Reviving the innovative Kiwi entrepreneurial spirit

New Zealand businesses should create an A Team and embrace change to foster innovation and growth.

New Zealand businesses should create an A Team and embrace change to foster innovation and growth.

kylie wilson mba resparking the entrepreneurial spiritAll over New Zealand those who once were risk-taking, creative entrepreneurs find themselves leading their own businesses, having reached a level of success with which they are happy. Day-to-day activities are focused on maintaining profit levels through increased efficiencies and mitigating risk by calling on the experience accumulated throughout the journey of creating their ‘baby’. But are these business leaders truly happy? Are they being true to their skill set? Are they helping their business or indeed stifling the creative and innovative direction it craves?

After a mind-boggling and mind-changing study tour to the US as a part of my MBA, I have been left questioning the Kiwi business mindset. A mindset where failure is a dirty word, success is often represented by a comfortable lifestyle and ‘mucking in’ is a part of everyday life because we are, as a nation, extremely hard-working.

Throughout the tour I was forced to turn these beliefs upside down and consider the possibility of failure being desirable, success being represented by the amount of risk taken over a lifetime and the thought of top level management being hands-off rather than hands-on. The tour gave me the opportunity to visit many organisations that are currently pushing the boundaries and challenging themselves through true innovation.

So how do our Kiwi business leaders – once warriors of entrepreneurial spirit – get back to who they are, revitalising the soul of their ‘business baby’ and find ways to minimise missed opportunities?

I offer two insights to assist with these ideas, in the hope that it will spark thought and lead to the unleashing of those creative and innovative minds who built the businesses we work within.

Create an A Team
Imagine a team where there is one visionary - or couple - with a certain set of skills, and a selection of others who have superior skills to the visionary in specialised areas – people who fill in the gaps. The team cannot function successfully without each other and their sole purpose is to make each other (and therefore the business) achieve amazing things.

If created carefully, this team becomes unstoppable and quickly becomes the business’ best asset. It allows the visionary to do what they do best: set the vision for creative ideology and its evolution.

There is only one way to have a team like this – the visionary needs to create it. They do this by hiring the very best possible ‘gap fillers’ they can find whom they completely trust; admitting that these team members are better day-to-day managers or specialists than themselves and most importantly, owning the visionary position by empowering the rest of the team to do what they do best. By doing this the visionary is giving themselves the opportunity to step away from the daily business and focus on the bigger picture.

An excellent example of a visionary creating an A Team can be seen at the automated retail chain organisation Zoom Systems in San Francisco. Gower Smith, a successful Kiwi entrepreneur and founder and co-chairman of the board, recognised when he needed to step back from his position as CEO. Until recently, he  led the team on a daily basis and had been very successful at it – Zoom Systems is leading the way in automated retail transactions by offering high end vending machine space located in high traffic airports and other locations to major contracts such as Best Buy, Apple and Proactiv.

But in order to focus on growing the business further, Smith hired Jack Lawrence, a proven manager of global operations to take over the daily grind so he could focus on what he does best, which is being the visionary. To complete the team, Zoom Systems also has three executives at senior vice president status who specialise in engineering, sales and corporate development. These are the three key areas that the business needs to be strong in to maintain their current success.

Think differently about change
The word ‘change’ can bring with it many negative connotations as it often involves the unknown, stepping out of a comfort zone and hard work. But in a modern business world where emergent strategy is the new black, it's time to start thinking of change as a design process with many iterations of trial and error.

At the core of the design process is the inspiration, evolution and validation of an idea. Be inspired by many ideas and embrace failure by letting go of the original form. Allow the team to prototype through an iterative process, evolving it to a superior adaptation.

In order to manage the change and ensure validation at an organisational level, you need your design process aligned with communication and culture. Use open source methods of communication to gain maximum exposure, allowing the flow of feedback and new ideas for continuous improvement. Create a culture where staff welcome the iterations as a part of the process and understand that continuous improvement is necessary, rather than seeing them as another top-down driven change process with right-sizing in mind.

IDEO – a design and innovation consulting firm based in Palo Alto, is an extreme example of an organisation where inspire, evolve and validate are common vocabulary. IDEO’s business is about helping organisations develop capabilities, innovate and grow. They do this by guiding them through change, be it in product development, system and procedural revamps or even organisational restructure.

The culture of IDEO is one that represents the height of creativity. The way the organisation works with customers is mirrored in how it is structured as a business. With no set ‘departments’, project teams are formed to work with each new account and staff are invited, choose to join or partake as much or as little as required depending on their area of speciality or experience. This might mean they are involved from anything as much as the project leader, to something as small as a participant in one of the many brainstorms.

As a business leader, stepping back and letting others step up to evolve your ideas is a large risk, particularly when change is involved and failure is a strong possibility. The risk of failure is, however, one that needs to be taken in order to minimise missed opportunities and give you a better chance of taking your business to new heights.

Embrace failure – it is just another iteration of a much bigger picture and the real risk required to re-spark the entrepreneurial spirit.

Kylie Wilson is general manager of the Aviation & Travel Training Group, New Zealand’s largest provider of travel and tourism training in the tertiary education sector, and a student of Massey University's executive MBA programme

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