The World and Beyond of Innovation
300 years back men of science, believed that disease and pestilence were spread by odor. They could not conceive the existence of microbes, since it was not visible to naked eyes. When Dr. Edward Jenner talked of sterilization they scorned at him and treated him as a mad man. Early humans were seized to the possibility of the wireless propagation of sound and images through huge distances. These were mythological stories which captured the imagination of everyone. The flight of fantasy was not limited to this, humans in flying machines flying to distant worlds, was also conceptualized as a possibility by the human mind. The majority including the learned received every new idea (innovation), either with scorn or dismissed it as a fantasy. In both these cases the proposer was viewed as an impractical dreamer; worst a mad person; sometimes even a heretic.
The great Tamil poet Kannadasan wrote in an evergreen film song:
“He saw the birds made the aircraft;
In gliding fishes he envisioned the boat;
Heard the echo fashioned the radio.”
So everything new (NOVO) came down to the powers of observation, imagination and visualization. What is “new” obviously does not present itself both in form or function in a manner which is readily recognizable by us. Very few amongst us have the power of observation to penetrate the veil of the present form and envision in it, the “trans-formational” potential. Almost all innovations: transformations; start as flights of fantasy. These are thoughts that challenge what is commonly taken for granted, as limitations or constraints which cannot be transcended.
A conventionalist is limited by his “how trap” and finds the broader perspective of “what else” threatening. Where the conventionalist is a status quoist caught in the trap of proof before the idea, the innovator is an alchemist who is bent upon converting any metal into gold. The conventionalist is satisfied with the readily evident material value, which he is enjoying as delivered by the present form. He is scared that if this is disturbed or rearranged, he might lose the value which he sees as guaranteed. Isn’t a bird in the hand better than two in the bush! The conventionalist is guided by certainty and threatened by the inherent ambiguous and uncertain nature of imagination. The conventionalist is a prisoner of the concrete and tangible: His time frame is here and now and the rules, which are known. Like the uncertain, unknown scares him. He seeks refuge in adapting the labors of another innovator, for to him it is safer to follow than venture out. He is like the cuckoo which uses the nest of other birds to hatch her young ones.
Every innovation is an exploration into the unknown and the uncharted. The ancient mariners overcame the fear of the mythical open ocean monsters and crossed the Atlantic, finding the new world. Similarly the journey to moon 500,000 km up and back by Capt. Jim Lovell on-board Apollo 8, had no map or paved path to traverse. NASA had to endure failure after failure, including losing 3 Astronauts and Capt. Lovell had to make the journey of faith on science and his colleagues, before the “One small step for man became a giant leap for mankind.” Dr. Subbiah Arunan, Dr. K. Radhakrishnan, Dr. Mylswamy Annadurai and the ISRO defied all logic to shepherd Mangalyaan all the way to Mars, on a shoe string budget of one tenth the benchmark and get there in their first attempt. It takes an explorer’s spirit to be an innovator. If the unknown, uncharted and the uncertain do not excite you, it is unlikely that you will embrace innovation. Innovators are path beakers and path finders.
The innovator is like a prospector of minerals. From the traces of mineral deposits on a river bed or a mountain surface, he is prepared to trace it to its source and literally move mountains (miners call it over burden) to unearth the value. His quest does not end here. When he reaches the main deposit, he is undeterred by the fact that the concentration level of the ore is uneconomical to fetch any immediate commercial value. He is prepared to find a process to separate the valuable ore from the rock and the slag and realize the distilled economic value. Whoever said innovation is only ideation. It is also boring, frustrating and often fruitless back breaking labor. An innovator has the strength to dig deep for the uncertain prospect of finding gold. Many innovators are rewarded for this act of faith and hard labor with more than one mineral, when they reach the mineral bed. Our mythology tells us that Lord Vishnu when he churned the ocean found more than the nectar of elixir!
If the early miners were like some of our business leaders who demand the proof of success and ROI to scale an innovation, the world would never have believed that it was worth the while to move mountains and earth, on the proof of traces of mineral deposit. The paradox is that everyone wants the fruits of an innovation. Yet when it comes to backing innovation with investments, some of our business leaders are scared in accepting that for innovation to thrive, the stomach to accept failures is the minimum pre-condition.
I remember arguing with one leader in one of my earlier organizations, on how ideation and analysis do not go hand in hand. I also told him that over reliance on logic in early stage of innovation is a sure bet to get stuck in the paradigm of current set of rules; like gravity precludes levity. Until the rules of levity are gleaned out, levity would have appeared to be irrational and impossible. Yet intuitively even early humans knew that flying should be possible because they saw birds fly. Logic and analysis are convergence processes. It crystallizes the innovation during proto typing stage. If used at the ideation stage, which demands divergent process, it kills imagination.
In one of our leadership engagement lectures Dr. Vishal Sikka elegantly proposed that the best test of an idea is proto typing it. He emphasized the futility of over analyzing an idea in our meeting rooms. I was awe struck to see my daughter, who is doing her Bachelor course in Architecture, first visualizing the structure and then making a mock up model and only thereafter drafting it on her sheet. She then knocked down her first model and built up her new model using her drawings. She once again knocked it down and used better materials and aesthetics. How true is Dr. Sikka’s insight of proto typing as the route to consummating an idea!
Innovators are impatient to proto type but patient to iterate and shape the creation to its full potential. They are patient in nurturing the fledgling infant yet impatient to scale it up and test it for its true value. Paradoxically innovators are no romanticists. They are clinical when it comes to cutting loss and moving on. But no innovator does it without giving his idea a fair chance to flower. Entrepreneurs and innovators have a strong risk appetite. They both are adept in taking the call, on what to back and what to kill and how much to invest. Both are hungry for scale.
I found working with innovators simultaneously awe inspiring and intimidating. I also found them demanding in their expectations and standards. They broaden your thinking horizon. Three years back when I was in a meeting with Mr. Kamath, he suddenly asked, “Ram how will training look like in 5 years from now. Have you thought about it? Have we fully leveraged technology in training?” Often innovators become the trigger for others to visualize the embedded possibility in the present and fold the future into it.
Let me close with a verse from a great Tamil saint Thirumoolar; he drew the attention of the faithful to god through an allegory:
The rouge elephant (sculpture) hides the wood;
The rouge elephant hides inside the wood of which it is made;
The mortal man diffuses the Universal Almighty;
The Universal Almighty subsumes the mortal man.
The great Michelangelo believed that all his sculptures were hidden inside the marble block. He had to merely see it and liberate it, by removing the interfering material. In the final analysis innovation is more about one’s perspectives. In my book, innovating is as much a spiritual experience as it is a material quest.