Vision and leadership important in cultivating innovation

With the UAE in the midst of Innovation Week, Fiona Devine, the dean of Manchester Business School, reveals how the institution is carrying out regional research into the drivers and barriers to creativity.

Fiona Devine of Manchester Business School says in an orgnisation people present the main challenge and may resist change, so communication may become an issue. Pawan Singh / The National
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The UAE is in the midst of Innovation Week, something Manchester Business School (MBS) is fully up to speed on. The institution is currently leading a research programme into the topic; the live Arabic and English survey for working professionals in the GCC – set for publication early next year – will help MBS understand the drivers and barriers to creativity and innovation for organisations, teams and individuals. Here Fiona Devine, the business school’s head of alliance and professor of sociology, offers her perspective on innovation in the Emirates.

In what ways are creativity and innovation key skills?

Creativity and innovation are the lifeblood of society and business – especially in today’s competitive global economy. Major companies reference creativity and innovation in their mission statements, but very few effectively put it into practice. Every job requires creativity, and the highest- performing companies in the world encourage staff at every level to solve problems. Numerous surveys suggest creativity is the most important leadership trait for the future and research studies have shown the skill can indeed be trained.

What are the UAE’s main barriers to creativity and innovation?

The scale of the country’s ambition and speed of change may present its own challenges. Therefore, one of the aims of the research is to help the UAE better understand and harness its vast creative potential. There is no doubt the UAE has the vision, leadership and commitment to achieve its goal of becoming one of the world’s most innovative countries in the world by 2021. Generally, in attempting to create a culture of creativity and innovation in any organisation, “people” present the main challenge and may resist change, so communication may become an issue.

So is this a downside?

Innovation means change and people, teams and organisations can sometimes find this process to be uncomfortable and disruptive. This is where vision and leadership are so important, to communicate and inspire and help motivate people to not only accept change, but to embrace it. Change can be unpredictable and this can lead to risks, which may not always be foreseeable and which companies may find difficult to manage. Business tends to look for certainties and so may only make changes when no other options are available – this inertia is also a risk because if we are not moving forwards, we are probably going backwards.

So what steps can people or organisations take to become more creative?

A strategy helps and the Dubai Strategy for Innovation’s 10 major pillars give us a model; these include inspiring leadership with innovative vision, an innovative and integrated government, a proactive private sector, qualified and informed citizens and an environment that promotes creativity. For most organisations, the big challenge is implementing the plans – and, as mentioned, people are always the major challenge in every transformation and change management. Consider training people to be more creative, developing their skills and confidence in creative thinking, while working on real challenges and opportunities, so that they learn about creativity while the company has the benefit of new ideas.

What does the innovation-related term “failing fast” mean?

Failing fast is the idea it is better to test ideas quickly and simply with limited investment, resources and therefore limited risk in the event of failure. Some would say there is no such thing as failure because lessons are always learnt even when results are not what were expected. Failing forward describes the idea a failure can be a forward step in ultimately creating a successful innovation. Not all ideas need to be big and bold and smaller ideas that create incremental benefits are also worth exploring.

What is the most innovative thing you have ever done?

The 2013 research I undertook with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) on the Great British Class Survey, which attracted 300,000 respondents and examined class inequality and mobility in the UK, was a very creative collaboration. The online “class calculator” we developed with the BBC as part of this work was visited by 9 million people.

What is your favourite innovation of all time?

There have been many truly remarkable innovations throughout history, but I would choose the development of antibiotics such as penicillin (discovered by Scotsman Alexander Fleming in 1928) because of the huge impact on the quality of life of people around the world.

What is your favourite recent innovation?

Without doubt this would be graphene, an ultra-thin and strong layer of carbon, which was invented by two researchers at the University of Manchester, Professor Andre Geim and Professor Kostya Novoselov, who won the Nobel Prize in physics for the work. The potential of graphene to change many industries and improve life is enormous and our Graphene Institute is now tasked with the product’s commercialisation.

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