Hello world!

<Welcome to WordPress.com. This is your first post. Edit or delete it and start blogging!>

Ok. I will leave that first line as it is. Sentiment! You see, it has taken me more than 10 years to start blogging. This is perhaps the maximum I have ever (if at all) procrastinated on anything in my life. So.

Procrastination led to “Ruminations & Illuminations”. This is Me 2.0; opening my thoughts to the world (that cares to read this, that is) by writing, upgraded from Me 1.0 a read-only Self! Me 1.0 was much too private, punishingly selective, an exclusive recluse when it came to writing but not a frugal teacher nor a restrained talker at any point! Me 2.0 that you see and read here (and relate to, hopefully) is a sincere attempt at transformation – of the self, of the mind. A talking mirror, if you wish to give it a definition.

Friends, family, well-wishers and a few similar others who shared uninhibited fervor to embarrass me have been after me to post “stuff”. In the olden days, long before many of you were born, us Gen Y used to write to each other using a medium called the e-mail. It was largely fun; attaching pictures, changing fonts, running spell-checks, worrying about Bcc’s and Cc’s and finally praying the ever-fun-spoiling firewalls would let through the message, pictures & videos and all. Now, some of those gems shall also be recycled here in the coming days. Simply because I want to enjoy the ease of posting, the lightness of sharing without any accompanying panic and worries.

For the most part, I plan to ruminate, to reflect, and at times react. The illumination bit is to be dug through. Hopefully, what I have to share, to offer as insight as against any opinionated rant, will illumine your intellect and your heart. I hope to also provoke, occasionally only though, your beliefs, your imagination of this world and it’s people & places & things, and your passions.

In college, a little over 20 years back, I was introduced to free-writing. Delightful, scary, enjoyable, agonizing and all the other things it did to me, it’s all coming back now as I write these blogs. Whatever it will be, it won’t be cathartic. I do not wish upon you the outpourings of a frustrated mind and a restless soul, things I myself am not. So, we’ll see how this evolves, how the thoughts blossom, how the experiences take form and how the ruminations move from my reality to yours!

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Is there God?

My Guru was often asked one particular question more than any other. Devotees, curious sceptics and critics, regardless of their beliefs would, when an opportunity arose, want to know the most sought after truth dividing humanity over the ages with each messiah.

“Are you God”? They would implore, wanting to know God if there indeed was one.

“You are God”, was His invariable reply, confounding them even more.

The devotees would be ecstatic. After all, what greater validation than the one they (supposedly) believed to be God telling them they too were the same. The sceptics would get more sceptical – this was escapism, not really answering the direct question. So, the divide would remain. It still does.

I too once had such an opportunity. I remembered the popular question and answer but wanted to press on during an intimate audience with Him. So I decided to change the question slightly. I wanted to trap Him. I was clever.

“Is there God”? I asked Him, with some trepidation.

“It does not matter if there is God or not; it does however matter if you want to become one”, He said.

I was now less clever. The search for God is the search for yourself. The journey to God is the journey within.

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Trumpeters On A Speeding Train

(Disclaimer: this post has nothing to do with Trump or the much-feared oncoming train wreck associated with his views).
Around 1845 in the University of Vienna, a Physics professor named Christian Doppler postulated a hypothesis that the pitch of sound varied depending upon the location of the listener. This viewpoint at that time was against the laws of nature as people believed them. To prove his hypothesis, Doppler got a group of trumpeters on to a train and asked them to hold a note at the same pitch as the train approached the platform and sped away. People on the platform heard the increase and decrease of the pitch although the trumpeters played at the same level. It paved the way to rethink the nature of sound – and light – waves, and their applications. That proof and Doppler’s subsequent contributions to Physics and the number of inventions that rode on those redefined science and technology as we know them today in every walk of life. A “show & tell” at its simplistic best; triggering change and adoption of the new through a small albeit demonstrably significant “experiment”.
Just hold that thought as we look at our current reality. With most business strategies increasingly becoming innovation-centric, organisations are grappling with the challenge of finding the magic formula to foster more innovation and to manage and adopt the change. The next Tesla, Google or Amazon won’t perhaps come so easily – especially from large, old organisations burdened with legacy technologies, complex processes and most irritatingly, rigid mindsets. Some companies – the same Tesla, Google, Apple and Amazon for instance – continue to innovate even after becoming larger and more complex while others like Kodak, Nokia and RIM lose the race almost to the brink of extinction. If we study the common themes in these organisations then innovation-led growth or failure is not just about technology, strategy, market dominance or resources but mostly about culture. Prevailing “mind sets” I.e., behaviours in an organisation form culture and it is these that make or break an organisation’s sustained creative stamina – the ability to continually reinvent itself and what it offers. 

