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Want to Innovate Faster? Focus on the Cream Not the Cone


Focus on The Cream Not The Cone (FoCre) means to forgo the conventional model of Talent Acquiring and move towards Idea Harvesting when it comes to innovation. We have tried the former for decades with continued challenges, as reviewed later in this piece. FoCre requires, however, an organizational paradigm shift from ‘focus on people’ to ‘focus on ideas’.

It is about organizations coming to terms with the fact that, in the Open Source era, the most optimal investment is to seek smart creative ideas from anywhere, i.e. the cream, as opposed to bet on smart creative employees, i.e. the cone. In fact, we already observed pioneer organizations trying variants of this approach to address the ongoing challenges for creativity and innovation.

When it comes to innovation in the 21st Century, successful organizations are not unlike a child who focuses on picking at the ice cream rather than on the cone holding it. The book Open Source Leadership: Reinventing Management When There Is No More Business as Usual (Rajeev Peshawaria, McGraw-Hill, 2017) highlighted a crowdsourcing story that demonstrated the FoCre shift.

In 2013, an Indonesian engineer in far flung Central Java won the USD20,000 prize for a global innovation challenge. However, GE Aviation did not hire the contest winner; they only bought the idea (for more details please see Crowdsourcing Your Way to Breakthrough Success. This is an example of focusing on the cream not the cone. A. G. Lafley of Procter & Gamble also did something similar between 2000-2006, by mandating that 50% of the company’s innovations were to come from outside the company, i.e. non-employees. Start-up successes of the 21st Century like Facebook, Airbnb, Uber and Grab all employ a similar model that captures values regardless of the people who own them.

To explore further, I reviewed key insights from the 2014-2018 GE Innovation Barometer Reports, WEF, Davos. The GE IB reports are known to be the most comprehensive and dedicated global study on innovation, having started since 2010 with input from thousands of executives across 20+ countries.

The Outlook of Innovation

Developing countries are the most excited about innovation. Top of the list in 2016’s GE Innovation Barometer Report in ‘Optimism for Innovation’ is Indonesia at 88% Strongly Agree. This ties with Israel and follows by Nigeria (86%), and Algeria (84%). Other Asian countries like China and Malaysia follow at 81% and 76%, respectively. In fact, Asia and emerging markets show an increase of 34+ points in optimism since 2014.

The incumbent developed nations do not show up until Australia (66%,) USA (63%), Sweden (60%), and France (59%) with their optimism about innovation. However, while developing countries are more optimistic and excited about the future of innovation, they lag on making it happen. In the 2018 data for ‘Most Conducive Environment for Innovation’, the Top 10 are all developed countries USA (76%), Japan (73%), Germany (65%), UK (53%), and Canada (49%).

Indonesia doesn’t show up until 26th position at 19%. Malaysia doesn’t fare much better at 22nd with 23% of the vote. The most challenging gap is between the need for innovation and the ability to come up with them. Executives across the 24 nations agree that innovation is critical to their survival, e.g. Digital Darwinism, (Agreement of Top-10 nations average 87%). However, they are significantly less certain on their ability to innovate (Top-10 average 65%).

Finding Creative People Continues to be the Roadblock

Talented employees have been considered the most crucial element to innovation success in most markets. What’s interesting, however, is that the skill gaps continue to widen despite this awareness. According to the latest GE IB 2018 report nearly 3 in 4 (74%) global executives believe a lack of skills is an issue facing their innovative efforts—a challenge that has increased over time, up from 56% in 2014.

For example, according to the survey, the ‘Most Valuable’ skill for Malaysia when it comes to innovation is creativity. And this developing nation is not unique. Most of the countries, 13 out of 21 in the study, reported Creativity as the Top-Two most valuable skill for future workers. In fact, 9 of 21 said it is the most important skill when it comes to value creation.

Creativity is also the ‘Hardest’ skill to find. As you can see in the blue bar above for Malaysia, it is the highest-ranked trait when it comes to difficultly finding employees. The landscape snapshot is similarly grim for the other countries. The majority, 15 out of 21 surveyed, reported Creativity amongst the Top-Two hardest skills to find. And congruently, 11 out of 21 reported it being the most challenging aspect of talent sourcing for the 21st Century.

Loyalty and Interpersonal Skills: The Nemesis of Innovation?

The problem with betting on people leading you to innovation is even if the organization can find, recruit, and employ creative talents, there is no guarantee that you will keep them. This risk is compounded considering the other top HR challenges uncovered in the reports are loyalty—employees who stay— and interpersonal skills – employees who make others stay.

Omitting creativity, the other two traits that rank highly on ‘Most Valuable’ and ‘Hardest to Find’ are loyalty and interpersonal skills. Either one of them ranks in the Top-Two most valuable skills for 10 of the 21 countries. Six nations rated at least one of them as the most valuable skill for their prosperity. Japan, Australia, and South Korea casted their vote for interpersonal skills while Algeria’s, Malaysia’s, and Mexico’s top votes going to commitment to the company.

The same pattern follows when it comes to difficulty finding people with the two traits. Either loyalty or interpersonal skills rank in the Top-Two for 13 of the 21 countries for ‘Hardest to Find’. Seven nations rated at least one of them as the most difficult skill to acquire in the workforce. Brazil, China, Germany, India, and Mexico opined that commitment to the company is the hardest thing to find while Indonesia thinks it is the interpersonal skills. In fact, Australia ranked both interpersonal skills and loyalty the #1 and #2 most difficult skill to find, respectively.

Shift from people focus to idea focus.

What does all the above point to as far as the innovation outlook for the 21st Century is concerned?

    • Organizations need and want to become more innovative despite persisting challenges
    • Creative people are the rarest hires but also where the most valuation lies
    • Loyalty and interpersonal skills may contribute to the difficulty of finding, and retaining, creative people
    • Options are 1) keep doing the same and hoping for different results or 2) change the approach to finding innovation.

So, what is the most important thing to do when it comes to innovation? Be innovative in your approach. If pursuing and vesting in creative hires has not gotten you as far as you would like, then shift your thinking from ‘people focus’ to ‘idea focus’. Chances are, in the Open Source era, great ideas already exist somewhere, whether within or outside your organization. So, worry less about owning the people and more about obtaining their ideas. Put your efforts on how to get those out and put them to use – Practice Focusing on The Cream Not The Cone.

How can you start FoCre at your organization today?

Dr Thun Thamrongnawasawat (Tan) is one of the foremost experts on dissecting complex management and business models and cascading them for easy implementation by companies across different industries. His innovative B.A.S.E. model has inspired numerous organizations to transform. He’s the author of the Brain-BASEd Leadership book series (2013-2016), a bestselling The Leadership Journey (2018) and a regular newspaper columnist. In 2015, Dr Thun was the recipient of World HRD Congress’s “Global Coaching Leadership Award” and named “Consultant of the Year” by the Ministry of Industry, Thailand.

He can be contacted at

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