What’s your agenda?

We have all kinds of people around us – some people seem to have no agenda, while some seem to have hidden agendas. Most people don’t seem to know what their agenda is, though some lower-form of materialistic agenda might always be on their mind! Some people seem to content with others setting their agenda, while some very exceptional minds among us are so influential, they might help others set their agenda. Do people have the same agenda always, or it change with time (it does seem logical that agendas must change with changing priorities, but how?). If it changes with time, would it help to understand its shades just so we can know where we are at a given time, and potentially, set a goal around where we want to be next?

While thinking about all this, I got wondering if there was a way to “measure” people on what their agenda was? Would it be possible to create some scale that allowed us to understand where were we, not necessarily to compare against others, but just to know where do we stand, if we at all wanted to move further, could there be some kind of roadmap to it?

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My quest for some answer (and not necessarily a right answer) led me to some interesting reflection, and I came up with the following perspective. Treat it like evolutionary stages of one’s agenda –  if one looks at any meaningful and logical slice of one’s professional (or even personal) life as a single unit, than it might appear to live its journey in an iteration. For example, when one starts their career, or when one starts their new job as a first-time CEO, maybe there are similarities among them as far as the stages of agenda is concerned, even if the scope and scale of their agenda might be substantially different. Surely, this isn’t any heavy scientific theory or some social experiment data – this is simply based on my anecdotal data and some logical thinking, and might very well be untrue, incomplete, inconsistent or simply useless! Time will surely tell me that :). Anyway, here I submit my reflection for your suggestion and feedback.

Let’s go.

Stage 1: You don’t have an agenda!

When you start your journey, you are the obedient learner, the humble follower, the curious child who gets attracted to the unseen, the unheard, the unknown, the unexplained, the un-understood…anything new, bizzare…and you may have no real agenda as to what exactly you want to do in life (or in your most immediate journey). You might travel from city to city, jump from adventure to adventure…but mostly you have no real end-goal in mind. This is the formative stage where your only agenda (if I can say that) is to absorb anything and everything without any motive, ulterior or not. You just “do it” without any particular reason other than possibly simply learning things, or doing it for the sake of doing it. Some people also might simply while away their time with either “busy work” or just a way to pass the time, and appear to be “living dead” in this stage, but more people are likely to live this stage with a bit more energy and enthusiasm even when there is no real agenda.

Stage 2: Others set your agenda

At some point, you find something that sets your agenda, or at least starts the process. It could be anything – an idea that inspires you, an obstacle that fires you, a friend who motivates you, a parent who pushes you, a manager who forces you, a guru who liberates you…whatever! The key thing is that you are not directionless, rudderless anymore but you have this big purpose dangling in front of you. At this stage, it is more likely that others are setting this agenda for you as you don’t have any real agenda of you own. You are still learning from others as to what might be some way to build a pipeline of activities that leads to the nirvana. Or, at least you believe that might be the nirvana!

Stage 3 You set your own agenda

For a seeker of truth and self-made goals in life, this is the moment when you discover your purpose. You discard what others have set for you (perhaps you think that’s not the real you, or you simply have a change in plan, or are attracted to something else than what you initially started out with, etc.). You have also become more knowledgeable, competent, mature, confident and perhaps even resourceful to write your own agenda – whether ready or not, right or wrong, high or low, realistic or ambitious – it doesn’t really matter. What matters is your belief in what you really want to do, and your desire to go for it. This could be the phase when you really start taking risks, learn something new, become an entrepreneur, take up a significantly challenging assignment much above your current level of training or experience, and so on. The key is to start somewhere so long as you actually gets started to create your own agenda!

Stage 4: You set other’s agenda

This is the pinnacle of peer and social recognition – you have fans who look up to you, you have peers who worship you, leaders who cherish you, and even have competitors who respect you (and not just secretly)! In some cases, like the legendary Guru Dronacharya who was not there physically for the archer-enthusiast Eklavya so he simply made his statue and “learnt” from it, you might not be physically present to (help) set other’s agenda but your thought, ideas, words and deeds inspire people across the time and space. And for those who have the fortune to interact with you – be as your team member, or colleague, friend, teacher, leader or anyone else – you are trusted and respected to the extent that others feel they can count on you for help in setting their own agenda. It is also possible that some people in this stage do it because of the hierarchy or the title, e.g., they might be a manager for a team. We are not really interested in this, but more interested in what kind of unofficial or the informal power, or rather influence, do you really wield in those situations. Very few among us get to this level, though a significant larger among us already believe we are here 🙂

Stage 5: You don’t need an agenda!

This is the nirvana. You have finally arrived to the point of self-actualization when you not only don’t need any social proof or endorsement from the society at large about who you are or what you do, you also don’t care for it! Not in an arrogant manner (though some rare eccentric geniuses are known to have gone to that point) but in a self-assured manner that your identity is not defined by how others measure you. Life comes a full circle for you, but not before having grown you as an individual, as a professional in your chosen discipline and certainly not before you have had an opportunity to influence people and help the world become a better place. At this stage, nothing really matters because you are that self-assured person who doesn’t need to derive “power” from even influencing others as in Stage 4, but you want to be like the sage or the heretic who goes into deep meditation and is on the path to become an institution by himself or herself, and doesn’t care whether people accept or reject his ideas. You may not even be known or become famous, but that doesn’t matter anymore – what really matters if whether you know who you are without necessarily knowing where you want to go next.

So, this is my reflection on the journey of an agenda – like all deep reflections, it ends exactly where it starts, and when you look superficially, a person with no agenda might look the same as a person who doesn’t need an agenda (because to you, it still appears that he has no agenda – but only he knows in his mind that he doesn’t have an agenda because he doesn’t need one!). However, when you look deep inside, you find a journey of a lifetime that starts with exploration and ends with self-discovery. Very few among us make it, though.

What’s your agenda?

Do you read the second line?

I was booking movie tickets online, and when it came to payment, the BookMyShow payment offers were clamouring for my attention. In the past, I have learnt to carefully disregard and safely ignore those smartly camouflaged shady offers like the “Citibank World Debit Card – Buy One Get One Free” or the “ICICI Buy 1 Get 1 Offer” because they were basically designed to fool the customers. At least from my point of view!

Oh, this offer is only for the weekdays

This offer is only for the movie tickets below Rs. 250

and so on. I mean why even go through all the efforts when you don’t want your customers to be able to avail of all those sexy offers? Surely, there are many other ways to lose customers. So, I have now given up trusting on the credit card offers (as if I ever trusted marketing!).

Speed limit...!

This time for a change, I decided to try the mobile wallets, hoping they will offer some new snake oil.

And I wasn’t disappointed!

The PayTM offer said 50% off….and it took my breath away for a moment! Imagine being able to enjoy two movies at the cost of one! I mean, just do little bit math, and you can actually have two Porsches for the price of one…it just doesn’t get better than this, does it? My life was made!!!

One click later, I got closer to the truth! I discovered the fine bold print – Every 10th customer gets 50% cashback upto a maximum discount of Rs.100. Of course, the smart marketing did get me for a moment…but only to make me a even more of the very-suspicious-shopper-of-PayTM-marketing-gimmickery-in-future!

Pass.

At that time, my wife rightly reminded me that since the times immortal, it has always been the second line that’s been the most crucial one – rather more important than the first line. I am sure you remember this famous line from Yudhishtara to Dronacharya from Mahabharat, “Ashwathama mara gaya..(pause, and then almost an inaudible whisper)…par nar nahin kunjar” (Yes, Ashwathama is dead…but the elephant, not the man”. Unfortunately, Dronacharya was not able to hear the second line (or rather, Krishna’s grand plans ensured that was indeed the way it had to be!) and dropped his impregnable armour just for a few moments, which was enough for Dhrishtadyumna to kill him. Obviously, not reading the second line cost him his dear life.

Thankfully, our lives is not at stake, most part of the day. And not reading the second line does give some much-needed comical relief in the otherwise tense days. Imagine being re-told the joke of “buy one get one free” so sincerely, it makes you smile everytime you see it :).

