Tag Archives: Innovation

Not another diaper-selling app please!

This is the golden age of entrepreneurship, and I think humanity is fortunate that so many bright people have decided to solve some really hard problems of our times. Even when we know that history – and statistics – are not on their side and that more than 90% of the will eventually fail, their efforts need to be saluted, for they are giving up a cushy comfortable job and the opportunity to be with their friends and family or generally pursue their hobbies and interest, and instead have chosen to purse the hard path of experimentation, failures, more failures, frustration, many more frustrations….and hopefully some light at the end of the day!

When all apps start to lookalike, you know that innovation is all dead!

However, a good number of us are getting it totally wrong.

No, we don’t 59th app to order groceries at home.

No, we don’t need 134th app to buy diapers from the net.

And we most certainly don’t need yet another mobile wallet, yet another taxi booking app, yet another bookshop app, yet another food-ordering app, yet another househunt app, yet another app to sell undies on the net, yet another…..

What we do need is something a bit more simple. For example:

  • Help millions of educated unemployed create opportunities to develop our nation
  • Find a way to save millions of tons of food that rots in our godowns
  • Prevent farmers from committing suicide
  • Find a way to raise people’s standard of living by creating opportunities for them
  • Send every child to school
  • Let no child die of preventable diseases
  • Let there be running water in every household
  • Let there be a computer in every home
  • Decongest the cities and redistribute the economic activities back to villages and small towns
  • Clean up nature, air, water and land
  • Make better roads
  • Reduce crimes
  • Improve governance
  • Remove (or at least reduce) corruption
  • Reduce lead time (and preventable delays) in public projects
  • Help people become better people
  • Clean up our nation
  • Make neighborhoods safe
  • Speed up justice

I know there are a few of us who are working on some of these hard problems, away from the limelight, painstakingly changing the world…literally in inhuman conditions. They need to be applauded and supported. More talent needs to go there rather than using their advanced computer science degree and machine learning knowledge to find a way to make more users view online ads and click on the lead-generation links. More funding needs to be made available to solving these important problems that serve the humanity at large.

Selling diapers online is sexy. Saving a child from preventable death isn’t.

No, not another diaper-selling app please! 

Next…!

Why do you pay people? No, really?

(Originally published on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/article/20141204175129-3616140-why-do-you-pay-people-no-really)

Ask this question to cross-section of professionals across functions and experience levels, and you are bound to get millions of answers. Some of them might look like these:

  • For their knowledge, skills and abilities
  • To do the job!
  • For their efforts
  • For their time
  • Because the law says we must pay them!
  • Else they won’t work
  • So our competitors can’t poach them
  • So they stay committed
  • So they don’t make noise
  • Because I am worth it!
  • and so on…

Sadly, none of these are the right answers in my view (though some of them might be correct, technically speaking). They reflect the largely old mindset that people’s motivation and loyalty (rather, forget these fancy words – actually we are only interested in one thing, and that is productivity!) can be best bought for fair wages, which was perhaps ok when you gave them a one-size-fit-all standard process that they had to follow. A hundred years back, Henry Ford raised his workers daily wages from $2.50 to $5.00 just so they won’t leave his plant (full story herehttp://www.thehenryford.org/education/erb/HenryFordAndInnovation.pdf), where he had built a then ultra-modern system of manufacturing that needed them to simply follow the process blindly (and newcomers on the job could learn the ropes in five minutes flat). So much for paying people to get the job done!

However, what about today? Why do you pay people? No, really?

I think the only reason why we (must) pay people is so they bring ideas to the workplace. New, big, fresh, stolen, borrowed, bold, controversial, unscientific, unproven, risky, weak, potential gamechangers, disruptor of status quo, creative, ridiculous, audacious (big hairy audacious is even better), slayer of mindless bureaucracy, harbingers of change…just about anything will do as long as they bring something to the workplace, as opposed to just being a plug-and-play part in the giant corporate machinery whose daily activities are pretty much pre-decided as per the giant process manual. Much like washing the cars. As long as they don’t see the workplace as a watering hole (or, more contemporary parlance, see a place where they can charge their cellphones – both literally and metaphorically), but like a literal greenfield where they enjoy freedom of tilling fields and joy of sowing seeds and the grit and patience of seeing them grow and flower. Chances are if you are not hiring people for these traits, and not creating conducive environment (including paying them or rewarding them) for these behaviors, they are probably bottling up their real abilities – and you are shortchanging yourself! Given half a chance, they will surely walk out to a place that offers them such chances (and their tribe is surely swelling every passing day), but you perhaps stand to be the biggest loser by not benefiting from their creativity and new ideas. Who knows, they might go across the street, open their startup and buy you out in a few years from now 🙂

Do you pay people for blind obedience to a fixed process, or something else?

In today’s knowledge age, our employees perform best when they bring their ‘heart and mind’ to the workplace – they need to see an emotional connection to their workplace and they must be cognitively challenged by the work to be creative, happy and engaged. Anything short of that, and they are only likely to somehow get through the day! So, do you know why do you pay your employees?

As for me, if my employee doesn’t bring anything new to my workplace, they can as well take their old and stale ideas to my competitors. I would much rather they have it!

How do design and build an organization for success?

In-flight magazines and management bestsellers are all full of ideas and opinions on how to build an organization for long-lasting success. Best-selling authors and management gurus have made a handsome career talking and coaching about things that seem like universal panacea for just about any kind of organization. Unfortunately, in modern times, it is dangerous, even suicidal, to put your professional reputation at stake by calling out such fantastic organizations that achieve (or are preordained to achieve) such long-lasting success – whatever that means! What was once a hopeless laggard might unexpectedly hit a jackpot and become a smashing success tomorrow, and what is flying high today might suddenly get birdstruck and be biting the dust tomorrow. There are no one-size-fit-all prescription that fit all kinds of organizations, what we have don’t come with a good user manual, and most certainly none of them come with a thirty-day no-questions-asked full-refund policy! So, how does one go about doing exactly that – design and build and organization for long-lasting success?

In my experience, there are three critical elements that need to be present in ‘interlocking proportions’ for any organization to truly achieve a sustainable long-term success. When I say ‘interlocking proportions’ I am implying two key things – one that there must be a natural and mutually complementary fit among all the components, and secondly these components are in such measure that they complement, ideally amplify, each other, rather than canceling out one component at the cost of other component.

For example, we might have a developed a great car that delivers 100 MPG fuel efficiency, but then it compromises on the road safety aspects, or if the safety standards are left uncompromised, than the passenger comfort leaves much to be desired. iPhone5 might be a great mobile device (a highly subjective statement, based on what camp you come from!) but its battery life sucks. In a way, this is similar to “integrative thinking” – Roger Martin’s term for human brain’s ability “to hold two conflicting ideas in constructive tension“. However, it might be (reasonably) easy to visualize integrative thinking in the context of steady-state, but how does one keep constantly rebalancing them as the system goes from one change to another, never perhaps settling on a transient steady-state long enough?

 

Success doesn't follow a straight line

Success doesn’t follow a straight line

In the context of organizations, what is means is that as the team grows from a startup into its next phase of growth and eventually into a larger organization, these components also need to commensurately grow in tandem. I have seen this being the biggest bane of many growth-phase companies – they forget what once made them successful might be impeding their further growth because those policies, procedures or practices might not make the same sense anymore. Today’s solutions are indeed tomorrow’s problems.  Unfortunately, success is blinding and the one that comes along with light flashes and glossy pictures is even more so! So, the approach and methods that led to the initial success become so sacrosanct that under no circumstances are we willing to question them, let alone adapt them. They become holy cows, and often after  few repetitions, get set in stone. As a result, while the body has grown up, the mind is still taking the low aim. The result is friction in the system, leading to turf wars among otherwise well-meaning peers, eventually leading to poor performance in the system. This might manifest in lack of rapid innovation, or bloated organizations, delays in decision making, poor customer service – just about anything.

