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Innovation Institutionalized Ideapreneur at HCL Technologies

Iowa, USA. Meet Prem Sundar, a millennial database professional at HCL. Prem and his team had been entrusted to work with a key client—a large aerospace and defence company that provides avionics-based IT systems and services to governmental agencies and aircraft manufacturers. Transport aircraft around the world are installed with a version of their aviation electronics systems. While engaging the client, Prem and his team identified a unique challenge. The firm captured a large amount of avionics data on its database, but every time the database was queried to extract information, it took a whopping seven days for the system to respond with an output. This had been causing a major drag on decision-making, and delaying execution. Prem knew that his team had to look beyond just managing the product life cycle, and came up with the idea of developing a new query language. Prem took his team’s help to build the language, and eventually developed a system that had a parser to understand the query syntax, an engine to output query-based data, along with a state-of-the-art client user interface that made it easier to extract information. The result? The seven-day query process was brought down to five minutes, resulting in savings of over $5.1 million and countless man-hours. The savings continue to accumulate for the client.

Oregon,  USA. Meet Ramya Subramanian, a millennial technical lead at HCL. Ramya’s client is a major American Internet corporation. As Ramya worked through her project, an anomaly caught her attention, something that was outside the purview of her routine tasks. The client’s project management tool was highly inefficient—project tracking was being done by following messy trail mails. With multiple teams working in parallel, each team having up to forty people, and every team member being endowed with specific tasks, the client had his work cut out. Ramya shuddered at the thought of someone having to track individual performance and progress for such a large team by scanning through hundreds of emails. As Ramya thought through a possible solution to this unique dilemma, she had her eureka moment—the project management tool she used at HCL was best in class, and she could build an efficient tool for the client using this system as a template. Ramya did just that and created a tool that allowed easy collation of team communication (no more messy trail mails), broadcast information to individual team members, captured overall status reports, helped the manager keep track of scheduled tasks and identified delays in the process. The client was impressed with Ramya’s solution and implemented it—the solution had a projected value of $120,000.

New Delhi, India. Meet Payal Baloni, a millennial project lead at HCL. Payal had taken up an assignment for a client in the healthcare domain. A core requirement of the project was to ensure error-free migration of raw data from clinical trials. Without this, the client would be unable to fetch the requisite US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approvals, and without approvals, they wouldn’t be able to release drugs into the market on time. As project lead, it was Payal’s responsibility to manage the current tool and ensure that the migration happened smoothly. There was one problem though: the current data migration process was plagued with errors, and Payal’s team had been taking flak for managing a proprietary tool they had little control over. Payal went back to her team and led a brainstorm to get to the root cause. The team came to the conclusion that the current migration tool was possibly outdated, and badly in need of an upgrade. Payal did a few checks with the client to validate these assumptions and found that the tool had indeed been customized and modified multiple times, with several bug fixes along the way. Payal had the choice to work on the existing tool, by plugging errors manually as and when they arose. Instead, Payal and her team came up with a unique, service-led solution to handle the data migration process: they call it DIASS—Data Integration as a Service. The new tool had the potential to migrate raw clinical data faster, make the process more efficient and accurate and gave the client submission-ready output. It was a complete and comprehensive end-to-end service. The outcome? The client implemented Payal’s idea in eight projects and saved over $1.2 million. 

Prem, Ramya and Payal belong to a breed of intrapreneurs at HCL called Ideapreneurs. If you observe closely, there are three behavioural threads that are consistent through all these stories: seeding an idea by looking beyond the obvious, nurturing it to bring it to realization and harvesting an intrapreneurial ecosystem that commits to self-sustained growth. The result—Ideapreneurs providing value to clients much beyond what is expected from contractual obligations and service agreements (what HCL calls building ‘relationships beyond the contract’). HCL encourages these behaviours by putting in place processes that give employees at all levels the ‘licence to ideate’. To understand the essence of Ideapreneurship, we must turn the clock back a few years. 


