I am reproducing (with permission) an interesting little piece from the IdeasRS blog by R. Sridhar, the most serious creativity trainer I have met (let me hasten to clarify that I meant that as a good thing). Some discussion on the comments section have also been included.
Dal Chawal Innovation
May 18th, 2010
Let me tell you a story first. I use this story often in my Creative Blockbusting© workshops. I have a friend Natarajan (Nat to his friends) who is also a Tambrahm (Tamilian Brahmin) like me. He is a senior manager in one of the Indian Multi-Nationals. He! and his family are vegetarians.
Nat has a nice practice. Every month he takes out his family – wife, teenage daughter, and son- for dinner. This has been going on for years. Nat had his favourite restaurant list and would choose one from his favourite list every month. However, his daughter was not happy with his choice of restaurants.
One month she said, “Dad, I will take you to a different restaurant this month. It is of course 100% vegetarian.”
“Which one is this?”
“What cuisine do they serve?”
“Authentic Italian food.”
Before Nat could respond, his son jumped into the conversation and “Wow! Dad we must go there.” When he looked at his wife, she nodded and said, “Why don’t we try it? The children seem to like it.”
Nat said “Why not? I am all for experimentation. Let us go for it.”
On the appointed day, both his daughter and son asked his permission to bring their best friend. Nat readily agreed. (He was somewhat relieved too. He was constantly running out of subjects to talk to his children. What he found interesting, did not interest them.)
When they settled down the children were the first to get off the mark. They seemed to know the items on the menu pretty well. Nat looked at his wife and she smiled and said, “I will go by your choice.”
Nat read the menu card once again and was completely lost. He had never been to an Italian restaurant before. He did not feel comfortable to talk to the manager and find out more about the items on the menu. What will his children and their friends think?
Nat then beckoned the steward and told him “My wife and I are not happy with any of this. Can you organize for some nice dal, chawal, jeera aloo and a raita for us? We are sick and tired of our sambar & rice you see. This will be a good change.”
I stop my story here but use the story to explain what happens in organizations that start looking for break-through innovations, but end up with incremental improvements. Very often the culprit is the senior management.
The CEO declares that he is all for experimentation and will support any innovation, provided of course it is relevant. (This is like Nat saying ‘I am prepared to experiment with any cuisine, provided it is vegetarian.’)
This is a good beginning. However, what happens when the CEO is presented with outstanding ideas – ideas that have never occurred to him or his board members. If these ideas are implemented the benefits will be immense. Some of them could be game-changers.
Then the CEO and his colleagues on the board, start analyzing the ideas. They look unfamiliar, and they make them feel quite uncomfortable. They start making the ideas familiar by changing couple of features and introducing features that they like.
Finally, they have something marginally different from what they normally do. However, the ideas are not disruptive and will not cause any discomfort. Everyone is happy now.
They followed Nat’s formula and settled for “Dal Chawal”. They even felt happy that they made progress from their usual, predictable ‘Sambar Rice.”
This is what I call ‘Dal Chawal Innovation’. Incremental improvements like a marginal change in the menu. Status quo will be intact and safe.
I am not disdainful of improvements of any kind. However, I feel frustrated when I see outstanding ideas transform to become ‘Dal Chawal’, because the senior management did not want to put in the effort make the big idea happen. “Too much work, too many changes” says the CEO dismissively. What annoys me even more are the ‘I know all’ attitude and a refusal to look at new things with an open mind.
The last straw on the proverbial camel’s back is when the CEO delivers a speech on Innovation at some forum and gets a standing ovation!
‘Dal Chawal Innovation’ is the staple food for many CEOs who could make a big difference to the culture of innovation in their organizations. Sadly, they constantly signal to the people that ‘Dal Chawal’ is good enough!
My comment was: While continuous, incremental improvement and radical, disruptive innovation are both important, you have brought out the danger of seemingly converting one to the other for the wrong reasons by top management. In your usual simple and profound manner.
There is a certain mindset of devolvement that all seniors and elders need to cultivate in order for the fresh, disruptive ideas of the next generation to emerge. This leads to the additional benefits of grooming youngsters for succession, and seniors retaining respect. Yes, some new ideas may not work. Nat may discover he never ever wants to eat fetta-filled ravioli but he can enjoy discovering that fact and try penne arrabiata next time, or Mexican tacos!
To which blog author and creativity guru Sridhar replied:
Thank you RG. I appreciate your taking the time to comment on this. And your point is absolutely valid: Nat should try and find out what suits his taste best rather than suffer Italian food he does not like.
On re-reading this piece I realise that I have probably created an impression that all new (disruptive) ideas are good and all old ideas are bad. Not my intention at all.
I am only urging leaders in organisations to listen to fresh new ideas, even if it seems a bit uncomfortable initially.
I have also seen CEOs add great value by smoothening the rough edges of a new disruptive idea and make even more powerful.