Innovation is about action versus just ideas

Innovation is about action versus just ideas

Innovation is personally very exciting for me and the most important differentiator for winning in the future, irrespective of what industry we are in or what product or service we offer to the market. This is not new wisdom. We know that the single most important reasons why seemingly invincible companies either lost their significance or even disappeared off the face of the earth was lack of innovative thinking. Out of the top 500 companies that appeared in 1957 Standard and Poor’s index of the top 500, only 74 companies were alive in 1997.

Why does this happen? In every market, at every juncture, incumbent companies dominate almost every industry. Established customer relationships, well entrenched products, powerful brands, and significant scale advantages make these companies appear invincible to aspiring entrants.

Yet, time and again, upstarts create a disruption in the market place —innovating on delivery, process, technology, organisation structure, supply chain, and more, and changing the rules of the game and business models in a significant way. Initially, many of these changes start as weak signals. It is easy for those  riding on success to brush them off. Till, finally, the ground shakes beneath their feet and suddenly, they collapse.
This is the story of every major game changer in the market, whether it is with transistors taking over from valves, talking movies obliterating silent movies, digital watches coming in or even personal computers taking over from minicomputers.

What really is innovation? How is it different from creativity? The simplest definition I have come across is that “creativity is about thinking new things, whereas innovation is about doing new things.” Innovation comes from applying creativity or applying thought. It is about action versus just ideas. It is about implementation as much as it about design. Similarly, innovation need not be restricted to products or technology alone. To me, innovation applies to innovations in business model as well as quality, productivity, service, financial discipline and employee attitudes. It is not a one-off new brilliant idea, it is a culture that needs to be created consciously and pursued assiduously by the organisation.

Why do we need innovation ?
The first question does not really need an answer. Downturn is a time when there is a fundamental reset in the economy. All the rules one believed in no longer hold true. It’s a new world. It’s a changing world.
New situations need new solutions, radical ones need radical solutions. These solutions do not come from using the same thinking hats and the same paradigms of solving problems. This is where innovation comes in. One has to think about different things and think about things differently. Innovation becomes not only a success driver but also a survival tool.

The India advantage
Apart from being a storehouse of talent, India is becoming an attractive destination for investors. The main reasons are as follows:
n It is one of the largest economies in the       world. It has a strategic location, with access to the vast domestic and South Asian market
n Skilled man-power and professional managers are available at  competitive cost
n India constitutes one of the largest manufacturing sectors in the world, spanning almost all areas of manufacturing activities
n It has one of the largest pools of scientists, engineers, technicians and managers in the world with a sophisticated financial sector
n It has a well developed R&D infrastructure and technical and marketing services

Culture of Innovation
First, we need to appreciate that all success creates its own “gravity”. It is easy to believe that what has succeeded so far must continue to succeed in the future and do well. This builds up a kind of dominant logic that is comfortable to the thinking of the management. Any new idea will be pulled to the ground with the force of gravity. The first step therefore is to confront the gravity. If we can inspire everyone around us with a vision that is truly exciting, the feeling of complacency tends to come off. It will also create new energy to dig out and give life to many ideas lying buried beneath layers of bureaucracy.

Learn from customers
 Second, we need to constantly look for new ideas from everyone and everywhere. The customer is a good place to begin. Third, we need to actively bring in people who do not “clone” to the people already inside the organisation. We must have the courage to hire people who make us uncomfortable, including some we actually dislike.
Fourth, I have realised that the day of the isolated innovator in a forgotten laboratory is over. We need innovators who can enroll the support of their colleagues and evolve their ideas over time. Support is absolutely necessary to take the brilliant idea off the ground.  Fifth, we must actually encourage our people to fight constructively over ideas once they have reached a certain stage.
Fighting too early will kill the idea. But in the intermediate stage, this helps to look at from various angles and bring out nuances that could be critical while implementing the ideas.  Seventh, we must allow creative failure when it comes to generating ideas. No one likes failure.
But unfortunately, all evidence suggests that it is impossible to generate few good ideas without a lot of bad ideas. As the Physics Noble Prize winner Feynman said, “I try to fail as fast as I can.” That is the best way to move to a new idea. Failure should be forgiven and forgotten as long as the lessons are remembered.

Wipro example
We must have a clear process to communicate the directions and areas where new ideas are sought so employees can be realistic in their assessment of opportunities. At Wipro we have set up an Innovation Council that acts like an internal VC for innovation projects.
The Innovation Council has clearly defined goals and objectives — that it will fund projects that will improve business productivity for Wipro and its customers, improve our ability to win deals and reduce cost of delivery.  Wipro’s Innovation initiative and its Centres of Excellence currently have a team working on a portfolio of innovation projects in the areas of process improvements (lean techniques to software engineering), execution (factory model for standardised delivery), new service lines (new ways of delivering traditional onsite services through the global delivery model), business solutions and R&D (development of IPs and patents in the areas of wireless applications, mobile telephony).  
At Wipro, we institutionalised the spirit of innovation through our innovation initiatives and are now deriving business value from these investments. The Integration Factory Model, a delivery management model that enables organisations manage globally distributed functions more efficiently, was implemented at GlaxoSmithKline to help them accelerate the pace of offshoring and drive standards.  As a concrete example of business benefits, in the last quarter alone, 29 of Wipro’s new engagements came as a direct or indirect result of innovations.  
Innovation to affect future growth  
At a national level, a lot more can be done to encourage a climate of innovation. We need to encourage more incubation of ideas, provide the right technical and business expertise to make innovation a national initiative. Are we as Indians creative? Going by our rich cultural heritage, we have no doubt some of the greatest art and literature.
We need to bring the same spirit into our economic and business arena in an organised and concerted manner. In the final analysis, innovation is not about processes, techniques or for that matter just creativity. It is about a spirit that engages the body, mind and heart.
It is about a new excitement that encourages one to think what no one else has thought and the courage to do things no one else has done. It is about creating a better tomorrow than today. Innovation thus is a unique meaning that can make our lives and professions worthwhile.

The writer is Chairman of Wipro Ltd. Above article is from his speech at CII Fifth India Innovation Summit 2009, held in Bangalore in June 2009.

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