Category Archives: Creative Thinking

How do design and build an organization for success?

In-flight magazines and management bestsellers are all full of ideas and opinions on how to build an organization for long-lasting success. Best-selling authors and management gurus have made a handsome career talking and coaching about things that seem like universal panacea for just about any kind of organization. Unfortunately, in modern times, it is dangerous, even suicidal, to put your professional reputation at stake by calling out such fantastic organizations that achieve (or are preordained to achieve) such long-lasting success – whatever that means! What was once a hopeless laggard might unexpectedly hit a jackpot and become a smashing success tomorrow, and what is flying high today might suddenly get birdstruck and be biting the dust tomorrow. There are no one-size-fit-all prescription that fit all kinds of organizations, what we have don’t come with a good user manual, and most certainly none of them come with a thirty-day no-questions-asked full-refund policy! So, how does one go about doing exactly that – design and build and organization for long-lasting success?

In my experience, there are three critical elements that need to be present in ‘interlocking proportions’ for any organization to truly achieve a sustainable long-term success. When I say ‘interlocking proportions’ I am implying two key things – one that there must be a natural and mutually complementary fit among all the components, and secondly these components are in such measure that they complement, ideally amplify, each other, rather than canceling out one component at the cost of other component.

For example, we might have a developed a great car that delivers 100 MPG fuel efficiency, but then it compromises on the road safety aspects, or if the safety standards are left uncompromised, than the passenger comfort leaves much to be desired. iPhone5 might be a great mobile device (a highly subjective statement, based on what camp you come from!) but its battery life sucks. In a way, this is similar to “integrative thinking” – Roger Martin’s term for human brain’s ability “to hold two conflicting ideas in constructive tension“. However, it might be (reasonably) easy to visualize integrative thinking in the context of steady-state, but how does one keep constantly rebalancing them as the system goes from one change to another, never perhaps settling on a transient steady-state long enough?

 

Success doesn't follow a straight line

Success doesn’t follow a straight line

In the context of organizations, what is means is that as the team grows from a startup into its next phase of growth and eventually into a larger organization, these components also need to commensurately grow in tandem. I have seen this being the biggest bane of many growth-phase companies – they forget what once made them successful might be impeding their further growth because those policies, procedures or practices might not make the same sense anymore. Today’s solutions are indeed tomorrow’s problems.  Unfortunately, success is blinding and the one that comes along with light flashes and glossy pictures is even more so! So, the approach and methods that led to the initial success become so sacrosanct that under no circumstances are we willing to question them, let alone adapt them. They become holy cows, and often after  few repetitions, get set in stone. As a result, while the body has grown up, the mind is still taking the low aim. The result is friction in the system, leading to turf wars among otherwise well-meaning peers, eventually leading to poor performance in the system. This might manifest in lack of rapid innovation, or bloated organizations, delays in decision making, poor customer service – just about anything.

What is the solution? Assuming that if someone has come this far, then they probably have the fundamentals in place – stuff like right talent, leadership, and strategy. However over and above these hygiene factors, I believe these three core factors that must be present in interlocking proportions at any stage of the organization:

Efficiency

An organization thrives on its ability to make optimum usage of its shared, and usually scarce, resources. In a typical startup, the demand far outstrips supply of any kind of resources – be it real estate, computing resources, marketing dollars or even the people, and hence preserving the burn rate is a critical measure of efficiency, at least till the revenues have started kicking in. But the startup team often has a vision far more compelling than those ‘large-company perks’ that are nowhere to be seen and can only be read about in those glossy magazines – business class travel, corner offices, club memberships, reserved parking lots and exec admins for senior folks, and cool stuff like free gourmet food, free office transport, generous health benefits, corporate iPhone, office gym and TGIF parties for the lesser mortals. 

So, these startups figure out a hungry, lean and mean organization structure where pretty much everyone operates as a multi-skilled expert, and wisdom of crowds is often the best way to find smart solutions to nasty problems quickly. Founders are often the decision-makers, partly because they are the subject matter experts and partly because that’s the way they want it to be. The process works very well for the initial ten- or even twenty-people startup.

