Spurring associative thinking

11th July 2013, BUSINESS STANDARD Innovation can thrive only in a climate that encourages risk-taking In the previous InnoColumn (It's all in the mindsets, June 14), the idea of a growth mindset was explored.


Innovation can thrive only in a climate that encourages risk-taking

In the previous InnoColumn (It’s all in the mindsets, June 14), the idea of a growth mindset was explored. In this column, one manifestation of the growth mindset, viz. associative thinking, is explored. Associative thinking is unusual insofar as it ascribes a value to inexperience. Experience teaches what solution has worked in one context, whereas inexperience encourages trying that solution in a different context. Interesting outcomes arise at the confluence of experience and inexperience.

Robert Kearns, the inventor of the variable speed car wiper, was driving his car on a rainy day and wondered why a car wiper cannot change its speed with the intensity of rain just as the human eyelid can increase or decrease the number of blinks. Vaseline was created by Robert Chesebrough, a chemist, who discovered that the gooey stuff protects human skin by sealing the skin just as fog traps moisture on the ground. A Tata water purifier removes bacteria and virus by using a natural substrate (no chlorine, no ultraviolet rays), inspired by the way nature produces pure ground water. The McLaren 12-C supercar emulated the way water is channelled around the fins of a sailfish.

Such innovations exemplify what is called associative thinking.

The promotion of associative thinking in an institution is challenging because it requires developing a genuine respect for inexperience. This runs contrary to our mindset which places experience on a pedestal. An acclaimed leader is often recognised for what educationist Howard Gardner called the “disciplining” mind, that is highly focused on knowledge and systems to exploit resources efficiently. On the other hand, innovation thrives when the mindset leans towards exploration and imagination.

Organisational leaders can trigger associative thinking in five ways.

The first way is for leaders to ask charging-up questions that pose a “ridiculous” challenge. A charging-up question provokes a response, and you get innovation. As a nation, India had asked the charging-up question: for example, in the 1980s, when the US denied India the Cray supercomputer technology. Dr Vijay Bhatkar, a brilliant Indian electronics technologist, was challenged by the government to develop an indigenous supercomputer. “Angry India” (as the Washington Post called India) developed its own Param supercomputer.

Norman Borlaug had established the dwarf variety of high-yielding seeds in the 1950s. By the 1960s, Indian food production was in a mess and American agricultural economists predicted starvation in India. Then US President Lyndon Johnson suspended the PL 480 supply of foodgrains in 1965. The three S’s – C Subramaniam, MS Swaminathan and B Sivaraman – acted on the charging-up question: could India feed
herself? India responded by launching the Green Revolution.

Former US President John F Kennedy spurred the US to achieve the seemingly impossible feat of landing a man on the moon. In organisations, leaders must create a charged-up environment for employees to take chances and succeed.

The second way to fire up associative thinking is by emphasising the human impact of the innovation, and not only the novelty. Innovation can focus on the have-nots without compromising on profits. Well known contemporary examples are Narayana Hrudayalaya Hospitals and Arvind Eye Care, that conduct surgical operations at a fraction of the conventional cost and time. India is reported to have built a $3-billion forex-earning medical tourism industry.

The Prime Minister’s National Innovation Council, chaired by Sam Pitroda, promotes inclusive innovation through State Innovation Councils. Through innovation clusters in fruit processing, leather etc, entrepreneurs and workers are being trained to innovate. An energy saving furnace for brass-making has already been developed through the Moradabad cluster. Smokeless chulhas, distributed solar energy and low-cost cooling for food are all innovations that are waiting to be scaled up.

The third way is somewhat contrary to the widely prevalent practice of relying on stars for innovation. It relies on making teamwork a virtue. Holistic innovations usually span a whole value chain and can be driven and executed only through a team representing various functions and domains. It is important that members for an innovation project be chosen for their ability to work in a team and not only individual brilliance. In fact, overtly competitive managers are less valued in associative thinking projects because they disturb the team dynamics.

The fourth way is to deliberately cut through the adipose tissues of organisational boundaries. Increasing socialisation can be a very potent tool to create a culture of innovation. Such socialisation makes the organisation permeable and facilitates exchange of ideas.

The fifth way is to wilfully unleash the creative forces within the organisation. An executive’s reputation and reward are based on mistake-free operations and not on the notion of the executive learning from failures. This severely restricts innovation. The process of making innovation an integral part of an organisation’s culture requires a willingness to accept creative failures.

Companies should celebrate success but should also celebrate authentic failures. Innovation can thrive only in a climate that encourages risk-taking. More will be written about this in the next column.

Institutions need story tellers, those who can tell and repeat inspiring examples. Innovation in society is like nectar in food. It needs to seep everywhere, it needs to be warm to touch and appealing to the senses.