Published in Corporate Dossier ET, September 09, 2012

I own a medium sized auto component company. How do I build a culture of innovation in my company? Is there an Indian mythological context to Innovation that I could embrace in my organization?

First a more fundamental question: do you need to innovate? Will innovation improve your topline or bottomline?

Innovation is the new management buzzword. A few years ago it was all about compliance and quality control and alignment and de-risking. Now, it is all about innovation. Why? Because that is what the market needs. But which market? The Indian market, or the global market or the Western market? Since most of our textbooks are written by North Americans and Europeans, we assume that needs to the West are Indian needs too.

In India, we innovate, or rather improvise, all the time (the ubiquitous jugaad), because resources are always in short supply and because we Indians, by our very nature, are rule-averse. We hate complying. We like to do things our way. But jugaad is typically not designed to be replicable. It may be, but that is not the intent. Innovation has a lot to do with replicability.

In Western mythology, the independent freethinker was identified as a goat. In Greek mythology, he was the goat-legged Pan, the innovator, the source of pandemonium, who caused disruption. In biblical mythology, that valued compliance, hence sheep, the goat was the devil. In India, depending on how earnest the leader is, people decide if they want to be the sheep or goat. This can be seen as adaptability.

In Indian mythology, we have heroes who follow rules (Ram) and defy rules (Krishna), villains who follow rules (Duryodhan) and defy rules (Ravan). If breaking of a rule benefits us, we call it innovation. If breaking a rule does not benefit us, we call it defiance, and insubordination. We want to have Krishnas in our team, not Ravans. We want innovative ideas that work for us. But why should a team member share an innovative idea with you? Will you give him a share of the profit? Will you reward him with a bonus or perk or promotion? Or do you expect them to innovate for love of the organization?

If you wish to create a culture of innovation in your concern, first clarify the reason you are doing it. Ensure you are not just a mimic, doing it because others are doing it. Make sure it makes business sense to have new ideas. Often, you do not need innovation. At best you need innovative ideas to do the same old monotonous job with continued enthusiasm.

Secondly, you have to ask what does your team get by innovating. Reward innovation. Celebrate the one who comes with a new idea, encourage it even if you realize it may not be viable, and see how quickly an organization of sheep turns into an organization of goats. Indians do not respond to instruction or process; they respond to passion and emotion. To create an ecosystem of innovation, everyone in your team needs to feel you ‘genuinely’ celebrate it.

Question remains: if they turn into what they assume is an innovator, will you be able to handle the pandemonium that follows? Will you see them as Krishnas or Ravans?