COLUMN | March 30, 2022 | 5 min read
Singapore’s leaders must think differently about innovation and look to the nation’s past to inspire its future, according to futurist Charlie Ang
By Charlie Ang, digital futurist
Are Singaporean organisations ready for the future? Most responses to that question today revolve around the adoption of digital technologies, talent with these new disciplines, and our ability to drive homegrown innovation. To truly answer that question, we should take a step back and evaluate how we think about technology, innovation, and what the future looks like.
From my work with numerous organisations in Singapore and abroad, I have identified three mindsets that often stand in the way of innovation–and three ways that we should shift our thinking to adapt better to the future and inevitable disruption. We know that this decade will pose a myriad of unprecedented challenges. New mindsets and mental models are needed for us to thrive regardless of the circumstances.
Singapore has historically focused on productivity as the primary driver of our growth, reasoning (often correctly) that if we can outperform others in quality and speed of execution, we will thrive. Today, however, superior execution is necessary but insufficient for competitive differentiation. Differentiation now comes from how organisations innovate and how they deliver unique value propositions to customers.
Many Singaporean organizations find it challenging to be innovative because of risk aversion and avoidance. “Good to Great” author Jim Collins set forth that “Good is the enemy of great.” In execution, the goal is to minimise the variability and magnitude of risk in order to maximise stability. Innovation, on the other hand, requires the deliberate introduction and rigorous optimisation of risk to accelerate change.
An organisation engineered for execution and stability will eventually be obsolete. As Mark Zuckerberg puts it: “The biggest risk is not taking any risk. In a world that’s changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks.” Hence, today’s organisation needs to be comfortable with, and find its own sweet spot between, stability and change.
One way to ignite change is to be customer-centric. By deeply understanding customers’ needs, organisations can better sense the changes in the marketplace, conceive of new ideas to invest in, and de-risk the innovation process. More investment is committed to develop a new product or service as it is increasingly validated and de-risked with customers.
Leading innovation frameworks like Jobs to be Done can help leaders shift focus from internal productivity to external customer needs. Using these more scientific, repeatable, and rigorous approaches, organisations can speed up and scale up innovation. For instance, innovators can classify customer needs as overserved, underserved, or unmet and prioritise their efforts accordingly.
In this decade, we can expect to see a Cambrian-like explosion of not only diverse new technologies but also novel business models. Customer-centricity helps our organisations to discover and innovate better products and business models.
Imagine that a car is travelling toward you down a highway at 20 kilometres per hour. It’s easy enough to spot and step out of the way before it hits you. But what if the car is approaching you at 200 kilometres per hour? You have to see further out and react faster if you want to jump to safety.
This analogy applies to the acceleration of technological disruption. Nearly 9 in 10 larger organisations in Singapore struggle with the speed and complexity of change, which will only intensify in the years ahead. That means leaders need to have a longer forward visibility and runway to prepare ahead of time.
This requires a new approach to transformation, what is commonly known as “future-back” thinking or backcasting. By default, companies use a present-forward or forecasting approach: starting with how they currently operate, then incrementally adding new technologies and improvements to their business model. Future-back thinking flips this around: We first envision the state of the industry at, say, 10 or 15 years into the future, then decide our ideal state in that scenario. Next, we plot our transformation path from today to that preferred future.
A future-back approach keeps us from getting stuck in incremental thinking and missing the next paradigm. As the saying goes, “The electric light did not come from the continuous improvement of candles.” Neither did cars come from horses, nor Netflix online streaming from Blockbuster video stores. In the age of constant disruptions and the advert of Web3 and Metaverse, future-back enables us to leapfrog to future paradigms.
The COVID-19 pandemic makes it an imperative for organisations to strengthen their resiliency. More than 8 in 10 Singaporean CEOs are prioritising crisis management and business continuity to prepare for future crises. Resilience increasingly features as a measure of organisational excellence. Resilience matters, but we are setting our sights too low.
Rather than merely aiming for resilience, I encourage leaders to set the bar higher by becoming “antifragile.” Antifragility is a radical approach introduced by the best-selling author, Nassim Taleb, in his widely acclaimed book, “Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder.” Fragile things, a glass for instance, break upon impact, and resilient ones, like a basketball, can withstand it. Antifragile systems, by contrast, strengthen and benefit from such shocks.
An example is the human brain, which expands with every novel experience, difficult challenge, and stressful situation. Life on earth is extraordinarily antifragile, regenerating into more advanced forms through evolution in a hostile and dynamic biosphere. Antifragility can be embraced by countries, companies, and individuals to emerge stronger after every crisis, adversity, or shock.
In many ways, antifragility has always defined modern Singapore. As a nation born out of a crisis of independence, our founding generation not only aimed for short-term survival but aspired to turn seemingly unfavourable conditions into our long-term advantage. For instance, a lack of natural hinterland inspired Singapore to create an economic hinterland out of the whole world by positioning itself as a vital gateway for developed economies into Asia’s burgeoning markets.
From the SARS outbreak in 2003, we acquired important lessons to prepare us for the next pandemic. Our healthcare redundancies, scientific capabilities, crisis management, and safety protocols were strengthened. That led us to becoming one of the safest and best managed countries during the COVID-19 crisis. Our leadership’s mantra of “emerging stronger” from COVID-19 rallies the nation to transform to, and grasp the opportunities presented by, a starkly different post-COVID future. This is an exemplary demonstration of the axiom: In good times, plan for the bad. In bad times, plan for the good.
How can other leaders adopt this same antifragile mindset? Ancient wisdom provides invaluable clues. The two characters that make up the word “crisis” in Chinese are “danger” and “opportunity.” Engineer and prepare your organisation to prevail over the dangers of future crises, and spot and seize the opportunities emerging from the aftermath. Learning from the past, sensing the unknown, developing redundancies and options, nurturing a growth mindset, avoiding fatal risks, and constant reinvention are some of the ways to ride out and grow after every adversity.
The ability to grow stronger from crises will be the source of competitive advantage in a decade when the Fourth Industrial Revolution, geopolitical instability, and the climate emergency are coming together to create huge disruptions. Simply weathering the storm is no longer enough; the next step is to learn to harness it.