Imagine trying to manoeuvre a Boeing 747 aircraft – then compare that to the nimble handling of a sleek two-wheel motorbike. It’s a perfect metaphor for the tougher challenges faced by larger, more established companies in trying to stay agile and innovative. Start-ups are often fearless, with nothing to lose, measured by how quickly they gain traction and disrupt a market and not on quarterly revenue and profits. Size means scale but the legacy processes of mature organisations built in to drive efficiency, can often make it difficult to promote a culture of innovation.
This is a challenge we face at Tata Communications. We’re now a large company, with a huge global footprint, but one that wants to keep that sense of nimble energy you get in a start-up. With that in mind we created a programme to boost entrepreneurship and innovation. Our Shape The Future (STF) initiative focuses on structured learning and development to help our people think like entrepreneurs. Our teams learn to think creatively and innovatively, to write a solid business case, to develop discussions, to make a pitch for funding for their most exciting ideas, and to leverage external platforms and expertise.
The ideas that hit home with our leadership team are funded through an incubation program and play a significant role in the continued growth of Tata Communications. However, the approach and the culture that drives the STF programme is equally important and as we embed this way of thinking in the business we rely on seven gears.
Gear 1: Regular Servicing & Timely Oil Change
At Tata Communications we have been fortunate, we have agility and intellectual curiosity built into our DNA , but even then we don’t expect most employees to be able to switch naturally from an operational process-oriented approach to one that’s more unconventional. What we’ve found helpful is to build an oil change and servicing element into the creative process. We do this through training sessions for employees with institutions like Singularity University – a university exclusively focused on the study of exponential technologies or technologies that can change a billion lives in less than a decade.
Gear 2: Revving up the Engine
The STF program is designed to create excitement and cultural change at every level of the organisation. So we put our money where our mouth is and put aside funding for the best ideas to come out of the initiative. We shortlisted five ideas from the hundreds received – ranging from new or refined services, product innovations and new markets. Those five teams were given support, training and market exposure to help them take their ideas further. This included spending an “Immersion” week in Silicon Valley where they were further inspired by entrepreneurs, organisations & VCs –and treated to an inspirational keynote by Guy Kawasaki, as well as a visit and session with LinkedIn, Box, Stanford University, VC firm Andreessen Horowitz, and Startup Incubator – NestGSV among others.
Gear 3: Leveraging Your Unfair Advantages to Gain Speed
It’s important to make full use of your core strengths and market advantages to support such a major initiative. Tata Communications is part of the $100bn salt to software multinational conglomerate Tata group, which has over 100 operating companies, operations spanning 80+ countries and 6 continents, and an overall employee base of about 545,000. It’s an exceptional resource of people from diverse sectors and industries with a wide variety of viewpoints and few groups globally can match it. Tata Innoverse – the group’s innovation and crowd-sourcing platform where employees can network, collaborate, share, remix, predict and implement innovative ideas swiftly – provides Tata Communications with the ability to generate ideas and seek solutions like no other.
Open Innovation framework
Gear 4: Keeping an Eye on the Traffic
While it’s vital to drive your employees towards innovation, it is equally important to tap into the creative brilliance outside your organisation through ‘open innovation’. Our STF “Future of Collaboration” Hackathon in July 2013 (held simultaneously in Redwood city, CA and Bangalore, India) and DataHack’14 in July 2014 (held simultaneously in Redwood city, CA and London, UK) were not an attempt at PR but an essential strategy to drive the innovation engine. These STF Hackathons also helped us understand the importance of leveraging diversity internally and externally.
Gear 5: Being Willing to Take a Scenic Detour
There’s no need to restrict innovative solutions to your own products and services. We have learnt that innovation can be built together with, and for, your stakeholders – customers, vendors and partners alike. For instance, we have introduced the STF F1 Connectivity Innovation prize to come up with new ideas for one of our most prestigious customers – Formula 1® Management. In the first stage of the competition, entrants need to demonstrate insightful information that can be derived from Formula 1® management’s live data feeds, and suggest how this could be visually packaged to add suspense and excitement to the audience experience.
Gear 6: Investing In the Engine not the Paintwork
You don’t need a fancy building and a lot of sunk costs to foster innovation and a start-up culture. It is smarter to partner with program incubators such as NestGSV, who have experience in creating innovation centres. This helps optimise investment by minimising unrecoverable costs and maximising the funds available for core development.
Gear 7: Being Prepared For the Odd Breakdown
Finally, driving an innovation culture is a continuous process. You have to be prepared for some ideas to fail. Don’t fall into the trap of putting your best employees into risky business ventures and then penalizing them with lower annual assessments when they don’t succeed. There have been studies into what makes someone creative; what the attributes of a creative person might be. A consistent theme is their willingness to learn from failure. It is, therefore, essential that on these programs at least, employees have the freedom to make mistakes – though not the same mistakes! Facilitate and build the governance framework to manage and learn from any disappointments.
For us Innovation comes from the combined and synchronized momentum that takes us through each & every gear from 1 to 7 – It’s that energy that drives our Shape the Future program; building excitement, results and the necessary Speed to Lead™.