Friday, December 24, 2010

People Always Leave People!

In the IT services industry, one of the key metric is “attrition” and most of the firms have their own formula for calculating it. In simple terms, it’s the number of people who have left the firm in a particular period by total number of people that that firm has in that particular period. It is usually expressed in percentages and it gets featured in quarterly earnings for public listed firms and for private firms, it is given as a MBO to the senior management to curb it if the number goes high. Customers track this and highlight it as a concern if it goes beyond an acceptable level.

There is always a conflict between professional managers and HR on who should own this metric. In some firms, it’s a shared responsibility, in some; it comes under the ambit of managers KRA. Again, I don’t want to get in to this dynamics -That’s a separate blog by itself. I strongly believe that people management falls under of ambit of professional managers and they must do whatever it takes to retain people or “talent”.

After having retained a lot of people and have lost a lot of people, I wanted to blog about this for a long time!

Why do people leave firms? What can be the reasons? Is it for?

  • Better pay
  • Better Lifestyle
  • Better job profile or a challenging role
  • Better boss who has basic human values
  • Higher Education
  • Marriage
  • Start on their own!

Most of the times, I believe that, “people always people” and they do not cite this as a single most reason during exit interviews but it is more implicit. When I mean people, it refers to their immediate boss most of the times and some times, the leadership team in general.

Given this view, how do we tackle this? There are again multiple ways to achieve “nirvana” here but we will attempt on couple of pointers or hints as this is an evolving area [feel free to add your comments after reading especially in this area]:

  • Behave like a “manager”- I am smiling while I am typing this but this is something I think is missing most of the times. Most of the promoted managers don’t even know what they should do as “managers”. The field of management is so extensive that they don’t even want to read about it. They believe that they have got the title and hence they are capable! They have got the title because they did well in an individual/team capacity most of the times and due to that, they got elevated to handle a team. GE had clearly defined this in 4 E’s long back [Energy, Ability to Energize, Edge, and Ability to Execute]
  • Your role is different from your personality- You as a manager are in a “role” and it is not a role given by a firm to “please” everyone. It’s a role that has clear result areas and objectives- So you have to ensure that your “core” personality does not conflict with this role. For example: Your core personality does not like arguments or conflicts whereas in your role, you need to do that day in and day out. The ability to differentiate this is very critical as it benefits your team. Your team will get suffocated if your core soft personality comes in the way of the role or vice-versa.
  • Solve Problems for your team; don’t delegate and expect to get solved- If a problem does not get solved, chances are that your team is looking up to you to get your hands dirty. If you think you also cannot solve it, then don’t route the blame to the team. Essentially eliminate the “blame game”- You are being a manager to take the blame and not to route it! Very obvious point but do you do it?
  • You are under constant observation by your team- This is the hard truth of being a manager! If you are uncomfortable on this aspect, you should tend to remain as an individual contributor. You need to bring dignity to the role- Any degree of prejudice or nepotism or any default practice done by you is observed, recorded, archived and will be retrieved by your team for future use!
  • Respect from your team comes because of your actions and not because of your title- Again everyone understands this but few track this consciously!
  • Respect your word- Some times manager’s commit something to an individual team member or a group of team members and it’s important to respect that word! I have seen managers committing something to solve something in the short term or for the immediate term and forget about it. This jeopardizes the role once again.
  • Focus on being a good human being yourself- This encompasses your personal “value compass” and the shared values like Empathy, Compassion, and Integrity etc.
  • Courage and Passion- This is important as these two are inter-related and very contagious. You need to have courage to encourage “dissent” in your meetings rather than surrounding with yes-men. The passion that I am referring to is not your personal passion- You might be heavily interested in photography or painting but you have a day job; so it might be worthwhile to inject some passion in your day job so that you can make it joyful for you and others!
  • Teach a new thing for yourself and for your team- They will remember you for this for eternity!
  • Read, Read and Read- Again the common excuse that I hear on this are:Lack of time
    -No interest to read
    -What do I gain by reading?
    -I have around 10 years of experience- So why read? I know? [this is the know-it-all syndrome]
    -What to read? When to start? Which book? Management or Non-Management?
    I think reading anything helps you to kick-start the habit and also get in to the “connecting the dots” and “association” trait which is very important for aspiring leaders.

I can go on and on for managers but if we understand some of these practical aspects, we can and will retain people and talent. Even if they leave, they will come back for you! Again, we are not attempting a recipe here but the above factors can be taken in to consideration while you are in the “retention” business.

