Saturday, December 12, 2009

"It Won't Happen" - Why Justifying Investment in Prevention is a Challenge

Whether we are dealing with risks to our health or risks to the continuity of our business or risks to the safety and security of our society, the age-old wisdom of prevention being better than cure is easy to recall but difficult to cost-justify. Even when there is adequate evidence that points to a statistically significant probability that disaster may strike us, most people would rather spend time, energy and even money, sometimes, on debating the need for investing in preventive measures. People on the side of the debate that call for investments in prevention would be treated by those on the other side of the debate as alarmists, and would be challenged to prove not only that it is highly likely that a disaster of the type they are anticipating could happen, but also that it would wreak the kind of havoc they are forecasting it would. These are the people who would bet good money that it won't happen, and lose, rather than invest the same money on preventive measures. Typically, these are also the people who benefit from the status quo, and who therefore would resist changes that acceptance of the likelihood of disaster would entail. In the context of climate change, these would also be the people with vested interests who would spend a lot of time and money on climate change denial and avoidance, because accepting the reality of climate change would mean far more changes to their business models than they can handle.

The current 'best practice' approach on disaster management is broadly stratified into 4 'levels' that deal with strategic and tactical planning, and implementation of various types of measures and countermeasures. These levels are: Prevention, Containment, Mitigation and Recovery. To a rational mind, it is fairly logical and self-evident that you would first try to prevent a disaster from happening, and if you just can't prevent it you'd try to restrict any damage that might be done to as narrow an impact zone as possible, try to minimize the damage done even within that narrow impact zone, and try to recover the situation and restore normalcy to the extent possible, as quickly as possible. Attempts to tackle disasters at any of these 4 levels need careful planning and skilled execution, and cost money. While investments at all 4 levels have their own pay-offs, the best RoI comes from investments at the level of Prevention, as opposed to the other 3 levels. It is not difficult to see why, as the following example illustrates. For a marathon runner, a fractured leg (resulting from some accident, let's say) even when mended will never be the same again. In the case of this athlete, money spent on averting the accident that resulted in the broken bone will pay back far more than large sums of money spent on post-accident treatment (which, incidentally, may not even ensure a full return to pre-accident normalcy). The problem is that such wisdom usually occurs in hindsight, and for the most part the athlete is likely to believe that it won't happen, simply because believing that it might happen would mean investment in Prevention, which in turn would involve too much of a change in lifestyle as also an outflow of cash.

If planned and executed properly, preventive measures can be quite effective in averting disasters. In all likelihood most people would not even be aware that a disaster could have struck them but was successfully prevented. And that is precisely where the problem lies, in terms of justifying the investment. When successful, preventive measures don't even let you know that they have delivered results. Most people would barely see the ghost of the disaster looming over them, if at all they do, and then disappearing - it would barely be a blip on the smooth surface of their daily routine. Only a few would know anything about the magnitude of the disaster that was averted and how close they came to being hit - and these would be the people who are closest to the apparatus that monitors the leading indicators of the disaster and triggers / oversees the preventive measures that should kick-in. Other people would, over a period of time, when the public memory of the disaster that never struck has faded, sceptically ask as to why so much is being spent on prevention. The ones who confidently bet that it would not happen will continue to believe that it hasn't and that it never will, while the few in the know will try to point out that it almost did, on at least one occasion, and is likely to happen again in future - and would promptly be called alarmist. And the same debates would continue.

By very definition, investments in Prevention will not tell you that they are working for you. If indeed disaster does strike, in spite of preventive measures, then it points to the underestimation of the probability and/or the scope and impact of the disaster, or else the effectiveness of the preventive measures. In such cases a common mistake would be to consider the investment in Prevention to be a waste. ("What's the use of spending so much if it had to hit us anyway" would be the line that sceptics would take.) Quite to the contrary, investments in Prevention should be directly proportional to the cross product of probability and impact. If it did hit you finally, and hit you badly, it most likely means that you got the probability and/or the impact wrong. (Of course, other reasons could be failure of execution / technology, but again that would most likely be due to inadequate investments.) And now it is the turn of investments at those other 3 levels - Containment, Mitigation and Recovery to work for you and deliver returns on those investments. However, even if they do work out as planned, they will never take you back to the way things were just a moment before the disaster struck. There is no resetting to normal, once disaster strikes: there is only adapting to the 'new normal' - a term that comes into vogue in the aftermath of a disaster, as it has in the wake of the global economic crisis.

Prevention works at the fork in the path of reality unfolding around the disaster - at the point in the eternally streaming flow of cause and effect, where things could turn left and towards disaster, or turn right and away from it. If the preventive measures are effective, things will take the right turn (quite literally). To justify the investment beyond doubt, you have to go back in time to the fork, as it were, take the other route to the left, and witness the alternative reality. Unfortunately, the laws of physics, as known to mankind up until now don't permit time travel. And so you have to settle for conjecture and speculation as to what might have happened, and whether the investment was worth it - there would never be any solid proof that it was. In science fiction, concepts like the 'Butterfly Effect' and movies like the Terminator series explore the possibility of going back in time to specific moments, where the outcome of a single seemingly insignificant event changes the course of history. The need for investment in Prevention would be obviated only if and when such time travel becomes possible in our real world, and not before. As of now, there is no going back - the only hindsight allowed to us is foresight. Which is why we need to make sure that we get this sustainability thing right the first time around. There will be no second time, and no world to get it right in, if we don't.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Wisdom to Know the Difference

As a child in school, I used to make silly mistakes while solving problems in subjects like Mathematics, Physics etc. Typically, I would work out the solution but at the very end do something stupid (the equivalent of adding 2 and 3 to get 6) and get the final answer wrong. I vividly remember one of my teachers admonishing me once, and urging me to focus hard on the problem till it was fully solved and resulted in the correct final answer. "Life gives you no marks for wrong answers, even if your approach and method are correct" he declared in the soft but authoritative tone of a mentor who has seen a lot in life. "Remember, it is all about the final answer!" he added, with an indulgent smile, eyes twinkling benignly behind the thick lenses of his spectacles, and a slight wag of his index finger. It was a lesson I had to learn the hard way, and a very useful lesson that has helped me in confronting and overcoming many challenges in life. Many. Not all. Definitely not some of the more complex ones - the ones, for example, dealing with human relationships in the face of adversity, where there is no "correct final answer".

On the sports field of the same school, I kept hearing this one homily: "It's not about winning or losing, it's about playing the game to the best of your ability." As I grew older, I noticed that they typically said this to those who came second (or third) in the race. Winners are seldom told this; they are only congratulated and given a medal. I used to get quite confused by what appeared to be mixed messages, to my impressionable and naive mind, and I was too young to even identify the source of my confusion. All I could see was that it was the trophy, bright and shiny, that everyone coveted - be it for academic excellence or sports, and the system was set up to award medals and prizes to the one guy who topped the class, and to make everyone else want that, somehow, anyhow. While I could see why it had to be that way in some cases, I wondered why this seemed to apply to just about everything else in life.

As an adult, I have come to recognize the boundaries of the simplistic models we sometimes use, in our naivety, to understand, describe and deal with the complex challenges of life. Life is not a mathematics test and nor is a 100 meter sprint. Both of these have a beginning and an end, simple rules and clear targets to achieve, and a finite number of possible outcomes. Yes, life does consist of situations that closely resemble either an exam or a game or both, but it also consists of other situations that really don't. It is essentially our need for cognitive fluency - our resistance to complexity that makes us force-fit all situations into a zero-sum model. Life, on the whole, is just not a zero-sum game, but we make it look like one because it makes it easier for us to handle. And that's where we make the mistake that Einstein cautioned us against with these words of advice: "Make things as simple as possible but not simpler". The zero-sum model is neat, simple and lays out clear rules for winning and losing, and so we go ahead and use that as the basis to model all human endeavour. In the sphere of education, all the systems we have set up for evaluating our children's performance are based on the zero-sum model. (Exceptions, though they exist, are too few to be statistically significant.) We have extended the ostensibly resounding success of this model into our adulthood as well. We wage war to resolve conflict, since war leads to decisive victory. We compete in free markets for market share and growth, edging out our rivals. All the systems we have created at work (performance measures, KRAs and KPIs, RoI, quarterly results) and at play (scoring goals, scoring runs, bettering the timing of the world's best athlete) are zero-sum models. Message: Achievement, not Effort, matters.

