India, say the global trade pundits, is where the party is at. And sure enough, there’s much that’s happening to contribute to the cheerful party mood: a buoyant economy with its fundamentals in place–be it industry or banking–and a stable government with a focused agenda of growth. What’s more, we are poised on the verge of a significantly favorable economic cum demographic transition with 50 percent of our population under 35. A transition no one could have predicted when the British left an impoverished nation to its own devices on August 15, 1947, with ominous predictions of self-destruction and implosion.
And now here comes the spoiler: As per the 2017 Global Innovation Index released by United Nation’s World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), Switzerland, Sweden, Netherlands, the USA and the UK are amongst the most innovative countries with India way, way below at 60th position. These statistics make it very clear that India is not making much headway in the world of innovation, invention, and discovery—the essential building blocks for a potential superpower to be.
That’s not all. According to reports of India’s Controller General of Patents, Designs, and Trademarks from the last 10 years, only one out of every 6 patents filed in India belongs to Indians while the remaining 5 belong to India-based foreign companies.
Perhaps this is precisely what prompted Infosys founder Narayana Murthy to make his recent, widely debated statement that there hasn’t been a single earth-shaking invention to “delight global citizens.”
So why are Indians – in no way less talented, energetic and enthusiastic– than the people of the West– lagging behind? After all, these are the same people that set new standards of excellence in a different setting, like say, Silicon Valley! Naturally, the question arises: how do we ensure our youth gets the environment it deserves to achieve its innovation potential and hold its own? First things first, we need to acknowledge the elephant in the room: the popular perception of Indians as a resourceful, ingenious and innovative lot. Sorry, but that’s not completely true. Yes, we are full of ideas. But ideas and innovation are not the same things. An idea is a mere theory; innovation the real thing: a hard-hitting contact sport that needs players to grapple with the realities on hand– survive them– and eventually win the game.
‘An idea becomes an innovation only when it generates value’
An idea becomes an innovation only when it generates value and satisfies a specific need. Innovation involves the deliberate application of information, imagination, and initiative in deriving greater or differentiated value from resources and includes all processes by which new ideas are generated and converted into useful products/solutions.
In short, an idea becomes an innovation only through execution. But that is precisely where we fall short.
If one were to ask for names of leading executors in the country –E Sreedharan of Delhi Metro fame is one of the few names that come to mind. ISRO is probably the only public/private sector organization that executes at a globally competitive scale. We have been executing to build the elusive Light Combat Aircraft since before most of you, the readers were born. Similarly, the most successful local car companies (despite Tata’s acquisition of JLR) are Suzuki, and Hyundai (not Indian in origin), and the list goes on.
We can almost hear the counter-arguments: India is a nation that launched the maximum satellites into space in record time. We are a country that regularly throws up newsmakers in fields ranging from biotechnology to banking, space to software, medicine to the movies!
While all of this is true– it is a fact that given the vastness of our nation—the actual percentage of success is small and certainly not our fair share.
So the question arises: how do we build an eco-system that puts the spotlight on innovation, constantly challenge ourselves to push the envelope– forward and beyond the frontiers of innovative excellence?
Three pre-requisites to be better at Innovation:
1. Experts in domains: Even as we dwell over the present predicament, it won’t do to forget that India is the Grand Civilization that pioneered invention and innovation in the ancient world. Be it medicine, mathematics, metallurgy, city planning or even agriculture, India blazed the trail of knowledge, reason, and rationale for the rest of the world to follow. A lot of this had to do with genuine respect for scholarship–and specialization of knowledge. In fact, journalist Sahana Singh’s recent illustrated book on the Educational Heritage of Ancient India points out how India was a hot spot for advanced learning, welcoming students from distant lands.
