China and innovation: Chinnovation?

I recently retired as UK senior partner of BDO after 23 years as a partner with the firm. Last year, I took up a position as visiting professor at Xiamen University, China. My wife is Chinese and I decided to spend three months exploring business opportunities in the region and trying to learn some Mandarin.

I’m blogging about my experiences in China for Real Business – catch up on my journey so far (see “related articles” on the right-hand side). 

Chinnovation is a book I bought recently at an airport. Whilst the book is poorly edited and doesn’t make a significant academic contribution to business-writing, it does contain some useful, current examples of successful Chinese private enterprises. 

The author makes great claims for the innovation skills of the businesses featured, but does acknowledge that 99 per cent of the innovation is in process, not technology. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I think it amply demonstrates what I have myself seen: there is an entrepreneurial ability here to take good ideas from elsewhere and apply them in a China context, flexibly, pragmatically and with great persistence and hard work. 

Chinnovation jokes about a UN study on different nationalities’ reactions to a dropped wallet. In Singapore, it is picked up and handed in; in Brazil, it is quickly pocketed; in China, people stare at it and gather around it. 

When asked why, they say that since no one’s taking the wallet, there must be something wrong with it. Most of them don’t want to suffer the repercussions that come with it – in China, if you see a dropped wallet, don’t touch it, “once you have it in your hands, you’re dead.”

Yesterday lunchtime, my wife left her handbag at a restaurant, it was still there at midnight when she realised and went back for it. 

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A Chinese CEO, who was educated and worked in the West, explains that “The West believes in empowerment, teamwork and delegation. They have to throw those notions out in China. Chinese companies have no mission statements or goals. You just tell them what to do. You cannot empower employees or each one thinks he is the emperor (and) will form a little fiefdom. 

“In China, the boss should have absolute power. Teamwork is hard, because everyone will lobby you for favours and second-guess one another. You can’t let any staff member (feel) irreplaceable. You lose control when this happens.”

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