Given the advent of millenial’s entering the workforce and globalization creating more options for everyone, it has become a necessity to retain good people/talent. Fortunately, there is no shortcut for this and meticulous understanding and diligence is required on people management!

Would love to hear your views and perspectives on this!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian

While I was surfing books in a book website, I came across, “Running the books- The adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian”. I loved the cover of this book- It has the face of Avi Steinberg [My assumption] on a collage of book stamps of lending date and submission date. Somehow it reminded me of my college and MBA days where I have never read any book within the return date and always paid some penalty or the other. The cover itself is so creative- full marks to whoever thought of it as it blew my mind! Mindblowing- I don’t know how a kindle can replicate this joy of seeing this cover! I also liked the manner in which the pages were attached- It was as if a journal is made in to a book! Too cool.

Now coming to the book itself, Avi Steinberg writing is humorous, intense, and impressive and he takes a conscious attempt to keep the boundaries! It’s a thin red line and there is always a temptation to talk about the author’s life in addition to his role as a prison librarian and his protagonists in the prison. I think that line has been clearly drawn and it is visible only when you look at it deeply- Otherwise it flows seamlessly. That way, Avi has done a fantastic job.

The crux of the book is simple- Avi takes up the job of a prison librarian in a tough Boston prison from being an obituary writer and the people he encounters in the prison- pimps, psycho-killers, ex-stripper who has estranged her son, drug pedellars, gangsters etc; their desires, their idiosyncracies, their perspective on things more importantly on books especially reading and writing! The stark contrast is the fact that a prison librarian like himself genuinely tries to impart reading, writing skills to the society outcasts- Is’nt contradictory or counter-intuitive. Well, you got to read this to understand where it is leading. The protagonists are fairly intense- A pimp who is looking at writing his biography and taking tips from Avi, An ex-stripper who has estranged her son who himself is an inmate and tries to take Avi’s help in meeting her son in the prison, A thug who aspires to be a world popular chef- In fact he wants to name his show as, “Thug Sizzle” and ofcourse the whole tension between inmates, prison officers and the staff [people like Avi]. The staff; people like Avi have to maintain a balance between inmates and prison officers. He cannot be completely compassionate or empathetic to the inmates as it spoils the prison equilibrium but at the same time, he has to comply to his human values of compassion! Avi also gets to know these societal outcasts so intimately that he unconsciously helps them or takes sides which by itself is crossing the line from a prison rule book!! That dilemma is very well captured especially in the areas where Avi helps out Chudney [character who aspires for Thug Sizzle] or the C.C.Too Sweet [Pimp who wants to write his biography] or Jessica [ex-stripper leaving her son estranged]. The character of C.C.Too Sweet is very colourful and his theories are reasonably hilarious- Too Sweet feels that pimps are the kings when it comes to rhetoric and the fact that Malcolm X was able to move people, large crowds, use knowledge from books comes from the aspect that he can be possibly be a pimp!! :-)) This is again C.C. Too Sweet theory- Form him, everything originated from pimping which is nothing but street swagger!!

This is a great book for book lovers as the writing is kept at a level where it does not bore with multiple characters in the prison and the layers are peeled off one by one like an onion! I would recommend this book to aspiring writers to get a feel of multiple tracks.

Essentially there are 3 tracks in the book:

  • There is this track on the prison characters, their aspirations and how Avi enables or facilitates them in a small manner. His dilemma on taking sides!

  • There is this track on Avi’s observation how the prison is run and how the library is run- The whole aspect of inmates communicating through “kites” [short letters kept in the books for others] and inmates writing poignant poems and summary in the writing classes. The aspect of Protective Custody unit which is the outcasts of the outcasts and how inmates view them as prisoners within the same prison! The whole concept of time inside a prison- I have always read this, “I am doing time”. Time means doing with your hands [a repetitive task, organizing books, cleaning things et al]- There is a difference between doing time and being in prison. Also, you can wish “Happy “anything”” for the inmates as there is no concept of festivities! There is also a small track on his orthodox Jewish background; I wanted to explore some of those topics and I have made a note of it. Very Interesting.

  • Finally the track where it converges to the ending of the book which in my mind was fabulous!!

I was constantly wondering how Avi is going to end the book as the onion peels were coming again and again- Its tough to create an abrupt end but Avi’s accidental meeting of a prison inmate in a common place like Boston public library where that inmate narrates Avi’s joke back to him: It goes this way:

A merchant bought a sack of prunes from his competitor. Opening the sack, he saw the prunes had begun to rot. He went back to the seller and demanded his money back. The seller refused and the two men went to see the rabbi to settle their dispute. The rabbi sat down at a table between the two men and emptied the sack in front of them. Then he put on his glasses, and without saying a word, he went to work, slowly and carefully tasting one prune after another and each time shaking his head, After some time had passed, the plaintiff finally spoke up, “So rabbi, what do you think? The rabbi, who was about to consume the last of the prunes, looked up and replied sharply: “Why are you fellows wasting my time? What do you think I am- a prune expert?

