Sunday, April 3, 2011

4 types of innovation leaders

Innovation leaders influence innovations and inspire innovators – sometimes for many generations to come. What are the different types of innovation leaders? Let’s look at one such classification: Solvers, surfers, capacity builders and champions.

1. Solver: When Gandhi returned from Africa to India there were many problems he felt drawn to – Lack of vocational education, poverty, discrimination against women, caste system, political struggle. Eventually he focused on only one of them – political freedom. And he attacked the problem in a way that is still inspiring many generations more than half a century after he is gone. Solvers like Gandhi immerse themselves in a difficult problem and are always several steps ahead of their contemporaries in their approach. Other solvers that come to mind are: Muhammad Yunus (Grameen Bank), Baba Amte (Anandwan), James Watt (Steam engine), Thomas Edison (Light bulb), Andrew Wiles (Fermat’s Last Theorem), Steve Wozniak (Apple).

2. Surfer: When ring spindle, a new technology, was brought to the notice of Jamsetji Tata he immediately bought two frames and started experimenting at Empress Mill. Neither any mill in India nor the main supplier from England (Pratt) had thought of adopting the new technology. When Jamsetji encountered a report suggesting possible iron ore deposits in Chamba district, he immediately took a sample to Germany for testing. Surfers are always looking for waves, especially BIG waves. Many times they don’t know where the wave is going to lead them to. Some of my famous surfers include: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, David Grossman (IBM), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Masaru Ibuka (Sony).

3. Capacity builder: When Padmanabh Joshi wrote his PhD thesis – “Vikram Sarabhai: A study on innovative leadership and institution building” from Gujarat University in 1986, the term “innovation” itself wasn’t fashionable let alone “innovation leadership”. And yet he couldn’t have chosen a more apt title for the thesis. Vikram Sarabhai was instrumental in building innovation capacity in India through institutions such as – ATIRA: India’s first textile research cooperative, Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), ORG: India’s first market research organization, IIM Ahmedabad. As if this wasn’t enough, Sarabhai architected India’s space program. The secret, according to him, was in establishing a firm foundation: “The early beginnings of any institution are crucial, and the “culture” (or lack of it) brought the first entrants plays a significant role in establishing norms, procedures and practices” he said. Capacity builders work on various elements of the innovation ecosystem. Another of my favorite innovation capacity builders is: A G Lafley (P&G).

4. Champion: George Fernandes took over as railway minister in December 1989. Next month in January, he called for a board meeting at Raj Bhavan, Lucknow. In his talk he mentioned that there were two projects which were uppermost in his mind and they were his dreams for a long time. One was a railway link between Chithoni and Bogha in Bihar crossing the mighty Gankat river and the other was the west coast railway connecting Bombay and Mangalore (later called Konkan railway). Dr. E. Sreedharan attended the meeting as an engineering member from railways. Fernandez told Sreedharan in the meeting, “I will depend on you for realizing these two projects”. Fernandes neither had the technical know-how nor had the resources. But he used his influence with Chief Ministers like Mulayam Singh and Lalu Prasad Yadav and senior ministers like Ramakrishna Hegde and Madhu Dandavate and removed the hurdles for each of the projects. Champions support others’ ideas and help them move forward faster. Other champions I can remember are: the role Einstein played for Satyendra Nath Bose or the role Patrick played for Grossman at IBM.


Vikram Sarabhai: A life by Amrita Shah

Story of Konkan Railway of India by E. Sreedharan


  1. Quite interesting insights and thoughts.

    In the context that India has won the Cricket World Cup 2011, how would you classify our captain MS Dhoni?

  2. Thanks, Vyankatesh. It is a great question. I am a big fan of Dhoni. However, I am not an expert on cricket. Perhaps you or someone else can take a shot.

    We can see that IPL has been a capacity building idea for Indian cricket. It is not only creating a good pipeline but also giving opportunity to players to work in cross-cultural environment.

  3. Nice article VPD. Very interesting.

    Let me attempt this Dhoni question. First look gives a feeling that he is a bit of both. I then shortened into Champion and Surfer. I'd classify the great Mike Brearly as Capacity Builder and Imran Khan as Solver. In the second pass, I ruled out Champion also and put Sourav Ganguly over there. That leaves Surfer and guess he fits into it. He is experimenting all the time, not afraid to go against conventional wisdom, use his instincts and in his own subtle way gets what he wants (Jobs though may not be very subtle).

    My two cents.

  4. Vinay,

    Thanks for sharing Sreedharan's Konkan Railway pdf. It made an interesting reading and tells what a determined person can accomplish. I was studying in NITK, Surathkal when Konkan railway work was going on a few hundred meters from our hostel. We were regularly going over there to "inspect" the progress and there used to be progress everytime we saw. I had also read somewhere that the land acquisition has happened keeping in mind track doubling. I also read/heard that the road over bridges are built keeping in mind the track doubling and allowing space for electrification. The bridges visible from the road along the west coast are all elegant and shouts distinction. Well done Sreedharan, we need more people like you.


  5. Thanks RamP for your insights. Dr. Sreedharan is my role model for technical leadership in India. In his speech in 2009 when he received Economic Times award for corporate excellence, he mentioned about his agony on Delhi Metro decision about Broad gauge vs Meter gauge. A true sign of a technical leader.

    I wrote about it here

  6. Adding the input I received from my friend Madhav Manthri, Associate Vice President at ADP, India:

    Very interesting perspective with excellent examples. It is a good starting point for an aspiring innovation leader to identify himself in one of these categories and stimulate innovations. But, I reckon an innovation leader must possess all these qualities, maybe in different quantity ratios, to be successful. For Example, Gandhiji may have immersed himself in the problem to solve it but if we go a little deeper, he also noticed the wave (Desire for Freedom) - surfer, developed several institutes / systems / initiatives to build the capacity like Salt Satyagraha, Boycott foreign goods, etc – Capacity Builder and cleared obstacles for several levels of leaders to take the movement forward – champion.

    As Vyankatesh was asking about Dhoni, we can relate this to him as well. He had all the four qualities in him and again in different quantities.

  7. Inputs from my friend Chakravarthy Malla:

    Typically, classification will be based on some parameters, where each classification member are generally exclusive … In here, there seem to be a possibility of some leaders being classified under more than one category, e.g., Bill Gates is both Surfer and Capacity Builder. I believe there is something missing or I am not getting it.