Innovators who strangle innovation

14th May 2015, BUSINESS STANDARD One of the greatest dangers to the promise of an idea is the innovator's obsession with himself or his idea


One of the greatest dangers to the promise of an idea is the innovator’s obsession with himself or his idea

Apni aqal aur doosron ki daulat, hamesha zyada lagte hain (you will always find your own intelligence, and someone else’s wealth to be more) intones my friend Rita. Narcissism is a good thing in small doses. The limits that make it dangerous are undefined. Narcissism can become overpowering to the point of focus on the self rather than the task, and of dreaming of ideas rather than executing into action.

An idea is merely the brain equivalent of a biological embryo. The union of a sperm and an egg results in a human embryo. The transfer of male gametes in pollen to female gametes in the ovule results in flower pollination. The transport of frenetic neurotransmitters across axons through a cloud of dopamine results in a human idea. These phenomena are statistically improbable – a chancy and fortuitous encounter produces a life that faces hugely hazardous environs.

Nurturing, care and a fusion of extraordinary circumstances are required in a miraculous proportion for the survival and growth of an idea or an embryo. The first manifestation, whether of an embryo or an idea, is a recognisable form. But the miracle of birth is just the beginning of yet another hazardous journey. Some of the hazards are externally induced but some are genetically encoded; these become a part of the human personality. In management jargon, these are called “de-railers” to connote hazards that can derail an otherwise sound leader. One of the greatest dangers to the continued promise of an idea is the innovator’s obsession with himself or with his idea. The innovator inadvertently becomes the Shiva, the potential destroyer, of his own idea – through narcissism and inattention to execution.

Along with John Bardeen and Walter Brattain, William Shockley won the Nobel Prize for his work on transistors. Shockley was as brilliant a scientist as he was a poor manager. He was pig-headed in many matters and treated the young scientists in his start-up company with scant regard. His team included the later Intel trinity of Bob Noyce, Gordon Moore and Andy Grove. His team quit his firm. Shockley finally died of prostate cancer, estranged from all his family and friends. His children were reported to have learnt of his death through the newspapers! Sad.

Bob Kearns had earned a doctorate in engineering. The blinking of his eye sparked in him the idea of making car windshield wipers that would move at intervals instead of a constant back and forth motion. Kearns developed a prototype. It appears that Ford had been working on this same idea. Ford was impressed with Kearn’s intermittent wiper plus electric motor. However, Ford launched their own version of the wiper system. Since Kearns fiercely owned the idea, he took Ford to court. From 1978 till the end of his life in 2005, Kearns fought every car company in court after court for stealing his wiper idea. Kearns divorced his wife, got estranged from his children and finally died of brain cancer! Sad.

T Thomas counts as being among India’s finest professional managers, and was my chairman at Unilever several decades ago. He was also among India’s earliest venture capitalists after his retirement as director from Unilever in 1989. He has captured his experiences in a slim book published recently (To venture and to build, Manorama Books, 2015). Between the two funds of his Indus Venture Capital, a total investment into 32 companies has been captured as case-lets under standard heads: what was the innovative/entrepreneurial idea, what was the actual experience, causes of failure or success, lessons and conclusions, and, finally exit.

Venture funds experience only 15-20 per cent success, the balance being failures. The analysis of failures as enumerated by T Thomas shows a pattern – lack of transparency, the inability of the promoter to accept differing opinions, a difficult relationship between investor and promoter, unresolved conflict, hence loss of trust, among co-founders, misjudgement of dishonesty among promoters, promoter running a one-man show.

Of course, Steve Jobs was an exception, but every person should not assume that he is a Steve Jobs. Innovation is creativity plus execution. It is 1 per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration. Innovators often assume that it is the 1 per cent that counts. However, the greatest of great ideas falter in the 99 per cent phase. It is there that the innovator’s ego becomes the darkest enemy of the great idea.

Humility and the aptitude for the daily grind are essential to entrepreneurship, much more so than most entrepreneurs might like to think.