Category Archives: Mindset

What is Customer eXperience (CX)?

(This originally appeared as an interview/blog at http://www.zykrr.com/blog/2016/09/11/Tathagat-interview.html)

How will you define CX to a layman?

CX to me is that unequivocally superior experience for the specific purpose of a given product or a service every single time – even when sometimes I have to pay more for it. Let’s take an example of something that we are very familiar with – say taxi. In the past, we had limited options with mostly unprofessional taxi services, product discovery was difficult, the pricing was not very transparent, and it was difficult to trust the cab driver, especially for a lot of women passengers, and so on. Today, we have services like Uber and Ola, which not only deliver a superior experience in discovering the services, estimating the service lead times, etc. but even have a in-built trust and reliability in the services. Now, even between these services, because they are all beginning to look alike, there will be different levels of customer experience. For example, I have observed in Bangalore that one particular such service has generally very high level of cleanliness or the quality of upholstery, whereas the other one is much lower on that factor. On the other hand, when I have to take a redeye flight, I often can’t find any of these on-call cab services at that unearthly hour, so I end up using totally different (and much costly, I must say!) cab services because I need an assured service lest I miss my flight. So, CX is not some universal constant but is very subjective not only to the type of customer but also on how a given product or service meets my specific needs from it, which could be very different for different purposes, and even vary with the time of the day.

Please share a real-life experience where customer experience management has provided an extra edge.

One incident that I still remember was many years back at MK Ahmed, a popular grocery chain in Bangalore. Once we bought our monthly groceries, and when we got home, we realized there was one bag less. We called them up and told them of the problem. They were not only sympathetic to our complaint, they also were very keen to resolve it. They asked us what time we were there so that they could look at the video footage to establish facts about the incident. They were able to confirm that indeed one of the bags was left near the counter, and perhaps got mixed up and was take along by the next customer. Having established the credentials of our complaint, they asked us to tell what all items were left in that bag (without doubting if we were telling the truth!), and then replaced them promptly. We were always impressed by their clean aisles and fresh stocks, and their staff’s helpful and courteous attitude, and after this incident, we became even bigger fans of their customer service. Needless to say, we don’t shop anywhere else!

Keep it simple. Simple just work!

Keep it simple. Simple just works!

Feedback is monotonous to provide. How do you combat this question from you customers?

The reason why companies face this problem with feedback is because they do such a lousy job of handling customer complaints. Most companies go on defensive when a customer raises an issue with a deficient service. Companies must remember that the reason they don’t get positive feedback is because they hardly address the negative feedback to the reasonable satisfaction of their customers. If you don’t your customers when they bring issues to you, why do you expect them to trust you?

Shall a company bother about every individual customer using their product?

Yes, yes and YES! You can’t discriminate among your customers – they have trusted to buy your product or service and depending on their circumstance or needs, that might be a big deal to them! By not focusing your attention to them, you are creating at least one dissatisfied customer which is bad enough, and who knows, what he or she might be capable of! I am sure you have heard of the music artist Dave Carroll whose beloved guitar was broken by United Airlines and after running close to a year from pillar to post and still not being able to get his grievance addressed, he uploaded a musical “United breaks guitars” and took his sweet (and melodious!) revenge. Not only has the video been viewed millions of times (and yes, there is no “delete” button on the internet, so that song is there till eternity!), it is also very embarrassing for the airlines – in fact so much so that they decided to use that video for their customer service training. Surely some good sense prevailed

“Feedback is not necessary”. What can be your advice to a person with this thought?

You have to understand that from customer’s point of view, there is only one feedback that is important, and that is the negative feedback about a poor customer experience he is she had. And if you are not going to act on it in a timely fashion to the satisfaction of the customer, you are only going to alienate your customers further – perhaps to the point where they give up on you and stop sharing any feedback altogether – which essentially means they stop shopping with you! When that happens, you should worry, because you are likely to become irrelevant to your customers very soon.

What is the most challenging task for CX Management?

I think the most challenging task for an effective and a memorable customer experience is actually changing the mindset of people inside the company. I think it is like this – people who are used to inferior customer experiences themselves can’t probably provide a superior customer experience, howsomuch we train them on it. And generally speaking, we are used to really pathetic customer experiences in our lives. So, it is not a surprise that people who are expected to provide superior customer experiences – and that includes everyone in the company – most people struggle and fail miserably because in their minds, they can’t think of what would be a world-class customer experience. I think hiring the people with skills is easiest but hiring the people with the right mindset is probably the single-most critical differentiator that you will ever have in order to become a great company.

How do you connect Customer Acquisition to the Feedback?

You should work on feedback not so you can acquire new customers but so you can meet the expectations of your existing customers. If they go home happy, they are likely to share positive feedback with their friends. If not, they will most likely share their disappointment on social media and chat forums, and there is a strong possibility that depending on their social credibility, their immediate circle of influence will be affected accordingly – certainly more than your paid media / marketing ever will! So, don’t worry about customer acquisition, simply focus on making it easier for customer to do business with you and to use your product or service.

What shall be done first when a product gets repelled by the market?

In an ideal world, you shouldn’t be launching a product without first listening to your customers and doing extensive amount of testing to ensure you are building what they need, and not what you think they should need! However, in the real world, most people seem to conveniently ignore this simple advise! And they are surprised when their product is rejected. My advise to them is to be as sincere, prompt, empathetic and honest as they need to be – in listening to the customers, in acknowledging the problem and in expeditiously resolving it. Don’t give the excuse of your internal problems – customers don’t care about them (and why should they?). Take the famous case of Pentium bug recall that Intel had to face. Intel was forced to change itself literally overnight, but they did what was the right thing to do and even though they had to write-off almost half a billion dollars, they were able to regain customer confidence and they continue to be a great company that is trusted by its customers.

Samsung Galaxy Note 7 is facing heavy anger and embarrassment from across the world. How you would have managed the situation if given the charge?

First of, I have every reason to believe that they have people far more competent and experienced than me, so I can’t really hold a candle to them! That said, I would probably create some public awareness campaigns as well as work with the services such as airlines and security to both understand the problem as well as apprise them of what we have done to rigorously test the problem. Even the Boeing Dreamliner had battery problems due to which it was grounded briefly, but once the problems were rectified, the planes were back in the air. People understand that problems happen, and they happen to the best of us despite all the right intentions and utmost care. What is important is how sincerely we listen to our customers, and maintain a communication during such crisis moments while the technical people work on solving the issue. I don’t think Note 7 was as much as a technical problem as it was a social media / public anxiety problem that quickly went out of hand.

Happy customers do not interact back to the company. What is the best way to connect them to the company?

At I wrote earlier, the reason customers don’t interact with a company is because the company has stopped listening to them. The way to make it happen is surprisingly simple – start solving their problems 🙂

Feedback culture is not yet prioritised in India. How will you initiate it at your end?

I won’t probably generalize it. On the other hand, I will surely reflect on it that by and large, companies don’t know how to create truly magical customer experiences and worse – when people complain thereby creating opportunities for improvement, the tendency of most companies to ignore or simply reject such feedback has actually led to the demise of a feedback culture. However, with more international businesses coming to India, more product awareness, more options to customers, symmetrical power of social media, etc., we are now clearly in the age where the customer is the queen, and if the businesses still don’t wake up and mend their ways, they will be left to bite the dust. So, if there is just one thing they must do, that would be start listening to their customers and act as if that customer was their most important customer, and very soon, they can change the entire climate.

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)

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?

2015-11-17-1447720783-2432186-dabbawalas.jpg
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)

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!

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!

