So… one year into the new job and Infosys’ Vishal Sikka has managed to perform a task noone thought possible. He’s dragged a once-famous Indian-heritage IT services firm – kicking and screaming – out of a maddening tailspin into that dark sinkhole of legacy-ness that is scaring the life out of today’s services industry.
The reason for this is quite simple – he never brought with him a baggage of legacy services culture, where the common practice is to:
1) Copy what all your competitors are saying and try to out-bullsh*t them;
2) Hire cheaper, younger staff and gut the middle layer;
3) Sugar-coat every ADM, Infra and BPO renewal with terms like “digital”, “transformation”, “automation” and “outcomes” etc., when none of these things were really included in the actual contract, but made nice additions to the press release.
Vishal just gets to the point with a refreshing and honest perspective about what his firm needs to do – and is already making shrewd investments in critical areas, such as Panaya (automation) and Skava (digital). He’s also been growing the traditional business, with Infosys just reporting its best quarterly revenue growth for 15 months (4.5% year-on-year), and overseeing several new $2Bn+ sized engagement wins in the last 12 months, with the likes of Allied Irish Bank, Deutsche Bank, NSW State Government and ICA Gruppen in the last 12 months).
The business is stable, growing well again in an industry where many competitors are scrambling all
over the place trying to find renewed direction and focus. What’s more, the management bleeding has stopped and there is a distinct new energy and passion around the place from everyone you meet.
However, where Vishal is really impacting the culture of Infosys is by driving a renewed culture, based on his Design Thinking principles, that is exciting his staff. Design Thinking is real – it’s something delivery staff, account managers and senior executives can all relate to, understand and embrace. Rather than confuse the living daylights out of people, he talks about real business challenges and how they need to be addressed. And this coming from a guy who has a Phd in Artificial Intelligence… talking real business issues to real people is quite the achievement. So we caught up with Vishal is his Silicon Valley start up-esque collaboration offices in Palo Also to hear first-hand his year one Infosys experience, and where he wants to take things next…
Phil Fersht (CEO, HfS): Vishal, it’s good to be with you here at Infosys. You’ve been CEO now for about a year, so I thought it would be a good time to check in. HfS has done a considerable amount of research into Design Thinking and how it aligns with services outcomes. Can you bring me up to speed on how Infosys is faring, with your own brand of Design Thinking?
Vishal Sikka, CEO and MD, Infosys: Thanks, Phil. It’s great having you here. We started teaching Design Thinking at Infosys back in October of last year. We brought some of our trainers here to the Institute of Design at Stanford—the d.school. Then members of the d.school faculty went to our corporate university in Mysore and started training our people.
When I say training—this is not like some guy watching a video on Design Thinking. These are one or two-day immersive sessions, where people are hands-on and actually build things. As much as possible we try to get the d.school faculty directly involved. This class has now been taken by 36,000 employees. I’m told this is by far the largest rollout of Design Thinking education in history. The d.school said this is like many times the total number of students that have taken the course at Stanford. I don’t know what the exact number, but 36,000 is just insane.
So it is not a center of excellence, where you have three, four people who understand Design Thinking. This is 36,000 employees of the company who understand what it is and practice it.
We are now creating customized training for project managers in our delivery organization. 22,000 of our 36,000 people are in delivery, and 3,000 are project managers in delivery. So we’re creating a special program for project managers to be able to bring Design Thinking into the ongoing work that they do. So in my view we are by far the biggest adopter.
Design Thinking is happening with clients, too. This morning before you came in here, we were doing some Design Thinking work with the German utility. We’ve had about 36 or 37 customers for workshops here in our Palo Alto office in the last nine months, and of course others around the world. In fact, I would have liked for you to meet Sanjay Rajagopalan who heads up our Design and Research team, but he is doing Design Thinking workshops with clients in Australia this week. We have a pipeline of 100 clients interested to do this.
These workshops are not focused on best practices. When we think about “best practices,” hidden behind that phrase is the reality that this stuff is already known. Known problems are really yesterday’s.
But then there are things in life that are unknown. So how do you go after the unknown?
