Category Archives: Innovation

Why do you Innovate ?

Last week, NASSCOM organized a talk on innovation by Rob Shelton, co-author of “Making Innovation Work“, followed by excellent presentations by two of the previous year’s winner of NASSCOM Innovation awards, Intel India and Sloka Telecom. It was good learning to sit in Rob’s audience and listen to his perspectives on innovation. I liked his (probably) favorite punchline (because he must have repeated it couple of times during his presentation): “How you innovate determines why you innovate“. I think this is a great way to sum up if an organization is undertaking innovation as a strategic differentiator or just to play catch-up on a tactical level.

In his view, the three building blocks of innovation are leadership, culture and process. His perspective is that innovation originates from business strategy could be either a technology innovation or a business model innovation. I think techies who spend a lot of time doing the ‘core’ tech stuff don’t easily recognize the presence or importance of a business innovation, but from a business perspective, it does make a lot of sense. What Apple did with iPhone might not be so much of a technology innovation (because neither the technology nor the MP3 player as a product were really new) but more of a business innovation, especially when you view the entire food chain of iPhone: iTunes allow a seamless integration of iPhone with the music stores and allow maintaining a music library and buying and downloading music as micropayments and choice at song-level (as opposed to the Music CD model of buying per CD even if you all you want is a single song).

When we consider these two factors as primary vehicles of delivery of an innovation, we can consider a 2×2 grid on how close is the change to its existing state. If both technology and business changes are brand-new, then we are talking of Radical Innovation. However in his view, Radical innovation is very infrequent, Breakthrough innovation leads to high growth and Incremental innovation leads to average growth. Breakthrough Innovation is when any one of the axis is new and the other factor is close to an existing one, and Incremental Innovation, as the name suggests, is very close everything exisiting.

I also like the emphasis Rob puts on innovation being a team activity. He calls it a team sport. Of course, if you only think of innovation as an individual sitting through long evenings and coming out with a new super way to do something, that might not conjure up images of innovation being a team sport, but I guess Rob is painting a picture where Innovation is a serious top-down activitiy undertaken at a strategic level, and hence requires the entire affected organization to work as a team.

Rob also talked about ‘Open Innovation’ and what is really meant was ‘opening up of Strategy, Organization and Culture and Practices and Capabilities to achieve best results for an organization. In his view, Open Innovation has a higher ROI. I want to read more on it.

The presentations by Intel and Sloka were awesome. Intel worked on Dunnington chip at its Bangalore centre and built its first chip for the world – a true accomplisment for any remote engineering centre and not just Intel India. Sloka is a 33-person 5-yearold startup that is doing some cool work in building low-footprint and low-cost base stations. Its founder Sujai spoke about how they faced every successive challange to build such world-class products from India without any serious VC money and purely on their talent and grit and determination. May their tribe prosper! 

If the presentation was enlightening and interesting, the Q&A was also lively and interactive. There was a question on when you call an idea ‘failure’ ? Interesting ideas to followup on.

Rob ended his presentation with answers to three questions he started the presentation with:

  1. Why can’t companies develop strong effective innovation ?
    • They are unwilling or unable to fix what is broken or underperforming
  2. Why do companies find it so hard to sustain robust levels of innovation ?
    • They use an outdated strategy or operational model for innovation
  3. How do leaders create meaningful levels of innovation ?
    • They manage innovation as if their future growth depends on it – because it does !

I think these are pretty important questions for an organization in these tough times.

I found Rob’s presentation addressing some core issues with very hard-hitting frankness. He puts the entire onus for an effective innovation strategy on leadership, and believes it can’t be a short-term tactical move just for some small gains. Of course, my favorite is still How you innovate determines why you innovate.

So, why do you Innovate ?

Ability to innovate is directly proportional to constraints in the system

We human beings love to innovate, create better ideas and solutions, achieve efficiency in operations and so on. To do so, most people ask for the latest and greatest tools, the newest of the management fads, the really costly consultants so that they could ‘innovate’. The solitary aim and hope being those ‘new silver bullets’ have the right power to fix your problems.

