Friday, September 28, 2012

Catalign Quarterly – September 2012

Catalign Quarterly is an attempt to put together insights relevant for fostering a culture of innovation in organizations – both for-profit and not-for-profit. Through articles and interviews we explore principles, practices and policies that help organizations become more innovative.

Theme for this quarterly is “Building experimentation capacity”. Why worry about building experimentation capacity? Well, how far can you fly with the wings of ideas? Experiments give shape and provide anchors to ideas. Most importantly they also tell us which aspect doesn’t work. For leaders, experimentation provides a better alternative in selecting ideas as opposed to Powerpoint or prejudices.

The main article is “4 levers of building experimentation capacity”. The 4 levers explored are: Right to experiment (RTE), laboratory, innovation sandbox and open innovation. Other articles explore each of these four themes. Mahatma Gandhi was a great experimenter. But how open was he in others experimenting? “Mahatma Gandhi and the Right to Experiment” explores this aspect. This article on Galileo's life explores how an instrument such as telescope can take the experimentation capacity to a new level. 

We may be carrying fixed set of ideas of what a lab might look like. Agastya Foundation shatters the concept by beautifully combining two metaphors: A school in a lab and a lab in a box. Wright brothers epitomized systematic experimentation. This article explores how they increased their experimentation capacity from 1 flight a day in 1900 to 100 flights a day in 1903. What happens when a lab turns into an innovation sandbox? This article based on the Pulitzer Prize winning book “The emperor of allmaladies” by Siddhartha Mukherjee narrates one such story in the journey of cancer research.
Theme for the next quarterly is going to be: "Design Thinking" - very much in line with my next open program (with the same title) to be held on Nov 7-8 in Bangalore.

photo sources: &

Monday, September 24, 2012

4 levers of building experimentation capacity

If you want to promote a culture of innovation, you will need to build experimentation capacity. How do you do it? Well, here are 4 levers you might want to consider.

Right to experiment (RTE): If nobody in the organization has a permission to experiment, then there is no hope for any innovation. Right to experiment (RTE) is a foundation principle on which innovation capacity is built. Many times “RTE” is considered synonymous with Google’s 20% rule or 3M’s 15% rule. According to this rule, every employee can spend up to 15 or 20% of his time working on his own experiments.

I see 2 issues equating RTE with a policy such as Google 20%. One, RTE doesn’t have to be granted to everybody like in Google. It can very well be granted to only those whose idea is passed through a first level of screening or to those belonging to specific departments (or some other policy suitable to your culture). Second, putting a policy in place doesn’t guarantee RTE will be exercised in the organization. For example, Jaruhar, an innovator from Indian Railways, discovered for the first time that he has the permission to experiment when he became member (Engineering) of the Board. By then Jaruhar must have put in a couple of decades of experience in Indian Railways. That’s awfully long time for smart guys like Jaruhar to start experimenting.

You may be a great experimenter and yet as a leader you may not realize the importance of RTE. For example see how Mahatma Gandhi’s view on RTE evolved over the years. Ask yourself: Who has the right to experiment here? Who is actually experimenting? How are we encouraging it?

Laboratory: It is not enough to have the RTE. You need to create a space which gives legitimacy to experimentation & failure – just like a meditation room may give legitimacy to silence. Most of the time, the space is physical which also fosters collaborations. However, sometimes it can also be virtual – e.g. on the cloud. Thomas Edison said, “To invent, you need good imagination and a pile of junk.” A good laboratory makes the junk “useful”. In Ideo, the person looking after a laboratory is called curator. A good laboratory wears past failures with pride on its chest. When a laboratory is accessible to a lot of people, it can build a huge capacity. Perhaps that is why Galileo smiled in spite of his telescope fiasco. Sometimes a laboratory can also be mobile so that it can reach people who don’t have easy access to it. For example, see Agastya Foundation’s efforts in building experimentation capacity in rural schools. Ask yourself, have you created a space for experimentation? Does your lab have adequate tools?

