Thursday, December 1, 2011

Building creative confidence: Insights from Sukumar Rajagopal of Cognizant

When you ask the question, “How many of you are creative?” to either students or employees in India, very few, perhaps only 20%-30% of people typically raise hands. Why is that? There is a school of thought which says that it is primarily a confidence problem. Ability to be able to speak up your idea in a meeting with managers / senior managers without fear of failure / ridicule is what is called “creative confidence”. Mr. Sukumar Rajagopal, Senior Vice President, Chief Information Officer and Head of Innovation at Cognizant, shared his insights on how to build creative confidence based on his experience of running a managed innovation program at Cognizant. He was one of the guest speakers at our workshop on innovation management at IIMB last month. How do you build creative confidence? Let’s look at a few of the insights Sukumar shared.

If you want to build creative confidence, breakthrough innovation is not a good place to focus

Organizations need all kinds of innovations: breakthrough, enhancing, sustaining etc. However, if you want more people to feel confident about how they can contribute to innovation, then breakthrough innovation is not the right place to focus. Why? First, breakthrough innovations are rare, they don’t happen very often. Second, breakthrough ideas create cognitive dissonance and hence early reactions are usually negative (see a study from Cornell). Robert Goddard, the father of modern rocketry was ridiculed in New York Times in 1921, “Professor Goddard does not know the relation of action to reaction and seems to lack the basic knowledge ladled out daily in high schools”. Note that this does not mean that breakthrough innovation is not important.

Each of us is empowered to implement ideas within our own area of work

When people suggest ideas related to areas where they don’t have any control, then most of them get ignored. This leads to frustration. Lack of empowerment to experiment is a major hurdle in moving ideas forward. Hence, ideas within your own area of work are excellent candidates where the employees can experiment without asking for anybody’s permission. Perhaps one can fail and still continue without worry of any punishment.

When small ideas are implemented, the idea authors build credibility

If you want people take your big idea seriously, you need credibility. How do you build credibility? One way to do it is by implementing small ideas first. If you say that over the last year I have implemented 7 ideas, chances are high people might take your potentially big idea seriously.

Direct creative energies at problems that have stakeholders & sponsors

When we go to people and say, “Give me all your ideas”, we will be inundated with thousands of ideas like “Cafeteria food should be like this” or “Give all of us laptops”. These ideas don’t go anywhere unless they address problems that have stakeholders and sponsors. And when nobody looks at your ideas, the idea authors will get frustrated. Hence it is better to launch idea campaigns with sponsored challenges and make sure that you will implement top 5 / 10 ideas.

Sukumar derives a lot inspiration from Toyota’s kaizen, a system through which employees implement millions of ideas every year. Percent of people who have submitted one or more ideas last year is a good indicator of the creative confidence in the organization.

Related article:

40 years, 20 million ideas: The Toyota suggestion system


  1. Excellent post Vinay. You have captured the key insights from my lecture very well. Thank you very much for the opportunity to speak at your esteemed institution and also for the follow up with a superb blog post. Thanks again.

  2. This post recharged me again on initiative towered idea implementation.Thanks Mr.Sukumar and Mr.Vinay.