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What Will Be The Next Big Idea In The GCC?

What Will Be The Next Big Idea In The GCC?

McDonalds and Taco Bell offer a historical lesson in innovation for the UAE, writes leadership expert Tommy Weir.


Across the region, innovation is seemingly the trendy word of the decade. Hearing innovation referred to so frequently has left me wondering, what do people mean by it?

Let’s start with San Bernadino, California. With almost everything against it, this city changed the way the world eats. San Bernadino, with just over 100,000 residents produced two restaurants that went on to become household names – McDonalds and Taco Bell. What happened in San Bernadino California in the 1950s to change the way the world eats?

Ray Kroc, a travelling salesman of the Multimixer milkshake machine from Illinois, learned that Richard and Maurice McDonald were using eight of his high-tech machines in their San Bernadino burger shop. This unparalleled usage caught Ray’s interest so he travelled Route 66 to discover what was happening.

In the 1950s, Route 66 became the main highway for vacationers heading to Los Angeles and it opened up shops on Main Street America. This sharp increase in tourism gave rise to a burgeoning trade in all manner of roadside attractions marking the birth of the fast-food industry, the site of the first drive-through restaurant, and the rise of the franchise.

When Ray arrived in San Bernadino, he found a streamlined, highly efficient restaurant called McDonald’s. Using their “Speedee Service System” the McDonald brothers had taken great care in setting up their kitchen with each worker’s steps being carefully choreographed, like an assembly line, to ensure maximum efficiency.

Believing in their formula, Ray suggested that they franchise their restaurants throughout the country. When they hesitated, he volunteered to do it for them. The rest is history as witnessed through the phenomenal worldwide success of the McDonald’s restaurant chain.

Across town, Glen Bell found a niche in the fledgling Mexican-style food business. He was keen on selling tacos by volume, rather than making and stuffing them individually, as was the case in full- service restaurants. So like the McDonald brothers, Glen introduced a concept that revolutionised the way the world eats.

Route 66’s role in innovation was providing a place where ideas could be discovered. Great ideas need a stage. Much of the focus on innovation is towards idea creation. While that is important, innovation is a combination of idea generation, improvement and idea exposure. In the case of the McDonald brothers and Glen Bell, the automobile phenomenon of the 1950s and Route 66 provided the exposure.

While there is massive interest in innovation in this region, the focus of many companies is on incremental and adaptive innovation or what can be called C2GCC (copy to the GCC), which is taking an outside model – oftentimes from the West and then applying it to the GCC market.

This is what Ray Kroc did. He discovered somebody else’s success and bought their innovation so he could take it to other markets. In other words, he was not an innovator; he was a copier, albeit a very successful one.

There are a lot of developments happening across the region in retail, financial services, and telecommunications. But we’re not seeing a lot of science-based, new-to-the world innovations.

The hard infrastructure is clearly being built up in the GCC, but the social institution and understanding that helps move ideas from the lab to the marketplace is lagging behind. The next opportunity coming down the pike is moving from C2GCC to “breakthrough thinking’. Attention needs to be focused on building up the soft side of innovation: leveraging intelligence, building innovation skills, adding value from diversity, and enhancing educational models.

To be a leader in innovation there needs to be a local culture and institutions that encourages individual initiative, risk taking and collaboration.

Historically, the GCC was the leader in innovation with the Arab world contributing the alphabet, to the development of science and mathematics, arts, coffee and even the marching band. In recent years, the region has produced a massive amount of engineers. Now it is time to build strong innovation soft skills and move beyond C2GCC to be a global leader in innovation.


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