Creating a culture of Innovation

Date:   Monday , May 01, 2006

First, we need to appreciate that all success creates its own “gravity”. It is easy to believe that what has succeeded so far must continue to succeed in the future as well.

This builds up a kind of dominant logic that is comfortable to the thinking of the management. Any new idea will be pulled to the ground with the force of gravity. The first step therefore is to confront the gravity. If we can inspire everyone around us with a Vision that is truly exciting, the feeling of complacency tends to come off. This can provide the “escape velocity” to counter the gravitational force. It will also create new energy to dig out and give life to many ideas lying buried beneath layers of bureaucracy!

Second, we need to constantly look for new ideas from everyone and everywhere. The Customer is a good place to begin. We gather enormous data from the Customer on satisfaction. We also need to put in place a process for listening to new ideas from the Customer. The Customer can actually participate in his getting better satisfaction, provided we can listen carefully to what he has to say and execute the solution well. Sometimes, we may have to restate what the Customer has said in many different ways before we get a breakthrough. It is a very useful process. The least we can get out of it is a more meaningful dialogue with the Customer and the best is that we may come out with totally different ideas or insights.

Third, we need to actively bring in people who are not “clones” of people already inside the organization. We must have the courage to hire people who make us uncomfortable, including some we actually dislike. Hiring them is only part of the problem. But I have found that the real issue begins after that. If they are not protected, the rest of the system will push them out very quickly so that all can return to their familiar way of thinking and acting. But such people can be invaluable in providing a completely different outlook.

Fourth, we as top management need to demonstrate our commitment to Innovation. People hear what others say but act on what others do. The commitment must be intrinsic and go beyond just providing budgets and physical assets. We need to constantly reinforce the feel that we have to keep thinking differently if we have to survive and grow.

Fifth, I have realized that the day of the isolated innovator in a forgotten laboratory is over. We need innovators who can enroll the support of their colleagues and evolve their ideas over time. Support is absolutely necessary to take the brilliant idea off the ground.

Sixth, we must actually encourage our people to fight constructively over ideas once they have reached a certain stage. Fighting too early will kill the idea. But in the intermediate stage, this helps us to look at the ideas from various angles and bring out nuances that could be critical while implementing them.

Seventh, we must allow for creative failure when it comes to generating ideas. No one likes failure. But unfortunately, all evidence suggests that it is impossible to generate a few good ideas without a lot of bad ideas. As the Physics Nobel Prize winner Feynman said, “I try to fail as fast as I can.” That is the best way to move to a new idea. Failure should be forgiven and forgotten as long as the lessons are remembered.

Finally, we must have a clear process to communicate the directions and areas where new ideas are sought so employees can be realistic in their assessment of opportunities.

Excerpts from the Keynote Address at Nasscom 2006.