Saturday, October 14, 2017

An Entrepreneurial Journey and a lesson

As the Leader of a reasonably large sized team, the team does have ups and down. Sometimes, an initiative we design does not see light of day or is rejected by stakeholders. Sometimes, it is a moment of frustration. Sometimes it is dejection. These things keep happening.

One of my managers told me the other day, "The one thing I see about is a never say die quality. Whatever happens - be it the worst thing - you only see it as an opportunity and you always see the positive side"

As a leader, we do not have a choice. You cannot be dejected or have a hang dog expression. It is important to keep the spirits up. It is important to show a positive direction to people.

And when you go off on the entrepreneurial journey, some amount of optimism is needed. Well, correction. A large dose of unbridled optimism is required. And this time, there is no team. All that optimism is for you, with you, inside you.

I have read all I can about this. How to handle rejection. How not to click refresh 847 times in a minute to wait for the email that you expect to receive. The difference between role and identity. Have many sets of small victories to celebrate. And so on.

The entrepreneurs journey is a lonely journey.

It is also a deeply personal journey.

It is a journey of a loss of identity.

It is like running to a cliff with a glider on your back. The glider has not really been tested in the open air. It works well in closes spaces where there is no draft or vagaries of weather.

Will you fly, will you fall? Will you fall and then a timely updraft will rescue you? Can you read the wind? Or will you land safely enough to take the next attempt.

That glider is your identity. The old one. Its gone. Weathered. You need to build a new one.

And discover a new identity.

It is like the hero's journey...Fly...

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The perils of working from home

530 am...wake up and plan to do a whole lot of work

530 to 6 - snooze all alarms

6 to 7...rush hour. Kids are sent to school...Wife is off to work

7 to 9...a morning walk, breakfast and just about time to open the laptop. What a beautiful day apt for working...

9 am...Wife calls. I am in a meeting. Please tell the maid what has to be cooked for lunch.

9 to 10...start work by checking email - click some random link and browse 71 sites in the name of research (but actually twitter, news, random social media)

10 am...Maid walks in complaining about traffic. Instructions are passed on to her on what is to be made.

10.01 am...Maid returns with a list, saying, unless these items are purchased, cooking wont happen for the day.

11 am...1 hour wasted in shopping for essentials. Day is saved.

11.05 am...Maid wants to share stories of her life - all pointing to how she badly needs a raise after last months raise. In the spirit of employee engagement, give her a patient ear.

11.30 am...message from wife. Many bills to be paid. Some plumber, pest control, water purifier repair,  <insert any handyman> is supposed to come. Anyway today you have no meetings, so I have asked them to drop in.

11.30 onwards till 3 - try to do a bit of work, but lunch and post lunch hibernation have to fought, plus various people are ringing the doorbell

3 pm...All service people have been seen off. Kids are back from school.

330pm...They dont like anything that the maid has prepared for snacks. They protest by going on hunger strike. Negotiation skills deployed.

4 pm...Maid protests that kids are not having milk now and want it give it all to the cat. On arrival to event site, cat is overjoyed and is purring loudly while kids are pleased. Negotiation skills deployed again. Cat is clearly displeased with this turn of events. Pass some milk to the cat as well...remaining milk is quickly finished by the kids...Open laptop again and get distracted by being called to referee three impossible to decide arguments for the next half an hour...

430 pm...Kids want to go out and play. What about homework? They will do it later it seems...not that I was interested, so permission is granted - anyway they were only informing.

430 to 5...irritated that no work is done since morning...realise one courier has to be sent...Go and courier said invoice.

5 to 6 - Realise that there was an email that came in a few days ago that wanted 23 corrections in one invoice that was sent two months ago - and make those corrections - check, double and triple check.

6 pm..Wife is back...

6 pm onwards...Now I get to work

6 to 10 - work, hover to the kitchen, munch, work, browse, reply mails, payments, invoices among other things

10 pm..wife - you are never available when you work at home...

Science Fiction can make you creative?

Science fiction can make you creative?

Of course it can...

Anything can make you creative - including all the "40 ways to become creative" stuff that you see on Pinterest, but question is, are you open to the possibilities your mind creates? Is your mind trained to create those possibilities? And therein lies the answer...

Any technique - preferably done over a reasonably regular timeframe - makes the mind attuned to more divergent thinking. But very often, instead of using those edges of divergent thinking, we end up softening them to make them convergent thereby negating the experience itself...

Developing thought...

