What is innovation?

What is innovation?

The book explains how one can innovate and implement technology by building an idea pipeline in the organisation, by improving the velocity of ideas...

The book explains how one can innovate and implement technology by building an idea pipeline in the organisation, by improving the velocity of ideas coming in and executing the ideas within the given constraints. As RM Lala relates in the book For the Love of India: The Life and Times of Jamsetji Tata, Tata 'launched his real career as a textile magnate' at the age of thirty-five when he established Empress Mills in 1874. James Brooksby was the chief engineer of Empress Mills. While on leave in Lancashire in 1883, Brooksby came across ring spindles invented in America. At the time Empress Mills, like all the other mills in India, was using the older technology of mule spinning. On a technical level, the two methods are fundamentally different. The mule spins intermittently, that is to say, it spins approximately five feet of yarn, and then winds that section of yarn onto the spindle before spinning the next five feet. The ring, in contrast, spins and winds in one action, and is thus able to spin continuously. The ring spindle produced more yarn per hour than the mule, but at a cost of treating the raw cotton more harshly. This required the use of a better grade of raw material for any given type of yarn. Mule spindles were operated by relatively highly paid men, and ring spindles by relatively lowly paid women. Jamsetji bought two ring spindle frames and asked Brooksby to try them out. The stated speed of 6,000 revolutions was soon exceeded and the ring frame produced 9,000 to 12,000 revolutions. Jamsetji requested his supplier, Platts Brothers and Co. Ltd (at that time the world's largest supplier of textile mill equipment), to supply ring spindles. But ring spinning was yet to catch on even in Lancashire, which is why Platts refused to supply ring spindles, preferring to stick to the older technology of mule spinning. Consequently, Jamsetji changed his supplier to a rival manufacturer, Brooks and Doxey, who was willing to supply ring spindles. To bring about perfection in the technology, every defect was reported to the supplier. By the time Platts adopted the new technology, rivals like Brooks and Doxey had taken the lead. Before we analyse the story further, let us make sure that it is indeed an innovation we are looking at here. Shifting from mule to ring spindles did involve an idea, its implementation and finally an impact in terms of improved business productivity. It is a 'process' type of innovation because it changed the way cloth was being made by making use of a newer and more efficient technology. This example highlights three myths associated with the process of innovation. Let's look at each one of them. Where does innovation begin? When we think of innovation, the first thing that comes to mind is creativity. In fact, it is not uncommon for people to refer to these two terms interchangeably 'creativity and innovation'. It is as though they are inextricably linked since many innovation programmes begin and end with creativity exercises or idea brainstorms. Lots of ideas get generated and everyone goes home thinking, 'I did some innovation today.' We believe this is a very limited notion of what innovation is about. Instead, let's ask where Brooksby got the idea of using ring spindles. He got it during his Lancashire visit by observing some of the earliest mills that had adopted ring spindles. He must have asked himself a question: 'Can this work in Empress Mills?' He must have become curious about the technology before he got thinking about how it could be useful in the Indian context. Innovation begins with curiosity and not creativity. This doesn't mean that creativity is not important, but the way you identify and define a challenge is perhaps even more important than how you address the problem it throws back and solve it. This factor has significant implications for systematic innovation because as an organization we need to first check, 'What are we curious about?' It means identifying key areas that the customer is unhappy about. It also means being watchful and taking note of various emerging technologies like stem cell or cloud computing and asking whether any of them could be useful to our business. This is no different from Brooksby asking the ring spindle question. As we will see in this book, identifying challenges and building a 'challenge book' is one of the important first steps in systematic innovation. The second myth revolves around the question: 'How does an idea move forward?' One of us was present at a client meeting where ideas were being assessed and selected for further development, out of which there was an idea that the innovation committee liked. The leader of the committee asked, 'When can we implement this?' This question gives an impression that an idea moves in a linear fashion from conception to implementation. We believe that this linear view is inappropriate. We are certain that Jamsetji didn't say to Brooksby, 'Good idea! Let's implement it.' What Jamsetji is likely to have said instead is, 'Good idea! Let's first experiment with it.' That is how the idea of buying two ring spindle frames must have come about. The idea of adopting the ring spindle certainly held promise. But there were a number of uncertainties associated with it. To first validate the assumption that the ring spindles indeed improve productivity, his team would have had to set up a couple of frames and actually see how productively they could be operated. This process of validating assumptions associated with an idea is called experimentation. And the speed of experimentation is one of the important levers that determine how fast ideas can move forward. The third myth about innovation is: 'Innovation is about risktaking'. It is common to lament about the Indians' inability to take risks. After all, wasn't Jamsetji taking a risk by shifting the technology from mule to ring spindles? Well, perhaps he was, but only partly so. He was not only taking a risk but assessing and mitigating it as well.
Table 1.1: innovation myths vs reality
A better way to put it would be to say that Jamsetji was managing the risk associated with the ring spindle opportunity. How did he assess the risk? We have already seen one element: experimentation. He would have also assessed the risk while negotiating with Platts, the original supplier. Perhaps he would have asked the prospective supplier other relevant questions, such as who else he supplied. Jamsetji mitigated the risk by making sure that the supplier would support him when defects were reported on the ring spindle. Thus innovation is about risk-taking, assessment and mitigation, three factors put together. People will take a risk if they learn to assess and mitigate it better.....(From 8 Steps To Innovation: Going From Jugaad To Excellence, by Vinay Dabholkar, Rishikesha T Krishnan, published by Harper Collins)
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