Igniting Innovation: A Holistic Approach–M.S. Srinivasan

[Published in VILAKSHAN, Journal of the Xavier Institute of Management, Bhubaneswar Sep 2009]


Success in the future world requires something more than mere “knowledge” or knowledge-management through information technology. Only those companies which are able to effectively harness and organise the creative genius in people will be the leaders of the future. In other words, innovation and creativity will be the primary, decisive factor that will determine the fate of companies in the future. There is at present a voluminous literature on the subject. However what is lacking is a comprehensive framework which takes into consideration the inner and outer dimensions of innovation. This article is an attempt to arrive at such a holistic approach to innovation.


The flame of innovation is ignited when the innovative consciousness of people find an enabling organisational environment. We have at present a large fund of insights and studies on innovation in modern management literature. There are also useful insights and practices in the Indian yogic and spiritual tradition which can enrich our understanding of innovation. A conceptual and practical synthesis that integrates modern management insights on innovation with Indian perspectives and practices of Indian yoga can be a useful contribution for building the innovative potential of people and organisations. This article is an attempt to arrive at such a synthesis which can be useful for executives as well as academics grappling with the problem of innovation.

Key perspectives: forms of innovation; innovative consciousness; intuition and imagination; innovative organisation; enabling systems.

 1. Forms of Innovation

Quest for the new and the better is the driving force behind innovation and this quest can be there in every activity, layer or level of the corporate life and in many forms. Let us try to understand the common forms of innovation which occur in the corporate world. This is not a mere academic exercise with no practical values. It helps in focusing the management attention and in measuring the innovative capabilities of the organization.

 There are three major types of innovation. First is the incremental innovation in improving the efficiency, productivity, and economy of an existing product, process or service. For example a better lubrication system, which reduces the amount and cost of lubricant and at the same time enhances the efficiency of the machine, is an incremental innovation. The second type of innovation is evolutionary, which builds on what is known but at the same time adds significant new value to the process or product. The compact, fuel¬ efficient and environmental-friendly Japanese cars, which invaded the American market in the eighties and recently Tata’s Nano are examples of evolutionary innovation. The third type of innovation is the “breakthrough” innovations, which lead to a radically new product or process or technology. Sony’s Walkman, invention of the microchip by Robert Noyce and Kim Philby, fuel cell based vehicles are examples of break-through innovations. Most of the innovative organisations have their own classifications, more or less similar to the one which we have described earlier.

 1.1 A Corporate Example

 Procter and Gamble (P&G), one of the most innovative companies in the world, classifies innovation into the following four categories and measures its performance in innovation interms of this four categories:

 1. Sustaining, which incremental improvements to the existing products in the form of what P&G calls as the “er” benefits:–better, easier, cheaper.

2. Commercial, are innovations in marketing, packaging and promotion, which leads to greater market-share or penetration.

3. Transformation-sustaining which brings major, order-of-magnitude changes in existing products which lead to break-through in market-share?

4. Disruptive, are innovations which represent new-to-the world business opportunities with an entirely new offering. (Brown, B and Scott, A, 2011)

 2. Nurturing the Innovative Consciousness

We have briefly discussed the major forms of innovation in the corporate world. The next step is to understand how to cultivate the innovative consciousness. In an integral perspective, every human activity has two dimension, inner state or consciousness and outer behavior, action, results. To be effective and authentic, action or behavior has to flow from within outwards, which means it has to be a spontaneous expression of an inner state of consciousness. In terms of innovation, the first major task is to build an innovative consciousness in the individual and the collectivity. There are four major factors which need management attention for building the innovative consciousness. They are:

 1. Attitudes

2. The way of thinking or thinking-process

3. Development of intuition and imagination

4. Motivation

 2.1 Attitudes:

 The first factor is attitudes or in other words cultivating the innovative attitudes which are already stated in the beginning of this article. The first attitude is to persistently look for the new, unknown, invisible, unexplored, dormant and unmanifest in everything around us and in whatever we do. The second attitude is a similar relentless quest for the better. Kito De Boer, a Mckinsy consultant expresses this mind-set forcefully:

 “To us at Mckinsy, innovation is much more than product development or R&D. Innovation goes to the heart of sustaining corporate advantage through the process of continuous change and renewal. It has far more to do with continually challenging the status-quo and pushing for corporate renewal than it has to do with creativity and ingenuity.” (De Boer, K, 2003)

 In a more integral perspective the “better” includes the qualitative dimensions like the deeper, wider, more holistic, more perfect or more true, beautiful, good, harmonious. In the corporate world, the better is pursued mostly in terms of efficiency, productivity, quality or customer service. But why should the scope of innovation be confined to these bottom line goals? Why not there be something like “value-innovation” which leads to a better quality of life for the group or for the stakeholders interms of higher values like truth, beauty and goodness. Why not ask employees to give suggestion on how to make the organisation more true, beautiful, loving and compassionate?

