Monday, December 17, 2012

Catalign Quarterly - December 2012

Design Thinking

Catalign Quarterly is an attempt to put together insights relevant for fostering a culture of innovation in organizations – both for-profit and not-for-profit. Through articles and interviews we explore principles, practices and policies that help organizations become more innovative.

Theme for this quarterly is “Design thinking” – an approach to problem solving that emphasizes empathy, rapid prototyping, process focus and cross-functional collaboration. The main article, 4 tenets of design thinking, explores each of the 4 dimensions.

4 things that impressed me in Prof. Karl Ulrich’s design course at Coursera

Yesterday I finished evaluating the beta prototypes of 5 of my peers and that finishes my 8 week long course “Design: Creation of artifacts in society” taught by Prof. Karl Ulrich of Wharton School of University of Pennsylvania at I enrolled for this free course more out of curiosity. However, the expectations were so-so. I make a living helping people innovate effectively and I thought I would know most of the stuff. Browsing through the textbook written by the instructor (Ulrich) prior to the course only strengthened this feeling. Today I am glad I did the course and I feel I was so wrong about how much I would learn in the process. The experience just blew me off! Here are 4 things that really impressed me about this course.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

4 tenets of design thinking

Design thinking (DT) means different things to different people. Here I would like to present my view of 4 core tenets of DT. This view is influenced by various champions of DT such as D-schools at Stanford and Potsdam (especially Lakshman Pachineela & Prof. Ulrich Winberg), Prof. Karl Ulrich of Wharton, Ideo folks (Kelley brothers: David & Tom, Tim Brown), Gandhi, Steve Jobs, and of course, my own experience as a practitioner and an educator.

Monday, December 3, 2012

4 ways to improve the performance of innovation tournaments

Organizing contests to generate a blockbuster idea or a few best ideas is not a novel concept. You may be familiar with campaigns such as GE’s ecomagination challenge or Economic Times’ “Power of Ideas”. Similarly idea campaigns have been an integral part of innovation programs of various organizations including Cognizant, Intuit, Titan etc. Question is: How do you ensure or at least increase the chance of getting a blockbuster idea through such a campaign? What are the levers that improve the performance of idea campaigns? Prof. Karl Ulrich of Wharton School calls such campaigns innovation tournaments. He along with Prof. Christian Terwiesch (also of Wharton) has written a book titled “Innovation tournament: Creating and selecting exceptional opportunities” that addresses these questions. In this article, let’s look at the 4 levers from the book that Ulrich presents in the Wharton lecture shown above. First let’s start with a definition of innovation tournament.

Monday, November 19, 2012

3 things Mike Markkula did as a champion of “Apple Computer” idea

“The new idea either finds a champion or dies” goes a saying. Well, let’s test it. Did Steve Jobs, the “God of marketing”, need a champion for his “Apple Computer” idea? He did! In fact, Mike Markkula, the person who first championed the idea, played a significant role as a mentor to Jobs in the initial years. “Mike really took me under his wing,” Jobs has mentioned in his biography. What exactly did Mike do? Let’s look at three things in this article.

By the time Mike visited Steve Jobs and his partner Steve Wozniak in Jobs’ garage in the fall of 1976, the duo had already formed a partnership company named “Apple Computer”, had sold almost a hundred Apple I computers and made a profit and had designed a sleeker and improved version – Apple II. The problem was that Apple needed $200,000 to go into production. They had no credibility to raise the money. Their proposal had been turned down by Bushnell of Atari (Jobs’ ex-employer), Chuck Peddle of Commodore (potential competitor) and Don Valentine (founder of Sequoia Capital). “If you want me to finance you,” Valentine told Steve Jobs, “you need to have one person who understands marketing and distribution and can write a business plan.” Mike Markkula turned out to be that person.

