Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

Infosys CEO Vishal Sikka bets big on Zero Distance, Design Thinking

Sikka projects that Zero Distance initiative will help its clients save more than $1 billion a year

Bengaluru: Infosys Ltd believes Zero Distance, the newest initiative aimed to make its engineers think imaginatively, is an extension of the user-centric process of Design Thinking to help the firm have a tangible and valuable impact for its clients, as the company aims to become a $20 billion next-generation services software firm by the year 2020.

The Infosys management said that Zero Distance is a very specific application of Design Thinking principles as it outlines for thousands of project managers a five-point roadmap to “jump-start innovation" within their project. Unsurprisingly, Infosys projects that Zero Distance initiative will help its clients save more than $1 billion a year. This is the first time chief executive Vishal Sikka has put a number to measure the success of the approach introduced in March last year, Mint reported on 26 January.

“Without design-thinking, there can be no zero-distance, and without zero-distance, there is no large-scale mechanism to address the outcome of large-scale design-thinking, the creativity of tens of thousands of people. This is why 100% of the project managers have already been covered with design-thinking... So the two, while very different initiatives, are deeply intertwined," Sikka told Mint.

“Better mining (generating more business from existing clients) is a good consequence of this, not the goal," said Sikka, as Infosys for now declines to put a number to incremental revenues that the company expects to generate from its Zero Distance initiative. Under this process, software engineers have either come up with a more efficient way to complete a project or have gone beyond the scope of work to offer new solutions in over 90% of the 8,500 master projects currently underway.

Sikka, since taking over as CEO in August 2014, first rolled out Design Thinking workshops at many of the company’s facilities across the country. According to the management, over 70,000 of its employees have undertaken a day-long class in Design Thinking, first popularized by IDEO, a California-based consulting firm. Later, Infosys rolled out Zero Distance initiative, because it wanted its engineers to apply the learnings of Design Thinking in each of the projects.

“I have done these two initiatives for their own sets of reasons, primarily on a bottom-up instinct. As Steve Jobs once said, one can only connect the dots looking backwards, not looking forward," said Sikka. “Zero Distance was born out of a desire to see Infoscions become proactive and innovative because this was the number one criticism from clients for Infosys and for the industry in general," said Sikka. “It also helps us to better leverage each other’s work, and to better leverage the value of our work, more than anything, to inspire people at a large scale (thereby help bring down attrition)."

If Infosys is able to garner significant incremental revenue—for now the company remains coy on sharing this—then Zero Distance along with the user-centric approach of Design Thinking would emerge as two of the most successful initiatives of Sikka. Design Thinking has helped the company more than double its share of large deal wins—from less than $400 million in a quarter to $900 million in a quarter.

Sanjay Rajagopalan, Sikka’s former colleague at SAP and currently head of design and research at Infosys, said that Zero Distance is helping the company achieve specific milestones that exceed expectations for the client.

“Design Thinking is a framework, or a scaffolding, for creativity and innovation. It emphasizes empathetic ‘problem finding’ and iterative ‘problem solving’. It works well in an environment of ambiguity, but great opportunity such as all digital transformation initiatives," Rajagopalan told this paper. “Zero Distance is a very specific application of Design Thinking principles in the context of Infosys projects. It gives each project manager a 5-point roadmap to jump-start innovation within their project, and achieve very specific milestones that exceed expectations for the client," he said.

As part of this five-point strategy, Infosys’s engineers are encouraged to “look, learn, and improve" by using best practices from projects across the company, proactively come up with new solutions in “make ’what’ improvements" and figure a better and efficient way in “how" to improve the completion of a certain project. The teams have to “clearly articulate business value" and are also encouraged to share information about improvements with other team members, thereby making them “disseminate knowledge".

“We have Zero Distance innovations in almost all of our projects, and in turn we project that our customers will save more than $1 billion dollars annually," said a company’s internal memo written by Sikka to a few senior executives last month.

For these reasons, some experts believe that these initiatives are helping bring about a cultural change in the way the 35-year-old firm has traditionally done business.

“Zero Distance has made a shift in the Infosys culture," said Ray Wang, founder and chief executive of Constellation Research, a technology advisory firm. “We are hearing of successes at major accounts where cost savings and more efficient approaches been recorded, and even business model innovations are being presented to clients that in the past would have been ignored," he said.

Under Sikka, Infosys, which made $7.05 billion in revenues from 1,045 clients in the nine months ended December 2015, wants to become a $20 billion next generation services firm by the year 2020. As part of this roadmap, Infosys aspires to become a strategic partner to many of its clients, rather than the current work of simply providing an army of engineers to oversee IT infrastructure work or write codes for applications.