A restaurant manager gets bored of restaurant work and decides to be a facilities manager for a company in a small town in Japan, leaving a well known business and the country to newer experiences. The Japanese company always hosts a banquet for its executives on every Friday. Tempura is one of the delicacies ordered in large numbers along with other Japanese delicacies. The majority of the food is prepared before in the kitchen and served on the table except tempura and a few other dishes which is prepared in a live counter and left to self serve.

The manager observes at the end of the banquet that there is a shrimp tempura left, instinctively thinks about the cost because of recent shrimp shortages and how much do they have to pay for high quality ones. So the manager orders lesser number of tempuras to be prepared for the next dinner. Surprisingly one tempura remains and the cycle continues until tempura is removed from the menu.

Photo by Jonathan Borba on Pexels.com

This goes on for a few months with the other live counter dishes until the live counter itself is removed because of non usage. The cost savings when seen from an individual’s point of view was big. The proud feeling of being able to prove one’s ability to bring in efficiency was giving a high. At the end of the quarter, the facilities manager gets a notice period from the boss to leave the position as a lot of executives have complained about missing the live counter and poor quality of banquet experience.

No one told the manager anything, but what was progressing as a great cost savings plan ended up costing the job. Why did it happen that way? In the group of people who dined, they have a common agreement that it is rude to take the last piece in a buffet, how hungry you are or how tasty it is, it does not matter. For an outsider it looks like wastage, but for the diners it was part of their communication.

Another angle to this is, feedback does not come directly in many cultures. It will often be hidden or wrapped in euphemisms. In this story, one of the diners would have expressed that they need more tempuras but never picked the one on the plate thereby confusing an outsider with mixed messages. Cross cultural work which is a given for knowledge workers nowadays is full of these problems. One book that is helping me is ‘The Culture Map’. I keep rereading a few chapters before getting exposed to a new culture so that I can be well prepared to understand the style of working. It is not foolproof, but it helps you to be better prepared.

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.