Are Indians who are based in the country weak at innovation, especially new product development?

 by Prof. Apurv Nagpal

Whether the question raised in the title is true or not, the perception that the answer is 'yes' definitely exists. When asked in the opening session whether they thought they could innovate, only about 5% of the students raised their hands; the rest believing that 'they were not creative enough'.

'Innovation, Live!' or INL aims to address this perception and with a practical, hands-on approach to learning, seeks to instill the belief amongst all students that they can, indeed, innovate. Gratifyingly, when asked the same question in the final session, nearly 100% of the students in every batch over the last six years have raised their hands.

INL partners with a different corporate every year and, picking up a real innovation need the corporate is facing, poses that as a challenge to the students. This is done in the opening session. The students then work in groups towards developing solutions, which they present to the corporate in the final two sessions. Further, the students also get their ideas researched, both qualitatively and quantitatively (paid for by the corporate), and the results are included in their final presentations. The attempt is to try different industries and categories. Past partners have included P&G, Nivea, Star TV, Coty and Reckitt Benckiser.

Also, in keeping with the need-state of the students, as INL is offered in the final term, just a month before placement, the course involves no exams, quizzes, case material or compulsory external reading. Mandatory homework is also kept at a minimum, though in reality students do put in a number of hours addressing the innovation challenge. The focus is on intensive in-class learning and doing (developing solutions, cross-examining them within and amongst the groups). The use of mobiles or laptops inside the class is strongly discouraged.

Some aspects of the course, that help define its ethos, are listed below.

  1. The course evolves every year, thanks to a constant stream of feedback from the students. While a lot of the comments are informal, the video diary that the students are required to do at the end of the course, helps capture a number of their thoughts and emotions about the course, while also bringing out their creativity. Beautiful montages of campus, group work, clips from movies like 1984 and (facepalm) DDLJ, have featured in some of the memorable ones.

  2. One way that has helped ensure the students arrive on or before time for the class (am assured by students and faculty that this is a rare occurrence) is by awarding points on a group, not individual, basis for punctuality. If the entire group is present at the beginning of the class, they get the point, but if even one member is absent, the entire group doesn't get it. This little innovation has also helped in group bonding as some groups make it a point to meet before the class for coffee to ensure they all arrive on time.

  3. A couple of points about making the students work in groups. The students are encouraged to form groups which are as diverse as possible -- people they haven't worked with so far, gender diversity, differences in educational background and ethnicity, etc. Most students heed that advice but some don't, sticking to people from their college or home state. What's interesting is that, consistently, almost without fail, the more diverse groups do better, in terms of the breadth and scope of the ideas they generate.

  4. Also, one of the obvious advantages of group-work is the inter-group competitiveness that occurs, with the ideas developed by each group kept a secret from the others. However, at a certain point the ideas are revealed, the groups vote for each other's ideas (and are amazingly honest with their appreciation) and later, in a structured session in the classroom and informal ones outside, help build and frame the other group's ideas in a better way.

  5. I consciously make myself accessible to the students outside of the classroom, spending almost the entire month of January on campus. Students will either meet for an informal catch-up at my designated desk in CT or invite me to some of the multiple meetings they hold outside the class, especially if they want to bounce some ideas or the way the idea is framed (usually occurs in a frenzy before the deadline for the market research). The latest time such a session has begun is 2 a.m.

  6. Earlier we had a lot of classes focused on broader innovation learning. For example, the types of market research or the kinds of organizational structures that are more amenable to innovation. However, over time, based on feedback and on observing the myriad lessons arising from just tackling the brief, we've now focused the sessions more and more on solving the innovation challenge itself.

  7. Prof Arvind Sahay, for example, takes a couple of sessions on neuroscience, explaining the science behind how the brain works, ideation, and how to foster better innovation habits. Now, this session is followed up immediately with a brain-storm session based on the principles learnt. In one memorable session, which he conducted at LKP (based on a student's request), talking about grass led to a flurry of new ideas on that year's innovation challenge on female depilation.

  8. The market research portion - conducting focus groups on campus, so that the students can observe them while researching their ideas quantitatively online, all to be done in record time so that the results can be included in the final presentation or the ideas modified - inevitably gives rise to many issues behind the scenes. Apart from the cost, the time investment and effort that go into it are considerable. In one year, the results arrived the morning of the class. In another year, there were numerous mistakes and resolving one error led to further errors. However, what's made me keep this vital component as part of the course, despite such incidents, is the tremendous lessons the students learn from observing and receiving the results. As they watch consumers trash, in two seconds, ideas that the students (in their naive arrogance) believed were brilliant. Or observe how the technical jargon, which all students seem to love, is mercilessly dissected and tossed aside by savvy housewives. On another note, in most other courses, it's the professor who evaluates the students / their ideas, which in turn leads to certain dynamics. Here, there are multiple moments of truth. Along with the Prof, the students and the corporate partner get to evaluate the ideas, which in addition to the crucial component of Vox Populi (the research), helps keep the learning clean, pure, and at another level, even ruthless.

  9. Finally, last year, along with the PGP course, INL was offered to PGPX students, thanks to Prof. Arindam Banerjee. Both groups worked on the same challenge and only came together for the final presentation, leading to a healthy competition between the two vastly different student bodies. Lots of observations on how the students operated differently, comparisons between the two, but that's probably another topic of discussion...

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