Saturday, January 30, 2010

Mahatma Gandhi and the heart and the soul of systematic innovation

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 India and because of that he was able to connect with the problems of the ordinary man. Many others remained urban gurus. Thus, I believe that, immersion – understanding the anxieties and aspirations of your customers / potential customers – is the soul of systematic innovation. And Mahatma Gandhi epitomized it.

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?"

Related articles:

Immersive research: P&G’s approach of getting deep customer insights

Discipline of full body immersion: lessons from Ganesha and Bill Gates


  1. Nice Observation and very well linked to Systematic Innovation.

    Point is "Systematic Experimentation" & "Immersion" are heart and Soul of "Systematic Innovation" respectively.

    According to you, where does "Influencing Ability" stand to implement an extra ordinary idea?

  2. Good one Vinay. I am pleasantly surprised as I have been siting Gandhiji's example as an innovation that improved a system's performance.

    Gandhi has been romanticized too much and god like. Fact is, he is an utter practical man if we can understand him. When he said, no violence, what he said was there is no need for violence.

    The British are there for Cheap Labor, Abundant natural resources and a huge market to sell. All that Gandhi did was kill each of them. Called it non-cooperation. The day it becomes a not so profitable the engagement India is, they would have to leave. Simple isn't it :)

    But he packaged it so much to attract Indian sentiments, claiming the higher moral grounds by symbolic acts of simple style, non violence and what not.

    Similar stories we can red about Martin L King Jr. ( Specifically the Montgomery Bus Boycot


  3. Very apt and perceptive observation. Since you have refined your thinking about innovation, experimentation to such a high level, you could make the connection between the practice and the principle.

    Now, it is understandable why people still don't get Mahatma Gandhi's ways even today. It is very easy to criticize than to get the logic and appreciate.

    Thanks a ton for the post.

  4. Good observation Vinay. I would suggest you may do a bit deeper dive in this and get more understanding and data points if any.


  5. Good observation Vinay. I liked your last set of statements....For a systematic innovator, this question is absurd. It is like asking in 2030, "Will iPod work?"
    K. Ganesh

  6. Vinay, this is again a nice piece of analysis from you. I agree with that. Also, it is important to note the 'selflessness' practiced by Gandhiji. I am surprised - why this is not understood the same way by the companies addressing the BoP market. They always talk about the 'need' based product innovation (with vested interest to see that they are able to sell the new product any how). What is implicit in Gandhiji's approach is well grounded and defined 'purpose' and not narrowly defined 'needs'. It is a philosophical concept, often misunderstood or not understood at all. Thanks for raising this dimension.

  7. Harshal,

    If I were to add a third element (say, the lungs of systematic innovation), I would put "influencing" - more specifically "communication" and "collaboration". Here is what Louis Fischer recounts Gandhi's plan in "The Life of Mahatma Gandhi":

    Had Gandhi gone by train or motor-car to make salt, the effect would have been considerable. But to walk for twenty four days and rivet attention of all India, to trek across a countryside saying, "Watch, I am about give a signal to the nation" and then to pick up a pinch of salt in publicized defiance of the mighty Govt and thus become a criminal, that required imagination, dignity and the sense of showmanship of a great artist.

    It appealed to the illiterate peasant and it appealed to a sophisticated critic and sometime fierce opponent of Gandhi's like Subhash Chandra Bose who compared the Salt March to "Napoleon's march to Paris on his return from Elba".

  8. nice info
    i liked it
    very very much
    its superb

  9. Nothing but agree with your words... great way to imagine and imbibe Gandhi into oneself. dr mandi . professor of dhandha..mumbai 09869464525

  10. Dear Vinay,

    Very well written...

    best wishes,
    Ramya TV