The inmate emphasized this joke in the context of the fact that in this life, you don’t have all the answers!

This was a poetic ending to this book whereby Avi clearly dissects each of the prison inmate life history, their aspirations and why things were happening in a certain manner. I LOVED this ending and there was no other better way to end this book. I have become a complete fan of Avi Steinberg because of his ending!

PS: This reminded me of the movie, “Secret Window” where Johnny Depp [writer] emphasizes on ending of the book!

Friday, December 17, 2010


Disclaimer- This is not a philosophical post but something that recently happened to me and I am just articulating those thoughts!

DEATH- DELIVERY OF EXTREME AGONY TO OTHER HUMANS!!- This is how I expand “death” given the limited words that I know in English language! But more importantly, death is something that nobody has conquered so far and cannot conquer in our life time. It is so easy to see, visualize, understand how, why death happens everywhere but when it happens in your family or in your close vicinity you come to terms with this beast! It is so sudden that everyone is dumbstruck and mind numbing- It is like as if you are hanging in air after having a controlled life so long. All your controls are gone the moment you hear the news of death of someone who is closer to you!

You feel that you have achieved everything but cannot achieve anything in front of death coming to you. Given this lingering thought, I have some philosophical questions [ofcourse introspective]:
  • Why do we have super-ego’s when someday it is going to be crushed and turned in to ashes?
  • Why do we hurt others when they will be engulfed someday?
  • Why do we want to amass so much when it is of no value while one is facing death?
  • Why do we do anything and everything to acquire a title or a designation when death does not care to wait for that relevant title?
  • Why are we killing ourselves before getting killed? That is the million dollar question that came to my mind when I encountered death of one of my close family. The shock is sudden and very prevalent that it numbs the mind for some time and you start thinking about the statement, “Life happens when you are busy with other things”. Today a lot of stress happens in work place and outside of work place and I think it’s not worth the trouble! A lot of marriages are broken because time is a precious commodity and people don’t have it. Is it all necessary?

Long back, I saw one hallmark card in the US that had a sky and a lake in the front of the card- The image on the front card was very serene and the second portion said, “the best things in life are not things”. Thought-provoking by itself, we never tend to enjoy leisure and always try to be in a race which we think we have won but in the end have lost it completely. Lot of folks have argued with me that this line of thinking is taken by “losers”. :-)). Don't get me wrong- I am not advocating to be non-ambitious and take leisure seriously as we will be perishing one day. Thats not my point and thats the skeptical line of thinking after reading this post. My point is to balance our ambitions with basic goodness of life. Well, at the end of day, you lose something and gain something- I think whatever you earn in life is meaningless if you don’t have “goodwill”. Rest of your earnings are useless and are of no value- The only thing that will remain is the “goodness” of your heart and how much of difference you have made to others in terms of any little action. It can be financial, educational, social but we need to make a start-Time is ticking and we all will have this “delivery” of death and there will not be any effort or schedule over-run with this!!

I started this blog on a pessimistic note and am ending with an optimistic note stating that all of us have limited time and it’s important to help others in need in whatever way one can. Let’s bring more smiles amongst other humans as the moment will never come and we all have to contribute that bit!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Why "Value Thinking" is important for being innovative?

I work in a IT service firm and there is a continual expectation from our customers on “innovation”. The target audience are customers who outsource or offshore IT, business arena of work to save costs, leverage value and focus on their “core” area. We all know this very well and this is the story of outsourcing in general- Let’s not get there as that will fill another 20 pages! :-)). In this blog and in this context, I am only picking a subsection which is “innovation” and that seems to be the expectation from everyone. Fair one, is’nt! When they are outsourcing millions of dollars, the expectation from them on firms to innovate is obvious, right? Even when I am paying continual $$’s for my vegetables-fruits-on-demand-service provider, I am expecting him to be innovative. Don’t ask me how but I am expecting as I am paying some $$’s. :-))

Here is the small disconnect and the premise of my blog- All Indian and US IT firms can definitely innovate on process and technology but to innovate on customers business requires “value thinking”. IT firms have “operations/delivery” folks and “relationship/engagement” folks – These folks seamlessly integrate the fabric of delivering services to the customer expectations. The disconnect on innovation comes specifically on “value thinking” as you move upwards to innovate on customer’s business, “changed mindset” from the service providers/customers and “courage” [required leadership trait]. All these three are interconnected and it’s important to join these three so that we get the holistic picture!

