When a Phone is Not Just a Phone: a framework for innovation

by Deepak Seth

Is it a phone? A camera? A GPS device? A movie player? A book reader? A gaming device?

When thinking of smartphones the answer could be one of these, a combination thereof or all of them. It depends on the perspective of the user. The phone is the same with all the attributes it has but what it is perceived as depends on the user and the attributes which are significant for them or they are aware of.

This essentially is the premise of the ancient Indian Jain doctrine of “Anekāntavāda” – doctrine of non-absolutism or non-one sidedness or non-exclusivity. A classical elaboration of the doctrine has been the parable of the Six Blind Men and the Elephant where each man depending on where they touched the elephant described it as a spear (tusk), snake (trunk), wall (side), fan (ear), rope (tail) and tree (leg), with none of them able to visualize the animal itself.

This has a bearing on all aspects of innovation where the breakthrough innovator or “platform disrupter” needs to exhibit the ability of visualizing or grasping all aspects and manifestations of a process or technology (the “elephant”) while all existing players have been caught up with the spears, snakes et al. This may well be the philosophical premise behind the – “customers often don’t know what they want“- quote attributed to Steve Jobs. Also could be a precursor or corollary to what we are familiar of today as thinking out-of- the-box.

How can an Innovator develop the ability to see beyond what others are seeing? How can this approach be built into the innovation process as a systemic and systematic component?

A potential solution lies in an integrated use of Anekāntavāda which encourages stepping back and seeing the big picture with two other related concepts from the same philosophical stream – syādvāda—the theory of conditioned predication and nayavāda—the theory of partial standpoints. The theory of conditioned predication would require the innovation process to answer a series of seven questions, which as an example I am applying to the smartphone innovation I started the piece with:

  1. in some ways, it is a phone, How? Why ?
  2. in some ways, it is not a phone, How? Why?
  3. in some ways, it is, and it is not phone, How? Why?
  4. in some ways, it is a phone, and it is indescribable, How? Why?
  5. in some ways, it is not a phone , and it is indescribable, How? Why?
  6. in some ways, it is a phone , it is not a phone, and it is indescribable, How? Why?
  7. in some ways, it is indescribable. How? Why?

Each of these seven propositions will help the innovator examine the complex and multifaceted nature of the innovation from a relative point of view of time, space, substance and mode enabling him/her to see facets which can otherwise stay hidden.

The “indescribable” questions will help the innovator see beyond the current time-frame- It may be indescribable now but what can it be described in the future. Could a smartphone be described as a payment transaction processing device, Voila, Square is born. Can it be described differently for different points of time – say night vs. day ? Voila, we get the flashlight feature for the phone.

If it is not a phone and is on my body can it measure my heartbeat or perhaps detect my mood or maybe detect how I react when I am served my coffee at a temperature I am not used to by a store which I frequent? What is it? What is it not? If yes, why? If not, why not? Is it a guitar, No. Why not?……mmmmm sure it can be one, let’s build an app for it.

The theory of partial standpoints or viewpoints would then help to arrive at a certain inference from a point of view. A smartphone has infinite aspects to it, but when we describe it in practice, we speak of only relevant aspects and ignore irrelevant ones. This does not mean it does not have other attributes, qualities, modes and other aspects; they are just irrelevant from a particular perspective. For example , when we talk of a “white iPhone” we are simply considering the color and make of the phone.

However, the statement does not imply that the phone does not have other attributes like volume, screen size, camera quality etc. This particular viewpoint – “white” is a partial viewpoint. Splitting up the attributes like this can enable the innovator to see the total picture part-by-part, functionality by functionality. This will help resolve design conflicts arising out of a confusion of standpoints since it clearly establishes where the standpoint is arising from.

There is nothing new with the precepts outlined here. They have been around for a few thousands of years and have generally just been viewed as philosophical doctrines. But as shown above they can very well still be leveraged to create breakthrough innovation in an organized, systematic way.

Scholars have said “because anekāntavāda is designed to avoid one-sided errors, reconcile contradictory viewpoints, and accept the multiplicity and relativity of truth, the Jain philosophy is in a unique position to support dialogue and negotiations” which can very well be the cornerstone for a successful Innovation Process Framework.

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Deepak Seth is an IM Strategy Leader at Xerox Corporation where he also champions several Innovation related initiatives. He has led several global initiatives for various leading Corporations. He has extensive experience in sales, finance and information technology in Asia, Africa and the Americas. He has an engineering degree from the Indian Institute of Technology and an MBA degree from the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta. Deepak enjoys writing about Innovation, Technology and Strategy issues on his personal blog.  You can follow him @SetDeep.

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