Imagining Innovation

Every organization or individual must sponsor  their employees or themselves to watch Danny Boyle’s film  “127 Hours” which is the story of Aron Ralston narrated through his autobiography “Between a Rock and a Hard Place”.

In April 2003, while he was on a hiking trip in Blue John Canyon (near Moab, Utah), a boulder became dislodged, crushing his right forearm and pinning it against the canyon wall. Ralston had not told anyone of his hiking plans and knew no one would be searching for him. Assuming that he would die, he spent five days slowly sipping his small amount of remaining water while trying to extricate his arm. His efforts were futile as he could not dislodge his arm. He eventually ran out of water, carved his name, date of birth and presumed date of death into the sandstone canyon wall, and videotaped his last goodbyes to his family.

After five days of trying to lift and break the boulder, the dehydrated and delirious Ralston prepared to amputate his trapped right arm below the elbow in order to escape. Although he never named the manufacturer of the tool other than to say it was not Leatherman, he did describe it as “what you’d get if you bought a $15 flashlight and got a free multi-use tool”.[5] After freeing himself, he was still seventeen miles from his vehicle, and he had no mobile phone. He had to rappel down a 65-foot (20 m) sheer wall, then hike out of the canyon in the hot midday sun. While hiking out, he encountered a couple on vacation from The Netherlands, Eric and Monique Meijer, and their son, Andy, who gave him water and then alerted the authorities. He was ultimately rescued by a helicopter search team six hours after amputating his arm.

One of the first things that the protogonist urges himself in the movie is to “Think”. At the moment of crisis most individuals and organizations fail to do just that. He then lays out all his tools and belongings systematically in front of him and uses them judiciously, often realizing that what he has is insufficient to save his life or relieve him of his pain. What keeps him  alive however, is his will to survive and continuously outthink the circumstances that he is in; never letting the circumstance overwhelm  him. And finally, he is not thinking of surviving alone, his intent being on living and he imagines an amputed hand is better than not being able to live at all. Last but not the least, he manages the amputation with the most blunt of swiss knifes making it an extremely painful process with nothing to blunt or dull his pain. Every single action and step in those 127 hours is  an object lesson of Change Management that is so very critical to Innovation.

In contrast, I happened to meet a middle level manager of one of the Top 10 IT Service companies in the world on a Sunday. It is important to mention here that this company is currently making a lot of noise in the media (!) about scaling greater heights and being innovative and customer focused. Anyway, this guy was constantly on the phone to my amazement and so I asked him why he is and that too on a Sunday. To which his first response was;

My company is going crazy, we are being driven to death. We are on a totally different spin!

I countered, but isn’t all that good, you seem to be racing ahead of the others and making it look seemingly easy. Nevertheless, it still doesn’t make sense about these incessant calls you are getting on a Sunday. Americans don’t work on Sunday even when hell freezes over.

To which my friend clarified,  this is about a multi million dollar contract. We don’t want to execute and sales wants to take the order.

I was taken aback. I quickly retorted, in these economic times you want to refuse a contract?

My friend said, but, we don’t have the capacity to deliver!

I said, isn’t that your job? To find the capacity and capability to deliver for the business that is generated?

My friend very wearily said, we have achieved our targets / quota. So where is the point in pushing ourselves? Moreover, we don’t get the talent to execute and deliver.  We already are working on current deliveries with interns. Nobody wants to join us for our salary structure.

I had nothing to say to that except remember that this was a company that was paying its top executives and managers in the first quartile and its lower management and staff in the third quartile. In the last few years, its top and middle management has hardly experienced any churn and these are the guys who plan and set themselves the targets.  The lower order is the one that actually executes and there has been considerable churn and has become a constraint on setting stretch growth targets.

This is an organization that is high on the spit and spin on Innovation. What do you think are the chances that they will emerge and remain at  the top of the heap in the new world economic order; not just as a vendor but as a reliable partner who bridges the gap between business and IT for their customers?

About Subbu Iyer

Subbu Iyer is an Innovation & Transformation Leader as with 28 years of serving customers globally. He is currently the Chief Designer & Transformer at Energizing Innovation, an enterprise that is being founded to facilitate continuous growth in enterprises and as a consequence create societal wealth. The Radical Shift that this enterprise intends to employ is focusing on the Potential rather than the Performance of a business. He has been a serial entrepreneur and an intrapreneur in his past life, having founded Nihilent Technologies and Nandaki Systems besides being associated in senior leadership roles with firms such as Coopers & Lybrand, Cambridge Technology Partners, Tata Consultancy Services, Wipro Technologies and Steria.
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