People admire Mahatma Gandhi for various reasons – leadership, philosophy, as a freedom fighter, as a social reformer etc. But for me, Gandhiji was systematic innovator par excellence. In fact, his approach to innovation embodies what I consider to be the heart and the soul of systematic innovation. What is the heart of systematic innovation? And what is the soul? Let’s explore these two questions with Gandhiji as the hero.
Many people believe that creativity is at the heart of innovation. In fact, I have met people for whom creativity and innovation are synonymous. I have a different view. I believe that systematic experimentation is at the heart of innovation process. And Mahatma Gandhi was a master experimenter. He was a social engineer. It is no surprise that the title to his autobiography is – the story of my experiments with truth. He writes in the introduction, “I simply want to tell the story of my numerous experiments with truth, and as my life consists of nothing but those experiments” and later adds “I claim for them [experiments] nothing more than does a scientist who, though he conducts his experiments with the utmost accuracy, forethought and minuteness, never claims any finality about his conclusions, but keeps an open mind regarding them”.
There are two things common among great experimenters: (1) They will start with small, low cost experiments (sometimes called prototypes) and (2) they have a great respect for failures and constantly learn from them. Gandhiji was no exception. In fact, he has dedicated two chapters in his autobiography to articulate his early experiment of his innovation platform – satyagraha. Chapter 29 (part 4) is titled Domestic Satyagraha and chapter 40 titled Miniature Satyagraha. Chapter 33 (part 5) titled Himalayan miscalculation narrates the failure of satyagraha execution and how he realized what all he needs to ensure to execute a civil disobedience movement successfully. He would find this learning useful a decade later during his best product launch – the salt march.
If experimentation is the heart of systematic innovation then what is the soul? To understand the answer, we need to understand, “How did Gandhiji think of salt for his march?” This peculiar choice confused the British and the Indian leaders alike. When Gandhiji made an official announcement of his salt march plan at Sabarmati Ashram, there were all kinds of reactions. The Statesman, British owned newspaper made fun of him; even Motilal Nehru wired a question, “What will lifting a pinch of salt do?” Gandhiji wired him back, “Please lift and see!” Salt march indeed turned out to be a key milestone in the freedom movement and Gandhiji was conscious enough to publicize it far and wide through New York Times as the march was going on.
Question is, “What made Gandhi see the power of salt that others like Motilal Nehru couldn’t?” The answer is “Immersion”. Gandhiji, after returning from Africa, immersed himself in the real
Many times we hear the question, "Will Gandhi's techniques work today?" For a systematic innovator, this question is absurd. It is like asking in 2030, "Will iPod work?"
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