Vision & business plan: At age 33 Mike was a millionaire after selling his stock options at Intel after it went public and was practically retired. He got impressed by seeing Apple II demo. He proposed to Jobs that they write a business plan together. “If it comes out well, I’ll invest,” Markkula said, “and if not, you’ve got a few weeks of my time for free.” Jobs took the offer and spent several evenings and some nights at Markkula’s house. For all practical purposes, it was Markkula who wrote the business plan. Markkula expanded Apple vision to go beyond hobbyist market. He visualized that personal computers will be used by “regular people in regular homes, doing things like keeping track of your favourite recipes or balancing your checkbook.”

Investment: At the end of the business plan exercise, Mike was convinced that Apple is a great idea. In fact, he said, “We are going to be a Fortune 500 company in two years.” It took Apple seven years to get there. But more importantly, Mike offered a line of credit of up to $250,000 in return of being made a one-third equity participant. It is interesting to see what Jobs thought of Mike’s investment at that time. Jobs recalls, “I thought it was unlikely that Mike would ever see that $250,000 again, and I was impressed that he was willing to risk it.”

Marketing philosophy: Markkula wrote a one-pager titled “The Apple Marketing Philosophy”. It had three things. The first was empathy, an intimate connection with the feelings of the customer. “We will truly understand their needs better than any other company.” The second was focus: “In order to do a good job of those things we decide to do, we must eliminate all of the unimportant opportunities.” The third was impute: “People DO judge a book by its cover. We may have the best product, the highest quality, the most useful software etc.; if we present them in a slipshod manner, they will be perceived as slipshod; if we present them in a creative manner, we will impute the desired qualities.”

“When you open the box of an iPhone or iPad, we want that tactile experience to set the tone for how you perceive the product,” Jobs says in the biography, “Mike taught me that.”

Photo source:

Friday, November 16, 2012

Highlights of “Design Thinking”: A 2-day workshop held on Nov 7-8 at Bangalore

How do you get deep customer insights? And how do you translate the insights into innovative solutions? The 2-day workshop on Design Thinking Raghu Kolli and I facilitated a couple of weeks back aimed to give a glimpse of the process and associated tools & techniques. Participants came from Chennai, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Bangalore. They represented various functions such as Operations, Delivery, Quality and HR. Their designations were Business Analyst, Senior Business Analyst, Manager, Solution Manager, Senior Associate etc. Here are some highlights from the program.

We had selected payment counter queues as a broad study area. Immersive research was one of the key steps in the workshop. Participants formed 4 teams and each team visited one of: Electricity bill payment & Railway reservation counters at BDA complex, St. Johns Hospital, Petrol pump and Taco Bell / KFC near Sony World junction. They observed, interviewed and gathered data both in written and media form (pictures and videos). By the end of the day-1, each team analysed their data and distilled their insights into a few statements. For example, one insight was: People didn’t mind waiting, if queue moved faster, and were treated well at the end of the wait. Day-1 ended with a presentation of observations and insights from each team (For more see the presentation above).

A good insight is a good beginning. However, for it to translate into a good solution, we need to formulate a challenge which we want to solve. That is where we began our day-2. We had a brainstorming session where the entire group refined the challenge statement which was to be worked upon during the day. The final challenge we defined was: How do we make being served a better experience? Note that the word “queue” is missing from the statement. Why? Because participants felt that the solution space should include ideas where you don’t need to wait in a queue (queue-less service).

If formulation of the challenge was the toughest part of workshop, idea generation was perhaps the easiest. We formed 3 new teams and each team brainstormed and came up with 40-50 ideas within half an hour. They selected 3 to 5 ideas and combined them to form a solution. This was followed by preparation of mock-ups, almost like going back to primary school - cardboard, colour-pens, lego, play-dough etc. We could have easily spent a lot more time doing this activity.

The final step was in-field validation and it typically leads to moments of truth. Does the customer really like the experience we are creating? How can we refine the solution further? Each team selected an assumption in their solution that they planned to validate by going to the field. For example, one team went to St. Johns hospital to test if colour coding of sign boards will help visitor find their way to appropriate counters. After talking to the staff and visitors the team realized that colour coding will help but you will still need somebody to help the visitors. After coming back, the teams refined their solutions and prepared their final presentations. This part reinforced the importance of rapid experimentation and iterative refinement. Final presentation also included a 3 minute skit depicting the solution through a role-play.

