Innovating in large, diverse organizations: The Tata Way

We all understand the innovation imperative, but making it happen, consistently, involving almost half-a-million people at setups as diverse as from salt to steel and software, and in organizations over a century old is quite something. Ravi Arora, a Tata veteran and a good friend, offers a very detailed and research backed peep into what worked in the case of Tata Group.

Tata Group, one of India’s largest and, arguably, the most respected business groups, has been instrumental in bringing about several innovations around employee welfare, community building, product innovation, process innovations, and even business model innovations, but for a fairly long time lacked a systematic and comprehensive approach to managing and measuring innovation performance. Tata Innovista, championed by R Gopalakrishnan, shepherded by Ravi Arora and his team, and blessed by Ratan Tata was one such attempt in bringing the might of the Group to bearing.

The evolution of various awards at Tata Innovista

Dubbed as ‘a platform for recognizing and celebrating innovations of the companies at the group level’, Tata Innovista is one of a kind in the Indian terrain, and perhaps in the world. The sheer volume of participation, variety of discourse, a disciplined and scientific approach to identify and celebrate success and a penchant for experimenting and learning, makes the initiative interesting to study and imitate.

Ravi, in his book — Igniting Innovation, offers a first hand account of how Tata Innovista helped shape a culture of innovation across 100+ Group companies and revitalize the over-a-century old institution.

The seed of the systematic innovation movement was laid in 2005, on the backdrop of a very successfully run Tata Business Excellence Model, which audits Tata Group companies on performance measures, such as leadership, customer focus, employee focus and business results, among others. The idea of Tata Innovista was to graduate Tata Group companies from a unconscious innovator to a conscious one.

Here are some of the important implications for firms and leaders trying to shape an innovation culture.

Tata Group has always been innovative, right from introducing new varieties of steel, to improving the working conditions of people there, and in various other businesses and aspects of business. However, the employees weren’t necessarily aware of innovations in their companies, or were particularly proud of the rich heritage (on innovation) of the Group companies. The first task of Ravi and his team was to sensitize employee of their innovations and that of the larger enterprise, to re-establish the self-confidence required for conscious innovation.

It started with celebrating the Tata Innovation Day in around 2006, and then subsequently added (and deleted) awards, and broadbased the participation levels, across businesses, levels, function, and geographies. Narrating and sharing stories about people who attempted and succeeded (and even failed) was instrumental in setting up the momentum both inside and outside the empire. The team did roadshows, socialized people on submission/ entry criteria, and clarified on evaluation criteria to generate excitement and participation.

Innovation may mean different things to different people. For some, it’s nothing more than continuous improvement or productivity gains, and for others it nothing less than breakthrough, first-to-the-world technologies. The team established the vocabulary of innovation, by impressing upon the uniqueness, impact, and the replication dimensions of innovation. They also broad-based innovation as not just indicating new products, but also those around superior processes, customer enablement, services, and support functions, among other.

The team also clarified the important distinction between continuous improvement and innovation, and that innovation needn’t always be technological, or even result in monetary gains. The benefits of innovation were identified for both internal and external customers, and the measures as financial, social, environmental, and change in KPIs.

To bring seriousness to the entire endeavor and reliability and scalability, the team got senior voices into the discussion. The result, Julian Birkinshaw and Clayton Christensen got associated with the initiative. Further, the team deviced Organizational Innovation Quotient, InnoMeter (basis culture, process, strategy), and various other frameworks to measure the innovation performance.

The rigor also come from getting senior leaders involved in the process, bringing in external validation through research — this time in association with INSEAD’s Phanish Puranam who helped give robustness to the methodology and findings of Tata Innovista Awards. Getting external jury members, experts in diverse domains (I happen to be one of the jurors for the regional rounds a couple of years back), also adds to the credibility and learning.

Of the various award categories, including Implemented Innovations, Piloted Technologies, and Design Honor, the most unique and controversial is the Dare to Try Award which felicitates exemplary efforts towards something big and risky.

Since 2006, when there were three awards given, the participation level and number of award categories have grown over past 12 years, to 15 awards in 2019 edition of Innovista. The Dare to Try award itself saw a surging participation of 55 times between 2007 and 2015, and many awardees went on to innovating successfully.; hence, justifying the category.

The book shares incisive cases from Tata Steel, Tata Motors — JLR, Titan, TCS, Tata Chemicals et al., on the diversity of innovations the employees engaged in, and the appropriate felicitation mechanism.

Ravi does a brilliant job in being both descriptive and prescriptive, and offers sufficient practical evidence backed by theoretical rigor to establish the case of how innovation at large setups can indeed be managed, measured, and nurtured. At instances, Ravi offers insights on why some innovations work and others don’t, what makes for proficient innovators (hint: they are intrinsically motivated), why a portfolio approach is more valuable, and why senior leadership sponsorship can help the thinking evolve.

A must read for anyone even remotely interested in how Innovation Culture gets shaped at scale.

Well done my friend.

Founder and Innovation Evangelist at Inflexion Point Consulting. TEDx speaker. Teacher. Strategy Coach. Creativity Workshops. Executive Education.