Halil Aksu is the founder and chief thinker of GelecekHane, a future technology and trends think tank. He helps organizations anticipate the future by preparing today- in terms of strategy, innovation and change. Aksu is a big believer and advocate of technology. He is deliberately optimistic and spreads positivism around him. Curiosity leads to science, science leads to technology, technology leads to innovation, and innovations leads to progress. Aksu is a thinker, tinkerer, but most importantly a doer. He likes to talk about the future, but more so he likes to act today to make an impact.
Christopher Skroupa: You have advised companies on innovation for years, and in several key capacities. In today’s context, what is it about innovation that gives a company a genuine competitive advantage?
Halil Aksu: Two words come to mind: Re-invention and un-learning. The pace of change today is so fast, like never before seen in history. Usually there were very few battlegrounds at the same time. Today everything is in flux, and a lot of things change dramatically, basically from black to white or vice versa. Talking about un-learning- the more you institutionalize, the stiffer you get, the harder it becomes to change. In the 20th century, stiffness meant stability, maturity and efficiency. But today it means rigidity, bureaucracy, and inertia. Therefore companies must foster a culture of unlearning, staying young, staying hungry, and staying curious. Talking about re-invention, everything becomes digital, and everything becomes a service. Jeffrey Immelt of GE says that he went to bed as the CEO of an industrial company and woke up as the leader of a software and analytics company. How radical is that? Over night!
Skroupa: You are familiar with the concept of creative destruction– specifically when new technologies disrupt business models and create uncertainty in value creation. How would you draw the link between this and disruptions caused by unwanted events?
Aksu: First, let’s define what unwanted events are. Unwanted events are usually harmful, unexpected and out of control. Each of these attributes should be carefully investigated. Let’s first understand if they are really unpredictable. If one were to look at the right indicators, a lot of surprises could be easily identifiable- then the harm could be prevented. That is the control aspect. Natural disasters may be out of human control, but a lot of business-related unwanted events could be prevented through regulation, communication or other forms of intermediary. The ultimate goal for any event related to any organization, either business or social, should be to identify the events in advance and turn them into opportunities. Sounds too far-fetched? Look at IBM with Lou Gerstner, look at Steve Jobs with Apple. The main capabilities one must have are adaptability and execution power. Once you identify or predict an event, then you have to adjust. Nowadays – as always in nature – it’s survival of the fittest.
Skroupa: Experts argue that innovation should be a bottom-up process, and not a CEO’s pet-project. How would you draw the distinction between organic innovation vs. innovation from the top down?
Aksu: It depends on the culture, and not only the corporate culture- also the national culture of the operating environment. Some cultures are more autocratic, centralized, prim and obeisant- more in the eastern cultures. And then you have the contrary, where freedom, autonomy, and individuality are lived more. Obviously these environments create different cultures. Obviously in a more obeisant culture, a top-down approach is required to get anything started. In a more autonomous culture, grass-roots movements are more appreciated. Therefore, innovation has to be adjusted to the constituents and needs to be communicated in a proper way. Looking forward, younger generations are tending to become more individualistic and independent. Therefore in the long run, innovation has to be more bottom-up. As an example just look at the maker movement.
Skroupa: Apple seems to have the formula right, and its competitors can’t beat it. What’s the silver bullet, and have you seen it in other companies?
Aksu: Apple is experiencing yet another peak period. Being in the valley, having the current momentum, attracting the most talented people, fostering an environment of high performance (almost run or die)- it is no wonder that they succeed. All odds are on their side. The important success factor is to keep the momentum and also allow experimentation- failures and the people making them, maybe weed out- but in the overall portfolio, the company wins.
I am more excited about companies such as Google, GE, Nike, and Tesla. They are experimenting outside their core business and investing in areas that make the world a better place. New business models will not emerge from existing ones, but will come from genuine new ideas, executed by brave people- and only very few will find traction in their various audiences. This is how start-ups strive, such as Twitter, AirBnB, Uber, Shazam, Dropbox, etc. For big companies though, behaving like a start-up is almost impossible. Therefore I admire those organizations, who find a way to create such a spirit. Look at what Google is investigating and investing: Calico, robotics, deep learning, balloon internet, Google Car and so forth. Every company should have their own incubator and / or accelerator program. Every company should work on their projects X, Y, Z.
Skroupa: Research shows that change will more and more be expected of companies if they want to succeed. Technologies and uncertainty outside of the organization are cited as underlying causes of this. How would you describe operational resilience and its role in ensuring a lasting and sustainable company?
Aksu: I look at companies with two eyes: one is for today. The other is for tomorrow. Innovation, strategy and alike take care of tomorrow. Operations (by means including sales and marketing) take care of today. You can’t sacrifice today’s operations, since they are funding any other activity and they secure the lifeblood of any organization. But you can’t ignore strategy and innovation, since they secure the future. But both require almost opposite environments. This is often missed. The CEO must play a dual character: talking about resilience, performance and budget when talking to the operations people- and then talking about experimentation, intrapreneurship, and grass roots with the innovation people.
Of course there can and must be innovation in operations as well. But in this context I would consider these in rather continuous improvements. There can and must be resilience in the execution of innovation on the other side, but the overarching climate is the opposite. Even the facilities should be separated to enable people to live their purpose. Today and tomorrow.
Serhat Cicekoglu, Director of Loyola University Chicago Quinlan, Center for Risk Management adds: “Change is a given for business and societies. The source of change doesn’t typically matter. Whether it is a catastrophic event such as disruptive innovation that displaces businesses with decades of tradition or whether it is a force of nature that forces industries to shift their operating models. Organizations must take advantage of innovation as a capability to increase their resilience capacity as, along with culture, this may be the only long term viable weapon to sustain an organization. Companies such as Corning, IBM, GE, 3M and even Apple- have mastered these traits and constantly reinvent themselves over and over. Google and similar firms around the world are also taking a page from these companies’ experiences to become resilient entities. Google knows that one trick ponies don’t do well in the long run.”
On January 28th, 2015 , Loyola University Chicago, Quinlan School of Business, Center for Risk Management will host its second Executive Dialogue Series seminar program on Innovation: Building Company Resilience. Continue the discussion withHalil Aksu, Serhat Cicekoglu, Director of Quinlan’s Center for Risk Management, and a select group of 25-35 company executives and internationally renowned experts on resilience. To inquire about attending contact email@example.com.