Over time, unfortunately(!), success happens and it brings growth as a bye-product. Anyone who had driven a car knows that you need to keep changing gears as you get on a gradient and as you pick up speed. However, our startup team often doesn’t want to give up control, and hence continues to stay involved in all those day-to-day discussions and decisions. Over time, it creates self-inflicted inefficiencies of scale – new players don’t know their  property rights, and whether they are empowered to make those decisions, and hence they push it up for decisions, but since the guys at top are getting totally backlogged with so many things that they should have ideally delegated, they create avoidable delays, not to mention an organization that feels disempowered to act without adult supervision.

Clearly, as the company grows to a growth stage, there is need to redraw the boxes and arrows and constantly keep looking for opportunities to delegate and create leadership and accountability at each of these levels rather than keeping them all centralized. By decentralizing, I don’t mean abdicating the responsibilities but making sure everyone on the team has a fair opportunity to be a ‘part of it’ rather than simply being a bystander.

One more important but invisible and hence ill-understood connotation of efficiency is culture. If people are doing the right thing as per the organizational policies and procedures, then it is a good culture of ownership and compliance (some might agree if ‘compliance’ is still a good idea, but let’s suspend that judgment for now). However, if people are not doing the right thing because their organizational policies and procedures don’t explicitly let them take such initiatives even if they are on a burning platform, then such culture is fundamentally inefficient, even dysfunctional. So, the notion of efficiency shouldn’t be seen only in the context of how well a process uses time and resources to product its intended output, but should holistically factor-in people aspects as well.

Innovation

The lure of the geese that lays golden eggs is so tempting, it clouds our ability to think next and take any amount of risks to find if the geese could do any better? No one wants to mess with products that are performing well in the field – sales doesn’t want disruptive changes that customers might not like, and in the age of quarterly guidance and micro-scrutiny, no one wants to stick their neck out and signup for a mission impossible project. As a result, new initiatives are never bold big bets, but end up being mostly cosmetic and ‘wall-street-safe’ initiatives that won’t kill the company (and the execs behind it!) if something were to backfire. Business books are littered with real-life case studies of such thinking that killed long-term disruptive innovation in favor of preserving short-term revenue thinking. Sony was so successful with its Trinitron technology that it never felt a threat from the newer flat TV technology, and as a result, lost out to newer and more nimble players (even though it managed to catch up with its Bravia series later). Similarly, Nokia’s success in a largely monopolistic and virtually unchallenged market led to it saying no to micro-trends in some of its ‘non-sexy’ markets, like China and India.

Many people confuse efficiency with speed or a maniacal focus on cost-optimization. Speed at any cost is an indicator of extremely myopic thinking that might lead to some nice results in the short-term, but is almost always guaranteed to misfire in the long run. Similarly, cost optimization (more crudely, cost cutting) is often used by organizations to hide or cover up years of neglect and mismanagement and please investors by firing innocent people who are more often than not, hapless victims of the very same policies themselves. I was recently reading that Infosys’ new (old?) chairman says it will take 36 months to stabilize or rejuvenate Infosys. How did a company built on such strong ethos and management, and which had strong of co-funders providing stable leadership suddenly find itself needing such a long lifeline? The rot that needs 36 months to clean-up couldn’t have happened overnight, could it? Perhaps playing it too safe turned out to be risky after all! Had Gerstner believed in playing safe, he perhaps would have never got the elephant to dance.

Key is to believe that innovation is not just a great thing to do in these modern times – it is already downgraded to being a bare necessity. What was great yesterday is not great enough today and most certainly won’t even be good by tomorrow. Your competition is outsprinting you, your investors are expecting that you can deliver better returns on their investments than the competition, and your employees expect to have a rewarding career with you and not do some derivative work.

Did you say innovation was all gas?

Scale

In today’s world, scaling up is not an available option. If you are successful by any means, your investors, employees and customers (and you too!) will want to scale up – be it the little florist round the corner serving its neighborhood and known for excellent customer service,  or the software company that is able to offer innovative solutions to its customers twelve time zones away. In fact, refusal to scale up might eventually bring about your downfall.

