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Monthly Archives: June 2012

Bottlenecking Innovation: What can a bottle of water tell us about Indian innovation?

On a recent flight from Delhi to Hyderabad, the flight attendant handed me a bottle of water. This was a full-service flight, and like all airlines trying to make the best of both worlds, this airline’s dinner too was watered-down. The bottle of water was part of it. As I tried to open the bottle, however, I was nearly poked by a hard, pointer sliver of the plastic that broke off and stood projected from the neck (see picture). I was grateful that it was not my daughter who was opening the bottle.
Water Bottle on Flight from Delhi to Hyderabad

But the bottle raises many questions about Indian innovation. The state of the packaging industry in India is symbolic of the state of Indian innovation in general, and the bottleneck is both a literal and a metaphorical commentary on the culture of innovation in India.

A few weeks ago, I bought a bottle of cough syrup, and try as I might, I could not open the plastic bottle because the metal cap kept turning with the metal band underneath that is supposed to be fixed to the bottle.Cough Medicine Bottle

As every Indian knows, this is a common occurrence and is, in fact, a decades-old problem. As a kid, I saw my parents struggle with the same problem when they opened medicine bottles for the family. Why has the Indian packaging industry not innovated for decades? And these medicines are made by international pharmaceutical giants who would not even think of selling drugs in this packaging in Europe or America. True, we have seen more tetrapaks and better bottles in India in recent years, but if we have truly innovated, we should not be seeing the kinds of bottles that I am referring to—the water bottle on the plane or the cough syrup bottle.

So how do you open the cough syrup bottle? Well, we Indians are very resourceful. In fact, jugaad, resourcefulness, has been proudly promoted as a national characteristic of India and the foundation of the Indian way of innovation. So like my parents, like me, we Indians look for the kitchen knife or a similar instrument and quickly cut the metal band at each place it is attached to the cap.opening cough medicine bottle with knife

Voilà! The cap can now be untwisted, and the medicine becomes available.

At the same time however, unwittingly, our jugaad has killed innovation. Because we can open the bottle with a knife, we don’t pressurize the drug company to make a better bottle, and of course, the consequence is that there is no shift in market demand to another drug maker who uses better bottles. Result: drug makers continue to use same types of un-openable bottles for decades; no innovation.

Long live Jugaad! Death to innovation! We are a nation of jugaadis with no innovation.

The “E” factor

I have often found that people trivialize a person’s success by attributing it to luck; luxury of having the right backing; being in the right place at the right time… the list goes on. Most of the times this Envy or “E” factor as I would like to call it is usually directed toward a known person—a relative, a friend or a colleague. There are plenty of instances of the disastrous impact that this emotion has had in human history. To cite a few examples: brothers have brutally murdered each other, big and powerful empires have been destroyed overnight, large organizations have vanished into thin air and governments have been brought down.

While all of us realize that Envy is wrong, the reality is that all of us are envious at varying levels and there is nothing we can do to stop this emotion. That being said, all of us also have an opportunity to take advantage of it and channelize it in a positive way. This is best exemplified in any competitive sports by individuals/teams that aspire to beat the best in their league to be the number one in their field. The way they go about by building on their strengths and improving on their weaknesses is a pure inspiration to read. Once they have reached the top, very few go on to reach legendary status by staying on the top for long periods of time until someone else comes along and beats them to the spot. The examples of such legends and legend dethroners are very valuable case studies at our work places.

The “E” factor is most pronounced in any workplace after promotion & raise period. Everyone feels they are good, everyone feels they have done their best of what was expected and everyone feels they need to be promoted and given the highest raise. The reality is that most of them end up being not good enough, are found wanting to better their best, end up not getting promoted and get a standard raise. This immediately gives way to a feeling of envy and indifference towards the “Haves” by the “Have nots”. Now this is a very critical and defining moment for those who have lost out. At the same time it is also an opportunity for their manager/supervisor to inspire and build a sense of loyalty in them. They need to understand that the person is disillusioned, low on self-esteem and a little pissed off, so do not bullshit and be honest. Pleading helplessness by saying they did the best they could but someone else decided otherwise will not help, clearly there was a reason why your candidate did not make the cut, be transparent with it. Let them know what they can do better and how you can help them in doing better. This will ensure they get more clarity and a sense of direction rather than becoming pissed off and losing trust on the manager/supervisor.

For those who didn’t make it, it is a good time to reflect on what went right and what went wrong. Promotion in any organization has a good ounce of objectivity and dollops of subjectivity although the intent is always to be other way around. A broad classification of reasons for promotion can be: seniority/loyalty, good performance and good communication along with good visibility and willingness & ability to take up new/complex challenges and execute them successfully. Now there are some whose performance are standard but are smart enough to get the right visibility through other areas, well this requires talent and it is not easy to compete with them unless you have it in you. Besides such people tend to stagnate at middle level management where the competition intensity is very high. So a good understanding of which category one is likely to fall under and looking at the positives of what went right for people in your category and what didn’t go right for you is a good start to increase your chances in the next promotion cycle.

The next time you find yourself looking at someone who is successful and asking the question “What’s he got that I ain’t got”, you are better off starting with their positives and your lack of them.

35 Lakhs down the toilet. Literally.

I was appalled to read this news. The Planning Commission of India has spent Rs 35 lakh renovating two toilets at its headquarters Yojana Bhawan – Rs. 5 lakh to install a smart card controlled entry to the loo and Rs. 30 lakh on the renovation.

In a country where the definition of the poverty line in urban areas is Rs. 32 a day, could we not find a better use for this money?