Over the last few months, the pandemic has caused many people to re-evaluate how they live and work. In this episode, Sue Stockdale talks to Navi Radjou about his life and experiences in India, France and USA, and how this has influenced his thinking about how business and society thinks about and practices Frugal Innovation, to do better with less.
Navi Radjou is a New York-based innovation and leadership thinker who advises senior executives worldwide on breakthrough growth strategies. A Fellow at Cambridge Judge Business School, Navi has served as vice president at Forrester Research, a leading technology research and advisory firm in Boston. In 2013, Navi won the prestigious Thinkers50 Innovation Award– given to a management thinker who is re-shaping the way we think about and practice innovation. He delivered a talk at TED Global 2014 on Frugal Innovation (nearly 2 million views).
Navi co-authored Frugal Innovation: How To Do Better With Less, published by The Economist in 2015, as well as the global bestseller Jugaad Innovation (over 250,000 copies sold worldwide). He is writing a book on how individuals and organizations can reinvent themselves purposefully in the post-COVID-19 world. He is a sought-after keynote speaker and widely quotedin international media. Born and raised in Pondicherry, India, he holds dual French-American citizenship. He attended Ecole Centrale Paris and Yale School of Management. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is a life-long student of Ayurveda, Yoga, and Vipassana meditation.
Navi Radjou transcription
Sue: [00:00:00] Hello listeners, I’m Sue Stockdale and welcome to the first episode of Series Four of the Access to Inspiration podcast, the show where you can get inspiration from people who may be unlike you. We hope that their stories and insights enable you to transcend your day to day challenges and reflect on what you are capable of achieving.
In the last few months, the coronavirus situation has caused many people to reevaluate both their work and their lives. And I’m delighted to say that today’s guest Navi Radjou describes himself as a leadership thinker. And I’m sure he’s got a lot to say that will inform our thinking on this subject. In fact, his latest book, Frugal Innovation was published and shows how companies do innovate faster, better, and sustainably. His TED talk on the subject has garnered nearly 2 million [00:01:00] video views and his next book coming out in 2021. The Conscious Society is about reinventing how we consume work, relate, and live. Welcome to the podcast.
Navi: [00:01:13] Thanks for having me.
Sue: [00:01:14] It’s great to speak to you as you describe yourself as a leadership thinker. I’m wondering how you think about thinking?
Navi: [00:01:22] There’s two ways to think there’s a analytical way where you take a problem and you tear it in parts and you analyze the different pieces to solve the problem. So that’s what they call it an analytical approach. I come from a different kind of perspective that essentially the world is already so divided that the way we should think about is integrative thinking or even integral thinking. So essentially it consists in putting the pieces back together. So for example, today, companies are grappling, as you said, with COVID crisis. How do we reboot the economy? And then at the same time, we [00:02:00] hear the ecologists saying that we need to take care of the climate. And these two seems to be often opposites kind of contradiction and the businesses actually struggle to reconcile profitability and sustainability. So that’s what I mean by integrative thinking is everything I do is figure out how can we bring together different concepts that often don’t talk to each other or are not reconcilable, like for example, frugal innovation. The term itself sounds like an oxymoron because. Frugal, you cannot innovate frugally. You think when you think about big R & D labs with billions of dollars invested in like we do in Silicon Valley. And similarly, when you think about innovation like an iPod or some fancy gadget, it is not frugal. So that’s what I do. I tend to look for new concepts that bring together ideas and phenomenon or even cultures that typically don’t talk to each other.
Sue: [00:02:59] Would you [00:03:00] say that your own personal experience has had a role to play in what, you now, find yourself doing?
Navi: [00:03:05] Yes in the sense that not until I reached my forties until the thirties, these pieces, I build them separately in the sense that I grew up in India. So for 20 years of study in India, of course, I went to a French high school. So in a way I grew up in a multicultural environment because at home we will speak Tamil, my mother tongue at school, we will speak French. It’s a franchise school in Southern India. But then around me, it’s a former British colony. So, you know, very well that, you know, it’s all in English, right? It’s all the signs and magazines and everything was in English. So I grew up in this multicultural environment, but it was predominantly Indian in terms of values and culture. And then I came to France, spent seven years studying in France. So I added another layer of African of French culture. Then travel around the world for a couple of years to Southeast Asia and Canada then immigrated to the US in 1999. [00:04:00] So exactly 21 years ago.
