‘Incrementalism is the enemy of true innovation. People have to think big’7 min read . Updated: 13 Sep 2007, 06:06 PM IST
‘Incrementalism is the enemy of true innovation. People have to think big’
‘Incrementalism is the enemy of true innovation. People have to think big’
Mumbai: Innovation guru, Robert Tucker, who was in town to speak at the “Art of Innovation" seminar organized by CNBC–TV18 in Mumbai recently spoke to Mint on why innovation is becoming increasingly important in a competitive global marketplace.
Tucker has worked with a wide range of companies which include IBM India, Satyam Computer Systems Ltd, Nokia Oyj, American Express among others. He is also the author of ‘Managing the future: 10 Driving forces of changes for the new century’ and ‘Driving Growth through Innovation.’ Edited excerpts
What are the driving forces of innovation today, especially in a country like India?
I think the next driving force would be, how do you create a culture that is turned on for high growth and serving customers in new ways, finding new markets for products and services, or spotting new technology before the competitors? The question is can you deliver innovation, and innovation as I look at it, is very humble. Because if I create something, it better meet your needs, add to your life, provide a genuine benefit. Otherwise I’m toast! So, I don’t think the simple notion of let’s throw some new technology at the customer’ works anymore. Look at the mobile phone for instance. I don’t know how many applications are squeezed into that one instrument, and I don’t use even half of them today.
But aren’t mobile companies making billions on the back of such not-so-useful innovations?
It’s a very competitive industry. I’ve worked with Nokia’s team approximately four years ago. And at that point Nokia wasn’t doing well -- they’ve made a great comeback. Again, it all comes down to who’s going to have the next best idea. Today, we are seeing tremendous copying; it’s easier to catch up. So, companies are wondering if it’s even worth investing that kind of time and money in coming up with something really innovative.
But here’s my advice, copiers never prosper as much as the originator. Look at Apple or for that matter, Google which moved into a space that Yahoo! owned and cleaned their plot, with innovations: Google Earth, Gmail, the list is endless. You snooze, you loose! And it’s a lot of fun to watch. Just recently I came back from Tel Aviv and I worked with Orange Mobile -- full disclosure there, they are my client, but they are a very innovative company. They have a facility by which customers, such as say a shop owner can monitor progress at his store, through closed circuit cameras that are accessible through his mobile while he is away. Or, if my goods are being transported by a refrigerated meat truck it can be programmed to an extent that I can have them call me, if the temperature in the truck starts to rise. You can start with a basic phone and then add a service. And if that adds real value, then hey! That’s an innovation!
Which are the world’s most innovative firms and why?
If you really forced me to come up with just one name, it would be Apple (Apple Inc.). As a company, Apple was as good as road kill. They had 5% of the global market in PCs. People were laughing and sneering at them, this was in 1998. Steve Jobs, (chief executive officer, Apple Inc.) was kicked out of that company. But finally, asked to come back on a temporary basis and he said, “We are going to innovate our way out of the situation that we’re in" and he came up with these advertisements that were massively simple, but they got the point across. One of them has a picture of Gandhi and it said, “Think Different". Another one had Muhammed Ali, which said “Think Different".
So, people thought, this is not about buying Apple computers because they had more bits and bytes, but just to ‘Think Different’ and to my mind that had as much influence on people who worked in that company. Remember they were in deep trouble, and borrowing money from Bill Gates, which is kind of ironic. And look where they are today, (what) they stand for -- thinking differently. Not just to say lets make another “me too" cell phone or computer. They are going on a differentiation (drive) -- branding, image, ease of use. They could have said things can be copied, lets wait to see what the other guy is doing and we’ll just copy it. But no, they thought about portability. They weren’t the first to think about MP3 technology, but they did say, “Can we perfect that?" And then they came up with iTunes, a website that legally allows you to download music, put it on your iPod and pay for it. So they created a system, a business model innovation. If you come up with a product, that is fairly easy to replicate. But if you come up with a new business model, that’s harder. Similarly with Google, that’s a great example.
Here, Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd. is doing an excellent job of coming into an existing market where they are coming in with lower prices, sturdy vehicles with just the right features and applications. Ranbaxy (Ranbaxy Laboratories Ltd) is another firm that impresses me greatly – for creating generic drugs that the masses can afford and access. That’s social innovation.
How do you teach people to be innovative? More often than not companies, especially listed companies, are squeamish about being innovative or taking risks.
I think you do it with effective leadership. If you do not have leadership in place that is ‘innovation calm’, or innovation conducive’, or risk averse then it is extremely difficult, if not impossible to accomplish it.
I constantly have people coming up to me in public lectures who say, my boss is exactly like the ruthless, dictatorial boss you were talking about. And they ask me “what should I do?" and I say, “find another company to work for". Life is too short!
So, if you have the leadership, you’ve won half the battle already. I always say to people, are you wasting the talent you have? Today we know its not the information... we’re drowning in it. But it is what you do to shape that information that shapes an iPod, or a product that people buy, cause it improves their lives. The question is, do you have a will to serve customers, to find a better way to do this process in human resources or accounting.
I think what this 21st century requires of us is that we unleash the artist within us. Picasso said: “As children all of us are artists. The challenge is to remain an artist, as an adult." Lots of managers say, “I am an engineer, I don’t have a creative bone in my body", but you do! Think of the most non-creative, unimaginative, rigid person who works in your company. They probably got some hobby, basket weaving, collecting baseball cards, something, and when you talk to them about it their eyes light up, they get creative and the delight comes back in them. That is what we have to tap at work. As a 21st century that is your job, to tap that talent. But this is a little ahead of the curve. Most of us are head down, delivering, overwhelmed, too much on our plate.
Why do you say that most approaches to innovation are inadequate?
The world sped up. India, the economy has sped up so much in the last few years that we are still trying to use 20th century methodologies that are woefully obsolete all of a sudden. Many companies, if you ask them who is responsible for innovation or delivering it, more often than not you will be directed to research and development or the marketing team. Innovation is from every department. But for most people, even business people, this is breaking news.
Do you think people innovate for innovations’ sake?
I see a lot of examples of that. I was in Vienna the other day, and the VIP first class lounge just did not impress me. It was over-reaching. They were trying to be over cool. They had these uncomfortable, bizarre looking chairs, the only way to describe them. They weren’t even cute. Some designer thought, hey I’m going to be really different. So mindless line extensions, of "let’s come up with another flavour" is more about incremental innovation. That is playing it safe... playing to not loose, rather than playing to win. Some people would say that incrementalism is the enemy of true innovation. People have to think big.