Industry Transformation Maps. The academics are responsible for the amazing research that fuels the science behind the technologies that enterprises or startups adapt to create solutions to real-world problems. The trade associations and chambers guide their members to transform with the times and move into new markets.

Meanwhile, business leaders around the world have realised that with the uncertain future ahead, it is no longer enough to just rely on organic growth and cost reductions. A new style of leadership is imperative to lead organisations to navigate technological advances. Yet, according to a global survey undertaken by McKinsey & Co on C-suite executives in 2017, while 90 per cent of companies have engaged in digitisation efforts of some form, only 16 per cent of them have chosen to respond with a bold strategy and to scale. The outcome of this is that new entrants to the market compete with incumbent firms through disruptive models, and incumbents who take a reactive approach to responding to disruption could end up in intense competition with one another. Responding to disruption half-heartedly could result in greater opportunity costs.

Leading innovation in an ecosystem or an organisation may sound ambiguous and messy. This is especially since innovation is unpredictable by nature and it is human nature and business preference to prefer predictability. Innovation is also perceived as delivering more failures than successes, hence some adopt a "wait-and-see" attitude to let others take the road less travelled and fail sufficiently, before finally deciding it is safe enough to innovate in that particular area. Others hold an all-or-nothing view towards innovation - you must either be "only innovating" or "failing to innovate". This is a misconception: long-term success comes to firms that can find the right balance between exploring the unknown to achieve disruptive and breakthrough innovations (world class solutions that solve real world problems), while also applying existing knowledge that can lead to incremental improvements (sustaining innovation).

Adopting innovation as a firm-wide strategy goes beyond rhetoric. Our firms are only as strong as our people. We need every employee to have the commitment and belief that an innovation mindset is critical. Regardless of rank or hierarchy, employees need to trust that their ideas are valued and listened to. This moves beyond just formal idea platforms where people "like" your ideas - it goes fundamentally into good leadership at every level of management where constructive discourse is valued and employees are allowed to try things out and experiment with different approaches. At ST Engineering, we have carved out more space for innovation where failure can be better tolerated outside of our core businesses, which may have very little margin for error, rightfully so given the potential impact that errors could cause especially for critical systems.

We also need to open up the minds of our people and pique their curiosities. One of the biggest problems faced in innovation is collaboration. The hesitation to collaborate - externally with other stakeholders and organisations or internally across business units - could among other factors be driven by competition. Yet, if we close our doors to collaboration, we are unwittingly embracing a closed culture where we can only learn from within silos. We are encouraging employees to behave like mindless cogs in a machine or system. We are also creating a culture of complacency in which incumbents start believing that the way they have been doing things is the only and best way to do things.

Co-creation with other innovators is the way forward to open minds and grow the IP creation capabilities of Singapore's innovation ecosystem. We need to trust that an open ecosystem for innovation would strike a good balance between cooperation and competition for collaborators, and embrace that it is both a strategic and collaborative obligation for innovators to grow the capabilities of one another. Collaboration leads to information sharing which will help advance an industry innovatively. This is how we can help Singapore continue to make its mark globally for world-class innovative engineering solutions. ST Engineering believes in, and advocates, collaborative innovation. We have many successful collaborations and I will cite one - our partnership with Nanyang Technological University and the DSO National Laboratories in the design and building of Singapore's first earth observation satellite, TeLEOS-1. Without this collaboration, where all three partners contributed respective domain expertise while building on one another's strengths and learning from global trends, it might have taken Singapore far longer than 2015 to have its own satellite in space.

Leading people towards innovation, be it in an ecosystem or an organisation, is not about getting them to follow you as you sprint towards the future. A leader of innovation needs to be a "social architect", rallying people towards a common purpose of co-creation; and more importantly, creating communities where people are willing to, and also capable of, innovating with you. By harnessing collective genius and creating the collaboration structures in the ecosystem, together we can make innovation happen more pervasively and rapidly in Singapore.

* The writer is president & CEO of ST Engineering and a board member of JTC Corporation. He was also a member of the Committee on the Future Economy.

This article was first published in The Business Times.

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