While some experiences lasted longer (and better) than others, all of them left me with invaluable learnings. In this blog post, I call out my favorite learnings:

Volunteer so you can learn. I have seen people wanting to volunteer because they believe they are ‘experts’, and hence they will be a great asset to the lesser volunteers and the community at large. They often want to perch themselves atop a tall pedestal and ‘utilize’ their knowledge by kind of ‘guiding’ others. However, such self-serving and rather condescending thinking could be no further from truth. The best volunteers actively seek opportunities that challenge and stretch them to wade through uncharted waters, often being humbled in that process. I was recently mentoring a project team bring their startup idea to life. While the final result was that they won the best team award (and as a consolation for my efforts, I won the best mentor award), I felt I learnt more from my students and in the process of mentoring them then they probably learnt from me. No doubt, the knowledge and skills you have will eventually serve the community, but the most satisfying engagements will be where you get challenged to learn something new.

Volunteerism is really solo work. Like every other human endeavor, a volunteer team starts with much fanfare and grand promises. After the launch party is over, and the dust has settled down, and it’s time for some real action, you find that all those faces with beaming smiles from the launch party pics have kind of disappeared somewhere! The real work is (almost always) done by just 2–3 people. This ‘social loafing’ is universal, and I have seen it irrespective of educational level or professional seniority of volunteers. When you sign up to be volunteer, remember, you are literally in it alone — whatever anyone tells you! If someone comes along, be grateful, but don’t feel grumpy when you are doing the heavy lifting alone. During one of my community tenures, I found myself editing our community magazines. There were hardly any contributors to the magazine, and me and my family discovered that we all had a secret writer inside us waiting to come out and dazzle the world! If you are lucky, you will be part of a great team where people cheer and help each other out. However, don’t let that be a pre-condition or a naive assumption on your part lest you be disappointed right at the start.

Not all volunteers are the same. Most of us get it totally wrong because most of us don’t even know it, let alone understand it. I learnt that my volunteer style was (rather, is) that of an individual volunteer (or “I.V.” — a comical take on the more common corporate brethren Individual Contributor, or “I.C”) who likes to work at the back away from limelight. I would even call myself as a freelancer volunteer — someone who really wants highest level of autonomy even as a volunteer! During such times, I truly enjoyed what I was doing, but whenever I was made either a member of ‘management committee’ or the Chair myself, my motivation came down rapidly, and it eventually ended up in a near-disaster. I now have no shame in telling others that I am more comfortable being a lowly volunteer than a leader of volunteers. Whatever your style is, recognize it and make sure you are aligned to that. No point killing yourself doing something you are not, and in this case, making that mistake as a volunteer!

Volunteer is more than the job. This is often taken for granted, and yet, you don’t realize it till it hits you. A few years back, I was a visiting faculty for an EMBA program. The ‘students’ were working professionals who would spend the whole day at work and then drive from work through the rush-hour traffic every single day! I used to have classes on one of the weekdays. There were days when I wan’t well, and ran 102F fever and would take sick leave from work, but would still go and teach them three hours in the evenings! Similarly, when I volunteered to be part of the Indian Scientific Expedition to Antarctica, I volunteered as Computer Scientist but had to do all kinds of community work, including cleaning toilets. So, once you volunteer, that’s it — you lose the right to crib about it — if there’s an issue, fix it! If that unsettles you, get out of it ASAP. No point shortchanging the community that is expecting to see your efforts when you are clearly uncomfortable in honoring your commitment. We all are guaranteed at least a second chance of redemption, so maybe you will also get to make up for the lost opportunity someday…

I am sure there are many many important things to learn, but these are my top four. And yes, I can’t wait to learn some more…

Have you been a volunteer, or have considered being one?

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…”

After I said it, I started thinking the meaning of what I just said, and the more I thought about it, the more it made sense to me. Here are some self-conversations on it:

Rejection means you are thinking new. Nothing new here, but sadly, we still ignore this basic tenet. Quite often, we take a self-serving initial hypothesis that very closely matches our own ideas about the world, and test it inside familiar territory (friends, family, neighbors, coworkers, etc.) and if it succeeds, we end up blissfully believing that we now have external validation to our idea, so let’s proceed with it. In our hearts, we badly want that validation, thatsocial approval to go ahead and chase the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Getting a rejection is not only a heartbreak event, it also potentially jeopardizes our relationship with those closest to us (and that very thought perhaps either stops us from sharing highly contentious ideas with them, or them sharing their true feedback on our idea?).

Rejection wins when you accept it!

Rejection wins when you accept it!

However, when you are thinking really big, something radically different, something totally new to the world, anything other than a rejection only means you are simply doing a linear thinking. If people wholeheartedly (or even partially) say yes to your idea, it only means what you are telling them matches their existing mental models, and hence they believe that might be a good idea. It is also very likely that there might be many more already thinking on similar lines.

Repeated rejections are awesome! In a random sample of respondents, there will always be a mixed bag of opinions about your idea. However, if you are thinking really big, you are more likely to hear a resounding NO from just about everyone. Suppose you hear the first NO, what do you do? You probably ‘listen’ to that feedback and ‘adapt’ your idea to suit what people might be looking for – you basically try to conform to what people expect. So, the next time, you are more likely to get a feeble YES than a strong NO. You keep iterating till you come to the point when there is a resounding YES to your idea and that’s when you’ve hit home run. However, what happened to your big bold audacious idea in that process? You probably twisted and adapted it so many times that what you are now serving is what people are comfortable with. In short, you are matching their thoughts.

But what if you want to change their thinking, or show them a vision so radical, they can’t even imagine it in their dreams? As Charles Kettering said “Every great improvement has come after repeated failures. Virtually nothing comes out right the first time. Failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success“.

What doesn’t kill you, only makes you stronger. If you actually go out and talk to 200 people and don’t give up, not only your own story will get much cleaner, your own conviction about the idea will be sky-high. So, if you are still standing tall after those 200 rejections, then boy, do you have something in you – apart from the idea! If not for anything else, just go out and make those 200 naysayers eat crow…

Vincent van Gogh painted 800 paintings, but sold only one during his lifetime (that too, to a friend), Walt Disney was rejected 302 times, Col Sanders was rejected 1009 times for his famous secret chicken recipe, JK Rowling was rejected 12 times…the list simply goes on…What if any of them had decided to stop pursuing their ideas at the first, or second or the third rejection, or worse still – adapted their ideas to the feedback? As George Bernard Shaw famously said, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man”.

Finally, don’t ‘think’ to please others! If the only reason you ‘think’ is so that you could think along what others are thinking, you might as well not think at all! Life is too precious to be lived in ‘more of same’ format.

Now, what are you thinking? Are you thinking what I think you are thinking?

Why is your agile still a lot like dogma on steroids?

I still continue to be amazed (thought ‘shocked’ and ‘dumbfounded’ will be more appropriate words here) by the amount of dogma in agile circles. Do this! Don’t do this! Wasn’t agile meant to liberate us from the tyrannies of the so-called big monolithic non-agile white elephant processes, and create a more nimble mindset, flexible culture and adaptive process framework where ‘inspect and adapt’ was valued more than ‘dogma and prescription’? I sometimes think the poor old waterfall, for whatever it was worth (and I do believe it was worth a lot more than most people are willing to give it credit for!), was more open-ended and invited innovation simply because it was not perfect enough, and was very clumsily built for a rainy day, and depending on how sunny your day was, you were allowed (rather encouraged and expected) to pack only that much ration that you felt might be needed for the jungle trip.

For example –

  • You could have had any team size.
  • You could choose to locate your team members anywhere they wanted to be.
  • You could tailor your process in whatever way that made sense for you.
  • You could choose to slice your functionality in any which ways that made sense.
  • You could stagger the releases in whichever way you felt offered better yield.
  • and so on.

In several ways, such innovation required one to master the nuances of software development. And for those who would apportion reasons behind failure of such project on the method, my response would be – when there is so much flexibility in the system, why blame the system for being so ‘rigid’?

