In conversation with Ganesh Prabhu: design, sustainability, innovation and more…

ganeshGanesh N. Prabhu is Professor of Strategy at the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore. His areas of research and teaching are product innovation, strategy and entrepreneurship. Here is a freewheeling discussion with him on a variety of themes looking at sustainable design, entreprenuership and innovation.

1. You have done significant amount of work on new product development.  What trends do you see emerging? Do you feel India is equipped to handle the emerging trends?

I believe that for many firms in India new product activity is still episodic – taken up only when faced with a major market or competitive challenge. This reluctance to engage in continual efforts in product development is partially driven by the firm’s perception of high price sensitivity in the Indian market. Firms may worry about returns on the high cost of product innovation and its impact on their pricing till some competitor overtakes them with innovations that are sold at far lower prices than they envisaged!

2. What role can design and innovation play in this context?

Inclusion of trained designers in product innovation teams can significantly improve the aesthetics and usability of products or services as well as reduce its costs, yet very often designers are brought in too late, often as an afterthought when the major parameters are decided – quite like bringing in landscapers after the builders have finished the building! More recently the trend is to bring in product designers earlier in the process where their efforts have greater value in shaping and improving the functionality of the new products or services being developed as well  as improve their ergonomics and aesthetics.

3. Can product design drive social responsibility and sustainability?

Social responsibility and sustainability is part of the design education process. For example, ergonomic design decreases human effort and strain. Frugality in the use of materials is encouraged by design schools. Designers also create sustainable designs with greater use of reusable, recyclable materials without reducing the quality of the product.

4. Why should business schools teach design? By teaching design aren’t we stepping on the toes of schools like NID?

Business schools should orient managers on how to be effective members or leaders of a multi-disciplinary product innovation team that includes trained product designers. Also business schools should cover design thinking – an iterative process that is user centric, flexible and experimentation driven rather than plan driven. Business students are usually plan driven in conceptualizing new products and can panic when their plans fail with users. Design thinking in contrast is open to user ideas, highly experiment driven and many design paths are tried iteratively to see which design configuration suits actual users the most.

5. Is there a role for multi-disciplinary business education that covers Corporate Social Responsibility, Sustainability and Design?

Yes it is already done to an extent in the design schools and can be done more in business schools. However given business school functional specializations we rarely find faculty who can do justice to all the three themes and moreover show their synergy in practice.

6. Is collaboration with engineering and design institutes the way forward for innovative thinking? How was your experience working with IIT Kanpur on such an experiment?

The USID Foundation has organized three Design Gurukuls at IIT Kanpur recently in which I was a mentor for two. Teams of six members each – a mix of design, engineering and social science students worked on social relevance projects. It was interesting for me to work with design students as they were able to quickly ideate and render drawings and models in ways that others could not. Also they never assumed that they knew the user context and user needs till they met real users. I later learnt from design faculty mentors that this is an important trait instilled early in the design curriculum. Never assume you know what users need is a trait that is required in engineering and business school students who tend to plan a lot more before they meet real users and find their initial assumptions were way of mark!

7. You have done significant work with women entrepreneurs. How do you see women entrepreneurs look at social enterprise? What learning can one draw from their work?

Women entrepreneurs are more likely to start social enterprises of their interest as they often claim to be under lesser perceived social pressure or actual family pressure to take up conventional businesses and show high incomes. At the IIMB annual summer program for women entrepreneurs, we have had consistent participation from social entrepreneurs and many others have started new social enterprises after the program. Even those who start commercial enterprises make it a point to include social concerns in their business plan – such as employing women with disability, educating and rehabilitating distressed women and restoring the balance in the use of scarce resource by greening efforts in their business.

The important positive difference that I see with women entrepreneurs is that they are more likely to take up enterprises in areas of their deep interest rather than go with fads. Another positive difference is that women entrepreneurs tend to grow their enterprise in line with a realistic assessment of their own competence and their depth of understanding of users and therefore are far less likely to fail in startups. In contrast male entrepreneurs often tend to over assess their competence, be more impatient for rapid growth and take greater risks in the face of lesser depth in user understanding, resulting in more failures. Investors should recognize the lower risk of investing in sound women run enterprises.

I recently taught in the British Council’s Women Social Entrepreneurship Development Program at the IIM Kozhikode that had 25 participants drawn from all parts of India, who will now seed new social enterprises among women in their home regions. More such programs are required to build on the potential for women social entrepreneurs in India.

Article coauthored by Utkarsh Majmudar and originally published in Economic Times.

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