To Innovate, We Must Be Willing to Question Everything

Published December 12th, 2011 - 12:10 GMT
In fact, the term "innovation" has become a buzzword of the 21st century as countries and businesses grapple with a volatile global economy, financial crises of unprecedented proportions and a desire to create the next era of opportunity for future generations
In fact, the term "innovation" has become a buzzword of the 21st century as countries and businesses grapple with a volatile global economy, financial crises of unprecedented proportions and a desire to create the next era of opportunity for future generations

Like just about every ambitious student in rural Kenya, Evans Wandogo had his heart set on the high-profile electronics or medical field, but studying in a house with no electricity made it extremely difficult to compete with fellow students whose parents could afford the service.

"Teachers could not understand how one could fail to do homework because of lack of kerosene for the lamp," Wandogo recalls. orse, smoke from the lamp left him with itchy, teary eyes. "It is what gave me motivation to come up with a solution not only for myself but also for others experiencing the same problem," says Wandogo who was nominated among the 2010 CNN heroes.

Wandogo started looking for solutions at the tender age of 14. The motivation and self-drive led him to design and make a solar-powered lantern that is pollution-free and provides much needed lighting for poor homes. Wandogo is one of the youthful out-of-the-box thinkers in East Africa, trying to break the socioeconomic barriers that have held back creativity and innovation in the region.

Innovation is the cornerstone of economic growth and success, for both the companies that innovate and the countries that embrace them. It is the reason why some of the top chief executive officers in the East African region want to make it a strategic priority for both public and private sectors.

"Business executives in the region must be at the forefront in promoting innovation to speed up development and integration of East Africa. This is not a task that can be left to governments only," KPMG chief executive Josphat Mwaura said.

Mr Mwaura was one of the conveners of the East African Business Summit held in Nanyuki in Kenya that brought together top CEOs to discuss ways of promoting innovation in the region.

According to Prof Hal Gregersen, a senior affiliate professor of leadership at INSEAD, an international graduate business school and research institution, many East Africans can be innovators, if only they made use of their creative capacity. "Everyone has more creative capacity than they think they do," said Prof Gregersen, one of the authors of The Innovator's DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators.

Steve Jobs, for example, was one of the technology world's great innovators but was neither a computer engineer nor a programmer. Jobs did not even have a college degree but had a great native sense of design and a knack for hiring geniuses. Prof Gregersen likens innovators to four-year-old children who are always curious about everything and never shy away from asking questions.

"Four year-olds do not take things for granted. They like touching things and carefully observe their surroundings. It is a stage which some parents find to be one of most difficult in parenting," adds Prof Gregersen. "Innovators in East Africa can be anybody, whether young or old. They can be secondary or university graduates or even college professors," concurs Dr Kamau Gachigi, a lecturer at the University of Nairobi, heading the institution's Science and Technology Park, where more than 15 technology-based businesses are currently being incubated.

In fact, the term "innovation" has become a buzzword of the 21st century as countries and businesses grapple with a volatile global economy, financial crises of unprecedented proportions and a desire to create the next era of opportunity for future generations. The CEOs do not want the region left behind in the quest for cutting-edge technologies and other simple solutions capable of providing answers to numerous socioeconomic problems bedeviling the region.

Infrastructure and energy problems, food insecurity and creation of job opportunities for its burgeoning population are some of the pressing challenges the region is facing.

The innovation the CEOs are after is not the same as invention. It is about how East Africa can create better or more cost-effective products, processes and technologies that are broadly acceptable as solutions to various socioeconomic problems. "The innovations the region needs are those that are not only country specific but also apply in other members states," said Prof Gregersen, who was the keynote speaker at the East African Business Summit meeting. In The Innovator's DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators, Prof Gregersen identifies five capabilities demonstrated by innovators.

First, innovators think differently and prefer drawing connections between questions, problems or ideas from unrelated fields.Second, they like asking questions; in other words, posing queries that challenge common wisdom. "Ask questions. What is it, why are they doing it this way, what's going on, what's the explanation?" added Prof Gregersen.

A good example of a problem solved by asking the right questions was when the low budget airline Azul realised their services were being affected by customers arriving late at the airport or missing flights altogether, due to the high taxi charges. The company introduced executive buses between locations as connecting services to its flights. The buses not only solved a connection problem, but also increased demand for the airline's services. Third, innovators like observing, scrutinising behaviour of customers, suppliers and competitors to identify new ways of doing things.

Leading companies in consumer products, for example, spend millions of dollars observing how consumers behave right from the supermarket to their houses. The overall detail sought is whether consumers are delighted buying the products and satisfied using them. "The employees then take the details to their headquarters where questions are asked based on the information gathered. That is how many come up with new ideas that keep consumers hooked on their products," said Prof Gregersen. Fourth, successful ideas are not always a one-off success; they have to be experimented before being put into use.

According to Prof Gregersen innovators construct interactive experiences and provoke unorthodox responses to see what insights emerge to a particular idea, product or technology. It is one area Jobs was good at. According to his colleagues, Jobs would at times be a pain in the neck when seeking to provoke responses.

Jeff Bezos, the founder of, the world's largest online retailer, also prefers acting differently. Bezos once asked a candidate he wanted to hire as chief financial officer what he had innovated or invented in his lifetime. "Bezos was not looking for a complex innovation or invention but a simple idea the candidate can associate himself with. It is how innovators look at things differently and even go against the norm," adds Prof Gregersen.

Fifth, innovators prefer networking, that is, meeting people with different ideas and perspectives."I can know a lot about a local market when coming up with a solution to a problem, but if I travel I might just realise that my idea might be a regional solution. Moving out of your geographical confine to learn about others helps in coming up with great ideas that have a big impact on society," added Prof Gregersen.In other words, if an innovator in Kenya has a solution to a specific traffic problem, there is a high chance people in Uganda will not ignore it.

"One should think about innovation as a project. Also think about a problem as a project and always spend a few minutes asking the right questions. Observe people, consult widely and experiment the various options," says Prof Gregersen.

© 2019 AllAfrica Global Media.

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