The Importance of Soft Skills in Innovation
and the World We Will Live In

Balvinder Singh Powar Webinar, Interview speaker

Balvinder Singh Powar,
Board Member and Director,
Booster Space Industries



We would like to invite you to an inspiring talk/workshop about innovation, leadership, entrepreneurship and motivation by professor Balvinder Singh Powar. We will talk about key areas such as diversity, innovation, entrepreneurial attitude & how to make change happen. Balvinder will use his vast experience leading and working with teams on cutting edge projects to describe how to build a culture of innovation in your organization through practical tips. We are living in a fast paced and challenging world which can make us feel both excited and concerned but let's take stock and see how we can find the best ways forward. Learn how we can inspire each other to create a culture of innovation, take responsibility and dream BIG!


  • The importance of soft skills in innovation culture
  • Understand what “disruptive innovation” really means
  • How we can really motivate and inspire teams


Balvinder Singh Powar Webinar, Interview speaker

Balvinder Singh Powar

Balvinder is English of Indian origin, resident in Spain. He is a business & finance graduate with a masters degree in mediation. He has extensive experience leading cutting edge projects internationally. He is a founding partner, board member and director at BOOSTER Space Industries and AERDRON. He is also an adjunct professor and mentor at IE Business School. In 2018 he became a senior advisor at "Opinno", an innovation agency.


Rahim Rahemtulla:
Hello everyone, and welcome to this Silicon Valley Innovation Center webinar. My name is Rahim Rahemtulla, I am your host today. Today we are looking at “Attitude for Success” with Balvinder Singh Powar. He’s going to be giving us a presentation today and we’re going to have a Q&A with him as well, so if you do have any questions for Bal, please do send those in and at any time through the GoToWebinar panel and we’re going to have plenty of time to go into those with him. So, Bal, how are you today? Thank you very much for joining us.

Balvinder Singh Powar:
Thank you. I’m doing very well, Rahim. I’m actually in Germany and very happy to give this session now and hopefully people will have something to think about and at the end we can share some thoughts and create some value together. So very happy to be here and thank you for hosting me.

Rahim Rahemtulla:

Hello everyone, and welcome to this Silicon Valley Innovation Center webinar. My name is Rahim Rahemtulla, I am your host today. Today we are looking at “Attitude for Success” with Balvinder Singh Powar. He’s going to be giving us a presentation today and we’re going to have a Q&A with him as well, so if you do have any questions for Bal, please do send those in and at any time through the GoToWebinar panel and we’re going to have plenty of time to go into those with him. So, Bal, how are you today? Thank you very much for joining us.

Balvinder Singh Powar:
Thank you. I’m doing very well, Rahim. I’m actually in Germany and very happy to give this session now and hopefully people will have something to think about and at the end we can share some thoughts and create some value together. So very happy to be here and thank you for hosting me.

Rahim Rahemtulla:
Pleasure, Bal. It’s a pleasure. And what I’m going to do now, give you the screen. So you’ve got a presentation for us, I believe.

Balvinder Singh Powar:

Rahim Rahemtulla:
So let’s hand over to you there.

Balvinder Singh Powar:
Okay, let’s have a look.

Rahim Rahemtulla:
Yes, there we are. Perfect.

Balvinder Singh Powar:
Perfect. So thank you again. We’re going to start and welcome to all our guests. We understand some people will join us a bit later. Now, I want to talk about attitude about innovation, how can we build a culture of innovation. And we talk a lot about the hard technical skills, but the soft skills are as important and I’m going to tell you why.

Now, who am I? I think some of you have seen the interview that I did earlier with Silicon Valley Innovation Center. I’m Balvinder Singh Powar, I’m a professor at IE Business School, one the top business schools in the world, but I’m also a practitioner and I work mainly in the aerospace industry, but also in other innovation projects as director and also senior advisor. We’re in a very, very interesting time around innovation. Things are going very fast. What was science fiction yesterday is science fact today, so we have to know how to manage that. And these are things that are necessary whether you are an entrepreneur or somebody working as an employee, because we know the difference between success or failure is very, very small. So if we can combine these different skills of technical knowledge and soft people skills, we are more likely to create the right atmosphere for innovation. But it’s something where there’s no guarantee, but we have to create a context where, I would say, magic can happen.

Okay, if we look at the first screen, “Leading Through Innovation: Attitude for Success”, that’s the title so, again, the attitude, which I call the soft skills – which aren’t really soft and we’ll talk about that later – but if you look at the bottom of the screen, I mention some of my experience as a mediator. Now, I mention that because being a mediator doesn’t mean just managing conflict; it means group and team communications. So a lot of the work I do is called human-led innovation. And that’s what we look at before we go into the more technical aspects because you have to do the ground work. Because, as I always say, people come up with ideas, not robots, so you have to look after people.

I’m also mentor and I learn a lot being a mentor and also being reversed-mentored by a younger pool of people and students, because the relationship to innovation technology in the generations is extremely different. One example is I had my first own laptop in my 20s. My son, who is nine years old, had a tablet when he was three years old, and he could probably use his tablet or a smartphone better than any of us. So things are changing and we need to find that balance between the hard and soft skills. I teach a lot of skills to younger people, their very technically impressive but also the problem with the younger generation might be the fact that they communicate in a very indirect way through technology. But when you’re speaking with people, things change. And there was a survey the other day that said 15 minutes of face-to-face conversation is like swapping or exchanging 50, 60 emails, so we have to look at the quality of communication which helps to build the right climate for innovation and creativity to flourish.