What is the solution? Assuming that if someone has come this far, then they probably have the fundamentals in place – stuff like right talent, leadership, and strategy. However over and above these hygiene factors, I believe these three core factors that must be present in interlocking proportions at any stage of the organization:

Efficiency

An organization thrives on its ability to make optimum usage of its shared, and usually scarce, resources. In a typical startup, the demand far outstrips supply of any kind of resources – be it real estate, computing resources, marketing dollars or even the people, and hence preserving the burn rate is a critical measure of efficiency, at least till the revenues have started kicking in. But the startup team often has a vision far more compelling than those ‘large-company perks’ that are nowhere to be seen and can only be read about in those glossy magazines – business class travel, corner offices, club memberships, reserved parking lots and exec admins for senior folks, and cool stuff like free gourmet food, free office transport, generous health benefits, corporate iPhone, office gym and TGIF parties for the lesser mortals. 

So, these startups figure out a hungry, lean and mean organization structure where pretty much everyone operates as a multi-skilled expert, and wisdom of crowds is often the best way to find smart solutions to nasty problems quickly. Founders are often the decision-makers, partly because they are the subject matter experts and partly because that’s the way they want it to be. The process works very well for the initial ten- or even twenty-people startup.

Over time, unfortunately(!), success happens and it brings growth as a bye-product. Anyone who had driven a car knows that you need to keep changing gears as you get on a gradient and as you pick up speed. However, our startup team often doesn’t want to give up control, and hence continues to stay involved in all those day-to-day discussions and decisions. Over time, it creates self-inflicted inefficiencies of scale – new players don’t know their  property rights, and whether they are empowered to make those decisions, and hence they push it up for decisions, but since the guys at top are getting totally backlogged with so many things that they should have ideally delegated, they create avoidable delays, not to mention an organization that feels disempowered to act without adult supervision.

Clearly, as the company grows to a growth stage, there is need to redraw the boxes and arrows and constantly keep looking for opportunities to delegate and create leadership and accountability at each of these levels rather than keeping them all centralized. By decentralizing, I don’t mean abdicating the responsibilities but making sure everyone on the team has a fair opportunity to be a ‘part of it’ rather than simply being a bystander.

One more important but invisible and hence ill-understood connotation of efficiency is culture. If people are doing the right thing as per the organizational policies and procedures, then it is a good culture of ownership and compliance (some might agree if ‘compliance’ is still a good idea, but let’s suspend that judgment for now). However, if people are not doing the right thing because their organizational policies and procedures don’t explicitly let them take such initiatives even if they are on a burning platform, then such culture is fundamentally inefficient, even dysfunctional. So, the notion of efficiency shouldn’t be seen only in the context of how well a process uses time and resources to product its intended output, but should holistically factor-in people aspects as well.

Innovation

The lure of the geese that lays golden eggs is so tempting, it clouds our ability to think next and take any amount of risks to find if the geese could do any better? No one wants to mess with products that are performing well in the field – sales doesn’t want disruptive changes that customers might not like, and in the age of quarterly guidance and micro-scrutiny, no one wants to stick their neck out and signup for a mission impossible project. As a result, new initiatives are never bold big bets, but end up being mostly cosmetic and ‘wall-street-safe’ initiatives that won’t kill the company (and the execs behind it!) if something were to backfire. Business books are littered with real-life case studies of such thinking that killed long-term disruptive innovation in favor of preserving short-term revenue thinking. Sony was so successful with its Trinitron technology that it never felt a threat from the newer flat TV technology, and as a result, lost out to newer and more nimble players (even though it managed to catch up with its Bravia series later). Similarly, Nokia’s success in a largely monopolistic and virtually unchallenged market led to it saying no to micro-trends in some of its ‘non-sexy’ markets, like China and India.

Many people confuse efficiency with speed or a maniacal focus on cost-optimization. Speed at any cost is an indicator of extremely myopic thinking that might lead to some nice results in the short-term, but is almost always guaranteed to misfire in the long run. Similarly, cost optimization (more crudely, cost cutting) is often used by organizations to hide or cover up years of neglect and mismanagement and please investors by firing innocent people who are more often than not, hapless victims of the very same policies themselves. I was recently reading that Infosys’ new (old?) chairman says it will take 36 months to stabilize or rejuvenate Infosys. How did a company built on such strong ethos and management, and which had strong of co-funders providing stable leadership suddenly find itself needing such a long lifeline? The rot that needs 36 months to clean-up couldn’t have happened overnight, could it? Perhaps playing it too safe turned out to be risky after all! Had Gerstner believed in playing safe, he perhaps would have never got the elephant to dance.

Key is to believe that innovation is not just a great thing to do in these modern times – it is already downgraded to being a bare necessity. What was great yesterday is not great enough today and most certainly won’t even be good by tomorrow. Your competition is outsprinting you, your investors are expecting that you can deliver better returns on their investments than the competition, and your employees expect to have a rewarding career with you and not do some derivative work.

Did you say innovation was all gas?

Scale

In today’s world, scaling up is not an available option. If you are successful by any means, your investors, employees and customers (and you too!) will want to scale up – be it the little florist round the corner serving its neighborhood and known for excellent customer service,  or the software company that is able to offer innovative solutions to its customers twelve time zones away. In fact, refusal to scale up might eventually bring about your downfall.

However, the same agility and frugality that led to the initial success now stands firmly in the way to scaling up. If you are the supertechie founder-CEO who designed and developed the award-winning product, you probably were there at each step of the product development and your diligent involvement and ownership ensured such phenomenal success. Now imagine you have a team in another part of the world who owns another part of the complex software. How do you expect them to make technical decisions – should they keep calling you all the time (in the middle of your night?) or wait for you to get to office and reply to each of your mails? If you are the customer-facing founder-CEO who insists on being involved in all deals, how will your sales team make any serious progress if your presence starts becoming the rate-limiting step to their process?

I think scaling up is perhaps the most complex of these three pillars because it requires the founders and early-stage managers to accept an inevitable fact of life – that they alone can’t take the company to the next logical stage of its growth, and now must hire and depend on professional managers to help them achieve that. It also forces some of the tech-happy founders to become managers, thus making it extremely difficult, if not totally impossible, to write code or do some other technical stuff they enjoy doing (and was perhaps the reason in the first place they left their cushy corporate job to start a tech company). One of the reasons companies like Coca Cola, Pepsi, McDonalds and Pizza Hut have been so successful is because they figured out a model to scale up globally – despite having a heavy dependence on virtually all perishable raw materials to be sourced locally (and hence creating a wide variance in assuring quality). When Toyota developed Lean Production System, it was widely felt that Lean could not be replicated outside Japan. However, the success at NUMMI changed it all – and established beyond doubt that Lean was, after all, scaleable outside Japan.

A few years back, an independent portrait photographer from Pune came to Bangalore to set up his studio. He was a reasonably big name in Pune but struggled to establish himself in Bangalore. He wasn’t able to establish connections with the market of Bangalore, and as a result, packed up and headed back home after suffering losses after three months. I know this because we got a lovely family portrait done from him, before he moved back. Clearly, he did not have a process to scale up his operations to another city. So, what applied to large companies also applied very well to solopreuners too.

Conclusion

So, where does it all lead to? While there are probably hundreds of variable that need to be tuned properly for an organization to smoothly and successfully grow on a sustainable basis, obviously not all are critically important and  hence one needs to focus on only a few key ones. In my experience, Execution, Innovation and Scaling up top the list. And more important than which factors does one consider, it is more important to recognize that these factors are needed in ‘interlocking proportions’ and lest we create a lop-sided organization that falls apart sooner than later because even though its engines made it run at 2x, its wheels were not strong enough to support traveling at such high speeds, or its braking system was not advanced enough to control such high power. In the end, people don’t buy cars because one of the experiences is better than others – they buy it for holistic experience. Such holistic experience is not an accidental outcome – it happens when the company’s foundations are created holistically.

How do design and build an organization for success?

Does your process help you preserve status quo, or deliver some kick-ass skunk works?

