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Geeks, Gadflies and Groups
Padmasree Warrior
Monday, July 31, 2006
No rules

Innovation seems to be the latest management mantra. Almost every conference and magazine these days expounds on it. The Economist even called innovation “the industrial religion of the 21st century”.

Add to this the plethora of books and seminars by leadership gurus discussing the “qualities” needed to lead innovative people and the “rules” necessary for building an innovative culture. All this makes me question, why the hype?
Yes, innovation is a critical ingredient for business growth and has been the subject of many business school case studies. Yes, it takes remarkable leaders with vision, passion and energy to drive ideas into reality. I wonder, isn’t this just about geeks, gadflies and groups? And letting them break a few rules?
There are no rules in the ethos of innovation - that’s been my mantra for the past several years.

It’s simple

Many great innovations are incredibly simple. I think of innovation as a reasonably good idea that solves a real problem in a wickedly cool way.
Take the mobile phone, for instance. It is changing the way we communicate. Today people call people, not places! Today a new language called text speak is practised across the globe with “<3” meaning love, the world over. This new speech crosses language and cultural boundaries, bringing us closer. Today a person will have five times as many friends than their counterpart did 20 years ago.

Today’s mobile phone retailing at less than $40 has more processing power than the spaceship that first put man on the moon; and the thirteeen year old using it, may well know more than the 1969 Apollo engineers!

The mobile device of the future will be your persona. It will carry your mail and keep your calendar, it will be your wallet and the jewel you wear, it will be your camera and television, it will remind you when you forget, it will entertain you with music and games, it will help you get there from here, it will show things that you may miss, it will understand and talk to you, it will allow you to share your experiences and your worlds… all this as easy as a phone call.

Tomorrow the mobile device will connect the unconnected. Billions of people everywhere wait to be connected. There is nothing more fundamental to us, as human beings than the need to simply talk to someone when and where we want. Almost half of the next billion people to be connected are in developing countries like China, India, Eastern Europe and Africa. In India, the mobile has already become the fastest growing consumer product, pushing bicycles to number two.

It took the industry twelve years to connect the first billion and just two and a half years to reach the second billion. Tomorrow, it is not just about the race for the next several billions, but also to make it seamless.
Solving this real problem takes a lot of smarts and creativity. It entails artful technology.
It’s simply geeky.

Don’t look for it, create it!

I remind people every day that if you find a disruption, it’s probably too late because someone else has already thought of it.
Look for precursors and create the disruption.
There is a craving for true internet protocol (IP) based broadband connectivity everywhere, so that it is almost as prevalent as air. Some people call it “Online Oxygen” or even “Ambient Networks”. Not just the spots of connectivity that we have today.

A few disruptive thinkers in our labs sensed this precursor and invented a fixed wireless broadband solution. We battled numerous attempts internally to kill the project. It was disconcerting to many. But a few gadflies were bold enough to swim against the current. They continued to believe that it would change the thinking around broadband wireless access for the world.

Today, with this solution, we are enabling teachers in Africa to reach children in HIV afflicted areas to help them learn, teachers in India are able to touch children in the slums to e-educate them. Our disruption is easing the pain and imparting education with “online oxygen”.
Tomorrow, it will become the foundation for next generation mobile communications with wireless broadband.
Kudos to the gadflies!

The lone ranger no more

I passionately believe that innovation is no longer about the lone engineer working in isolation; rather it is about the genius of the collaborative innovator. It is birthed from the union of Technical IQ, Business IQ and Entrepreneurial IQ. It is nurtured by experts debating a seemingly stray idea, and asking WHY it may or may not work. It grows with tweaking and twiddling – called experimentation.

I encourage people to be blunt about asking the tough questions – What problem do we solve? Is there an alternative that may be better? How is the idea differentiating? What about barriers to market entry? Is there a real business opportunity?
Innovation happens by bringing together diverse groups; sociologists, technologists, marketers, and well, sometimes even those lawyers! Agile groups working towards a defining vision, maybe not always in perfect harmony, but always moving in the same direction.

Take our innovation for the China market, for example.
With over 1.3 billion people and a written language containing 13,000 characters, clearly text messaging on a QWERTY keyboard was not going to work for the Chinese script. Nobody had cracked the complexity of text messaging in Chinese on a mobile - until today.
Existing text-input systems relied on mapping key-presses to characters. With mathematical permutations potentially running into the billions, this was not practical. A group of technologists took this on as a challenge. They got together with product and business teams and brought to market a break though innovation called “finger writing recognition”. The breakthrough uses a new kind of digital input device: the user’s own fingers.

Simple. We combined “handwriting” actually using fingers rather than a stylus with a conventional-looking keypad with Roman letters and Arabic numerals. This way, a dedicated keypad wasn’t needed for text messaging.
If you think about it, China brought the world the first written word on paper almost two millennia ago. Today a group of innovators return the favor by inventing text messaging in Chinese.
That’s a wickedly cool group!

This is my mantra
So how do I drive innovation?
I let groups of smart people break rules to create disruptions.
That’s innovation, done!
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