Catching the 'I' for Innovation

[G Ravindran]


Often, innovation and creatiivity are used synonymously. One is a product of the other…ie innovation is really the outcome of the moment when creativity finds ‘application’. It follows therefore, that innovation can be better addressed by not losing sight of and enhancing our understanding of creativity.

The underlying theme of this conceptual paper focuses on the existence and the role of ‘inhibitors’ to creativity (and thereby to innovation). This treatment looks at inhibitors primarily at two levels. One, at the level of the ‘individual’ and the other at the level of the ‘organisation’. Together, these constitute most of the real road-blocks to the prevalence of innovation.

Therefore, "catching the ‘i’ of innovation" is about understanding these inhibitors and then looking at how we can do something about it.

The fundamental nature of these constructs will find resonance in most walks of life. It is the intent of this paper to look at innovation-in-situ within the specific frames of industry and business.

'...any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex …it takes a touch of genius, and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction…’ Albert Einstein
Innovation ... and the people dimension

Say 'people' ... somewhere, somehow it does not seem to be about ‘me’ but about some faraway, abstract, non-entities that we can refer to in the third person. From an industry context, there appears to be two distinct groupings ... ‘people’ referring to employees, and ‘people’ referring to the rather ubiquitous ‘customers’.

Organisations as a rule state that ‘people’ are their most important asset.
Organisations also as a rule, state that they are customer centric/oreiented.
Now consider that in a broad context, ‘people’ are either existing employees and customers of today, or have the potential to be employees or customers tomorrow.

Viewed in this light, it does appear strange that businesses are ‘organized’ and constructed with one category of ‘people’ clearly demarcated from the other. Employees on the inside, and customers on the outside. Seperated by walls, fences, security, controls etc.

At a high level, philosophically, innovation in industry is ‘limited’ verily by this restricted permeability between the two sets of people .. employees and customers. Current ways and models of doing business actively discourage fungibility between these apparently different ‘sets’. These models restrict, and increase the gap & reduce the ability to pro-actively anticipate the ‘needs’ and ‘possibilities’ at the customer’s end. This deprives ‘people’ (from both sets) of the ‘oxygen’ … the excitement of challenging and operating in the untested, unknown… the oxygen on which creativity and innovation thrives.

At the second level, current processes & structures of ‘organsation’, are clearly made for efficiency, replicability & scale rather than creativity innovation. Mechanisation and assembly-line approaches have encouraged internal ‘people’ to perform faster & more, rather than think beyond what is in the rule-book. Further, the continued over-emphasis on ‘best-practice’ (which itself means that somebody has already done that before) has encouraged a ‘copy’ and ‘conform’ mind-set, that has actually depleted this ‘oxygen’ from the work-environment.

At the third level, that of the individual, multiple forces are at work. The effect of the above ‘philosophy’ and ‘mind-set’, that has for generations made ‘parent-employee-people’ operate and behave in a ‘command and control’ setting, has translated to similar behavior in the family context…or vice-versa. The family and social setting has ingrained the virtues of ‘following’, and becoming like somebody, rather than nurture the natural inclination of child/future employee/people. Similar experience and expectations in schools and ther social settings, has practically cut-out the very NEED for oxygen and let people live with the results of occasional and accidental innovation.

Innovation in industry has nevertheless remained a hot buzzword. Globally, organisations like Apple and Google from the developed markets are percieved as breaking the mould and getting known for innovative products and services. These however seem to come from the work-shop, the result of pure-play creativity, hi-investment, hi-risk efforts that are envisioned and executed on mega-budgets. Indian organisations, like others from evolving markets, are also singing the innovation tune, but these efforts appear to be driven more from a ‘need’ perspective, be it the offshore delivery model of Infosys, the Nano car from Tata, or the Aakash Tablet PC.

At an high (esoteric?) level, in either case, the purpose of ‘innovation’ seems rather limited to provide competetive edge/advantage. Organisations strive to bring in products and services which ostensibly elevate customer satisfaction to delight. And, in a relative marketplace, speed to market & skimming low hanging fruit majorly drives the innovation engine. There now appears a case to address the ‘core’ of the matter, which requires more efforts to sustain value-add inclusively, over the long-term, impacting multiple eco-systems within society. There appears a case to look for solutions that contribute to making life easier, better, richer, in some way or the other that is beneficial to ‘people’ ..both internal and external.