I have experimented more with waterfall methods in my career than with agile methods (which also I continue to do, much to purists chagrin :)), and here’s a small list of key exeriments that I remember doing – something that gave me immense joys because I had the liberty to try out stuff to see if that solved my problems better –

  • In 1995, when we realized that we are in a technologically evolving and complex domain (Asynchronous Transfer Mode switches), we didn’t build castles in air with the ‘non-negotiable’ waterfall-based product development process that the company had mandated, but decided to build an early prototype what would allow us to validate some key assumptions about our architecture. Yes, the company’s process didn’t support us, but yes, we broke the rules :).
  • In 1997, when we ‘discovered’ that standard waterfall won’t help us speed up the development cycle while we wait for the previous phase to complete, we didn’t blame the process for it, we simply ‘invented’ sashimi model and kept going.
  • In 1998, when conventional estimations didn’t work out in a domain that was completely new and unknown to us (digital set top boxes), I was not obligated to follow some obsolete standard process (though we were a CMM Level 5 company), but encouraged to try out estimations using complexity weights using methods like PROBE to mitigate the risks in estimations.
  • In the same project in 1998, when the project’s technology was new to us, I was able to home-brew and define a process with five increments that recognized the experimental nature of the problem we were solving and the learning curve of the team rather than sticking to a one-size single-release process.
  • During 2000 to 2003, I liberally experimented with waterfall methods to build teams that delivered large products in telecom and datacom domains with high success rates. At one time, I had 190+ engineers on a single product in my team organized around 14 parallel projects running on a common timeline and delivered on-time product in complex 3G Softswitch space. Yes, all in waterfall :). At that time, we were ranked last in global market. Today that company is global leader in that space, and I can proudly say some of our efforts were behind that turnaround.
  • In 2004-05, I experimented with our conventional enterprise service pack release model by liberally adding the weekly cadence from Gilb’s Evo process to create a weekly delivery model, and by accidentally stumbling on the concept of limiting work in progress to create one of the world’s first kanban implementations without knowing kanban – to be fair, it didn’t exist at that time – all without any prescriptions but just with a liberal dose of enthusiasm and undying spirit of experimentation.
  • …and the journey continues.

And what has been my take on the agile theory and practice? Not so open to experimentation or innovation. Sad, but true. Take some simple things for a start:

  • Agile methods recommend a small team size. That’s good common sense, and backed by scientific studies and acendotal data from ages, and is a generally good advise. What’s no so good is then we insist that agile teams can only be in a certain numerical range, and any team size more than that is blasphemy! In fact, my extreme view is that the best team size is what you have right now and not an ideal something from the literature, howsomuch backed by data that might be! In several ways, it is same as the ideal body weight – most of us will never have it, but what we have ‘here and now’ is the most important number to start with. So, why waste time over building an ideal team and lose all precious learning opportunities in that process? If my team has a true ‘inspect and adapt’ DNA, irrespective of where I start, I will get to the finish line. Somehow. Isn’t’ that more important and being truly agile rather than finding the perfect take-off point?
  • Take user stories. The notion of moving to user stories makes lot of sense give the constant pace of world around us. PRDs could never cope up with documenting such copious amount of details – and if anything, they would only succeed in documenting history of what customer wanted a year back! Now on one end we want our user stories to be ‘negotiable’ (from the acronym INVEST) so that we can create meaningful conversations between product owner and the development team. This again makes a lot of sense in an imperfect world where documenting every single requirement with its myriad corner conditions might be practically impossible, and has diminishing rewards beyond a point. So, if we can create a quick and cheap way to get started and have both, the process and the humility to listen to development team come up with more questions and options, then this premise holds very high promise. However, as a philosophy, something that is non-negotiable might not be so good in the same spectrum. For example, the Scrum process that we want them to follow must be non-negotiable. Why is that? If Fosbury had listened to the best way of high jumping, he might have never broken the proverbial sound barrier in high jumping.

Hey…what happened to the big promise of team being allowed to figure out its own ways and means? Once we ‘tell’ them, shouldn’t we step aside and let the team find its true north? Do I hear you mention ‘Shu-Ha-Ri’ thingy? Do yourself a favor – go and find a student (even better – try it on a second-grader) and then keep telling him/her that they are still a ‘Shu’ and hence must obediently listen to whatever you are telling them. They are supposed to follow your instructions to the hilt and not even think of wavering a bit. Good. Now take a deep look at their reaction. Count yourself lucky if they choose to ignore you and decide to move on, for there are far more violent ways they could have chosen to respond to such dogmas. In short – this is not the time and age for dogmas. Kingdoms, Colonies and Communism are all long dead. Accept it and change your own coaching methods, if you want to be counted.

To me, agile is a state of mind that tells me how to proceed in an imperfect world. Not to somehow make a ‘perfect’ world and then proceed. To me, a successful agile implementation is not about finding the perfect team + perfect process + perfect customer + perfect timeboxing + perfect sprint planning + perfect retrospectives + perfect product owner + perfect scrummaster + perfect

When does experience get ossified into dogma?

When does experience get ossified into dogma?

engineering practices + many more perfections = perfect landing. To me, a successful agile means starting with team that you have at hand, with the process that you have under the constraints you have, with the requirements that you have on a best effort basis and a many such real-world realities that works under a mindset of taking things one after other and improving the journey with the hope to get to the destination better than without such effort. Remember, we are being melioristic, not idealistic. We are being adaptive, not laying down pre-conditions for take-off. And in that pursuit, the most important guide for decision-making is our own judgment. Everything else is just that – everything else, and while it might work at times, it might not work at other times. So, like the Swiss Army manual that says – when there is a gap between map and the terrain, trust the terrain, go ahead boldly and experiment. In the worst case, you will lose some time and dollars, but if your DNA is built on the premise of self-improvement, you will quickly recover and eventually find your own path. If you are not able to ‘find’ it, you will ‘build’ it. Even better…

In many ways, there were no royal guards so zealously guarding waterfall model that made it sexy enough to be experimented with and experimented upon. On that same scale of flexibility, I don’t find agile methods sexy enough. It appears to be a lot like dogma on steroids. And I think that’s a serious problem.

Is your agile still a lot like dogma on steroids?

Does the internet know you?

In the last few years, I have seen several well-qualified senior folks leaving their rather stable careers (and not to mention their well-paid jobs) to pursue their inner calling at the end of (typically) a quarter-century of innings that often started with a bang, ran with illustrious career growth but ended on a whimper of long and lone bouts of boredom, lack of challenging assignments, dead-end role and stifling bureaucracy. These folks eventually outgrew their roles, and decided to step out of the daily rut of monotony

Does the Internet know you who you are?

Does the Internet know you who you are?

and endless boredom to explore a bold, new, uncertain world. These folks are brave – they decided to act while still having time on their side. However, these folks probably make up less then 5% of their peer group (purely self-made-up stats based on anecdotal data, but the reality could be starker). The rest 95% are still suffering daily in the purgatory, and offer themselves no real hope of ever leaving their make-believe world till one day when it would be too late to act anymore. This blog post is not about them – I really can’t offer them anything but tell them straight on their faces to just wake up and smell the coffee. This blog post is about those brave 5% who decide to take matters in their hands and leave the comforts of corporate job and social prestige to walk alone into an uncertain but perhaps more exciting future. I salute their fortitude. Unfortunately, in many of those cases, they are extremely ill-prepared for the uncertain future that lies ahead…the internet doesn’t know them!

I am typically seeing four major types or categories of career pivots, in that order of occurrence – 

  • consulting as a freelancer with other companies, or becoming executive or organizational transformation coach
  • entrepreneur / social entrepreneur / author
  • teaching at a college, and lastly
  • moving to completely different profession (like taking up a grocery franchise or launching a men’s clothing line)
  • well, I have seen one more category where people just left everything and literally sat at home – for years. There can’t be any more meaningless waste of human talent than simply whiling away the time, so I won’t even discuss it any further!

