Sunday, August 23, 2009

To Innovate, Leave Something to Chance

An old classmate of mine since primary school days has an illustrious career in construction project management. Today, he is the managing director of a leading development company listed on the Malaysian stock exchange. I once asked him what is the single most important success factor in construction project management. "Have a very good checklist, and check it religiously", he said.

What he said resonates with several other experienced project managers I spoke with in other fields such as IT project management and event management. Their common mantra -- if you want flawless execution, leave nothing to chance.

Leave nothing to chance -- this mantra has served Singapore well. Indeed, over the years, Singapore has earned a reputation for efficiency and dependability in project execution. Whether it is physical infrastructure development projects like airport and public transport, or events like the IMF convention or F1, our project planners and managers have done well when it comes to executing according to plan.

But this formula for success is only applicable when you are dealing with projects that have two characteristics -- (1) the end-targets can be well-specified ahead of time, and (2) the means to achieve the targets are also known and well-specified. In other words, you know where exactly you want to go, and you know the available roads and means (transport vehicles, fuels etc) you need to take to get there.

Unfortunately, these conditions do not apply when you are embarking on an innovation journey. When you are trying to innovate, you may know what the end goal is (e.g. kill the cancerous cells but leave normal cells unharmed), but you do not know how to get there; or you may have a fantastic new tool, but don't know what you can do with it. Often, you have incomplete knowledge of both.

Much of the innovation literature tells us that successful innovations often come about serendipitiously, i.e. the innovative ideas are often discovered by accidents and for purposess not originally pursued. Chance encounters and unexpected occurences (accidents) feature prominently as impetus for such innovative breakthroughs as the discovery of penicillin, insulin and viagra and the invention of microwave oven, vulcanized rubber, inkjet printer and paypal, just to name a few. However, this runs counter to the mindset of leaving nothing to chance. In the latter mindset, everything is regimented to achieve the planned tasks at hand, and no wandering out of the defined activities is allowed. The chance of accident has already been minimized by meticulous planning, and even if it still happens, contingent plans have already been specified to get you back on track as quickly as possible.

To improve your chance of coming up with something really innovative, however, you need to do the opposite by leaving something to chance. Allow some time to go on an explorative mode rather than your routine exploitative mode -- i.e. broaden your knowledge search to less familiar territories instead of stomping around familiar grounds . Give your ideas room to mutate by reading and trying things outside your normal routine, and having chance encounters with people you normally do not talk to. And when something unexpected does happen, sit back to ponder what it may mean and explore where it may lead you, rather than hurrying to get back on track with whatever you were originally pursuing.

To leave something to chance, you have to leave some time to chance. One of my favourite quotes is a line I read many years ago in a Princeton University brochure when I was looking for universities to apply. It went something like this -- "There is value to time that has no direction, and that can go in any direction." I have taken to heart this advice over the years.

New opportunities are staring at our face everyday. But most of us are so focused on what we are doing (the rate race...) that we miss seeing them. Are you leaving enough time in your life for chance exploration ?


For an enjoyable account of serendipitious discoveries in science, read Royston M. Roberts: Serendipity: Accidental Discoveries in Science. Wiley, 1989.

For a more recent listing of notable serendipitious discoveries and innovations, see the Wikipedia entry on Serendipity.

Exploration vs. exploitation is a central conceptual construct (first introduced by J.G. March) in the innovation management and organization science literatue. If you like to learn more about the distinction between the two modes of innovation and their impact on firm performance, you can read this academic journal article of mine)

Monday, August 17, 2009

Promoting entrepreneurship development in Singapore: Ideas for the Economic Strategies Committee?

As some of you may be aware, the Singapore government has recently established a high-level, inter-ministerial Economic Strategies Committee (ESC) to develop and recommend strategies to grow Singapore’s future as a leading global city in the heart of Asia. You can visit the ESC website to get more details on the composition, scope and objectives of the ESC, which aims to put forward its key recommendations in January 2010 and will release its full report by mid-2010.

One of the sub-committees (Sub-committee 2) set up under the ESC is tasked to look into "Developing A Vibrant SME Sector And Globally Competitive Local Companies". Co-chaired by Mrs. Lim Hwee Hua (Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office and 2nd Minister (Finance and Transport)) and Dr. Ricky Souw (CEO, Sanwa Group and President of Singapore Precision Engineering and Tools Association), this sub-committee will recommend strategies to:

* Develop a vibrant landscape of entrepreneurial activity
* Foster the growth and internationalisation of Local Globally Competitive Companies
* Strengthen synergies between small and large enterprises

The above issues are highly relevant to the future development of the entrepreneurial ecosystem of Singapore. In addition, there are several other ESC sub-committees that may cover issues of relevant interest to the entrepreneurial community, including Sub-committee 1 (Seizing Growth Opportunities), Sub-committee 4 (Growing Knowledge Capital) and Sub-committee 5 (Making Singapore a Leading Global City).

