#20 When Corporates and Startups Play Games
With Yi Hoo Ong
Yi Hoo leads the innovation work at human at work, and operates at the intersection which marries the speed of exponential start-ups with the scale and resources of large corporations. He helps unleash hidden potential by working with startups on strategy and operations to help them scale exponentially, and helping large corporations through their transformation by unlocking innovation.
[03:33] What is human at work? And what’s your job there?
[05:45] How has your past experience shaped what you’re doing now?
[09:47] What’s the #1 challenge trying to drive innovation in large organizations?
[13:12] What did you learn running The Kitchen, an open-source innovation platform?
[27:49] How is The Kitchen similar/different to the Innovator-in-Residence program at human at work?
Yaniv Corem (00:39):
Welcome, Yi Hoo back to school.
Yi Hoo Ong (00:42):
Hi, Yaniv, I’m super excited to be here. I can’t wait to see where our conversation leads.
Yaniv Corem (00:48):
Awesome. I’m very glad you’re here. How about we start with a little game? Are you Up for that? So, complete this sentence for me, and please do not overthink it. The sentence is “Corporates and startups are…”
Yi Hoo Ong (01:09):
They are playing different games. I find sometimes corporates are playing chess and startups are playing Fortnite. They’re just on sometimes just totally different planes of existence but duking it out in the same field a lot of the time.
Yaniv Corem (01:30):
That is what makes it interesting, right?
Yi Hoo Ong (01:33):
Yeah, exactly. I mean, it’s a, it’s, it’s, it’s interesting when you are talking and trying to advise corporates on, on a competitive landscape and, and you notice that there is a startup in the field. And as always, if the corporate’s a little bit behind they are, like “No these guys are small fry, don’t worry about them. We have the big B to B relationship with the customer”, and I’m just telling you this being nice, then go like, yes, but this startup doesn’t care about profitability. They have just gotten funding. They have just 10X, the size of their proto and their, and their program with your customer. And you are trying to figure out how to make an extra 1% on your margin. And it, it, it’s, it’s quite an interesting dynamic and a conversation with corporates when, when you’re in this in this situation with them.
Yaniv Corem (02:26):
Yeah. Yeah. So almost trying to translate between two different languages.
Yi Hoo Ong (02:33):
Yes. And trying to try to explain it. It’s like teaching them how to play a new game and they, they just don’t know, or they don’t understand the rules. And, and for you, it’s like, actually the rules are really not, there where similarily to our analogy. Chess has a lot of structured rules. Like every piece has its kind of way of moving. But when you move into, into the real world, when you’re playing a Fortnight game or a PUBG game, it is essentially almost every man for himself. It’s a dynamic map. It’s constantly moving. The constraints are constantly closing in. And you sometimes have to do defensive. Sometimes you go on offensive. It’s, it’s very dynamic. It’s no longer a turn by turn basis.
Yaniv Corem (03:17):
Yeah. I like that analogy. So I want to talk a little bit about what you, what you’re doing right now. You’re the Chief Innovation Officer at human at work. And so could you share what is human at work and what you do there?
Yi Hoo Ong (03:34):
Yeah, sure. So human at work is a effectively, a strategy, innovation and purpose lab we’re quite quite specific in the way that we word it. And, and we don’t want to be seen as your stereotypical consultants we do do is that we go into either corporates or startup worlds and help advise them on strategy, innovation and purpose. And we kind of saw this as an interesting nexus as we move forward into the, into the, into the next next few years. That one innovation is now used to be just the interesting thing that only large companies did into something that every company needs to do now, whether they actually do or not is a different, different problem. Purpose is now a much bigger issue and on, on the table, especially, I think it started way back with sustainability ESG goals. And then now people starting to awaken it up into like, okay, look, what actually is our purpose?
Yi Hoo Ong (04:34):
What are we, what value are we delivering to the world and to our stakeholders beyond financial and shareholders. And of course all tied together with strategy. So I lead the innovation piece. I have a dual mandate one side looking at the large corporates in terms of helping them kind of work through some corporate innovation strategies and kind of programs and processes. And on the other side, I am probably my stronger passion is working with startup founders to find ways to help them supercharge their business as they start to scale using, using Vizio my background from large corporate working with startups at Li&Fung. So, so that’s that’s, and then in a nutshell, what I do in sort of what human at work does.
Yaniv Corem (05:25):
So take me back to stuff that you were doing prior to human at work. And if you could maybe reflect on these things and how the different things that you’ve done in the past, kind of all tied together to what you’re doing now, how has that sort of shaped what you’re doing right now?
