Douglas Kruger

Start innovating, it’s fun! And it will ensure that you don’t disappear into a sea of sameness.

Innovation should be one of the driving forces in our lives. In fact, we should never stop innovating. We should, in the words of Douglas Kruger, author and consultant, keep asking ourselves, “How can we become relentlessly relevant”

According to this energetic “un-tangler of the unexamined thinking”, there are many compelling reasons why it’s worth our while to innovate. He’s happy to list some of these reasons:

“The longer you are perfect at what you do, the less people notice you – and innovation gives you an opportunity to create new noise. Innovation also allows you to offer more variations on a theme, because even your most ardent supporters may not need the same product twice. On top of this, innovation may unlock hidden budgets, as novelty can elicit the response: ‘We need to find a way to afford this.’

“If your entire model becomes outdated, it doesn’t matter how well you manage your business. Imagine a chain of video stores run to operational perfection, but still going bust in the face of Netflix or BoxOffice. Innovation can supply the solutions here. Innovation is also the brave solution to cut-backs, the art of choosing growth instead of withdrawal.

“It’s important to innovate, because unconventional armies tend to win battles. Innovation lets you take on the giants … and win.

Douglas grew up in what he calls a parody of the Spud books. “Right down to the red-bearded dad and the embarrassing station wagon. We were the family ever on the brink of financial oblivion, in an otherwise decent neighbourhood, Weltevreden Park in Johannesburg.” He studied towards a degree in communication and philosophy through Unisa, while working in his first job as a junior newspaper reporter.

Today Douglas is a professional speaker, business consultant and author of six books, among them Own Your Industry – How to Position Yourself as an Expert, and Relentlessly Relevant – 50 Ways to Innovate. His next two books with Penguin will be titled How to Make Your Point Without PowerPoint, and They’re Your Rules – Break Them. Douglas is the only person ever to have won the Southern African Championships for Public Speaking a record five times.

We peppered Douglas with some pertinent questions on innovation.

What exactly is innovation

It’s what we do as a species. Think about it. We don’t know of any other sentient beings in the entire universe that, generation after generation, progress along a storyline. An elephant today lives pretty much the same way an elephant did when Shakespeare was around. But we don’t. We take what came before us, evaluate it and build on it. Take that, elephants!

Looking back in history, it seems, though, that no problem is really unique, so can we truly still innovate

I believe that all human thought is basically an inverse pyramid. Each idea builds onto the one that came before it. Each new block creates an ‘adjacent possible’, and a new idea exists as the result of the preceding idea. The implication is that we must keep our eyes open and simply observe how new things are unfolding around us all the time. The more we observe, the greater our potential for seeing something new, and saying, ‘That’s awesome! Now imagine if…’ And that’s innovation in a nutshell.

What is holding you back


We are often extremely wary of taking risks. In a straight choice between trying something new and adhering to the rules, we opt for staying out of trouble.


We may be unaware of it, but a great many things in our businesses are done in a certain way simply because ‘that’s the way it’s always been done’. ‘That’s the way’ might have had a purpose at first, but scenarios change, while we continue to do things in the same way.


In Excellent Sheep William Deresiewicz talks about how this kind of education is resulting in a generation of cynical test-passers who don’t truly know how to think for themselves.


As jobs become more specialised, we tend to create silos inhabited by specialists. The weird thing is that it often makes perfect sense in the very narrow confines of departments – but no sense whatsoever in terms of the big picture.


You could have become so operational that you simply don’t have time to think about innovation. You know you should, but you don’t know where to start.

Is every single person really able to innovate or learn to be innovative

Absolutely! But not everyone will choose to take the time or the trouble. You can learn to innovate, and there are easy starting points, but you must have the desire, the yearning, to think anew. Start by reading. The more we immerse ourselves in how others have tackled and solved similar problems, usually outside our own industry, the more the chances are for those ‘aha!’ moments that can prove so incredibly lucrative.

How can we as an agricultural industry start innovating

What if you took the accepted practice in your industry, and did the exact opposite What if you added theatre to your offering, so spectacular, people just have to talk about it What if you took a defining feature of your business to ridiculous proportions What if you went to non-customers and found out what they don’t like about your industry What if you challenged yourself to find a way to be so unusual that you would be considered an outsider to your industry What if your packaging were so utterly different to that of your competitors that even the media took notice Shall we go on

What about radical innovation for our industry

I would venture that your industry is almost religiously driven by the desire to fit in and adhere to long-established customs. That’s an incredibly valuable backdrop for a radical thinker. Radical innovation requires the courage to say, ‘Forget everything our competitors do. Stop trying to compete with them, because it narrows thinking.’ The more we adhere to custom, the more we disappear into a sea of sameness. What if, by design, we made ourselves so different that it sent shock waves through the industry What if, rather than trying to fit in, we expressly strove to redefine the parameters What would that look like How would that look in every department, and, most pertinently, how would that look in the eye of the public

It seems that consumers don’t care about legacy any more. Our wine industry relies on legacy to a great extent. What to do

According to research there has been a serious shift away from legacy in the buying behaviour of consumers, and towards messages that say, ‘Here’s how we are innovating into your world today.’

That doesn’t mean that legacy brands will inevitably fail. It simply means that the way they speak to their customers has become dated, which is dangerous. The tone that works today is an energetic, optimistic ‘now’. This is particularly important in marketing. But, of course, marketing relies on the DNA of an organisation, so it can’t simply be a cynically manufactured Band-Aid of a message.

SA consumers are increasingly unreceptive to the stereotypical ‘three okes around a braai’ style of advertising. The surveys show that we pretty much loathe that formula. Yet major brands continue to feed it to us, regardless.

5 dare-to-bedifferent tacks

(some may sound wacky, but therein lies the trick)

  1. Don’t fixate on the wine industry. That creates incestuous thinking, with ever-smaller spirals. Look at and be fascinated by the interesting things happening in radically different industries. Sift and select that which you can use.
  2. Brainstorm ‘what if’ scenarios. What if the giant in your industry went under What if, God forbid, wine were banned in SA What if we challenged ourselves to reach a market traditionally uninterested in wine What if we challenged ourselves to produce the same quality at half the price Twice the quantity at half the price What if we could persuade the Queen of England to drink our wine What if we became the most successful brand in the world
  3. Teach them to ‘keep the can’. Is there something so heartstoppingly beautiful about your product that, after having used it, people would keep and display it
  4. Ask yourself what your greatest underlying problem is. Then find out how a completely different industry solved a similar problem. The concept of the circus was just about dead until Cirque du Soleil came along and turned it into a multi-million dollar phenomenon.
  5. Start a public hunch-board. You don’t always need fully-formed ideas. You just need people to share their (vague) musings across departments until something clicks into place.

Up close and personal

Your favourite wine moment

Ah, for me that includes a beautiful red, probably a Cabernet Sauvignon, or a Merlot, accompanied by a ridiculously oversized novel (Think: The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follet), or force-fed to me by the Swedish women’s volleyball team. Failing that, the book will do.

Guilty pleasures in life

A glass of Cointreau in the bath (which is to say ‘beside’ the bath); new sci-fi movies (do we seriously have to wait until 2017 for the next Avatar instalment!); reading on a plane and then staring at the clouds after a particularly profound chapter; finding the gym absolutely empty.

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