 2.2 Innovative Thinking

 The second factor is the thinking process. Employees of the organisation have to be taught how to think innovatively. First, they have to be made aware of the obstacles to innovative thinking like preconceived notions and the habitual, routine, conventional and traditional ways of thinking, by self-observation. Similarly they have to be trained on how to formulate the problem or goal, ask the right questions and proceed systematically to the solution or the goal. The other important factor is thinking as a team. In the emerging corporate environment where teamwork is the main mode of working, companies should not depend too heavily on the lone genius innovator. In most of the progressive and innovative companies, innovations happen more in a team than in solitary individuals. So to learn how to think in a team is an important competence for building an innovative consciousness. Let us now examine some thinking methodologies which can lead to innovation.

In general, to create an innovative culture people have to be trained to ask why and how repeatedly until the root cause of things are understood and resolved. Asking repeatedly, “why” leads to the root cause of a problem. For example in Toyota, there are manuals which describe how to ask “why” again and again and systematically until you reach the root cause. The other aspect of this innovative inquiry is not to take things for granted and question the purpose of things like for example asking following questions:

  •   What is the purpose of an activity?
  •  Whether the activity is serving the intended purpose?
  •  If yes, whether it is serving its purpose with the highest efficiency and effectiveness?
  •  If the activity is not serving its purpose, why? Can the situation be corrected? Or if the activity can be eliminated?
  •  Can the activity be redesigned to serve the purpose better or more efficiently?

 The other useful model is the one suggested by quality consultants Joseph and Susan Parks for problem-solving, which consists of four-steps

1. What is the problem? Before jumping prematurely to a solution try to understand the problem and define it in clearest possible term.

2. What is the cause of the problem? Try to understand the potential and multiple causes of the problem which requires holistic thinking that views the problem as part of deeper or larger and more systemic causes.

3. What are the potential solutions? There could be many possible solution to a problem and therefore try to figure-out the many potential solution to the problem.

4. What is the best possible solution? Create a framework for assessing the pros and cons of the many potential solutions and arriving at the best and the most effective. (Berk, J and S, 1995)

 There are intuitive methods of problem-solving which we will discuss briefly a little later. Another model of innovative thinking, more comprehensive and better suited to the emerging corporate environment, is the concept of “Design Thinking”. Tim Brown, CEO of a design firm, IDEO, describes design thinking as a human-centered and customer-oriented approach to innovation. The main facets of design thinking, as outlined by Tim Brown are as follows:

  • Place the customer at the center of the entire process
  • Identify clearly the problem, context and the environment: What needs to be done?
  • What are the constraints and opportunities? What has changed or what soon may change?
  • Observe the world around: What people think, feel and do? What are their habits? What they need and want?
  • From the beginning build and work with an interdisciplinary team made of designers, engineers, marketers, psychologists, behavioural scientists.
  • Invite and be open to diverse or even contradictory viewpoints, ideas, insights from many disciplines
  • Apply integrative thinking to organise and synthesis ideas
  • Use imaged thinking like symbols, stories and concrete objects to make the ideas living and tangible.
  • Build prototypes and test it with the users
  • Communicate the ideas internally to all the stakeholders and receive their feedback
  • Create a framework for implementation
  • Help marketing people to design the advertising and communication strategy. (Brown, T, 2008)

2.3 Development of Intuition And Imagination

 For creating an innovative and creative consciousness, we cannot rely entirely on reason and rational debate, discussion or brain-storming. Logical reasoning is not inherently innovative and creative. In our human consciousness, the truly creative faculties are intuition and imagination. In an innovative consciousness, intuition and imagination will be the leading faculties with logic and reason playing a subordinate and helpful role. So, if a company wants to create a culture which can generates sustained innovation, it must make a conscious and planned effort to develop intuition and imagination in its work-force.

