Monthly Archives: November 2010

Decoding Innovation

 

From the Crucibles of JPS Consulting                                       

                                Just Plain & Simple
                                ….. Helping Realise Potential
 
TRIM Quarterly ….. A Showcase of Industrial India, September 2010
 

We are ourselves creation of God and by being creative, we further continue the process set forth by Him. Not only is it in our nature to be creative, but by doing so, we give back to The Creator, in our own specific ways, His gift of creativity to us. Creation, in its very basic meaning, is a process of ‘causing to exist’. Life has, inherent in its nature, an element of creating ‘newness’ and ‘novelty’. The continuous cycle of Creation, Preservation and Destruction is The Cosmic Cycle of Brahma, Vishnu & Shiva. When we are creative, we harness the universality around us and make it flow through us. Hence, creativity is life; it is opening oneself to GOD (Good Orderly Direction). When we refuse to be creative, it maybe self will, but contrary to our true nature, leading to things becoming static/still/dead.

 

Nature continuously plays out and demonstrates its tendency to create novelty. The process of evolution is one of the ways in which nature expresses it’s creativity. Evolution generally refers to the gradual process of development that we see in nature. This process has been going on for billions of years, from the time the first simple single cells were formed, through all the stages as life evolved into forms with higher complexity and order. The key routes to evolution were random mutation (once in millions of cells), trading of genetic pools (bacteria had access to a vast pool of genes, through which they passed traits in a powerful and efficient global exchange) and symbiogenesis (this is the key route of evolution for all higher organisms, in which there is creation of new forms of life through permanent symbiotic arrangements). The latter two are demonstrations of the powerful effects of collaboration, co-creation and co-evolution that exist in nature and these were then fine tuned and honed by natural selection. It seems that there is a grand design where collective memories and energies (without any regard to size, caste, colour and hierarchies) are at play to create ‘innovative evolution’ in an interconnected Dance of Life !!

 

Innovation stands for a new way, technique or method to do things. By definition, then, it is a creative process. Evolutionary history of life is full of examples of ‘innovative evolution’. Breathing and photosynthesis are excellent examples of this. When bacteria expanded, their energy needs led to shortage of hydrogen. Photosynthesis was an innovation to break water molecules using sunlight, to release hydrogen and oxygen. While hydrogen was used to build sugar and carbohydrates, oxygen was emitted into the atmosphere, leading to an oxygen crisis. Free oxygen is toxic as it produces free radicals and also causes combustion and corrosion. Breathing was the next innovation !!

 

Whether there have been challenges of the kind where an oxygen crisis was looming large, or whether the processes of mutation, gene trading and symbiosis were in any case running continuously, followed by natural selection, what is important in all these is that nature has its own ways of creativity. We can call it ‘Evolutionary Innovation’ or ‘innovative Evolution’, but this concept of ‘Creative Evolutionary innovation’ has elements of sharing knowledge, competition and collaboration, co-existing, adapting and growing. But ‘who collaborates with whom ?’ and ‘who adapts to what ?’ The species have an interplay with each other and also with the environment and the ecosystem, shaping and adapting to each other and the environment itself, thus Creating an Innovative Co-Evolutionary Dance ….. Nature’s creativity is boundless !!

 

Organizations can learn a lot from this process . Each organization itself is an ecosystem or an organism and has inter-relationships within and outside. Every function/department/location within an organization is also an ecosystem or an organism with such inter-relationships within themselves, with other functions/departments/locations, with the overall organization and with the external world. Such similarities with the way ecosystems and organisms are organized and behave in nature, cause organizations also to mimic the patterns and behaviour of species and ecosystems. Especially useful is the observation and learning attained through the processes of ‘Creative Evolutionary Innovation’ in Nature, no matter what the size of the organization ….. as is the case in nature, where size of the organisms is immaterial for this process to propagate; the smallest single cell organism or an amoeba or bacteria all played this game with equal adeptness, provided they followed the rules well !!

 

I understand that in organizations, or more so in the corporate world, innovation has to play a more practical and commercial role. It cannot be just a ‘nice to have initiative’ without any observable impact. Organisations exist to 1) add value for the customer and 2) create ROI for the investors. Both these can happen, ONLY IF ALL THE STAKEHOLDERS IN THE VALUE CHAIN, COLLECTIVELY STRIVE TO ACHIEVE them, by creating a Differential and/or Cost Advantage in a WIN-WIN situation for all. If this basic premise is accepted and understood, the parallel drawn till now can make sense. Otherwise the organization and this discussion both can become extinct.

