Category Archives: Culture

What’s the People factor in your Innovation equation?

Innovation is the hot new buzzword of our time. Everyone seems to be badly smitten by it. Going by the popular literature, those who don’t innovate are assured to perish sooner than later. Given that previous silver bullets Total Quality Management of 80s, Business Process Reengineering of 90s, and the most recent of them all – Outsourcing in early 21st century – have still left a LOT to be desired, there is clearly enough interest and expectation if Innovation can finally deliver! Coupled with a world still edgy after major Global Financial Crisis and an uncertain Euro zone, and we have perfect conditions to embrace Innovation in all shapes and forms – right from black magic to a holistic way of doing business – even if it still turns out to be a whimper.

Wait! Of course, it would be blasphemy to even as much as suggest that innovation could turn out to be a whimper! Like all of you good people, I too believe innovation is the key to sustainable competitive advantage in the increasingly uncertain and hyper-dynamic world. But, let’s just rollback to 80s for a moment – didn’t they say the same about TQM in those good old days? Or about BPR in 90s? Or about outsourcing until the last decade? Each generation came up with its own silver bullet fervently believing in its potent powers to slay the demons of poor corporate performance (in whatever metrics what you measure – be it topline revenue, or bottomline profits, or marketshare, or employee engagement and so on). And yet, history – the roughest of them all teachers – has reminded us time and again how naïve and wrong we were all along! All these management systems – well thought out and backed by years of irrefutable research and solid data – were heralded as the ultimate panacea in their heydays. However, they lasted only till the next crisis! The next sets of crises were much more powerful, much bigger and more ‘new’ than the previous ones, and like the stains of bacteria that grow resistant with each new antibiotics, they were invincible with the then start of art methods. Clearly something was amiss.

Here’s my take – all these systems were exactly that – just systems! They sought to fix the processes without really putting people in the middle of the equation – even though all the work was carried out by humans. I think we took Frederick Winslow Taylor a tad too seriously when he said, “in the past, the man has been first; in the future, the system must be first” in The Principles of Scientific Management back in 1911. Of course, we forgot to read the next two lines right after this sentence, “This in no sense, however, implies that great men are not needed. On the contrary, the first object of any good system must be that of developing first-class men; and under systemic management the best man rises to the top more certainly and more rapidly than ever before”. We simply delinked people from process and attacked the process performance problem without acknowledging that if people are not motivated enough, the performance improvement payoffs might either be short-lived and might not sustain at the same levels in the long run.

So, is Innovation is also going to meet similar fate and become another exhibit at the Museum of Management Systems? Maybe, or maybe not! Depends on how we change our strategy this time. If we continue to pay lip service to innovation as yet another management mantra, I am sure we will see another new management system in next few years. But if done right, we could certainly create better results that could last much longer than previous generations of management systems. Actually, there is just one thing that needs to be done right – get the people factor back into the equation.

Somewhere in mid-90s and beyond, we started throwing around the words ‘knowledge economy’ to represent the shift towards an economy that primarily dealt with ‘knowledge’ as opposed to, say, manufactured products. It signaled the Negraponte Switch from ‘atoms’ to ‘bits’. The term ‘knowledge’ worker’ came to be known as the move from blue-collar worker to white-collar worker  to pink-collar worker and finally to what I call as the ‘round-collar worker’ – someone who makes money from their ‘brain’ more than their predecessor cohorts of workers, and often have slightest regard for a formal workplace power structure and thrive in informal and empowered environment. They are on the top of their game, and don’t require any hierarchy to support them. Of course, the ’round-collar’ in their moniker comes from the quintessential round-collar tees that not just signify a more relaxed taste in dressing-down, but also brings a sense of confidence and swagger that typically comes from someone who knows their stuff.

Another less visible but far more important thing to note here is that in last couple of management systems, this is perhaps the first time that the worker has sprinted ahead of the system, and has become much more important – so much so that they has made the system redundant. And needless to say, the existing top crop has no clue how to deal with it!

Now let’s get back to the innovation story.

