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Innovate or Die: Insights From Lan Kwai Fong’s Allan Zeman

Nothing will render a business comatose like a lack of creativity in the workplace.

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BY Tricia V. Morente - 17 Oct 2017


PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

While it’s been proven time and again that creativity is the indispensable force driving new innovations around the world, many businesses tend to consign creativity to the bottom of their priority list, with some even actively working against it.

It could be that companies are simply unaware they’re inhibiting their organization to innovate effectively. In today’s dynamic and unpredictable business environment, the biggest culprit is complacency. “Change management needs to become part of the culture and business plan [of organizations]; it’s not just something leaders decide they need to adopt at some point when their business model is threatened or failing,” writes Brent Gleeson in this Inc. article.

Nobody knows this better than Lan Kwai Fong Group chairman Allan Zeman whose claim to fame includes being known as the “Mouse Killer” for beating Disney in Hong Kong for 11 years in a row. The former chairman of Ocean Park has been involved in wide-ranging industries, most popularly in Hong Kong’s explosive real estate sector, and has seen how such industries have faced disruption brought on by new technology.

Zeman is tireless when it comes to ushering in ways his companies can innovate. “I grew up in the fashion business. I’ve been in fashion since I was 16, and fashion changes six times a year so you’re always thinking ahead. I was always trained to think what people are going to wear tomorrow, the next year, so being trained in fashion has given me an open mind for everything,” he relates.

That proclivity to “always accept change” is largely the reason why Zeman enjoys his cushy position among Hong Kong’s leading real estate tycoons. How does he do it? At the RISE Conference last July, Zeman shares some valuable insights every start-up founder should start taking to heart:

1. There’s a divide in the world today between the young and old generation

With the young generation growing up on the Internet and the older generation in the world of all things analog, Zeman points to the need for businesses to “really understanding their customer base.”

Fundamentally, there are different taste levels at play today. “The older generation still reads newspapers and the young generation consumes media online so you really have to understand who your customer is, who you are catering to, and adapt,” he shares. As such, there’s a need for companies to rethink how they market to their customers. “You need to become cool to your customers. You have to be the place to be, the place that’s doing things that they understand, so you want to be online because that’s where they’re at,” he says.

2. Look at things not as they are but what they could be

When starting a business, Zeman advises to look at what your competition is offering. Ask yourself how your product could be better and what twist you can implement to make it better than whatever else is in the market.

“I look at things as if I’m a customer and not an owner of a company. Be critical of your product; there always has to be a reason why your product is better than someone else’s so I’m looking at every business we have and always looking for that niche,” he shares.

Back when Zeman was chairman of Ocean Park, one way he outwitted his competition was his uncanny way of “advertising:” walking around dressed up in the most ridiculous costumes. “I didn’t want to do it but Disney had a lot more money [for advertising] than we did, and this was a way for media to take my picture and put it in a newspaper for free. We got tremendous mileage out of it,” he relates, adding “always look to disrupt with every industry you are in and look to see how you can be the leader.”

3. If you don’t change and innovate, your company will die

Zeman shares that he makes it a point to always be “surrounded by people with creative ideas” and to create a culture in which people can be honest about even the bad stuff.

“I always encourage my staff to tell me what they think. Even if the idea is outrageous, even if it doesn’t make sense, we’ll talk about it. Many times, we work on ideas that sound crazy and that becomes something that is very, very good,” Zeman shares, adding that he has seen a lot of change-averse traditional companies die. “In every industry, you have to be at the forefront to accept all these changes that are taking place. I’m talking about AI, robotics, VR, AR — maybe some of these things will fall by the wayside, but some of them could end up protecting your business,” he says.

4. Creativity should flourish from within the company

Zeman relates that he’s usually averse to hiring consultants for his business. While he’d be happy to listen to them, his experience with consultants has always been “they will look at your watch, tell you the correct time, and then charge you for it,” he jests.

The idea, he says, is to have your company “be creative enough, strong enough. Ideas should be from your own people, and also by looking at what’s going on around you, at the space you are in, and why people, companies, and your competitors are doing better than you. How can you compete and disrupt that?”

5. Encourage your staff to make mistakes

The one thing Zeman always tells his staff is to not be afraid of making mistakes, to take the step forward, as this ushers in innovative ideas.

“Crawl before you walk, walk before you run. That’s one of the principles we’ve always used in the company. We want to encourage people to think, to be bold, to be creative, to think about tomorrow. And by doing that, even if you make a mistake, at the end of the day that mistake won’t matter,” he shares.

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