Let us roll back to 3500 BC and consider the very first wheel. When it was invented, it changed lives, economies and societies across the world forever. It influenced everything from manufacturing to religious mythology. Yet, it is interesting to note that humanity had spent many millennia before it could invent the wheel. Other achievements, such as cultivating agriculture, building sailboats, molding metal alloys, creating musical instruments like harps, took place first. The wheel shows us that incredible innovations often come about only when the right conditions are present.
Companies regularly worry about innovation, which is often elusive but highly sought after. Technology companies have a big responsibility to make decisions that impact the top-lines of their clients. They also need to continually improve their product and solution since they face competition. Every company would like to give rise to the next disruption—the next iPod, the next integrated circuit, the next telegraph, the next wheel. But one can’t set aside Fridays and say, “Come on, let’s innovate!”
So how then to get it right? Let’s roll with the lesson of the humble wheel.
Are we looking sideways?
This can be the first question we ask of our organizations. Let me illustrate with a story that is now considered folklore in innovation. A toothpaste brand was, at one point, doing very poorly, and despite various attempts, including price discounts and celebrity endorsements, nothing worked. Then came an offhand suggestion from an employee from another department—he suggested enlarging the diameter of the tube’s mouth so that more toothpaste would come out when squeezed, and added that the price should remain unchanged. They decided to try this. And it turned the company’s fortunes around.
The answers we seek often lie sideways; sometimes, in serendipitous moments and corners. Simple solutions that can work can be found in places where we don’t usually look.
So, any attempt at innovation or innovation programs must allow employees time, space, and freedom. It is when one learns new things, brainstorms ideas with others, and is exposed to the best practices, that unconventional ideas and solutions strike.
How can creativity blossom?
Creativity is fueled over time. Organizational psychologist and thinker Adam Grant believes that original ideas arise when a balance between procrastination and ‘precrastination’ (completing an activity in a time-driven way) is achieved. Providing the right amount of time for creativity and innovation by avoiding a deadline-based approach is very important; deadlines or metrics are stifling, for they put creativity in a straitjacket.
While organizations expect breakthroughs from regular routes, such as the product councils they run, research councils they participate in, the research scholars and PhDs they hire, innovation can’t be restricted to just the chosen few. Innovation is, by definition, a departure from the existing norm and prevailing thought process. And I believe this can be achieved through actively cultivating ideas by creating a kind of ‘hyperspace’— an innovative workplace where collaboration takes place naturally.
While it is okay to have metrics for the former set of efforts, one cannot have metrics for a ‘hyperspace’, for that will ruin it. Why? Because metrics-based governance and improvements can be set for things that comply with a process, and innovation does not. By restricting innovation to metrics such as the number of patents filed, or the number of cases of ‘product to market’ achieved, one ends up restricting it to a smaller subset of the company. For instance, a young, entry-level engineer has little chance of getting through these barriers, and his or her ideas will not surface, even as his motivation will get diminished.
This also connects to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, wherein the very act of measurement disturbs the experiment itself because it affects the object being measured; if we increase the precision of measuring, then we diminish the momentum of creativity! Even though it is common for companies, in their infinite business wisdom, to set metrics for innovation programs, it is a sure-shot recipe for failure—the compulsion of measurement will end up destroying an innovation program. At the same time, the absence of innovation goals and targets for teams does not mean the company lacks sight of what it is doing. There must be a way to balance organizational objectives with the variables needed to foster innovation.
How can we create a ‘hyperspace’ of innovation?
What we should aspire to do is create the right conditions such that innovation can find form and flourish, outside of restrictive boxes and limiting metrics. For this, we can take guidance from Dan Pink’s theory of intrinsic motivation with its three pillars of autonomy, mastery, and purpose. ‘Autonomy’, that is, the desire to be self-directed and direct one’s own life can fuel ‘mastery’—the urge to improve and get better. Having the autonomy to use one’s current mastery can help define one’s ‘purpose’. Increasing both autonomy and mastery will strengthen purpose.
At IDeaS, for instance, this has inspired us to create a ‘hyperspace’—the space where these three elements come together to create a ‘eureka’ moment. This hyperspace is the bedrock of our core innovation program, ‘SHIPIT’, as well as other programs and initiatives.
How would such a hyperspace for innovation operate? It is where employees are not forced to participate in an innovation program; they have ‘autonomy’ to choose to participate in it or in any initiative under it. The hyperspace also necessarily exposes employees to a range of different areas and ideas, which can induce one to learn new things and pick up ideas from varied sources. The programs in hyperspace must support employees to grow and upgrade their skillsets, and these need to include domain-related themes as well as non-technical aspects, for instance, a book club, a triathlon, or a liberal arts program. Here, ‘Mastery’ comes in to play when employees engage in varied programs—of their own choosing—and try to improve their skills. Broadening knowledge can lead to the cross-pollination of ideas.
Across domains, the hyperspace must expose employees to excellence, be it through superior subject matter, reimagined approaches, thought leaders, or domain visionaries. When employees see excellence every time, stretch their imagination, benchmark against the best or those better than them, then excellence becomes a way of life and they are able to dream better and realize their ideas. Participating in initiatives in the hyperspace reinforces the ‘purpose’—of both the organization and the individual. While the hyperspace has a combination of formal and informal forums for employees to interact in, the various interactions across these touchpoints enable employees to create connections. A cross-functional hyperspace lets employees interact with others who are not from their work area or domain of expertise, and collaborate with them; take an innovative idea and work together to put it into action.
The hyperspace for innovation necessarily needs to be a non-threatening environment. This can be achieved not only through such free-flowing cross-functional interactions, but also by virtue of being a judgment-free place, where a cool concept can come from Milan, Mumbai, or Malvan, and would be equally accepted for its potential.
Organizations should nurture and build a hyperspace, and trust it; then outcomes will start to materialize. It is when innovation permeates the very thinking style of an organization, and is demonstrated across levels, from the engineering team to the support staff, that you know that the conditions are indeed fertile and you are moving in the right direction.