Talking Design Thinking with Abhijit De

abhijit-de“Sorry, we are out of stock!” is an unpleasantly common sentence customers of Indian retailers hear every day. This is because due to a lack of appropriate systems, retailers are having problems with maintaining their stock and accurately anticipating the necessary quantities of each product. With their business network Ganges, SAP intend to tackle this and other problems in the supply chain that prevent Indian retailers from making the most of their businesses. To be able to optimally achieve this, during the creation process Design Thinking was applied to understand retailers’ and the other involved parties’ needs and pain points. I have had the opportunity to talk to Abhijit De (pictured)—who was one of the driving forces behind Ganges—about their solution, the unique value Design Thinking has contributed, and its pros and cons.

Max: First of all, could you please give a quick intro of yourself?

Abhijit De: My name is Abhijit De. I grew up in Uganda, Africa, worked and lived in the USA for 15 years and spent the last 5 years in India. I have always oscillated, alternating between corporate jobs—Intel, Microsoft, Infosys, and SAP—and entrepreneurial start-ups. For the past five years, I was VP of new business incubation at SAP with a particular focus on business networks and IoT. I recently transitioned out of SAP to plan my next start-up. Additionally, I also hold a Master’s degree in Management of Technology as well as an MBA.

Personally, I like to help initiate and execute projects that have high impact on improving life on this planet. I like to travel and interact with different cultures. My motto is: “Work hard and play hard, but leave a better planet behind.”

Max: Together with your team, you have created SAP Ganges, which is a business network in the retail sector. What exactly is a business network?

Abhijit De: I had the opportunity to set up an innovation business at SAP and chose a business network in the retail sector. A business network is an IT infrastructure that allows different personas from different types of companies in one trade ecosystem to transact business together. One example for this is SITA, which is a travel network that allows airlines, hotels, travel agents, financial institutions, customers, airports, etc. to do business in a coercive framework and information infrastructure. At SAP, the executive strategy was in the direction of business networks with the acquisition of Ariba, which is a business network in procurement, Fieldglass, etc.

In the case of Ganges we were building a business network for the retail ecosystem. This means that retailers, wholesalers, FMCG manufacturers [fast-moving consumer goods], banks, fellow travelers, etc. can conduct business seamlessly.

Max: To create SAP Ganges, your team has applied Design Thinking; you have talked to numerous retailers and distributors to learn about their pain points. What is the unique value Design Thinking has added to the system compared to traditional engineering approaches?

Abhijit De: I believe there are two types of innovation: First, push innovation and second, pull innovation. Furthermore, all innovation manifests as one or more of the following frameworks: incremental innovation, disruptive innovation, fundamental innovation, and alternative application innovation.

A push innovation use case example would be Intel processors. Intel designs processors based on fundamental research innovation and it sometimes takes ten years to get from ideation to offering as there are long cycles of designing and building the technology fabrication plant. Hence, at ideation Intel cannot always accurately predict the types of applications that will use the said processor. This is a “build it and they will come” strategy. As such, Intel “pushes out” products and offerings without intensive end-user input.

A pull innovation use case example would be Apple’s iPhone 7 or Facebook. These are based on a deeper understanding of users’ pain points and their root cause analysis. Value created is accessed at the ideation phase of the product or service.

The Design Thinking and value engineering methodologies together work as a perfect process to mitigate most calculated risks. Hence help create a “viral” product or service as it results in “capabilities” of highest value to the “user”. It is grounded in time-to-market boundaries based on an additional feasibility and viability framework.

Max: What is the main disadvantage of Design Thinking?

Abhijit De: First, Design Thinking is a pull innovation methodology and not very effective on push innovation scenarios. Second, Design Thinking curtails radical creative or artistic opportunities. And third, Design Thinking does not dig deep into addressing ecosystem change nor does it address fellow traveler requirements. Examples for this are offerings based on new material innovation or fundamental research that cannot be improved using Design Thinking methodology effectively.

Max: In the official video about SAP Ganges, you say that your team did “constraint innovation”; that most of the project was done with zero budget and most of the work with crowdsourcing. Can you please dive a little deeper into that?

Abhijit De: Today there is a lot of waste of resources in corporate environments due to power plays, fiefdom politics, unaligned divisional strategies, siloed organization structures, etc. Constrained innovation starts with building effective networks within the organization to enable the empowerment and creation of vested stake holders, starting with internal fellow travelers. Nurturing win-win objectives between resource owners and your team/project creates a strong ecosystem of support that opens various types of resources as needed by your project [cf. Juggaar innovation]. Moreover, enabling systematic structured internal crowdsourcing also facilitates HR objectives in increasing employee satisfaction and growth.

Max: The main motivation behind the system is to maximize retailers’ businesses. What are the non-economic implications?

Abhijit De: There are several:

  1. Increasing financial inclusion;
  2. elevating the poverty level from $1/day to $2/day in India;
  3. banking the unbanked;
  4. optimizing the FMCG supply chains;
  5. moving to a cashless society;
  6. creating new channels and markets for cross-pollination, i.e., alternative uses;
  7. eliminating parallel economy; and finally
  8. increasing education and awareness reach.

Max: How do you guarantee your Design Thinking–based technology is available to those who need it?

Abhijit De: For this, we build on an awareness generation program due to success stories.

Max: Can you please explain in one or two sentences how this works?

Abhijit De: Based on use-case success stories we let the merit of the methodology speak for itself. For example, through articles in the Harvard Business Review etc.

Max: Where is SAP Ganges today?

Abhijit De: As all products and services need to have exit strategies, the corporate strategic focus changed and SAP Ganges was morphed into the SAP IoT world; meanwhile the Indian government has finally moved towards a cashless society enabling several similar business networks to germinate ecosystems with the same objectives.

Max: If a company came to you and said “We want to do Design Thinking because it’s hip and everyone else does it”, what would you tell them?

Abhijit De: Follow the “MAN” rule!

  1. Do you have the money?—It’s an expensive investment.
  2. Do you have the top down buy-in commitment?—authority
  3. Do you have the need?

Any two of these are sufficient to create the third, but all three are necessary to successfully enter into a Design Thinking–based project.

Max: To conclude the interview: What is Design Thinking?

Abhijit De: It’s a tool like many others with pros and cons and not always the right tool for every scenario. It is however a great tool/methodology that can design “viral” products and services when executed well.

Max: Thank you for taking the time to provide your insights on this topic! It’s very much appreciated!

(This article has also been published in theuxblog.com on Medium.)

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