December 2016 | Dr Gopichand Katragadda

Innovation mantra

To improve innovation quotient, individuals and teams need to create with freedom; nurture with passion and change with detachment, says Dr Gopichand Katragadda, Group CTO, Tata Sons

Human scientific pursuit can be broadly considered as either discovery or invention. Discovery is finding that which exists and understanding the laws of the universe. Invention is about creating that which does not exist, utilising the understanding of the laws of the universe. Sometimes, invention is also serendipitous, which leads to an understanding of the laws of the universe that were previously not understood.

And then there is innovation — which adds value to invention. Human health and comfort is typically the target for pretty much all innovation. Recently, there is an added dimension to innovation — that of being environmentally friendly. Also, it is important to understand the difference between incremental innovation and radical innovation. Researchers have defined radical innovation as having one or more of the following characteristics [i] [ii]:

  • Provides an entirely new set of performance features.
  • Improves known performance features by at least 5X.
  • Reduces costs by 30 percent or more.
  • Changes the basis of competition.

Are there approaches and tools that enable individuals and teams to be better innovators? Innovators are action oriented — they are in a continuous cycle of create, nurture, and change. These actions are uniquely associated with corresponding mindsets:

  1. Create with freedom (like a child) – Free thought.
  2. Nurture with passion (of a maniac) – Passionate action.
  3. Transcend with detachment (like a warrior) – Ruthless change.

The first aspect of innovation is to create — like a child. As children, we are all creative. We are willing to make mistakes, learn, challenge and create. As we grow up, we sometimes lose this ability. Of course, the secret of innovation is to discern when to be a child and when to be an adult.

The following are some of the actions typical in creating with freedom:

  1. Risk taking – The ability to act with limited data, finding opportunity in ambiguity and the capability to make gut decisions.
  2. Experiential learning – The curiosity to constantly learn from every opportunity presented, ability to build new skills and the interest to gain knowledge across domains.
  3. Boundaryless behaviour – The openness to wisdom from diverse sources, ability to build on ideas from others and to connect the dots.

The individual qualities for this aspect of innovation are free thought, enthusiasm, conviction, sincerity and ownership. Some of the tools that are available to assist in the creative processes are TRIZ [iii], Lateral Thinking [iv], Right Brain Activation [v], remember the solution (assume you know the solution to a new problem and you only have to recollect) [vi], seeing through the hand (innovation through hands-on experience), and traditional brainstorming.

The second aspect of innovation is to nourish — like a maniac with an obsessive-compulsive disorder. As discussed, a child has the greatest ability of creative thought. However, a child lacks the ability to sustain creative thoughts and bring it to fruitful use. The ability to cherish, nourish and protect what we create is an ability we develop as we grow. We need to develop this ability without losing our child-like qualities to create freely. One of the employee personas is that of a person who is constantly in the idea mode, without putting sweat equity behind a select few ideas. It is important for both the organisation and the individual to learn when to move from idea to implementation. The following are some of the actions typical in nurturing with passion:

  1. Idea selling – The passion to persevere, sell ideas to stakeholders and bring ideas to fruition.
  2. Cultivating – The data orientation to constantly improve and the ability to let the ideas grow true to their nature.
  3. Delivering – The ability to dive deep into details and deliver a design, product, or service. The idea reveals itself only incrementally as you shape it.
  4. Writing and teaching – The drive to share ideas and to nurture them.

The individual qualities for this element of innovation are passion, indulgence, endurance, pride in workmanship, desire to excel and focus. Six Sigma [vii] is a comprehensive toolset and work philosophy which helps in the process of nurturing. Six Sigma brings in a strong customer focus, tools to bring stakeholders on board, the statistical rigour to back ideas, and the tools to identify, prioritise and control actions that will accomplish desired outcomes.

The third aspect of innovation is the ability to transcend with detachment. An innovator is in a constant pliancy-driven change mode. An innovator uses change as a weapon; like a warrior not only open to change but also being the agent of change. Furthermore, an innovator recognises when to transcend away from a comfortable state to accomplish higher good and better things. The ability to change is important to be a constant innovator. Examples such as Kodak Film and Sony Walkman demonstrate the importance of change. The following are some actions in transcending with detachment:

  1. Rejuvenating ideas – The drive to periodically revitalise ideas and the ruthlessness to completely gut an idea and start from scratch when required.
  2. Reinventing oneself – The dispassionate ability to question one’s role and determine when it is over and to move on to the next big thing.

The individual qualities for this element of innovation are a ruthless, dispassionate ability to change, intolerance to mediocrity and being attuned to gut feel. The Change Acceleration Process [viii] is a comprehensive toolset and work philosophy which includes identifying a change agent, obtaining buy-in of the team and stakeholders, creating and celebrating early successes, and sustaining change.

There are different models that capture the cycle of innovation as a business practice, each having a unique sweet spot. One such approach that has been recently gaining visibility is Design Thinking [ix], which is particularly applicable to situations where the problem is ill-defined and the environment is constantly changing [x]. Design Thinking explicitly involves the customer to iteratively define the problem and deliver innovative solutions. Key concepts of Design Thinking include divergence of ideas before converging on options, leveraging customer inputs throughout the innovation lifecycle from idea to deployment, extensive use of prototypes to fail early and iterate towards success. Another innovation buzz is around Agile Development [xi], which was initially introduced in software development. An interesting aspect of Agile is having a shippable product with each iteration or ‘sprint’ in Agile lingo. The Lean Startup[xii] methodology uses the concept of a minimally viable product (MVP) to experiment with market acceptability. Another concept which is important in Lean Startup is to ‘pivot’ or correct course, based on the MVP market experiment results. One can see that the mantra ‘create with freedom, nurture with passion, and change with detachment’ is common to the different approaches.

i. Leifer, Richard, McDermott, Christopher, O’ Conner, Gina, Peters, Lois, Rice, Mark and Veryzer; Radical Innovation, Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2000.

ii. Sage, Lee; Winning the Innovation Race, New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2000.

iii. Altshuller, GS, Shulyak, Lev, Rodman, Steven; 40 Principles: Triz Keys to Technical Innovation, Technical Innovation Center, Inc, 1998.

iv. de Bono, E; Six Thinking Hats. Boston: Little, Brown and Co, 1985.

v. Edward, Betty, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Tarcher, 1989. ISBN 0874775132.

vi. Sharma, Robin; The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari. GK Hall & Co, 2002. ISBN 078389786.

vii. What is Six Sigma (http://www.ge.com/sixsigma/)

viii. Garvin, David A; Learning in Action. Harvard Business School Press, 2000. ISBN 1578512514.

ix. Brown; Tim; 2008. ‘Design Thinking.’ Harvard Business Review Vol 86, Issue 6: 84-92.

x. Innovation, Design Thinking and Agile: Three trends walk into a bar…, Dec 12, 2013, by Kate Bennett Eriksson (https://www.digitalpulse.pwc.com.au/design-thinking-agile-trends/)

xi. Innovation, Design Thinking and Agile: Three trends walk into a bar…, Dec 12, 2013, by Kate Bennett Eriksson (https://www.digitalpulse.pwc.com.au/design-thinking-agile-trends/)

xii. Innovation, Design Thinking and Agile: Three trends walk into a bar…, Dec 12, 2013, by Kate Bennett Eriksson (https://www.digitalpulse.pwc.com.au/design-thinking-agile-trends/)