In many cases, it was a true calling and the individuals marched in knowing very well what lay ahead. However, in most cases, there were virtually ‘unknown’ outside their professional circles and had no clue if what they had to offer was in demand in the market. They didn’t know if people liked what they had to offer to them.  Their problem – the internet doesn’t know them! No one knew their abilities, interest and work outside their immediate professional network. There was practically no record of their body of work on the internet in public domain. Would they be a good coach? Do they understand what is takes to lead without authority? How else would they bring about a change in my organization? Do I know what school of thought they come from? Are they ‘more of same’ guys or someone who have the knowledge and courage to bring about required change? The result is that while many folks start out with good intentions and become self-appointed coach or consultant, they haven’t quite ‘tested’ their core product – “themselves” – in the market, and have no real clue if the market needs them. In the end, they simply get relegated to play roles much lower than their potential and calibre and live yet another life of boredom and dissatisfaction. Why jump from one life of boredom to another life of boredom for no good reason? Why not do something about it while you are still actively engaged in your current assignment? After all, market value and marketability are two different things and one thing doesn’t mean the other.

When I speak at conferences and meet people, I still continue to be shocked at the pathetic low percentage of professionals who make any contribution at all to the community, online or offline – e.g., speaking at conferences, writing articles, volunteering for professional organizations, presenting papers, sharing their presentation decks, blogging, sharing comments on others blogs, tweeting or simply even retweeting! In short, they are neither known as thought leaders or being as a good assist, and hence fail to acquire any reasonable level of credibility for them to be seriously considered as an accomplished consultant or a qualified coach. In fact, it is not even about a career pivot. I am willing to lower my bar to anyone even looking for a job change – chances are 98% that when people put themselves up in the job market, the only piece of credibility they are pedaling is their four page resume and if you google their name, you get nothing. In this time and age, when I can simply look up someone’s credentials and endorsements on LinkedIn, when I find nothing on you, what do you want me to interpret? (Of course, I know all about how people often barter endorsements on LinkedIn, but like everything else in life, there are ways to separate wheat from chaff).

People ask why is that important? They equate any form of sharing of ideas or work as narcissistic self-promotion. If my work is good, people will find me. Surely that was the good old world value – let your work speak, and be modest about it. If you keep blowing your own trumpet, no one would take you seriously. However, they are missing a key point – as Steve Blank says it in the context of building products – “Build and they will come” is not a strategy, it’s a prayer. How is the world going to discover you? Your intentions might be good, and others might be even willing to accept your perspective, but how do they bet on taking you? There is a huge difference between agreeing with you in a social setting versus butting money on you and taking you onboard for a business-critical problem – don’t expect the former to have any rub-off on the latter.

After all, they haven’t seen you in flight.

What if you initially come across as the swashbuckling hero from the corporate role that you were wildly successful in, but end up being an ineffective change agent when stripped of all titles and positions? Maybe your success was the result of systems and people supporting you, and without them, you are nothing!

If you can’t inspire an audience with your ideas, how are you going to coach a team?

If you have no point of view, why should they even listen to you?

If you don’t have what is takes to communicate your point of view, no matter how good your ideas might be, how will the world know about them, given that ‘reading the mind’ skill hasn’t been perfected yet?

Are you too scared to test your credibility? When why should you expect others to do it for you?

Do you remember one of the most compelling marketing punchlines in 80s – “No one got fired for buying an IBM“. It was the epitome of brand credibility as we knew it back then. Could the people say the same about your personal brand?  

The other day I met some wonderful people. One of them is a middle manager in a large MNC who is passionate about agile product development methods. He looks for every single opportunity to deliver talks at conferences – these are sources of his own learning. And often his company doesn’t support him – he has to put up internal ‘fight’ to get approvals for his talks, which he doesn’t always get – enough obstacles already. And if that is not already enough, he even funds out of town travels from his pocket. I met another very enterprising young professional. He was so proud of the fact that he has just seven years of experience but he has delivered twenty talks and presentations at various conferences during that time. His confidence oozes from his body language. I was amazed and inspired talking to these folks – may their tribe prosper. While I have seen delivering talks as a source of learning for me, these individuals are much ahead of me. At such early stage of their careers, they have figured out their passion and they are determined to do whatever it takes to pursue it. These folks will never have a credibility problem – the internet know them! Their talk material is on the net, people are tweeting about them, they are blogging their views – even if these are all half-baked and not fully supported by theory or practice, or even if they are not the perfect TED-speaker material. On the other hand, there are 98 other people for every two folks like these who are sitting quietly in the corner – sometimes basking in the past glory and living in a make-believe world, sometime just being cynical, shy or simply indifferent, and sometimes living in a fear of rejection or ridicule if they were to speak up their minds in front of others. Whom do you think you will want to hire? 

So, here you are. One one hand you have all the tools (did I say “free”?) at your disposal to make sure the internet knows you. You don’t have to write an epic novel or deliver an acceptance speech, but like millions of other netizens, you can just send a tweet or write a comment on someone’s blog and take the first step towards building your own online credibility. And then someday, the internet will get to know you.

But for now…does the internet know you? 

Is your plan just a placebo?

Plans have a huge credibility problem. For large part of recorded history, they have always had this problem. With all the advancements we have made in estimations, forecasting, scheduling, risk management and planning, our execution still continues to challenge us, at times even confound us. It almost makes one feel that real doers don’t plan, they just do it! Or, putting it in more bluntly, a project plan is at best a reference, a guide, maybe even a map – just like Eisenhower said “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable” – but never the single, eternal source of truth that is much-needed for you to face the battle? If that is true, does it mean that the project gets done irrespective of the plan? Despite the plan? What if your plan was not so accurate and detailed, but more like “just do it” – would you still do just as fine? Does it mean that execution is really the most important part of the whole puzzle?

So, is your plan just a placebo?

Every business school and startup mentoring clinic would tell you that you need to have a business plan, or at least some business plan to get started (well, some of the good ones like Ycombinator will tell you that you don’t need a business plan), and yet every entrepreneur would tell you, as the German military strategist and Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder famously said, “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy”. All the romantic visions of a rosy future of millions of customers with wallet full of greenbacks thronging your ecommerce website come crashing down when the first assumptions turn out to a sand castle, and after that, it is just responding to the events, setbacks, challenges and opportunities in real-time, ad nauseam.

Bill Hewlett said this about HP’s early days

When I talk to business schools occasionally, the professor of management is devastated when I say we didn’t have any plans when we started. The idea of having a business came before our invention of the audio oscillator. We were just opportunistic. We did anything to bring in a nickel. We made a bowling alley foul-line indicator, a clock drive for a telescope, a thing to make a urinal flush automatically, and a shock machine to make people lose weight. Here we were, with about $500 in capital, trying whatever someone thought we might be able to do. So we got into this thing not by design but because it worked out that way.

This is from circa ~1937-38. If this story doesn’t convince you because you believe a lot has changed since then, just sample Intel’s business plan from 1968 in this graphic. If no one told you it was Intel’s business plan, you probably won’t give it a second look, let alone fund them. 

Intel Business Plan, 1968It might seem very improbable, but just think about it – they could have written just any other business plan for Intel and yet be equally successful? So, was this piece of paper just meant to sell some dreams to potential investors, or on a lighter note, sell them something that they badly wanted to buy so that we could go out and do what we badly wanted to do without any external interference? Or, is the eventual success all about execution – staying focused on the task at hand and quickly learning what’s working and what’s not while quickly pivoting on stuff that’s working. So, the starting point doesn’t really matter as long as there is a process that allows for being able to get feedback from the market and then quickly iterating through subsequent changes? In that case, the plan becomes a placebo, and because we have been conditioned to believe that a plan is supposed to help us, and hence we end up eventually ‘following’ it in some shape or form? 

