Home / View Point / Guest Columns / Bermudez: What should innovation in T&T look like? And what is holding us back?

Bermudez: What should innovation in T&T look like? And what is holding us back?

“[…] The number one roadblock is trust… Innovation presents a challenge to the status quo. Without trust, there can be no support for this kind of change. 

“The ‘command and control’ model, used in private and public sector entities, does not lend itself to innovation. We must allow broader participation in the decision-making process. We must learn to delegate responsibility and let those closest to the operations make decisions and innovate…”

Photo: “Innovation is what has brought us out of caves to be able to walk on the moon…”

The following guest column entitled ‘Innovation: Developing A Culture of Creativity and Solution-Oriented Execution’ was submitted to Wired868 by University of the West Indies chancellor Robert Bermudez and is part of the Thought Leadership Series hosted by the Public Service Commission of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago:

I am today going to share some of my thoughts on the issue of creating an innovative environment. I will not claim to have all the answers to this complex challenge. 

The most critical question is: “are we comfortable with the status quo or not?”

Innovation is born out of discomfort and the need for something that better fulfils your needs. It answers a need for change, for improvement.

Humans are the best innovators—we all practice it daily. Innovation is what has brought us out of caves to be able to walk on the moon. The most basic things we take for granted today were once incredible innovations. We must constantly innovate to progress. 

Image: Too busy to innovate?

We do not have to be another Steve Jobs or one of the many celebrity innovators. They are outliers, individuals with an unwavering vision and obsessively driven to achieve their goals. They have changed the world, and we must aspire to change it.

When I was a young man, three things were constantly repeated in the business world: “Trinidad and Tobago must adopt the Singaporean model, we must diversify our economy, and we need to develop a culture of innovation.”

In citing Singapore, the inference is that what we had was not good enough and that we should import something to solve our challenges. Lee Kuan Yew was a great innovator who transformed his society and economy. But his solutions did not apply to us. 

Photo: Former Singapore prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.
(via Businessandleadership.com)

When asked ‘diversify to what?’ there was no consideration of what were our strengths and what was our knowledge base. To this day, that question remains up in the air.

As far as innovation was concerned, it always was about being technologically driven and innovating new technologies.

We have never had a serious conversation about what the Trinidad and Tobago model should look like. What is the practical way to consider our people, culture, aspirations, size, geographic location, and natural resources? 

We did this in the context of the energy industry and Point Lisas, and our petrochemical industry was born along with our LNG projects. It was a strategy to benefit society. 

For the rest of the economy, we tend to want to import ill-fitting solutions.

Photo: Petrotrin oil refinery.
(Copyright Petrotrin.com)

Distilling ‘The Trinidad and Tobago Model’ is an excellent start. We cannot use our foreign exchange to import solutions for our domestic challenges. To build a consensus on a Trinidad and Tobago model, we must speak to each other frankly. The way out must be a consensus that provides a national understanding and an appreciation of each other’s needs. 

The talent is undoubtedly here to do great things—we must allow it enough room to grow and come to the fore. Our huge success in the energy industry proves our ability to produce world-class results. If we can do it in the energy industry, we can do it everywhere. 

Innovation is hard. Why should we do it? The simple answer is that innovation improves our quality of life! 

Modern life has brought significant stress and disruption, unrewarding jobs, family breakdowns, lifestyle disease, and mental health challenges. The focus of innovation is to improve efficiency, reduce costs, create employment and raise the general standard of living.

Photo: Garrett Morgan invented the three-light traffic system in 1923.

We are being challenged by several years of little or no growth due to low energy prices and declining gas and oil production. We have a reduction in the standard of living for many and a crime explosion, which is not surprising as unemployment or unmeaningful employment leads to crime. 

Crime is our problem. We cannot expect the security services to solve it on their own. We all have a role to play in solving this problem. We need to create an environment that provides a meaningful opportunity to the youth, which can only be done by growing this economy. 

What is holding back innovation?