Innovation sandbox: There may be several projects running in a laboratory. However, a time comes when experimentation needs to be focused on a single challenge. What you need is an innovation sandbox – It has focus, massive experimentation capacity and ultra-low cost for each additional experiment. Tata Nano came out of a sandbox. Similarly, Wright brothers created two sandboxes during their flight experiments during 1900-1903. See what happens when a pathology laboratory gets converted into an innovation sandboxfocused on cancer research. Ask yourself, have you built an innovation sandbox?

Open innovation: Procter & Gamble’s connect-and-develop program systematically goes about finding experimentation capacity within P&G’s partnership network. You don’t have to solve all problems internally. Organizations collaborate with academia, Government research labs and with other companies. You can also tap experimenters through open innovation platforms by throwing a challenge and inviting prototypes. To find more about how open innovation challenges work, see the interview of Jayesh Badani, CEO of Ideaken. Ask yourself, have you explored building experimentation capacity beyond your organization?

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Open innovation: Ideaken CEO Jayesh Badani shares his experience

We got an opportunity to talk to Jayesh Badani, CEO of Ideaken, a Bangalore based start-up providing an open innovation platform. Jayesh was one of the panellists at Next Gear, a workshop on innovation leadership I facilitated in July. Ideaken platform is enabling MNCs and social sector solve some of the tough problems they are facing. During the discussion, we explored following questions on open innovation with Jayesh:

  • What is open innovation?
  • How do you formulate the right challenge?
  • How do solvers protect their IP?
  • Have you had customers who announce the challenge, learn from the submitted ideas and not select any?
  • Does every challenge have to result in a prize?
  • Do you help solvers in finding if there is a patent related to their idea?
  • What is the value addition you (Ideaken) do in the whole open innovation process?
Here is a sample Q&A. For complete discussion, please see here.

Q: What is open innovation?

Jayesh: If you look at every innovation, it can be traced back to a simple question, “Can this be done better?” If you ask this question to yourself daily, actually you are innovating. If you ask the same question to your team, you may get better answers. If you ask the question to people sitting in this room, it may add further clarity.

Many companies are dealing with some fundamental problems they can’t solve. They have innovation teams working on these problems. Sometimes there is a mental block that innovation can only happen from within. Sometimes it goes even further when individual says, “It has to be from me, so that I get the credit.” This is changing slowly. A lot of people like C K Prahalad have talked about concepts like co-creation. Some companies have started doing it in a bigger way.

It begins with a challenge – the company wants to solve. Now, formulating a challenge is itself a big step. It is not about the details. Sometimes you can write 10 pages and yet nobody understands it. Depending upon the complexity and clarity associated with the problem, formulating a challenge may take a few days to a few months.

For example, we had this challenge from a food processing company. They have the packaging machines which go fast and pack your food. In this process, air also gets packaged in the packet. From the food point of view, less the air better the shelf life. But unlike items like pen or pencil, you can’t remove all the air from food – air is part of the food sometimes e.g. cake. So the challenge is how to remove maximum air without affecting the product in optimal time. You could slow down the process to do it better. But that affects you productivity – how many packets you can pack in a minute also matters. So in essence even if you can reduce the air by 5-10% then you are talking about a significant gain in product shelf life.

Once such a challenge is formulated and announced, it goes through a clarification phase from interested solves. Someone might say, “I don’t understand this aspect of the challenge.” Or “I think I can reduce the air only so much, is it ok?”  A challenge duration may wary from a month to 3 months. Outcome from short duration challenges are just ideas while some amount of detailed solutions are expected from a longer duration challenge. When we launched this specific challenge related to food packaging, we received solutions from 20 countries. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

Highlights of the Next Gear program on innovation leadership, July 5-6, 2012

I facilitated a 2-day program “Next Gear: Gearing up forinnovation leadership” on July 5-6 held at Hotel Grand Mercure, Bangalore. Participants came from both for-profit and not-for-profit organizations. The objective of the program was to learn how to lead organization’s innovation initiative effectively. Here are some highlights of the program.