What we have not recognized is that this has resulted in creating a culture of over-achievers, as I have argued in a previous post. And a culture that silently encourages Jugaad, as I have argued in another previous post. If you can't win by staying within the confines of the rules of the game, then bend or break the rules so you can win. Because only the final answer counts. It is precisely this culture - of winning at any cost - that has led us, the human race, to the brink of collapse as evident in the 3 major global crises the world is still reeling under, as a glance at the global economy, the environment and socio-political landscape will testify. We are where we are, in each case, because a small number of over-achievers have been playing to win a zero-sum game, to meet their own narrow goals. Zero-sum is the reason why we use wars to work out conflicting needs between two groups of people, instead of trying to achieve congruence of different agendas through negotiation and diplomacy, in a spirit of partnership, tolerance and mutual respect. The bravado associated with winning wars, the drama, the romance, the glory ... all make us pooh-pooh earnest attempts at a peaceful positive-sum resolution, which the uber macho alpha prime male stereotype would mock at as the approach of wimps. On the contrary, it is war that is the refuge of the weak, as the strong will only look for peace.

Few events in recent world history have brought out the contrast in these two approaches (particularly in the area of global diplomacy / foreign policy) more starkly than the two Presidential campaigns in the United States last year. We saw the conservative business-as-usual approach, albeit with some modifications in a few areas, and the "other guy's" strategy that was radically different, since it was based on inclusiveness - an intent to actively engage with allies and a willingness to negotiate unconditionally with adversaries, even with those that were historically considered to be enemies. It is not as though the latter is unprecedented in the history of the United States (or of the world) but to a lot of minds, caught up as we were in the panic of the crises of our current time, and in part due to the outrage expressed by the incumbent Party, it seemed like a revolutionary approach. When Obama was elected President, I considered it a testimony to the American people's resolve to adopt a dramatically different position on the world stage and to actually lead other countries and communities to a world of peaceful co-existence. However, reactions from most people - Republicans as well as Democrats, Obama's supporters as well as detractors - when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace, have led me to believe that Americans elected him President simply because they thought he was the only guy who could save them from the financial mess that his predecessors had left behind - essentially a domestic issue. It wasn't really a mandate to him to go implement his vision of world peace, as I realize now. Sadly, a significant proportion of the American population displays a "don't know / don't care" attitude towards the rest of the world, not realizing the long-term impact of that attitude. Several political analysts and commentators have been criticizing Obama in the last few months for having "apologized" to the world for America's hubris and imperiousness in the past, for trying to build bridges with the Muslim community, etc., claiming that such moves have diluted the leadership position of the United States. It's a pity that they do not realize that what he has been trying to do, in fact, is to restore the U.S. to its former position of glory, but in a way that is different from what their simple, zero-sum minds have been trained to think.

Leadership comes with privileges, no doubt, but it also comes with accountability. Americans must realize that if they expect their country to lead the world by the same democratic principles as they expect their President to lead their country, then they must acknowledge that their country is as accountable to the rest of the world as their President is to them. This includes responsibility for world peace, considering America's position as a military mega-power and its hegemony in most other areas 'that matter'. And this peace cannot come by taking an "us versus them" approach (where quite literally, "us" = "U.S."), which for several years has been the fundamental plank on which American foreign policy was built. Obama's most significant contribution towards world peace has been in initiating moves that are already shifting the "us versus them" paradigm, and this is not something he started working on only after he became President. When it comes to world peace, there is no exam, no top score, no super-bowl, no tape at the finish line to breast ahead of others and no final answer. Peace is characterized by the absence of conflict, which comes from the de-escalation of tension, which in turn comes from the birth of hope among affected parties - the hope of working out a win-win resolution. Positive-sum, not zero-sum, outcomes. And again, there is no finality to it, no single event or milestone, the accomplishment of which can qualify as having achieved world peace forever. War is different from peace, in this respect. Start World War III and you will get a final answer - the end of the world, and nothing can be more final than that. On the other hand global peace is like nirvana: you continuously work towards it but you may never attain it. But that doesn't mean you give up your effort. And so it all comes down to effort and attainment.

The Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to several people, including, as Rachel Maddow painstakingly points out in this video clip, some whose efforts towards world peace have ended in failure (Woodrow Wilson / League of Nations), some whose efforts did not bear fruit till several years later (Desmond Tutu / ending of apartheid in South Africa) and some whose efforts have yet to make any significant impact to disrupt the status quo (Aung San Suu Kyi / democracy in Myanmar). Why then single out Obama? After my initial post at my mini-blog on Friday, a few hours after the news about Obama's Nobel Prize broke (during which few hours I valiantly and more or less single-handedly defended the decision in various debates - actually, diatribes - that erupted on mailing lists and social media), I thought it prudent to back off a bit, let the dust settle over a couple of days and wait for second thoughts from observers, analysts and commentators. I would expect that Obama supporters, at the very least, look for the silver lining in all this, like Michael Moore. Especially if they are American, to whom my question would be: "What are *you* doing to support your President?"

Meanwhile, Elinor Ostrom and Olive Williamson were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics. Since I did not know enough about them or their contributions, I decided to do some research. "Let's find out who these people are and what the heck they have DONE to deserve this award, considering that they haven't achieved anything by way of ending the global economic crisis", I said to myself sotto voce, parodying the same line of reasoning that critics took in challenging the Nobel Peace decision. Interestingly, I found an article by Ostrom titled "Governing The Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action", which addresses the classic Prisoner's Dilemma in game theory, and which also carries a paragraph that starts with:
"Changing the rules of the game to turn zero-sum games into non-zero-sum games may be one way to describe the arc of civilization for the past 8000 years"
I smiled as I read that, since a lot of this is pretty much the kind of thinking underlying the core values and principles that my little fledgling business venture is based on. I even have a downloadable FAQ (right click to download) that talks about playing to win versus playing for win-win (on Page 4, in the answer to the last question on Page 3). My own solution to the Prisoner's Dilemma has always been to stay silent and take the least cost approach for both parties taken together, and I've always wondered as to why on earth anyone should want to exercise any other option. Most economists expect that the "rational" decision of an average human would be to betray the accomplice, which is an indication of how deeply steeped in zero-sum thinking we all are.

I shall end this rather long post (and thanks for staying with me till here) with my own paraphrasing of the Serenity Prayer - Dear Lord, grant us the capability to win zero-sum games, the skill to negotiate a win-win in positive-sum partnerships, and the wisdom to know the difference. Amen to that!

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Friday, August 28, 2009

Staying On Top: The Challenge to India's Leadership in Off-shoring

In a recent (August 2009) article in the McKinsey Quarterly (accessible by clicking here, and then clicking on the shortened URL link mentioned in the archived tweet), Noshir Kaka et al. suggest that Innovation will be a critical success factor for India to maintain a leadership position in the globalized business / technology services industry. Here's an extract from that article:
Indian business and technology services companies needn’t stand by passively and watch their global market share decline. Innovation will be the key to maintaining and even expanding their market share. Business models that continue to focus on low labor costs won’t suffice.
While it is true that 'business models that continue to focus on low labor costs won't suffice', in August 2009 this cannot be a epiphanic revelation! This is yesterday's news, not thought leadership. Most companies foresaw this many years ago, and (as the McKinsey article suggests) turned to Innovation (among other strategies), hoping to leverage it to create a sustainable competitive advantage for India as a destination. All Indian industry majors have been chanting the Innovation mantra since then. (Show me one Indian company of some standing in the global business / technology services space that does not lay claim to 'Innovation' as its key differentiator, several times over, at its web-site or in its brochures.) Several companies have been relentlessly trying to institutionalize Innovation in everything they do, in a bid to maintain their market share in the face of competition - from within the Indian market as well as from companies based in the other BRIC countries (and their corresponding regional neighbours in Latin America, Eastern Europe, Asia / South Asia / South-East Asia) and also emerging destinations such as Egypt (and, potentially, other West Asian / African countries). However, the very act of institutionalization makes it a replicable commodity, just like any other 'best practice'. Which means others can do it too.

