“Validate your assumptions as early as possible”: In conversation with author and consultant, Vinay Dabholkar

VinayInterview with Vinay Dabholkar, co-author, “8 Steps to Innovation”

Vinay Dabholkar is the co-author of the recently released book, “8 Steps to Innovation: Going from Jugaad to Excellence” (see my review here). He is the president of Catalign Innovation Consulting and helps organisations foster a culture of innovation. Vinay has worked with several organisations in India over half a decade to develop the idea pipeline and the innovation leadership pipeline. He has worked with technology companies such as Motorola and Sasken, and is an active blogger. He joins us in this exclusive interview on emerging models of innovation, the importance of experimentation, role models among innovators in India, and the phases of innovation in life.

YS: How was your book received? What were some of the unusual responses and reactions?

A: The initial response has been good. The book went into second print within a month. Over 4,500 copies have been sold so far.

Our primary reader is a manager in the mid to large sized organisation. Hence, we weren’t surprised when we got favourable comments from managers from various sectors like automotive, healthcare and IT. Similarly, we weren’t surprised when we heard from professors from MBA colleges.

But surprisingly, we found that majority of the book was relevant for start-ups. We got it validated from TiE mentors like Sanjay Anandram and some of our friends who had started their companies. We were also surprised when the head of the performance management department reporting to PMO’s office reached out to us to see how the framework can be applied to various Central Government departments.

The third surprise was to see our parents and in-laws reading the book and commenting on it!

YS: What do you see as the connection between jugaad innovation, reverse innovation and systematic innovation?

A: One thing common among all the three approaches is emphasis on frugality. Another thing common is innovation stories from India and other emerging markets. However, both reverse innovation and jugaad innovation are primarily targeted at a Western audience. Our book “8 Steps to Innovation” is targeted primarily at managers in India.

The core question reverse innovation addresses is different from the other two. For a global organisation, where should innovation activity be done? Traditionally, the answer to this question has been “in the West”. Reverse innovation argues that it can also start with the emerging markets and then move the innovation to developed markets.

The core question of jugaad innovation and “8 Steps” to innovation is same – how to become more innovative? However, their approach is very different. Jugaad innovation proposes six principles based on frugality, flexibility and inclusivity and says “If you follow these principles, you will become more innovative”. It does not provide any means to measure innovativeness before, during or after the application of the principles. Thus, jugaad innovation is more like a Do-It-Yourself kit. Follow all the principles and you get an innovative organisation. Or perhaps it is more like a basket of techniques. Apply the one or more principles you like and you will get a more innovative organisation.

“8 Steps to Innovation” says, “Do you want to become more innovative? Then you must find out how innovative you are first and then decide what you want to improve”. For all you know, you may be sufficiently innovative already. Thus measurement is at the heart of the 8-Steps approach – something that is not emphasised by books on the other two kinds of innovation. After finding out what to improve, 8-Steps proposes to find out the nature of the mindset problem. Is it more like “lack of direction” or “lack of motivation”? Depending upon the answer to these two questions (i.e. what to improve and what is nature of mindset change), the 8-Steps approach helps design an intervention. Thus the basic unit of action in the 8-Steps approach is an intervention which moves the needle from a measurable Point-A to an improved Point-B. Now, you go back to measurement and start once again.

YS: How should innovators strike that delicate balance between ‘Stick to your vision’ and ‘Adapt to a changed world’?

A: I feel it depends upon the kind of vision you build. We have seen examples such as Aravind Eye Hospital’s vision of “Eradicate needless blindness” and Kodak’s “You do the clicking, we do the rest” which have inspired innovations over several decades for those organisations. However, most organisations are not that lucky. The vision may be set in an environment which may undergo significant change.

We advocate keeping a challenge book alive and performing low-cost experiments on an on-going basis to question and validate some of the core assumptions associated with business. This is how an apparel company redefines its vision as “Lifestyle” and Coca Cola gets into the bottled water business.

YS: Is there such a thing as the ‘ideal age’ for an entrepreneur, or can the startup bug strike you at any time?

A: I have seen three age-bands. The first is early entrepreneurs: these people carry a passion for starting their own business quite early on in their career – certainly much before they get married! The second age-band happens around the mid-thirties, when the individual has built a financial cushion to take some risks and pursue his or her passion. My co-author Rishi and I belong to this category. The third age-band, and perhaps this is the smallest in terms of percentage, happens after you retire from your job. Dr. Venkataswamy of Aravind Eye Hospital is a role model in this category.

YS: Who are some of the innovators entrepreneurs you admire the most today?

A: Among the Indian entrepreneurs I got an opportunity to interact with are Ashwin Naik of Vaatsalya Healthcare and Gyanesh Pandey of Husk Power Systems. I admire both of these entrepreneurs. Among the innovation leaders, I admire what L.R. Natarajan has done at Titan and what Sukumar Rajagopal, Head of Innovation, has been doing at Cognizant. In the government and non-profit sector, I admire Ramji Raghavan of Agastya Foundation, Prasanna of Sikshana Foundation and Premnath of Venture Capital at NCL.

Outside India, I admire Warren Buffett for his ability to watch a company patiently for half a century (IBM) before investing in it, Jeff Bezos for his ability to surf waves like e-reading, and Bill Gates for his focus on excellence in chosen areas as diverse as PCs and healthcare. I feel there are many more role models and the limiting factor is my exposure!

YS: What is your assessment of India’s startup scene, in terms of sustainable and breakthrough innovations?

A: Some of the leading VC firms in India are reviewing around 90 proposals a month. That is encouraging. The cost of experimentation of certain types of businesses e.g. e-commerce, mobile solutions is very low. The cost of prototyping in the manufacturing set up is coming down fast due to emerging technologies like 3-D printing.

However, how many incubators in India are enabling building of experimentation capacity? I don’t know of many. NCL’s Venture Centre is one of them especially for chemistry and biology based businesses. Industry-academia collaborations have some ways to go.

YS: What is your current field of research?

A: My primary focus is design of robust interventions in fostering a culture of innovation. The book is a first step in that direction. My research agenda is driven by my clients’ needs. Let’s see what emerges from it going forward.

YS: What will your next book be about?

A: I don’t know if or when I will write/co-write another book! Currently, my primary focus is to evangelise the “8 Steps” approach and help organisations become more innovative.

YS: What is your parting message to the startups and innovators in our audience?

A: Each of your ideas is a bundle of assumptions. Some of these are based on gut-feel. See if you can validate them as early as possible!

[ Follow YourStory.in’s research director Madanmohan Rao at http://twitter.com/MadanRao ]


Madanmohan Rao

Madanmohan Rao

Madanmohan Rao is research director at YourStory Media and editor of five book series (http://amzn.to/NpHAoE). His interests include creativity, innovation, knowledge management, and digital media. Madan is also a DJ and writer on world music and jazz. He can be followed on Twitter at @MadanRao