So then of course I spent next 10 years building my career in the U S because I wanted to, you know, live the American dream, but it’s only in the late thirties, about 12 years ago that I begin to feel the need to integrate the different pieces that happened a bit later. So I would say that the first 37, 38 years, I was kind of focusing on collecting experiences and it’s only in the late thirties. I began to put it all together. To create something more coherent.
Sue: [00:04:32] I might call it a midlife crisis when one reevaluating where one’s going. I don’t know if you’d agree with that or not?
Navi: [00:04:39] Yeah. I actually go through my midlife crisis happened earlier. I had a big health crisis when I was 35 36, where basically. I had the symptoms of auto immune disease. The doctors couldn’t really understand what was happening and it was kind of systemic breakdown. The whole system was breaking down. I couldn’t [00:05:00] sleep and was losing weight. I couldn’t concentrate. And it was quite a scary that’s when I reconnected with my roots because the Western doctors couldn’t improve me. But I remember that in India has a what we call traditional medicine called ayurvedic which is a 5,000 year old medical knowledge. So I was in California and I found this clinic, which offered traditional Indian medicine. And that saved my life. I was able to rejuvenate myself the detox myself, but not only that from physical level.
But I think it kind of reconnected with my deeper being, because I rediscovered, you know, my roots. I also got clarity about what I should do next. And that’s really exactly when I begin to realize that I’m Indian, I’m French and I’m an American, but what happened is that once they came to America and it, I kind of tried to become American and I kind of repressed French and Indian background. And that’s when I [00:06:00] said, no, I can’t do that. So I began to go back to France, do more speeches, client engagements in France. And then eventually I began to reconnect with my Indian roots, which led me for the past 10 years. Of course, write several books on innovation, leadership inspired by Indian wisdom.
Sue: [00:06:18] Through that crisis, that challenge that you had with your health Navi, you were able to reevaluate it. I’m wondering what you think that all of those elements, the Indian, the French and the American, what do they each bring to the Navi today?
Navi: [00:06:33] I’ve been reflecting on it for many years and I would just give some stories that could be quite interesting to illustrate these points. Let’s start with Indian wisdom and that connects to the notion of leadership. So there’s a difference between the Western interpretation of leadership and the practice of leadership and the Eastern tradition of defining leadership. So the story goes like this apparently Alexander, the great, when he tried to invade India, he came with his grand army [00:07:00] and at some point eventually into a, an Indian forest. And there, you can imagine him on his big horse plaid with this incredible dress and very impressive. And then he encounters this Yogi who is actually practicing yoga and he looks at him and they look at each other. And then the Yogi looks at Alexander the great and ask him, who are you? And he says, well, I’m the world’s greatest leader. I’ve conquered two thirds of the world and I’m here to conquer your country. Now make it part of my empire and the Yogi laughs. Excellent. Of course is not, it’s kind of a vexed. And he says, why are you laughing? And the yogi answers. Okay. So in that case, I’m also leader because I’m actually doing yoga. To conquer my inner world. So I think that story is very profound because it shows the difference between leadership in the Western world, which is about leading others and the Eastern perspective, which is about self-leadership leading [00:08:00] oneself. And I think that’s what I’m trying to do now is I can see that with the COVID. And this is the beginning of the transition where we focus so much in managing, controlling, changing the external world. That we didn’t take time to be in touch with the inner world. And now I think what is happening is that we are trying to find some kind of congruence, alignment, integration between the inner world and outer world. So this is, this is where science spirituality, for example, which had been, yeah, always in logger heads, never really appreciating each other. It’s coming together. Say that everything’s interconnected. There’s an underlying unity that they’re all part of this whole. And therefore, I will say that what is coming together nicely is combining the rational, scientific perspective of the West, whether it’s American or French with the techniques and practices from India, which are focused [00:09:00] more on controlling emotions, your energies, your body, mind, heart in a way, the inner world and how do you harmonize the inner world and outer world. So that is what I see is happening within myself and frankly, around the world as well. This year. Particularly as COVID as led a lot of people to reflect. And we talk about the great reset, but the great reset happening is inside people. Actually.
Sue: [00:09:25] That makes a lot of sense. And you’ve had a great reset yourself. I understand having up sticks and move from Silicon Valley to New York. Tell us more about what you did there.
