Thinkers/Thinkers 50: Going beyond Jugaad, can India build a systematic innovation capability?

Thinkers/Thinkers 50: Going beyond Jugaad, can India build a systematic innovation capability? As individuals, Indians are resourceful, creative and smart. In a supportive context, such as Silicon Valley they have shown that they can play critical roles in the most innovative companies. But, here in India, our innovation output is significantly below our potential. My work on innovation has focused on identifying the barriers to innovation in India, and seeking pathways at the level of both the nation and the firm to channelize our creative potential into a more systematic and sustainable innovation output.

The Big Picture
International comparative studies of innovation consistently place India far below the top of the innovation charts. In the latest INSEAD-WIPO Global Innovation Index (2013), India ranks #66. Rather than going up the ladder, India is actually sliding down – we slipped two positions in the last year and, this is in spite of the Government of India declaring this the decade of innovation!

A simple way of understanding innovation output is to think in terms of supply side factors, processes and capabilities, and demand side factors. At the national level, since liberalization began over two decade ago, the demand for innovation has grown. Disposable incomes are up, the government is looking for low cost solutions to knotty public problems, and the legal systems for protection of inventors’ rights, are now better aligned with those in rest of the world. But India still faces challenges on the supply side, and in the capabilities of organizations to use the inputs available for innovative outcomes.

Supply side issues include the failure of the education system to rise up to the challenge of building a well-trained work force that can undertake creative problem-solving, lack of adequate seed capital to take ideas to prototypes, and the absence of a supportive infrastructure for innovation. But, perhaps the biggest supply side problem is India’s poor research base – a recent study commissioned by India’s Department of Science & Technology shows that India’s research output is not cited at a level above the global average in a single academic discipline.

The main agent of innovation in a capitalist economy is the firm. This is the entity that links ideas with the market. Unfortunately, firms in India have been slow to develop systematic innovation capabilities, preferring to rely on traditional methods of creative improvisation such as jugaad. While jugaad may be attractive to large multinational firms whose processes have become too rigid and inflexible, Indian firms (with a few notable exceptions) face the opposite challenge – their innovation processes are too fluid and under-developed to facilitate the transformation of the creative energies of their employees into a steady stream of innovative products and services. Unfortunately, while multinational R&D and engineering subsidiaries in India have the potential to do more innovative work, their innovation tends to be circumscribed by the roles mandated by their parents.

Why don’t Indian organizations spend more effort in developing better innovation capabilities? Family ownership appears to be a barrier, unless the family members involved in the business have a penchant for innovation (e.g. Dr. Anji Reddy and Dr. Parvinder Singh at DRL and Ranbaxy respectively). More traditional family owners lack a deep understanding of either technology or customer needs, two of the key starting points for innovation.

But there are also social and cultural forces at work that impede the creation of systematic innovation capabilities within firms. Research on management in India has shown that Indian companies’ efforts at innovation are impeded by poor teamwork; the enduring importance of upward hierarchical progression in a traditional society that leads to individuals moving out of individual contributor roles too early; a “brahminical attitude” that gives brainwork a superior position over physical work and results in ideation being lionised but experimentation looked down upon. Additionally, a weak systems and strategic orientation that results in the absence of appropriate change paradigms; a low tolerance of failure; a lack of confidence in innovation capabilities; a failure to positively reinforce innovation efforts; and a strong need for control that comes in the way of joint working with other organisations, all are impediments to innovation in India.

Accelerating the Pace of Change
Some of these factors are changing over time, but the change is slow. What can India do to accelerate the pace of change?
I believe there are four priorities starting with a focus on the creation of a critical mass of new generation firms, started by young entrepreneurs. These youngsters would be relatively free of the baggage of our past and therefore more inclined to take on the challenge of genuine innovation. These firms need to be in sectors and application areas that go well beyond our traditional strengths like IT and services.
The second priority is to provide the right incentives for institutions of higher education to change to become more research-oriented and more practice-oriented.

