Where is innovation bred? Is it in the hip halls of tech companies with Wii gaming systems, employee lounges, company cafeterias and on-site massage services? In the conference rooms of ad agencies with expensive designer furniture, the latest iMacs and free lattes for everyone? On an island retreat where a successful entrepreneur “unplugs” to think about business while sipping mai tais at a luxury hotel?
Much writing on creativity and innovation in a business setting has focused on the need to get out of the “box.” Instead of sitting at a cubicle or in gathering in a bland conference room, businesspeople are supposed to get into comfortable surroundings, “play with toys” to rekindle their childhood energy, or get out of the business setting altogether to an inspiring locale.
All too often, this translates to the idea that you need to have the latest in gadgetry, creature comforts or mobile technology to be innovative. But what if innovation doesn’t come from electronic whiteboards and Aeron chairs? What if it comes from having… absolutely nothing?
INSEAD Knowledge recently took a look at the rising star of the business world, India, and spoke to Indian business leader Harpal Singh about the country’s future. Singh, Chairman Emeritus of one of India’s biggest health care companies, has been in private industry there for 30 years and believes Indians are profiting from their innate talent for flexibility and innovation.
What inspires their innovation? “Something keeps going wrong. If it isn’t the weather, it’s some calamity, but we always tend to find solutions and get on with it,” Sing told INSEAD. “If the electricity shuts down in many parts of the Western world, everybody sort of collapses; in India, we take that in our stride.”
Indians also know how to make the most of what they have by being flexible in their thinking. As an example, Singh recalls how IBM was asked to leave India in 1978. At the time, many Indian businesses were using an IBM mainframe system called the 1401. “When IBM came back to India many years later, they couldn’t even imagine the kind of use that we Indians had put the 1401 to,” he told INSEAD. “They said this was never part of the design parameter. We Indians are great extractors of value.”
Singh’s comments got me thinking. For the past few years, small businesses have been facing adversity and scarcity. Instead of grumbling and complaining, have you been treating these as challenges that can help you innovate? We all know the tales of lean startup companies that are forced to make do with what they have—and create great things as a result. Perhaps the secret to innovation is thinking more like a startup… or an Indian business owner.