Intuition is the faculty which can discern the deeper, invisible and unseen realities, forces or patterns behind the visible outer appearances. Imagination is the power which can help us to project our mind into the unknown and the unmanifest, and from the present facts into the future possibilities.

There are deeper intuitive layers of consciousness within us behind our surface mentality. According to integral psychology our human consciousness is made of three layers: surface, subliminal and spiritual. The surface self is the layer formed around our body. This surface being is very limited in its capacity for knowledge, intuition or imagination. The subliminal is the deeper and larger self within us which is more intuitive, with a much greater capacity for knowledge, feeling and action than the surface mind. The spiritual is the very source of intuition and other higher faculties beyond our rational mind. In the average human being, who lives in his surface self, these deeper and higher layers of consciousness are mostly unconscious and unmanifest. In the above average and talented person, they are a little more manifest and active, and in the genius, still more. These intuitive layers of consciousness can be made more and more conscious and active even in the average person by pursuing a systematic discipline. The most direct method, based on the principles of Indian yoga, is to still the surface mind and turn the consciousness inward, in a concentrated and receptive silence.

 For example, an intuitive alternative to the four step problem-solving method described earlier will retain the first step. But after formulating clearly the problem, the intuitive approach will proceed directly to silence the mind with an aspiration for truth and goodness, and allow the solution to emerge from the deeper layers of consciousness. As The Mother of Sri Aurobindo Ashram explains the rationale of the method:

 “To learn to be quiet and silent—when you have a problem to solve, instead of turning over in your head all the possibilities, all the consequences, all the possible things one should or should not be doing, if you remain quiet with an aspiration for goodwill, if possible a need for goodwill, then solution comes quickly. As you are silent you are able to hear it.” (The Mother, 1972)

However this intuitive approach through mental silence requires a certain minimum level of mental development. We must keep in mind that a lazy, underdeveloped mind full of inertia cannot remain silent, and if it tries to do so, it will slip into a black hole in the subconscious, where there is neither the light of reason nor intuition. So a culture of deep and creative thinking provides a good mental foundation for the development of intuition in the individual or the group.

 Here comes the importance of another method for developing intuition, which is to stretch the rational and logical mind to its utmost limits. For example modern systems theory and ecological thinking which views each thing as part of a larger whole and tries to perceive the interconnected unity of all thing, can be a very good mental discipline for preparing the rational mind to receive intuition.

 Similarly there are many methodologies for developing imagination like visualization, guided imagery, symbolic metaphors, story telling, dreams and fantasies of hope and idealism, futuristic scenario building, asking, “what if’ or “why not” questions and many others. For example, the well-known management Guru C.K Prahalad asks: why not a dry detergent which can wash without water? Similarly, Mike Lazaris, the founder of Research in Action asked, “what executive life would be like if you could receive your e-mail in a hand-held device,” which gave birth to the blackberry. (Martin, R, 2010) However, as we have indicated earlier, for the higher evolution of business, “why not” question should not be confined to process or product improvement but also for improving the quality of the corporate life in the ethical, aesthetic and spiritual realms.

 2.4 Motivation for Innovation

 How to motivate people to innovate? Monetary and non-monetary rewards like cash incentives, sharing the gains, recognition and appreciation, career progress have to be an integral part of the motivation package. However, creating a culture which leads to an intrinsic joy in innovation is a deeper source of motivation. A still higher level of motivation happens when the innovation serves a moral or social cause.

 For example at Herman Miller, CEO Brain Walker found that a joint effort with a creative partner to build a textile that could gather and store solar power for low-income communities in the developing world, has a positive and energizing motivational impact on the employees. (Einsenstat R and others, 2008)

 Similarly, as CEO of Procter and Gamble, (P&G), points out, “People will innovate for financial gain or for competitive advantage but his can be self-limiting. There needs to be an emotional component as well-a source of inspiration that motivates people.” And according to Bruce Brown, Chief Technology Officer of P&G, in his company, that inspiration lies in “a sense of purpose driven from the top down-the message that each innovation improves people’s lives.” (Brown B, 2011) Tony Schwartz, CEO of The Energy Project states, “When leaders can define a compelling mission that transcends individual’s self-interest, it is source of fuel not just for higher performance but also for thinking more creatively.” (Schwartz, 2010)

 3. Building the Innovative Organisation

 The innovative consciousness needs an enabling organizational environment to express itself in the outer life. Let us examine some of the vital factors for creating such an enabling environment.

