Be Curious: Innovation and Creativity in China

Sarah Kochling brings more than 25 years of China experience to her innovation consultancy. She shares her advice on increasing creativity at an individual and company level. Her number one tip? Be curious.

China and Chinese companies are often called out as not innovative, particularly in foreign media. Do you believe this is true? If not, why? 

Certainly not. I think some Chinese firms are incredibly innovative and the mainstream media is starting to slowly recognize this. This is because Chinese firms have tended to innovate at the systems and process level of manufacturing, not at the brand or consumer level, where foreigners tend to focus. Also, it depends on how broadly one defines innovation— business model innovation is widespread in China.

What do you think holds people and companies back from being innovative or adopting innovative thinking?

I’m sure you’ve heard this many times before, but a major factor inhibiting both companies and employees is fear of failure. Dig a little deeper and this all comes down to trust— trusting oneself to believe in the idea you have and trusting others and the system that you share it with won’t judge you or the idea unfairly. How can you build trust? Simply put, it’s a process that involves supporting curiosity and empathy for your fellow colleagues and for your customers.

Which Chinese consumer products or services do you see as having the best chance at success in terms of breaking into markets outside of China?

Great question! From my vantage point, it’s about which products or services have the driving insights that are relevant to other markets. Many China tech plays, since they are tapping into the desire for single platform, one-stop convenience have good potential to migrate; Taoboa/ Tmall is already a success overseas. The JD.com and Walmart relationship should also be fruitful beyond China. WeChat, which defies categorization as just personal messaging, is making great progress across Asia and is just breaking into Europe with local partnerships, but it will be tough for them to unseat incumbents in the US market like What’sApp/Facebooktie up that are already well-established unless some mega merger or partnership occurs.

Beyond tech, I think certain beauty and personal care products and some F&B items will start to migrate West, as people in their quest for health and wellbeing start to embrace principles and wisdom of the east and of TCM. Of course, as Chinese themselves increasingly travel and migrate to other parts of the world, they’ll drive demand of these categories in the diaspora communities.

Are there any processes or exercises you would recommend someone adopt in order to increase their creativity and innovative thinking?

Generally it helps to be curious and stimulus is the key to this— changing up your daily routine and exploring things that are outside your usual work category or personal interest areas, whether it be reading about new subjects, talking with people from other fields and disciplines or going to new restaurant or parts of town, generally being curious about the world beyond where you typically live, work and play. As you process these new inputs, your brain is forced to make new connections to existing or old information and this can spark completely new thoughts.

Over your career you’ve moved from working at large multi-national corporations, to leading your own business. What advice would you give people wanting to take a similar path and start their own company in China?

Build a skill set and credibility first. It’s important that you know what you are good and not so good at in your own mind and in the minds of others. Also, aim to learn as much as you can from your early work experiences—go for the stretch assignments!

You sit on a number of advisory boards for local and foreign startup companies and NGO’s. In your experience, how can one drive innovation at the board level? Firstly, it’s a matter of understanding the company or NGO’s core competencies. Once you know what they are strong at delivering, you must also assess how the board feels about reaching the organization’s revenue and share growth targets and what their appetite for risk is. Only when you are clear on these would it be reasonable to start a dialogue around the potential for innovation and what the opportunities might be.

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