Tuesday, September 20, 2016

A Master Facilitator

Many years ago, Saru (as she is known) was my Master coach for all of one session. I can never forget how she handled her 'coachee'. And how meeting her left me thinking that I have miles (prefixed with thousands of) to go.

And a few days ago when I learnt that she was running a session, I did everything I could attend the session. It was touch and go. With all the Bangalore bandh and all that, I somehow managed to get a seat on the session quite at the last minute. And was it worth it!

She is, what I might call as a master facilitator. Gentle. Jovial. Stern. Knowledgeable. Even paced. Never hurried. No gimmicks - just sticking to the subject and taking people along. No comedy track. Very simple slides and material. Her knowledge did most of the talking.

Slowly pulling people into the centre. Gently nudging them to think. Teasing thoughts out of them. Pushing them to think a bit more. Disagreeing at times. Rarely definitive, but when she spoke in definitives, she made her point clearly. If you fall back and ask a question, she is there to answer. If you go awry thinking of unrelated stuff, she is there to rein you back in. And the slides are just the tip of the iceberg, the real knowledge is with the facilitator. And what you learn. As you reflect. Think. And get an insight.

And at the end of two days, one feels like a door has opened in our brain. Now that is some session!

Tuesday, September 13, 2016


The economics of places where buses stop for night halts are usually very interesting. For a variety of reasons. Many a time the food quality is bad - like outrightly bad - but the bus staff get a good deal (usually free) so the bus stops there. They stop at random places sometimes - like a lime juice place or a tea place in the middle of the night. Or pick up boiled tapioca (this is a mind-blowing snack - try it sometime) sellers and then drop them off a kilometre or two away while getting their snacks in return. So, the bus passengers are dependent on the place and some often end up eating there.

It was one such place the bus halted a few days ago. And this place, apart from the usual food - sometimes a 'pan' shop, sometimes a juice counter or an ice-cream counter or a general store had a few more things.

One was a shop that sold pickles. One was a toy shop. One was pop corn counter. And one was a counter that sold 'Maths' books - a book that claimed to make Maths and English easy or something like that. I wondered what these stalls did here.

Through the halt of 30 mns, the toy stall had sold a few toys to both kids and to those presumably going to meet a kid or grandkid. The pickle and masala shop had sold a variety of pickles. The pop corn counter did brisk business. The book stall did not do any business while I was there, but I am sure there is a reason why it is there. (There was another stall on 'Science at home' which was shut at this unearthly hour, but I have seen that shop do brisk business at a few other halts).

So what is happening?

My theory is - nudge. That bit of nudge - at a place where presumably people have to step out of the bus - because the staff usually locks the bus to reduce the incidence of thefts etc. My observation was that the purchases were made mostly by people who did not have dinner there.

Once people go for food they are stuck inside and the restaurant gets their business. There are a few who either carry their own food (those rascals) or do not eat. They are also a captive audience and cannot wander away too far. These stalls are there to capture their business. And with the right kind of 'nudge' - just the presence of a shop and round figure costs which are not very high - people buy them.

The toy shop is aimed at kids (some who throw a tantrum or who need to pacified for a bus journey) or grandparents who want to buy a gift. The pickles are for someone who is looking for something 'out of the ordinary' or 'local'. The popcorn is to while time and the book is also some thing on similar lines. At an affordable price the book promises genius in not one but two subjects - so why not? The science store is a very interesting one and piques the curiosity of many.

It is also impulsive buyer behaviour - but the way this halt was organised - with the variety - clearly some thought had gone into it.

What has that got to do with learning?

One - nudge is very important when it comes to learning. The right kind of nudge. Apart from pushing learning reluctant throats - nudge is a smart idea. And it works very well when used the right way.

Two - timing. The nudge should also happen when I as a learner need it. Without that, it won't work.

As I stood there watching the customers and the shopkeepers, it was a fabulous lessons for me...And no, I did not buy anything - the science store at the previous halt had already made me buy something interesting!

Heritage Walk

I attended a heritage walk last week. (I have attended one before this - but that was in a different city and a different person and an underwhelming experience.)

This walk was in a shortish area - a triangular patch of land - and it is an area I thought I know very well. After all, every Mumbaikar knows the area around CST - Metro - Crawford market. Firstly the walk was named Beyond Bazaar Gate - which I had no idea why - until I learnt that the Bazaar Gate was one of the gates of the original Fort.

Heritage walks in places you have no clue about are well, a revelation - because you have no clue anyway. But a heritage walk in a city you know well are a challenge because there are some facts you already know - and thats a challenge for both the person who is attending and the person who conducts the walk.

I learnt that Bhendi Bazaar had nothing to do with Bhendi (Ladyfinger), but it was a corruption of Behind the Bazaar - which became localised as BhendiBazaar (this is particularly hilarious when you think of it). Every building had nuances I had no idea about. This street which I thought knew so much kept us enthralled for nearly 3 hours. For instance, Rudyard Kipling was born on that very street. The Harris on whom the Harris Shield is named had an office there. Both Gandhi and Jinnah started their careers in the Court of Small Causes  (locally known in such a funny way you won't believe it - but thats a secret to uncover when you attend this walk) in Mumbai under the same guru - Gopal Krishna Gokhale - and both call him their mentor.

