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Gautam Mahajan, President of Inter-Link; Founding Editor of Journal of Creating Value, Inter-Link

Gautam Mahajan, President of Inter-Link; Founding Editor of Journal of Creating Value

Look at almost any plastic soda bottle, and you will find that it stands on five ribs that are integral to the walls. The invention of the “petaloid base” in the 1970s offers crucial insight into an innovation process that is highly relevant to business today, and to the growing movement away from functional roles and toward value creation. Because pressurized plastic expands like a balloon under pressure, bottles…
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Value Creation is a distinctive mind-set. It is a mentality driven by enhanced self-esteem, awareness, and pro-activeness. It goes beyond just doing your job, it is doing something extra. Value Creation is executing proactive, imaginative, or inspired actions that increase the net worth of products, services, or an entire business. This creates better gains or value for customers, stakeholders, and shareholders. Value Creation stimulates executives and business leaders to generate improved value for customers, driving success for the organization; it creates customer-conscious companies.

Value Creation Forums have been started in the US, Europe and Asia, along with Value Creation research. Programs are underway to modify MBA teaching to become less functional and more value creation oriented. The role of an executive is not just to be a good manager, administrator, or a good efficiency expert; his or her role is to create value. Ahead of my most recent book, I realized that value is completely misunderstood. Everyone has a meaning for it—some think value means price, benefits, or importance— you can think of it in any way. In business jargon, value is creating financial benefits, and for people around you, which will eventually create greater financial benefit for you. You cannot set out and say you’re going to create value for yourself; you have to create value for others, such that they recognize you are a person of greater value.

You hear words like CRM, customer satisfaction, customer experience, customer journey, customer this and that, yet all are only one part of what the customer is looking for. When you start investing heavily in things like customer experience and customer journey, you are essentially saying that they are very important—and they are—but you forget the context of their importance.

Once I have bought a cellphone, what is the experience I really want? I want it to work; I don’t want to waste a lot of time on maintenance. The moment I have to go back to the company—and that’s the experience companies are investing on improving but not the experience I as a customer want in the first place—I am making an extra journey. I just want to be left alone. Companies tend to glorify a journey that customers don’t want in the first place instead of making sure I do not have a problem. The real thing they should be working on is how to prevent that journey. Companies should be innovating toward zero complaints, toward zero defects.

It is easier to give examples of value destruction because they are so obvious. Value creation in a very simplistic sense is everything that goes beyond your job. You could be an accountant who does efficient work, you can’t fault his numbers, but the guy comes up to you and says, you know the tax laws are going to change and maybe we should do something with our investments and our accounting practice so we get an advantage. He’s done something extra. Everyone whose career progresses is creating value, but often he does not know that because he is doing it unconsciously. If you were conscious about it, you might create a little more value, and might destroy a little less.

Stephen Vargo is on the board of our journal, and he coined the phrase, ‘service-dominant logic’. Before that, there were other concepts, but he said no, it is not about products. Everyone is serving everyone and the product is just part of the service. This year, there might be thousands of papers written on service dominant logic, talking about value co-creation, but few people seem to know what value co-creation is. Many see it as some kind of a vague thing that is nice to think about.

We first started a journal that addresses both academics and practitioners: that’s a difficult mix because academics like to write in journals, and practitioners generally don’t like to write. They like to read. What we want is for academics to write in the way that business people can really understand, that is relevant. Then we encourage the practitioners to use this. On the other hand, we want practitioners to write about things that make academics pay notice. So if I write about zero complaints, they may wish to do research and find the best way to get to zero complaints. The second thing we have done is start Value Creation Forums around the world, and we have leaders in their fields come together and discuss value creation.

We set up one in the Benelux with academics and practitioners, and many universities in the Netherlands came together and discussed three things: one, how can you create value for the student in the present courses. The second was to look at courses like HR and IT and see if you can just add one lecture on value creation for those courses. The third was to have a general management elective which is based on value creation. If you look at HR, it is probably one of the most important functions in the company since people–employees, partners and customers— are really important. The question I always ask is, ‘Why don’t HR guys become CEOs? Why are they called a staff function?’ That is because they do their functional work; they really do not do their value creation work. Once they start to do it, they begin to create immense value for the company.

We have asked a college in India to look at values and value—what you stand for, such as ethics, morals, and integrity). The idea is that if you are a college that talks about values, do your students who become teachers do better than teachers for whom values were never inculcated? There is a professor at Wharton that does customer lifetime value; we want to work together so that he can correlate customer value-added with customer lifetime value. 


What are some of the biggest impediments to innovation in your organization or industry sector?

