02 November 2022 06:11:25 IST

Three ways leaders can seek inspiration for innovation 

The late Dr Govindappa Venkataswamy, founder of Aravind Eye Hospitals, used to refer to McDonalds as his inspiration for creating affordable eye care delivery in India. You listen to his talk about how he compares the various facets of making burgers and delivering eye care, and you remain awestruck.

In a similar vein, the highly debated visit of Steve Jobs to Xerox PARC Labs, gave Jobs the inspiration to transform the personal computing industry with awe-inspiring graphic user interfaces. How did Dr Venkataswamy and Jobs gain their inspiration?

Read any interview of Warren Buffett and he talks about how reading The Intelligent Investor inspired him to a life of value investing. He talks over and over again about how the ideas in that book will shape good investing for generations. Satya Nadella talks about how Carol Dweck’s Mindset influenced the transformation he unleashed at Microsoft. Bill Gates is legendary for taking reading breaks and his annual reading lists have faithful fans waiting. How did Buffett, Nadella, and Gates gain their inspiration?

Louis Gerstner’s talks passionately in his book, Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance, about how listening keenly to employees and customers helped him immensely during his early days of turning around IBM. He credits his team for his spectacular success as CEO.

Similarly, we hear tremendous praise for AG Lafley’s ability to spend a large portion of his time listening to customers and employees. The unassuming, quiet, yet dynamic former CEO of Wipro Azim Premji is praised for his keen listening skills. In recent times, Sundar Pichai is said to be someone who lends a patient ear to his team. How did Gerstner, Lafley, Premji, and Pichai gain inspiration for their innovations?

Pick your lane wisely

Entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial leaders both seek inspiration all the time. Inspiration leads them to creative ideas and innovative solutions. The above-mentioned leaders have produced product, service, and managerial innovations which are worthy of emulation.

These innovations — Aravind’s eyecare services; Apple’s design innovation; Berkshire’s investment philosophies; Microsoft’s software products/services; IBM’s service innovation; P&G’s open innovation model; Wipro’s transition from oils to information technology; and Google’s constant experimentation — have been discussed widely; yet how these leaders gained inspiration for effecting such large-scale innovations remains less understood.

How do entrepreneurial leaders seek their inspiration?

The above examples point to three ways in which leaders can gain inspiration to drive innovation. First, is an acute sense of observation. Second, voracious reading. Third, and finally, active listening. Observation, reading, and listening are three ways in which leaders can gain inspiration for kickstarting their innovation experiments. But all three approaches need not suit all leaders.

Therefore, the first step is to ask yourself what Peter Drucker urged us to do in his now seminal Harvard Business Review article Managing Oneself — How do I perform? Some individuals are natural readers (e.g., Bill Gates); others keen observers (example: Dr Venkataswamy); and others active listeners (example: Lafley). A few may be good at two; rare ones in all three.

It is important to understand what sort of approach suits your personality best. Once you identify your approach to gaining inspiration, then we move to the second step which is to understand how we can put the chosen approach into practice.

Consistency is key

Observers: Spend a lot of your time in internal and external environments watching closely how people engage with products, services, and organizations. You must visit exemplar organizations across industries (adjacent/distant from yours) and watch how they perform. Incorporate visits to national laboratories, University Technology Transfer Offices, and scientific institutions into your schedule. Observe closely and make notes.

Readers: Explore the world of the written word. As a leader of an organization, it is important to read widely about market, industry, technology, and consumer trends; both at the micro and macro levels; look for well-researched books; and where possible go deep into scientific articles. You may not want to read 500 pages a day like Buffett or 50 books a year like Gates, but reading has to be extensive (both wide and deep enough) to gain adequate insights and make new connections.

Listeners: Spend a lot of time in conversations with employees, customers, scientists, competitors, suppliers, futurists, academics. You should also attend workshops/webinars/lectures, drop in to key conferences, and interact with the future generation. During these conversations you may want to spend a disproportionate amount of time listening and making notes.

“Observing, reading, and listening are at least three powerful ways of social interaction. The three approaches may appear obvious. But, their power stems from alignment to the personality and consistency in application.”

As Steven Johnson stated in his wonderful book titled Where do Good ideas Come From, good innovation come from social interaction. Observing, reading, and listening are at least three powerful ways of social interaction. The three approaches may appear obvious. But, their power stems from alignment to the personality and consistency in application. Both alignment and consistency require disciplined identification and action. Choose your approach wisely, gain inspiration, and innovate repeatedly.

(The writer is Associate Professor of Strategy & Entrepreneurship and Director – PGDM at Great Lakes Institute of Management, Chennai.)