Problem-solving in the past has been dominated by methods involving rigorous and meticulous planning and flawless execution – something that has been questioned, largely by results (or rather the absence of it) in the recent years, if that is (still) the best approach when there are so many moving parts and the external world changes in a blink. We frequently ‘blame’ old practices of assembly plant-style waterfall days where it took years to get a project team to jump multiple hoops and just get a project done – in most cases, hopelessly delayed, unacceptable quality and overbudget. Building process frameworks was once thought to be the panacea for all these maladies, especially in mid- to late-nineties, as we say with a series of processes – CMM, ISO, BPR, and so on… And thus, birth of agile movement came as a big relief and promise to speed and improve things up a bit. The idea of starting out with just enough requirements and iterating along with way had an intuitive appeal in this VUCA world, where no one had complete information nor all the time to wait for that perfect moment of epiphany – because that epiphany was a moving target in reality. With more efforts to design a solution, we learnt a bit more about the problem and this became an unending spiral – which was not necessarily a bad thing, but the gated processes didn’t provide much guidance on how to address it effectively. Clearly, we needed nimble processes that allowed for more iterative development without making too much commitment upfront, especially that couldn’t be easily changed downstream, and a matching sociological process that allowed teams to build unconditional levels of trust among themselves that stimulated collaboration and made them operate at the speed of light. Many of these ideas have emerged from multiple disciplines such as software development, behavioral psychology, team dynamics, systems thinking and leadership, just to name a few, in the last ten to fifteen years, and have led to statistically significant successes in several domains. However, as we are learning, some of these practices have been around for decades – just that we haven’t ‘discovered’ them just yet. I just found out one such great example this weekend – the Skunk Works. Wikipedia defines it as blow:

skunkworks project is one typically developed by a small and loosely structured group of people who research and develop a project primarily for the sake of radical innovation.[1] Everett Rogers defines skunkworks as follows: “[It] is an especially enriched environment that is intended to help a small group of individuals design a new idea by escaping routine organizational procedures. The R&D workers in a skunkworks are usually highly selected, given special resources, and work on a crash basis to create an innovation.” [2]

Clearly, developing skunk works is not a business as usual approach. It is a special quarantined environment created for the sole purpose to incubate a radically new idea under special conditions that catalyze teamwork and collaboration and accelerate innovation. Another definition describes it as:

A skunkworks (also known as Skunk Works) is a small group of people who work on a project in an unconventional way. The group’s purpose is to develop something quickly with minimal management constraints. Skunkworks are often used to initially roll out a product or service that thereafter will be developed according to usual business processes.

However, there is more to Skunk Works than this. Starting out in 1943, Skunk Works at Lockheed owes its foundation to a mantra of “quick, quiet and quality” that still continues after seventy years. The first project, XP-80 Shooting Star jet fighter was designed and built in only 143 days – seven days less than required and without any contract or an official submittal process! The formal contract for XP-80 did not arrive at Lockheed until Oct 16, 1943; four months after the work had already b

What is your skunk works process?

What is your skunk works process?

egun! However, when we look at its operational record, it was delayed – it was pressed into service only towards the end of WWII – something that clearly didn’t meet its original objective. There were many accidents, and several ace test pilots were killed on the test flights. Given that there were several innovation on this ‘product’ there seems to be a strong flavor of fail fast, fail cheap and keep iterating – even though the loss of human lives seems to be tragic and perhaps avoidable in some cases. However, this blog post is more about the underlying process and associated principles that led to such innovation in the first place. Upon reading further, I was impressed by its founder, Clarence “Kelly” L Johnson, who started it all. He broke the rules, challenging the then bureaucratic system that stifled innovation and hindered progress. I think these rules have never been so important ever before… Kelly’s 14 Rules and Practices Kelly wrote down these 14 rules that led to the successful culture of innovation at Skunk Works at Lockheed. Let’s study them and understand their context in today’s workplace, and if our practices address them effectively:

1. The Skunk Works manager must be delegated practically complete control of his program in all aspects. He should report to a division president or higher.

There must be a clear-cut responsibility, ownership and accountability lest there be diffusion of responsibility leading to confusion, chaos and associated symptoms of delays and poor quality. As much as we need self-organizing teams with democratic decision-making process, we still need to have a clearly defined ownership – someone who is tasked with breaking all rules to get the job done! Agile teams make the team responsible for delivering to its commitments, and agile thought process doesn’t generally support the notion of a ‘manager’ but a product owner is still responsible for eventual success of the product. Yes, the notion of what constitues work for a manager will keep changing with the times, but in some shape or form, I believe there has to be a sense of final responsibility for the outcome.

2. Strong but small project offices must be provided both by the military and industry.

There is no denying the importance of reducing management and administrative overheads but making them more effective. Bloated models that create large hierarchies are on a wane, and new-age program management is all about leadership by influence rather than using positional power to get the job done. Scrum takes a leaf from servent leadership to describe the role of scrummaster,  which is a significant departure from having a manager with positional power to get the job done.

3. The number of people having any connection with the project must be restricted in an almost vicious manner. Use a small number of good people (10% to 25% compared to the so-called normal systems).

More than the ability to actually work with small teams is the recognition that having a small team is much more productive and effective compared to the “so-called normal systems”. Of course, not all problems can be solved by having small teams, especially if one is looking to complete them faster than the competition, but one needs to weigh-in all the factors, but definitely in favor of small teams. Agile makes a strong case for small teams.

4. A very simple drawing and drawing release system with great flexibility for making changes must be provided.

This sees like making big commitments upfront is being deemphasized. This principle sounds very simple to what Lean Construction Institute, several decades later enunciated when it said, “…design decisions will be deferred until the last responsible moment if doing so offers an opportunity to increase customer value.” Agile thinking is very much aligned to avoid making heavyweight commitments upstream, especially when there is a heavy cost of change them later, and given the rapid pace of changes around us, it is certainly not a hypothetical and extremely rare situation for which we are delaying making the decision.

5. There must be a minimum number of reports required, but important work must be recorded thoroughly.

It’s so funny to imagine that in the era of typewriters too, they were sick of reports! I think there is nothing that can justify having a disproportionate number of reports under any circumstances. The old thinking was to increase the micromanagement when in crisis, or even otherwise (I fondly remember a General Manager in at an old job who would come to our cubicle every hour and check the status update on ‘design document’!). I think asking for a number of reports smacks of Theory X, where the underlying assumption is that unless you make people work, they won’t take initiative and most certainly won’t assume responsibility. So, the hierarchy gets created simply for asking for more frequent status updates, and since the higher levels wield considerable power in deciding renumeration and career progression for the ‘lowly underlings’, who do you think wins in the end? Certainly not the project, I guess!

6. There must be a monthly cost review covering not only what has been spent and committed but also projected costs to the conclusion of the program.

I see no reason this doesn’t apply in any possible context. Any sponsor needs to know how is the team doing. The team owes it back to their stakeholders, management and customers to keep them posted of what is keeping them busy, and when are they likely to be finally done. When I look at agile thought movement, there was an almost anti-establishment feeling that was so palpable in numerous views on dozens of discussion forums, that it is not a surprise that agile didn’t find too many favors with ‘management’. I don’t think it is called prudent wisdom to take money from a project sponsor and tell them they are ‘chickens’ :). Thankfully, I see more maturity among agile thought leaders today, and any level of project team owes it to keep their first-level of ‘customers’ engaged through the development phase.

7. The contractor must be delegated and must assume more than normal responsibility to get good vendor bids for subcontract on the project. Commercial bid procedures are very often better than military ones.

There was a time when people outsourced to save a few dollars. Not anymore. With such tight integration of your suppliers in your value chain, it is not about cost anymore – they need to have much more than their skin in the game. A strategic project can’t afford to have relationships that seldom go beyond conventional commercial considerations. Perhaps the best-known example is how Toyota treats its suppliers – “…we believe in developing mutually beneficial, long-term relationships based on mutual trust. To foster that trust, we pursue close and wide-ranging communication with suppliers.” and “…We at Toyota rely on outside suppliers for most of the parts and materials in the vehicles we make. Every step in making Toyotas, from development to production, consists of joint work with suppliers. The suppliers we seek are companies that have the will and the ability to become active partners with us. We are looking for suppliers who possess world-class competitiveness in terms of qualitycostdelivery, and technological capabilities.“. I don’t believe without such strong win-win mindset, a company can succeed in achieving the agility required to compete at big game.