Let me expand on “innovation”- I agree with everyone on customers valuing business result or outcome of applied innovation but the issue here again is related to courage. IT service firms core business is system integration, technology integration, consulting on aligning business and technology- IT Service firm’s core business is not necessarily always improving the “customer business” [atleast from a balance sheet perspective]. Firm X (IT Service Firm) may win a large outsourcing contract with a healthcare giant- Firm X cannot set up new hospitals or create a revolutionary way of handling physicians or create cutting edge surgeries or attract patients/payers for that healthcare giant under innovation [that is the core business model for healthcare giant]- Here is what Firm X can do under “innovation”:
  • Can definitely innovate on “process” and “technology” as they are experts in that area and they are contracted for that!·
  • Can definitely brain storm with the healthcare giant on their areas of business innovation- 5 W’s[Who, What, When, Why, Where] and 1 H [How] should be triggered for Firm X’s involvement in business innovation? Most of the business innovation will have some IT component to it and Firm X can facilitate that IT part for that business innovation and be a part of the healthcare giant’s innovation eco system. This definitely requires “time” and “energy” from the healthcare giant and its not a one-way street. Companies like Walmart, TESCO, P&G have spent enough time with suppliers to enable them in their innovation eco-system so that they can reap benefits.
  • Firm X also need to baseline the current state of process and technology innovation [which is a “hygiene factor”] and sign off on the customer expectations and prepare a road map of future expectations with the healthcare giant on innovation. This has to talk about time and energy required from both parties etc. Now without all these, just talking about innovation either with the customer or internally does not make sense and it will join the league of over-abused jargons in management or leadership! We definitely don’t want Scott Adams have “innovation” in the buzzword bingo contest where “Wally” records these from the pointy haired boss!!

I believe the traits required for “value thinking” for a customer is as follows:

  1. Keep on reading on the area that you are working- It can be analyst reports, It can be google alerts on your area, It can be books etc. Because at the end of the day, all are inter-connected and the ability of the leader to connect the dots become super critical in an age where there is no information asymmetry. Reading and Connecting the dots is an important trait- For example, hypothetically speaking, this healthcare giant would have created a revolutionary mechanism on pricing with payers on outcomes or would have created a unique way of doing surgery. How do we leverage Firm X internal knowledge or expertise to enable healthcare giant’s business innovation? Can we explore that? It can be a sensitive area but internally we should be able to connect the dots. Can we do an innovation introduction as outlined by “Michael Schrage”:
  2. Have the courage to face failure- Firm X engagement/relationship/delivery folks should go to a customer and propose something new. It can be a failure but the attempt to “challenge the status quo” has to be there in action. It should not be there to give advice to the team- it has to be there in practical demonstration. This is not a enlightenment session where the team should know how to challenge the status quo but it has to be a practical demonstration on how it is done to the team. Most of the times, we tend to have self-doubts about our approach or idea and the whole thing dies before it is presented. I define “courage” as the ability to face criticism from customer or internally and still have the confidence in your idea or approach. At the end of the day, if you present 10 approaches to customer and if 3 are treated as failure, you still emerge at 70% success rate on new things. That requires enormous homework, connecting the dots and courage. As you can see, all are inter-connected.
  3. To expand further on courage, we should think of us as tiger in the mirror and not as sheeps- if we think we are sheeps infront of the customer, we will behave like one. This is a direct analogy but it is applicable- What will happen finally? Will the customer eat us? No- we have to create an impression where we are genuinely trying to do the thinking part along with the customer. And whenever you do thinking, you always have the possibility of going wrong- Its okay. Check out a tiger- Even if it makes mistakes, it does not sulk. :-) don’t know whether it is a right analogy but I somehow like the posture of a tiger.
  4. Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish- there was an amazing publication called The Whole Earth Catalog. It was created by Stewart Brand in the late 1960's, before personal computers and desktop publishing, so it was all made with typewriters, scissors, and polaroid cameras. It was sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along: it was idealistic, and overflowing with neat tools and great notions. Stewart and his team put out several issues of The Whole Earth Catalog, and then when it had run its course, they put out a final issue. It was the mid-1970s- On the back cover of their final issue was a photograph of an early morning country road, the kind you might find yourself hitchhiking on if you were so adventurous. Beneath it were the words: "Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish." It was their farewell message as they signed off. Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