Let’s look at small things that prevent people from being innovators. One is self-esteem. If you do not believe in yourself, you cannot create value. Two, you really have to become aware; if you don’t notice things around you, it becomes difficult to innovate. Most people who truly create value do not need a financial incentive to innovate; they are natural innovators because they have awareness and believe in themselves. Fear of failure comes in when you are concerned only about keeping your job.

Another thing I find really slows down innovation is bringing the financial thought process onto the innovation table. You sit at the table, and someone comes up with an idea, and the guy next to him says, ‘That can never work because it is going to be too expensive.’ You then discard it because you have forgotten that things become cheaper and cheaper. So, my advice to innovators is to forget the cost part of it and say, ‘What is the best way of doing this?’ Then ask how to make it practical from a cost point of view. Too many good ideas just go away because some joker says it will hurt cash flow or will be too expensive.

I am not sure that disruptive innovation is the only way to go. A few years ago, I went with students in an innovation course and suggested they work with the long distance taxi service to prevent one way hiring, and ensure the taxi guy got a return ride. It would save costs for the passenger and increase profits for the taxi person. This was like a pre-Uber move, but no one looked at it. Would this be called disruptive or an add on? Today, Uber would call it disruptive.

With the development of the petaloid bottle base, we had machines that were taking a pounding, because the pressures required to blow the petaloid bottle were much higher than the simpler bottle. The design group came up with a way that would cost $75,000 per machine—in the late 70’s—and we had about 45 machines. They were redoing the machine. That’s disruptive. I said that is the wrong approach. We ended up doing everything at a cost of only about $8,000. We studied the machine and asked, ‘What is the machine actually doing?’ Why not just reduce the shock impact on the machines with cheap shock absorbers, and proper timing and then they will stop braking?


How has innovation become engrained in your organization’s culture, and how is it being optimized?

I suppose we could have called value creation, value innovation. To me, creation is a little more basic, more intrinsic. Innovation is something that takes something and goes to the next step. The goal is to take something that exists and try modify it a little. If the core of an MBA course should completely change, from one of teaching people to be good managers or efficient administrators, to becoming value creators that could be disruptive.

Because many of the functional courses would start to disappear, and people would really start to learn how to create real value in HRD—instead of measuring whether the guy comes to work on time, or try to measure his performance— you are really doing something that increases the value to customers and society. Many functions could get outsourced into administration departments, and true HR Value Creation would remain in HR. If your brand equity increases, the brand equity of the company increases. People notice when value is created. In the Netherlands, we are currently doing a program with Microsoft with finance managers. Oracle is going to do something in this area on the West coast in the US.


What technologies, business models, and trends will drive the biggest changes in your industry over the next two years?

I think it is about mind-set. One is business schools moving toward value creation, and away from doing functional teaching. Instead of a masters of business administration, you have a masters of value creation, or value management. A second thing is that companies start to drive their businesses from the point of view of long term value creation. One example was the CEO of Unilever, Paul Polman, who was able to convince his board that they should look at long term results—one to five years—rather than quarterly. What they got was a higher rate of growth overall, and fewer perturbations in share prices.

One of the things I fear is the impact of automation. Too many of the younger generation are so smart at using tools that they forget the fundamentals. Data analytics is a great tool as long as you understand what lies behind. It is great if you analyze and measure the customer journey to a fine science, except you might miss the fact that customers might not want that journey, and you are actually making the journey more important. The focus goes away from zero complaints. Everything is process driven; we want the mind-set to be changed. We emphasize the better mind-set through our value creation councils.

In India, the Tata companies are moving from business excellence to value creation thought processes. Unilever is doing good thinking. When they decided not to buy palm oil from a group of growers in Malaysia and Thailand because of the ecological impact, the fear was that prices would go up and customers would not buy. However, customers continued to buy because they favored sustainability. We found at Tata Power that values create value. 


Can you share a specific innovation strategy you’ve recently encountered which you find compelling?

This morning, I got a call from a wrong number, and I then received six calls from the same number. I thought: how do I block this guy? I would pay for an app that allowed me to do that! All jokes aside, the real disruptive thing will be when we start to build things the way the human body is built. Today, the structures we build are external, and our body is internal.

There is complex innovation and complicated innovation. With complex, we are talking about moving targets. In a complicated one, we know it is only a matter of putting all the known pieces together, like a jigsaw puzzle. A complicated problem might be building a big building, but all the steps are known. On the other hand, if you are trying to make a building that is a living building—perhaps a self-healing building—that is complex. Again, if you look at great innovations, you’ll tend to find a value creation mindset behind them.

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