Can Indian companies innovate? Unlikely, when we simply don't have the culture for it
Indian workplaces are simply not diverse enough and not adequately tolerant of failure and dissent to foster a culture where innovation can thrive
These days it is difficult to read the news and not come upon some mention of advancing innovation in India.
The central government has just announced the creation of an India Inclusive Innovation Fund, aimed at bringing innovation to solve the problems at the base of the economic pyramid in India. Recently the R&D centres of 40 MNCs came together to advance India's "innovation ecosystem." Even the BJP's prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, has exhorted students to "do whatever you can to make India innovative".
With so much focus on this, we should think that we will make better progress than our track record over the past 70 years seem to suggest.
When you read what industry thought leaders have to say on the subject, you hear a lot about the need for better intellectual property rights, for venture capital, for a support ecosystem that includes incubation infrastructure and so on.
No doubt all of them are necessary factors. But I doubt that they will be sufficient.
If you look at innovative companies worldwide, it is clear that one of the real enablers for innovation is culture. This applies as much to organisations as it does to societies.
If I consider our own experience of creating an innovative organisation in India and the challenges we have had to overcome in the process, consciously working on the culture has played perhaps the most significant role in enabling this. Unfortunately, the correlation between culture and innovation is not widely understood.
Consider, for example, that one of the defining characteristics of most organisations is conformance. Companies have job descriptions that standardise performance expectations, hiring profiles that increase the chances of conformance, processes and policies that insist on compliance. This is at odds with what is required to drive innovative thinking. You cannot ask someone to follow the rules in one context and step out of the box in another.
If you truly want to encourage innovative thinking, you will have to take a look at the whole environment that you have created for your people. What does it feel like? Are most people likely to interpret the experience to suggest that you don't want them to think, to question, to express their contrarian perspective? Are there too many guard rails? Too many checks and balances? If yes, chances are your people are not jumping over one another to innovate.
Research has consistently shown that the best ideas come from synthesising diverse perspectives. For most of us, that poses several challenges.
First, our workplaces are not very diverse. As I mentioned above, most organisations are designed to weed out the outliers and create uniformity in the kind of people that work there. Forget multiple perspectives, experiences, cultures - many Indian organisations have an abysmal record with even gender diversity. That reduces the degree of diverse perspectives in the room by 50 percent.
That we are not great at encouraging dissent compounds the issue. In fact, we thrive on shutting down the dissenting voice. To encourage innovation, we have to shut down what someone called the Highest Paid Person's Opinion. We have to encourage openness, and allow for diverse perspectives to surface. In my company, we have had to train people on how to say "no" when that's what they meant to say.
Another important cultural attribute is to value the consumer. I suppose this orientation comes naturally in most capitalist economies. Unfortunately, for many Indian companies, the ability to listen to a customer and then act on it seems a stretch. This requires an understanding of human behaviour, and very importantly, a core organisational value of putting the customer's interests above one's own.
This issue is compounded by the very limited understanding most organisations in our country have of usability. So most customer inputs that focus beyond functionality fall on untrained ears. From our experience, it is almost impossible to come up with ideas that create value for people without developing an awareness of people's needs and an ability to solve for them.
I believe that Indian organisations will have to work on these aspects of their culture if they want to create an environment that promotes innovation.
What has been your experience?
Rajdeep Endow is Managing Director of Sapient India. He is on twitter @endowscopy.
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