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Innovation tips from the Beatles

May 25, 2007 10:56 IST

There is considerable discussion within the Indian policy establishment about the apparent poor record of Indian researchers in delivering world-class research output in science, technology or business studies in spite of decades of reasonably generous funding. You will find this angst echoed in letters to the editor in journals like Current Science and in speeches made at gatherings of scientists and researchers.

I have participated in a few of these and left wondering what is it that we need to do to foster innovation other than funding. In other words, what is the key to innovation?

Some scholars feel that we can find answers to this question in the story of the Beatles, those consummate British musicians who have held music lovers spellbound from the 1960s right up till today and whose recordings have sold more copies than any other music group in history.

When the Beatles arrived in the United States in 1964 they were greeted by rapturous crowds. This left them genuinely puzzled. Why do you think we are so fantastic when we are merely singing American music, John Lennon is supposed to have asked?

There is a profound context in Lennon's question. The Beatles' music has its origin in Blues, those tales of sorrow sung by African slaves on American plantations.

Little Richard, an African American singer, first brought it to white teenage audiences with his 1955 rendition of 'Tutti Frutti.' This was a mega hit with its heavily accentuated back-beat and shouted vocals, moans and screams.

British sailors carried records of songs like this to Liverpool and played it in night clubs there. The young Beatles heard these records there and started their career singing cover versions of these songs in Liverpool and Hamburg. Slowly they adapted this music by working in lyrics of young love and loss, which we have come to know as the trademark Beatles style.

You can see why Lennon was justified in being surprised at the fantastic reception the Beatles got for bringing American music back to America. Songs like Love Me Do, I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band helped create the modern music industry.

In his book How Breakthroughs Happen, Andrew Hargadon looks at many such examples of what he calls 'recombinant innovation,' the notion that most innovations are the result of recombinations of existing concepts and materials.

For example, email, that ubiquitous application of modern life, was 'invented' by Ray Tomlinson in 1972 by combining the software code of an existing intra-computer messaging application with an existing inter-computer file transfer protocol.

The Excel spreadsheet, that other staple of modern white collar work life, is a combination of the best features of two earlier products, Visicalc and Lotus 123.

Innovation happen when two worlds, previously unconnected, collide. And innovators are really people who see the connections between these worlds.

If Indian companies, research organisations and universities have to meet our national aspirations to be truly innovative what we probably need to do is to provide them opportunities to encounter worlds different from their own so that they can make the crucial connections that are the keys to innovation.

In business school innovation, for instance, one way may be to get business school professors onto the boards of innovative and dynamic companies.

Listening in and participating at board meetings that deal with strategic issues may allow them to see the connections that lead to breakthrough research agendas.

But merely putting together at the same site people who are trained in problem-solving skills and those who, in their normal work day, encounter problems that need solving may not be enough.

When Indian merchants needed to dramatically increase output to meet the demand for cotton cloth from European buyers in the late 17th century, they solved this problem by setting up chains of weaving villages.

The merchant's role was to supply yarn to these villages, give them cash advances when needed and even run private police forces to protect the movement of yarn and finished cloth as they moved around the country during the production process.

In the same period, in England, Richard Arkwright, a businessman, faced with the same problem of meeting exploding demand for cotton yarn and cloth, took another approach to solving it. He brought into play things he had learned from another world, the world of clock-making.

He deployed the skill in making clocks to another domain: how to spin a strong warp thread. He looked to clock-like mechanisms and devised a machine that could automatically spin this thread.

And that, as we know, started off the Industrial Revolution.

Not only do two worlds need to collide for innovation to happen, but the socio-economic system in which this collision happens has a role in it as well. This is why the same problem, how to meet the exploding demand for cotton cloth and yarn, was solved in two different ways: in Britain by inventing the spinning machine and in India by deploying more labour.

Nonetheless, dusting out those old Beatles LPs and listening to them all over again might just be what you need to do to start off your innovation efforts.

Ajit Balakrishnan is the founder and chief executive officer,
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Ajit Balakrishnan