Now, in the brackets at the bottom I’ve put a thing called “WA” and this is a very simple tool I use which comes from mediation to help to create the buying. Now, WA means working agreement. Whenever I’m working with a group of students or a team, I always define a working agreement together.

Now, as a professor or the leader, I could be the authority figure, but that doesn’t help innovation to happen. If you start, for example, with a simple thing, like a working agreement, which is agreed to by the team or the people around you, what happens is they become owners of the experience and the project and the task. So if you feel like an owner of something, normally, your motivation increases and you’re more likely to give a little bit of extra effort, which we call discretionary effort. If you give that discretionary effort, you’re more likely to create more value and even a small change can make a very big difference in our work, in our lives while a difference between different companies, organizations, is very minimal. A lot the time, companies have the same amount of money or technology but why is one company more successful than another? So I would start with a working agreement. If you’re with me in my class and we say, “What do we need to do to make this time together worthwhile? And how do we need to relate to each other?” So the words that have come up would be “respect”, would be “trust”, “open communication”, “confidentiality”, and creating a safe environment where we can all share freely and that we all feel motivated to be a part of. So that would be the start. So hopefully, you’re feeling that and we can start on this little journey.

Now, this is an image I use a lot. It’s about the moon landing. I would like you to believe that it actually happened, I do believe it happened. It’s very important for me for a few things. First of all, I was born in that year 1969. Secondly, I’ve worked intensely with astronauts from the European Space programs and from NASA, so they are the people I very much admire. And thirdly, this is an amazing example of teamwork and innovation. They did something that was never ever done before. And when I ask people about this image, what do I say? I ask them, “What type of skills, what type of attitude, what type of things, what stuff was necessary for mankind to get to the moon?” Now, when I ask that question, I get many responses. People say “Courage. Nobody had done this before. You need to have courage because you’re risking your life.” “Competition was necessary. Russia got to space beforehand, so America decided to get to the moon, so it became a very emotional endeavor.” Then we talk about things like technology, we talk about risk-taking, we talk about creativity, we talk about money.

But last year I gave talks to around 7000 people in 25 countries and 70% of the words around that question and this image of the moon landing were about soft skills. And that’s a very interesting thing because if most of the words came from soft skills, that means that soft skills are key to doing something exceptional. But if I ask most of you about your work and education till now, what were they based on, it’s probably about the hard technical skills. So the soft skills are things that make the big difference and the soft skills are things which are harder to learn, but they will take us beyond the technical ability. Now, we need the technical base but that’s easier to acquire, but the soft skills will take us beyond that. Now, soft skills are key but soft skills are not easy because soft skills basically are about people and, as we all know, people are complex.

This is a wonderful quote from Carnegie in the US many years ago predicting the future of work. What did they say? “85% of your financial success is due to your personality, ability to communicate, negotiate and lead. Only 15% is due to technical knowledge.” Now, that doesn’t mean technical knowledge is not important, but it’s the base.

Now, if we think about the future of work, we could be worried we could think it’s exciting, it’s scary. How will robotics, how will artificial intelligence, how will robots affect the way we work and how we work and what we do? Now, I would like to send a very positive message because if you look at the jobs of the future, if you Google them up, they are, as I mentioned in my interview earlier on, they’re about the high-tech and high-touch.

So the future careers are about having knowledge of very technical issues – it could be AI machine learning, blockchain big data – but also about the human elements. So human elements like creativity, empathy, compassion, and ethics are things that will not be, in the short, even medium-term or maybe never, replaced by machines. So the interesting thing there is, in the future, we have to be more technological, but we have to be more human. So if we focus on the human things that cannot be done by machines, those are the ones that become extremely valuable. So I’d like to send out a positive message there. So the more we have of these human elements and we foster them, the more likely we are to be successful in the challenges that we face now and in the future.

Now, if we talk about innovation and we talk about entrepreneurship, there are three steps to that. The first step would be an idea. Is the idea for important? No. More important is the execution. Many people have ideas, but few people have the courage or the conditions to make the step, to make the happen. So we need an idea and then we need to create something. It could be an app, it could be the table that I’m sitting at right now, it could be anything. We have to be able to experience it. And the third level is validation. If we don’t validate what we doing, how do we know that we have a market? If you’re too in love with your idea, you will have a problem because you’re probably not the customer who will make your business sustainable. So we have to check with our target of customers if they’re willing to use this product or service, if it solves a problem for them and if they’re willing to pay for it.

Now, that is normal innovation, we know that stuff. But let’s go beyond to a word that is very, very fashionable right now, which is disruptive innovation. Now, if I asked you all what is disruptive innovation, you might say many things, but there is a key to this. What is that key? The key is market. Now, very few things are disruptive in their entirety because most things have been done already. When I asked about disruptive innovation in companies, people would mention Uber or Airbnb. Now, they are disruptive in the business model because they are doing something that we’ve been doing for many, many years, but their business model is different. Uber doesn’t own any cars, Airbnb does not own any real estate, but they are the one of the most important companies in their field around transportation, mobility and accommodation. So disruptive innovation, the key to that is the market. And the interesting thing about market it’s not always about money or technology – or that can help – but if we can define a new market of consumers, we have them to ourselves. What we have to do over time is to keep on being relevant to this pool of customers and others.

And let’s have a look at this. Now, this term disruptive innovation was invented by an amazing professor called Clayton Christensen, a Harvard professor. We love Harvard because the case system. We love Clayton Christensen because of his incredible knowledge. He said some things are very surprising because when we consider disruptive innovation, we think disruptive means more. Sometimes it can mean less. So a couple of things on this slide, he said disruptive innovation can offer lower performance to what the market is used to, but at the same times it provides a new performance and it profits in a different market.