We were fortunate to have Lakshman Pachineela, Head of Innovation at SAP Global Delivery and visiting faculty School of Design Thinking, Potsdam, Germany join us during the final presentations and the discussion that followed. Lakshman also shared his insights on practicing design thinking in an organizational setting.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Highlights of “Going beyond jugaad”: A 3-day program on innovation management at IIMB

Like last year, Prof. Rishikesha T Krishnan, Prof. S Rajeev and I facilitated a 3-day workshop on innovation management at IIM Bangalore on Oct 15-17. It was titled: Going beyond jugaad: Building a systematic innovation capability. Participants came from Ahmedabad, Chennai, Gurgaon, Hyderabad, Lucknow, Mumbai, Pune, Thiruvananthapuram and of course, Bangalore. They represented IT (products & services), ITeS, Banking, Automotive and Construction service industries. Their designations varied from Technical Director, GM, DGM, Sr Staff Engineer, Senior Program Manager, Director etc.  It was nice to have PSU representation this time.

Following picture captures the framework we used in exploring various topics related to innovation management. It included: business strategy, its relationship to innovation strategy and specific “how to” practices relevant for improving idea pipeline, velocity and batting average.

We were fortunate to have two guest speakers. Mr. L R Natarajan, COO, New Business, Titan presented an overview of innovation journey at Titan over the past decade. Gopal Devanahalli,VP, Infosys presented strategy, roadmap and challenges of Products & Platforms division of Infosys. We also had a panel discussion on creative problem solving methodologies. Our panellists were Dr. Bala Ramadurai (co-Founder TRIZ Innovation India), Lakshman Pachineela Seshadri (Head, Innovation at SAP Global Delivery and visiting faculty at D-school, Potsdam, Germany) and Raghu Kolli, a Design Thinking expert.

Finally we had participants present status, learnings and actions they planned take back. Here is a summary of participant take-away.

Related articles:

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Can empathy be taught?

“Can empathy be taught?” This question came up when I and my friend Rahul Abhyankar were taking a stroll along Kaikondrahalli lake near our apartment. Rahul asked me, “What is one thing you wish were there as part of your engineering curriculum?” That got me thinking. I am fortunate to have gotten my undergraduate degree from one of the finest technology institutes in India (IIT Bombay).  However, I felt that the curriculum had little that will enable us to define which problems are worth solving. Now I know that empathy is the first step in that direction. Hence, the question, “Can empathy be taught?”

“Empathy” is tricky because it is not so much about a set of techniques that you can teach in the classroom. Or so it seems. Empathy is about understanding where “the other one is coming from”. It is a process of understanding some of the assumptions underlying other person’s context. Sometimes that can be drastically different from one’s own context. And then we end up defining the wrong problems to solve.

My favourite example of a transformation from lack-of-empathy to empathy is depicted in the 1988 Oscar award winning movie Rain Man. It starts by showing a young, ambitious, and selfish Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) discovering that his estranged father has died and has left very little for him of his multi-million dollar property. Moreover, Charlie discovers that most of the property has gone to his brother Raymond (Dustin Hoffman), an autistic savant, whose existence Charlie was unaware of till then. Charlie pretty much “kidnaps” his brother from the mental institute in order to negotiate a deal to get his “fair” share of the property. As a result both brothers end up spending the next six days together on their way en route Los Angeles. At the end Charlie learns to care a little less about the money and care a lot more about his brother. It is a long way from where Charlie starts - calling Raymond “weird” or a “retard”.

Can a simple walk together as depicted in the movie poster generate empathy? MIT Sloan school has experimented with the concept of “empathy walk” in their leadership courses. Prof. Edgar Schein explains that “empathy walk” begins with following instructions to students – “As part of your homework next week you are going to pair up, preferably with someone you do not already know. Your first task will be to get acquainted with each other sufficiently to decide what kind of a person is most different from you concerning occupation, social structure, status, nationality, and so on. Once the two of you have figured that out, find such a person, and interview them about their world. Next week in class we will have each pair report on whom they picked, how they established contact and what they learnt from their get-together.”

