The Innovator’s DNA
Being an innovator requires a mindset to explore the unknown and sometimes, be unreasonable. At Mahindra, we aim to catalyse an ecosystem for innovators to build world-class, breakthrough products in India, for India.
By Rise Team
Alan Kay, the American computer scientist once said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” It is this pioneering thought coupled with deep science and engineering knowhow that has been at the centre of breakthrough innovations in the west. To be sure, one must understand the meaning of breakthrough innovation. It is the creation of products that have the ability to disrupt an entire industry. The obvious examples are innovations that we use every day; the cell phone, the Internet, the web browser and the search engine, —classic examples of breakthrough innovations that changed the world for the better.
The question is: under what circumstances did these innovations come into being? What were the factors that enabled people to think 10x, when the rest of world was working to improve their offering by 10 per cent? The answer really lies in the ability to create an innovator’s ecosystem, one in which experimentation and risk-taking are encouraged, being unreasonable is an advantage and trial, error and failure are a core part of the creation process.
This post sets the context for the Rise Prize and talks about the core belief on why scientific innovations that are ‘Made in India’ can be world-class. In the process, it also lists out the key drivers to create an ecosystem that nurtures breakthrough innovations.
The Rise Prize was conceptualised keeping in mind that India is a land of billion possibilities. Karthik Balakrishnan, Sr. General Manager of Corporate Brand Management, Mahindra & Mahindra, says, “Through the ‘Rise Prize’, we are hoping to inspire and enable Indians to innovate more, disrupt more, create more and push boundaries that will make the world sit up and take notice.” In line with this thought process, Mahindra Rise has created two innovation challenges – the Driverless Car Challenge and the Solar Challenge to create an affordable, small-sized DIY rooftop solar kit.
While several Indian entrepreneurs and managers have solved complex, large-scale problems through process innovation (classic examples include Airtel and other telecom companies that led the mobile revolution in India, IT services companies that created a process for the Global Delivery Model and healthcare service providers like Aravind Eye Care and Narayana Healthcare that brought in McDonald’s-like efficiency and affordability to their service offering), India has seldom been at the forefront of breakthrough innovations. The crying need of this hour is the creation of an ecosystem that channelises some of the inherent capabilities that this country possesses in the direction of product innovation as well.
In other words, India needs to inject the Innovator’s DNA into the minds of some of its most talented engineers, scientists, product managers and marketing experts. The time has come for India to make a mark on the world’s stage. It just requires a push in the right direction. The following aspects are the key drivers of innovation and building an innovation-centric India. Read on.
There is no doubt that technical skills and scientific understanding are key capabilities to building innovation-heavy products. But is that enough? The obvious answer is that innovation happens through constant experimentation, careful understanding of all the key risks associated with what you are building and the ability to minimise risk in a methodical fashion. A conversation with Chetan Maini, head of strategy and technology at Mahindra Reva, revealed that the one crucial trait of an innovator is longevity. Maini founded Reva in 1994, with a passion to build electric vehicles. He developed deep expertise in electric vehicle technology, built IP and went on to launch Reva, the first electric car built in India. It was only in 2010, 16 years later, that his company got acquired by the Mahindra Group. And, he’s still at it – day in, day out. Today, as head of strategy and technology at Reva, Maini is still neck-deep in product innovation, charting out the roadmap for both Reva and the electrification of other Mahindra automotive platforms. The point being made here is simple; breakthrough innovation is hard, tiring and risk-heavy. It requires a mindset to stay in the game, till the breakthrough happens.
The anchor factor
One challenge often faced by innovators is that they run out of capital or simply put, stop making progress. In breakthrough innovations, progress is measured by minimisation of risk. Say you are trying to build a driverless car, if the navigation algorithm works perfectly fine, that is one risk out of the way.
In aninterviewwith The Smart CEO, Narayanan Vaghul, former chairman of ICICI Bank and member of the board of Mahindra & Mahindra, said, “In start-up situations, it is crucial to have an anchor.” He went on to give an example of how CRISIL, the credit ratings firm, survived in a pre-liberalisation era where the industry and banking ecosystem in the country was not conducive to run a credit ratings organisation. But having ICICI Bank as an anchor (the bank incubated CRISIL) played a crucial role in helping the organisation through the tough early phase. The same aspect makes sense from a product innovations perspective. People working on high-risk innovations need to realise that their careers will be fine and having an anchor investor or anchor mentor could go a long way in shaping up the personalities of people working on high-risk innovations.
Approach to free thinking
Pixar, the movie studio that produced movies like Toy Story, Cars and Up, is a pioneer in the area of animation films. Experts believe that one of the key reasons for the production house’s success is its approach to brainstorming. The studio has a core group of creative professionals – directors, producers and technicians – who engage in active brainstorming with the goal of improving a movie. An article in theFast Company goes on to narrate how candour is at the centre of these brainstorming sessions. People are free to pinpoint mistakes and make suggestions without the fear of hurting anyone. It is an environment in which creative professionals get together not to find flaws in people’s work, but to up the overall quality of the movie. And product innovation teams can certainly adopt such an approach to brainstorming. Innovators have to give their mentors and team members the freedom to suggest changes and point out mistakes with the understanding that this process will help in the creation of a better product.
The iterative plan
Khosla Ventures, the Silicon Valley venture capital firm that invests in high-risk product innovations, published a paper titledInnovator’s Ecosystemin 2011. One of the learnings that came out of it was how innovators should learn the art of ‘iterative planning’. Vinod Khosla, the author of the paper, urges innovative teams to adopt an approach where planning is an iterative process, open to change and disruption. He suggests that these teams need to imbibe a culture of experimentation, where the role of the team’s manager is to “coach the experimentation process”.
Simple, simply works
Finally, innovators also have to cultivate the art of simplifying complex problems. Undoubtedly, disruptive innovators are solving hard problems; they are complex, chaotic and require expertise in many different fields. Moreover, it is not only an independent understanding of certain areas of science and technology, but how all these work in tandem. The crucial aspect here is to keep it simple. Khosla, in his paper says, “If we do x, y and z, then we have a breakthrough product.” The x, y and z will certainly be complex tasks to accomplish, but it is that level of clarity in an innovator’s thought process that forms the core of Disruptive Innovation.
Happy inventing. Happy innovating. Here’s to making world class from India a reality.