Get thinking outside the box squared away

The Life: What can the elderly can teach us about innovation? Hal Gregersen, a senior affiliate professor of leadership at Insead in Abu Dhabi, explains.

Hal Gregersen, a senior affiliate professor of leadership at Insead in Abu Dhabi, says innovation starts from the top. Sammy Dallal / The National
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Surveys often report employers want their staff to be more creative.

Here, Hal Gregersen, a senior affiliate professor of leadership at Insead in Abu Dhabi, talks about innovation in the UAE and how employers can test candidates' abilities to think creatively.

What is the biggest challenge to innovation here?

Well, it's not just a UAE challenge. It comes with family-owned firms and cultures where hierarchy matters.

How so?

When status matters and where I am in the organisation is really important, it shuts down risk taking. People are paying attention to their own level and potential for movement and it restricts potential for new ideas.

So how can companies become more innovative?

It starts from the top. Does the leader ask provocative questions? Do they let other people ask questions that challenge the status quo? Do they pay attention to the world? Do they talk to their customers? Do they watch how [customers] use their products? The second part becomes do we have human resource practices that supports this stuff? Are we paying attention, when we hire people, to their willingness to take initiative, to generate ideas, to solve problems?

Surely, testing candidates' ability to innovate is difficult.

If you're going to get hired at Amazon, one of the things they're looking for is inventiveness. Even if you're being hired as a chief financial officer, Jeff Bezos will ask you, 'Tell me about something you have invented.' Most chief financial officers don't get asked that question. But he doesn't want a Nobel Prize invention. All he wants to know is maybe the camera strap broke on the camera and they didn't want to not have a camera strap, 'So I thought for a moment and used some string.' Innovative companies do that. They pay attention. That has its advantages.

How easy is it for hierarchical and traditional companies to change?

I'm doing some work now with a European company. It's a conservative, 160-year-old company, family run, and the most recent chief executive who retired had never used a computer in his life ... My approach is start at the top and that means these managers have got to take a very careful look in the mirror: 'Who am I? Who are we? Are we doing what we might now ask other people to do?'

How can a boss who works for a company in retail encourage employees to think creatively?

If I work in a camera shop, how many bosses value their employees going to lunch with someone from a clothing shop? Not just to have lunch with them but to ask, 'What do you do in that space? How do you approach what you do?' And when they come back how many managers ask, 'What did you learn? What was unexpected about the way they sell clothing and what might that have to do with the way we sell cameras around here?'