Dispel myths around innovation to create a culture that fosters it

One of the enduring myths about innovation is that it originates in R&D labs.
One of the enduring myths about innovation is that it originates in R&D labs.


The truth of this multifaceted concept must be understood closely if we are to generate the magic fuel needed for its ignition

Say the word ‘innovation’ and it is likely to evoke the image of a young entrepreneur in a garage like startup, or that of a scientist in a lab creating a product that magically disrupts the market. These are images that have become associated with innovation—gripping and appealing. Also, somewhat mythical and only half true.

Myth: Startups are the champions of innovation: It is a widely held belief that a startup, with its agility and flexibility, is the poster child of innovation. Startups, over the decades, have been a key source of invention and innovation. However, it is critical to recognize the innovation capacity of large, established corporations. These organizations often spearhead innovation, leveraging their considerable resources, extensive networks and in-depth market knowledge. Even in the technology sector, the performance of Nvidia and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), Microsoft and Alphabet shows that innovation is not restricted to startups, but is often driven by large established companies.

Myth: Innovation needs to be disruptive: The narrative of disruption often takes centre-stage when we speak of innovation. Yes, there are examples of silver-bullet moments, when an innovation is a complete breakthrough and truly disruptive. However, many innovations result from evolutionary changes achieved through a series of incremental improvements. One could think of the entire smartphone category as an exemplar, where each player has built on the innovations done by someone else in the category. Another embodiment of it is the Toyota Production System, a philosophy focused on waste reduction and continuous process refinement that revolutionized the global automobile industry (and more). It underlines that innovation can be gradual and iterative, rather than just radical and disruptive.

Myth: Innovation happens in laboratories.: One of the enduring myths about innovation is that it originates in R&D labs (or garages). While labs undoubtedly contribute to technological advancements, innovations blossom in the marketplace. This is sparked by direct interaction and co-creation with customers, understanding their needs and desires, and developing solutions in partnerships across the value chain. As an example, when Marico was entering the ‘masala oats’ category with Saffola, interactions and experiments with consumers provided insights on the importance of a savoury Indian breakfast and resulted in both expanding the oats market and gaining share.

Myth: Innovation is a functional activity, typically owned by product development: Innovation is sometimes narrowly perceived as focused on specific functional areas, such as product development or R&D. We believe it infuses every aspect of business —from marketing strategies and customer service protocols to supply chain and human resource policies. Pidilite and Asian Paints are examples that showcase innovation not just in their product lines, but also in unique distribution strategies and customer/influencer engagement programmes.

Innovation is a leadership focus area; a recent BCG global survey of 700 CEOs highlighted that nearly 60% considered innovation a top-3 priority. In our discussions, we hear the big question not about the importance of innovation but the how. There is sometimes a belief that innovation can be achieved by putting a stage-gated process and having a dedicated structure. While these indeed play a role, we believe that the magic sauce has a few other important ingredients.

The foundational element in this is talent. The three qualities to actively seek (at an individual level) are genuine curiosity, a challenger mindset and resilient energy—to question the present, to generate different solutions, and to persevere through the journey. Innovation is a team sport and requires diversity of thought. Team members should have a blend of different experiences, backgrounds and contexts to ensure no ‘group-think’ happens. Above all, they should have an ownership mindset.

This mindset is something that the top management must both look for and actively nurture. A flat organization that is structured appropriately for stability but does not function as a hierarchy for ideas can help foster this culture. Another critical element in developing this culture is a test-and- learn approach. We believe that market research, while helpful, can be restrictive at times for innovation. Actually trying an idea out in the market at a small scale is helpful in both testing it genuinely and managing risk.

Leaders play a critical role in creating such a culture by encouraging new ideas, promoting collaboration and encouraging risk-taking. One innovative idea that we adopted to promote collaboration was ‘4pm popcorn’. Turning on the office popcorn machine in the afternoon brought employees towards it around the same time, thus creating informal networks and conversation across the hierarchy and functions. Leaders must genuinely encourage risk-taking. One critical element in this is how to treat failures; we suggest truly celebrating risk-taking by reading ‘FAIL’ as First Attempt In Learning.

We believe that the final ingredient in the magic sauce is execution. Innovation is not about ideas, but about bringing those ideas to life—through trying them out in the market and running model iterations till action standards are met.

In conclusion, innovation is a multifaceted concept, and understanding the realities behind these myths can be instrumental in creating a culture of innovation. Innovation is not merely a process, a disruptive force, or the exclusive domain of startups and labs. Nor is it about being the first to launch or being confined to specific business functions. The true essence of innovation lies in its holistic approach, talent and culture, continuous improvements, customer interaction and effective execution.

These are the authors’ personal views.

Harsh Mariwala & Abheek Singhi are, respectively, founder and chairman of Marico, and the chair of practices at Boston Consulting Group India.


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