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Champion of ideas

Fredrik Haren, bestselling author and speaker on innovation, talks about creativity in the developing world, business disruption, what it takes to be a truly global company and innovative government.

'An innovative company, especially in changing times, can't have rules, because you have to keep rewriting the rules. Instead of rules, you should have values. If you have strong corporate values, you don't need rules.'

SOMETIMES, if you want to innovate, try doing the opposite of what others do. For example, when all airlines were concentrating on improving their in-flight services, along came RyanAir and took away all the frills. It went on to be a great success.

A good way to come up with a new idea: write down two requirements for something to work, then take away one of them. For example, it is said, two main requirements for a taxi driver are: 1) He should know how to drive and 2) He should know the way. Now take away the second requirement. (Then think of Uber. And GPS).

And can you think of 50 uses for a brick?

These are some of the ideas in Fredrik Haren's Idea Book, which has been billed as among the top 100 business books of all time and has sold 250,000 copies, without the help of a publisher.

A native of Sweden, 47-year-old Mr Haren is a writer and speaker on creativity and innovation, especially in business. He has written nine books. His speaking engagements take him around the world - he has been to 70 countries - but he lives in Singapore, in a two-storey black and white bungalow with his wife and three children.

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A map of the world is painted on the exterior. There are solar panels in the garden. "My summer house in Sweden has been fully solar powered for the last 15 years," he tells me as we settle down in his upstairs living room while a thunderstorm rages outside.

A fast-talking, live-wire personality brimming with ideas, Mr Haren can be audaciously unorthodox in his views and has a sense of humour to match. "When people ask me what I do, I say I am a speaker and a writer. Then they say, 'what else do you do?'

"My argument is like this: when someone has been the president of America, which is the most powerful job in the world, what do they do after that? They speak and they write. So why not just go straight there?"

How did he end up in Singapore? The story started with a visit to China, he says. "In October 2005, China's President Hu Jintao made a speech while presenting the new five-year plan for China, and it was all about innovation. I think innovation was mentioned about 30 times in that speech. The essential idea was that China would start inventing its own things rather than importing innovation from the rest of the world.

"I write about innovation. So if one of the biggest economies in the world is going to become an innovative country, I had to see this happen. So I dropped everything I had in Sweden and went to China. I had no plans to go there before that.

"In China, I started by teaching creativity. I taught in universities, I taught Chinese companies and multinational companies. And I started studying creativity in developing countries, mainly China and India, but I went all over the place."

He decided to stay on in Asia, but where? "When you live in China, everything is about China, and when you live in Beijing, it's even more so," he says. "But I care about the world, I think about the world, I write about the world. I don't see myself as just a China expert. So that's when I thought I need to live in a place that's global.

"For six months I didn't have a home. I'd just go from speech to speech. Whenever I landed in an Asian city I thought I might live in, I would stay there for two weeks. I stayed in Mumbai, Tokyo, Shanghai, Bangkok, Jakarta, Seoul and Singapore. I did deep interviews with Swedish people who had lived in those cities for a long time. I would ask, 'what's it like for a Swedish person to live in Jakarta, what's the best part, what's the worst part?' And Singapore won. I think it's the most global place in the world."

"Developing" is a good word

Mr Haren's travels around developing countries led to his 2010 book The Developing World in which he chronicled the explosion of creativity mainly in Asia and Africa. Why the focus on developing countries?

"Because I come from the developed world and we tend to believe that we are the creative ones," he says. "The whole world looks at it that way - that the developed world creates and the developing world just copies. The premise for the book is that 'developing' is a good word and 'developed' is a bad word. Because when you're developed, you're done. So the Western world tends to think we're more or less done. But the developing world says we're far from done. And now, there is more fertile ground for innovation in developing countries than in developed countries. I speak as much in the West as I do in the developing world, and there's a huge difference in mentality. The developing world is much more positive, pragmatic and energetic.

"I was in the US last week, and I asked people about their airports. The airports in the West, especially America, used to be the best in the world. But now, America has some of the worst airports in the world. They haven't upgraded - just look at JFK in New York, O'Hare in Chicago or LAX in Los Angeles. And then you look at developing countries like China or India, or even Sri Lanka. They have gone from having terrible airports to having very modern, well functioning airports - much better than the US. How did America allow itself to fall behind?

