Innovation as a Way of Being

When it comes to innovation, there are many myriads of definition available. Some say innovation is about turning ideas into solutions that add value from a customer’s perspective. Some would argue that innovation is a feasible relevant offerings with a viable business model that is perceived as new and is adapted by consumer. Innovation is also the application of ideas that are novel and useful. Simply put, innovation is about staying relevant. In a time of unprecedented change, what was successful in the past could potentially be the cause of failure in the future. Hence it is essential for organizations to adapt and evolve to meet the ever changing needs of their constituents. Constituents in this case refers to the target audience that is specific to every product or organization.

It is not the strongest of species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change. – Charles Darwin

There are many case studies widely available on the need for brands and organizations to innovate in the face of change. With enormous competition and the advent of open market, consumers are spoilt for choice. When alternatives are widely available, organizations need to find the right way to differentiate themselves as a way of adapting and staying relevant. The question now is, how do one stay relevant?

Institut Darul Ridzuan (IDR) is a case study on how an organization can stay relevant by inculcating the spirit of innovation from within. After all, the failures of Nokia to compete with the likes of Google and Apple came from the inability of its leaders to adapt and create a working culture that is open to change and innovation. When I was the Chief Operating Officer (COO) of IDR, the organization’s structure was different than what can be observed now. Despite being the only public policy think tank for the state government, IDR was operating just like any other state government agencies and even though there is nothing wrong with that, the work culture does not suit the needs and requirements for IDR achieve its targets for the state. In fact, the lack of strong work culture and buy in become an impendent for the staff to grow individually and professionally. A think tank, being an independent and source of analysis, information and strategy for the state government should be a space for ideas to grow and talents to be nurtured. Yet, that was not happening in IDR at the time and it was taking a toll on the morale and development of the staff.

Thus when I had the opportunity to helm IDR as the CEO years later, I deliberated on the right strategies to change the environment and structure of the organization. I believe by shaking up things up, I will be able to unleash the sleeping giant I believe IDR to be. At this moment, my mind was focused on the big picture. In order to make a positive difference in this world, I realized that we need to stop focusing on the ‘I’ or ‘We’ vs the others. IDR is about service to the people of Perak, to the state government and fulfilling the aspirations of the Menteri Besar. However in order to be most effective, we must stop thinking on the state-level yet think of IDR’s potentials as to make a difference on the national and global level. It was no longer about individual contributions or importance but about finding solutions and the greater good. I realized then on that IDR must present itself as an invaluable asset to the state government and the Menteri Besar. We need to be different than the rest. As the great Walter Lippman said, “When all think alike, no one is thinking”.

“We are here to serve and there is nothing like us in the state of Perak – that was my motto.

However in order to achieve those aspirations I need to build a culture from within, a culture that breeds innovation, creative thinking and problem solving. If such culture become a part of the personality and belief of IDR staff, innovation will be an automatic state of mind and conduct. A way of life instead of a drawn out strategy, passively passed down and lacking internalization. This process has to begin with a strong leadership. Successful leaders fully understand how innovation happens. They try to imprint their behaviours as processes and philosophies within their organization. One of the most celebrated innovative leaders of our time is the late Steve Jobs of Apple. He personified all that makes Apple an everlasting and exciting brand that it is today. Jobs achieved that by not just focusing on innovation on their own but he replicate innovation throughout his organization.

Thinking about the bigger picture also require me to look ‘inside’ by understanding the demographic that represents IDR staff. Close to half of IDR’s total staff are less than 30 years old. Which means a majority of IDR staff belong to the Millennials generation. There has been many research worldwide on the character traits of Millenials. In his 2006 book, Generation Me, author Jean Twenge considers Millennials to be part of what she calls ‘Generation Me’. Twenge attributes Millennials with the trais of confidence, tolerance but also identifies a sense of entitlement and narcissism compared to preceding generations. There are also a vast literature examining the existence of generational gaps in the workplace between the Millennials and the generation before them. The majority of these research found that Millennials are different than their older colleagues and prefer a flat corporate culture with an emphasis on work-life balance and social consciousness. Realizing this, in order to drive excellence and innovation culture in the workplace, I had to make sure IDR remains fluid in its structure and become the best place for talents to grow and succeed.

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