In a sun-filled boardroom overlooking lower Manhattan, I was sitting with a group of chief strategy officers for part of our Outthinker Roundtable discussion. Professor George Day, leading expert on innovation and marketing, and faculty member at Wharton Business School, shared a concept about disruption that has been infecting my thoughts ever since.
US corporations invest more than $350 billion a year on innovation through R&D efforts. So it’s easy to assume that such formal efforts propel innovation more than any other factor.
Debbie Brackeen was in the “innovation” business before it was even called “innovation.” After completing her undergrad at Stanford University, she found herself in the heart of Silicon Valley. She spent her first years at Apple followed by stints at a variety of high-tech companies from HP to venture-baked start-ups. Today she is the chief strategy and innovation officer at CSAA Insurance Group, one of the largest AAA insurers in the world.
You stepped into the future…but has it felt more like you stepped off a cliff? Some of the most spectacular strategic failures have been due to poor execution. Unfortunately, the momentum of vision is often short-lived as the reality of the complexity of execution begins to set in. Since 1955, only 57 companies have maintained a position in the Fortune 500 while nearly 2,000 companies have come and gone during that same time period.
If someone handed you a sledgehammer and told you to start smashing your company’s products, would you do it? That’s exactly what Haier CEO Zhang Ruimin did to prove a point to his employees. That was the first in a long line of radical decisions that have transformed the company from a fledgling refrigerator maker to the world’s number one appliance manufacturer – and kept it there.
Three days are too few to fully unwind into what makes the Cayman Islands special. Lobster at the waterside cafe, sparkling blue water lapping white sand, genuinely nice people living in a safe country that feels, well, just happy. I was there to teach a two-day Outthinker course for a local university, training fast-rising government officials on how to sharpen their strategic and innovative thinking skills.
In a dimly lit wine cellar, we turn to our meal. I am at a corporate dinner filled with executives from fascinating backgrounds. But there is one particular conversation, being led by a fascinating gentleman, that is entirely reframing for me what it means to be a leader.
A hundred years before Uber popularized the “platform business,” an English teacher and a porcelain merchant were launching their own platform business in Canton, China, called Li & Fung. In 1906, Li To-ming and Fung Pak-liu started a trading company, exporting porcelain, fireworks, jade and silk. They eventually set up headquarters in Hong Kong.
The 150+ internal innovators I’ve interviewed over recent years all have precisely one thing in common. This thing they share is not any of the traits we typically associate with successful innovators: not creativity, customer insight, or influence; not technical knowledge, team leadership skills, or marketing prowess.
No … the one thing they share is this: persistence. They don’t give up.
Mine was not the best high school, but we had some perks. I got to take an economics class at Yale my senior year, my small cohort mostly went on to Ivy League colleges, and I got to leave school at 12:30pm.