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Innovation is in the thinking, not in technology: JC Oliver, Microsoft

“Innovation has to be rooted in today if it’s not to run off and be worthless,” cautioned JC Oliver, Global Head of Innovation, Microsoft. According to him, innovation is back on the menu for everyone. Essentially businesses are using it but not defining it the right way. He cited the intersection between culture, traditional marketing and data and tech, where the most exciting developments are taking place today.

Mr Oliver was speaking at the ongoing Festival of Media Asia in Singapore, where the day began with the sobering news of the passing away of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first Prime Minister. Citing Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s example as an innovator who had a plan for infrastructure, education economy, Mr Oliver said, “People like him were innovative in their thinking, busting the perception that Asia has been behind in innovation. In this region, people have the platform and the tools. It’s all in the thinking, and not all about technology.”

Comparing the three major waves of innovation in the past few decades, Mr Oliver reflected that efficiency based innovation was front and centre in the 70s. The arrival of internet in the 90s changed the way global companies operated by changing the value chain. “The interesting wave of innovation now is what we call the internet of things,” he said.

“Everything we do today is data signal. Essentially all products have been miniaturised and can connect to the internet. Now the product itself is changing and not just the value chain. We are on the most interesting wave of innovation right now, right here,” he added.

“Innovation has to be wrong in order to be right. If something is right, it has been validated in past,” Mr Oliver submitted. Focusing on the future of innovation in Asia, he argued, “Innovation happens to fail most of the time. In Asia, we have a culture of not being able to fail fast. Reason is that brands don’t like risk”.

He advised brands to identify what type of innovation they actually want in order to minimise the risk. He also opined that brands today fail to drive energy. “Energy supersedes intelligence every time. Energy drives creativity and that drives innovation,” he pointed out.

“I see is a tremendous amount of energy in Asia. You have to be able to make opposing forces come together to cover the distance from insights to being inventive,” Mr Oliver advised, adding that practitioners should inculcate design thinking, which is different from having a great design. The pursuit of radical, market changing innovation as opposed to efficient and iterative innovation requires consistent effort and alignment with business. This requires structural integration of innovation teams into organisations.

“Put everything, brand construct, business construct and the innovation construct together in order to be totally aligned. If not, your consumer is not going to accept it,” Mr Oliver concluded.