I would like to strongly encourage everyone in the entrepreneurial community of Singapore to contribute your ideas. You can do so directly by going to the online consultation page of the ESC website to submit your suggestions and feedback. If you like to share your ideas with others in the community so as the solicit comments and feedback from others, can I suggest that you also submit your thoughts as a response to this blog post -- hopefully we can then generate a healthy online discussion among the community.

I happened to be involved in a task force set up within NUS to provide inputs to the ESC, and so will be more than happy to not only participate in this online discussion myself, but also to champion some of the best ideas emerging from this online discussion (with appropriate attribution of course) through this channel as well. I look forward to your active contribution !

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Exploiting the overlooked market niche -- how about the market for left-handers ?

One of the ways to identify business opportunities is to focus on niche, minority markets that may be overlooked by the big established players who tend to target the mass, mainstream market. One example of a minority market is the market for products designed for left-handed people. Ok, I confess this market is of personal interest to me, as I'm a left-hander myself. Actually, I'm inspired to write this blog because the official International Lef-Handers Day is coming very soon -- August 13 to be exact (that's right, there is actually such a day).

Because lefties account for only about 10-15% of the world's population, most mass consumer products are designed for right handers. While left-hander version do exist, they usually are very hard to find in the mainstream consumer outlets, and usually for high value products only (e.g. golf club, hockey stick, guitars). If you are looking for left-hand scissors, peelers, knives, mugs or can-openers, you will often be out of luck. My own favourite beef is actually the cheque-book that I get from the banks.

I have come across a shop in San Francisco, and one in London, that specializes in goods for left-handers, but I am not aware of any retail shop in Singapore that specializes in this niche market. There are of course quite a few online shops that specialize in left-handed goods, e.g.,,,, etc but even these are mostly based in the US or Europe, so you incur hefty shipping charges if you are based in most parts of Asia.

Obviously, many of the factors that cause left-handed goods to be more expensive and less efficiently distributed apply to minority products in general -- economy of scale in production, the logic of fast inventory turnover in mass consumer outlets, higher marketing costs to target a niche customer base etc. But clearly, advances in internet and web2.0 marketing technology ought to be able to help improve the market efficiency in matching left-handed consumers with suppliers -- the long-tail argument of Chris Anderson. Notwithstanding some of the online shops I mentioned, I have not really seen this particular long-tail being exploited in most part of Asia though. It may be that, while other minority consumer markets have a higher degree of physical clustering (think of Chinatown in Western societies), left-handers are not geographically concentrated. Or it may be that it is harder to identify and hence target the left-hander consumers, since you can't readily do the segmentation based on the kind of easily available demographic or socio-economic data that marketers capture (when you fill up an application form for any service, they ask you your income and occupation, etc, but did you ever get asked whether you are left or right-handed?).

Still, 10-15% is not exactly a small market segment, so I do believe that there is an under-exploited market opportunity here. Moreover, unlike trying to customize product for other minority market, where you really need to thoroughly understand what features to customize (e.g. color preference, size, packaging) and hence there is considerable product design risk, the cost for customizing product design for the left-handers should be quite low, as it usually involves nothing more than a mirror reflection of the standard product design.

So for the entrepreneurs out there, especially if you are left-handed yourself (or have loved ones who are), why don't you start thinking of ways to exploit this niche market opportunity?

I believe the key challenge is in developing the right marketing strategy. For starters, you could probably target your marketing pitch to parents of young left-handers. During my time, I get punished by some of my primary school teachers for using my left-hand in writing -- that is why I developed stammering as a child, as I was forced to write with my wrong hand for a number of years -- but these days adults are more understanding, and indeed parents with left-handed children (like me -- I have a left-handed daughter, although my son is right-handed) are usually anxious to ensure their children are not handicapped because of their handedness. And in case you do not know, there is no shortage of famous left-handers that you can draw upon for your marketing pitch -- for the artistically inclined, there's Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Picasso and Mozart; for the scientist to be, there's Albert Einstein and Marie Curie; for the entrepreneurial, there's Henry Ford, John Rockefeller and of course Bill Gates; and for the politically inclined, there's Julius Ceasar, Napoleon, Alexander the Great and in more recent times, Mahatma Ghandi, Bill Clinton and - yes, Barak Obama. (For those of us who are Singaporean, I'm told that our very own Prime Minister, B.G. Lee, is also a left-hander.)

Do contact me if you know of any interesting venture that targets this niche market opportunity, or if you just want to share with me your own favourite grouses about wrong-handed products.