Can organizations be designed like the rain forest? What can we learn from Rain forests?

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These days, GREEN is the ‘in-thing’. Just like innovation; GO-GREEN, Eco-Friendly, etc are words that one would find in most organizational mission statements.  The irony is that just like innovation, organizations seems to be clueless on what this whole ‘GO-GREEN, Eco-Friendly’ thing really means — beyond the rhetoric.

I would say that the first step towards that could be to learn from the natural environment around us. These natural surroundings are like living universities and can teach lessons that one can’t study in all the IVY league business schools combined. We just have to observe these natural surroundings and be ready to absorb, learn and apply those principles in business.

Seemingly remote natural systems like the rainforests can be a great place for organizations to learn from.

So, what can organizations learn from rainforests?

Some 15 years ago,  Tachi Kiuchi (Member of the Board of Mitsubishi Electric Corporation), gave a keynote address to the World Future Society on July 19, 1997 around this topic that I regard as the best pieces of literature around learning from Rain Forests and what organizations can learn from rain forests.

Read it here:

Key Points that  Tachi Kiuchi makes are:

  • See & understand how a rainforest operates. How can organizations operate like the rainforests?

A rainforest is an example of a place that excels by learning to adapt to what it doesn’t have. A rainforest has almost no resources. The soil is thin. There are few nutrients. It has no productive assets. Yet rainforests are incredibly productive. They are home to millions of types of plants and animals, and more than two-thirds of all biodiversity in the world. Those plants and animals are so perfectly mixed that the system is more efficient, and more creative, than any business in the world.

  • It consumes almost nothing. Wastes are food. Design is capital.

Today’s fast-changing business environment requires that we be alert, and responsive. Agile, and creative. To do so, we must structure our company so we are a learning organization. Not top-down, but bottom-up. Not centralized, but decentralized. Not limited by rules, but motivated by objectives. Not structured like a machine– which cannot learn– but like a living system, which can.

  • Rainforests are a model of the perfect learning organization. 

 How can we begin? By operating less like a machine, and more like a living system. An Industrial Ecosystem.

  • The most important Natural capital is its design. Its relationships.

 In Japan, we have two terms to describe this: omote and uraOmote is the surface or front of an object, ura is its back or invisible side. Omote and ura . External reality and underlying reality.

When I visited the rainforest, I thought: As business people, we have been looking at the rainforest all wrong. What is valuable about the rainforest is not omote — the trees, which we can remove. What is valuable is ura — the design, the relationships, from which comes the real value of the forest. When we take trees from the forest, we ruin its design. But when we take lessons from the forest, we further its purpose. We can develop the human ecosystem into as intricate and creative a system as we find in the rainforest. We can do more with less. Grow without shrinking.

  • Differentiate. 

Be yourself, be unique. In the rainforest, conformity leads to extinction. If two organisms have the same niche, only one survives. The other either adapts, or dies. In today’s economy, the same happens. If two businesses have the same niche — make exactly the same product — only one survives. The other adapts, or dies.

So what are most companies today doing? They are trying to be the one that survives. Cutting costs. Downsizing radically. Desperately seeking the lowest cost. We think it is much smarter to differentiate. Create unique products, different from any others. Fill unique niches. Don’t kill our competitors, or be killed by them. Sidestep them instead.

Be yourself, Be. Only then — after we differentiate — is it time to reduce costs, and grow more efficient. We have learned this the hard way. We sell millions of televisions, stereos, and appliances. We cannot compete by being the lowest-cost operator. Instead, we must offer products that are different, distinctive. We must choose and fill our unique niche.

  • Be a Good Fit. 

We used to say, “Only the fittest survives”. There is only one winner. But in the rainforest, there are many winners. The same can be true in our economy. In the old, uniform, monoculture economy, only one form wins, only the most fit survives. At least until a new invader wipes him out.

In this new, diverse, rainforest economy, it is not a question of who is most fit. It is a question of where we best fit. If we fit — if we solve a social problem, fulfill a social need — we will survive and excel. If we only create problems, we will not.

That it is an eco-system and not silos. In organizations we see one department not taking t another.


Crowd-sourcing the Brand Identity itself

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Crowd sourcing has been a viable option with a philosophy of ‘a million heads are better than few’, ‘the expertise lies outside of the organization also’, ‘ time taken to design & create products can be reduced ‘

Mostly, organizations have created platforms and avenues where their customers or general public can engage with the organization and give product ideas, help in co-product creation and become part of customer-networks. Some examples of such crowd-sourcing platforms & initiatives are:

Recently, one organization pushed the envelope of crowd sourcing by soliciting ideas & concepts for it’s band identity (logo) from the public. Happiest Minds, a young IT Services start-up, opened up the contest by asking people to submit logo for it’s business. The brief was that the logo should depict the Happiest Minds philosophy, vision, & essence of Happiest People leading to Happiest Customers.