The Adjacent Possible

In his bestselling book, Where Good Ideas Come From, author Steven Johnson refers to a concept called ‘the adjacent possible’, an idea borrowed from molecular biology:

The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself. Yet is it not an infinite space, or a totally open playing field . . . What the adjacent possible tells us is that at any moment the world is capable of extraordinary change, but only certain changes can happen . . . In human culture, we like to think of breakthrough ideas as sudden accelerations on the timeline, where a genius jumps ahead fifty years and invents something that normal minds, trapped in the present moment, couldn’t possibly have come up with.

Put simply, an ‘adjacent possible’ is an idea that is ahead of its time. In 2010, then CEO of HCL Technologies, Vineet Nayar, proposed such a concept in his book Employees First, Customers Second. He described how he had brought about organizational transformation at HCL by driving a culture of trust through transparency, inverting the organizational pyramid and completely recasting the role of the CEO.

While the transformation process was under way, Nayar found that one group of employees was particularly enthusiastic about the proposed changes—a group Nayar referred to as the ‘transformers’. With over 80 per cent of HCL’s population comprising millennials, not surprisingly, a large percentage of the transformers turned out to be from this generation. Nayar acknowledged in his book that the millennials (or Gen Y) ‘were the ones who did the real work. The ones who met with customers. Who delivered our products and services. Who worked through problems. Who deserved support and praise.’

He also realized that millennials created the most value for customers at HCL, and collectively made up what he called the ‘value zone’ in the organization. Nayar then went about strengthening this ‘value zone’ by inverting the traditional organizational pyramid and transforming the way value was delivered to HCL’s customers. ‘Wouldn’t it help us become more engaged with our employees and fire their imaginations? Wouldn’t such a transformation, made from the ground up, be more sustainable?’ he wondered.



HCL Technologies is one of the few organizations that identified the potential of the millennial generation early on and systematically went about putting in place structures that would bring out the best in them. The unique philosophy of Employees First, Customers Second gets translated into business value by answering three crucial questions:

1.   What is the core fundamental of a business? To create value.
2.  Who is creating the value? Employees.
3.   So, what should be the role of management? To engage, enable and empower employees to create value. 

HCL puts its employees first, as they form the value zone and are closest to the customer. Management at HCL embraces employee-led innovations that are driven from the grass roots, and in doing so, HCL has inverted the organizational pyramid to put employees on top. The core belief driving action at HCL is: Put your employees first and customers will never feel second. 



To tap into Ideapreneurship in the value zone, HCL understands that its employees need to be supported so that they can come up with consistent and differentiated insights while engaging with customers. This capability must exist at the individual, team and leadership levels. For Ideapreneurs, this understanding gets converted into a three-step process: Seed, Nurture and Harvest. The ‘Need to Seed’ requires an ability to look beyond the obvious, to generate and foster ideas that promise incremental progress. Prem Sundar projected this ability when he created a query language that slashed runtime from seven days to five minutes. A ‘Desire to Nurture’ requires evolving a network that nurtures these ideas to realization with an intent towards implementation and gathering ambitious scale. Payal Baloni reached out to her networks both within and outside HCL to validate assumptions before proposing a solution that could be implemented to scale. A ‘Commitment to Harvest’ involves incubating an intrapreneurial ecosystem that self-sustains growth from initiative to business outcome by defining the commercial value of an idea. Ideas implemented by Ideapreneurs at HCL have added over $1 billion in client-reported value. 

Institutionalizing Ideapreneurship

With over 1,00,000 employees worldwide, HCL has put in place a number of programmes aligned to the core tenets of Ideapreneurship, guided by innovation that happens in the value zone. Behaviours that seed, nurture and harvest customer-focused ideas are encouraged through programmes like the ‘Value Portal’. This is how the Value Portal works: 

  • Ideas raised by employees go through workflow cycles and are shared with customers for feedback and approval.
  • Estimates on cost and expected value generation are projected and some of the ideas are chosen for implementation (often at no additional fee to the client).
  • Shortlisted ideas are given guidance and mentorship for successful implementation.
  • Ideas are co-created and co-implemented with the client. This makes it easier for the customer to measure the value realized and sign off on the savings achieved through such an initiative.

