Find here the China Paradigm 87 and find out how to bring innovation through cooking experience in China and how cooking food workshops in China can allow Chinese employees to increase and free their creativity.
Full transcript below
Matthieu David: Hello everyone, this is China paradigm, where we Daxue consulting, interview season entrepreneurs in China. Sandrine Delabrière, the founder and manager of Pourquoi Pas, the marketing and relation consultancy, focusing recently over – tell us about over maybe two years – four years, about food business in China, cooking, culinary activities. Mixed with innovation and consulting, what you have done for 15 years I think, even more, within big companies at Danone, GSK and for your clients as a consulting firm.
You are based in China – initially in Beijing and then in shanghai, and the food business in China is a big one. When we look at the numbers, we can see that imported food has been rising and last year – 2017 sorry, 58.3-billion-dollar food and beverage from out of China have been imported and that increase is 25% from 2016 to 2017. So, there is a huge demand for good food in China. It’s key for trainees to actually understand how food is cooked in a restaurant. Its key for them also to cook themselves and to eat well and that has been part of all the culture in China. Maybe that’s also a link with the French culture and with Europe and French – France Chinese speaking. Thank you very much for being with us, first of all, could you explain more about how you came up with this idea of using food to build a connection on innovations and talk about innovation through cooking experience in China with your clients?
Sandrine Delabrière: Thank you, Matthieu. Thank you very much for having me today. Well indeed, food is a pretty universal thing, and more specifically it’s a very strong feature of my original culture, the French culture, that everybody knows. And, I happen to be living in a country where also it is very central to the culture, this is where people gather around food day, have serious discussions around food, the way food is purchased, the way it’s put together, the way it’s presented, all of that matters a lot. And then to answer your question its – the crossroads of my two areas of expertise.
I have a 20-year career in innovation, that’s my business expertise and passion and as you mentioned I had a corporate career before setting up my own company, 10 years ago, which is Pourquoi Pas – innovation consultancy and it happens that on the side, my personal hobby has always been cooking and this is – I consider that this new expertise on cooking is the present that China gave me, maybe we’ll talk a bit more about that because it’s really when I came to China that I started making cooking part of my professional life and I’ve led countless cooking food workshops in China with my clients, helping them to be more creative to improve their innovation through cooking experience in China and to push their innovation competencies a little bit further and I kept thinking that there should be another way of talking about innovation that is not the project itself, the corporate environment itself.
You know, it’s a famous saying by Albert Einstein that problems cannot be solved within the framework in which they were created. The human brain faced with a problem, you need to take it outside of its original context, in order to find new solutions. This is one of the features of creativity, this ability to go sideways, to change playgrounds and me just naturally – my two worlds collided and I thought well, surely there’s something with being in the kitchen, this is an area where all the skills that are needed for innovation can be experienced, and also, all the barriers that I could see my clients bumping into, all of those we can break down in the context of the kitchen. The fear of failing is one of the biggest barriers for innovation and culturally in China- this is a very, very big one – not losing face. And in the context of the kitchen, everything becomes so familiar and so playful, everyone has a kitchen, everyone has been in the kitchen at some stage, so it’s – I started developing my two activities and putting them together and it’s been wonderful.
Matthieu David: So, for some people wine consulting and innovation, they know about Sayers game, Sayers play – like legal play, workshops where you use Lego – where you’re going to do Sayers game sorry, in order to build on innovation and see who could be your partner? Who could be your competitor with the legal game and so on? The first time I heard about that, I was a bit surprised that we could use this kind of game to actually help people to innovate and think about their environment. How do you use cooking food workshops in China, putting together a team to work on a recipe –maybe a new recipe, maybe an old recipe or maybe people taking an old recipe and then creating a new one. Adapting to a market. Could you help us understand how it helped to put people together and bring them to innovate? I would add one more thing, I interviewed previously, and he told me that the restaurants now they need to have three criteria to be successful. One of them being playful. Second is to be good food, good material and also to be digitally savvy, but the first one was to be playful. So, I believe there is something around food to build community, to play through, to build teams – but you go further because you say it’s not only to build team, it’s to innovate together, to bring innovation through cooking experience in China. Would you mind giving some examples of how it could happen?