The third priority is to change the nature of government’s support for research and development. The traditional model of government- owned, financed, and run research institutions needs to be replaced by competitive government grants to support R&D in private institutions and small firms. The feasibility of this has already been proven by the schemes and programmes of the Department of Biotechnology, such as SBIRI and BIRAC. Such an approach needs to be extended to other sectors as well.

The last but certainly not the least priority is to move India towards being a more knowledge-driven and science-intensive society. The solution to this problem lies as much with individuals as with the government. The next time your child has a project from school, get her to do it rather than doing it for her. Don’t accept superstitions and baseless rituals. Embrace the scientific method.

Building Innovation Capabilities: The 8 Steps Approach
The other part of the puzzle is building strong organizational innovation capabilities. Some Indian companies have already shown how this can be done. Vinay Dabholkar and I have captured the essence of these practices in our 8 Steps to Innovation framework.

In our interaction with Indian companies, we learnt that they faced three major problems in making innovation a sustained activity. The first is what we call the pipeline problem – the absence of a steady stream of ideas that can drive their innovation engine. Some companies told us that they have managed to create a stream of ideas, but that many of the ideas seem to get lost in the system – this is the source of a second problem that we call the velocity problem. A set of companies more mature in the innovation process told us that their challenge is different – this is the third problem that we call the batting average problem, i.e., the absence of adequate business impact of innovation.

Our 8 step framework seeks to address these three big problems. Building a pipeline involves getting more people across the organization to see innovation as a part of their job and to make it easy for them to share their ideas with the company. To facilitate this, we advocate 3 steps. The first is to lay the foundation for innovation. This is achieved by designing an idea management system that is aligned with the company’s culture, conducting periodic campaigns that create excitement and involvement around innovation, and training people in creative problem solving methods to help them unleash their creative potential. The second step is to create a “challenge book” – identify the problems on which the company should focus its innovation efforts. The third step is to encourage participation in innovation. Some of the ways of achieving this are identification and recognition of innovation role models; forming communities of practice; identifying and training innovation catalysts who can help people with ideas take these ideas forward; and judicious use of rewards and recognition to get people involved.

Ideas don’t move forward because they remain untried and untested. The solution to this is to encourage and support quick, low-cost experimentation to test assumptions related to need, technology, production, and commercialization. Once a proof-of-concept has been established, the barrier often shifts to the resources needed to take the innovation forward. Champions provide credibility and support and help overcome this barrier. Moving towards commercialization is helped by applying the principles of experimentation to the business model as well.

Getting a bigger bang out of innovation – or enhancing the batting average as we call it – depends on two sets of actions. The first set is related to making the innovation successful, and consists of the use of innovation sandbox approaches to do intense experimentation within the tight expectations of the market; the use of platform approaches to help capture value from one innovation across multiple application areas; and sourcing ideas from outside the company (open innovation) to complement the company’s ideas and complete the innovation process. The second set relates to managing risk. Understanding the history of similar innovations, awareness of the baseline success rate of such innovations, and doing a premortem are some useful ways of managing the risk involved. Other approaches include a portfolio orientation and having a vigorous pipeline to avoid over-dependence on a single innovation.

We found successful Indian companies practising several of the approaches we have described above. Bajaj Auto has been very effective at defining the right challenge book leading to market-dominating products such as the Pulsar. Titan Industries has been a leader in training employees to participate in the innovation process and launching annual campaigns. Cognizant Technology Solutions has also been strong on participation, and has trained an impressive “army” of catalysts. Tata Motors has used innovation sandboxes effectively, Infosys has a portfolio of effective innovation platforms, and Eureka Forbes has used open innovation to its advantage. Clearly where there is a will, Indian companies have found a way to build their innovative capabilities.

(The author of this article is Rishikesh T. Krishnan. His main areas of interest are strategy and innovation. He was a Visiting Scholar at the Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania (Fall 2008), and at the Indian School of Business (ISB), Hyderabad (2011-12). This article was contributed to Thinkers, a quarterly thought leadership magazine that features the brightest thinkers in the areas of economics and governance, philosophy and literature, science and technology, and management. To learn more about the magazine, please visit: )

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