Yi Hoo Ong (05:45):
Sure. I have to say my, my career path till now has been very boring. I was a, almost a career man at Li&Fung. You will know Li&Fung very well a supply chain manager in the fast moving consumer goods industry. I started off as a management trainee and by the time I left, I was looking after some innovation programs I had pushed through some large cultural cultural work throughout the entire organization, and also had a, essentially like a firefighter on special projects at a, at a corporate level. So I think my experience really helped drive into me the, the ability to stay agile and flexible. I would be dropped into project where I would have zero expertise and zero knowledge of the, of the matter, but be very quick to assess what was going on and kind of bring transparency and utilize data to kind of help shoot through any problems.
Yi Hoo Ong (06:46):
The culture piece really showed me how important culture was and how much it was hidden within organizations that what was, what was unsaid and unknown and how that can be both a the harness for good and for bad. As we, as I went through and I went through almost all of our offices to see all people, and I think the, the humanity there really kind of shaped the way I think about business and how business should be built and run around people. And then finally, the final piece around innovation, which actually stemmed from the culture piece was that innovation needs to fundamentally come from your culture. And yeah. I think you will agree with me on this and that you cannot build an innovation lab and be suddenly overnight innovative as a company. If cannot do hackathons until you become innovative as a company, there are many things around innovation theater that can be done and money can be spent, but at the end of the day, you need to go back to your culture.
Yi Hoo Ong (07:49):
And, and so that, that kind of shaped a lot of the thinking that I had. And, and the final piece just before I left, was kind of this building helping Li&Fung and Fung Group build a ecosystem to start to build partnerships in potentially interesting pilots with startups. The company realized that we needed to kind of look outside a little bit more. The, the solutions to our problems were unlikely to come from ourselves. And so we started to work. I think it started the Explorium in itself. That was the last place I was before I left, started in Shanghai. I think they did well there. And we started off the Hong Kong one and yeah, let’s just leverage the way that we have a startup ecosystem in Hong Kong to bring in some fresh, innovative ideas into the company to help solve some of the problems that we will see.
Yaniv Corem (08:41):
So you mentioned Li&Fung, you managed the program there called The Workshop?
Yi Hoo Ong (08:48):
Yes. The Workshop. That was at Li&Fung before we got pushed into the group.
Yaniv Corem (08:53):
And we’re talking like for our audience who doesn’t know Li&Fung or the Fung Group, we’re talking about a huge organizations, right? Tens of thousands of people, a lot of business units spread across the globe
Yi Hoo Ong (09:08):
Yep. At the Fung Group level there were something like 40 to 50,000 people globally. I think we’re in almost every major country in the world. I’m doing everything from retail down to managing supply chains and manufacturing. So it was, it was a pretty sizable and large and large business.
Yaniv Corem (09:28):
So looking at Li&Fung as a huge organization and some of the huge organizations you work with today, what’s your number one challenge, or what are you some of your bigger challenges in trying to drive innovation in these organizations?
Yi Hoo Ong (09:48):
The, the number one challenge is always to take them away from technology. Every large organization likes to throw all the buzzwords you can think of I’ve I’ve, I’ve heard them all. And they sort of just lose sight of what they’re trying to do. So a lot of the time we go back to basics where we always tell them forget AI forget data, forget this, forget blockchain, like, like the number of times, I just have to hear those words. And I just, not for the first like 10 minutes and like, “Oh, we are being disrupted by this blockchain startup. Uwe need to do this.” I’m like, okay, you’ve said your piece, but what are you trying to solve? So, I think that that is always the biggest challenge in large corporate, they just lose sight of what they’re trying to solve and whether it’s a large financial institution or, or, or a large supply chain company or, or large, any kind of company, they just, they just jump into the technology. We need to have AI, we need to have data. We need to hire data scientists. I’m like, but what are you trying to do? Right. Are you trying to build a better customer experience? And then if you are,uwhy, why do you need a better customer experience? Right. And then what’s the motivation behind that? You know, what’s the solution…?
Yaniv Corem (11:03):
So, they’re not asking themselves these questions, right. They’re basically jumping into the solutions.
