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Racing against time to solve the Ebola crisis, the US Agency for International Development announced a “Grand Challenge” to innovators around the globe. It encouraged them to send in ideas for improving the tools used by frontline health workers. In two months they received 1,500 ideas. This enabled them to strike up collaborations with a variety of partners to deliver working improvements.

A few years ago, a leading IT research and advisory firm urged banks to stop using closed applications and switch to lightweight apps and APIs instead. Now, it seems the API economy is finally upon us.

Amidst innovation, open APIs, and other trends of innovation glasnost, the average large enterprise is still isolating new ideas within “innovation departments” and labs. Why do companies persist with closed innovation models? We know they drain resources and often fail to produce winning ideas that scale. Also, if innovation needs to be driven from the top shouldn’t it also receive a push from the organisation’s grassroots?

It is clear that enterprises need a new approach. They need to internalise innovation so that everyone in the organisation, at every level, innovates as part of the job. This “newly innovative” enterprise will subscribe to a collective creative model in which junior staff work alongside business leaders to develop and implement new ideas and concepts. In such an enterprise, breakthrough innovation might happen sporadically, but bite-sized, on-the-job, grassroots innovations will always be in the making. Thanks in part to a set of innovation-centric core principles and processes.

The principle of Zero Distance

The newly innovative enterprise not only seeks to innovate at all levels, at all times, but also in the right direction. One that minimises the gap between its offerings and client needs, until both are at zero distance from one another. Here, innovation is often a quest for a client problem that is unknown or unarticulated, or a surprisingly innovative way to execute a solution to a known problem, rather than a search for the next “me too” solution

The innovation process framework

The enterprise employs a simple but universally applicable innovation framework to first find and then resolve clients’ problems. Employees working on various client assignments are encouraged to look outside their domain to learn from other projects. They are also rewarded for searching for opportunities to improve efficiencies or create new value. Last, but not least, everyone is expected to share their knowledge with others across the organisation. Articulating the value of their innovative ideas in clear business terms and in the spirit of the creative collective is paramount.

Zero distance innovation frameworks can deliver stunning results for large multinational firms and their clients. We see it here first-hand every day. It’s not innovation mandated, supervised by management. Or Innovation born in a lab. But simply ideas brought to life by regular people doing regular jobs and asking “what more can I do” as a regular part of it.

Here’s just one example.

In January 2015, a sporting goods retailer approached us to develop an interface between a new Point-of-Sale (POS) system it had invested in and its existing legacy infrastructure. It became apparent to an engineer on the team that the client was frequently grappling with having to identify price details for in-store items without a price tag. A missing tag amidst an inventory of 25,000 items in a store created a plethora of problems. It wasted staff time locating the information, it often resulted in inaccurate inventory and missed sales, and it inconvenienced customers by delaying the checkout process. A closer look at the new POS system revealed that it did not have a feature to search for items based on visual elements, such as colour and size – hampering efforts to find the price of an object during check-out. Adding that search feature to the POS system through customisation was a revenue-intensive exercise. The team then sought to hack the challenge. They worked on the ‘item description’ field in the POS system to enable it to additionally conduct a colour/size search. Having found a way around, a prototype of the tweaked POS was quickly developed and shared with the delighted retailer.

Almost five per cent of store inventories lacked price tags, and the retailer operated 1,000 stores making 60 million transactions each year. It stood to benefit significantly in terms of prevented loss of sale. This is over and above the couple of hundred thousand dollars saved from not having to customise their new POS system.

By Ravi Kumar, Executive Vice President & Chief Delivery Officer, Infosys