An innovation tsunami seems to have struck Indian shores, if one were to count how often innovation gets mentioned in speeches by corporate and government leaders or the frequency of events focused on innovation or the number of innovation award ceremonies.
But, in this innovation frenzy, when did you hear an Indian firm talk about its innovation efforts using phrases such as “insanely great”? How many times can you use the word “iconic” to describe the winners of the various innovation awards in India? When did you hear the CEO of an Indian firm say, “innovation equals survival?” Incidentally, these phrases are from public comments of CEOs of some firms widely recognized as innovation benchmarks.
Much like snake oil was hawked by quacks as a cure for many illnesses, innovation is today’s silver bullet for practically all business and social problems. Imparting innovation wisdom to Indian firms and institutions has emerged as a lucrative business opportunity. With India representing the new El Dorado for overseas innovation gurus, the Indian innovation cognoscenti remain busy by flaunting the number of innovation gurus they are on first name basis with.
Caught up in the innovation hype, the desire to appear innovative is perhaps overshadowing the need to become innovative. Incremental efficiency improvements are often presented as breakthrough innovations. Moving a water dispenser closer to the staff to save time for drinking water gets cited as an example of breakthrough innovation. Someone recently remarked that if there was an index to measure innovation maturity, India would perhaps have the largest number of innovative firms in the world!
Stripped of fancy verbiage, innovation is about solving a problem using new ways and means. While this simple logic may upset the innovation purists, attempts to solve complex problems are perhaps more likely to result in disruptive or breakthrough innovations. Being disruptive here does not necessarily equate to technologically complex!
If we accept this correlation between complex problems and breakthrough innovations, then the billion problems of India could represent a billion opportunities for innovation. Affordable but world-class health care for every Indian, education for every Indian child, increasing crop yield, poverty eradication, etc., are complex problems confronting us as a nation. About 300 million Indians live on less than $1 a day and 45% of Indian children under the age of five are malnourished. Less than a third of India’s homes have a toilet. Less than half of its 500,000 villages are connected to the electricity grid.
In spite of these opportunities, we continue to endlessly debate why India doesn’t produce a globally successful enterprise resource planning or customer relationship management product! Is developing “me-too” products going to be the extent of our innovation aspirations?
This strange reluctance to possess high innovation aspirations today is surprising as India has produced hugely successful systems and social innovations, including the green revolution, Operation Flood, Indian Space Research Organization’s space odyssey, the Param super computer, etc. What makes these innovations truly remarkable is that they were delivered by the generally maligned public sector institutions in an environment of acute adversity—ranging from a national food crisis to post-Pokhran sanctions. Unfortunately, as we continue to wring our hands about India’s poor track record in innovations, these innovations are rarely discussed, leave alone celebrated.
While the subject of developing a national innovation ecosystem, or increasing creativity and problem solving abilities in Indian students may make for interesting conversations, ultimately any meaningful innovation will be delivered by institutions. Hence it is important for Indian institutions to develop an innovation capability as a “way of life” by embedding it in their DNA. I have deliberately used the word institution here instead of firm, as developing an innovation capability is critical for public institutions and the private sector.
Unfortunately there are no off-the-shelf prescriptions available and each institution will have to define its own innovation roadmap. Success on this journey will not be easy and each institution will have to be willing to accept often traumatic change, embrace collaboration, encourage risk-taking, break traditional organizational dogmas and be ready for the long haul.
In his landmark “land a man on the moon” speech at Rice University, J.F. Kennedy said that it will not be one man going to the moon but the entire nation. This national aspiration galvanized individuals and institutions in the US, and resulted in multiple innovations in diverse areas.
Perhaps we need similar national goals in India. World-class and affordable primary health care for all Indians, quality primary education for all Indian children, bringing a step change in crop yield, etc., will require breakthrough innovations on multiple dimensions involving both individuals and institutions.
Merely talking of innovation or passing off the trivial as innovation will only result in innovation being consigned to the graveyard of passing fads. In this age of “stretch” performance targets, let us also endeavour to stretch our innovation aspirations.
Rajdeep Sahrawat is vice-president, Nasscom. His views are personal. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org