My comment to the article (not visible at the site at the time of writing this post) is reproduced here below, and what follows subsequently is an elaboration of the rationale behind my argument and an elucidation of my point of view on the subject.
India's competitive advantage (beyond wage arbitrage) has always been scale and process maturity. Other destinations simply cannot match the ability of Indian companies to offer large pools of talent to dip into (in terms of breadth as well as depth), or to ramp-up their teams quickly. Besides, a lot of non-Indian companies are still struggling with the challenges of managing process quality in very large projects. However this is not a sustainable competitive advantage. China has the potential to match and surpass India's strengths in terms of both scale as well as process maturity, given the size of their literate population and their culture of rigour and discipline (which is being applied even now, for example, to learning English as well as learning large scale process management). But other than China, there aren't too many countries that represent a real threat to India. Innovation is a buzz word, in my opinion, and though this may sound counter-intuitive, it is a fairly commoditizable and replicable attribute. It does not represent a sustainable competitive advantage. Talent pools from the countries / cultures that presently constitute off-shore destinations (or aspire to join the club) are equally good or bad at learning, practising and delivering on the promise of innovation. There is nothing unique about Indian ingenuity that makes Indian talent intrinsically and significantly more innovative than the average knowledge worker in, say, China or Egypt or Eastern Europe or even Latin America!
Clients based in North America and Western Europe (the predominant 'buyer' markets) have been tapping into India as a destination for well over a decade, and by now have a good understanding of the issues and opportunities that India represents. They know where the trade-offs are: while on the plus side, as I have argued, India offers a wider range of skills, better scale and better process quality, the down-side comes primarily in the form of higher attrition, greater geographical distances and time-zone differences, cultural incompatibility and to some extent lack of infrastructural robustness. Attrition can be a major problem for clients who have invested time, cost and energy in transferring knowledge. Secondly, while it is true that India enjoys the advantage of a large educated and English-speaking resource base, one must also remember that cultural compatibility is not just about being able to speak in a common language (which itself is debatable in the first place, since a lot of the knowledge workers who originate from smaller towns in India cannot really boast of fluency in English, not to mention American colloquialism). Thirdly, while time-zone differences of up to 12 hours do offer the advantage of having someone, somewhere, working on a project 24x7, they do not solve the problem of logistics (when professionals on either shore need to travel great distances to the other shore) and the problem of disrupted daily routine (when professionals on either shore need to be on conference calls at odd hours in their working day).

Comparatively, Central and South American destinations are closer, by way of both time-zone compatibility (in terms of virtual meetings / conferences) as well as geographical proximity (in terms of travel), for North American clients. The same goes for Eastern Europe in the case of European clients. Also, clients find better cultural compatibility in dealing with teams in those destinations, and business communication between client and provider teams is relatively easier and smoother. Language barriers are not significantly higher than when dealing with India, and in some cases may even be lower. Also, attrition is comparatively much lower in most of these destinations. The only disadvantage these destinations have is in terms of skill mix, scalability (especially in terms of ramp-up time) and process maturity. And that is where India has been scoring. Of all competing destinations, China is the only one that has the capability (not to mention the will!) of outstripping India on these fronts. Through concerted efforts in strengthening infrastructure (power, telecoms, etc.), in fighting attrition, in broadening and deepening the pool of trained and qualified professionals, and in imparting cross-cultural and soft-skills training to its resources (a la finishing schools), India can hope to keep the No. 2 slot if / when China overtakes India (may just be a matter of time). Perhaps this is a more pragmatic goal for India as an off-shoring destination.

That said, the opportunity for Indian companies to maintain their leadership position lies not in trying to fight the up-hill battle of keeping India as the most preferred destination. In fact, it lies in not confining themselves to India as a destination. Again, this is not an epiphany - in fact it is not even news. Most of the top-tier India-based service providers (including those founded by Persons of Indian Origin) have already started the process of building (or in some cases, consolidating) 'near-shore' hubs in Central and South America, Eastern Europe and other regions. A few have done this through organic growth, but most have done so through acquisitions of stake in local players, to whom Indian companies offer stability, scale, leadership in process maturity and access to other markets, in return for a better presence in the local / regional market, a ready local client base, and the ability to provide a multi-locational offering to their global clients. Leading Indian companies have already figured out that globalization is no longer about staying in India and offering ITO / BPO type of services to the world, as clients have increasingly started demanding lower attrition rates and flexibility in terms of location and time-zones, over and above range of skills, scalability and process maturity.

India as a destination will lose its leadership position in a few years - at the very least, the gap between India and other destinations will start closing rapidly (it already is) as they ramp-up and start competing. Innovativeness is not a special gift that is unique to India-based talent pools and believing that it is so can at best be termed as misplaced patriotism (at worst, it is a kind of jingoistic denial of reality) on the part of Indians. Innovation is a great value proposition and I am not suggesting that it should be abandoned altogether (especially because others will start offering it too!) The smart thing to do, for service providers of Indian origin, is to focus on developing a global delivery footprint (not just sales offices) and the ability to provide the right mix of capability, capacity (i.e., scale), team stability and cultural compatibility, and process excellence, at locations preferred by the client - on-site / off-site / near-shore / off-shore. And as the adoption of globalization shifts to the mid-tier client base, focus on forging strong partnerships with clients to achieve the distinction of becoming an extended team. Cultural compatibility and responsiveness to changing client needs are key. Innovation will just be a hygiene factor.

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

[This is not really a blog post]

Seriously, it isn't. I am just testing Disqus ... I hope it works now. I've been trying to get it to work, and I pride myself on a little more savvy than the average user (what with my techie background and all that - so what if it was in a bygone era?) but installing Disqus and getting it to work has been a major challenge.

If this works, you should be able to leave a comment - as a Disqus user, as a Facebook user, as a Twitter user, or with your OpenID, or just plain anonymous, with Name and email address.

Help me test this if you will. Thanks!

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Friday, August 07, 2009

Notes on Lead/Follow Models

All this "mass un-following" on Twitter recently got me thinking once again about the concept of following (and its antonym, leading), which I have been pondering over for some time now. But before I jump into the main subject of this post, let me complete my train of thought around Twitter's methodology to make social connections. Twitter's use of 'following' is a misnomer -- all it signifies, really, is an asymmetric connection where the unidirectional vector of 'interest to connect' may point either from someone to you, or, to someone from you. However, some people take 'following' in Twitter quite literally and tend to imagine that they could have a large band of 'followers', like the fan following of a celebrity, if they did things right. Earlier in the hype cycle of Twitter, users evolved a de-facto social protocol of following those who followed them -- a polite gesture to maintain the symmetry of the connection, based on normal social etiquette. Then came the 'auto-follow' tools like Twollow that did this automatically for you. As Twitter's popularity grew, and grew explosively, this has led to a culture of gathering followers arbitrarily, just so one may boast of a large following. Several services in the Twitter ecosystem promise tweeters a quick way of getting hundreds of followers, while tools like Twitalyzer measure one's 'success' as a tweeter using parameters like influence, clout, etc., which are a function of how many followers one has, among other things. Be that as it may, on to my main point in this post.

