Rosh gadol culture and a ‘can-do’ spirit

19th March 2015, BUSINESS STANDARD

Companies should examine how to develop more rosh gadol, chutzpah and bitzua by influencing the organisational culture rather than only their processes

19th March 2015, BUSINESS STANDARD

Companies should examine how to develop more rosh gadol, chutzpah and bitzua by influencing the organisational culture rather than only their processes

One response to my last InnoColumn was flattering, “Your article felt like a Mrinal Sen film in terms of conclusion… I hope to get some direct opinions from your informative articles in future.” My attempts to avoid prescriptive pronouncements about an increasingly important and nuanced subject are working!

The last InnoColumn’s theme dwelt on creating a buzz around innovation. I led a Tata delegation four years ago to Israel, a very innovative nation. The visit and impressions created a huge buzz among the Tata managers.

In Israel, soldiers who are rosh gadol (big head) are distinguished from those who are rosh katan (little head). Rosh katan behaviour is shunned because it means interpreting orders as narrowly as possible and to avoid taking on responsibility or extra work.

Rosh gadol thinking means following orders but using judgement. It emphasises execution discipline with improvisation. Rosh gadol connotes a responsible can-do attitude. With a similar spirit, one of my Tata colleagues, Ravi Arora, ends his e-mails with the words, “If it’s a good idea, go ahead and do it. It is much easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.”

Bitzua, chutzpah and such 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, Twelve Hachette Group, 2009). The ideas are highly relevant for India, especially at this juncture. Bitzua translates into ‘getting things done’. 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, chutzpah is “gall, brazen nerve, effrontery, presumption plus arrogance.”

Israel is an incredibly innovative nation. It ranks the highest in the world in the per capita number of patents filed. In one case, even a hairdresser had a patent on an algorithm for deducing the right hair shade. Twenty two per cent of the Nobel Prize winners are Jewish; among women who have been awarded the Nobel Prize, 38 per cent are Jewish. These are amazing statistics, considering that the number of Jewish people in the world peaked at 18 million before the Second World War, and nowadays, number only about 12 million.

India has some similarities with Israel.

Israel is a multi-cultural society with people of diverse ethnic origins. 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 to the point of pulling each other down wantonly.

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.

Now some differences, especially with regard to organising for innovation. Israel is very good at creating innovation engines, India less so.

In Indian companies, there is a tendency to focus on a copious generation of ideas. Academics Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble 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 execution cycle.

A lateral or break-all-the-rules idea requires a differently oriented organisation, which they have 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 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’.

As a nation, India does have examples of innovation engines, especially in the public sector. India demonstrated chutzpah during the green revolution when America suspended the PL-480 shipments. Chutzpah was displayed when Verghese Kurien relentlessly pursued the milk revolution. When America denied India the technology of the supercomputer, as theWashington Post wrote, an ‘angry India’ set out to develop the PARAM supercomputer.

The secret lies in culture, not processes. Companies should examine how to develop morerosh gadol, chutzpah and bitzua by influencing the organisational culture rather than only their processes.

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