To summarize, the key traits for “value thinking” which is essential for innovation are:

  • Read and connect the dots
  • Stay Hungry and Stay Foolish
  • Have the courage to face failure and challenge the status quo
  • Make mistakes as it indicates that we are trying rather than just order-taking
  • Always baseline quantitatively and involve the customer genuinely- This helps in showing improvement or progress

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Case of Exploding Mangoes

I bought this book for the title and the cover visual- Usually I try to buy books just based on gut feel, visuals, and some backdrop of the story. This time, the title, “A case of Exploding Mangoes (ACOEM)” killed me. Needless to say, I do have a prejudice for mangoes as I just cannot resist them.

Coming to this book, Mohammed Hanif, the author of ACOEM really has exploded in the area of wit and satire. There have been numerous times where I chuckled, laughed, rolled in laughter over the choice of his words, wit and the portrayal of characters.

The plot is fairly simple- It goes off in 2 threads: One narrated by Ali Shigri, Air Force Junior Officer in the Pakistani Military where he plots to kill General Zia and avenge for his dad’s suicide and the other one is the day to day chores of General Zia, General Akhtar, ISI [Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence], Brigadier TM, First Lady, Pakistani Military, Zia’s fear of his security et al. It meets in the air crash where General Zia along with the American Ambassador, Arnold Raphel gets killed on August 17, 1988 where a crates of mangoes are placed in the C-130 aircraft. Along the way, there are numerous incidents depicting on how Americans view Pakistan as an ally in their war, Blind Zainab’s rape case, Pakistan’s First Lady suspecting on General Zia having an affair, General Beg’s Rayban glasses, insights about Pakistani military etc.

I did not like the climax of the book as it goes off in a different tangent and the connection was never made between multiple things- Maybe Hanif wanted it that way but full kudos to the author for his satire in this debut novel. I am quite sure that context plays a major part in enjoying this novel -Folks in India and Pakistan would have seen some of these characters on media and visualizing these characters in the novel at funny encounters makes the day!

Hanif has a gift with words, wit and satire- Let me take some pearls here from the book:

Ali Shigri was suspected of a plot even before he committed any crime and he was subjected to torture. So when the plane crashes, he believes that there is“poetry in committing a crime after serving your sentence and punishment before crime has a sing-song quality”. :-)) I love this!!

While Ali Shigri was tortured, the things that were going on his mind were, “ There is something about these bloody squadron leaders that make them think that if they lock you up in a cell, put their stinking mouth to your ear and shout something about your mother they can find all their answers”….What an interplay of words?

On the medals of military folks, “ Look at the arrangement of fruit salad on a uniform shirt and you can read his whole biography. The 40th Independence Day medal. The Squadron Anniversary medal. Today-I-did-not-jerk-off medal.” :-)) :-))

On one occasion, Hanif does not leave the Indian musical sisters as well- Lata and Asha. “ Old, fat, ugly, Indian sisters who both sing like they were teenage sex kittens- But across the country battle lines are drawn between those who like Asha and those who like Lata. Tea or Coffee? Coke or Pepsi? Maoist or Leninist? Shia or Sunni? “

On General Akhtar’s devotion to his boss General Zia, “ This is not a ordinary 3-star devotion to a 4-star general. Theirs was a bond between two dogs stranded on a glacier, each sizing up the other, trying to decide if he should wait for his comrade to die before eating him or do away with the niceties and try to make a meal of him immediately”

Democracy Vs Progress

I was recently attending an AGM [Annual General Body Meeting] of my housing society- My society comprises of 1000 apartments and each apartment has got a building representative. Each building is labelled from A-Z; so its kind off a centralized-decentralized structure when it comes to maintenance et al.

The purpose of this blog is not to enumerate about my building society but to talk about “consensus building decision making” and “how to take responsibility without authority” and whether “democracy is really good”.

I have been to all these meetings and the key take-away is as follows:
• Everyone wants to make a point
• Everyone has an opinion about everything that they know partially, fully or none!
• Everyone wants to point a problem [seldom do people point a solution]
• Everyone feels the housing society core committee are their employees [I wonder where from this notion is coming as these are honorary jobs where core committee does not take any salary or bill by the hour]
• Everyone wants ROI
• Everyone feels that they need to push hard and feel that there are areas of improvement all the time- I am okay with this but at least the good work has to be recognized some time!

Coming to core committee- They have a challenge to please all the owners of 1000 apartments without prejudice or conflict of interest! They have to get consensus for each and every thing; otherwise it will be labelled as dictatorial and people in India don’t like Hitler in general.

