A conversation with Victor Orie Ononogbu, Innovation Manager MTN (Nigeria)
“I believe the cliché that the largest room anywhere is that for improvement. A trophy is a quick rush to death – keep moving, and that is what innovation is all about.”
Tell us a little bit about your journey to this current position of Innovation Manager at MTN Nigeria
I started out in accounting and auditing, working for a medium size private auditing firm. Then moved to Nigerian Tobacco Company PLC. (now British American Tobacco) first as a trainee and then a Asst. Manager Research and ending up as Regional Marketing Manager.
I took my marketing career to MTN Nigeria as pioneer market research manager, setting up and resourcing the unit under the Marketing and Strategy division. I left MTN briefly to work in real estate as head of marketing and returned to the corporate services division of MTN as Education and later Health Portfolio Manager of the MTN Foundation.
Then the move to MTN’s innovation unit in the Transformation office where I am focused on delivering a handshake between business and the academia, and the entire innovation ecosystem. I have birthed the MTN Academic Research Development and Innovation Challenge (ARDIC) and other innovative ecosystem-based solutions to enhance the company’s customer experience.
What led you onto this ‘path’ of innovation?
Interest and passion to see things differently and find new and better ways of achieving greater results. Coming from a research background, asking questions comes naturally to me. I believe the cliché that the largest room anywhere is that for improvement. A trophy is a quick rush to death – keep moving, and that is what innovation is all about. I am excited by seeing uncharted paths conquered and underrated individuals, teams and nations conquering erstwhile untouched challenges.
“Interest and passion to see things differently and find new and better ways of achieving greater results.”
What are your thoughts on innovation as it is currently in Nigeria?
Based on my experience I am very positive about innovation at the macro level in Nigeria. My concern is on innovation at the micro level.
At the macro level as shown by Nollywood and Nigerian musicians, the absence of formal structures does not deter Nigerians. Yaba is beating its path to join other global innovation centres (Silicon Valley, Singapore, Bangalore, Tel Aviv etc) and is brimming with solutions to several local challenges in business and the society. Perhaps the greatest challenge remains access to information and relevant technologies to enhance productivity. That is why the recent trialing of 5G technology is gratifying and holds the ace for a surge in innovation across industries and sectors in Nigeria.
Private sector involvement in catalyzing and harvesting latent innovation activities from the ecosystem is central to reducing the impact of the absence of formal innovation structures in Nigeria. And that is what initiatives like the MTN ARDIC seeks to address by creating a platform for key research in key areas of national development to become solutions rather than become archival artefacts only good for few citations here and there.
“Private sector involvement in catalyzing and harvesting latent innovation activities from the ecosystem is central to reducing the impact of the absence of formal innovation structures in Nigeria”
At the micro level (i.e. firm levels) the pace of innovation will be dictated by industry dynamics. For example, it will be suicidal for any Nigerian bank to rest on its oars today in the midst of the enormous changes in fintech and mobile telecoms which threaten the brick and mortar model within the industry.
Overall, there is a ground swell of innovation in health, agriculture, finance, logistics, retail etc. driven by enthusiastic young Nigerians who are unsatisfied with the status quo.
“it will be suicidal for any Nigerian bank to rest on its oars today in the midst of the enormous changes in fintech and mobile telecoms which threaten the brick and mortar model within the industry.”
What are your key responsibilities in your current position as Innovation Manager at MTN Nigeria?
In summary, ecosystem innovation management, which includes innovation in the academia (universities, research institutions, etc.), innovation and tech hubs, government agencies and parastatals focused on research and innovation and relationships with global innovation and research entities interested in Nigeria. We believe that a lot of solutions reside outside our industry and they need to be harvested for national development; and it is my job to achieve this.
“We believe that a lot of solutions reside outside our industry and they need to be harvested for national development; and it is my job to achieve this.”
Do you run sessions for ideation or problem-solving? If so, how do you go about it?
Internally, yes, I do. We have what I would call a proprietary ideation protocol which enhances our ability to drill down quickly to innovative ideas and get them running in the shortest possible time.
How would you define innovation based on your experiences at MTN Nigeria?
Strictly based on my experience driving innovation and not textbook definition: innovation is creating new processes and/or solutions that lead to considerably big and scalable improvements in value delivery, customer experience and ultimately quality of life.
“…innovation is creating new processes and/or solutions that lead to considerably big and scalable improvements in value delivery, customer experience and ultimately quality of life.”
How do you factor your users/customers as you drive for innovation at MTN Nigeria?
We start off with ascertaining what the customer requires – remember that innovation is meant to solve customer pain-points at a scale hitherto non-existent. As an innovator however, in most cases you see beyond the customers’ imagination. That means, the customer may not even know that she needs a particular solution until you present it to her. In that case, traditional research would do little to guide the innovation process. It requires something different, modelling the unimaginable needs of some geeks. Whatever the case however, an idea of use case and the type of groups that will adopt same is fundamental to innovation.
“…innovation is meant to solve customer pain-points at a scale hitherto non-existent. As an innovator however, in most cases you see beyond the customers’ imagination.”
Which companies (around the world) do you admire most for their approach to innovation? Can you share what caught your attention about their practices?
Grab (which grabbed Uber out of Singapore and the region – talk of daring ‘bigly’), Walt Disney (incredible run, reinventing itself), Alphabet/Google (restless innovation to conquer the world and the way people live), Alibaba (their nothing is impossible kind of attitude to innovation), Amazon (with a finger in practically every pie coming from an industry where nothing like this would have been expected).
What advice would you give to professionals looking to improve their career in management?
Acquire and display loads of passion for changing and disrupting the way people live. Then follow your nose. Equally important, get into the innovation ecosystem and circles; learn some skills especially things around technology (5G, IoT, AR, ML, APIs, block-chain etc.). Study to understand these concepts and their impact on innovation today – they’re means to an end in innovation, and not the end in themselves.
“Acquire and display loads of passion for changing and disrupting the way people live. Then follow your nose.”
What #innovationmoment are you most proud of in your role?
The emergence of the 6 winners of the MTN ARDIC; rollout of MTN’s mother and child OHP campaign in 2018 arising from the Yellow heart campaign which I championed.
If you could build a company from the ground up, what innovation tactics or design methodologies would you use to build?
Design thinking is a sure bet for me, as well as end-user embedding to systematically query the solution and process for delivering it from point one (1). The customer at the centre, – nothing trumps innovation with this kind of design. Then I will adopt agile project management principles in birthing the innovation to optimize both cost and time.