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Home / Opinion / Online-views /  What will it take for India to accelerate innovation?

No one country has a monopoly on innovation. Silicon Valley may be synonymous with cutting-edge tech, but changing global currents—from immigration restrictions to political instability—are suddenly opening up new opportunities well beyond the San Francisco Bay Area.

Especially here in India. More than ever before, we have the chance now to retain our homegrown talent and utilize it to develop new industries that will change the world.

But before India can be home to the next Google, Uber or Airbnb, we need to create the conditions for these kinds of game-changing business models to emerge and flourish. In short, India needs to nourish a true culture of innovation.

Efficiency vs. innovation

There’s no doubt that India has a lot going for it. A young, ambitious, increasingly educated population, relatively strong growth in gross domestic product, and a responsive government have made us the darling of the international business community. Thus far, a major key to our success has been efficiency—the perfecting and scaling of existing systems. Just look at our dominance in the information technology (IT) services sector, which is now worth more than $150 billion annually.

But it’s not enough to know how to win at today’s game, you need to be setting the rules for tomorrows. Already, market demand is moving away from outsourcing and toward digital transformation. Call-centre support is being replaced by customer response systems fuelled by artificial intelligence. Progressive IT firms are transitioning from offering just “services" to full-scale “solutions," from social media and analytics to cloud-based support. These depend not merely on efficiency but on embracing the latest tech, from big data and machine learning to robotic processes.

Big or small, business are looking to adopt emerging technologies. To keep pace, we must be re-inventing, challenging and rethinking the way we do business. That means venturing into unfamiliar territory. Step one for India in seizing the global tech stage is internalizing this elemental spirit of innovation.

Embracing risk and failure

Of course, that’s easier said than done. During the decades I spent in leadership roles at Microsoft Corp., I noticed that in the US, the tools for innovation are bred into every facet of life. American entrepreneurialism has its roots in a culture that encourages people to think bold and embrace risk, experimentation and, yes, even failure. Americans are so committed to these concepts, they’re even incorporated into school curricula.

Ultimately, failure is an essential ingredient for innovation—just look at the career trajectory of Apple Inc. founder Steve Jobs or even the travails of Tesla Inc. and SpaceX mastermind Elon Musk. So is risk. Creating a corporate culture that embraces both these elements, cultivates resilience, encourages creativity and fosters a growth mindset. And these are precisely the conditions for successful innovation.

In India, we have traditionally been much more risk-averse, and for good reason. With little or no access to private risk capital—until recently—we built our businesses on savings and debt. And historically, there hasn’t been a market for unconventional, experimental career roles with no foreseeable return on investment (RoI). We pride ourselves on looking for the safest, most secure options for our hard-won investments, often basing our decisions on the input of family and friends.

Now, that’s starting to change. The entrance of venture capital into our markets is allowing us to make bolder decisions aimed at fostering innovation. It’s precisely this mindset that will enable us up to capitalize on the opportunities in front of us over the long term. For companies, this act of growing comfortable with risk—and pursuing forward-looking opportunities with potential for enormous payoff, even if they aren’t a “sure thing"—is a critical step in the right direction.

A change in thinking

The good news here is that innovation isn’t just a buzzword. It’s a skill, something that can be taught, nurtured and coached. Organizations stuck in traditional structures and following an outdated status quo need support in adapting. Fortunately, those resources are out there. My firm is just one developing a framework to help organizations embed innovation into their leadership strategies, and then spread those values across every level. Our research shows that organizations that innovate consistently share three attributes: they have the willingness to innovate, the ability to innovate, and can pull it all together—i.e they have the leadership to innovate.

In some cases, this means adopting radical change—even collapsing traditional hierarchies so collaboration and experimentation can take place across the entire company. While this can be challenging, companies that take this risk gain a better understanding of their current culture and are able to overcome the barriers to innovation. From the frontlines, we see businesses make enormous strides with this approach: co-creating new strategies and services with their employees, generating renewed excitement and dedication to the task at hand and, ultimately, building a stronger, more resilient business model.

It’s a big shift away from business as usual, but with the right supports the results can be invaluable. At the end of the day, innovation is all about people, and that’s a resource that India has in abundance. People strive for greatness when they are inspired, supported, challenged and rewarded. As India embraces a true culture of innovation, there’s no telling what we can achieve.

Pallavi Kathuria is managing partner at Egon Zehnder India, and she is a core member of the firm’s technology and communications practice.

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