It seems to me, to my simple and lay mind (which hasn't been trained in social anthropology or whatever category this falls under in the taxonomy of things), that there are 4 types of what I'm calling the 'Lead/Follow' model -- four ways, broadly speaking, in which the idea of leadership and following could find a workable implementation in a society or a group of people. I am outlining them here, in the order of 'least evolved' to 'most evolved'. Please note that this is not about right and wrong, or about good and bad -- I use the word 'evolved' in contrast to the word 'primitive'. Humans are more evolved than aardvarks, who in turn are more evolved than cicadas, but that doesn't make us better or more morally righteous or give us more rights (though, sadly, some people seem to think so).

The most basic of all Lead/Follow models is based on fear. You find this in a command and control hierarchy: leaders assume positions of authority, seize power and command their followers and control their behaviour. The idiom here deals with 'orders' and 'obedience'. The leader makes sure that followers remain afraid so that his/her orders and directives are obeyed. Followers do not have a right to think independently or develop their own opinions, much less voice them. If they do, they will be summarily excommunicated from the regime (or worse: executed). This is a sustainable model when followers also expect to be ordered and led in this manner and consider this to be the natural way of life. Examples: fascists like Hitler and Stalin, marauders like Genghis Khan, and corporate bullies like Microsoft and others of their ilk.

Then there is the model based on respect. People follow a leader because they respect the individual, and the leader makes sure that he/she earns the respect of followers so that rules and regulations promulgated by the leader are adhered to. Leaders are appointed to positions of authority and persuade their followers to accept their proposals and expect their compliance. Followers have a right to develop independent opinions, and are expected to voice them without fear. However, the final decision remains with the leader, and after followers have had their say, decisions are made (which generally take important opinions into account) which are binding, even on those who do not agree. Followers who do not conform are frowned upon and invite the scorn of others. This is sustainable for followers who consider this to be a fair and reasonable way of organizing their society. Examples: democratic leaders like Barack Obama, religious leaders like the Pope, and companies like Google.

Beyond respect, there is inspiration. People are not required (much less compelled) to follow such a leader, but the leader inspires them through discourse, with the power of their ideas, insights, vision etc., and their unique and original thinking. Leaders usually do not officially hold positions of authority, but mobilize their followers to move towards a certain goal, and followers voluntarily embrace the goals and ideologies of their leader. Where they disagree, they question and argue with their leader. The leader in turn welcomes questioning and argument, and in some cases may even use discourses in which there is intense debate, as tools to refine their own thought process. When people simply cannot agree, they agree to disagree without being disagreeable. Followers remain free to disengage at any time, if they are not comfortable with the norms (quite often implicit) that govern their system. This is sustainable for followers who zealously guard their right to independent thought, but are motivated and moved by their leader. Examples: visionaries like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. and innovative companies like Apple.

And lastly, there is the model based on sharing. This is not really a Lead/Follow model (or alternatively, one may call it a sublimated Lead/Follow model), since everybody's a leader and everybody's a follower, in different spaces and/or at different times, but all together and all at once. Here one imagines society as a loose network of peers, where members share ideas, thoughts and opinions with one another as equals. There are no fixed positions of overall authority, though some may hold authoritative positions on subjects of their expertise. People do not consciously aim to influence other people -- they just share their ideas and thoughts as they collaborate with others in a spirit of partnership. In turn, other people may be influenced by those ideas and may draw on them to further improvise on the theme or to develop related ideas of their own. Platonic dialogue resolves contradictions or disagreements around an idea, and is seen as a way of enriching and evolving ideas, as different from establishing one as prevalent over the other. Conflicting interests are resolved through negotiation towards a positive-sum (i.e., non-zero-sum) outcome. There may be some who seem to (statistically) influence others more often, but such individuals desist from taking on 'leadership' of the group in the conventional sense, and in fact eschew the idea of others 'following' him/her. This is only sustainable in a society of people who have transcended the need to find a leader to follow, and who believe in self-regulation towards the common good. Examples: 'non'-leaders like J Krishnamurti and Lao-Tzu and the open-source movement.

The amazing thing is that all 4 models co-exist in the world as we know it today, though not necessarily in harmony. While an average person probably represents some mix of these four models, there seems to be one model which is their 'home', where they are most comfortable (could also be in the overlapping area between models a step away from each other). Then there are the outliers, who represent an extreme implementation of one model, with very little or no overlap with neighbouring models. The trouble starts when people whose memetic DNA (the metaphorical 'grain of wood' of their home model culture) of one type mingle with those whose memetic DNA is essentially different. Value systems vary significantly across these 4 types, as is perhaps obvious, and people who come from one home model would find it difficult to succeed in another. A typical follower from a fear-based model would be quite lost in a sharing model, since it would be impossible to find a leader who evokes fear and is always in command. Under such circumstances, smart folks try to adapt and fake it while they can, but in the long run, it is evident as to who they really are because it shows.

You know who you are. I do.

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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

"In Praise of 'Jugaad'"... Wait! Really?

In an article in The Wall Street Journal, Ms Devita Saraf extolls the virtues of Indian ingenuity and proposes Jugaad as a concept that Indian enterprise should leverage in order to be globally competitive. I recognize that there's a chance that you, dear reader, may not know what Jugaad means, in which case I would recommend that you find someone who knows the Hindi vernacular well enough (including colloquialisms and slang) and get them to explain to you its full meaning, since I would be digressing significantly if I were to go into it here and now. (My guess is that you will know it anyway by the time you've finished reading this post.) Jugaad is not a new concept -- at least, not in the Indian IT industry, and that I can assert confidently. In my by now rather longish career, I've worked for (or with) several companies where the sales force openly specialized in Jugaad tactics, and veteran salesmen took great pride and pleasure in narrating their Jugaad war-stories after work, at their favourite watering hole, to bright-eyed tyros who would give their left index finger to be able to emulate them. In fact one company used to unofficially (but affectionately) refer to its PC sales division as the "J-segment", since Jugaad was what really seemed to work in that fiercely competitive market.

I've never been impressed by cunningness, clever lies, cheap tricks and other forms of prevarication and prestidigitation in business. Jugaad has been something I've sought to be as far away from as possible, managing to successfully evade it through most of my career on the 'sell' side of the market, barring perhaps a few exceptions. (Let me add that in those exceptional situations I always strove to retain my professional integrity even at the risk of earning my team-mates' ire for being, from their perspective, a party-pooper. But that was not enough to stop them from tricking unsuspecting customers or suppliers or alliance partners.) And while on the 'buy' side of the market, I've generally been a Jihadi against Jugaad. As a buyer, I've developed a nose for all forms of chicanery, sophistry and subterfuge over the years, having been on the other side and having had a ring-side view of the metamorphosis from the 'sudden brilliant idea' stage to the parasitic feeding off the budget of the hapless customer -- I smell such creepies and crawlies from a mile away, and tend to promptly squash them before they could get under my skin and disrupt my plans.

This is not to say that I am against out-of-the-box ideas to overcome typical constraints faced by Indian industry / business. I wholeheartedly support clean and honest ingenuity and innovation in, for instance, applying modern tools and technologies to solve India's unique problems through effective low-cost solutions sourced from local providers and drawing on locally available resources. (While on this, I want to add that I do not see this as 'insular' as Ms Saraf suggests -- I still believe in the nascent post-independence doctrine of self-sufficiency as the platform for development and growth of the Indian economy, but unlike Nehruvian socio-economists, I would advocate that it be coupled with liberalisation and international trade in relevant sectors.) There is no question in my mind that the indigenous development of 'appropriate technology' solutions is a highly beneficial strategy for India. The same goes for original ideas and innovative management thinking around challenges in the way we organize and conduct business in India. I have in fact always lamented the lack of focus on these areas in our technical / higher education curricula, and lack of adequate impetus to / funding of research aimed at developing indigenous solutions, in Indian educational and research institutions. Some of the examples cited in the article are great testimonials to Indian ingenuity, and exemplary models worthy of replication and emulation not just in India but any other geography or economy where the basic underlying approach could be ported. But there are some areas where ingenuity is clearly not to be encouraged (e.g., 'creative accounting', regulatory compliance, etc.). The problem with Jugaad as an overall inspiration to strategy is that it is an omnibus category that includes all of these ideas and does not exclude the bad parts (such as deceit, trickery and evasiveness). Jugaad clouds ingenuity with disingenuousness.

