Leveraging Diverse Experience

Dan Wang in his Strategy & Business article ‘The Untapped potential of Overseas Experience‘ talks about the value of intangible experience that the employees visiting other geographies bring to the table. They highlight how the expected returns like acquisition of new skills or enhancement of old skills or new technology are well understood and hence well used by the organizations. However when an employee goes out of his home base and lives in a new environment, there are many more things that he picks up like a new way to do things, new processes to streamline work or small little things that can improve the day to day operations or a new way the ideas are handled in the visited place. Employees may learn things from the organization they are visiting but from the region in general – as they see the new place from their existing perspective. These are not necessarily things expected from them, these are things that we pick up when we get out of our comfort zones and see  things that are too obvious to the natives.

While Wang focusses on the fact that organizations do not leverage these experiences, I want to extend the thought and say – organizations need to send their key employees ( if possible all employees) to new geographies every now and then, so that they learn something from those environments – even if it means learning what not to do. It would be akin to consciously creating intersections for your team, that is bound to make them think in innovative ways. We think of news  ideas naturally when we are in a new environment, with no need for any artificially created stimulus as is done in brainstorming sessions and other classroom activities. We absorb all that we see and anything that can be potentially ported to our own environment stands out on its own. All we need is a platform back home that would allow us to use this newly acquired knowledge.

If organizations can create a framework that allows them to tap into this knowledge in a formal way – it would be great, but till then if the managers can informally tap into this knowledge before it goes back into the recesses of the mind and memory, it can be a big source of innovative ideas in the organizations.

Govt’s Role in nurturing entreprenurship

In their Mckinsey article Creating growth clusters: What role for local government? Julian Kirchherr, Gundbert Scherf, and Katrin Suder make wonderful arguments about governments role of removing obstacles that the entrepreneurs face as much as it should be building infrastructure. They began by bringing out the role of governments at various levels – like at national level it may be to device policies that help create enterprises that eventually lead to job creation. The municipal level of government that actually works at the ground level with the businesses can pick up interesting insights about what is coming in the way of new businesses.

I agree with one of their arguments that the bigger role that governments can play is in removing obstacles that young entrepreneurs usually face. They bring out 4 enabling factors that governments can play a role in creating a business friendly eco-system their regions –  talent, infrastructure, capital, and networks. Developing talent means investing in education and right kind of skill development, infrastructure can mean things like Internet availability in countries like India and physical infrastructure where and when needed, capital is well understood and networks is something of a soft factor that needs involving many stakeholders from the society and becoming a nerve centre for the people to come to for any need that can be served.

Network is something that is most important for the entrepreneurs and something that they can not demand objectively. They need mentors to be their bouncing boards, they need problem solvers, they need help in finding right talent ( remember lot of new age companies have no traditional source to go to for talent and its not easy to attract good talent to a startup unless the founder has done couple of successful exits) and most importantly they need references for their initial set of customers. In the above article, authors suggest that governments need to hire talent from the business world, preferably established entrepreneurs to run their startup labs as the pace of doing things in the private and the public sector differ and that can be a deterrent to the startup economy.

Couple up reading this article with an interview with Klaus Wowereit, the Mayor of Berlin on how they scaled up a startup community in the city and their future plans.

Women & Innovation

Paul Sloane in his article The Innovation Gender Gap talks about the gender divide that exists in the space of Innovation. He quotes a book that says women fail in Innovation because:

  • Carry criticism around for too long
  • Stay inside their comfort zones
  • Fail to voice their opinions
  • Fail to take risks because of fear of failure

While some it may be true, some of it due to centuries of moulding of women for domestic roles. It would take a couple of generations to move from there to equal mode just as men are struggling to deal with domestic issues. For example the less number of women in certain subjects that are more associated with Innovation, although I strongly believe that Innovation need not be only in science and technology. In fact science and technology should be the tools in the hands of innovators.

