How to Encourage Innovation in Any Organisation


This guest column is by Rutwik Kishan Rao, an Engineer turned Lawyer specializing in Intellectual Property Rights (IPR)

Consumers today are spoilt for choice in every segment of their choosing, be it products or services. An organisation must set itself apart from the rest to grab the attention of its target consumers. A product differentiation and promise of better quality therefore become key to success.

Increased competition and rapid growth of disruptive technologies has driven businesses to constantly re-invent themselves or risk becoming irrelevant in a rapidly evolving market. Traditional methods of consumer engagement therefore fail, and even organisations traditionally seen as being shielded from the need to innovate are having to embrace innovation as a business mantra instead of paying mere lip service to it.

Would anybody have expected innovation from the friendly mom-and-pop store just 5 years back? It would have been too far fetched and unreasonable, but now is the need of the hour for such stores the worldover.
How then does one ensure that one’s organisation remains innovative and therefore relevant to its consumer base? Here are four simple steps in the right direction.

Let’s begin with the seed of innovation. The human mind.

Humans innovate. Organisations don’t. An organisation can create an environment conducive for innovation and policies which incentivise it.

Innovation is a natural consequence of problem solving. When there is a problem to be solved, the human mind examines the various possible ways in which the problem may be addressed. The problem may be a social, political, technological or financial in nature. Upon having explored the possible approaches to solve a problem, the most optimum approach is tried and discarded if found deficient, and in a few iterations the optimum solution is reached.

Every human is equipped with the intellectual faculties necessary to innovate as a matter of biological evolution. It is hard-coded in our minds, so to speak. All an organisation needs to do is ensure that the people entrusted with the responsibility to innovate for the organisation has:

1. Access to resources, especially human resources

Resources include scientific apparatus and literature, an enthusiastic and supportive human resources in addition to such other resources as may be necessary given the nature of the organisation goals must be made readily available to the Innovators. As discussed, innovation is a mental process. The organisation needs to have people with the right mentality at the right place in the hierarchy for it to work.

Having access to efficient and dedicated employees is critical for an organisation to be innovative, especially when the organization is in its “startup stage”. It is in this stage that the organisation is encountered with the most problems and has the most scope for innovation. Further the problems solved during the Startup stage also lead to what is called as “process setting” whereby the organisation’s dependence on “people” is eliminated in favor of a dependence on “process”. Employees come and go. The organisation must remain. This is especially necessary in domains where a high rate of attrition of skilled employees exists.

Remember that A’s hire A’s, B’s hire C’s. Dr. Philip E. Rosner’s take on the matter is recommended reading. Ensure that the right talent is hired at the right time, so that an unbroken chain of talented people strengthen your organisation. An incompetent person at any level will only become a liability at a later stage and will act as a gateway for the entry of further incompetent people into the organisation.

Bear in mind that time is also a resource and sufficient time for a process known as “Ideation” must be allowed.

2. Reduced the target into a well defined ‘technical problem’ such that it aligns with the organisation’s requirement

Every organisation desirous of innovating has an R&D structure in some form or the other. The people responsible for solving problems in the organisation, let’s call them ‘Innovators’, are given targets which the organisation intends to meet. Typical targets are achieving a certain output from the product or service, reducing cost and/or ease of manufacture of the product, improve reliability of the product/service etc. These organisational targets must first be reduced into a “technical problem”. Clarity in definition is critical. Identifying the target market, desired specifications of the product/service, ascertaining the right price point as a target, setting a target timeline for the development are essential steps involved in the process of defining the “technical problem”.

3. The autonomy to discard deficient options on the basis of pure merit

The individuals charged with innovating must be given the autonomy to work towards solving the technical problem previously identified within a practical time-frame.

Most organisations, especially in India, have adopted a culture of curbing autonomy in favor pandering to “big egos of small men” as veteran lawyer Ram Jethmalani puts it. Abandoning the optimum approach in favor of an inferior alternative, just to accommodate people’s egos can never bare the best fruit. An overwhelming majority of the Indian research organisations have fallen prey to this attitude. That explains, at least in part, the lack of innovation.

4. An incentive to innovate

Innovating is hard work. Lack of incentive could be detrimental. A process for identifying and incentivising innovative thinking individuals in any organisation is a must. A pat on the back to an outright profit sharing mechanism and everything in between may be employed to encourage individuals to align their interests with the organisation’s interests. Only then will innovation happen.

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