When building a business ‘innovation’ is spoken about as something you need apply – and in many instances – it refers to the use of technology. Ravi Chhatpar, one of the speakers at the TEDx event in Johannesburg this week, speaks to Mongezi Mtati about inspiration and focus, and how to harness innovation in your business.
Ravi’s experience spans clients across industries including BBC, Cox, ETS, GE, Microsoft, Prudential, and Virgin Mobile. Ravi has also authored publications for the Harvard Business Review and the Design Management Institute. Ahead of his presentation at TEDx Johannesburg this week, Mongezi asked Ravi to share some of his insights about innovation in and for business.
Q: We hear a lot about innovation and it seems like an ever moving target, how do you describe it?
Ravi Chhatpar: Innovation means different things to different people. It’s tempting to point to a new technology or breakout business success as signs of innovation, but it’s more important to define innovation from the human perspective. It must lead to a change in behaviour, typically because this behavioural change is creating new forms of value for the user or consumer. If your new product (or service, experience, business) is able to get people to behave in new ways, to be motivated to do things differently, then you have successfully created a solution to a deeply felt and poorly met need. It means this solution is creating value – both tangible and intangible – for the user or consumer. This is real innovation. Whether a new technology is involved or whether the business scales is an ancillary point.
Q: When working towards building something new or different, how do you do it without aiming to be different and instead build something useful?
Ravi Chhatpar: Innovation is not about being new or different, just for the sake of being new or different. It must be fundamentally centred around an unmet human need. The final form of the solution may be truly new or it may resemble what’s come before, as long as it meets the unmet need. While we tend to gravitate to things that seem very new, in reality innovation is always inspired by what’s come before. We learn from competitors, from what we see in other countries, from what we see in other industries, from what 2-person startups and mega-corporations are doing. Mashing-up, remixing and experimenting with what’s out there already often inspires the new.
Q: Some have said the next Facebook will be from Africa, do you agree? Why?
Ravi Chhatpar: I don’t think “the next Facebook” should be Africa’s innovation aspiration. Africa presents some very complex challenges that require specialized solutions that are difficult to scale. But if we find ways to scale localized solutions across markets, then we’ve truly created groundbreaking innovation. Take the oft-cited example of Kenya’s M-Pesa which is not directly replicable for a variety of reasons anywhere else. Other countries are experimenting with mobile payment solutions with varying degrees of success – some resemble M-Pesa – and some are very different. More successes will prompt more experimentation which will spread across markets. A continent with high mobile payments penetration, more than the developed world – even if it looks and feels and acts different in different countries – would be much more impressive to me than a single African Facebook.
Q: Without giving away too much, what will you be speaking on at the forthcoming TEDx Johannesburg?
Ravi Chhatpar: I’ll be talking about inspiration, which is such a fundamental component of the innovation process. Of course, inspiration is a massive topic in and of itself, so I’ll be focusing on a particular slice of it. That’s all I’ll say for now.
Q: How do you stay ahead of your last great idea?
Ravi Chhatpar: I like to switch industry and focus regularly. While it’s true that experience in one domain is valuable, thinking about the same problem space over extended periods of time will trade off expertise for freshness. Switching industries or focus areas provides a fresh start. Eventually, your mind starts looking for opportunities to cross-apply and cross-pollinate insights. How can a behavioural insight from a healthcare context be relevant to a financial context? This helps minimize creative fatigue.
Q: If it’s true that innovating is a mindset that be cultivated, where do we start in developing that mindset?
Ravi Chhatpar: What’s really needed is a deep cultivation of both right and left-brain thinking from an early a stage as possible. More importantly, this cultivation needs to be done in a way that doesn’t make the distinction between the two sides, to encourage a truly interdisciplinary approach. The creative side needs to be complemented with the analytical, the thinking needs to be complemented by the doing. Increasingly these divisions of labor that we see in our (older) generation is being replaced by younger talents who come up with ideas and make them real, who brainstorm wildly then sketch concepts and then write business plans, who experiment and prototype and assess results analytically. This is absolutely the right direction. Education should support this as early as possible.
Catch Ravi Chhatpar at the forthcoming TEDx Johannesburg on 15 August and find out more about his insights and findings.