While researching for my book The Mouse Charmers, I also came across this divide. I wanted to have fair  representation of businesses founded and run by women. I had a hard time looking for them and the ones I found were too busy running business and had no time to talk about the business. I also figures out that lifestyle is a space that women are very comfortable with, and may be it is the presence of other women here that makes them so comfortable there. I found that women like to put their head down and work while men spend equal time in talking about their work to others, in hustling, in networking. They are at ease while taking help from other and while helping others. Women though tend to talk only when they need to – that creates a gap, and they miss the power of network.

ICICI is an organization where women have really taken the leadership positions and I remember Mr Kamath saying that let merit be the only criteria and women will do the rest. There must be a lot of truth in his statement, I hope more large organizations follow his path and more women try their hands on being on their own.

Perils of Suggestion Schemes

Paul Sloane in his article Why Do Suggestions Schemes Fail? talks about the pitfalls that make the suggestion schemes or idea competitions fail in most organizations. I have always loved the practical aspects of Paul’s articles. It reminded of a conversation I had with the Chief Innovation Officer of a mid sized IT company in Bangalore. When I was discussing managing ideas with him – he said – Oh we are very good at getting ideas – we are sitting on 7000 ideas. When I asked him how is he going to evaluate these ideas? Does he even have the resources to critically look at those ideas? Has he thought of the impact of not evaluating the ideas that people have painstakingly shared and they expect a reply on? I questioned him on how is he going to pick up ideas from this huge databank to implement.

To my surprise he gave me a very bookish answer – We respect all ideas and each idea is important to us. Hello, but can you do justice to all ideas? How can you assume all ideas are good?

It also reminds me of a story whose moral is – Answers you get is dependent on questions you ask. So in suggestion schemes and idea competitions also what you get is what you ask for. If you ask a solution to a pointed problem or at least solutions to areas bound by a well defined boundary – you are more likely to get solutions that you can use.

Another practical aspect is that I have seen that these competitions tend to become a goal for the team executing it. The evaluation of their performance is solely on the base of number of ideas generated and not on the number of ideas that eventually helped the business or organization. So the process matters as much as the focus on results.

Read the article to see some very practical issues with suggestion schemes.

I would take this opportunity to thank Paul Sloane for giving an advance review comment for my debut book The Mouse Charmers.

Intrapreneurs – Finding and keeping Them

Vijay Govindarajan and Jatin Desai in their HBR blog Recognize Intrapreneurs before they leave talk about finding and keeping the intrapreneurs. They talk about these people who are forward thinkers and are always thinking in the future.

They also talk about 6 patterns that they have observed of Intrapreneurs and these should help you identify them in your organization and also tell you what they are looking for.

My opinion – Intrapreneurs are the biggest wasted resource in most organizations. No one knows your business like you and your colleagues do as you deal with the problems and opportunities on a day to day basis. You deal with the clients and know what they are looking for, what they are happy about and what is the next need that you can potentially address. To not tap into the minds of people who have ideas for business is an opportunity loss. Employees with a business bent of mind and a vision of future and an execution ability are your best bets for innovation. All they need is recognition and nurturing, may be a platform that lets them experiment.

Entrepreneurial Ecosystem

A beautiful piece on the entrepreneurial ecosystem and how it is evolving in from Innosights’s Strategy & Innovations newsletter titled Six Lessons for Corporations Building Innovations.

While authors talk about how the big organizations ought to leverage the entrepreneurial talent and resources in their systems, what I picked was the way the ecosystem, powered by the immense connectivity is creating a community of entrepreneurs, wannabe entrepreneurs, investors and support groups that bring in help like mentors. Social networks on entrepreneurs are helping them come together to work out common problems, to learn from each other and to create and use a common pool of resources. I remember long time back someone told me that Other startup entrepreneurs are an entrepreneurs best friends. As you go through the same pain points, you understand the other person and hence are more willing to help.

