A Fundamatics issue devoted to innovation cannot be complete without the industry perspective, and who better to provide it than Mr. Jamshyd Godrej, CMD, Godrej and Boyce. Stumblebee caught up with Mr. Godrej on the sidelines of a CII Meeting on Manufacturing that was being chaired by him.
Stumblebee: Thank you, Mr. Godrej, for sparing time to talk to Fundamatics despite your busy schedule today. The focus of this particular conversation is Innovation. Since we have just come out of a meeting on Manufacturing, in that context or in general, where do you think India stands in terms of Innovation? We seem to have this great ability to do jugaad which is like the poor man’s innovation. But when it comes to innovations which make a big difference to the economy, we don’t see many examples. In general where do you think India stands in terms of innovation? We would like you to share your thoughts.
The word jugaad somehow or the other demeans innovation…This jugaad and chalta hai, its good to talk about it and I know people have written books about it, but that’s not the answer at all.
Godrej: Yes, well, I entirely agree with you on that. The word jugaad somehow or the other demeans innovation. If you only look at quick and dirty solutions then you are not looking at solutions which are long lasting and make a huge difference to people’s lives. In India, the mind is very fertile, people have a lot of ideas, which is a very good thing. We need to encourage that. However, what seems to be lacking is the ability to convert those ideas into something concrete, whether it’s a product or a service. That requires discipline, because you need to take this funnel of ideas and really test each one of them through various screens, through various interactions to understand what is it that consumers or users really believe or think about a certain way of doing things. Where we have been quite weak is in this business of how to relate to consumers and in understanding what the latent needs of consumers are. It is very rare that you would get a consumer to really tell you what it is they want and are willing to buy. Bill Gates has talked about this issue many times. So has Steve Jobs, who has always said that had he gone and asked a consumer if she would like such a phone, he would probably not have got a positive reply. So, the point is, there’s always that latent need and how do you capture that and convert that. CII has been doing a very innovative program with Prof. Shoji Shiba, he is going to launch his book soon in Delhi and Mumbai. His point is that if you take a fish bowl, and if you want to know how the fish is thinking and feeling, you need to jump into the fish bowl. If you merely observe it from the outside, all you will see is him swimming around. If you cannot immerse yourself in the issue you will never find the innovative answer to the issue or the problem.
I also believe that innovation involves several dimensions. It’s not just about the product idea and how to execute it but also about how to present it, how to attach a certain kind of value to it. People in India are more value driven than price driven; cheap is not everything.
Stumblebee: Do you think there is reluctance on our part?
Godrej: Yes, this is the thing. Jumping into the fish bowl requires a leap of faith which seems to be missing to a very large extent. I think it’s partly to do with history. In the past, all innovations and products have come from abroad. We were always told ‘you are no good at it’, ‘people only want things from abroad’, ‘if it is imported it will sell’. There is a mindset issue here which has to be changed. Another reason might be the absence of systematic and critical ways of looking at things through the right lenses and by implementing proper methods. This also seems to be missing today.
Innovation is not just a dream; it has to be about ideas that have to be translated through a very hard and rigorous type of exercise in order to create and deliver the right type of product or service that the customer wants.
Stumblebee: So are you saying that the weak kind of scientific temper we seem to exhibit has hindered our ability to compete and innovate?
Godrej: Well, no! I would say it’s more of a lack in thoroughness – we’re just not thorough enough in going through that rigorous process of making sure that at every stage you look at all issues, options and try to understand not only what the product can do but also what are the competing types of systems. They may not be the same thing. They may be something else. You can shave using an electric shaver or using a blade. They are two different things, and you can’t design an electric shaver by looking at a blade. The thing here is the thoroughness and the process…
I think one key issue is that, from day one, when a student joins I.I.T., he/she needs to start working with the industry on a project…You are not, then, in a temple. You are in an atmosphere of constant interchange where they get to learn about the industry and the industry gets to learn about them.
Stumblebee: Not the chalta hai attitude…
Godrej: This jugaad and chalta hai, it is good to talk about it and I know that people have written books about it, but that’s not the answer at all. The answer really is in going through this whole process and understanding what is it that the consumers will really buy. Look at other industries and see how things have worked or not worked. If you look at the German method of teaching, right from the school, they put a lot of emphasis on doing things with your own hands, in the sense that you must feel pride in working with your hands. You may not become the greatest scientist in the world, but you know how to do welding or sawing or cutting. That personal experience of doing things is very important. We don’t give enough recognition and honour to people working with their hands. The personal experience of doing things is very valuable and that is something that needs to change in our culture.
Stumblebee: I was just reading the story of Bell Labs (The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation)and what I found was that almost everyone who was recruited there, and who went on to make a name for themselves, were actually people from small towns who had worked with their hands. Of course, they had PhDs later on.
