Fostering an innovation culture
It was the prolific Malcolm Gladwell who brought to our consciousness the fact that ideas are like viruses. An idea can spread like an epidemic, provided it is made sticky, is set in the right context, and has the appropriate profile of people rallying around it, which Malcolm calls 'Mavens, Connectors and Salesmen'. Malcolm explained in his bestseller, The Tipping Point, why a few ideas take hold and go on to transform markets, societies, and even the entire humanity, and others don't. If designed well, the Tipping Point theory can be a useful starting point to give the ideas and people in your organization a fighting chance to see the light of the day. I offer a five-point agenda for fostering an innovation culture at your workplace. For many of these, you don't even have to be in a position of absolute authority.
Make heroes out of ordinary employees
One of the first things to understand about good epidemics, such as an organizational culture of experimentation and ideation, is that small changes have the power of bringing about huge and lasting effects. While humans are designed to think linearly, ideas when they spread follow a geometric pattern. Look at how many men have taken to donning beard, or those balding have resorted to shaving their heads! These are unfolding right in front of us. Small changes were leading to disproportionate outcomes. How do you bring about such a change in an organizational context?'
Start by identifying and celebrating heroism amid the behaviors of your staff. Here's an example.
Several years back, Tanishq had a problem of recovering gold from the used silicon carbide crucibles. There were several of these spent crucibles lying in the Hosur factory, and the management had no means of extracting gold from these crucibles. Globally, there weren't techniques available for scrapping precious trapped gold from the crucibles, and, as a result, the gold had to be written off. But not for Rajsekhar, who was one of the operators at the factory.
Being close to the problem, and away from stares of the senior leadership, Rajsekhar came up with a radical idea– why not crush these crucibles? Instead of proposing steep investments in crushing facilities, which may work or may not, Rajsekhar decided to have a go at crushing and brought his friend's road-roller to the factory and to everyone surprise demonstrated that crushing helps recover gold. Through this rusty demo, four and a half kilos of gold was recovered, worth lakhs of rupees. Rajsekhar not only got promoted, but the story has become a story of legend at Tanishq.
The heroics from a shop floor employee will be far more inspiring than countless town hall speeches from the leaders. It's human to get inspired from peers than from somebody who's already arrived. So, actively unearth such stories, because, frankly, they are all around us, often hidden in plain sight.
Identify & empower the amplifiers
One of the most salient insights about innovation is that not everyone is equally capable of triggering and pursuing high impact ideas. There are the mavens – data bank, the connectors- social glue, and salesmen- persuaders, who have a disproportionate impact on the climate of innovation than others. On the importance of such profiles, Malcolm Gladwell notes – "the success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts."
In your organization, you would always find people who would be in great demand when it comes to seeking new knowledge or perspective. And then those who are so well connected, both internally and externally, that a lunch meeting should suffice to get them up to speed. They are extraordinarily capable of seeding new ideas, rallying people around those ideas, and narrating emphatic, compelling stories for the ideas to almost become legends.
Here is a case in point. As a part of my PhD research work, I got to study Anand Group, one of India's leading manufacturers of auto-components. For its innovation efforts, the group bagged the prestigious Golden Peacock Award in 2017. Two of the practices that stand out about the group are as follows: firstly, the definition of innovation and innovation culture; and secondly, the teams created to evangelize innovation across the group companies. As for the definition, the leaders at Anand define innovation as anything which offers more than 30 percent productivity jump. That's vital and elegant, especially in a manufacturing context where continuous improvement is often confused with innovation.
The leaders there have an even more interesting definition of innovation culture. They say that once 30 percent of the workforce in any unit start to practice creative problem solving methods in a disciplined manner and start showing results, the rest will follow. The 30 percent mark is the proverbial 'tipping point' of an innovation culture. The evangelists, in terms of i5 and i7 teams, were hand-picked mavens (information gatherers), connectors (effective socializers), and salesmen (expert storytellers). They could talk about innovation, given every opportunity, demonstrate success stories, and be the change that the company wishes to see. That's how innovation happens. Not every employee is equally effective in being an innovation evangelist. These are the few who often have a massive and lasting impact – it's a social gift – so, pick them wisely.
Don't let your office space be the weakest link
One of the vital attributes of the tipping point theory is the 'power of context'. Where you are is often more important than who you are. Think of how Indians behave at the city bus stands, railway stations and airports. The same person would have a very different attitude towards cleanliness and a different behavior basis the location – you would be more wary of making the airport dirty than a railways station than a bus stand (at least in an Indian context). The context has changed you – known in psychology as the 'Broken Window Theory'. Gladwell notes that persuasion often works in invisible, subtle ways, and that "simple physical environments and observations can have a profound effect on how we feel and think." He goes on to say, "Epidemics are sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the times and places in which they occur." And you can't leave the space to chance.
An innovation culture calls for a well thought through workplace design – a milieu with a balance of private and public spaces; where the hierarchy is not obvious; where employees can have solitary time alongside camaraderie; and a place that offers them psychological safety.
One such office that I have been to is the Integrity Campus – the newly formed head office of Titan. The 6.5 acres of biophilic, or nature-loving campus has a natural lake in it, and another bio lake a right at the center of the office buildings. It was designed to bring in glare-free natural light and allows for a continuous movement of breeze with wind tunnels creating a venturi effect. The open-air, asymmetric campus consists of three low-rises, stone-clad buildings, and cascading terrace gardens at every level, sufficient space for employees to walk around and work in open areas. The maximum depth of any workspace is 20 feet so that everyone gets natural light.
The entire campus is designed using a natural palette of materials, with the various departments color-coded and housed in separate buildings and floors and yet connected through voluminous open atriums allowing for a mix of private and public spaces. These are sprinkled with arrays of wide steps, courtyards, product display walls, seating areas, open visitor spaces, and informal meeting spaces. The natural, bio-lake, and green terraces have helped do away with the AC requirements. On how the office architecture encourages creativity, Revathi Kant, Titan's chief design officer, shares: "In a natural environment, everyone feels comfortable, thinks differently, it leads to more constructive discussion, better insights. The energy, vibe, motivation levels—all have gone up."
Titan remains a highly innovative company – a champion of organizing the unorganized by creating remarkable brands, offering great shopping experiences, and retaining talent.
In a natural environment, everyone feels comfortable, thinks differently, it leads to more constructive discussion, better insights. The energy, vibe, motivation levels all have gone up
In summary, if you have to make a temperament to innovate, contagious and sticky, in your organization, observe and celebrate simple acts of heroism from around you; identify, unshackle and trust the Mavens, Connectors, and Salesmen (and saleswomen); and pay attention to the context, in terms of your workplace design.