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Conquering the fear of failure

29 February, 2016 by Idris Jala

I have always been a proponent of winning the ‘game of the impossible’, a challenge that seems so back-breaking, when you think about it, you are discouraged from pursuing it. The goal may be related to personal or professional life or it may have to do with finding a solution to a very difficult problem. More importantly, knuckling down and getting the job done helps get rid of the fear of failure.

It is no secret that I am always thrilled to hear game-changing ideas especially among Malaysian companies who innovate with intent, direction and purpose. This is why in the last Transformation Unplugged column, I expressed hope to see more our very own Malaysian “Usain Bolts” of business rising up to the challenge of becoming global players.

Since then, two very enterprising Malaysian firms from my native oil and gas sector have come forward to share their experiences.

ProEight started as an engineering consultancy. After thoroughly understanding their position in the market and identifying gaps, the firm developed their own products. Today, their portfolio of mechanical seals and pumps is not only one of the best in class, their after sales service in the region is unparalleled.

Led by Ir. Azhar Zainal Abidin, ProEight’s innovative core lies in its capability to reverse engineer and create products and solutions which are fit-for-purpose. In terms of innovation, others generally focus on technology, whereas ProEight focuses on research and development including internal processes. Their mechanical seals are not exorbitantly over specified, making their price line more competitive while, at the same time, delivering compatible, if not better quality offerings.

The company is impressive in how it deals with conquering the fear of failure – it champions a culture where anyone who reports a general or technical failure weekly is rewarded RM50. The failures are vetted and used as a source of learning. Staff reporting a failure must explain what went wrong and why. This prevents them from trying to cover up or fix mistakes that generally make the situation worse. Staff are also encouraged to innovate without the repercussion of failure, promoting a culture of innovativeness and self-improvement.

Meanwhile, Uzma started out as a provider of drilling project management and geoscience and reservoir engineering software services. Today, they offer integrated solutions across exploration, development and production operations. With growth driven by organic means and acquisitions, the firm is now a leader in the regional oil and gas upstream services sector. An analyst report by CIMB in 2014 had mentioned that Uzma was “Malaysia’s own Schlumberger in the making”.

For founder Dato’ Kamarul Redzuan Muhamed, sophistication doesn’t always win it when innovating. Armed with experience from large multinationals like Exxon Mobil, and Roxar, he saw a dire need for a real Malaysian based oil and gas technology company to win market share from foreign companies that had dominated the space for too long. He also observed that many industry solutions from these companies tended to be too complex, with some impractical functions.

The direction he then took was to build proprietary technology with a focus on simplification. That naturally carved out not only a product line for Uzma, but a competitive advantage for the firm as they were able to keep prices lower by focusing on delivering only functionalities the clients needed.

Kamarul led Uzma through a listing exercise in 2008 and as of today the company does work in 36 countries, for 52 clients.

As evident with ProEight and Uzma, survival in a liberalised, competitive environment is not beyond the means of Malaysian companies. Instead, it was the fervour with which they conquered the game of the impossible that unlocked opportunities for them to emerge as global players in a tough space.

Allow me to make some personal observations about both Azhar‎ and Kamarul. They are Malay entrepreneurs running medium-sized businesses. Unfazed by competition from much larger enterprises with deeper pockets and clout, they focus on the things they do best and nail it. They do not hide behind the New Economic Policy NEP to seek Bumiputera privileges. They did not set up their business to depend on Government contracts. They did not succeed because they obtained financial incentives or soft loans from the Government.

Instead, they focus on only one thing: Every day (and I mean every day), they continually examine all aspects of their products and innovate to achieve superior, better and cheaper ones than those of their international and local competitors. They are obsessed about innovation and being competitive. They welcome the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) because it gives them access to more markets overseas. They do not make it a habit to just sit down and complain about many things that are not perfect around them. And this is why they have been successful.

We live in an age where education, technology, human capital advancement, trade agreements and other contributing factors are rapidly increasing opportunities for brave organisations to carve their success stories. I have no doubt that there are many other success stories such as ProEight and Uzma out there. The hope I have is for more Malaysian champions to harness the courage and entrepreneurial spirit needed to win big in and outside the country.

For businesses that have successfully done so, I wish to invite them to reach out to my PEMANDU colleagues and I so we can share these with hopes of encouraging other Malaysian entrepreneurs to rise above the fear of failing to embrace this can-do spirit. In our pursuit of socio-economic transformation and heightening Malaysian competitiveness globally, nothing inspires more than hearing the good news from the people who have conquered their fear of failure.

(Dato’ Sri Idris Jala is CEO of the Performance Management and Delivery Unit. Fair and reasonable comments are most welcome at idrisjala@pemandu.gov.my)
2016/02/29
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