D Murali

Act now or it may be too late

D. Murali | Updated on September 04, 2011


Act different, think different, and make a difference. This is the signing-off message of Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen, and Clayton M. Christensen in The Innovator's DNA: Mastering the five skills of disruptive innovators (Harvard).

The authors urge you to take a look at Salesforce.com, where Benioff built a company to not only disrupt the entire enterprise software industry, but also to make a difference wherever it operates. He did this through a 1-1-1 philosophy where 1 per cent of all employees' time, 1 per cent of all its products, and 1 per cent of all its equity go toward improving communities and promoting compassionate capitalism, they explain. “As Benioff puts it, he's in the ‘business of changing the world.' His approach relies on hundreds of thousands of employee hours and millions of dollars to tackle problems ranging from sanitation to homelessness. Benioff is not alone in taking on tough issues. Bill and Melinda Gates, Richard Branson, and many others do the same in their own shape and form.”

Action and entrepreneurial success

Skype's Zennström also finds mention in the book for his analogy between action and entrepreneurial success. “Say that you have one of those reality shows on TV and you drop a bunch of people in the middle of a desert island. The winner is the person who gets to the shore the quickest.”

So, what happens next? Some people try to analyse where they are, which direction to go, while some of them say, ‘Let's climb up a tree or a rock or hillside and maybe we can see further and figure out what is the best direction to go,' and they will spend time planning and analysing how to find the best direction to go. But some other people will just look around, follow their intuition, and start running in a direction, Zennström outlines.

Zennström is of the view that whoever starts climbing up the tree to start analysing where he is and which direction to go will not win the competition, because there are a few other maniacs who have started running, following their intuition. “The point is: if you have a good gut feeling for which general direction to go, then you should just run as fast as you can.”

The authors add that, by acting and figuring it out as you go, you get valuable feedback from your action, and you get even better feedback by fully engaging your innovator skills along the way. Act now or it may be too late, they remind.

“Windows of opportunity exist for capturing the full value from any innovative business idea. No wonder successful innovators move fast to implement an idea before its window closes.”

Surprising connections

The first of the skills discussed in the book is ‘associating,' the ability to make surprising connections across areas of knowledge, industries, even geographies. To illustrate how associations produce innovative business ideas, the authors consider how Marc Benioff came up with the idea for Salesforce.com, now a $13 billion software company.

They trace how his experience with technology and software began when, as a fifteen-year-old, he built a small software company, Liberty Software, writing computer games (such as ‘How to Juggle') on his Commodore 64. “As a computer science and entrepreneurship undergraduate, Benioff worked summers at Apple during the build-up and launch of the first Mac, learning firsthand what it meant to work in a think-different world.”

Then came his stint in Oracle, leading by 25 the company's entire direct-marketing division and beginning to see several streams of opportunity emerging on the Internet. “I was sitting at my desk at Oracle in the late nineties and watching the emergence of Amazon.com and eBay… it felt like something significant was on the horizon,” he would reminisce to the authors.

The story takes an interesting turn when Benioff decided it was time to think more deeply about the changing technological landscape and his own career. “He took a sabbatical that started with a trip to India where he met a variety of diverse people, including spiritual leader and humanitarian, Mata Amritanandamayi (who helped strengthen his commitment to doing well and doing good in business. Benioff's next stop on this global journey was Hawaii, where he discussed various ideas for new businesses with an assortment of entrepreneurs and friends.”

The fundamental epiphany for his company surfaced when he was swimming with dolphins in the Pacific Ocean, the authors recount. The questions that swam in his head were: “Why aren't all enterprise software applications built like Amazon and eBay? Why are we still loading and upgrading software the way that we have been doing all this time when we now have the Internet?” The breakthrough visualisation, for him, was enterprise software meeting Amazon, as a synthesis of novel inputs or association, challenging the industry tradition of selling software on CD-ROMs and engaging companies in lengthy, customised (and expensive) installation processes.