8. The inspection system as currently used by the Skunk Works, which has been approved by both the Air Force and Navy, meets the intent of existing military requirements and should be used on new projects. Push more basic inspection responsibility back to subcontractors and vendors. Don’t duplicate so much inspection.

Inspection is essentially a waste. Deming was vociferous in his views on this “Principle#3Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality. Eliminate the need for inspection on a mass basis by building quality into the product in the first place.”.  Clearly, there is no way we are ever going to completely do away with any form of inspections – there are far too many normal and special variations in any process to be able to run subsequent part of the process in autopilot. However, a more conscious effect to eliminate duplicacy in inspections not only improve the value stream but also fosters the culture of trust and interdependence among all players which can eventually help everyone run faster rather.

9. The contractor must be delegated the authority to test his final product in flight. He can and must test it in the initial stages. If he doesn’t, he rapidly loses his competency to design other vehicles.

If you can test components of an aircraft in initial stages, what stops you from doing the same for, say, software? Some of the biggest opposition to early testing comes from enterprise software and from software platforms – that they can’t possibly test half-baked functionality? However, nothing could be further from truth. If we are not testing product and its components early enough, we are accumulating significant risks downstream that can force untold miseries during the big-bang integration. I don’t think anyone disputes it seriously today.

10. The specifications applying to the hardware must be agreed to well in advance of contracting. The Skunk Works practice of having a specification section stating clearly which important military specification items will not knowingly be complied with and reasons therefore is highly recommended.

I think there is nothing wrong with this idea. However, there is a presumption of technological stability that doesn’t hold so well anymore. The pace at which newer technology gets productized is unprecedented, and one can’t sit comfortably having zeroed-into the hardware platform at the start of the project. However, there are surely classes of problems where for regulatory reasons, the technology cycles are much longer, and hence it makes sense to be cognizant of them. However, the advise is generic enough to be universally applicable for all class of problems.

11. Funding a program must be timely so that the contractor doesn’t have to keep running to the bank to support government projects.

Simply put, if you don’t pay your suppliers on-time, they will have less motivation to work on innovating the next big thing and more to worry about how to pay salaries to their staff! Perhaps this was a big deal in early 40s that Kelly has to write it down! However, lack of funds can surely cripple or kill a project and hence enough care must be exercised, commensurate to the project size and impact, that ensures this is not on critical path. 

12. There must be mutual trust between the military project organization and the contractor, the very close cooperation and liaison on a day-to-day basis. This cuts down misunderstanding and correspondence to an absolute minimum.

Again, Deming has some useful advise here too “Principle #4End the practice of awarding business on the basis of price tag. Instead, minimize total cost. Move toward a single supplier for any one item, on a long-term relationship of loyalty and trust.“.  While one can debate if having one single supplier is a wise thing to do, there is no doubt that one needs to build a long-term relationship on a foundation of loyalty and trust. A relationship on short-term commercial interests might hold critical projects to ransom in times of crisis, and control or coercion might  backfire. However, trust will almost always be reciprocated with accountability.

13. Access by outsiders to the project and its personnel must be strictly controlled by appropriate security measures.

This might be more relevant in military, but in true innovation projects where a mere whiff of what are the designers thinking is likely to be significant competitive intelligence in the hands of competitors, a sense of maintaining right amount of secrecy is not unusual. Apple is well-known to maintain absolute secrecy about its new products, and goes to any lengths to protect its competitive advantage. I also think it is not just about the secrecy due to competitive reasons, a little bit of ‘confidentiality’ might actually increase the amount of buy-in from team members and make them more ‘possessive’ about their work, making them all come together. However, it’s clearly a double-edged sword, and one must choose what works for them.

14. Because only a few people will be used in engineering and most other areas, ways must be provided to reward good performance by pay not based on the number of personnel supervised.

I think Kelly was either a battle-scarred veteran of performance appraisal systems (back then!) or a visionary to be able to call a spade a spade! Perhaps the conventional systems at that time rewarded people for the number of personnel supervised, which might have no bearing on ability to innovate or deliver performance. This might even be his pet peeve, because in an earlier principle, Kelly has called for smaller teams, and here he is asking for rewards to be performance-based and not based on the team size. As we have seen in last few decades, power-hungry managers have only worked towards building large self-serving empires with no relation to the nature of work. In the end, such pyramid structures has become just that pyramid-shaped ponzi schemes. However, today’s social norms and professional values don’t support such stone-age thinking, and hence, this is only a gentle reminder to today’s managers. However, it must have been very profound at the time Kelly jotted this down. While reading these 14 principles, I couldn’t help but admire the genius of the man behind it – Kelly was not only on the top of his game, he was willing to literally fight the establishment to get his job done. If he perceived his process as stifling innovation, he was willing to talk about it, and make necessary changes commensurate to what was expected of him. A lot of people take refuge under and behind the process frameworks without thinking if it meets their needs. The thought process is that you buy a certain level of performance with established processes, and hence if you fail, it must be due to the process and not entirely because of you. This gets aggravated in organizations that apportion praise on the process and management, and failure on the managers and the individuals. As a result, people stop sticking their necks out, and instead choose the trudge along the status quo. But think about it – are you paid to preserve status quo, or to push the thinking, bring about changes, break some china…in short, deliver some skunk works… So, does your process help you preserve status quo, or deliver some kick-ass skunk works?

So, does agile really kill innovation?

In continuation of my earlier blog post on ‘Does Agile Kill Innovation?’, I had a great time moderating the panel discussion at Agile India 2013 with Henrik Kniberg, Owen Rogers, Sujatha Balakrishnan, Udayan Banerjee, Praful Pillay and Sudipta Lahiri. The panel discussion was literally the last program at the end of two long days of management conference – but despite that, we had 60-70 folks throughout the session.

Agile methods, with their rather short-term focus on achieving a ‘done’ feature seem to give away an impression that the eventual goal of a sprint is delivering such a full-baked feature. However, the new-age thought process seems to be more like ‘done is better than perfect‘. Question is, does agile implicitly become the rate-limiting step for your innovation process by self-imposing a stringent and non-negotiable completion criteria that possibly can’t be met by innovation-led ‘stories’ where the discovery and experimentation is generally a long-haul process and failure is such an acceptable outcome that we want to fail early and fail often!

We had some interesting perspectives ranging from ‘agile kills innovation’ to ‘agile accelerates innovation’ to ‘it depends’. Some of the ideas that emerged out of the panel discussion were:

  • agile, and scrum in particular, seems to be well-suited to the class of problems where a reasonably well-defined product backlog exists to begin with. To that end, there is some level of agreement on ‘what’ is to be done in the stacey’s matrix. For such problems, maybe ‘20% innovation’ user stories could be designed that allow implementing features with lesser uncertainty on ‘what’ and ‘how’ and leaving the uncertain aspects to the innovation user stories. This could ensure that the sprints are not losing steam just because of taking up innovation-led tasks, and neither are those tasks suffering in the anxiety of maintaining (and improving) team’s velocity.
  • for problems that are so radically new that don’t have any notion of a product backlog to begin with, perhaps ideas from lean startup (and design thinking) make more sense where the notion of ‘velocity’ is not so pronounced as compared to the ability quickly iterate through the build-measure-learn loop in shortest amount of time, and test various hypothesis around customer discovery or MVP, or any other moving part
Does your process let you think outside the box?

Does your process let you think outside the box?

  • one attendee from the session remarked that in their organization, they give a ‘break’ in-between the sprints to take up such innovation-led tasks, and it is working for them.
  • in organizations and teams that get too obsessed with meeting predictability goals and focus on velocity, there is a risk that teams don’t attempt big bets but just chipping away at the small bets. So, that version of agile is probably not going to lead to any radical or breakthrough or disruptive innovation, but more likely suitable for incremental innovation.
  • in services companies, the essence of business value is predictability of service, and hence there is some level of disconnect with the whole notion of experimenting and failing that might impede any innovation. To that end, achieving agility could be hurting innovation. However, there are always possibilities to innovate in such customer-facing processes, and one needs to deliver proof-points and earn the charter.

