If we were to speculate what motivated Siya Xuza, wunderkind, inventor of a new rocket fuel, Harvard alum and one of South Africa’s innovation leaders, what would the conclusions be? Did he yearn after a career in science? Was he aiming to lift his family out of poverty? Might he fancy himself as the next Isaac Newton?
No, he wanted to go to Jupiter.
After seeing an aeroplane for the first time at age five, as it dropped election pamphlets preempting South Africa’s first democratic elections, Xuza was overcome with curiosity. His quest to find out what an aeroplane was and how it worked led him to discover something far bigger: the king of the gods itself, the largest planet in our solar system.
“As I start learning about airplanes, I learn about rockets. Rockets go to a part of the universe known as space and in space there are planets. As I learn about planets, I learn the biggest in the solar system is a planet known as Jupiter. And so, at the age of five, I decided to go to Jupiter.”
Absurd? Fanciful? Yes. Everyone looked at him as if he was crazy. Yet this moonshot would guide his life, teach him about failure and helping him understand that success is not just about pursuing the possible. It’s about reaching toward the impossible and discovering so much along the way.
No half measures in innovation
This all-or-nothing view may seem absurd and lacking in true grounding, yet Xuza’s own success challenges that assumption. But don’t just take the word of a maverick rocket scientist. Ask the CTO of one of the modern world’s most maverick technology firms – JB Straubel of Tesla:
“We took information [gathered from previous products] and used it to bootstrap ourselves into the next product. Something that Tesla has done repeatedly and continues to do today, is we’d bet the entire company on the next product. Instead of cautiously getting one product under our belt and nursing that to success and make some profit from it, we never felt that would let us grow fast enough. It’s a phenomenal approach to grow very quickly, but it is very risky and very stressful.”
What is the common thread here? Jumping into the deep end. Taking a chance. Doing what others say can’t be done. Indeed, Valerie Fox, Chief Innovation Consultant at The Pivotal Point and a stalwart evangelist of incubator culture, does not even embrace modern notions such as ‘fail fast’ or ‘fail forward’:
“I don’t believe in the word ‘failure,’ because failure is when you stop. What I found in the entrepreneurial world is that they don’t stop. Entrepreneurs don’t stop. It might not work. That doesn’t mean they failed, just that it didn’t work. It’s always about how you pick yourself up and apply it to the next thing.”
Spreading innovation’s message
All three were speaking at the recent Accenture Innovation Conference, which pursued the theme of innovation and how to ignite it among people, companies and countries. This is not a ‘nice to have’: innovation is fast becoming a necessary catalyst in forging competitive businesses. Dovetailing with this is the rise of digitisation, which empowers companies to really start flexing their innovation muscles.
“Embracing innovation from the top of the company is what drives innovation in a company,” said William Mzimba, Chief Executive of Accenture South Africa and Chairman of Accenture Sub-Saharan Africa. “We are seeing businesses leveraging digital as an enabler for innovation, and they are leveraging digital technologies to change their business models and make sure that they can set up platforms for innovation.”
Yet while this message resonates in broad strokes, at more nuanced levels South African companies are still slow to adopt innovation thinking. Accenture’s third annual Innovation Index reveals that small gains have been made, but not enough. Out of the businesses surveyed, only 8 percent qualified at the top tier of Innovation Value Champions. In terms of which digital platforms are being used to drive innovation, the laggards perform best with mobile (54% as opposed 70% among top innovators), but fail to capitalise on analytics (36% vs 80%), cloud technologies (45% vs 65%) and social media (42% vs 80%). Even though digital presents opportunities, the challenge appears to be the entrenched cultures at companies.
Linda Trim, Director of Giant Leap Workspace Specialists – a past winner of the Accenture Innovation Index – laid out what makes her company innovative: “Every time we see a gap, we’re a small team and we make quick decisions. Because we’re self-funded, we’ve always chosen to collaborate with others people to get to the market quickly and do what we want.”
Other attendees at the event reflected this as well: the ability to move on an idea, to experiment instead of stifling inspiration and to take risks are key to innovative thinking. Mzimba also noted that, from a practical perspective, companies should shift away from pipeline thinking where products are conceived and delivered in the ‘build it and they will come’ mantra. Instead companies should reorientate themselves as platforms, sandboxes even, where ideas can take root and have a chance at reaching for the sun or, perhaps, Jupiter.
Cultivating business innovation
This way of thinking is evident in many trailblazing companies, be they old guard turned new such as GE, the anything-goes world of Amazon or challengers of the status quo such as Tesla.
“Innovation has to be culturally embedded in your organisation,” said Straubel. “It can’t be something that is just a side project or whole separate little team. I have seen that at a lot of the big corporates. Inevitably we find those innovation teams are not connected to the main company. They have the right culture in of themselves, but you need to find a way to spread that culture into the whole company or else it really can’t have the effect that you want it to have.”
To adherents of innovation advice, Straubel’s comment may seem contradictory. Often companies are encouraged to have separate teams that drive innovation goals without the interference of the larger organisation. Salim Ismail, renowned technology investor and co-founder of the Singularity University, defined the issue as a company’s immune system will often try to kill innovation. Yet this is not at odds with Straubel’s view – as the Tesla CTO noted: the trick is how you spread that culture through the rest of the enterprise.
“Apple is the master of this technique,” said Ismail. “What Apple does is take a small team that is highly disruptive and take them to the edge of the organisation. They’ll keep them completely stealth and tell them to go disrupt other industries.”
Yet he added that it’s not easy. Walmart failed numerous times before it was able to adopt this approach. The company routinely created edge innovation teams, but these were felled by company interference, being too close to the main company (or mothership, as Ismail terms it) or were brought back into the space too soon. Eventually Walmart learned to create an autonomous entity and slowly adopt its way of thinking instead of amalgamating the entity in a hope of innovation culture through osmosis.
In fact, fear of the unknown often prompts companies to be over-cautious and not take such bold steps. Yet this is exactly what is required. Tesla’s Straubel said the biggest advantage was not knowing what they didn’t know. By not having a manual on how you should build a car, they made something new and superior to the entrenched norms of the industry they were besieging. It is a journey made easier with the help and support of consulting services such as Accenture, but it can’t be accomplished half-heartedly.
Xuza, the maverick rocket scientist and currently battery innovator, brought it all to a succinct point, a philosophical challenge:
“The purpose of my talk was to humbly ask you: what is your Jupiter? What is that impossible vision that you have that will transform your company, your country or your world? What is that Jupiter or how can you help others achieve those Jupiters through innovation? The way we will be able to transform the image of Africa from one that is dark to an Africa that is bright, that takes it rightful place, is through this spirit of innovation.”