Monday, October 2, 2017

Teaching students

As part of an assignment - I got a chance to train students. A very different audience than my regular corporate audience and I took as a challenge. And it was fun. So what is the difference? Mind well, but these are the generation that will soon be in the corporate world - and some of them already are - the digital generation.

Couple of things struck me...

These kids are super articulate  - not that we dont know it...
They were born with the internet - so it is second nature to them
Awareness about the world is high - very high - but awareness around (state, city, culture) seems to be on the lower side
If you are going to 'teach' them, you better add value (true in all cases)
If they have a doubt/thought/comment/wisecrack - they will share it - accept it - and it makes the interaction richer
They are hungry to learn - but only those who put in the time and engage in focussed effort will cross over the inflection point (pretty obvious at any point)
The bell curve of awareness is wide - some are well read - mostly more than you as a facilitator - while some are into stuff you have no clue about - music (and its flavours) or some such thing
They are trapped into certain methods of thinking - and few have looked out of the 'matrix' so to say, and therefore worldviews are still archaic - so, I did see a significant element of 'group' think.
Great enthusiasm, great energy - and no baggage of the socialism years - they are gung-ho about everything that comes their way

All in all, it was a great interaction spread over a few weeks...

The Leadership Moment

The Leadership Moment by Michael Useem views leadership through the lens of 9 stories - most of which I was not familiar with - because the stories are not the typical cliched leadership stories one mostly hears about.

Except for the story of the Apollo 13, all the other 8 stories were new to me. And unlike many other books, it does not make the leader seem bad when things go awry - and that is an interesting lesson - because most leaders, like most human beings, do try their best given a particular circumstances.

The way the book looks at the leaders and draws lessons from each story into different actions and ties it all together is unique.

And it also takes a non-conventional approach to leadership - Mountaineering, Forest Fires, Non-profit and so on and with varying scales of problems and with human life costs involved - which are vastly different from corporate leadership - where the scale and costs are vastly different.

This is a book that makes you pause and think.

I especially enjoyed reading the mountaineering and the fire story - these are the kind of things that are never replicated in our genteel corporate surroundings. And I definitely recommend this book for someone who wants to really reflect on leadership!

Sunday, September 24, 2017

A workshop for 200 people

Can you craft a workshop for 200 odd people? Was the underlying question of a leisurely call a few months ago. The idea was enticing, ticked all the boxes of creativity, comfort zone (out of), challenge, credibility (of who it came from) and purpose (who it was for).

And I found myself saying yes.

As soon I kept the phone down - I began to think. I have done large format working sessions, handled large offsite gatherings, given speeches at conferences and spoken at panel discussions - but none of them were 4 hour long and none of them were workshops - with this level of interactivity.

And then began the planning. Creating an xls with the plan, the detailing of each segment, curating content for each slide - running it through the lens of 200 people audience, talking to people who think differently - thinking of audience engagement, audience interest and takeaways - planning each aspect of the workshop, scripting, rehearsing, inserting an activity, anticipating questions.

And then as it progressed, making run time adjustments - using an app, design a learning map, plan interactions, questions, breaks, fun and dives....

Suffice it to say that all the hard work paid off...with the session leaving people asking for more. So, well, thanks for the idea @Koushik!

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Brainstorming for Khaki Tours

I love brainstorming sessions. Whether I am a participant or a facilitator. So, when, Khaki Tours invited me over for a Brainstorming session - I jumped into it with both feet. The session generated a whole bunch of ideas - as you might imagine - what with people passionate about the idea of heritage evangelism. And with Bharat Gothoskar (the man behind the idea of Khaki Tours itself) fine tuning the aspects of the session in his own creative ways, it was probably the second best way to spend a rainy Saturday morning (other than being a heritage walk). 
The venue (Ministry of New) was charming. The session structure, the timing, the people (everyone with unique skills and passion) - were energetic. Room filled with post -its, charts, presentations - and yes - with plans to takeover the world!
Here is seeing this start up grow in all the million direction it has plans in...

Monday, August 7, 2017

Podcasts ahoy

I am a reader. I can read anything. Anything. Fact. Fiction. Humour. The wrapper of a biscuit packet. The newspaper cone which the peanut vendor passes on. Anything.

On the contrary, I cannot understand when I have to hear. Not beyond a point atleast. And that beyond a point is as immediate as tears on cutting onions.

Mildly put, I like to read and understand. I cannot bear to hear lectures - either in person or on video or audio or anything. My only experiences with audio-books have been as sleeping pills. Yes, I can listen to songs - but nothing that I have to reflect and comprehend.

