Building Innovation Culture

I am big fan of innovation, at workplace and in general. I have always challenged people on that front. Earlier this year, I also conducted Hackathon in my organization to promote innovation culture. I have been involved in running and arranging meetups(CloudStack, VMUG) which spark the ideas, exposes problems yet to be solved. I thought of sharing my learning in this blog. I have written on this topic earlier also(see here: Innovation: Visible and Invisible). You may check my earlier blogs as well.

One can innovate and bring changes very easily. It is not that you need team locked in a room for days together for creating innovations. Most importantly, innovation need not be a game of chance. If you keep your eyes, and ears wide open, usually, you would find opportunities to innovate. Innovations, of course, can be internal or external. Internal ones are usually towards processes, collaboration, automation, or any idea which can streamline experiences internally and help teams do more, and effectively. External ones are usually related to your customers, value you are bringing, problems which you are solving for them, and more importantly how.

Innovation Culture: Image Courtesy-Internet

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has proven yet again that necessity is mother of innovation, invention, progress. As one can, in last 5-6 months, world has seen paradigm shifts in almost every domain, new innovative ways of tacking old problems in some cases, and in others, solving new problems.

There is not much option to innovate in this ever changing world. So, it is important to pay attention to what is changing in your problem domain, your customers. Once you understand, then you are in better position to solve by innovating your solutions for them. Approaches such as design thinking can help here. It is everyone’s responsibility to consciously take efforts to ask questions and find out what is changing. They can be around assumptions made, dependencies which are there or need not be there, what pain points are seen on the way,

As design thinking approaches suggests, to supplement and validate your observations of customers/users, surveys can be helpful, or even interviews in formal or even in informal setting can be useful. These, are, of course, methodical or formal ways.

Another innovation strategy is to look out for leaders in your problem domain, understand what they have done and find out what other alternatives, better ways it can be done. This principle can be applied in organizations also, to learn from innovations and improvements from other teams/departments.

Ideation is fundamental to innovation progress. Many factors such as need vs want, value, feasibility, usefulness, prototyping, proof of concepts etc. Innovation attempts many times can be disasters, can ultimately result in failure in this fast moving market. Failure needs to be celebrated, as it is stepping stone towards success. Embracing failures is essential ingredient of building innovation culture.

What has been your experience with innovation? Feel free to share.

Design Thinking

Startups culture is rising all around the world these days. Startups generally are working on some product idea or service idea. Established companies who are providing service or offer products, are typically, busy with defining what a road map should be for their service or product. All of us know that user is very important factor to consider in this process. Do we really care? Or do we confuse between market opportunity versus the user who is going to consume that product or service? This is what is delved upon during design thinking. Sometime back, I got a bit of glimpse of this when I had attended a session during NASSCOM Product Conclave in Pune. When I heard that there is a day long workshop around this concept, I immediately enrolled for it. I am going to share here what I learnt during the workshop.

I am generally very fond of ideation and innovation. This workshop was going to cover exactly that along with design thinking. The workshop was arranged by TechStars and Entrepreneurship and Innovation Cell(EIC) of Indian Institute of Science Education and Research(IISE)R in Pune at IISER campus. This was my second visit to beautiful campus of IISER. I remember I visited it about 3-4 years back when they had arranged a music concert by famous violin player Rajam, I believe under SPIC MACAY program. Anyways, the faculty and expert for the workshop was Prof Kaustubh Dhagralkar. He is serial entrepreneur, a mentor at IIM, and now runs academy for design thinking called Potentials&Possibilities.

In simple terms, design thinking is nothing but understanding the user. The workshop started with analyzing what happens due to lack of design thinking. He shared an example of famous car manufacturer of USA who launched their car in India 2 decades back. In the effort of reducing cost, car manufacturer decided to get away with facility of power windows on the rear. It so happened that, since the primary user of the car was a chauffeur, he ended up having power windows, and owner who would sit at the back, would not have not it. The second example was about introduction of flat TV(plasma TV) in the market when it was flooded with cathode ray tube(CRT) TV. The flat TV sales did not pick up initially as they would not fit in living rooms where space was meant for size of CRT TV, where flat TVs are best for wall-mounted.

Then he contemplated upon why use word “design thinking”. The answer to this is that employing techniques used by designers(versus managers or decision makers) in solving problems, makes it termed as “design thinking”. This is where he introduced the first stage of design thinking process which is very important, and is called Empathy Stage, which is nothing but to learn from people, users, to understand them. The survey techniques using forms and alike are not sufficient to reveal the true user patterns for a given product or service. He spoke of employing various gaming principles, tally mark methods, and other things to understand consumer behavior in natural settings, observing them, rather than in simulation environment. The focus needs to be on both quantitative and qualitative research, and also due consideration to outliers too. Another tip he gave was to meticulously keep an open eye on complaints, pain points talked by anyone to understand opportunities for solving them or addressing them.

