October 25, 2021
Meril Sakaria, CTO of Global Retail Unit in TCS
Over the last few years, the word innovation has sometimes been tossed around as a corporate buzzword. For me, innovation runs deeper. And as a Chief Technology Officer at Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), I view nurturing innovation as one of my primary responsibilities.
My passion for innovation began as a student when I participated in a school competition. Inspired by the vision of empowering people with disabilities to live a life of dignity, my team and I created an award-winning prototype of an automated room for self-care for the physically challenged. The key to this innovation? A shared goal that inspired us. I’ve learned that as humans, we are often drawn toward objectives and initiatives that have a purpose that elevates and excites us. This sense of purpose is the basis of creating a culture of innovation. And a culture of innovation can only be fueled by diversity, openness and collaboration.
Beyond my personal view, newly published research from the 2021 TCS Global Leadership Study shows that, when it comes to innovation, I’m not an outlier. According to the study, innovation is top of mind for enterprise executives around the globe. In fact, the findings from more than 1200 business leaders of large companies show it is the #1 cultural priority (out of 11) for the next few years, well above shareholder value and financial performance.
Clearly, innovation has moved up from the sidelines to center stage today. And disruptive innovation is the only mechanism to create competitive differentiation or counter emerging competitive threats.
Yours, mine and ours: The power of collective vision
Creating an environment brimming with innovation must begin with business leaders at the top but also embedded across the organization. A large part of my early career observations and learnings has come from talented peers and an inspirational leadership team. Because role, experience, or gender did not deter these leaders from inviting and considering multiple perspectives, inclusion as a way of corporate life was a given. I was fortunate to have had this kind of open environment that helped me grow personally and evolve professionally—now it is up to all of us to pass on this legacy to the next league of innovative thinkers.
Here’s an example: At TCS, we were the first to create the Smart Store of the future – with a vision to drive a new customer experience – interactive, guided and personalized. There was a single goal for the entire team. It was a first for me, watching a multi-skilled team spanning across business, technology and creative work seamlessly together. There was never a mention of “it can’t be done”, there was no “I”’, and there was no “it’s not important.” And that’s when we experienced what visionaries often describe as essential to innovation: a truly open environment that supports a diverse team and their unique blend of ideas and constructive questioning. It has a force-multiplier effects on the performance. Since then, there has been no looking back at TCS. The Smart Store has transformed into a retail innovation hub. We have been investing in leveraging the power of technology to create new age solutions – from self-driving robotic carts, automated vision enabled store operations to immersive XR experiences and much more. As part of this approach, we are driving structured programs to drive the culture of IP creation from each team member. We have invested in the creation of talent pools capable of creating innovative solutions. And we also recently inaugurated our dedicated Retail Research Center in Cornell Tech University.
These early investments in innovation also paved the way for non-linear revenue streams through the creation of new age retail products and solutions (TCS Algo RetailTM) for the industry and through the joint Agile Innovation Centers with our customers.
Today, we are recognized as one of the most innovative companies in the world.
Innovation starts with new perspectives, new ideas and continuous learning
In my role, I am privileged to meet interesting people every day, within and outside the company: enterprising startups headed by the youngest of CEOs; winners of global student innovation challenges; educators, scientists and movie makers, who are visualizing and creating new, epic stories. Each one is driven by their unrelenting curiosity to explore new and nascent challenges.
This breed of thinkers is open and intentionally examines ideas from multiple perspectives and dreams big. And while the organization can provide support, there is also a need for individuals to cultivate their own ideas and support system. If I have learned anything, it is to “Dream Big” and “Drive Big.” When an opportunity presents itself, grab it. And it’s important to build a personal brand of being ethical, tenacious, and collaborative along the way. Another essential trait is to invest in learning continuously – not just learning formal skills but also qualities from your peers, your team, and your superiors. Be curious to learn from them. There is vast knowledge and approaches right at your fingertips. It is also good to continuously reflect, revise behaviors and reinvent yourself from time to time while keeping your core values.
4 Cs to spark purpose-driven innovation
Based on my personal experience, here are four essential enablers that make innovation a part of a purpose-led business.
1. Cultivate ideas and nurture often opposing, mismatched viewpoints through open forums
This is only possible through transparent processes that allow for ideas to be generated, discussed and mentored – through communities and open access to leadership. Ideas cannot flourish amidst negativity and criticism. At TCS, for example, we actively participate in the company-wide annual challenge “Dare to Try” that celebrates this spirit of curiosity and allows creation of bold innovation, even if the outcomes are not exactly as expected.
2. Constant focus on real-world impact
While encouraging free thinking is good, it is equally important to define a framework to derive value from the innovation. Establishing an effective framework with clearly defined challenges, objectives and boundaries and most important, a measure of impact—without impeding the ideation and innovation process. While we designed the TCS iON platform as an SMB platform for Retail businesses, based on the emerging market needs, it eventually transformed into as one of the largest learning assessment platforms globally, driving the intended business value.
3. Constant change
Mozart was not considered a musical genius by playing the same piece over and over. He continuously and creatively refreshed his ideas and played more often than his peers. He showed why it is important to be able to adapt to constant change. In technology too, there is a need for continuous change, whether it’s a design error requiring a new approach, a design that lands in a surprising sector, new customer requirements or something else.
4. Collaborate for a purpose-led creation
Today, we are solving increasingly complex problems and at a global scale – helping customers live healthy or sustainable business practices. No single company or individual will be able to tackle them alone. We now have modern collaboration tools and technology that allow us to harness collective knowledge, both internal and external. Collective collaboration that focuses on a common goal or purpose can drive previously unimaginable innovation. At TCS, for example, we actively tap into Co-Innovation Network (COIN), our network of startups and academia and the inspiration behind much of our innovation – to accelerate realization of real-world solutions.
Cultivate and commit to innovation
Expecting to achieve disruptive innovations without diversity of expertise, experience, and personalities is like attempting to orchestrate a symphony with just a clarinet and a piano. To pull off a masterpiece, you need a full suite of wind, percussion, brass, and string instruments. It’s time for organizations to inculcate a new collaborative, open mindset for boundary-less and inclusive innovation. This requires a leadership commitment that listens, welcomes different perspectives and can manage strong emotions and personalities—and ultimately, binds them together with a collective vision. Only a laser focus on a cultivating a culture of innovation can ensure organizations are able to create competitive differentiators to succeed in a complex, dynamic world.