Now we have examples there. A very classic example would be something you have right now in your pocket: the smartphone. Now, do we think a farm in India, China, Africa would have had a smartphone 10, 15 years ago? Probably not. But right now all of them have them and it’s not a $ phone, it’s probably a $50 phone. But that basic smartphone gives access to a product or service these people didn’t have access to before and, in turn, creates more innovation. Where are the most advanced apps for communication, mobile apps communication, coming from? China for the lower income population. Where the most advanced apps for payment by mobile coming from? They’re coming from West Africa. And why is that? Because people on low income in those countries, they have one item connected, one device connected to the Internet and that’s probably the smartphone, so that smartphone has to do more for them.

Another example is hair and I used to have a lot of hair and I used to use shampoo. It was an Indian company called CavinKare and they were selling shampoo to the mid market, the middle-range income families in India, they’re very successful. But then they said, “How can we sell to people with more money? Difficult. We have to change the packaging, the marketing, the formula of the product. So what about an even bigger challenge? How can we sell shampoo? And the poorest people in India are not going to spend $3 on shampoo bottle? How can we inspire or help or make their families living on less than $5 a day for a family of four use shampoo? Normally they use hard soap.” They thought about it, they questioned it, they brainstormed it with a very diverse group of people and they tried something out, which has been an incredible disruptor in the market. What was it? They thought about and they did, they would sell the shampoo in a one-use sachet for a few cents in the small village shops all around India. That was incredible success because those people who used hard soap on their hair, they would say, “I can’t spend $3 on the shampoo bottle or more, but for a few cents I could buy the one-use sachet a few times a month and I can try it out and I can aspire to be able to afford the full bottle.” Now, that was an amazing success. It disrupted the market and it was copied by the big firms such as Unilever, and Procter & Gamble. Now, is that rocket science? Is it complex? Does it depend on money? Is it technological? No. But it’s something that changed completely the market for personal hygiene products and it disrupted the market.

So what are we saying there? The key to disruptive innovation is you compete against a non-consumer. If I see a company producing an item that is a best-seller, selling a lot, I’ll say maybe I will do the same, but I’ll change it slightly, I’ll paint it orange. Now that is a very big and difficult challenge because you’re trying to take market away from an established player. But what about if you identify consumers who are not being served? If you can do that and they pay for your product or service, you have no competition. What you will have to do is you’ll have to try to keep on being relevant.

Now, companies today are trying to find new markets and many are very successful. Mostly if you think about FinTech, about the startups around that, like Revolut or about N26 from Germany. They are serving the younger bank customer in a different way, understanding that they are not the traditional customer and they will do most of the banking on their mobile phone. Also, if you think about, it’s easy to not be relevant. Even if you were very powerful. I think about companies like Sony, Kodak, BlackBerry. There has to be something different. So if you think about companies like Apple, they create new markets but they’re not necessarily the best in technology. They’re very good in marketing, but they’re willing to throw many new ideas out there. What they also do very well is they make people buy products not based on price they based on emotion. So when Apple opened the physical stores, the flagship stores, many years ago in main cities, companies like Amazon said, “You guys are crazy. Why would you do that? Everyone’s buying online.” But Apple said, “We want to create an experience. People come into our world. is not just about sale.” So when you buy an Apple product – and I love Apple products – they make you feel something and that’s something that makes you forget about price and forget about comparing on the tech spec. You want the product and you want it now.

Let’s move on. So what I want to say is, well, not everything comes from the traditional places or innovation in the world. We can also innovate if the conditions are right, but it means that you need courage. This is not easy but it doesn’t necessarily depend on technology or money, but if we create the right context, if people feel valued, if people feel motivated, intrinsically, if they have the resources, they’re more likely to be creative and innovative.

Now what do we do in our companies? At Booster, we are trying to take people and experiments to the first layer of space suborbital. Now, that is a very difficult business. We’ve had to change the model to consultancy. What we also did is we launched three years ago a drone company. We discovered that most strong companies are offering a service and they would buy their drones from a third party. The problem was that a lot of these drones were not fit for purpose, so we, as a company, at AERDRON, we developed drones from scratch applying aerospace technology methods. And these are B2B platforms for different industrial uses, whether sending WI-FI from the sky or surveillance or farming.

Now, in these two businesses, the space and the drones, the highly technical businesses, but what is the main problem we have? The main problem we have is regulation. So we were the first company to fly a drone over a commercial airport in Spain. We had to speak to central local government, we had to lobby, we had to hire the airport per hour, but we did it. And that skill, which is more and more important in all of our work, especially when we think about security, confidentiality in data, that’s about soft skills. That is lobby. Getting that permission was lobby and lobby is something we’ll probably have to do more and more as part of our remit whatever we do in life. So even in these highly technical businesses of space and drones, the soft skills are key because lobbying is a soft skill.

Now if I look at a few different points about that as a little bit wrap up to this stage, we can say that soft skills are often forgotten, but if we can match soft skills and hard skills, there are no limits. And in my career, I’ve tried to do that. Also, the way we communicate has a massive impact on people and their motivation and the sense of belonging to a team or project that we are developing. I’ll give you an example. If I asked most of you, I’ll give you two options to work in space, I’d say, “Option A, you follow me because I’m the expert. Option B, you don’t follow me but we spend time to build a solution.” Most of you would prefer B even if it means more work because you feel ownership over the challenge. So once money’s out the question, people want to contribute.