How did an empathy-walk participant feel about it? The best source I found is a blog written by Allan, a student at MIT Sloan titled “My first empathy walk”.  In this Allan talks how he and his partner met with a 3x cancer survivor and what he understood by being empathetic. According to Allan, being empathetic is about finding a common ground among your differences. Will there always be a “common ground”? Ancient wisdom says that the answer is “yes”. Sometimes we refer to it as “humanity”. 

MIT is not the only place where empathy is taught. The other places where empathy is being “taught” are schools of Design Thinking in Stanford and Potsdam. Perhaps there are more.

Can we make “empathy walk” exercise a part of every school curriculum? I don’t know. What I know is that I plan to experiment with this concept in my workshops including the upcoming workshop on “Design Thinking”.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Edison syndrome and the pitfall of technology centric innovation approach

Technology creation has been a key driving force for many breakthrough innovations over the past several centuries, be it printing press, electric bulb or PC. However, the same passion that creates technology can also blind the innovator in seeing the real need of the customer he is trying to fulfil. Thomas Edison took the idea of phonograph from concept to cash. However, Edison’s adamant view that “every problem has a technology solution” led to the downfall of his phonograph business. We call this view – that every problem has a technology solution – Edison Syndrome. Let’s see how Edison Syndrome hurt Edison.

Thomas Edison invented phonograph in 1877. However, for the next few years, he decided to focus on commercializing electricity and the practical lamp. In the late 1890s, Edison went back to phonograph after making many improvements to his original invention. He founded National Phonograph Company and by 1904 sold over 113,000 talking machines and seven million records. This meant a market share of more than 60%. By the end of 1920s it came down to 2%. How did this happen?

Edison’s phonograph was rivalled by the Victor’s Talking Machine Company. Victor made technical improvements to the machine as well. However, Victor also focused on packaging – creating an enclosed horn in a handsome wooden cabinet. According to a historian “(Victor) was to make the phonograph for the first time a piece of furniture.” Banker’s panic in 1907 impacted both Edison and Victor. However, Victor’s recovered much faster.

The following quotes from Edison captures the essence of Edison’s approach: “We care nothing for the artists, singers or instrumentalists. All that we desire is that the voice shall be as perfect as possible.” And in another quote, “It is not our intention to feature artists or sell the records by using artists’ name,” Edison wrote, “we intend to rely entirely upon the tone and high quality of the voice.” In fact, Edison called promoting records by celebrity artists “fakery in music”. An Edison dealer asked in 1923, “Where do you expect to be in ten years without an artist of reputation?” And Victor did exactly that. As Edison’s biographer Andre Millard notes, “Many people bought Victor phonographs because they wanted to hear the famous singers who recorded on Victor records.”

What is the moral of the story? Technology creation and improvement is a great source of innovation. However, not every customer need requires a new technology for fulfilling it. Sometimes the differentiation lies in designing a superior customer experience, the way Victor did by creating famous artist labels. Steve Jobs certainly understood this well when he launched iPod a hundred years later.


DeGraaf, Leonard, “Confronting the mass market: Thomas Edison and the entertainment phonograph”, Business and Economic history, Fall 1995, pp 88-96.

Photo from

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Gandhi’s 3rd class railway travel during 1915 and 1917

“I have been in India for over two years and a half after my return from South Africa. Over one quarter of that time I have passed on Indian trains travelling 3rd class by choice,” wrote Gandhi in his long letter to the editor of The Leader of Allahabad written from Ranchi on Sept 25, 1917. He travelled across the length and breadth of India - from Lahore to Madras and from Karachi to Calcutta. What was his 3rd class travel experience like? Following excerpts from the book Mahatma Gandhi and the railways by Dr. Y. P. Anand gives a clue. Note that none of his peers, Jinnah, Motilal Nehru or even Gokhale dared to travel 3rd class that time.