 3.1 Creative Liberty

Creativity requires an atmosphere of liberty or freedom. Our human mind requires four kinds of freedom for its creative flowering:

 1. Freedom to think and express ideas

2. Freedom to question the status quo

3. Freedom to experiment with new ideas

4. Freedom to make mistakes or fail and learn from them.

 Amy Edmondson, in a thoughtful article in Harvard Business Review argues that to promote learning and innovation leaders must foster, “psychological safety” which means an environment where it is safe for people to express their ideas, questions and concerns freely and frankly, and also to make mistakes or fail. She gives the following examples to show what psychological safety means:

  • Ayn Ryan instituted a series of training initiatives called “Safe to Say” to let employee know that their voices were not only welcome but required for success.
  • Eli Lilly’s Chief Science Officer introduced, “failure parties” to honour intelligent experiments which failed. (Edmondson, A, 2008)

 3.2 Creative Balance

 Another important factor which needs management attention is to find the right balance between ideas which are oriented towards the fulfillment of customer or market needs and free innovation which are not related to immediate customer satisfaction. In business, creativity and innovation cannot be entirely for its own sake but has to be predominantly customer or market driven. But still, some part of the creative energy of the organisation has, to be reserved for free-floating innovations which are not tied to customer or commercial consideration. If the entire creative force of the company is oriented towards the customer or the market needs, than there is no scope for break-through innovations which the customer has not thought of or not yet in the market. Here comes the limitation of customer surveys or market research. As Robert L. Sutton points out some of these limitations in an article in Harvard Business Review:

“Companies that want to avoid getting stuck in a rut should be especially wary of opinions from customers who use their current products or services, and from the marketing and sales-people who represent their views. Michael Eisner, CEO of Disney, put it this way in an interview in the January-February 2000 issue of Harvard Business Review: ‘Most audience–or customer-research is useless.’ Just because everyone loved Titanic, he argued, doesn’t mean they want another movie about a love affair and a sinking ship. Most of the mainframe computer users that IBM surveyed in the 1970s couldn’t imagine why they would ever want a small computer on their desks. And Bob Metcalfe, the founder of 3Com, wrote in MIT’s Technology Review that the financial success of 3Com’s Etherlink, a high ¬speed way to connect computers, happened because he ignored reports from salespeople that customers were clamoring for a slight improvement in a popular product.”’ (Sutton, R, 2001)

 In a deeper and more universal perspective we may say that any organisation with sufficient resources, where knowledge and ideas are vital for its success, has to deploy a part of its cognitive energy to pursue knowledge and ideas for their own sake. Such a disinterested pursuit of knowledge releases a higher quality of mental force with a moral content which brings its own material results in the long-term. For example, the intellectual and moral force released by the disinterested pursuit of scientific truth by early pioneer of modem science like Newton and Galileo, is perhaps the deeper source of the technological achievements of our age. As Sri Aurobindo explains the principle in the context of knowledge generation, “When knowledge is pursued for its own sake, then alone are we likely to arrive at true knowledge. Afterwards we may utilise that knowledge for various ends; but if from the beginning we have only particular ends in view, then we limit our intellectual gain, limit our view of things, distort the truth because we cast it into the mould of some- particular idea or utility and ignore or deny all that conflicts with that utility or that set idea.” (Sri Aurobindo, 1972)

 What is said above applies to all forms of knowledge including corporate innovation and creativity. One way of doing it in the corporate environment is to provide sufficient freedom and time for creative people in the organisation to pursue ideas of their choice or which they love, irrespective of their practical benefit to the organisation. The management of 3M, a great innovator among companies, seems to have perceived this principle. In 3M, technical people are encouraged to devote 15% of their time and effort to pursue ideas and projects of their own choice. (Sutton, R, 2001)

 3.3 Creative Time

 There is one more factors which needs management attention for nurturing innovation: providing sufficient time for a free and relaxed thinking. Too much of speed and fast change and a constant pressure for short-term productivity is not conducive to creative thinking. People has to be given sufficient time off from their routine work to relax their body and mind and allow the deeper and more creative layers of the mind to come forward. As Tony Schwartz CEO of the Energy Project points out,

 “Creative thinking requires relatively open ended uninterrupted time, free of pressure for immediate answers and instant solutions—-the best way to insure that innovation gets attention is to schedule sacrosanct time for it, on a regular basis—-This third stage of the creative process, incubation, occurs when we step away from problem, we’re trying to solve and let our unconscious work on it.” (Schwartz, T, 2010)

 4. Enabling Systems and Structures

 Consciousness and the environment are the two most important factors in fostering innovation and generating creative ideas. But in the corporate world idea have to move quickly from the mental level to action and realization. This requires effective systems and structures for implementation.