Innovation leader’s navigation matrix: It is not enough to know which medicines to take. It is important to know which one to take when. Every organization’s situation is different. Hence, we parameterized the context using a 3x3 navigation matrix (see below). You need to assess if the problem at hand is primarily that of a dry idea pipeline, low idea velocity or poor batting average. Similarly, we need to assess if the situation is primarily an Elephant problem (lack of motivation) or a Rider problem (lack of direction) or both (e.g. see the Elephant-Rider model). Over the 2-days we filled this matrix with various approaches.

2 core interventions: bright spots & challenge book: Then we looked at 2 interventions which we consider as fundamental and applicable in most situations. One, how to run a challenge campaign effectively and two, how to find and clone bright spots. In the process we created a participants’ challenge book. Here is how it looks:

How to improve idea velocity? Next we looked at various ways in which we can improve the rate at which ideas can move forward. One of them was: low-cost high-speed experimentation. Among the many real life examples we looked at, one was the pea-plant experiment performed by the father of Indian cinema, Dadasaheb Phalke a hundred years ago (in 1912). The experiment got him funding for his first film, Raja Harischandra.

Design Thinking vs TRIZ: We ended day-1 with a panel discussion on two creative problem solving methodologies: TRIZ and Design Thinking. Dr. Bala Ramadurai a TRIZ expert and Lakshman Pachineela a Design Thinking expert shared their views on how these two approaches work.

Managing big bets: During this session we looked at various approaches of managing big bets e.g. innovation sandbox. At the end, we had a panel discussion where Dr. Ashwin Naik, CEO of Vaatsalya, Dr. Ishwar Parulkar, CTO, Cisco and JayeshBadani, CEO, Ideaken shared their experiences in managing big bets.

Enabling a culture change: Most innovation initiatives need to enable a culture change as well. How do you do it? Raja Chidambaram a change facilitation consultant and V R Prasanna, CEO of Sikshana Foundation shared their perspectives on the topic.

Participant presentations: Participants presented the two actions they plan to take away from the workshop. Within two months several participants had implemented at least one of their actions such as executing a challenge campaign. Here is a summary of participant take-aways.

Articles summarizing the panel discussions in this workshop:

Enabling a culture change in rural government schools: Prasanna shares Sikshana experience, Sept 15, 2012
Open innovation: Ideaken CEO Jayesh Badani shares his experience, Sept 23, 2012

Source: Phalke’s photo is from the film Harischandrachi Factory.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Role of communication in generating a creative insight

Communication breakdown: Einstein and Bohr were two giant pillars of 20th century physics. However, their communication reached an impasse towards the end of their career in resolving the differences between their theories: relativity and quantum mechanics.  A professor, Hermann Weyl, who was at Princeton when both Einstein and Bohr were there, decided to hold a party so that the two can start talking to each other. During the party, Bohr and his students gathered in one corner of the room and Einstein and his at the other. It just didn’t work. Did this communication breakdown impact the creative momentum in physics? David Bohm and David Peat, authors of “Science, order and creativity”, feel that the answer is “yes”. They feel that physics would have progressed faster if Einstein & Bohr had had better communication. 

Communication, for most of us, is an afterthought i.e. idea comes first and then you communicate it. Bohm-Peat run this logic backwards. They feel that communication plays an important role in how you develop a creative insight. Let’s see how. 