But, not reading the second line could also potentially land you some genuinely spurious deals, and eventually leave you shortchanged. Other names for this have included “the fine print”, and so on, but I think it is as simple as reading the second line!

Do you read the second line?

How to go faster than you can?

How to go faster than you can?

 

Speed is a key skill in today’s fast-moving and forever-changing world. However, most companies are not designed for speed – instead they are designed for efficiency as they typically need to cover a long distance. They end up wasting a lot of time in simply waiting for decisions, or some critical resources, or approvals from management, and so on. On the other hand, startups are designed for speed and don’t (need to) care (so) much for efficiency, because they must perform on a very short runway. They have a limited amount of time and money, and while they still have the funds to keep them going, they must make the best of it and keep experimenting till they discover repeatable, scaleable and sustainable way to make money.  Speed is important to make the kill today, and if we survive to tell the tale, the efficiencies can always come tomorrow. Good or bad, that’s the way it works.

However, have you thought what exactly is the relationship between distance covered and the speed attained? Logically, it seems clear – we can always go fast over short distances, and must lose speed over longer distances. But is there any data to support this? And if yes, is that a straight line, a curve,…? Further, are there variations to it? Over the same distance, can we still go faster than what seems to be physical limits of a human being? For example, could working in teams make it faster?

I thought of examining the data.

The longer you go, the slower you get

Of course, you always knew it. But, do we have any data to support it? And, even if this were true anecdotally, is there any math behind the data?

I looked the men’s track and field world records (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_world_records_in_athletics) and plotted the speed vs distance for all distances from 100m to 100kms in running. The resulting curve looks like this:

It is interesting to note that the data is fairly consistent when it comes to human limits – there is an inverse relationship between the distance covered and the top speed achieved. In other words, the longer you go, the slower you get – even when you compare world records of different specialist runners. Of course, we might not be able to push it ad infinitum and achieve mach speeds or more by shortening distances to ridiculously low atomic distances, but then, who knows 🙂 – maybe there is some interesting problem waiting to be discovered when do do that!

So, what would be the most logical thing to do if you need to get there faster? No doubt – go short distances. What if the distance covered is more than what one person can sustainably complete – surely, we can’t just travel a fraction of it and stop? Let’s look at relay teams.

A relay team is faster than an individual

What happens when we take numbers from relay race and compare it with a single runner running (or swimming the same distance) alone? I took data from four men’s events and compared them side by side:

The data is limited only for short-distance relay races (and I was tempted to include data from ekidens and Swedish Relays, but maybe another day!). However, in each of the cases, the average speed went up (between 13% and 28%) when a relay team ran the same distance as an individual runner.

Again, is it logical to explain. One runner running the entire 400m will get tired, but each time a new runner comes and does next 100m of the relay race, he/she can put in fresh burst of energy and since they have to sustain themselves only for 1/4th of the total distance, they can be very fast – certainly faster than the individual runner who has already done first or second laps.

So, clearly, if we divide the tasks such that different team members can add value to it at different point in time, we can do the same work faster.

How about if we all did the same job together? For that, I had to leave athletics track and find something else where teams work together on the same task as the same time. Guess any sport that does it?

A simultaneous team gets faster when you add players

In rowing, there are multiple combinations that basically cover the same distance of 2km. Starting with a solo, it can go up to eight rowers, and the data gets interesting. Here is the data for sculls and coxless pairs:

So, when we add the number of people who are simultaneously working on the same problem, even when the problem gets bigger (weight of double scull is 2x of scull and that of quad is 4x, with the length going up by roughly 30% every time), we get faster! This seems like a great motivation for solving large problems as long as the logic of simultaneous players can be applied. Does this go ad infinitum? What about famous snake boat races that have upto 100-125 oarsmen in each boat (and 25 singers and four helmsmen too!). The top speed recorded is 20.8 km/hr, so clearly this speed starts to taper off at some point. But clearly, the speed does go up between 1 and 100+ oarsmen.

Recap

These were my data-backed insights:

  • If you cover short distances, best is to go alone. You can go fastest.
  • For short distances, when you want to go still faster than one individual, working in a relay format seems to be better than a single runner. This strategy might not work for very short distances, because the overheads in coordination and switching might offset any potential gains from relaying.
  • If you cover long distances, best is to work in teams. You can sustain it farthest.

Guess what does it tell us about teams at workplace? Agile teams are small, typically not exceeding 7+/-2 members and they often work in pairs or might even swarm together to solve complex problems. And the data from sports seems to suggest that it work!

I’d love to know if you have data from your software teams – do they have data that supports – or contradicts – the data from sports? It might make for an interesting conversation…

(Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/how-go-faster-than-you-can-tathagat-varma) 

They always laugh at you…

They always laugh at you...

They always laugh at you.

When you are a nobody, they laugh at you.

When you tell that you don’t know, they laugh at you.

When you sign-up to learn, they laugh at you.

 When you don’t have ideas, they laugh at you.

When you tell your idea, they laugh at you.

When you ask for help, they laugh at you.

When you offer to help, they laugh at you.

When you startup early, they laugh at you.

When you startup late, they laugh at you.

When you take small risks, they laugh at you.

When you take big risks, they laugh at you.

When you keep trying, they laugh at you.

When you make mistakes, they laugh at you.

When you fall down, they laugh at you.

When you fail, they laugh at you.

When you keep struggling, they laugh at you.

When you make something new, they laugh at you.

When you find no takers for your idea, they laugh at you.

When you eventually succeed…they stop laughing at you…but just for a moment…and then they start laughing at your jokes…but behind your back, they still laugh at you.

When you fall from your success, they laugh at you.

When you don’t restart, they laugh at you.

When you restart, they laugh at you…

Yes…they are always gonna laugh at you…whatever you do, or don’t! So, let this not be the factor that defines your identity. Let it not be the reason for you to lose heart. And most certainly, let it never be the reason for you to stop trying!

Of course, they are not laughing at you…they are laughing at themselves…because if they had guts, they would be out there in the sun and trying hard…just like you!

Just ignore them…

(Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/always-laugh-you-tathagat-varma)

Medici, Goa and a bit of Chindogu!

Last weekend, I was at The Goa Project, an annual pilgrimage for some 240+ oddballs from all over India, and some even taking a long-haul flight to get to Goa. Yes…“oddballs”…that’s the best I can describe a bunch of super enthusiastic, high-energy, talented, multi-faceted, young at heart and spirit (both, literally and metaphorically!), and daring and raring to go folks who all descended at Bay15 – after all, you have to be an oddball to spend your time, effort and money to come all the way to Goa and not spend the time at the beach or going to Tito’s, but talking to people who are equally unique, and probably as crazy as you!

You can’t be at TGP with any expectations! You can’t possibly anticipate who you are gonna meet – someone blending poetry with analytics, or someone installing solar panels in high mountains up in the Himalayas, someone directing theatre, or someone talking about the BDSM scene in India (ok, now I really have your attention J), someone telling about learning from the Gita or someone telling about stained glass, and so on… You name it, and it’s all there. Even Milind Soman for a keynote! So, if you seek knowledge about diverse topics, and are comfortable being a crossover artist or geek or entrepreneur or just someone who likes to be a sponge soaking up in the spirit of meeting such amazing folks and learning from them, then you should definitely have TGP on your annual itinerary!

Yes, and don’t worry about not having an idea what are you gonna do over there. Most people don’t have a clue either 🙂

I Have No Idea!

The Goa Project, as TGP as it is fondly known as, is now in 4th year. I was there for the last year (and conducted a workshop on change and habits “Why we do what we do, and how to do what we really want to do!”), and while I was a bit unsure last time whether I liked it or not, and whether I would go again this year or not, I ended up putting in three proposals, and the awesome organizing team selected two of my proposals. So, there was no way I was getting out of it.

I liken TGP to India’s very own “Medici Effect”, or at least a 2-day mini-Medici, if you will. I don’t know of any other place or event in India where people form literally all walks of life come together and exchange thoughts with each other on different, complementary and often conflicting points of views. Given the increasingly complex interdisciplinary nature of problem-solving, I think there is a dire need for such conversations and help people build a better thinking and problem-solving framework. Of course, the ambience of Goa’s very own sun and sand makes it compelling enough. And the beer does help :)… 

One of my talks was on the book I wrote recently “Agile Product Development”. It was nice to share my journey how I was lucky to get a great break, and what did I go through as I wrote the book last year, and so on. The best think I liked about delivering a talk at TGP was that I could actually deliver a talk wearing sunglasses, shorts and slippers!