Indescribable filth: We do not know the elementary laws of cleanliness. We spit anywhere on the carriage floor, irrespective of the thought that it is often used as it; the result is indescribable filth in the compartment.

Getting roasted: Sometimes the compartments had no lights. From Saharanpur we were huddled into carriages for goods or cattle. These had no roofs, and what with the blazing midday sun overhead and the scorching iron floor beneath, we were all but roasted.

Ticket booking: (At Burdwan) As soon as the ticket window opened, I went to purchase the tickets. But it was no easy thing to get them. Might was right, and passengers who were forward and indifferent to others, coming one after another, continued to push me out. I was therefore about the last of the first crowd to get a ticket.

Getting shoved in from a window: My bitterest experience was from Lahore to Delhi. It was impossible to find a place in the train. It was full, and those who could get in did so by sheer force, often sneaking through windows if the doors were locked… I had almost given up when a porter discovering my plight said, “Give me twelve annas and I’ll get you a seat.” “Yes,” said I. The young man went from carriage to carriage entreating passengers but no one heeded him. As the train was about to start, some passengers said, “There is no room here, but you can shove him in if you like. He will have to stand…” I readily agreed and he shoved me in bodily through the window. Thus I got in and the porter earned his twelve annas.

Gandhi concludes, “Is it any wonder that plague has become endemic in India. Any other result is impossible where passengers always leave some dirt where they go and take more on leaving.”

I will be traveling III AC from Bangalore to Kolhapur by Rani Chennamma this weekend. I booked my tickets over the Internet. My compartment will be, in all likelihood, clean and it will be cleaned again at Hubli. Is there any chance of me understanding the plight of the man traveling in unreserved compartments? It is not surprising that Motilal Nehru couldn’t even understand the power of “salt march”. His telegram to Gandhi said, “What will lifting a pinch of salt do?”

Friday, September 28, 2012

Catalign Quarterly – September 2012

Catalign Quarterly is an attempt to put together insights relevant for fostering a culture of innovation in organizations – both for-profit and not-for-profit. Through articles and interviews we explore principles, practices and policies that help organizations become more innovative.

Theme for this quarterly is “Building experimentation capacity”. Why worry about building experimentation capacity? Well, how far can you fly with the wings of ideas? Experiments give shape and provide anchors to ideas. Most importantly they also tell us which aspect doesn’t work. For leaders, experimentation provides a better alternative in selecting ideas as opposed to Powerpoint or prejudices.

The main article is “4 levers of building experimentation capacity”. The 4 levers explored are: Right to experiment (RTE), laboratory, innovation sandbox and open innovation. Other articles explore each of these four themes. Mahatma Gandhi was a great experimenter. But how open was he in others experimenting? “Mahatma Gandhi and the Right to Experiment” explores this aspect. This article on Galileo's life explores how an instrument such as telescope can take the experimentation capacity to a new level. 

We may be carrying fixed set of ideas of what a lab might look like. Agastya Foundation shatters the concept by beautifully combining two metaphors: A school in a lab and a lab in a box. Wright brothers epitomized systematic experimentation. This article explores how they increased their experimentation capacity from 1 flight a day in 1900 to 100 flights a day in 1903. What happens when a lab turns into an innovation sandbox? This article based on the Pulitzer Prize winning book “The emperor of allmaladies” by Siddhartha Mukherjee narrates one such story in the journey of cancer research.
Theme for the next quarterly is going to be: "Design Thinking" - very much in line with my next open program (with the same title) to be held on Nov 7-8 in Bangalore.

photo sources: &

Monday, September 24, 2012

4 levers of building experimentation capacity

If you want to promote a culture of innovation, you will need to build experimentation capacity. How do you do it? Well, here are 4 levers you might want to consider.

Right to experiment (RTE): If nobody in the organization has a permission to experiment, then there is no hope for any innovation. Right to experiment (RTE) is a foundation principle on which innovation capacity is built. Many times “RTE” is considered synonymous with Google’s 20% rule or 3M’s 15% rule. According to this rule, every employee can spend up to 15 or 20% of his time working on his own experiments.

