Many innovations’ rise to iconic status has been fuelled, at least in part, by the stories of how they came to be. Indian companies are slowly but surely realising the strategy can work for their brands too.

Radhika Chadha

Around a year ago, as part of the research for our book, Innovative India, we spoke to over a hundred managers all over India, who paused their hectic schedules to candidly discuss their beliefs, insights and opinions with us. They generously spent time answering a questionnaire and a couple of questions therein explored the icons of innovation that dominate Indian managers.

The two questions were:

Which three global organisations do you admire for being innovative?

Which three Indian organisations do you admire for being innovative? Subsidiaries of multinationals were permitted as answers to the second question.

It was an interesting exercise. I’d ask the first question and the answers would come without a bat of the eyelash. The clear winner was 3M, which got 50 per cent of the votes, followed by Apple (44 per cent), Microsoft (23 per cent), Google (18 per cent), followed by Nokia, Sony, Procter & Gamble, GE and Toyota which got between 10-15 per cent. Then I’d call out the second question, and a thick silence would ensue; the respondent would tap the pen/pencil reflectively and after much hemming and hawing, and rhetorical soliloquy, one answer would get penned down. Then almost reluctantly, another. Many asked if they could get back to me later with their answers since none occurred to them immediately. Some who answered the question through an online format confessed to me later that it was a tough question to answer. In the final count, we had ICICI Bank with 23 per cent votes, Infosys with 22 per cent, Reliance and Amul tied for the third place with 18 per cent, while Marico, Paras, and Hindustan Unilever followed, with between 13 and 15 per cent.

This is not to state that these ranks are a result of any definitive proclamation on the innovativeness of Indian companies. To us, the exact votes or order seemed less interesting than the difficulty with which the question was answered: while there was a resounding affirmation with the global companies, the answers for the Indian organisations were more fragmented with most choices getting just one vote each.

Band-Aid, Velcro, Post-it notes – what do they have in common? Not only their problem-solving inventions, but the story behind their creation. Why is it that a 3M or an Apple occupies so much mindspace with Indian managers, while Indian companies do not seem to offer the same recall? A big portion of this has to do with the power of the narrative. Just as a matter of interest – when you think of who built the Taj Mahal, I’d guess the name Shah Jehan is the one that pops straight into your mind. But how many of us know who the chief architect or engineer of that amazing monument was, how it was designed - the technical story behind its building, as opposed to the tragic love affair and the beauteous, doomed queen that inspired it? Consider any of the great Indian monuments and you will find that the stories behind their construction have proven far more fragile than the eroding stone that clads them.

3M, in particular, has done such a great job of story-telling that it has become the poster boy of innovation. Management literature is strewn with informative and inspiring nuggets that celebrate the art and the science of innovation at 3M – how it designs its stretch goals; how it allows management to spend a percentage of its time on thinking of business unusual; how Art Fry used a slip of paper to bookmark his Bible and thus, from a failed adhesive, was born the Post-it; how engineers and scientists struggled on with unpromising projects because of the passion they felt for it.

By using the power of the narrative to tom-tom its innovations, not only does a company create a perception of being a dynamic, forward-looking organisation (which has its beneficial impact on shareholder value), it also creates the pull within its people by immortalising their efforts and rewarding them through that nebulous and difficult to structure metric – recognition. Paras has done a good job by creating stories of how some anthropological observation resulted in Krack; Tata Motors has done a superb job with the Indica and the Nano – making outrageously ambitious promises, withstanding scepticism, and then delivering the goods. Marico has revealed a lot of its inside processes that describe how it values innovation and open-mindedness at various decision-making levels. It’s been a bit slow, but India Inc is finally cottoning onto the fact that celebrating stories of growth, creativity and innovation can make for good business. All this makes me believe, the next time we run our survey on the icons of Indian innovation, the answers will fly at us, fast and furious.

(Radhika Chadha is a consultant in strategy and innovation and co-author of Innovative India: Insights for the Thinking Manager. Karate-gy is the proprietary name of the strategic exercises conducted by Paradigm Management Knowhow Ltd.)

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated April 24, 2008)
XThese are links to The Hindu Business Line suggested by Outbrain, which may or may not be relevant to the other content on this page. You can read Outbrain's privacy and cookie policy here.