Dear Senior Minister Iswaran: Innovation is not a “Strategic Thrust”

This morning while reading the morning paper, I came across a press coverage of a tourism conference  held recently in Singapore. In the article, Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry S Iswaran was quoted saying,

“the tourism industry should move away from quantity to quality if it was to overcome the long-term challenges posed by regional competition as well as land and labour constraints. In other words, emphasis on yield, on the value for the customer and what kind of value-add we can generate rather than sheer number increase”

Following his statement, he suggested three strategic thrusts – Innovation (of ideas), Integration (in industry approach) and (greater) Productivity, that the tourism industry could position itself for growth.

However, I couldn’t help but think that his “recipe for competitiveness” was flawed – mainly because innovation was listed in a linear fashion as the other two “strategic thrusts”, creating the impression that the innovation was a “strategic thrust” on its own.

And because of the recipe flaw, the end result may fall below expectations. Allow me to clarify:

To me, innovation is about creating fundamentally different ways of doing things better. It should not be an objective or a “strategic thrust” but the driving power behind “strategic goals” – whether it is in the area of productivity improvements or integration of industry-wide approaches.

In other words, innovation is not a strategic goal to set (“We want to be innovative”) and then set out to be “innovative”. There should be an end goal that innovation can be used to drive the changes necessary to meet the goal. That way, it would be about building a capability to be innovative.

After all, innovative approaches to productivity and integration will more likely generate results that leapfrog the industry ahead of its competition – and perhaps even change the game altogether and take everyone by surprise. Without innovation powering the “strategic thrusts”, the Singapore tourism industry can only contend with incremental improvements.

But I’m sure they already knew that.

What Senior Minister Iswaran should have said was:

“The tourism industry is encouraged to be innovative in developing ground-breaking ideas to power the “strategic thrusts” of Productivity and Integration – and thereby increase the industry’s competitiveness.”

Now this amended recipe, the next stage is to have the right environment and culture to cultivate the “innovative” mindset, and perhaps to build a strong stomach for “creative uncertainty”. And this, is the crux of the matter that faces “linear thinking” Singapore Inc.

Perhaps in future, the Singapore government should hire me to “right” all strategy and innovation-related speeches.

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