Even the most talented of employees get frustrated or even fail in delivering change because of the “system”. While change management is a vast and complex topic by itself, at an individual level and at team levels employees can influence and move the needle on change. It just requires the willingness and ability to take the small steps, the first steps, without being overwhelmed by risk caveats associated with the larger impact of the change.
So how do you navigate through a stifling culture, cut passive resistance and deliver change without having to take the naysayers head on all at once? One or both of these overlapping approaches work:

1. Manage innovation as a series of multiple small changes and not as one big breakthrough. The ability to decompose a creative idea or a big initiative into several small, simple and meaningful ones is one of the most critical (and rare) skills of a successful change & innovation leader. ISRO (the Indian Government run Indian Space Research Organisation, that launched 20 satellites in a day successfully at a fraction of the cost of NASA launching just one) is a great example of this. A relatively low-key and low-budget technology organisation, ISRO’s scientists work on a number of small, modular projects in an open and collaborative (not competitive) structure in an iterative and scalable manner to assemble a larger program. 

2. Run small, simple experiments to prove the concept before selling a broader change. Nothing underscores credibility – and arouses curiosity – like a good old show-and-tell we loved in school. The most frustrating time in any organisation or project is waiting for approvals and the process of working through multiple stake holders fearing mass change. In the late ’90’s I remember while working with PepsiCo how the sales force in India convinced the HQ to invest more and differently in market infrastructure in upcountry territories by running small market experiments in small towns. Signages, refrigerators, financing schemes, route truck upgrades and customising usage norms of brand artefacts locally spurred trade. Rural India was not Corporate America. Proofs and data from these experiments forced global teams to visit these small towns in India and relook at the marketing strategy ground-up. It made a huge difference to Pepsi’s dominance in hitherto untested segments, making the teams and the business an innovatively differentiated FMCG business in the country. 

Simple experiments can be done by anyone, at any level. It does not require big budgets. But what it requires, paradoxically, is a big vision and bigger passion. The power of the the trumpeters on train – the power of simple experiments – is an underestimated and under-leveraged tool in most organizations. And therein lies the inertia to change and innovate because everyone is waiting for – and blocking! – a big-bang breakthrough that will supposedly change the world all at once.
Can an individual trying an experiment in this big bad world make a difference? Yes, look at Doppler and several others. No? Sure, look at the Tank Man of Tiananmen Square. More than successful scientists and businessmen who made it big, this little unknown guy is still a world-wide inspiration. He did not fail. He woke the world up. With his own little experiment with a big concept called Liberty.

(Pictures from the Internet)

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The 3 Rules of “Process”

I am a big believer in process. But I think the business world is being led down a garden path by specialists who prescribe process as a panacea to every problem. Don’t get me wrong – there is an opportunity to implement ‘process’ to improve everything. It’s just that the way it is mostly done does not necessarily produce the right result.

Process-Simplify-NTAK-Blog-1

 

Call me old-fashioned but here are 3 rules that in my experience act as drivers to successfully implementing a process: simplify, clarify and exemplify.

Let me explain.

1. Simplify. If a new or improved process does not make something simple or simpler than before then don’t roll out that process. Ordering a cab on Uber never ceases to amaze me on how easy it has become to not only “call a cab” but also to complete the journey. On the other hand, try using the Internet banking process of Axis bank or transacting with Reliance customer service for your cell phone connection. They both will leave you wondering what these companies are spending money on if it only results in frustrating their customers with complexity!

