Vijay Govindarajan: An interview by Bob Morris

GovindarajanVijay Govindarajan (“VG”) is widely regarded as one of the world’s leading experts on strategy and innovation. He is the Earl C. Daum 1924 Professor of International Business at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. He was the first Professor in Residence and Chief Innovation Consultant at General Electric. He worked with GE’s CEO Jeff Immelt to write “How GE is Disrupting Itself,” the Harvard Business Review article that pioneered the concept of reverse innovation – any innovation that is adopted first in the developing world. Harvard Business Review rated reverse innovation as one of the ten big ideas of the decade. VG works with CEOs and top management teams in Global Fortune 500 firms to discuss, challenge, and escalate their thinking about strategy. VG wrote the NYT and WSJ Best Seller, Reverse Innovation:Create Far From Home, Win Everywhere.

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Morris: When and why did you and Chris Trimble decide to write Reverse Innovation? What specific objectives did you have in mind?

Govindarajan: Growing up in India, I knew that the only way to solve our problems is innovation— India has too many problems and the country has too few resources. So I dedicated myself to research and write about innovation. Reverse Innovation brings me full circle back to India.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Govindarajan: The biggest surprise was that innovations for the poor can transform the lives of the rich.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you and Chris originally envisioned?

Govindarajan: Any book is an evolutionary process. It started with one company experience, GE. As we studies a dozen other companies, our theory evolved.

Morris: You and Chris Trimble have worked closely for several years. Please explain how all that happened.

Govindarajan: We have complementary strengths, yet both are committed to impacting practice. It has therefore been a great partnership.

Morris: In recent years, there has been sometimes severe criticism of M.B.A. programs, even those offered by the most prestigious business schools such as Tuck. In your opinion, in which area is there the greatest need for immediate improvement? Why? Any specific suggestions?

Govindarajan: B-Schools need to connect theory with practice. After all we are an applied field. We should look to Medical Schools, Law Schools, and Engineering Schools for inspiration— not look for legitimacy from Pure Sciences like Physics and Chemistry.

Morris: I have read all of your books and then re-read most of them before formulating the questions for this interview. In your opinion, which of these books did you find most challenging to write? Why?

Govindarajan: Reverse Innovation since it brought to closure my life’s dreams.

Morris: Throughout history, which person do you think was the greatest innovative thinker? Please explain your selection.

Govindarajan: Thomas Edison because he understood that innovation is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Most people miss this point. Bulk of the innovation challenge is in the 99% perspiration— innovation execution. This is my central research area and this is what Reverse Innovation is all about.

Morris: There are several people whom both you and I hold in high regard. Please share your thoughts and feelings about each. First, Peter Drucker

Govindarajan: Great role model.

Morris: Next, the two Thomas Watsons, father and son

Govindarajan: Created new markets

Morris: Finally, C.K. Prahalad

Govindarajan: Friend, philosopher, and guide

Morris: In your opinion, what will be the single greatest challenge that CEOs will face during the next 3-5 years? Any advice?

Govindarajan: How to grow in a slow growth world? The key is innovation.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Reverse Innovation. When and why did you and Chris decide to write it in collaboration?

Govindarajan: In 2009 after I spent two years working in GE as their first Professor in Residence and Chief Innovation Officer.

Morris: What are the core principles of reverse discrimination and by what process were they formulated?

Govindarajan: To win in emerging markets, you have to be in country, for country. You can’t simply export products from the US to emerging markets.

Morris: What are the “night and day” differences between developing economies and established (albeit unstable) economies?

Govindarajan: Most of emerging economies are relatively poor as compared to developed markets.

Morris: I think some of the most valuable material is provided in the next chapter, Chapter Three, when you explain how to replace various obsolete or insufficient mindsets. With regard to the five levels of thinking identified, at which does it become obvious that reverse innovation initiatives will either succeed or fail, if continued? Please explain.

Govindarajan: Mind set is the most difficult to change, yet it is the most important.

Morris: Please explain how local growth teams (LGTs) are created and what, specifically, they are charged to do.

Govindarajan: LGTs are a way to change organizational mind set.

Morris: Who leads them? What are the defining characteristics of an LGT leader??

Govindarajan: They are locally recruited talent led by someone who understands the local market.

Morris: Why and how did Procter & Gamble innovate “the non-P&G way”?

Govindarajan: P&G had to become market- back instead of technology-push.

Morris: Why and how did “behaving like an underdog” help Deere & Company to “redeem its emerging-market future”?

Govindarajan: Deere had to innovate in India, for Indian farmers instead of sending the very large US tractors to India.

Morris: Please explain why and how Harman changed its engineering culture with clean-slate solutions that could “kick the hornet’s nest.”

Govindarajan:: The German engineers had to change their mind set to develop a low cost-high quality product for India and China.

Morris: Please explain the “inspired ways” by which GE Healthcare helped grow markets in the heart of India?

Govindarajan: By focusing on non consumers— 80% of Indians who did not have access to health care.

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VG cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

His faculty page

His blog

Reverse Discrimination page

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