These perspectives made for some good conversation, questions and counterpoints. After all, what is a good panel discussion without some arguments and controversies!

So, does your agile really kill innovation? You tell…

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?

Time to throw away your Talent Pyramid

Ask any HR Manager on talent profile for their organization and you will get a ‘talent pyramid’ – an odd-looking ‘pyramid’ that is supposed to reflect the talent profile of the organization. Ask them further – what is the measure of ‘talent’ in this pyramid, and chances are 9 on 10 that the answer will be ‘experience’. This experience is typically the number of years of (supposedly relevant) experience in the workforce, and pretty much determines how roles, and consequently the compensation are derived out of it. Question is – is that the right measure of talent?

I was in an interesting industry-level peer discussion a few weeks back where we debated on the utility (or, rather futility, at least in my opinion) of talent pyramid for R&D organizations. A conventional view is that talent pyramid helps us understand the operational costs better and hence it makes sense. Unfortunately, it ends up creating linearity between experience, role and eventually the compensation. So, while we might talk a lot about being a meritocratic organization, in the end, we are just paying lip service to those tenets.

Another interesting point was that while talent pyramid makes sense for software service companies because they get billed slab-wise (and hence, there is a business case to inflate roles and titles disproportionate to the real capabilities), it is really an anti-thesis to product development where talent has no linearity with experience, at least not in the classical way it is ‘measured’. Some of the most compelling and life-altering products in recent times have come from folks who were still in college, or had no ‘talent’ when they hit upon the next big idea. By all conventional yardsticks, they would never get a second chance. What, then, should be the best, or at least better way to measure talent?

So, here is my take on new-age talent metrics that makes much better sense than the traditional ones:

Democratization of Innovation Index

In the old economy, innovation was essentially limited to the large organizations because if often needed huge capex (and opex) to build and run large R&D facilities. With the advent of globalization and Internet, the entry-level costs of innovation have irreversibly deflated, and one can pretty much source ideas from anywhere in the world. Companies that continue to take a narrow view of the ‘thoroughbred’ innovation will eventually find themselves at the short end of the stick that deprives them of the wisdom of crowdsourcing ideas from just about anywhere in the world – including their own companies. In this fiercely fast-paced and ruthlessly ultra-flat world, it is hypercritical to be able to harness the power of ideas coming from just about anywhere in the organization. If you don’t create avenues to your employees to take their ideas further, they will take it to just about anyone who is willing to listen to them. Worse, they will create their own company around it. And we have seen it happening for a long time – Xerox, KFC, FedEx, and scores of companies are prime examples of what happens when ideas are rejected but their creators continue to pursue them with dogged determination.

P&G owes a lot of its recent success to its so-called Connect+Develop program has established over 1,000 active agreements with innovation partners – worldwide! They have clearly embraced open innovation as a much more effective and viable alternative to yesteryears’s internal R&D capabilities alone. The question that you need to asking in your organization is how much (rather, how well) are we learning and borrowing from other adjoining, or even remote, areas.

How many of your new product ideas are coming from top-down PRDs created by product managers and how many are coming from bottom-up ideas from engineers and customer support folks?

Intellectual Property Creation and Adoption

What is most important for your R&D organization – managing within some arbitrary budgets or coming up with futuristic cash flow ideas? Costs must be managed, but after a point, we must remember that cost is there to serve us and not the other way round! The larger aim is to eventually create a great workplace where creative individuals and teams can fire their imagination and come out with supercool innovative ideas that create intellectual property and competitive advantage for the organization. How about measuring the IP Density as the total number of IP ideas filed per unit employee? Much like the sales productivity? This number by itself is meaningless, but a trend over a reasonable period of time will help us understand if the company as a whole is moving towards the right direction. Similarly, IP Quality is the measure of how many of these ideas get converted into public filings? To me, these two measures are a great indicator of the real R&D happening in a team, center or a company.

These are more like the entry-level metrics, but one might eventually move up to things like IP Adoption – how many of the ideas are really used as opposed to just being filed, and actually create future cash flow? Or, generate royalty by protecting the entire marketplace?

Cross-pollination of Ideas

Success in the past depended on narrow and deep specialization in a given domain. However, as we have come to learn from the brilliant ‘Medici Effect’, it is anything but true in today’s complex world where there are too many lookalikes a dime a dozen. If we continue benchmarking against today’s competition, we will only end up doing more of same. How many of your people are willing to tear-down functional and political boundaries of the organization to create better products and services that delight customers as opposed to simply complying with some silly organizational diktat? How many products are coming out of efforts that systemically break down ‘associative barriers’ that stop people from learning ideas from even more remotely unrelated areas? Long back I worked at a large company where I was surprised to find that we had three versions of basically same products competing against each other. Years later, when I worked at a small company, I was shocked to discover that we had something like 5 products essentially trying to compete with each other on product features. Why? Because not only were the ideas not cross-pollinated but the product managers were all trying to outcompete with each other – rather than the competition.

When Steve Jobs wanted to design the chassis for mac laptops, he saw how industrial designer used brushed aluminium. George de Mestrel got inspiration to design velcro from burrs of burdock. August Kekule reportedly saw a snake catch its tail in his dream and got the inspiration to design Benzene formula.

So, there you go. Are you still measuring your talent pyramid by the number of software engineers or number of people in 5-7 years experience band? Do yourself a favor – throwaway your talent pyramid.

Top 7 roadblocks to Innovation

Innovation is the new corporate mantra today. Everyone talks about it, every executive wants to showcase their fancy innovation processes, and pretty much every organization has some type of ‘budget’ to support innovation activities. However, most innovation programs don’t get too far because not too many executives and managers really understand why people don’t innovate as much as their corporate leaders would like them to, budgets and processes notwithstanding.


Here are my top 7 reasons why people don’t innovate in organizations:

  1. Innovation starts with people’s discretionary efforts – most people would like to be put on the race track if they have been hired for running, rather than being thrown in the swimming pool. Yes, we all like taking on newer challenges, but in reality, we might be better off being assigned those challenges than being expected to proactively volunteer for it. I don’t know how true that is, but supposedly, the first thing they teach you when you join Indian Army is ‘never volunteer’. This is surprising because you Indian Army doesn’t follow the conscription model – you volunteered in the first place to be there, and now that you are a part of it, you are told never volunteer! Initially it doesn’t make sense, but think about it – when you volunteer, it becomes your job – you become responsible for the consequence and the results, and you always might not have full control over them – but since you volunteered, you can’t offer any excuses. Instead of volunteering, if that was assigned to you, you would be much safer, and can always go back to your senior officer asking what all resources you need and sharing the risks associated, and so on. So, Army makes sure isolated cases of individual bravados don’t disrupt the monolithic command and control that is far essential to fight a war. When you see this in the context of an organization, you obviously can’t mandate ‘never volunteer’ rule. So, you do ‘ask’ people to volunteer, but for one, people are already booked on their projects. Unless you are a 3M or a Google, you may not have an official 15% or a 20% time-off policy for suspending your dayjobs and ‘doing’ innovation. So, if it becomes like a cane crusher where you are pressing the juiced-out cane once again to extract more juice out! Doesn’t work this way – except perhaps some 10% of the highly-motivated folks who anyway will find time to innovate. But for rest of the folks, the risks far outweigh the potential benefits of volunteering their discretionary effort that they can put to better use, both personally and professionally. If you don’t believe this, just look at some of the volunteers, say with IEEE or PMI or similar professional organizations – for no monetary or professional rewards, they are willing to invest their weekends for furthering community activities, but won’t do the same at their workplace!
  2. Pet projects are often shunned – many senior executives would like to be caught repeating the innovation mantra in the hallways, but their actions don’t often match their intent. When people come up with ideas or pet projects, they are shunned because they threaten the status quo, or challenge the established order or hierarchy, or come up with an approach that the powers that be hadn’t thought of before. Sometimes the excuse is that people shouldn’t lose focus and waste time – rather focus on what maximizes the ‘productivity’, but the intent almost always is to make sure people follow what they have been asked to do. What would be your motivation to take up some unsolved problem if your last similar experience left much to be desired?
  3. Not everyone has equal ‘political capital’ to think new things – this is often unrecognized at the workplace, but most of the new ideas comes from people who are closest to the process being executed to solve a problem – not from their managers. However, those foot soldiers don’t always have the right amount of ‘political capital’ to take their ideas further. It is quite likely that their managers don’t take them seriously enough, or simply shoot down the ideas by asking them to overtime on the projects instead of cooking up such fancy ideas! In extreme cases, their ideas might even be hijacked by the managers to make them look good in front of their own leaders. Ugly as it might sound, but that is the reality of corporate world. Quite often, the source of idea determines its success much more than the idea itself, and that’s where many extremely good ideas lose out  simply because they came from someone deep-down the hierarchy without good connections in the management. There has to be a democratization of innovation to ensure everyone has a fair opportunity to bring their ideas to the table.
  4. The ‘NIH Syndrome‘ is alive and kicking – contrary of what most of us like to believe, the world doesn’t always embrace the ‘next best thing’ so easily. There are prophets of doom with varying level of contempt to a new idea – ranging from shock and disbelief to outright rejection that they will make an example of it lest someone else came up with similar ‘futile’ efforts in the future. Often the reason is Not Invented Here, or the NIH, which means there is a high reluctance to acceptance any idea coming from ‘outside’ – whatever that definition of outside be. After a few such interactions, either the inventor will stop asking for permission, or stop innovating, or might simply move out to another company where his ideas are more welcome.
  5. It does take a village to raise the child – no idea, how much good it might be, can grow into a robust product all by itself. It needs to be nurtured, debated, user feedbacked, improved, early adopted, marketed and eventually made into a success by a large number of stakeholders, performers and bystanders. Someone from engineering must bring that idea to life where someone from QA must play the devil himself and evaluate the idea critically – not to kill the idea but with constructive criticism that makes the idea stronger. Someone must help with the usability while someone must comment from the cost of mass-producing that idea. If there is a mutual mistrust in an organization, people simply won’t share their ideas with each other and thus miss out on this critical feedback during the formation stage of the idea. Result is bound to be a half-baked idea that can’t scale up for an industrial-strength mass production (or mass adoption, as in case of internet or mobile services). In fact, the most ‘vertically differentiated’ or ‘horizontally differentiated’ an organization is, the more such integrative efforts are required to bring all functions together to holistically review and feedback on an idea.
  6. It is not safe to fail – remember what they used to say -“no one ever got fired for buying an IBM”. IBM machine’s reliability and performance was supposed to be a hallmark that it was considered absolutely safe (from the marketer’s point of view, at least) that you will never go wrong with your choice, and hence there is no risk of losing your job. Zoom back into today, and you will realize your mailbox is spammed with every marketer’s snake-oil claims. You also know that like everyone else in the competition, your company’s (and hence your own) survival depends on ‘getting it right the only time’, how on earth do you stick your neck out and put money on a dark horse? The result is completely predictable in-the-box thinking and continue doing ‘more of same’ instead of betting something big, risky and uncertain – but meaningful and potentially worth taking the risks. But, imagine what all can happen if you suddenly make it safer for people to fail? People suddenly start taking more risks! Don’t believe me – take a bicycle and remove its brakes. Now ride it. You will be so scared of picking up speed and crashing into a tree that you will never ride it fast enough. Now fit some brakes in it. Your behavior changes when you realize that if you pick up speed, the brakes will make it safer for you to fail. So, you ride it much faster. This is not just logical thinking, but has been corroborated in reality as well, and there is even a name for it – Peltzman Effect. Now, Peltzman effect is is the unintended effect and basically refers to undesirable effect on people’s behavior by introducing safety, but in the context of organizations, we we turn it into an advantage. Imagine a workplace where there is no penalty or death sentence for failing – what do you think will be people’s behavior?
  7. It’s not my job – The ‘Genovese Syndrome‘  highlights the so-called ‘diffusion of responsibility‘. When we see something broken in a busy place, large groups tend to shrug-off individual responsibility unless asked explicitly to do so (small groups invariably acted in self-responsibility). So, an individual is a large setup is very unlikely to act individually to fix a problem unless explicitly asked to do so. It is not a reflection of an individual’s values, or skills or competencies – if and when he is asked to solve that problem, he will most likely find a reasonably good way. Just that human psychology at work stops him to take that extra step and volunteer to fix it. Strange, but true!

So, here are my 7 favorite peeves that roadblock an individual’s desire to innovate in an organization. While some highly-driven individuals eventually overcome some or all of these roadblocks and succeed, the larger percentage of population plays it very safe. Given today’s highly uncertain business climate, it isn’t very surprising. The real challenge is to create an environment of these impediments can be systemically eliminated thus paving way for individuals to play in an non-intimidating environment and get their best creative juices flowing. Anything short of that is simply leaving innovation to happen by chance!

What are your impediments to innovation, and how do you tackle them?

Who is sabotaging innovation in your company ?

Innovation is the survival mantra of today, chanted by everyone, but acted upon only by a few. Companies that routinely invest in innovating for the future are eventually able to putpace their competitors, everything else being equal. However, not everyone is able to kickstart, manage, sustain or nurture an innovation-led culture. Large monolithic organizations often become victims of their own processes, structures and past strengths. Smaller ones generally innovate to survive and succeed, but are they always truly innovative?

I once worked at a large European medical systems company where we worked on workflow automation software for Radiology departments in hospitals. We had not one but three #1 products in the market! We were #1 in Germany and that product had a great database system. We were #1 in Sweden and that had a great workflow. And we were #1 in the Netherlands and that product had a great GUI. However, we were #Nobody in the global market. While this was ‘achieved’ due to a very decentralized governance model in that company which allowed localized innovation to meet that market’s highest priority needs, it also created islands within a global company. Local success in those national markets was super sweet, but it impeded success in global markets. At that point, I thought this was a classic large company problem – until I worked for a small company. We were a typical bay area company with several cool products in a very niche market – the only trouble was none of them looked like they were from the same company. At one time, we counted five different GUIs for our products – all different in technology, all different in style, all different in workflow, all different in product roadmaps, and all different in egos (ok, I made this up, but not by that much!). We had a virtual in-house industry – after all, who needs competitors when you have colleagues like that.

So, I witnessed excessive innovation without any direction or coordination in these two personal experiences, but I was really shocked to learn of more advanced methods, like thwarting or sabotaging innovation in the article Microsoft’s Creative Destruction. Even if just 10% of what the article claims is true (some people might argue that it is sour grapes), it still must be extremely sad and demotivating for any bright, young, enthusiastic engineer to be on one such project, only to see fruits of his labor allowed (rather, forced) to rot.

Why do we lose our bearings, and go completely crazy? Why do our personal egos get supersized and conquests take-over our initially benign need to do things better? Why do fun-loving collaborators turn into fierce competitors? Why do otherwise successful companies turn their break-out areas into shoot-out ranges? Why do genuine innovation efforts get sabotaged by selfish interests?

I am not a psychologist nor a sociologist, so I can’t tell why people behave like this. But as a practitioner, I am definitely interested to understand how to fix it. In our profession, practice is clearly more important than theory :).

I searched for information on the net, but was not able to find a lot of work on this area. There is lot of work on why innovation fails, but not much on how internal efforts at crossroads with each other sabotage innovation in the long run. Priscilla Kohl discusses Five Steps For Discouraging Employee Gossip From Sabotaging Productivity, and the focus is on employee gossip. In another excellent article, Are Workplace Bullies Sabotaging Your Ability To Compete, Linnea and John highlight the importance to identify and eliminate bullying behavior at workplace that stifles innovation and risk-taking. Another interesting blog post lists 56 Reasons Why Most Corporate Innovation Initiatives Fail. I like reasons like CEO doesn’t fully embrace the effort (#6), senior team not aligned (#8), lack of trust (#12), too many turf wars #20), mind numbing bureaucracy (#27), and many more.

