What Makes Israelis So Innovative?

(Mr. Gopalakrishnan, needs no introduction. I read this wonderful piece and sought his permission to carry this as a ‘Guest Post’. As always he was prompt in his reply and generous in his response. I have taken the liberty of using one the lines from the article as the headline for this post.)

By R Gopalakrishnan*

Bitzua and many other Israeli or Jewish concepts are brought alive in an eminently readable and inspiring book called Start-Up Nation: the story of Israel’s economic miracle (by Dan Senor and Saul Singer, published by Twelve, Hatchette Group, 2009). Some of the ideas in the book are very relevant for India and its innovation capability as was brought home to me on a recent business visit to Israel.
Bitzua is a Hebrew term that roughly translates into ‘getting things done.’ A bitzuist is a pragmatic person with a quality of activism and of doing what is to be done. Israel’s first leader, David Ben-Gurion, epitomized bitzua because he exhorted citizens of his newly formed country to get on with nation-building by ‘doing and learning’ rather than forever debating about the ‘right approach.’ This spirit of ‘try it, just do it’ is all-pervasive in Israel and has led to the country becoming a top destination for R&D.

Mr. R. Gopalakrishnan, Executive Director, Tata Sons

Israel is an incredibly innovative nation. It ranks the highest in the world in the per capita number of patents filed. A partner at A&G Partners, an organization that specialises in building bridges between Israel and Asia, says that even her hairdresser has a patent on an exact algorithm for deducing the right hair shade! Over 30 percent of the Nobel Prize winners are from the Jewish community, an amazing statistic, considering that the number of Jews on the planet peaked at 18 million before the Second World War, and number only about 12 million nowadays.
So what makes Israelis so innovative? I was curious to observe similarities and differences with Indians and explore ideas and lessons.

Israel is a highly diverse and multi-cultural society with people of various ethnic origins–Russia, Europe, Middle East and Asia. They are amazingly talkative and argumentative. For a century now, and particularly during the last 60 years, they have lived with the fact that uncertainty from their neighbours is a certainty. The constant challenge to their national existence and their very being has made them fiercely proud as they seek self-preservation. They are restless in their quest for economic advancement and social progress; they are highly entrepreneurial.
They are competitive with one another to the point that sometimes, they give an observer the impression of pulling one other down wantonly. For instance, after the tragic terrorist attack in Mumbai on 26/11, an emotional subject like the renovation of the Jewish Centre at Nariman House has become a controversy and a legal dispute in the courts. Between whom? Between the family of the rabbi who was killed and his religious denomination, Chabad-Lubavitch!

Viewed another way, they have three of the Cs required to be highly innovative: challenge, creativity and chaos. But there is a fourth C to which I will return.
Now remove the word ‘Israel’ and substitute with ‘India’. Barring some detail, all those comments would be applicable. India has huge diversity, is pretty much multi-cultural, is an argumentative society, faces constant threats to peace from the neighbourhood (albeit much less than Israel), Indians are restless, they have a long tradition of being entrepreneurial, and  Indians can be considered to be competitive to the point  of pulling one other down. Indians too have the same Cs of challenge, creativity and chaos.

But Indians do not have the rich record of innovation that Israelis have. What is missing? As an American of Chinese origin once explained to me, India needs to improve in the fourth C, channelization. The raw energy of creativity is not captured into a sufficiently meaningful, disciplined and process-driven engine of innovation.
The Israelis use expressive Hebrew words to communicate a sense of action, of doing and of learning and celebrate these characteristics. Chutzpah, according to Jewish scholar Leo Rosten in The Joys of Yiddish, is ‘gall, brazen nerve, effrontery, presumption plus arrogance.” Rosh gadol is a term that is used to connote a ‘can-do and responsible attitude with scant respect for the limitations of formal authority’. Davka approximately means ‘in spite of’ or what in India would be referred to as ‘kar ke dikhana hai.’

In a recent book The Other Side of Innovation (by Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble, published by HBS Presss), the authors point out that in any program of innovation, there may be an inadvertent and excessive focus on idea generation. This action undoubtedly unleashes incredible energy, but the authors argue that ‘focusing on execution is far more powerful’. I wonder whether the Brahminical intellectual tradition in India, which recognises and rewards ‘thinking’ more than ‘doing’, could be an underlying reason for the excessive focus on creativity rather than disciplined execution.
Continuous improvements and innovations are best performed by an existing organisation within a company (the authors call it the ‘Performance Engine’). Because ongoing operations are repeatable and predictable, they are easily absorbed into the already existing strategy-planning-execution cycle. And Indians are super at it. Most people agree that this is a strength for India.
However when it comes to a lateral or different idea, which involves a ‘break all the rules’ approach, a new form of organisation and approach is required. This organisation is likely to be less disciplined and more accepting of failures and setbacks as compared to the Performance Engine. This organisation too requires planning, but of a different type. If the innovator tends to jump directly from idea to execution, then the outcome is likely to be sub optimal. And I think this is where India has a big opportunity to focus and improve. What does it take for Indians to more explicitly demonstrate the qualities of chutzpah, rosh gadol and davka?

Indians have been incredibly successful in executing some radical ideas, but not enough of them. They demonstrated davka and chutzpah when America denied her the technology of the supercomputer. As the Washington Post wrote, an ‘angry India’ set out to develop the Param supercomputer. Dr RA Mashelkar often says that unless India ‘gets angry’, Indians do not seem to get cracking. India demonstrated the same davka and rosh gadol when America cut out the PL 480 aid for wheat supply in the mid 1960s.

India has had great icons in demonstrating such qualities of being daring and getting things done: C Subramaniam and Vallabhai Patel in public life, Ratan Tata and E Sreedharan from the field of  industrialization, and Raghunath Mashelkar and MS Swaminathan from science and technology. Our management academic curriculum and national folklore should shift a bit more focus to this fourth C of ‘channelization’. Coupled with the strong presence of the first 3 Cs of challenge-creativity-chaos, Indians can aim to deliver innovation somewhat like the Israelis, but in our own unique way.

“How do you know Mr Gopalakrishnan?” asked Prasna**

“I know him from my Ogilvy days. He inaugurated  our Voices Within Workshops for the Tata Group.”

*The author is Executive Director, Tata Sons and a member of the National Innovation Council. The views expressed are personal.

**Prasna Rao is an unusual friend. He appears every time I start writing something. He is almost always there when I am writing my blog. He asks questions that are razor sharp and often makes me uncomfortable. He is relentless till I answer his questions in simple, clear terms. You might find that he is most of the times asking questions that you want to. Therefore he is on your side, while he is putting me in the dock. I call him my Uninvited Coach


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One Response to “What Makes Israelis So Innovative?”

  1. Manisha Vatsa says:

    I enjoyed reading this article. Very Nice.


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