Online WSJ requires you to register and log-in, in order to be able to comment, and while I usually get discouraged to comment because of this, I made an exception this time since I thought it was important that readers of Ms Saraf's article also see things from a different perspective, i.e., mine. My comment is reproduced here for your benefit, to save you the trouble of searching for it at the site.
Good post! Thanks for sharing some very interesting insights on Indian ingenuity, which, arguably, is unparalleled across global industrial and business cultures. However, I have a couple of concerns about Jugaad, which I shall attempt to crystallize around two focal points: 
1. 'Jugaad' could easily become another word for 'adjust' - an English word that is used in a totally different sense in India. While it means different things to different people in different contexts, the common thread running through all of those is the ability to 'make do' with the situation and 'somehow manage' to meet your goals. It can be a positive thing sometimes (for instance, when we learn to accommodate and tolerate some inconvenience, with a larger good in view) but quite often, it becomes synonymous with either compromise or poor quality or unfair means - or any combination thereof. We must be cautious, in according official sanction to this approach, to not sweep all of these overtones into the same box. Frugal engineering is a good, healthy, positive spin to put on Jugaad, but only if we mine the 'ore' of the broad concept, get rid of the unwanted and toxic sludge, and refine the valuable part (i.e. the part dealing with value addition through innovation out of constraints) of the core concept. If we are successful in doing that, India could actually create her own unique methodology aimed at gaining competitive advantage in the global economic value chain across all industry. 
2. Notwithstanding the above, and from a different point of view, where are environmental considerations in all this? Are Jugaad strategies green? Does Jugaad provide an opportunity for sustainable competitive advantage? Unfortunately, the path of socially responsible ecological economics is not easy, in that there are no short-cuts. Instead, there are some really tough trade-offs to be considered and hard decisions to be made. Jugaad sometimes also becomes synonymous with short-cuts, as explained above. But if Jugaad strategies also result in sustainable wealth creation, then they are more than welcome. If not, even if they are ethically sound practices, we must first check if they are also 'clean and green' before we deploy them. 
To summarize, my mixed feelings about Jugaad centre around the potential for breach of ethics and the absence of environmental / ecological and social considerations. While I am excited by the potential of Jugaad - to become our next national slogan, if you like - I am equally concerned that official endorsement of it may become a license to unscrupulous businessmen to continue indulging in malpractices with even more gusto. Let's remember that the myopic tactics followed by some sections of the global financial services industry, which eventually led to the global economic crisis, were also a form of Jugaad. Such tactics were innovative, perhaps, but they were also toxic, as time has shown. And non-sustainable. 
Thanks for your patience with my rather lengthy comment!
While the article does acknowledge, towards the end, that 'it needs some serious work on two fronts ...' before the idea of Jugaad can be embedded in all Indian business thinking, it does not address the concerns I have outlined. On the contrary, the two fronts it says it needs serious work on, are (both) in the nature of further advancing the concept as it exists, without any cleansing or sanitization along the lines I have suggested in my comment. I really hope Ms Saraf pauses to factor-in relevant inputs from the comments and makes the necessary tweaks in her ideology before further developing the 'Jugaad-as-the-way-forward-for-India-to-become-a-superpower' theme. Otherwise, the glorification of Jugaad just might result in business folks of questionable integrity smirking to themselves, thinking: "Heh. Jugaad is cool - even the voices at the top say it is. So what if it is not always above board or not sustainable? It is now official!"

I have my fingers crossed, but am not holding my breath.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Sense and Sustainability

In an earlier post I wrote: “I would advocate Responsibility over Opportunity, Assimilation over Growth, Pace over Expediency, Sustainability over Efficiency, Quality over Quantity, Wisdom over Knowledge / Intelligence.” I did not specifically elaborate on this then (I had already written too much, and knew I was going to be writing more in that post), and that left me with the feeling of a job half-done. Also, the more I thought about it, the more I felt the need to document these values and principles as the basis for a framework for development of a doctrine of professional ethics that we could teach in our B-schools (refer my post below) and within which, in a broader context, we could build a better life. 

As I propose these value and principles, I do not have the audacity to believe that this is a radically new stream of thought, nor that this will create a new world order. Yes, there is always the 'audacity of hope', but I do not have the audacity to compare myself with the author of that phrase and the eponymous book. At the very least, however, I will say this - I plan to follow these principles more consciously (and conscientiously) going forward (not that I haven't been doing that till now, but a framework provides structure and improves the quality of implementation). If I am lucky, I will be able to impart these values and principles to my children and/or others who seek my counsel. To the rest of the world, I can only hope to share these thoughts and offer them, modestly, for discussion and debate.

So here goes …. (a summary is posted at my mini-blog)

Note:  The principles, as appear in the heading of each paragraph below in the format "(x) over (y)", are to be read as "Value and prioritize (x) over (y)" and "Let (x) govern (y)". It does not mean that per se (y) is bad and undesirable, but that there is a higher good over (y) and that is (x), and that (y) should not be pursued at the cost of (x). Business schools today are mostly focused on encouraging (y) and seldom, if at all, even mention (x) as a priority. And never as a governing principle over (y).

Responsibility over Opportunity – We value opportunity and that's nice. We want to seize opportunity, and that's OK too. But up to a point. Beyond that point, we need to have a sense of responsibility that would govern the impulse to exploit opportunity.  The irresponsible exploitation of opportunity can never be a good principle to embrace. Sir Edmund Hillary, when asked what motivated him to climb Mt. Everest, responded with the famous epigram - "Because it is there". We cannot afford to apply the same idea to opportunity, however. Let us learn to be responsible in seizing opportunities and not exploit them recklessly just because they are there, and just because we can.

Assimilation over Growth - We are always looking for growth, and that's a good thing. We want to grow, and fast. Very soon, we find ourselves chasing 'Big Hairy Audacious Growth', and at that point, we have already started to go downhill, from a long term perspective, though we may not realize it immediately. We need to pause a bit, and assimilate the growth that we have already undergone, just as while eating our favourite food, we learn to eat moderately sized morsels, chew on them, and pause every once in a while. Gorging recklessly on food can only cause indigestion. A wise friend of my father-in-law (and a famous film personality) once told him (in Hindi, which I am translating here): "Eat less, eat more. Eat more, eat less". When asked, he explained this as follows - if you eat less, you can live longer and thus eat more. But if you eat more, you will fall sick and die a premature death and therefore you would have eaten less. Let us spend adequate time to assimilate the fruits of growth, as we grow towards a better world.

Pace over Expediency - Speed is good, and I love it. But speed can kill, as we realize soon. We tend to glamourize speed and impatience. There's a commercial on TV these days for a telecom carrier, that glorifies the 'impatient generation', which is constantly hankering for more speed and better response time. While better response time is a good thing in telecom and technology, the general glorification of speed and impatience sends the wrong message to an already misguided mind-set. There is a certain pace which works best for moving things along. Go any faster and you're already sowing the seeds of failure and destruction. We must learn to find the 'right' pace at which to do things. Einstein, when he was repeatedly called upon to explain his complex theories in plain English, said he could only try to "make things as simple as possible, but not simpler". If he simplified it beyond a point, then it wouldn't be the same thing. Oversimplification runs the risk of distorting the meaning of a truth till it becomes a falsehood. Let's apply the same principle to speed, albeit with some paraphrasing - do things at the 'right' pace, not faster. As to the question of what is the 'right' pace, there is no single answer, and life is too complex for us to create a heuristic that is universally applicable for all activities and all initiatives. Here's where we need to embrace the principle in spirit rather than letter. I can only suggest a broad guideline and that is - the right pace is the slowest speed at which something can get done. Any slower than that will not meet your goals. So, do things as slowly as possible but not slower. This is the polar opposite of what we tend to do - we look for the fastest speed at which we can get things done as per the dictum 'don't put off for tomorrow what you can do today and don't put off for later what you can do now'. I disagree. Do not clutter up your 'now' with things that can wait for later. There is already too much happening in the 'now'. Let 'right pacing' govern speed, for a better world. The 'slow' movement is a good initiative in this regard and I support it wholeheartedly. 