However, the same agility and frugality that led to the initial success now stands firmly in the way to scaling up. If you are the supertechie founder-CEO who designed and developed the award-winning product, you probably were there at each step of the product development and your diligent involvement and ownership ensured such phenomenal success. Now imagine you have a team in another part of the world who owns another part of the complex software. How do you expect them to make technical decisions – should they keep calling you all the time (in the middle of your night?) or wait for you to get to office and reply to each of your mails? If you are the customer-facing founder-CEO who insists on being involved in all deals, how will your sales team make any serious progress if your presence starts becoming the rate-limiting step to their process?

I think scaling up is perhaps the most complex of these three pillars because it requires the founders and early-stage managers to accept an inevitable fact of life – that they alone can’t take the company to the next logical stage of its growth, and now must hire and depend on professional managers to help them achieve that. It also forces some of the tech-happy founders to become managers, thus making it extremely difficult, if not totally impossible, to write code or do some other technical stuff they enjoy doing (and was perhaps the reason in the first place they left their cushy corporate job to start a tech company). One of the reasons companies like Coca Cola, Pepsi, McDonalds and Pizza Hut have been so successful is because they figured out a model to scale up globally – despite having a heavy dependence on virtually all perishable raw materials to be sourced locally (and hence creating a wide variance in assuring quality). When Toyota developed Lean Production System, it was widely felt that Lean could not be replicated outside Japan. However, the success at NUMMI changed it all – and established beyond doubt that Lean was, after all, scaleable outside Japan.

A few years back, an independent portrait photographer from Pune came to Bangalore to set up his studio. He was a reasonably big name in Pune but struggled to establish himself in Bangalore. He wasn’t able to establish connections with the market of Bangalore, and as a result, packed up and headed back home after suffering losses after three months. I know this because we got a lovely family portrait done from him, before he moved back. Clearly, he did not have a process to scale up his operations to another city. So, what applied to large companies also applied very well to solopreuners too.

Conclusion

So, where does it all lead to? While there are probably hundreds of variable that need to be tuned properly for an organization to smoothly and successfully grow on a sustainable basis, obviously not all are critically important and  hence one needs to focus on only a few key ones. In my experience, Execution, Innovation and Scaling up top the list. And more important than which factors does one consider, it is more important to recognize that these factors are needed in ‘interlocking proportions’ and lest we create a lop-sided organization that falls apart sooner than later because even though its engines made it run at 2x, its wheels were not strong enough to support traveling at such high speeds, or its braking system was not advanced enough to control such high power. In the end, people don’t buy cars because one of the experiences is better than others – they buy it for holistic experience. Such holistic experience is not an accidental outcome – it happens when the company’s foundations are created holistically.

How do design and build an organization for success?

Are you thinking about solving the problem, or simply fixing it?

What is the first thing that comes to mind when we see the problem? Most of us immediately jump in to start solving it. While this might appear to be a natural instinct and a logical choice for some simple problems, reality could often be otherwise, especially for complex problems. If we don’t know enough about genesis of that problem, we might spend countless hours ‘fixing’ it, and yet hardly make any meaningful headway. Or, we might fix it in the short-term, but might not solve it in the long-run, i.e. address the root-cause behind it. For all we know, the first thing we do might actually be the worst!

“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about the solutions” – Einstein

There is an interesting story about the famous Jefferson Memorial. A few years back, for no apparent reason, the monument was found decaying significantly more than other monuments. At the initial inspection, it seemed like it was acid rain or some such thing, but on detailed inspection, and after asking a series of ‘why’ questions, the root-cause was found to be completely unrelated to the original problem. Here’s roughly how the chain of thoughts proceeded:

Problem: Jefferson Memorial was found crumbling more rapidly then other similar monuments.

Question:Why was Jefferson Memorial crumbling faster than other monuments? Was it due to acid rain?

Answer: It was not acid rain. The monument was being cleaned both inside and outside twice a week with strong cleaning soaps. Upon further investigation, it was revealed that erosion was being caused by soap solution reacting with exhaust from jet fuel from the airport across the river.

Question: Why was the monument being cleaned twice with such strong cleaning agents?

Answer: Because there were lots of bird droppings, which were spoiling the monument, and to keep the monument clean, they had to wash it frequently.

Question: Why there were such high numbers of birds at this memorial compared to other memorials?

Answer: Because there were very high numbers of spiders at the memorial which birds like to eat!

Question: Why there were such high numbers of spiders at this monument?

