Israel’s ‘minister of innovation’ ready for work

Israel’s ‘minister of innovation’ ready for work

Veteran businessman and newly minted Knesset Member Yair Shamir believes that more needs to be done to bring out the best in Israelis -- in business, education, and politics

Yair Shamir (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Yair Shamir (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

If Yair Lapid, who is expected to be a chief coalition partner, has his way, the new government of Benjamin Netanyahu will be significantly smaller than the one the prime minister presided over until now.

According to Yesh Atid party head Lapid, Israel needs to significantly reduce the number of government ministries and offices, in order to eliminate red tape and cut costs. Lapid believes that 20 ministers is more than enough, as opposed to the 30-plus who worked for Netanyahu in the previous government.

But even with all those ministers, there was still one missing, according to Yair Shamir, No. 4 on the Likud-Yisrael Beytenu list: Israel desperately needs a “minister of innovation,” who will direct the country’s hi-tech future, shaping a policy that will encourage Israelis — from elementary school to the executive boardroom — to think out of the box, because that’s the only way Israel will be able to ensure its hi-tech future.

Shamir, son of former Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir, is high enough on the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu list to be guaranteed a ministry post. And if it were up to him, he told Israeli hi-tech pioneer Yossi Vardi at a recent hi-tech conference outside Tel Aviv, he would go for that innovation post. “In my long business experience I have found that the ability to innovate is one of the most important skills, if not the most important one. It applies to business, politics, education – all areas of life.”

If results are what counts in business, Shamir could be considered one of Israel’s most successful businesspeople; in 2005, he took over an ailing Israel Aircrafts Industries and nursed it back to health, taking annual net profits from a measly $2 million in 2006 to a healthy $94 million in 2010, increasing revenues by nearly a third and eliminating fat and inefficiency. Under Shamir, IAI developed its drone program, and launched four satellites into space. Before he ran IAI, he was a troubleshooting CEO at a number of other top Israeli companies, including El Al, Scitex, Elite Food Industries, and others – helping all to increase profits and efficiency, and to get more innovative.

Just what is “innovation” all about? “It’s about coming up with new and different ways that will do a better job of solving problems. Without innovation you lose markets, and you lose out on new industries that are created as a result of innovation by others,” said Shamir. Through its early innovations, developing novel products and technologies before anyone else was able to, IAI became a major force in the drone business, and without that innovation, the company would not be a leader in the industry – and neither would Israel.

That innovation is essential — in industry, thinking, education, and even politics — is a given, said Shamir. But how does a company, a school system, a government, or even a culture, achieve that innovation ethos? “In general, only 5% of people are truly creative, 45% may have some good ideas, and half aren’t idea people at all.” The trick is to a) draw out the truly creative and place them in positions where the organization can benefit from their skills, and b) help develop members of the second, somewhat creative group, raising them to the level of the truly creative, he said.

Many of those who have good ideas may be shy – so running contests for “the best idea” and the like may not bring the right responses from the right people, said Shamir. “One way to find these people is to run ‘extracurricular groups,’ like sculpting, painting, and so on.” Just like in school, a perceptive teacher or group leader will be able to point out the “student” who’s got potential. Such groups provide a comfortable, non-threatening venue to show off creativity, making the worker feel more comfortable showing off his/her ideas.

In his experience, said Shamir, it seems that the more creative your method of finding creative people, the more creative people you will find. “Unconventional methods are a very good medium, but they must be conducted by professionals in order to have the maximum effect.” Such methods could include fostering a sort of “color war” within the organization, with teams competing to solve specific issues or problems – provided that the focus is kept on the problem, not the personalities of members of competing teams. Another idea: If you want to get people to “think outside the box,” then put them in a box – ie, stick them with a challenge and a limited number of resources/abilities – and see if they can think their way out of it. Brainstorming, too, can help – but with a twist: An individual or group that comes up with an idea can be asked to try to actually implement it and make it work. In his experience, said Shamir, the truly creative ones can usually figure it out.

And so on, said Shamir. No one method is perfect – if it were, everyone would use it – but these, and other methods, can contribute to bringing out the best ideas in employees. To some, it may seem like a waste of time and money, but innovation training is an investment that no organization can afford to pass up. “Especially hi-tech organizations, which are the engine of our economic success,” said Shamir. “Innovation is something you have to keep pushing. Otherwise you stagnate and fall behind – and we can’t afford that.” If there is any political office that’s missing in this country, it’s a Minister of Innovation – and Shamir is ready for the job.

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