Updated: Sep 23, 2020
How did Huawei go from being a copycat imitator to being a leading innovator? This video highlights 3 simple behaviors you can follow to get your creativity flowing.
Until a few years ago, Western telecommunication companies like Ericson used systems that were so expensive and large that they could take up an entire floor of a building. Smaller companies couldn’t afford to house such large and complex equipment. Chinese telecom company Huawei saw the opportunity to develop and market a system for a fraction of the price and size, creating a niche that had been previously ignored and turning Huawei into a global innovator. How did the company do it?
The first step is to go local. Huawei knew in order to compete it had to truly understand the needs of every customer. For example, a team of sales reps and engineers from Huawei met on-site with a client in the Netherlands. All of Huawei’s competitors had told this client that they could not meet their telecom needs. As soon as the Huawei team landed in the Netherlands, they went straight to the customer’s site to see if their telecom problems were really as unsolvable as their competitors claimed. The Huawei team quickly identified the issue the Dutch company was facing. Huawei knew they couldn’t solve the problem either, but wanted to keep at it to see if maybe they had missed something. After a number of visits and some major frustration, one of the engineers on the team realized that for a new base station to work they needed to separate the main part of the system into several smaller parts and put some sections outside of the building. Up to this point, no one in the entire industry had questioned whether it was possible to separate the system into different parts! Huawei never would have been able to identify this problem without spending time deeply observing the Dutch company, and then questioning their own assumptions about the existing ways of doing things.
But identifying the problem was just the tip of the iceberg. The next step was for the Huawei team to reach out to their peers back at headquarters in order to look at the problem from new angles. They asked for help from their office in Shenzhen where the main research and development efforts were located. Working with their main R&D group in Shenzhen, the team brainstormed many different ways to solve the problem. They also attended various conferences to communicate, to learn, and to integrate ideas from outside their local context in the Netherlands.
While Huawei was reaching out to different parts of the organization for ideas to solve the problem in the Netherlands, the team members realized they needed to more deeply understand the scientific principles behind the technology they were trying to deliver. So they looked to strengthen their relationships with these different parts of the organization in order to pull dispersed knowledge and insights together to create something unique and new. For example, one outside team they had reach out to had developed a new technology that helped them build stronger antennas for the base station. Even though what this outside team was doing would not solve the Dutch customer’s problem, the Huawei team realized that the underlying principles behind the antenna technology provided the foundation for a unique solution to the Dutch customer’s problem. They were only able to understand the deep-rooted scientific principles behind the antenna technology by developing a strong relationship with the outside team. This relationship helped ensure that they were transferring only the knowledge relevant to solving the Dutch customer’s problem.
When individual employees work hard to move beyond company and industry assumptions about the way things “should” be done, even a small group of employees can drive innovation for an entire company! All these steps—going local by using deep customer observation, reaching out to distant R&D groups, and uncovering principles about related science—helped the Huawei team generate insight that led to a new product called the Distributed Base Station. Today, this base station is the industry norm. It has helped transform Huawei from a small, obscure Chinese telecom to a global industry leader and the largest telecom company in the world.