Deepmala 20 – Rewarding the Risk Takers

Knowledge without innovation is of no value. It is through the process of innovation alone that knowledge is converted into wealth and social good, and this process takes place from firm to farm. When one looks at India today, one feels that centuries of subjugation has perhaps undermined our capacity for innovation and creativity. We cannot anymore allow the ‘I’ in India to stand for imitation and inhibition, it must stand for innovation. Innovators are those who do not know that it cannot be done. Innovators are those who see what everyone else sees, but think of what no one else thinks. Innovators refuse status quo, they convert inspirations into solutions and ideas into products. Building such innovators will require an all-pervasive attitudinal change towards life and work – a shift from a culture of drift to a culture of dynamism, from a culture of idle prattle to a culture of thought and work, from diffidence to confidence, from despair to hope. Revival of Indian creativity and the innovative spirit needs to be made into a national movement today, in the same spirit and on the same scale as marked our freedom struggle.

Risk taking must become a part of the innovation policy of firms. Innovative institutions have no place for those who preserve the systems in a pre-fabricated and unaltered way. A friend of mine, who is a CEO of a company from abroad, once said ‘we do not shoot people, who make mistakes. We shoot people who do not take risks. What do you do?’ I said, ‘In India, we shoot people, who take risks!

Just as scientists and technologists are risk averse so are in the institutional systems. One must seriously look at the scope of innovation in government institutions and laboratories, which are risk averse. In fact, it is more often than not that such institutions are run by rules and regulations than by objectives. The system of S&T audit in our laboratories needs an urgent relook. One must understand that manufacturing and S&T are two different endeavours, culturally and operationally. In manufacturing, we look for zero defects and no failures, whereas in science, there is a fundamental right to fail.

I remember after taking over CSIR, I started what was called as the ‘New Idea Fund’. What was my motivation? In science, only two people are remembered, those who say the first word or those who say the last word. In Indian science, we have not done it often enough. Why? Because we have not taken risks and learned to dare, to stretch, to exceed the limits of the possible and that of the logical. My motivation was to challenge the CSIR. I invited the entire chain of laboratories to submit ideas, which had explosive creativity, and where the chance of success may be even one in thousand. During the last 4 years we have received over 300 new ideas but we have funded only 6 of them; we are so tough on our criteria on what constitutes explosive creativity. This initiative has spurred high level innovation in CSIR and even individual laboratories are setting up such funds now. However, when I first introduced this fund, I remember a well meaning friend mentioning to me that this is going to be an excellent fodder for audit, because by definition you are supporting failure rather than success!

I must say that there is a fundamental cultural change that is required in supporting risk takers, be they social workers, journalists, industrialists or scientists. Then only can be build an innovative India of our dreams.