 Quality Circles, which is an integral part of Total Quality Management (TQM), where employees are invited to offer their ideas and suggestions, is a well-known and effective system for harnessing the thinking and innovative potential of employees. But in a bigger organisation where large number of ideas are generated, there must be a screening and filtering mechanism for selecting and funding good ideas.

 According to the well-known management Guru Gary Hamel, the best way to do this is found in the Silicon Valley, where, “If an idea has merit, it will attract venture capital and talent, it doesn’t, wont.” Gary Hamel believes that Silicon Valley model can be replicated within a company by creating a “dynamic internal market for ideas, capital and talents” and gives some examples to show how it can be done. One of them is Royal Duth Shell Co. which had set up a panel for screening and funding creative ideas. Any employee of Shell who has a creative idea is invited to give a ten-minute pitch to the panel, followed by a 15 minute Q & A session. If the members agree that the idea has real potential, the employee is invited to a second round of discussion with a broader group of company experts whose knowledge or support may be important to the success of the supposed venture. Ideas that get the green light are provided with funds within eight or ten days. (Hamel, G, 1999)

 The other organizational problem in corporate innovation is to create systems for effective implementation of ideas on a large and diffused scale within the organisation. In this domain some of the systems and process evolved in Procter and Gamble, an exemplar in corporate innovation, can provide useful clues for managers. There are three organizational systems of P&G, which have a universal relevance for all companies. They are:

 1. Continuous Training for inculcating the mindset, thinking process and behavior of innovation in the consciousness of employees.

2. Sustained Mentoring through role models who become project guides and teach the teams nurturing innovative project on how to begin, proceed and progress towards successful commercialization of the idea.

3. Guiding Manuals. which provide detailed and exhaustive guidance and instructions on the principle and methodologies for nurturing innovative projects from conception and planning to execution and marketing.


In a holistic perspective, harvesting an innovative culture requires two major tasks: fostering the innovative consciousness and building the innovative organisation. Creating the innovative consciousness requires cultivating the right attitudes, thinking process, motivation and awakening the faculties of intuition and imagination. Building the innovative organisation requires an environment which fosters creative liberty balance and leisure and enabling systems and structures. Both these dimension of innovation have to be given equal attention for igniting a sustained creative flame in the organization.

Published in VILAKSHAN, Journal of the Xavier Institute of Management, Bhubaneshwar


 Berk, Joseph and Susan, (1995) Total Quality Management: Implementing Continuous Improvement, Excel Book, New Delhi, p.59

 Brown Bruce and Anthony Scott, (2011) ‘How P& G Tripled Its Innovation Success Rate,’ Harvard Business Review, June, p. 55-62

 Brown, Tim, (2008) ‘Design Thinking’ Harvard Business Review, June, p. 59-66.

 De Boer, Kitto, (1996) ‘Innovation MyopiaThe Great Leap Forward’, Innovation for Corporate Renaissance, Excel Book, New Delhi, p. 45-63

 Edmondson, Amy, (2008) ‘The Competitive Imperatives of Learning’, Harvard Business Review, July-August, p. 52-59.

Einsenstat Russell, Beer Michael, Foote Nathanier, Tobias Fredberg and Norrgen Fleming, (2008) ‘The Uncompromising Leader,’ Harvard Business Review, July-August, p. 45-51.

 Hamel, Gary, (1999) ‘Building Silicon Valley Inside,’ Harvard Business Review, Sep-Oct, p. 71-84.

 The Mother, Collected Works, (1972) Sri Aurobindo ashram, Puducherry, Vol. 9, p. 422-23

 Sri Aurobindo, Collected Works, (1972) Vol. 15, Social and Political Thought, Sri Aurobindo ashram, Puducherry, p. 98

 Sutton, Robert, (2008) ‘The Weird Rules of Creativity,’ Harvard Business Review, September, p. 3-11.

 Schwartz, Tony, (2010) ‘Six Secrets to Creating a Culture of Innovation’, HBR org, Harvard Business Review, August, p. 61-62

 Martin, R, (2008) ‘Management by Imagination’, Harvard Business Review, January, p. 64-65


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