The Makings of an Innovation Commando

by Angela Noel

October 27, 2016

Galileo Galilei disrupted the status quo, challenging the beliefs of some of the most powerful people of the day — including more than one Pope. Considering Galileo lived during the time of the inquisition, ticking off the Vatican was kind of a big deal.

Along with pushing scientific boundaries, he developed mathematical instruments to either sell to the military or for uses in engineering. Solving problems and posing theories using observation, data, hard work, communication, rhetorical argument, and grit made Galileo a successful entrepreneur. Running afoul of the prevailing authorities of the day, the Catholic Church, made his story into a cautionary tale for all those who would speak truth to power.

Dipanjan Chatterjee could be the intellectual descendant of Galileo. He and others like him, hired by corporations to be an EiR or Entrepreneur in Residence, must find the courage to speak truth to their “corporate overlords” without losing their heads. They must bring new products and processes into systems fundamentally designed to reject anything that challenges the comfortable stability of the past in order to drive progress. Though the modern day Inquisitor is less likely to wear a robe, and more likely to shop at Brooks Brothers, EiRs face many of the same troubles Galileo did 400 years ago.

For example, Pope Urban VIII initially liked Galileo, supporting his ideas overall while asking him to go easy on the whole “earth revolves around the sun” thing. Unfortunately for Galileo, when his resulting book came out, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, the Pope found reason to be offended, hauling Galileo to Rome to defend himself. Dipanjan, as far as I know, hasn’t been called on the carpet by a religious official, but he continually faces the Sisyphean task of attempting to convince huge corporations to try something new without losing his job or his mind.

Luckily, he’s been preparing for this job all his life.

Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition, painting by Cristiano Banti (1857) Public Domain
Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition, painting by Cristiano Banti (1857) Public Domain.

Sitting in the backseat of his parents early 90s Ford Taurus Station Wagon, Dipanjan would stare out the window and dream. After the batteries on his Gameboy had died, he would wonder about the people in the cars passing by on the interstate, or the farmhouses tucked between barns and grain silos. Who were they? What did they do? Why does that guy think no one can see him picking his nose? Dipanjan’s mind, in short, has always been a busy place. One of its earliest challenges was reconciling what it meant to be the child of Indian parents in America.

“In order of importance,” Dipanjan says of his upbringing, “it was: Education, Breathing, Water, God, Education again. . . and then number 97 was Girls, with an asterix and a note that read ‘only after age 35.'”  Having moved to the US shortly after they were married, both his parents pursued professional careers. They wanted even more for their only son.

Dipanjan on the left with his cousin Tanya.
Dipanjan, age 5, on the left with his cousin, Tanya.

“More specifically,” Dipanjan explains, “my parents preached education above all because, from their vantage point — unimaginably overcrowded and hyper-competitive India, educational excellence (and nothing short of that) was essentially the only way to stand out. Thus, this was the prevailing thought and worldview which they carried with them to the US, and ultimately drilled into my head (over and over again).”

Dipanjan remembers being scolded for a less than perfect score on a test on a regular basis. “I’d be like, ‘Thanks for that. Sure, I can do better. Can I finish my waffle now?” Dipanjan laughs. “Did it ever get you down?” I asked him. “I think I was nine,” he replied, “when I noticed that a calm would come over me, and I’d think, ‘Nah, I’m going to be okay. ”

“Why is that, do you think?”

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.”

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs Pyramid. Source: Wikimedia commons
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Pyramid. Source: Wikimedia commons

Nine-year-old Dipanjan hadn’t read Abraham Maslow’s 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” where the psychologist first explained his theory, but he had intuited something important.

Despite the drumbeat he heard on education, Dipanjan was an American kid. He heard about and saw creative people doing interesting things. These visions of success had little or nothing to do with academic achievement for achievement’s sake. Reconciling the vision of his parents and the vision he saw for himself meant intuiting two key things. First, more than one road leads to creativity, passion, and success. Second, other people, even those closest to him, may not share his particular point of view. He had, what Maslow later described in his follow-up work Toward a Psychology of Being, published in 1962, an “inner nature.”

Dipanjan at work.
Dipanjan at work.

