Thinking out of the box
- from Shaastra :: vol 02 issue 06 :: Nov - Dec 2023
A book that makes a persuasive case to practise innovation at scale to maximise the impact.
I first met Dr Raghunath Mashelkar 30 years ago when I embarked on my doctoral thesis. At that time, he was leading the National Chemical Laboratory (NCL) in Pune, and I was studying the response of national laboratories to a host of external changes including economic liberalisation. One of Mashelkar's key initiatives at NCL was to set up a separate fund to support "kite-flying ideas" based on a belief that breakthroughs in science will not happen unless "crazy" ideas are supported, no matter how outlandish they appear to begin with.
Fast forward to 2023: Mashelkar's obsession with innovation remains as strong as ever. Along the way, he has explored Gandhian innovation (with C.K. Prahalad); pole-vaulting transformation (with Ravi Pandit); and spent several years on the Reliance board where he had a ringside view of the power of thinking at scale. Exprovement, co-authored with consultant Hersh Haladker, marks the latest milestone in this evolution of thinking on how to practise innovation at scale and with considerable impact.
As the banyan tree (company) grows, it uses its nutrients to spawn aerial roots (subsidiary businesses); some of these may become large enough to replace the main trunk (core business).
Exprovement, a term coined by the authors, refers to exponential improvement arising from drawing parallels between the seemingly unrelated. A leading children's hospital in London struggles to reduce infant mortality in the transfer of babies from emergency surgery to the Intensive Care Unit... and finds a solution inspired by the complex yet smooth and fast changes that happen at a Formula 1 pit stop. An architect seeks to build an eco-friendly yet resilient commercial complex... and finds inspiration from the way termites build their homes. This book provides these and several other examples of the power of analogy and metaphor in the innovation process.
While these stories of how the exprovement approach has led to breakthroughs are motivating and inspiring, it is only natural to wonder how one might develop and internalise an exprovement mindset. Fortunately, the authors devote a chapter to answering this question. At a high level, they recommend asking the right questions, drawing parallels, and engaging the right team. Framing the questions such that they look at "what could be" rather than looking for changes within the existing paradigm is key to exprovement. The greater the dissimilarity of the parallel, the higher is the potential for vastly different results. Parallels can be either conceptual or operational. To practise exprovement, the team needs to be optimistic and persistent besides being open to looking silly: after all, ultimately successful ideas may appear bizarre to start with.
Another interesting approach uses an analogy of the banyan tree to map out how an organisation should look at growth, development, and, of course, exprovement. The main trunk of the banyan tree is akin to the core business of the company. As the tree grows, it not only strengthens the main trunk, but also uses a part of its energy and nutrients to spawn aerial roots. Some of these aerial roots may ultimately become large businesses in their own right and occasionally replace the core business itself!
SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE
This book contains a wide variety of examples, spanning multiple contexts. This makes it valuable to diverse readers; whatever your background or discipline, you are likely to find an example that you can relate to. Many of the examples are quite contemporary; for example, how a football team coach can optimise the use of her players on the field by looking at how a microprocessor optimises its use of energy. The stories themselves are narrated clearly and well.
Over the past three decades, many Indian companies have embraced the philosophy of continuous improvement and incremental innovation to remain competitive. But with industries and businesses getting redefined by disruptive technological change, the ability to spearhead breakthrough innovation is becoming essential. Exprovement provides one approach towards this goal.
If India is to grow at a fast pace and realise people's dreams, it will have to practise exprovement and embrace unorthodox ideas drawn from a range of parallels that can't even be imagined today.
Rishikesha T. Krishnan is Professor of Strategy and Ram Charan Chair Professor in Innovation and Leadership, Indian Institute of Management Bangalore. The views expressed here are personal.