Experiences supporting innovation efforts in Asia

This is one of the few articles I am going to write in English for this blog because I’d like people from different nationalities being able to read it.
Since 2004 creaffective is supporting its clients worldwide to improve their innovative strength and to make creativity become real and concrete for the business world. Due to my ties to the Chinese language and culture, apart from Europe we have also been working with clients in Asia. This article shares some of my experiences gathered over the years and compares these impressions to what I experience in Europe, mostly Germany. I am writing this from the perspective of a German innovation consultant and coach, educated in Germany, Taiwan and the US, who speaks fluent Mandarin, works with clients in Mandarin and who is married to a Taiwanese and thus also has some personal immersion into the Chinese culture.

I draw my writing from experiences I have made from observations in Asia and a large number of conversations with customers, training participants, friends and other innovation professionals working in Asia Pacific. The impressions I share in this article are derived from my stays in China, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia. Our customers are Western firms with a presence in Asia trying to increase their innovation capabilities as well as local customers (mostly in Taiwan).

I hope that nothing I write here comes across as arrogant or disrespectful. If so, it is not meant to be that way. My goal is to start a discussion and learn from others’ experiences. I am not saying that I am right or want to be right.

The influences of the Chinese culture in innovation efforts

As part of our innovation trainings, especially in leadership trainings, I discuss the role of the Chinese culture on innovation efforts.
A climate that supports people being creative and use their creativity to create new value for an organization depends on a number of different factors.

Some important ones are:

  • People feel comfortable sharing their thoughts
  • People don’t have to be afraid of making mistakes, or are able to make mistakes in certain environments
  • People are able to share ideas that are not well thought through yet
  • People are allowed to try out new things and learn on the way
  • There is a certain freedom for each individual to influence how she reaches her goals

Participants of our innovation trainings and innovation workshops agree that the Chinese culture favors behaviors that are partly opposite to the factors listed above.
The Chinese culture is context specific. That means it is very important when you say what to whom. The context matters a lot more then in the West. When your boss is present in Asia you might behave very differently then when he is not.
There is the famous saying in Chinese 三思而後行, which means to think about something three times before you say or do anything. The fear of doing something wrong, of saying something that might not be viewed as appropriate and the shame that follows is strong.
Furthermore there is a much greater power distance between leaders and subordinates. Whereas in the West in discussions an outsider would not immediately notice who is from a higher hierarchical level, that becomes clear very quickly in Asia. What the boss says, counts a lot more. It is even expected from him to say what specifically he wants his subordinates to do. He is more supposed to act like the boss.

A second big influence is the education system. Although there are considerable differences e.g. between Singapore and Mainland China, there are many commonalities to generalize. In general the education system is a lot more competitive and punishes “being wrong” much faster and harder then in the West. It focuses much more on rote memorizing and fact learning and also frequently (in Taiwan: daily) tests if things have been memorized correctly. To speak with Ken Robinson: The education system drives out creativity much faster and more thoroughly. That is also one frequent comment I get from participants in our trainings. In Taiwan for example you find school wide ranking boards where you can see the scores of all pupils of one class ranked from the best to the worst.

This culmulates in a culture that makes it much harder to undertake calculated risks and explore new pathways, as punishment and consequences are more severe, be it on a personal, professional and organizational level. I just had a very interesting discussion about this last week in Malaysia.

Working with companies in Asia Pacific

creaffective mainly offers three types of services:

  • We deliver innovation related trainings with the goal of building skills, knowledge and awareness with our participants.
  • We facilitate innovation workshops in which we help the client company to find specific new solutions to a problem they are facing. These challenges can be technical in nature such as creating a stronger generator for cars or business model related such as finding a good entry point into the mid price point market for electrical tools in China.
  • We run innovation projects with customers using a co-creation approach. Together with representatives for the customer, a few creaffective innovation coaches form a joint innovation team that develops new solutions together. We bring in the innovation knowledge, the customer brings in the business knowledge. In contrast to the other two services, here we also get involved into content. Previous projects included creating e-commerce business-models and products for a large media company and redefining the product offering of a logistics company.

Furthermore we do consulting work with regards to building an innovation culture and setting up innovation management systems. I personally do keynote speeches on topics related to creativity and innovation.

Western companies in Asia Pacific are interested in all three types of services. Most of our business in Europe is with innovation workshop facilitation and running innovation projects. Local companies in Asia are exclusively interested in trainings. Sometimes after having experienced a training there is also a first interest for the other types of work we do. We never – in 10 years – had a request asking for facilitation or a project work with local companies in Asia with the initial contact.

I will come back to the reasons why this might be the case.

Innovation Trainings – more fun and incentive than real skill building

When it comes to trainings there are also interesting differences when it comes to how this trainings should be delivered.
Our trainings are designed as a two day program because from a content and pedagogy perspective this makes sense. The trainings are mostly about experiencing and practicing as well as building a different mindset.
In Germany or with Western companies in Asia we would normally do them for 2 days with a maximum of 12 people. US companies like to have 2 days with up to 24 people.