I think this is an interesting problem to work on and learn more about. Do you know about published or anecdotal data on this subject? Or, do you think this is not a key issue?

Meanwhile, I am still interested to know who is sabotaging innovation in your company 🙂

IT industry at cross-roads: Top three priorities for IT companies in years ahead

This was the theme of IIMB-NASSCOM Leadership Summit 2010 where I had opportunity to share my views as a panelist. It was a great evening where we panelists got to share our thoughts, and also learn from each other and from the enthusiastic participants, essentially students of PGSEM and PGP and other courses of IIMB. In this blog, I will share some of my personal reflections that I shared at the summit.

One thing about predicting future is while short-term predictions tend to be conservative, the long-term predictions tend to be optimistic. So, while we still don’t have personal flying machine, fuel cells, foldable LCDs or many of the several James Bond gizmos, it is also a fact that short-term bandwidth requirements, mobile handeset adoption, and even the longevity of recently conclused recession have all been proven wrong and how! The recent controversy about melting of Himalayan glaciers and threat to Amazon forests has only once again vindicated the theory. 

Issues

As we step into post-recession year 2010 – the year that probably will matter much more in the long run than any other year – a lot of battlelines are being redrawn, new socio-econo-geo-political issues are being debated and the pyramid seems to have been turned on its head. Without being judgmental about these issues, let’s see what they look like:

  • Anti-outsourcing sentiments – while some of it might just be playing to the gallery, there are definite issues underneath those jingoistic slogans that should not be lightly discarded.
  • Rising costs of Indian operations – while we have gone up the food chain, we also need to realize that cost of higher competence has also gone up. Whether we should kill the goose that lays the golden eggs, or play with patience – this indeed is the billion dollar question.
  • Other emerging low(er)-cost destinations – whether that is China, erstwhile East Bloc, Latam countries, Philipines, Vietnam or eventually Africa, the race is on to provide services at the lowest price-point. While not all of them might offer the simultaneous advantages of English language skills + scale + open market + existing base of skills and several other key success factors uniquely available at India, I think it still is a credible threat if we simply sit back on our laurels.
  • Rather low domestic consumption (under $10 Billion) – this is a real underserved market and a real goldmine. The fact that our domestic consumption is so low, it not only lowers our credibility in the world market, it also limits our ability to build world-class facilities and infrastructure.
  • Pressure to deliver more value within reduced IT budgets – post-recession is a whole new world. The IT and new product development budgets are lower than before, and the pressure to deliver more in less is the new universal truth.
  • Growing digital divide – while some 2.3 million of us have benefited from the IT boom (and another 8 million having benefitted indirectly), there are hundreds of million who are forced to be mute spectators while the carnival passes by in front of them. Not only are we depriving ourselves of an opportunity to bring more talent and thereby expand the envelope, I think we might even be setting the field for a social unrest (going by the rising crime in metros, I don’t think this is a far-fetched fantasy).

I am sure there are many more. However, none of them are brand new. I also think most of these have limited potential to affect our story just by themelves. What is worth realizing is that many of these are happening simultaneously, and it doesn’t matter if the relation is causal or collateral, the damage will surely be comprehensive and complete!

Trends

Let’s also look at the current trends, facts and opportunities:

  • Hiring is up
  • Attrition is up
  • 7 Million micro-firms in India are waiting to hop on to the bandwagon of information superhighway
  • 95% of software exports come from just 7 cities
  • 2.3 Million direct jobs created and 8 Million indirect jobs created
  • SME potential ~ $16.8 Billion in 2010 on technology, software, hardware, bandwidth
  • Over 550 Million mobile subscribers, but probably not more than 50 Million on any data plan

These trends are not necessarily good or bad. We need to devise our strategies such that we can exploit these trends in way that allows us to move past those issues that we discussed earlier.

What next ?

So, what can we do next ? It is very tempting to continue the number game, and if 100,000 IT professionals can give $5 Billion annual revenues, then it must be simple math to reach $10 Billion and then $15 Billion and so on. Right ? Wrong! Sadly, that might not be so easy. As we saw earlier, there are far too many negative issues that might limit the dream run. From where are we going to get 5x manpower (at the industry level) to get 5x revenues (though, it might not be a linear relation anymore, but that’s another point)? From where are we going to get civic infrastructure to house office space, residential localities, hospitals, schools, living spaces in teh already supercrammed metros to house even more  carbon-emitting professionals, their industries and their super-sized cars ? From where are we going to create a domestic industry that can act as a shock absorber when the next global recession hits us ? How are we going to ensure an inclusive society where we are able to help people realize their potential and become a proud partner in tomorrow’s India ? How are we going to grow up from maintaining software for the world to innovating for the world ? From where are we going to get the next 50 million internet users, the next 50 million mobile internet users, the next 50 million credit card customers ? From where are we going to sustain world’s largest middle class of 400 million without giving them any realistic means to 2x or 5x their potential ?

I believe the solution lies in our own backyard. We must go back to our roots and strengthen them to get ready for the big game. What we have achieved in all these years is nothing short of a miracle from a country that till just fifteen years back was still trapped in pseudo-sociolistic hangover that only led to a solitary contribution to the world of economics – the ‘hindu rate’ of growth. However, the world has not sat still while we blazed the trail last fifteen-odd years. It has grown up to pose credible challenges that simply can’t be met with sweetening the deal anymore. We must think differently.

So, what do I think ? I think we should invest in the following, as an industry or whatever it takes for us to get together, to set us up for success in the long-run:

Radical changes in eGovernance

The eGovernance must simply reach every internet kiosk, every cellphone, every doorstep. Anything short of that is just an eyewash. It doesn’t help if the urban youth can book railway tickets  or pay electricity bills. How about making the average Joe in a dustry town get micro-loans using his cellphone ? How can we eliminate the middlemen from every transaction that deprives a farmer his fair due ? How can we ensure that construction workers get their full wages for their hard work ? Bill Gates mentions Rahul Gandhi in his annual letter, and appreciates Rahul Gandhi’s candidness when he says that the money meant for the poorest of the poor doesn’t reach them. How can we ensure that this happens, every time, for every citizen, every single day ? We develop solutios for countries, cities and counties but we are not using that knowledge and expertise to develop our own backyward ?  

R&D / Innovation

I refer to applying ‘jugaad’ innovation to make simple, everyday things even more simpler so that an average 5-year old and an 80-year old grandma can easily use those services to access information and services at their fingertips. We need to make systems so that a cabbie in Mumbai can remit his daughter’s school fee in a remote village – instantly. We need ability to bring healthcare to the needy and poor to their homes. We need solutions to make our farmers more informed and better prepared to handle adverse weather situations and use more efficient farming methods.

Manpower Development

Manpower development is often restricted to the elite technical and business schools, but I think that perspective needs to be readjusted. How can we develop solutions that can benefit poor, needy and illiterate farmers, workers, cabbies, mom and pop shops, kirana traders, physically challanged and socially isolated if they are not taught how to use those gadgets ? Even if we produce 10x IIT/IIM grads, the bottom of the pyramid won’t shrink. Real benefits will only accru when the society is ready to absorb the supply. So, developing manpower at grassroot level seems to me as the only way to create a robust, need-driven and sustainable demand system that can effectively absorb the increased supply (that becomes available by methods outlined earlier).

Job Creation

As I noted earlier, our IT intensity is restricted to just 7 main cities. Neither industries want to move to other Tier B and Tier C towns, nor the professionals want to move away from chaotic metros (we just love to blame Bangalore traffic, but don’t ever ask us to move away from Bangalore :)). It is like a Catch 22 revisited. This forces money to stay in metros, and makes people from rest of the country to move into metros. While this is not unusual in any part of the world, it forces youths from villages to move away from agriculture and other trades that might have brought economy to their homes rather than forcing them out of their homes. We need to reverse the trend and decongest cities and spread the fruits of economic boom with more of the lesser privileged ones. I am not for peanut butter spreads, but surely there is a huge gap between what we have now and the peanut butter spread. Moving industries back to smaller cities, towns and villages will help create a more ribust local economy and ease-up pressure on cities. 
 