The recent economic crisis is having its own impact. The European Commission recognised that growth based on knowledge and innovation is ultimately the bedrock of a more sustainable future (URB Act, European Commission). Acting quickly, many industries resort to quick-fixes, including top-down approaches to drive innovation. Strategy is formulated at the top and instructions passed down the organisation, to be implemented. However, some quarters recognise that Innovation requires ‘rewiring’ of organisations for creativity and growth (McGregor 2006). Such rewiring demands that organisations review and refresh themselves, their policies, procedures and practices and as required, develop whole new understanding / definitions.

This ‘rewiring’ is the burning-platform for this paper.
“Catching the ‘I’ of innovation” is done in two parts
A. addressing the ‘what’ ie the core ‘inhibitors’ that come in the way of creativity & innovation
B. addressing the ‘how’ by relying on Kurt Lewin’s lens of the Unfreeze, Change and Refreeze
Catching the ‘I’ of Innovation … INHIBITORS

A series of surveys by BCG in the past few years found that “not creating a culture that supports innovation” is one of the biggest possible reasons for the failure of organisations to innovate (BCG 2012). Conservative cultures are clearly content with ‘incremental’ innovation, whereas others with larger risk-appetites move to ‘disruptive or breakthrough’ innovation. At a higher level, internal organisational culture is also impacted by external environs; for instance, organisations in economically richer environs have greater propensity (& ability) to innovate more to satisfy needs higher-up on Maslow’s heirarchy.

Edward Deming discusses how leadership is responsible for the majority of the successes or failures in an organisation (Kuyatt 2011). When leadership has a short-term outlook and the focus is on quick and assured success, innovation is in baby steps, with local optimisations and tactical succcess. Workforces may be endowed with latent talent, but it is upto leadership to leverage this potential.

The synapse between leaders & culture, provides the space to view the critical linkages through which we can better understand why organisations fall short in terms of tapping this potential for innovation. Accidental successes apart, the very nature of innovation implies a high ‘risk-quotient’, with every success being preceded by many faliures, sub-optimal applications, or low value new-ness. On the other hand there is also a low ‘need-quotient’; something which creates the ‘push’, the urge or drive, and often ‘pushes’ us to move away from normal, trodden ways. Both these elements are manifest at the level of the individual and the organisation.

The interplay of high-risk-quotient, and low-need-quotient at the synapse, where leaders and culture operates, give rise to ‘Inhibitors’ … inertia-causing factors, that deter or stall people from looking at things differently and/or finding more effective solutions.

1 - the external inhibitors in ‘organisation’
The dictionary definition of ‘organisation’ is a social unit of people, systematically structured and managed, to meet a need or pursue collective goals on a continuing basis. Much of today’s management thought owes its origin, or atleast bears a startling resemblance to many of the practices originating from within the armed forces. Unity of command, well defined heirrachies and roles, control structures, strict discipline, discharge of responsibilities etc, are all still relevant and imperative in a certain context. There is also great merit in the argument that the need for ‘order’ caused societies to ‘organise’, and non-abundant resources ensured that people learned to make-do with things, at best with marginal changes. More recently, the Industrial revolution saw ‘industry’ organising these principles and practices, and leveraging mechanisation to mass-produce/consume goods.

The above paradigm has wilynily stayed in today’s model of “organisation”. Structures reflect command & control, procedures require compliance, processes demand conformity, expectations are defined by standards, excellence is related to best practice and non-deviation.
Enter, the push for ‘innovation’.

Industry now finds itself at an interesting inflection point. To survive and thrive, Industry of today, and especially that of tomorrow, needs to address some fundamental questions
1. Has the context (that businesses opererate in today) really not changed so much, that it is ok for organisations to continue operating in similar models that developed in the past?
2. What kind of models will provide the space for people (employees and customers) to enhance innovation?

It is a moot question whether todays model of ‘organisation’ is the fertile culture where innovation can germinate and thrive…. Today’s models are out of sync and need to change (if not mutate) and adapt.

(a section on ‘The changed context for organisations’ ... follows later in the paper).

2 - The internal inhibitors in ‘people’

Peter Senge “…many innovative ideas fail to be translated into meaningful strategic actions because these ideas are often at odds with the mental models prevailing ..” (Senge 1992).

