suite Brew Series with Diana Wu David. 

The first time I met Diana Wu David was through a mutual friend of ours for a quick coffee which ended in a long conversation about being a woman in leadership, the burgeoning startup scene in Hong Kong SAR and building innovative mindsets in kids through to senior executives. The comment that stuck with me was how kids she worked with were naturally innovative as they repeatedly failed and found different ways to solve a problem and how we have lost that innate quality along our journey to becoming adults.

Since then we’ve caught up over coffees waxing lyrical about life, our dreams & goals and eagle hunting! Randstad also has had the pleasure of having Diana speak at one of our executive roundtables - Randstad Connects - about unleashing innovation.

As a TedX speaker, entrepreneur, strategic investment advisor and business innovator who has worked with DaVinci Innovation Labs, Next.VC and Teach4HK on top of her day job as a Regional Director for the Financial Times. I couldn’t think of anyone better to interview on the topic on innovation.

tell us a little bit about how you became so passionate about innovation and creating a innovative culture?

When I was in business school in the mid-1990s, the internet was just making broad-based content possible with visuals and text and video. I remember making my first web page using emacs and having someone find it on the internet and writing to me. It wasn’t as useful as aggregating people around a bulletin board but it suddenly blew apart my idea of how the world would look.

Then I worked at Time Warner leveraging content from books and magazines into new forms and channels: audio books, CD-Roms, gaming and local community broadband. There was a sense of unlimited potential and also the chaos of having to invent new processes and channels to support it, like digital rights management, customer service over digital, live author chats, etc. I found it thrilling and particularly loved how closely the commercial and content teams worked together to create interesting holistic experiences.

Ater I helped large corporates handle the disruption of their business as a management consultant and then managed businesses or divisions dealing with transition to digital and new business models as a corporate intrapreneur, strategist and regional director. One of the biggest challenges to success is the culture of the business or the team. Kodak, for instance, had all of the pieces to transform itself from an old school film company to a leader in the digital age but resistance in middle management was a huge issue. Time and again, you hear from corporate entrepreneurs and leaders the need to develop an agile mindset and a sense of safety in order to facilitate change and innovation, and yet that often takes a back seat to a shiny new innovation lab or accelerator program.

what work do you do with DaVinci Innovation Labs?

Da Vinci Labs is a robotics education company focussed on Asia but with roots in Germany and connections with the Cornell Engineering School. I sit on the board as an independent director. Da Vinci focuses on teaching robotics and preparing kids for leadership in the new economy. They learn computational logic and critical thinking, how to work with machines and how to fail and iterate. I am passionate about the intersection of the future of work and the future of education and Da Vinci Lab’s contribution to preparing kids makes a difference to their future, as well as the talent pool that will need to solve the world's biggest problems.

how do you define innovation within a work environment?

Companies that are open to new voices, that continually strive to add value and use their resources to find new problems to solve or to better solve existing problems.

For instance, Barclays partnered with Unreasonable Group to look to find new social problems that they might solve and discovered the underserved market of military veterans with poor access to credit. They developed a program that incorporates the unique background of this audience and now has opened a new market for their products and solves the issues veterans have in starting their lives post-service.

Ray Dalio, head of Bridgewater hedge fund, introduces and tests ideas around radical transparency in his corporate culture to build both the kind of company he wants and higher than market returns

Often large corporates are looking to transform to an innovative culture. Andrew Massey, Director Innovation for Lane Crawford, (whom I met at the Randstad Connects luncheon) introduced me to the idea of “organizational ambidexterity,” which describes the balance between efficiently managing today’s business while also adapting to cope with tomorrow’s demands.

All of these focus on openness to new ideas and consistently striving for improvement.

how do business leaders/ managers successfully create a culture of innovation and maintain it?

Any good leader will first give their teams a good sense of why an innovative culture is necessary. Most people think they want change (faster delivery, a better iphone, the latest promise of a job/product/partner) but on the reverse, they don’t want to change.

Most of the leaders I have spoken to also discuss creating a sense of safety in order to facilitate change and innovation. This means people are rewarded on innovation that aligns with the vision, rather than encouraged to be game-changers as long as they make all of their existing targets and don’t rock the boat too much. It also means that there is a flow of communication that allows people at all levels to voice when they are hitting bottlenecks or challenges - for instance having so many meetings that they can’t find time to focus for a few hours on a key project or not getting buy-in or resources from other teams.

Maintaining a culture of innovation requires celebrating successes and broadening the idea of innovation from small teams to the broader. Identifying what parts of an innovative culture are important enough and can scale to become part of the company’s DNA.