"Or to take another example: if, God forbid, 9/11 were to happen in Singapore, or in China, how long would it take Singapore or China to rebuild those buildings? I would say 14 months - just to make a statement, just to say 'we're back'. How long did it take the US to do it? 14 years. The tragedy happened in September 2001. They opened the newly built buildings last year. What message are they sending? The message they are sending is that if we are attacked, it's going to take us 14 years to come back. Remember the bombing of the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai in 2008? They re-opened the less damaged section of the hotel in less than four weeks and the rest within months. That's the mentality of developing countries now, it's 'let's roll up our sleeves, let's get going, let's move forward'. In the developed world, it's 'let's try to protect what we have'."

The Internet's disruptive power

Mr Haren was very early to see the disruptive potential of the Internet. "In 1995, I wrote my first book about Internet marketing," he recounts. "About one per cent of the population knew about the Internet then. I wrote about how it is going to change business. For me, the Internet was a catalyst. You could take any industry - the travel industry, the car industry, publishing, banks. So I asked the question: Travel and the Internet - what can we do now? Books and the Internet - what can we do now? Banks and the Internet - what can we do now?"

When he co-started an Internet consulting company (which he sold five years later), he found that the initial response of corporate clients was lukewarm. "Companies would set up websites, but they didn't change their strategy," he recalls.

"The funny thing is that now, 20 years later, CEOs are talking about digital disruption in a totally different tone of voice. Because this is not something that might happen in the future. This is happening now, in all industries.

"We used to talk about the storm coming, we used to say we need to prepare, build shelters, fortifications, etc. But now the storm is here. It's a different feeling when the storm is here compared to when it's going to come later. And's not just one technology and one industry, it's many different technologies and a lot of industries.

"I did a speech for a car company recently, and the global head of marketing who spoke before me said: We will see more changes in the car industry in the next 10 years than in any 10-year period in the history of the car. That could be a quote from almost any industry."

One world, one company

Mr Haren's latest book is One World One Company, which focuses on another of his pet themes: What makes a company truly global? It's not merely about being multinational or having offices in many countries. It's a mindset, he says. "Japanese companies have been successful as multinational companies, but now they're struggling to be global companies, because they are so Japanese. It's the same with Korean companies. And Chinese companies too - their big priority was to become big in China, so they were very focused on being Chinese. Now they want to become global companies, but they're very Chinese in their DNA; 90 per cent of the people working for them are Chinese, and Chinese is their working language."

Some German companies also face problems, he says. "I did a talk for BMW recently, and I said, 'You should not be a German car company - you should be a car company'. In fact BMW is not even German, it is Bavarian."

Typically, the companies that face the biggest problems becoming global, he suggests, are those from countries that have big domestic markets themselves, a lot of confidence and who think they are the best.

By contrast, companies from smaller countries stand a better chance. "For Singaporean companies, to become large, they have to venture out quickly. It's the same for Swedish companies. And when you go out quickly, it's in your DNA that you're not Singaporean or Swedish any more."

"In fact," he adds, "Singapore is the perfect place to start a company with a global mindset, for two reasons. One, Singapore is small, and two, it's a global country in itself. If you sell to people in Singapore, you're selling to people from many places. But if you're a company in China, you're selling to the Chinese."

Singapore and creativity

As to whether Singapore is creative, "that's a complex question", says Mr Haren. "I think Singaporeans are much more creative than they think they are. In some ways, Singaporeans are much like Germans in their mindset - follow the rules and get it right. No one would say Germans are not creative. Look at BMW, Mercedes, etc, there's a lot of creativity. Their 'engineering mentality' of perfection and trying to get it right - for me, that's also creativity but it's a different kind of creativity, it's not the crazy burning man type of creativity. And the German mentality of creativity has created some really successful companies."

"In my speeches, I often start by asking people, 'do you think you are creative or not?' I have asked this question in 60 countries. In Singapore, the score was 20 per cent, the second lowest in the world. Only Korea was lower. Japanese also feel they are not creative. The highest score came from the US: 95 per cent.

"Too low a level of confidence is bad because you won't try anything new. But too high a level of confidence - if you think all your ideas are the best - that is ignorance. I would rather live in a country with a lot of knowledge but is lacking in confidence than in a country with less knowledge but is super-confident."

He views Singapore as being in the former category. "I think Singapore is the best place for my kids to grow up and be creative. Because it's multicultural, global, metropolitan, and because it's innovative. Maybe not as much as I would want, but I am looking at the change - I am looking at where a country is going. I have spoken to teachers in Singapore about creativity. I ask myself, how much have they improved their attitude toward creativity in the last 10 years? It's been a lot. Things won't change overnight but they will change in a decade. Look at young kids here today, they are creative, they really are."

