The twist in the tale

Vinay Kamath | Updated on January 12, 2018

Title: Crooked Minds: Creating an Innovative Society<br>Author: Kiran Karnik<br>Publisher: Rupa PublicationsvPrice: ₹395

Kiran Karnik goes off the beaten track to illustrate how ‘crooked’ minds can spur innovation

It’s an intriguing title for a book on innovation: Crooked Minds. Where does ‘crooked’ fit in with innovation? Author Kiran Karnik writes about two clever entrepreneurs, one in Mumbai and the other in Stockholm, who collected small insurance premia from train travellers, who could then travel ticketless on the suburban or metro trains. In Mumbai’s crowded trains and stations, the chances of getting caught are slim, but in case one did, the entrepreneur would reimburse the fine paid by his customers who were nabbed, on their producing a receipt of the fine paid.

Now Karnik poses the question: Are crooked minds more innovative? In this case, it was a crooked act, as the Mumbai operator was encouraging his clientele to indulge in the illegal. But Karnik prefers to look at crooked in the geometric sense — thought processes that deviate from the straight and conventionally defined mode. An innovation means something different from what exists: be it a product, a process or a business model. “Innovation takes many forms,” says Karnik, “but all of them are based on going beyond the straight and narrow, on doing something differently. It creates value, generally disproportionately large value from what already exists or from creating something new. Innovation is therefore a value creator or value multiplier, often enhancing returns with little or no additional investment.”

Karnik refers to what’s become famous around the world as Indian ‘jugaad’ or the ability to improvise or find an out-of-box solution, but this he says at most times is hardly truly innovative. Typically, he says, it’s just make-do or workaround solutions that are not scalable. Innovation needs to be scalable to be impactful. As Karnik goes on to demonstrate in his book, innovation can take many forms.

Off the beaten track

Karnik brings to bear his structured thinking to the subject of innovation: how are ideas transformed to benefit people; where does India stand in the innovation sweepstakes; how to create innovation hubs and foster innovation in organisations and on India’s innovative cities, etc. The appealing aspect of Karnik’s book is that he looks at spotting innovation in day-to-day life rather than in labs. He says innovation is happening all around, in art, films, literature; even in public policy.

What about innovation in organisations, which is germane to a business reader? Innovations by their very nature cause disruptions and organisations hate disruptions. Continuity, stability and predictability are virtues and innovation is uncommon. Many organisations have recognised this and try to separate and firewall smaller units which can be dedicated to innovation or R&D. The basic ‘DNA’ of both the divisions necessarily have to be different. Startup ventures have no such legacy baggage and it’s little wonder that many of today’s driving innovations have come from startups.

The book refers to the examples of Google, which served up its Alphabet company to drive innovation, or even the Tata group which set up a Tata group innovation forum. So, Karnik says, and this may be interesting for those who head large organisations, a centralised, command-and-control type of structure is not conducive to innovation. Karnik talks about freedom and democracy as catalysts in promoting innovation (the US springs to mind) and the same principle would apply to organisations. In organisations where instructions and ideas flow from the top, those below are expected to execute these efficiently. In such a set-up, one can hardly expect ideas and innovation to flower.

Converse and collaborate

Organisations that are based more on shared goals, of motivation that comes from common objectives, and provide more autonomy to people, and where authority and power are decentralised with decision-making responsibility delegated as far down the line as possible, tend to provide a far better ambience for innovation.

Karnik also refers to the informal mechanisms in organisations that can promote exchange of ideas, where young innovators have the opportunity to make a ‘water-cooler pitch’ while the boss is drinking water or coffee. The author has a delightful aside to this concept. “A few decades ago, in ISRO’s early days — and before the concept of ‘elevator pitches’ become popular, I experienced an interesting variant. I, and others, sometimes used the opportunity provided by a shared toilet to pitch new ideas to Dr Vikram Sarabhai (then chairman of ISRO) through a ‘toilet pitch’ or ‘toilet tryst’!”

Conversations and collaborations, especially across levels of hierarchy, are more frequent, meaningful and robust when an organisation is comparatively democratic, he emphasises. The other aspect that can drive innovation is the diversity of its people. Diversity goes beyond gender, nationality, expertise, and age but the most critical facet is diversity of thought or approach.

Crooked Minds is an apt book for someone who wants to know what innovation really is, get an update on the innovation ecosystem in the country and elsewhere, learn how to scale innovative ideas, know what organisations need to do to engender an innovation culture and finally, know how to stimulate, foster and promote innovation in organisations.

True to his promise in his introduction to the book, Karnik has looked for and outlined innovation as it happens in today’s organisations, and for those looking to innovate he has spelt it out loud and clear: an open work culture, physical design of office spaces to enhance interactions, appropriate HR policies, showcasing and recognising best innovations, creation of an innovation group freed from regular organisational functions, bringing in people from outside fields to talk to employees, providing employees funding to take forward innovations, creativity workshops, sending a clear message from the top that an organisation values innovation and innovators, and rewards and recognition.

Go on then, get innovative.


Kiran Karnik is a former president of Nasscom. He worked a couple of decades at ISRO. Karnik has served on the Scientific Advisory Council to the PM and the National Innovation Council.

Published on February 05, 2017

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