 

However, the more interesting session that I want to talk about in this blog post was a workshop on “Chindogu” – the Japanese art of creating “unuseless” inventions. Unuseless because while the problems a chindogu tries to solve are real, and to that end, the solution is “useful” but the way it it is designed makes it so clumsy or difficult, no one actually uses it. And hence the term “un-useless”. Created by the crazy Japanese inventor Kenji Kawakami, this is a great exercise in creativity. For example, do you know that the original selfie stick was originally “invented” in 80s? You can sample some of these at Ripley’s, Pinterest, and several other sites all over the net. OR, you can straight go for one of the books – “101 Unuseless Japanese Inventions”, “The Big Bento Box of Unuseless Japanese Inventions” or “99 More Unuseless Japanese Inventions: The Art of Chindogu”. Now before you get carried away and discard it as a mindless activity, Chindogu comes with its own ten tenets. Not just about anything will qualify as a Chindogu!

Having read all this, I was naturally curious to experiment. I didn’t find any reference to any Chindogu happening in India, so I felt even more determined to do this crazy stuff. I boldly proposed the session “Let’s build something “unuseless”” to conduct a Chindogu workshop!

My session was on Day 1 evening, and there were some major sessions competing for the audience (guess what sessions I am talking about 😉 ). Still, I was thrilled when some ~10 participants showed up. They made some interesting that blew us away. Here’s a sampling of the pics and the video from the session:

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and finally, this is the video of the participants proudly presenting their chindogus:

 

Aren’t they nice 🙂 

I would encourage you to conduct Chindogu workshops in whatever setting you are: a Montessori, a team building and even en executive retreat! There is a great subtlety that Chindogu session hides in a very innocuous manner – and that is the freedom to experiment and the liberty to fail. No amount of formal communication can convince people to get out of their comfort zone and experiment without worrying about the results better than a Chindogu session.

Of course, you can always call an expert to lead this session 😉

Building Credibility in Four Easy Steps

In the old world of hierarchical organizational structures, the “seniority” of the role pretty much decided how much “power” the role-holder commanded. The notion of power was not just metaphorical, it was even literal! The power of the person often dictated how far their ideas – no matter how dumb they might be – would fly, and how much resistance would they likely attract on the way. To that end, it was like the horsepower that fueled organization decisions, or key changes – senior folks simply had more horsepower than the lesser mortals. In such a Dilbertesque world, needless to say, it didn’t matter much if the boss really knew the stuff – the fact that he was the boss was mostly enough to get things done. The power was in the role, and not necessarily in the role-holder.

However, in the new flat world, power is mostly displaced by “credibility.” It is not enough to be a senior anymore to bring about changes or make key decisions – if you don’t have the credibility, people are likely to reject your ideas. And given the nature of roles in today’s workplace, roles don’t guarantee credibility. One must work hard to build it. The challenge is – how do we establish genuine credibility when we are new to a system, or when we don’t have enough data points about our track record? Is there a roadmap that can help people evaluate what are they doing, where are they at this point and what more could they do to improve their credibility?

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Mumbai’s world-famous “Dabbawalas” have built a rock-solid credibility over time.

Merriam-Webster defines credibility as “the quality of being believed or accepted as true, real, or honest“, and comes from the Latin word “credo” which means “I believe.” To be truly believed is not the same as simply knowing someone, or even be colleagues at work or good friends. Indeed, it takes a lot to be believed upon by others! While someone being perceived as credible might not require one to possess a superhuman personality, earning that credibility could take years of sincere hard work. Credibility is not about being the smartest or the most knowledgeable person in the room, or someone who has the most charismatic social personality, or has the most “power” or “connections,” or is the loudest, or even having the most number of followers on their social media. If anything, credibility is all about being sincere, honest, transparent, person of integrity, objective, self-confident, knowledgeable, professional, humble, and authentic. But, how do you build credibility? As Henry Ford said, you can’t build reputation on what you plan do to. Clearly, you must deliver something of value so that people can take you seriously.

I have been experimenting and studying about building credibility for some years now, and based on my readings, anecdotal data, observations and first-hand experiences (read that as “mistakes”), I have distilled my learnings into what I call as the 4E model, which has four distinct stages. This has served me well, especially in new jobs and groups where my past credentials didn’t matter much. I had to every time start in those forums from a clean slate and find a way to build solid and genuine credibility.

Here’s how the 4E model goes:

Stage 1. Evangelize: You refer to the experts

When you start your journey, you are a rookie in the field, and have nothing much to offer. More often than not, you are more like a pilgrim in search of the truth than a source of wisdom or truth yourself! To that end, you have no real credibility to offer. Perhaps the best approach at this point is to find someone you look up to as the true north and follow them like hell. Just make sure you are not following a ‘fake north’. The idea or the individual you choose to follow could be an established thought leader in the chosen space – someone whose work influences a significant number of people in the community, and whose name inspires trust in the community.

By choosing to refer to their work and building upon it (say, apply those ideas in a given setting), you will first have to commit yourself to study their work deeply – for nothing is caught as fast as a fake, and you surely don’t want to build genuine credibility on the foundations of fake expertise! It will also be relatively easier for you to find the right audience, for the ideas that you support and evangelize are already well-known and reasonably well-accepted by the community at large, it will make easier for you find a toehold among other practitioners. Make no mistake – talking about experts won’t make you an expert yourself, but will help you find other like-minded people who will begin to accept you in their circle. Starting with enthusiasm, you will steadily graduate to a higher awareness, more knowledge and eventually to mastery of the idea.

As an Evangelist, you essentially have no credibility of your own apart from being a loyal follower and perhaps a passionate evangelist of an idea, or an individual. For example, you might be a big believer in animal rights, and might utilize every opportunity to talk about the seminal work of great giants in the field, but have no real story of your own to share. However, you could take those ideas and build upon it in your neighborhood. When you have achieved a fair amount of success in being an able follower and share your story, it will open doors for you to be accepted by other followers, and then your hard work will help you stand out in your mastery of the subject.

Stage 2. Experiment: You talk of your own work

Once you have built a rock-solid understanding of a topic, and enough people are willing to give you credit for being a subject matter ‘expert’ (though in all honesty, you are not an ‘expert’, you are simply being an ardent follower of a well-known idea or an individual), it opens the doors for you to experiment with some tweaks. Perhaps you see the opportunity to collaborate with someone else in the community, or adapt some of the peripheral ideas – without really touching the central idea. Given the already earned “credibility” by now, chances are high that people will accept your experiments without outrightly dismissing them as something too shallow without really much understanding of the core idea. The fact that you have paid your dues will help people take you more seriously, even if they don’t take your idea itself very seriously at this stage. In the first stage, you were piggybacking on someone else’s idea to build your credibility, now you are encashing a little bit of that hard-earned personal credibility to provide some tailwind to your own idea. The more credibility you have earned in Stage 1, the more it will help propel your idea further.

It is important that we don’t blow our own trumpet just yet! In fact, we should never do that. If anything, it’s the people, the community that might like your ideas, and bestow you with their faith in your work in the Stage 4. However, at this point, one must simply be very humble about one’s experiments. You aim is not to make noise by punching holes in some expert’s work, but simply to solve the problems well, and if you discover something novel, then build enough ground support so that people around you will help you launch it. At this point, you are still a learning – just that you have graduated to being an experimental learner in Stage 2, from being a evangelical learner in Stage 1. By no means, should your experiments be construed as demonstrations of expertise, especially by you!

3. Endorse: You recommend other’s work

If I go out on the street and start endorsing your work, chances are no one will notice either of us! If I don’t have enough credibility on the street, people don’t care even if I am endorsing a known and a well-proven idea or something very amateurish. However, when I have made my mark as someone with an original idea of my own, chances are high that my word will be take a bit more seriously than before. When a well-known critic reviews and praises your book, she is trading her own credibility by your ideas, and risks losing her own hard-earned credibility if your ideas turn out to be not so good. So, endorsement is not just saying good words about anything and everything, but carefully picking what to bet on!

