I agree with Narayan Murthy. We Indians, not just scientists, suck at coming up with new stuff. We are terrible at anything disruptive, non-incremental. I’m not getting into the semantics of innovation vs invention here – I’m talking about creating what doesn’t exist, dreaming up something new and (most importantly) making it happen. There are kinds of innovation that we do very well - cost innovation, (for example, figuring out how to make something cheaper) or process innovation (do not ever test an Indian’s ability to come up with a way to circumvent rules – we would win every time)…but we falter quite dramatically if asked to come up with something new
Take Hotmail.com, a disruptive email service, bought by Microsoft within a couple of years of it being established (am deliberately bringing up an example done by an Indian, but someone who studied abroad for his graduation, post graduation and formative working years). Or you could take an iPad… something which made internet browsing on the go much easier and led to a segment called Phablets…
What inhibits us from coming up with such ideas? Having lived and worked in six different countries, including heading Innovation globally for a FMCG category of >$1bn, teaching innovation in IIM-A as Visiting Faculty, I have my own theory of what goes wrong
- Our Education System: Right from day one, in our schools, we are taught there is only one right answer. Forget everything else, just memorize these three points to answer effects of gravity…and don’t even change the wording, you’re likely to lose half-mark (shudder!) if you do so. Coming up with an extra point, over and above the three, will likely not get you any extra marks and will probably slow you down in your quest to answer all the other questions properly. After fifteen years of this system, you wont even realize the insidious ways this changes, impacts your thought process – until you go abroad. And rediscover the power of the question ‘Why?’ ---- Now, to be fair, given the size and breadth of our country, the population, the diversity, the variable quality of teachers, the metro-urban-rural divide and our limited resources – you would struggle to come up with a better system than what existed post independence. However, it’s high time that we recognize its shortcomings and fix those as we enter a new era.
- Economics, Conformity, Or ‘Log Kya kahenge’ : We are an emotional race, connected deeply to our family, roots, neighbors, doodh-walas, customs and our uncles and thrice removed aunts. For the same reasons that make us connect, emotional, we also care deeply what everyone thinks. Bhagwan Ram, the ideal man, after all cast aside his lovely wife, (for whom, by the way he’d just waged an epic war), just because he heard a washer man make a nasty remark about him/her. Then what hope do us mere mortals have? ---- We seek to conform. In the generation prior to mine, if you were from a respectable family and wanted to continue being in one, you either joined government service or became an engineer or a doctor. My generation had it much easier. We were given the additional choices of lawyer, CA or the new fangled, fancy MBA. But you could seek the help of anyone of our millions of Gods if you chose a career outside the above – despite the fascinating diversity amongst our Almighty – apparently they all wanted us to conform. And combined with the economic pressure, lack of social security, what real choice did we have? Innovation thrives under the exact opposite circumstances. It requires diversity, stimulus, gap years, and copious amounts of alcohol, travel, hallucinogenic substances and lack of pressure (or at least, that’s one theory). All of which our society wants, even does (in secret) but doesn’t permit openly.
- Thin Skins and Rejection: Try this experiment. Walk up to a group of your peers with a new idea. If you’re a student, try this with your mates. If you work in an office, try your ultra-competitive colleagues. And now listen to the reactions. How many were positive, appreciative of the idea and encouraging you to forge ahead? And how many delighted in pointing out the flaws in your idea, indulged in a little name calling and basically rubbished your entire premise. It’s highly likely, and I’ve done this in many countries / groups, that all the reactions are negative. Sadly, this is across all cultures – we all seem to take delight in putting someone down and the negative gene seems to dominate the positive one. Especially in a corporate environment you always have to contend with the sales guy telling you the 151 ways why your new product wont work or the manufacturing guy describing how your invention defies the laws of physics. However, what matters most as an innovator, especially if that innovation has to come to life, is how you cope with that rejection. How you fight back, how you adapt, how you persist, how you take the idea forward. And here, for some reason, perhaps its our thin skin, overall square-ness, lack of humor in everyday life, our ability to cope with rejection is much lower than in most cultures. We get emotional – don’t realize that this negativity is trait across cultures - and then retreat into our shells. Abandoning the idea. I truly believe that for any innovation, coming up with the idea is 5%, making it come to life is 95%. I’ve pointed out why we’re bad at coming up with the ideas – but sadly, despite being one of the smarter races around, we’re even weak at converting them…
- Intellectual Property Rights: Why would you create or be encouraged to create, if you couldn’t capitalize off the same? Our outdated, antiquated IPR system ensures you can’t. Want to easily search for prior patents? Sorry. Have an idea for a software, an app? Can’t file in India, because the government doesn’t even recognize that to be intellectual property. You’ve probably heard of big business heads / CEO’s – the Ambani’s, Adani’s, anyone named Aggarwal…but shouldn’t your idols be people like Carmela Vitale, who filed for a patent in 1983 for the package saver – the little white triangle that comes in your pizza box – and once the patent was granted in ’85, has probably made enough money over the next ten years to be sipping an endless supply of cocktails with multi-colored umbrellas in beach resorts all over the world. Can anyone name even one Indian, living in India, who’s done something like that? Why not?
- Anyone can innovate: I’ve had students walk into my class in IIM-A, the crème de la crème of our society, our future intelligentsia, and somberly tell me that they don’t think they can innovate. They believe that is something best left to folks with long hair, listeners of the Beatles and consumers of Malana’s finest. It takes four weeks (the length of my course) for them to be surprised and exceed their own expectations. The reality is that we all are intrinsically creative – with varying degrees, different fortes…but we all have it in us! There are techniques, tools of course to aid innovation. But more than anything else, it’s the mindset-once that changes, everything else follows quite easily.
By Apurv Nagpal