Sustainability over Efficiency - Efficiency is great and we all seek it in everything we do, and especially so in everything others do, to which we become customers or users or beneficiaries of. We pursue efficiency relentlessly: 'cheaper, faster, better' and other synonymous mantras, chanted increasingly unthinkingly, have become de facto standard goals of business processes for any organisation - profit oriented or not. But the 'better' in that mantra does not always keep long-term sustainability in mind. And even if it did, the question I have is - sustainability of what, exactly, were you thinking about? I bet in most cases (of the few cases where 'better' includes sustainability) the answer (if it is honest) would be sustainability of the business. The scope would end there, and not extend to sustainability of life on the planet. Quite often, these would be in conflict. The most efficient engine in the most efficient car made by the most efficient automobile manufacturer through the most efficient production line in the most efficient plant, and supported by the most efficient supply chain and other processes, is not necessarily also the most sustainable. Let the principle of sustainability govern the quest for efficiency, for a better world.

Quality over Quantity - Thanks to science and mathematics, and the methodologies of sciences, we live in a world of numbers. Because management purports to be a science, it aligns itself with the compelling argument of measurement. If you cannot measure it, you cannot manage or control it. This is OK, since it is true to a large extent. But the pressure of this truth pushes minds to believe that if you cannot measure it, it doesn't exist! It is inconvenient for the sciences (including social sciences) to deal with stuff that cannot be measured. Pundits invent systems of measurement to support systems of management. They create scales for calibration, benchmarks for evaluation, etc., where the subject at hand does not intrinsically provide for a quantified analysis. They use proxies where parameters do not easily lend themselves for quantification. The weaker minds, unfortunately, confuse this with the truth. In a bureaucracy, if something is not backed by documentation and records, it does not exist. In the bureaucracy of modern management, the same is the case. While this may work in engineering, it doesn't work in education (e.g., grading systems). Or in management, beyond a point (e.g., performance measurement, balanced scorecard, etc.). Let us not confuse metrics for reality. Just as we have learned to value substance over form (in GAAP, for instance), we must learn to let qualitative aspects govern our quantitative anlayses.

Synthesis over Analysis (just added this) - taking the argument of quality vs quantity forward, and in the same vein, we have grown to value analytical skills highly, and are only now learning to value creativity and other 'synthetic' skills. Analysis is synonymous with breaking down; synthesis with putting together patterns and creating new stuff. That's where innovation and 'out-of-the-box' thinking comes from. But alas, innovation has become a buzz-word - copied and pasted on corporate web-sites from top tier to start-up. While analytical skills are good, and necessary in several fields and professions, we need to start focusing on other skills as well. Life and life's problems are not linear and simple. While our immediate spacetime appears to be Euclidean and our immediate physical world seems to be Newtonian, the real world is far more complex and chaotic. We can teach machines to be analytical, but we cannot teach them to be imaginative or creative or innovative. Experiments with computer-generated poetry or music (or other art) are instances of using arbitrariness (not to be confused with randomness - true randomness is beyond the realm of computers), to make sense. This cannot really be called creativity. Edward de Bono demonstrated the need for, and utility of, lateral thinking. But how many schools focus on developing minds in this area? Most schools and education systems teach students to solve problems (using analytical techniques) that are readily articulated and put before them. How many schools or education systems teach students to recognize and define problems in a given situation which offers no clues whatsoever as to what the underlying problem(s) may be? Let us increase our focus on the development of more creative skills, alongside analytical ones. (Here's a fascinating example of a completely 'out-of-the-box' solution to a known problem in health care. I don't think one could arrive at a solution like this through analysis.)

Contribution over Achievement (just added this too) - The single most prominent characteristic of modern man is his ever increasing need for achievement. While this is a good thing, going overboard with it is harmful. In earlier posts I have dwelt on the perils of over-achievement, and lamented that fact that we seem to have created a culture that worships overachievers by making them not just our heroes but our gods. We have yet to learn to ask what we have contributed, before we credit ourselves for what we have achieved. Contribution towards a better world is the biggest achievement any caring global citizen can ever aspire for. As opposed to achievements aimed at fame, glory and personal aggrandisement. We have to learn to care before we seek to achieve. Let the urge to care for, and contribute to, the world around us govern our impulse to achieve greatness.

Wisdom over Knowledge and Intelligence - Knowledge, they say, is Power. They also say that Power corrupts. However, they don't usually sequence these two sayings in the manner that I just did. To me, the second might as well be a corollary of the first. They also say, in jest, that specialization involves knowing more and more about less and less till finally we know everything about nothing. To me, this is the opposite of wisdom: wisdom is the discovery that there is more and more that we know less and less about, till finally we realize that we know nothing about anything. Our education systems are aimed at sifting the most intelligent minds, honing their analytical capability, bombarding them with knowledge and letting them loose on an unsuspecting world. Well, actually, a conniving world. Where is wisdom in all this? Where do we teach students the importance of insight and understanding? Again, the voice of the soft / subtle / qualitative is lost in the din of the hard / tangible / quantitative. If knowledge is power, let wisdom govern the use of knowledge and save us from abuse of the power that comes from knowledge and intelligence.

This is a rough draft, as a framework. I would love to know what you think, and would request your indulgence in leaving a comment.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Teaching the Ethics of Sustainability

Yesterday, one of my twitter feeds brought me an interesting article posted at the Harvard Business blog, with the controversial title of "MBAs Cheat. But why?" I read the blog post with great interest, agreeing with most of what was being said there. Scrolling down a bit, I was intrigued by a comment made by Jim Champy, which essentially held the opposite view: that MBAs are less likely to cheat in business as compared to non-MBAs, and further suggesting that the global financial crisis was triggered by the indiscriminate unethical actions of sales professionals with different backgrounds, mostly non-MBAs. I commented on that comment, wondering where Mr Champy got that from, if indeed it was based on hard data, and speculating that his theory probably arose more out of personal prejudice than fact-based intelligent opinion. This morning I went back to see if my comment was posted and how it looked on the blog page (vanity!) and found several additional comments on various aspects of the original posts and its key submissions, as also comments on other comments. There seemed to be a fairly interesting debate on whether MBAs cheated more than other professionals, set in the context of what B-schools could or should do about this. While the original blog post made some hard-hitting observations, I thought that most of the commentators were dragging the debate down into anecdotes and statistics about which class of professionals cheated more, and this inspired me to post my second comment, which I reproduce here with some minor changes.

For a moment, let's park the debate on whether MBAs cheat more than non-MBAs do, together with all the anecdotal and statistical evidence within our collective body of knowledge that points one way or another. (I know this is a key element of Donald McCabe's blog post to begin with, but let's keep that aside for now, take a look at the bigger picture and then come right back to the role of B-schools in this context.) The trigger to this discussion, and various related discussions (here and elsewhere on the web and other forums) on ethical practices / behavior, has undoubtedly been the global economic crisis. So let's look at the big picture for a moment. I know that several root cause analyses have been carried out and various observations and recommendations propounded by various analysts, economists, industry experts, political pundits, academics and scholars, practitioners, financial / business journalists and bloggers. However, to my mind, one thing stands out clearly as the key driver to this situation, which I hereby name as the 'causal smoking gun' as one reader has dubbed it.