Sandrine Delabrière: Yes absolutely, well it’s fantastic you quoted playful again, because I’ve continuously used the word in my previous statement and that’s one of the huge values of the kitchen and you quoted Lego, that’s also what they do, they take people back to their childhood. So, you remove all the barriers about – I’ve got this big project and I absolutely need to perform and my career depends on it and there are big numbers involved. Suddenly you remove all of that, you’re into a new universe where – a universe of possibilities, of open mind and enjoyment. The pressure of the business life makes it very difficult for team members to have fun – quite honestly.
So, one of the huge values of being in a kitchen is that – but I’ll take it to step by step really – so, first of all, the way I handle a client brief is always tailor-made. In order to be really, really – to deliver results for a specific team I really use all of my experience of working with various industries and all sorts of companies, small-medium, a large multinational and I understand deeply what is needed in that specific situation in the context of a specific innovation project with that industry and that company culture. And I would design something completely unique, both in the kitchen and in a cooking food workshop in China that happens – most of the time a little before and certainly after the experience in the kitchen and that’s the only way to make it 100% efficient. So, it’s not one size fits all, it’s not – it’s like a recipe.
I create a specific recipe literally and theoretically, for every single brief and what I would ask the team to do, depends on the objective, like – on Sunday, for instance, I handled a team-building event for a team of 72 people, so a very large team and the objective of the client was to bring different functions together and to help them to work better. They have different objectives, a very different culture, so I divided sub-teams, making sure that all the functions were mixed and I designed a cooking food workshop in China in the kitchen where people had to do – they had two objectives, each team had two objectives. One was to replicate a dish that I demonstrated, and then the other objective was for them to cook something creatively together. So, there was the reassurance of getting started at something a little bit easier, they had to do again what they had seen me cook, so that was a way of helping them to get started and then the energy in the room was incredible, already at that stage and people were very enthusiastic about seeing the result, because that’s one of the beauties of cooking, is that it’s tangible. You start with separate ingredients and after 45 minutes you have a dish that can feed people. It’s there, it exists and it’s useful. There is a huge amount of pride, and this is very simple to understand human benefit.
You’ve really produced something useful together, so the teams were all energized and enthusiastic in the room and they really surprised me at how fast and how easily they started the second objective which was to create a dish, they had all a huge basket of ingredients and they could do whatever they wanted, it was a vegetable side dish and I gave no other criteria. Just make it looks beautiful and tastes delicious. That was it. And, yes, the level of enthusiasm was amazing at the end of this cooking food workshop in China. So that’s one example, but then I can also work more deeply on a single competency. It can be something related to creativity, it can be time management, it can be the ability to assign clear responsibility and to stick to that. That’s one of the usual flows in innovation processes that the roles are not clearly defined or people get rid of some of their responsibilities as they go along because it feels uncomfortable. So, it’s all depends on the company-specific challenges.
Matthieu David: I understand the part which is duplicating your work, let’s maybe skip this one. To focus on the one on innovation through cooking experience in China. So, how do you manage it? Do you ask them to write down how they are going to cook first together in the team so they have an idea of where they are innovative? Where they copy? When they copy? How to actually copy a bit differently to bring a bit of innovation, we say as Picasso said actually that every innovation is kind of copying someone else. It’s known that you need to copy to learn after how to innovate. How do you organize it for your specific case, in order to make it a learning experience and not only a fun experience because I believe that it’s about learning how to innovate? One more thing is that I feel which is very interesting, I didn’t feel at the beginning I didn’t understand that, but that’s true that in most team building activity, people don’t come up with something they build together, and here you come up with something you build together, so that’s why you can actually connect with innovation and second this is, you make innovation easy to access again.
You make innovation like a front-end product that’s the end of a session and innovation is seen in the world as something very complicated. Something technological, something hard, something lengthy, something which is going to be actually very far away from yourself. When you’re a marketing manager, when you’re a finance manager, when you’re a logistic manager, innovation seems to be very far from you. It seems to be for start-up or it seems to be for the big boss, maybe not for yourself and you make it closer to each person. So, could you please describe a bit more of different processes, we understand they innovate their own recipe, but how do you organize it to make it a learning experience?
