Friday, April 24, 2015

3 axioms behind “8 steps to innovation” framework

How is “8 steps to innovation” framework different from other frameworks? One way to answer this question is by articulating its unique features which I did in an earlier article. Another way is to understand the answer to the question: What are the key axioms behind the framework? In this article, I would like to present 3 key axioms behind “8 steps to innovation” framework.

1.      Innovativeness can be built like stamina: I remember meeting a CEO of an old family-owned business house at its headquarters in south Mumbai a couple of years ago. He mentioned two things about his half-a-century old business which I found interesting. He said: (1) These days our competition doesn’t even consider us a serious player and (2) We want to become like Apple and we don’t have much time. I told him that I don’t know how Apple innovates and I certainly don’t know any quick way to become “like Apple”. My experience tells me that building innovativeness is similar to building stamina. Long distance runners know that if you are a couch potato and if you want to run a marathon, you need a long term commitment to disciplined practice. No miracle can change your stamina overnight. For a long distance runner, the progress may be measured more by the distance (5K, 10K, 20K etc) and the timing of the run. Similarly, in “8 steps to innovation” framework we have identified the two dimensions of innovation maturity: creative confidence and incubation effectiveness. And we show how progress may look like as the organization goes from level-1 (Jugaad) to level-5 (Excellence). A typical transition from one level to the next takes typically one to three years, far from the expectation of the CEO I mentioned earlier.

2.      Humans can’t predict the future: I am now used to seeing the disappointment when a wannabe innovator hears my response “I don’t know” to his question “Will my idea work?” The confidence in our ability to predict long term success of an idea is a classic cognitive illusion. It was true when Johannes Gutenberg was working on his printing press in 1450. And it is true for your favourite e-commerce start-up in Bangalore today. What does “8 steps to innovation” recommend then? Well, it emphasizes identifying untested assumptions embedded in your idea and validating them at low-cost and at high speed (step-4). And it also recommends protecting your downside as much as possible by building a margin of safety (step-8). I have elaborated this further in the article: “Is 8 steps to innovation predictive or non-predictive?

3.      Decisions happen through intuition-reason inter-play: Legendary investor Warren Buffett recounts how he made the decision to acquire the textile mill Berkshire Hathaway during 1964-65 in his letter shareholders published earlier this year. The decision was driven more by his emotion (he was mad at Berkshire’s CEO Seabury Stanton) than reason. In Buffett’s own words, “It was a monumentally stupid decision” The decision resulted in diverting $100 billion or so of Buffet’s fund to a collection of strangers. Notwithstanding our belief, human decisions are made by an inter-play of a strong a voice of intuition-cum-emotion and a weak voice of reason. Whenever there is a fight between the two voices, intuition led by emotion wins most of the time. This has significant implications for everybody – including innovators and investors. How does “8 steps” address this? Well, we borrow the metaphor of Elephant-Rider representing the voice of intuition and reason respectively from the book Switch by Chip & Dan Heath. And then propose interventions which can align the Elephant and the Rider to move in the same direction in order to become more innovative systematically.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Book review: “Recasting India” by Hindol Sengupta

“The world has enough for everyone’s needs, but not everyone’s greed,” said Mahatma Gandhi. However, in Independent India several hundreds of millions – so called “bottom of the pyramid” – have struggled to meet their basic needs. For the past sixty years, Indian Government has been making promises to alleviate poverty, educate people and failing miserably. Today, India ranks 101 out of 133 countries on Social Progress Index. Traditionally it was assumed in India that Entrepreneur and Enterprise are poor agents of social change. Hindol Sengupta argues in his book “Recasting India: How entrepreneurship is revolutionizing the world’s largest democracy” that this assumption is wrong and, in fact, entrepreneurs are playing a key role in addressing the needs of lower strata. Through numerous examples of socially-conscious ventures from Jammu & Kashmir to Tamilnadu, Hindol shows that enterprises are changing the lives of millions – from scavengers to maids. Unfortunately, the book is mostly silent on how enterprises are influencing the greed of everyone. Here are a few snippets from the book that stood out for me:

Pizza delivery ka koi jaath nahin hotha (Pizza delivery has no caste): This is from Prasad, a Dalit writer from Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh. According to him the revolution in India has already happened and all the upper caste intellectuals have not bothered to notice. The number of bullocks in a village on the Jaunpur-Azamgarh road has dropped from 1200 to 4 between 1995 and 2005. Why? Because there is no one to plough with the animals any more. Prasad says, “Landlord after landlord complained to me that the Dalits have left the village  and moved to the city with better jobs (like pizza delivery)”

Whose apple is that? Between 10 to 30 percent of Kashmiri apple crop gets wasted due to the lack of storage and processing facilities. Khurram Mir started Harshna Naturals in 2008 after returning with a management degree from Purdue University. The vision statement of Harshna says that the company should be used almost wholly by local farmers. A big poster at Harshna gives a warning – no one should be seen eating an apple within the compound. Mir says, “If someone is seen eating an apple and there are farmers around, they will immediately wonder ‘Whose apple is that?’ and raise an alarm. We are working to create an environment of full transparency which has been difficult here.”

Maid servant to Maids service: Anuradha, who lives in South City I, Gurgaon, pays Rs. 20,000 a month for the services of two employees of The Maids’ Company – one for twelve hours a day and another for six. If the maid is going to be late, she gets an SMS. The maid gets one day off every week. If a maid is absent any day, she gets a replacement. This is what Hindol calls – a complete renegotiation of social contract of domestic labour. Maids’ Company employees are regularly beaten by their husbands at home. The company employs a full-time nurse and has two rooms on top of the office for such women to stay for a day or two when they are thrown out of their houses. Where does it get money for these activities? The Maids' Company, started by Gauri Singh and Indu Bagri, has 20 percent of its equity in a reserved pool that is owned by a cooperative trust of the workers. The equity supports various welfare activities.

Getting out of the worst kind of catch-22: 750,000 odd manual scavenger families live the worst kind of life across India. They hand-pick human faeces and carry it in a basket. They have virtually no interaction with anyone who is not a scavenger. Project Azmat developed by Safai Karmachari Andolan and Shri Ram College of Commerce has identified 20 scavenger women from the village of Nekpur in Haryana and turned them into entrepreneurs.  They make detergent which is sold across Delhi with the brand “Neki”. Apart from money the work has given them social dignity missing for generations in their community. People in the village have started inviting them into their house.

The book presents these and many more inspiring stories of social change through enterprises and entrepreneurs. It is a must read for anyone who is a serious student of innovation, social change and social entrepreneurship.

When I read the story from Gurgaon which Hindol calls – a schizophrenic, dystopian soul of India, a place where everything has gone wrong and right at the same time – I wondered what caused the problems of Gurgaon in the first place? Is it the greed of the enterprises and entrepreneurs? That takes us back to the Gandhiji quote we started with. Which one needs more urgent attention: the need of the needy or the greed of the greedy? I don’t know.

Image source:

Friday, April 10, 2015

How to PIC a challenge area? A simple framework

What do you want to innovate around? Do you want to focus around a technology area such as mobile applications or do you want to solve a social problem? Or do you want to solve a specific customer problem? Answering this question is crucial. If you are completely blank, then a framework like pain, wave, waste helps you to generate options. Let’s say you have generated a number of options, now what? Which one will you pick for further investigation? Here is a simple framework I use called PIC: Passion, Impact and Chance of progress.

Passion: The most important parameter is passion – i.e. how excited you are about working on a particular challenge area. How would you know? Well, one simple parameter is to check if working on the topic creates or sucks energy. If it sucks energy, then it is unlikely to be your passion area. If you find yourself thinking about it, reading/browsing about it more often etc. then it is a candidate for your passion. Another test is time-test. Don’t do anything about it for a while say a week or a month and then revisit it. Now, check if the excitement is still there. Sometimes a topic may create temporary excitement and then the excitement may die down over time.

