Targets kill innovation

April 29, 2008

Is it a great vision for a company to state that they want to grow their revenues 4 times in the next 3 years? Does the vision get any better when the company wants to be a great innovator, churning out patented products to ‘achieve that target’?  Perfect. Looks to be straight out of management text books and practices. It sounds great when it comes from an efficient CEO.

I have a fundamental disconnect with this approach. One cannot bind innovation to targets. Innovation happens when the spirit is free. Targets are fetters around the spirit. You can tie a rope around you, and in due course, climb the Himalayas. But to reach the moon you need to dream of flight, freely, with no fetters shackling the imagination.

A company cannot choose the path of innovation to grow their revenues. Innovation is not a result. Nor a means to the end. Innovation is a process and much more than a process. To come out with a disruptive innovation, one cannot think of costs and revenues. The cost cannot be estimated. The profits cannot be known – how do you estimate the size of a market that doesnt exist. There were people who thought that the market for computers was 5. Travel to moon doesnt come cheap. The benefits might flow in centuries later.

True innovation happens in the minds. Not in large laboratories. Innovation stems from passion, creativity and dreams. Money cannot buy it. If it can, Microsoft would have been the hot bed of innovation.

Most innovations emerge from start-ups who start off with a passion to execute an idea than to make money. Most large companies fail to innovate. Even ‘innovative’ large companies are only great imitators, very good at latching on to an innovative idea early enough, improvising it,creating and exploding the market.  An Apple or Google are very good at this. A Google in 1998-2000 was a truer innovator than it is today, inspite of having a supposedly conducive culture for innovation. Still it is as successful as it is, because it is way ahead of other large corporates in ‘innovation’,  in not putting a price on ‘innovation’.

The moment, one targets to generate a few billion dollars of revenues through ‘innovative’ products or to have x number of patents in an year, innovation is killed before it germinates. If you try to fix a boundary and duration for dreams, you might end up being an insomniac.

The best way for a large company to continue to foster innovation and still conduct the normal business of making profits, will be to have targets and do forecasting only for the existing line of products or services and exclude revenues from innovation in the forecasts. Innovation is a different animal, which is fed without expecting specific returns. The returns will usually be more than what the strategists could have estimated.

Ethics of a sting operation

April 22, 2008

Sting operations have become the favoured tool of journalists in India, thanks to the rapid rise to fame of Tehelka through a string of sting operations. Sting operations raise a serious moral question. What is right and what is wrong? What do we expect from people in positions of influence – do they have to be infallible?

Take the recent case of Jothikumaran of Indian Hockey Federation. Money is offered deliberately to this person and the reporters, the audience along with them, are expecting him to refuse it. This stretches the thread of morality to the extreme. I am not trying to pass judgement on whether Jothikumaran has committed such commissions in the past or not. But in this specific case, not many people in his position would have come out clean, when someone insists on them taking a bribe for committing a ‘not-so-harmful’ crime.

The purpose of investigative journalism should be to investigate and expose ‘crimes’ that have ‘occurred’ or are in the process of ‘occurring’. It is not to tease and induce a person to commit an error and then trash him for that.

Before commissioning a sting operation, the editor has to ask himself a few questions:

  1. Does the reporter have any personal vendetta or other external motivation for doing this operation (the Delhi school teacher case)?
  2. Is this operation going to expose a crime that has already happened (like the Gujarat pogrom) or is it going to induce a crime and then expose it (like the IHF case)?
  3. Is it merely going to test the moral fabric of a person? How many normal honest people will be able to resist the temptation of risk-free money thrown at them or a good-looking girl knocking at their doors voluntarily?

I dont think it is the duty of media or anybody to test how a person will react to a situation, by creating a situation. We have every right to demand the highest order of integrity from everybody, when a real ‘situation’ arises. But that does not give us the right to infringe on the lives of unsuspecting ‘victims’ and make them ‘guilty’.

Every person has his or her fallibilities. By trying to exploit these fallibilities, let not the journalists take the lazy route to reform the society. Trying to expose people in the process of committing real crimes is a tough task. But that is what we expect from our journalists.

The Hindi factor

April 9, 2008

There used to be a perception in the eighties and early nineties as to how the anti-Hindi movement in Tamilnadu had spoiled the prospective growth of young Tamils. This was largely based on the assumption that ‘growth’ meant getting a government job; success meant becoming an IAS officer, all of which demanded knowledge of Hindi. Those were the monopoly days of Akashavani and Doordarshan, when even decent entertainment(if you could call it so) was denied if you don’t know Hindi. Little did we realise then that Hindi will lose its relevance so abruptly and so completely.

Today, the much maligned and ridiculed Madarasis (South Indians in general and Tamils in particular) have made real significant progress in many fields with Software industry leading the way. Though parts of North India, have kept pace, South has largely steamed ahead. The reasons are clear:

  1. We did not waste time learning one more language (Hindi). Instead we could focus on Maths and Science.
  2. We became fairly proficient in English, which has helped us in our global aspirations and business dealings. What if we could not sell our Tiruppur made hosieries in North India; we could sell them overseas. Our IT programers could speak and code in English.
  3. Because of lack of opportunities in India, many Tamils migrated abroad and some indirect benefits have been ploughed back to India
  4. A strong network of colleges cropped up to cater to a large population who did not want to move to other parts of India; this has helped build a strong pipeline of engineers and other graduates, feeding the IT and BPO industries now.
  5. Strong entertainment, media and literature came up in Tamil, to counter the dependence on the dominant Hindi counterparts. We learnt to make movies with superior technology; music blending the international and local flavours; writers like Sujatha wrote in popular media about computers, much before any other region in India even heard about those. Scientists like Abdul Kalam were revered. A generation grew up knowing possibilites of science, computers, graphics, satellites et al.

Thanks to all of these and more, Hindi has quietly slipped out of the collective conscience and memory of Tamils. Sun network has wiped off Doordarshan and AIR, and Hindi along with it. Now Tamils learn Hindi, purely on a need-basis, whenever required, like any other language, and not out of compulsion.

Anti-Hindi movement, which was termed as anti-India at that time, has on the contrary, in spite of its political exploitation, helped preserve the Indian identity, by ensuring that the Tamil identity is not challenged. Being a Tamil or Kannadiga or Maratha is the core identity; being an Indian is a derived identity. As long as the core identity is retained, the derived identity is safe. While, a Bangalore and Mumbai call for expulsion of Tamils or Biharis from their soil, Chennai is now not confronted with regional hatred unless seriously provoked. Bangalore has failed to preserve its Kannada identity and therefore feels threatened. Mumbai has lost its Maratha identity and therefore feels threatened. Chennai has a thriving Tamil identity and therefore its Indianness remains intact.