2. Clarify. The best designed processes express the purpose clearly when implemented. This is also the basis for adaptability. Nothing highlights this better than the apparent ‘failure’ of India’s Unique Identification project Aadhar. A seminal instrument for social advancement mired in confused enrolment exercise and unclear ecosystem for usage purposes, the project’s appeal to a billion citizens lacked purposeful communication and intent. Contrast this with a hundred year old system of the Postal department’s Money Order service.

3. Exemplify. Does the process spell out the benefit for stake holders upfront in the best possible manner? And can the process be repurposed? I remember the pioneering ‘tele banking’ service in India launched by Citibank in the early ’90’s (“a million branches in the sky”). Overcoming the restriction on number of bank branches allowed in the country at the time, the process was simple, scalable and most importantly gave customers an alternate method to query & transact anytime, de-congesting the branch teller queues. The transition to e-banking in the Internet era a few years down was natural and similar for the customers. Nothing exemplified convergence of industries (telecom and banking) and channels (virtual and physical branches) better!

But effective processes – that pass the three tests above – can sustain only in the right culture. A culture underpinned by a strong sense of ownership, where discipline outranks the latest management fad and passion for the customer scores over financial expediency. So the next time around, try and apply these three rudimentary rules and you will prevent implementing a process for the sake of ‘process’. Or being explained why something has to remain complex despite being subject to a “process improvement”.

 

 

 

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20 Questions

What’s your first reaction to uncertainty?

What’s the most valuable thing you have delivered to someone?

What’s more important – being right or being good?

What gives you maximum joy?

How important is winning?

Have you ever been happy losing?

What do you work for?

If there was only one thing to care about in the world, what would it be for you?

Who will you listen to always, unconditionally?

Do you have enemies?

What do you do when you have nothing to do?

Have you ever caught yourself trying to be someone you aren’t?

Have you ever sacrificed something dear to keep a promise?

How long can you stay focused?

When someone is unfair to you, what do you do?

When someone is unfair, what do you do?

What are the top 3 things you want to acquire?

What do you like most about what you see in the mirror?

Who do you see in the mirror?

What is your biggest fear?

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Learning creativity

Can one learn to be creative? I am learning to be a better photographer, something I am passionate about but find little time or patience for. My all time favourite Photo Journalist Dewitt Jones (of National Geographic fame) shares his creative experiences here, on how one can embrace creativity to turn the ordinary into extraordinary, everyday. I have got some amazing insights from this 20-minute video:

http://www.trainingabc.com/everyday-creativity/

This is what I am learning from photography. That exploring our creative side is like falling in love; we gain energy for action and connect with our passion. But creativity starts with changing our perspective. When we begin to see that every problem could present many correct solutions, we are ready to seek a fresh perspective sans the fear of the unknown. We stop fearing change as we realise a sense of abundance as against a sense of scarcity. A great photographer, not unlike a great leader, takes in everything before focusing on the most important. Creativity also takes us into a realm where we are not afraid of making mistakes because they become learning opportunities: a win-lose situation can be transformed to a “win-learn” situation. Every bad snap of mine has now become as valuable as a good one gets cherished.

When I was a first-time professional management consultant, my client taught me a lesson I remind myself everyday: it’s easy to find problem solvers. But to discover, re-define and re-imagine the problem is what makes for a creative consultant. Reframing a problem into an opportunity marks out a creative approach from a merely diligent one. By choosing to be creative, we find better ways of doing things even when they are going smooth. Creativity, hence, is a disciplined choice. It need not be the hallmark of genius only.

I think photography and decision making (like, in the corporate world where it is getting so increasingly complex) are similar in every way. Timing, speed, attention to details, appreciation of the ‘bigger picture’ and perseverance trump technique. Vision and focus, literally and figuratively, matter more than circumstances. Creativity is all about learning to put this to practice!

