Propellerfish’s Singapore office hosted a dinner for senior executives leading innovation in Asia Pacific to discuss the key challenges facing leadership in the region. The list of attendees is confidential but they came from a mix of multinational organizations across healthcare, financial services, telecommunications, consumer goods, and technology. The people at the table were selected based on their experience making innovation happen in large organizations.

The goal was to give senior people a forum to discuss challenges with external peers. Without giving away anything confidential, here are some the themes that were on people’s minds. You can also download a PDF summary below.

Innovation has jumped the shark

There is a feeling that innovation is an overused word that has lost both meaning and power. The core function of turning new opportunities into tangible impact is as important as ever, but the people contributing most to this practice do not have the word “innovation” in their title. Meanwhile, those people working under titles and teams called “innovation” seem to be delivering less than expected. While this echoes what we hear in other parts of the world, the prevalence of inexperienced innovation “experts” in Asia Pacific paired with a shortage of qualified talent has created an abundance of innovation teams that could be delivering much more.

The spotty track record of innovation centers

A smaller group discussed the prevalence of innovation centers and suggested that while the first round of these were not massively successful in Asia, these experiments offer insight into how to get these things right in the future. Propellerfish is currently interviewing innovation leaders around the world for an article focused on what makes innovation centers succeed or fail, but those we talked to about this felt that many of these centers in the region have been designed around ceremonial KPIs (an innovative looking space designed for visitors and gaining publicity) rather than hard market impact (e.g., number of products in market). There was a sense that innovation centers succeed when they prioritise impact over protocol and get the right people into place.

The rise of design thinking relative to innovation

We talked about the rise of Design Thinking inside of corporates and one executive went as far as to suggest that Design Thinking is eating innovation. Some felt that the word “design” suggested a tangibility that innovation was failing to deliver. Others felt that the structure of design thinking (which some found unnecessarily rigid) offered a way to scale an expert function to less experienced staff (as appreciated by the same people who protested its rigidity).

Entitlement Culture vs. Meritocracy

There was a feeling among our guests that a culture of entitlement that spans beyond the workplace is one of the biggest barriers to innovation in Asia Pacific. There’s a feeling of “I did A so I should get B” which ranges from “I’m the oldest son so I get the family business” to things like “I have been working for 7 years so I deserve the following title”. This culturally ingrained way of thinking about careers leaves actual impact delivered overlooked when people think about their value. As a result, the payoff of taking a calculated and informed risk does not factor into the way people plan to get ahead professionally.

How to incentivise experimentation

Everyone felt that that the consequences of failure outweighed the rewards of success for people in large organizations in Asia Pacific. This isn’t anything new, but is unanimously seen as the biggest barrier to innovation in this part of the world.

Great innovation people need independence of character

Our dinner guests recognised a spirit of independence in each other and suggested this is a powerful red thread among people who are successful at making innovation happen in large organizations. As one person put it “I’m assuming everyone at the table isn’t afraid to be fired or they wouldn’t be able to do this. You can’t be successful in an innovation role if you want an iron rice bowl.” Another talked to us about how leading innovation is “is about courage and having conviction.”

Managing the legacy track

People talked to us about the challenges of thinking longer term in large organizations where performance is tracked annually. The innovation leaders in the room stressed the importance of a longer term view but was disappointed in their inability to stay focused on those longer term goals in the face of shorter term performance objectives. One attendee talked about being mindful of the “the legacy track” as well as immediate priorities when making day to day decisions. “It’s about your body of work over the course of a lifetime of work. You need to step back from the day to day to keep perspective, not be distracted by smaller annoyances, and avoid losing track of the bigger picture of what you are setting out to achieve.”

Getting beyond the obvious insights

There was a unanimous frustration with the ability to get insight work that delivered a deep and rich picture of consumers in this part of the world. Too much insight work focuses on pointing out the obvious and spouting the mantra of “Asian consumers are different” without really giving any meaningful insight into the nuances of one of the most culturally perse and dynamic parts of our planet.

Download the full PDF report here.

This group of executives is the founding group of an ongoing series of discussions on innovation leadership. If you are a senior leader who would like to be invited to future gatherings of your peers, please get in touch.

A-Young Kim is a strategist at Propellerfish and based in our Singapore office.

Alex Marquez is the Founder of Propellerfish, a global innovation consultancy dedicated to turning opportunity into tangible impact for organization and society.