As opposed to Stage 1, in the Endorse stage, you are endorsing not just well-known ideas but also new and emerging ideas, and the reason people will accept them at this point is because you have been through Stage 1 and Stage 2. If you directly start endorsing ideas without having first built your own personal and professional credibility, there might be no takers for your endorsements. We see this all the time on LinkedIn. In general, you can very easily spot fake recommendations not by looking at what does the citation read but by checking out the profile of the endorser.

4. Expert: Your work is referred by others

This is the pinnacle of credibility – you have done something new and innovative, and helped advance the professional body of knowledge. Your ideas have withstood the test of time, and now other practitioners are beginning to refer to it, and even extend it (just the way you were doing when you started out in Stage 1. The community at large recognizes your credibility.

Being an expert is not a matter of instant nirvana! One must go through the painful process of building one’s credibility that allows the community to understand how well your ideas help them, and how good you really are. I don’t believe one can become overnight expert without putting in solid efforts to go through these stages. Of course there are statistical outliers, but most of us have to go through the trial by fire.

Conclusions

In my experience, the most important “power” one has in a flat world is their credibility. Sometimes your credibility proceeds you, but mostly, you might find yourself in a situation when your past laurels don’t matter much to the people, and you must restart from scratch. In such situations, I found the 4E model as a good starting point, and depending on how much you are willing to commit yourself in Stage 1, you might be able to build credibility faster. However, I don’t recommend that this model is used like a project plan. It could be like an invisible roadmap in the back of your mind that guides you to stay honest to your mission rather than simply check the boxes and somehow move on to the next stage.

The 4E model doesn’t give you are timeline. It depends on how well you achieve credibility in a given stage rather than how fast you do it. Everything else equal, I would always recommend doing it well over rushing through it.

The 4E model also doesn’t really give a linear sequence. It might appear to give you a sense of progression, but you don’t stop doing things of earlier stages. Knowledge is always growing, and I don’t believe there is anyone out there who can proclaim they have nothing left to learn anymore! So, its very likely that you will find yourself in all the stages, and that’s OK.

Finally, the 4E model won’t make you an expert, ever. Your hard work will lead you to that, and the 4E model can at best be your GPS, because remember that no journey worth doing is ever a straight line.

(Originally published at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/great-work-cultures/building-credibility-in-f_b_8579094.html)

Not another diaper-selling app please!

This is the golden age of entrepreneurship, and I think humanity is fortunate that so many bright people have decided to solve some really hard problems of our times. Even when we know that history – and statistics – are not on their side and that more than 90% of the will eventually fail, their efforts need to be saluted, for they are giving up a cushy comfortable job and the opportunity to be with their friends and family or generally pursue their hobbies and interest, and instead have chosen to purse the hard path of experimentation, failures, more failures, frustration, many more frustrations….and hopefully some light at the end of the day!

When all apps start to lookalike, you know that innovation is all dead!

However, a good number of us are getting it totally wrong.

No, we don’t 59th app to order groceries at home.

No, we don’t need 134th app to buy diapers from the net.

And we most certainly don’t need yet another mobile wallet, yet another taxi booking app, yet another bookshop app, yet another food-ordering app, yet another househunt app, yet another app to sell undies on the net, yet another…..

What we do need is something a bit more simple. For example:

  • Help millions of educated unemployed create opportunities to develop our nation
  • Find a way to save millions of tons of food that rots in our godowns
  • Prevent farmers from committing suicide
  • Find a way to raise people’s standard of living by creating opportunities for them
  • Send every child to school
  • Let no child die of preventable diseases
  • Let there be running water in every household
  • Let there be a computer in every home
  • Decongest the cities and redistribute the economic activities back to villages and small towns
  • Clean up nature, air, water and land
  • Make better roads
  • Reduce crimes
  • Improve governance
  • Remove (or at least reduce) corruption
  • Reduce lead time (and preventable delays) in public projects
  • Help people become better people
  • Clean up our nation
  • Make neighborhoods safe
  • Speed up justice

I know there are a few of us who are working on some of these hard problems, away from the limelight, painstakingly changing the world…literally in inhuman conditions. They need to be applauded and supported. More talent needs to go there rather than using their advanced computer science degree and machine learning knowledge to find a way to make more users view online ads and click on the lead-generation links. More funding needs to be made available to solving these important problems that serve the humanity at large.

Selling diapers online is sexy. Saving a child from preventable death isn’t.

No, not another diaper-selling app please! 

Next…!

Learning to Lead Without Authority

In 2007, I experienced a career-altering moment. After being in the general manager role for Sniffer’s India R&D center (subsequently acquired by NetScout) for four years, my new SVP of Engineering asked me if I would accept being a functional manager for my current direct reports. As a good company man, I consulted with all involved leaders and my direct reports, and enthusiastically said yes, while, to be honest, not completely grasping the importance of the opportunity.

What started off as an innocuous query from my leader soon became a chance to explore and grow myself as an individual contributor at a deeper leadership level – what I now refer to as an “Individual Leader” – someone who doesn’t need a hierarchy, department or budget to make an organizational impact. An individual contributor operating at organizational leadership level is like a cross between Greenleaf’s concept of “servant leadership” and Maxwell’s 5th level of leadership. People follow you because of who you are and what you stand for.

True leaders don’t need authority

What happens when you separate leadership from authority? Over the next seven years, I learned a lot about leading without a team. My experiences were in India which is a rather hard place for such radical ideas — as a hierarchical society, we value seniority, and as a successful IT services industry, there is a fair amount of achievement-orientation. So, some of my insights could be very contextual, though I believe most have universal relevance.

1. Leaders are hired for change

Change has changed. In the past, change was mostly large-scale, which meant it was episodic, costly, and initiated by those who wielded “power”. However, most of these changes were about improving efficiency, or the bottom line of an organization. Today’s leaders must raise the game to create a new top line, and bring about innovation, which has more in common with knowledge than traditional power.

In the knowledge era, change changes at a much rapid pace. Even the role of change initiators seems to have been democratized if not altogether reversed. Those with knowledge now have the “power” to initiate change irrespective of their level inside an organization. In a level-playing field, it is meaningless and rather risky for leaders to bring about changes without involving the true power in their organizations, for the boardrooms can’t match what those working on the front-line know. In fact, the visible “symbols of power”, such as a heavy-sounding title or a corner office, stands in the way of a leader being perceived as genuine by employees, thereby reducing a leader’s credibility to effectively lead change. An individual leader offers a great alternative to a more “human” and “humane” face of change by bringing authenticity to the employees, and inclusivity in representing them to the organization in order to raise trust – which is the key ingredient for disruptive change.

2. Leaders are measured by impact

Until now, leaders were ‘measured’ (and ‘rewarded’) by absurd status symbols – large team sizes, additional territories, fancy budgets, executive administrators, or large offices! And these don’t even include the perks doled outside the office such as golf club memberships or annual family vacations to exotic places — no wonder they were called “entitlements”!

None of these status symbols has anything to do with the ability to make impact. On the contrary, they only hide the weakness and incompetency of leaders by making them look larger than life. Real leadership impact is measured by the ability to cut through the organizational red tape and institutional mental models. ‘Leaders’ who hide within the safety of four walls of their glass cave to feel powerful are far too detached from reality to recognize that true power is all about having the humility to learn and bring about the right impact by engaging with employees in the hallways and cafeteria.

3. True leadership is servant leadership

Hierarchical leaders need direct reports to carry out their designs. Paid followers, (i.e., followers receiving a salary to follow the leader) appear to exist to serve the hierarchical leader rather than the organization. The world has seen enough of power-hungry leaders who believe that their position is an endorsement of their ability and that their title gives them unbridled power, and their team exists to solely serve them.

Individual leaders don’t require direct reports to create an impact. They build their networks, and use their passion to recruit volunteers from across the organization. Volunteers are experts in their own field who want to get involved in a community of like-minded peers and contribute to the change. Individual leaders selectively recruit volunteers and develop them into individual leaders.

