Unleash 'disruptive' innovation only at right time

Companies prefer taking incremental steps when it comes to innovation to align with business processes and corporate culture, but agree the disruptive route should be taken once in a while.
Written by Ellyne Phneah, Contributor

SINGAPORE--Both evolutionary and disruptive innovation have their merits in today's competitive landscape but ultimately the former is more accepted due to the rigidity of corporate culture and the need to align innovation with business processes.

At the Singapore Infocomm Technology Federation's ICT Business Summit 2013 here Thursday, two schools of thought at both ends of the spectrum surrounding innovation were presented.


Nic Hall, impact director of TNS Singapore, pointed out innovation should be evolutionary in order to avoid cannibalizing their own products. When innovating products, they should not be "straight substitutions" but instead, be improvements over previous products.

Apple's iPhone 4 for example, was "revolutionary" and all their users migrated over from previous iPhone versions, while later iPhone versions such as 4S and 5 took incremental steps that were too small, he pointed out. Samsung on the other hand was "bolder" in creating incremental improvements with its products, getting an edge over Apple, he added.

Apple, for example, has been displaced by Samsung in terms of innovation, Hall pointed out. The Cupertino-based company had taken incremental steps that were too small, unlike Samsung's "bolder" innovation steps, he noted.

However another speaker Andrew McGinchey, senior product manager of Google Southeast Asia, had a different view. Innovation should be disruptive at every level of the organization such that every idea should be shared within the company, allowed to morph and anyone should have a license to pursue their ideas, he pointed out.

He also noted the corporate culture at Google was to "try the outrageous things first", embrace failure of ideas and products and incorporate the lessons of failure into future plans.

Evolutionary approach fits big corporate culture best
Panelists in a following panel discussion however, agreed the evolutionary approach to innovation was more suited for corporate culture in bigger companies.

According to Frank Koo, president of solutions and qualifications at Pearson Education Asia-Pacific, innovation can only take place if a company's culture encourages it, he pointed out.

Disruptive innovation is hence, "not easy" in the corporate culture of large organizations, Lee Siew Kit, SATS's vice president information technology services pointed out. "After all, their salaries and stakeholders are tied to whether a project succeeds or fails," Lee explained.

Disruptive ideas also often face resistance from management, which has to answer to stakeholders, he added.

Another panelist, Guillaume Sachet, head of MediaCorp's Stategic Planning, agreed it was hard to drive innovation in a corporate process-driven environment, and it was "challenging" to change employees' mindsets on failure.

Their words echoed Hall's view, who earlier mentioned many large organizations have rigid business processes, mindsets and structures which were the biggest roadblock against innovation. This is why Chinese companies who do "copycat innovation" are able to leapfrog the West because processes in Chinese MNCs do not exist, Hall pointed out.

"[The] disruptive [approach] is only viable if the company has a very viable business model, very often, it is incremental innovation which is more likely to bring success," Sachet said.

That said, disruptive innovation should not be neglected by an organization altogether, because "complacency will lead to the demise of a company", Stephen Tame, CIO and head of group information technology at Jetstar Airways, pointed out.

If the company feels the market is ready for it to "challenge conventional thinking" and the time is ripe, the disruptive path should also be taken since a zero-risk approach rarely brings success to an organization, Tame explained.

Koo also agreed the disruptive approach should be employed "once in a while" to enable employees to learn from the experience of what works and what doesn't.

Pearson Education, for example, has a "catalyst fund" whereby any employee who has a good idea and is able to pitch it well to the CEO, use the fund for his ideas, Koo explained. The employee is able to select the best talent to aid him in his idea and if successful, the entire team gets the recognition and reward, he said.

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