Article: How ISRO fosters a culture of innovation

Leadership

How ISRO fosters a culture of innovation

ISRO’s disciplined approach is key to its success, creating a productive and accountable environment where innovation thrives.
How ISRO fosters a culture of innovation

I have been to ISRO thrice – twice to deliver lectures and once to conduct a two-day workshop on Design Thinking for its senior engineers. These were the moments when the legend met reality. We all have heard about and read about ISRO. We have watched successful launches and not-so-successful landings. There is hardly any other government establishment that has captured more popular imagination than this space research organization and yet little seems to be imbibed regarding its culture. What makes ISRO shine in the space of space? What are some of the managerial insights one could draw when it comes to building a culture of innovation? How to develop failure tolerance? How to improvise at a shoestring budget without compromising on safety or integrity? While these might be worthwhile questions for most—at ISRO it’s a stuff of routine. Let’s understand what the institute has to offer in terms of personal creativity and organisational innovation.

Always set stretch targets, but measurable ones

ISRO, like most space agencies, works on stretch targets. What makes the ordeal taxing for the Indian space agency is that it must also work under extreme cost pressures. When time crunch is fused with the paucity of funds, create you must. In my last workshop, we had 35 participants, joining in from 16 divisions and covering over a dozen different missions. By keeping the missions ambitious and yet measurable, the leaders keep those real. One can’t take her eye off the target, and yet it always seems within grasp. That’s the trick. 

The problem is never stretched, the problem is ambiguity. It’s the uncertainty that causes the jitter and sap the creative juices out of people. They are always second-guessing their leader’s motivation and unsure of what to make of such audacious goals. Most missions at ISRO come from the PMO (Prime Minister's Office) and the reporting goes back there. Which means you are watched. You are betted upon. You are supported. And that’s when you know that you matter, your efforts matter. So, keep it audacious, but never vague. 

A delicate combination of big-picture thinking and detail orientation 

As people move up the corporate totem pole their attention to detail gives way to big-picture thinking, and rightly so. You can’t look beyond and yet mind your every step on the way to an uncharted terrain. Yet when it comes to research and development, especially high-risk, high-impact projects, there is hardly any trade-off between thinking big and thinking in detail. You must do both. For instance, in the inaugural session of my last workshop, one of the senior directors was invited and the first thing he noticed was the mistake in the session duration. He pointed it out and it was immediately corrected, then and there. No fuss about it. No heads rolled. That’s their routine. You call out a mistake, the person corrects it, and you move on. No big deal.

Now imagine this situation in a corporate context. How likely is the boss to call out a rather silly mistake? It was innocuous for all practical purposes. Most won’t point it out, let alone address it immediately. But not at ISRO. The senior folks keep their reverence intact by their ability to get into the nuances, willing to roll their sleeves and get their hands dirty when need be.  

Embracing diversity, especially the invisible kind

ISRO employs a large number of females in its senior ranks. Without delving into the stats (which are readily available), ISRO maintains a rich diversity across levels, functions, divisions, and roles. I have seldom seen so many women leaders at senior ranks at most corporations, even in amicable sectors, such as pharma, banking, IT services, et al. And mind it, they are doing rocket science. In my class alone, we had over 30 per cent women, people from almost all states of India (the session was in Bangalore), and great comfort with varied opinions.

Here’s the interesting thing. One of the participants was incessantly quizzing me, bordering on a challenge, and everyone was nonchalant about it. In a typical corporate milieu, such people would be shunned or would be asked to shut up. But not here. We had a volley of arguments, and people around seemed to enjoy it and encourage it. They were not only okay with varied points of view but also protective of it. There was no compulsion to think like one mind. That’s the invisible kind of diversity.

Getting women in leadership roles or persons with disabilities, or with different ethnicities is welcome, but the more important and enduring diversity is that of thoughts, attitudes, and dispositions—the invisible kind, and innovative companies are like sanctuaries for such diversities.

I am not even invoking the souls of Vikram Sarabhai, Satish Dhavan, APJ Kalam and the likes, for a lot has been written by and about them. But the ISRO of today is rearing with creativity, and you could be missing out on a whole lot if you are too keen to learn from the West while glossing over what’s available right next door. 

I didn’t even talk about the legendary failure-tolerant culture. Imagine that every single experiment you do is broadcast to millions on live television. That’s ISRO. All your expenditures, right to the nuts and bolts are open to public scrutiny. That’s ISRO. Your mission transcends changes in governments, policies, pay commissions, pandemics, ongoing wars and cries, and yet you deliver. That’ ISRO for you. And what binds this all together? A sense of pride. Pride that I am doing something significant for the nation. And then your puny salaries, the size of your cubical, reporting structure, cease to matter. You are working for the higher-order goals. Tough to bring in the corporate context. But you can at least start the conversation.

One more thing. There are strict tea, coffee and lunch timings at ISRO. If tea comes at 10:00 am and you don’t receive it before 10:30 am, the next you see it is at 4 pm! Lunch, strictly for an hour and then it’s out. How does it help? It sets the cadence. It sets the discipline of work and nudges you into a work-life-personal balance. For starters, try this one thing at your office. Simple, but not easy. 

Hope this piece helps you get a better understanding of ISRO and how the magic happens. Hope you don’t think of it as magic anymore but rather a set of practices that can be honed and imitated. So, imitate with pride.

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Topics: Leadership, Diversity, #Innovation, #Work Culture

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