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Leadership yoga: Innovation advantages from seeing disadvantage

Leadership yoga: Innovation advantages from seeing disadvantage
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First Published: Tue, May 04 2010. 07 05 PM IST

Illustration by: Shyamal Banerjee/Mint
Illustration by: Shyamal Banerjee/Mint
Updated: Tue, May 04 2010. 07 05 PM IST
Have you noticed the tectonic plates starting to shift? Values and social purpose are creeping back into the business strategy conversation. Big societal problems are the next innovation frontier, and the best companies are practicing what I call “leadership yoga”—flipping the organization upside down to have their eyes to the ground to see the grass roots, where the next opportunities are starting to grow.
Illustration by: Shyamal Banerjee/Mint
The least-advantaged places are becoming the best beta sites for business innovation. Particularly in emerging markets, growth opportunities lie in meeting unmet needs, getting there first with solutions that improve quality of life for neglected but large populations.
ICICI Bank has become a profitable giant and a learning laboratory for the world through technological innovations to serve the visually-impaired (talking ATMs) and remote farmers (banking services through cell phones).
For vanguard companies, a desire to address unmet societal needs with the latest technology, not with charity or hand-me-downs, is central to their missions and also helps motivate creativity. Apple began 30 years ago with a social mission bigger than producing cool stuff.
Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak wanted to make bicycles for the mind, to make affordable computing power available to the masses; the first big markets for Apple computers were in schools. Finding what society needs is relevant in low-tech industries too. Cement company CEMEX’s attention to social needs and local conditions has generated innovations such as anti-bacterial concrete, which is particularly important for hospitals and farms; water-resistant concrete helpful in flood-prone areas; or used tires converted to road surface for countries with rapid growth in road construction.
Japanese electronics company Omron encourages its people to find opportunities to serve society through technological innovations. Omron founder Kazuma Tateisi saw the identification and resolution of social needs as Omron’s core competency. Today’s executives quote his frequent exhortation: “Selling products is not enough. I want representatives to bring back needs from the customers—as many as possible, as quickly as possible. That is the other half of a sales person’s job.” Kazuma-san felt that the more Omron contributed to the society, the more problems the society will bring to Omron to solve.
When solving problems of disadvantage is at the forefront, five innovation advantages can accrue:
Bigger idea pool: a wider search is wider for broader ideas with bigger potential. People search more broadly, see more opportunities, and generate more ideas if they are encouraged to think about the world and not just about their function. If they look closely at society, not just as a market abstraction but as a collection of fellow humans with needs worthy of attention, they see that there is always room for improvement. “Better” is always a moving target. Having more ideas enter the innovation funnel provides more options and more improvements.
Greater solutions-orientation: motivation to serve customers and users. When people feel their ideas will contribute to serving society, beyond the quest for revenues and profits, there is an additional motivational boost to focus on new solutions, not just pushing more of what they already know. They care about solving the problem because it is connected with their values, and they are willing to keep working until the problem is solved, not just until they have a product to throw over the transom. They want to engage those who have the problem in defining if the solution works for them. This puts passion and heart into user-directed innovation.
* Open innovation: a greater willingness to draw on resources outside the organization, to work with partners, and to share ideas. Open innovation—the sharing of ideas among partners and willingness to draw on other people’s technology in the service of a higher end—relies less on pride of ownership; the important thing is getting the job done.
* Less politics, less controversy, greater cooperation. Values and principles provide a basis for cordial internal conversation that elicits cooperation. This makes it possible for innovators to assemble the right team quickly, because others in the organization share a common goal despite the different positions they occupy. Invoking shared values can also wear down opponents and critics, surfacing the underlying interests that negotiations scholars find makes “Yes” a likely answer. Tying projects to enduring principles helps people rise above politics. Putting the good of the wide external community first helps get backing in the internal company community.
* Faster execution: shorter communication and feedback loops. The very articulation of societal purpose as a driver of innovation helps shorten mental and organizational loops. Greater awareness on everyone’s part of their role in an end-to-end chain of impact can help bridge the gap between theory and practice. The research lab can come closer to the world of users, and those working with the wider society closer to the developers of new technology.
Seeing the world from the bottom up rather than with the detached and distant perspective of headquarters can produce powerful innovation-facilitators. Practitioners of leadership yoga gain flexibility, speed, and new ideas from standing conventional wisdom on its head.
Rosabeth Moss Kanter is a professor at Harvard Business School and the author of Confidence and SuperCorp.
All content on this page has been provided by Harvard Business Publishing
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First Published: Tue, May 04 2010. 07 05 PM IST