Friday, August 3, 2007

Column on Innovation

Due to popular demand, am going to start posting links to the columns. Here goes today's:

Too much of a good think

The whole world is innovating over how to make you and me more innovative.
No pressure, though, the next big thing doesn’t actually have to be big, not like Google or anything. Obvious ideas—say, the iPhone—will do fine.
Every other day, we read headlines and studies saying innovation remains India’s biggest challenge, a characteristic its workforce lacks. At the office, we open emails filled with dares to be innovative, rewards and prizes dangled for thought.
What is it about India and its workplaces that’s causing a lack of innovation, a sudden dearth of good ideas?
This surprises me because Indians are the most innovative people I have ever encountered. As a child visiting my father’s village, I marvelled at systems used to create, construct, preserve, to keep foods hot, then cold. And no toymaker can beat the genius of aunts and uncles who entertained us listless kids with home-made inventions and natural discoveries, such as the bubbles made by splitting the stems of certain leaves. Looking back, you can say it was survival, but the innovative behaviour clearly carries on in India’s diaspora. My father, now in New Jersey, is notorious for never throwing anything out, and linking incongruous items and ideas to make life easier—old fencing covers his garden to filter light and support vines, for example. You might call him cheap; I call him innovative.
“One could take a random Indian of practically any background or social class, and put him or her in another country, and he or she would be successful very quickly,” says Uday Karmarkar, an Anderson School of Management professor at the University of California-Los Angeles.
So what is it about this country and its workplaces that’s causing the panic, the sudden dearth of good ideas?
The answer is complicated, beginning with an education system that stresses the “right” answer to increased demands on workers to run more than a back office. Those challenges will take some time to surmount. Still, there’s an even bigger problem, thankfully one easier to fix: Workers are afraid.
They’re afraid of speaking up in meetings that seem scripted. They’re afraid of the manager who ridicules and looks good at their expense. And they’re afraid of being told no.
Consider the scene in a Bangalore classroom earlier this month when Indian Institute of Management professor Ramnath Narayanswamy asked how many of the 70 students before him had work experience. Nearly all raised their hands. More than two years? Still the hands stayed up.
“How many enjoyed your jobs?”
Just two hands remained.
“We feel disempowered.”
“We feel victimized.”
“We have bad bosses.”
The students’ stories came tumbling out, Narayanswamy recounted, speaking this week at a conference in New Delhi on great places to work.
Little sincere creativity can occur in the environments his students described. Instead of formalizing innovation, we need to go back to our roots a bit more. Managers should encourage doses of messiness, disorder, chaos, even lots of mistakes—circumstances that lend themselves to more ideating.
Of course, that risks confusing innovation with a clich├ęd predecessor: “thinking outside the box”. When I started reporting in India in 2001, a decade after that golden summer kicking off economic reforms, workplace after workplace boasted of kicking employees outside this box, encouraging them to challenge authority and convention. One call centre showed me a jar; each person who addressed a superior as “sir” or “ma’am” had to put in Rs10. The abolition of the word “sir” became the standby when I asked for examples of open, un-boxed workplaces. Six years later, despite improvement, hierarchies are nowhere as flat as they could be. Our bosses might not be called “sir” but we still think of them that way.
To be sure, Narayanswamy warns workers to stop playing the victim game. Tweaking Gandhian philosophy, he says we ought to be the change we want to see at work. But, he also advises, managers’ “most time and effort should be spent at the lower levels of the pyramid”.
I fear the workplace is becoming wooed by fads and not effectively marrying best practices. “Caught up in the innovation hype, the desire to appear innovative is perhaps overshadowing the need to become innovative,” Rajdeep Sahrawat, vice-president of the National Association of Software and Services Companies, wrote in Mint on 12 June. “Moving a water dispenser closer to the staff to save time for drinking water gets cited as an example of breakthrough innovation.”
Having seen some of my relatives’ innovations with water—like collecting rain in barrels before it was environmentally in vogue—I know Indians can do better.
So go ahead. Think. Speak up. Stop worrying about making mistakes and looking foolish. This country’s future is in your head—or at the very least, your boss’ next innovation award.
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