Companies must adapt to the fast pace of change or die, says Yumna Tayob

How do you create a culture of innovation in your organisation, Yumna Tayob, a solutionist with Iconoclast, speaking at Finance Indaba Africa on 13 October 2017 asked the assembled finance professionals? “The first industrial revolution took just over a century, in less than a century the second and third had happened, and now we find ourselves in the fourth. This unprecedented pace of change is driving the fact that innovation is a journey and not a destination, and companies that do not adapt to this are going to die.”

She spoke of two companies, Kodak and Google, to illustrate the difference that an innovative culture will make to the success of an organisation. Kodak, she said, had in the past been an innovative organisation. It moved from black and white to colour film, taking risks that were sometimes to the detriment of short-term profit. But these risks led to long-term gains. Then, she said, in the seventies, an employee in research and development came up with a digital camera, but the management at the time saw it as a threat to their lines, so they didn't do anything with it. The rise of digital ultimately led to Kodak's decline, and in 2012, they declared bankruptcy.

"This showed the power of leadership. The new leadership style in Kodak were set in their profitable ways and were considering short-term gains instead of long-term rewards."

On the other hand, Google has focused on innovation. Tayob says the company offers employees things like free food, free dry cleaning and a gym on site not only because they want to attract and retain top talent, but because they wanted people to be able to be at work and focused on work with the message that if the company looks after its employees, its employees will look after it.

Queuing time in the cafeterias is kept at three to four minutes because any longer wastes time but any shorter inhibits networking and collaboration between employees in a social space. The eating tables have also been extended to encourage more people to sit together and collaborate. And finally, with the 20 percent rule, employees can take a day a week to see to personal matters.

"Gmail and AdSense are all innovations that came out of the 20 percent rule, because employees with the opportunity to take themselves out of their environments are given the space to pause and connect the dots."

So, how do you entrench an innovative culture? "You have to take a long, hard look at yourselves and at what your true values are that are driving the behaviour within your environments. You need to create a platform and environment for what you want to happen. If the ground is not fertile enough, it doesn't matter how great the seed is, it's not going to grow," Tayob said.

If innovation is encouraged in an environment that is not ready for it, the chances of failing are significantly higher than if you had prepared for it, she added. "And leadership has to acknowledge that they don't know everything. Leaders must realise that they don't know everything and fully accept and embrace the opportunity to learn and to listen to diverse opinions, and they must accept that it's impossible to know what everyone knows," she said.

This is because true innovation is disruptive, and companies need to constantly evolve to better themselves. "Dynamic environments are created with diverse teams - get people who question you, who challenge you, because they are the ones that are going to open doors," she said.

She added that companies need to create spaces that facilitate collaboration and co-creation (just like Google). "Are the silos being broken, because innovation can come from the most junior person to the most senior person," she said. "The strength of the wolf is within the pack and the strength of the pack is in the wolf."