However, they could not be any further from truth – real innovation happens when there are real constraints on the system and not when you have infinte amount of resources and problem-solving tools. When you try to remove or reduce the constraints just by adding resources alone (which could be time, money, people, tools, methodology, ..whatever), you are actually making the problem worse. Without challenging the people to come up with smart solutions, you are asking them to move away from that ‘source of innovation’ and do something else. This might be ok in some cases, but invariably, it deprives the golden opportunity to find some real cool way to solve complex problems. A far more effective way would be to respect that constraint without trying to satiate the bottleneck by throwing money (or whatever you can afford to throw) at the problem.

The great Indian epic, Mahabharata, has the story of lower-caste prince Eklavya who is an expert archer and wants to become the world’s best archer ever. He goes to the guru of noble princes, Dronacharya, who refuses to teach him as he comes from lower caste, so what if he is a prince. Not to give up so easily, Eklavya makes a statue of his ‘guru’ and ‘learns’ from him and become the ace archer ! Who says you need a guru to learn something – you can even learn something without having the right tools in hands. When I was growing up, my father told me the story of a poor boy who is determined to learn typing and win the typing contest. The only problem is that he doesn’t know typewriting and has no means to attend typing classes. He comes up with a novel idea: he copies the QWERTY layout of the typewriter on a piece of paper and practices ‘hitting’ the key on that piece of paper ! After a month of practicing ‘typing’, he finally makes it !

Innovation, or atleast the innovating thinking flourishes at its best in places that have traditionally been deprived of capital to buy more fancier solutions and there was a dire need to change the current status. In the annals of history, names of people like Edison, Strowger (an undertaker who made the first automatic telephone exchange so that a telephone operator  favorable to his competitor could not favor him anymore) have a special place . They all challenged the status quo and neither dearth of capital not serial failures could dent their enthusiasm or efforts to find a more innovative way to solve a real-world problem. Go visit the countryside of India, or any country. From the ‘lassi’ shop guy who so smartly uses a washing machine to make ‘lassi’ to the innovations that help peel a coconut faster, we have it all. A couple of years ago, I went to this fabulous place known as Bhimbetka near Bhopal, India. Apart from the magnificant pre-historic cave paintings that this place is world-famous for, I also saw very strange and interesting things. All the dogs there had a spiky collar – it had like millions of nails jutting out of it. When I asked the reason, the locals told the most obvious reason: that area has many wild animals, including leopards and tigers. They attack the dogs in the night. Having such collar saves the dogs because when they attack the dogs, they first go for their necks, which doesn’t provi to be such a smart move after all. So, having such dog collars actually saves the dogs. Similarly, I read somewhere that the single biggest innovation that has saved human lives in similar rough terrains is usage of a human mask worn on the backside of the head. The tiger thinks the human is watching it and stays away. Innovation to survive doesn’t seem to be the elite preserve of people being chased by tigers and leopards. The desire (or rather the desparation) to survive is equally strong in urban jungles…the types that exist in corporate world 🙂

On the other hand, sometimes the brightest minds do seem to bungle up. You might have heard of the suppossedly true (?) tale of how NASA spent millions trying to develop an anti-gravity ballpen for its astronauts…and failed. The Soviets just used the pencils.

In software development, we have seen it all. From the CEOs who read the latest management fad in the airline magazine and wants to start ‘doing it’ rightaway to the architects who want to bet on the latest (and often, unproven) technology to the project manager who thinks having a couple of more engineers will help him complete on time….these are all classic examples of how we human beings are throwing more fuel on the buring house. Instead of hiring more people, he probably might be well-advised to look inwards as to why there is a delay after all, and how can he avoid any further delays. The architect who wants to solve the problem using the latest tools might be risking far too much in the bargain – including his own career. Where is he going to find people who also understand the new toolset, the proven ways to architecture the system for achieving best performance, and so on. The CEO who wants to implement the latest management mantra might be jumping too soon to the conclusions without having the right assessment of problem or having the buy-in of his team. Do you think any of these are really innovating ? In my view, they are simply avoiding the tough discussions by trying to take shortcuts.