The number one roadblock is trust! As Dr Terrence Farrell wrote, Trinidad and Tobago is a low-trust society. I cannot overemphasize how vital trust is to make progress! 

Image: The progress paradox.
(Copyright timoelliot.com)

Innovation presents a challenge to the status quo. Without trust, there can be no support for this kind of change. 

The ‘command and control’ model, used in private and public sector entities, does not lend itself to innovation. We must allow broader participation in the decision-making process. We must learn to delegate responsibility and let those closest to the operations make decisions and innovate. 

There must be trust that when things go wrong or get rough, as they will, so the innovators will not be victimised or stigmatised but are supported and encouraged to keep trying. 

Image: Not for us…
(Copyright Timoelliot.com)

Innovation is like a Rubik cube—you keep trying and eventually get it right. If you get criticised or ridiculed every time you try and fail, the sensible person will stop trying. 

This change goes entirely against the grain of the ‘Massa’ mentality, where the Boss has all the answers and only needs compliant employees to follow instructions. But those employees are far better placed to decide what is required to get the best results. 

Senior leaders should focus on communicating the strategic direction while coaching and allowing teams to innovate and implement the necessary changes.  

Job losses are the elephant in the room. Efficiency and cost reduction mean our friends or family will lose their income—no one will support that! 

Photo: Petrotrin workers listen to union representatives.
(via OWTU)

How do we win on innovation if the process causes job loss and social unrest? We can have the strategy, communicate it effectively, and empower the people. Still, unless we plan to keep whole those displaced, you will have passive resistance from every level. All will be doomed to fail.

Innovation creates jobs and grows the economy which in turn creates more jobs. Still, there is a severe wrinkle. The holders of the positions it jeopardises are not necessarily able to take up the jobs it creates. And there is also a timing issue, what are the unemployed to do in that period? 

Retraining is an option, but it is not enough; we will need to have the ability to keep them in income until they can be reassigned to a new job. 

Guaranteeing employment even when there are surplus people allows innovation to be effected with little disruption. The surplus headcount should be managed through attrition and retirement. The two components, efficiency and reduced cost, do not have to be achieved simultaneously to achieve a successful outcome. 

Image: The price of progress.

This issue of unemployed people and job security cannot be swept under the carpet. These are families’ lives that you are threatening, and you will have no way forward unless you can find a suitable, workable solution. But there are solutions that will make it possible. 

Why should I help you?

This is where leadership comes in; you must engage people in your vision and values. People must trust the leader before they will step out of their creases for him.

This takes time and team building—it requires lots of listening, and you must truly understand and respect the people. Leaders need to be humble and appreciate their privileged position.  

Who makes a good innovator?

Photo: Sarah Boone, who was born a slave, invented the prototype of the modern iron board in 1892.

Usually, the last person you expect! Talented people who are not given opportunities tend to be the most difficult to deal with but often excel when given a chance. 

It would be best if you keep an open mind when looking for talent. It usually does not look like what you were expecting. If you want the best, you must rid yourself of any prejudice or preconceived ideas and keep a very open mind. 

We are a very conservative society—challenging authority is frowned upon, the status quo is protected by those who benefit from it, and everyone is expected to await their turn. We find it challenging to embrace creativity dressed as irreverence. We see it as disrespect rather than an exuberant desire to see change for the better. 

Photo: Innovation? Sure. Change? Hell no…
(Copyright Glasbergen.com)

Too many young people, well-educated and talented, are opting to go abroad to find their fortune. The status quo here frustrates them. We need to provide the opportunity for them to prove their worth in Trinidad and Tobago. 

We can create a culture of innovation, a culture that works for everyone. We need to listen to each other and understand our competing needs. We must protect those at risk for job loss. We owe it to them. 

We must build trust if this is to work. The leaders’ role is to create a safe, trusting environment where employees are empowered and can achieve their true potential. Employees must feel protected but within an environment of ‘tough love’.

We can only start on this journey from where we are. 

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