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“A new idea is delicate. It can be killed by a sneer or a yawn; it can be stabbed to death by a quip and worried to death by a frown on the right man's brow,” the Roman poet Ovid wrote two millennia ago.
The world may have changed a lot since then, but fundamental human behaviour has apparently not, and the freedom and confidence to float ideas remain crucial in the creation of conditions that facilitate innovation, says Anna Simpson, author of the new book “The Innovation-Friendly Organization: How to cultivate new ideas and embrace the change they bring.”
British author and innovation coach Anna Simpson with her book in the Skolkovo Technopark. Photo: Sk.ru.
During a recent talk at the Skolkovo innovation centre, Simpson explained what had prompted her to write the book, and what her findings were.
“The question I wanted to explore was what sort of culture can support change within an organisation,” said Simpson, who is also curator of the Futures Centre at Forum for the Future, which works to solve sustainability challenges, and chief innovation coach at Flux Compass, which helps organisations and individuals to navigate change.
“I came to it through working with big organisations that recognise the need to change ... they know that they want to innovate, but they find that they can’t, because they have a culture that’s not supportive of that,” she explained.
One of the studies Simpson looked at during her research had been carried out by Google in an attempt to determine what makes up the ideal innovation team.
“What they found was that it’s much less to do with who’s on that team, and much more to do with how those team members interact with each other,” she said.
“The key factor for success is whether or not the team members feel able to take risks. They have to feel safe and comfortable sharing ideas and trying something new,” just as Ovid had found all those years ago, she said.
The innovation coach, who has experience of working with companies around the world, including in the U.K., Singapore and Hong Kong, identifies five elements in her book as crucial in an innovation-friendly organisation. Simpson presented these elements, each of which forms the basis for one of the five key chapters of her book, to the audience at the Skolkovo Technopark.
Simpson's talk at the Skolkovo innovation centre was titled "How to put futures at the heart of your startup." Photo: Sk.ru.
1) “Diversity. If you want to be able to navigate a sudden shift in circumstances, you need a rich bed of nutrients and genes, like any ecosystem. If we want diverse ideas, we need diverse perspectives, and if you want to develop a culture of innovation, you must bring them into the organisation.
2) Integrity. You might bring in all sorts of different people, approaches and backgrounds, but if they’re not able to share their differences, then you might as well not bother. It happens quite frequently in organisations that we see people being brought in particularly because of their diversity: it might even say at the top of the job description, ‘We’re looking for someone who can really challenge our mindset.’ Then they come in, and immediately the culture swings into action to homogenise them … and we lose the edge that people could have brought.
I look at structures that can enable people to be themselves. Sometimes it’s not comfortable. I work in Asia, and there’s a lot of inhibiting factors in the workplace there. In one workshop I was running in Asia, the participants came up with a talking mask, a little inspired by the David Bowie idea that you can do more and be more creative if you have a Ziggy Stardust persona. The mask helped the participants to express ideas even when it was not easy for them to do so.
3) Curiosity. In organisations, we often find that we are very structured because we have limited resources. We’re working to set agendas and we have limited capacity for going on journeys of enquiry that are beyond going from A to B. And yet if we want to come across a wider range of ideas and be able to bring them into our work, we need that.
4) Reflection: time to sit and let the things we’ve learned through curiosity or the conversations that we’ve had with diverse people in our surroundings sit with us and for our ideas to evolve through them. If we all stay with the ideas that we have carefully nurtured through debating culture and study, then we’re less open.
5) Connection. This is about the strength of an organisation. In an innovation-friendly organisation, the whole must be stronger than the individual. For the organisation to weather change, it’s less about how strong we are as individuals, and more about strong we are as a collective. This is important when it comes down to fear of change at an individual level. Change often threatens someone’s status, and really the threat to an individual status is probably what holds back most of the innovation in the world.”
Too much emphasis on efficiency can stifle innovation, Simpson argues in her book. Russia, with its Soviet legacy of quotas and production records and ban on entrepreneurship, may have to change its culture more than most to avoid this pitfall.
Simpson also shared her insight into the startup scenes in the U.K., Singapore and Hong Kong – all popular places for Russian startups seeking to enter new markets – with the Skolkovo audience.
For Simpson, two factors stand out as contributing to the success of Singapore as a startup hub: first, investment and the friendly business environment, and second, its focus on long-term planning, with a strong 'futures strategy' sector.
“When we set up the Futures Centre, a platform for tracking change to identify emerging possibilities for sustainable futures, we set it up in Singapore because the Economic Development Board gave us seed funding to do that,” said Simpson.
Simpson's book identifies five key elements essential if an organisation is to facilitate innovation. Photo: Sk.ru.
One of the factors that supports the city-state in its goal of becoming an international hub for futures is its unusually stable political situation (a lack of any real opposition), which enables it to make 50-year plans, she said.
“Singapore has just completed its first 50-year plan, and is embarking on the next. That’s an extraordinary position to be in,” she said, while cautioning against long-term thinking growing into an unrealistic sense of control over events.
Hong Kong has not achieved Singapore’s reputation as a startup haven, though it has emerged as a centre of fintech. And while its business climate may not be as open and simple for foreign startups as Singapore’s, Simpson says she finds that the innovation scene in Hong Kong is characterised by less certainty and more creative edge.
Both of those Asian startup ecosystems are more dominated by the state than Western ecosystems, she says.
“In Singapore, there's an assumption that the state will make adequate plans for business, society and people; by contrast, in the U.K., there's an assumption that the government won't do enough, giving business and civil society more of a mandate to lead and innovate,” said Simpson.
“The most a homegrown business will probably want to do in Singapore is be a good implementer of what the government has decided should be the case.”
In her native U.K., there is a discernible mindset of both business innovation and citizen-led innovation, she said.
“The idea that citizens can come together and rework and transform the world around them, and that it’s a good thing for them to be looking creatively at their streets and their gardening capacity and their energy hubs: I’ve seen that a lot more in the U.K. and U.S. than in Singapore and Hong Kong,” said Simpson.
The author and innovation coach was in Russia to run workshops for Russian teenagers attending the Young Energy Leaders forum in the Black Sea resort of Sukko. While it wasn’t enough time for her to be able to compare the Russian startup ecosystem to that of other countries, Simpson said she had been greatly impressed by the some of the solutions that the students came up with for solving future energy problem scenarios. They included a robot with an inbuilt anaerobic digester that powers itself through the conversion of human waste, and an energy metering system that would allow people to pay for energy by using their fingerprints, thereby tracking individual consumption on the go.
“The Innovation-Friendly Organization: How to cultivate new ideas and embrace the change they bring” by Anna Simpson is available from Palgrave Macmillan.