Think time, Rethink time, Investment in Innovation

All of us need our own ‘think time’: time and space to reflect, introspect, clear the clutter in our mind, and prepare our minds for clarity of thinking. Then, we could set apart our own ‘time and space’ for thinking, strategising, and planning at both organisational and personal levels. I find it ironic that when I long for that ‘personal space and time’, I can’t get it, and when I get it, I tend to use it not so optimally! Well, I guess it is all about self-discipline, and the right management techniques.

Effective time management is important to ensure that we get this ‘think time’ on a regular basis. When we have many things on our plate, it can be overwhelming. Whenever I read stories of great personalities and high accomplishers, I always wonder how they have managed their time. Prioritization of tasks using collaborative task tracking tools like Trello boards are useful, and even they require disciplined use from all the teams and individuals.

I should admit that I am not that well organized to be on top of all the tools, emails, tasks, project management tools, and also social media. It does take quite a lot of time. This is all in addition to the ‘must-do’ reviews with teams which now happen via video conferencing, which in my opinion has not been as efficient as face-to-face meetings. Is that because I belong to the older generation? It is only that it takes that much more getting used to. ‘Work expands to fill time’: this is so true, and work drives our time management. I sometimes wonder if we are in control of our calendar or work-related things that keep popping up.

I have for sure become busier than before the COVID crisis. Even though I work from home, as do all our teams across locations, most of the day is spent on video conferences, almost back-to-back. This means less time for the family and longer working hours. My family members complain about it, but I wonder if I really have a choice.

Strategic issues and tactical issues always go through iterations, consulting with the teams, etc. But to arrive at the final decision, it always involves ‘rethinking’, fine-tuning of strategy, tactics, and action plans. All the businesses do that.

Most businesses do that using tools for project management, ERP, collaborative tools, tools like ZOHO, and knowledge management tools.

I believe every business needs a think-tank that looks at trends and assimilates newer advances in technology and in our own domains: a team to ideate, innovate, and test the concepts by doing a proof-of-concept. It is an investment most businesses have to make to remain innovative and always have a competitive edge. It should not be a team working for a client or doing core development of products and services, but a team dedicated to innovation and not distracted by any operational matters.

In my experience, it requires a different mindset to work in such a team. They will be a cost centre, of course with an allocated budget. They are ‘cost centres’ and not profit centers. Even if two out of ten ideas succeed, and provide the impetus for new products or significant improvement in existing products, that will provide a good return on investment.

It is not easy to sustain such a team, as they are not a profit center, not customer-centric, and will not see billing and customer reviews. It is challenging to find such individuals and provide leadership, encouragement, and motivation for such teams. But they can be the heartbeat of businesses, and the fountainhead of innovation. In today’s highly competitive and globalized world of business, such internal research and innovation labs are important. At Excelsoft, we have been fortunate to have benefited from such a team, and many of our good products were germinated as ideas in such an innovation lab.

I believe that this is one of the most valuable teams, but sustaining this cycle of exploration, ideation, and developing new prototypes, is not easy. But in today’s times there are two types of businesses that are fashionable, and probably rightfully are highly valued and attract large investments. Many of them are ‘quick to sell’ startups. That is the model that is trending, and a lot of excitement is in the area: a lot of funds looking to invest in new ‘ideas’ that can be monetised in short timeframes.

In the technology area, I personally believe it is not viable to do the general IT services business. That space has already been occupied by IT giants like Infosys, TCS, WIPRO and Cognizants of the world. I believe products backed by innovation and solving problems in niche areas are more likely to see growth.

In my experience in running a medium-scale education technology business, it is important to find a domain niche, specialize in it, and aspire to be the best-in-class in the world. Absolute focus is important; particularly, in the early stages of the business, it is important to not be distracted and tempted to do stuff that is not in your focus area. The ability to say NO to business opportunities that do not fall in your defined focus area is important.

The specialization in niche areas and specific domains enables you to think alongside your customers, add value, and even provide advocacy and direction to their businesses. We have customers who would not only visit us for reviews, but also ask us for a session on our thoughts of how our sector would transform over three years or so. I have also served on the boards of some customers, as an invitee.

It is about having enough capital to take a startup until a certain stage, where they hit break-even, make real profits, and sow a significant portion of it to the growth of the business.

I sometimes fear frivolous ideas that get hyped and need several rounds of funding and capital. I believe too much money (capital) could also be bad for business, though it is clear that most businesses do need capital. It is the balance that needs careful planning. How many startups have we seen disappearing after many rounds of funding and the initial hype? How many businesses have we seen that keep raising capital to support cash flows, and surprisingly at higher valuations? Of course, with the growing number of users, that is fine. However, they should become truly profitable and cash flows generated from doing real business.

Business environments are very dynamic, especially in the world of globalisation, and are shifting dynamics due to events like the COVID Pandemic. It requires agility and resilience, and a lot of rethinking of strategy and execution to stay relevant, sustain, and still grow the business. Also, it takes being adaptable to a new way of working, which is perhaps here to stay!

Wishing you all a happy ‘Engineers’ Day’.

About the author

D Sudhanva is the founder and CEO at Excelsoft Technologies, a globally renowned eLearning Solutions Company. With a focus on transforming education across the world, Sudhanva has steered Excelsoft to be a thought leader in Education Technology with robust products delivering innovative solutions.