At our recent Brave New Ways of Working event in Singapore, Cegos Regional MD Jeremy Blain spoke about why managers in the APAC region must innovate now and embrace the changing world of work.
Contrary to popular belief, Charles Darwin never mentioned anything about ‘survival of the fittest’. Instead, he wrote: “It’s not the strongest of our species that survives, nor the most intelligent, it’s the one more adaptable to change.”
Change has been a constant in business throughout history. And true to Darwin’s word, the companies that survive are the ones that adapt best. Today, there is another caveat – the ones who adapt best and fastest, such is the pace at which new technology is disrupting our world.
Historically, we’ve had several industrial revolutions, but the one we are currently experiencing (often referred to as the fourth) is perhaps the most profound. As such, it brings with it extra challenges, not least of which is the need to think creatively to stand out from the competition and to survive.
Our recent research project – also entitled Brave New Ways of Working – showed that a significant majority of managers across APAC are either reluctant to innovate or avoid it all together. Why could this be?
One possibility is that managers are conscious of the risk to jobs, especially from automation. But they need not be. As far back as the 1589, when the ‘stocking frame’ (a new kind of knitting machine) was launched, British royalty took a dim view. Queen Elizabeth the First said: “I have too much regard for the poor women and unprotected young maidens who obtain their daily bread by knitting, to approve an invention which, by depriving them of employment, would reduce them to starvation.”
Fast forward 300 years and the cotton and weaving industries had boomed, thanks in part to the opportunities brought by automation. But the result was not laying off weavers in their thousands. On the contrary. By the dawn of the 19th Century, there were four times as many weavers as there had been in 1830.
In the modern world, people worry about Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics. Will they make much of our workforce obsolete? Not according to Bruce Welty, CEO of Quiet Logistics; a company that ships more than $1 billion of ecommerce orders each year. His fulfilment company has 200 job openings at its automated warehouse, while his biggest client Amazon has tripled its headcount despite bringing in 45,000 robots over the last few years.
Back to our workforce, it’s clear that advances in technology do not necessarily result in people being put on the scrapheap. If we re-imagine how we do things and move beyond traditional and outdated modes of thinking, then people can and do achieve amazing things.
Take Japanese entrepreneur Masako Wakamiya who created the Hinadan app – a game in which users must decorate and arrange a series of dolls for the Hinamatsuri festival. It may sound quaint, but the app stimulates memory use by requiring players to place the Hina dolls in the correct sequence – a big boon for older people, which is great when you consider that Wakamiya-san is 82 years-old. Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?
Another reason that managers fail to promote innovation comes down to fear of taking risks. Many businesses prefer to take the well-trodden path and stay safe, whereas some of the most successful companies incorporate a culture of risk. Innovation inevitably means some degree of failure, but the long-term rewards are often worth it.
Risk aversion in APAC is understandable to some extent. According to HR Online, 26% of firms in Singapore had a failed digital project in the last 2 years, with an average cost S$ 788,354 per company. Yet this figure can naturally be offset with the digital projects that succeed.
And if you fail to innovate, what happens? Toys R Us is a recent tragic example.
In essence, the company failed to keep up with the latest trends while their stores were very traditional and less magical places to visit than the stores of their competitors, such as Lego. It’s now Toys Were Us, following the company’s filing for administration just a few days before its founder passed away.
Actor Will Smith, who has become something of a motivation guru in recent years, says you should ‘‘fail early, fail often, fail forward’. And this will bring its rewards in due course.
Finally, another quote from the real-life hero of Darkest Hour, Winston Churchill: “Fear is the reaction. Courage is a decision.”
In that spirit, leaders and managers across the region would do well to find more courage to change and to survive.