Or is the eventual success all about serendipitous luck and a great timing that some are born with, while some others acquire it but most of us don’t have a clue about? It could seem like the case with so many one-trick ponies out there. Take Hotmail. A great success that justifiably rewarded its founders with riches but only never to replicate even a fraction of that original success. People often question if Google is also a one-trick pony? While something like that might/not be a great strategy can only be eventually determined by how the market responds to it. Some might say putting “all woods behind single arrow” is a great strategy because it allows laser-sharp focus, while some other might seek safety in numbers and might want to diversify and have a product for all pockets. However, in all those cases, it is likely that even if there was an initial luck that led to some technological or a market breakthrough, the long-term success only came from systematic planning and methodically executing on what was the most important or business at that time.

So, we come back to original question – is planning, or having the benefit of a plan just a placebo?  Some people might argue that a placebo works only when the subject is not aware of the existence of a placebo agent. If we go by the data by Placebo Research Center, there seems to be data to suggest that a subject could still demonstrate same results even while fully knowing of the existence of a placebo agent. So, it might not be long shot to say that existence of a plan, even if the manager or entrepreneur believes it to be just a work of business fiction, is completely redundant. After all, if writing something on a piece of paper becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and eventually leads to a success, that seems like a very small price to pay given the rather high odds of success in such an uncertain environment?

I am investing this subject further, but would love to hear back from you if your plan is just a placebo, or something much more methodical and meaningful?

Bridging the Cultural Divide in Global Projects

This is a guest post by Michelle Symonds. Michelle has many years’ experience in IT and IT Project Management in the oil industry and investment banking working on complex global projects involving the management of overseas project teams. She is now a freelance consultant specialising in article writing for businesses such as www.parallelprojecttraining.com and is also editor of the Project Management News website www.projectaccelerator.co.uk.

With most major corporations doing business on a global scale, projects are naturally part of that global business and, as such, project management is increasingly about leading projects and teams from different countries and cultures. This introduces potential risks related to language, time-zone and cultural differences, above and beyond the usual project risks.

The project management of geographically diverse projects requires a different approach to leading and communicating with teams if it is to address the cultural divides that often exist so that effective multi-cultural teams may be developed to deliver successful projects. It is important to recognise that cultural barriers are not simply between “East” and “West” but that they can potentially exist between any two different countries from any part of the globe. A cultural divide can exist between closely located countries and even between countries with the same language so recognising this at the outset of a global project, and introducing strategies to deal with it, is essential for a successful project outcome.

But, whilst location, language and time-zone differences will have an effect on a project, these aspects are relatively straightforward to manage for an experienced global project manager. Less easy to manage effectively are the cultural differences, which, by their very nature, are not often explicitly stated or well-understood. Indeed, because of reticence to mention a problem in some cultures, a project manager may not even be aware that a problem exists until it is too late to rectify. Cultural differences may necessitate adapting standard project processes and procedures to take account of certain factors. No culture can claim to know the “right” way to run a project, and every culture has been successful in its own right, but maybe by addressing cultural issues we can all learn something from other cultures that will add value to global projects.

So just what are the most typical culture-dependant areas that might require a “non-standard” project approach?

 

  • Communication – Understanding and Interpreting 

Face-to-face communication will always minimise misunderstandings, but it will not eliminate them altogether when cultural differences are significant. Wherever possible, all stakeholders should meet in person prior to the start of the project. Indeed when dealing with some countries, such as China, face-to-face meetings are an essential part of building an all-important trusting working relationship. Understanding other cultures helps a project manager anticipate and respond appropriately to issues during the project and ensures that the project manager’s behavior does not offend or insult the other parties involved.  

Face-to-face meetings help both sides of the cultural divide to gain an understanding of each other’s expectations and aid the interpretation of unspoken signals. In many Asian cultures modesty, patience and politeness are expected behaviors that are not necessarily expected in Western countries (although they would be nice).

Once a project is underway, much of the communication is likely to be by email, which in a western culture is used by the sender of the email to clarify all issues beyond any doubt for the recipient of the email. However, in many Asian cultures detailed clarification of every point can be seen as an insult to the intelligence of the recipient so the onus is on the recipient to infer what is meant by the sender. This factor alone can unintentionally cause problems so, for example, an English PM should emphasise that detailed clarification is simply a part of how projects are done in the U.K. when dealing with Indian or Chinese stakeholders or project teams to avoid causing personal offence.

  • Cultural Viewpoints – Seeing Things from the Other Side: 

Understanding the viewpoint of others involved in a project is a two-way process (or more) to ensure all stakeholders and teams understand the expectations and attitudes of each other. This is not just the case with eastern and western cultures, there can, for example be issues between Indian and Chinese teams involved on the same project where the hierarchical culture of India and the Chinese culture based on personal relationships can cause conflicts in determining the best approach to deal with risks and problems encountered throughout a project.

The success of a project will require an understanding of the underlying values of a different culture and how they affect the working practices of those involved in the project so a professional project manager should take the time to research these different cultures. There are a number of organisations, such as the China-Britain Business Council and the UK-India Business Council that offer useful advice in this area.

But be aware that China and India, in particular, are vast and diverse nations with different underlying sub-cultures and languages so there are no quick and simple tips to understanding all aspects of their cultures. Different attitudes to areas such as project quality, cost and time can exist within different individuals in the same culture. So be cautious about making general assumptions and try to get to know and understand each stakeholder and local project manager as an individual and develop good working relationships that go beyond standard project procedures.

  • Reporting – Obtaining Accurate Progress Information 

Western cultures tend to value openness and frankness when it comes to project progress and reporting. They believe that project issues can be prevented from becoming serious problems if they are raised as soon as they are detected and that serious problems can be better solved by discussing possible solutions with the group. But how issues and problems are handled is a culturally sensitive issue. Admitting to a problem can be seen, in some Eastern cultures, as an admission of failure so a project team leader would not openly report schedule overruns or the inability to complete a task in the same way as his Western counterpart. Instead the information might be gradually brought to the global project manager’s attention bit-by-bit.

Similarly, the way in which changes to the schedule are requested may not always be in the most obvious way. Even on projects where there are defined and documented procedures for updates these procedures may simply not fit with the working mentality of all those involved in the project. For a PM to assume the procedures will be followed by multi-cultural teams simply because they have been defined is a naïve view. Some teams may approve procedures only because it is culturally unacceptable for them to openly disagree with the global PM.

  • The People – The individuals behind the Names 

It is a vital skill for a global project manager to understand what motivates the diverse teams and individuals working on a project and to take the time to provide constructive feedback on completed tasks in order to clearly define ongoing expectations. But, clearly, on a large, complex project being run in various locations around the world it would be impossible for a global PM to know all team members well, let alone understand their personalities and motivations.

This is where building common understanding and trust between the global and local project managers will be of benefit. Working with the local project manager, who can better understand individual motivating factors and who can present feedback in a culturally-sensitive way, can aid the development of multi-cultural project teams which can work efficiently and co-operatively together.

Rivalries and different agendas may exist between culturally different project teams (just as they may between co-located teams) so the network of relationships must be managed sensitively to minimise their impact on the overall success of the global project. It is essential for a successful project outcome that the global PM facilitates co-operation and support between all teams and attempts to minimise conflict.

Whilst it might be possible, in an ideal world, that we all follow some “international” standard of project management, in practise, adapting standard procedures depending on the different cultures involved in a project is likely to lead to more successful project outcomes. Managing global projects presents a particular set of challenges that require specific experience and PM training to overcome the inherent difficulties of cultural divides but the advantages of doing so can lead to a project that achieves cost-effective technical excellence.

A checklist is more powerful than an org chart?