This inner nature,” Maslow explains, is present in all of us but it, “is not strong and overpowering and unmistakable like the instincts of animals . . . even though it is weak, it rarely disappears in the normal person . . . Even though denied, it persists underground forever pressing for actualization.”

“The ‘authentic person,'” Maslow says, “transcend(s) himself in various ways; he also transcends his culture. He resists enculturation. He becomes a little more a member of his species and a little less a member of his local group.”

Growing up,  Dipanjan recalls, “It’s like my parents had walkie-talkies and they were on channel three and I was on channel four.” As a result, he felt he had to work hard to break through the static between them. Similarly, as an EiR bringing innovation to large companies, he’s undeterred by the sometimes excruciating effort to not only communicate effectively to leaders and others in power about innovative ideas, but to help them change the “channel” their used to listening to. Dipanjan employs the usual tactics, learned in business school and honed by real world experience, to propose, prove, and plan new projects. But it’s the unusual ones — the ones he learned from his youth, and his lightening-bright curiosity that stand out.

Dipanjan with his wife, Britta.
Dipanjan makes family a priority. Here he is with his wife, Britta.

If you invited Dipanjan to a party at your house where he doesn’t know anyone, he won’t walk in and immediately captivate the room like Dos Equis’ “The Most Interesting Man in the World.” He’s more likely to sit in the corner at first, taking in the scenery as he did on those long drives of his youth. He won’t be brooding, he’ll be smiling. And if you come up to talk to him, he’ll be glad to meet you.

A Chatterjee selfie.
A Chatterjee selfie.

He’ll ask you questions, he’ll probably make you laugh. As he gets to know you, he’ll want to meet your friends. Then the next time, or maybe the time after that, maybe he won’t be in the corner. He’ll be helping you load the dishwasher, or he’ll be serving your guests a new drink he just made up. He’s that kind of guy.

In his new role as an Entrepreneur in Residence for Optum, a division of UnitedHealth Group, Dipanjan realizes there are likely to be obstacles to innovation. In previous jobs, an entrenched culture might have been the barrier; with this job the endless spaghetti of regulation and complexity inherent in our healthcare system may prove daunting. He knows he’s not likely to revolutionize healthcare as we know it, but he can make a difference. “If I get even one idea implemented, it’ll mean we helped some people. Maybe not a lot of people, but some people. And that’s good.” Dipanjan sees himself as something like an innovation social worker or an idea commando, “I have to have the, ‘I’m willing to get fired for this’ attitude. But present it in a respectful way.”

Dipanjan having deep thoughts.
Dipanjan Chatterjee

I doubt Galileo could argue with that. I suspect he’d even be proud.

If Dipanjan can do it, so can I. So can you.

Now it’s your turn: How are you bringing innovation into your work or home life? What obstacles do you face?

Author: Angela Noel

Seeker and promoter of awesome people and ideas.

7 thoughts on “The Makings of an Innovation Commando”

  1. It gives me hope that someone like him is working to improve it! What an amazing man!
    Thanks for bringing this to the party. Have fun clicking on links and meeting the other guests!

  2. I love this post of yours, Angela! Research woven into a story of perseverance, intelligence, and innovation created a deep and meaningful story that anyone could connect with. Dipanjan sounds like someone I’d love to sit down and have a conversation with. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks, Erin! You remind me that I should get in touch with that guy and make a coffee date. It’s been almost a year and I bet he’s doing some amazing new things. Thanks for reading!

  3. Cool interview! My hubby had a similar job – tactfully tell the “powers that be” what is wrong with the system (without getting fired). It can be a hard line to walk! As an educator, though, I feel like I just keep hitting my head against a brick wall sometimes. It is so difficult to make substantive changes in such a bureaucratic system. Unfortunately, many of the good guys just give up. I’m hoping I can make it 7 more years ’til retirement!

    1. I hope you can, too! But it does seem like bureaucracy kills creativity and innovation. I wonder why there aren’t better ways? We know it doesn’t work to have so many layers and such slow rates of change, it’s frustrating that we don’t have a solution or a way forward. Thank you for reading! It’s good to hear your hubby was able to speak truth to power!

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