Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Vision, diversity and innovation

It's a very pleasant movie experience, was my reaction as we stepped out of the cinema in suburban New York with a couple-friends. It was, of course, “The Hundred-Foot Journey.” And I repeated it as my wife and I were driving back home, and she interjected, you mean wholesome.

The four of us belong to the expatriate community – thus the movie resonates – and count different nationalities among our many friends. And just the week prior we were with an old friend visiting from Sydney, who used to live in the neighborhood and for the last twenty years (as we recalled and counted) would invite friends to a summer mud-bug party. But this year the Danish caterer recommended against it – but we didn't complain to be served lobsters instead. But the biggest draw could very well be the tagline on the invitation: “We will have very good Sancerre”.

It's an interesting international crowd – from a Harvard professor to a pharmaceutical company lawyer to a board member from Madison Avenue to a wealth management adviser to a headhunter to a group of sailors that race on the Long Island Sound, among others, and spouses from the different corners of the world – where chitchats would cover continents. As I would tell my Eastern European friends, it is the time of year when I must be in New York to catch up on our version of social media.

Whenever the word vision comes up, I’m reminded of the then young Bulgarian that my wife and I met eleven years ago in the middle of nowhere and had a cottage industry that was yet to be profitable. We want to be the Procter & Gamble of Eastern Europe. In five minutes I was convinced he was going places, I recall telling my wife on our flight back to New York. And, of course, I saw nuggets of excellence and creativity from the product packs they proudly showed. I had been involved in countless product introductions and my old MNC company had to pay big bucks to design houses to come out with product packs that would appeal to a global audience. This group of young Bulgarians had it! And to have such a vision puts them head and shoulders above most everyone we've met in Bulgaria.

To have a vision of two and then three Michelin stars in the middle of nowhere in the South of France puts them head and shoulders above most everyone in the restaurant business even if it was just a movie. Of course we Pinoys know about fine food; and I remember Y2K when our group of three couples were in Paris and greeted the New Century at RestaurantHélène Darroze, who has two Michelin stars in both her Paris and London (at the Connaught) places.

And that’s precisely why we in the elite class better get off our high horse especially when Juan de la Cruz can’t even have two square meals a day. “Archbishop John Du of Palo appealed to the VIPs not to take center stage during the papal visit. Please give way to the poor for they are the main reason the Pope will come here.” [VIPs, politicians not invited to Pope’s lunch, Ador S. MayolInquirer Visayas, 18th Aug 2014] Because the world has accepted our class doesn't mean that we're doing fine.

What is our vision for PHL? How many times did embarrassment creep into us whenever we arrived at NAIA, for example? It is a microcosm of our failures as a class and as a nation? The good news is many of us are starting to look our failures in the eye. And which is why in this blog I would quote verbatim what some of us are saying. This blog is not a literary piece or for leisure weekend reading. I am simulating brainstorming sessions where people would engage in mind-dumps and verbalize their streams of consciousness. But then, the blog would come up with simple models that would connect the dots. We may have a bigger challenge than the typical MNC, for example. And if they employ the best and the latest thinking models, we better try to approximate some of them.

But the worst thing we can do is to stay on that high horse. If we didn’t possess God-given talents and resources that would be fine. We can’t claim “Pinoy abilidad” on one hand and live with mediocrity on the other. 

And precisely why we have to learn diversity. There is a body of knowledge that confirms that brainstorming sessions yield better outcomes when there is diversity – over those groups that think alike. The good news is we are in the process of embracing our brothers and sisters from the south. But are we undermining the constitution in the process? Someone wrote about solidarity trumping all. Should we start with solidarity then before we indulge in slicing the salami further? In other words, we have to fight our instincts of parochialism. “Large numbers of luxury properties [owned by oligarchs of Kazakhstan, the oil-rich of the Gulf and the newly affluent of Asia] sit empty most of the time, palatial slivers of big portfolios. If Vladimir V. Putin is serious about defending Russian speakers wherever they are, he may have to annex the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, where Russian is a lingua franca on the King’s Road.” [The Draw of the New City-States, Roger Cohen, The New York Times, 15th Aug 2014]

“The Big Fat Greek Wedding” had our family hysterical as my American son-in-law saw lots and lots of similarities in our mixed family. And likewise “The Hundred-Foot Journey” as we all saw in Papa many of our Indian friends . . . And then very subtly yet loudly in the movie: “Innovation. Innovation. Innovation”. That is how a vision of a 3-Michelin star would come about. Disclosure: Fundamental to my engagement in Eastern Europe is teaching them about innovation and why creating a structure with marketing and R&D under one roof was one of our first initiatives – to take their blinders off that “poor Bulgarians could only afford packaged goods at 50 euro cents,” and let their imagination soar to develop and pursue product ideas higher and higher the value chain . . . because the world is the market.

In the Philippines we valued being “pro-poor” (forgetting that what marketers call product segmentation doesn’t mean ignoring poor consumers) while reinforcing parochialism? Of course, we created a handful of billionaires while being pro-poor and parochial but consigned PHL to the bottom of the pyramid because we didn't develop 21st century innovation and R&D capability? Now we want to talk about it and even launched a contest for the next Mark Zuckerberg. That is well and good. But R&D is about discovery and therefore about doing (beyond talking) and collaborating. “Three decades of research has clearly revealed that innovation is most often a group effort. Thomas Edison, for example, is remembered as probably the greatest American inventor of the early twentieth century . . . But he hardly worked alone . . . perhaps Edison's greatest contribution was his artisan-oriented shops—a new way of organizing for innovation he created that has evolved into today's R&D laboratory with its team-based approach.” [http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/7561.html]

Obviously learning and pursuing innovation cannot yield results overnight. Which is why my original one-month commitment has extended to 11 years. But as importantly, learning to assemble and diligently erect the requisite building blocks is key. Yet even in my old MNC company, we had no shortage of “hotdogs” – people that come up with bright ideas and proudly so. But the test of the pudding is in the eating. If the bright idea can’t stand the test of time, it’s just a flavor of the month! And that’s what we’ve been engaged in for so long in PHL? First our colonizers were evil. Evil was there in Eden. Evil was there among the chosen 12. Evil is everywhere including in our midst except we decided to perversely define it as nationalism, that is, oligopoly stemming from a culture of impunity and political patronage, the perfect storm behind PHL's failed economy – if not yet a failed state.

So, what are those building blocks that we’ve ignored while we indulged in Pinoy abilidad? We mustn’t stop talking about basic infrastructure and an industrial base until they come to fruition. They must be President Aquino’s priority, not justifying DAP – a classic Pinoy abilidad – and sparring with the SC? They are the core of an undertaking or an enterprise like an economy or a nation. Of course we need education and ICT (Information and Communications Technology). Progressive MNCs invest heavily in education and training to address the gaps between higher education and industry, and also in ICT. But let’s get this sinking ship that is PHL righted first before we indulge the intellect? Not that we don’t need to employ the intellect in infrastructure development, for example, but we probably need nuns shadowing everyone involved to take out the corruption in the system. That is kinder and gentler than hanging them at the Luneta.

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