Innovation is beyond creativity.

“Innovation is beyond creativity” – stated Mr Harsh Mariwala, CMD of Marico India, at the Keynote address of the Retail Leadership Summit 2013. , where he used Marico’s journey as a design blueprint to the process of creating and sustaining a perpetually innovative organization.

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Consumer insighting is the starting point:  While all FMCG companies invest in customer research, the fact is that consumers don’t always know or can articulate what they want.  The genesis of innovation is sometimes about being able to tease out the relevant strands of consumer insight which get buried in data.

Culture is a competitive advantage: As a business, Marico’s journey has been about moving into businesses with high pricing power from bulk oil to branded hair & cooking oils and then on to a range of health and beauty products.

Similarly, the company’s innovation journey can best be summed up by the focus on culture as a source of competitive advantage. For example –one of the cultural values of the company is to “bring the outside in” – managers are encouraged to travel and visit internationals fairs and expos. At one such expo one of the managers found that the packaging industry had developed a mold which was both tamper proof and drip proof, and more importantly, because of the high initial capital cost – not easily replicable. Since at that point of time one of the strategic priorities for the company was finding a way to discourage “copy cat” innovators in the market – this created a significant advantage by providing it enough time to leap ahead in-terms of market share – without having to fight the drain on time, energy and resources that copy-cats can be.

Rewarding intelligent failure.  Since nothing kills the spirit of innovation more than the fear of failure Marico has a policy of rewarding, what they call, “intelligent failure”. In other words, if you’ve done all you can in terms of preparation and execution, and the market simply won’t take up your innovation – it doesn’t make you a failure. So, Marico ensures that failure is routinely discussed in “innovation labs” and employees are not penalized in terms of increments or romotions simply because they have not been part of a success story.

Prototype small:  As Marico grew – there was a realization that scale creates “escape buttons”. When employees are expected to tend to new initiatives in addition to day-to-day operating responsibility, innovation gets diluted. So the company created an “incubation cell” – a single person team – reporting to Mariwala which scouted and triaged new ideas for implementability. For example, one of the initial ideas presented was “laser hair removal”. But the process of scouting found that the underlying opportunity was in a larger range of skin care services. India has a inherent cost advantage – dermatologists do not cost much in the market, but their services can help customers achieve better looking skin. This lead to the launch of Kaya. By prototyping small, the time to market was reduced to 12 months.

Perhaps the biggest insight from the session was that Innovation is not one individual having an “eureka” moment and then moving mountains to translate his ideas into reality.  Innovation is more than creativity – its about persistence, rigor and above all – execution.


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