I honestly do not know if large organizations can ever have a startup culture, the same energy levels and commitments, but for the startups this makes an excellent reading

Friends & Foes of Innovation

Paul Sloane has a way of communicating. He tells you what many others may tell you in a way that you would listen, understand and hopefully implement. In his simple article Innovation’s Three Good Friends and Three Deadly Enemies, he simply gives you three things that you need to imbibe in your organization to nurture and nourish innovation and three things that you need to keep in check to let innovation flourish.

Picking up from Paul, here is my list.

3 Best Friends of Innovation

  1. Leadership commitment: Unless leadership shows its commitment to innovation, it is least likely to happen. Most organizations are busy implementing the vision of the one sitting on top and if innovation or for that matter any other program is not in the list up there, the chances of it happening are very bleak. Once it is there it is important for the leader to keep sharing his thoughts his goals to the teams so that they are aware of his continued commitment
  2. Enabling People to Think Creatively: Most large organizations are built over standardization programs where people are told about SOPs and are often punished for deviations. When you ask them to think creatively, you are asking them to go against the grain, so are you enabling them, training them to think creatively or not
  3. Constructively Engaging people: Most companies ask for ideas and then do not do anything about, it becomes another item on their to-do list. Ask ideas only if you can respond to them, act on them and create something for the business out of it. No one likes to give ideas and not have any response to it

3 Worst Foes of Innovation

  1. What is Innovation: Not having a common understanding of what innovation means to your business? Everyone has their own version and it becomes like elephant and the 7 blind men trying to solve the puzzle.
  2. Flexibility: Not having flexibility built into the system to allow people to work on new ideas and to allow potential failures.
  3. Middle Management Trap: Top management commits to innovation, younger people get excited and come up with new ideas but both end up being trapped in middle management trap – a layer that is too focussed on delivering the operational results. Each organization needs to attend to this – as operations are no less important and must not suffer while the innovation needs to be included in the agenda of middle management.

Would love to hear your views on this.

Artists for Innovators

Tim Leberetcht in his MIX article What Innovators can learn from Artists talks extensively about the aspects of artists that are essential for innovators and why. It is a must read for those who think Art has nothing to do with Innovation or Art and Science are two different things or for that matter Business and Art are not related.

He starts by sharing quotes like

Good business is the best Art

Artists will emerge as the new business leaders

Reading is the most important task of any leader

He then defines 12 traits of artists that innovators need to emulate. He says artists are Neophiles i.e. they love novelty, humanists and craftspeople. By nature they are child like, intuitive and comfortable with ambiguity and are good storytellers. They work within constraints, work across disciplines and are driven by passion.

I certainly agree with all that Tim says. Next question is how do we integrate the world of artists, innovators and business? How does an organization

 

Three Sub Cultures of an Organization

Strategy & Business Article The Cult of Three Cultures very eloquently talks about three sub cultures that exist in any organization, each of which has its own mindset and hence its own strengths and constraints.

Operational culture focusses on people and how people form the core of the organozation. Executive culture or the finance based culture that focusses on capital, deals, leveraging and cash flow. They are more oriented towards the return ti shareholder most of whom are actually outside the organization. Third is the engineering culture that is so focussed on technology that it can miss the commercial and practical aspects of the organization.

Some cultures are dominant in certain times, but eventually it is a balance that is needed for an organization to be successful. There was a time when operations mindset ruled the roost and now it is the time when finance mindset does. How long will it last only time will tell.

 

Recipe for Culture Change

Strategy & Business article on Culture change tries to draw inferences from Chef Jamie Oliver’s experiment in West Virginia city to introduce people to fresh food and eventually replace the fast food culture by healthy and nutritious food. The story lists various challenges that he faces while trying to change the food habits, the resistances he faced to encountering complete lack of knowledge of fresh food and an inability to cook.
Slowly and steadily he worked with various influential persons and organizations to make his food accepted. Author extrapolates that the same can be done for managing organizational changes.
Changing a culture is probably the most difficult thing to manage.