I have tried a couple of podcasts as well many years ago - when it was the rage - but gave up because of the above reasons.

But at the urging of a friend, I decided to give it a shot again. Its just two podcasts thus far, and I seem to have been able to hear and comprehend.

Looking back, I realise that perhaps when I tried it earlier, it was off a desktop or on a device that did not have mobile internet. And the second difference is that I hear it when I am doing nothing else - like walking - and not while I am doing something else...

So, one is convenience - and the second is uni-tasking...But this is a revelation to me that I can actually hear and comprehend stuff...

Lets increase our domain knowledge

I was listening to a podcast (more on this later) by Dr. Jason Fox - on The Great Work Podcast and something he said caught my attention. His overall topic was all about how people do a lot of work, but how progress is not the same as doing a lot of work/attending a lot of meetings.

He referred to something as trait based language - where he said the leader says things like "We should be digital" or "We are a world class company" or "We should meet customer needs" - and he argues that these are just empty words - that nobody can disagree with and yet shoot off peacefully.

Instead what if the team spoke about and argued real issues and made progress. The trait based language part of it resonated with me - since this is a staple in many meetings.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Tale of two 40 odd years old...

A few days back as I walked out from a place, I saw this man standing. Unassuming - like any other person - but he had a ring of familiarity about him. I smiled at him, he smiled back - but the difference was that only I knew him - he did not know me.

It took my mind a few seconds to register who he was - but in that split second - I am sure he sees many people look at him and take that second to recognise him.

The smile was from a 40 plus male to another 40 plus male - perhaps therein ends the similarity.

One who has conquered all there is and yet remains simple and humble. Years ago, I have watched him on TV deliver for the country - on television. In sports.

He is known to be a gentleman player - the finest of the lot - someone who stands for the highest values, totally unaffected by stardom, a man who plays for the team, a man for him his skill is his highest temple of worship, a man who to paraphrase Kipling - can hold his head when all around him are losing theirs, a name never sullied by controversy,  a man who truly represents the gentlemanly form of the game.

I did not want to take a selfie or take an autograph from him - respecting his privacy. But in that moment, in that smile, as a 40 year old who has now moved into a different career track, I processed these notes in my own head marvelling at this gentleman who smiled at someone who walked past when he could have, very simply, ignored...and that is perhaps what makes a difference between ordinary and extraordinary...A gentleman star...

No prizes for guessing who he is, but I wont spoil the fun by revealing the name...


Irresistible, by Adam Alter is all about behavioural addiction. This is a relatively new form of addiction - as opposed to the others - like substance addiction - which have been around for a while.

In this book Adam Alter explores behavioural addiction which is becoming rampant in these days of technology. We cannot clicking and checking our phones - whether it is Whatsapp or Facebook or Twitter - checking for messages or likes or RT's - on the one hand. On the other hand, we are behaviourally addicted to data - and apps like Fitbit put us in an addiction loop.

The book traces the path of these addictions and how it progresses and how technology has prevented  the 'stopping rules' that would stop us from doing something addictive - even shopping. Or binge watching - and how it is encouraged by the way the storyline is built.

The book talks about the Zeigarnik effect. This is interesting for those in the business of learning (and other businesses as well). It has an interesting section about Instagram stole a march over its competitor at the time it was new (and it is a really interesting story).

In my view, it adds a new dimension to what we have known all along as 'influencing' and depending on how it is deployed, it is close to 'manipulation'.

Recently, I read more about the ludic loop - as well - and this is the part where it does get scary:

To keep drivers on the road, the company has exploited some people’s tendency to set earnings goals — alerting them that they are ever so close to hitting a precious target when they try to log off. It has even concocted an algorithm similar to a Netflix feature that automatically loads the next program, which many experts believe encourages binge-watching. In Uber’s case, this means sending drivers their next fare opportunity before their current ride is even over.
And most of this happens without giving off a whiff of coercion. 
Some of the most addictive games ever made, like the 1980s and ’90s hit Tetris, rely on a feeling of progress toward a goal that is always just beyond the player’s grasp. As the psychologist Adam Alter writes in his book “Irresistible,” this mental state has a name: the “ludic loop.” (The term was coined by the anthropologist and slot machine expert Natasha Schüll.)
Uber, for its part, appears to be aware of the ludic loop. In its messages to drivers, it included a graphic of an engine gauge with a needle that came tantalizingly close to, but was still short of, a dollar sign.
And towards the end it also talks about how one can free themselves from this maddening loop - all in all a recommended read...Do click like on this, so I can keep checking :)

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Of coaches and kings

Much has been written about the Indian cricket team and how one respected coach resigned (or was asked to resign) and how another one has taken over. There are reams written about it elsewhere on the mechanics of it, but here is my two cents on how this can play out.