But one area in which Singapore doesn't score high is the corporate culture of companies, which is not highly pro-innovation, according to Mr Haren.

"Companies are so focused on rules, that sometimes people are made to follow the most stupid rules. You have that in big companies. One company I know here, an investment company, had a rule on how long your socks should be. If you have a lot of rules like that - detailed rules about how you do small things, people become good at following rules. But an innovative company, especially in changing times, can't have rules, because you have to keep rewriting the rules. Instead of rules, you should have values. If you have strong corporate values, you don't need rules. For example, if you say one of our values is honesty and you hire people who highly value honesty, then you don't need concrete rules that you can't take a bribe, etc. People will do the right thing, because they follow the values. There would be no need to constantly look at the rule book."

Leadership by example is also critical, he suggests. "If you are a manager or an owner, one of the most important things you can do is to be innovative yourself. Innovation is one of those words like quality, which easily goes from being a buzzword to becoming a cliché. If a CEO declares 'we need quality' and if everyone knows that what the CEO does is not of high quality, then what the CEO says is viewed as the usual corporate bullshit. It's the same with innovation. If the CEO says, 'we need to innovate, we need to do things differently', but that CEO is still doing things the way they have always been done - and still using a typewriter, for example - there's a disconnect and people will find out."

Innovative government

"If you ask me what a government should do, I would say, pour money into educating kids in an innovative way, pour money into selected areas of research that you need," suggests Mr Haren. "For example, Singapore has a water problem, so pour money into water purification ideas. Because Singapore needs this and the rest of the world is maybe not as focused on it. By doing this, we can solve our problem and then tap into the market in the rest of the world.

"Another thing the government should do is to innovate itself, like it did with electronic road pricing and the MRT EZ-Link card. The government should itself use the latest technologies, try new things, make it as easy as possible for people to have a good life and for companies to do business."

"Do not give out grants," he says. "I think the Singapore government gives out too much money, in too many ways. I have never started a company based on whether I get grants or not. The best entrepreneurs are not the ones who are best at getting grants. Those are 'grantrepreneurs'. People should start companies because they see a problem that needs to be solved and there's a market for that. There's so much money around. If you're not able to raise money, maybe it's because your idea isn't good enough.

"The government should take the money it gives away in grants and invest in even better e-government solutions. Singapore is the best place to do business. But can it be improved? Sure. There are so many things that can be even better. Changi is the best airport in the world but they keep developing it. The government should make it even easier for companies to set up here, remove all the hurdles that are still there, and that will encourage entrepreneurship more than anything else. I look at the government as a referee in a soccer game. The best games are those in which you don't notice the referee. If the referee starts handing out little favours to some of the players, that creates problems."

No better job

As a writer and a speaker, what does Mr Haren himself read? "The only books I read are children's books, out loud to my kids, one hour a day," he says, with a laugh. "I don't read other books. As an author I cannot read books. If I tell stories from books, I am telling someone else's story. That's bad for a speaker and bad for an author."

Instead, he learns from what he encounters on his travels. "For instance, in one week in March, I visited an Internet bank in Sweden, a BMW engine plant in Germany and Nigerian farmers. And I learned about how Sweden's Internet banking works, about the global engine production of cars, and about the latest farming techniques in Africa."

Compared to most people in the business world, he leads an uncluttered life. "I don't have any staff. I don't have any meetings. I don't have admin and I have three unanswered emails in my inbox," he says. "I used to have a company with 60 employees, but then I said 'let me get out of everything except learning, speaking and writing'. I am on paternity leave right now, but when I work full-time, I do about 100 speeches a year. There are 200 working days in a year, so on average it's one speech every other day. The rest of the time, I learn. If you want to learn, there is no better job."

  • Mr Haren will be the lunchtime keynote speaker at The Business Times Leaders' Forum on The Future Economy on Tuesday, May 31


Author and professional speaker on creativity, innovation and global business

Born: Sweden, 1968; resident of Singapore

Education: Studied marketing, Växjö University, Sweden (1991-1995)

Owner, (founded 2000), a think-tank focusing on creativity

Founder (since 2011), Ideas Island: a series of private islands in Sweden and the Philippines where creative people can stay for free to work on their ideas

Author of nine books, including: The Idea Book (2004); The Developing World (2010); and One World, One Company (2013)

Certified Speaking Professional (Global Speaker's Federation)

Voted 'Speaker of the Year' in Sweden, 2007

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