Saturday, December 8, 2012

Adopting a "Reverse Innovation" Attitude

Adopting a “Reverse Innovation” Attitude

Professor Vijay Gavindarajan’s concept of reverse innovation – developing ideas in an emerging market and coaxing them to flow uphill to Western markets - is a powerful one.   If you are familiar with his work, you will know that he cites many examples, especially at GE, where products such as a low-cost ECG machine were originally developed in emerging markets like India and yet have become innovations sold in developed countries as well.

As he points out, reverse innovation “refers as much to a state of mind as to best practice.”   While he does not spell out what this state of mind is, let me offer some thoughts on what global managers can do to adopt an attitude of reverse innovation.

If you work for a for-profit or a not-for-profit firm these days, you will more than likely have interactions with people from different parts of the world.  Like myself, some of you will have gone overseas on short-term or long-term assignments.  Many of you are also members or leaders of global teams.

Before reverse innovation can even be considered as an organizational practice, a global company should examine its approach and overall relationship towards its overseas offices and locations.  In my experience, reverse innovation can best thrive when a company views its overseas offices as:
1.     Important markets or locations which could potentially make a contribution to the company
2.     A source for potentially good ideas, best practices, or specific areas of expertise of value to the company
3.     An integrated part of the company where these offices are not treated as “second-class citizens.”

It does not thrive when companies see their overseas arms simply as an additional source of profits or cost advantage, or as a resource to be exploited.  In other words, adopting a stance similar to that of the colonizers (e.g., Great Britain) with their possessions in the early days (e.g., India) will not help a company become truly global and take advantage of reverse innovation.

Without these three conditions in place at the organizational level, it will be very difficult for a global manager to encourage and practice reverse innovation at the individual level.  Now if you happen to be with a company where these organizational conditions are present, then you are fortunate.  But having these organizational conditions is not enough.  Here is what you can do to take advantage of your opportunity and adapt a reverse innovation attitude.

First, become more self-aware.  Learning more about yourself, your strengths and weaknesses and where you can improve, will give you a dash of humility plus a degree of self-confidence.  Since we are all subject to biases, especially about ourselves, you will need to have the courage to ask others what you can to do improve.  Asking for feedback is necessary for you to increase your self-awareness.  Of course others may have their own biases so be sure to ask people who you can trust, who know you well, and whom you believe are relatively objective in their observations.  They can be someone with whom you have a significant relationship, a close friend, a co-worker or a mentor.  When you do this, be sure you have a specific behavior in mind and not just ask a general question on how you can improve.  You might want to ask, for example, how you can be a better listener.  Try using Marshall Goldsmith’s feed forward tool or discussing the results of your 360-degree feedback with a trusted friend or co-worker.

Second, develop respect for different cultures and business practices.  In my MBA course on Cross-Cultural Management, many of my students who have never worked overseas are surprised at what they assume to be common management techniques and practices is not that common in other countries.  Asking subordinates who speak up and express their opinion, or to disagree with you if necessary, is something not typically done in societies with higher “power distance” than our own.  Recognizing that these practices are different from ours, and not necessarily inferior, is a difficult concept to grasp initially for some of my students, but is necessary for a successful global manager.  A good rule of thumb to follow is that when you see a management practice in another culture that is different, try describing what the practice is first and suspend judgment by evaluating it right away.

Third, improve your listening skills.  In my work with executives over the years, one common weakness I see in many of them is their lack of listening skills.  For those of you managing globally, this means not only paying attention to content but to context as well.  First of all, you will meet many very smart managers who may struggle at times with their English, and who may not understand some of the idioms and expressions we use.  Do not assume that there is a correlation between intelligence and the ability to speak English.  I have seen too many instances of American executives who are so impressed by how well some non-U.S. executives in their overseas locations speak English that they want to immediately place them on a fast promotion track.  Second, many countries, especially in Asia and Latin America, belong to what Edward Hall calls “high context” cultures.  This means listening to what is said “between the lines,” and how something is said becomes very important.  Effective salespersons know how to do this well.  You should, too.  Listen carefully to what your global counterparts are saying, paying attention to what they are saying (e.g., how direct or indirect their message is) as well as how they are saying it (e.g., body language, tone of voice).

The road to becoming a truly global manager with a reverse innovation attitude starts with these fundamentals.

Goldsmith, M.  (2002).  Try Feedforward Instead of Feedback.  Adapted from Leader to Leader Magazine (

Gonvindarajan, V.  et al.  (2012).  Reverse Innovation.  Boston:  Harvard Business Review Press.

Hall, E.  (1992).  Beyond Culture.  New York:  Anchor Books.