Over the years, we have created a culture of over-achievement in business and that has extended to everything else (including sports which is now big business). And we're proud of it: we worship over-achievers in every sphere and every walk of life. Over-achievement by definition means going beyond current benchmarks of achievement, beyond even 'stretch targets', to attain the impossible. Every era has a myth that drives leaders and star performers of that era, and in this era it is the myth of over-achievement. A close corollary (though not an intrinsic pre-condition) which is subtly understated (if at all) but well understood is that you can over-achieve at any cost if you're smart enough to get away with it. You then become a hero, who everyone will idolize. (Even athletes cheat, these days - if not for financial gain then to break records.)

If we think over-achievement is a good thing then so be it - there's no need for reform, in B-schools or elsewhere, and let's agree to live in a world where crises like these will happen repeatedly over time like all other cyclical phenomena. If on the other hand we think this is not a good thing, then let management thinkers and B-schools take the lead in determining how to change it. Clearly, I would throw my mite with the latter. I propose two key words to focus on: ethics (obviously) and sustainability (which is not necessarily derived from an ethical perspective). Ethics and morality tend to be deontological in nature i.e. they preach the doctrine of 'be good, do good' as an end in itself. This works best side-by-side with an accompanying culture of self-regulation, and if that is a successful dynamic then there is no need for hard external regulation. Sustainability is a bit different in the sense that it does not directly deal with 'goodness' in itself or by itself. Sustainability as a value or principle is teleological in nature i.e. it focuses on outcomes and advocates aiming at the larger and longer term desirable scenario. In extreme situations, sustainability may even require a temporary suspension of the ethical, when one is challenged to transcend the smaller / short-term definition of 'good' in deference to a larger / long-term 'good'. It is precisely because these ideas and concepts are soft and nebulous, if not vague, that such subjects need to be taught to students, and not just in B-schools.

The pursuit of sustainability as a guiding principle (the "North Star" in Mr McCabe's post) would deal with creating a normative framework where guidelines / norms / rules etc., are defined in the context of one simple question that must govern every strategic, tactical, operational plan and/or activity in business, and that question is - "Would this lead to a better, longer and more prosperous life for all of us on planet earth?" It is not necessarily about ethics alone - it is about survival and longevity. Teaching ethics is a good way to catalyze the process and inculcate the culture of responsibility and self-regulation. Clearly if we don't behave ourselves, someone (an authority) or something (a disaster) will make sure that we do, eventually. But a focus on sustainability as a broader idea (i.e., a concept much wider in scope than just the word might suggest - there's an ecological, a social and a financial aspect to it) in B-school curricula would certainly go a long way in avoiding disasters in the future.

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Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Where The Mind is Without Fear - Rabindranath Tagore

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high 
Where knowledge is free 
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments 
By narrow domestic walls 
Where words come out from the depth of truth 
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection 
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way 
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit 
Where the mind is led forward by thee 
Into ever-widening thought and action 
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake 

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

My 25 Things

I got this viral note from a friend on Facebook recently, which asks you to list 25 things about yourself - essentially factoids / trivia / minutiae, including aspirations, hobbies, habits, etc. You are then expected to post this on your Facebook page and tag 25 other friends. At first I ignored it but then one fine day I thought I'd give it a shot and see what comes out of it. So here're my 25 things - for the benefit of my non-Facebook friends.

1. My life is an open book, but that doesn’t automatically mean that I will let you read it.

2. I am still trying to understand the meaning of the complex number “i” (the square root of minus one). Frankly, I’m still trying to understand the meaning of “meaning”.

3. Five things I can’t live without – love, music, work (not to be confused with 'job' or 'career'), good food & fine wine, conversation.

4. I started blogging so that I could hone my writing skills but with every post, I become increasingly disappointed with the way it turns out. I have a long way to go, it seems, before I learn the art of crafting extraordinary poetry from ordinary words. Prose lends itself to the proclivity to be bombastic (I could have said tendency but I said proclivity – see what I mean?), and while I try to desist, I find it hard to resist.

5. I grapple with my ability to tolerate intolerance … and rarely succeed.

6. As a kid, I used to make model airplanes, ships etc. Some of my airplanes actually flew. My favourites were the gliders I made out of thermocole sheets – I enjoyed launching them from a height and watching them glide gracefully. Few things give you more joy than seeing something that you have created, actually work the way it was supposed to.

7. Some time ago I propounded my own version of the Uncertainty Principle – “It is impossible to simultaneously and precisely eat your cake and have it too, but you can come pretty darn close to doing so, if you’re lucky”.

8. I don’t drive. But strangely, I have implicit faith in the person sitting behind the wheel (though quite often, they are complete strangers), as I do in the nameless pilots who fly the aircrafts I travel in. This is perhaps the only real manifestation of faith that I have. When my son jumps down into my arms from a tree, he has the same faith in me. This is awesome!

9. I am always looking for opportunities to do absolutely nothing. This is not as easy as it sounds. Try it some time!

10. I learn a lot from everyone, especially from the ones I teach. Quite often, my most intense learning comes from trying to teach something I believe I know, to someone who doesn’t seem to understand. Some of my most momentous moments of epiphany have been in such situations.

11. One of my favourite quotes is from Tunda Kababwalla (a famous kabab chef in Lucknow). In a TV interview, he was asked why he had not started a franchise to expand his business. His reply: “Munafa utna hi ho jitna khane mein namak”. I understood that as: “Target only as much return (in business), as you would have salt in your food”. (I hope my Urdu is accurate!) To me, this was a lesson in moderation.

12. I am fascinated by the universe and everything in it. Especially women. (Kidding! Just thought I’d add that last part to make it funny in a Woody Allen-esque way)

13. Though I do not purport to be a believer, I pray often, because it teaches me humility.

14. My paradoxes don’t bother me as much as they used to: I’d rather be complete than consistent. Then again, I’m not a fan of inconsistency either.

15. Speaking of which, I’d rather be consistent and reliable than inconsistent and unpredictable. It is only those who are truly and intrinsically boring that are afraid of being predictable.

16. My paradoxes don’t bother me as much as my convictions do. But, over time, they turn into paradoxes, and then I am a bit more comfortable with them.

17. Some day I hope to be able to form a band that will play my favourite music and let me play along too!

18. Anyone with strong and deep-rooted beliefs (even if it is belief in the doctrine of faithlessness), scares me. However, I must admit that the zealously devout scare me more than staunch atheists do. It is only with the uncertain sceptics that I am comfortable, though I doubt I am one of them. (A wise wag once said – Always trust a seeker, but only till he finds the Truth.)

19. I have great respect for a few people – some for their vision, some for their character, some for their talent (as manifested in their work) and others for various combinations of these three great qualities. I am not so impressed with personality or charisma as an attribute by itself – if it comes along with vision or skill or character, then so be it, but stand-alone, it represents insignificant value to me.

20. Unlike John Stuart Mill, I’d rather be a contented pig than a dissatisfied Socrates. While Socrates is among the few people I have the greatest respect for, I’d rather not be him, if I have a choice. Ah to be a contented pig!!

21. I would love to travel the world (not on business, like I’ve been doing all these years, but as a carefree nomad). Places, people, cuisines, cultures, music, dance, art, architecture, tools, technologies, history … a vast ocean of enchantment.

22. I’ve always considered Invention to be easier than Discovery; Innovation easier than Insight; Building easier than Understanding. Which is probably why scientists are more intelligent than engineers!

23. My learning from relationships – Give more, expect less. But don’t give more than what you have and don’t expect less than what you deserve. (Works at the personal level as well as in business.) The toughest part is learning to deal with expectations – your own as well as your counterparty’s. Master that and your relationships will be successful.

