The Big Innovation Impediment - and the Fix

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Gianni Giacomelli

Business Leader, Digital Solutions

June 18, 2012 - Here’s something to ruffle feathers or at least force folks to think differently – after all, creating dissonance is a known technique in generating new ideas. So, get ready. 

I am often asked why India, despite the incredible amount of young talented individuals and the sheer hunger for success, seems to punch below its weight when it comes to innovation successes in its largest markets – US and Europe. The reality is more nuanced: reverse innovation is a very powerful concept and being used thoroughly these day, and the raise of global process delivery is in itself a great innovation; but it is also true that most leading edge innovation hitting the largest markets is originated there, not offshore. Innovations like SEP, which turns upside down the concept of “what a good process is”, are still not widespread in offshore service vendors. So, what is the impediment to a more frictionless innovation boom from India? While an exhaustive answer would take a VERY long blog post, there is one lens that we could use and helps solving for a large part of the answer. 

The proportion of US-based Indian-origin successful innovators is extraordinarily high. 

You can’t swing a cat in Silicon Valley without hitting some successful Indian businessman. That is a first hint – push talent and hunger for success onto the market where the consumption of goods and services happens. That exposure forces the raw talent to come across a few key ingredients of innovation. It forces it to see the world from the client’s perspective. After all, western businessmen grapple with buoyant emerging markets like India, or China, for the very same reason – they are too far, and they don’t see the world from their customers’ eyes. With this in mind, nobody should be surprised by GE’s recent decision to move to Asia a large part of its senior execs charged with the growth of the company.

To me, this means three things: do the right thing, and do it right – by really breathing your clients’ air every day. (Those who live in India don’t victimize just yet – the solution is at the bottom of the blog). 

First, what is the problem you are really trying to solve – first hand – and what has been done before that hasn’t worked? I often come across folks with “big solutions to big problems” that, frankly, people have tried for a while or discarded because they were “solutions in search of a problem”.

Understanding the value of a solution requires lots of listening first – not thinking. It requires understanding the impact, it requires asking many questions and really listening to the answers – not just “checking the box”. Of course, being close to the client (or having been in the shoes of the client) helps. 

Second, what are the tenets of strategy that help your company (not just you) “do the right thing” as opposed to splintering efforts. Sadly, despite the maturity of strategy as a management discipline and the success of the related advisory industry, there is still a lot of “Monday morning quarterbacking” – everyone is a strategist, if you ask them. Portfolio management is a key element of strategy – and it is damn hard to do well, because it is a mix of economics, marketing, in both qualitative and quantitative ways. Strategic intuition instead is what most people practice – and unfortunately, only very few really should dare doing that. 

Third, marketing helps your solution being crafted credibly. This is partly a matter of finishing the job in a way that clients will find the results compelling. 

A great example is the software User Interface (UIs). 

Apple is the uncontested master of UIs. Steve Jobs dropped into calligraphy lessons, and got into motion pictures. He understood what humans like to interact with – the typeface, the sequence of the screens, the shading, the colors, the sizes, and the harmony. He practiced Zen thinking, like by the way many creative heads in advertising. He forced people to do so, until the UI was perfect. Because he knew that if you sell one million devices, their UI will be looked at a hundred times a day. That is, 36 billion times a year. You better design it right, no? And by doing so, he sold dozens of millions devices. Ultimately, designing gorgeous UIs is really putting yourself in a position to literally see the screen from their perspective. 

Not many do it well. SAP for example struggled with it for many years – HassoPlattner, one of their founding father, personally launched a UI improvement initiative many years back, because even infinitely-patient back office workers tired of crappy screens that shouted convoluted commands at you…in German. User interfaces built in India are typically even less good, but UIs of companies headed by Indian entrepreneurs in the US are often best in class – because, I think, they do put themselves into their clients’ shoes and learn from the best in class, every day. 

UIs are just an example of how human relate to information. The learning is also valid for communications and distribution – presentations, brochures, advertising, sales materials. Anything that helps you communicate what you will do to your client, in an emotionally engaging, credible way. All this contributes to “doing things right”, i.e. finishing the job. Unfortunately, Monday morning quarterbacks are aplenty in marketing too – oblivious to the fact that there is intuition and there is science (like experts in semiotics would tell you) and the latter is a better route for most of us. 

The net of it is – innovation cannot happen unless you force yourself to see the world from your clients’ eyes. 

That is, among others, one of the reasons why a significant amount of Genpact’s management has moved closer to the markets, and why the part of that team who hasn’t, spends tons of time in conversation with clients. I am as likely to bump into Mohit or Shantanu or Harpreet or Gaurav in New York as I am when I visit Gurgaon. I wouldn’t be surprised if the social media customer support of Continental airlines had their names on their “uber-VIP” list – so that if they tweet something like “the service stinks these days” they are likely to get a foot massage and a cockpit tour in their next trip. 

But it is not about being PHYSICALLY there. It used to, but it isn’t anymore. Industry forums, free white papers, Flipboard pages. Additionally, Genpact has quite deep intimacy with a number of clients – which really helps getting behind the barrage of platitudes, even if it is on the phone. 

So, what is one great way to become a successful innovator? Make sure you tap into the world of wealth the web gives you. Do talk to people who can help you think about problems and solutions, especially people who have a different perspective. On Monday morning, think about who you will talk to – one continent apart from you - and on Friday morning, check back to see if you have indeed gotten yourself out of your four walls. And when you do, ask kindly, but ask the real hard questions. 

Inventors can be shy, innovators cannot. Invite yourself to the party.