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.

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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…!“.

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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…

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Four things I learnt as a volunteer…

(Published on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/article/20141115034738-3616140-four-things-i-learnt-as-a-volunteer and on Medium / https://medium.com/@tathagatvarma)

I have been a passionate volunteer since last 20+ years. During this time, I have had wonderful opportunities of volunteering with global organizations such as IEEE,ACM, PMI and various Agile community groups like AgileIndia, while also had opportunities to volunteer with small, but not unimportant, causes, such as my apartment association and my community social. Why, I even volunteered to spend 16 months in icy continent of Antarctica — something no one in their right senses would ever do! (and here is the TEDx talk I delivered on it.)

A volunteer is all about the cause, and never for the applause!

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Week 1 of my Lean Consulting Startup

(Originally published on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/article/20141102072554-3616140-week-1-of-my-lean-consulting-startup)

TL;DR: I started my consulting startup earlier this week after seven years of groundwork in a Lean Startup fashion. Here’s the story that led to week one.

Seven years ago, I decided I am going to have my own coaching and consulting company some day. I knew what interested me, and I knew that I was a natural ‘teacher’ (last three generations of teachers in my family was a reasonable hypothesis that I could do it!) and I will want to do it, but I was not sure of several things, most notably: Continue reading

Get me 200 rejections and let’s talk…

My wife and I were recently discussing an interesting initiative with our son. He and his friends have this big, bold and really audacious idea about including children and young citizens under the age of eighteen into the governance process even though they are not allowed to cast their “vote” – after all, why should the democracy be reserved only for the voting class? Just because they can’t vote, none of the political parties even acknowledge their ‘presence’, much less engage with them for a dialog (never mind that at 44%, they constitute our largest ‘minority’). The worst part – they will grow up to be the newest voters without any awareness whatsoever into the political process! This year alone, we added 100 million first-time voters, and yet, as a country, we have no mechanism to tap them young, and engage with them into the nation-building process. Their idea has a merit, for our country has 500 million citizens under the age of 18, and very aptly, they call it “18minus“.

They are currently working on how to take their idea forward, and have come up with a bunch of ideas, and some of them have good merit while some of them seemed to be populist measures – stuff that might get you a headline in a city daily but might not take them closer to the goal. While letting them figure out what’s best for them, I was urging him to think really B-I-G, when I ended up blurting -

“Get me 200 rejections and let’s talk…”

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Three questions every program manager must ask

Suppose you are the new program manager assigned to a program. How would you go about finding your way inside the complex maze of a program, its stakeholders, sponsors, component teams and various vendors? If the program is yet to commence, you might be able to get involved much more deeply, and influence the state of affairs meaningfully. But if the program is already underway, what do you do?

If you take time and ‘learn’ about the program before you act, you might get a deep and thorough understanding of the program but then you might be under time-pressure to deliver results faster. On the other hand, if you straightaway jump into the mechanics of the program, sooner than you realize, you are neck-deep and drowning into the gooey tarpit of unending stream of fires. Yes, you might start delivering the goods that make your program sponsors happy (at least in the short term), but you might not be bringing about systemic change that make you strategic in thinking and approach. Without a more holistic and long-term thinking, you also start drinking from the same well, and very soon, you are also just another ‘manager’ who is fighting fires rather than working proactively to prevent them in the first place. Mind you – if they wanted another firefighter (no offense to the noble profession of firefighting), they would have hired one! So, how do you make a mark?

Over time, I have found asking some simple questions is a great way to get started. Interestingly, these simple questions are very powerful and if the core program team can’t answer them unanimously, it is a pointer that something is not quite right. Here we go:

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Hard work is killing people. Literally!

Recently, I was reading an article on how Japanese-style manufacturing isn’t working out quite so well in India (despite having been successfully around since 80s), and that there have been several strifes lately. There was an interesting reference to what the Japanese call as Karoshi and Karojisatsu. Now, unlike many other Japanese words, these are really gross words because they mean

  • Karoshi = Death from Overwork
  • Karojisatsu = Suicide from Overwork (and stressful working conditions)

Curious to know more about it, I chanced upon this graphic from ILO page on workplace safety:

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Let’s free up agile teams…

Agile in general, and Scrum in particular are all about self-organizing teams collocated for maximum face to face communication that improves agility and real-time collaboration. This was a great utopian idea in ~2000s because of three primary factors back then – economics, technology and psychology. Back then, we were still trapped in the enterprise-mindset – all collaboration happening within the confines of an organizational boundary – be it research or product development because it was much more cost-effective to lead such efforts internally either due to massive costs of R&D or closed IP protection or simply being the sole magnets for top talent.

However, as Henry Cherbrough’s Open Innovation has challenged, and Lafley’s Connect & Develop program at P&G and several others have subsequently demonstrated, there is perhaps more to gain from opening up meaningless and irrelevant organizational boundaries than protect false economics of a closed innovation system.

Globalization, even with all its ugly side effects, has shown us repeatedly in industry after industry that working across a global supply chain is not a zero-sum game after all! So, why are we so parochial in software industry about not recognizing the bigger economic sense rather than limiting ourselves to a singular idea that collocated teams are the best option?

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How do you design agile feedback?

Feedback is perhaps the most important aspect of the overall agile lifecycle – without a proper, honest and timely feedback, there is no ‘adapt’ step in the inspect-adapt cycle. The absence of such feedback only ensures there is no early opportunity to ‘respond to changes’ and teams will have no option but to simply keep ‘following the plan’ thereby violating a key agile value. Starting with the TDD loop to the CI systems, we are constantly seeking feedback on our outputs – in ever shortening feedback cycles as technologically possible. However designing a proper feedback instrument for a human-human interaction, like a training program, is a totally different thing because it entails imprecise measurements that are often influenced by people’s mental models, skills and experiences, and not to mention – their calendars! Needless to say, these feedbacks could mean anything to different people on different days.

Feedback needs to be agileIf the feedback required is too ‘wide and shallow’, it can be obtained very quickly but it won’t give enough actionable feedback. On the other hand, a ‘narrow and deep’ feedback could be more actionable but might take relatively more time, and it might also fail to register feedback outside its focus area (what if you were focusing on the wrong problem?). So, how does one go about designing feedbacks that enable agile learning? We call them agile feedbacks.

In Agile India 2014, I am presenting the experience report on this topic, and will our experience from designing agile feedbacks for agile trainings and workshops. The objective was to get most critical feedback in shortest amount of time to enable quick action planning. We created feedback that took a maximum of just 5 minutes per respondent, and enabled the most important learning in both, focused as well as open-ended manner that allowed us to focus on the most critical items. We employed elements of Design Thinking and Rapid Iterative Testing and Evaluation (RITE) to improve the process and quality of feedback themselves.

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