Stories by Olabisi Olaleye [email protected] 08094000013, 08111813040
Founder of Computer Warehouse Group, CWG Plc, the largest systems integration company in sub-Saharan Africa, Austin Okere, has said recycling old hands without innovative input would lead to collapse in the system.
recently, Okere charged organisations to infuse millennials in their workforce and create winning environments that aim for zero undesired attrition. His adviced to firms “above all, give millennials the freedom to engage in ‘innovation blitz,’ where failure holds no fear of punishment, but is rather regarded as part of the experience culminating in generating fresh ideas for the continued sustainability of the enterprise.”
Millennials and their impact on grassroots innovation
I recently attended the Infosys annual confluence in San Francisco. The keynote speaker was former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, who spoke passionately on the topic very close to his heart, climate change. While Gore’s message was compelling, what held my attention throughout the conference was the potential of our bourgeoning millennials and their impact on grassroots innovation.
The next generation
In October 2004, researchers Neil Howe and William Strauss called millennials “the next great generation.” They define the group as those born between 1982 and 2004. Millennials are likely the most studied and talked about generation to date. They are the first generation in history that have grown up totally immersed in a world of digital technology, which has shaped their identities and created lasting political, social and cultural attitudes. Without a doubt, they have embraced technology like no other generation.
In 2008, millennials were the number one reason why Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination, and also the reason Bernie Sanders stuck around in the Democratic nomination battle with Hillary Clinton, despite the odds against him.
In his address, Vishal Sikka, CEO of Infosys, described zero-distance as staying close to the customer, understanding his needs and wants and ensuring disintermediation. This was corroborated by Sandeep Dadlani, Infosys’ president and head of the Americas, who shared a story that best illustrates zero-distance. He described it as where the rubber meets the road. According to him, it took mankind to go to the moon before putting wheels on suitcases even though both have been there for a very long time. It took a further 17 years to put two more wheels, and a then 17 more years to put a telescopic handle and make it rotate 360 degrees. This is because a pilot went ‘zero distance’ where the rubber meets the road, to get to the desired innovative point.
Let me illustrate with an example. The story is told about a company, which manufactured and sold baby food. One of the sales teams, whose members were young rookies and not particularly regarded also had the worst patch. But they continually busted their targets. In actual fact, there were hardly any babies in their territory, since it was an area typically inhabited by pensioners and elderly care-giver homes.
Nobody bothered to ask them the formula for their success. It turned out that the old people in their patch, having lost many of their teeth, were mostly consuming the baby foods, and therein lay a spontaneous innovative idea. Could the company have used this new discovery to strategically diversify into ‘specialised old peoples’ food and diversified their business? Leveraging new ideas within the company to amplify breakthrough discovery is what constitutes grassroots innovation.
Education is the bedrock for design thinking helping us think in an organised way about creativity and consistently improve through continuous iteration. Properly articulating a problem, however, is half the solution. New and innovative ways of doing things can come from the most unexpected sources, not least the current generation of millennials. They are the sort that dare to believe that they can make the elephant dance.
I personally have two reverse millennial mentors, my son, Omimi Okere, and my digital media assistant, David Afolayan. They both have a deep role in my belated online presence. I guess I became a convert when my son at 13 years old launched his first computer game ‘Catch it’ on iTunes and Android. He followed two years later with ‘Jetraider’, a paid game on both platforms. The clincher was the insightful articles and comments I saw on his blog ‘Knox Tech’. I thought to myself, not bad for a teenager. This is what motivated me to launch my blog, austinokere.com.
Danger in recycling old ideas
I sit on several executive committees with many old ideas being constantly recycled and hardly any young people with fresh ideas in the room. The danger here is the dinosaur effect. We keep listening to the same cassette with our best songs, while losing touch with new music and new genres. In the end, the company perishes as a result of lack of innovation.
As the sun is setting on old ways of tacking social problems, millennials may well save us from our broken socio-economic system. They certainly possess the attributes of what Harvard professor Joseph Nye refers to as tri-sector athletes or multilingual leaders; these are individuals and organisations that nimbly cross traditional spheres of influence to translate and broker these different institutional logics into private-public, government-civil and civil-private partnerships and solutions. Their careers typically straddle sectors, defying the labour market silos, and thus enable them make the necessary linkages.