Creative insight: How does creative insight develop? Bohm-Peat illustrate the concept using the story of deaf & blind Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan. When Sullivan came to teach Helen, she met a “wild animal”. Over a period, Sullivan could make Helen more disciplined. However, she knew that that wasn’t the goal. The main problem was: Helen didn’t have the concept: “everything has a name”. Hence, there was no language to communicate. So Sullivan starts playing “it has a name” game with Helen (e.g. see the movie The Miracle Worker, jump to 1:19:30). Whenever she would come in contact with an object – say, water – in bath tub, tap water, stream, water-pump Sullivan would finger-spell the word “water” for Helen. For Helen these were all disparate experiences. Until one day she realizes that there is something common among all these experiences which is called “water” (1:39:05). That was a creative insight.

Thus a creative insight involves establishing connections among two or more unconnected elements in the memory, each forming a new pattern. In Helen's case it involved connecting various memories involving water to the name "water". For Einstein it was connecting the concept of mass to that of energy through an equation, E = mc2

What hampers creative insights? As we form multiple concepts in our mind, over a period the patterns become rigid beliefs. To see new patterns, sometimes we need to let go of old patterns. The more deeply embedded the old patterns are, the more difficult it becomes to form the new ones. The biggest difficulty is that we are not even aware of the deeply embedded patterns. Bohm-Peat call it the tacit infrastructure of our mind.

A beautiful illustration of how this happens is depicted in the movie “The 12 angry men”. The plot revolves around a meeting in a closed room where 12 jurors discuss their opinions to arrive at a verdict for a murder case. Deeply embedded patterns in the form of racial prejudices, stereotypes associated with broken families, slum people etc prevent these men from seeing alternate views of reality. They had reached their verdict even before they arrived in the room and they weren’t ready to budge.

So what do we do? A breakthrough in the movie happens when communication starts flowing among a few of the men. How? As they start arguing, there are moments when attention gets shifted from their position (of say, a “guilty” verdict) to clarifying assumptions behind their opinion. For example, in one scene one juror says, “Let’s talk about the knife the boy used to kill his father” (0:23:39) and another one says, “In fact, I would like to look at it again.” And suddenly the attention shifts to relooking at the knife, where it was purchased, who had seen the boy with the knife etc. This process eventually leads them to see that their so-called strong beliefs are on a slippery ground.

Dialogue: The process of clarifying assumptions during a discussion is also called a dialogue. Nobody can predict how fast physics might have progressed if Einstein and Bohr had continued to have a dialogue. However, it is not very difficult to check if we are spending any time in clarifying assumptions during our discussions. It might suddenly open a door for creating a totally new connection between two unconnected concepts – just like Helen Keller.

Note: “Science, order and creativity” is not a light reading. However, I feel its first three chapters are thought provoking and easier to understand. I would like to thank my friend Rahul Abhyankar for recommending the movie “12 Angry Men” to me.

Source: photo from

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Enabling a culture change in rural government schools: Prasanna shares Sikshana experience

V R Prasanna was one of the panellists at the “Enabling a culture change” session at the Next Gear workshop on innovation leadership I facilitated in July. Prasanna is the CEO of Sikshana Foundation which was rated among the top three in India in education intervention by Times Social Impact Awards (Sept 2011). Prasanna moved back from the US to India in 2007 to help scale up the organization. In this interview Prasanna shares his experience in enabling a culture change in the context of rural government schools.

The interview explores following questions:

  1. Can you please share a culture change story from Sikshana?
  2. Why is change difficult?
  3. How do you sustain ownership in change initiatives?
  4. What role rewards play in change initiatives?
  5. What happens to the change when Sikshana stops support?
  6. How does Sikshana get teachers to experiment?
A sample question & answer is given below. You can find the complete interview here

Q: What roles rewards play in change initiatives?
Prasanna: In our case, we found that the easiest way to motivate a teacher is a pat on the back. They work in a system where nobody cares about them. One of our initial experiences was with a teacher in a remote school –  with 12+ years of service. When we asked him , “Sir, how are you doing?” The teacher almost had tears in his eyes. When we asked, “Did we say something wrong?” He said, “First time in 12 years in this school, somebody has asked me how I am doing” That is the simplest form of reward. On the other end, we send teachers to the US. Someone who might not have seen Bangalore goes to the US and spends four weeks there.

