Successful innovation comes from an area of real strength

Companies should innovate but they also need to stay true to their existing strengths.

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Although the style and approach can differ markedly, there is an ongoing GCC-wide ­focus on how economies and industries that have historically rested heavily on the shoulders of hydrocarbons can make the transition to a different economic blend. Whether attention is turning to heavy manufacturing, renewable energy, health care or something else, the question facing decision-makers is how to most successfully make the leap from an area of real strength into a comparative unknown.

This effort is rarely a question of confidence. The UAE, for example, is well known around the world for its ambitious and highly successful drive to craft extraordinary new niches for itself – in everything from IT and media to construction and retail. A country that has a burgeoning space sector, the world’s tallest building and tourist must-sees opening by the day is clearly not struggling for confidence.

Rather, at the core of this pursuit is the need to take these great steps while retaining those aspects that were already strengths – think of this as diving into the unknown, but remembering to don the wetsuit you prepared earlier to protect against the cold. Shifting focus shouldn’t mean starting from scratch, but should instead build on the experience, the human capital and the infrastructure already in place.

This is something the UAE continually does, and it is a lesson that many individual private sector companies can learn from. Businesses must face a similar challenge as they try to hold course against the quickly changing demands and sentiment of the market. Sparkling new ideas become old and dusty with frightening speed, so a business should regularly and critically look at its own offering and be certain that what it produces is still what the market wants and, crucially, will continue to want.

Such a reflection might, for example, find that technology has leapfrogged your previously cutting-edge device, or show that cultural attitudes have drastically altered what people expect from your service industry. It might be screamingly obvious that there is dwindling interest in your outmoded digital platform, or you might discover that a competitor is performing at a consistently higher level than your business. If such things are true, then a smart business should immediately start trying to better discern the future to guide its next course of action.

Doing so will require fresh ideas – change may be needed to shift things up a gear. However, it shouldn’t just be about scrabbling around in a desperate effort to innovate at all costs, grabbing at any half-cooked idea that has even a glimmer of profitability. To be successful, it will also require some pretty deep introspection as a company to really identify the cap­abilities and advantages that have won you success.

Taking this more measured approach means being both aware enough of changing market sentiments to actually act, as well as wise enough to play to your strengths – whether that may be an experienced, talented workforce, a strong engineering reputation or brand allegiance that others would kill for.

Throughout history there have always been technological and demographic changes that leave some products, even entire industries, behind – VHS, floppy disks, horses as a primary means of transportation, for example. A company invested in the provision of any one of these would almost certainly have ceased to be unless they not only found a way to return to the front of their pack, but did so while carrying with them the winning knowledge and experience they had built up.

This, then, certainly doesn’t mean innovation should be held back by cautious adherence to an established way of “how we do things”. Rather, it should just temper the urge to start right back at the beginning with an honest look at the business strengths that should be retained – helping to guide a company to make decisions that have a better chance of long-term success.

Ahmad Badr is the chief executive of Abu Dhabi University Knowledge Group

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