The Observant Innovator

Find out how Rishikesha Krishnan, Director IIM Indore, used his skills of observation to make a name as an expert on innovation

A writer, a speaker, an administrator and an academic, Rishikesha T Krishnan, Director IIM Indore wears many hats. But his most powerful hat is that of an observer. Observation and listening are two skills that he has used in not just navigating through life but also in coming up with the two books on innovation that he is famous for. The only child of his parents, Krishnan grew up in Chennai,where his radio-astronomer scientist dad settled down in 1975 after spending many years outside India. On his return to Chennai, he set up a company called Helios antennas and electronics.

An adolescent Krishnan, watched, observed and learnt from the challenges that his father faced. “My middle school and high school years coincided with the time my father was setting up the company and I watched his struggles and successes at close quarters,” Krishnan reminisces. A graduate from Cambridge, his father was in love with science and wanted Krishnan to pursue science as well.

“I completed my schooling from DAV, a school that was quite unknown at that time, but since it happened to follow a central board and was nearby, my parents were not too fussed about it. But when it came to my choice after school it was very different,” says Krishnan.

Discovering passion and talent

There were few options after school in those days. Krishnan had considered taking up economics instead of science but his father was not game. He was talented but did not share the passion for science that his father had. Yet had to choose between getting a basic degree in Physics or Maths or studying engineering at IIT. With his JEE rank he could have got through civil, metallurgy or aeronautical engineering, but he chose to opt for a five year physics programme at IIT Kanpur. “It was pretty unorthodox at that time to not opt for engineering but I knew that I wouldn’t enjoy any of the other courses I could have got through,” reveals Krishnan in a very matter of fact way.

Not afraid to call a spade a spade, Krishnan says that in a very short time at IIT Kanpur he realised that he had made the wrong choice. “I wasn’t doing too well, and I realised that I had to take up something else. But in the Indian education system you don’t have much flexibility. You are pretty much stuck where you are and so I decided that I would have to finish my degree before I could figure out what to do next,” shares Krishnan.

Instead of focusing on studies, he shifted his attention to other things on the campus and got involved in extra-curricular activities, joined Spic Macay and eventually became the Cultural Secretary. It was also at IIT Kanpur that he met his wife Kajoli, who had graduated in Physics from St Stephens and joined his class in the last two years to complete her MSc. After graduating Kajoli continued at IIT Kanpur and pursued a PhD. Meanwhile Krishnan had to yet again make a choice that was not his first option “I wanted to do an MBA, so I took CAT and got through IIM Ahmedabad and Calcutta, but my father was against it,” recalls Krishnan.

His other options were doing a PhD in Physics from a US university, or a Masters. Krishnan’s father had heard of a Masters course in Stanford on engineering economic systems, which was set up by some people from the engineering school who wanted to work on economic problems. But, Krishnan’s father was keen on sending him to study at Cambridge in UK, and then have him join Helios for a few years. This was when his mother intervened and said that it’s best if he goes to the US. 

“I had nothing against working with my dad, even though we thought differently. So I finished my masters in just a year and came back to India and joined him,” says Krishnan. However, while he was in Stanford, Krishnan got interested in Political Science and briefly even toyed with the idea of doing a PhD in Political Science. But, he never pursued the idea seriously as he knew there was no scope for working in India after that.

Shortly after his return to India, Krishnan got married to Kajoli and she too joined Helios. They worked together with Krishnan’s father for a few years, before taking off for IIM Ahmedabad where Krishnan did his fellow programme. He had finally found his passion.

Recognising how flexibility helps

After doing a PhD, becoming a professor was an obvious choice. Krishnan joined IIM Bangalore as a professor in 1996, a move that also helped his wife Kajoli re-start her career. She joined GE Bangalore’s Research and Development Centre—Jack Welch Centre in 2000, and is still working there. Krishnan shares many common interests with his wife including food, travelling and a passion for his work. “However, I can’t say that I have managed a good work-life balance. Often we are in the same room working on our separate laptops,” he confesses.

