Rajiv Narang: Leadership and Innovation Requires Seeing Business Challenges in an Entirely New Way

 Rajiv Narang, founder of Erehwon Innovation Consulting in Bangalore, India, helps companies and organizations around the world see their markets and goals differently—a process he refers to as “shifting orbits”—which is the basis of true market innovation. We recently had the opportunity to attend his recent presentation for Microsoft Research, where Narang outlined his approach: whether you’re an individual, group, or enterprise organization, true innovation requires that you fundamentally change the way you approach not just solutions, but the questions themselves.

Of maps and names

Narang demonstrated how entrenched thinking can (literally) allow us to view the world only one way. He showed a slide of a map of the world, but with south at the top. For most people, this is an unusual way to view a map, but it’s no more incorrect than north at the top. Simply flipping the map 180 degrees may allow you to see things you never noticed before.

Narang’s company, Erehwon, begins this process for its clients—and starts with its name itself. Flip “Erewhon” and it becomes “nowhere” – or “now here,” depending on how you parse the letters. All are correct, and in the use of looking at something from a fresh perspective, you can begin the process of the orbit shift.

Habitual orbits

Orbits, Narang explains, are the ways in which we think, either individually or collectively. They’re based on four levels: the organization, the industry, the country, and the culture. He refers to these as gravities (a force to be overcome if an orbit *** is to occur).

“Companies will try to sell a product in an emerging market that traditionally did well in a developed market, and if it doesn’t sell well, they’ll simply say ‘they weren’t ready for that yet.’ It’s not that they’re not ready. They’re just ready for something else.”

Organizations have their own gravity, what’s referred to as “company culture,” although this can be stifling to innovation if it’s too entrenched in “the way things have always been done.” So too do industries: are organizations really coming up with new ideas, or are they just playing “me too” and copying what other organizations have done with incremental improvements?

Countries and cultures also have gravities. Organizations from developed countries, for example, often have a hard time understanding what emerging markets need. “Companies will try to sell a product in an emerging market that traditionally did well in a developed market, and if it doesn’t sell well, they’ll simply say ‘they weren’t ready for that yet.’ What an imperialistic thing to say! It’s not that they’re not ready. They’re just ready for something else.”

Shifting orbits

Overcoming gravities to shift orbits requires approaching problems in an entirely different way. Much like flipping the map, Narang said, “innovation isn’t looking for a solution; it’s questioning the very problem itself. Are we solving for the right thing?”

A company may set a goal of increasing profits by 20 percent. That would not be innovation, Narang explained, although many businesspeople (including CEOs and Chief Innovation Officers) will tell you that’s what innovation would lead to. Instead, examine the challenge and reframe the problem. How would a company go about monetizing a nonmonetized part of its experience? The solution to that question would be innovative (and, Narang noted, was the very question that led to mobile phone carriers monetizing customized ringtones).

The frame’s the focus

“Innovation isn’t looking for a solution; it’s questioning the very problem itself. Are we solving for the right thing?”

Framing, Narang concluded, is the key to the entire process of orbit shifting. The frame is the way a person or company approaches a challenge. Changing lenses (the way in which you view a problem), Narang said, isn’t sufficient if you don’t completely reframe the question (the point from which you view a problem)—and change the orbit.

He gave the example of the Mongolian government, which was faced with the question of how to bring medical care to its citizens in far-flung villages. The traditional solution would be to hire more doctors and build more clinics. Instead, the government reframed the question entirely: how can we take preventative measures so people can be more medically self-sufficient?

The solution was to introduce first-aid kits in every person’s house. The kits were stocked with all kinds of necessary supplies, including traditional herbal remedies familiar to people. Also included were step-by-step instructions for treating an array of common ailments.

The result? A 60 percent reduction in hospital visits, allowing the cash-strapped government to focus building clinics in the areas that truly needed them most.

Your orbit shift begins now

Narang ended his talk by saying that anyone in any organization can change an orbit—from individuals to teams to departments. “Any space has gravity, and any space has orbits that can be changed.” All you need to do, Narang said, is start reframing your challenges—and innovation will follow.

This post is part of our ongoing coverage of Microsoft Research and its Visiting Speaker Series. Microsoft Research supports its mission to educate and foster innovation and growth through inviting authors and speakers that inspire big ideas, spark new ways of doing things, or help people see things from a new perspective.