Think of a business. That is doing very well today. And like all businesses, it is caught in its own narrative fallacy - of how its business model, its mode of working is indestructible - until the nimble competitor knocks its socks off. This can happen to businesses, sports persons, teams, individuals - anyone who doesn't take life (or work or anything else) as a continuous developmental effort.

Also known as hubris. Sometimes from the leadership. Sometimes as a culture. Whatever the reason, any business or individual or team who is complacent to believe that they are good enough will soon be knocked off their pedestal.

For the cricket team - they are on a high now. The coach is expected to work with the team to the next level - the other teams are there, on their heels. And in general, a good coach can whip the team into a  fighting, winning machine.

Take any sport or business - examples abound of nimble competitors, un-fancied underdogs and of fighting machines on a winning cycle. And behind each of them is a success story of great leadership...

But in sports, like in business there are no permanent heroes or winners. What will be interesting to see for the cricket team is whether this coach will set the team in a 'growth mindset' to get back to its winning ways. That is worth watching...

Cafe dreams

A lot of us talk about dreams. That dream is usually an aspiration - something we want to do - it could range from entrepreneurship to fitness to self development to anything else - something ever slightly out of reach.

The commonest place where it shows up is when we are discussing with friends and one thing leads to another and everyone is talking about their dreams. And then post the cafe conversation, it is back to normal - the usual routine existence.

Six months later it repeats.

Sometimes life throws an opportunity in front of you - that could very well make you take up that dream and work on it. Sometimes, you have the time in front of you, but you dont see it. Sometimes, you think you will do it - 5 years later, 10 years later or when you retire.

Based on what I have learnt in the past few years - these conversations amount to nothing unless you take the plunge.

That plunge doesnt necessarily mean, quit the job and start doing it - it means, taking those small steps requiring you to do it. That could mean a few weekends, a few hours each week or some time each day or some investment in terms of money.

What I have seen is people who really want something, go out and do it - whether it is a business or self development or volunteering - they take those small steps - and slowly, but surely, the steps add up.

Otherwise it is just another feel-good, venting conversation that translates into nothing on the ground - until the next conversations.

What are your dreams?

Sunday, July 2, 2017

There are some books

There are some books which you read survive end to end and wonder why did the author write this book? I recently read a book on Creativity that shall go unnamed that made me think of exactly this.

The book has a provocative title and professed to have a lot to say about Creativity. It started off in a promising way as well with a nicely illustrated model that promised to unlock creativity. And then it slid downwards from there.

This is the age of the internet. Most Google-able stuff is just that, Google-able. Add Whatsapp, Facebook, Twitter to the mix and most information is already there. One third of the book was this kind of information. About pianos on staircases and trash cans...which has been done to death in other books. Can you not find a single original example?

The other one third was all about what other people have written in their books. Huh? And that too, for someone like me who reads a lot of non-fiction, this was a bad synopsis of good books. I would have bought summaries of all those books if that was all that you had to say.

The rest of the book was about some cool exercises the author did in her class - blah - these exercises are well worn and used for years. And the remaining part was a hyper complicated model that was nothing but an image - totally useless.

Requires a lot of ingenuity to write a book like that. There are always idiots like me who buy such books I suppose.

The name of the book is hidden above...

Friday, June 30, 2017

Influencing Skills: An out of the box approach

A few weeks ago, we got an opportunity to work on an Influencing Skills workshop.  Now this is a commonly requested workshop and is run in many flavours - from communication to networking to negotiation - depending on the ask.

When Madhu reached out to me, we thought how could we make it different from what is already there in the market. After a few days of intense effort, a design emerged as did a model (more on the model soon).

What we worked with as the outcome was that in this day and age, many of these concepts need to be worked on differently - both from a delivery and a design standpoint.

Madhu being a theatre expert - we attempted to weave in theatre concepts to bring out each element of influencing. For example, we put the team into an activity that was tough right at the start that brought out their own 'blocks' on 'influencing'. And rather than talk about it in the head - they experienced it in the activity and from there, was far more easier for them to surface issues than it would if they had approached it from am intellectual angle.

