December 2014: “Clients think of us as beautiful followers of orders, but not people who are bringing innovation, not people who are bringing new thinking.” That was Vishal Sikka, about four months since he took over as CEO of Infosys, India’s second-biggest software services company.
He was talking about the Indian IT outsourcing industry at an analyst conference in Mumbai.
On Sikka’s watch, the company has returned to industry-leading growth, successfully curbed staff churn to comfortably manageable levels, and those who bought Infosys stock when he joined have seen their holdings rise in value by about 40 percent. Some television reporters have even asked Sikka if he feels Infosys has won back its unofficial standing as the industry’s bellwether.
April 2016: “Infosys and generally our services industry does a good job of doing what we are told, (but) does not bring proactive ideas, does not participate in things that are strategic, does not participate in things that are ongoing, does not come up with ideas on their own.”
This was Sikka keynoting the Infosys Confluence an annual high-power event that concluded on Friday in San Francisco. And he added this was said to him by a large customer based in Chicago only the previous day. He did qualify the statement by saying the perception was less true than when he joined, but that it was still true “to a large degree.”
The root of this vexing problem is that Indian IT companies, and Indians in general pay a lot less attention to “problem finding,” Sikka has said. He delved back into his student days at Stanford to recall an interaction with a famous computer scientist Robert Floyd.
He recalled how Floyd told him he would, having solved a problem, look at it all over again, and keep at it, until he could no longer find a more elegant solution. An algorithm that the computer scientist became famous for, was the result of his seventh attempt at it, Sikka said.
And Infosys is seeking that elegance in what it calls “zero distance,” that unlike other marketing gobbledygook means what it says — it however belies the complexity involved and the enormous amount of hard work required to get there.
As a first step, Infosys is attempting to get every single person in the company to learn a bit about Design Thinking — a way of problem finding and solving based on imagining a better end result. Perhaps, an example could be, should one solve for a better car, or for better transportation. Tesla versus Uber? Or Uber using Tesla’s cars, or Uber using Tesla’s cars with self-driving and self-learning software?
Some 90,000 Infosys staff have already done “at the minimum” the basic one-day Design Thinking training the company offers them. And over the last 16 months, 18,500 project managers and project-manager equivalents were mandated to come up with at least one innovation in each of their spheres of influence that made a difference to their customers’ businesses, Sikka said.
Even though Indian IT companies still derive over two-thirds of their revenue from projects defined by their customers that they only execute on, their future lies elsewhere — in becoming expert problem finders on behalf of their customers. What Sikka is attempting, is to rewrite the very DNA of Infosys so that problem finding (not to be confused with fault finding) becomes second nature. They, and TCS and Wipro, are already world beaters at problem solving.