Navi: [00:09:34] I spent 13 years in California, including eight years in Silicon Valley. I begin to get tired of the culture Silicon Valley. You should understand that Silicon Valley forty years ago had this incredible idealism. It’s a place where people not only dream big, of course that’s well known, but there was a lot of humility. And even like, if you look back in the 40 years ago, right, there was this kind of [00:10:00] hippie movement in a way they’re in the Bay area. So it was a fused with a certain spirituality. And what happened unfortunately is that when the internet wave began in the late nineties, the culture of Silicon Valley began to change. We begin to see more greed, more people focused on getting rich quickly with the launching internet startups. Right. Whereas in the past, the companies like HP or even Apple, they were in for the long run. They were building companies that can last for decades, not just like, you know, get rich quickly. So the culture began to change in Silicon Valley and I realized that I was not feeling home in the Valley because of the values, which were not compatible with mine, but also the topics about wisdom and frugal innovation. We don’t innovate frugally in Silicon Valley as you know, so it became clear to me that I needed a change in my life. So I decided to get rid of all my belongings.
I had a big apartment. I [00:11:00] sold off everything, all my belongings and donated them and then arrive in New York, just one suitcase, a big suitcase. And I arrived actually just before a COVID began. So the timing was not great, but in a way, it allowed me to reset my own life. And reconsider my priorities, but that’s how I live all my life. I’ve lived in total, in like 20 different places. And I have this urge every couple of years to move on. So my next chapter, I think, is going to be written here in New York.
Sue: [00:11:35] So you really are applying this frugal innovation to your own life. You’re role modeling it for everybody else?
Navi: [00:11:40] I think so. I only said that you have to make space to welcome the new. And if your life is cluttered, both your apartment, you just look at apartment right now. I’m looking around me, New York, everything is small. So I’m in a one bedroom and I got rid of everything. So I pretty much have just one table. I have one bed and a bunch of books. That’s [00:12:00] it. I gave away all my clothes. I never had a car in my life. I never will have a car. I think it’s important to downsize and declutter your life. So that essentially there’s enough space and you need to create an inner playground that is as empty as possible because that’s where creativity can come out. I’ve tried to apply the notion of in French, we call it , which is joyful frugality. Because when you say the term frugal, people think like a sense of deprivation, but actually it could be a source of joy. If you realize that the less you have. The more you can be to, it’s a choice between having and being, so I think it’s important to have less so that you can be more.
Sue: [00:12:45] I’m wondering as you are developing your ideas and your career as a thinker, how do you measure and evaluate the impact and the success that you have? Because it doesn’t strike me that you’re [00:13:00] necessarily going to be measuring are evaluating it in the same way as a company might do.
Navi: [00:13:04] For example, I think this comes back to the definition of leadership. The best definition that I like about leadership is about impact. It’s not about how many people you manage, what is the budget, how much money that you are responsible for. It’s what kind of impact you have today? We talk about your carbon footprint, reducing your carbon footprint. And now we talk about handprint. It’s about the positive impact that you can make in society and the planet. But I would add two more prints to play with the words. So you have the footprint, which is do less harm.
That’s one way of leadership, which is ethical leadership. We can call it. Then you have the next level of leadership, which is about making positive impact through corporate social responsibility and things like that. So that also you can measure. How much good I’m doing in the world, but in a quantifiable way to charity and things like that. So that’s about the hand print, [00:14:00] but then you can think about what we call compassionate leadership, which is really about a heart print. Are you touching people’s hearts? Are you connecting with them in a way that they can feel the positive vibes and it kind of brings out the best in themselves? So that’s a lodging your heart print, but then you have the final level of leadership for me is what I call a soulprint. How are you really helping people really connect with the soul and express and realize their fullest potential? So that’s how I measure is to what extent I’m actually living a soulprint because when I die, what’s left of me is going to be the soul print, not the money earned. My legacy is going to be both my own soul print in the form of the ideas and the thoughts behind, but also the souls touched and too, I basically ignited the genius within people, allow them to be authentic. So that’s how I measure. I see, essentially, [00:15:00] as there been a transformation in people that interact with. They become more alive after, at the end of the meeting with them, whether I’m doing a keynote at a conference where I’m doing advisory and coaching with the CEO, he actually measure to what extent they become more alive. And to what extent they give themselves the permission to be themselves because I think today what’s happening is that everybody is so scared to be themselves. I actually try to be myself when I interact with them, which then in turn gives them the permission to come out of the shell and express their fullest self.
Sue: [00:15:37] So how do you now get that message across to those that you used to be living and working with around in Silicon Valley? Are those the people that need to hear your message most.
