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?