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.

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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?”