Other programmes like LeadGen facilitate servicing of untapped customer demands and requests through delivery employees who have a direct connect with the customers; MAD JAM recognizes and celebrates outstanding employee-led innovations for customers; and the Good Practice Conference makes it possible for employees from across the organization to put forth their suggestions, in the form of discussion papers which get presented at an annual conference.

For someone who joins HCL, the power of Ideapreneurship comes alive thirty days before joining the organization, with stories of successful wins shared during the pre-induction communication process. It lingers on through the duration of the candidate’s employment experience with the organization, with targeted training and coaching, rewards, platforms and evangelists who bring the concept of Ideapreneurship to life in a myriad ways. Even after moving on, Ideapreneurs keep in touch by way of a robust alumni network. 

HCL Technologies is an organization that has empowered a generation of employees it deeply trusts and believes in. The results are obvious: driven Ideapreneurs have already delivered over $1 billion in customer value through continuous ideation and implementation, with a supportive ecosystem that guides them through this challenging journey. As HCL strengthens its internal processes to further align culture, strategy and performance targets, the employees first,  customers second framework will allow the organization to be ready for perpetual change. For HCL’s over 1,00,000 Ideapreneurs, the journey has only begun. 

* * *


Building 10x culture at InMobi

August 2015. The stage was set in Bengaluru. Industry stalwarts like ex-UIDAI chief Nandan Nilekani and Paytm founder Vijay Shekhar Sharma, among others, had gathered to witness the launch of Miip, a mobile-based discovery platform, created by the world’s largest independent mobile advertising network, InMobi.

CEO Naveen Tewari walked up to take centre stage. Within minutes, a captivated audience was enthralled as Tewari guided them through the evolution of global e-commerce and mobile advertising over the years. ‘It is time we put the user at the centre of the experience,’ explained Naveen Tewari. 

The shift from e-commerce to m-commerce (or mobile-enabled commercial transactions) is already upon us. The current model of m-commerce, where we, the users, download an app and then browse through a variety of options before making a buying decision, is inherently limiting as we can access only as many products and services as are contained in the app. InMobi has not only identified the next frontier in mobile advertising, but also launched a solution to capitalize on the imminent change. What if you could discover additional products, simply based on your past preferences and behaviours, across unrelated apps? The next big leap is discovery commerce (or d-commerce) which creates ‘window-shopping experiences’ for the user across thousands of apps. This ‘discovery zone’ is interactive, and is based on suggestions made by an intelligent digital curator developed by InMobi called Miip—a personal co-pilot that guides the user towards a unique ‘discovery experience’. Over time, Miip becomes the user’s trusted friend that provides recommendations that are precisely what the user needs at exactly the right moment.

Such a service blurs the lines between what Naveen Tewari calls the ‘point of discovery’ and ‘point of purchase’. The aim is to revolutionize mobile advertising by putting the user, and their references, back at the centre of mobile advertising. This innovation is one of many to have been launched out of InMobi’s sprawling offices across five continents, the biggest of which is in Bengaluru. Innovation doesn’t happen by chance, but is a result of great organizational culture. How does InMobi nurture and sustain a culture that nurtures ongoing innovation?


10x Culture

In the highly acclaimed book Zero to One, Silicon Valley investor and entrepreneur Peter Thiel writes about the concept of 10x, an essential element of scale in building truly valuable businesses:

As a good rule of thumb, proprietary technology must be at least 10 times better than its closest substitute in some important dimension to lead to a real monopolistic advantage . . . The clearest way to make a 10x improvement is to invent something completely new. If you build something valuable where there was nothing before, the increase in value is theoretically infinite.

