Monday 11 March 2013

Innovation rules


There is a nagging feeling that there is no, or very little, innovation coming out of India.

There are numerous ways in which this feeling presents itself - sometimes as a itch that needs scratching, sometimes as a job that helps pay the bills, sometimes as a need to prove something to the world and oftentimes as a voicing of frustration.

It is not too difficult to articulate this feeling. Why does a Linux or Google or Facebook never originate in India. Why do we only spawn businesses like Infosys and TCS which help support innovations from other cultures rather than create any themselves. At the same time, you find that large proportions of people in companies, like Microsoft or Google, that innovate, are Indians.

Where’s the glitch?

One explanation that is usually served up, most recently by the CEO of TCS, is that it is a question of perception. This implies that one only needs to make it look like India is innovating - in one word, marketing. This probably makes sense from the point of view of a business, where everything is marketing. If you really wanted to understand the phenomenon though, such an explanation is too easy and in a strange way shines a little diffused light on the fundamental issue at hand. 

When faced with a problem there are two basic ways in which one can react - logically or emotionally. The various shades between these two extremes are what we usually find ourselves painted in, depending on factors like what we were taught and how were made to feel in relation to the world.

Logic, when translated into something tangible, becomes a set of rules. Follow the set of rules and there’s a good chance you’ll get where you want to go to. If you don’t follow the rules, any movement you make will be an error within the logical framework. Rules then, define the boundaries within which expected results can be obtained. 

Rules are meant to make life easier. When a rule is the cause of problems, the logic behind it can be modified and the rule mended to suit reality better. Doing so would, over time, evolve the rules and result in a society based more on logic than on emotion. Western economies have evolved to such an extent that they have rule books for everything - even torture.

We evolve rules in India too. Only, the driving force is emotion. When we don’t like a rule, we reason out an alternate logic, apply emotion to it and implement the rule change immediately - without making it part of the framework. This means that we have a multitude of logical frameworks, each following its own evolutionary path. Bribery and corruption are nothing more than logical frameworks. Bribery in India is not anarchic. There are a set of rules governing it, with emotion being the thread that ties the rules together. You could be driving a stolen car with no license, but when stopped by a Traffic cop in India, your options vary from Death to winning the friendship of the cop.

The changing of rules dynamically and instantaneously requires quick thinking and adaptation - in one word, innovation. However, in the vacuum that exists without a logical framework, the rules are short lived and exist only for the duration of the transaction. Also, since the innovation occurred beyond the boundaries of the original framework of logic, it cannot be recognized as an innovation that can be replicated. The CEO of TCS throwing the ‘perception idea’ in the air is a tangential example of such innovation. The fundamental problem is that there is no innovation coming out of India, but to him the immediate problem to solve is, ‘people asking him why there is no innovation’. By fixing the second, he dissociates himself from the first and evolves a new logical framework which solves the immediate problem.

You take this same person with an immense capacity for dynamic rule creation and place him in a culture where rules are curated and see what happens. All those random rules he’s been creating just to get by are now absorbed into a logical framework and he feels like he’s in rule heaven.

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