At wits' end...
At wits' end...

My humble attempt at coming to terms with modern technology

An optimistic, happy-go lucky person who hails from Kerala, the 'Gods own Country'. As a passionate marketeer and an avid reader I enjoy sharing my views on Books, Social Issues, and Public Speaking.




A note on Innovation - Beyond the half-lit corridors of uncertainty and non-conformity

Ramya VasudevanRamya Vasudevan


When it comes to crossing the half-lit corridors of uncertainty and non-conformity or simply put, ‘innovating’, most organizations have a lot of reasons to duck. The fear of uncertainty, lack of long-term commitment and patience to deal with innovation are the major deterrents in most cases. What these organizations don’t realize is that there is no quick-fix for innovation; it is indeed the result of a carefully planned execution that involves periods of uncertainty and non-conformity. There is nothing better than an open culture to germinate the seeds of innovation. And to draw inspiration, the organizations could turn to the arts and the sciences. Many a times, with breath-taking beauty and path-breaking discoveries, the arts and the sciences have emerged victorious amidst chaos. For example, the artistic styles like the Impressionismemerged as an innovative attempt to defy the traditional norms of painting. Tracing its path to glory and current stature would help many organizations reinvent themselves and confidently tread toward successful innovations.

Beyond the half-lit corridors of uncertainty and non-conformity

To say that I am proud to have seen most of Mr Drucker’s ideas on innovation being put to use feels great. In my last workplace, I had a good demonstration of how to extract value by innovating. Weekly innovation discussions and an innovation tracker encouraged all of us to implement even the smallest of innovations. An innovation team at the corporate level would take up the big budget innovations that go beyond the team’s budget and there were innovation metrics calculated on a monthly basis for each team across the organization. Annual innovation awards for innovation champs (individual and teams) would entail getting awarded at a huge ceremony and a plush remuneration (percentage of money the team helped save). It was an inspiring system that embraced the true spirit of innovation

I have in fact seen both the systems work, places where innovation is embraced wholeheartedly and where it is not. Innovation in any organization is all about making more economic sense out of the existing scenario; it could be through technological advancements, process improvements, analysis of the changing environment etc. Mr Peter Drucker, in his essay has clearly pointed out seven environments, both internal and external, to look for and spot opportunities for innovation[1]. Innovation could even be doing a routine task in a different way that reduces the time and effort spent on it. It does not sound so difficult, but things don’t fall into place that easily for a lot of organizations. Despite most companies going gaga over innovation, success cannot be ensured if the right approach is not followed.

Innovation could be the solution to a lot of problems that we see today – it would benefit the consumers by way of giving them a new and better product, a new convenience or the definition of a new want[2], and the organization by way of reduced costs, improved market share, royalty charges etc. The reason why I am so confident about this is because I have experienced this and seen the outcomes with facts and figures on ROI[3], during my tenure at work and is fully convinced of its benefits.  More often than not, innovation is not possible in organizations not because they cannot spot an opportunity or because they lack the talent or the resources to do so, but the primary barrier would generally be the culture within the organization; an atmosphere conducive to new thought processes would be amiss and any deviation from normalcy would be met with dismal or cold responses from the management.

As I see it, the following are some of the factors to be taken care of to ensure the success of innovation in organizations:

  1. Culture: As per one of the BMGI[4] findings, in the top 10 problems faced by Businesses, innovation figures third after Uncertainty and Globalization. As per this article:

    It seems big companies are struggling with innovation, and a better innovation process is at the top of the agenda for most CEOs. But the idea of a more innovative culture appears too frightening to many. The problem to be solved is how to become more innovative while still maintaining a sense of control over the organization.

    The tussle between control and innovation becomes more intense as the organization grows bigger. Less of control and more of individualism and autonomy breeds innovation, but where to draw the line is a major cause of concern for most companies. The idea is to develop a culture that embraces free thinking and allows the employees to question the existing system. An open door policy to foster collaboration and understanding between the employees and the management is very essential.

  2. Innovation is not to be forced down the employees’ throats: Organizations should know better than to lock up the employees in a conference room and force them to innovate. Innovation is essentially a lifestyle change that should emerge from realizing its benefits; the culture of thinking out-of-the box should be ingrained in the employees. Innovation is the result of clear thinking. Using brute force cannot bring out the best in people. Convince the employees and make them approach the problem from different directions.