Yi Hoo Ong (11:08):
Yeah. that’s, that’s quite often what we see. They just jump into a solution and then go like, and they assume that that’s the solution because they see someone else doing it. So, so if they start to lose market share their customers, if they’re whatever metric they’re using, the customer experience or customer metric is dropping, they’re like, Oh, our customers are not happy of us. We saw competitor use an AI-empowered chatbots. We need one of those, too. And you’re like, well, no. I mean like, why are your customers unhappy with your service, right? Is it because your retail branch person is just like, has made them wait like two hours in line? Is it, is it because that they weren’t able to complete the transaction that they wanted to is it because they don’t want to pick up the phone when they called, so there’s a whole bunch of things that can be solved and ultimately, yes, you, you end up with some interesting technological solution, right?
Yi Hoo Ong (12:03):
And you can use AI to do this, this isn’t this, but when you understand what you’re trying to fix, then it becomes so much a contextual. And then you understand why you need to spend money on that technology. Because when you say you want to spend money on technology, a lot of people don’t fundamentally understand how much some of this technology can cost. And then they bulk, or they see the price type. Like, Oh my God, I wanted AI, but I didn’t think it would cost this much money. Right. So, so it helps when you understand why trying to solve it, then you can see what’s the value in spending on that technology.
Yaniv Corem (12:38):
So let’s talk a little bit about The Workshop, because I remember it had a pretty interesting structure, or maybe more of a concept where it was open sourcing innovation, right? Like you were trying to get the whole organization involved in creating a, you know, creating, documenting and pushing forward creative ideas. So how did that work? Like what, what tools were you using? What was the process like? Could you share a little bit about that?
Yi Hoo Ong (13:12):
Sure. So just taking one step back in that culture piece that we did just before The Workshop’s creation, as we were going through the world and kind of meeting our colleagues around, we will identify like great ideas that our colleagues were executing in market. And, and, and the common question we always ask us, why isn’t this being done in the rest of the unit? Why hasn’t this been applied in Hong Kong or China or the US and those would be interesting solutions that the Philippine’s team in the middle of nowhere has figured out for themselves and we’re like, “You should use this in Hong Kong. Hong Kong has this same problem. Right?” And they’re like, “Oh, no, we’re just a small Filipino team. Hong Kong is the headquarters. They must know everything. You know, that they are probably doing something even better than what we’re doing.”
Yi Hoo Ong (13:59):
And from our point of view, we’re like, we understand more about how the rest of the rest of the organization’s working. We’re like, no, they actually have it. You actually running more efficiently than the Hong Kong operation. And so we got this one, like how do we surface all these great ideas from our entire organization? And so it’s transparent. Everyone can see, and everyone can kind of raise the voice and collectively improve the idea. And so we landed on essentially crowd sourcing if you want to use the technical term for it. But what we really wanted to do at the workshop was how to foster and empower a culture of open innovation throughout the entire organization. And we fundamentally believe that the best ideas do not come from HQ and do not come from the person with the biggest paycheck. So that was, that was really, that was really the seed of the workshop.
Yi Hoo Ong (14:53):
We started with a crowdsourcing tool and there was a provider by a third party provider called Spigot. We rolled it out under the brand name, called The Kitchen. I think we wanted the wedding of the kitchen because our CEO was very he had a great statement. It’s like we have within a large company and we have the best ingredients, but we don’t have a, we are still unable to serve up the Michelin star recipes to our customers, even though we have all these great ingredients, which are the envy of the rest of our industry, we still can put it together. And so we thought, okay. So I think a kitchen is a great analogy, like having the best ingredients in one thing, but you need the kitchen to kind of cook it all up and put it together into a single dish and serve it up.
Yi Hoo Ong (15:41):
So that was The Kitchen. And then we grew that out to sort of, if you follow the, the, the, the journey of innovation as a culture and open innovation, we started running what we call Gorilla sessions, which is essentially fireside chats with some external, external speakers coming in to kind of give us a different viewpoint on potentially the industry. And some of some of some of the challenges that we’re fixing facing. We obviously understood that because we wanted to stay open. It’s all about the community and not just community internally, but the community externally. How do we start bringing in the, the startup ecosystem and engaging them, not in a, we want to hire you or pay for your services or do a, so do a POC of you BUT like, Hey guys, we are a large multinational, we are learning.
Yi Hoo Ong (16:34):
We want to be part of the process with you guys in the startup world. It’s not adversarial, we’re here to live together. How do we build this community? And, and start to, and start to have that conversation. And additionally, what we found was that all the other large multinationals always effectively doing the same thing and all were learning the same lessons. So we started to convene some community events around multinational innovation teams. And I think you will notice most innovation teams are like one or two men guy…One or two men or women teams in a large company with very little resources. Probably is part of their job is not, they have a whole bunch of other stuff they have to do. And it’s just through sheer passion of wanting to improve their own organization are doing what they’re doing. And we essentially tried to build a support group around that, like, look, we’re all learning the same thing. Why don’t we share? Even, I think at one point we had like two essentially competitors in the same room and, and I’ll view as I obviously don’t share like market critical information, but the experience that the learnings we can share openly, because I think with innovation practitioners, that’s a lot easier as opposed to sales.