And for me, innovation isn’t just about that, it’s also about attitude on a personal and professional level. We also have to get out of our comfort zone to grow and Kaizen explains that very well. It’s about continuous improvement. How can you make small steps together to understand the problem? If it works, well, we move forward. If it doesn’t work, well, we move backwards. Kaizen was developed in the Second World War in Japan to rebuild the country with the help of American consultants. Kaizen is also being used, the small steps by everybody instead of big jumps going forward and backwards, by countries like Ethiopia, and Ethiopia has been the fastest growing economy in the world. So I also say, for any type of project, you need passion, because you’re going to encounter many challenges, especially in entrepreneurship. It’s not a straight line; it’s up and down. You have to go over the bumps, you need people and you need a project.
Now, this is a request and it’s a type of request I’d ask at one of my classes, but I’ll explain what happened for me. So I’m going to ask you to think about – just while you’re listening and you’re in the session – what is a life or leadership lesson that was a key moment for you to be more successful? One for me was a very key one. When I was a teenager at school, I was a good student but I was extremely timid, I would never speak in public. So a professor of mine said, “Let’s do a Kaizen. What I want you to do is make a small talk, speech, in front of your colleagues. Five minutes, 20 students.” I said no. The second time I said yes and then, when I felt comfortable and it didn’t feel so bad, I started to double the number of people and the time of the talk. Now speaking in public is something scary for most people. Last year I reached my record of over 7000 people I spoke to and taught in over 25 countries.

So what I would like to say from this, the earlier you start to confront your fears, to adapt, the better. So I’d like you to think about what is a life leadership lesson that was a key moment for you to be more successful. For me, it was taking on the challenge is something I was very scared of and that has led me to travel around the world, share with people and now public speaking is a very big part of my life. Okay, so think about that. What was a key moment?

Now, talking about the leadership skills, maybe you thought of some of them. There are ones that have been identified by many companies including Fast Co which have the leadership traits that we need to create a diverse, full of value, creative and successful environment for projects and work. Now a lot of these are connected to the leadership and soft skills. So the first one manages technology management skills. We need to embrace new technology and we have to manage that balance of tech and people. We don’t always have to be the most technical people but we have to find that hybrid atmosphere context that works. Also, we have to develop teams to meet needs. We don’t dictate; we have to look outside. Outside can also mean that we find people who are the best fit for the job who are necessarily the internal employees. The soft skills are important but not just for leaders, but also to detect them in hires. If you apply to a highly tech firm today, a unicorn like Google, they’re going to see your studies as more hygiene factor, many people have them, but then they are going to ask you, “How do you create value? How do you manage diversity? How do you take an idea to a reality? How do you create a culture of innovation?”

Other things that we see. We have to be focused on results. Not exactly how you do it, but the results that you get and achieve. So we’re very much in a results-only work environment and that means we have to be very flexible and that means we have to think about objectives and quality of work, not just quantity. Now, these things are not easy. We’re in a very volatile world, a very fast-moving world, so you have to be tolerant, manage tension. Also, transparency is very important today to build trust – a soft skill – and then retain, attract the right talent. Anything that you publish today in social media will go around the world in a question of seconds, so this could be good or bad for your reputation. And the emotional talents, the EQ. This is key. A lot of the times you might have two teams at a very similar at technical level, but the EQ element brings them up for them to add that discretionary effort they would not give if the conditions were not right. And very famous examples we can see in football. For example, when Leicester City in UK won the league, it was something completely unexpected. The coach was changed and the coach said what he added to the team was emotional intelligence.

Now, if you want to understand more about building this type of culture, let’s look at some quotes from the masters. Now the first one Mahatma Gandhi – my origins are from India – he said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Now that is an opportunity and responsibility. It’s saying, if you want something, you have to do it, you cannot wait for others. The pioneers, the brave ones are the ones who change our lives, hopefully, for the better, but it’s not easy. We see many things and we say, “That looks simple,” but we didn’t do it. The people who did it are the ones who made that change happen, but maybe it took time for them to be recognized. If I told you 40 years ago, 30 years ago, that you’d carry a machine in your pocket that you could just pick up and phone anybody anywhere, you would have said that I’m nuts. But today, the mobile phone is key to most of our lives.

Also, the next quote from Euripides talks about leadership. Is leadership important? Maybe we don’t need it. Maybe we’re that good, we don’t need leadership. But I’d say the type of leadership, especially in innovation, is changing. Before, the leader would be looking top-down more as a dictator. Today, the leader, if you need innovation, is creating a context for magic to happen. I see the leader in innovation today as the gardener, helping everybody to become the best flower. So you create a context, you don’t have to be the best, you work with a very good team and you help them to perform. You take away the barriers to the performance.

Next: happiness. Is that important? Yes. It talks about the internal motivation, the intrinsic motivation, which is much more powerful than the external one. But also it talks about if you are happy, you’re willing to give more and you’re more motivated.

But we have to start somewhere. That’s why I put the last quote from Lao Tzu. “The journey of 1000 miles starts with a single step.” If things are pretty challenging, sometimes we just stop and we feel we can do anything because we’re overwhelmed, but we have to start with the step, as the step on the moon landing.

Now, these are examples for me of people have created innovation by the way they do things. Many of them were very successful, but they had a very tough road to success, but ultimately they changed our world and there are doing things or did things that have a very big impact on our lives. So you would think, I’ve got Elon Musk, I’ve Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey, Mahatma Gandhi, another lady there. What have they got to do with each other? Well, Oprah Winfrey, who you know very well in the States, this lady is a famous TV presenter and radio presenter, but what people don’t know if she’s the owner of all the channels where she works. Now, that has made her – from a situation of poverty and a very difficult childhood – it’s made one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the world but she also gives a hundreds of millions of dollars to charity every year, so for me, she’s an example of personal innovation, of somebody who’s completely transformed her own life.

