We have all felt that twinge of wonder and disappointment - the "why didn't I think of that?" moment - that comes with seeing a great business idea take off.
Dr Hal Gregersen, a professor at the Abu Dhabi branch of INSEAD, the French business school, set out to find what enables some people to turn promising ideas into profitable businesses. He and two colleagues have interviewed and studied executives known for their creativity, such as Steve Jobs of Apple and Jeff Bezos of Amazon. Dr Gregersen now hopes to bring his findings to Abu Dhabi, where business opportunities and investment capital abound, but the individual drive for innovation is often stifled.
"If we want Abu Dhabi to have a future 30 to 40 years from now, we have to build a capacity that doesn't exist today," he says. "To me, this is 'the challenge'." Dr Gregersen and his colleagues have surveyed 3,500 executives and creative individuals and closely tracked the habits of 25 exceptional entrepreneurs, all with the aim of figuring out the qualities that set the great innovators of the world apart from the rest of us.
What they found is that this class of entrepreneurs is obsessed with questioning the status quo and suggesting radical changes, even when an existing product is generating healthy profits. They are often tinkerers and fearless about experimentation from a young age, and hold fast to their curiosity about new ideas in their professional life, whether at a cocktail party or a board meeting. The good news is that about two thirds of this creativity is a product of experience, meaning individuals can learn how to innovate, even late in their careers, he says.
But Dr Gregersen found that such innovation in the corporate world is the exception rather than the rule. Most traditional top-down management structures, ubiquitous across the region, cut off this innovation process before it starts. As an employee, asking a tough question or proposing a new way of doing things may not be received well at companies in the region and across the world, he says. "Most managers actually don't want people to innovate," he says. "A lot of managers give off this aura of 'just shut up'."
Individuals can take a few lessons to heart even as they wait for their company to come around. While finding a "prescription" for creativity was difficult, the subjects of the study shared several traits: many had spent time living and working abroad, for example, and frequently attended conferences and networked with executives from very different sectors than their own. In an article recently published in Harvard Business Review, Dr Gregersen and his two colleagues urged aspiring innovators to "contact the five most creative people you know and ask them to share what they do to stimulate creative thinking".
For the firm as a whole, encouraging creativity and innovation is essential for long-term survival. On the surface at least, the need for fostering a creative space in the office is well known: it is almost a cliche for executives to host brainstorming sessions, set up "suggestion boxes" and emphasise that their "door is always open". But such moves are insufficient. "We don't innovate when people force us to," Dr Gregersen says.
In firms with a culture of innovation, the chief executive himself is the major source of new ideas, difficult questions and challenges for his employees. Executives good at managing day-to-day operations - "the MBAs", according to Dr Gregersen - are balanced against individuals who bring fresh ideas into the office. Unfortunately, that balance is rarely struck. "You often get at the senior level of a company an increasing incapacity to go in new directions," he says. "At the very senior level, get out of your office and get into the world you're going to make a difference in."
In the UAE and the wider region, encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship is considered a key goal of government officials as they look to build a sustainable, post-oil economy. But even as these officials reform the education system and steer financial aid to start-ups, the challenges in day-to-day corporate culture remain formidable. The UAE is the world's 31st most innovative economy, according to a broad ranking published last year by INSEAD, putting it ahead of New Zealand and just behind Malaysia. But the country's decent ranking is held up by its strong infrastructure, stable political rule and sophisticated financial markets. It receives poor marks for aspects of its human capacity, including a ranking of 54 for the quality of its educational system.
In a question about whether companies create a "culture to innovate", the UAE ranks 62nd. The reasons are complex but also quite clear. Many companies across the country maintain management structures where seniority trumps merit and nearly all decisions, however minor, are channelled through the chief executive's office, which reduces the incentive to push fresh ideas. In addition, a number of firms see little need to innovate, since they are essentially local franchises of larger foreign companies.
For Dr Gregersen, creating this culture will require difficult changes at levels of society, from primary schools to universities to the highest rung of corporate management. But in the long run, innovation lies at the heart of a successful economy. "There are words we toss around - sustainable, competitive advantage, for example," he says. "The competitive advantage for me is the innovation process, the sustainable part is I have to pass on that capability to others."