Answer: Because there were a large number of midges (tiny aquatic inspects) that these spiders love to feast on.

Question: Why were there so many midges at this memorial?

Answer: Because midges were coming out for sex (yes, literally!) at dusk and were being attracted by light which was caused by the floodlights that were being put on just before the dusk – to make the memorial beautiful for the tourists! They would promptly die thus triggering the whole food chain.

So, that was the key. This was a long-lead food chain that had eventually turned into a problem. While the initial possible solutions included building a huge glass cover around the memorial, or even moving the airport far away (both of which seemed like very costly and complex solutions), eventually National Park Service delayed putting on the floodlights by one hour which led to midges population going down by 90% and the food chain was broken, and the problem was solved.

You can watch a nice short video on this from Juran Institute here: 

 

 

This is of course a great application of the Five Whys that was originally developed as a problem-solving tool by Sakichi Toyoda, the father of Japanese industrial revolution, at Toyota and became part of the Toyota Product System. Over the last several decades, several of the principles, tools and practices of TPS have found its way beyond automobile manufacturing, and are now generally considered as a vital problem-solving process for pretty much anything.

So, why this blog post?

Because the subsequent process of initiating required change is not as easy or straight-line as it appears to be.

Surprisingly, we still continue to see knee-jerk response to ill-understood problems that end up paying just a lip service to the real issues. Invariably, the 4th or the 5th why lands us into an unfamiliar territory – another function in an organization that we don’t have control over. In case of Jefferson Memorial problem, the solution involved getting in pigeon expert and then spider expert, and so on. Solving the problem effectively requires people to muster up all their courage and go over the fence and work with stakeholders to change something in their way of working – something easier said than done! There is a nice story of how a mousetrap, meant to be problem just for the mouse ends up being being a problem for everyone else but the mouse himself! It is a nice and simple illustration of how smaller causes cascade into bigger effects, and how trivializing them in the initial stages only ends up growing them into a monster problem that one is simply not able to handle. However, hindsight is always 20/20, and if only we could rewind the problem and get another chance to start it all over.

In my experience, apart from the ignorance about the power of a simple problem-solving tool such as five whys, when it still fails to find an effective solution, it is generally because it requires two different set of skills –

  1. the first is about doing a series of deductive reasoning steps to keep double-clicking on what is being presented as a cause till everyone agrees on the root-cause behind the problem. This needs smart thinking, ability to go beyond the obvious and build and test hypothesis that uncover more deeper issues.
  2. the second part is all about actually influencing people in another part of the organization to go and fix it. Invariably, the reaction is – “that’s not my problem”. In a way, this is like the Butterfly Effect – the flap of a butterfly wing sets off changes in a system causing a chain of events that eventually manifest in something very big in a completely different time and place. Solving this problem, then, is significantly difficult because it requires establishing the entire chain of events that led to the current problem. Given that these events are likely to be spread out in time (e.g., decisions made over time) and space (e.g., different functions in a organization), no one is likely to own them individually.

So, how do you go across organizational silos and ask people to take some preventive action that really solves the problem they have probably not even heard of! In general, making someone agree that they need to change something is hard enough.

I have found the following approach that works in many situations –

  1. First, get all the data. In the absence of data, we are all only conjecturing, and as creative that might be, we need to back it up with objective data to eventually make meaningful and better decisions.
  2. Whenever possible, involve other affected groups or individuals in the process at the earliest. No point second-guessing on their behalf.
  3. If they haven’t been part of the original root-cause analysis, instead of shooting off an email to them asking them ‘what’ is to be done, walk them through the entire process and ask them for validation. At this point, get an agreement on the problem without telling them your view of the solution.
  4. Once there is an agreement on the problem, half the battle is already won. Now start asking them how would they solve it.
  5. An ideal situation is when their solution is same as yours. But that might not always happen. If their solution is different than yours, first understand what is it that they are telling you, and why do they think that will solve the problem.
  6. At this stage, if you are not convinced of their approach, let them know so, and share what your original root-cause analysis exercise has come up with. The idea is not to confront them, but rather present another perspective and to compare and contrast what is better way to address the issue.
  7. If there is a toss-up between these two approaches, it might make sense to go with their solution rather than yours for two primary reasons – they are the primary function owners and hence expected to have better subject-matter expertise and professional judgment than you, and secondly if you go with their perspective, you are likely to get a better buy-in in the long run.
  8. However, if there is a deadlock, and quite often that is the case, one has to be accommodating. A very natural response is to go up the reporting chain and push for our solution, but I haven’t seen that is very productive in the long run. I would give benefit of doubt to the concerned group or the function and ask them to try for a reasonable and mutually agreed upon period of time till we see if the problem is resolved effectively. If it is not getting resolved, it’s time to once again get back to the drawing board.
  9. Hopefully you have an agreement by now on a solution that actually addresses the core issue and solves it. God bless you.
  10. Always remember – today’s solutions are tomorrow’s problems. While you might have solved the problem, in the bargain you might have inadvertently triggered-off another problem that is waiting to be manifest somewhere else in the organization in due course of time. So, keep your eyes and ears open if any new issues are reported – it is quite likely that they are regression effect of the current solution!