Sandrine Delabrière: So, as I said, it all depends on the specific objectives, but where the learning is really crystallized is in a cooking food workshop in China that follows the experience in the kitchen and that I facilitate. So that’s where we all sit down, we’ve had an experience in the kitchen and I designed it so that it pushes some specific skills. So, whether its pure creativity that can be done with – then I ask the teams to create something and I could give specific objectives. I could draw on what’s happening at this point in time in the company and give the teams a basket of ingredients and then your adjectives and they have to create a dish that represents those two adjectives. And that, it can also get the teams thinking in a creative and in a strategic way already. So, there are really very strong parallels with an innovation brief but that is all made to measure according to the client’s needs. So that’s the kitchen part, but then we sit down and it can be – I like it to be on the same day because all the learnings are still fresh. If it’s the following day we lose some of it.
So, typically we sit down and then I facilitate a session where we reflect on what happened and I lead the discussion on individually how was it for you and I ask people to make notes as they go during the kitchen experience and as sub-teams, most of the time we have sub-teams, but I can do a single cooking experience for a team of 10 for instance, that’s manageable as one whole team but usually I split the bigger team into sub-teams. And I just – I take back everything that the teams report and we reflect together and then that’s when I draw the parallel with a specific project happening at that point in time or a specific challenge and we can have other exercises. I use my experience of cooking food workshops in China and I can use other techniques to push the thinking, we can go into the building on insights and it also – it can be extremely powerful for companies who deal in – who are working in the food and beverage industry, of course. That is very, very easy to move from what happened in the kitchen into the real world. We can be literal sometimes, we have worked on a specific product and it can create some specific business ideas, but of course, that’s the perfect equal. So that’s really when things happen after the kitchen experience with a more classical workshop approach and deeper discussions.
Matthieu David: What would be an adjective you would use to actually give a direction for a recipe, because I believe it could not be like sweet because people are not going to put sugar everywhere, what kind of adjective could be used in a creative brief that actually can be reused in a recipe in order to actually embody this innovation brief? You could share a bit of example.
Sandrine Delabrière: Yes, that can be disruptive and I would –
Matthieu David: Disruptive right?
Sandrine Delabrière: Yes, yes that would be a really good one for a company that wishes to push the team’s innovation through cooking experience in China and to lead them to think out of the box, which once again in the context of a real innovation project is so difficult. I mean this is the déjà vu expression everywhere but – how do you think out of the box when you’re in your office and you’ve got reports all around you and you’ve been looking at this problem for the past months. The only way is to take it out of its context, so that’s a very powerful one and then as a professional cook myself, I know how I would help the teams in the kitchen to make sure that they really produce something and I would design a basket of ingredients so that disruption is possible. Mixing savory and sweet is an example of just one but also helping them to push the presentation, saying okay well – so your initial team idea is to cook an omelet, well how will you make it look different? How will it taste different? What about color? The smell? The shape? I can help them to push their ideas further and then they’re the first ones surprised –oh wow, we never thought we could produce that when we started. And that’s where what you described earlier – make it happen, this huge sense of empowerment and possibility and pride that has happened with the frame of three hours because that’s the time frame of cuisine, which is not the time frame of any company project. It’s usually not below six months, so within a few hours, we create a sense of possibility and yes – this sense of power in a team.
Matthieu David: Are there other formats you’re using? I understand that you are using this format about creating their own recipe, also cooking yourself. Are there other formats you are using to yield this energy of innovation through – generally speaking – maybe it could be other than cooking, but generally speaking, do you have other formats?
Sandrine Delabrière: Well, innovation through cooking experience in China is a very powerful one. In my career as an innovation consultant, I’ve used other activities out of the official ways and in one of the tools that I really, really like is what I call retail safari. So, we go on the field as sub-teams, we visit shops sometimes, well always I should say, not related to the original category and the team is equipped with notepads and they have clear objectives always of recording, taking pictures, writing down adjectives, potential insights that they’re trying to guess behind what they see on the shelves, but its – once again it’s a direct experience of something different and I also encourage the teams to use their five sense, which is – one of the things I also say very often in the kitchen. So that’s another example of a tool that takes the team out of their context, opens their minds and get them fresh, fresh ideas, fresh – it’s not even ideas at the start of it, it’s just new clues, new things, new facts and then what matters is what we do with them and once again this is then messaging with them and all of those working guys whose team I’m exploiting all of the materials.