But also innovation can come from anywhere. If we look at the bottom left, we have this lady, a very glamorous lady, and you’d say, “What does she do? Who is she?” Well, she was a Hollywood actor, somebody called Hedy Lamarr, but her real passion wasn’t being an actress and model, it was innovation. So she studied engineering and she developed a system to send radio frequency signals, irregular ones, from one place to another to Allied forces in an encrypted way, a safe way. She developed that with a music composer. Now when you travel around the world or any place, the first thing you ask for when you arrive to the destination is the WI-FI key before water. So the system Hedy Lamarr developed in the Second World War to send the encrypted messages between the Allied forces is the basis of modern WI-FI.

So the question, back to, “What type of leader do you want to be? How can you also foster an environment of innovation where you’re more likely to create value? But what really motivates people to succeed? It’s easy to talk about it, but we need some guidance because this is a very big topic. We have to be onto the ground, we have to get our feet onto the ground, we have to be practical. Otherwise, it’s just conceptual.

Now, this is an example from Daniel Pink. What did he say? He gave the example of Encarta versus Wikipedia. Now, Encarta was a system of CD ROM encyclopedia developed by Microsoft with an investment of $300 million, a lot of money. It displaced the paper in the beginning but ultimately it was unsuccessful. They launched this product because they know that many people had encyclopedias at home which they never read, but they cost a lot of money, maybe the monthly subscription. Now, what killed Encarta before Wikipedia was the World Wide Web. But my question is, “If you were writing, contributing to Encarta, you’d be paid very good money to do so. If you write on Wikipedia, you’re not paid any money. So why would you do it? Why would you bother?” What do you think? If we can understand this, we’re more likely to modify it ourselves and to create the right environment for innovation to happen. So let’s have a look.

I call this the PAM, there are three points. One is purpose, a sense of contribution. Think about this yourself. When you feel like you’re contributing something that has meaning for yourself and others, you’re more likely to be more motivated and give more and get a better result. Secondly, autonomy. As an authority figure, if I’m your professor or your leader or the manager or the director, you will listen, so if I say, “Do something,” you’ll do it.

But what about if I said to you, “How would you like to do it?” That will inspire more trust in you, you’ll feel more valued and that’s why autonomy is important. Let people do things in the way they’d like to do them. Third, mastery. We all like to make progress. So, if you look on Maslow’s hierarchy, the highest part is called self-actualization. So if you’re doing a job that you like, and it’s okay and it pays the rent, fine. But if you do a job you like, it pays you enough money to live and to live well and, on top of that, the company invested in you to learn or you’re learning every day in the work that you do, that is called mastery and that’s something people really look for. So if we can create a culture where people have a sense of purpose, they’ve autonomy in the way of working and they’re learning at the same time, you are more likely to create a culture of innovation which will bring us services, products and opportunities that create value.

But do we agree with this, a famous quote from Abraham Lincoln, which is a bit like the Nike ad that says, “Just do it”? “The best way to predict your future is to create it.” That means action. Actions speak louder than words.

So here we have some inventions on the slide. And some of them are not very relevant today. They were all very important in their times, they solved problems for people, but what do they have in common? Now the school I mainly teach, IE Business School, is in Spain, I live in Spain. You might be surprised to know that all those inventions are Spanish inventions. Now, I’m going to concentrate on the middle one, the ChupaChups, because I’m going to demonstrate how it’s a disruptive innovation. It’s also a work of art. So the ChupaChup was invented in the late 50s, 58’, around that time Catalonia, part of Spain. Now the problem was this company was doing pretty well selling round sweets but a round hard sweet is a danger to a child, you are worried that the child will choke and then maybe stain in the clothing. So the company said, “We’re going to do something. We’re going to put a stick on it. Now, not just any stick but a hollow stick. So if the child if the child swallows the sweet, they will not choke, they will not stop breathing.” At the same time, for that reason, parents will buy it for their children and children would love it because it’s something new. It’s a novelty.” Now, we’re talking about 60 years ago, late 50s. Now, this product was so successful that 10 years later, in the late 60s, around ‘68, one of the greatest artists who ever lived designed that now vintage logo. That artist was Salvador Dali. So the ChupaChup, the lollipop, is an amazing example of two things: a disruptive innovation and a piece of art. And even more than that, something that wasn’t based on money or technology. Now, why I’m saying that is that you can also create innovation where you are if you make or are in the right context. It’s not dependent on any one group of people. And very simple things can make a very big difference.

So what I’d like you to think about now, before we get into the Q&A, thinking about the mixture of the soft and the hard skills, the opportunities we have, think about the expertise we have around us, thinking about your passion, dream big and think about how your leadership will make the world a better place, what would be the problem that you’d like to solve? Forget about the technical limitations. What would you like to do? Now, this is how pioneers think and then they find solutions. Most of the extremely successful people I’ve met and entrepreneurs, they don’t start with saying, “I want to be rich.” They start with saying, “I want to create value. I want to make people’s lives easier. I want to solve a problem.”

So I’d like you to go away from this talk thinking about how you can make the world a better place and start, find a context an ecosystem and people to help you. What is the problem you’d like to solve? Most things you’re thinking about have already been done and that can validate what you’re doing. And most things are things that depend on people having the courage to make it happen, but we cannot do this by ourselves, we need to find people who can help us on the journey. That’s why the communication part of a leader is very important: you take people with you to make something together.

