By Tamara Walid
Jabir Walji has worked with a string of top firms, developing a range of new products. Tamara Walid reports on his innovative, strategic approach.
It's very simple really," insists Jabir Walji, thrusting a pile of graphs and charts onto my lap. “I’m in strategy, and more specifically I develop business strategies. The love has always been to do any kind of business development or planning — you name it, I will develop it.”
Indeed, Walji has probably had a hand in developing more products than you might think. The self-styled strategic guru has, over the last decade, worked with companies as diverse as the likes of General Motors, Shell, Intel, HP, Samsung, Lexus and Gillette, to re-invigorate their thought processes from top to bottom.
His work with Gillette, in particular, led to a revolution that has cemented the brand’s place — with the help of soccer star David Beckham — as the world’s most popular razor blade. “We assisted Gillette in designing its two and three-blade models at a time when only a single-blade product was out in the market,” says Walji, who is based at the London headquarters of strategy consultants Systematic Innovation.
Walji explains that it all boils down to customers’ needs. While most people shave, Walji explains that with a single blade you shaved once and then you had to shave again, so you had to do two strokes. With two blades, he realised, one stroke is enough. Now, there are even three-blade razors on the market.
“We work with different companies as innovation and function specialists — like with Gillette. We work with them, facilitate for them and come up with ideas together,” he says.
Another such collaboration, albeit one that has yet to take the world properly by storm, is Systematic’s recent work with a Hong Kong-based company that produces hair clips.
The purpose of a recent London-based workshop was to come up with innovative concepts for the product. “Boring? How can you innovate?” Walji asks rhetorically. The results of the brainstorming session, however, were surprising.
“We came up with the concept of having hair clips with refills in them for hair conditioner or scents; a hair clip with bluetooth or radio; hair clips for Abayas; and even hair clips with a certain magnetic field that would hold the hair in place,” Walji reveals.
These are some of the ideas, says Walji, which resulted from simply turning the concept of the hair clip, quite literally, on its head. “We posed the question: Is the clip there to hold the hair, or is the hair there to hold the clip?”
The company is currently working with General Motors in the US in order to develop the future of the automaker’s concept cars, after previously helping Lexus design seats for one of its models. With Samsung, Systematic is training employees in the specific techniques of innovation.
However, with Intel, the scenario is slightly different as the purpose, Walji explains, is to help the tech firm stand up to rising competition that is borne of big companies who used to depend on Intel, such as IBM and Samsung, now going alone and creating their own in-house computer chips. “Intel is feeling the competition so they want to come up with new ideas and strategies and that’s where we come in,” says Walji.
Likewise, a new concept for nail files branded as ‘Stylfile’ — which Walji calls, somewhat optimistically, “the next evolution” — was also borne from the creative minds of strategic innovators. The new file has the shape of the letter ‘S’ and enables users to have either straight nail contours, or oval, depending on which inner curve of the letter you use. Stylfile is already available in a number of high-street London stores.
“People think these are small products but you can still use them, and they add a lot of value,” believes Walji.
Sugar cubes have not escaped the innovation wave either. For one Belgian company that produces sugar cubes, Walji says taking the product a step further resulted in a far more convenient product to use.
“Sometimes even one cube is too much. People want sugar, but less and less nowadays, so we segmented the cube into four parts so you can break ¼ of it. You don’t have to use it all,” he emphasises. “Then we simply took it a stage further, and added flavours into it like vanilla and hazelnut.”
As an innovation guru, Walji says he feels right at home in the UAE.
“You ask yourself ‘what is the next business model?’ The prime example is Dubai,” he smiles. “Dubai is in the field of innovation. Any business moves from commodity, to manufacturing, to service, to experience and transformation. Yet if you try to put Dubai on that chart, it’s not in commodity, and not in manufacturing. It is slightly in service but for Dubai, most of the last decade has been about gaining experience. Why do people come to Dubai? They come for the experience, to experience Dubai, that’s the main reason people come," he maintains earnestly.
“Other people who come to work here want to come and transform their lives, and so Dubai is at the moment in between experience and transformation,” continues Walji. “Workers come here to transform their lives. What Dubai is saying is: ‘Come here, invest in the property and transform your wealth. Come here, live on The Palm Island and transform your life.’ Tourists coming here are coming for the experience.
Dubai is in the experience and transformation business, it’s not in the service business.
“That is the whole strategy of Dubai and if you look at it, they’ve done it marvellously,” he smiles.
“They know exactly what they’re going for. Now they are coming up with strong labour laws, and they’ve just collected US$3bn in fines from companies who have broken their labour laws. That is Dubai moving towards the transformation level, by which I mean it is transforming the lives of those people at the bottom rung. At the top rung it has already been transformed. Now it is slowly moving from experience towards transformation — transformations at the top, middle and bottom levels. That’s the strategy of Dubai, experience and transformation. We bring out those kinds of concepts and develop strategies accordingly.”
Walji insists that Dubai should not — at this stage — be compared to cities such as London, and uses the example that it would be unfair to contrast the cultural histories of the two.
“A lot of people say Dubai hasn’t got a culture, but it still doesn’t matter — people still come for the experience,” he says. “Now Dubai is building a little bit of modern day culture with art fairs, for example.
It’s only 25 to 30 years old so you cannot expect Dubai to be like London.
“Now it is going okay, and if you want art experience it will give you that,” he continues. “If you want to transform your health we will give you a healthcare city. If you want to transform your education we will give you good education.
He adds: “That’s what Dubai is saying. ‘You want to transform your kid’s life? Whatever talents he’s got, we’ve got a purpose-built school here’. The city is totally in the transformation and the experience business.”
Walji explains that between 1968 and 1972, Dubai lacked the appropriate development experience from within, and thus was forced to resort to buying in expertise from abroad.
“I use the words limitation and delimitation. I’ve got my limitations, which are my weaknesses, and my delimitations that are my strengths,” he explains, slowly. “Dubai’s limitation was that it did not have experience. Other countries might have other limitations. They may not have money but they have something else. But what Dubai has is the vision, the imagination, and the flexibility.
“Dubai went and got the experience. With Emirates Airline, for example, it was the ex-British Airways CEO who started it, and they got a local to shadow him. It was the same with Jebel Ali and the local Sulayem who shadowed him," he continues. “Now after 20 years, gaining that experience and then leveraging that experience, Dubai Ports World owns 53 ports in the world, and Etisalat has a 60% share in Pakistan Telecom and Egypt and all that. So what they have done is instead of bringing this experience down, they have shifted it to the top.”
Walji is himself at the top of his profession. One of the very few people in the world who apply Systematic Innovation techniques to non-technical areas — including business and marketing strategies, as well as corporate and HR policies — he describes these techniques of innovation as “logical methods of thinking outside the box”.
For Walji, the concept of added value — providing more value to customers at a lower price — is very important for both companies and individuals. Yet while it is widely discussed, in reality it is often far less attained.
In a nutshell, Walji ambitiously describes his occupation as changing the face of the future. “We look at future trends,” he says. “But we look at how to incorporate them now.”