Developing social intelligence

Plunging into a leadership role not defined by a position of authority gave me a unique opportunity to acquire new set of leadership skills where the only “tool” was persuasion and mutual understanding, and the only “method” was empathy and transparency. Anyone with those skills can be a leader, but any leader without skills will eventually fail to step up when challenged.

Leadership from a place of individual responsibility is not for someone seeking comfort in a familiar and static job description. In all the three companies where I gained invaluable experience, the job description was fuzzy at best and useless at worst – finally I just did what I felt was right. Sometimes it required sticking my neck out to confront the status quo. Fortunately, my peers supported me, and I also kept my communication lines transparent.

It takes a huge helping of professional humility to start on a track where you feel alone. You have to get past the idea that you need an army to report into you to make an impact, and that realization was sometimes painful. Some people saw me as a pushover. Other times they thought I was on vacation with no pressure to deliver. In the end, one simply stops defending and lets the results speak for themselves. Finally, taking on an individual leadership role without a position of authority demands you to accept the social implications. I dealt with that pressure by ignoring it, and just focusing on what was the right thing to do.

Here are three ways to prepare yourself as an individual leader:

  1. Develop your social skills that allow you to succeed without traditional power or roles;
  2. Build your professional network inside (and outside) the company;
  3. Grow yourself in your chosen knowledge area and develop yourself as a T-shaped professional having horizontal knowledge and skills.

Preparing yourself will permit you to take advantage of new opportunities as they arise.

And next?….

Last year, I took individual leadership to the next logical level: I became a solo-preneur. Though more secure options were available, my experience prepared me for taking the plunge and for serving my clients with the benefit of all I learned from my journey as an individual leader.

Are you ready to take the plunge into leadership without the crutch of authority to lean on?

(Originally published at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/great-work-cultures/learning-to-lead-without_b_7883062.html?ir=India&adsSiteOverride=in)

How fast you can change?

In my talks, I often ask a trick question – what is the most important part in a bicycle and a formula one racing car?

I get all kinds of answers – wheels, engine, chasis, tyres, steering, even the driver…. No doubt, they are all right answers.

However, my favorite right answer is the brakes! Why? Because they make us go faster! 

Let me explain.

Imagine you are riding a bicycle without brakes. You won’t be able to go faster because you have an in-built fear in your mind that if you pick up pace beyond some ‘reasonable limit’, you won’t be able to control it lest it becomes important for some reason. Now imagine riding the same bicycle with the best brakes that your money can buy (or, even better, that you can build!). You not only can ride the same bicycle with much more confidence, you can actually imagine going much faster than before. Of course, you can take the analogy much further and argue that you could go even faster if there was a better helmet, a better kneecap, jacket, leather gloves, even the insurance to make the rider free themselves up from the worries of a possible accident…then you might zoom even faster and potentially reach closer to the Peltzman Effect, but we will stop at just having the right brakes in this blog post.

Now the mental model about brakes is that they keep a stationary object at rest (at least on a downslope), or slow down or stop an object in motion, but never make anything go faster. And yet, that’s what they do – they give the courage and confidence to the rider to go faster than without those brakes. In that sense, the brakes are the feedback and the control mechanism rolled into one. Without a brake, you still have access to the same power (or the engine power in case of a formula one car) as before, but your decision to use it judiciously as opposed to using it as unbridled raw power is based on your ability to get that feedback and adapt to it. In general, the sharper the ability to get the feedback, make a decision and execute it, the faster one could go.

Of course, one can (rightly) extend the argument that it eventually depends on the rider/driver of the vehicle – for the real ability to handle a machine lies not in the machine but in the mind (and the hands) that operates it. We will get to that in a moment.

A lot of people think agile is all about faster deliveries, and then they set unreal expectations which often sound something like this – let’s do agile so we can ship the product in 3 months which today takes 9 months. Like they say, you can’t put ten pounds in a five pounds sack, I have a bit of a bad news for them – the quantum of work that takes 9 months to ship can’t be shipped in 3 months without seriously undercutting either the breadth (i.e., the scope or quantity of work) or the depth (i.e. the quality, performance, usability, reliability, etc.) of the deliverables. Agile isn’t quackery (even though it has been oversold as one by some overenthusiastic souls!). 

Speed is not fast you can go, but how fast you can change!

Speed is not fast you can go, but how fast you can change!

For me, brakes are the metaphor of agile. They provide the feedback and enhance the ability to manoeuvre, even more so at high speeds. The more real-time and actionable (i.e., more “byte-sized” than “brick-sized” to clearly understand and identify the cause-and-effect relationships that allow the feedback to be “meaningfully actionable”) a feedback is, coupled with the internal ability of the machine to rapidly absorb and assimilate it, the sooner it can respond and adapt to a potential event. Remember – making a third-stage spacecraft change its position even by a few micro-degrees is much more difficult and perhaps valuable than a car changing its lane on a highway. Just like any serious competitor who will adapt the brakes based on weather and other operating conditions, there is no one-size-fit-all brake here. The term “agile process” is a fairly useless one, for it creates a mental model of a laminated process that will enable people to operate with (guaranteed?) agility out-of-the-box, and yet, it is hardly ever going to be that! If you have already nailed down every single nook and cranny so that the resultant process is a certified “agile” one, than one must only be smoking pot. Neither the creator of that uber-agile process could have anticipated every possible future condition (the last time I checked, I was told that job description was reserved for God!) nor anyone knows enough to prescribe a single templated solution to all kinds of problems. Net-net, everyone must create their own “agile process”. Of course, they can start with what we know today, but remember – what is know today can only be a (better) starting point and not the limiting rate factor for what you must eventually accomplish. In that sense, an “agile process” is like “best practices” – you can’t simply copy someone else’s best practices and expect them to 10x your results. Rather, you must painstakingly solve the hard problems, and evolve your own best practices – to that end, best practices are things that are created as an outcome of a problem-solving activity by smart people, and not really something that others can use as a shortcut. Sure, some of these might be very universal, but I guess most all have been already discovered long back, and we are mostly rebottling and recycling them these days.

So, there you have it. There is no such thing as a universal agile process that will solve all maladies. Like Edison said we are able to see further by standing on the shoulder of giants, we simply take what exists today as a starting point and create our own agile process. Nothing more, nothing less.

And just like the picture in this blog, agility is not something that takes you faster, but it enables taking you to new, unknown and exciting places when you think there might be something interesting there. If you don’t find the cheese interesting, you can always come back to the last stable state, and start another journey, till you find something better!

Speed is not how fast you can drive and deliver. It is how fast you can change and adapt. And life and product development have more hairpin bends than you think… 

Stop ‘teaching’ students about entrepreneurship…!

Last weekend, I was at one of the youngest IIMsIIM Udaipur to be a mentor at their annual event Prarambh where students and young entrepreneurs slog for 32 non-stop hours to build a ‘startup’. No, not just a cool code hack but a (near-real) startup. The event ends with the teams pitching to real VCs. And who knows what can happen there…

Looking at the organizations and sponsors associated with the event, I was keen to get there. Clearly, for a young institution hosting its second annual event, getting such an impressive list of supports was never an easy task.

Now I don’t need any special invite to ever go to Udaipur. I grew up in this wonderful city of lakes. So, any visit, and especially an opportunity to pay forward is always welcome. When my old friend Atul at IIM Udaipur asked my availability to spend a weekend mentoring these student-entrepreneurs, despite having a back to back commitment both before and after the weekend, I just couldn’t say no.

So, after twelve hours of travel and waiting at two airports and inside aircrafts, here I was finally at Udaipur, saturday evening 8:30pm. I simple headed to the arena where students were working to solve some really interesting problems. One team was working on a solution for shopping malls to increase conversions from footfalls to real dollars. One team had this unusual idea to build a business around people carrying shopping list items while travelling overseas. One team had this cool way to make notifications form ‘temporal’ to ‘spatial’ and so on. The one that won was all about smart chat/messaging and they also had an interesting implementation on a safe encryption that utilizes doodles rather than alphanumeric passwords. One team had an idea owner coming from mom-and-pop store background and he understood how to build a solution for that ‘enterprise’ – including there issues and challenges. One team from Mumbai wanted to radically change the entire home buying process – much beyond what some of the best ones offer today. We all mentors spent time with them helping in whatever meaningful manner we could.

