Dec 15, 2005

India, Innovation and Thinking

The CII-BCG study on Indian Innovation says:

According to the report released today in Mumbai, nearly 83 per cent of the Indian executives surveyed said innovation was among their top three priorities for their companies compared with 66 per cent globally.

That sounds good. Intentions are great and therefore results should be great too, right?

That's where this quote from the same article must make us pause and think:

Earlier in the day, Bolko Von Oetinger, director (strategy group), BCG said that to be innovative, it was important to unlearn and forget what one already knew.

The focus of the study was the manufacturing sector, where innovation can easily be thought of by senior management as "R&D". But what is this elusive thing called "unlearning" that Mr. Bolko talks about?

Forgetting is never easy. In fact, it does not make sense to forget most things. Ever tried jumping into a swimming pool at the deep end and forgetting to swim? Not possible. Information can be forgotten. But not what is truly learnt. When one learns one internalises it in four steps. (for more details, here's my post on 'learning to drive' ;-) Forgetting 'unconscious competence' is very very difficult.

The reason why it is difficult is because we learn about things while being oblivious to the process of learning it. And the issue becomes more complicated (heck, not just more complicated, unbelievably complex!) when you ask an organization to unlearn. That's because, believe it or not, organizations have memories too. Our learnings as individuals are wired and codified by neurons and other stuff in our brains whereas organizational memories are codified by processes and systems. Remember the young management trainee who walks into the purchase department and questions, "hey, why three copies of the invoice?" and is answered with "You won't understand. Even I don't know, but that's the way it's always been here. There must be a reason, however"

The reason is because of memories. Unlearning for an organization is painful too. That's because the codified processes are guarded by managers who've got where they are by following them. Want them to innovate? Show them something that will work better. That's the challenge for innovation consultants as Dave Pollard says.

The other big issue in my opinion is because we have never been taught to think! Or to learn, for that matter!

Yes, you heard that right. You learnt maths, physics, hindi, chemistry etc at school. But did you learn to think? Or how to learn? Mostly not.

Let's take the example of a small school next to where I live in Hyderabad. It's called St. Paul's Grammar School and is a small place with around 100-150 students. It's not one of the expensive schools. Nor it an experimentative school. In fact, I think it's like the the majority of the schools students in India go to. The 'classrooms' if they can be called that are poky small rooms where the light is of the sun seeping in and not brightened by any other factor. On many occasions I have seen the teachers administering corporal punishment very casually. In fact, today when I was walking on my terrace I saw one of the teachers with a wooden foot-ruler proceeding to beat a bunch of 7-8 students (who couldn't have been more than 6 years old!) and then sitting casually at her table.

The school also has various sayings written on the walls.

The one that made me shudder was "PUNISHMENT BRINGS WISDOM" !

Will the products of such schools take India on the path of Innovation? I, for one, am not hopeful of much.