Was Gandhi Innovative?

I saw an interesting post titled Is India Not So Innovative, After All?. Somehow, the word Innovation is being misused, twisted and turned and nobody seems to be noticing. (my original comment to the post is here, part of which is reproduced below).

Guys, it’s innovation we’re talking about here. Does anybody care to explain what the word means? Does it need a context? Is it a process or a domain – or both? Or many other things coming together?

Talk to technology and business people and they will somehow try to see it as a tool. So researching a need and then developing a solution to address it is Innovation. Right? That’s what I get from reading the post. Then why call it innovation, why not keep calling it R&D? Are we simply using the word because it sounds nicer?

It’s not about India being innovative, it’s about Indians being innovative. I believe we are innovative and perhaps the only nation that has all the ingredients needed for innovation. Of course, this means expanding the definition – oops! almost fell into the same trap myself there – (understanding is a better word) understanding of Innovation.

Some questions I continue to look for answers are:


  1. Does anybody know what Innovation really means? I believe it is a way of thinking that embraces ‘all’ dimensions of a situation and tries to find the best interconnections. It (innovation) is simultaneously the way of thinking AND the process AND the domain AND the tools AND the methods coming together to CREATE a solution (change) FOR a situation (context) AT a certain point in time. 
  2. Why do we continue to use Innovation interchangeably with invention, R&D, creativity and a few others? I often hear people say, “This or that is a great innovation”. I have a problem with understanding why an abstract term is being connoted as a ‘thing’. I suggest we go back to our Wren & Martins to study English grammar all over again. I don’t have a problem with invention since it is a tangible output, part of whose process of development may have been innovative. But an Innovation?! It’s a ludicrous thought.
  3. Was Gandhi innovative? He didn’t ‘invent’ any products, unless we’d like to credit him with the charkha (spinning wheel). He did not try to incrementally solve problems that came his way. He had a purpose (objective), an unflinching belief to back that purpose (conviction), thought about consequences of his actions (impact), and then chose to do something in a way that had never occurred to anybody else (disruption). Not his followers, not his fellow politicians, not the British Raj.His innovative ways ‘surprised’ everybody, even himself! He did not research his ideas and ideologies (sometimes we keep doing this on end), he did not develop complicated plans for executing his ideas – he just thought differently. One man moved the powers that were, single-handedly (well not really, he did crank up the polity though) out of India.

So if we want to be sure about success in innovation, we must —- there we go again. There is no sure way when it comes to Innovation. Let’s accept it!

Then there’s the issue about sustainability. This is another dimension that I’ll write about in a later post.

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8 Replies to “Was Gandhi Innovative?”

  1. Hi Sunil,

    Enlightening post ! People/Organizations need to look around and understand the ‘essence’ of Innovation rather than using it as a marketing term.

    I was just trying to get some ‘clarity of thought’ on the points that you’ve addressed. May be too vaguely structured !

    1. Innovation Definition

    Interconnect (Thoughts + Tools + Process + Domain + Methods) = Create a solution at a specific instance

    Query – What if one of the ingredients is missing? Will we still be able to apply the innovation definition.

    2 Innovation overlapping with Invention

    Query – Can ‘Innovation’ ever have a tangible output? Also, In traditional application development space, would it be correct to quote something like this: Our application is an example of new ‘invention’ and it has possible primarily because of the ‘innovative’ process that we’ve followed.

    3 Gandhian Philosophy

    Terrific explanation 🙂

    > Objective
    > Conviction
    > Impact
    > Disruption

    Looking forward to the ‘sustainability’ series.


  2. Thanks Daksh. Excellent questions …!

    1. One of the things I want to stay clear of here, is trying to define Innovation. Therefore one way of understanding Innovation is to change the way we think. Edward de Bono’s book “Why so Stupid?” talks about how the human race never really learnt to think. So it is not ‘thoughts’ but more ‘thinking’ that qualifies as an ingredient. To answer your specific question, depending upon the time and context, the ingredients will come together in different measure. So it is possible to contemplate a scenario where, for example, innovation can happen with a certain kind of thinking using prior knowledge. No Tools, methods or processes may be required.

    2. You have answered your own question here. Yes, you’re right. It is possible for an innovative approach to result in a tangible output. In a sense every output of innovation must be tangible. I was only trying to highlight the distinction between the terms innovation and invention with a plea that they not be used interchangeably!!

    Thanks again!


  3. I am not sure if I can get into this debate easily. But here are my quick thoughts:

    1) Innovation is the act by which an abstract creative process is released — and the process/thought is created by an innovative attitude that deals with a situation in a novel way — by which I mean something that breaks the inertia, whether in a small or big way, whether it is in a process, structure or discipline.
    2) Innovation is glorified because we have a “trader” approach to business, where historically, profit margin depended on a) Cost of acquisition b) Price c) Information opaqueness. R&D was thought to be the way to create innovations — this is an overarching cultural view that overlooks smaller innovations happening all the time.
    3) Gandhi was an innovator when he came up with ‘satyagraha’ — the strict definition of which lies in “fighting for truth” in a manner that you fight the “falsehood” within an oppressor (e.g. the British) rather than the oppressor himself. This is because Gandhi found fault with their injustice, even as he realised that as a race or system, they were just in their own way. Hence the innovation.
    4) Innovation is a business jargon word. Always good to take it back to English before bringing it back to business — which is one way of clarifying the situation and unbundling oneself from the jargonic presuppositions of business managers.


  4. Sunil – Thanks for bringing more light to the conversation ! Your insights are very helpful.

    Madhavan – If I may say so, your elaboration of Gandhian approach enables me to connect with the above mentioned points of Objective,
    Conviction, Impact, Disruption.

    On a personal note, I am delighted to contribute to this forum.

    I do not know if my thoughts make much sense, but I believe there’s a fair bit of learning for everybody here: the marketing guy [who’s keen to ride on the ‘jargon’ bandwagon], the business guy [who’s always looking for the success mantra to ‘Innovate’] and the tech guy [who’s looking for tools & methods].


  5. Hey guys, ideas don’t matter unless they are turned into ‘action”. you might have the most brilliant idea in the whole wide world…but unless you execute it…it’s just a thought…a blip in cyber space. a spark that blitzed through your mind and remained there…here’s my take on India being super-innovative…if it were true, we would have abolished poverty by now. caste differences wouldn’t matter and we would truly be a superpower. right now, we want to be one (superpower)…it’s an idea with no execution!


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