However, they are also flexible with each other, a trait that Krishnan deems essential for innovation and also values immensely. “I have loved working at IIM, because it allows you a lot of flexibility. You can build your own courses and the environment is largely noninterfering as long you do your job well. I like teaching, but I also like to dabble with a lot of other things and IIM allowed me that space,” says Krishnan.

He did a lot of research work and also helped NGOs as well as Corporates. The first major turning point came in 2001 during the dotcom boom. “By that time I was beginning to get restless when one of my students Vikas Kedia happened to ask me to join his start-up, I took a leave of absence for six months and joined him. It’s another thing that it did not take off, but it set me thinking more carefully about what I should be doing with my career,” reveals Krishnan. He rejoined IIM Bangalore with a new clarity and fresh perspective and finally made his focus on innovation, a topic he was always interested in, sharper. 

 

“I started putting down my thoughts around this time,” he shares. However, it was only after he presented a paper at the Globelics conference in Brazil in 2003 on building ecosystems that support innovation, that he started writing his book. The paper he presented became the seed for the book. He was not happy initially with the way it was shaping up and could seriously pursue it only after a two month fellowship in 2008 at University of Pennsylvania gave him a chance to think about it more seriously. His first book From Jugaad to Systematic Innovation: The Challenge for India was published in 2010.

“The book was definitely an important milestone. Because when you keep talking about something, people may not take you seriously, but when you actually have something that’s out there in black and white, they take you moreseriously as it gives you additional credibility,” Krishnan clarifies. Krishnan, is a regular speaker at many forums and passionate about encouraging Indian management academics to make an impact through their work. He wants to encourage them to work on issues that have relevance to industry. “We have to make our work visible and accessible to practitioners. There’s no point in writing for abstract management journals unless it is useful for the industry. In India, management faculty have not made the effort of taking the position of thought leadership.

There are of course a few examples like Professor J Ramachandran, who teaches Strategy at IIM Bangalore, but we need many more. We need faculty who are well known for the ideas that they bring to the table and have written books that people are excited about.”

Learning from experience

While he was writing his book and working on research projects, Krishnan was also actively involved in senior academic administration, a role that is often taken up by faculty members in India, where unlike the US, we don’t have a separate cadre of administrators. Krishnan became the Chair of Placements in 1999 and the Chair of the MBA programme in 2002. He was also the Chair of research and publications from 2004 to 2009.

But, had he ever thought of heading any IIM? “People used to tease me and say that one day you’ll be Director. But initially I did not think about it seriously or hanker after it. The first time I thought about it was in 2012, when two director positions at Bangalore and Ahmedabad opened up. But then I learnt that while Bangalore had decided against taking anyone from within the institute, Ahmedabad wanted someone from outside India,” shares Krishnan.

In 2013 when IIM Indore came up, Krishnan had no plans of applying. However, one of the directors recommended his name to HRD and informed him. “I was a bit hesitant at first, but then I applied and was selected,” he says. On taking up the new role Krishnan’s first priority was to consolidate and focus on issues related to quality. “When I joined, I saw that we were a bit too stretched in terms of the programmes we had and the strength of the faculty. I have so far focussed on hiring faculty, bringing in new pedagogies into the curriculum and addressing problems with infrastructure. So I am building on what has already been done by my predecessor and completing that before introducing new things , ” explains Krishnan.

Ask him what it takes to be a good leader and he says, “Getting the balance right.” Explaining further he says. “People want change, but they also want to be consulted and involved in the decision making process. They want you to be transparent and to treat them fairly. Most importantly they want you to be sensitive to their needs and preferences and to treat them like human beings. If one keeps these general principles in mind, then it’s possible to take people along with you and yet do things differently.”

This insight is what has helped him make a positive start at IIM Indore. What has also helped him is his observer hat. “I have been in the IIM system since 1996 and if you include the student years then since 1991. I have watched several directors closely and seen where they have succeeded and failed. I have learnt from observations and also from my own experiences.” Krishnan will soon complete one year as the Director at IIM Indore. The academic community is now waiting eagerly to see what innovations he brings in to the institute. They are also hoping that of all the hats that he wears, he will use the observer and listener hat on when he introduces new changes. We are sure they will not be disappointed.


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