Apart from this, buildings, stones, street names, memorials, markets - the Phule pagdi, inscriptions and motifs on the sides of buildings - all in all a treasure trove.

And that is the beauty of learning from an expert. You walk in thinking you know everything and as the expert uncovers nuance after nuance and you are left spellbound. What if every subject or topic you picked up could be as unravelling as a 'heritage walk'...

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Zero to One

Zero to One by Peter Thiel is a nice read.

(Yes - if I sit down to write a book review - the book has to be worth it - and usually good - so most of my book reviews are about good books.You can stop here if that's the information you seek.)

Where this book scores is in contrarian thoughts and contrarian questions that make you think.

It starts with a four big lessons learned from the 90s dot-com crash that is, Make incremental advances, Stay lean and flexible, Improve on the competition and Focus on product, not sales. Just as you warm up to it, he says, the opposite rules are more correct - which are:

It is better to risk boldness than triviality.
A bad plan is better than no plan.
Competitive markets destroy profits.
Sales matters just as much as products.

And finally leaves with a simple definition of contrarianism - it is not to oppose the crowd (or follow a smaller or newer or older crowd) but to think for yourself.

"All happy companies are different" - this chapter starts with a question: What valuable company is nobody building? This question is harder than it looks - he says - and no I won't spoil it by revealing the next few lines.

In a further chapter - he says, disruption for the sake of disruption does not take a company anywhere. Rather than position oneself as a 'disruptor' of an existing business, why not focus on the act of creation itself?

And the book being a lot about startups - there are very good takeaways on founding partners, recruiting the right people, power law, AI, green tech and a few more compelling questions.

My personal takeaways - One - Differentiating between vertical/intensive progress and horizontal or extensive progress. Technology advancement is the former while globalisation is the latter. This is a very compelling and eyeopening argument.

And two - which the author says is his favourite interview question: "What important truth do very few people agree with you on?"

And finally the third - which starts with a verse from LOTR

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began

Life is a long journey; the road marked out by the steps of previous travellers has no end in sight. But later on in the tale, another verse appears:

Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate,
And though we pass them by today
Tomorrow we may come this way
And take the hidden paths that run
Towards the moon or to the sun

The road does not have to be infinite after all. Take the hidden paths.[Excerpt]

Read more to find out!

Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Seven Questions

Peter Thiels book lists down 7 questions that every business must answer

1. The Engineering Question
Can you create breakthrough technology instead of incremental improvements?

2. The Timing Question
Is now the right time to start your particular business?

3. The Monopoly Question
Are you starting with a big share of a small market?

4. The People Question
Do you have the right team?

5. The Distribution Question
Do you have a way to not just create but deliver your product?

6. The Durability Question
Will your market position be defensible 10 and 20 years into the future?

7. The Secret Question
Have you identified a unique opportunity that others dont see?

It made me think and is still making me think...

Friday, September 2, 2016

Appreciating your team

While interacting with a set of people recently, the discussion veered onto 'appreciation' of their teams. It is incredible how many people carry the thought in their head that too much appreciation will result in underperformance of the team. And most of my spot surveys have shown that 'appreciation' is a very very limited commodity in organisations.

Now appreciation does not mean random appreciation - it means appreciating something that has been done well - even if it is routine. It does not mean false appreciation. This led to the thought that well, the team does not do so many good things that it needs to be appreciated.

On the other hand, pointing out things to be done better  - seemed to echo rather well with everybody.

It is reasonably well proven that motivating, inspiring and getting people motivated to achieve a goal higher than themselves is a far more motivating factor than pointing out faults.

Now pointing out faults by itself is not a bad - and it can also be done in a much better manner - making it more solution focussed, getting people to do better and stretch themselves to more than they think they are capable of.

Somehow, when all this is added up, people still do not see appreciation as a tool for growth. By the end, people agreed that it can be done, but how much will be implemented, remains to be seen.

Developing thought!

Sindhu Effect

Certain events have an effect on the psyche of a country or a place or even a company. 17 million people watched PV Sindhu fight Carolina Marin for the Olympic Gold in badminton. Sindhu may have lost gold, but she won a billion hearts.

And all around us today - we see children play badminton - atleast in Bangalore everywhere. This is a moment to cherish - as children grow up they will be inspired by this moment. And I hope that India becomes a force to reckon with in badminton.

For our generation, India winning the Cricket World Cup in 1983 was a huge inspiration. I am sure, many of us have such moments to inspire ourselves.

Many companies have moments they cherish and replay and revisit as part of inspiring their teams. True, as a company one cannot have such moments every quarter to inspire the workforce - but what if they used one such great moment to pivot themselves into a different orbit. What if such a moment energised the workforce, generated learning opportunities?