I often find myself not knowing why I conduct myself in a certain way. On hind sight my rational self is able to see the divergence between what I should have done, and what I actually did. Labelling it as ‘instinct’ is one option, but then I wonder at the source of ‘know how’ that guides instinct. Natural science attributes some part of it to my DNA, but behavioral-science makes me look elsewhere. Popular studies have pointed me in the direction of my own ‘experiences’, especially during my formative years, that seem to have created some psychological coding, which has become a ‘source’ code of know-how that guides my today’s functioning and behavior.

I have vivid memories of home and school, of time and task discipline, staying in line, doing what I am told, not to argue, etc, and all this under the constant threat of punishment for not obeying/complying. My natural tendency towards sports was okay, as long as it did not impact my studies etc. Granted, I derived a tremendous lot of good that from all this.

While it is not my intent to ‘judge’ my past, I often reflect on the ‘impact’ that so many years of conformance and obedience has had on my ‘learning psyche’, and how it continues to impact my ability to think, act, behave differently when faced with a new situation or challenge, even today.

There is adequate research available to establish the effect of external conditioning (both deliberate and unintended) that most individuals are subjected to, since early childhood. In most cultures, peer or sibling comparisons is rife and sets social standards of acceptable behaviour. Comments like “study like your elder brother”, “don’t eat with your left hand”, “don’t dress like your friend”, “don’t question your elders” etc is like constant tinkering that ‘dents’ the psyche, impacting individual development, and drawing real / artificial boundaries within which to live. Over the years, this conditioning continues to prevail, often drawing self-made boundaries. We rely on these ‘mental models’ which we hold strongly (as internal convictions, deeply held, often subconciously), to guide our outlook and influence how we operates in the world.

The challenge of Innovation in industry, is therefore to address these fundamental challenges faced by individuals inside organisations.
Dynamic equilibrium ... Catching the ‘I’ of Innovation

Change is inherrent in innovation. The Kurt Lewin model, serves as a base framework for change … from organisation’ to ‘non-organisation’ to ‘enterprise’ ... to address the innovation challenge in industry and enhance a culture for innovation.

Dynamic equilibrium
Dynamic .. movement, purposeful, action
Equilibrium .. balance, fluidity, latency

Lewin’s model, and looking at the change process using ‘water’ as a metaphor, captures the ambivalence of dynamic-equilibrium.. the state of being of the organisation, the state of flux, and the state of becoming an enterprise, by Catching the ‘I’ of innovation.

Unfreeze .. the organisation
People, culture, leaders.
Unlike machinery, software and tax laws, managing people and taking them successfully through a change involves unpredictability. Any degree of uncertainty brings along anxieties, and fears, especially of the ‘unknown’.

Highlighting the ‘inevitability’ (Ted Childs) of change, and visualising the unknown is the beginning of the unfreezing process, and defines the leaders. A powerful driver of change is recognising the fact that these leaders (changers) have nothing to do with heirarchy; these are people who sense and push for change themselves from wherever they are, (and not at all top-driven). Hierarchial role-holders only need to see that these ‘changers’ have the space to move.

The most compelling case for ‘unfreezing’, is the changing marketplace of tomorrow. Broadly this can be approached in two ways

Latent, unstated, intrinsic desire
This taps the intrinsic desire of people to be seen as different, and to create and build new things. It taps the hitherto unseen potential of the market to absorb newness. When businesses build value propositions with products that satisfy unspoken needs that go beyong todays’ reference points, it often changes the course of the business and the market. Apple changed the way customers use media with its iTunes online store, iPod, iPhone, iPad and iCloud storage, which were all created to address the unspoken need to integrate information across various devices. Much before ‘fortune at the bottom of the pyramid’ became a marketing strategy, Chinni Krishnan sensed the opportunity to make new age products affordable to the common man. Chik shampoo sachets stormed the market despite the market not having asked for it.

Visible, external, uncontrollable force
When a market player launches a new product or service, others have to find a way with comparable offerings to stay relevant in the market. This push-factor is an uncontrollable strong force that leaves businesses no option but to change. Years back, Kodak ruled the photography market with its film, processing technology and cameras. Digitalisation eliminated the need for film, processing, & soon phones came with built-in cameras. While market realities changed, Kodak initially resisted the need to change. What happened to competitors like Nikon and Canon is part of business folklore. Whats not often recognised is the reslience of Kodak’s people in successfully reacting with innovative shifts to printing, instant photography solutions and kiosks.

