Corporate innovation in India must be different from corporate innovation in wealthier regions. Multinationals have enough money to invest in pure and applied science on a proprietary basis, whereas most Indian firms do not.
However, despite differing capabilities, our approaches to innovation should be similar. The greatest gap I’ve observed between the typical Indian and foreign approaches is in the first stage. I call it Discovery. Others call it the Fuzzy Front End of Innovation (FFE). In this first step, we search for insights.
The Tata Nano demonstrates the gap. Tata Motors did an outstanding job of technical innovation. Nano was a true marvel of frugal engineering. Tata went wrong, however, when it did not discover the same level of customer insights to assure that the market would welcome the new model.
Different industries will have different priorities for the Discovery stage. A car company should seek both technological and customer insights. A process company may look mostly for insights about operations management. A consumer products company should focus largely on customer insights. A firm in the defense sector might concentrate primarily on insights about politics and government procurement procedures.
I suspect that two factors limit our work in Discovery. First, there is the view that managers are supposed to know everything. A voyage of discovery requires the boss to admit that there are things he doesn’t know, and that can be uncomfortable.
Second, there is the “fuzziness” of discovery. Managers like certainty, but innovation is inherently uncertain. So, relatively few managers are willing to invest significant resources in exploration and discovery for the sake of innovation.
I hope that more Indian firms will embark on voyages of discovery that will lead to great innovations.
Related reading: Six Levers for Solving the Corporate Innovation Problem-Part 1