Before we get in the Q&A, I’d like to leave you with a quote which I love which is very powerful from a Sufi poet called Rumi. I mention it because, for me, being a professor, it becomes very, very vocational to share and to learn together to create a common value. So he said, “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I’m wise, so I am changing myself.” So the biggest transformation is in you and that’s the piece you can control. So if you change yourself, you’re more likely to get a different and, hopefully, a better result. So that’s something in your control and that’s an opportunity. And when I see my students, I realize over the course of a program they can change completely, and that’s something that is in their power and their responsibility. So be willing to be transformed and look at things differently.

So the last slide is just with my Twitter accounts and my faculty IE Business School email. Now, at this point, I’m very open to any questions that you may have. Thank you very much.

Rahim Rahemtulla:
Well, thank you very much, Bal, for a really interesting talk, very insightful. And, perhaps, we can leave your contacts up on the screen there for a few minutes. And it strikes me that the body of knowledge that you draw on is very wide. You brought in business academics, for example, like Clayton Christensen, but you also draw much wider than that, Rumi, Gandhi and so on. How did you come to sort of tie all of this together? How did you develop this philosophy of yours?

Balvinder Singh Powar:
I would say that in a sense, I’ve been always a very open person but I haven’t really known always what I wanted to do, so I tried to be inspired from many different facets of life to try to find answers to my own question of, Where do I want to be? Where can I add value? How can I transform myself to be a better and more successful person? So I think that inspiration can come from many different levels. And when you think about the technical ability, there are things you can learn about the soft skills, about people, we need inspiration. So inspiration can come from many things. If you talk to the most incredible innovators in the world, they were inspired by what people said, what other people did and also about nature, so that can help us to think about a mindset. That’s why philosophy is so important in that question and people like Gandhi, who changed the world with things like peaceful protest. So inspiration on a personal level can come from many places and, in the end, we are people who are very complex, but we’re inspired by actions, thoughts, art, philosophy, many different things that we have around us.

Rahim Rahemtulla:
And do you think it is important to always have this thought that we want to innovate, that we want to disrupt, that we want to change? I’m struck by this idea that you pointed to a number of inventions there which were disruptive in their in their time, but it strikes me that the people who were behind those inventions weren’t necessarily aware that they were doing something disruptive, they didn’t know that. And I just wonder, if you set out with a mindset to disrupt, is that going to help you or can actually stand in your way?

Balvinder Singh Powar:
That’s a very good point, Rahim. I don’t think the people who invented those things set out to disrupt; I think they looked to solve problems which make people’s lives easier and better. So it’s not always disruption per se. We see them as disruption because they changed what was happening, but in their context sometimes these are simple things which solved a very basic human problem that they were close to. So sometimes if we look at innovation, there isn’t so much that’s new. Most things are combination of different things that come together. So that is the viewpoint I would take it from. It’s also that the context is everything. Sometimes we don’t need to innovate and disrupt. If you need innovation disruption, then we need to work on the human elements. If I’m making matches in a factory somewhere, maybe I don’t need to innovate because this product is being used and is still relevant.

But if I need to compete in technology, if I’m trying to find new ways to help people, then I have to look at things in different way. And what will help is finding context or building a context where you’re more likely to look at things in a different way and be able to put it into practice. So we understand disruption, but I don’t think people who have disrupted think about disrupting; I think they think about making this and other people’s lives easier and better. And that’s when they get a certain result.

Rahim Rahemtulla:
And it takes a certain type of person, I think, to do that, to be able to look at a situation and to have that sort of mental power, in a sense, or that slightly different view on things and to be able to imagine how things could be otherwise. It’s hard for us, in a way, to look at everyday objects and actually understand that, at some point in time, those were disruptive inventions and it actually took someone to imagine that item or to look at the situation differently and then come up with that thing. A door, a table, mean, these things, at some point, they did not exist. So if we want to, how do we go about developing on that side of ourselves? How do we learn? How do we learn how to do that? Where do we learn how to do that?

Balvinder Singh Powar:
If it’s important for you and that’s a role you want to play, that’s the first question, about knowing yourself. And then we’d say something like Guy Kawasaki says that I find very interesting and simple, “When a few things meet, you’re more likely to create value and innovation.” And those three things are first seeing an opportunity, it can be small or big. Most of the time, we’re serving a niche. We don’t have to serve everybody. But if we serve each well, we can create something of value that sustainable, so seeing an opportunity. Second is expertise, having expertise around you, which is not just you, but it might be a pool of people or resources. And thirdly, passion. So a lot of the people I talk about, for myself as well, most of the things I start with are because of passion and that passion could be something very, very specific and from there you build on to it, especially if you have the other things around you, which I just mentioned, which is opportunity, expertise and maybe we could add some type of resources, which don’t have to be a lot.

If we look at the example of Steve Jobs, it was very interesting. I don’t know what was going on inside his head but I know that when he was a university student he dropped out because he’s worried about his adopted parents paying for studies, he was worried they couldn’t afford to pay studies, but he kept on one subject and that was calligraphy. So the subject that he kept on studying before he dropped out was calligraphy, the art of writing, and if we think about it, that obsession with calligraphy is the basis of what Apple is. It’s about design. It’s about communication, about making our relationship with technology more artistic and more human. And that’s led through to make Apple what it is today, a company that, when you buy their products, you’re not thinking about the performance compared to another brand, but you’re feeling it’s making my life easier and better and you have an emotional connection to technology. And if you have emotional connection, you’re not comparing technology performance or price. So if we look at Steve Jobs’ example, it’s very interesting. An adopted child, a family that didn’t have a special amount of extra resources, a very modest family, and his obsession and passion for art and calligraphy, which runs through the basis of the most valuable tech firm in the world.