Impact: This is the trickiest of the three parameters. The idea is check how big of an impact a solution in this area can create. For example, mobile applications can create a huge impact due to the wide reach. In a country like India, areas like healthcare, energy, education pose a lot of challenges. Hence, a successful solution may create far reaching impact. The reason this is a tricky parameter because it is difficult to visualize the largest possible canvas related to your challenge area. Your vision may be narrow. And it is OK. James Watt thought that his improved steam engine may be helpful in the nearby mines for at least half a decade. It is only after a champion and investor like Bolton came along that the scope got expanded to “everything that moves.” In the initial days, Facebook scope was limited to email address.

Chance of progress: This is the second most important parameter (after passion). Your chance of progress improves significantly if (a) you get a partner to work with you (b) you get a champion for your challenge – like an investor, a customer or an influential person and (c) you can prototype your ideas fast and show them to people.  You need to be lucky to get a good collaborator. However, your prototyping skills can be honed by you over time. Most successful innovators are good experimenters. In fact, showcasing your idea through prototypes increases the chances of getting a collaborator and a champion.

If you like spreadsheet approach, you may want to attach totally 4 points to Passion, 3 points to Impact and 3 points to chance of progress and evaluate each option.

Friday, April 3, 2015

My favourite five principles of spirituality

Spirituality is a domain full of wisdom – both ancient and new age. A treatise like Bhagvad Gita alone offers 700 verses. How do you decide what to believe? Well, I have adopted a simple approach. I don’t believe in anything no matter how old the scripture or how well-known the spiritual teacher. I treat every so-called spiritual principle that interests me as a hypothesis or an assumption. And then I ask a question: Can I test this myself in a low-cost manner? Following this approach, I have come to appreciate a few spiritual principles more than others. Here are my favourite five. While some of these may be ancient, I have mentioned the source through which the principle reached me:

1.      Worry pretends to be necessary1: If you are like me or my wife, you will have ample of opportunities to test this principle. Worry means to keep running a bunch of “what if” scenarios repetitively in the head. Some worries are short term – Will I reach for the meeting on time? Will I send the proposal by tomorrow as promised? Will our son cycle safely to school & back? Some worries are long term – Will I continue to get work? Will I save enough for the old age? Will I be able to take care of my parents when they need it most? On the one hand, my experience suggests that worry has helped me in the past to achieve the goals. And when I didn’t worry enough, things haven’t gone too well. Nick put it well when he asked Eckhart Tolle, “If I don’t worry about things, how will I pay my bills?”2

On the other hand, there is a strong case questioning the role of worry in achieving goals. It is put forward as follows: There are only three things one can do in any situation: (1) change the situation (2) remove yourself from the situation; or (3) accept the situation. Each option may involve a different action as the next step and worry isn’t one of the useful actions. Worry doesn’t help me cut through the traffic jam, nor does it help me prepare the proposal sooner. Different actions do. And that is where the focus should be.

One question that I and my wife have found useful in case of worry is to ask oneself: “Do I have a problem right now? Not tomorrow or five minutes from now, but right now?”3Anyway, I found this principle relatively easy to get started with experimentation. Try it out for yourself.

2.      Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional4: I have yet to find a way that will guarantee pain-free life. Looks like tooth-ache, knee-pain, back-pain, head-ache etc. are bound to show up once in a while. Some may become buddies as I grow older.  Apart from physical pain, there are times when I experience thought induced pain. A thought springs up telling a story as to how I was treated unfairly, say by a customer. And that causes emotional pain. In short, there is nothing in the experience or a claim from science that says pain can be eliminated.