We had a very, very large consumer products company here, which among other things is very famous for chocolate, and we talked about how to deal with the demonization of sugar. There isn’t a demonization of sugar package available for SAP or from Salesforce.com. There isn’t a best practice sitting there somewhere. You have to think about this.
All our lives our education system teaches to do problem solving. Nobody teaches us problem finding.
And Design Thinking is a methodology for problem finding. So that is how we see it.
Phil: So you’ve done this all in a year?
Vishal: Nine months, actually!
This space (pointing to the colorful Palo Alto office which sports writable walls and modular works spaces) and all the new spaces that we are building, they are all designed like this. These are design spaces. These are flexible. In the Bay Area, we have 3,000 people working at various clients. And we had a long conference call about Zero Distance on Monday night. This whole area was opened up and all those tables were moved here, people were working from this corner and there were a 100 people in that area. We had a giant video conference in there.
Phil: Can you talk a little about “Zero Distance”, Vishal?
Vishal: Zero Distance is about innovation. Innovators aim to maximize their relevance by reducing the distance to the user, to code, to value. I have asked everyone at Infosys to focus on getting to Zero Distance, and bring innovation to every ongoing project.
For example, Abdul Razack has a team that is doing IIP, the Infosys Information platform, which is based on Hadoop. Abdul shared with me yesterday some incredible things that they have achieved on open source technology, solving some extreme analytical problems. We have the Infosys Edge team doing new product development. And we have many teams that are doing innovative things. And they will continue to do their thing and bring breakthroughs to life.
But if innovation is done in these small pockets—like in Abdul’s team, Sanjay’s team or Sudip’s team—we’ve missed the point of innovation. Innovation has to come from everybody. It has to come everywhere. And this is why I say, “The Innovation Department in Infosys is Infosys.”
Right now we have 8,500 master projects that are going on in the company. This is the lifeblood of the company. Infosys at the end is a project company. So these 8,500 projects represent the work that we do. And we started this program to basically bring innovation to all 8,500 projects. The 8,500 projects break down into 35,000 sub-projects.
I made a straightforward five-point template about how to bring innovation to every project. And it has just taken off virally. And we do these sessions with teams where we share some amazing thing that our team did. And customers are already starting to see that.
Phil: So when you look at everything you’ve achieved in Design Thinking so far, what would you say is the critical ingredient to finding what’s not there?
Vishal: First of all, you have to have the desire—the instinct—to look for it.
I did a survey when we crossed 25,000 Design Thinking-trained members of the Infosys team. I knew at that point that this was a big moment. When we hit 25,000, roughly 12,500 were freshers—young minds just out of college. And 12,500 were the senior folks.
It was astonishing to see the spreadsheet. I was reading this thing and I was just moved. Of course one thing that was shocking was they had put this in two tabs, the freshers and non-freshers. And the older folks, their responses were always three or four lines long. And the one’s from the freshers were terse—less than one line long. Like text messages.
But the sentiment is exactly the same. There were only three questions. How do you bring Design Thinking to your work now? What has it changed, etc.? The answers from the senior folks, said it had opened up their creativity: “It is like I have seen the light, it is like I can think again. I forgot that I had a brain,” stuff like that. Amazing responses.
One fresher wrote that he went and fixed his mother’s sofa because he had done Design Thinking and because the sofa was broken. And he said, “Let me think about how can I fix the sofa.” I was reading that thing and I said, My God! It was astonishing: this is actually changing not just how people work, but how they live.
Of course it is too early to know what all this means. In the last two months, we met a few clients who tell me that there is something going on. One of the huge banks on the East Coast told me that suddenly because of the Zero Distance thing, innovation is inserted into every project. They said that it appears that the quality of work has just gone up.
We are also by the way bringing Design Thinking to our RFP process. Every response that goes to an RFP of more than $50 million now goes through this team.
Our HR team works like this. They redesigned our performance process. We just finished our promotions and they went through this thing. So it is everywhere.
It is very early, but the result of all this will be quite fundamental I believe.