Local Asian companies often request 4 hour or 1 day trainings with as many people as possible, sometimes 60+. Often the most important (not one of various) decision criteria is the price per person, not whether or not anybody actually learns anything. In the last years I have been trying to understand more why that seems to be the case. One important learning is that for Asian local companies trainings are more often an incentive or a goody for employees, a fun day to be off work and to reward for past efforts. If people actually learn something that is a nice-to-have side-effect, however, not the main goal. Digging deeper, people talking to me told me that in their education system and also for corporate “trainings” these trainings very often happen in a lecture style with somebody standing in front of a large group using a microphone. People just don’t expect that so much of what the guy in front speaks will actually stick. Therefore it makes sense to send more people into the training and don’t spend too much time on it.

Also in general local companies in Asia invest less in skill building trainings than Western companies. There is often a view that people working for a company should be qualified to work productively when they come on board, this happens especially with local firms in Mainland China.

If there are innovation related trainings they often start with “normal staff” and not people in leadership positions. This again makes it tougher to actually achieve a change in the company, as leaders don’t change their behaviors. In the worst case this might even lead to participants being frustrated because they can already see in the training that they will not be able to apply much of it later, give the power distances I have already mentioned.

The factors above then sometimes lead to realization of both sides (us and the company contacting us) that we are not the right fit for each other.

Why facilitations and innovation projects rarely happen

Why do innovation workshop facilitations and innovation projects only happen with Western companies and not with local companies?

My experience has shown a number of reasons:
First, in the Chinese culture there is no such concept as facilitation. There is not even a word for it in Mandarin. It can only be paraphrased. In German there is also not word for it, however we use a similar word that is not too far away to convey the meaning: “Moderation”.
So when there is no such concept, no habit and experience of what a facilitated innovation workshop can do for them, naturally there is not a big demand. People just have a hard time imagining what an external guy who is not a content expert in their business will be able to help them achieve.

Secondly, there is even a stronger tendency as in Germany that companies want to avoid risks and to play it safe. Which again can partly be understood looking at the cultural background. Very often with local companies I have experienced that the decision making scope of most “leaders” is very limited. Most of the decision-making authority, even for small matters, is concentrated on very few people, or even one person. So often the people that contact us or talk to us, cannot make any decisions and first have “to convince their boss”.

Thirdly, as the culture does punish “mistakes” faster and stronger, there is fear of making the wrong decision, or delivering the wrong result. Therefore people tend – stronger as in the West – to rely on defensive decision making. That is taking the decision that you know will not deliver the best result but at the same time is acceptable and will not get your head chopped off. This leads to the consequence that managers we have talked to in local companies don’t want to take ownership for challenges, if the result is not 100% sure. If they have ownership they don’t want to invest in a new way to tackle it, if the result is not sure. For example we have been in contact for over 5 years now with one international consumer electronics brand from Taiwan. We have visited them close to 10 times to discuss challenges to be worked on using an innovation workshop format. So far to no avail. And this is not because there are no challenges, it is just safer from an internal perspective to do nothing, or do what has always been done, even if chances for success are slim.
Questions I have been asked in the past to check whether or not they would like to tackle the challenge using an innovation workshop:

“Can you tell me now, what will come out of the workshop?”
“Can you tell me, how much we will earn with the result of the workshop?”
“Can you guarantee me that we will reach our goal?”

The answer to all these questions is that I cannot answer them. The nature of innovation is that it is something new and you don’t know exactly what it is upfront. I can only point to past examples and explain that the innovation workshop format dramatically increases the chances of getting to new solutions, however I can’t tell in advance what the outcome will be and how much it be worth.

The same is true for innovation projects which are even harder to argue with this kind of mindset.

Is innovation a necessity in Asia?

Depending on the scope of their market, that is a valid question from the perspective of a local company.
My favorite quote from one executive is: “The market here is so big that you can offer any crap and somebody will buy it from you.”

There is some truth in this. Not for all companies innovation is a necessity. A company can also be successful not being innovative. Most of the ODMs in Taiwan and China have been successful not through innovation but by delivering exactly what the customer told them to do.

More and more companies are however realizing that this is not enough for the future. However, still in 2013 these are not too many and I feel it may well take a few more years until the market is ready for taking innovation efforts seriously. At least in the way we offer to support.
Of course my few is a limited one and I am open and happy to hear different voices.

3 Kommentare auf “Experiences supporting innovation efforts in Asia
  1. Dear True,

    thanks for sharing your thoughts and the article.
    We will continue this conversation one time in person soon.

    I am also hopeful that we will achieve some changes towards innovation practices.

    In the Chinese culture they value speed and fast results, sometimes going through an innovation process might just be too tiresome and long-term for many.

    I am confident that future innovation needs in Asia will make it easier for us.

    Best

    Florian

  2. True Black sagt:

    Interesting article, Florian. A have run into issues with fear of decision-making in my executive coaching work. There are many fears around decision-making or proposing new ideas which are based on assumptions that are actually not true. However, because in other areas of life, it is risky to make a decision or propose a new idea, the fear carries over into most aspects of life.

    I am interested in how innovation is done in Asia (in areas I don’t know about through my work, that is). This article from McKinsey addresses that question from a mostly economic (not cultural) point of view: http://www.mckinsey.com/insights/asia-pacific/three_snapshots_of_chinese_innovation.

    I am hopeful that you and I, creativity colleagues around the world, and our friends in China, Taiwan, and the rest of Asia will be able to spread the gospel of good innovation principles and practices.

  3. hopefully the comment function works…

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