Last week, I finished co-teaching the course “From jugaad to systematic innovation” with my friend Prof. Rishikesha Krishnan at the Indian School of Development Management. In the last class, Rishi had invited Selco founder Harish Hande as a guest speaker. In a short span of half an hour, Harish managed to instill a big dose of creative energy in the class. He told us about the type of thinking he felt is required while innovating in the social sector. Here are 3 types of thinking Harish highlighted:
Holistic thinking: Harish said, “One of my biggest barriers is the ability of people to think holistically”. People tend to identify themselves with a particular discipline such as mechanical engineering, marketing, finance but nobody says, “I am a solution provider”. We get caught up in our degrees and don’t think of what it takes to bring the solution to the doorstep of the customer.
Selco has labs in Kalahandi in Odisha, Williamnagar in Meghalaya, Guwahati and Bangalore where new programs are designed. And every program design team includes an architect, an engineer, a doctor, a finance person etc. Sometimes it also includes an anthropologist and a Yakshagana artist. They have to answer the question, “Is the solution affordable in the long run?” A solution that is low-cost today could be unaffordable in the long run. For example, a solar-powered sewing machine may enable a woman to produce 8 shirts a day instead of 2. However, if she is not able to find a market for her products then we end up creating technology debt. Hence, program design teams are encouraged to spend more time exploring the problem and think long term before they think of solutions.
Cheat thinking: How do we cheat from other processes? That is, how do we copy the seed of an idea from other working examples? Harish illustrated this idea with the mid-day meal scheme. A mid-day meal attracts kids to school in order to get nourished. In a similar way, could kids be attracted to school in order to get portable batteries charged so that their houses get lighting at night? With this observation Selco’s “Light for education” program was born where a school becomes a hub for the solar infrastructure in the village, a go-to place to charge your batteries. If American Express comes up with a new financial product, could one see if there is a seed of an idea there that can be adopted? Or could we borrow something from the vocational curriculum in German schools? What Harish calls cheat thinking is similar to what I call metaphoric thinking, a solution-centric approach to problem-solving.
Open-source thinking: A question was asked, “How do you see the role of competition in the development sector when it comes to innovation?” Harish said, “Social sector promotes collaboration on paper. But it is the worst collaborator. Competition in the social sector is much more cut-throat than in the private sector.” He added, “The aim of many of the non-profits should be to kill themselves, not to grow.” He felt we need open source thinkers whose end goal is how many people will get benefitted rather than how do I keep it to myself. There is hero-worship in the sector where people are recognized by the awards they amass. “Collaboration is far away,” Harish said. He hoped that program design with holistic thinking would promote collaboration from early stages.It was a privilege to listen to Harish and thanks to Rishi for making this event happen.