Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Mind of the Eternal Innovator: Imaginative, Re-imaginative or Disruptive?

Innovators are intellectually and attitudinally driven people who are essential for progress. Without their innovations, the world would not have been, and would not be, a better place to live in. Granted that some of the innovations have had negative consequences for the society (for example, explosives) and granted also that each positive innovation can be wrongly used for negative purposes (for example, cyber-hacking), the overall benefits of innovation far outweigh the negative consequences. We can also take heart from the fact that misuse of innovations can be moderated, if not controlled, by positive social alignment and family environment. The common purpose of innovation is to create devices, equipment and infrastructure that can improve human life. The ultimate purpose of innovation could be to extend life by eliminating diseases and enhancing wellness, and to even monitor, regenerate and recreate life.

Innovation is not for all; otherwise there would not be two distinct classes called innovators and copiers or leaders and followers in business, academia and society. Steve Jobs once said, “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and follower”. That said, the greater the divide between the two, the greater would be the power of monopoly built around innovation and the less would be the distributed social impact of innovation. In leadership and management theories, there is an embedded view that innovation at individual level is for people with rare endowments and at a firm level is for companies that are willing to bet huge investments and efforts on innovation. Evidentially, however, the contrary seems to be true. Innovation is as much about an innovative mind-set as it is about intelligence quotient or investment commitment. Innovation is also about a facilitative ecosystem that supports generation and acceptance of innovative ideas.

Imagination, re-imagination    

Innovators not only imagine but also re-imagine. Eric Schmidt, Chairman of Google, Inc said, “The characteristic of great innovators and great companies is they see a space that others do not. They don’t just listen to what people tell them; they actually invent something new, something you didn’t know you needed, but the moment you see it, you say, I must have it’’’. This implies that innovation is about having a vision for novel products and services and converting it into commercial reality. The ‘Pushpaka Vimanam’ of Hindu mythology and the aeroplane of industrial revolution are perfect examples of imagination bringing forth new products to fulfil intrinsic needs. Organized and structured research in academic and industrial laboratories follows the path of imagination to create synthetics that mimic or excel over the natural or the pre-existing synthetic.

That said, innovation is also re-imagination of what has been existing all along. For example, measurement of blood pressure has been there from the time medicine became organized, for centuries in fact. However, making measurement of blood pressure real-time and self-monitored through a wrist band or a wrist watch is the result of re-imagination of an existing activity. Driverless car is not a fundamental creation; rather it is re-imagining the process of human driving in terms of machine driving. In re-imagining, innovators consider several parallel developments in other technologies that could make re-imagination feasible. The important point to note is that imaginative innovators and re-imaginative innovators are significantly different in their approach to life, be it individual or corporate.

Visualization, re-visualization

Imaginative innovators set out to develop reality out of the abstract. They set and re-set innovation goals, conduct and re-conduct experiments to validate hypotheses and eventually succeed in bringing to life a new product or service. They look to bring novelty as the prime dimension of their innovation. Such inventions can be very purpose-oriented and goal-driven or quite accidental and serendipitous. Development of aeroplane by Wright Brothers, imagining the bird as the inspiration, was a very specific purpose driven invention. Discovery of stainless steel by Harry Brearley while experimenting with different proportions of metals, especially chromium, in steel was an accidental discovery. So was the discovery of Penicillin by Alexander Fleming or discovery of radium by Marie Curie, in a sense. That said, imaginative inventions are never by chance but are a result of serious application of knowledge and generation of experiments in which chance may also play a part in steering the course of discovery.

Re-imaginative innovators, in subtle contrast, are keen observers of what is available to create new realities that fulfill new needs or help perform current needs in a different way. Re-imaginative visualizers adopt convergent thinking (bringing together different functionalities and products in one product) in some cases and divergent thinking (deploying current products for different functionalities) in some cases. As products and technologies keep getting developed in an exponential manner, the potential canvas for re-imaginative innovators vastly expands. The projects by Google to deploy its Google Glass technology for diabetes management is one example. Re-imaginative innovation may deploy common technologies for multiple uses. It is interesting that while one purposive mind-set drives imaginative innovation the same mind-set could block re-imaginative innovation.