Matthieu David: We talk about food creating a recipe to eat, you haven’t been working in the drink industry, I mean – with Diana for instance, and you know this industry for your own clients at Pourquoi Pas as well, do you think that this could be duplicated as well with drinks. We see more and more innovation with small-cap entities creating their own juice, their own drinks easily, is it also part of the experience? The juice could be an easy drink to create within a couple of hours, or a cocktail or something to drink. Has it been part also of building a class of innovation through cooking experience in China or is it something you could build on?
Sandrine Delabrière: I definitely could. Strangely enough, I’ve not yet done a cooking food workshop in China where we would literally create a product. It’s always been a sort of a transversal approach, but absolutely. This is obvious. But then I would definitely design a lot of preparation so that what we do in the kitchen is leveraging actually insight, actual market facts, using ingredients that have legs to them, but it absolutely could be done and I look forward to doing that, to taking it really very literally. I could work with coffee companies creating new aromas, juices and everything that is mixed, is an obvious brief for this type of experiment, cause we can really try and test many options and open up and work on textures, ingredients and it’s a fast track innovation process, in that case, bringing all the important people together in a room working across functions and actually making things happen.
Matthieu David: That’s a very good transition. One of the key questions I had for you is – how do you leverage from your understanding of innovation in big companies – again GSK – huge company. Danone – a very big company. You have – one of your clients at Pourquoi Pas is Innocent for instance. They are all big companies and their innovation process is – look for someone from outside, like a very complicated, with a lot of parts, very political as well inside the process. How do you bring this experience from big companies to actually a cooking food workshop in China and to shake a little bit – those big companies from their outside, because you’re outside those companies and you work with them? So, what do you take from this experience? What do you take from your consulting experience? What do you take from the China experience and so many countries you have been in because you have traveled actually in many countries you have lived in many countries? All together to bring an effective innovation?
Sandrine Delabrière: Well I think it’s almost easier when you come from the outside. One of the key success factors for innovation is that it should come from the top. There is no way a major change or a very new idea can happen within a company if it doesn’t come from the very top of the organization. It will get killed three times before it sees the day of light. So I’m always briefed by the leadership team, so that gives me the credibility to start with and then as you said, yes I’ve been very lucky to have worked in many different industries – cosmetics, drinks, airports, banking services and it’s varied and across cultures and obviously France, but then I lived for 10 years in the UK then the Middle East, now China – so I guess it’s a little bit like a dish, you cannot – when it’s very good, you can’t always identify the individual ingredients and the various spices. It just all went into the pot at different stages and it sort of works together at the end and I guess that’s how I feel. I come to a cooking food workshop in China and a project with a lot of passion and all of my experience but I don’t feel the individual aspects. Sometimes I’m reminded of a specific project because I recognize that I’m facing the same difficulty that I did in the past, but most of the time it’s not even conscious. So, yes –
Matthieu David: What about the framework? What about some framework, some tools, you have been learning – GSK, Danone, those big companies, you work with some clients that you’re re-using. I’m thinking or us, at Daxue Consulting, we use for instance a lean canvas. We may use the topics of the lean start-up and the four steps – that kind of frameworks we like. We like iterative models where we innovate on an MVP of a product, do you have some framework you are reusing from this experience with big companies that you are using in China and either China specificity – is this something with your workshop around food as well. Could you elaborate a bit more on what you got from this experience working in and with big companies for innovation, in terms of tools framework? Because innovation through cooking experience in China, to elaborate more, sorry for that, but innovation seems like an art, so it seems like it can go nowhere, but it can go exactly where you want it to go to make it big – and I remember Peter Drucker saying that entrepreneurship is neither art, neither a science, it’s a practice, but what about innovation? Is it a science? Is it art? Is it a practice? Do we need frameworks? Do you use frameworks? So, would you mind sharing a bit more about your view of what innovation is and what tools can be useful?
