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Is the Singapore soil fertile for creativity?

Singapore’s drive for productivity has focused attention on a key component to boosting organisational performance — innovation. While companies espouse the importance of innovation, the truth of the matter is that many companies have, consciously or unconsciously, put up barriers to innovation.

Is the Singapore soil fertile for creativity?

Resources to encourage innovation could be as straightforward as allowing time for workers to brainstorm in groups. Photo: Bloomberg

Singapore’s drive for productivity has focused attention on a key component to boosting organisational performance — innovation. While companies espouse the importance of innovation, the truth of the matter is that many companies have, consciously or unconsciously, put up barriers to innovation.

Barriers to innovation could exist within the structure of the organisation, the mindset of its leaders and managers or within the culture itself. The starting point for any company that wishes to foster innovation and creativity should be to recognise these barriers.

Moreover, these barriers are not confined to Asian or Singapore companies. In fact, Management Agenda 2013, Roffey Park’s annual research into organisational, people, performance and individual management in the United Kingdom, recently reported that, in the UK, a focus on innovation is a key strategic priority for the future and recognised barriers to making this happen particularly in times of economic austerity.

If we look closer to home, might a case exist for saying that there are inherent characteristics of the Asian culture that makes fostering an innovative spirit that much harder?

THE PROBLEM WITH ‘MERIT’

In her article, Can Asians Innovate, Ms Rachel Chan, co-founder of a Hong Kong-based platform for inspiring and empowering young people in Asia, states that a secret to Asian companies becoming more innovative is to overhaul their organisational culture.

Some attribute the challenges that Asian — and, indeed, Singapore — companies face in adopting an innovative culture to the overarching influence of Confucian teachings and adherence to obedience, respect for authority, hierarchical structures and insistence on conformity, all of which seem to go against what are generally thought to be the catalysts for innovation — namely, an open culture where exchange of ideas are encouraged, individuality, and diversity which brings about different perspectives.

In the Singapore context, the aversion to and fear of failure could be another barrier to innovation. It has been documented that the willingness to take risks is a prerequisite for an innovative culture, which of course will challenge Singaporean preferences for predictability and order.

These are defining characteristics of a merit-based society. Singapore’s emphasis on meritocracy and strict adherence to promotion based on merit translates into a workforce that, while it conforms and performs to the best of its abilities, will not take on unnecessary risks.

The evidence seems to bear this argument out. A survey last year by the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Nanyang Technopreneurship Centre at Nanyang Technological University, covering 521 firms, found that less than 50 per cent of the firms use innovation to boost productivity.

Therefore, it appears that, while firms recognise the benefits of innovation, the necessary structures do not seem to be in place to encourage it. This data seems discouraging, considering that small and medium enterprises in Singapore account for about 90 per cent of all enterprises, employing seven out of 10 people and contributing nearly half of the national gross domestic product.

Yet, despite the factors that seem to weigh against innovation in Asia and Singapore, there is evidence to suggest things may be moving in a different direction. Some of the most innovative companies today are Asian.

Singapore has also produced its share of some outstanding IT inventions. Being a young nation with a highly-skilled and educated population, as well as a destination for top talent from overseas, makes Singapore a place where innovation ought to take root almost naturally — if conditions exist to encourage it.

It may be just a matter of putting in place processes that will encourage a greater spirit of creativity, thus fuelling innovation. The following are just some areas that can help foster a different culture.

CREATING AN INNOVATIVE MINDSET

The starting point to creating an innovative organisation is to have an innovative mindset. Establishing an organisational climate that encourages people to think, and where people feel comfortable bringing up ideas and trying them out without fear of repercussion or blame, is a prerequisite to any hope of establishing a creative DNA.

While it seems straightforward enough, cascading an innovative mindset through the organisation is pretty daunting. It might involve introducing training and development programmes that enable people to look at processes and procedures differently in order to creatively change, improve or enhance them.

DIVERSITY BRINGS INNOVATION

Organisations are complex entities. Yet, many organisations adhere to a strict way of behaving and expound “conformity”. Organisational culture can become an excuse to impose groupthink and uniform behaviour.

However, while there needs to be a strong sense of organisational identity, space should also be given for people to be themselves and for differences to be accommodated. Organisations need to accommodate multiple perspectives, for studies have shown that diversity breeds innovation and creativity.

NO IDEA IS A BAD IDEA

Bosses who encourage innovation and creativity often express the sentiment that no idea is a bad idea. They have testified to the fact that some of the best innovations have come from the simplest ideas.

But if we want to encourage people to think creatively, they should be given the resources to do it. While some might consider providing funding for research into innovation, resources to encourage innovation could be as straightforward as allowing time for workers to brainstorm in groups or work independently on new initiatives, as well as the authority and bandwidth for them to experiment.

Reorganising the layout of the work space to facilitate communication and discussion is another simple means of promoting innovation.

AN EYE ON THE BIGGER PICTURE

Organisations that articulate a clear vision and set goals and direction which are strategically aligned with that vision help employees to have a sense of purpose.

Engaging employees in setting targets and goals will give them a sense of ownership and bring about better understanding of the bigger picture. This facilitates employee innovation and improvements as everyone is aware of the goals which are to be achieved.

INCENTIVES FOR CREATIVITY

Rewarding employees for new ideas and creativity is a good means of recognising employee efforts. It reinforces the organisation’s commitment to innovation and change. At the same time, it encourages employees to keep their thinking hats on.

At the end of the day, creativity and innovation have to be cultivated and nurtured so that it almost becomes second nature for everyone in the organisation. As counter-intuitive as that may sound, thinking creatively is almost a habit, and habits have to be nurtured before they become habits.

All it takes is one good idea to launch a new product, move into a new market or service offering or bring about an organisational change. But for that one idea to take root, seeds have first to be planted in fertile ground that nourishes a climate of innovation.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Gary Miles is Director of International Operations at Roffey Park Institute and manages the Asia Pacific Operations. He has designed and delivered programmes all over the world, including in Singapore. He has worked with DHL, NTUC Income, Civil Service College and Changi Airport Group.

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