Saturday, April 29, 2017

Alan Mulally and The fight to save Americas Icon

The book is a story about Ford. And how Alan rescued Ford from the doldrums. What I liked about the book is the level of detail - not just in the story of Ford, but also in the details of the execution - as to how it happened.

At one point, Alan notes - compelling vision and ruthless execution - and simple as that might seem, it is difficult in small firms, so imagine doing that in a gigantic firm.

One of the remarkable features for me was the fact that in turning around Boeing in the post 9/11 scenario and in turning around Ford - Mullallys toolkits were the same. He continued to hone and use his core strength, he was technically sound, an engineer and took that level of interest and it paid. At each level - from appointing the right person to giving them the autonomy - measuring - building transparency - this is a story over a few years of both the vision and the execution and both of these would come under question.

The second remarkable feature is the time he took to start moving on big ticket items - there were many big decisions which one is tempted to take as soon as one lands in the top chair.  But Alan took his time.

I loved the principles enunciated for the weekly meeting - can apply practically anywhere:

People First
Everyone is included
Compelling vision
Clear Performance goals
One plan
Facts and data
Propose a plan, 'find-a-way' attitude
Respect, listen, help and appreciate each other
Emotional resilience - trust the process
Have fun - enjoy the journey and each other

Data sets you free...

And as is often shared - Culture eats strategy for breakfast - Mulally had to work on changing the culture at Ford - almost as much as he had to work on changing the strategy.

And, yes, he had to take many 'decisions' along the way. And many of them were tough decisions including to lay off workforce, shut down factories, ask executives to leave - but on each decision was his stamp and responsibility.

Overall this is a good book to read if you want to go over the nuts and bolts of how Ford was turned around - it is one of those rare books that gives a fairly deep insight into the 'how'.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Learning from games

We are part of a Clash Royale clan. This clan is led by a 12 year old. This guy is the clan leader. He interacts with the 'clan', often pumps them up when a 'target' is to be met, 'promotes', doles out 'kicks'. And the clan has been in action for well over a year now - so he learns about keeping people together, getting them motivated - and this clan is a multi-national, diverse, intercultural clan. How cool is that?

A mid sized manager in a company wont have this kind of diversity and team to deal with. You can argue that it is not the same, it is a game and whatnot - but the fact is that this kid is learning serious leadership skills from game...

On the other hand, the boy at home is learning to negotiate with the leader and managed to get a promotion by persuading him a few weeks ago.

As I read about Digital natives and how these guys will grow up into future leaders (even as we speak, they are entering the workforce) - it is interesting how they cut their teeth on technology, how they learn, how they seek growth, their human and non-human interactions - which are way different from the way earlier generations did.

Are they effective - well, we can be skeptic, but I think they will figure their way around - like we figured our way around from a physical world to the digital one!

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Enable your managers

This has been in circulation for a while. The story of Project Oxygen at Google. As per this research, there were 8 things that managers do to a team.

1. Be a good coach
2. Empower the team and does not micro-manage
3. Expresses interest and concern for teams success and well being.
4. Is Productive and results oriented
5. Is a good communicator
6. Helps with career development
7. Has a clear vision and strategy
8 . Has technical skills that help him or her advise the team

In the above blog, how does it apply to your company, two points stood out for me.
One: A manager has to be a great coach. And this does not mean an executive coach certification though that is worth it. What one wants is a manager who makes every team member think for herself. How does that happen? By letting people be. By asking them the right questions. By encouraging them to think. Work on things they like to work. Enable their ideas.

The second point (mentioned on that link) which in my view is a fairly big thing is Feedback Culture:  All too often feedback is reduced to a 'This is my feedback to you', if at all. But connected with the above, what if your managers also made each of those feedback moments - moments of truth for the employee.  What if there were enough moments of positive feedback as opposed to only critical/constructive feedback? What if every such interaction were energy giving, positive and solution focussed? And also receive feedback in the same manner.

