Saturday, December 10, 2005

Four eyes - One view on Innovation life cycle

(Still under development and needs grammatical and spelling correction. If you know my password and account name, feel free to correct any errors/grammar mistakes which you find. Please do not change the structure or sentences. Kindly leave your opinion in the comment section)

Among the commonly used buzzword in the business and academic community, probably "Innovation" would come as one among the top ten words (others could be "", "customer centric", etc). Hence lots of books, papers and companies have been created centered around the word - Innovation. Companies try really really very hard to foster innovative spirit within an organization by constantly bringing in new people and implementing new ideas. Some of the schemes implemented backfires because of the chaos associated with Innovation like rapid changes in regular work, uncertainity associated with implementing new ideas etc, Infact for fostering and reinforcing innovation within an institution (could be university, company or importantly in government department) is so important that every company should have dedicated person or team to manage innovation like managing finance, managing project etc. It would not be an excaggeration if I say that the future of an institution lies firmly on the innovation spirit running within the community. Coming from India I tend to look that India needs to do many things to kindle the innovative sprit among its community. India is definitely ahead of other countries in accepting new technology and embracing change (there are still some institution which still think mobile phones, computer technology are hindrance for the society). The book by Prof. Prahalad ("The bottom of the pyramid) aptly points out some of the most innovative and native ideas which are applied in different areas like low cost eye care by arvind hospital, jaipur foot, IT revolution driven by Infosys, TCS and others, modified shakti salt, and many more ideas. But these examples of innovation happening in a big giant country like India is just too less and thats why we are able to point them out easily. This is not at all enough. Though recent initiatives by Mr. Anil Gupta of National Innovation Foundation shows one of the serious attempts made to stimulate, gather and use the collective innovation spirit of rural India is very impressive and a step in the right direction ( Still I am a person who will not get easily satisfied, and also a hardcore critic of anything which is visible to me and hence I think a lot could be done in India and elsewhere to look at the idea of what is innovation and what are the means to scale it to a large community. I am not going to consolidate all the ideas specified in literature (because I have read only very little), but point out one means of looking at innovation.
Let us now look at what is an innovation life cycle and how can this help an institution to move towards embracing the concept of innovation. This is just one theory based on general observation of innovation in different fields and hence it is just one opinion or one view about what is innovation. The innovation life cycle consist of the following four stages namely:
(1) Inspiration
(2) Imitation
(3) Improvisation
(4) Innovation
They can be briefly called as 4-Is innovation life cycle (and hence the title of the article). These four stage theory was built because it looked compact (cute and poetic) and also tried to compress the complex process of innovation to be more easily practicable in the daily life by individuals or could be applied by any other institution.

Though from the name given it will be possible to visualize the innovation life cycle, I try to explain them by adding many many real life example coming from different fields. I also like to generalize a problem into a concept or theory which can be observed in real-life. If a concept or theory works in one particular case then the importance of the theory is usually limited. But if it is possible to use the concept or theory in varied fields or varied situation and could be proved to be applicable in different fields then the credibility of the theory improves very much.

The first stage is the inspiration. We cannot build innovation from nothing. It should start from somewhere. And one way is to begin with inspiration. In case of kids this lies in the hand of their parents and teachers. It is their job to genuinely identify the potential of their kids and inspire them in the right direction. We have seen many such examples in the life of great sports person like Vishwanathan Anand or Sania Mirza, in the life of musicians, in the vision of the founders of companies like Sony or Toyota, in the life of great thinkers like Swami Vivekanda etc. Vishwanathan Anand was observing and playing the game of chess with his parents from an young age. And it was actually his mother who inspired him to play and I think it was his father who coached him at that young age. Similarly Swami Vivekanda was inspired by the life of Lord Ram which was taught to him by his mother. There are many many examples like these to show that the first step to any innovation process is inspiration. Companies like Toyoto was inspired by the technical capability of automobile giant Ford. Thus the story goes on and on in various other fields. In fact I believe the first engineer or doctor or farmer was inspired by the nature ( and still a lot and lots of people get their inspiration from the nature god).

Okay we are inspired, what do we do next ? I think the best way to build up new things is to build existing things. Of course you need to start somewhere. Every poet would try to immitate the style of his role model or inspiration(probably shakespeare in English or Bharatiyar or Vairamuthu in Tamil). Every software developer would try to write his code based on the style and methodology followed by a book which inspired him (earlier it used to be "kernigan and richie" and nowadays it is probably any good open source code). In my case I had the chance to look into the code written by one of my senior colleage at Philips who had an elegance and clarity in his program which I have not seen before and I try my best to follow some of them. Similarly Japanese companies which got inspired by American companies earlier in 1970s was quite infamous for imitating the work of their counterpart in America. And few years back the same accusation was levied by the Japanese companies on their Chinese counterparts. Every great filmmakers make their movies based on the influence and ideas from the director he or she admires. I am sure many of the filmmakers will point to either Satyajit Ray or Akira Kurasawa or Mani ratnam if you ask them about their first movies. As kids we try to imitate the behaviour, action and also mannerism of our parents and increasing these days based on what we see in TV etc. So imitation seems to be the first step after inspiration. So as individual or company or government it is good to imitate whatever you think is the best in respective arena.

It would not help in the way towards innovations if we stick long in the imitation loop. At certain point or after certain point it would be worthwhile to escape the imitation loop towards what I call as moving from imitation towards improvisation stage. It could be harmful and a road block if we are not aware of the imitation loop. Imitation beyond a point looses its value and hence the company or individual need to keep this in mind. The best way to skip the imitation loop is improvisation starting at a small level and progressively increasing the difference between the new and the original version. Improvisation gives the necessary confidence, capability and legitimacy need to move towards innovation. A famous example which I can think of is GNU/Linux OS. It is a fact that many of the ideas and software tools developed by the open source community was very similar to the either UNIX or MS OS. Many tools had more or less same features and interface based on their counterparts. But the open source community did not stop there. They used their strength which was gained from the imitation loop and switched to truly remarkable products with lots of improvisation. The Japanese companies which were initially imitating the American products found a great of improving their product by being more quality conscious. Thus the concept of quality was the key improvisation by these Japanese companies and which is now universally embraced by world. In Tamil and Hindi film world many music directors are infamous for getting stuck in the imitation loop and not seeking to go beyond it. Few of them still perform but most of them have disappeared. I think in every field we can find similar examples of the danger of getting stuck in the imitation loop.

The extreme or end of improvisation stage is what we can classify or call as true innovation stage. Here whatever you do or create is considered as original. This is the stage where every individual or society tries to reach constantly. The best example I could think of is the idea behind Wheels as a mode or means for mobility. I am not aware of any animal or living creature which used ideas similar to wheels for motion. So wheels can be considered as truely the most remarkable and original idea by humans, who were initially trying to imitate and improvise other mechanical motion created by God. Many concepts of Internet was based on the idea from the real world Post delivery mechanism. Earlier Airplanes tried imitating the properties of birds but finally gave it up to another original mechanism of aerodynamic different from birds.

Thus the concept of four eyes or 4Is can be applied to go in the direction of interest which could be anything and by being fully aware of these stages it is possible to plan to reach the goal of true innovation.