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Dearth Of Innovation In India: Take Offense And Rectify Situation Than Defend

India Inc. is in the process of evolving from being an instruction-taking to an agenda-setting nation

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Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak recently created quite a stir with the observations and comments he made about Indians and their lack of creativity. He stated that our country's culture is that of success centered on academic excellence and job security, which makes us predictable, structured and uninventive.

It sparked a debate amongst people in the country-some opposed his views, some accepted, while some took it as a challenge to turn the tables. The good news here is that Indians are talking and feeling conscious about this. The flagship services industry is talking about moving up the value chain. The realization, that past successes cannot be a framework for future successes, has hit us. Now we must analyze further as to why this happened and what else can be done to accelerate the process.

I recently had a conversation with my faculty advisor who had come down to India from the US about the divide of PhD students enrolled with him. He mentioned that they were largely Indians and Chinese and only a few Americans. The difference, however, was that the Americans came in with their own problem statements and only needed guidance on the approach to solving it, while the Indian students needed help with identifying the problem, post which they were very confident of the next steps. While this comparison might seem trivial to some, it speaks a lot of the instruction-taking mindset that we are so comfortable with.

Most Indians have grown up within boundaries defined by their parents, and then their teachers. We have been clearly told that in order to secure the highest marks, the only way to solve a math problem is to do it the same way the teacher has taught in class. This hammering leads to a comfortable state of being safe and compliant in places where our performance is measured, including our place of work. Whenever something is very well-defined, we are great in following and achieving results. This is seen even in our obsession with a job description (regardless of whether you are the one recruiting or the one being recruited). We have to realize, as individuals, that most innovation falls outside the job description. We have to learn to start getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.

During my graduate school days, I had the privilege of organizing a concert for a very prominent Indian classical violinist. This was part of the India Students Association's Diwali celebrations. The musical event was to be followed by a bhangra performance. I was under pressure from the bhangra organizers to know when the violin concert would end. I finally mustered the courage to ask the maestro. His answer shook me and still resonates in my mind. He replied nonchalantly "I don't know". He obviously realized my confusion and explained that the time depends on the audience, his mood and many other factors that would be determined in real time. The performance ended after 2.5 hours and left everyone spellbound (including the bhangra guys, I assume).  We got to experience a mesmerizing mélange of ragas and talas and it remains one of my most exhilarating experiences to date. Reflecting back on this incident, I realize that the best thing that happened that day was that we did not acquiesce to the request of boxing the performance to an hour.

We are a deadline-driven and time-bound nation. We like set timelines for everything - right from fixing the appropriate age to graduate, to get married, to have a child, change jobs, get children married, retire, etc. Any deviation is seen and treated as an outlier. Parents feel guilty, insecure, and anxious about their kids having free or unstructured time. We fear idle time and therefore push our children to gain mastery in multiple disciplines such as music, dance, art, karate, abacus, apart from math, computers and foreign languages. We often fail to recognize that a lot of the child's development happens during the idle time. This time-boxing mindset, pushed in every step of a person's life, leads to giving no time and space to innovate or think differently. Everyone ends up being used to working in boxes with deadlines, and a fear for free time.

This obsession with time and deadlines and the guilt associated with free time also ends up infiltrating into our workspace. Managers have a perception that employees who talk a lot (could be networking), browse a lot (could be researching), or walk in late (might have worked late on an idea) aren't working or contributing to the organization. This leads to subjecting the employees to pressure to deliver concrete results. It also puts innovation under duress. This kind of pressure and control usually results in no innovation or at the best, diluted outputs. It becomes innovation for the sake of it or in a broader concept, one may end up with a slightly better product which doesn't necessarily mean innovation. Managers should learn to manage outcomes and be less prescriptive about the means.

The recent call by our HRD ministry to cut the syllabus down to half is a step in the right direction. It should help children to get some free time to explore. Corporate India also needs to think along similar lines and move away from 'time-boxed' hackathons as a showcase of innovation. Companies should start getting comfortable with more unstructured approaches. This might just allow the convergence of multiple thought processes and skewed experiences to blend into creating disruptive innovations. Steve Jobs got his inspiration for Apple by enrolling in a calligraphy class and not an engineering class. Similarly, employees must be exposed to various possibilities and given the opportunity to widen their vision's horizon to help look at everything from different contexts. Companies should do their bit by creating an informal 'hyperspace' and replicating the outside ecosystem within the organization. The hyperspace need not be only product or engineering oriented but can be centered on multiple activities that breed informality and allow a free exchange of ideas at the outset. Employees are not forced to participate in an innovation program but are instead given the 'autonomy' to choose to participate in it or in any initiative under it.

Not all innovation can be path-breaking. But by denying employees even the slightest opportunity, we prevent them from achieving the breakthrough that they might be seeking. Incredible innovations often transpire only in the presence of right conditions, which come with the availability of competence, knowledge, time, freedom, the right attitude, and collaboration with people who have varied experiences and exposures.

India Inc. is in the process of evolving from being an instruction-taking to an agenda-setting nation. So, instead of taking offence to Wozniak's remarks, it would work wonders if we gain motivation from his observations, adopt a broader perspective and bring in a fruitful change to our mindsets, to allow more time and space for creativity and create the right ecosystem in our organizations for innovation to thrive.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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K.S. Prashant

The author is Managing Director, IDeaS Revenue Solutions (a SAS company)

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