Understanding users can also help in devising business strategies. Many times we confuse with market research versus user research. Defining the business from the users perspective, than own perspective will also help. Then we also watch a short film titled “What is Design Thinking?”, produced by Daylight Design, which outlined five steps of the process of design thinking. We had discussed of empathy stage so far, which is learning from people. Second is finding patterns, to categorizing observations to derive into design principles. He outlines some most common design principles which any design exercise thinking would lead into revealed by the patterns in the user data collected. Some of the came out of an exercise we carried out there. It was simple one. Enumerating attributes which you like, don’t like and wish to have, in a given product.

After this we contemplated upon the stage of ideation stage, which relates to creativity. We discussed some basic principles there such as thinking of analogies(in real world, nature, other industries), challenging status quo(not assuming anything, shifting paradigms of problem, asking why), stretching the rubber band(think extremes, no-constraint situation, asking why not), challenge mental models, think of basics, being curious, etc. The 2 monkeys in a room example, was good example of challenging mental models. The next stage, of course, is prototyping and testing the idea.

I believe many things we unknowingly or partially we apply in our day to day work life. But adopting these principles of design thinking would lead to more better products or services, and would reduce costly iterations. The workshop was immensely interactive, full of stories, and loads of fun, a truly experiential learning, which I enjoyed thoroughly.


Innovation: visible, invisible

These days there is so much happening in the Indian IT industry. Consider this scene. If you have read recent news items, it is generally feared that Indian IT industry is loosing its sheen, with wide spread job cuts already happening, business getting tougher. There are different reason given-automation getting more prevalent at the entry level jobs, the Trump era strategies. Many industry experts, such as Vivek Wadhwa, since last couple of years, has been warning Indian IT industry around these trends and appealing to start focusing more and more on innovation. So the key here is innovation.


Courtesy: Internet

Now consider other scene. The Indian startup system is bustling with so much of action since last 7-8 years. So many ideas, so many new companies coming up every year, employing more and more workers and creating new jobs. The startup ecosystem is also getting matured, with local as well as global investment fraternity shifting focus towards Indian startups. I have talked about things I have witnessed on this topic on this blog earlier. Even Government of India’s initiatives around smart cities and also declaring various policies and schemes for startups, has fueled this scenario. So what is the key here for success of startups? Again, innovation!

Other day, someone forwarded me a video link on WhatsApp, which was a YouTube’s version of a TEDtalk. It is titled India’s invisible innovation. It is a talk delivered by Nirmalya Kumar, 3 years ago, arguing Indian IT industry is already innovating, against a common comment that Indian IT industry cannot/don’t innovate like Google, Apple and other leading companies of the world. He calls it as invisible innovation, as it is happening mostly in India’s back-offices and process areas which is not directly seen by end users(which is visible innovation). It gives various examples such as patents being filed from India is on the rise(including forward citations), process innovation, management innovation resulting in global delivery model, etc. While, the argument is mostly true, and lets us understand the other perspective of what Indian IT industry has been doing(which makes feel little better), but looking at today’s state, it seems that lot was left desired on the innovation front.

But I am hopeful and bullish for a turn-around. The main reason is that entrepreneurship is on the rise in India. And innovation is typically at the root of it. The relation between innovation and entrepreneurship is greatly dealt with, by Peter F Drucker in famous book titled Innovation and Entrepreneurship: Principles and Practice. So, I don’t think we need to get deterred by what is happening now as most of it is self-inflicted. But today’s India is changing. India’s large young population and large market, with abundant opportunities in many areas, not just high-tech, for changing, growing investor community, and growing awareness around innovation and entrepreneurship. There is only one way for success. A point to be noted here, most of the innovation coming out on startup fraternity will be visible innovation.

While it is true that the western world will continue to need back-offices of the outsourced companies in India(or even for the matter other countries), in the current shift and dynamics, it would interesting to wait and watch how these traditional IT services companies get back to innovation(invisible or otherwise), to stay in the game. It is also true that startups will continue to move and shake, start and close prematurely, laying off people-but then that is part of startup ecosystem. It is survival of fittest law. Anyways, as such in India apart from innovation in the industry and science itself, where is there so much to do; India also has many areas concerning to its demographic and social structure, poverty, illiteracy, agriculture, transport etc where innovation and social entrepreneurship is the need of the hour and it is also on the verge of growing.

Let me conclude this blog with a nice story about what innovation is, which I had heard recently. A well-known bath-soap manufacturing company once receives a complaint from a customer that bath-soap he purchased did not have a soap inside. The company officials, quality department was shocked hearing this complaint. How it must have happened? Their quality control was quite stringent with world-class processes etc. They started looking for finding gap and looking for improvement in the quality control process to not repeat such case. So the officials decided to install scanning machines to on the manufacturing belt, for examining the packed bath-soaps before dispatch. A fresh graduate who had recently joined them, learnt about this, he walked in told the officials, that there is no need of this costly scanning machine. All they can do is to install blower-fans near the manufacturing belt, which would make packed bath-soaps with no soap inside fly away!

What do you think?