- Vineet Nayar is Vice Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of HCL Technologies Ltd. a $3.9 billion global information technology services company.
As corporate leaders around the world seek to build sustainable businesses, there is no doubt that innovation lies at the heart of the solution. But there is a nagging question that’s been cropping up in the debate: Does experience kill innovation?
While there is no questioning the value of experience in many respects, there is a school of thought that looks at experience as an ever-expanding rear-view mirror that constantly draws attention to the path traveled, rather than the unknown and limitless possibilities on the way forward.
Former Intel innovation strategist Cynthia Barton Rabe writes in her book The Innovation Killer that when it comes to innovation, “ExpertThink” and “GroupThink” are the twin innovation killers. Experience and best practices that have been the pillars of success so far, can often slow down the pace of innovation and disruptive change.
So how do you circumvent this paradox? Bill Taylor, book author and co-founder of Fast Company magazine, propounds the virtues of ‘vuja dé’ to counter it. In his blog, Don’t Let What You Know Limit What You Imagine, Taylor says, we have all experienced déjà vu — looking at an unfamiliar situation and feeling like you’ve seen it before. Vuja dé is the flip side of that — looking at a familiar situation (a field you’ve worked in for decades, products you’ve worked on for years) as if you’ve never seen it before, and, with that fresh line of sight, developing a distinctive point of view on the future.
Rabe’s answer to the paradox is to populate organizations with “zero-gravity thinkers” whom she characterizes as innovators who are not weighed down by the expertise of a team, its politics, or “the way things have always been done.”
The idea is to induce some fresh thought. I believe this fresh thinking is available within an organization, right in the core value zones, waiting to be discovered. These are the young minds at the frontlines, interacting with your customers. They have the knowledge and the expertise, but they carry their burden lightly. They are often quick to imagine new possibilities, new solutions, believing in their power to find a better way forward.
My company has been witnessing this in our very midst. Several years ago, we transferred the responsibility for change from executive management to our people who operate on the front lines and interact daily with our customers. We call this point of intersection the “Value Zone”.
Following this transformation, we’ve seen a veritable flood of ideas that have both fueled organizational innovation and aided our bottom line. These include:
MadJam or Make A Difference (MAD) – an initiative to promote innovative ideas in the workplace under which people across the organization offer suggestions and solutions for change. Last year, 900 employees across 377 ‘idea teams’ submitted business- and technology-based transformational solutions. 94 ideas were shortlisted, based on a poll by their colleagues, to present their ideas to a jury. The ideas selected and implemented are expected to create more than $25 million in value for our business.
Meme – an internal social networking platform created and used by employees to connect, share, learn and grow — serves as an avenue to share thoughts and ideas with co-workers. Through this network, our employees address the needs of a multi-generational workforce, including aspects of gender, culture, ability, work life continuity, leisure, values, and beliefs besides professional problems.
Green Warriors, an employee volunteer network that collaborates with administration and infrastructure teams, advocates for the implementation of green activities. Some 1,200 “warriors” conducted eco audits of their workplaces this year to assess the state of resources consumed in company-owned facilities with recommendations for actions that can be adopted by employees to contribute to Green operations. Several of these will be implemented this year.
Perhaps nobody knew more about innovation than the late Steve Jobs. According to Jobs, innovation has nothing to do with your R&D budget. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. “It’s not about money. It’s about the people you have, how you’re led and how much you get it,” said Jobs.
As we transfer the responsibility of change to our employees, we have no doubt they will find the most innovative way forward to smarter systems and a smarter business for a smarter and sustainable world.