Growth Through Innovation: Asking “Why” Can Make A Significant Impact On Your Ability To Be Innovative

May 15, 2013 1 Min Read

Photo Source: David


Like many people, I recently took a pledge to be vegetarian during the month of lent. It is indeed an interesting time for me, as I have to be innovative in finding recipes and places to eat. But thank God, there are interesting vegetarian restaurants and I would like to call them innovative restaurants. The product range that is offered was truly amazing and I can tell that there was a lot of thought that was put into it.

The experience is tantalising to the taste buds. Anyone would be tempted by the range of innovative products in the wide array of menu offered whether you are a born vegetarian or not. This made me wonder, what inspires innovation? What spurs an innovative mindset to create commercially viable products, services and solutions?

My curiosity led me to Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle Model. The model suggests that great leaders, companies and even innovators always start with the WHY and then the HOW and lastly the WHAT. This inside-out model is unconventional compared with the conventional outside-in model where we tend to focus on WHAT needs to be done, HOW it has to be done and lastly the WHY it has to be done.

Great companies like Apple have a very strong “WHY” which inspires the HOW and then the “WHAT” is the end outcome. For example, Apple’s WHY is to “Think Different”; this is its compelling reason for existence and this inspires the HOW, which is to create innovative, easy to use computers, and lastly WHAT happens at the end is that it becomes the most innovative company in the world.

It would have been different if it was to operate the conventional way or the outside in model, for example. The WHAT would be selling computers, the HOW would be done through cost cutting and lastly the WHY would be to make money. Sounds familiar? If your approach is this, you might enjoy short-term profitability but it will not be sustainable.

There must be a strong and compelling WHY to inspire creativity and innovation. As the famous saying goes, where there is a will there is a way. The will here talks about the why. Great innovators and creators are often sensitive to the WHY they do what they do.

Great companies like Apple have a very strong “WHY” which inspires the HOW and then the “WHAT” is the end outcome.

I recently went to an excellent exhibition called the art of the brick in Singapore. It showcases the interesting yet amazing work of Nathan Sawaya who is a renowned Lego sculptor and artist. His recent global museum exhibitions feature large-scale sculptures using only toy building blocks, Lego bricks to be exact.

His sculptures are indeed breathtaking and each art piece could comprise up to 8,000 Legopieces and and would take weeks or even months to complete.

What’s more intriguing here is that just like any conventional young man growing up, he pursued a good college education and graduated with a law degree from New York University and even practised law in a firm. But it was in 2004 that he left his job and pursued becoming aLego artist. WHY? Because he wanted to pursue his childhood passion and dream which is to have fun and show the world his creativity and inspire creativity in the process. How did he do it?

He used simple Lego bricks to create world-class masterpieces. And of course WHAT happened next is history in the making; he is now one of the most sought after artists with sold out exhibitions around the world. The world would not have seen his beautiful creations if he had just used a conventional way to make a living by being a lawyer. He truly is an innovator. His famous answer when asked “which one is your favorite piece?” is always “the next one”.

One way to discover your WHY is to observe a need. Every great business addresses a need. Once you identify a compelling need, you will be able to discover your WHY. For example, everyone knows Nestle as a great company but this great company started off with a compelling why. Henry Nestle started working on the infant formula project because he wanted to save lives. Being a pharmacist assistant, he noticed the high infant death rate in his family; half of the 14 children died before reaching adulthood.

He combined cow’s milk with wheat, flour and sugar to produce a substitute of mother’s milk for those children who could not accept breast-feeding. His WHY was to save lives and the HOW was done by using whatever knowledge he had together with his wife who was a daughter of a charity doctor and the WHAT is of course the beginning of a great company in the making. Indeed great things happen when we start with the WHY. This truly inspires innovation.

The same has happened with companies at our backyard, such as AirAsia. Tan Sri Tony Fernandes saw a need; his WHY was to give people especially those who have been neglected by the airline industry an opportunity to fly. The HOW was done through a low cost model which includes direct web purchase and of course the end result is that they are now the best low cost airline in the world.

Once you have identified your WHY by observing a need or creating one, then you can focus on the HOW. Innovation can happen anywhere and anytime. It is often mistaken to be confined to a product or invention. But innovation for a company can happen in 10 ways according to Doblin’s 10 types of innovation. They are categorised in terms of configuration, offering and experience. Tune in to my next article where I will discuss further about the HOW using Doblin’s 10 types of innovation with examples. But for now I would like to conclude by saying, start asking the pertinent question: “WHY’ do you do what you do. Find a compelling purpose, observe a need, seek inspiration, challenge the implicit assumption by even asking “why not”.

Do something new! It does not have to be complicated. You can be innovative in your everyday life; this is something I learned from my retired father-in-law. He invents small devices, inventions and simple gadgets to address household needs such as custom made covers for the locks made from old shampoo bottles in order to lengthen itheir lifespan. Don’t be afraid of what people will think of you. After all every great moment starts with an idea!



Raj Kumar is senior director of strategy and innovation from the UCSI Blue Ocean Strategy Regional Centre. Raj is passionate about strategy and innovation, which can be inspired anyhow, anywhere, anytime. To learn more about Blue Ocean Strategy and for corporate programmes for your organisation on strategy, email

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