So, instead of trying to create a picture-postcard version of the problem, try to understand the systemic constraints. They are the sources of what will ultimately make your solution stand apart in the crowd. Because in real-life, you don’t have a photo-editing software like Picassa to obliterate the blemishes to make your picture a picture-postcard quality.

[6-Aug-09] I am thankful to a reader, Prateek Narang, for pointing out a mistake in the blog title. It has now been corrected 🙂

How do you manage a Disruption ?


The world of new product development is (NPD) is an extremely challenging one, and while the output of such an endeavor is never a sureshot guarantee, the journey itself is immensely fulfilling. Edison was reportedly asked by his assistant on not being successful with his electric bulb work despite two years of efforts, something that Edison could not understand… “what failure…we have discovered so many ways how an electric bulb won’t work”.  In a corporate context, however, we all must work within boundaries of finite resources (time, resources, people, etc.) to create the next telephone, the next microwave, the next LCD television, the next Windows or the next Google. It is perhaps the dream of every professional to be part of such life-altering Greenfield projects (many times also referred to as the ‘Version One’ in software world) and make a lasting impact on world around us.

However, innovation doesn’t only happen in such large doses. It also happens in small doses: small-small daily changes, enhancements, modifications, improvements done in thousands and millions of places in a product such that the final impact is as breathtaking as the version one. In fact, some might consider such ‘brownfield’ effort as much, or even more, challenging than the Greenfield because in a brownfield effort, one must work around constraints and ground realities that are not up for change. Irrespective, there are adequate challenges and learning opportunities in any endeavor that creates, or improves upon an existing product or service. This is the opportunity for a technical professional to sometimes work as an artist and make her lasting impression on the canvas, while also working as a child building grand designs of lego building blocks. As a manager, the fun is little more challenging than for others J

While a traditional project manager applies all his knowledge and skills to synthesize all tasks, inputs, resources and constraints to build a plan to execute the project, a project manager working on a new product development endeavor must recognize that the work has innate challenges, and quite often the task is a wicked problem.  There is an element of risk, a certain amount of discovery that in fact makes working on such a project worthwhile. It is not by accident that the best talent in the world gets drawn to companies that routinely engage in such work. Welcome to the world where the only objective is to create disruption ! However, traditional project management is all about applying time-tested sound principles and practices to bring a project under control and achieve all its goals. However, managing a disruptive endeavor is much more than that – to begin with, not all goals might be known. Some risks might be completely immitigable, and one must simply learn to accept them. Many of the activities in an NPD project might actually be undertaken for the first time, and hence for all practical purposes is more of research work than a mere development.  In short, one might not be able to apply all practices of traditional project management in letter and spirit and yet be able to create the right disruption that is envisaged. However, it is not an impossible problem.

In PMI NPDSIG, we are working towards creating a community of researchers and practitioners and enrich the body of knowledge by learning newer and innovative methods of problem-solving, shortening the cycle times, improving product reliability, improving the ability to manage such a project and so on. While recognizing the inherent challenges such an endeavor poses, and to an extent might be at crossroads with a very straightjacket approach to project management, we strive to explore the middle path – how best to apply principles of project management to a new product development endeavor, and meet the dual objectives.

I am part of the NPDSIG team for 2009, and as Vice Chair for Communications, I have an extremely interesting and challenging role. Here is how I propose to work on them:

  • PMI NPDSIG publishes a newsletter, Project Management Innovations, for which I serve as the editor. It is published electronically four times a year. I propose to take up themes for each of those issues and scout for talent all over the world to share their opinion, experiences and trends in that area. The idea is to learn from different fields and understand how well practices from one area could be used to solve similar-looking problems in another. Some of the themes I am exploring are
  • Lean: how well Toyota’s Lean Production System is being used in creating other innovative products and services
  • Green: we often tend to associate green only with companies that consume hydrocarbons, but in a broader sense, several companies are making invaluable contributions by adopting green in their technologies
  • Innovation: while our field of work is all about innovation, how the process of innovation is managed, how are organizations able to reduce the risks and lead times, etc.
  • Human: we exist to serve the society, and so must our products. How do organizations create technologies that, for example, enable the poorest of the poor to become literates, acquire practical skills to earn a livelihood and become self-sufficient, how has mobile telephony changed the lives of millions of poor people around the world and empowered them as a first-class citizen of this world.