Thiel then goes on to describe how 10x can be applied not only to radically improve existing solutions, or create superior integrated designs that may be hard to measure, but also to provide significant competitive advantage to firms. InMobi takes the idea of 10x a step further. In InMobi’s world, 10x is applied to create both disruptive solutions (external focus) and to build a truly inspiring culture (internal focus). Innovation is not a one-time, chance occurrence, but a consequence of deliberate and continued focus on building an inspired workplace that fosters creativity. Armed with a supportive work environment that is 10x better than others, InMobians (as employees at InMobi are called) compete successfully on the world stage, building great products and services that rival those of organizations like Facebook and Google. 

Assumptions and Beliefs

Workplace inspiration may be as important as performance and profits, but sustaining a 10x culture requires much more than just the coming together of great minds to identify and solve some of the world’s toughest challenges. It begins with the assumptions you have about your people (remember McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y from Chapter 1?). To understand how seriously InMobi takes its culture, one must begin with the assumptions. These are clearly laid out in the words of Anson Ben, director of learning at InMobi, and one of the key architects of the InMobi culture:

Welcome to our world—a world where it is safe to be who you really are. Come along with your vulnerabilities, your aspirations, your fears and your childish excitement. Bring out the artist, the tinkerer, the star gazer, the athlete, the polymath within you, because if the real person behind the facade comes to work, greatness will be achieved. We believe that strategies will come and go, business models will come and go, revenues will go up and down, competitors will come and go, the one thing that will stand the test of time and guide us is our soul—our culture. 

Imagine that. Culture is the soul of the organization. In The Culture Engine, author S. Chris Edmonds urges leaders to ‘pay attention to what you pay attention to’. Far too many organizations focus only on measuring and improving performance—it is easy to get entangled in the maze of metrics and figures that make up the dashboards. While these are essential and indeed critical, an important component of the institution-building process gets de-prioritized and delegated—culture. At InMobi, however, culture is top priority for the office of the CEO. It is little wonder then that millennials flourish at InMobi. In less than a decade of its existence, numerous InMobians have gone on to launch their own ventures. The assumptions about people at InMobi are in turn backed by the following beliefs:

  • InMobi is in the business of innovation, people are its biggest assets and they trump products and profits by a wide margin. In the words of co-founder Abhay Singhal, ‘This is not just a “nice-to-have” but a “must-have”.’
  • Attitude and smartness can more than make up for lack of experience. 
  • Don’t create policies to manage the 1 per cent people who might break away from the norms. This will make life difficult for the remaining 99 per cent who respect and adhere to them.
  • Hire the right set of people, who live by the purpose of the organization.
  • Ensure that people clearly understand the direction of the organization, and then give them the autonomy to dream big and deliver even bigger. 



Leaders at InMobi are cognizant of the fact that assumptions and beliefs are protected and hedged securely by values that are core to the organization. InMobi’s values are:

  • Thinking big, being entrepreneurial.
  • Being positive, taking ownership, being accountable.
  • Being passionate, fanatically driven, being proud.
  • Freedom with responsibility and integrity.