Most of the 8 or 9 teams (of 4-5 idea owners and techies each) at the event were very tech savvy, and despite being in a rather ‘non-tech’ place like Udaipur, were reasonably aware of people’s needs and wants. In fact, if anything, I felt they understood it as well or even better than say someone from Bangalore where sometimes we sort of take things for granted. When I finally called the day at 2am, I was tired but the teams went on till 5am.

Those who didn’t have answers, were simply reaching to their online friends and peers across cities and continents and getting whatever help they needed. Having been involved with several hackathons before, including organizing similar events where we got up to 700+ folks and would run on a budget that would need robbing a small bank, here there was no live band, no midnight laserman show, no red bull on the tap (beer was out of question in the college), and definitely not even decent cappuccino – which goes on to show that creativity can flourish under natural conditions :). And if you ask my brutally honest opinion (unfortunately, I don’t have it in sugarcoated flavor), the creativity only flourishes when you take away all these man-made distractions. But that’s for another day…

Next day by 10am, most teams were back doing what they came there for. Most of them had a reasonably good problem statement, some of these did listen to us mentors and took to talking to real humans despite being in a 32-hour timebox. They worked the whole sunday (despite India-South Africa historical world cup match going on without any live broadcast happening inside the work area!) and by 5pm, they had to stop work, and by 6pm, they started making their pitches – 7min for pitch and 3min for Q&A per team. I was quite impressed by what I heard. Their passion and confidence was palpable, and their story was getting better time they would tell it to someone. Many of these teams worked hard to demonstrate the MVP, even if that was a very multi-device use-case and rather clumsy to use. Of course, the ‘poor’ UI didn’t matter 🙂 at that point.

I had to leave halfway to catch my last flight out of town before the final winners were announced. However, from my viewpoint, they were all already winners. In a matter of 32 hours, they all came to the event as individuals and strangers from different cities, but got together to build something of value as they learnt to trust and respect each other and channelise their talent and passion to something creative and innovative. Most importantly, they mastered the entrepreneurial mindset rather than the entrepreneurial curriculum. And that’s my point – we should stop ‘teaching’ entrepreneurship and start learning by doing:

  • Let them think big,
  • Let them ‘discover’ problems,
  • Let them make mistakes,
  • Let them build pie in the sky,
  • Let them learn to lead as peers,
  • Let them figure things out on their own,
  • Let them sell their dreams and inspire others to join them,
  • Let them learn all the ‘101s’ by stumbling upon them rather than sitting in boring classroom sessions,
  • Let them break rules in the safety of an event and learn more about entrepreneurship than they will ever learn by learning and following them!
  • Let them build something and let them teach us back what they’ve learnt…

At the end of the day, I believe if you want to teach them swimming, the last place to teach that is a classroom. Get them into a pool, or a lake and get them started.

Even better…just follow this great advise from Antoine de Saint Exupery:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

(Originally published on https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/article/stop-teaching-students-entrepreneurship-tathagat-varma/edit and republished on http://yourstory.com/2015/03/stop-teaching-entrepreneurship/) 

Using blog as a teaching aid

Last year, I started conducting an experiment in my classes. For the class assignment, I asked my students to write a blog post that they would need to share among all class mates. Also, I insisted that the blog post be visible to anyone on the internet.

Here’s why I did that:

Address fear of rejection

Whenever I deliver a talk, conduct training or teach a class, I ask how many people blog. I still continue to be unsurprised by disappointingly low numbers in the ballpark of 1-5% – despite geography, industries or experience levels. Having been a blogger myself for close to a decade now, I recognise that apart from lack of blogging skills and an interest in sharing ideas and knowledge, there is another deeper fear at work here – the eternal fear of rejection. What if people don’t like what I write? What if they reject me and leave nasty comments? Would I make a fool of myself among my friends and family? and so on.

Blogging could be a great way to learn, reflect and amplify the learning

Left to themselves, I haven’t seen most people conquering this fear. So, I literally push them out of their comfort zones and make them stand on a tin roof in the hot sun. By ‘forcing’ them to write a blog that they must share with their batchmates, I create a reasonably high challenge for them that they must conquer. First they must read up stuff so that they can put together something that they feel reasonably comfortable (if not massively proud of!) sharing with their cohorts. Secondly, most have no idea where to blog (I can often see that people go and create blog accounts because my class assignment is almost often the only blog entry they have!). Then they have no idea how to actually write a blog post (not that there is some single right way to do it, but how to go about organizing their ideas and thoughts in a concise and interesting way). So, they go and learn looking at other blogs. Finally when they share it with friends, they are working in a group that is all undergoing similar challenge – so it doesn’t matter much that I might make a fool of myself. In fact, from what I have seen so far, if anything, students want to shine in front of their class, and often write pretty good blog post (definitely a pretty one for a first-timer).

Auto-filter against plagiarism

A teacher’s worst nightmare is plagiarism. Actually it is not a nightmare that much because you must already factor that in. With internet at your beck and call, you shouldn’t be surprised if students copy from other source on the net. However, I tell students that I want them to write a blog post that shows up when people google for them. Surely, most of us won’t want a dumb looking or a plagiarised blog post to show up on that search! I haven’t asked them yet to write on LinkedIn and link it to their profile, but that’s worth considering :).

So, making them write a public blog post that they must share with the class helps build an auto-filter against such blatant plagiarism. Of course, I don’t try to fight off negative behavior with negative rewards. I try to give them an opportunity to build a positive artefact that they could be proud of, and might want to ‘show off’ to their friends, and who knows – the kudos they get might just be the right trigger that helps them discover the writer inside them!

Learn from each other

Most learning experiences are dependent on teacher’s knowledge and facilitation skills and an individual student’s interest and ability to grasp as much as possible from them. In case of assignments, students don’t share them with each other much because they don’t want to lose the ‘edge’ lest others copy them. By asking students to share the blog post among them, I open them up for learning from each other – they might find someone’s content very rich, or someone’s style of explanation very helpful, or someone’s usage of examples very creative, and so on. I have often seen students hi-fiving each other on each other’s blog posts, which is also a great way to convert peer pressure into peer respect.

In addition to learning in the process of writing a blog post (which aids the learning process by itself due to the simple act of writing down your thoughts), learning from each other is also a great way to not only reinforce that knowledge, but in order to outshine other students, I have seen many students go out on the net and find some hitherto unknown sources of knowledge and ideas and refer them or build up on them. As a teacher I have no shame in admitting that sometimes that is new to me, and I too end up learning something new and valuable in that process!

Is it all hunky-dory?

Of course, I offer no resistance (and any hope) to people who wilfully want to shortchange themselves! But my students are all working professionals who have decided to get back into college to enhance their learning. No one asked them to do that. Most of them are paying full or a large part of fees from their pockets. More than money, they are taking away serious amount of time (from work and from family) and putting in serious efforts to acquire knowledge and capability that they believe will give them an edge in the coming years. No doubt their diploma will figure high on their resumes, but I doubt that will get them a promotion or a new job if they are not otherwise ready for it. To that end, we are only playing a role in helping them reach where they have decided to take their journey.

They can always disregard all that I have mentioned above, and quite possible some of them do. But my overall experiences have been good enough to continue this experiment.

After all, a teacher’s job is not to just teach them subject. It is to facilitate the process of self-learning.

Want best impact? Change yourself!

A lot of us want to create an impact, especially the ones that comes in B-I-G font size. Change the world. Stop global warming. Establish world peace. Find cancer cure. Stop wars. Leave a legacy that lasts forever. We want to conquer the world with our ideas, our creation, our accomplishments.