Software delivered, in the alternative, as a service over the Internet would be available 24/7, and companies would avoid all the costs and shutdown associated with ongoing, large-scale IT system installation and upgrades, the authors elaborate. “Given his substantial experience in sales and marketing at Oracle, Benioff felt that providing software services for managing a sales force and customer relations carried huge potential for small and medium-sized businesses that couldn't afford customised enterprise software. Thus, Salesforce.com was born.”

Question the unquestionable

The second ‘discovery skill' is questioning, a chapter on which opens with Ratan Tata's quote, ‘Question the unquestionable.' Innovators treat the world as a question mark, rarely working on autopilot and constantly challenging the accuracy of their mental maps about the territory, whether products, services, processes, geographies, or business models, the authors instruct. “Suspended comfortably between a faith in and doubt of their maps, the best innovators remember that their views of the world are never the actual territory. Intuitively, they rely on a rich assortment of questions to develop a deep understanding of how things really are, before probing intensely into what they might be.”

Among the many nuggets of ‘questioning' wisdom the authors glean from their interviewees are the following:

Pierre Omidyar of eBay uses ‘blank-slate approach' to habitually watch clients, customers, or suppliers, and wonders, ‘What are they really trying to do here?' and then follows up with all kinds of who, what, when, where, and how questions to dig beneath the surface.

Intuit's Scott Cook asks fundamental questions such as ‘Where is the real problem?' ‘What's most important?' and ‘What's the real pain point?' and he knows his questions work when they reveal ‘what is' and build empathy for how it feels.

Jeff Jones – founder of Campus Pipeline (a Web platform that helps universities securely integrate campus communication and resources) and NxLight (an IT tool for simplifying the management of complex inter-company transactions by easily and securely exchanging documents) – leverages why and why-not questions, asking why in different ways, without being content with what the answer is.

David Neeleman, founder of JetBlue and Azul airlines, asked his senior team why more Brazilians are not taking advantage of his low fares.

He asked how much a cab costs for the typical customer to get to the airport; and the answer was ‘too much' – because it was potentially 40 to 50 per cent of the airline ticket cost. So, came his next question: ‘Why not start our own free bus service to get customers to the airports?' The authors report that today, passengers book (mostly online) over three thousand bus rides per day to the airport with Azul, the fastest-growing airline in Brazil.

Watching the world around

The third skill highlighted in the book is observing; that is, watching the world around and seeing how things work, and getting sensitised to what does not work. As innovators engage in these types of observations, they begin to connect common threads across unconnected data, which may provoke uncommon business ideas, the authors describe. “Such observations often engage multiple senses and are frequently prompted by compelling questions.”

A story retold in the book is of Tata watching ‘a lower-middle-class man riding a scooter with an older child standing in the front, behind the handlebars,' on a very rainy day in Mumbai, in 2003. Tata also saw that the man's wife sat side-saddle on the back with another child on her lap, and that all the four were soaked to the bone as they hurried home. “Tata saw with his eyes and listened with his heart to notice what he had previously failed to notice. He asked himself, ‘Why can't this family own a car and avoid the rain?'”

A similar story is of Scott Cook who founded Intuit, maker of the popular financial software Quicken and QuickBooks, based on a simple observation within his home – watching his wife work on their finances and hearing her complain about how frustrating and time-consuming it was. “She's got a good mind for math and is quite organised, so she handles the bills for us. But she frequently complained that it was a waste of time and book-keeping was a hassle. So it was that observation combined with an understanding of what personal computers could do well and not do well that started Intuit,” he narrates to the authors.

A book that can push you to the uncharted waters of innovation, for a rewarding return.


“To make our employees health-conscious, we installed digital calorimeters in the pantry…”

“And you find them taking fewer cups of coffee and milk?”

“Yes, and also finishing work about an hour early!”

> dmurali@thehindu.co.in

Published on September 04, 2011

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