Tuesday, 25 March 2014

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Management Masala Innovation and Invention – Another View
When we think of invention the first image we see in our mind is that of the steam engine or the spinning jenny and their inventors James Watt and James Hargreaves. When you think of innovation there is no specific big idea which comes to our mind. Innovations are incremental – after you identified the shortcomings of your existing product or offerings, or when you see that you can improve the quality of your offerings you innovate. It may be the way you relocate the bath-tub in the bath room for saving space, the way you hold your tennis racket for greater effect, the improved mix of spice in the food for better taste, the way the strings are pulled or played by the guitarist for better sound or melody etc. It is because of its pervasiveness that the magic of innovation is invoked too often when organizations look for improved results or of doing things differently.

An important aspect of innovation is that your idea need not be a sui generis – like the steam engine or Wright Brothers’ flying machine. It can be some thing which already exists in another organization. You may adopt the same idea to suit the genius of your organization or business. You don’t have to be shy of being a copy-cat as long as your copy serves your unique requirements well.      

Inventions are often the output of blue-sky research and development. All inventions need not be the outcome of accidental or unintended findings. Most often when the inventor sees his invention he may feel it is of no immediate use. We have examples of the famous misquote attributed to Watson Senior of IBM in 1943 when the first computer was invented (though there is scant evidence that he made it – according to Wikipedia), “I think there is a world market for may be five computers,” or another high profile statement of Rutherford B. Hayes, President of US (1877) about telephone when it was invented, “It’s a great invention, but who would ever want to use one?”  Therefore, many inventions find their way to usefulness many years later.

Innovation has a sense of urgency. If you do not innovate you will perish. The world is changing fast, the market not only fancies new offerings but evolves in a myriad ways faster, and consumers continuously look for more economical but better products. That is the urgency about innovation. If you do not innovate someone else will.

One way of knowing a little more about innovations and how to go about the task is to know recent important innovations. Let us look at three of the eight The Economist’s Innovation Awards for 2013:

• Energy and the environment: Tim Bauer, Nathan Lorenz and Bryan Wilson, co-founders of Envirofit, for developing a compact stove that reduces indoor pollution by cutting smoke, toxic emissions, biomass consumption and cooking time compared with traditional designs. Envirofit has sold more than 650,000 stoves in more than 40 countries.
• Social and economic innovation: Jane Chen, Rahul Panicker, Naganand Murty and Linus Liang of Embrace, for developing a low-cost incubator to reduce neonatal deaths in the developing world. More than 20,000 babies in a dozen countries have benefited from its design, similar to a sleeping bag (see photo).
• Process and service innovation: Salman Khan (a techie and not the cine actor), founder of Khan Academy, for creating a free online-education platform that now serves more than 10m students each month and has delivered more than 300m lessons.

We can see from the above examples that an important aspect of innovation is that most of them look like very simple ideas. Yes, they are; surprisingly we can really see their simplicity only after some innovator has propounded the idea. This leads us to the most important clues to innovate – do not necessarily look for big ideas; in every small operations you do in your organization, in every little system you have installed, in the nicks and corners of your processes, your product designs, your marketing - you may have a window waiting for you to innovate – and grab The Economist’s award.

By V K Talithaya (vktalithaya@managementmasala.com)
On 3/25/2014

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