And we want to do it in style. After all, we want to make it BIG! So, we join various causes, we become volunteer and even take up leadership positions in such volunteer organizations without having any understanding of what is needed, and whether we are up to it. I often meet people who claim to help others by organizing various forums, teaching others on how to solve their problems or matchmaking investors with entrepreneurs, and so on. What I find strange is that most of them have themselves never done any of that stuff. Most of them are armchair theorists who have this romantic view of what it takes to change the world, with them, naturally, playing a central role in it.

Changing ourselves is not only the easiest, it is perhaps the best way to make an impact…

Sadly, we don’t want to take up the most immediate problem right under our noses, but take the most complex problem that mankind has ever seen and might even be beyond us. We want to solve world peace problem little realising that the best way might perhaps be simply starting with addressing the problem in our own backyards. We want to make earth a green planet once again without really first trying to make our own abode a green patch, howsomuch small it might be. We want to take care of all the underprivileged children on this planet, and sometimes our own children are deprived of our attention and love.

We don’t find solving the small little problems sexy enough to be taken up. Because they don’t quite fit in our nice little mental model of BIG IMPACT.

Changing the world is sexy. Changing ourselves is not.

Having volunteered for over twenty years now, I have come to realize that we create the best impact when we commit ourselves to continuous change and self-improvement – and not when we go after chasing the big problems. Once you start facing and fixing your problems, fears, uncertainties and vulnerabilities around you, you bring real change and you build tremendous credibility – both are needed to take you to next level. Your credibility helps people discover you, and your work speaks for you so that you don’t need to. Over time, your body of work becomes your referencable work, and people come to you for help. That’s the time you start making bigger impact.

But the trick is to start small…preferably starting with changing yourself.

What 16months of stay at Antarctica taught me?

It’s been twenty years since I went to the magnificent seventh continent (which, ironically, became the first continent that I visited, apart from Asia, where I was born and grew up). I just have to close my eye for a few seconds, and I am still able to teleport myself back to majestic and pristine Antarctica, and the Indian station Maitri which was my home for 16 months during 1993-95. The sailing through equatorial waters, roaring forties, furious fifties and screaming sixties, endless parties on the ship, breaking through the pack ice on our icebreaker ship MV Stefan Krasheninikov, surviving in the summer camp on bare necessities of life, seeing the mesmerising Aurora Australis for the first time, firefighting the whole night to save our station, winter-over with its cold and darkness for two months, fun and parties with neighboring Russians, cleaning the station (and toilets) during galley duty, prepare three meals for 25 men as part of the cooking duty, and on and on…. It was surely the best part of my life, and I was lucky to be there.

Rescuing an Adelie penguin near our station in Antarctica

Over the years, I got chance to reflect upon my experiences through TEDx talk and also various leadership talks. In this blog post, I want to reflect back on things I learnt that have high relevance to the workplace dynamics of today. Hopefully that connection will be valuable for some of the readers.

Satisfaction is extrinsic, motivation is intrinsic but engagement happens when you work for a meaningful cause

When I was at Yahoo!, and Marissa announced free food for all employees, we had situations when some people would simply crib endlessly about food quality. I remember one particular mail on “yblr” (the internal, informal ranting channel for Yahoos! in Bangalore) where someone commented that there was nothing worth eating at the breakfast – the sambhar was watery, the chutney was salty, the dosa was cold, and so on. Some other Yahoo! asked him a very nice question : “you mean, out of those 18 options available for the breakfast everyday, you find nothing worth eating?”.

I think there is a dangerous growing trend of the culture of ‘entitlement’, at least in IT industry (and not singling out any one company in particular). I can’t work because my 15″ Retina Quadcore Mac doesn’t work well with SharePoint! I need some goodies to be given so the people will come for this meeting (my favorite pet peeve – unless you bribe people, you can’t get them to do stuff that they are paid for!). No one called me for our project meeting! Our (free) office buses should have wifi, and yes, the drive should call me just before he reaches my pickup point so that I don’t need to waste time! and so on…(sigh)…

Back at Antarctica, everyone had a different motivation for being there. Some were there for serious work, and even though some among us were working on really important stuff like monitoring glaciers, or Ozone hole, of research on sleep patterns due to polar magnetic activity, etc. strangely, I never heard the fluffy terms that you hear every so often nowadays – like “we are here to change the world” (and boy…it does look so cheap when used in context of companies selling crayons and socks online). Some volunteered so they could save money (and I completely respect their reasons) while some, like me, were there to simply explore life, and learn and do something new. However, one thing that still stands out – everyone was engaged, whether satisfied or not. When people did 24-hour galley duty, patrolling the station the entire night and cleaning up toilets, they couldn’t particularly relate it to their motivation to be there, and definitely not to satisfaction! However, I never saw anyone shirking away from their volunteered responsibilities towards their fellow expeditioners. Everyone had a sense of commitment towards the team and the expedition, maybe in their own different way. And we had ten thousand reasons to crib and bitch about things – every day, but I never saw the feeling of entitlement creep in any of us. I guess we look for engagement in all wrong places…

Leadership is initiative translated into action, executed with teamwork, and delivered with accountability

A lot of what I see at the workplace today – ideas like situational leadership, servant leadership, shared leadership – we lived it first-hand during those 16 months. Every day and every task in Antarctica is kind of new (even though the individual skills needed to accomplish it might not be), and no one person would know all the answers to every situation, least of it any single designated leadership. Out of 25 of us men who came from some ten different organizations and almost no one had worked with each other before, only two had been in a previous wintering-over expedition, and had some prior experience which was better than nothing, but certainly never enough.

  • What’s the best time to start the next convoy to the shelf ice? Who knows? Check the weather forecast, talk to radio officer, ask the engineers. Is the emergency shelter in top shape? How about the food supplies in the emergency stations?
  • What’s the best place to lay the next gensets? Check the ground conditions. What about the interference from the communication equipment? Are there food dumps nearby? Could the ground vibrations affect the station’s foundation and stilts?
  • We had one chopper down with a broken engine and another one down with broken blades. Just couldn’t fly (till Naval HQ would allow). What’s the best options? Ground transport was not possible due to water channels in the summer, so there was a limited about of transportation possibilities. Should we carry food, or medicines, or samples, or people or equipment?

In literally every single instance, I saw how we all came together. Some people took initiative to kickstart the conversations, some took the next step to own up activities, a few came together to be the volunteer, and the work was done. The official leadership was there to provide support so that people could do the stuff. Surely, we had some interpersonal conflicts (to say the least!), but by and large, the real leadership evolved from the trenches, and the credibility was earned through accomplishments (and rewarded through followership).

Self-organization is all about letting the team figure out their own process, tools and even leaders

On our first night in the main station, we had a major fire. We had all moved inside the main station just a few hours back that evening before bidding goodbye to the last sortie that took the old team’s last members back to ship, which set sail promptly a couple of hours right afterwards. Except for the paperwork of taking-over the station, we had hardly had time to really familiarize ourselves with the station, its facilities, and so on. HK and I were on the all-night galley duty and were playing scrabble when HK felt there was some unusual light in the main corridor. HK being a seasoned naval officer, I would always trust his instincts. We knocked at the room where we felt there was a light, and on getting no response, we just barged in. And we were frightened by what we saw. Our fellow team member was bravely fighting the fire inside his room which was full of thick smoke. In the next few hours that ensued, we had the entire winter-over team come together and what no amount of taking-over and familiarization could ever achieve, we were on top of our fire control systems, and we learnt exactly what was the best way to deal with such accidents. One by one, we would volunteer to fight the fire, take a deep breath, enter the smoke-filled room and fight the fire till we could, and then get out of the room to get some fresh air. The best part – there was no designated leader, we didn’t follow any chain of command, no one waited for instructions, why – no one even asked people to come and fight the fire in the first place!. Through trial and error, we quickly learnt how to solve the problem as a team, and also found out who were the best set of people whose judgment could be relied upon. The team not only self-organized itself, it also discovered it own process, figured out its tools, and was able to identify the people who were best suited for the job.

Conclusion

I have many more stories to share but these stand out as the most important learnings concerning self, leaders and teams. In a team where no one had worked with each other before, where competencies (and education) varied so widely, where the resources were limited, and the situation so choppy and unpredictable, it was strange that 25 men could come together for anything! And imagine doing it for 16 months at a stretch.

