Does Asia Need a Woodstock Moment?
I am on record of being "long" on innovation in Asia, and I continue to feel tremendous innovation energy in the region. I've seen fascinating developments inside both big companies and emerging startups. But observations during two recent meetings made me wonder about the degree to which Asia needs a "Woodstock moment" to realize its full innovation potential.
The first meeting took place inside a large company based in Asia. That meeting's goal was to help accelerate the company's innovation efforts. The day began with about 30 people in a room, including very senior leaders. The discussion was cordial, and the junior people in the room stayed quiet. Then the top brass left. Discussion opened up a bit, and the more junior people in the room began to contribute. Then the middle managers left, and the gloves came off. The most junior people expressed strong views about some of the specific efforts the company was considering and contributed a range of interesting ideas to the dialogue. Then the bosses returned. Cordiality and consensus returned, with the divergent discussion hidden from leadership's view.
Not that you don't see this behavior inside U.S. companies, but it was a reminder of the highly hierarchical nature of many Asian companies. It made me wonder whether the company really was set up to spur non-linear insights that lead to breakthrough ideas. Innovation requires a bit of anarchy and a willingness to challenge the status quo.
As a contrast to the meeting I observed, consider Start-up Nation, a fascinating book by Dan Senor and Saul Singer. The book describes some of the elements that have allowed Israel to create more startup companies per capita than any country in the world. Anyone who has spent much time in the country knows that many Israelis have few inhibitions about speaking their minds. Good ideas trump hierarchy. Sometimes that can lead to frustratingly slow meetings, as participants share viewpoint after viewpoint, but it does lead to some breathtakingly different insights.
The second meeting was a moderated discussion between P&G CTO Bruce Brown and me about our recent Harvard Business Review article. I've done a few of these kinds of discussions before, and getting good questions from an Asian audience can be like pulling teeth. While the first meeting demonstrated that provocative viewpoints can hide below the surface of leadership, the second one revealed an interesting tool for bringing those viewpoints out.
Right before this event, the moderator showed me a technology developed by two young Singaporeans called "Pigeonhole," designed to draw the audience into the discussion. The technology is simple. Users whip out their smartphones, go to a special Web site, and key in their question. They can see other questions people have asked, and vote for the one they think is the most interesting. The company appropriately describes itself as "the world's simplest real-time conference Q&A tool on the mobile."
The questions that the audience prioritized were thoughtful, and occasionally provocative. It showed me that if you can make it "safe," you can encourage real discourse in Asia.
Hence the idea of a "Woodstock moment." For those not attuned to American popular culture, Woodstock was a music festival in a small town in New York in the late 1960s. A half million people heard acts such as the Who, Jimi Hendrix, and the Grateful Dead. The event served the capstone for a years-long groundswell of youthful expression and rebellion in the United States.
Perhaps it is coincidence that such cultural changes in the United States predated the explosion of venture capital and new business formation that was to follow. But I suspect not. The 1960s (at least according to my reading — I was born in the mid-1970s) gave people permission to speak their minds and challenge authority. Would Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak have created Apple without that permission?
Does Asia need something similar? Will it just happen naturally? Or will other mechanisms like Pigeonhole take care of the problem?
I'm eager to see.