Suffering is a repetitive thought pattern that sucks up energy in building resistance to the pain. Some of my commonly experienced stories are – “How could he treat me like that?” or “Why is this happening to me?” etc. This inner resistance creates a multiplier effect and that perpetuates the pain. I have narrated my experience at a silent meditation retreat (Vipassana) where I could see this pain-multiplier effect. And when the resistance gets dropped or reduced, overall intensity of pain reduces. It is amazing to experience it yourself and then try it out every time pain shows up. It may not work every time, but it is a great experiment.

3.      Whatever you fight, you strengthen, what you resist, persists5: “Fighting for your right” is worshipped all over the world. Be it the bloody wars or non-violent fights of Gandhi, Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr. fighting for the right cause is a virtue many of us admire. Babasaheb Ambedkar’s “Educate, unite and fight” slogan has inspired generations. Hence, a principle like “Whatever you fight, you strengthen” is non-intuitive.

One way to experiment with this principle is to try to disprove it. Offer resistance to someone’s idea or behaviour. It could be your spouse or a teenage son or daughter or your boss or team member and see if that idea or behaviour gets dropped due to your resistance. Now, see what happens when you offer no resistance and see what happens. Since this principle is non-intuitive, you will need a lot of experimentation to check its validity.

4.      How you do what you do is more important than what you do6: On a daily basis, I interact with various people - Milkman, garbage collector, car wash person, watchman, newspaper delivery boy etc. On the face of it, it looks as though my work – say of innovation consulting is more value creating than their jobs. This creates an impression that what I do is more important than what they do. This principle questions this assumption. It says – what I do is less important. What matters is – how I do what I do. For example, if Hanmantha washes cars with utmost attention and care, then he is doing a great service to the society no matter how much it contributes to India’s GDP.

We all can see this principle in our day-to-day activity as well. I sometimes open a door as though it is merely a means to get into another room; wash dishes or fold clothes as though it is an activity to get over with so that more important things can be catered to. This principle questions the underlying assumption behind this approach. It says that how you do your activities whether it is opening a door or planning your project matters more than the activity itself. This principle has significant implications for everything we do.

5.      My primary responsibility is my own state of consciousness7: World around me seems to be full of injustice, inequality and problems like poverty and corruption. I have family responsibilities – son’s education, aging parents etc. I run a consulting business. What is my primary responsibility? I find this principle useful and non-intuitive. It says that none the things I mentioned is my primary responsibility. In fact, my primary responsibility doesn’t lie in the outer world at all. My primary responsibility is my own state of consciousness. This is perhaps the most non-intuitive principle.

One way to go about doing my work is to not worry about how much anxiety or stress it causes to me and people around me. Focus on the goal and run after it as fast as possible. Assume that stress is a natural side-effect of becoming successful. You have to sacrifice something for gaining something etc.

An alternate way of doing the same thing is to first pay attention to your own state of consciousness. If life feels stressful, then first investigate the thoughts that perpetuate the stress. Question the validity of the thoughts etc. Always give more priority to this internal observation than external tasks even if the task involves helping millions of poor people.

1.      “worry pretends to be necessary” – I heard this in Eckhart’s interview with Oprah on the book “A New Earth” chapter 3 at 55:50.
2.      Nick’s question to Eckhart on how worry helps him pay bills is in Eckhart’s interview with Oprah on the book “A New Earth” chapter 8 at 44:44.
3.      “Do you have a problem right now?” – Practicing a Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle, page 40.
4.      “Pain is inevitable…” - This principle was pointed to me by my friend Zunder Lekshmanan. Subsequently, I found a nice article with the same title by Dan Mager.
5.      “Whatever you fight,…” – A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle, page 75.
6.      “How you do what you do…” – Eckhart’s interview at Stanford University by Dr. James Doty titled “Conversations on compassion” by  1:16:37.
7.      “My primary responsibility…” This quote is from Eckhart in response to a question from Melissa, Crab Orchard, West Virginia about her worry related to her sister who is addicted to drugs, interview with Oprah Winfrey, A New Earth, chapter 3 at 51:50.

I would like to thank my wife Gauri for her review and useful suggestions.