Combine both points above and you have a thinking team!

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Vapourware and Pumpelsdrop

The entrepreneur life can get quite lonely. My views  come from my perspective as a newly minted learning consultant entrepreneur. There are times when the market doesnt care if you exist. And like any other entrepreneur, such times have to be navigated.

Here is where the story of Pumpelsdrop (previous post) comes in.

Suddenly, out of the blue, one gets a phone call. To make a proposal. For a company you have always wanted to work with or sounds too exciting to be true or some work which you have always wanted to do or a new opportunity to learn something. And then, the works begins in right earnest. There is a flurry of activity, a few phonecalls, data, research, books to be read and much reading about the current state of the company, industry, concept.

It elevates the energy to a different level. Powerpoints are made. Structures are created. Frameworks are conceptualised. Meetings are arranged with alacrity. And with that last minute scramble, the said proposal is sent on mail.

This often leads to some other long pending work also being completed - lifted along with the rising tide of energy. In preparation for this new work, decks are cleared off other pending work, dates are finalized, moved and kept available in case this great new shining piece of work comes in.

And then, like the story of Pumpelsdrop, the work vanishes. The proposal makers, collaborators, requestors, company -everything. Like an illusion. Gone. And gathers the proverbial dust in a forgotten folder on the machine. And occupied space on the cloud in a forgotten folder. The whatsapp group created urgently for the proposal is deleted as part of the clean up.

But by then the vapourware has served its purpose. The work has been done. A few days lull has been taken care of. New concepts have been created - and they are unused. And they go into the ideas store.

Until the next one.  

Friday, March 17, 2017

The man who saved Pumpelsdrop

This was a story we had in college if I am not mistaken. Perhaps it was in school, but a delightful story it was.

The story goes somewhat like this (reproduced from here), but the college version we had was slightly different from this. 

It was a dull, gloomy and a depressing morning in a town named Pumpelsdrop in northern England. The Great Depression had brought all the businesses to a standstill. The bored automobile dealer was spending time alone, as usual. But, this seems to be an unusual morning as an odd entity (customer) appeared on the horizon. A man in a bright suit walks up to the dealer and says, "I need to buy a Rolls Royce Phantom II. We have a business conference coming up and I need to impress my customers". Then proceeds to pay 10% of the deal with a single check for 2000 pounds. The rest he says will pay when he takes the delivery. 

The auto dealer was stunned. He was delighted to hear that someone is holding a business conference of some kind and even more importantly someone is buying a Rolls Royce. If people are starting to buy a Rolls Royce then there must be more coming to buy those Audis, Vauxhalls and Fords. 

He called for a janitor to clean up the multi-year mess in his shop and had a decorator come in to spruce up his shop. He also shared the happy news with his wife and gave her a go for buying an expensive necklace from the down payment he received.

The jeweler was surprised that someone is buying a 1500 pound diamond necklace. He peeked at the dealer and found something new going on. He now had a huge order and a signal. It was time to replace his old, fading suit. 

Thus, the spending chain began. In no time, the local entrepreneurs thought the Depression 
was ending and were starting to get back to their business. The out of work people were now put in business by the entrepreneurs and soon all hands were running busy. 

As an anticlimax, the check that the auto dealer got from the person in the suit had been returned and he just listened to the radio that a lunatic was going around writing fake checks. But, his orders were so booked that he no longer needed that order.

So, what has this got to do with the learning consultant life? Post follows...

Friday, March 10, 2017

Steve Jobs Effect

Steve Jobs is perhaps the most quoted (or misquoted) person in business today. Perhaps even more than Peter Drucker and Warren Buffet.

Every business presentation that you go through has some reference to Steve Jobs or other.

Recently, I attended a program where almost all speakers quoted Steve Jobs.

Now, dont get me wrong, there is nothing wrong in quoting a great man such as he.