 

Creativity can be a lone/solo process and we have heard about many creative people who operate alone and do end up creating masterpieces. However, there are also the creative masters like Edison, who actually had the benefit of learnings of a whole team with him. There definitely are stories of creative geniuses who worked alone, but we are talking here of common people and minds, working in day to day operations in closer to ground organizations. How do they bring alive creativity in their work ? A streak of genius happens once in a million, like random mutations in nature. Rest of the story of evolution is about the other two avenues of gene trading and symbiosis, honed by natural selection.

 

What then, could organizations do ? Draw on learnings from nature and life. The simplest life forms could have Creative Evolutionary Innovation. Organisations will not achieve it only by the chance stroke of a brilliant idea that occurs to an employee in romantic environs on a Sunday afternoon, relaxing on a hammock in the sun, glass of beer in one hand and cigarette in the other ….. He can probably keep waiting for that once in a million random mutation to strike. Or can organizations actually engineer the creative process proactively ….. by drawing on the know how encoded in the gene pool of the system and using symbiotic relationships to collaborate and co-evolve innovative solutions, taking the organization to the next level of growth and existence.

 

The fact is that every organization has tremendous information encoded in its DNA and the irony is that managers think that they know everything and do not need help. Even if I know that I do not know something, how can I be seen as admitting it in public ?? It was this ego that the primitive species did not have and hence continued to collaborate and evolve ….. and mind you, this was not only collaborating with other members of the same species, but at times with species competing for the same resources, to create a dynamic balance with win win for all. While bacteria are associated with disease, they are also vital for our survival ….. The story of evolution of life on our planet is one of cohabitation and co-evolution, rather than of combat and rivalry !!

 

Creativity, evolution, growth, learning and innovation are the lifeblood of any dynamic organization. Continuous learning and improvement are the hallmark of an adaptive organization. These organizations keep trying various things/doing things differently, some work some don’t ….. very much like natural selection ….. but the key element is their continuous effort to stimulate progress. They keep evolving and growing. 

 

What I suggest here is a process and mindset, which further reinforces and structures the same. This not only supports evolutionary growth, but also, in the way we look at innovation in more practical terms in our day to parlance ….. breakthrough growth as well.  The process involves bringing together all the knowledge bearers (genes) together, to place their understanding on a common plate (symbiosis), look at the same from different perspectives and evolve combinations and solutions that are innovative. This is not just a brainstorming exercise, but can involve techniques and expertise that make this seemingly simple process very effective. Selection of the right people to contribute their learnings, framing the right objectives, asking the right questions are some critical skills which can be facilitated if organizations are willing to take this journey. The expertise lies in making the complex looking process simple and structured ….. to engineer innovation rather than hoping that it will happen one day ….. and my experience says that it can be engineered !!

 

I have tried this in various situations and groups over a period of time. At a critical phase in the lifecycle of one business, profitability and hence survival was a big issue.  A team comprising people from manufacturing, materials, marketing, finance and maintenance, including shopfloor workers who are closest to action, worked together. Within six months they came up with actual, permanent, annualised cost savings to the tune of 4% of revenue. Engineered innovation achieved through facilitation with the right people, posing the right questions and using the right approach made all the difference for this organization ….. between extinction and thriving growth towards industry leadership !!

 

In another situation, a business was faced with the challenge of a competitive launch within one week. Competition had guarded the news very well and hence there was no time for preparing defence. A team of key people were brought together. Facilitation through a structured innovation process brought out a creative plan within one hour. The result was that the competitive launch was totally blunted and inspite of all the preparation, they could never gather the confidence and put their act together again to gain any respectable market share.

 

There was yet another organization with issues related to ROCE. Gene pool trading and symbiotic facilitation process led to a restructuring of P&L lines and asset turns to yield an increase of 7%. Examples abound, of the ways we have been able to utilize this mechanism in strategy, manufacturing, sales, problem solving, decision making, business processes, marketing etc. with equal success.

 

The process starts with divergence of thoughts (gene trading and symbiosis) followed by convergence (natural selection), which includes perspectives, analysis, combinations, risk analysis and action planning ….. all in a structured process. The attempt is not to just leave innovation to chance, but to be able to engineer and determine our destinies to the extent we possibly can.  Loss of information in black holes reduces our ability to predict the future ….. but atleast we should not end up creating organizational black holes ourselves, to be sucked up under the pull of organizational gravity itself ….. The idea is to have an organizational dance to release positive energy for Thriving Growth and Prosperity !!

 

J.P.Singh

Justplainandsimple Consulting Pvt. Ltd.

 

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