Navi: [00:15:49] Yes. And no, I believe with age, you shouldn’t try to convert everyone. There are people who will never be converted. So it’s a classic kind of breakdown. If there’s a hundred companies, you [00:16:00] can either try to preach to everyone and you can do that. But then the danger with that is that you tend to kind of dumb down your message to appeal to everyone. Or you can, again, stick to, to what you believe in, but then you may have a niche audience. So in Silicon Valley, 99% of the companies were not resonating with my message, but I had a handful of companies that liked my message. One of them is Salesforce, which is a well known software company and the head of innovation Simon Mulcahey is a good friend of mine. And as you know, Salesforce is run by Mark Benioff, who is a big practitioner of mindfulness meditation actually designed a new building in San Francisco with the meditation room on each floor. So that company actually was really open to my ideas on wise leadership and integrating, you know, Eastern wisdom with the Western management practices.
So I tend to be very [00:17:00] selective. So that’s what I’m realizing now is that you can dilute your message just to make it a mass product that would be like compromising your values. I think it’s better to be know very selective. I only have a handful of clients. But the good news is what’s happening is that this year, particularly, and that’s why this conversation is very timely because what’s happening is that the minimum, the level of awareness people have, that’s kind of going up, people are becoming more conscious.
There’s this kind of fear, which I think comes from the fact that this is a country that prides itself of being the leader. But realize that we actually are a giant with clay feet. There is this kind of a wake up call that we need to change. We need to translate ourselves past former society economy. So I’m hopeful that everything I’ve written about and everything I speak about may gain a greater a resonance, at least in the Western societies in coming months.
Sue: [00:17:55] I can see that as you say, the time is now that people are more ready to receive your message. [00:18:00] We’ve been speaking about it so far. Navi is the way that the Western audience for that message in predominantly, we’ve been talking about North America. I’m wondering what happens when you go to countries in the East, Asia, India, how do they receive the message of frugal innovation?
Navi: [00:18:16] I think in India, which is the birthplace of frugal innovation. What happened is that when I first presented it, maybe eight, nine years ago, there was almost like a disdain. And the reason is because being a poor nation, people felt that you do innovate frugally, because you have no choice because your limited means, so you have to innovate on a shoe string. So at the very beginning, 10 years ago, when I went to India, talked about frugal innovation, I didn’t see much excitement. And then many things I’m just laughing because it’s amazing how the universe can inspire some time to help you. Then certain things happen very quickly. One thing that happened is that essentially there were actually CEOs who actually were opposed to [00:19:00] this concept of frugal innovation will begin to appreciate the value of it. They begin to see how frugal innovation can be useful to make better products, which are more sustainable, more affordable for poor people. For example, therefore it can contribute to social inclusion. If you can use a fewer natural resources. To make products while that’s good for the environment as well. There was a kind of redemption of this concept of frugal innovation in India led by influential people, celebrities, and there were even movies made in Bollywood celebrating this kind of frugal mindset. So that began to change the perception and the perspective of Indians about this concept of food innovation.
And then COVID happened. So I’m seeing right now, this incredible validation of this concept. So what it means is that India is finally reclaiming its heritage. It sounds like, but in a way it’s beginning to say, you know what? We used to be ashamed of this concept. But [00:20:00] actually, this is what we need to develop even more. It’s important because that means that each country has to own its culture. And I think, especially because of our colonial heritage, we were a bit ashamed of our own cultural capabilities in a way. And I see that changing, right? At least in India, in China, it’s a different story. And that’s why it’s going to be interesting because China has published my book also in Chinese.
And the problem with China is that they want to actually live the West. That means that they want to play the Western game of investing more in research development, science, and technology. So they have this kind of desire. To beat the West in the own game. That’s why you see this rivalry between China and America. For example, in areas like artificial intelligence, China is investing billions in AI and I’m not sure that’s its a good thing to do personally, I’m judging here, but because actually I think [00:21:00] China has to reconnect with its cultural roots and figure out, is there a Chinese way of innovating? Is there a Chinese way of leading? And interestingly, they are beginning to do that as we speak in Europe. Right now, there is a company called Haier, which is a Chinese appliance company. The world’s largest Chinese appliance company. And they are setting up a think tank in Europe right now to begin to disseminate the Chinese leadership model. And I’m sure that soon they will start talking about the Chinese innovation model as well, just like we have in India, this idea of frugal innovation. So that’s interesting. That means that China and India are beginning to present alternative models of innovation, leadership, and management practices, not as being better than the West, but just presenting them as alternatives so that there is more choice now.
