Batman vs MacGyver: Driving innovation with limited tools

Companies don't need all the resources in the world to deliver incredible innovation, writes TransUnion Africa CEO Lee Naik.

Read time 4min 40sec
TransUnion Africa CEO Lee Naik.
TransUnion Africa CEO Lee Naik.

The course of true innovation never did run smooth. For every conceptual technology that promises to revolutionise your business, there's the thorny business of testing applications and building platforms.

For some businesses, this step is made easier by all of the resources they have available. If GE wants to leap into the Internet of things age, it can build its own Industrial Internet of Things (IIOT) platform and roll it out on its own terms. And if Amazon thinks its efforts at offering a seamless customer experience is hampered by its reliance on third-party courier services, it can build its own fleet of cargo planes and take flight.

It's the stuff of fiction, the kind of technological leaps Batman would make to fight the Joker. Gotham underwater? No problem, just build a Bat-submarine! But what if you're not a GE or an Amazon, with money on hand to buy an airline or develop your own IIOT platform from scratch? Most of us aren't exactly rolling around in an innovation budget large enough to do everything we'd like to. Are we doomed to watch from the side-lines as the Batmans of the business world get to do all the cool stuff?

Thankfully, you don't need to have all the resources in the world to deliver incredible innovation to customers. After all, the darlings of digital disruption - most of which are under a decade old - didn't exactly start out with Batman-esque budgets. The trick is to stop thinking like Batman and start thinking like another action hero - MacGyver.

The tools at hand

Imagine yourself in a classic MacGyver scenario: you're in a room with a bomb set to explode in just a few minutes. But don't worry ? this room also happens to contain a few possible tools: a paperclip, a nail file, and a supercomputer capable of beating anyone at Go. Now, as impressive as that artificial intelligence might be, the paper clip and nail file are far more suited to solving MacGyver's immediate problem - shorting the bomb before it has a chance to detonate.

The MacGyvers of digital don't latch onto the latest technologies just because they've popped up in the Gartner magic quadrant. They ask themselves what the key problems are they're trying to solve and consider what could plug into their existing platforms and services to solve those problems.

Take e-commerce platform Konga, which acquired more than a million customers in just its first year. Faced with the very real challenges of quickly and accurately delivering packages in Nigeria, Konga made use of motorcyclists to zip quickly through traffic, a low-tech practice that has since been adopted by other e-commerce players in Africa. As Konga's immediate challenges have expanded in scope, it's continued to build up the tools in its digital Swiss Army Knife, whether open source or in-house.

Let the data guide you

Besides the billion-dollar fortune, bat-suit and attitude towards mullets, what's the difference between Batman and MacGyver anyway? Perhaps the biggest is that MacGyver is like a sponge, absorbing every molecule of physics, chemistry and engineering knowledge he comes across, to come up with improbable solutions to impossible problems.

The trick is to stop thinking like Batman and start thinking like another action hero - MacGyver.

In real life, that translates to business intelligence - knowing how to collect, parse and use it to drive your decisions. So, what if you don't have access to a full-bore data science team? Take some tips from MacGyver and upskill yourself and your teams through platforms like Hadoop and resources like MOOCs. Get smart about big data: figure out what information is necessary to impact your core services, and find a way to leverage that data.

If struggling to implement big data on a small budget, seek inspiration from SMEs such as Jumo, Safe Moto and FarmDrive, just a small sampling of MacGyver businesses that are getting it right.

Sharing is caring

Alright, enough about what the MacGyvers and Batman organisations of the world don't have in common. Here's one thing they do - they know when to do it themselves, and when to get help. Like any good action hero, they have a cast of characters to share the burden.

Nobody likes a creepy loner. If your organisation has an ambitious goal and lacks the resources to match, the smart answer is to share the costs. Whether it's making use of shared services or co-sponsoring incubators and innovation competitions, it makes sense to pool resources to create new value streams - an innovation stokvel.

Take Superbalist, which decided early on to make use of a shared warehouse and logistics platform called Parcelninja to handle its distribution. Meanwhile, The Foschini Group and start-up Wumdrop have joined forces to pilot a parcel pick-up service for easy collection. Why do it yourself when you can do it more effectively with the help of someone else?

Do you agree MacGyver organisations can be just as effective as Batman businesses? How do you make the most of your digital resources to drive innovation and business growth?

About Lee Naik

Lee Naik was named one of LinkedIn's Top 10 Voices in Technology and is recognised as one of SA's leading digital and technology transformation experts. He is presently CEO of TransUnion Africa, where he leads a portfolio of businesses that help organisations make more informed decisions and consumers manage their personal information, leading to a higher quality of life.

Check out his Linked blogs and follow him on @naikl for his latest commentary.

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