Sandrine Delabrière: Yes, with pleasure. I always insist on approaching a brief with a very unique set of tools. So I always think back and listen very carefully to my clients and the process that I suggest to them is always made to measure but if I’m honest, there are steps that are always there and it’s a very good question and I would say two things – one obsession of mine as a marketer and as it should be, is – whether it’s the consumer of the product or the service at the very core of the innovation process. So that is always there. Always. Always and it’s one thing that I constantly remind the teams about. So that’s one – it’s not even a tool, it’s a state of mind, it’s absolutely mandatory and then I tend to be quite systematic about approaching a specific project or a business. I look at all the corners, that’s also something that I do all the time and whatever the corners are, they may differ by industry, but in my mind, I picture a landscape and I’m obsessed about making sure that I’ve looked behind each tree of this landscape, that we haven’t ignored what’s happening for competition, and I take competition always with a very wide approach and seeing it with the eyes of the consumer, sometimes we define competition in a much too narrow way. I tend to think of a specific product or service with the eyes of the consumers, I think okay – what else could we place that – for me and then do we really define competition and sometimes there are surprises but so yes, making sure that we’ve looked at that. Making sure that we’ve looked at the legal context, it’s not always the most glamorous part but it’s critical, so this is the second tool, using this sort of a 360 consideration of a specific situation. So those are the two approaches that I always, always use and then the process I design for my client is always unique. And then China specifics – yes?
Matthieu David: One thing I wanted to add on is the legal context. Very often people think innovation, I think a bit in an artistic way, so they think that it’s going to be purely creative, out of the context, out of the world with no rules and they don’t think that there are legal constraints. I remember when I was at ESSEC business school entrepreneurship class, one of the students said –oh we could use the subway to deliver products and people would call in the subway with a big product on the shoulders and then deliver to someone who has just bought like an Ikea furniture. And then the professor said, yeah but do you think that’s legal? Do you think the corporation which is managing the subway, the metro is going to agree that people can bring this big furniture inside the subway? So legal context indeed is something which is sometimes overlooked by people doing innovation but it’s key. One more thing, you said that you focus on the consumer and I’m surprised that you don’t use those big words like design thinking because what say design thinking is to focus on the consumer, is it because you don’t like those big words like design thinking, link canvas? You think that actually shrinking a bit of thinking or is it because you want to stay free? Is there a reason for that?
Sandrine Delabrière: No, I just – I think those are very good concepts, very good approaches. If they are used in the right way. I’m always trying to make sure that I start wide and then I go in a more specific way – so I’m always trying to look at a broad perspective before coming back to specific tools and why not design – I mean depending on the category I think it can be extremely powerful and I think it’s completely aligned with what I’m doing, there’s a lot of commonalities for instance with cooking food workshops in China or even with my philosophy of putting consumers at the core, that’s very much what a design approach would do is – go back to what’s happening at the point of consumption, like when the product is used. So that’s the same, I see absolutely no contradiction. It’s just I don’t want to move too quickly into execution in my approach, that would be my answer.
Matthieu David: So, at the time when you wanted to talk about China more specifically and you work in China compared to your work outside of China and your past experience which has been in big groups outside of China GSK and Danone were experiences outside of China. How does it compare with China?
Sandrine Delabrière: It’s obvious that the culture here is very different and it still astonishes me every day, and the speed of the market here, whatever the category, this amazing hunger for learning that the Chinese culture can really boast about. many features that are very impressive, what I’ve felt in terms of innovation working here in the context of China, I’ve really felt the benefit of my side approach and working in the kitchen especially, because culturally there’s a very specific approach to hierarchy and to losing face in front of the team, the team dynamic here is very, very different from the dynamic that I’ve experienced in the US or Europe or even in the Middle East. So, it’s been actually I think – I may be at the best place with my kitchen approach to bring innovation through cooking experience in China because cooking does a lot to those barriers. It’s very powerful, so it’s a good thing for me.