Sue: [00:21:57] So I think the important message I’m hearing Navi, [00:22:00] it’s not about people judging whether things are good or bad, but having availability and different options and countries. Rather than hankering after something they don’t have is to reevaluate what they do have and look at it in a different way.
Navi: [00:22:14] Absolutely. And I think this is what’s going to happen. And by the way, forget about it among countries. I think it’s going to go one step further. So I think it’s going to happen at the micro level, at the community levels. And I see that already in France. So what’s happening in France is that we always had a strong central power. So the government in Paris, and what I see happening now is that different territories we call them in French. Terretoire, or regions are beginning to reconnect with their cultural roots. And by the way, this is very interesting. This is a kind of a repetition of what we have seen across the board during crisis it’s for example, you know that in Argentina, which I think was good, A couple of decades ago, there was this major economic crisis. What happened is that because there a economic [00:23:00] collapse, there was a revival of local gastronomy. So basically you had all the chefs in Argentina will begin to support old agriculture practices, looking at local ingredients and coming up with new recipes. So there was this kind of revival of traditional cuisine in a way in Argentina. And I think we are going to see the same thing in every country in France, in India. And this is the important word, diversity. I think we are going to see a greater acknowledgement of cultural diversity. I think in this crisis, I can distinctly see that each region, each community, each city. In Latin, we call it the genius loci, which is essentially the spirit of the place. And I think what you see is each region, each city now reconnecting, this is a genius loci, which is essentially the local spirit and express that in a unique way.
Sue: [00:23:57] You reminded me of your earlier point Navi, [00:24:00] about rather than us always looking outside and you were referring to this as a human being that we have to start looking inside. I’m hearing that it was in countries. Now you’re saying in communities, rather than looking outside, that are actually reevaluating and looking inside to find that spirit as you describe it,
Navi: [00:24:17] That’s correct. And the reason this is happening I feel is that it’s not an anti-globalization movement. I think it’s the best of both worlds because with the internet, you can be connected globally in business. We call it that having this glocal concept, right? Both global and local. So with internet, you can be globally connected. You can learn about what’s happening in terms of best practices. We talked about different management models, Eastern Western. So you can be aware of all of that with the internet. That’s great. Having the global outlook is important, but as far as impact, where can you make an impact? I think it’s going to be more and more at the local level and by leveraging local resources where actually I see this [00:25:00] happening is I call it a micro economy. So essentially supply and demand are going to come closer and closer. Today, we have this big macro economy, right? Where you have large scale production done in China. And then they used to ship them around the world in containers. I mean, this whole model was very energy intensive was not very friendly to the planet, but the microeconomy says no, actually. Let’s try to produce goods and services locally, as close as possible to the customer.
So that’s why you see the rise of things like urban farming. You see things like three D printing where you can have micro factories, small workshops in cities that can produce locally goods, leveraging local resources. So I see that happened whereby you can have the best of both. Those. You can be connected globally. And knowledge and ideas can, especially with the current political situation, you don’t have to physically travel. I see that’s gone. So your ideas and you can [00:26:00] collaborate virtually with people around the world, but you can be. Connected rooted locally and use local resources, local capabilities, local traditions, local knowledge to fulfill local needs faster, better, cheaper. And I think that’s this kind of micro economy that I think is going to be very exciting for me. That means that the value creation and the value capture is going to happen locally. And I think in a way this has maybe paving the way to a more inclusive, sustainable economy.
Sue: [00:26:31] Fantastic. How can people find out more about you and your ideas Navi on the internet and social media? What’s the best way to locate you?
Navi: [00:26:39] The easiest way would be to visit my website, which is naviradjou.com and you can follow me on Twitter @naviradjou or you can just go on LinkedIn and search for my name or do the same on Google.
Sue: [00:26:54] Fantastic. We’ll put links to all of those things on the podcast so that people can have easy [00:27:00] access to connecting with you. Thank you so much for your time Navi today. It’s been really great to talk to you and hear about your thinking.
Navi: [00:27:06] Thanks for having me.
Sue: [00:27:09] I bet Navy’s ideas have given you plenty to think about. So here are some questions for you to reflect on. If you could change just one aspect of your life and work today, what would it be and what would be the first step to begin to make those changes?
Let us know about what the podcast prompted you to reflect upon by going to our website, access to inspiration.org and leaving us a comment about this episode. Yeah, next time, I’ll be talking to Becky Frater, an amazing woman who was the first female qualified helicopter instructor for the Royal Navy and the first and only female in the world to lead a Royal Navy helicopter display team, the Black Cats. I do hope you can join us then. [00:28:00]
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