Universities competed with each other to carve a niche in specific fields of study–be it trigonometry, calculus, polity, quadratic equations or economics. Many Indian scholars predated their western counterparts by several centuries–a point explained in the book with accompanying evidence. This book reminds us of how the spirit of scientific advancement was second nature to Indians. Sure, historic events as they played out laid waste this eco-system–and while that is a poignant aspect that cannot be undone–revisiting our past will surely provide us with a roadmap to bring back that scientific temper.
Thus, we will do well to recreate an environment of respect for deep knowledge and research within the industry, academia, and government. Indian industry and academic institutions need to lead the way to put the focus back on Research and Development that has the potential to answer specific, long-standing questions confronting us today.
2. Quality First: For a people inordinately obsessed with cost, there is always a conflict between quality and cost. In our case cost always wins. But to build a resilient, long-lasting innovation culture, we need to think long-term and vote for quality always.
One would struggle to name one product from our fast-growing economy that is high quality, why? Most of the high-quality products are no prizes for guessing, imported or made for export to someone’s specs. Why do we have to always refer to Japanese quality and German precision as role models?
The benefits of building a culture in which Quality is paramount are self-explanatory: Quality is not just the outcome of great innovation, but also the starting point of it. In other words, if you were to come up with a product or service so evidently top-of-the-line as to be identifiable, chances are your client would recognize you as a wise investment. Examples of Indians willing to shell out big bucks abroad are many but when it comes to products from India, the default view is one of poor quality and hence something whose costs needs serious negotiation!!
Going back to how things were, we clearly were focused on quality in whatever we did; the Harappan civilization, the monuments across this great land, the amazing dance forms that abundant in the country are just a few examples that exemplify that we are more than capable of delivering best-in-class quality. To build that culture of Quality, that brooks no bargaining, we need to constantly ask ourselves: is it long-lasting? Is it excellent? Is it enough?
3. The Innovative self: In our historical past, expertise in the domain, and a culture of high quality were possible because we were exemplary in a key input — ownership and accountability. This is an area where we have completely lost our way. In the absence of personal ownership of outcomes, there is no pride in the work, average quality is ok. Further, we tend to quickly externalize reasons for failure, never learn from them, and our execution falls way short of what is desirable to be truly world-class.
It is not clear as when and how we lost our way. It may be because in the contemporary context we start with not taking ownership of our lives and careers and someone (read family and friends) is often doing this for us. Therefore, we feel no obligation to the outcomes, because it is not the real us who is pursuing a career. Great careers usually follow the path of passion and interest. If your kid loves the arts—do set him/her free to follow their dreams even if they lie along a distant road. Dare to let them be ‘different’. Encourage intensity of passion; it’s a prerequisite to building excellence. Excellence that manifests itself in fresh thought and original expression is crucial to innovation.
And while we are at it, may we add that a critical corollary to innovation is self-discipline. Here I am reminded of a reference an HR director I knew often made when addressing new-hires. The first question was – how many of you have applied for a US visa—in the IT sector; not surprisingly a lot of hands went up. The next question was how many of you were ever late for the visa interview—surprisingly not a single hand went up this time….and yes there was no silly traffic excuse. The importance of the visa was so high that we adjusted for all eventualities. Our commitment to our day to day work should be equally high.
During my professional career, I came across many employees who were incredibly talented and for various reasons ‘stuck’ in the corporate hierarchy. When one got deeper, they were clearly not happy with their professional careers, but had too many factors that held them back from pursuing their dream; whether it was starting a company, pursuing agriculture, or something else. Courage is what these folks lacked and found a convenient excuse to continue with the status-quo. The absence of courage, the willingness to take risk is anathema to innovation.
In a country with incredible opportunities, if one obtains deep domain expertise, ensures high-quality delivery, and has courage and discipline, they are guaranteed to be successful. To sum up, if the party hopes to last beyond 3 am, innovation is going to be the one factor to decide who gets invited and who stays, the great differentiator between potential and its realization.
The writing is clearly on the wall: Innovate or be shunted out of the race, dragging India down to becoming a net innovation importer.