Indians CAN innovate – just not in India

Let me begin with a paragraph written by Walter Isaacson whose most recent book is the biography of Steve Jobs. He wrote an op-ed piece in the NY Times recently called The Genius of Steve Jobs. He ends his piece like this:

China and India are likely to produce many rigorous analytical thinkers and knowledgeable technologists. But smart and educated people don’t always spawn innovation. America’s advantage, if it continues to have one, will be that it can produce people who are also more creative and imaginative, those who know how to stand at the intersection of the humanities and the sciences. That is the formula for true innovation, as Steve Jobs’s career showed.

I can’t agree more!

But, here’s the thing I want to make clear.  There are many innovative Chinese and Indians out there – the sad truth, however, is that most of them are not being innovative in their respective native countries.  Countries such as the US are (happily!) reaping the benefits of their inventions and innovations.

Show me the innovation!

On one of my recent travels, I chatted with a business owner from Bombay. He is successful and ambitious.  He sees a clear path for the next level of growth for his company. However, he lamented that he is unable to find the people he needs to foster that growth. People, that is, with initiative and innovation on their minds.

After having been here for a few months, I can attest to this problem being a common occurrence. I have heard it from people at different levels in different companies from various cities across India. What could be the cause of this?

In India, my opinion is that it is the school and work culture that inhibits free thinking, creativity and innovation. The most common symptom exhibited by people here is to follow this dictum-

Do what you are told. Don’t question. Never debate. Just do it!

So, is it any surprise that the natural instinct of Indian workers here is not to innovate? And isn’t that such a sad waste of brain power? These are the same people who have a natural affinity for math and science, but they are simply not taught (forget, encouraged) to invent, think out of the box, take creative license, take risks or live life on the edge sometimes.  If they do, they are shot down very quickly – whether by their parents or teachers or colleagues or bosses.

After having spent so many of my working years in the US, I can guarantee you that I would not have survived very long with this type of behavior.  I take that back.  I definitely would have “survived”.  But I would not have evolved or grown – professionally or personally. Moreover, I would have been doing a disservice to the organization where I worked if that was all I was about.

It is important to understand that I am speaking in generalities – there are always exceptions.

In addition, this is relative, not absolute. I am also relating what I see in India with the environment in the US.

The US is by no means perfect – we still have numerous, what Seth Godin would call “cubicle workers”, happy to do just enough and not take any risks by thinking “new or different”. But even compared to this, India is WAY behind, notwithstanding graduates from universities such as the prestigious IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology).

Speaking of IIT, many of its graduates began leaving India for UK, US and Canada for higher studies beginning in the 1960s. Most of them were offered jobs in those countries and stayed on. Those who returned didn’t feel they could fit in because by now they had advanced technological backgrounds, needed to be involved in product creation and design, but found themselves more in product maintenance or support in Indian industry.

This began to change somewhat with liberalization in the 1990s when multi-national companies (MNCs) started setting up shop in India. They saw the cost advantage but also were the first to utilize these high-powered brains for some design and creation.

Now, there appears to be a reverse brain drain in action where IIT graduates are returning to India as entrepreneurs or employees of MNCs. Could they be the first change agents or catalysts to turn around the long-standing Indian culture of “follow the rules and follow my instructions” which has been endemic for decades?

I have so much more to say on this topic that I will save for other posts. A key point to make now, though, is this:

Until that fundamental culture is changed and people are transformed to think differently, the real power of countries such as India will never be unleashed in any field.

Now, that was a rather audacious statement to make. The question is, do you agree? It sure would be great to hear your thoughts (and brickbats, I’m sure).

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Photo Credits:

Factory Workers: By Steve Jurvetson from Menlo Park, USA (glue works  Uploaded by Zolo) [CC-BY-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

IIT Locations Map from Wikipedia

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Posted on November 12, 2011, in india and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I totally agree with you on ‘Do what you are told. Don’t question. Never debate. Just do it!’ – having studied in India, I don’t ever remember being taught to think outside the box, save for a few ‘great’ teachers I have had. From kindy, it was rote learning, and people who could memorise and regurgitate it during exams were rewarded with kudos. Not all are endowed with the ability to do this. I don’t think we were taught to question, taught to think why certain things happened e.g as in science. We just LEARNT stuff not knowing how and when to use it.
    Having lived away from India for many years now, my thinking is slowly changing. Please note ‘slowing’. The years of education I have had in India cannot be erased. It has taken many years of toil to ask questions without being afraid, to speak up and to speak your mind.
    Maybe India has changed now. I don’t know. I have lived away for too long. Maybe I should ask my friends who are in the field of education if children now think differently.

    • Ameetha,

      You’re right – that’s how you and I were taught. However, what I have witnessed so far is mostly from people after our time. I don’t sense that things have changed that much. But I hope they have!

      Waiting for someone(s) to correct my assumptions…

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

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