In March this year, Prof Jamie Anderson, professor of Strategic Management at Antwerp Management School in Belgium and visiting professor at the London Business School in the United Kingdom, presented a
Leader's Angle talk at USB about the dynamics of the creative process as a starting point for innovation in organisations.
Prof Anderson describes creativity as the ability to develop new ideas and to discover new ways of looking at problems and opportunities, and innovation as the ability to apply creative solutions to problems and opportunities.
"Creativity is thinking new things, innovation is doing new things. The problem is that most organisations tend to over-invest in innovation processes and under-invest in developing the individual and collective creativity that must be present for such processes to deliver results."
According to Prof Anderson, in order to generate new ideas, we have to let go of well-known patterns of thinking and old solutions and we have to engage in an active form of thinking that involves three levels: inspiration, intuition and imagination.
"Inspiration is the very first spark of an idea. Intuition is where we sense and feel the quality of an idea, and trust our gut feeling. Imagination, the final step of the active thinking process, is the ability to think about possibilities and future courses of actions."
Awie Vlok, lecturer in Innovation Management at USB and the Department of Business Management at Stellenbosch University, says thinking about thinking is vital for innovation. Vlok is currently working on his PhD in Innovation at USB.
"We differ in terms of our functional orientations – our financial managers think like financial managers, our engineers think like engineers. Innovation starts when our particular mould is no longer adequate for a given situation and we realise that a new perspective is needed. Metacognition also manifests in the innovation orientations of people. Some like to come up with ideas while others would rather build on someone else's ideas, some like risk-taking while others would rather avoid risk, some like to initiate innovation while others would rather follow someone else's process."
Vlok believes innovation is now needed more than ever before for sustainable business.
"Most managers today experience innovation drivers. These include the speed and magnitude of a changing business landscape, lower entry barriers allowing more competition, the availability of more offerings giving customers more choice, customers becoming increasingly sophisticated and demanding, growing competition for scarce, value-creating resources, climate change, growing populations, socio-economic challenges and geo-economic power shifts."
According to Vlok various surveys have found that managers know they need to become much more serious about innovation. However, over 50% of them are not sure what they should do differently to increase their innovation performance.
"The innovation economy is introducing a new game. The rules of the game are changing and the players require new skills to feature in the new game. Innovation benchmarking reports suggest that our region has much to celebrate but we need to improve our innovation through education, a stronger science base and collaboration."
The 2014-15 Global Competitiveness Report, endorsed by the World Economic Forum, indicates that South Africa's ranking has dropped three points, from 53 to 56, and innovation four points from 39 to 43 out of 144 countries. While our capacity for innovation has improved from 4.1 to 4.3 on a seven point scale, our company spending on research and development has dropped from 3.5 to 3.4. The GE Global Innovation Barometer 2013-14 report found that South African business executives expressed ratings above the global averages on several key innovation indicators.
Vlok explains: "For 96% of our executives, innovation is increasingly becoming a global game, in which merging and combining talents, ideas, insights and resources across the world is the only way to be successfully innovative. These ratings show that 91% of South African business executives see innovation as a strategic priority for their businesses and 81% would use innovation to improve their existing products and services. A stronger entrepreneurial culture in education systems (58%) and better alignment of student curricula with the needs of business (56%) are needed in the South African context. Collaborative innovation is a priority for 94% of South African executives, while 93% believe SMEs and individuals can be as innovative as large companies."
Innovation is a multi-disciplinary field, and Vlok is of the opinion that academic exposure to different perspectives presented at business school level would help business professionals relate to other disciplines and understand important relations that work together to achieve innovation.
"The pace of new developments and the complexity of issues require continuous learning, which is one of the fundamental truths about innovation. More business schools and executive education providers are offering new learning opportunities on strategic innovation, foresight-driven innovation, design thinking in innovation, social innovation and technology road mapping. In recent years, there has been a significant increase in scholarly innovation publications.