Yaniv Corem (17:46):
So let’s step forward. Let’s fast forward to human at work, and maybe compare and contrast The Workshop, The Kitchen with this Innovator-in-Residence program that you have at human at work. That’s I, as I understand it, designed to supercharge startups to scale and compete. Correct? So, how does that compare and contrast with The Kitchen?
Yi Hoo Ong (18:12):
It’s a very different lens. So The Kitchen and The Workshop, everything was geared around effectively helping a multinational adapt a more innovative culture and mindset. The supercharger residence program is catered towards startups who are just starting to scale the opportunity that we saw here. And I think, I think we organically fell into this was because we were doing it already for a few startups, was that as the startups starts to scale, they start to, they start to hit the problems that large multinationals have already solved in terms of operations. Some of the strategy, I think, I think if you’re under 20 men and everyone is in the room, that’s great. Everything is you’re, you’re knocking it out of the park when you start to want to scale to multiple countries and multiple multiple offices, but then you start to face all the problems that everybody, every large company has gone through.
Yi Hoo Ong (19:08):
Like, you know, how do you put operations in place? How do you make sure that people, how do you make sure your culture is kind of still intact when you open a new office market entry into a new, into a new country? Like simple procedures, like just procedural things. Like how do you hire people before? Like, yo, okay, you can just get a candidate and see the co-founders interview him or her a couple of the maybe the function heads interview him or her. And that’s great. How do you do that? When, when you start to grow into like a hundred, 200, 300 people team, you can’t do that with the cofounder constantly interviewing people. You need to build a process and put that in place. So that’s, that’s a lot of the work that I’ve been doing this on the stops in terms of the supercharging to help them think through how to stay, help them to stay focused and help, help them grow in a structured way, as opposed to just grow blindly and then kind of fix the problems afterwards.
Yaniv Corem (20:06):
So I’ve got one more question before we wrap up and it goes back to what you’re doing now as a chief innovation officer you know, given these times, what’s all that’s happening with COVID-19. I I’ve, you know, many Chief Innovation Officers are struggling right now to kind of figure out what to focus on. So my question to you is what are you focusing on the Chief Innovation Officer?
Yi Hoo Ong (20:37):
In terms of focus for my clients…Um when I advise would be to stay true to your cause, be very now more than any other time, you need to know why you’re here, what you’re trying to achieve and where you want to go. I think a lot of the time people will just forget because that’s challenge A comes out of left field challenge B comes out of right field. You’re constantly firefighting and, and yes, it’s much easier said than done. I totally understand this, but it’s, you, you need, you need to, at some point, just take a breather or stop and see whether what you’re doing still makes sense. And in the way that this world is changing so dramatically, that’s what is, what you’re doing right now is the fire you’re trying to put out right now, going to be relevant in five years time.
Yi Hoo Ong (21:36):
I always go back to like a, a quote. I remember reading in the financial times during the financial crisis, the, the, everyone was so focused on examining the grains of sand on a beach that they didn’t see the tsunami coming. So I think you need to stop at some point and now more than other, because you just, a lot of people are just slowly bleeding out businesses drying up. You need to take the pain sometimes and just start to look at potential ability potential places to pivot and just stay true to your cause and what you’re trying to do. And whether that by doing that, you actually figure out whether you should have a place in this role really.
Yaniv Corem (22:24):
Yeah. That’s great advice. I like that. I, I like the fact that you’re saying embrace what’s happening right now. Don’t try to react so quickly all the time. Just try to stay quiet and figure out what’s happening and then step out of that quietness into a more leveraged position. So you if people want to learn more about you and what you do, maybe learn more about human at work…What’s the best way way to do that?
Yi Hoo Ong (22:57):
Reach out to me on LinkedIn. We have a website or email, me just yeah. And anywhere you see me digitally with a contact me button just come right or go right through.
Yaniv Corem (23:10):
Fantastic. So, I will link your LinkedIn profile in the show notes. Thank you so much for being on the show, Yi Hoo.
Yi Hoo Ong (23:18):
Thank you very much. Always a pleasure.