Secondly the core committee are constantly taking responsibility without any amount of authority. This is slightly tricky because in any responsible role, you have to take a decision and if this goes wrong, you will be penalized by 1000 apartment owners and if it goes right, nobody will even acknowledge. That’s the beauty of this job. I feel this is slightly similar to the vertical-horizontal split in a typical Indian IT services firm. Indian IT services in an effort to sustain the scale; created industry based verticals and capability based horizontals. These capability based horizontals will operate on a shared service mode and someone who is in a vertical has to take responsibility without authority as s/he has to constantly collaborate with the horizontals keeping the end customer expectations in mind. Getting things done when you are NOT a boss is relatively easy in a professional set-up but in this type of honorary or public service set-up, I think it’s a nightmare!

Finally coming to my pet peeve which is “democracy”- Is this really good for us? I feel that in the name of democracy, some of the progress is getting stunted across board. I see this in a silo-ed version for this board meeting. During my final pass out year at BITS, pilani we had T.N. Seshan [ ex- Chief Election Commissioner for India] as a speaker and he was articulating about “benign dictatorship” instead of democracy. Mr.T.N.Seshan was passionately advocating benign dictatorship for India as he wanted progress in many areas. I distinctly remember folks talking about the utopian nature of this idea and also some folks who did not understand what he was even talking about [ I was in the latter part as I never comprehended why we are talking about dictatorship when we are supposed to celebrate democracy]. There were some folks who were talking about why democracy is important for India blah, blah. After this AGM meeting, I am completely convinced of Mr.Seshan’s line of thought- I pity Mr.Manmohan Singh sometimes as he has to balance between consensus building, keeping the job, make hard decisions, tell politicians NOT to be corrupt [that is a big ask given the 2G spectrum allocation or the Mumbai Adarsh housing scandal], ensure security etc. This list is endless and progress in a democracy is a real challenge- It is definitely NOT impossible but a real hard nut to crack!

On a tangential note, we are all fairly democratic with our better half to progress in life! Looking at this optimistically, there is progress at least in personal life if one follows true democratic principles! :-))

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Barack Obama’s Presentation Skills- India Trip, Nov 2010

I am sure there must tons of coverage on what Barack Obama did at India and his Asia tour of 2010- There was considerable coverage in the India media before he arrived and after he departed. Politicians, Corporates, Institutions, Villages et al had an agenda with the Big O and vice-versa. While there is a lot of talk around Obama having an agenda for the US and how he wanted a win-win situation with us- I am not blogging those important details as there are better folks than me who would have documented that. Also there was a section of crowd that said, “now we have got attention” and another section that said, “we better get this attention as we are definitely invincible”, blah, blah- We are not entering that area as well.

Quite interestingly, the premise of this blog is look at one sliver of Big O’s visit which was his town hall session at St.Xavier’s college at Mumbai [tp:// ] where a lot of students were supposed to be grilling him with hard, sensitive questions. I happened to see that session in the TV and I got some valuable insights on presentation skills- I think I will be the millionth fan of Big O’s presentation skills but nevertheless wanted to record that. I know that big title, designated corporate honchos can also learn on the art of presentation through this Q & A session alone.

Here are my observations:

• Non-filler usage- This is an amazing skill especially when you are extempore and faced with sensitive political questions. Typically, folks use “you know”, “I mean” etc some 200 times in a 5 minute conversation- Even senior corporate honchos have this problem. Hint for their HR team: Get a communication coach for your CEO and VP’s. I have already blogged about this earlier!!

• Connection with the audience- Usually communication coaches call this as “eye contact” but Big O has clearly crossed that part. This connection is beyond eye contact- there was an emotional angle associated with the answers of some of the questions. Its again to hard to develop this skill because this requires good amount of empathy and compassion! Both of these are in scarcity today.

• Engaging the audience and local association- There were many times where Obama mentioned about local things at India, Gandhi etc. This brings the relevancy and also engages the audience- There is a huge plus in connecting with the culture even if it is a 30 minute conversation!

• Assertiveness in communication- I think this is an amazing trait of Big O. The tone tells about the assertiveness on some issues!

