Monday, May 9, 2011

Indentured Innovation ?

Once upon a time, I was a cog in the wheel of the great corporate American juggernaut. I had been working on a new idea for a couple of years, and my colleagues loved it. We showed that the idea could save the company at least a few million dollars, and since we had filed a bunch of patents already, it could also be a cash cow for the company in the long run, in terms of licensing fees. But the vice president of my division shot it down, citing the need to focus on immediate problems at hand so he could meet his quarterly goals. I had seen the needs of the short term replacing the needs of the long, many times in the past. But, I felt that this decision, given all the facts on the table, was absolutely asinine. I was about to raise hell about it in the next meeting with the guy, but he beat me to it. With a lecture to innovators. On innovation.

"Many of you think that I sit in an ivory tower and count beans. You think that I don't encourage innovation. But, you have to remember that every time you are saving a penny, that is also an innovation. Every time you write down a mistake, so another person does not repeat it, that is also an innovation. And every time, you don't take a coffee break, so you can put in a few extra minutes worth of work, that is innovation too."

It goes without saying that I did not agree with his definition of "innovation". And, that I quit a couple of months after that, when, I quite innovatively figured out where I could be more innovative. And a little happier.

A few days ago, I was watching a news story about the Chinese. Apparently, having become the greatest manufacturing power in the history of the modern world, the Chinese are now ready to bet the farm on innovation. And creativity. The story included a really nice video about a work of art by  Cai Guo-Qiang, who uses, amongst other things, gunpowder -- the original Chinese innovation, in his works of art. This one, features a robot, pulling a rickshaw. No really! You have to see it to believe it.

Things like this, usually start an immediate debate in our usually peaceful household. Like a great seer predicting pestilence, I told my wife that as long as the Chinese lived in a police state, they would never succeed at innovation. To be innovative, one needs freedom. And, before I could retract and recant, she threw the entire Third Reich at me. I had totally forgotten that some of the greatest scientific and technological marvels of the last century, actually came from Nazi Germany. Or, sometimes, the Nazis drew others into a technological race to the finish, resulting in inventions such as the atomic bomb and the radar. And the results usually changed the course of human history.

So, it brought me to a question that I have been pondering over for quite some time. What makes great innovators? Can we transform ourselves into a culture of great innovators? Do we need monetary incentives for it, or do we need to instill the fear of God (or Chairman Mao) into potential innovators? As always, is it a matter of providing the carrot, or using the stick?

The last time I checked, we were still the world's most populous democracy. And we seem to have plenty of freedom, to do anything we wish. But, has that fostered a culture of innovation in India? I have asked this question to many of my friends in India's scientific and academic research community. And the answer seems to be a resounding no. I still don't have an answer to why that is the case. I don't think our projects are cash-strapped, or we have poorly paid people working on them. Some time ago, someone told me that India's rocket launch to the moon was evolutionary for any space program. Sooner or later, a space-faring nation will figure out how to get to the moon. But, the idea to crash-land a probe on the lunar surface, gather all the data that could be gathered, in a fraction of a second, and radio it back in the dying moments of the probe, was revolutionary. We didn't send astronauts to the moon, but we discovered lots of water for them to drink, should we ever send them there!  I don't know who actually came up  with the crash-bang-bang-radio-back idea (excuse my poor imagination), but I think that's one heck of an innovation. Anywhere you are willing to look for it.

Some time ago, I was one of the participants in a closed door meeting with one of the top scientific decision makers in India. I would like to tell you more, but it's classified. We talked about usual housekeeping stuff for a while, and  mundanity was in the air. And suddenly, when the discussion moved in a specific direction, he opened up, and started talking about past research, present projects (classified) and future research plans (classified). Of course, I am not allowed to talk about those projects, but  I can definitely tell you about a magical glow on this gentleman's face and the twinkle in his eyes as he spoke, quite passionately, about the innovative research projects in his organization.

And, that is when it came to me. The answer to what innovation really is. It is not about the carrot or the stick. It is not about being in a police state or a democracy. And it certainly is not about bosses who reject your long-term ideas for their short-term goals. Innovation is about passion.

To a scientist or an engineer, innovation is all about risking life, limb and career, in no particular order, so that he can have his ideas see the light of day. Usually, a great innovation outlives the greatest innovator -- and the passion lives on.


  1. Dropping in after so long! But, ur blog is refreshing as ever :)

  2. Thanks Janani. Good to have you back.


  3. Innovation needs a lot of other things besides passion. An education system where one learns to think and take risks, family and friends who encourage you not to play safe, and who you (sometimes) see not playing safe. Society which does not shun someone who tried sosmething new but failed - none of these can be seen anywhere in India.

    Innovation is risky - ask someone who faced failure (not necessarily from innovation), and they will tell you how friends & family would have looked at and behaved with them.

    Still, here in India we love the word 'innovation' (along with 'brainstrorming') - maybe sometime soon someone will comeup with a 'process' to guarentee innovations. That seems to be the way we are headed - unfortunately.