Friday, June 27, 2008

Innovation or Implementation?

I found it interesting to read this report which says that Microsoft, often thought of as a hotbed of innovation, doesn't invent much of the technology which it deploys, but rather purchases much of it from other companies (or purchases the entire company).

It brings to mind a speech I recently heard at the 4th India Innovation Forum where Madhabi Puri-Buch, an executive from ICICI Bank, said that part of their strategy at the bank to reward innovation is to recognize those individuals (or groups) who have most effectively deployed innovations developed elsewhere (they call it the 'Copycat Award'). Her point was that innovation consists of ideation + the ability to scale and execute and so those people who put into practice what others have developed are equally responsible for delivering the benefit of innovation to the bank as are those who developed the idea in the first place.

It seems that Microsoft is a clear case study in the truth of her statement, taking ideas from others and building them into their product/service offering has helped them reap enormous rewards and place them in the top-tier of global software firms.

At L-RAMP, we see the same lessons in our work - many have great ideas, we exist to take those great ideas into enterprises which deliver the benefit of those great ideas to the people who need them because ideas, on their own, deliver little benefit to anybody.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The open-source innovation community grows again

With the takeover of Symbian by Nokia, the open-source development community is set to add a powerful mobile phone software platform to its ranks. It appears that Nokia is confident that open-source innovation will lead to a superior result than focused development efforts from software bigwigs such as Google (with their Android platform), Apple (with their iPhone platform) and Microsoft (with their Windows platform)

An article from PC World
An article from the BBC
Open-sourced information on Symbian OS

Will open-source beat traditional industry again? We should find out in mid-2009 when Google's Android is released and Symbian has had time to further extend itself.

My support is firmly in the open-source camp.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The role of passion in successful innovation

This post also appears on here.

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At L-RAMP, we come into contact with many different innovators having ideas covering the spectrum, from new ways to make roads to new ways to make banana chips. This fascinating mix of people share the common trait of being intensely passionate about what they have created and impatient about getting their products to those who can benefit from them.

Of all the characteristics which make up an innovator, it is this intense passion which I find to be most commonly held and it is this passion which can be a great asset or a great hindrance to an entrepreneur's chances of taking his product to market.

When an innovator contacts me, it is most often through an unscheduled telephone call or walk-in visit to our office. As I draw myself out of whatever I was doing at the time, I bring myself into his world and try to understand the new device/model/technology which he is explaining. After hearing him out, I try to better understand his innovation by applying some of the analytical methodologies we have developed which aim to, among other things, determine how well the innovation meets our three core criteria of:
  • providing social benefit to the rural poor
  • being innovative
  • able to be scaled through enterprise

I have to smile when I think of how often it seemed that the innovator thought I was a cruel man for ignoring the plight of the people who stood to benefit from his idea by analyzing it critically. Usually, the entrepreneur quickly brings the conversation back to the social impact of his innovation and how it would help India; his vision cares little for our process.

One entrepreneur found the plight of manual construction labourers carrying enormous weights on their heads a problem and so came to us with an idea for a shoulder harness helmet which transfers the load from the neck to their ostensibly stronger shoulder muscles, thus reducing the chance of cervical spondylitis and providing extra comfort for the labourer.

Another entrepreneur had an idea for an electric weeder which can reduce the manual effort currently expended in crop weeding and overcome the labour shortages endemic in many agricultural areas of the south, thus providing better income for farmers. A third explained (in his three visits and four telephone calls to our office) that his water lifting device would help reduce the electricity demand from water pumps by use of a novel manual pump-generator-electric pump combination, appropriately arranged to skirt the laws of physics.

Working with these innovators can be inspiring, frustrating and instructive. Their passion for their innovations and desire to share the benefit they project for their device is inspiring. Their unwillingness to slow down and consider their innovations from an unbiased perspective and the realities which will impede their path to market is frustrating. Their new and novel approaches to solving the problems they perceive in their daily lives are instructive and often the solutions are simple and elegant, providing benefits by intelligent application and arrangement of known elements.

I have come to the conclusion that passion is a necessary but not sufficient condition for market success. The shoulder harness helmet must contend with the established behaviour of the labourers he is trying to help, most of whom do not wish the encumbrance that his safety device offers. The electric weeder depends on the government supply of electricity (which can be erratic) and thus his potential customers may be wary of purchasing this device. The water lifting device was designed as a perpetual motion machine and despite his best intentions, the laws of physics ensure that it will never work as designed.

In this line of work, cliches are a dime a dozen (cliche intended) but one which holds mostly true is a line from Thomas Edison:

None of my inventions came by accident. I see a worthwhile need to be met and I make trial after trial until it comes. What it boils down to is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration.

L-RAMP's most successful innovators, those who have succeeded in taking their products or services to the market and thus creating the large-scale social benefit, were those who used their passion to push themselves through the challenge of making their ideas a reality.
In the three cases mentioned above, I'm not sure that the passion of the innovator was focused on reaching commercialization instead of being stuck on the initial thought/approach/design - in all cases, it is still early in the process and so perhaps future interactions will yield passionate discussions of how to move towards the market.

On the other hand we have Servals Automation, the Chennai-based firm which commercialized the Venus burner, and spent nearly 4 years in the journey to market; in the process they required a near-complete redesign of the burner, a change in materials used, a change in the pricing strategy and finally the elusive break into the market coming from an unforeseeable bulk purchase from a government agency.

Through the many years, the CEO's passion was necessary to keep him dedicated to the goal of taking this product to market, but it was his unending effort and willingness to adapt to the realities of the day which have led to monthly sales of 100,000 burners a month, each of which provide up to 30 percent savings in kerosene to his users in the process.

And so I look forward to hearing from the next great innovator who pops in - I look forward to their passion (almost a prerequisite for an innovator) but I hope that they use it to fuel the dedicated action required instead of merely getting caught up in the thrill of having an idea. It is those who channel their passion to action who, I believe, will be the next entrepreneurs bringing about large-scale social benefit through enterprise.