I see 2 issues equating RTE with a policy such as Google 20%. One, RTE doesn’t have to be granted to everybody like in Google. It can very well be granted to only those whose idea is passed through a first level of screening or to those belonging to specific departments (or some other policy suitable to your culture). Second, putting a policy in place doesn’t guarantee RTE will be exercised in the organization. For example, Jaruhar, an innovator from Indian Railways, discovered for the first time that he has the permission to experiment when he became member (Engineering) of the Board. By then Jaruhar must have put in a couple of decades of experience in Indian Railways. That’s awfully long time for smart guys like Jaruhar to start experimenting.

You may be a great experimenter and yet as a leader you may not realize the importance of RTE. For example see how Mahatma Gandhi’s view on RTE evolved over the years. Ask yourself: Who has the right to experiment here? Who is actually experimenting? How are we encouraging it?

Laboratory: It is not enough to have the RTE. You need to create a space which gives legitimacy to experimentation & failure – just like a meditation room may give legitimacy to silence. Most of the time, the space is physical which also fosters collaborations. However, sometimes it can also be virtual – e.g. on the cloud. Thomas Edison said, “To invent, you need good imagination and a pile of junk.” A good laboratory makes the junk “useful”. In Ideo, the person looking after a laboratory is called curator. A good laboratory wears past failures with pride on its chest. When a laboratory is accessible to a lot of people, it can build a huge capacity. Perhaps that is why Galileo smiled in spite of his telescope fiasco. Sometimes a laboratory can also be mobile so that it can reach people who don’t have easy access to it. For example, see Agastya Foundation’s efforts in building experimentation capacity in rural schools. Ask yourself, have you created a space for experimentation? Does your lab have adequate tools?

Innovation sandbox: There may be several projects running in a laboratory. However, a time comes when experimentation needs to be focused on a single challenge. What you need is an innovation sandbox – It has focus, massive experimentation capacity and ultra-low cost for each additional experiment. Tata Nano came out of a sandbox. Similarly, Wright brothers created two sandboxes during their flight experiments during 1900-1903. See what happens when a pathology laboratory gets converted into an innovation sandboxfocused on cancer research. Ask yourself, have you built an innovation sandbox?

Open innovation: Procter & Gamble’s connect-and-develop program systematically goes about finding experimentation capacity within P&G’s partnership network. You don’t have to solve all problems internally. Organizations collaborate with academia, Government research labs and with other companies. You can also tap experimenters through open innovation platforms by throwing a challenge and inviting prototypes. To find more about how open innovation challenges work, see the interview of Jayesh Badani, CEO of Ideaken. Ask yourself, have you explored building experimentation capacity beyond your organization?

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Open innovation: Ideaken CEO Jayesh Badani shares his experience

We got an opportunity to talk to Jayesh Badani, CEO of Ideaken, a Bangalore based start-up providing an open innovation platform. Jayesh was one of the panellists at Next Gear, a workshop on innovation leadership I facilitated in July. Ideaken platform is enabling MNCs and social sector solve some of the tough problems they are facing. During the discussion, we explored following questions on open innovation with Jayesh:

  • What is open innovation?
  • How do you formulate the right challenge?
  • How do solvers protect their IP?
  • Have you had customers who announce the challenge, learn from the submitted ideas and not select any?
  • Does every challenge have to result in a prize?
  • Do you help solvers in finding if there is a patent related to their idea?
  • What is the value addition you (Ideaken) do in the whole open innovation process?
Here is a sample Q&A. For complete discussion, please see here.

Q: What is open innovation?

Jayesh: If you look at every innovation, it can be traced back to a simple question, “Can this be done better?” If you ask this question to yourself daily, actually you are innovating. If you ask the same question to your team, you may get better answers. If you ask the question to people sitting in this room, it may add further clarity.