Balvinder Singh Powar:
And was Steve Jobs, do you know, was he good at inspiring teams? As much as he was an incredible individual, we might say, with very interesting ideas and drive and passion, how much do you credit his ability there to take people along on the journey with him for success?

Balvinder Singh Powar:
I would say all of the innovators that we think about, they couldn’t do things alone, so they had to inspire people with the way of communicating. One could be Steve Jobs. It could be even Obama. Or their ideas, we could think of Elon Musk. I don’t have experience of Steve Jobs. We can read the biography, of course. I do have experience with Elon Musk.

One of my partners worked with Elon Musk and he said that Elon Musk was very tough. He would say to people, “I don’t need anybody with me, I need the best. I also need people who are willing to make sacrifice like I do, working 12, 14 hours a day, at least six days a week. If you’re willing to make that sacrifice and you are the best, we’re not just going to change the Earth, we’re going to change the universe.” So for some people, that is enough and that’s the driver because they want to make an impact. So that is a very tough thing and it’s a filter because some people would be comfortable with that, some people wouldn’t. But somebody like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, I think they need to make a filter because they are trying to do something so ambitious. If people aren’t 100% committed, if people aren’t exceptional at what they’re doing, it just will not work. So again, the context is everything, especially when you’re being a pioneer. Being a pioneer is very difficult and there is an element of sacrifice.

Rahim Rahemtulla:
And, Bal, you have a lot of students and over the years you’ve worked with so many people and, like you said earlier, you’ve seen people change over the course of working with you. And I just wonder, to what extent are you able to see immediately that someone has these qualities of a pioneer or that someone has the ability or perhaps the potential to get to that level? Is that something that you can see fairly early on with people? Or does that maybe show itself later where you may not have expected?

Balvinder Singh Powar:
And that’s another great question. A lot of it’s about the context, but I would say that people develop over time in many different ways depending on the situation around them or their own situation and the journey they’re going through. But recently, I was teaching students at pre-university, so these were people around 17, 18 years old, and I did a boot camp for a week for them in Spain before the summer. And I had a group of 40 students, but instantly there were two or three students that really shone and they showed two particular things. One, a sense of leadership, of driving the team forward and being the spokesperson and the catalyst. And second, they had a very unique way of looking at things. And sometimes it might not have been the most correct way, but they were willing to disrupt and look at things differently and defend their thought processes. So I immediately, for example, in that cohort of 40, I could identify the two or three but really, I thought, in the right condition, they can really do something exceptional later on in their lives. But then it depends on the journey they take and the path they take.

I think about sport. It’s easy to identify children who are exceptional at sport, but how many of those children become professional sports people who create an impact? Very, very few. So this is a complex process and people and young people have to be accompanied on the whole journey. And it’s a mixture of their ability, their resources and the context around them, their opportunity and also their emotional and mental strength.

Rahim Rahemtulla:
Thank you, Bal. I have a couple questions here from the audience which, if you don’t mind, I will ask to you.

Balvinder Singh Powar:
Of course.

Rahim Rahemtulla:
So we have one here. In the context of industry 4.0, what would be what would be some of the greatest challenges for leaders as they attempt to ready their followers for the new world that this new industry brings?

Balvinder Singh Powar:
I would say that it’s moving so fast, we have to create an environment where we can think ahead of the curve, but also we have to manage diversity in all its levels. So for me, diversity is a massive one because we have to try and involve everybody – and that’s older generation, younger generation – because all of those inputs are going to be important because it’s so uncertain. Things are moving so fast. We don’t even know what’s going to happen tomorrow. So managing that diversity – which is not just about nationality, it’s about communication style, it’s about people’s way to relate to each other, it’s about people’s backgrounds – that is going to be a key leadership skill if you want to create value. So those skills are very much on the soft part and having the bigger vision. So being a leader, the bigger vision has to be in the detail but you have to manage a group of diverse people because a diverse group is more likely to outperform a uniform one and a diverse group is going to help us to think differently to find better solutions.

So it’s about, how do we create that type of inclusivity. It’s very difficult to manage teams and people towards a great result. I know that and I’ve seen that many times. That is one of the biggest challenges.

Rahim Rahemtulla:
Thank you, Bal. And one other question we’ve had coming in, how do you make sure that innovation is not something that just happens on day one, it’s just not an initiative that doesn’t pan out?

Balvinder Singh Powar:
The thing about innovation is that it’s not something that you can put as a label. We’ve done it. We’ve seen that in companies, I mentioned Sony, Kodak, BlackBerry, they had amazing successes, but then they stopped being relevant. Now, if people come up with ideas and not robots, we have to nourish people. So if there’s an environment or context where people are allowed to think of new ideas, they have autonomy, they have resources around them, they’re allowed to share in a safe environment and they’re allowed to work on things and they’re allowed to create, so we give people time to spend on innovation, then we’re more likely to get the results that we want. So the context is everything. It doesn’t happen by chance, but we have to nurture it.