We find rewards play a similar role for a child to change. In rural setting, when children go back from school, they dump their bag and immediately run out. Because there is nobody at home to share their school experience. To sustain the change, something needs to happen outside the school environment. How do we do this? We can’t become the parents. But the child has to be rewarded at some basic level. So we introduced something called a “spot prize” in classrooms.

Every teacher is equipped with nominal amount with which they buy something and give it away. This is one of our most successful programs. We don’t spend more than Rs. 30 per child in the whole year. We have introduced stars which they can wear on their uniform. And once they collect ten stars they redeem it for something – crayons or pencil set or they can hold on till the next ten stars and get a geometry box.

This idea (of stars) came from a teacher. I had gone to a school near Hubli. We had given spot prizes to be awarded in the school. This teacher had written some names and some numbers next to it. I asked, “What are these numbers?” The teacher said, “I liked your idea. But I run out of prizes very quickly. Attendance is a huge issue. So I have to give them more. So whenever a student asks a good question or a correct answer I start writing points. This becomes more like a game and it is getting everyone to participate actively in the class.” The next question was, “How can we do this at a systemic level?” and the star system evolved.

So I feel rewards play a huge role in sustaining a change at least in our space.

Related articles:

Dr. Gururaj Deshpande’s insights on entrepreneurship and innovation, Jan 30, 2012 (Desh praises the interventions of Sikshana) 

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Two ideas that turned cancer research into a massive innovation sandbox

Pulitzer Prize-winning “The emperor of all maladies” by Siddhartha Mukherjee looks at the long drawn battle between man and cancer over the past 2000 years. The story has several twists and turns and Siddhartha has written it like a thriller. In this article I want to focus on two ideas from the book that occurred to a paediatric pathologist Dr. Sidney Farber. These ideas transformed cancer research from a “who-cares” situation to a massive innovation sandbox eventually creating modern chemotherapy technique. Let’s look at each of the ideas in brief.

Antifolates: In 1946 Sidney Farber was a reputed paediatric pathologist working in his fourteen-by-twenty-foot laboratory in the basement of Children’s Hospital in Boston. Aged 43, Farber had been a “doctor of the dead” for close to two decades. However, perhaps going through a mid-career introspection was itching to work with almost-dead – the cancer patients. Farber’s first insight was that he could actually perform “experiment” on cancer by focusing on blood cancer or leukaemia. Because, unlike other forms of cancer, he could count the change in cancer cells after an intervention.

Unfortunately, Farber’s first trial towards this direction turned into a horrible error. Based on the work by a British haematologist Lucy Wills in treating anaemia, Farber injected folic acid into leukemic children. Instead of slowing down the leukaemia, folic acid accelerated the process resulting in hastened deaths of the children. Paediatricians at Children’s Hospital got mad at Farber. Notwithstanding the ire, Farber went from the error to the next trial. He asked himself, “If folic acid accelerates the leukaemia, why not try anti-folic acid?” That indeed generated the first flicker of hope.

In 1947, two year old Robert Sandler, the first leukaemia patient whom Farber treated with antifolates, showed improvement for a few months before the cancer relapsed. By summer of 1948, Farber had treated sixteen patients out of whom ten had responded and five had remained alive 4 to 6 months after their diagnosis. Farber published his results on June 3, 1948. Initial reaction was “scepticism, disbelief and outrage”. However, soon patients started pouring in from near and far. And Farber was forced to move out of Children’s Hospital to accommodate them.