Imagine going back into a modern workplace, full of knowledge workers and telling that from tomorrow we have a new management system, and it is known as innovation. I will leave you to visualize rest of the conversation in your minds :).

So, how do we get it right? Unlike the previous generations of workers, where each of the management systems was imposed top-down, I don’t think this approach can work anymore in flat and egalitarian workplaces of today. Innovation process must be driven bottoms-up that unleashes individual human potential for creativity and challenging the status quo. So far, we hired and groomed professionals who ‘complied’ with our laid-down processes – we hired those who ‘fitted’ in our culture, we promoted those who furthered our existing thought process. Power hierarchy in those organizations was perfectly designed to promote compliance. There was hardly any place for non-believers, doubters, questioners, diagreers, dissenters or harbingers of change.

The current and upcoming generation is anything but that!

How are you going to channelize their talent and energy into something that works for you? How are going to enter the short-term vs. long-term battle? How are you going to embrace a higher risk/reward equation? How are you going to deal with the brash and young workforce that might give you maximum a few months as an employer before going out across the street and creating a new startup that might eventually buy you out a few years down the line?

By writing a new management system that once again puts checks and balances and builds a system of mistrust which saps their energies and stifles their creativity, or by trusting in their abilities and further liberating them? Depending on what approach you take, you will be deciding whether innovation is going to work for you, or will just end up becoming yet another exercise in futility. Eric Douglas has some thoughts on how leaders can make or break the people factor by how they comes across to people. Richard Branson places much higher premium on getting the right people for entrepreneurial success, which is perhaps strongest form of innovation, for nothing could be as audacious and risky as taking an idea and creating a business ground-up. I had blogged about some of the reasons why people don’t innovate in organisations (but rather end up leaving them and do it on their own!).

Goran Ekvall has identified ten innovation climate dimensions that could serve as a great starting point for organizations to self-assess how ready they are to embrace innovation:

  1. Challenge How challenged, emotionally involved,and committed are employees to the work?
  2. Freedom How free is the staff to decide how to do their job?
  3. Idea time Do employees have time to think things through before having to act?
  4. Dynamism the eventfulness of life in the organisation
  5. Idea support Are there resources to give new ideas a try?
  6. Trust and openness Do people feel safe speaking their minds and offering different points of view?
  7. Playfulness and humor How relaxed is the workplace-is it okay to have fun?
  8. Conflicts To what degree do people engage in interpersonal conflict or ‘warfare?”
  9. Debates To what degree do people engage in lively debates about the issues’
  10. Risk-taking Is it okay to fail?

There is enough literature, theory and evidence to suggest the people factor is core to the culture of innovation. Yet, I continue to be amazed that smart organizations tend to create an elaborate management system to ‘support’ and ‘control’ the innovation process. When I meet folks form industry and listen to presentations and papers, I am repeatedly shocked to discover how much focus is on process part of yet compared to how to really enable people and democratize the process of innovation! I hope that understand this can’t be yet another checklist item on their marketing brochure that can win them next contract – it is much deeper and bigger than that. It’s their future that they can’t afford to shortchange!

So, what’s the people factor in your innovation equation?

Are you solving the wrong project management problem ?

I just read a book titled “The eMedha Paradigm – A Project Manager’s Billion Dollar Odyssey” and felt terribly disappointed and shocked.

The author paints a make-believe world in which a sadist CEO does insider trading and makes his kith and kin richer, while his technically incompetent, control-freak and sexually-deprived project manager has a field day sinking the project. The team spirit is in tatters but because of the three-year job bond, they can’t leave their jobs just yet. Sales has promised to deliver the project in 1/3x time period, and now the customer is shouting from the rooftop on grand promises that remain grossly unmet. In short, all real-world ills happening in all permutations and combinations at the same time. While this might not be entirely implausible, I am yet to find such a worst-case view of real-world. This is such a picture-perfect scenario – can you think of anything else going wrong in this ?

