Let’s play the innovation game

Don't encourage second-hand innovation, it's time to be original.

I’VE long been fascinated with innovation, but have always found that our industry lacks suitable examples, initiatives and strategies. Where companies across the pond are already creating chief innovation officer positions aimed at tackling innovation at board level, we’re still struggling to define what role innovation could play in the region’s leisure, tourism and hospitality industries.

Sure, we have innovatively designed buildings and we’re also fascinated by innovative technology, but what about actually managing innovation in our industry and companies? What about the people side of innovation?

Two years ago, I conducted a large-scale survey on people-centric innovation in luxury hotels in the UAE for a private client. The results made for interesting reading. The large majority of senior managers surveyed felt that, in order to remain competitive in the coming years, their companies and operations have to become more innovative, yet very few had any suggestions outside the design and technology niche for how to achieve this. It also quickly became apparent that finding a definition of innovation that the majority of respondents could agree on was very difficult.

What’s innovation for you? A new, more technically advanced, coffee maker? A boutique hotel in a market that previously only featured large, internationally flagged, chain hotels? An entirely new way of looking at things and coming up with something truly new and not just an imitation of something that already exists somewhere else?

It was good to see that, last month, the first-ever event dedicated to innovation in hotels took place in Dubai. Yes, the Hotels Innovate agenda, featured many speakers from the design, architecture, and technology fields, but it also provided a platform to start discussing people-focused innovation and how we can create a culture of innovation in our companies.

The latter is what I think it’s really all about: Embedding innovation in our company cultures and finding ways to nurture and grow innovative thoughts, ideas, and concepts. We’ve done enough imitating and copying – it’s time for something new. We can’t just keep making headlines by reproducing already existing things on a bigger and better scale – yes, that’s impressive, but it’s not what innovation is really about, is it?

We need to start taking innovation culture seriously in our organisations and associations and we need to find ways to inspire our team members to come up with off-the-wall ideas and new ways of doing things. It’s what will differentiate tomorrow’s successful companies and leaders from the average majority and what will our region to outpace other tourism and leisure destinations in the coming years.

I think many of us are finding innovation a difficult-to-grasp concept, because it’s fairly intangible and involves taking risks and, at times, failing. You can’t really calculate the time it’ll take you to come up with the next innovative idea, but you can invest in making sure that, eventually, you or one of your employees will come up with one. Encourage failure, so long as it’s creative. Remember, there’s nothing wrong with failing more than once, so long as you fail differently every time. In other words: Learn to fail forward.

Innovation requires open doors and open communication channels. It hates hierarchies and it certainly doesn’t do well in environments that are too procedure heavy. Innovation also needs empty time – time to think, and – like Newton when the apple fell on his head – do nothing.

Work less, fail more creatively, and be more innovative. How does that sound as a motto for 2015 and beyond?

By Martin Kubler