We would have read the story of ‘The conditioned elephant’ where a fully grown up elephant is tied using a small rope but it never tries to break free as it was conditioned as a kid that it cannot break a rope. We humans are also trapped with those constraints that we learned to become helpless. I have some stories during my journey.

When I started to program, access to computers were very limited. I have to write my program in paper, verify it a few times, get it reviewed on paper before getting system time and trying how mine works. Even my first few job interviews, I wrote the programs on paper and my interviewer went through the input and output manually before pursuing my candidature to solve tougher problems using a computer.

What this meant was I learnt the language fundamentals well, I understood many gotchas on the syntax and often I can write 100s of lines without syntax/compilation errors, without referring to any manuals or help articles. My behaviour continued even when I had my own system full time along with internet access. I spent a lot of time understanding in detail before I would claim myself proficient in a specific language or a tool and also refused to use IDE.

Barring a few occasional WOWs, I was slowly slipping into struggle like “The boiling frog“; observed in an experiment that a very gradual raise in temperature can kill a frog without it realising that it is being boiled. My years of conditioning with poor hardware and no internet meant I had to get a fair degree expertise before I could code professionally. While it is a good thing that something forces you to master a topic, the bad thing about this is I learnt to have a delayed feedback about trying new things out. When it came to experiment I used to lag behind as I was more inclined to deep dive instead of fail fast.

Every time someone whom I know coaxes me into changing my ways of working, I was held back by IT policy of “not upgrading the machines until they fail”. For a few years my machines at work never supported anything beyond a simple text editor which reinforced my older ways of working. It was only after an upgrade (I bought my own laptop), I realised the joy of programming in an IDE. For the first time TDD was a breeze and I fell in love with that method but not before wasting a few years in an outdated style.

Every few years information, hardware, connectivity, software is becoming more accessible. It is churning up faster than we can sense and adapt to the new landscape around us. We are often caught up like boiling frogs and stick to our trusted and tried methods at work until a jolt comes externally. New year beginning is always a good time to identify what constraints are we victim to and do they really exist? Every year I keep finding things that are outdated in my style of working and upgrade them. It is not just limited to workplace, it is in every aspect of life. Try finding out, what constraints are holding us back and do they exist?

I have observed organisations which had innovation labs and accelerators tend to not be successful in innovation compared to places where it is baked into the working style and leaders who set ambitious targets. The biggest reason for failure is having a small group of people concentrate on innovation and have delivery managers who concentrate on efficiency to oversee those programs. Despite being not so productive many organisations run this theatre in the hopes of making it big in some areas.

Everyone will understand that creativity cannot be planned and executed but that is how it is approved in many places. Here are a few important things to keep in mind if innovation has to take off from run of the mill work.

Boredom

People have to be bored to find something else to work and land up on exciting things. Idle mind is a devil’s workshop but that workshop can be put to use for the right outcomes. If people are bored, it means that there was never much work to do which is completely against the efficiency focus of most managers, Mind has to wander to stumble on things that are not obvious. Emptiness is the source of creativity.

All rounders and diversity

The more diversity in the mix of people and experience, the better is the ability to connect various unrelated things into something material. Doctors in the rescue operations may come up with better UX for field devices than a great UX designer who specialises in web design. Quorum sensing and an open communication plan including finance will enable people to see a lot and do mix and match.

No labs approach

The approach of setting up a lab and assigning a person responsible is cool but it is also giving out the signal that ideas will come only from a few people not everyone else. The moment any person who has an idea has to go and explain to another person, get an approval and try it out – it dies. For a lot of people an idea will die if they try to prematurely put it into words and convince another person before letting it mature in their head or try out random experiments to grow it. There has to be an eco system to be able to try new things and measure without too many approval dances to do.

Grit

A company improving their innovation culture cannot see it immediately in their quarterly results. It is a slow burn solution which will take its sweet time to mature and give results just like growing a fruit orchard. We will get indications of it growing but bearing fruits is going to take time and energy. If you wanted it yesterday, better stick with efficiency gains and let someone else do it.

Listening to the people in the trench

Google’s Eric Schmidt had this approach of “Listen to lab coats not the suits”. The greatest point here is, it is coming from a person wearing a suit. His work on How google works throws some light on their approach to innovation. One person higher above taking decisions without consulting people from the trenches is definitely going to stick to tried and tested methods and will not innovate.

There is more to it, but I feel many of the companies running innovation labs have to take long path of changing the culture if any sustainable change has to take place in innovation.

One of the professions that requires the most agility is an author who writes a series. Unlike novels and movies which are published in one go, series are done in a constant interval over a period of time and you can learn from the audience pulse. One such writer is Kalki Krishnamurthy, who started writing historical fiction called Ponniyin Selvan in the 1950s. The story is about the younger days of Raja Raja Chola, one of the greatest emperors of his time and his path to the throne.

As the story is about a great emperor, the author decides to give him an entrance after the other characters are introduced in the plot. For the sake of weaving the plot he introduces another small time prince Vanthiyathevan who has only one line written about him in the entire chola history. His idea was to make the character disappear once the all the main characters and the protagonist are introduced. Kalki’s writing is magic, when I read the 1st part of the 5 part novel I had a compelling urge to go and visit the places mentioned in the book. Such was his vivid description that you can sense a movie running in your mind.

His magical gift in writing worked against him, people fell in love with Vanthiyathevan’s character and it had a big fan following. A lot of people related themselves to the commoner looking Vanthiyathevan than the emperor. At one point as per his plans the author takes him out of the story and starts concentrating on the main plot. People were not happy and the author received a lot of letters from his readers asking to reinstate the role. Reluctantly he reinstates the role and to his surprise people consider and celebrate him as the hero of the novel than the intended person who was an emperor.

The novel reached a great status in modern literature and is considered as one of the most important literary works. Many people read it, admired it and passed on the interest to future generations and the legacy carried on. Had the author not listened to the audience and went about his way of writing, it may have ended up being a mere documentary fiction.

Isn’t this true for any business, continuously checking what the market wants and keep altering their course even if it is against what a business owner or product owner has envisioned? How many leaders will have the will in themselves to kill their protagonist and go for the one whom the market likes? I feel the leaders want to do it, but it is the ineffective feedback mechanism from both inside and outside is what makes them stick to the plans. Listen and act, have an easy learning horizon, see lucky accidents happening.