In today’s world, solving a problem effectively is as much a hard process as it is an individual and sociological change – affected people need to understand not only the required changes, but also the reasons behind it and adapt accordingly, which is more often than not, very discomforting. In a way, one can even argue that this is not even ‘change management’ – it is ‘change initiation’ which requires chartering unknown waters. Initiating the change requires even higher level of individual courage, leadership and persuasion skills to bring all affected parties on the same page. In a large and complex organization, it means hopping over silos and other political boundaries and tribal cultures and getting them agree to something else. Apart from a very strong understanding of systems thinking, it also needs very high amount of political capital and people suaveness to get it done. It also takes a lot of time to get this done, and most of us are simply not prepared to initiate such transformational change for a variety of additional reasons (e.g., if my performance system rewards result-orientation at the cost of long-haul systemic improvement, how can I demonstrate results by the time next review is due, and so on). So, we settle down for what appears to be second-best – just fix it. In reality, that is just postponing what eventually needs to be done anyhow – and perhaps at an even greater cost!

So, think again – are you thinking about solving the problem, or simply fixing it?

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…

Inexperience is the new Competency?

Past experience is often considered to be a proxy for future performance. After all, when there is no single perfect way to forecast someone’s future performance, the best you can do is to look at the past track record and extrapolate it! However, experience will only tell that if the given person were to undergo similar experience once again, would they achieve similar results? But, how do you know that experience is not really getting in the way of future success?

Last week, I was chatting with an old friend over lunch where our conversation, incidentally, drifted to what really makes someone take on unknown challenges, like startups. He was part of a startup for last few years that made, through a lot of hard work and a bit of luck, a decent exit and he had recently taken up a ‘regular’ job. So, adequately credentialed to comment on risk-taking. His view was that while logic and analysis was required to solve hard problems, to solve problems unseen and unknown, one needs to have an emotional perspective and finally the guts to take the call. A rational thinker might overthink several steps ahead and conclude it is not worth taking the risk, or perhaps the outcome might not be as rosy as envisaged. However, someone who is viewing it from an emotional angle will see it differently and eventually the toss-up is between someone who shows exemplary guts rather than chickens out! Maybe that is the reason why young people make better entrepreneurs? The experience perhaps makes us cautious enough not to drop safety guards and recklessly venture into the unknown, while an inexperienced youth, driven solely by the youthful exuberance and unconditional confidence, not only takes unknown challenges head-on – they even go out and hold the muleta to invite the bull!

Paul Arden’s book “Whatever You Think, Think the Opposite” is a favorite of mine because it leaves you with more questions than it even strives to answer. Here is a nice passage from the book –

“Old golfers don’t win (it’s not an absolute, it’s a general rule).

Why?

The older golfer can hit the ball as far as the young one.

He chips and putts equally well.

And will probably have a better knowledge of the course.

So why does he take the extra stroke that denies him victory?

Experience.

He knows the downside, what happens if it goes wrong, which makes him more cautious.

The young player is either ignorant or reckless to caution.

That is his edge.

It is the same with all of us.

Knowledge makes us play safe.

The secret is to stay childish.