24. I enjoy getting away from the hustle and bustle of the city to the open and wide country. I can actually hear the absence of the ‘white noise’ in the background of all urban spaces, and it is the most beautiful sound. It feels like a load has been lifted off of you, and you are light and alive. (To those who don’t know what I am talking about – I can only liken this to the fragrance of the first rain on dry earth, which I am sure you can relate to.) Now ... if only those places had broadband!

25. I’ve always empathized more with Hector than with Achilles, and more with Karn than with Arjun. It is easy to be brave when you have been blessed with the protection of gods, which makes you almost invincible. Be a mere mortal and fight your battles yourself! Here’s a quote on bravery from the movie “Kate and Leopold” (yup, the chick flick with Meg Ryan et al.): “The brave are simply those with the clearest vision of what is before them – glory and danger alike, and notwithstanding, go out to meet it.”

26. (Bonus) I didn’t realize I had 25 ... correction 26 ... things to say about myself till I started with this list.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Slow Down! Quick - Before It Is Too Late!

A few months ago, I was visiting a friend who lives abroad and over the weekend that we spent at his place, we got into several interesting debates about a wide range of subjects. On one such occasion (I can't recall the context or the trigger for this discussion) my friend, a man of great erudition, experience and intelligence, talked about the progress made by Man, passionately asserting that it was all good in the final analysis, and that we need more of the same, and faster. I argued that the history (as well as the current state) of the world is not something one could be proud of, since several bad things have happened too over the last several millennia. More so in the last couple of centuries. While he agreed with that my friend predicted with conviction that at some point in the near future, mature change agents -- in the form of individuals or institutions -- will initiate and lead transformation programs on a global scale that would wipe out (or at least mitigate) the bad stuff and enhance the good parts. I, on the other hand, had a different view.

First, I was clear that I would not use the word progress in a general and context-independent sense while describing Man's journey to date. I believe it would be accurate to say that we have made progress in some areas (as long as we confine ourselves to the narrow boundaries of those specific areas, in isolation, without looking at them in totality) but we have been increasingly destructive in others. In my view, the net effect of all Man has done so far is value zero. And I do not share the optimism that the force of human goodness (even if quite plainly, it may boil down to nothing but the survival instinct) would be strong enough to correct our mistakes, solve global problems and set life on the planet on a happy and positive course. I would like to think and hope that it is true, but I do not share the conviction that it will happen. Not that I am a pessimistic doomsday pundit either -- just that I choose not to speculate about how and where the world might end-up, given the way things are going and at the speed with which they are rushing there. That said, my main point of issue was not about whether good would triumph over evil. Instead, it was about whether more / faster 'progress' as currently defined and understood, was indeed a solution. My view was that explosive growth is not progress; only responsible growth could aspire to deliver progress in the true sense, and this cannot be hastened beyond a point. Responsibility towards the larger interests of Mankind requires consideration and contemplation on the part of actors before they act, and that requires time. I would advocate Responsibility over Opportunity, Assimilation over Growth, Pace over Expeditiousness, Sustainability over Efficiency, Quality over Quantity, Wisdom over Knowledge / Intelligence. However, our value systems (as evident through actions, not words) are exactly the opposite. Sadly we have created a culture that rewards "Big Hairy Audacious Growth" and worships the over-achievers who deliver it, as heroes. How many of these heroes, beating their own narrow (but seldom straight) paths to profitability, have stopped to think whether they were creating toxic assets? or toxic pollutants? Or, having thought, have they cared? The few soft voices that call for socially and environmentally responsible behaviour through regulation and moderation are drowned in the melee of quarterly results and market up-ticks.

Later, as I pondered over this particular discussion, I was increasingly convinced that the 3 biggest crises threatening the world today: (1) the global economic meltdown (2) the global environmental deterioration and (3) the world-wide breakdown in security -- have but a few common root causes, all of which have to do with what we have been taught to call progress. All 3 of them have, in some way shape or form, arisen out of an unbridled need, of some rogue individuals/ groups/ organizations/ nations, for achievement of their own self-interests and progress of their cause, which in turn is nothing but complete surrender to the gods of "More / Faster". But this is not new -- the history of human life on earth is full of stories of such behaviour on the part of a few who were either wealthy or powerful or both. What is new is the empowerment of common people, thanks to which small groups or even lone individuals, anywhere in the world (and a far more populous world, at that, compared to even a century ago) can perpetrate such actions; what is new is the scope of the impact their actions can have in terms of geography and number of people affected; what is new is the speed with which these actions can trigger chain reactions across the world. This is new because of the extreme inter-connected-ness that exists today, unprecedented in the history of human civilization. And this is because of technology - the same technology that we keep inventing and putting to much good use in other areas. Where there once was the knife (which, even then, could be used to chop vegetables or to kill people), there is now nuclear power (which could be harnessed to provide electricity or to make weapons of mass destruction). Knife to Nukes: the story of evolution of tools is also the story of evolution of weapons of destruction. So much for "More / Faster"! These mantras, chanted by almost each and every one of us, almost every day of our lives, have overheated the world's engine. The milk of human kindness has begun to turn sour. In each case, of the 3 crises, just one single idea -- the idea of moderation -- could have averted our headlong plunge into disaster. The argument that self-interest in its purest form is adequate to ensure that we will not destroy ourselves, is very weak in the face of the overwhelming evidence of greed, apathy and intolerance underlying these 3 big crises. This argument is predicated on a sense of maturity and responsibility, leading to self-regulation that should go along with self-interest, but which is conspicuously absent in the various actors that have precipitated and are continuing to exacerbate each of these 3 crises, even as you read this. 

I was reminded of this discussion with my friend and my post-discussion pondering, as I watched the news on BBC this afternoon. It featured an interesting story about a new note that was played just today, in a concert that has been playing continuously since 2001 and will continue playing non-stop till 2640. Yes, you got that right - its a 639 year long concert, composed by the late John Cage in the late 1980's. The John Cage Organ Project in Halberstadt, Germany set out, on September 5, 2001 (his birthday) to play his composition "As Slow As Possible". Apparently, when he composed it, he did not specify as to over what period of time it should be played. So the folks in Halberstadt decided to play it, on an organ that was built in the year 1361 (which happens to be 639 years before the year 2000, at the time they were planning this project), for another 639 years. I was intrigued when I learned about this and was also reminded of a related idea, called the Long Now, that I came across some time ago as I was aimlessly surfing the web. It encourages people to think in the very long term, and The Long Now Foundation has built a clock that measures time over a much larger scale than, lets say one year per year. In a sense, the Halberstadt project is an excellent example of a "Long Now" concert - playing a composition called "As Slow As Possible" on a 648 year old organ, over the next 630 years. The Foundation, in their own words, "hopes to provide counterpoint to today's faster/cheaper mind set and promote slower/better thinking". A little more research led me to the Slow Society, whose key message is - eschew speed and embrace slowness, for sustainability. And then on to In Praise of Slow by Carl Honore, who inspired Oprah Winfrey to experiment with living without e-mail for a month, according to a recent news item on CNN which also, by a strange coincidence, I came upon today! 

(In the interests of brevity, I have resisted the urge to elaborate further on the virtues of 'Slow' and 'Long Now' thinking, and would therefore encourage you to click on the links above and read a little more about the 'Slow Movement'. Yet another site worth a visit is The World Institute of Slowness and its connected site Slow Planet. You will find more links to related resources at some of these sites.)

Self-interest is good. It is also all we have by way of a valid, legitimate motive to seek a better life. But it must be tempered by self-regulation, based on responsibility (if not duty), moderation (if not restraint) and pace (if not slowness). Unregulated and immature self-interest will only lead to excesses, extremism and blind speed, which could be catastrophic not just to those who act out of it, but to the whole world. It is time we woke up to the realization that the human race is currently set-up to go nowhere, really fast. Speed kills, in more ways than one. It makes far more sense to lead a richer life at a slower pace than a dangerous one really fast! For one, it will ensure longevity for all of us, as also for our planet.