Phil: So clearly, Vishal, this is having an impact on Infosys. Do you think this will have a ripple effect on a lot of the other Indian-heritage service providers?
Vishal: It will have to, it will have to. I think it is inevitable, because this thing about problem finding and problem solving, I personally went through this when I first came to Stanford.
Even though I had gone to Syracuse for my Bachelor’s degree, I still had grown up in India and was trained to do what I was told. So when I came to Stanford and I went to my advisor, and I asked him, “What do you want me to work on?” And he said, “I have no idea.” And it was a shock to me, so I said, “What do you mean? What will my PhD be on?” He said, “You figure it out.” And I told him, “No, you are supposed to tell me what problem I work on and I am supposed to work on that.” He said, “No, if this is what you thought then this is not the right place for you. You are supposed to find your own problem, we are supposed to tell if the problem is good enough or not. Then you solve that problem and then we tell you if the solution is good enough or not. This is how it works and if this is not what you thought, then you are in the wrong place.” He said this to me bluntly within one month of coming to Stanford.
And I thought they had a catalog of open problems and I would work on one of these. So that really put me into a tailspin.
Narinder Singh was a research associate there and he told me, “Yeah, people spend years looking for a problem.” He said, “Remember that guy Andrew?” Andrew was in the seventh year at the time. He said, “He still doesn’t know what his topic is going to be.” I said, “What the hell has he done for seven years?” Turns out this happens all the time. Either you luck into it and you find one right way or sometimes you spend years finding it.
So then I saw a talk by John McCarthy, the father of AI. And in that talk he made a very interesting statement. He said, “Articulating problem is half the solution.” So I talked to him after his lecture. I said, “What did you mean by that?”
He explained. He said, “Look, you know, most of the time we don’t articulate the problem right. And he was talking about it in the context of AI search. He said that when you frame the problem right, you have basically an idea of how the solution is going to work. I though this was very interesting.
And I talked to Bob Floyd who was another professor in Computer Science, also an A.M. Turing Award winner. He wrote the Floyd algorithm for graph traversal. So Bob Floyd told me that, “Oh, that is not enough.” I said, “This is what McCarthy just said—that articulating a problem is not the solution.” He said, “Of course, he’s absolutely right but it is not enough. I articulate the problem, I solve it, then I go back to see if I can rephrase the problem now that I have solved it. Then I re-solve it. And then I go back and rephrase it until I can no longer improve the solution. That is when I know that I have found a beautiful solution.”
I realized that there is so much to this problem finding, problem solving thing that I never thought about. In those days I read the books by George Polya, called How To Solve It. And actually Floyd’s algorithm that Bob Floyd wrote, was his seventh attempt of solving the same problem.
As an Indian kid, who grew up dutifully doing what I was told, this was my introduction to opening up your mind to see.
And here’s how I found my problem. I found it within a year.
Somebody told me to look at what interests you, what excites you. And I was reading many PhD theses that I found interesting. I quickly realized that at the end of the PhD thesis, people will write about the things that they left unfinished. I was reading Karen Myers’ PhD thesis and she wrote three things that her approach could not do. And I thought that this was something interesting. I was very excited by her area anyway, which is why I had read her whole thesis. When I saw those three problems, I went and I talked to my advisor and I said, “I want to solve these, I want to find an approach that doesn’t have this three problems.” He thought it was a good idea. That is how I came to my PhD thesis, based on the weakness of Karen’s approach. And one of the projects that was a part of my PhD work was Center For Design Research in Stanford.—the precursor to the d.school.
It was a part of the mechanical engineering program, and Mark Cutkosky was the professor there. He used to collaborate with my PhD advisor, and we did a bunch of projects. One of the projects we worked on in 1992 was called Design World, which was about how do you design things. So that is how I got into this whole thing. And I brought into wherever I could.
So you see I had been through this experience of problem finding and its importance myself. As important as it is to see what is there, it is as much or more important to see what is not there. This is why we’re doing what we are doing.
Phil: Vishal, thanks for sharing your current views with our readers – am sure many will appreciate them!
Vishal: It’s been my pleasure, Phil. Thank you.
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