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Small talk

Talk’s cheap. Not listening, however, could be expensive. Here’s some small-talk-big-to-listen-to things I shared with a group of bright career upstarts.

My take on what works at work, especially when you’re starting your career: be a 5 point someone. No, not the Chetan Bhagat variety, but someone who follows these 5 points. I learnt them the hard way as a rookie manager but they have stood the test of time for me.

5. Pay attention to the small things. Do not make small mistakes (“sorry about the typos in the agenda and material for the client meeting yesterday”) because they make you look small. If you must, then make big, honest mistakes that you – and everyone around you – can learn from.

4. You are not a ball to be chased. “Sorry, forgot to update you that I was going to miss the deadline to submit that proposal”. The worst thing you could do to your credibility is to have someone follow up on things you owe them. Colleague, customer, boss, subordinate, flat-mate who lent you money, whoever.

3. You are not a ball to be kicked around either. Bouncy enthusiasm for more work is great but to show it in every step of your way at work is to invite chaos. Make your own agenda too and let it be known; be open to have many masters to learn from but choose which one (or two) you will do everything for.

2. Have a personal vision, ambition is over-rated. Money, power, title, next car, more exclusive vacations – once you achieve them, they seem so futile but never enough. They also lead to ambitions. Some mistakenly call this ‘drive’, which eventually leads to a ‘crash’. Personal vision on the other hand (“I will become a leader who will change the way my team delivers value to clients while still sticking to values”) gives meaning beyond work. Ambition allows for manipulation, purpose elevates you to look beyond short-term gratification.

1. Don’t work to impress. It doesn’t last so the efforts are completely wasted. Work, instead, to learn. When you learn more, you serve better and that’s the most genuine, lasting means to becoming a good manager, leader, professional.

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Minimise

Minimise. For elegance.

Meeting with and listening to Matthew May, author of The Laws Of Subtraction, was an intellectually intense experience. At a global Innovation Summit in Chennai yesterday, he mesmerised the audience with his brilliant articulation of his philosophy of reducing features to maximise impact.

From Toyota to Apple, the greatest product and marketing innovations have always ridden on eliminating the inessential and focusing on the few simple but revolutionary things that makes a product great. The result is elegance, an idea that is hard to define but felt when encountered: think the click-wheel of the first iPod or the Bose Sound Wave music system. Listen to Philip Glass and Pandit Ravishankar. Drive a Lexus. Fly in an almost noiseless 787. Or just read the profundity of thoughts expressed in the 140-character tweets of Nassim Taleb. Elegance is the mainstay of excellence. Elegance comes not from adding features but from eliminating most. Elegance in work is attained when you are focused more on the not-to-do list than adding to your endless to-do’s.

The elegance of minimalism was perhaps best expressed by Lao-Tzu the Chinese philosopher poet thus, “profit arises from what is there / usefulness from what is not there”. He made that beautiful philosophy cerebrally pervasive when he deducted that “to attain knowledge add something everyday, to attain wisdom remove something everyday”. Jim Collins, author of the famous Good To Great, summarised the contribution of minimal to being great in a simple way: a great piece of art is composed of not only what is in it but equally what is not.

Reflect today on what you want to be best at, what is it you want to produce that lasts as a perfect product or an excellent service, however minor the work may be in its size or significance. Yes, including that 100-slide PowerPoint presentation your boss wants as an update for that departmental review. Go on to remove from it the clutter of features, the noise of options and the urge to express all your knowledge through it. Eliminate. Then reduce further. Then again, remove everything from it that does not make it great for the one single thing it should be useful for or admired for. Yes? Done? Congratulations! You are no different from Steve Jobs who, it is rumoured, wore only turtle-necks because it had no buttons and he hated buttons so much he had them removed not only from Apple’s phones and tablets but also in elevators in iStores! And you could be as artistically creative as Leonardo Da Vinci or Michelangelo. For you see, they too were faced with multitudes but chose to focus on the minimum. We call them geniuses today. When all they did was to eliminate the inessential!

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