So, there you go again – experience seems to be standing in way of performance, and inexperience is perhaps the new capability! However, the world works exactly opposite – we reward experience and shun inexperience. The result is that we end up creating a strong use case for folks who will go any length to ‘demonstrate’ experience. And when there is a demand-supply imbalance, the supply will need to become extremely innovative to create differentiation to carve out a niche for themselves.

Look at this picture I took from a car windscreen – surely this IT professional knows his business and doesn’t need a his resume – he pretty much wears it on his windscreen, and just a glance at his windscreen is enough to send shivers down other job applicant’s spines! What does it tell about the ‘experience’ of the individual? Well, I don’t know about you, but one thing it does tell extremely well is that our friend is very well-experienced in changing jobs. However, not sure if you want to hire someone with those skills and give him yet another chance to demonstrate or possibly hone his skill further!

Of course, we all change jobs – in fact, we all need to change jobs! After all, of what possible use is the freedom and flexibility of being able to decide one’s own destiny if one doesn’t exercise it? I am not against it as long as one is able to convince others that they are not just being honey-bees sucking the nectar off flowers, but are actually going to be around a little longer and hopefully, make some small contributions while they are there. However, how does such job-hopping make someone stand out as ‘experienced’ and hence better-qualified for a new job? The problem again is that we have over-rewarded such promiscuous behavior because that, to us, means rich experience which loosely translates to future performance. If only that was half true!

 

And if you look at this old soldier, don’t you get this feeling – my goodness, someone get a drink for the old chap! Now, I have the highest regard for soldiers – they protect us from bad guys when you and I get to stay in warm comforts of our homes. They lay down their lives when you and I won’t be willing to even step up the courage and face up street rowdies. However, my point here is on how many medals does one need to command respect about one’s experience?

He must be carrying a lot of metal on his chest, and what social approval or recognition is he seeking anymore at this age? Does he still need to prove a point? I am sure those you know him don’t care anymore how many kilos of metal he is lugging around, and for those who don’t know him – well, does it even matter?

Once I was leading a complex hi-tech product. We were building a core router. Not a run of the mill product, but a really complex pieve of hardware and software that powers your network. I had to build a team of 100 development engineers – and staff it in 3 months! To build a team of that many development engineers in such a complex technical domain is a challenge to say the least – not just in Bangalore but anywhere in the world. I took the challenge and hired a set of technical leads – none of whom had any idea about core routing. Not because I got a kick out of it, but simply because there was no one with required skills and instead of waiting forever, I did what I had to do – hire the best talent from other technical domains, like switching, network management, embedded software, etc. and took them through grueling self-learning in a 5x compressed schedule. In just a matter of few weeks, we started seeing results that were encouraging for us to move to the next stage of our seriously uphill battle. One thing I have learnt in staffing large teams is that you can’t have all Einsteins in a large team. You will have to consciously make hard decisions and take calculated risks if you ever want to make progress. I was going on with my hiring for the development team but still woefully short of the ‘target’ to get the project going. Suddenly skies opened up and I was made the ‘generous’ offer of taking in new college grads, so affectionatele known as ‘freshers’ in our part of the world. They were M Tech graduates but without any work experience. I was ‘required’ to take ~20 of them because as a company, we had the campus hiring program and we all needed to absorb them in our teams. I like having ‘freshers’ in my team because they bring the endless energy, daring and teamwork that simply injects new life in any team. Knowing that I was in a precarious situation, I decided to ask for double that number of grads because they were simply available to me! They were there literally the next day! My challenge was to now ‘train’ them – and who were the trainers – the folks who had learnt the subject just a few weeks before them! Well, to cut to the chase, we soon lined-up all the ducks and after six months, we were finally system testing the product – just as per the schedule. There were other challenges in final integration, but not because of taking ‘inexperienced’ folks. In fact, it anything, we had cruised to that stage only because 40% of the contributions had come from inexperienced brainpower in my team. Today after a decade, most of them have moved on to become young budding successes with a lot of potential for kicking even bigger successes! Moral of the story – bet on inexperience, they bring a lot of experience!