  3. Motivation and appreciation would work wonders: Understand that Innovation stems from creativity, uncertainty and autonomy.  Motivate the employees and appreciate them when they do good work. One of the latest HBR report, ‘Seven Rules for Managing Creative-But-Difficult People’ suggests that creative people respond more to appreciation and autonomy than financial bonuses or better compensation policies.

  4. Align innovations with the corporate strategy: Innovate, but make it work in your favour. All innovations cannot be monetized and turned in favour of the organization. So don’t let the employees waste time on ideas that are totally out of context with your corporate strategy

  5. Innovation should start from bottom-up: Innovation has to come from those who actually get their hands dirty. It is a wrong notion that innovation should start from top-down. Yes, the cultural change should begin top-down, but the implementation should be bottom-up. The employees in the lower rungs are the most exposed to how things work at the grass root level and this is where even a small change in the routine task when multiplied by millions of times it is carried out will give an improved bottom line. Improving the bottom line should not be the reason for innovation, but a natural consequence of it.

  6. Lack of long term commitment: Commitment to innovation has to be for the long term; innovation may not happen overnight – patience and focus pays off in the end. Some innovations could take long periods to bear fruit. Persistence and Consistency is what makes the real difference. Most organizations are so busy chasing short-term goals and quarterly results that they lose sight of the actual differentiator. Anything less than a long-term commitment to innovation is a step in the wrong direction.

To summarize, inspiring innovation needs a lot of factors to be carefully taken care of. In his essay, The Principles of Innovation, Mr Drucker himself has covered most of the above points elaborately. As per Mr Drucker,

Successful innovators use both the right side and left side of their brains.

In the current setting, the workforce in any organization is expected to use the left side of the brain for their routine activities at work, but the real question is how to get them to use the right side of their brain? Since the arts and the sciences have been the breeding grounds for novel ideas and creativity from time immemorial, it is imperative for organizations to dig up traces of inspiration from them.

Finding refuge in the Arts and the Sciences

In a workshop on creating compelling data visualizations, the New York Times‘ artist-in-residence, Jer Thorp, encouraged attendees to simply “hire an artist if you have a novel problem.” That’s because “Artists are trained to face novel problems,” Thorp said. And then he added, “Software engineers are not.”[6]

Creativity is one thing that drives the arts and the sciences; they cannot survive without thinking out-of-the-box. Most organizations are already approaching a stage where they cannot sustain their business without innovating. All those mechanical and purely data driven approach is about to come to a halt. To drive innovation it involves challenging the status quo and handling a lot of factors simultaneously. In this context, the analogies between the arts and the sciences and Mr Drucker’s ideas on innovation are worth noting. In addition to Mr Drucker’s idea that an innovation has to be breathtakingly simple[5], arts and sciences in general portray the following qualities:

  1. Perspective:In most cases, the artists or scientists have a different way of looking at the same thing. We call it perspective. The boring view of a street when looked through an artist’s eye gets transformed completely into something vibrant and colorful. Great artists have some of the unique ways of portraying things and as Mr Drucker would opine, the more you astonish the audience with your simplicity, the better. Similarly, the scientists think of a solution to the problem from various dimensions. There is always a better way of doing things, the discovery of which could result only from fearlessly questioning the current system and embracing uncertainty.

  2. Novel: To cut through the clutter and be different is no easy task. Ideas are not easy to come by, unless one puts in a lot of effort thinking. And especially in a space where it is easy to be replicated, every piece of output has to stand out from the crowd. Every piece of art is a result of long and deep contemplation; no two of them can even be remotely alike. The long history of the arts and the sciences show that despite such challenges, they have never failed to astonish people; they still do.

  3. Brave and Passionate: Artists or scientists are not worried about successes and failures. Being afraid of failures would inhibit growth and breed short sightedness. Even after 1000 failed attempts trying to invent a light bulb, the inspiring words from Thomas Alva Edison was that, ‘I have not failed. I've just found 1000 ways that won't work’. The artists and the scientists cannot survive without creativity and they don’t work just for financial rewards. Their self-satisfaction and thirst for artistic or scientific quest is what drives them. And this passion shows in their works.

