Innovation Culture


Yesterday while discussing something with a friend, the conversation veered to innovation and lack of innovation in India. Now this post can either be criticized for running down so many good things that India has done (and all criticizers are requested to name at least one Indian innovation to prove the point… I will actually compile the list and put it up as my acceptance that I was probably wrong) or people would turn around and say its a matter of perspective and how innovation can be viewed.

A quick hunt for definition on Webster’s Online Dictionary throws up the following:

1. A creation (a new device or process) resulting from study and experimentation.[Wordnet]
2. The creation of something in the mind.[Wordnet]
3. The act of starting something for the first time; introducing something new.[Wordnet]
4. The act of innovating; introduction of something new, in customs, rites, etc.[Websters]
5. A change effected by innovating; a change in customs; something new, and contrary to established customs, manners, or rites.[Websters]

I believe that over a period of time these definitions have evolved. To me innovation is a product or a service or even a custom that was introduced for the very first time.

The very first radio was an innovation. The first ever TV was an innovation. Walkman was an innovation. First automobile was an innovation (though there is a conflict in my mind if it can be so or the first ever horse drawn cart was the innovation). The point here is something that happened for the first time. Everything else that followed was an improvement on the initial idea. LED TV today is the result of constantly seeking ways of enhancing the experience. The basic benefit is viewing images on a screen.

Now notice all the above examples. None of them happened in India. While talking about innovations, my friend mentioned Mr Narayanmurthy and Mr Premji and I was quick to differ. Infosys or Wipro did not invent anything. They took advantage of changing global dynamics and a dearth of qualified people and started addressing the service economy of the west at a cost which was ridiculously low in comparison to what the western world was paying their employees. Did they innovate? Did they come  up with an idea that impacted a mass market? I don’t think they did.

Aamir Khan’s character in 3 Idiots makes a very valid point when he talks about our education system. Our education system is geared to churn out worker bees. It is drilled into our head in every class that we must follow what is being taught. Any deviation leads to deduction in marks. As an aside, in US, almost every year the spelling bee contest is won by an Indian because we are so good at mugging! I have caught snippets of the contest and I wonder if those kids would even know the meaning of the complicated words that they are spelling out. More important how many people would use such arcane words in daily communication. I have heard enough of people mentioning that the intellect level and knowledge of Indians in US is way ahead of kids of american origin. And how our syllabus in India is so complete. And the point being?? Where does it lead us? Education in India like I mentioned is about producing worker bees. Emphasis is on “job oriented courses” or courses that can get a person to become an engineer, a doctor or an MBA. Where is the course or emphasis for a student to explore… to try out things… to break the convention and indulge in independent thinking?

And it is no wonder that we carry this very blinkered and rigid thinking into our work environment (stands to reason after the education we have had). We follow company policy… rules and regulation… structure and working culture of the organization. Because we all want to succeed and move up the heirarchy. (That is the whole point of our existence… to move up the ladder). Any employee who dares to think different or go against the stream… well there would be enough examples that can be cited by readers of this post. Conventional wisdom is held up as the way to go and woe befell anyone who questions that in an organization. “Not on our time or our money buddy”

Conventional wisdom says that Unilever advertising would strictly follow a certain format because it is well reasearched format. Hmmm anyone has ever tried to see how things can be if the set pattern was not followed? Conventional wisdom says that a telecom company looking for a certain position in marketing would only look at a telecom professional (supposedly you want a person who would hit the ground running and would have knowledge of the market… but hell.. that person would be like frog in the well who would not have any new ideas!)

Prime Time on TV is supposed to be 9 PM. Thats conventional wisdom. Now how did that come about. I know there would be tons of research to support the fact. So there we have every channel vying for that time slot to put up there best programs. I say break the mold! If you are good enough as a program.. you will get viewers!

If India needs to truly be a global leader… then there has to be transformation of huge proportions that is required in our mindset. We need to innovate rather than peddling minor improvements in technology or a process that already exists. And we have to understand that an innovation is truly an innovation which can impact a large population. Getting businesses to perform better or improve efficiency of an organization are small ideas aimed at benefitting that particular business or an industry for making more money. Think big ideas… and more importantly run with the ideas. Failures, if they happen… they happen because the people around you have not removed the excuse of conventional wisdom from their sub conscious.

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4 thoughts on “Innovation Culture

  1. Excellent blog…. and i agree…. we aren’t innovators, we are followers. and do it rather well at that. At times better than the creator. which is why the biggest innovators and the honchos outsource the work to us..even the thinking bit. Its only the initial idea part where the indian bulb is kinda dim…

    by the way talking of innovation… three hoots for Aryabhatt for ZERO and vytsyana for KAMASUTRA.

    And yeah…. Indian politicians for “jugaad”

    1. Hi Sumit,

      while I absolutely agree with Zero and it happened when way back when India is one of the more advanced civilizations, Kamasutra just put a different spin on the act. Taj Mahal an innovation? And even if it is.. unfortunately it is not Indian (sure it is in India). It was build my a Mughal.. an invader.

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