“Strategic direction is more important today. It's about providing a framework for managers to navigate through the fog of complex chokes. No company can avoid this."

– C.K. Prahalad –

PoS Feb 2016 | What has Archimedes’s Eureka have to do with running a business?

Innovation has become a fashionable word. Most organisations swear innovation is their strategy. Yet, how a firm can be innovative and where it should direct its creative forces is not at all clear to most.

Practically no one is doing anything pathbreaking.

Fruits of innovation
Creativity or innovation is the fruition of a novel idea into a product, process, technology, or business model.

Sony Walkman and iPhone are products of innovation. India’s mid-day meal scheme for primary school children is a creative solution to the problem of malnutrition, and school drop out among children of poor families. WhatsApp and Skype brilliantly integrated telephony and computing technologies to change the way we connect. South West Airlines and Formule 1 Hotels created unique business models that have sustained superior performance over decades.

How insights occur
Solutions to problems, especially difficult ones, first emerge as an idea. Sometimes they are clear as the day, at other times they are vague and shapeless. Ideas – we shall call them insights – are the fountainhead of creativity and innovation. Insights often occur as an Aha experience, a sudden realisation of solution or a path to it. However, insights are also known to emerge slowly.

Archimedes’s Eureka is perhaps the best known example of this phenomenon. Discovery of penicillin however resulted from evolving insight.

Discovery of a wonder drug
When Alexander Fleming returned from a vacation in September 1928, he set about cleaning petri dishes where colonies of Staphylococcus, a particularly nasty bacterium, were growing. He noticed one where a strange mold had stopped the deadly bug growing. This mold, a strain ofPenicillium notatum, was found to be effective against a number of dangerous bacteria. Fleming’s insight emerged slowly as he decided to investigate an oddity.

Insights do not fire creativity in inventors and discoverers alone, they also fuel creative solutions to everyday problems.

Eureka at Wendt India


A machining problem
Wendt India, a mid-sized company in the business of sophisticated grinding and honing products was facing a problem with a customer – a large manufacturer of commercial vehicles. Users in one of the plants (Plant B) were dissatisfied with the performance of Wendt’s honing sticks. Production people in another plant (Plant A) in the same premises were quite happy in terms of surface finish and life. Both plants were using the same product for honing a specific model of connecting rod.

Kindling insight
Wendt managers were convinced the problem lay with the users’ perception. How can the exact same product perform differently in two identical applications? As their consultant, I suggested two engineers – one each from sales and application engineering – spend a whole day in each plant observing how connecting rods were being machined. The following week, the team returned beaming. They had had their Eureka moment.

They had found the output of Plant B was some 25% higher. They were honing faster, removing metal at a higher rate, consequently with marginally poor surface finish and shorter stick life. The insight led Wendt to formulate a product with different specifications for Plant B. The new product met all requirements to the full satisfaction of users.

Proliferating a culture of insight
An organisation that wants to make innovation the centre of its strategy must proliferate insight generation. How can a firm do it? To discover that, first we need to understand thinking processes that aid or hinder insights.

Look out for it in the March 2016 issue. I will devote the next few issues on intuition, insight, and how they spur innovation.