• Answering the questions specifically- This seems like an OBVIOUS point in a Q & A session but most of the leaders or presenters in this type of sessions don’t answer the question and beat around the bush. I won’t say Obama was perfect in this area but given his constraints he did a great job. There was a question about why Pakistan not being called a terrorist state and Obama’s answer was picture perfect- He said that Pakistan’s stability is good for India and there are extremists in Pakistan as they are in any part of the country in the world. India is on a super growth mode and an unstable Pakistan is not good for India. He also added some masala on how great Pakistan is but the key point is abstracting the question and focusing on stability which is important for India. Fair enough! From purely a ATQ [answer the question] perspective, his answers were great. From a different perspective, US wants Pakistan to be an ally and they need Afghan control in the war and they are ramping down as well. These are some underlying aspects but as I said earlier, there are enough folks who are deep in to this debate that I don’t want to join that gang with my opinion. :-)

You can view the Youtube version here:

All of the above points seem very obvious and easy but I think it’s very difficult to implement on regular basis! More importantly, these are highly significant for any leader today whether s/he in business or politics.

After I blogged this, I was curious to google about “Barack Obama’s presentation skills” and I got a whooping 96,700 results. I was bang on with my assumption of me being a millionth fan or one among the millions who likes his presentation skills.
I wonder how much of home work Obama does for his speeches or is it a innate talent! I would have asked that question in St.Xavier’s, Mumbai if I was present during that day!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Shantaram- Book Review

It’s been a while I blogged and this is the first time that I am blogging about a book- “Shantaram” by Gregory David Roberts. I read a lot of books and usually I am tempted to blog but never got the enthusiasm or energy to do- I normally move on to the next book. This book was suggested by Shareen.C [ One of my good friends who share the art of reading! ]. Initially I thought this book has something to do with self-help or as the title suggests, it is something of a philosophy/religious undertone laced book. NO ITS NOT- the title is so misleading. This is the name given by the Maharashtr-ian mother in a small village to Roberts!!

Nevertheless, I just followed what Shareen said and bought the book- It was an amazing roller-coaster ride for 900 pages and quite sincerely I did not want the book to finish. It’s a great journey of fate, love, compassion, empathy, Mumbai- underworld, Mumbai-slums/zhopadpatti, Afghan war, Leopalds cafĂ© at Colaba and Kano the bear!! I could not resist not adding “Kano” the bear and the fact that its transportation to Nariman Point was given in the last parts of the book made me laugh and think a lot!! Kano the bear was “wanted” by Mumbai policemen and Roberts was involved in transporting him from point A to point B- This whole thing seems simple but it’s too hilarious and thought provoking when you read the book. The slum dwellers were more bothered about transporting the bear safely rather than thinking about themselves- This small thing alone reflects the whole humanity piece!! This is a real-life story with great attention to detail and his journey across multiple things and what he does at multiple places- The common thread is his journey of fate and love and his ability to connect to people with compassion. Wherever he goes, his unique ability to look at humanity is something that struck me very hard- I mean we all go to multiple places and interact with multiple people but looking at humanity in this angle seemed very sincere! As Robert says in the last chapter of the book – “Every human heartbeat is a universe of possibilities”. This resonates with the journey and the closing credits of the book- “Human Will has the power to transform its fate and Roberts always felt that fate was unchangeable, fixed at birth- But the truth is that, whatever be the game you are in and whatever be the luck you have, you can change your life completely with a single thought or a single act of love”. This is exactly what he wanted to portray through his semi auto-biographical book!!

For starters, there is a lot of thought-provoking ideas given by Robert in this book- If you want a ride of life irrespective of your fate, just get in and enjoy the ride with love. The author came to Mumbai after escaping from a prison at Australia and then learnt Marathi in a village at Maharashtra. That made him a “Gora” [Hindi term for foreigner] speaking Marathi at Mumbai. I am sure some of the Indian political parties will be proud and they can even use Roberts as their brand purely from a linguistic perspective!! Roberts then moved on to a zhopadpatti [hindi term for slums] to treat diseased folks with basic first aid knowledge- Understood what it takes for survival for these slum-dwellers. Then joined the Mumbai underworld gang that’s known for honor- Here there is a beautiful distinction between honor and virtue!! Here is where there is a lot of underworld philosophy that laces through the book – Things that I loved here were: The cocktail mix that all powerful men have are the fact that they are afraid and are cruel. I also particularly loved the analogy of fake passport, fake ID business to “Red Queen Contest” where Alice meets the red queen who runs incredibly fast but never seems to get anywhere. She tells Alice that in her country, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. I wonder that some-times we do the same as Red Queen in our professional life. J That is a separate blog altogether.

