Saturday, January 8, 2011

My theme for 2011: Robust intervention for systematic innovation

I had identified four themes for study last year. I pursued all of them – some with more seriousness others with less. This year I am down to only one theme which I call “Robust intervention for systematic innovation”. It means either I am more focused this year or getting older. I have mentioned what systematic innovation means earlier. But what does a “robust intervention” mean?

Bailout of banks, radiation therapy of a cancer patient or launch of an innovation program – each is an example of an intervention. An intervention is an act in order to bring about a change. I read the term “robust intervention” in an interview of Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz in Economic Times. He said, “By that [robust intervention] I mean interventions that are simple enough that you don’t have to very fine tune to make them work, even if you have a bad president like President Bush.” Stiglitz says robust interventions work in spite of dysfunctional systems or flawed institutions. OK, so what is not a robust intervention? Here are a few I came across:

· An initiative in an organization where Economic Value Added (EVA) based scorecard was percolated from CEO all the way to the first level manager. The EVA number was not so easy to compute and was too abstract for many. The initiative was a disaster.

· Telling our son, “Don’t play games on the computer”

· An innovation program whose scope was defined by a set of “creativity” workshops covering as many people as possible. Everybody had good fun. Nothing happened after that.

What are the examples of robust interventions? Here are a few I have written about in this past:

· A G Lafley’s open innovation program at P&G. I wrote about it here and here.

· Jerry Sternin’s community program in Vietnam that reduced malnutrition.

· Dr. Kiran Bedi’s reform program at Tihar Jail

Now, here is what I would like to study further. What are the characteristics of a robust intervention? How do we go about carrying out such an intervention?

Here is my initial take on the characteristics of a robust intervention. I could be wrong here and your inputs will help.

1. Non-dependence on scarce resource: If an initiative depends upon “non-corrupt politician” or “good quality teachers” or “systems thinkers”, it is not a robust initiative. There are just so few of them around. Sugata Mitra’s idea of Self Organizing Learning Environments (SOLE) depends upon teachers not playing any role in teaching. Does it make it a better candidate for robust intervention? I don’t know.

2. Appealing to both the Rider and the Elephant: To borrow Dan & Chip Heath’s metaphor from their book Switch, the intervention should appeal to both the emotional Elephant part of our brain and the ever-analyzing Rider atop the Elephant. The EVA initiative mentioned above did not appeal even to the Rider let alone the Elephant. Telling our son to stop playing the computer game is certainly not appealing to his Elephant.

3. Margin of safety: There is a high chance that the initiative moves 4 steps forward and with some bad luck may move 2 steps backward. However, the initiative carries extremely low probability of moving 2 steps forward and 4 backward. How to create cushion against the Black swans?

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