We used this approach at every stage. And interspersed it with the theory and role plays and situations - which, by the way, they had already brought out and experienced as part of the activity.

It was an interesting experience for us to design it with activities that 'talk' to the topic, but we were curious to see how participants reacted to it.

For us this was an experiment we had been long considering - how to combine the cognitive and the kinesthetic to create a holistic learning experience. And we are happy to share that the participants loved the design, the elicited learning approach and our methods. So, we are now working on our second in this series - an attempt to combine Design Thinking and Theatre. 

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

A trek - like life

As I completed a year of entrepreneurship, I decided to, coincidentally - take a 5 day trek across a part of the Himalayas. In this process, I learnt many a life lesson.

Though there is a goal, the goal has to be attacked in small chunks and stages. Most of the the time, the goal is not visible - at least not in the exact shape envisioned by you.

Climb the first mountain only to see the second tower ever so taller in front; climb that and see the third show a daunting face; and so on...Each time the view gets better...

When you reach the goal, you will know.

The route is never visible, you will only know it as you go forward.

The terrain keeps changing - be prepared.

The terrain is never the exact way you imagined it to be...

It is hard work - and there will be times when you will feel like giving up. At those points, just keep putting one step ahead of the other- and slowly, you will reach your destination.

Dont forget to enjoy the sights along the way.

Rest. Take a break. Then start over. Again.

Soak in the sights. The breathlessness. The tiredness. Soak in the tough parts as much as the rest parts.

Each day, pick up your stuff and keep moving.

There are ups, downs, straights, curves, winds, rain, blizzards, slips, ascents, descents - mostly these are all mixed - very rarely is it a cruise control mode.

Keep talking to your guide - they are of great help.

Find companions along the way - sometimes ahead, sometimes behind - but there are companions along the way - though it is often a lonely walk.

Sometimes it is a bull, sometimes a shepherd, sometimes a flying bird, sometimes a flower... 

Yes, it is a comforting life outside the trek - and many a time you will wonder why you are doing this at all - but that is life - the experience of doing it is unique - thats why. It is, therefore I am.

Reflect. Stretch. Prepare. Each day.

Give. Happily. Freely.

Respect the gods/values along the way...

And I promise you, you will have a great trek - through life and in trek.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Lessons from a trekking guide

A few weeks ago, we went on a fairly arduous (by our standards) trek. We had a guide taking us over somewhat difficult terrain. None of the trekking team members were experienced - they were as good as first timers with varying levels of fitness. There were many challenges - distance, climb, weather, terrain, language - and he had no idea who this team was and we had no idea who he (and his team) was.

The trekking team was 5 members plus 7 helpers (cook, porter, helper) led by a guide.

The team started with a lot of enthusiasm - as all teams do and burnt themselves before the first rest stop. Not that we realized it - except for the huffing and puffing - but he gave us an unscheduled stop and asked us to have lunch. That automatically slowed us down. Lesson: Pace your team

Day 1 night there was a terrible storm - the kind of which I have never seen in my life. It was a blizzard, rains, strong winds, tents threatening to get uprooted - and while the team panicked, this guide was captain cool. He did nothing - not even stepping out of the tent - but when we walked up to him - in the middle of the night, he was awake and asked us to stay put and reassured that they were around. Lesson: Stay calm in crises. Dont Panic.

Post storm- the next morning, we all went to him and asked him if the trek has to be called off. He said, we will take a call based on the weather - worst case, we will wait out a day till the weather clears and do a day hike. But he said, with a little effort we can still complete the trek as planned. Either way he said, lets wait for a few hours and take a call based on the situation. And a few hours later, we were on our way - shaken, but he said, I will get you there in 5 hours - and he did - to the minute. Lesson: Do not dismiss the fears of your team, but do not encourage them either. Lead from the front with confidence.

There were people of varying fitness levels - almost Level 1 to 5 on a scale of 5. Whenever Level 5 went too far or Level 1 lagged behind, he took a break (mostly at some turning point) to ensure the group stayed compact. Sometimes he was ahead, sometimes behind - leading from the front or encouraging from the back, but he was never out of eyesight for too long. Lesson: Be visible - on the front.

There were foreigners - and he was not the most comfortable with English - but he communicated with the team at every point. He sat to learn English from the foreigner (thats the only way my English will improve, he said), he spoke about the topics of interest to each team member as the trek went along. Lesson: Communicate - with empathy. Most of the communication was about us - not him. And learn. So what if you know everything - the guide knew the terrain inside out - he was still learning from every trek he went on.