Matthieu David: I see, I see. So, you see one of the key differences, very interesting – Chinese perception of business relationships between people. How do you manage conflict? How do you manage confrontation? How do you manage disagreement? You see there’s a big difference between your experience in China and in the words, I’m speaking – because you have been working in the Middle East and in Europe and in the UK, continents of Europe, so you feel that this is one of the keys – you said speed, speed of innovation, speed of construction, speed of learning, but this could be a context as well, maybe? Not as much as culture, But it could be a context of opening up and so on in China, but the one that is very linked to culture and where rules could be much deeper is actually the way you enter a relationship with hierarchy, the way you enter a relationship with – when you disagree with confrontation, which could be good for the company in fact, which could be good for the society or company, the people you work with or you live with. So, this is one of the big differences you assess right?
Sandrine Delabrière: Yes absolutely. But, speed yes – there’s a context, this is obviously a massive country and growing in some categories, but I do believe with everything that I’ve seen and I wouldn’t pretend that I know China well after four years, but I do believe there’s a cultural element to the speed is – that something about the Chinese culture is really turned towards improving and learning and understanding – so I have worked a little bit in the wine industry for instance and it’s close to my cooking expertise of course and what the wine industry has seen here in China over the past years is absolutely unbelievable. There’s been a development, like in a few years what happened here happened in several decades in other countries and Chinese people are learning about wines at an incredible speed, there are several masters of wine now in China and just a general knowledge has moved from zero to the expertise I will say in just 15 years, so I think there’s still something cultural and that’s one of the things that absolutely fascinates me about this country and I’m so happy to live here.
Matthieu David: So again, to transition for one of the questions I had is – you arrived in China 4 years ago, or five?
Sandrine Delabrière: Yes, 4 years ago.
Matthieu David: 4 years ago, what was the most surprising fact you assessed at that time? And I think this is very precious time when you come into a new country, especially China, you arrived in China – during the first six months, that’s always the first six months I’m very interested in, the first six months of Alibaba, the first six months of Microsoft, the first six months of Apple, the first six months in China, what did you observe, assess that was very different and surprising from the West where you could actually find the opportunities, there are things to do and so on, from a business, society perspective. Which companies, brands, have to take into account otherwise they could fail, they could not understand the market, what has been surprising to you that could be good learning for someone who is listening to this show?
Sandrine Delabrière: So, when I first came to China I was living in Beijing and since then as you mentioned I moved to Shanghai. So, Beijing was a very good city to start with, its less opened, less foreign than shanghai is and I think what really surprised me in my first six months was that I could not label anything. I couldn’t – every single adjective I was tempted to use, I could also use another one or the opposite, just two meters away. And I think this is one of the difficulties that a lot of westerners have with this country is that it’s obviously huge and so it has to be very fragmented, but it’s also – every single thing has moved at a different pace than what we are used to, so – one minute you see a street food vendor with very dubious hygiene and then the next minute you realize that he’s got a digital business and he can deliver his food and actually with five different flavors and each flavor you can also customize with five different ingredients and he can deliver to the other side of the city within 30 minutes, and then you think – oh so what is that business exactly? Is it a tiny poor business or is it already one of the fastest moving ones?
You can never label what you observe, it keeps escaping the vocabulary that you have at your disposal because it’s not black or white, things happened at a different way at a different pace and sometimes some of the most advanced steps that you wouldn’t see in the UK or in France, they have already happened here and they are advanced but some of the previous steps are just missing because no one is interested now. So, very difficult to gather and to – which makes it so fascinating because you keep – I still want to understand and to put words on things that I see but I often can’t. so those were my first impressions and also something about the Chinese perception of business relationships that I really, really like and it’s sometimes overlooked is that – there is a deep interest for people here, yes it’s a very commercial driven country but when you meet people at an individual level, they are interested in who you are, deeply.
When I started cooking, I did some classes with a Chinese interpreter and I exchanged a lot with food bloggers and some food experts in this country who blog and vlog and they were asking questions to me that were going beyond the technique of cooking, they wanted to know me. They had a very holistic approach to who I was and a very curiosity for who I was. So, I do believe there is an opportunity for everyone coming here to really establish relationships and true human relationships with the Chinese teammates or counterparts thanks to the Chinese perception of business relationships.
Matthieu David: Very interesting that you use the word holistic because it is well – it’s often said that the approach of truth, the approach of contrive, the Chinese perception of business relationships is holistic in China wherein the West it’s segmented, where you’re going to segment into different items, different articles in a contrive where the holistic approach of a contrive is- we’re going to work together and we’re going to make it work, but in the specificities, we don’t know the feature so we cannot really asses. Now we signed this contract now because of its contract because it’s changing, the government has changed.
