Leading the Future, harnessing Man and Machine, and a bit of Design Thinking … inspired by % Arabica

October 11, 2019

This week I’m in Kuwait.

First stop is my favourite coffee shop, % Arabica. A minimalist temple of glass shimmers between the towering blocks of dust and construction. Inside the cool vibe is an antidote to the 38 degrees bustle outside. The coffee is amazing too.

“% Arabica is about my love for coffee, design, and seeing the world” says Ken Shoji, founder and CEO of % Arabica.

Ken’s story began in Tokyo, although I found him in Kuwait on my last visit. He told me “My father was the owner of a manufacturing and trading company, and together with his frequent business trips, they would take me overseas whenever possible – ultimately helping to inspire my love of multiculturalism, design, and architecture.”

Since my last visit, working with government-funded KFAS to deliver my “Fast Track Growth” program, I have travelled around the world using Ken’s story as a great example of how the smallest companies can rapidly grow by sharing their distinctive passions using experiential brand design concepts and partnership-based business models.

Design Thinking

This week I’m here primarily to lead a two day program of “Design Thinking” for the management high-fliers of NBK, the National Bank of Kuwait. I have a love/hate relationship with the subject.

I love how it has evolved over time from the “design science” principles of Buckminster Fuller in the 1960s to a process for smarter problem-solving, and particularly the “wicked ideas” described by Horst Rittel in the 1970s.  It wasn’t until the early 1990s that IDEO co-founders Bill Moggridge and David Kelley packaged it all together as a business process, initially called “human-centred design” and then design thinking.

IDEO embraced the process in all their work, which was memorably captured in a ABC Nightline documentary when seeking to create a better shopping experience for Whole Food Stores. Today the phrase is massively overused, which is what I hate, particularly by the many teachers and users who miss the real point, and just see it as a fast way to create a few ideas.

At its heart it has to be about people, and really understanding their problems, and how to solve them in a better way. It creates a bigger, richer and more human context in which to innovate. Like any design it’s about function and form, and therefore it’s about creating things that work, but also things that people love.

It’s too easy to jump to a solution, to forget about what the real problem is. It’s also easy to jump to the function, without thinking about the emotion too.  And it’s then too easy to wallow in the great ideas, without seeing whether it actually works. Together design thinking has the ability to do all of this way. Turning deeper insight into smarter action.

Leading the Future

Later I headed to NBK’s head office, to their brand new Digital Factory. This turns out to be a fabulous creative space for project teams to work together, and also be inspired by the fabulous interiors, and the fantastic views of the fast-changing city outside.

I had two hours with the bank’s top 100 managers on “Leading the Future“, exploring what it means to lead the future of their bank.

Leadership is of course a term which can mean everything and nothing. To me its about a role – bringing people together (often, surrounding yourself with people better than you), energising and inspiring them, amplifying their potential – but also a responsibility – to make sense of a changing world, to shape the future in your own vision, and to make it happen faster.

Sensemaking has become a real leadership skill in today’s complex and crazy world. What matters most in a world of so many changes and disruptions? Where are the best opportunities for growth?  That then leads to choices. The need to make better choices. What to do, and more importantly what not? Where and what, but more significantly, why and how?

Kuwait sits at the heart of a changing world. Look at the map of China’s “Belt and Road Initiative”. Kuwait is a strategic nexus in that global trade route, in both directions. And whilst it has a heritage in oil, its future could be as a smart intersection of trade. Add the rapid growth of Africa which we will see in coming years, and the geopolitical positioning becomes even more profound.

Banking then becomes so much more. Like utilities and telecoms, I am often scathing of the low-value added role of banks. They have thrived by exploiting the frictions of imperfect processes. In today’s hyper connected world, they need to find ways to add more positive value to consumers and society. To be creators and enablers, rather than just charging tolls.

We look across the world at today’s incredible disruptive innovators – or “Gamechangers as I call them – and we see new ideas, new propositions, new business models, new ecosystems, in every sector. Each one of them inspirations to rethink your industry, to do better.

Companies, particular those who have dominated markets, have become incredibly lazy at just stretching their old models of success, seeking to keep doing the same thing slightly better, cheaper or faster. Time to think different.

In the world of banking, we particularly looked at DBS in Singapore who have profoundly transformed their bank with the mantra “bank less, live more” to create an “invisible” bank embedded in the everyday lives of people. Rather than a separate entity to manage your money, DBS is there to help shop easier, travel faster, work smarter, and live better.

Entrepreneurs everywhere

Kuwait is a relatively young country. After the Gulf wars it has to rebuild from scratch, and with a modern minded government it has been creating a city, an infrastructure, and a culture for the modern Arab world. It attracts many of the smartest minds from across the region seeking a fresh start. Indeed migrants outnumber natives by around 5 to 1.

After a rather surreal early morning event at the Kuwait National Petroleum Company, I arrive at Zain’s Innovation Center.

Zain is one of the region’s leading telecoms businesses, and have realised that success is not about what they do, but how they enable others to thrive. Zain is all about “Great Ideas”, helping individuals and businesses to do more. It’s innovation space is full of start-ups, seeing to disrupt the traditional businesses of the region and beyond.

Which is why my early morning KNPC visit was so surreal. Driving south 45 minutes from the city to their largest oil refinery near the Saudi border, I was struck by the triple barbed wire fortifications. Tensions are not far away in the Middle East of course. Inside the complex, the labyrinth of pipes and towers was replaced by an auditorium full of golden furnishings and high tech. In worked the business leaders for our session, all decked in the uniform-styled uniforms.

We talked about the changing world. We talked about the shifting nature of business, the increasing scarcity of natural resources, the impact of carbon fuels on our fragile planet, and how oil producers need to part of finding a better way. Many of their peers already have, like Shell’s official shift to become an “energy” business with a majority of their revenues from sustainable sources within a decade. “But how can we convince our leaders to change” was the most common question at the end.

Back at Zain, change is the mantra for progress and prosperity, for Kuwait as a nation, and for its many individual entrepreneurs.

Man and Machine” was my theme this afternoon. Exploring the symbiotic evolution of both technology and humanity. We explored the latest IFTF research looking at the drivers and dilemmas of change, its impact on society, and the opportunities to find better ways. From Jason Silva’s “Technology Skin” to Tan Li’s “Evoke” brainwave business, future innovations are all about how man and machine weave together into hybrid or transhuman, ethical and practical, solutions.

On the final evening, it was great to meet so many more entrepreneurs, at an event hosted by Brilliant Lab which I called “Business Recoded“. Particularly inspiring for me was that at least half the audience were alumni of IE Business School. We talked about the platform which their “exponential learning” experiences had given them in their start-up business, and how to take them further faster.

We explored some of my new research on Asian businesses, and how they have thrived in recent years – from Alibaba to Tencent, Haier to Huawei, Kikkoman to Softbank, Grab to Meituan Dianping. They have different starting points, a more intuitive and ambitious mind, less formality and baggage. They are driven and drive fast growing, curious and expectant, consumer marketplaces.

We concluded with the new thinking which I am currently shaping for my next book. “The 7 Codes” for business leaders to step up in today’s incredible world. From the Greek dawn “aurora” to the Japanese light play of “komorebi”, the Zulu power of togetherness in “ubuntu’ and the Viking fear and passion of “awe”, we explored some of today’s most inspiring leaders, and how they are conquering the future.