Closer home, the car-stories begin with Ambassador and go onto nimble competition from Maruti. With the market opening up in 1993, the influx of newer players, models, features etc not only forced HM but also Maruti Suzuki to innovate and come out with Zen, Esteem, Swift etc. What is not examined is how-come Hindustan Motors is still around and with plans to thrive in a fiercely competetive market. Both approaches, tap into the vast potential within people to innovate. Either with enthusiasm to create a visualised future, or react with resilience to combat and survive.

Unfreezing the organisation starts with visualising the inevitable change, letting leader-changers emerge from across the hierarchial structure, and letting them communicate with ‘people’ (individuals and teams) to create the ‘fluidity’ where new ways to cope or succeed can happen.

This initiates the culture where people look at the future as their own enabling them to act appropriately. Remember The Titans show this piece of a success-move, where a midfielder ‘replaces’ himself, by telling his coach that he cannot keep pace with their opponent’s centre-forward. Getting people to bring such skin-to-the-game is the way to ‘unfreeze’ and prepare for newness.
Changing … to the non-organisation
There is a lot of literature on managing change effectively. It is recognised that the greatest challenge is around the people processes. Changes can be mutative and radical like that of Nokia changing from a paper & cable conglomerate to making cellular phones. Or like that of Imperial Tobacco Company moving to ITC and becoming known for its world class hotels and as a widely diversified corporation.

The Changing Context
For every success there are many that don’t make the turn. The difference between success and failure lies in the context and how we leverage it. Much of the changed context has to do with areas like Information technology and globalisation. The contours of the emerging work-force is another dimension that businesses need to start paying heed to, in order to make the transition.

More numbers, young, better informed, connected, with more aspirations (thanks to instant, intense communication), understand their rights, want to do more, less willing to be bystanders… just to name a few qualitative traits that will proliferate in future. Very different from the previous generation of role & JD bound employees who (to make the point) looked at one-life-one-job, grateful for livelihood, climbing the social order, with links to rural / agrarian backgrounds, often close to joint-family etc. Even a cursory understanding of this emerging work-force of our future, throws up the divergence (incongruity ?) of ‘placing’ them in current ‘organisations’.

Re-wiring the Organisation
The conventional ways of yore, preferred options till date, have been to let / tell this emerging work-force of tomorrow to fit-in, learn the ways of old’, do your job and get on with life. For Catching the ‘I’ of innovation, however, businesses need to look at other ways that will better leverage this emergent work-force. The proposition is to move the ‘model’ of organisation, and hasten it along its path of change, to becoming tomorrows’ Enterprise.
An intermediate step is to set the dynamics for a state of non-organisation.

The outside-in canvas
This is about the external environment in which people find themselves during ‘work’
This involves a review, refresh of all the ‘external’ aspects that govern the work-life of employees (Staff) and cover five of the seven elements (strategy, structure, systems, skills, style) (McKinsey 7-S framework). The seventh element ‘shared values’ may also be addressed if the ‘sharing’ requires updating. To begin with, we may exclude statutory compliance, tax rules, government mandatory disclosures etc from this review, but most other ‘organisation’ requirements need to go under this lens / scalpel.

The only key functionality to be retained is ‘relevant value’ (tested against the need to create a culture that supports innovation to create the visualisation).

At each level of the 7-S framework (McKinsey) more relvant options are considered and laid out. At the Structure level, it could mean moving from uni-polar functional org.structures to multi-polar result-driven paths. At the systems level it could mean changing the ‘schedule of authority’ to a system of empowered decision making where levels and functions give way to ‘closest to customer’.

Enterprises will need to view such ‘refresh’ as investments which have an element of risk and a ROI associated with it. For example, the post-it company 3M launched 15% time-off from regular work for its employees to chase rainbows and hatch their own ideas & the enterprise recognised such needs as way back as 1948. More recenetly, inspired by 3M, Google adopted the 20% creative time off, which they say gave birth to Gmail, Gmail Labs and Google Earth (Goetz 2011).

Clearly all this might require businesses to move away from strict operating manuals, rule books, play books, and let people focus on the spirit of doing things rather than the letter of the rule. An interim stage will be the evolution of general guidelines rather to be used as guiding principles rather than.

This outside-in working creates the fluid envirnment creating the necessary flexibility & space for people to bring more of themselves into the enterprise.

The inside out canvas
I remember the days, when I owned my first Lambretta scooter, and then the Ambassador car. A dent on the bumper meant a drive to the local mechanic who would ‘tinker’ to ‘even’ the dent, apply putty, and paint it over with a brush…a far cry from spray painting or complete replacement of the bumper per-se. Over the weeks, the paint would settle in, revealing a ‘patch’ which would proclaim ‘accident vehicle’ and lower its market value.

