We human beingsÂ love to innovate, create better ideas and solutions, achieve efficiency in operations and so on. To do so,Â 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 princeÂ 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 thinkingÂ 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,Â Strowger (an undertaker who made the first automatic telephoneÂ exchange so that a telephone operatorÂ favorable to his competitor could not favor him anymore) have a special placeÂ . They all challenged the status quo and neither dearth of capital not serial failuresÂ could dent their enthusiasm or effortsÂ to find a more innovative way to solve a real-world problem. Go visit the countryside of India, or any country.Â From the ‘lassi’ shop guyÂ 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 singleÂ 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 (?)Â 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]Â I am thankful to a reader, Prateek Narang, for pointing out a mistake in the blog title. It has now been corrected 🙂