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Updated: January 7, 2011 11:39 IST

Lessons from Tata Nano

D. Murali
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One of the many stories in ‘Nanovation: How a little car can teach the world to think big’ by Kevin and Jackie Freiberg, and Dain Dunston (www.penguinbooksindia.com) is about Pixar, widely known for its successful animated feature films. What is not common knowledge, however, is that once upon a time all that the company wanted to do was sell computer systems, the authors begin.

They trace how the company, originally called The Graphics Group, was purchased by Steve Jobs as a high-end computer hardware firm focused on developing graphical imaging systems for government and scientific work. “But their core product, called Pixar Image Computer, struggled to find a market. Desperate to generate sales, one young employee made short animated films…”

Maintaining the creative edge

The little animation team created a service revenue stream, doing contract animation for television commercials, and then came Disney offering a $26 million deal to produce three animated films, the first of which was Toy Story, one learns. After their initial wave of success producing three blockbuster hits, viz. Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, and Toy Story 2, what worried the company’s leaders was the potential for complacency to set in. The antidote came in the form of director Brad Bird, a veteran of Walt Disney, Warner Brothers, and Fox, who joined the Pixar team.

Bird pushed people beyond their comfort zones, gave outcast animators a voice, and encouraged dissent, the authors narrate. “He argued that doing something scary, that pushes you to the outer limits of your capabilities where you might fail, is how you maintain the creative edge.”

Heretical suggestions

During one such stretch project, with a huge budget and insane schedule, Bird shocked the purists by suggesting the use of a rudimentary ‘cheat’ – filming a pie plate flying across the screen to simulate a flying saucer versus an expensive computer animation. To those who screamed ‘heretical,’ Bird’s reasoning was that kids didn’t care how technically ‘cool’ the advanced animation was; what they cared was the story and where the flying saucer was going!

Even though Bird never actually threw the pie plate, his suggestion disrupted the animators’ conventional thinking and forced them to become more imaginative,” the authors note. “The disruption worked. Under Bird’s direction, Pixar won two Academy Awards for the innovative animation in the box-office hits, The Incredibles and Ratatouille.”

Break the rules

The parallel in the Nano project, as highlighted in the book, is the disruptive nature of the idea. It ripped the lid off the self-imposed creative limitations of the team members, unleashed a level of confidence that gave them the courage to think for themselves, the authors find.

Nanovation is about breaking rules, doing what seems ludicrous, displacing existing products and services, and disrupting the equilibrium of an entire industry, as reads a description in a chapter devoted to the first rule titled ‘Get wired for nanovation.’ Nanovators are constantly seeking to renew themselves, re-energise their organisations, and re-establish their edge on the competition, the authors instruct. “That’s why they are always seeking the next big thing. And they know that the ‘edge’ is where it will be found. This kind of optimism is contagious. Have you ever interacted with someone who really thinks big? Did you leave the conversation inspired to think bigger? It’s magnetic.”

Source of new ideas

Question the unquestionable, reads another rule in the list of eight. Posing the question, ‘Where do new ideas come from?’ the authors answer that ideas do not come from sitting in the same office, talking to the same people, looking at the same computer screens day after day. Spending the majority of your time with people who share your beliefs and assumptions does not unleash your creativity or promote discovery; it only sharpens your prejudices and leads to close-mindedness, they caution.

“So much of our daily work is routine; it can have a numbing effect on us. Our brains get lazy, we go on autopilot, and tend to become comfortable with the status quo. Breaking away, putting yourself in a place that’s new – whether it’s a new location, a new field of study, or a new group of people – enables you to stimulate the creative side of your brain.”

Strike ‘gold’ through the global community

In a section titled ‘Cast a wide net,’ the authors emphasise the importance of inviting some of the brightest, most creative thinkers into your businesses and tapping into the intellectual capital of the world outside the company’s walls. “In a flat world where the Internet offers unprecedented access to human imagination and ingenuity, innovation is global. Never before have we had the bandwidth to engage a global community in a conversation designed to address our biggest challenges.”

Examples mentioned in the book include GoldCorp, a Toronto-based company, which ran a contest on the Web inviting people to help them find gold on an ailing gold mine in the Red Lake area of Canada. More than 1,400 downloaded the not so super-secret data on the 55-thousand acre property, and people from 51countries submitted 77 proposals using methods and technology that, in many cases, even the company was unaware of. In a case of literal striking of gold, “for $500,000 in awards, the company and its global brain trust found over $3 billion in gold, making Red Lake the richest goldmine in the world.”

Jamming and gaming

IBM’s Innovation Jam, a worldwide event hosted each year, is cited as one other example of casting the net wide. The virtual brainstorming event takes up topics such as using clean coal to produce jet fuel, and building an electronic marketplace for retirees.

The book chronicles how the Jams started in 2001 with the belief that an open dialogue of fresh ideas could find solutions to huge challenges faster than IBM’s own researchers trying secretly on their own. “The largest Jam ever was in 2006. More than 1.5 lakh people from 104 countries and sixty-seven companies came together. The result? IBM invested more than $100 million and launched ten new divisions with the ideas that were shared at the event.”

Just about five years ago, towards the end of 2005, Nintendo’s storied gaming business was facing the grim possibility of an end. Having ushered in the modern age of video games, Nintendo was bleeding market share to Sony’s PlayStation 3 and Microsoft’s Xbox 360, which had faster processing, better graphics, more memory and functions.

So Nintendo took a big leap and started spending large amounts of time with gamers, the authors recount. “They learned about what excited them and what seemed old-school. They listened to the questions the gamers asked and then forced themselves to ask even tougher questions.” The result, as the authors observe, was the Wii, a pop culture phenomenon of such proportions that Nintendo could not make the product fast enough to keep up with the demand.

Instructive read for innovation-seekers.

**

Tailpiece

“I used to dream of making money by becoming an IT executive, but now I’d rather like to…”

“Get into finance?”

“No, into vegetable business!”

**

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