As part of the crowd sourcing contest,  nearly 1400 entries were received and out of these 150 were shortlisted and again, crowd sourcing was done to short list these 150 entries to 25 entries. The public was asked to vote for the design they felt most accurately captured the vision of Happiest Minds. These 25 entries were then evaluated by a jury and 5 were shortlisted for final round.

The logo,  created by Jemin Shingala, was selected as the winner and best reflected Happiest Mind’s business philosophy. The logo was was modified by Shristi School of Design and was unveiled on the day of the launch of the Happiest Mind’s.

No wonder, this experiment proves that in today’s socially connected world, crowd sourcing can be a viable option to get tangible & concrete output — in any possible area. The only challenge  is in being bold and open to make innovative uses of crowd sourcing.

Read the article here for more details:

Search Google for this crowd sourcing experiment:

Indian IT services organizations try out the VC Model for Innovation

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Recently there was this news article talking about the Indian IT services organizations try out the VC Model for Innovation:

I hope that this time organizations are serious about it and take it to a level beyond ‘lip-service’. While the intent may be there but I really do see challenges as the mindset is still services driven and everything gets measured by ‘# of people’ yardstick. It is very difficult for companies to break away from their successful business models and take risks. The culture which is setup to support the model becomes the nemesis for new ideas and innovation.

It is interesting to note the different paths being talked about by different organizations:

  • Infosys talking about a separate subsidiary/company itself. A model that looks good, if right set of people can be brought in to run this – not the same folks from services side. This model has worked for them couple of times before e.g. OnMobile.
  • Cognizant – internal VC route. Looks good on paper but runs the risk of going no-where in organizational bureaucracy. However, Cognizant has shown good ‘execution’  skills in past, so they may be able to pull it off
  • Wipro is creating a loose community structure of selected folks cutting across verticals to identify areas in which they can innovate. Again, a good model in theory but can requires solid ownership & drive from the very top to make it work.

Let’s see, wait & watch the results of each approach.

Innovation: Open Source concepts in Human Resource Practices within an organization

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As a huge believer, user, proponent, contributor of open source for more than 10+ years, I now firmly believe that the ‘concepts’ of open source — such as transparency, visibility, openness, user participation, emergence are equally applicable to many many more facets of life, society and organizations; and go much beyond just software products.

For example; let’s talk out these concepts of “transparency, visibility, openness, user participation” in ‘Human Resources’ function of an organization, with a focus on performance management:

  • Setting of annual/project based objectives by employees is a very key pillar of performance management in any reasonably large organization. However; we also know that this is a major pain area for most organizations. The issues & pain points range from
    • Employees not setting their annual/project based objectives in time and at times doing so only few days/weeks before the annual/project appraisal.
    • Managers/Supervisor not laying enough importance to this aspect of people development
    • The employees not knowing what to set as objectives and at times using
    • Cases where objectives have been set but employees are doing work that has no or little co-relation to what they have set as their objectives
    • The perception — true or other wise; that objectives don’t matter and has little or no bearing on the actual appraisal
    • Organization not walking the talk — Senior Managers/Supervisors not being held accountable for people development; in fact in some cases managers/supervisors getting away by not setting their own objectives
    • Others such as talent demand supply gap, etc.
  • These above issues have a multiplier effect and are a huge bottleneck for an organization that wants to build a culture of ‘meritocracy‘ and not ‘yes man ship‘. For building a meritocratic organization, the fundamental basis is rewarding employees based on quality of work done, output, results and ‘work objectives‘ plays a huge role in that.

Can open source concepts come to the rescue?

  • Can the objectives of ALL the people within the organization be made visible to everyone? What’s the harm? This can, with a single stroke, create an environment of  “transparency, visibility, openness” that can lead to the building of absolute fairness  in the system. The team will know who is accountable for what and who is pulling their weight and who is punching well below their weight.
  • What if, extrapolating this even further, even the appraisal ratings/feedback of people is made visible to everyone? People will know why someone is where (s)he is? Again, with a single stroke you just remove all the seeds of what can cause weeds to grow…

I have heard of few organizations where one/both of the above is practiced. Infact, apart from your salary, everything is public within the organization — what projects you are working on, what’s your objectives for this quarter etc etc.

I wonder why organizations don’t go down this path?

Innovation & Creativity Experts: One Eyed Kings in the Land of the Blind…

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Let me put in a disclaimer first: I am no innovation & creativity expert and firmly believe that innovation needs to be embedded in our thought process in everything we do.

However, I have been involved with and seen quite a few aspects of innovation, creativity etc from close quarters and have interacted with the so called innovation SME’s from the industry quite often.