So the very Western approach which is to divide work, and we focus on the work, we focus on the workshop, we focus on the food you are teaching and then we don’t talk about product life, we don’t talk about who you are and so on but in the Chinese perception of business relationships you tend to have a much more holistic approach, that’s very interesting actually. I didn’t put this word in there but it’s a very interesting remark and to label what you have in front of you, it’s always difficult in China indeed because it is so different, so it’s difficult to put these words, which are Western words on what you see.
I’d like to talk now about innovation. Do you see in the way Chinese innovate versus the way Western people innovate? Big difference? McKinsey said that some reports said that Chinese tend to have a go-to-market which is faster. So they test actually and innovate with the market, actually, it is in a way what I’m thinking in some ways because it tests with the consumer, whereas in Europe or in the West, we had a much more R&D, GNA or very engineered GNA where the product needs to refine perfect, then we launch it – maybe nobody wants it but we launch it. So that’s one of the differences that people think of innovation in the West and China. What has been your perspective of how the Chinese innovate and the West is innovating?
Sandrine Delabrière: Yes, I can fully second this based on my observations and practices. In the West we need plans, and usually, senior leadership has asked for a clear plan, it can be even up to a five-year plan. This would be – this is totally exotic to a Chinese mind. How on earth will you be able to do a five-year plan when you don’t even know what’s in five months your own market will look like because things change that fast here. And also, I mean we just – in the West we tend to ignore that things change this fast because we like planning, we need the security of the next step and underneath the next step there has to be a set of actions that are very well distributed to individuals within the company and then only we feel that yes we can go ahead, we know what we’re doing. It’s all laid out, it’s structured, so we can go – and of course, the Chinese approach its completely different, it’s a lot more fluid.
There needs to be a sense of objective what we’re after, but then how to do it, we will design it as we start doing it, so there’s work and chat at the same time and of course for me as an innovation professional I design the discussions in a very, very different way and I take into account the fact that here the culture doesn’t require such rigorous planning. It’s still very important to have a sense of objective and sense of who does what, who gets started, but there needs to be a lot of suppleness and the space for a lot of agility and a constant check with the real world and what’s happening out there and I think it’s very right, so I feel very comfortable in adjusting this way.
Matthieu David: Yeah, in a way it’s what I’m thinking is, and a customer, as a consumer, as a user, so China is in some way modern in its way to innovating. Now we are heading to the end of the talk and we have those usual 10 questions – maybe we’re not going to ask all of them but we have a few questions we usually ask at the end, so what books inspired you the most in your entrepreneurial journey in building Pourquoi Pas, or in China?
Sandrine Delabrière: Yes there’s a book that has really helped me a lot in approaching the Chinese culture, it’s called The Paradox of the Red Fish and I will send you details separately but it’s a short book, written by someone who deals with philosophies, so it has a lot of depth and to me, that was my best help on looking at the Chinese culture, because it provided me with different words, different tools and it explained to me that I had to change my – the whole frame of my thinking in order to observe things here. So, that’s definitely my recommendation.
Matthieu David: What do you read to stay up to date about China?
Sandrine Delabrière: Oh, it’s not reading for China, I go out on the street, I open doors, I look at cafes, restaurants, I observe people out there, I think everything that is written is already too late so it’s a direct experience.
Matthieu David: Is it that you randomly walk sometimes in the city to explore, to discover or is it that you already know where to go and you want precisely to see something new that you have heard about or you have seen in the press?
Sandrine Delabrière: I do a bit of both of course and I always approach things with a sense of networking. I listen to other people’s advice and I make notes of addresses, I’ve got countless memos in my phone where I’ve made notes of something, a place that someone mentioned, so that’s what I do, but I also believe in the power of random and random experience, especially in a city like – there are two cities like that I’ve lived in China, both Beijing and Shanghai. Things change so fast that even the street where you were walking last month, looks different today. So, a bit of both.
Matthieu David: If you had the extra time, what would you like to create, build to do generally speaking?
