November 22, 2011

News & Opinion: Truisms collide in the story of Nanovation

By: 800-CEO-READ @ 6:58 PM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

It’s often been told to entrepreneurs and potential innovators: If you want to create something of value and build a financially successful enterprise, find a problem and solve it. A second truism concerning innovation is the workaround, or “incomplete or partial solution to a particular job to be done.” (The Innovator’s DNA by Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen and Clayton M. Christensen.) When one observes a workaround, the authors of The Innovator’s DNA say pay attention because it might provide inspiration to create entirely new products. Both those truisms of innovation collided one afternoon in 2002 during monsoons. Ratan Tata, the chairman of the Tata Group, an industrial giant in India that makes automobiles among many other things, was being driven through the manic Indian streets in the driving (no pun intended) rain. Before the trip begins, Tata cautions his driver to drive carefully and expect the unexpected. Soon after, Tata notices a family of four on a scooter passing his car, a common site in India. He again admonishes his driver to slow down and no sooner finishes his warning than the driver of the scooter loses traction and then control, sending the scooter and family tumbling in all directions in front of him. Tata’s driver was able to stop, keeping the family safe but soaked and shaken up. Tata says his epiphany began as he saw the family begin to pass: There had to be a safer way for families of limited means to travel in an increasingly mobile India. Tata began sketching, thinking and, in the end, decided that enough was enough and that the masses in India needed and deserved a “people’s car” and Tata was the company to provide it. He tasked a team of more than 500 engineers to design, develop and mass construct the Tata Nano. In Nanovation: How a Little Car Can Teach The World to Think Big & Act Bold, authors Kevin & Jackie Freiberg and Dain Dunston, tell not only the story of how the Nano was developed, but how the project succeeded despite a spate of setbacks, as one might expect. The tome, topping 500 pages, is a gold mine of thinking on innovation, some of it recognizable, but much of it innovative itself. One of the highlights of the book is its sidebars called Nanobites, containing bursts of insight culled from the Nano story. An example:
  • Nanovation is often born from a desire to make the world better.
  • Nanovation begins with clearly defining the problem.
  • Nanovators see problems as invitations.
  • Nanovation is action-oriented. If you see a problem, act on it.
  • Nanovators frequently ask, “What if?”
The bursts are often followed by questions designed to get the reader to think and apply the Nanobites that preceded them. The questions that followed the Nanobites above:
  • How many times have you looked at a situation in your country or company and thought, Someone should do something about this?
  • What if you were that someone? Or what if you supported someone who shared your vision and was in a position to make a difference?
  • And forget changing the world for a moment: How about in your job? Is there some problem in your workplace or in your industry that you think “someone” ought to address?
  • What would it take for you to lead the change?
In all, the book uses a layman’s language to describe a plethora of useful innovation ideas, many of which will inspire and instruct you. Along the way, you get to read the story of the creation of a safe, low-polluting car that cost about $2,100 American when introduced. The most exciting pages are dedicated to the ripple effects the car will have around the world. For example, global parts vendors were charged with finding ways to lower the costs of their parts by 80% for the Nano. The innovation that those vendors used to accomplish that will be transferred to other manufacturers, lowering the price of cars for buyers in other countries.