Few days back, some of my friends were discussing about innovation & role of ‘innovation experts’ and an interesting case of  an ‘self styled, keyboard’ innovation expert came up. She was working as an innovation expert and was responsible for creating an innovation culture within the organization.  It came about that all she did was bitch about how the organization was not ready for innovation & no one listened to her & how that organizations innovation strategy was all wrong, etc.. etc. Now, think of it, she was responsible for doing all this.  If all this was already there and the organization was ready and things were rosy, then why did the organization even need her in the first place 🙂

Friends from that organization mentioned that all she did in that organization was read books, blog, attend conferences, confuse people with theories, use jargon and project herself as an innovation expert. “she was happy talking about innovation rather than helping with/demonstrating innovation” was what people told me.

Here are some of the key points that came out of an intense discussion about these so called/self styled “innovation experts”.

  • Most of the times these innovation experts have NO CLUE to what they are talking about and are far removed from reality/business context
    • The irony is that these experts try to cover this aspect in the name of innovation/creativity to be as blue sky as possible
  • Most of the experts have read a couple of books on innovation etc and then use jargon’s from these books to ‘demonstrate’ their know how as innovation experts
    • In the process these so called innovation experts have become “keyboard” or ‘armchair” experts doling out advice
  • Most of the experts are REAL experts in scanning the internet for news/articles that talk  about innovation and then these ‘keyboard’ innovation experts try and show which technique was used and how a great idea it was
    • Here they refer to books that they have read to justify their theory and techniques used
  • The above 2 (reading books & commenting on techniques used in articles) creates a self fulfilling cycle where the only work these so called ‘innovation experts’ are doing is the above 2
  • Most of these experts have not done ANY innovation in their own domain/work areas. ZILCH is mostly what you will find. All they like to do is “talk” and not “do”. Most of their talking/writing is also almost always about ‘past’ and seldom about future. At best their future talk is very ‘general’ and of very low value

It is also important to mention that there are some great “innovation students” who are not called “innovation experts” but have managed to learn and appreciate about the role of innovation/creativity in their core work area. I know of a couple of such ‘innovation students’ who are very very technically competent and in senior positions and are successfully trying to mesh innovation/creativity into their every day work and things they do.

My money on furthering the cause of innovation lies in such ‘students’ rather than the  ‘experts’… These experts are nothing but the One Eyed Kings in the Land of the Blind…

The power of early feedback

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How many times have we come across a lousy product, campaign, movie, initiative, policy etc that left us wondering — how on earth could this thing have made it so far? Did the people who conceived this or the powers to be see and understand how lousy this is? Is it that the people who conceived the solutions or the powers to be did not know that their offering was lousy? How come all the world says that it is lousy and yet it reached so far?

Most of the times it is due to the fact that ‘no early feedback’ was provided on the product, the program, the policy and by the time the owners, the powers to be realized that they were on a path to failure or got feedback they were so attached to it — personal egos, organizational dynamics etc. that they still went ahead and dumped their products, movies, solutions etc on an unsuspecting world to loath their offerings

We all hear that it is ok to fail — but it is important to ‘fail early’ and not to know of failures at the end. This is where the power of early feedback comes into play. Many organizations  — like Google etc have adopted the power of early feedback as a policy and is a cornerstone of the speed with which innovation is possible.

Their take is that if early feedback is provided the conceiver has the option to incorporate that feedback [or stop the initiative all together] as personal attachments and personal egos are less likely to play a part in the work being done, however if feedback is delayed than the owner would be at a much further stage and personal attachment/egos would come into picture and less likely that feedback would be incorporated.

So the next time we encounter some lousy solution/programs/initiatives and wonder why on earth it reached so far; we could guess where the real issue is in the whole chain 🙂

Using customer feedback for innovation

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There are numerous examples of how organizations have successfully used customer input for innovation in their business areas. Most of the time what these organizations do is listen to “unstated” needs and desires of their customer and also use comments/anguish/etc as input for innovation in business.

An shining example of such innovation is in “Mattress Industry“. Now you can think of what could be innovative in mattress? and how can an organization listen to customers unstated needs regarding mattresses and innovate?

Here is an example of what Simmons Bedding Co in US did. After fielding thousands of inquiries annually from customers wondering how they should clean their mattresses, Simmons developed the HealthSmart Bed featuring a zip off top that may be laundered or dry cleaned. Until now a mattress has become one of the few things in the home that cannot be rid of allergens, bacteria and odor. In the quest for a clean and healthy sleeping environment, consumers have used vacuums, soap, disinfectant sprays, and baking soda to rid their mattresses of stains, sweat, germs and dust mites. However, the effectiveness of such methods could never be assured.
Read more of it here.. Innovation in Mattress Industry