Sandrine Delabrière: I would love to go to other Chinese cities, Shanghai and Beijing are already so big that it takes all my time, but I would love to explore – I mean I’ve visited other cities but I would love to also work there, to develop business there, like a Chengdu fascinating city and a very interesting cuisine culture too of course. Hangzhou, Shenzhen, I mean I would love to be able to embrace more of the size of this country, but of course, everything is so big and there’s already so much to do for me just where I am now in shanghai that I haven’t yet found the time.
Matthieu David: True, China is very big and people don’t realize that Changdong is I think bigger than Germany for instance, so that can give a sense of how many cities can exist, how many million people cities can exist in China, that’s actually mind-blowing when we think about it.
What unexpected success have you witnessed in China, that you wouldn’t have expected? Something which has grown big, which has been very successful. The reason why I’m asking this question, and we talked about it before we started this interview, or maybe at the beginning of the interview, Peter Drucker assessed – the famous thinker of management and so on, assessed innovation through an unexpected failure or unexpected success and because it is an unexpected success or an unexpected failure, he thinks there is something changing in the market. There is the innovation here. What unexpected success, or to go back to the question, have you witnessed in China, which was really a surprise for you?
Sandrine Delabrière: I would say Yogurt, and of course I will stay in the food business in China because this is close to my heart, but today the Yogurt category in this country is huge and I am confident enough to say that maybe 10 years ago, we would have asked – even people who claimed to be experts of this market, they would have said there’s no way Yogurt can succeed here. Its dairy – which people historically do not consume here, it’s cold and there’s something about the Chinese medicine that’s – cold food for you is not good, especially in winter. I mean, seeing in Beijing how many Yogurts are consumed every day, during the famously cold, freezing Beijing winter, and then it’s a nightmare in terms of logistics. Yogurt’s a fresh product, how do you stock it? And you see vendors on the street everywhere in Beijing and its – that’s for me a good example that things can happen here despite a lot of reasons why they shouldn’t and I guess, that’s a combination of health benefits and a certain capacity to embrace novelty here which will keep surprising us I believe. Let’s see what the champagne category – let’s see where it’s going because it could also be a big surprise. It’s not supposed to be a likable product in the Chinese culture, but I already mentioned that the wine business has completely exploded, so what’s the next step?
Matthieu David: Interesting, very interesting and indeed people who are living in Beijing can see – say in one of those shops, with yogurt, were 10 years back we had to give them back actually the cup because they wanted to – as a plot to get it back, we get back the money. What unexpected failure have you witnessed in China and you couldn’t have actually thought about before you came to China, which was surprising. In the business, in the society, in the economy – one of the failures I witnessed when I have been in China is the failure of Carrefour. When I arrived in China 10 years ago, Carrefour was a fast-growing company, was a successful company and it has failed by not being digitalized, by not being in the city and to have a model based on the car, where you come in your car, you put everything you buy in the car and you go back home.
Sandrine Delabrière: Yes, that’s one that is really also close to my heart because of course, this is a beautiful French company. Also, in the category of cosmetics, some – yet another famous French company has failed in some segments because of the local competition and once again, this amazing capacity that some Chinese companies have demonstrated at mastering the quality of the products and also understanding deeply the insights. So, it’s no longer enough to have a bit of expertise and coming from the West and even the French-ness of a proposition, this is still noticed and there’s a shortcut for quality and a certain sense of elegance and history, but it’s just not enough and I think no Western brand or French more specifically, but no Western brand can be arrogant enough to just turn up in China and expect that people will buy just because it comes from outside. And unfortunately, those two examples are painful reminders that this is a very demanding market here and it’s segmented and precisely segmented and people want quality and want value for money.
Matthieu David: Sure. Thank you very much for your time. Thanks for sharing this with us. I hope that everyone enjoyed the talk, a few words about China paradigm, if you like it please follow us on apple podcast, on Ximilaya, we are on Ximilaya too, it’s been a couple of days we are on Ximilaya and we are on Spotify, we are on all the platforms. Follow us, we have also a newsletter and we are going to have a seminar soon, mid-December, early January, two sessions on brand independence. How do you get independence from the marketplaces, from TMall, from JD, which are actually taking some margin out of you, of your brand and also which are trading your clients? Trading to others, your databases.
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