Human Side of Innovation

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to moderate a panel discussion on the ‘Human Side of Innovation’ at NHRD Mumbai. It was a spirited discussion, thanks to the diversity of views on the panel including members from academia, industry and consulting. While no set of bullet points can do justice to the interactivity and experience, here are some key takeaways from the evening…

 

  • Innovation may begin in the corner office, or the shop floor, or just about anywhere Creativity has the opportunity to flourish
  • Sometimes, organizations may need to resort to “formal” systems of innovation – or establish an “Innovation Cell” – to facilitate a sense of urgency among its team members
  • Some organizations focus on ideas that they would otherwise reject, examining them more closely, to ensure that significant business opportunities are not missed
  • One way of looking at “Innovation” may be to see it as “problem solving on a large scale” e.g. No easy way to book bus tickets online for an individual can be the motivation for the birth of RedBus
  • Gen Y is more in touch with the ever-changing dynamics of the modern world, potentially giving them an advantage to spot trends, if they can assimilate these inputs and work towards identifying opportunities for Innovation
  • Reverse Mentorship – the idea of learning from younger members in the organization (typically half your age) – may just be an idea whose time has come
  • Since our ability to “predict” events is in any case limited, one way to pursue the Innovation agenda is to use Analytics, deep dive into data, and look for outliers as the opportunity itself, rather than something to be discarded
  • Finally, Innovation thrives where there is an opportunity to learn, experiment, iterate and fail; It is incumbent on the business leaders (and managers) of today to enable a culture that allows this to happen – a culture that rewards new ideas instead of ones that maintain status quo

Startup Perils

Yes, India’s startup scene is currently witnessing what can only be called “rush hour”. Yes, everyone and his cousin seems to have a startup idea, and is on his way to get funded. Yes, the co founders of Flipkart and Snapdeal have become the poster boys of the new economy. Yes, Uber’s valuation of $50 Bn puts it ahead of General Motors’ market cap by $4 Bn, today!

But, there is a dark side of startups that we don’t seem to want to talk about…

Rahul Yadav – CEO of Housing.com – was sacked by the Board, and more than 160 employees were let go recently. Ola and ZopNow have faced “hacks” by users being able to recharge their wallets without paying real money. Foodpanda recently features in the news for accepting orders from restaurants that have long been shut down, and other operational woes.

The story is not limited to these well-known names. This is an issue that affects many, many startups. The fact is that a few boys (or men) writing code, does not a business make. Building an organization requires a tremendous amount of skill sets, and not every one is suited for the task, regardless of how noble their intent is.

This is not a post meant to discourage folks from quitting their jobs and forming a startup, nor is it meant to feed the paranoia of those of us who ‘never use their credit cards online’, or dissuade young aspirants from seeking employment in other startups. It’s all of that, and more.

We play a variety of roles in this ecosystem. We are customers, employees, partners, co-founders and vendors to this brave, new world of startups. The old adage – caveat emptor – applies in its true spirit.

There will always be those among us who wish to ‘game the system’, or hack their way into disproportionate gains, or (as founders) just be ill-equipped to predict what lies ahead and end-up not delivering on objectives as intended. The way things used to work is no longer the way they do. And, the fact is that there just aren’t enough checks and balances built into the ecosystem to prevent such fiascos in the future.

As Peter Parker once said in Spiderman, “With great power, comes great responsibility.

The Internet is a democratic force to reckon with. But, the responsibility lies with us to watch out for the perils on the path ahead, and take appropriate measures. Whatever role we play in this – employee, vendor, customer – it is up to us to figure out what the risks are, and safeguard against them.

The Uber model allows a driver to earn up to Rs. 100,000 a month in earnings, but it helps if he understood that he has no control over the ‘Rate per Kilometer’ charged to clients, and that the demand for rides may not always last. The young man with his motorcycle, eager to join an e-commerce giant as a delivery boy, can surely dream of a brighter future, but it helps to know that the company can run out of funding if it does not operate with prudence. The customer can be overjoyed on finding his favorite local eatery on an ordering app, but also face disappointment two hours later when he finds out that his order was not sent through at all!

No, the answer does not lie in locking up your credit card, disconnecting the Internet, or refusing to participate in any manner. We will, however, need to improve our understanding of the “new world order”, if we want to use these ‘developments’ to our advantage.

We are living in exciting times – there is no doubt about it. Just keep an eye out for the dangers, while you’re out cruising on the information superhighway…

The API Economy

We live in exciting times. Always On. Interconnected…

The old way of doing business was linear, centralized in its decision making, and involved large investments in infrastructure. The new way of doing business is On-Demand. Plug-and-Play.

Yes, the world’s largest provider of rooms does not “own” any room inventory. Yes, the world’s largest taxi-operator does not “own” a single cab. Yes, “uberization” is a word now!

Inside the enterprise, we no longer need to build everything from scratch. We need to figure out how to work with all the pieces that are out there. It’s not uncommon for a business user to swipe their credit card, buy a pay-as-you-go service online, and then inform IT that they need some help with integration to existing systems. The CIO may as well be called the Chief Integration Officer.

Outside the enterprise, the story is even more exciting. Customers have infinite choice. On every platform. And every device. And, if that’s not enough, APIs are available from most major online/mobile services, if you’re inclined to write some code and build something more relevant to your specific needs.

Let’s take just one example – Uber. It started off as a service built on a Google Maps API, connecting drivers with passengers to address a transportation need. With the success it has seen over the years, Google can now incorporate the Uber API in their search results, to make it convenient for their customers to order a cab, once they’ve figured out the route to their destination.

Business will need to keep up, or become irrelevant. We’ve heard of IBM predicting a world market of maybe five personal computers. We know that Kodak missed the bus with digital photography standards. But, the newer changes may not be so drastic. There will be a million small changes that will creep up on us. Hidden inside the connections we will soon take for granted. The innovation may not lie in inventing a whole new platform, but simply a new approach of combining something with something else, in a whole new way.

We don’t know how this will shape up in the years to come. The possibilities are too many to predict. But the Innovation is here to stay. Always On. Interconnected.