Building an Innovation Engine in China

by Stefan Lindegaard

Chinese InnovationI recently made another trip to China. My purpose was to meet with innovation leaders in order to build further on my understanding of the Chinese innovation community and thus on my global perspectives on innovation.

I had a couple of meetings and I did an improvised session at a company. Having met about 15 people and having spent 5 days in Beijing, I have to say that my expectations of what will happen in China grew even higher. The reason for this is the innovation people of China.

They are hungry, bright and very eager to learn. Yes, they still have a lot to learn. And many of them do not seem to have the creative mindset and the ability to think in a more holistic way which I believe is necessary in order to make innovation happen. These are tough things to learn and many Chinese people will never get this.

Despite such significant issues, I still believe that Chinese people will be major contributors to innovation in the coming years. You can get a long way by being hungry, bright and eager to learn. In order to tap into this resource, China-based companies – whether Chinese or multi-nationals – must continue to provide the framework for these people to grow. This actually brings us back to what it takes for any company to build an innovative culture including:

Have a strategy for innovation. I have said this many times before. You need to develop an innovation strategy that sets the direction and this strategy must be aligned with the overall corporate strategy.

Focus on people before processes and ideas. People drive innovation. Your first thing to do is to identify and develop the people who can make innovation happen. Upon this, you need processes that match these people with the right ideas and provide a way to turn the ideas into revenues.

Use a TBX(O) approach. Nothing happens without top management (T) just as well as nothing happens without the employees (B). Middle managers (X) are a great obstacle towards innovation so you need to work around this. Today, we also need to include outsiders (O) in our innovation process. More about TBX(O) here.

On top of this, China-based companies – as well as many Western-based companies – also need to deal with their authority driven system. I still remember a visit to Alibaba three years ago. Alibaba, founded by Jack Ma in 1999, is among other things the world’s largest online B2B marketplace.

We met with a group of engineers and we asked how they dealt with innovation. No answer. We asked again and this time we got a short answer – “Jack knows.” My point here is that innovation is a team-sport where everyone has an opportunity to contribute; not a game played by lone geniuses.

I will visit China again early 2010 hosting a Next Stop: Open Innovation session. I really look forward to work further with these interesting Chinese people on developing their innovation mindset and skills.

Stefan Lindegaard is a speaker, network facilitator and strategic advisor who focus on the topics of open innovation, intrapreneurship and how to identify and develop the people who drive innovation.

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