As an editor, I shall be working with potential authors and SIG administrator on planning the release, review and proof-read articles, etc.

  • The discussion list has over 900 members, but there is practically no activity on that list. We need to revive it by involving list members in various discussions, share thoughts and articles, etc. While this requires a team effort, the need is to identify subject experts who can initiate conversations, offer conflicting opinions, cross-pollinate ideas and involve list members by listening to their problems, their experiences. The idea is not to take the high road by proclaiming ourselves as ‘experts’ but by facilitating thought process, we aim to serve the listmembers.
  • I would like to conduct one or two events in 2009 with PMI Bangalore Chapter and also with IEEE Technology Management Council (TMC) Bangalore chapter of which, I am the Chair for 2009. IEEE celebrates 125th anniversary in 2009 and among eight global cities, Bangalore is chosen as one of them and will have major events ( I propose to conduct some event along with IEEE TMC Bangalore chapter that helps us build bridges within IEEE community as well as (hopefully) open doors for more membership. I don’t know if that is possible, and if yes, what would be a budget for this, but I thought of sharing my thoughts here so that you could advise on what is possible.
  • On the lines of PDMA and our very own PMBoK, I would like our team to undertake an effort to codify the NPD knowledge in context of project management profession. This codification could also be a reflection of the state of art in this field, and serves as a quick-learning tool into the basic tenets of NPD, tools and resources, best practices and emerging trends. This could be made freely available resource for the advancement of our field.

If you are a professional involved in the exciting world of new product development, then join us for mutual learning.

Are you helping your competitors succeed ?

I just read a nice story on the home page of Luke Watson, and was struck by its ‘simple power’. It goes like this:

A few years ago, there was story going around about a farmer who won a particular category in the Nebraska State Fair four years in a row, which is unheard of there. The local newspaper sent a reporter to interview the farmer to find out what he did to achieve such a feat.

The reporter asked, “What’s your secret? Do you have any special corn seed?”
The farmer replied, “Absolutely, I develop my very own corn seed.”
The reporter said, “Okay, so that’s your secret – you developed your very own corn seed.”
And the farmer said, “No, not particularly.”
The reporter exclaimed, “I don’t understand. What’s your secret, then?”
The farmer said, “Well, I’ll tell you. I develop my own seed, and then I give it to my neighbors.”
The reporter said, “Huh? You develop your own seed and then give it to your neighbors? Why would you do that?” The reporter was incredulous – why would anyone in his right mind develop his own award-winning seed and then just give it away??
The farmer said, “You don’t understand how corn is pollinated. It’s pollinated from neighboring fields, and if you have fields around you that don’t have top-quality corn, then your own fields are not going to grow top-quality corn. But if my neighbors’ fields have strong corn, then I’ll have awesome corn! That’s how I won the Nebraska State Fair four times in a row.”

(Adapted from “Success From Home” magazine, Vol.4, Issue 10, Oct 2008, p109, Plus Publishing)

Is this open-source competition, open-source innovation, open-source collaboration or what ???

Hats off to the farmer in the story who exhibited such an unconventional and long-haul thinking. How many of us would be willing to apply such a bold thought in our business ? I find this a brand new approach to innovation – one that is really deep-rooted in helping others succeed because that is the only way to bring one’s own success. Even though our farmer is still winning hands-down in the competition, his neighbors are clearly happy using his high-quality corn (otherwise they would not use those corns) and despite the fact our farmer always wins, they don’t seem to mind his success – because his style of innovation is helping them all improve their own respective yield. Without their support, he can’t succeed, and he won’t get their support it they themselves are not succeeding. So, first he must help them succeed so that they, in turn, could bring him bigger success ! wow !

I am trying to think of companies that flourish using such a model of innovation…could not think of one, but there must be some. Write back if you know of some such company.

…but, are you helping your competitors succeed ? maybe, that’s the key to your own success !