Disruption, transformation

The potential for innovation is, more often than not, never fully exploited. Companies and individuals may be known for consistent innovation but could have their blind spots in harnessing the full potential of innovation. Leading automobile companies of the world, including such innovation stalwarts as Toyota and Nissan of Japan, had decades ago deployed unmanned automated guided vehicles to move materials, components and products into and out of warehouses. However, it never occurred to such innovators that they should develop driverless automated cars. The companies had, for decades, used sensor technologies to govern movement of components and fool-proofing production and change-over cycles on the shop floors. Here again, it did not occur to such manufacturers that they should lead projects to elevate sensor technology and deploy it to improve navigation and safety in automobiles.

There can be several such examples from different industries where despite commitment to, and achievements in, innovation organizations fail to make the best use of their innovation potential. The reasons are not far to seek. Firms, typically, work in silos, focusing on maximization of efficiency within the existing business construct rather than disrupting a successfully operating business model. Reverting to our example of automobile industry, innovation focused on engine efficiency, transmission smoothness, chassis sturdiness, lighter but stronger materials and elegant aerodynamics to make the automobile better and safer for driving, travelling and owning rather than eliminating driving itself. That Google and Apple have taken this project is a classic reaffirmation of Eric Schmidt’s statement that the characteristic of great innovators and great companies is that they see a space that others do not.

Innovation horizons

Fundamentally, transformative Innovation can be disruptive, and hence many firms tend to delay disruptive innovation until it begins to take the form of a serious competitive threat, especially by new entrants. Rather than baulk at the prospect of disruptive innovation, competent and capable firms must find approaches integrate disruptive innovation into long term business models in a seamless way. The author of this blog post suggests charting the business in terms of three innovation horizons, the first one being the horizon of incremental innovation, the second one being the horizon of breakthrough innovation and the third one being the horizon of disruptive innovation.  Lasting businesses can be built only when a firm operates in all the three horizons of innovation.

The first horizon corresponds to imaginative innovation for performance and specification improvement, the second horizon corresponds to re-imaginative innovation where product-market interface is completely redefined through either convergence or divergence, and the third horizon corresponds to disruptive innovation that eliminates key product anchors in favour of new disruptively innovative ones. Firms may vary in approaches with regard to revenue-investment mix in each of the three horizons; some may follow a 50-30-20 mix while others may risk a 20-30-50 profile too. The extent to which the innovation horizon model is adopted depends on the innovation mindset of firms and individuals, and the innovation ecosystem they are able to nurture in their organizations.

Innovation mindset

There are certain characteristics of innovation oriented firms, their leaders and their team members that tend to be unique. Leadership for innovation is a separate competency-set by itself. Innovative leaders explicitly seek expressions of innovation, from simple ideas to complex prototypes. They embrace the idea of products doing things differently or doing things never done before. They take responsibility for incubating ideas, providing innovators with financial and people resources as well as equipment. They also understand that intellect and data powered debate is an essential component of bringing the best of innovation to the fore. They respect the short term improvements (to sustain current business) but without losing the aspiration for longer term transformations (to reinvent and transform business).

When businesses operate in terms of the three innovation horizons they move from a position of business sustainability to ‘future-shaping’ business. Rather than keep pace with innovations that come in from multiple sources as competing businesses they create their own innovation engines to influence the future. The acid test for such innovation leadership is a willingness and boldness to make its own current products obsolete. If Apple tried to protect its iPod as a music player without providing music-play capabilities in iPhone, the latter would never have been a blockbuster while the former would, in any case, been overshadowed by other smartphones. Disrupting one’s own product line-up and business strength by norm-defying innovative mindset is probably the best assurance of business perpetuity, besides being provider of global competitiveness.


After the author has penned the post, the report of World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) on global innovation rankings has been published in the Press. Disturbingly, it says that India has slipped further down the Global Innovation Index, ranking 81, from 76 in 2014. In this survey of 141 countries, China retained its ranking at 29 while Switzerland had the top spot. India’s performance on innovation marks a sharp decline in the assessment of the state of innovation in India over the past few years; in 2008-09, the nation had ranked 41st globally. India’s low performance on innovation is troublingly inconsistent with the aspiration and expectation of turning into a global economic and industrial powerhouse by 2030. The author hopes that the discussion in the blog post on the types and horizons of innovation would help policy makers and leaders to embed innovation as an essential part of India’s economic, industrial and social culture.  

Posted by Dr CB Rao on September 19, 2015      

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