Diana Wu David
Diana Wu David

how have you implemented innovation in the way you work or in your business?

At Da Vinci Innovation Labs, as a fast growing company, the whole raison d’etre is finding an underserved niche and over delivering, so innovation is essential.

At Financial Times, curiosity is baked into its DNA. When I joined, someone described it as a 120 year old start-up - but digital was not the focus. The current CEO, John Ridding, set about to communicate the imperative to transform FT into a new digitally-savvy business more than a decade ago. Data-led experimentation has become a norm across the business, but even before that, many new ideas and projects have been tried and learned from.

my own approach to innovation has been similar to founding a company, but within an existing ecosystem. Specifically:

  1. Identify the strategic needs of the business

  2. Review widely the possible solutions (eg. print circulation and advertising reduction, shift to digital)

  3. Consider one or two to implement

  4. Then rally a team to try out a small-scale project with clear initial success factors.

  5. If the project succeeds for a second round of implementation, hustle for collaborators, resources and attention. If it doesn’t work, see what you can learn from it.

  6. The challenge for a large organisation is allowing the spirit of innovation to permeate but being able to consolidate the learning from it across the business.

what do you think is the biggest obstacle facing business leaders wanting to be innovative?

Innovation is a tool to get to an outcome, it’s about listening to new voices and trying new things. In some places, there is a perception that it’s a fad. Now that “purpose” and social impact have gained currency in leadership circles, I see people reacting in a similar way. They roll their eyes, put their heads down and hope it will pass.

The other challenge is the silo mentality of most companies which, when you need cross-functional collaboration, causes people to protect their own turf.

any suggestions on how to overcome them?

Leaders need to create a sense of urgency and vision of why change is necessary in order for people to buy-in that it is in the long-term interests of the company and in their own best long-term interest. Silo-busting is harder, though building relationships across the business is one way that employees at any level can start to collaborate.

As a leader, it is imperative that incentives align to create innovation and the culture supports it. Even boards have begun to focus on this as a key element of success.

who is a great example of a business leader creating a culture of innovation?

I am interested in companies who are innovative in the way they work because that is an area ripe for disruption which support an innovative culture. It sends a message that you trust people to do the right thing, find solutions, well and take responsibility. That sounds obvious but most workplaces are set up in the exact opposite way.

These innovations usually start at the fringe but eventually make an impact in larger organisations. For example, unlimited vacation at Netflix was big news. Now General Electric implements it for all US salaried employees. Globalisation of paid family leave is another trend that few companies a decade ago would have said they were able to afford. Now it’s being rolled out by Financial Times, Deloitte and Schneider to name a few. Schneider also recently reviewed its workforce and found that having headquarters in Paris with most global roles filled by French citizens was hampering their ability to attract and keep diverse global talent. They now have global roles spread across three hubs in Boston, Hong Kong SAR and Paris.

These are the kind of HR policy-led innovations that can transform the fabric of a company’s culture and spur the next phase of global innovation in companies.

how important is resilience when it comes to being innovative?

Martin Lau, President of Tencent, says “learning to learn” throughout life will be a key to success in the new economy.

Being able to master resilience, plan for it by creating buffers, learning to learn from mistakes and capitalise on the information you receive are behavioral assets to succeeding.

When you are fired up to fix something or find a better way, you most certainly will need imagination and even more persistence to get there.

I heard that you were known as “the rodeo girl” and that you’ve gone eagle hunting on horses. Sounds like you love a bit of adventure! Tell us a little bit about your wild side.

Yes, I did do barrel racing, ice climbing and skydiving in a previous life. We didn’t have smartphones back then so we had to keep ourselves busy!

Now that I am older, I’m figuring out the foundation I need from which to be adventurous. I think innovation is like that for people and companies as well. In an era of accelerating change, disruption, globalisation and demographic shifts, you need to have a strong core built in by reflecting on your passions and purpose combined with a sense of what unique resources you have to accomplish those.

Lastly, what is one surprising thing you’ve learnt about innovation throughout your travels?

Mongolian nomads, who move with the seasons, are a great source of inspiration for me as they’ve been able to embrace agility across thousands of years without losing their identity. When in the Altai Mountains a few years ago, I learned that purpose, connection, sustainability and simplicity go a long way to creating an agile business that can adapt to shifts and disruption. Solar panels, cell phones and automobiles have all been technologies that have helped them thrive, but the family I stayed with still used the same gher poles from three generations ago.

Travel opens me to new voices and ideas that challenge my perceptions of what is possible. One of my favorite quotes is:

"Traveler, there are no roads, roads are made by walking" - Antonio Machado

learning innovations
learning innovations