1. Innovation: Innovate or Die

Some people seem to burst with ideas while others say they are “just not creative”. If you consider yourself uncreative, it is time to think differently.

Businesses must innovate or die, says Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen. He coined the term “disruptive innovation” – how products or services take root in simple applications at a market’s low end, then grow to displace established companies.

Today’s breakneck change, fuelled by technology, makes the need to innovate more urgent, with global competition, increased consumption and resource scarcity. People with value are those who constantly find better ways to create innovative products or services.

This essential skill is harder to replicate and generates more economic value. Hence, “innovation, design and systems thinking” will become highly prized in the workforce, according to a Future Skills Needs study led by Singapore’s Manpower Ministry.

The value placed on generating ideas has produced an “ideas industry”: consultants in idea generation, such as design thinking company IDEO (that we featured in Jan/Feb 2011).

For about half a million dollars a month, hybrid strategy firm Jump Associates thinks on a company’s behalf; for US$200,000 a day, it teaches companies to generate ideas on their own. Innovation consultants Doblin Group identified a Ten Types of Innovation framework to help companies differentiate themselves. Now, companies and government agencies, including Singapore’s, are eager to hire these firms to get ahead.

But is creative thinking really an “expertise”, according to Jump Associates?

Ideas do not come from single moments of inspiration, argues advertising guru James Webb Young. Many creative people practise a definite idea-building process over time, outlined in his book A Technique for Producing Ideas.

Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From, explains in a TED lecture: “Ideas are cobbled together; we take ideas from other people… stitch them together and create something new. This is where innovation comes from.”

The idea gurus say becoming “ideas people” requires taking an interest in many subjects, recording thoughts and observations, and collaborating with people of diverse specialisations. It helps to have an environment that promotes exploration.

These attributes are shared by 2010 PS21 ExCEL award winners.

Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) Loo Yam Hong, 36, won the Best Ideator (Gold) award. The Head of the Bomb Data Centre, Criminal Investigation Department (CID), used to scribble ideas on receipts and scrap paper; now he keeps a booklet for that purpose. He encourages his staff to do the same. “I never reject ideas in initial stages, even fanciful ideas,” he says.

He also sees nothing wrong in being a “copycat”. Impressed by how the Health Ministry had begun using electronic tablets for record-keeping in hospital mortuaries, the bomb data expert began exploring ways to use tablets in a new evidence management system.

The Central Provident Fund Board’s Wong Tze Wei, 33, won the Outstanding Activist award for motivating staff to generate ideas. The Senior Assistant Director, Capability & Organisation Development, finds that when staff “own” the ideas, they are more committed to implementing them.

Her advice is for leaders to acknowledge the good parts of an idea, whether implemented or not. And she, too, never stops thinking of ideas, even in the shower. “It doesn’t have to be bigbang ideas. We can think big but start small, and slowly get things going.”

Ultimately, the real value of innovation lies in pursuing good ideas to fruition. Mr Dave Lim, 44, founder and curator of TEDxSingapore, a local platform for spreading ideas, says Singapore tops surveys of innovative countries because it has the resources to develop ideas. But he points out that what ultimately sells is the end-product, not the idea.

For ideas to become reality, they must be pursued with tenacity and courage as there will always be risk of failure. Leaders are therefore critical in building a culture of innovation that will encourage the taking of calculated risks, and an emphasis on learning from mistakes collectively.

Creating with the crowd

OpenIDEO is a platform for solving social problems through online “crowd-sourcing”: Community members share, refine and evaluate ideas to solve a challenge question. Unlike other for-profit collaborative sites, there are no rewards for winning. The best solution is materialised by challenge sponsors while members gain credits for participating actively.

United States portal Challenge.gov is an example of co-creation, a topic we covered in Mar/Apr 2011. The public is invited to collaborate with the US government to solve challenges, like creating a web app to improve healthcare and developing an “Experimental Crowd-derived Combat-support Vehicle (XC2V)” for the US military.

    May 9, 2011
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