Don’t look far innovators are within

OUR discussion last week focused on how Apple is making a u-turn on a strategic intention pronounced by the late Steve Jobs on customer preferences in terms of the size of smartphone screens.

Sam Hlabati

We noted that Apple ditched the shunning of big screen phones after they realised their competition were eating away the market at their expense.

Samsung took the opportunity of having a go at Apple when they tweeted using their handle @SamsungMobilePH on September 9; they teasingly tweeted “Guess who surprised themselves and changed their mind”; they also had an advertisement on twitter with an alluring headline: “No one is going to buy a big phone.”

Apple realised that for them to be sustainable, their primary focus should be on creating value for customers, with the value creation for employees and investors being subordinated to the customer-centric goal.

The intrinsic systemic link between the three domains of value creation, customer, employees and investors is such that value creation for one of the stakeholders at the expense of others is not sustainable.

The following discussion was previously shared on May 11 2012. I believe that there is a need to reiterate the message in more than 28 months lapse of time in this column; because it is still relevant in our modern day business.

In previous instalments of this column, we noted that an organisation should ideally commence its cycle of value creation analysis at the customer value creation point; focusing on trying to understand what it is that will be a competitive advantage in its offering to the customer as opposed to competitors.

Creating a competitive advantage, as we noted, entails pushing up innovation capacity; thus both product and process innovation.
We will discuss a number of typical organisational systemic issues that stifle innovation.

The monsters against innovation, among others, include traditional management practices, company rules and the reward and punishment regimes.

The management practice of ranks and hierarchy is one of the impediments to innovation.

It is fallaciously accepted practice that the people who are promoted to high-ranking positions in organisations who may at times be selected on the basis of qualifications and “relevant” experience.

I take a swipe at “relevant” experience simply because it may have been relevant to a bygone era when it was acquired and could be archaic in the prevailing market conditions.

It is also important to note that the level of experience and qualifications does not always have a direct correlation with an individual’s creativity and innovation capacity.

Intuition without actual direct experience or education has been known to produce innovation.

Let me tell the story of the unsung hero, Hamilton Naki, who was a black South African laboratory assistant who worked with Professor Chris Barnard to perform the first human heart transplant at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town on December 3 1967, under the auspices of the University of Cape Town.

This historic event happened during the pinnacle of Apartheid in South Africa, and there was no reason for the then government to believe that an uneducated black assistant (Hamilton Naki) was anything more than a labourer who assisted the learned doctor.

Yet Naki was to play a major role in training more than 3 000 junior doctors under Professor Barnard so it is said. Was it under Barnard indeed or was the training offered equally by both men? In an interview shortly before his death in 2001, Prof Barnard said Naki was “one of the greatest researchers of all time in the field of heart transplants.” He added that Naki “was a better craftsman than me (Prof Barnard himself), especially when it came to stitching.”

What sort of corporate intellectual Apartheid (segregation) is there in organisations today?

From an educated guess perspective, it is the systemic separation of human beings into classes due to the levels of education and experience.

The upper classes become the managers who attempt to run the company with varied success levels. The lower classes follow the orders make tea and clean for the upper classes.

There are seemingly few, if any meaningful instances when these different classes of people are valued equally, or fairly fully assessed for their creativity and innovation capacity.

One may want to argue that there are psychological assessments that are carried out when people are hired. Would you assume that Naki would have passed psychological assessments better than the junior doctors that he trained? The young school leavers with straight “A’s” on their certificates would probably have passed much well than him.

Business strategies incorporate the ideas influenced by the education and experience of top managers; that may seem fair game because the lower classes may not have the capabilities to write business plans in the requisite official business language.

However, it is important to note that innovation and creativity are not necessarily triggered by a good business degree from an excellent business school, otherwise we could all be stuck in the stone age up to today because those early beings did not have degree; no innovation could have happened to advance the stone age to the iron age to today.

Why then are the lower- ranking employees in organisations excluded from voicing their thoughts on how the business could be run better?

Naki’s original role at the University of Cape Town was to cut the lawn. In 1954, Robert Goetz, the university’s Professor of surgery, asked Naki to lend a hand in the laboratory to hold down a giraffe he was operating on.

The Professor was impressed with Naki’s skills and transferred him to the lab. Prof Goetz left Naki with Prof Barnard when he left the University of Cape Town.

Barnard first used Naki as his anaesthetist and later as his principal surgical assistant.

Barnard defied the organisational rules of hiring experienced and educated people, making a surgeon out of an uneducated villager from a Bantustan as villages were then named. Barnard also defied the Apartheid laws by elevating a black man to such a high level.

I am not advocating for the willy-nilly promotion of lower level people into higher ranks, rather I am putting forward the point that their innovative ideas should see the light of the day.

An organisation that does not give all its employees a voice, treating the lower classes as village idiots, may stand to lose out on the opportunities to tap in on their innovative ideas.

There are many executives whose rise to demands of their roles were supported by personal assistants who was there long before them; who know the in-and-outs of the business.

The personal assistants’ extended experience within the office, having supported many executive role incumbents in the past, puts them into the “unofficial mentor” role for the new boss.

Are you then still wondering why some executives fight for and protect their personal assistants; it is simply because they recognise their value.

Literature shows that organisations open up the innovation discussions to all employees; particularly when the competitors are steaming ahead with better products and the organisation is beginning to feel the pinch.

This crisis management mode is characterised by scenes of the management team meticulously studying all ideas to find ways of catching up with the competition and just get slightly ahead.

Note that the motive is to close the gap triggered by the crisis of losing their market share. Once the financial state of affairs starts to improve, the steam on the innovation initiative is often relaxed; leaders heave a big sigh of relief and award themselves bonuses.

Innovation is not just about catching up in times of crisis; rather it is about getting ahead of the pack.

Sam Hlabati is a Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR®), a Certified Compensation Professional (CCP®) and a Global Remuneration Professional (GRP®). E-mail samhlabati@gmail.com; twitter handle; @samhlabati

When people innovate, they may make mistakes because they are doing what has never been done before. Organisations should therefore allow for all ideas that come through from all team members to be heard.
Innovation is perspiration; the next time you switch on a light bulb, just remember what was said of its inventor, Thomas Edison. Edison’s teachers said he was “too stupid to learn anything.” He was fired from his first two jobs for being non-productive. Whilst inventing the light bulb, Edison made 1 000 unsuccessful attempts. He was trying something new and he got a result that outlived him.
When a journalist asked, “How did it feel to fail 1 000 times?” Edison replied, “I didn’t fail 1 000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1 000 steps.” Few organisations out there make room for mistakes and celebrate them when evaluating the performance of their employees.
Innovation comes from trial and error, yet if an employee keeps failing, they are shown the door. Who is better value to any organisation, the innovator making mistakes with a breakthrough later or the tow-the-line individual who does as it is written with no improvement? Who among these two employees creates customer value? Creating customer value entails both product and process innovation. Who then should be rewarded better?
Always remember the fellows cutting the lawn had innovative ideas; they should be given an opportunity to say their piece. They could be your organisation’s Hamilton Naki; the uncelebrated uneducated and highly skilled heart surgeon; not a glorified “principal surgical assistant”

Sam Hlabati is a Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR®), a Certified Compensation Professional (CCP®) and a Global Remuneration Professional (GRP®). E-mail samhlabati@gmail.com; twitter handle; @samhlabati

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