The best is yet to come. An honest professional at the client side, Kalpana, with no significant credentials in getting a team out of such worst-case mess enters the scene, thanks to her scheming manager, and gets an anynomous mail from one of the team members on what all ails the project. While she is enroute India thinking about it at 40,000 feet mid-air, she has an encounter. Not a small encounter mind you, but The Encounter. God and his heavenly assistant (literally and figuratively, we are made to believe) Kamayani is an expert in some non-descript technique known as ‘eMedha’ that has the potential to transform any toddler into a veteran project manager. Even though these techniques are so obvious (or so the author would have us believe), for some reason our knight in the shining armor Kalpana doesn’t know these old tricks, and needs divine intervention to bestow that commonsense in her.

The endgame is not difficult to predict. Our legend-in-the-making hero goes with the newfound wisdom and changes everything in just two weeks. Bollywood style happy ending.

So, what’s wrong with this story. After all, isn’t this the cool stuff dreams are made of – a magic wand to wave and the magic mantra to chant, and lo and behold, the world becomes a great place to live. Instantly. Painlessly.

I think everything is wrong in it. For one, the author thinks most software development (still) happens a la ‘Modern Times’ – command and control, incompetent and indifferent management, helpless and desparate team members, lofty promises….the list goes on. I mean, I realize there are no perfect workplaces or perfect teams, and the reality often leaves much to imagination, but I would be greatly scandalized if such workplaces – as the one depicted in this story - exist in software industry. But, let’s for a moment accept that there is indeed one such workplace. Now, you have a oversimplified model that trivializes the entire solution into a series of checklist-style action items to fix this worst-case problem – all in under two weeks. No doubt those action items will give you great quick wins (especially since the situation is so bad, the team performance is at rock-bottom), the author gravely misunderstands low-hanging fruits with the real issues in software project management. It can also send a very wrong message that not only there is a one-size-fit-all solution, even a dummy can do it. When was the last time you were sold such snake-oil ?

The hygiene issues are very different from the fundamental issues of what software project management is all about. I don’t think there are too many workplaces and teams left in this world that have basic hygiene issues. To me, that sounds like coal mines or scrap yard in a developing country. And even there, I suspect workers would put up with such control crap. These are simply not the real problems that we know.

How about dealing with real issues of teams with highly technical, young, assertive, choosy, achievement-oriented and mobile workforce that is not shy of confronting its manager when he/she is not quite right, or pick the bags and leave when its talent and efforts is not respected? Workplace where team members don’t feel threatened but much rather enjoy working on problems that challenge and stretch them. A workplace that creates conducive atmosphere for teamwork. Customer who demands nothing less than a Noble Prize winning effort, and yet realizes that there are inherent complexities in the task that leads to unreliable delivery estimates. Technology that threatens to self-destruct itself every few months, only to lead the way to something new, hopefully better, and a little more complex than the last time. That is the real world, and the game of project management begins on this pedestal. How do you deliver a software project with so many moving parts?

To me it is clear that the bar has risen higher, much higher. All low-hanging fruits have been plucked away. There is no scope for shortcuts, nor any use of snake-oil. The success won’t come by applying quick-win suggestions. If hygiene is a problem, first fix that, and don’t confuse it with project management (even though, I must concede, those issues might be included in the all-inclusive ever-broadening definition of project management). With due humility, if hygiene comes across as a problem, it probably is the small tip of the giant iceberg known as ‘Culture’ and as we all know, cultures don’t change overnight. Yes, they can be influenced, even adapted in a small tribe, but never changed irreversibly by a local improvement action. I applaud all such efforts, but we must understand no amount of localized quick-win efforts will lead to radical changes. A project manager might be able to do only so much, but assuming that this is a scaleable process is like extrapolating from a single-point sample.

Are you solving the wrong project management problem ?

PS: I have nothing personal again the author of this book :). I just feel software development community has been taken on a royal ride with so many silver bullets, I look at every prescription with due suspicion and professional contempt. The purpose of my blog is to share ideas for people to think about what is being sold to them (and not to sell shrink wrap solutions, especially the one-size-fit-all types), and hence this constructive criticism.

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 ?