D Murali

Break away from binary options

D. Murali | Updated on October 23, 2011

Chennai: 15/10/2011: The Hindu: Business Line: Book Review Column: Title: The Third Alternative, solving Life's Most Difficult Problems. Author; Stephen R. Covey.

Companies need to tap into the creativity of consumers and develop the 3rd alternative.

Twice a year, students from the Indian Institute of Management at Ahmedabad go to the countryside for 8-10 days, informs Stephen R. Covey in The 3rd Alternative: Solving life's most difficult problems (www.simonandschuster.co.uk). On this shodhyatra, or foot trek, the student pilgrims are looking for 3rd alternatives – the odd idea, the strange or new creation born of necessity in the remote villages of India, he adds.

“The shodhyatris are fascinated by the smallest positive deviation. If they find some unusual practice or device invented by a farmer or shop worker, they bring it back to be shared through the Honey Bee Network, a national organisation dedicated to leveraging the new knowledge.” For starters, the third alternative, the theme of the book, is ‘our way,' as a way through synergy, to solve the toughest problems we face, rather than being stuck in the common two alternatives, viz. my way and your way.

Tech synergy

An example of synergy is visible in Techpedia, a link in the Honey Bee Network's site, www.sristi.org/hbnew. “A portal of technology projects by students to link the needs of the industry and grassroots innovators with young minds and to promote collaborative research,” announces the web site.

It rues that though there are about six lakh technology students who spend at least six months in their final year doing a project, nobody knows the fate of these projects. “There is no requirement from UGC or AICTE that the students put at least a summary of their projects on a national portal (some day it will become obligatory for every student). Neither are the problems of small and tiny industries posed to the students nor are the good projects of the students used by the industries.” The portal aims, instead, to get more and more students to take up real-life problems with the hope that if even one per cent of such projects become new products, the industry would get at least 6,000 ideas to invest in, thereby stimulating demand for new products and services.

Among the top ranking projects published on the site, at the time of writing, are power generation from biogas using bike, low-cost solar water-heater, betel-nut cutting machine, implementation of velocity transform technique for biomedical use and an improved apparatus for ultra-sonography using a continuous wave Doppler system.

Bees, flowers, and honey

Professor Anil K. Gupta founded the Honey Bee Network, the name inspired by the symbiotic relationship between the three. The network is a vehicle for synergy among grassroots innovators, venture capitalists, and academics, narrates Covey.

To emphasise the classic countertype , he cites a quote of Gupta thus: “When we talk of India as a knowledge economy, we assume rural people will be employed only in the lowest value-adding activities and never as providers of knowledge. That is absurd.” Another snatch from published articles about the Network reminds that being economically poor does not necessarily mean lacking knowledge .

Honey Bee feeds data from the treks into the National Innovation Foundation, which has catalogued more than 50,000 innovations scouted from all over India, the book notes.

Included in the ‘available for licensing' category of technologies are electronic innovations such as Narayan Das Jethwani's air ioniser, which consumes 0.1 watts of electricity as compared to 7- 40 watts by competing products in the market; and Davalasaba Mahamadgows' auto stopper for LPG stoves with a ‘digital display system for rice cookers to count the number of whistles' and switches off the stove once the preset time is over.

Covey mentions some of the ideas discovered by the shodhyatris about herbal remedies, local recipes for curry, and odd uses of small motors (e.g. an old Sony Walkman used to power a fan). He finds that often the shodhyatris stumble upon truly innovative ideas that can transform the lives of the poor. “One successful find was Mansukh Prajapati's ‘Mitti Cool' refrigerator made from ingenious rectangular clay pots and requiring no electricity. Thousands of them are in use. He has also invented a plough driven by a motorcycle and a non-stick clay pan that reportedly works as well as a Teflon pan but costs only a dollar.”

Handshake with hackers

Another story in the book is about LEGO, the Danish toymaker, which counts its millions of customers as an active part of a complementary team. What came as a shock to the company, however, was that some customers were secretly hacking into LEGO's computers. Rather than call the police, as one would normally do, the company began to talk to the hackers, only to find out that they were LEGO fans who wanted to build their own creations; they had broken in so they could go around the company's inventory system and order individual parts that normally came packaged with other parts.

Through a quote of Tormod Askildsen, LEGO's director of community development, Covey captures the varied views that surfaced within the company: “Our lawyers were ready to go after these consumers and say, ‘You can't do that.' But we also realised that there was a lot of talent and a lot of very great skills out there in the community. Yes, they are tinkering with our product, but they are improving it.” Askildsen reasons that when you trust your consumers, they may end up benefiting the company. “The LEGO brand is not owned by us. It's owned by the consumers. We own the trademark, yes, but the brand lives in the minds of the consumers.”

So, LEGO developed software that would allow fans to create new LEGO designs and encourage them to share their designs with other customers, Covey recounts. “Two-dimensional, legalistic thinking would have killed this huge business opportunity in a heartbeat. But 3rd alternative thinking won the day as LEGO discovered an entirely new way to do business: have the customers design their products while they provide the raw materials.”

Business opportunity

A parallel that is highlighted in this context is Shanda Games Ltd in Shanghai, described as an example of ‘intelligent organisation' by Charles Leadbeater. Staffed with only 500 people, the games company boasts of 250 million subscribers who are not serviced but only given a platform, rules, and tools. The content is created by the users and that creates stickiness between users and the company, elaborates Leadbeater. If you are a games company and you have got a million players, you only need one per cent to be co-developers and you have got a development workforce of 10,000 people, he argues.

A book that contends well to be in the reading list of all those who are caught up in binary options.


“This time, we decided to give our staff a special Diwali gift…”

“Brighter and noisier fireworks?”

“Yes, all in a DVD, with stunning visual and sound effects!”


Published on October 23, 2011

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