People go through life denting themselves, and letting the patches show (often unconciously). With the overarching emphasis on leveraging and allowing people to bring out their true capabilities & potential, non-organisations help individuals work through their ‘dents’ and rechart their lives for growth, development & fulfillment. This calls for ‘real’ investment in developing people; not just their technical skills, but also their basic proficiencies that can come forth and provide a fountain head of talent/capabilities from within the individual / enterprise.

In this, the role of HR professionals also evolves to higher levels of value-add by ‘knowing people best’, and enabling their holistic and real development. By bringing valid know-how and processes to better understand and uncover people-potential (behavioral process work) , HR not only impacts the business but also the people themselves, thereby sustaining meaningful & long-term impact. This intends going beyond current levels of coaching and mentoring that start drawing people out towards their future roles and that of the business.

Personally, I went through ISISD as an intern, and experienced desired behavior changes that impacted both the self and the business enterprises I related with. I have taken such process-work into some of todays enterprises, and also seen its influence through the work of other collegues. I know this can also be referenced to the work of other institutions like ISABS, NTL and Tavistock which interalia, based its work on Psychoanalysis (Sigmund Freud), Gestalt (Yontef 1993) and T- groups. These ‘people processes’ and know-how, have long remained in the fringe of business entities and need to become mainstream to enable people work from the inside-out of their self, to create tomorrow’s enterprise. They are critical to ‘release’ individuals from their ‘pre-conditioned’ shackles and overcome their ‘inhibitions’ that are blocking the free-flow of new thoughts, behavior and action that will enable innovation.
Refreeze ... the Enterprise
Conceptually, for this paper, the metaphor of water comes closest to simulating the change process that people & organisations will undergo in transforming to form the Enterprise of tomorrow. Borrowing the understandng of fluidity from physics, water is seen as one of the most common uncompressible fluids (metaphorically similar to the rigidity of organisations). It is however ‘fluid” and lends itself to any shape of the container (potential to adapt and move as to ‘non-organisation’). It does exist in in all three states ie solid, liquid and gas, depending on the envirnment to which it adapts without losing its inherent characteristics. In the change process to enhance the capaity of individuals and organisation to build a culture of innovation, the enterprise retains defining traits such as value systems and founding principles.

Transforming the organisation and moving it to a state of non-organisation, is a major part of the process. However, to sustain this movement and internalise the new and increased potency of the emerging innovation-culture, requires time for people and enterprise to settle into a state of equilibrium. It cannot be ignored that creativity or innovation is not an end in itself, and in the context of business, needs to find application and viability in the market. This requires products /services to find use and application, and be scaled for success. This again takes time, which the ‘refreeze’ process provides.

This construct focuses on the cultural angle from ‘Organisation’ to ‘Enterprise’ where the dominant (if not complete) psychological state welcomes and encourages free and new expression in all forms, words, thoughts, actions and behaviours. Refreshed work-life is governed by forms (structures), flow (process), engagement (employment), outcomes (results)… a new lens, and perspectives hinging (not on control) but on the need to ‘release’ people-capacities.

Metaphorically, ‘refreeze’ is the state where the surface is in solid form and the water below is fluid at four degrees celcius, enabling life to thrive and keep adapting to new and changing conditions.
This conceptual paper is a move to take a different look at creativity and innovation, its enablers & inhibitors. Organisations do set aside time, space and resources for innovation, and it does open up new vistas to explore and articulate the creation of something new and desirable. How much, how do we sustain it etc continue to pose challenges. Organisations set a grand mandate for innovation, but stumble on self-made, avoidable, hurdles while trying to convert strong ideas to action. When coupled with intrinsic inhibitions of individuals, the context reflects the Abilene Paradox.

Industry, businesses exist for society (rather than the other way around). Society is about people who exist both inside and outside the enterprise. Changes that happen outside in society, happen to people. Employees and customers are part of these changes that seemlessly move to and fro the enterprise. Enterprises of the future will recognise the inevitability of change & newness, and become cultures where people-potential for newness enables the enterprise to cope, survive and succeed. Tomorrow’s enterprises themselves will evolve to become new frameworks where this people-potential for newness can thrive.

Transforming organisation to enterprises of tomorrow, by catching the ‘i’ of innovation….
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