"USB has taken a portfolio perspective to cater for different audiences. The MBA focuses on multi-disciplinary and conceptual integration and critical thinking at strategic or policy level. USB's new Postgraduate Diploma in Business Management and Administration includes a full module on Innovation which covers theory and practical tools for real-world settings, while USB-ED's Gap-Year programme introduces innovation and creativity as vital ingredients of entrepreneurship. Actionable learning insights include awareness of where to focus innovation, who to engage and how to craft processes for innovation results."
Away with the ego
Having said this, Prof Anderson and Vlok agree that there is one major barrier hampering innovation.
"Ego is the biggest killer of innovation," explains Prof Anderson. Vlok says sometimes the "innovation ego-system" disempowers the "innovation ecosystem".
"In the knowledge economy it is important to know your strengths but to always be open to new input. This becomes much easier when leaders accept that they do not have all the answers. We can learn so much from each other and from countries such as Finland and Singapore, which have results to show and practices to support their intent. We can also establish learning platforms for leaders, expose them to new methods and thinking, solicit greater scholarly involvement in innovation value chains and deliberately bring science and business graduates together."
To conclude Prof Anderson says there should also be greater focus on fostering individual and collective creativity.
"Leaders individually must get in touch with their own creative thinking skills in order to make sense of and deal with complexity. Rather than to develop skills for the 'management of creativity' (a control mind-set), organisations must develop creative leaders – people who promote and acknowledge creative thinking as an important everyday practice."
Scholarly innovation publications have increased significantly in recent
Innovative USB MBA alumni:
Mignon Hardie, executive director of FunDza Literacy Trust
Named one of the Top 10 Most Innovative Companies in Education in the World by Fast Company in 2013
"FunDza is a non-profit organisation which aims to confront and help solve the major social problem of low literacy levels of South African youth. FunDza's innovation lies in leveraging the power of mobile technology to make reading for pleasure possible and affordable for young South Africans who have limited access to other reading resources. One of the most critical courses that I attended on the USB MBA was Systems Thinking, which helped me to consider the problem of low levels of literacy in a number of different ways. We've used some of that thinking in both the analysis of the problem and in terms of finding an innovative, holistic solution. We could not have been innovative and successful without the 'right' people who were all passionate about solving the problem and who worked towards a common goal. Innovative thinking can never reside in a single person. Rather, it is a product of joint problem solving and bringing diverse thinking and skills together."
Innovation tip: Forego all assumptions about both the problem and the solution. Then work with a group of honest, critical and creative people who are united by the common purpose of finding a new path to resolve the problem.
Yanic Smit, founder of @Frits and ThisisY
"During my MBA year I got myself an Irish terrier called Frits. Our first winter in Cape Town was challenging and I was forced to get him a raincoat. @Frits Dog Clothing was started because the dog clothing brands did not fit Frits' personality and size. All dog clothing in the market was targeted at small dogs. I saw a gap in the market and designed raincoats for bigger dogs. Raincoats became dungarees and dogs became children. Currently @Frits is the only proudly South African brand in this market. I realised that this is an untapped market and with some research I came to the conclusion that dog owners are moving into the category of dog parents because people treat their dogs like kids. Another challenge for dog owners is where to leave their dogs when going away. Because of this demand @Frits Dog Centre and Hotel will open in July 2015. My other business, ThisisY, acts as an outsourced marketing department for SMEs, start-ups and non-profit organisations. It is built on three pillars: Innovation, Transformation and Performance."
Innovation tip: Don't compete with rivals, make them irrelevant.
Frans de Villiers, founder of the Thula Baba Box
"Thula Baba Box is a survival kit for low-income mothers of newborn babies. It is a plastic box that contains essential items such as clothes, a blanket, nappies, health products and toys. The box itself can also be used as a bath or a safe storage space. The purpose is to improve the overall wellness of mothers and babies, focusing on the first 1 000 days after conception. The reason innovation is so important to us is that in order to solve old problems (how to keep babies alive during the first 1 000 days) we need to be able to look at those problems in a new light, through the lens of new technology, processes and research."
Innovation tip: Just start. Once you have started, be prepared to change your plan continuously.