And when I see workplaces today, I see people chasing satisfaction in the name of engagement (and landing with entitlement). I see old-school managers so insecure about their fragile egos and shallow power that they are not willing to delegate and empower folks working “under” them (whatever that means!). I see organizations insisting on ‘standard processes’ for teams to ‘self-organize’, in what can only be described as stupidity at best and tragedy at worst.

No wonder, I often close my eye and travel back in time and space to get some inspiration…

 

(Originally published on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/what-16months-stay-antarctica-taught-me-tathagat-varma)

Is your talent adorning the restroom?

On my recent visit to a wonderful new luxury hotel in town, I found it very interesting that an artist’s work was commissioned right outside the restroom (pic below).

Is your talent adorning the restroom?

It seemed, at least to me, that the only reason that painter, or rather her talent, was of any particular importance to the hotel designers was if she could paint something that fitted the small wall that welcomed people to the restroom. They obviously couldn’t find anything ‘standard’ like a piece of Italian marble or some nice tiles to go on that wall. This being a top-end hotel, they must have selected the very best talent they could get (or their money could buy). And then they took her work and put it next to the restroom. Along with her name right next to it. And now, everyone who has been to these restrooms will remember her name – “Oh yes. Of course, I have seen your work. It was right next to the loo…!“.

Are we missing something?

I think there is no waste as criminal as the waste of human talent. And they come on all shades, shapes and sizes:

  • Making people not just work, but slog over the long evenings and weekends on products or features that no one wants.
  • Hiring top-notch people and then making them work on low-end problems, like finding meeting rooms or fixing a meeting with 43 people in half a dozen time zones. Many many years back, a friend of mine joined a top software company only to leave after 6 months because all he was doing was fixing bugs on a ten year old OS.
  • Hiring professionals at high salaries and then depriving them of tools or resources that might cost less than their day’s salary, thereby making them struggle with their tasks manually. I used to have a colleague in Holland who was headed to make his career in sending documents by fax (surely, this was in 90s).
  • Hiring smart engineers and then micromanaging them. I remember seeing a recent tweet that said – “Office is the place where adults are treated like children”. Ouch…that hurt!
  • Hiring smart engineers but then surrounding them with incompetent people around them. A facilities team that will not allow them to buy a whiteboard for the team. A procurement team that will frustrate all your efforts to get a $20 tool on time. A travel team that will route you through Afghanistan just so the company could save a few dollars. A finance team that will insist on missing receipt for airport cab when everyone knows there is no way you have reached there without a cab.
  • Making engineers sit on ‘bench’, keeping them underengaged, or making them work on mindless projects that no one wants.
  • Making people attend jumbo meetings and late-night calls. No, not just any meeting but one that has like 73 people on the call, all equally clueless. (And reprimanding them when they don’t attend them!)
  • Asking people for feedback on what ails the workplace for the 36% attrition and then ruthlessly defending every single feedback (and haunt the most outspoken ones till they leave on their own).
  • Enforcing work-from-office because basically the management has no trust or capability in ‘managing’ people if they are out of sight. All in the name of ensuring face-time needed for collaboration and innovation.
  • Constantly changing strategy so the products under development get canned. I once worked at a company where about two dozen engineers freshly graduated had ‘worked’ on two back-to-back projects that got canned in rapid succession. Needless to say, they all came from top colleges and were raring to go.
  • Forcing people to do what the organization thinks they should do vs letting them choose what they want to do. I once left a company within a few weeks because of exactly this reason.
  • Creating a standard process that the ‘smart’ individuals must then follow – no matter what. Also, adding a layer of process police to report any non-compliance!
  • Hiring people but not empowering them, so they have nowhere to go but ‘respect’ the hierarchy of 27 layers of management above them for every small thing
  • Making people fill up useless time sheets and meaningless status reports (and don’t even get me started on the “TPS report”…yes, that TPS report 🙂
  • …and so on!!!

However, in all my experience, I never realized that someone might want your talent so badly that it could be used to adorn their restroom. Imagine you are a highly qualified musician, and you get a call. “Yeah…we want you to come down and perform for the next Muzak!”. So, you will tell your friends..”Yay! I got the career break I was looking for…I am going to change people’s lives by producing the next gen elevator music!“. Really?

I think this is the single-biggest hidden source of employe disengagement – making people do dumb stuff, or showing low respect to them, their talent or their work. I think as more and more work gets de-industralized, there is growing desire among each one among us to do more and more creative work. Work that stretches our learning. Work that we want to show to our friends and families. We all dream of putting our tiny signature on that one masterpiece that we one day will be proud of. That one product that will save millions of lives. That one app that half the world uses. That one service that everyone swears by. The legacy that we will leave for future generations. Not that one painting that adorns the restroom!

By no means I am suggesting that decorating restroom or creating Muzak are below dignity. I am only asking to look at the world from the pair of eyes of that talent who has just been asked to do that mind-numbing stuff.

But seriously, if you were Leonardo da Vinci, and you got a call to paint your next famous painting so that it could adorn the restroom, you will know exactly what I mean.

And who, in their private dreams, doesn’t think of themselves as one…

(Originally published on https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/your-talent-adorning-restroom-tathagat-varma)

Why do you pay people? No, really?

(Originally published on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/article/20141204175129-3616140-why-do-you-pay-people-no-really)

Ask this question to cross-section of professionals across functions and experience levels, and you are bound to get millions of answers. Some of them might look like these:

  • For their knowledge, skills and abilities
  • To do the job!
  • For their efforts
  • For their time
  • Because the law says we must pay them!
  • Else they won’t work
  • So our competitors can’t poach them
  • So they stay committed
  • So they don’t make noise
  • Because I am worth it!
  • and so on…

Sadly, none of these are the right answers in my view (though some of them might be correct, technically speaking). They reflect the largely old mindset that people’s motivation and loyalty (rather, forget these fancy words – actually we are only interested in one thing, and that is productivity!) can be best bought for fair wages, which was perhaps ok when you gave them a one-size-fit-all standard process that they had to follow. A hundred years back, Henry Ford raised his workers daily wages from $2.50 to $5.00 just so they won’t leave his plant (full story herehttp://www.thehenryford.org/education/erb/HenryFordAndInnovation.pdf), where he had built a then ultra-modern system of manufacturing that needed them to simply follow the process blindly (and newcomers on the job could learn the ropes in five minutes flat). So much for paying people to get the job done!

However, what about today? Why do you pay people? No, really?

I think the only reason why we (must) pay people is so they bring ideas to the workplace. New, big, fresh, stolen, borrowed, bold, controversial, unscientific, unproven, risky, weak, potential gamechangers, disruptor of status quo, creative, ridiculous, audacious (big hairy audacious is even better), slayer of mindless bureaucracy, harbingers of change…just about anything will do as long as they bring something to the workplace, as opposed to just being a plug-and-play part in the giant corporate machinery whose daily activities are pretty much pre-decided as per the giant process manual. Much like washing the cars. As long as they don’t see the workplace as a watering hole (or, more contemporary parlance, see a place where they can charge their cellphones – both literally and metaphorically), but like a literal greenfield where they enjoy freedom of tilling fields and joy of sowing seeds and the grit and patience of seeing them grow and flower. Chances are if you are not hiring people for these traits, and not creating conducive environment (including paying them or rewarding them) for these behaviors, they are probably bottling up their real abilities – and you are shortchanging yourself! Given half a chance, they will surely walk out to a place that offers them such chances (and their tribe is surely swelling every passing day), but you perhaps stand to be the biggest loser by not benefiting from their creativity and new ideas. Who knows, they might go across the street, open their startup and buy you out in a few years from now 🙂

Do you pay people for blind obedience to a fixed process, or something else?

In today’s knowledge age, our employees perform best when they bring their ‘heart and mind’ to the workplace – they need to see an emotional connection to their workplace and they must be cognitively challenged by the work to be creative, happy and engaged. Anything short of that, and they are only likely to somehow get through the day! So, do you know why do you pay your employees?

As for me, if my employee doesn’t bring anything new to my workplace, they can as well take their old and stale ideas to my competitors. I would much rather they have it!