But the fact is, Steve Jobs was unique - there is exactly one person like him in the universe. Nobody else is even comparable. In terms of vision, execution, creative ability, ability to almost visualize the future and take the team there, talent, hard work. Therefore, using him as an example, will only get you so far, because you are talking outlier among outliers.

When people quote Steve Jobs and point to him as an example, mostly they miss the hard work that went into making him the icon he is today. He failed and failed big. He took an immense amount of risk. He spent time on getting everything from his presentations and products exactly right. The way he went about it. Getting every nuance right. Every screw. Every panel. Every aspect of design. There was nothing he left to chance. He was an icon and icons dont make great examples - not every time. Especially without context.

Even his own company does not seem to be the same post his departure. And obviously - that man was unique. There are no two Steve Jobs.

Second, for good or for bad, he and Apple are among the most written about in the business world. That means, unless you look for other stars, the Apple sun will always be brighter. And what does that communicate to the audience? You stopped at  Steve Jobs - because it is easy - and did not care to dig around for more gems.

So, dear speakers, if you still have to quote Steve Jobs - please quote something that is not reasonably public (and there is such stuff around still - older videos, write ups)  - if you quote something people already know (which is to say, Google and find out the first few things that show up) you are just being lazy. Unless of course, you have other examples and experiences to make your point.

And a general note, please go beyond Google and Apple in your examples.

The world of business is shifting faster than you can change your slides. 

Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Box

The Box is a highly acclaimed book by Marc Levinson about how the shipping container made the world smaller and the world economy bigger. The shipping container is an innocuous piece of equipment - as he calls it - the standard container has all the romance of a tin can.

Cut to 50 odd years later, the container is an ubiquitous symbol of shipping today. Till the time containers came to the shipping world - the entire process of shipping was by a process known as 'break bulk' - another fascinating story. How the container came to break the back of this trade and make shipping easier forms the story of the book.

However, the takeaway for me was three fold.

One, the idea came from someone outside the industry. A person who ran a trucking business. His name was Malcolm McLean. And he was trying to solve a different problem - that of turning around his trucks faster and getting them from one place to another in the most efficient manner. As he went through this process trying to cut costs, his original idea was to have trailers that can be shipped directly onto a ship by a truck to be towed by a different truck at the other side. Quickly, he figured that the wheels would take unnecessary space and got around to just the container.

Second, making the container did not solve the problem. He had to think beyond just the container - unloading, loading, transporting and none of these had ready solutions then. No cranes. No trucks. And so on. He had to solve a series of problems, before it became as obvious as it now.

The third, was the generation of an insight. As the book says, his fundamental insight was that the business of a shipping company was not sailing ships, but moving cargo. And the moment you look at the industry from this lens, everything changes.

The fourth was - that innovation is often non glamorous - it is going after a problem and solving it the best possible way. And it happens along the way - things do not fall in place right at the start. An attitude of lets get it done along the way is essential.

All in all, a fascinating book worth reading...

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Games and Mindsets

Clash Royale is back in the centre at our home. After saying no to the algorithm, we are now back with gusto. And I have learnt some interesting lessons.

In Clash Royale, one tends to fall back on certain strategies that work. And like most strategies in the real world, they reach their sell-by date quickly as opponents adapt or levels change. And like most strategists in the real world, we tend to get stuck in our own world view.

In the latest edition of our on off relationship with the game, it is with inputs from my son that I have been able see a different world view (and if I may add  - vice versa to some extent as well). This has led me to trying different combinations and trying out things that I otherwise would not have tried out. Why? Because it was working. It was after a lot of permutations and combinations that it began to work. Why should I change now?

Because one, it is not working and two, it is good to change - was the advice I got. I also got the advice that trying and failing is better than failing without trying something new.

Cut to business. We expect business to work in a particular way. But no, competitors do something that upsets everything. Markets change. Prices move. Opponents react. We flounder. And then we refuse to change our stack of cards. And wonder why the world is behaving the way it is. And some people step in to give advice on strategy.

