Innovation is a big word.
I must confess I haven’t given it much thought in more than a decade, since I was in the last semester of my MBA program in India. Probably that’s because, back then, the word came up too often. Innovation this, innovation that. Innovate. Innovate. Innovate.
We were obsessed with it. Professors made it sound like it was the only way for any organization, industry, or a company to be successful, much less stay in business. I couldn’t escape it. We talked about innovation in the classroom, during internships, and at the roadside chai stalls.
Back then, I understood innovation as doing something different, and I only associated it with business. There was a period of time when I couldn’t have a conversation without mentioning the "i-word." I couldn’t buy anything at a shop without offering my newfound wisdom to the owners, who never asked, about how they could innovate.
Then one day, at one of my favorite hangouts, I was schooled by a 60-year-old illiterate chai shop owner about what innovation can mean.
His business was a hole-in-the-wall on a busy intersection in an upscale shopping center in my hometown of Lucknow, India. His shop had a few rickety old wooden benches and tables. His gas stove sat on a pile of bricks along the road. A giant pot of milk was always boiling, and on a different burner he fried samosas.
For decades, this was how he made his living. I liked to go to him because, for less than a quarter, I could get a steaming cup of chai and a snack.
One day, while waiting for my chai, I asked him, as I did all the others back then, “Why don’t you innovate?”
“Innovate? What does that mean?” he asked.
I told him he could invest some money and buy nice furniture for his shop, install an air conditioner, get a snazzy neon sign, buy a coffee machine or start selling pastries, cakes and other bakery items. Then he could compete with the other more modern and expensive coffee shops around him, I said.
He looked at me, pulled me aside and said, “I have no competition in this area.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
He explained to me that his shop looked shabby because he wanted it to look that way. He catered to cycle-rickshaw pullers, cab drivers, and people who belonged to the lower income groups. These were the people who brought rich kids to expensive schools in the neighborhood every morning and took them back home every afternoon. His customers were the people who drove the fat wives of wealthy bureaucrats who came to shop in the expensive showrooms near his stall. His customers were the homeless people who slept on the steps of swanky restaurants, ones which they didn’t dare to enter.
The rickshaw pullers, the cab drivers, and the homeless found his place comforting and affordable. He told me if he upgraded his shop, he would lose his customer base, which he had spent many years building. They would be startled by the new look, the new food items and the new prices. He told me there was no reason he should make his shop look like the others in the area.
I listened to him speechless. No one in my MBA class had talked about not innovating to succeed. Not even the professors. Innovation was always viewed as positive and necessary change. I walked away thinking that I needed to expand my definition of the word.