Each day after the trek ended - he took care of his staff - talking to them, encouraging them, getting them to mingle with us. His staff was hardly comfortable with Hindi - leave along English - and were very simple rural folk, but he ensured that we all bonded over a bonfire. Lesson: Bonding of teams needs to be worked on constantly.

At no point, did he assert his superiority over us - though he was vastly superior in terms of terrain, fitness, knowledge. He made us feel comfortable at every stage. Lesson: Take your team with you.

When each of us asked how we were doing - his answer was the same - you are doing well to your capacity. "Theek hi ho" - was his lingo for "you are doing well".  Lesson: Keep the encouragement going.

Each day his team started with a prayer to the "Devta" to assure the safety of the trek. On the way, if any "devta" was not in good shape - the small shrines along the way - he ensured that it was made alright. Lesson: Abide by the values of the place.

Was it tough? Yes
Did we enjoy the journey? Yes
Did we reach the goal? Yes

Epilogue: At many parts of the trek, the goal seemed unreachable. At no point did he scare us of the enormity of the goal (it was big for us). He broke the goal into small chunks, made us aware of the time it would take (based on his assessment of us as a team), kept us going, encouraged at every step without being in your face and celebrated the success each night with a bonfire and a good dinner.

And we enjoyed being led by this man - a simple young man from Himachal, who though uneducated by our standards -  was practicing many tenets of leadership that we find difficult to practice. Hats off to you Sanju.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

A year of entrepreneurship

One year ago, to this date, was my first client meeting. And just the day before was my last day at my corporate job.

The meeting went well - without a real promise of anything coming my way (I had to get used to this - meetings are only a first step - though the getting used took a long time.)

As I waited at the bus stop after the meeting, I reflected on how, if this was a corporate meeting, a cab would be waiting for me and all I had to do was ask the cab to come to the entrance. And in this new avatar, frugalism was the name of the game.

So, with the job, gone was the cabin. The position. The title. The designation. The corporate privileges which we get used to and sometimes feel entitled to as well. Gone was a huge team who would be the force multipliers, the executors, available for every discussion - now there was nothing.

Just the wide world and a traveller with a bag and a journey.

It was a new road, a new identity, perhaps a journey to find myself as well.

At the start, beginners luck was good. But soon, the beginner ran out of luck. And then the inevitable trough happened. And then, after riding through the dip, there was promise...All this sounds good on paper, there were quite a few reflective moments (and they continue).

Much water, bridge from that meeting - and a year later, here are my learnings, mostly to myself...

Once you deliver, customers trust you. All Outthinc customers are repeat customers.

There is work out there. Go fish. Everyday. This is my observation since I started off on this journey. And it remains.

There are underserved areas in the market and such areas exist. Like in real life markets, gems are hidden.

A true differentiator needs to be created - if you dont, the market will do it - without differentiating. In careers, within companies as well in the outside world  - if you dont create your career, the market will and that may work out both ways...

It is good to try out different types of work, but it is important to know what to say yes to and what to say no to.

The range of experience one gets in the outside world is no match to what you get to do within a firm. In the last 12 months, I have worked with more companies and industries and levels than in my entire career (well, almost).

The journey can be lonely, especially if you are a one man enterprise. It can be stressful, it can be anxiety ridden and while people mostly focus on the freedom part - they miss out on the discipline part. It takes discipline - lots of it. To work when there is no immediate payoff. To work on every proposal as if it is your first. To get up and work each day - and believe in yourself and do things that you are not comfortable or not used to.

There is goodness and good news in the market. Unlikely collaborators. Friends. People. Yes, there is goodwill out there. There are good companies and good people to work and collaborate with. And yes, I am lucky to have found a few.

Some months people dont care if you exist, other months everybody wants you (and usually 3 separate clients want April Eleventeenth second half in Jaipur, Mumbai and Chennai - not Bangalore).

There is space to try out of the box approaches - I personally follow my 20% time. And with the help of a great intern, I was able to try out a new concept.

Some unscrupulous elements take proposals only for ideas and then vanish promptly after that. This is an occupational hazard. So a balance between original ideas, googled ideas and very erudite ideas (completely non googleable, only mine, out of the box) has to be kept.

For all those who have been with me in this journey (you know who you are), thank you!

Post script: The first meeting did result in work and remains my first customer.

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.