As we see in the simple advice of a game for example, change is good for others. For oneself to change and truly have an open mind that adapts is, well, not as easy as it sounds. Imagine if one invests so much into a game strategy card deck of 8 measly cards, business is a different matter altogether!

PS: We still think that the big brother algorithm is at it, but well, for now, this is a great learning experiment.

Monday, February 6, 2017

A question of culture

When you think of a team or a company culture what comes to mind?

One part of the culture is how the company treats hierarchy. Now, in these days of start ups - and this has been so since American tech culture came to India - on paper there is no hierarchy. Gone are the days, when people had to address their superiors as 'Sir' or 'Sahab'. Most companies operate on a first name basis. And by and large, companies also have an open door culture. Lets call this level 1. Most companies are well beyond this level.

However, the breakdown of hierarchy does not stop there. In most places, people find it difficult to say no to their bosses. Which is why the jargon - HIPPO is so prevalent. HIPPO stands for HIghly Paid Persons Opinion. The HIPPO is the new elephant in the room. Lets call this Level 2. In my experience, in most companies, it is fairly ok to question the boss, though the hippo may win by default.

The third aspect where hierarchy shows up, ever so often, is in the day to day interactions. As a manager, how does she run the team? Is it still industrial style - where the manager resorts to 'tell' or is it more of a structure where the manager 'asks', 'gets her team to think', 'gives and receives feedback'. This in my opinion is a level 3 - which is the hardest to crack.

Far too many people (both managers and subordinates) still live with the mindset of the industrial age role of a manager. Back then in the factory age, the boss knew everything - the boss was expected to tell and the staff was expected to follow. Not so today. Where every one of your hires is perfectly capable of thinking for himself.

And yet, many managers 'tell' their subordinates what to do rather than 'ask' what they think about it...

In the small sample size we have seen, managers rarely use 'ask' to take the thinking of their teams forward. If it all 'ask' is used, it is used more as an investigation/interrogation than as a solution focused forward moving tool.

An 'Ask' means, I honour your intelligence. An 'Ask' means, I am willing to listen to your answer. An 'Ask' means, there is no hierarchy and from then on our ideas win, not position.

What if people employed 'ask'? What effect would that have on the culture of the company?

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Faram and Naati

Faram is the local market lingo for farm. Naati is the local lingo for country.

Farm is the good looking, beautiful, colourful, ruddy vegetables. But farm chillies are not spicy. Farm tomatoes have no flavour. Farm eggs are 'artificial'. Farm bananas have all colour and zero taste. What to say of the industrial tangerines - they started off as 'Australian Oranges' and sold for a premium a few years ago, but now they are lower priced than their so called inferior cousins - Nagpur Oranges.

Country on the other hand has zero looks. The tomatoes are smaller, but rich with flavour. The bananas are sweet. The eggs are smaller, but tastier. The oranges drip with tang and juice. And the chilies are spicy.

Between style and substance, one can take the market for some time with style, but the educated customers come for substance. Incidentally, my education came from my maid who taught us to distinguish from the two and go for the rustic ones...

And this works in the market as well. Of late, country has morphed into organic and gives a run for money to the farm variety which is now patronised by the less 'educated' customers.

And it cuts both ways.

Cryptic post :) 

The Rubiks cube and peer learning

When we were children, the Rubiks cube was a source of immense fascination. It was eminently unsolvable and those who solved it came on TV news.

Somehow, it never struck us then that it had to have an algorithm to be solved.

Cut to the internet age. Every kid has the cube and the algorithm and after that it is no big deal at all. Layer by layer, they get it.

And thats when the fun ends. If it is a matter of just knowing the algorithm, whats the big deal?

 No, it has not been dumbed down, even with the algorithm it is a great learning - for visual patterns, memory and even the 'aha' moment.

So, from being an inscrutable mystery, the Rubiks cube is a great learning tool and like kids competitively reading books to keep pace with each other, the Rubiks cube is a quest for mastery among the kids.

