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Too much writing about leadership and innovation says it is about predicting, forecasting, inventing the future. No, it’s not. It’s about understanding the present more deeply than your competitors do. Gary Hamel explained it to me in an interview once:

“People who innovate successfully are not forecasters. They are in touch with what’s happening, whereas the competition simply haven’t noticed. People who innovate successfully don’t see the future. They see beneath the surface of the present. And they pull together what they see into a proposition that has instant appeal for customers, but which customers didn’t even know they wanted until it appeared.

“How do you do this? Nokia are a great example. Twenty years ago the top people at Nokia got together in a cold room just outside the Arctic Circle and decided they were going to beat Motorola. Very funny. Motorola was and still is one of the most respected companies in the world, up there with GE.

Nokia succeeded because they saw what was changing and exploited it. There are three steps to doing this:

1. Find the fringe
2. Look for the pattern
3. Data is not enough: Experience, feel and understand what’s happening.

It’s at the margin that you notice change happening first. Nokia sent its engineers from Finland and told them to live in places where exciting things were happening. They sent them to spend time in nightclubs in Tokyo, in the King’s Road in London, on Venice Beach in southern California.

Their brief was to observe marginal trend-setting lifestyles and blend in, then report back. It was that experiential learning, getting under the skin of the ‘now’ by actually living it rather than conducting a questionnaire, that brought Nokia’s engineers back to Finland with an emphasis on aesthetics and design and on more elegant, user-friendly interfaces. And that was how they did, indeed, beat Motorola in the phone handset market.”

Source: My notes from an interview I did with Gary Hamel a while back.

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