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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