Most of us so-called ‘knowledge workers’ don’t particularly fancy the term ‘checklist’. It smacks of an antiquated top-down command-and-control Dilbert-style bureaucracy where someone sitting on 42nd floor of corporate headquarters hands down a piece of paper for you to blindly follow and to make you feel dumb and outright humble – for it dilutes your role and underplays your intelligence as if anyone else in your position could have done it! In short, it seems to trivialize the knowledge, skills and expertize required for the job into a mechanical routine requiring no human intelligence, and places the decision-making into hands of people irrespective of their competence levels. And we hate it!

Wikipedia defines a checklist as:

“A checklist is a type of informational job aid used to reduce failure by compensating for potential limits of human memory and attention. It helps to ensure consistency and completeness in carrying out a task. A basic example is the “to do list.” A more advanced checklist would be a schedule, which lays out tasks to be done according to time of day or other factors.”

From the definition above, it seems like an innocuous tool that just helps you keep focus on the most critical things – things that you might skip rather unintentionally or lose track of during one of the numerous hand-offs, or mix-up their sequence when there is time pressure. Obviously, there is no way a checklist could enlighten a dummy into being an expert overnight!

Atul Gawande has done a wonderful job of elevating the good old checklist in his pathbreaking “The Checklist Manifesto” to a modern management tool that can be used to prevent unintentional human mistakes and improve collaboration and decision-making in emergency situations – even in the areas that require utmost brainpower. He cites real-life examples from some of the most complex endeavors – complex human surgeries, constructing tall building and flying jet planes, among others, that no doubt require very high

A short pencil is better than a long memory…

amount of individual cognitive skill in respective functional areas, but also require a high precision in the steps to be followed – both during meticulous planning and preparation, and in making split-second decisions during an emergency, be it flying at ten miles above ground or a complex brain surgery on operation table. One after other, he repeatedly presents compelling data from such hi-intelligence professions that reinforce his assertion that something as rudimentary as a checklist could have such dramatic impact in complex human endeavors.

In this article, I have taken some teasers from this book that I liked and made a lot of sense to me. I have also included my own commentary and perspective for each of these.

Knowledge continues to grow at an astounding pace. No one person can hope to ever keep pace with all latest advances in any one single field, let alone build a body of knowledge around core specialization area and adjacent knowledge areas. And yet, in many cases, we have no option but to rely on the individual judgment by a supposed ‘expert’. What if that ‘expert’ was not good enough, or as good as we make out of them? What if that one single source of true knowledge, the true ‘Master Builder’ was more like someone who was a mediocre talent as best, and could not live up to the high expectations of infallibility, and yet we place almost entire decision-making into their independent charge? That would be a true disaster. Gawande calls out such challenge:

“…in the absence of a true Master Builder – a supreme, all-knowing expert with command of all existing knowledge – autonomy is a disaster. It produced only a cacophony of incompatible decisions and overlooked errors.”

So, while autonomy is the desired end-state, we need to be cognizant that perhaps there is no such single person in real life who deserves to be the undisputed knight of all things worldly! At best it is an urban myth and at worst, it is a nightmare played out multiple times in each field! A cacophony of incompatible decisions and overlooked errors! Sounds outrageous, but apparently not so rare.

Let’s walk a bit with the fact (?) that there is no one single person supremely capable of mastering all the knowledge so as to be the single source of truth. What would then be the second-best way to manage complex human endeavors? Perhaps assign it to teams who are then chartered to figure out the solution? A group of perhaps regular people who individually posses a bit of knowledge each, and collectively represent whatever it takes to address the problem at hand? That does seem like a logical way, because we believe more heads are better than one. However, it is difficult enough to get a collocated team perform in top gear, imagine distributed teams in multiple time zones, contractors from different companies with different and often incompatible cultures and processes working together, employees coming from various departments for whom local departmental gains are more important than the global organizational goals. Can checklists provide some guidance?

Here again, Gawande has some interesting viewpoint:

“in the face of the unknown – the always nagging uncertainty about whether, under complex circumstances, thing will really be okay – the builders trusted in the power of communication. They didn’t believe in the wisdom of the single individual, of even an experienced engineer. They believed in the wisdom of the group, the wisdom of making sure that multiple pairs of eyes were on a problem and then letting the watchers decide what to do.

Man is fallible, but maybe men are less so.”

However, we often believe that by simply crowdsourcing, we can fix the problem. We expect a reasonably sized group to eventually gravitate towards one common solution. While this might be true for simple party games like ‘guess the weight of the cake’, how do we extend and apply this to more real-life problems that entail tangible risks, such as do we need an additional overhead beam to distribute the load on the 37th floor of a highrise building, or whether we need to give more anesthesia to a 63-year old patient of severe diabetes and hypertension on the table for his bypass? In traditional management, a manager would be supremely empowered to make such decisions – his knowledge and experience was ‘supposed’ to mitigate any risks associated with such centralized decision-making, because, well, the ‘workers’ in that quintessential industrial age were after all dumb. In such one-sided match, the worker participation was almost always zero, and the decision-making was the elite preserve of the management class. We can’t say if that was effective or not (though we do know that was not the most motivational way), but apparently that’s the only thing that was! However, the advent of knowledge-economy brought with it three important changes : rapid pace of creation of new knowledge, new means and mechanisms to rapidly mass proliferate the newfound knowledge and a faster obsolescence rate of old knowledge have all collectively led to a more balanced play at work. No longer is ‘manager’ the Mr. Know-all, but is increasingly dependent on the critical inputs from her team member – most of whom have much more current knowledge and also hate a centralized hoarding of decision-making.

In such workplaces, it’s time the decision-making was made more democratic. What would be the risk of democratizing decision-making? Would it be akin to the inmates running the asylum? How can we ensure that best decisions will be made, and who will be accountable for those decisions? Can checklists help in this regard?

“In response to risk, most authorities tend to centralize power and decision making. That’s usually what checklists are about – dictating instructions to the workers below to ensure they do things the way we want. ….it spelled out to the tiniest details every critical step the tradesmen were expected to follow and when – which is logical if you’re confronted with simple and routine problems; you want the forcing function.”

So, apparently, the checklists ‘decentralized’ the decision-making but more as a forcing function. In a way, we can say that since Managers couldn’t be everywhere, Management created Checklists! Clearly, that’s not the best reason to justify or support checklists, even though we might have succeeded in our nefarious designs.

However, history has repeated shown us that every new invention has two sides – the good and the bad. While a checklist might have succeeded in its ‘forcing function’, it also has a positive side. This is the aspect that helps pilots and brain surgeons achieve better planning and performance. This allows for teams to create better bonding as much as making life-or-death calls in a split second. You have the read Gawande’s book to believe that.

So, why is that people hate checklist? Do they fear loss of individuality, respect, authority? Gawande offers some perspective and the counterintuitive wisdom:

“The fear people have about the idea of adherence to protocol is rigidity. They imagine automatons, leads down in a checklist, incapable of looking out their windshield and coping with the real world in front of them. But what you find, when a checklist is well made, is exactly the opposite. The checklist gets the dumb stuff out of the way, the routines your brain shouldn’t have to occupy itself with.”

As an example, he cites an interesting anecdote about what makes a team high performing by a simple act of just making sure that people follow the simple checklist of introducing themselves to the team by just telling their names:

“People who don’t know one another’s names don’t work together nearly as well as those who do.

The investigators at John Hopkins and elsewhere had also observed that when nurses were given a chance to say their names and mention concerns at the beginning of a case, they were more likely to note problems and offer solutions. The researchers called it an “activation phenomenon”. Giving people a chance to say something at the start seemed to activate their sense of participation and responsibility and their willingness to speak up.”

Imagine if the simple act of sharing names could accomplish so much, what else lies unexplored? However, in the absence of a checklist that ‘mandated’ such ‘routine’ we were potentially wasting this opportunity. Surely we could do away (and perhaps should do away) with checklists if only we could do such ‘common sensical’ stuff without them!

