Circles: Starting the Indian Revolution (Part 9)

Getting Started

What are the first three actions that are needed to lay the foundation to create a million political entrepreneurs across India to run local Circles – one in every neighbourhood?

First, identify local political entrepreneurs. Like business entrepreneurs, they have to identify gaps and create solutions in their neighbourhoods. They are the pioneers who have to create the 2020s version of the shakhas. They are people with free time and access to some resources (other people, a workspace, some initial capital if needed). Most importantly, they are unhappy with the status quo and are keen to bring about change. In the early days, they will face many obstacles and frustrations because there is no playbook for them to build on. Their path will be like the hero’s journey (monomyth). Their passion and ability to innovate will lead them on. They will feel the stones in the river and take the first steps on the thousand mile journey.

Second, the political entrepreneurs need to make a start in their neighbourhood by thinking of the social infrastructure they can create within the shakha-like construct. As different experiments are run in a variety of places, they will be learnings on what works and what doesn’t. The goal in this phase is to demonstrate what is possible – create showcases that other political entrepreneurs could replicate and improve. It could be a debating club, a micro-library, an English teaching course, or a mentoring initiative to help youth learn new skills and get a job. The aim should be to show that an initiative like this solves a real world problem and helps build credibility for the local entrepreneur.

Third, there needs to be a small central co-ordination team that helps connect and guide the political entrepreneurs. They can take early learnings and ensure they are shared with others so there is a fast process of incremental improvement. Failures need to be discarded, and the small successes need to be built on. This is not too different from how many innovation processes work – start with a wide pool of ideas and keep discarding what is not working until the best ones survive. This portfolio approach is also how venture investors make bets.

This positive feedback loop of sharing stories about entrepreneurs and their experiments will invite even more innovators into the space. This is the flywheel that will drive the revolution.

I will close this series with a story told by Matt Ridley in his book “How Innovation Works” to show that new ideas can come from the most unexpected places and the least expected people.

Take sliced bread, for example. Best thing since, and all that. Looking back it is obvious that somebody would invent a way of automatically pre-slicing bread to make uniform sandwiches. It is fairly obvious that this would probably happen in the first half of the twentieth century when electrical machines were all the rage for the first time. But why 1928? And why in the small town of Chillicothe, in the middle of Missouri? Lots of people tried to make bread-slicing machines, but they either worked poorly or they led to stale bread because it was not well packaged. The person who made it work was Otto Frederick Rohwedder, who was born in Iowa, was educated as an optician in Chicago and set up shop as a jeweller in St Joseph, Missouri, before moving back to Iowa determined – for some reason – to invent a bread slicer. He lost his first prototype in a fire in 1917 and had to start all over again. Crucially he realized that he must invent automatic packaging of the bread at the same time lest the slices go stale. Most bakeries were not interested, but the Chillocothe bakery, owned by one Frank Bench, was and the rest is history. What was special about Missouri? Beyond a general mid-twentieth-century American affection for innovation and the means to make it happen, the best guess is that it was a slice of random luck. Serendipity plays a big part in innovation, which is why liberal economies, with their free-roving experimental opportunities, do so well. They give luck a chance.

Let a thousand political entrepreneurs bloom, experiments happen, give luck a chance. It is this process of innovation that led to the Industrial Revolution. My hope is that the creation of Circles in every neighbourhood and village can lead to the Indian Revolution.

Published by

Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.