For people who want to understand universe, good, evil, big bang theory- there is a good section where the Mafia don explains all of these interlacing with his perspective! Roberts then pledges his loyalty to that gang and then goes for an Afghan war and then comes back to rebuild the gang without the leader. In the gang, the key things that come back and back is the honor in which they conduct the business claiming to do “ the wrong things for the right reasons”. In the middle, finds his love [not fully able to express] in the Leopolds up-market international gang; Helps them out for various activities including helping a Californian girl escape Madam Zhou [ One who runs the biggest and kinky escort services in Mumbai- This part is an interesting twist] and then gets trapped in Arthur Road jail due to this. The whole story is set in the 80’s and there is a flurry of movement that makes one wonder whether it’s for real or not and how could one travel this journey!! Well, Gregory David Roberts has done it with love and compassion- Most importantly there is no hatred in the whole sequence which I loved the most!

I can go on and on with this blog as I liked everything about the book and lot of phrases has inked a part of my memory- I like to take one good statement [told by the mafia folks] from the book, “Fate always gives you 2 choices- one you should take and one you should do”. I think it’s the same for this book- Every book store gives you 2 choices- one you should buy and one you should read. Howz that to end this blog?? :-))

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Innovation-Ideating a Product

Today morning, I was reading on a mobile economical water purifier product launched by TATA by name “SWACH”- This seems to be an awesome innovation that crosses social, technological hurdles and really is revolutionary!!

TATA Nano was path-breaking in its own way but “SWACH” has surpassed that- Research states that most of rural India lacks pure drinking water and this water purifier aims at solving that. TATA’s product pricing is going to be extremely low- maybe under Rs.1000 (<$20) and it aims at solving water-borne diseases like diarrhea, jaundice, typhoid, polio etc.

The product claims are as follows:
• Replaceable filter based
• Filter is based on low cost natural ingredients- Rice husk ash encapsulated with nano-silver particles
• Requires no energy or running water to operate
• Purify up to 3000 litres of water after which bulb needs to be replaced

TATA Swach is a result of collaboration between TCS Innovation Labs, TATA Chemicals and Titan- Fourteen patents have been filed for technology and the product. Aqua-guard should definitely watch out for this product!

From an innovation perspective, this is heavily thought- provoking – we were in an innovation workshop recently and the whole notion of ideating a product to fruition seems to be fantastic. I can correlate some of those concepts when I try to visualize it for TATA Swach. On an alternate note, I do remember a HBR innovation article on break through thinking where the researchers(Trish Clifford, Renee Dye and Kevin from Mckinsey) have elaborated on thinking “inside” the box rather than outside the box. Their whole claim was attributed to the limitations (prolificacy of ideas and data slicing ) of thinking outside the box. The whole idea was to generate questions that are not too broad but are abstracted at least 3-4 levels lower than the first point- This way innovators can arrive at the right questions that can prompt organizations to create the right product. I have got permission from Trish Clifford some aspects of that article and here goes the key take-aways which are the 21 questions!!

They have come up with 21 great questions for developing new products under these categories:

“De-average” buyers and users-
1. Which customers use or purchase our product in the most unusual way?
2. Do any customers need vastly more or less sales and service attention than most?
3. For which customers are the support costs (order entry, tracking, customer- specific design) either unusually high or unusually low?
4. Could we still meet the needs of a significant subset of customers if we stripped 25% of the hard or soft costs out of our product?
5. Who spends at least 50% of our product costs to adapt it to their specific needs?

• Examine binding constraints-
6. What is the biggest hassle of purchasing or using our product?
7. What are some examples of ad hoc modifications that customers have made to our product?
8. For which current customers is our product least suited?
9. For which particular usage occasions is our product least suited?
10. Which customers does the industry prefer not to serve and why?
11. Which customers could be major users, if only we could remove one specific barrier we’ve never previously considered?

• Explore unexpected successes-
12. Who uses our product in ways we never expected or intended?
13. Who uses our product in surprisingly large quantities?

• Imagine Perfection-
14. How would we do things differently if we had perfect information about our buyers, usage, distribution channels, and so on?
15. How would our product change if it were tailored for every customer?

• Look beyond the boundaries of our business-
16. Who else is dealing with the same generic problem as we are but for an entirely different reason? How have they addressed it?
17. What major breakthroughs in efficiency or effectiveness have we made in our business that could be applied in another industry?
18. What information about customers and product use is created as a by-product of our business that could be key to radically improving the economics of another business?

• Revisit the premises underlying our processes and products-
19. Which technologies embedded in our product have changed the most since the product was last redesigned?
20. Which technologies underlying our production processes have changed the most since we last rebuilt our manufacturing and distribution systems?
21. Which customers’ needs are shifting most rapidly? What will they be in 5 years?