Godrej: So it’s that grounding and experience that makes a huge difference in your outlook. You may be the most brilliant scientist but if you cannot fix a small thing in your house… Some of it is cultural, some of it is historical and some of it has to do with the feeling that we are not really capable of doing it. I think the other thing which has reinforced this feeling is that in the recent past several companies have come up with very innovative ideas which have not been commercially successful. I also believe that innovation involves several dimensions; it’s not just about the product idea and how to execute it but also about how to present it, how to attach a certain kind of value to it. People in India are more value driven than price driven; cheap is not everything, it is the kind of value a product offers that matters most. The mindset of the consumer is that she is looking for value not cheap. The difference between value and cheap has not come through. When you think of a product or service, it may be the most innovative and fantastic thing that you could come up with but if you can’t present it in the right way and people don’t see the value in it …. even in Apple products.. they are the most expensive yet people line up for them for days.. why? People are looking for value. It is interesting that in many sectors in India today people are going for the top end. There is a huge market at the bottom of the pyramid, but they also want value not just cheap. For example, Crompton developed a fan for the rural market, they made it smaller, lighter and presented it as a rural fan. The rural fellows told them that we see all your ads on TV about this big fan which is sold in cities, we want that not this. So innovation has to do with many things, not just the product idea, execution, but also how you present it. At the end of the day you want it to be commercially successful, because that is what drives innovation. This is the reason why few companies in India have come up with innovative ideas that have been commercially successful.
Stumblebee: What in your mind comes out as a good example of innovation that has originated in India?
Godrej: Many start ups in India have copied a concept. Take Flipkart, for example. They have copied Amazon but they are doing it their way. They understand the many constraints that exist and they have tried to address those constraints within their business model. I think copying can be legitimate as long as you copy the concept and idea but execute it in a way that is required for you to be successful. People have forever copied ideas, a car looks like a car with four wheels and steering and clutch, whether it is a Maruti 800 or a Mercedes, but they feel different.
With start-ups you will have failure, but we do not know how to accept failure, to reward failure – actually saying you did a great job by putting this there even though it did not succeed. This is another cultural thing, this also has to change.
Stumblebee: Your company has been employing IIT B graduates and interacting with IIT B in many ways. Would you like to share some of your experiences?
Godrej: Actually, we have tried over the years to work closely with IIT It’s five minutes away so no one can say it is far away so we can’t deal with them. But, I think, until recently, the idea that students and professors should embed themselves with industry and have a deeper exchange and understanding has not been appreciated. In the past, they were happy to sit there and pontificate and say that ‘if you want some advice, from me come to me; but I have no responsibility for what advice I give.’- That’s changing. There is no doubt about it; also, professors are being incentivized to work with industry. And industry is realizing that we are now in a competitive situation, we need to work closely with universities, because that’s where knowledge is and you can learn a lot about various things, and so I think that is changing. In the past we have tried to employ as many people as we can from IIT, but you know what, they always end up going into marketing or accounting, that also has to change.
Stumblebee: This is a concern that we in academia also have, how do you think universities can address this problem?
Godrej: I think one key issue is that from day one, when a student joins IIT, he/she needs to start working with the industry on a project. Every semester, something needs to be done where they start working with industry. You are not then in a temple. You are in an atmosphere of constant interchange where they get to learn about the industry and the industry gets to learn about them. I think this concept of working with the industry from day one is really critical to helping students understand and appreciate the challenges in industry. Very often they have not appreciated the challenge, in the past it was always about who pays the best. You would get more students to look at industry seriously if they started working with industry early on. You could give them a semester off to work with industry.
Stumblebee: As academics we feel this is certainly something we should do, but I don’t think we have enough buy-in from industry, with exceptions.
Godrej: It works both ways. We should meet more often.
I think we should also find things to do where the industry comes to the campus and the professors are involved, a lot more interaction is possible at every level.
Stumblebee: One of the things that IIT B is going to implement is the idea of a tech park where industry will get space to do R&D, provided they are engaged with IIT to a certain extent.
Godrej: All these types of ideas should be implemented and experimented with, to find the right solutions. I think the industry and university have their own set of phobias which have to be overcome in order for the two worlds to come together and collaborate. We have got to find ways to bring them together. In the U.S.A., professors do go and work in the industry for a few years and then go back to teaching. This kind of movement and interaction happens a lot. Based on this, we should develop a similar scheme.
Stumblebee: I agree with you! Very few of our professors take their sabbaticals in the industry.
Godrej: We should develop some ideas that would encourage professors to come and work with us for a short time period and, similarly, executives should be encouraged to teach at educational institutions.
Stumblebee: At IIT B we have a fairly transparent process. For example, we have some kind of provision for people from the industry to come in and spend some time at IIT. But the only problem lies with the compensation we have to offer.
Godrej: The industry must put them on deputation, they can pay. I don’t think we can expect IIT to pay anything to the industry. It has to be worked out; start in a small way and it will happen.
Stumblebee: In fact our alumni have started a business forum which is going to be launched soon. Maybe we can present this challenge to them and see how we can take this forward.
Godrej: We’ll be very happy to participate and work together; I feel that if the industry doesn’t take this right step forward, they will ultimately hurt themselves. Constant interaction and interchange has to happen if we want to come up with solutions and innovative ideas.
Stumblebee: There has to be a win-win situation otherwise it will not work.
Godrej: Absolutely! Both sides have a lot to gain from continuous interaction.
Stumblebee: Thank you Mr. Godrej for talking to us and providing valuable insights on innovation and how we can make a success of it.