So, if checklists are an important management tool, how best to operationalize them? Should the manager ‘own’ the checklisting process? Here is an interesting take from the field of aviation, where, as we all know, once you take-off, you are literally hanging in the mid-air, and hence must do everything right to land safely:

“In aviation, there is a reason the “pilot not flying” starts the checklist. The “pilot flying” can be distracted by flight tasks and liable to skip a checklist. Moreover, dispersing the responsibility send the message that everyone – not just the captain – is responsible for the overall well-being of the flight and should have the power to question the process.”

So, there we are. It seems that there is a significant body of work to support the conjecture that checklists can be beneficial in more ways than one. They are not simply a forcing function, nor do they impede empowerment not stifle creativity. On the contrary, they help facilitate conversations during unexpected non-trivial situations. They also make the decision-making more decentralized and often democratic. To that end, a checklist is more powerful than an org chart. Too bad if that scares you!

Use checklist for all reasons and all seasons. As they say, a short pencil is better than a long memory…

Seek new assignments for things you have not done before & develop deep expertise in one area…

Samir interviewed me for his wonderful blog Future of Project Management. It is all about my perspectives on how one can seek new assignments for things that one has never done before and develop deep expertise in one area to create an enriching and satisfying career. For the audio and the full interview, click here.

Seek new assignments...

How to establish credibility in a democratic workplace?

Flattening of organizations is an oft-repeated phrase that means different things to different people. My favorite connotation is what I call as ‘democratization of management’, which essentially means a more symmetric power distribution between erstwhile ‘management’ and the erstwhile ‘worker’- if at all such words make sense anymore. While there are serious advantages of such an organization structure, it obviously doesn’t come free of cost. For example, a key byproduct of such change is moving away from ‘leading with authority’ to ‘leading with influence’ where leaders can’t rely on their positional power or the organizational title to basically get things done. Instead, they need to establish their ‘credibility’ to be accepted as a ‘leader’ and the harbinger of change, and get things done. Sounds simple? Well, it may not be so easy…

In the old world where management unilaterally made rules, managers were empowered with making all key decisions and the workers were simply expected to follow them. Henry Ford created the moving assembly line where basically the supervisors made all decisions and the shop-floor workers were fungible to work on any of the low-level tasks. Naturally, it didn’t require much for a supervisor to demonstrate his ‘power’ – all he literally had to do was show up and shout orders. People knew who was the boss, and given the roles they were hired into, either they were not of adequate intellectual level to be able to see the big picture, or were not allowed to think of the big picture. And even though last few decades were prime examples of worsening industrial relations, the workplace conflict between management and workers essentially got managed because of ‘clear’ division of labor – management made the rules to govern the work and output of workers, and the workers made the goods by obeying orders from management.

Enter the new world, the flat hierarchy, the knowledge economy, the informal Gen X and the indomitable Gen Y, and the old system comes down crumbling fast. Gone is the bad old world that essentially ‘exploited’ the workers. The good new world is all about collaboration, shared leadership, joint decision-making and other similar 21st century values and norms. There is simply no place for three-piece suits and bombastic titles in such a workplace. There is no corner office – at best, there is a corner cubicle! Everyone gets their own coffee, and everyone picks up their own printouts (from a common printer, did I say?). The notion of ‘experience’ gets blurred in such a context. I blogged about it earlier on inexperience is the new competency.

Such workplace sounds so romantic! Gone are the high walls that separated managers from real people. There is much freer flow of ideas and feedback, and makes the perfect setting for some real work. Right? Well…maybe…

But it also comes with one BIG caveat – how does someone, anyone, establish their ‘position’ in such a flat world? There is no title anymore to rely upon or hide back behind. Decision-making is often a teamwork and though it might have some real dangers of groupthink, it still has more advantages to be taken up seriously. If you are new to the team, or have the onerous task to bring in new ideas, how do you do that? What are the chances that the team will give you any hearing, let alone adopt your ideas? In short, what is your credibility to bring in new ideas? In the absence of any demonstrated credibility, why should anyone listen to you and waste their time?

Sounds very humbling and outrightly brutal, isn’t it? But, I believe that is the idea workplace of today – and one has to be lucky to be in such a workplace (and I will come to that later). Such workplaces don’t accept the ideas just because they come from someone sitting on a better chair, or drawing more salary, or wearing expensive designer suits, or is seen hobnobbing with the power that be. Such workplaces are ‘democratized’ and believe in bringing out and bringing up the best ideas just on its sheer merit. Let the game begin and let the best idea win.

While this could be real fun to participate in a workplace with such unbelievable energy, it could be equally frustrating for someone trying to bring a new idea, e.g. trying to convince for a new product, or rallying for entering new markets, or pitching for some process change, etc. Actually, if you think of it, most of us would be doing one such activity at any time (and those who are not doing are anyway getting closer to extinction, but that’s for another blog post). So, how do convince your peers, your team members (yes – even they need to be convinced, you can’t simply shove a decision down their throats anymore!), your boss and other key stakeholders? Why should they believe in your story? Do you have some proofpoints? What if they listened to you and the whole thing bombed? After all, you don’t come with the credibility that IT managers in 60s and 70s often believed in – “No one ever got fired for buying an IBM”. This simple ‘feeling of safety’ made them buy IBM with literally their eyes closed. Do your ideas come with such ironclad 30-day money-back guarantee?

A lot of these questions are because you haven’t yet paid your dues yet. You are too new to the system, or your ideas haven’t been fructified yet. Or maybe they have in the past, but this is a new manager. Or the rules of the marketplace have changed and you have a much shorter runway than in the past. The hard truth is that you don’t have credibility, and the absence of credibility means you don’t have enough ‘political capital’ for others to support your ideas. It’s not that they don’t like you or your ideas – just that you haven’t been able to register yourself in their minds as someone who is innovative, trustworthy and reliable enough to not only bring up sexy ideas that matter to them, but also willing to endure a long and hard fight to set those ideas to fruition. Question is, how do you earn such impeccable credibility?

I have been lucky to learn some valuable lessons in building credibility. Here are seven of them:

Learn from history…but don’t be enslaved to it

When you are new to a democratic workplace, you often find a combination of multiple factors – you are chartered to initiate and execute a change but the organizational history is against that change (and hence you) because of bitter experiences in the past. While it is very important to study the history and learn from it, it is even more important to not let history dictate the future! Quite often, false starts and fire drills desensitize people from jumping headlong into future change initiatives…they become sceptic of motives and impact of such failed change attempts on their own careers, and hence prefer to stay away till there is more clarity. You, as the change agent need to learn all you can learn from all those failed endeavors – without falling in the trap of sympathizing with the status quo. If despite all failed attempts in the past, you have still been given another chance, it is only because someone up there still believes that this change is needed. Don’t shortchange them – and yourself!

Identify passionate practitioners…and let their voice matter

While new ideas often have the power and potential to create disruption and hence create resistance among rank and file, there are always some people who are extremely loyal to some of those ideas – how so much minority they might be, and some of them are often quite good at it. Instead of appointing experts from outside, the better way is to identify those internal subject matter experts, and elevate them to play more important role in change management. Instead of ignoring them, turn them into your biggest allies. They carry invaluable institutional knowledge with them, and understand how and why some of the previous attempts failed. Since their heart bleeds for the given change, they will be willing to risk their own personal credibility to support you in your endeavor. They should be your A team.

Learn the “real world” first…don’t simply forcefit process to it

My favorite pet peeve against the snake-oil salesman (a.k.a. “process gurus”) is how cleverly they use the principles of FUD to scare the hell out of you, and forcefit their version of process to your version of problem. They almost make you believe that your problem is wrong because it doesn’t confirm with their solution. Stay away from those ‘experts’. Rather, look at the real world and understand the issues – whether or not the solution addresses it or not. My favorite is from the Swiss Army manual – if there is a difference between map and the terrain, trust the terrain! If people see you as an internal spokesman for an external paid consultant, then you can safely kiss your chance of being accepted as the neutral and well-balanced voice. Till you have properly understood the problem, don’t rush into a solution. It not only insults people’s intelligence (which is bad for you, and hence the organization too), it also significantly reduces chances of finding a better solution (which is bad for the organization, and hence you too).