I love the way kids learn competitively. When kids learn together and learn competitively, they learn well -helping each other and making each other better.

And that is a great recipe for a peer learning process. Except that kids grow up to be adults...

Hint: Self Motivation :)

Monday, January 2, 2017

Find your niche!

Of late, we have been racking our brains on Strategy (we are busy cooking something).  It is in this context that our strategic lenses are ON.

 Most of the time we think strategy is for the CXO suite and somewhere in an airy-fairy land. But, the fact is strategy is all around us. See this picture from Vasudev Adigas - a typical Bengaluru fast food eatery.

At one end of the spectrum is a Starbucks and Cafe Coffee Day. Add a few other brands and local cafes - and there is solid competition at every 'road' or 'street'.

On the other hand are the numerous 'sagars' that dot Bengaluru. Some of them have gone upmarket like Vasudev Adigas. Sure, they are not as upmarket as the Starbucks or coffee houses, but they are a level up over the rest of their ilk. Again, there is competition at every half street in this range. 

And mostly, the clientele is interchangeable - few exclusively go to coffee shops. 

And VA knows this. Their USP is fresh food - not frozen food reheated. Their USP is traditional South Indian food (give or take a few). They have innovated quite well - both in terms of upgrading their service levels, decor, food, range while maintaining an amazing level of taste and quality. 

And there is where this poster comes in. VA knows its strengths and uses it well. They serve one type of coffee - no cold, hot, latte, frappuchino, this that...and are proud of it - and know that their customers want 'That' coffee when they come there. 

So, thats a strategy lesson there. For every strategy, there is an equal and opposite strategy that might work as well. More importantly - one cannot be everything to everybody. Find your niche!

6 months into entrepreneurship!

Nearly a half year along the entrepreneurial journey in the learning consulting space and these are some of my thoughts and observations.

Sales cycles are long and can be frustrating.

As many books as you can read, rejection is difficult to take. (Yes, it is not rejection and I have  possibly read all the strategies around it)

There is only one way to experience the entrepreneurship journey - and that is by taking it. Everything else is like learning to swim on land.

There is a wide world out there. The learning in a few months of the journey is much greater than a 10 times timeframe of a similar secure job. The nature of work, the types of firms, the types of people are all very different.

Differentiation is the key (and as much as I work on it, I think the question is a constant one). Everybody thinks they are different, but the market does not see the difference. There are may 'quasi' differentiators, like there is 'quasi' IP, but very little in the real sense. There are some great differentiators in the market like Knolskape!

There are underserved areas in the market - which are not worth serving, but there are also underserved areas in the market that are worth serving.

The market does suffer from a fair amount of 'me-too-ware', and there is space for new ground to be broken.

Note to self: It is important to keep optimism levels high not by vapourware, but by small wins.

Entrepreneurship is a risk, but to make the big risk successful, a series of small risks need to be taken.

There is enough work out there, more than what one can handle, so go out and fish! Everyday.

On Feedback

When I run a session on Feedback skills - I ask this question:

Your manager has just called you. Its an unscheduled meeting. What goes on in your mind?

The answer in most companies is fairly negative.

Did something go wrong?
What broke?
What needs to be fixed?
What did I do?
What did my team do?
A sense of anxiety
A sense of unease

Interesting isn't it? What amazes me (though not surprising at all) is that, very few if any, actually look forward to the sudden meeting with the manager!

To me, it signifies an appreciation gap. A gap that as an employee, I do not get enough positive strokes vis-a-vis negative strokes.

What does team think when you call them for an impromptu meeting? And what can you do on a daily basis to let them look forward to any meeting - planned or impromptu?

And what if your team looked forward to every meeting with you as manager  - with their 'curiosity' lenses intact? What would the impact of that be?

Believe me, this is achievable - even in my limited experience, there are entire companies (as opposed to a few managers) that have actually got there.