So if I give the example, I work with a lot of banks, they are being very much undermined by the FinTechs. Now, what they need is the right talent. So one bank I work with, they’ve changed the way they compensate their workers. So a traditional company doesn’t like failure, a traditional company will motivate people financially because of financial results, but that won’t necessarily help innovation. So the bank I’m working with, what they’re doing is they are putting in behavior to affect people’s financial compensation. So they’re measuring how people’s behavior helps to create innovation and collaboration in the company and the peers are evaluating each other. So, if you are doing a good job around behavior towards innovation culture, that will affect your financial compensation. Now, that is not an easy process, but it’s helping to change the culture of the company and it’s also sending a message out to talent that the banks require. So the same talent a bank requires today is the same talent that goes to Google. If you think about it, as one CEO of a very big Spanish bank said recently, “Our company, our bank will be a software company in the near future. So if it’s a software company, I need the techies.” So if we can change the culture and compensate people for culture change, we’re more likely to create that innovation or what we need to keep on being relevant. So for me, culture is performance. And we have to create a culture where people can share, they can think openly, they have time to be creative and they compensated for that, not just in the traditional business model. So those things are very much key.

Rahim Rahemtulla:
Yes. And, so in that situation, the bank has had to bring in quite deep structural reforms in the way that they operate on a very fundamental level to try to encourage that innovation. And the other question we’ve had come in from the audience and is related to that point is a sort of on a note of skepticism, I suppose, but the audience member, he asked, Is innovation really something that we have to do every day? And if so, do we, how do we start that? How do we start that today? Like in the example of your bank there, it sounded like what they’re trying to do, in a sense, is to make the people who work there innovate every day, in a way, because they want to change their behavior.

Balvinder Singh Powar:
But I would say that, because the traditional banking industry is suffering so much, what that bank wants to do is to create a culture of innovation. So they’re more likely to be ahead of the curve than behind the curve. But again, it’s a question of context. If you’re in a business that’s not changing much and you’re doing well and you’re doing better every year, you don’t need to innovate. But there’s simple things we can do.

So there’s another example of companies that do something like this. They say, one day a week, you ask people to come to the office, but they don’t have to do their normal work. They just spend the day thinking about ways to improve the company for them, for the company itself and their results. And that one day a week or month has produced amazing results.

A simple example is if you put in your agenda at work two hours from brainstorming, most people won’t respect that. But innovation needs time, it needs a space for it to happen, it doesn’t necessarily need a lot of money. So we have to find new ways of working if it’s necessary for our business. And we have to think that things are moving so fast. What we are today might mean that we have to be something different tomorrow to be relevant. So it’s the context, again, and it’s giving space for these things to happen. It’s not always about money.

Rahim Rahemtulla:
Thank you, Bal. And we’re almost out of time, unfortunately, so I think, just as our last question or a last thought then for the day, you talk there about context a lot.

Balvinder Singh Powar:

Rahim Rahemtulla:
So you say that in some industries, they don’t necessarily need to push for innovation in the same way, they’re not under the same pressure, but presumably they can’t afford to ignore this in the current moment of technological change. Disruption could come. It’s not something that they can predict. So what is it the solution? Is it just about being ready for it, developing the soft skills that if it comes to that point where they find they are facing pressures to innovate themselves, that there’ll be ready for it?

Balvinder Singh Powar:
Well, it’s interesting. I mean, if things are getting painful, it means that you’re already a bit late, but if you’re a traditional company with resources, what you can do is try to start small experiments to help you to understand where you could be going. A good example, I’d say, is a company like Mercedes Benz. Now, recently, the CEO said, “We are a mobility company.” Now why did the CEO say that? Because with their data, they realized people are buying cars less and less. They don’t need to own cars, but they want the use of the car. So saying that they are mobility company allows them to make experiments to help them to find their relevance. Now, what they did with that, they launched a company called car2go in Europe with a startup. So Mercedes would give the electric vehicles, the smart vehicles, to the project and the startup would manage the service of leasing the car, renting it per minute or hour. Now, they’re not thinking about getting a financial reward for that company yet, but it’s helping them to understand where they might have to go and that project in that regard, car2go, has been very, very successful.

So what we need to do is to have experiments which help us to understand where we need to go and what our relevance can be. And that’s something where the larger companies and traditional companies maybe have an advantage because they have the resources to do so. The problem is, if they don’t see it, it might become too late. When I was a kid, I’d never thought a company like Kodak would not exist. And I would never have thought a company like Sony would become less relevant. Sony, in my day, was the Apple, it was the Walkman that changed everything. So this is a messy, complex future, but what we have to do is take some steps to try to understand it and understand where we fit in.

Rahim Rahemtulla:
Fantastic. Well, Bal, thank you so much. That’s a wonderful, thought-provoking note, I think, to end our talk on today. And so I just want to let our viewers know, while they’re with us, that if they’re interested in finding out more about the disruption that we’re facing today, then do check out our Leading Digital Transformation program that we do here at SVIC tailored to executives who wants to find out about the latest disruptions and innovations in their industry. And the last thing I’d like to tell you about today is that we have another expert talk coming up, just like Bal has been with us today, next week on Tuesday. I’m going to be interviewing Said Mia, who is the founder of Sweat Equity and that’s a startup advisory group. So Said is going to be talking there about the challenges that startups need to overcome. And similarly to what Bal’s been talking about today, he’s going to talk about the traits of character that founders and entrepreneurs need to have in order to succeed. So that that’s things like grit, like determination, commitment and sacrifice. But that’s where we will wrap up today, that’s all I want to say. And so, Balvinder, thank you so much for joining us today, sharing your thoughts and insights. It’s been a pleasure having you. And from myself and from Bal, I think, that’s where we’ll wrap up. So thank you.

Balvinder Singh Powar:
Thank you, Rahim. Thank you to the audience. And thank you for all the support to making this event happen. Thank you very much. Let’s keep in touch.

Rahim Rahemtulla:
All the best.

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