Conclusions

We have the lifetime opportunity to alter the course of future by taking some far-reaching and hard-hitting steps at an industry level. Honestly, one company or one player alone might not be able to make that huge a difference, but surely we all need to think about. Your prescription might be diferent, and that’s fine. What is important is to agree on what we want to be and hopefully we all will find a way to agree on how we want it to be.

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 ?

Art Fry shares views on Failure…

In  my previous post When are you planning to fail ?, I argued that early failures were a far more effective learning tool than early successes. Those ‘gentle failures’ could help you avoid, or at least minimize the chances of ‘grand failures’.

My colleague from PMI NPDSIG, Kimberly Johnson, shared that post with some of her ex-colleagues (Thanks Kim !), including Art Fry, inventor of perhaps most-well-known office product, Post-It Notes.  Here is what he wrote back:

“Good article, Kim. In most product development programs you must consider dealing with failure, because only one in 3000 to 5000 raw ideas become a success. So the question is, How do you check out the failures as quickly and inexpensively as possible?

One technique we have used with brainstorming sessions is to first brainstorm for the good ideas. This can be an individual or group effort. After a day of incubation, come back and brainstorm the barriers to success for those ideas. On day 3, Brainstorm the ways around those barriers. Sometimes a program that didn’t look so good at the start, turns out to have the most promising path. It is amazing how much time it can save in a program with a lot less cost than charging ahead with unchecked enthusiasm. Action without thinking is the cause of most failure.

Cheers,

Art”

He sent one more viewpoint:

“One more thought. Why would people want to work on new things, if most of their work is going to lead to failure? The good news is that when one of the individual’s ideas does find a successful path, it requires the help of a lot of people who have the satisfaction of building something successful. It is like hitting a good drive on the 18th hole. It keeps you coming back.

Cheers,

Art”

It is indeed great to have Art’s views on this highly underrecognized subject (in my view, at least). Art raises a very pertinent question: when the success rates are as low as just about 1 in 3,000 to 5,000, what is it that keep people going on and on and on ? Surely, large organizations could fund ideas in various stage of a concept-to-realization pipeline (that is, starting from thousands of raw ideas to finally the ones that will get productionized and are expected to be released on a commercial basis) even though they also need to count their R&D dollars (very carefully, I must add !), more so in these tough economic times. In the startup world, there is Darwin again at work – it is perhaps the democracy at its best that the strongest ideas stand up to various survival tests and eventually make it big. However, what is it that keeps people pushing at their ideas, day after day, week after week and year after year – just based on the strength of conviction about their ideas ? Are those ideas winners by themselves (i.e., genetically endowed), or is it the tireless efforts of those individuals that bakes those ideas to be a winner (i.e., genetically engineered) ?

Another colleague of Kim, Wayne wrote back:

“This conversation reminded me of the question Russ Ackoff posed to me when he came to town to speak for a day about 10 years ago . . .
 
Russ asked “Is it true what I hear about 3M that you give an annual award for the Biggest Failure to reinforce it is OK to fail?”  
 
Russ will always be a hero of mine for his insight into systems . . . see his wikipedia summary at this link –>
 
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russell_Ackoff
 
Wayne”

Wow…wouldn’t that be splendid to be awarded the “Most Promising Failure of the Year” or some such ‘recognition’. I think it is a valuable (and rare perhaps ?) skill to be able to ‘smell’ failures from miles away. Imagine the power of an action that helps a company move out of random choas and uncertain future into a clear direction. I think Performance Management Systems are overdue for a big overhaul, for they glorify and celebrate achievement-orientation and happy endings. I would really love to hear back about an appraisal system that actually places premium on intelligent failures as opposed to run-of-the-mill non-consequential routine ‘successes’.

Failure is the new Success. Do you care ?

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 (http://www.ieee125.org/). 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.

If you want real change, be rigid !

 

We probably don’t need another theory on change management, but we surely need a better understanding of what we think we know. In the context of change initiatives, we often see a situation where someone wants to push change proposals, and there are ‘resistors’ to that idea. The classic duel is when the people pushing change initiatives are ‘revolutionaries’ who won’t settle for anything short of a full-fledged change to overhaul the entire system and those resisting the change proposals are ‘traditionalists’ who would be better off tinkering the system here and there in a very planned and certain manner. In my view, that is the only real-world scenario worth studying – all other combinations of change agents, allies and resistors are comparatively manageable with some common sense and a give-and-take attitude (actually, give-more-and-take-less attitude)

In such situations, the most common advise given to the change agent is to show flexibility, adapt to the situation. I agree that flexibility and adaptability are the key to a successful change initiative, irrespective whether one is in minority pushing for a change, or a majority having the backing of senior management. Holding steadfastly onto one’s viewpoints often gets people branded as rigid and unreasonable. However, this is half the story.

To show flexibility is obviously critical, but to quote George Bernand Shaw, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man”. If we look back at history, most successful changes agents were the ones who behaved more like the ‘unreasonable man’ in Shaw’s quote than the flexible man. Jack Welch felt GE was in trouble when it was the #1 company in the world. Ricardo Semlar (of ‘Maverick’ and ‘Seven Day Weekend’), Henry Ford, Toyoda and Taiichi Ohno, Steve Jobs, Google’s Brin and Page, Hotmail’s Sabeer Bhatia, Chester Carlson, Fosberry (the guy who questioned why to do high jump the way it was always done, and created the now famous ‘fosberry flip’) – the more I research, the more I find that greatest and most successful changes agents often defied conventional wisdom and embraced a highly ‘unreasonable’ path, and pursued their dream despite ambient negativity and criticism. Would we have the GE today had Jack Welch agreed to tone down his rank-and-yank, or his six sigma ? Chester Carlson’s invention of ‘xerox’ was rejected by over twenty companies, but he continued to believe in his ideas and eventually prevailed. When heartbroken and grieving parents of their only son, the young Stanford who died while studying at Harvard, decided to build a new university in his memory, the Stanford University, despite the dean of Harvard wanting it otherwise – they were all being ‘unreasonable’ in a bigger sense. There is a nice book I read, “Whatever you think, think opposite” where the author gives a great example of this: a fashion designer has to be, by definition, the most un-fashionable or non-conforming person – he/she can’t ‘fit in’ the crowd. To be accepted, a fashion designer must think of the most different ideas, most unfashionable which will be almost always in minority – only then will they be successful. Similarly, any new innovative product will bring a ‘disruptive force’, and hence an innovator’s dilemma is often full of tradition / compliance vs. innovation / breakaway thinking.

So, how is it that we bring real change in an organization ? When you are the top management, perhaps there is legitimate power that makes it easier, but how does an individual really bring about the change ? If you insist on your ideas far too long, you might fall out of favor. If you decide to be flexible, it might invariably mean toning down the scope or intensity of your change proposals, or both, which might nevertheless make sub-optimal changes happen, but is that really the change that counts ? I see merits and demerits on both sides, but find that real change only happens when you take an uncompromising position about what needs to be done.

Am I taking a very narrow definition of the word ‘change’ as in an epoch-making moment but excluding the millions of small-small ‘changes’ that might happen every now and then, and collectively they bring a big change ? Granted that lot of worthwhile work happens when people do such micro-changes, but do we ever get life-altering changes by adding such linear and incremental changes ? And if they do bring such life-altering changes, it probably takes a long time, is that the most appropriate approach ? 

So, if want change, any change, any infinitesimally small nano-change that serves no real value except to give a false sense of progress,  at any cost, be flexible. Adapt to the ambient constraints, and do that delta increment that is perhaps a non-event. Hope like hell that thousands of such micro-mini changes will one day change the world. Well, they just might, especially if one has not given up on them.

But, if you want change, a real change, at no cost, be rigid, absolutely firm in your vision and you shall face the deadliest armies of resistors, for the path of a revolutionary is like a minefield. And dance he must on this minefield. But, if you live to tell the tale, your tale will be written down in gold and count as something that happened.

When were you really obstinate the last time ?