6th December 2010, ECONOMIC TIMES Bitzua, chutzpah, rosh gadol and other Hebrew expressions come alive in an eminently readable and inspiring book called Start-Up Nation:

6th December 2010, ECONOMIC TIMES

Bitzua, chutzpah, rosh gadol and other Hebrew expressions come alive in an eminently readable and inspiring book called Start-Up Nation: the Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle (Dan Senor and Saul Singer, publisher Twelve, Hatchette Group, 2009). The ideas are highly relevant for innovation capability in general, but for India, especially at this juncture.

Bitzua roughly translates into ‘getting things done.’ Israel’s first leader, David Ben-Gurion, epitomized the word because he exhorted citizens of his newly formed country to get on with nation-building by doing and learning rather than forever debating about the right approach. This spirit of ‘try it, just do it’ is all-pervasive in Israel and has led to the country becoming a top destination for R&D. According to Jewish scholar Leo Rosten (The Joys of Yiddish), chutzpah is ‘gall, brazen nerve, effrontery, presumption plus arrogance.” Rosh gadol connotes a ‘can-do and responsible attitude with scant respect for the limitations of formal authority’. Davka is used to describe the response to a threat and means ‘in spite of’ or what Indians might term as ‘kar ke dikhana hai.’

Israel is an incredibly innovative nation. It ranks the highest in the world in the per capita number of patents filed. A partner at A&G Partners, which specialises in building bridges between Israel and Asia, says that even her hairdresser has a patent on an exact algorithm for deducing the right hair shade! 22 percent of the Nobel Prize winners is Jewish; among women who have been awarded the Nobel Prize, 38 percent is Jewish. These are amazing statistics, considering that the number of Jews on the planet peaked at 18 million before the Second World War, and nowadays, number only about 12 million.

So what can Indian innovation learn from Israel? I observed some similarity and some difference, and would like to share a few thoughts.

Similarity and difference: Israel is a multi-cultural society with people of diverse ethnic origins–Russia, Europe, Middle East and Asia. They are garrulous and argumentative. Particularly during the last 60 years, they have lived with a stark fact: that uncertainty from their neighbours is a certainty. The constant challenge to their very being has made them fiercely proud as they seek self-preservation. They are restless in their quest for economic advancement and social progress; they are highly entrepreneurial. They are competitive with one another to the point that sometimes, they give an observer the impression of pulling one other down wantonly. For instance, after the tragic terrorist attack in Mumbai on 26/11, an emotional subject like the renovation of the Jewish Centre at Nariman House has become controversial and there is a legal dispute between the family of the rabbi who was killed and his religious denomination, Chabad- Lubavitch.

Viewed another way, they have the first three of the 4 Cs required for being highly innovative: challenge, creativity and chaos. I will return to the fourth C later.

Now substitute the word Israel with India. Barring an arcane detail, the comments would be correct. India too is multi-cultural and is an enormously argumentative society; India has to spend money on defence because she faces threats to peace from the neighbourhood, albeit much less than Israel. Indians are a restless people, who are incapable of doing repetitive tasks for long; they boast of a long tradition of being entrepreneurial. Finally Indians themselves joke that they are competitive to the point of pulling one other down. Thus Indians have in abundance the first three Cs of challenge, creativity and chaos.

But Indians do not have the rich record of big-scale innovation that Israelis have. As a Chinese American once explained to me, if India can improve in the fourth C, channelization or discipline, her raw creativity will convert into a hugely impactful, process-driven ‘Innovation Engine’.

Innovation Engine: In The Other Side of Innovation, Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble suggest that when it comes to innovation in companies, quite often there is a tendency to focus on a copious generation of ideas. This focus unleashes incredible energy, but the authors argue that ‘focusing on execution is far more powerful’. I wonder whether the Indian Brahminical intellectual tradition, which rewards ‘thinking’ more than ‘doing’, could be an underlying reason for Indians’ penchant for creativity at the expense of disciplined execution.

The authors point out that continuous improvement and operational innovation are best performed by the existing structure, which has been tuned to be an economic ‘Performance Engine’. Ongoing operations have already been programmed to be repeatable and predictable, so continuous improvement ideas are easily absorbed into an operational Creative Idea–Execution cycle. Many would agree that continuous adaptation and improvement, at times referred to pejoratively as jugaad, is a strong point among Indians.

A lateral or break-all-the-rules idea requires a differently oriented organisation, called the ‘Innovation Engine’. Quite the opposite of the ‘Performance Engine’, this ‘Innovation Engine’ must encourage challenge, must be hugely experimental and must accept failures. If a breakthrough idea is pushed from the stage of Creative Idea to Execution without a special Planning Phase in between, then the idea loses its zing. With an incremental innovation, this risk is reduced by the well-tuned planning activity of the ‘Performance Engine’.

Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw of Biocon says, “Innovation is about applied creativity but by natue, it can be incremental or experimental/breakthrough.” She narrates how Biocon evolved in a planned manner from enzymes to import-substituting insulin to insulin analogues and is now, daring to work on breakthrough oral insulin. “We fully realize that we may not succeed in this audacious endeavour,” she says in a matter- of-fact way.

Innovation culture in any organization evolves through four phases: first, it is ‘Bureaucratic’, and then it evolves into ‘Controlled Creative.’ Many Indian companies are at about this second stage. The third stage is “Daringly Creative’; Indian examples are mentioned later. The high and final point, to which Indian companies should aim to reach, is ‘DCD–daringly creative and disciplined.’ In this evolutionary journey from controlled creative to DCD, India can learn from Israel by adapting the behaviours of bitzua, chutzpah, rosh gadol and davka. We must create in our companies a sort of ‘Cultural SEZ’ called the ‘Innovation Engine’ where planned irreverence can be practised.

India has such a track record: we have been incredibly successful in executing some daringly creative ideas, but there are not enough of them. Davka and chutzpah were displayed when America denied India the technology of the supercomputer. As the Washington Post wrote, an ‘angry India’ set out to develop the Param supercomputer. Dr RA Mashelkar often says that India should be permanently angry. India demonstrated during the Green Revolution the same davka and rosh gadol when America suspended the PL 480 shipments.

India has produced DCD icons, who practised being daringly creative and disciplined: Vallabhai Patel and C. Subramaniam in public life, Ratan Tata and E. Sreedharan in industry and infrastructure, and Raghunath Mashelkar and MS Swaminathan in science and technology. Our academic curriculum in management and our national folklore in innovation should progressively shift the fulcrum of focus to this fourth C of channelization—which involves learning how to create an ‘Innovation Engine’ to plan and execute risky ideas, which may not get nurtured naturally in the ‘Performance Engine.’. Coupled with the existing presence of the first 3 Cs of challenge-creativity-chaos, Indians can then aim to deliver and celebrate breakthrough innovations in the coming decades. The future for Indian innovation is bright.