These values are more than just lofty ideals; they mirror the everyday reality at InMobi. In other words, the values come alive in a way that it makes for an authentic workplace experience. Organization support is constant and InMobians receive the requisite guidance to live by the values. For instance, ‘thinking big and being entrepreneurial’ requires creating a safe space, and taking away the fear of failure. One manifestation of this value is in how InMobi rewards all its non-sales staff with 100 per cent bonuses. By taking the issue of remuneration off the table, InMobians don’t have to constantly worry about that nagging anxiety associated with executing big ideas. The firm has done away with traditional performance-based rankings. These are now replaced with periodic, meaningful conversations that are developmental in nature. The values also reflect in the way the physical office space has been designed—to enable serendipitous conversations. Anson Ben, director of learning at InMobi, told me about a staircase that runs right through the middle of the office, connecting multiple floors. ‘The impact the office design has had on collaboration and spontaneous discussion is just incredible.’ Planned initiatives like ‘Conversations over Coffee’ allow InMobians to routinely block time with executives working in other teams (including the CEO), resulting in the germination and cross-pollination of ideas. A programme called ‘Live Your Potential’ brings the value of ‘freedom with responsibility and integrity’ to life. It allows one to work on short-term, bridge assignments to explore other roles within the organization. A ‘Learning Wallet’ enables every InMobian to invest a cool $800 every year in upskilling and learning something that may be of interest to him/her. With ‘Spot Rewards’, InMobians can reward colleagues to acknowledge their contribution and support. One outcome of such determined focus on building 10x culture: sky-high advocacy. Almost 40 per cent of hiring at InMobi happens through referrals. 

The Road to YaWiO: Formalizing the Values

A long set of values can cause confusion and frustration in the minds of employees. An elegant framework can break down the values into specific traits and inspire action, so employees know what exactly is expected of them. It is therefore imperative to distil the values to not more than a few key attributes. Anson Ben explains, ‘As the journey progresses, and the organization matures, there is a need to go deeper and make things simpler.’ After they had progressed to a certain level of maturity in the culture-building process, leaders at InMobi realized that the values (thinking big, being entrepreneurial, etc.) aligned quite neatly with three central attributes: imagination, oneness and action. 

With participation from employees across levels in the organization, InMobi went one step further and formalized the essence of the culture into a crisp word. That’s right, one word only, that can help anyone instantly recollect what it stands for. The word is YaWiO (pronounced ‘yaa-wee-oh’), and is actually a combination of words from three ancient languages: Turkish, Sanskrit and Latin.

With so much packed into one elegant phrase, YaWiO (signifying imagination, oneness and action) serves as the keystone of the culture at InMobi. Beliefs, assumptions, values and traits all bundled into one powerful word. But defining what your culture stands for is well begun and half done. The other half requires sustained effort and focus from all involved to ensure that the elements play out frequently in the organization in more ways than one. According to Anson Ben, ‘We realize that any culture that has sustained over the ages has had three essential elements—beliefs, stories and rituals. A strong philosophy or set of beliefs are cemented by stories that pass from generation to generation and these stories in turn form the basis for periodic rituals.’ 

What You Measure, You Improve; What You Celebrate, You Grow!

At InMobi, executives’ goals are made available to everyone in the firm and these are closely aligned to YaWiO. In addition, the organization also promotes certain ‘rituals’ that celebrate the spirit of YaWiO. The first such ritual was a hackathon called YaWiO-x, which brought InMobians together to solve unique challenges faced by two non-profits—Magic Bus and XPRIZE—and an aerospace enterprise, Team Indus. Magic Bus, an NGO that helps children build better life skills on their journey from childhood to livelihood, was faced with the dilemma of transmitting educational content to villages through extremely low bandwidth. InMobians approached the situation laterally and rephrased the problem statement to: ‘If they don’t have access to the Internet, what alternate technology do they have at present that could be leveraged?’ The answer: satellite television. So, the team devised a method to transmit curated educational content using digital video broadcasting technology through set-top boxes. A detailed execution plan was shared with Magic Bus, which has the potential to impact the way education is delivered to millions of children not just in India but other countries across the globe. XPRIZE was provided with the necessary blueprint to announce a global contest on women’s safety, and Team Indus went away with ideas to reduce their time for modelling a communications system between the rover and the lander on the moon. 

Back at the Miip launch in Bengaluru, CEO Naveen Tewari acknowledged the power of people-led transformation at InMobi, not once or twice, but several times over. ‘We want people to love advertising because we love it ourselves,’ said Tewari. What’s next for YaWiO? Pat comes the reply from Anson Ben, ‘It really depends on how InMobians want to shape it going forward.’ 


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