  4. Collaboration: Artists or Scientists cannot and do-not work in silos. One prime example is the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS), which is a direct result of collaboration among the online communities. There are situations that would call for individual excellence, but collaboration with like-minded people would help make it even better. In most cases, partnerships and collaboration will help avoid reinventing the wheel.

  5. Organized and systematic approach: In Mr Drucker’s own view, ‘Purposeful innovation should result from analysis, system and hard work’. For an artist or a scientist, being systematic is part of their job as their work involves a step by step approach. A systematic approach and enablers like information technology could help increase the innovation productivity.

  6. Patience: Artists take months or even years to complete a work; scientists spend years working on some concept. With such long standing histories of successful innovations, if the arts and the sciences still rely on patience, why can’t the modern organizations take cue from this? Patience and long term objective are two indispensable aspects of any innovation.

Impressionism – the major take-aways

Let us now try to understand a style of art called ‘Impressionism’, named after a painting of one of its earliest proponents, Claude Monet. The movement started in Paris as an attempt to challenge the dominance of the traditional approach of painting. Impressionism depicts mundane scenes or visuals with emphasis on the play of natural light. As the name suggests, the art form captures the impressionsof the artist. The painting becomes an expression of the artist’s heart and resembles a natural scene or a photographic shot. As opposed to the traditional painting styles where the subject of the painting commands the viewer’s attention, impressionism insists that the boundary between the subject and its background be more relaxed. There are some interesting sources of inspiration that one could draw from this style of art.

  1. The movement itself was a conscious and innovative effort by its proponents to defy the set norms. Initially, the vociferous critiques rejected it completely but the impressionists persisted. They conducted many exhibitions all across and it came to be called an innovative or revolutionary style of painting [7]. Persistence and belief in what you do is very important for innovations to succeed. Beyond the half-lit corridors of uncertainty and risk, no one can be sure what awaits you. Lack of confidence and snivelling at the sight of risk will not help success through innovation.

  2. The style propounds a fading barrier between the subject and its surrounding. The inference here is this: Every organization has both external and internal factors that influence it. Segregating the problem and viewing it in isolation could lead to incorrect interpretations. Looking at the big picture with a porous boundary between the problem and its environment will help arrive at a more practical solution to the problem.

  3. The paintings depict mundane scenes and visuals, but embody modernity. In an organization, there is a better way of doing every routine task. It does not mean that mundane tasks are not fit for innovation. Every employee should be prompted to do his/her bit to bring a difference to his/her work. As the routine tasks are repeated many times, this is the best possible way to reduce unnecessary costs. Do not discriminate between large and small innovations, both are equally good for the organization.

  4. In the impressionist style, loose brushwork gives a feel of spontaneity and effortlessness, despite the fact that the paintings emerge out of careful contemplation. This is one of the important aspects of this style. As Mr Drucker himself would put it:

    An innovation, to be effective, has to be simple and it has to be focused. It should do only one thing; otherwise, it confuses. If it is not simple, it won’t work. Everything new runs into trouble; if complicated, it cannot be repaired or fixed. All effective innovations are breathtakingly simple. Indeed, the greatest praise an innovation can receive is for people to say, “This is obvious. Why didn’t I think of it?” (In his essay titled Principles of Innovation, in the book, The Essential Drucker)

Innovation is hard-work, though the outcome looks simple; it is a result of careful contemplation of the current situation and ways of improving it. Always think of a better and cost effective way of doing the current task. Once this thought process gets integrated into the lifestyles of the employees, it can work wonders.

To conclude, the arts and the sciences are immense sources of inspiration if the organizations know where to look, but there is a flip side to this. In literature, there is a situation called the writer’s block where the writer faces a psychological inability to produce any work or continue the current work. Any organization could also gradually go through an innovator’s block where it is not able to produce anything substantial for quite some time. Has any organization faced such a situation before? One of the major examples would be Nokia. It failed to live up to its expectations and its own loyal customers mercilessly dumped it. Could it be that Nokia faced an Innovator’s block or is it that it failed to analyse the changing environment? Whatever be it, the key learning is that consistent effort at innovation is what differentiates you from others. And for as long the organization doesn't lose sight of this, it can succeed.


An optimistic, happy-go lucky person who hails from Kerala, the 'Gods own Country'. As a passionate marketeer and an avid reader I enjoy sharing my views on Books, Social Issues, and Public Speaking.