Many companies are dealing with some fundamental problems they can’t solve. They have innovation teams working on these problems. Sometimes there is a mental block that innovation can only happen from within. Sometimes it goes even further when individual says, “It has to be from me, so that I get the credit.” This is changing slowly. A lot of people like C K Prahalad have talked about concepts like co-creation. Some companies have started doing it in a bigger way.

It begins with a challenge – the company wants to solve. Now, formulating a challenge is itself a big step. It is not about the details. Sometimes you can write 10 pages and yet nobody understands it. Depending upon the complexity and clarity associated with the problem, formulating a challenge may take a few days to a few months.

For example, we had this challenge from a food processing company. They have the packaging machines which go fast and pack your food. In this process, air also gets packaged in the packet. From the food point of view, less the air better the shelf life. But unlike items like pen or pencil, you can’t remove all the air from food – air is part of the food sometimes e.g. cake. So the challenge is how to remove maximum air without affecting the product in optimal time. You could slow down the process to do it better. But that affects you productivity – how many packets you can pack in a minute also matters. So in essence even if you can reduce the air by 5-10% then you are talking about a significant gain in product shelf life.

Once such a challenge is formulated and announced, it goes through a clarification phase from interested solves. Someone might say, “I don’t understand this aspect of the challenge.” Or “I think I can reduce the air only so much, is it ok?”  A challenge duration may wary from a month to 3 months. Outcome from short duration challenges are just ideas while some amount of detailed solutions are expected from a longer duration challenge. When we launched this specific challenge related to food packaging, we received solutions from 20 countries. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

Highlights of the Next Gear program on innovation leadership, July 5-6, 2012

I facilitated a 2-day program “Next Gear: Gearing up forinnovation leadership” on July 5-6 held at Hotel Grand Mercure, Bangalore. Participants came from both for-profit and not-for-profit organizations. The objective of the program was to learn how to lead organization’s innovation initiative effectively. Here are some highlights of the program.

Innovation leader’s navigation matrix: It is not enough to know which medicines to take. It is important to know which one to take when. Every organization’s situation is different. Hence, we parameterized the context using a 3x3 navigation matrix (see below). You need to assess if the problem at hand is primarily that of a dry idea pipeline, low idea velocity or poor batting average. Similarly, we need to assess if the situation is primarily an Elephant problem (lack of motivation) or a Rider problem (lack of direction) or both (e.g. see the Elephant-Rider model). Over the 2-days we filled this matrix with various approaches.

2 core interventions: bright spots & challenge book: Then we looked at 2 interventions which we consider as fundamental and applicable in most situations. One, how to run a challenge campaign effectively and two, how to find and clone bright spots. In the process we created a participants’ challenge book. Here is how it looks:

How to improve idea velocity? Next we looked at various ways in which we can improve the rate at which ideas can move forward. One of them was: low-cost high-speed experimentation. Among the many real life examples we looked at, one was the pea-plant experiment performed by the father of Indian cinema, Dadasaheb Phalke a hundred years ago (in 1912). The experiment got him funding for his first film, Raja Harischandra.

Design Thinking vs TRIZ: We ended day-1 with a panel discussion on two creative problem solving methodologies: TRIZ and Design Thinking. Dr. Bala Ramadurai a TRIZ expert and Lakshman Pachineela a Design Thinking expert shared their views on how these two approaches work.

Managing big bets: During this session we looked at various approaches of managing big bets e.g. innovation sandbox. At the end, we had a panel discussion where Dr. Ashwin Naik, CEO of Vaatsalya, Dr. Ishwar Parulkar, CTO, Cisco and JayeshBadani, CEO, Ideaken shared their experiences in managing big bets.

Enabling a culture change: Most innovation initiatives need to enable a culture change as well. How do you do it? Raja Chidambaram a change facilitation consultant and V R Prasanna, CEO of Sikshana Foundation shared their perspectives on the topic.

Participant presentations: Participants presented the two actions they plan to take away from the workshop. Within two months several participants had implemented at least one of their actions such as executing a challenge campaign. Here is a summary of participant take-aways.