Jimmy fund campaign: With more patients and more drugs Farber’s experimentation capacity increased. However, he realized how awfully limited it is for the enemy he was battling with. This is when he performed a totally different kind of experiment in collaboration with Bill Koster of Variety Club, a children’s welfare organization. Together they launched a Jimmy Fund campaign by making a patient in the hospital a mascot. In fact, the campaign was launched on May 22, 1948 through a radio show Truth of Consequences. The entire Boston Braves baseball team showed up at Jimmy’s room in the hospital and they together sang a song. The eight minutes show was ended with a plea, “Let’s make Jimmy and thousands of boys and girls who are suffering from cancer happy by aiding research to help find a cure for cancer in children.” Within a month more than a hundred thousand dollars had poured in.

Siddhartha writes: For any illness to rise to political prominence, it needed to be marketed.  If Farber’s antifolates were his first discovery in oncology, then this critical truth (about marketing) was his second. It set off a seismic transformation in his career that would far outstrip his transformation from a pathologist to a leukaemia doctor. This second transformation – from a clinician to an advocate of cancer research – reflected the transformation of cancer itself.

Together with a high-profile health activist, Mary Lasker, Farber managed to take cancer research in the US to a completely different level. Between 1954 and 1964, Cancer Chemotherapy National Service Center would test 82,700 synthetic chemicals, 115,000 fermentation products, 17,200 plant derivatives and treat nearly 1 million mice every year with various chemicals to find an idea drug.

In short, two things helped move a basement lab into an innovation sandbox: (1) Focused experimentation on solving a tough problem (such as cancer treatment) (2) Marketing “cancer research” so that many other labs can perform the experiments too. In some sense, it is like opening up the experimentation effort.

Photo sources: Book image (, Dr. Sidney Farber (

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Two innovation sandboxes in Wright brothers’ experimentation journey

An innovation sandbox has 3 key characteristics: focus, massive experimentation capacity and ultra- low cost of each additional experiment. Wright brothers created two innovation sandboxes which were to play a significant role in their experimentation journey from 1900 to 1903 leading to their historic flight on Dec 17, 1903. What were these sandboxes? How did they build them? What role did they play in their success? Let’s explore these questions in this article. I will refer to the well-made documentary film "Wright brothers' flying machine" (embedded above) for you to see it visually. I have put the time in the film where the topic is discussed in brackets e.g. (11:18) meaning 11 minutes and 18 seconds.

Sandbox-1: kitty-Hawk:  Orville & Wilber Wright became serious about attempting to build the flying machine in 1899.  They knew they were entering into a serious game where experimentation would last several years. In fact, one of the serious players in the game, Otto Lilienthal had died in a crash during his flying experiments in 1896 (11:18). Wright brothers did extensive study of available literature. They had to work out all the 3 key sub-problems: lift, thrust and stability. However, their approach stood out for their focus on stability (16:11). For the other two problems, they had good starting points e.g. the lift tables published by Lilienthal and the propellers used in ships.

Wright brothers had to work within two serious constraints: shortage of money and ensuring safety. Following table shows how their experimentation capacity increased hundred-fold in the 4 years. Cost of each experiment was pretty low (29:55). Neither of the brothers suffered any injury due to a flight accident throughout these experiments. Their sandbox was literally in the sand dunes!

Sandbox-2: Wind-tunnel: While Lilienthal’s lift tables were a good starting point; they turned out to be inaccurate (12:15). What to do? Do you build a variety of gliders to derive a more accurate table? That would have taken several years perhaps decades. Instead Wright brothers built a wind-tunnel out of a wooden box in their Dayton workshop (13:15). It was 16 inches wide by 16 inches tall by 6 feet long. Their ingenuity was in designing an intricate aerodynamic measuring device using an old hacksaw blade and bicycle spoke wire. What could have taken years was achieved in three months period.  During October to December 1901, Wright brothers re-generated lift and drag tables over 200 experiments. This helped solve the "lift" problem.

If you want to solve a really tough problem, ask yourself, “How do we build an innovation sandbox around this problem? Which variable will we focus on first? How many experiments can we perform in a month/year? What would be the cost of each additional experiment?”

photo sources: Wright brothers (, wind tunnel (