Don’t preach from the top…demonstrate proofpoints

It is a human tendency to rush into ‘showing’ expertise by taking a position and adopt a condescending stance in an anxiety to establish oneself in a new team or a new organization. Sometimes, being negative or just showing a casual aloofness is considered as a proven way to create an aura of expert. I think all this is nonsense. People are smart, and they can spot fake from miles. Preaching without any proofpoints is meaningless. Preaching creates the impression that all people are naives or idiots, and hence need such prescriptions. However, I think people are basically smart. Anyone in any position of responsibility and accountability must be trusted to have some common sense – they need you to solve some specific problem, but they haven’t allowed you to change their lives. Instead of selling panacea, you would be much better off taking up specific problems that create objective and repeatable experiences, and allow people to form their own views about it. Don’t put words in their mouth that they might not like, instead leave them with experiences that they can relate to and form their own opinion, even if that goes against you – as long as that is good for the business and people.

Validate ideas externally…but don’t hardsell them internally

What do you when people won’t listen to your ideas internally? You have tried all tricks of trade – got external experts to come and talk about it, or shared world wisdom internally, but people are still sceptic. Sometimes, such sustained rejection of your ideas could set you back in your endeavor, and in extreme cases, kill your spirit enough to drop the change agenda. What do you do next? Perhaps the best move it not to pursue it aggressively but first go out and validate your ideas from external world – the professional network, the practitioner community and so on. Listen to their challenges and adventures and share your own with them. Learn from each other and improve upon your ideas. A few things will happen when you do it: your ideas will improve when you listen to feedback, and your own ability to articulate your ideas and your conviction in them will shoot up tremendously when you talk about your ideas a few times. Finally, when the world starts talking about your ideas, even your peers will sit up and take notice of them. That’ just the way we humans behave – we just need someone to initially endorse the ideas for us to support them.

Don’t try to boil the ocean…rather, establish beachheads

Very often, when we are chartered with a change agenda, we immediately start daydreaming of world domination. We start fantasizing how we will change the world with our romantic ideas, how we will become the next big thing that mankind has never known! Armed with such ‘dangerous’ ideas, we run like possessed spirits looking to infect everyone with our newfound ideas, energy and enthusiasm. However, depending on how the world sees us, they either ignore us, or shun or simply reject our ideas! Even if our ideas somehow get decreed by law, people in democratic workplace simply choose to ignore them and keep doing things their own way. So, what do you do? If you force yourself further upon people, their resistance only hardens. You need to back off. In short – don’t try to boil the ocean. That is simply not the 21st century way of doing things. Ideas, take a subset of the problem that is more tangible, and has higher chances of accepting your ideas. Take that up and establish the beachhead, and create a rocksolid success story around it. That will earn you much better support than aiming for land grab.

Socialize with key stakeholders…multiple times

No idea can survive in isolation. Being a lone ranger is of no help in pushing any significant idea in any meaningful manner. It takes a village to raise a child. If your idea is what I like to call ‘laminated’, meaning it can’t be modified or soiled, then it is meaningless. First of all, to make people take any level of meaningful interest in it, the idea can’t be positioned as being immune to modifications or enhancements. If it appears so much change-resistant, people might reject it because they might think of it as a mandate much against their own views about it. Secondly, if they have not had chance to put their fingerprints on it, even the idea might remain immature and not grow up to become strong enough to deal with all complexities. So, the key is to socialize the idea with key stakeholders as many times are it makes sense. Each interaction might make the idea one baby step better and the eventual result might exceed all your initial expectations.

So, there you go. These are my seven learnings on how one can establish credibility in a democratic workplace. What are your learnings?

Role of Integrative Thinking in Project Management

I just finished reading the brilliant “The Opposable Mind” by Roger Martin. He introduces the notion that we all possess the so-called  “opposable mind” which has this amazing capability to simultaneously hold two contradictory views about a problem.

The conventional wisdom is to try to find a via media but that is perhaps meekly surrendering to complexity by taking a short-cut to a suboptimal solution. He argues that the some of the most exceptional leaders do not succumb to the obvious “either/or” thinking but rather work patiently towards synthesizing the best from both of these opposing views to create a best-of-breed solution that is far superior to either of these. He calls it “integrative thinking”.

Martin writes, and I quote:

“…the leaders I have studies share at least one trait, aside from their talent for innovation and long-term business strategy. They have the predisposition and the capacity to hold two diametrically opposing ideas in their heads. And then, without panicking or simply settling for one alternative or the other, they’re able to produce a synthesis that is superior to either opposing idea. Integrative thinking is my term for this process – or more precisely this discipline of consideration and synthesis – that is the hallmark of exceptional business and the people who run them.…Human beings, it’s well known, are distinguishes from nearly every other creature by a physical feature known as the opposable thumb. Thanks to the tension we can create by opposing the thumb and fingers, we can do marvelous things that no other creature can do – write, thread a needle, carve a diamond, paint a picture, guide a catheter up through an artery to unblock it. All those actions would be impossible without the crucial tension between the thumb and fingers.…Similarly, we were born with an opposable mind that we can use to hold two conflicting ideas in constructive tension.”

The book is a treasure trove of how go develop integrative thinking, but I was struck by how much it is relevant to each one of us at all levels, not just for the leaders at the top. The field of project management is all about making sensible but often hard trade-offs. Effective management of Project Management Triangle is literally the holy grail of project management – one that not only is the nemesis of every project manager but is also, in fact, the genesis of modern project management. In layman terms, what we mean is that out of Scope, Cost and Time, you may pick up any two, but can never meet all the three of them at the same time. So, if the requirement is to build replica of Eiffel Tower in just three months and ten thousand dollars, then yes, it can be built but it might look more like a school project. If it is a fixed-scope project like migrating all tax payers to a new software by close of the current financial year, then one might need to look at costs involved without which either one of the scope of the time might not be possible to meet.

However, what ends up happening in reality in many situations is that a project still ends up taking the amount of money that is takes, and yet the scope delivered is too little, too late!

If one were to look at modern project management (though most of us in software industry would probably call it as ‘traditional project management’), I think we just don’t have any similar notion of integrative thinking. The only treatment I have seen is perhaps in the Theory of Constraints where the approach is more holistic.

In software development, the conventional project management is modeled around industrial model of a production process – the so-called waterfall. In a linear, sequential flow done by silos that specialize in a single functional area, there is natural tendency and inclination to optimize the area of responsibility. For example, a design team might be most concerned with how elegant their design is, whether is meets the future issues of maintainability or portability or not. Similarly, the high wall between developers and testers is industry-famous – which is a major reason why developers don’t trust testers (“they will come up with only Sev 3 bugs and kill us with volumes towards the release, and expect us to fix them all before GA”) and in turn, testers don’t trust developers (“they can’t write clean code”, “if only they did better code reviews and unit testing and found all code-level defects, we could do such a better job of finding all Sev 1 bugs and focus on performance and reliability aspects”). Clearly, such a process breeds a mutual trust deficit, and the narrowly focused project roles simply perpetuate it further. What happens is the tragic story of optimization of parts at the cost of sub-optimizing the whole – completely anti-lean approach!

Agile software development (the concept, not a particular methodology) helps by offering to eliminate such artificial boundaries that force “either/or” thinking. Instead of taking a monolithic approach of meeting 100% of the project triangle, it offers to simultaneously meet part of the scope at part of the cost in fraction of time that what would normally be needed in a waterfall model. However being recently introduced to this concept of integrative thiking, I am still thinking if agile philosophy fully addresses it, and on the surface, it doesn’t look like. However, I have been proven wrong in the past, so we will see…