Articles summarizing the panel discussions in this workshop:

Enabling a culture change in rural government schools: Prasanna shares Sikshana experience, Sept 15, 2012
Open innovation: Ideaken CEO Jayesh Badani shares his experience, Sept 23, 2012

Source: Phalke’s photo is from the film Harischandrachi Factory.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Role of communication in generating a creative insight

Communication breakdown: Einstein and Bohr were two giant pillars of 20th century physics. However, their communication reached an impasse towards the end of their career in resolving the differences between their theories: relativity and quantum mechanics.  A professor, Hermann Weyl, who was at Princeton when both Einstein and Bohr were there, decided to hold a party so that the two can start talking to each other. During the party, Bohr and his students gathered in one corner of the room and Einstein and his at the other. It just didn’t work. Did this communication breakdown impact the creative momentum in physics? David Bohm and David Peat, authors of “Science, order and creativity”, feel that the answer is “yes”. They feel that physics would have progressed faster if Einstein & Bohr had had better communication. 

Communication, for most of us, is an afterthought i.e. idea comes first and then you communicate it. Bohm-Peat run this logic backwards. They feel that communication plays an important role in how you develop a creative insight. Let’s see how. 

Creative insight: How does creative insight develop? Bohm-Peat illustrate the concept using the story of deaf & blind Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan. When Sullivan came to teach Helen, she met a “wild animal”. Over a period, Sullivan could make Helen more disciplined. However, she knew that that wasn’t the goal. The main problem was: Helen didn’t have the concept: “everything has a name”. Hence, there was no language to communicate. So Sullivan starts playing “it has a name” game with Helen (e.g. see the movie The Miracle Worker, jump to 1:19:30). Whenever she would come in contact with an object – say, water – in bath tub, tap water, stream, water-pump Sullivan would finger-spell the word “water” for Helen. For Helen these were all disparate experiences. Until one day she realizes that there is something common among all these experiences which is called “water” (1:39:05). That was a creative insight.

Thus a creative insight involves establishing connections among two or more unconnected elements in the memory, each forming a new pattern. In Helen's case it involved connecting various memories involving water to the name "water". For Einstein it was connecting the concept of mass to that of energy through an equation, E = mc2

What hampers creative insights? As we form multiple concepts in our mind, over a period the patterns become rigid beliefs. To see new patterns, sometimes we need to let go of old patterns. The more deeply embedded the old patterns are, the more difficult it becomes to form the new ones. The biggest difficulty is that we are not even aware of the deeply embedded patterns. Bohm-Peat call it the tacit infrastructure of our mind.

A beautiful illustration of how this happens is depicted in the movie “The 12 angry men”. The plot revolves around a meeting in a closed room where 12 jurors discuss their opinions to arrive at a verdict for a murder case. Deeply embedded patterns in the form of racial prejudices, stereotypes associated with broken families, slum people etc prevent these men from seeing alternate views of reality. They had reached their verdict even before they arrived in the room and they weren’t ready to budge.

So what do we do? A breakthrough in the movie happens when communication starts flowing among a few of the men. How? As they start arguing, there are moments when attention gets shifted from their position (of say, a “guilty” verdict) to clarifying assumptions behind their opinion. For example, in one scene one juror says, “Let’s talk about the knife the boy used to kill his father” (0:23:39) and another one says, “In fact, I would like to look at it again.” And suddenly the attention shifts to relooking at the knife, where it was purchased, who had seen the boy with the knife etc. This process eventually leads them to see that their so-called strong beliefs are on a slippery ground.

Dialogue: The process of clarifying assumptions during a discussion is also called a dialogue. Nobody can predict how fast physics might have progressed if Einstein and Bohr had continued to have a dialogue. However, it is not very difficult to check if we are spending any time in clarifying assumptions during our discussions. It might suddenly open a door for creating a totally new connection between two unconnected concepts – just like Helen Keller.

Note: “Science, order and creativity” is not a light reading. However, I feel its first three chapters are thought provoking and easier to understand. I would like to thank my friend Rahul Abhyankar for recommending the movie “12 Angry Men” to me.

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