So, there you have it. The future is unknown. We have no reasonable clue how tomorrow’s problems will be. If all we do is take up yesterday’s experience and hire based on an assumption that tomorrow’s problems will be a linear extrapolation of them, we are blissfully ignorant of what lies ahead and perilously close to extinction. The other day I was chatting with my teenage son who wants to be an architect. His question was – why should he study biology? My response was – if you want to be an architect, you will be making houses with materials that are yet to be created and technologies yet to be invented. I made a bold assertion. I said – in my view in next 15-20 years, the houses will be made of natural plants and trees that will allow a ‘grow as you go’. For example, you will make a two bedroom house when you are a young family. Now you know that you will need two more bedrooms in next ten and fifteen years respectively. So, you will actually start ‘growing’ them for the next couple of years and just when you need them, those ‘rooms’ will be ready! How about that for a futuristic fantasy? But, seriously, think about it a few times and suddenly it doesn’t sound so unrealistic anymore. Does it? I could conjure it up only because I am unexperienced in both these disciplines – architecture and biology :).

Are you carefully grooming your inexperience as the new capability?

Do you care about positive risks?

Look out for opportunitiesRisk is generally assumed to have negative impact. However, a ‘risk’ can also have a positive impact. PMBOK 4/e talks of positive risks and calls them ‘opportunities’. Given that most project managers only have a passing knowledge of managing risks proactively (our industry still seems to reward crisis management notwithstanding the fact that most often people who fix a crisis were responsible for it in the first place!), it is extremely likely that most such opportunities are wasted.

A risk is just a future event with probability of occurance between 0% and 100%. If such probability is 100%, surely that is a certainty, and hence can be put on the plan. If it is 0%, again it is a certainty and hence you can plan accordingly. Risks are also known as ‘known unknowns’ because we know about those events – just that we don’t know what it exact outcome will be. So, it quite likely that the outcome could be positive, and need not always be negative. Sample the following examples of events that could have a positive impact:

  • You have made an offer to a manager whose company is fast running out of cash. The grapevine has it that they might not get any funding, and have just weeks before they fold up. If that happens, there is a strong likelihood that the manager whom you have made an offer will join you. Even though this is a negative event par se for that company, but for you, that is a positive event.
  • Your competitor initially undercut his prices and won the bid, but now he is in the danger of being disqualified on technical grounds. His loss means business for you, and hence that is a positive risk.
  • You offer “no-questions asked product replacement warranty” within 60 days of purchase. You allocate 5% of your your operating margin. Your new product has proved to be a great hit among teenages, and is flying off the shelves, and you expect that cost of product replacement might be within just 2%, thereby improving your overall profit margins on this product.
  • You need to arrive at airport on-time, and your commute is through the rush hour. You leave home well in-time, but it is tough and go. However, there is a football match that evening, and it is likely that you find the traffic very thin – possibly because most people are glued to their TV sets.
  • Your new software provides a workflow for managing personal finances. An NGO needs a low-cost software to manage its micro-finance product, but best-matching product is out of their reach. Your product *might* meet most of the requirements, including being in the budget, if only they can tweak their workflow a bit.
  • You are in construction business, and learn that government is toying with the proposal to reduce duties on cement and steel by 20%.
  • A major competitor who is also a large employer in the city is likely to announce lay-offs.
  • Because of an early delivery of an input component, you might be able to shave-off weeks from your delivery schedule.
  • City administration is likely to announce construction of a new  flyover that will cut down city commute and decongest the downtown.
  • You are a tour operator and the international travel association is likely to name your region in “Top Ten Places to visit before you die” list.

Surely, these are simple examples, but demonstrate there are always positive risks in pretty much any project. However, we generally ignore them, and hence are not able to capitalize on them (we typically end up using the ‘accept’ strategy without even recognizing there might be other better ways of maximizing those risks or its returns). In addition to identifying positive risks, these four risk response strategies are identified to maximize the risk or impact of such positive risks:

  1. Exploit – this strategy aims to eliminate the uncertainty associated with a particular upside risk by ensuring the opportunity definitely happens. Since this is a positive risk, the outcome is likely to be positive. However, there is an uncertainty to it, so if there is a way to eliminiate such uncertainty and make it a certainty, it ensures that you reap the benefits of such a positive risk. The idea is to virtually guarantee that a given risk becomes a certainty! Let’s consider some examples:
    1. Suppose you are developing a prototype. If your customer likes it, your order book could be full for next few years! You have been diligent so far, and now have the prototype ready a week before delivery date. You are 70% sure that the customer will like your prototype, but instead of deliverying early, you decide to subject the prototype to even more stringent testing and analysis. Ideally, you will want to raise such probability to 100%, but that might not always happen. However, you put all efforts to make such event a certainty.
    2. Another example – you have to make product release next weekend – if that happens, your customer might be able to roll out new services to its customers. You pull out some of the best technical folks on other projects and put them on this task to ensure that it happens.
    3. Your biggest customer might be willing to give you 2x, or even 3x business if only you stopped working for his biggest competitor. You take the call to stop working with the competitor and make that event happen.
  2. Share – Sharing a positive risk involves allocating some or all of the ownership of the opportunity to a third party who is best able to capture the opportunity for the benefit of a project.  Here, the idea is to involves more players who also becomes stakeholders so that collectively raise the winnings. This strategy might be handy for some types of risks that might have have a positive uncertainty, but chances are that by yourself, you might by constrained in how much you can win. By involving other complementary players, you not only push the envelope, you get others to the game, make the game bigger and help everyone win, thereby also maintaining your own interest.
    1. You are building a cool product that you expect to be a best seller. However, you lack the product design or marketing expertize to fully explout this opportunity. Instead of home-growing those capabilities, you decide to get experts on this project who are fired up with this challenge.
    2. Apple uses this extremely well. By making its iPhone APIs available to larger developer community, it has been able to ensure that there is a dedicated army of developers constantly working to create highly innovate apps. This has resulted in over 100,000 such apps being available on iPhone!
    3. You have developed a new intellectual property that promises to be a revolution. Instead of patenting it, you decide to open-source it to create a major eco-system of other vendors who might get interested to develop tools and apps around that technology thereby pushing the envelope.
  3. Enhance – the idea is to increase the probability or impact of a positive risk. Increasing probability might not make it a certainty, but does improve the chances of the positive event happening. Improving the impact might not be necessarily associated  with an increase in the probability itself, but might lead to a higher yield should the event happen. Of course, there is also an opportunity to do both of them simultaneously!
    1. Let’s assume there is a cloud cover over a drought-hit region and there is a 20% possibility of rain. What do you do? You can utilize scientific methods like cloud-seeding to improve the possibility of rain to, say, 40%. In this example, you can’t increase the impact, but you are able to increase the possibility of that event.
    2. This strategy is used quite well by retailers, especially in apparels industry. Studies have shown that home labels (or we can just call them the unbranded stuff) has a higher chances of being bought when carefully placed alongside branded apparels than standalone. This simple placement trick increases the chances of customers picking up home labels.
    3. Companies and industry trade association hire lobby firms to influence lawmakers and citizens to look at some important regulation more favorably, thereby maximising chances of its adoption and eventual success.
    4. While pushing for a new idea, sometimes you want to socialize it with a key voice in the organization, or perhaps get some industry references that generally extol benefits of that idea, thereby increasing the chances that your idea gets accepted.
    5. This story illutsrates a great example of how one can both increase the probability and the impact simultaneously. I blooged about it in a different context, but you can read the story Are you helping your competitors succeed?
  4. Accept – Accepting the opportunity is being willing to take advantage of it if it comes along, but not actively pursuing it. When I earlier said most of us ignore positive risks, we probably work in a passive mode, and pick up those low-hanging fruits. While this might not be a bad idea, in some cases, you might not want to incur the cost of ensuring that a certain risk does happen. So, this is like a zero-cost effort where if the positive risk happens, you are willing to grab it.
    1. For example, you have just started out your consulting venture and are busy doing the legwork for it, and don’t want to take up an assignment for the coming month lest it interferes with your initial preparations. You hear about a business in distress that needs exactly the kind of consulting that you are offering, but decide not to actively pursue it. However, when they call you up, you are willing to take the call.
    2. A competitor is likely to go out of business and you might benefit when that happens, but you don’t want to be seen as a bad rival trying to accelerate his downfall. So, you decide to take it easy and monitor the situation, but when that happens, you gladly step in.
    3. You want to take homeloan. There is a chance that interest rates will come down in the coming quarter. Instead of waiting for that to happen (or, it might not even happen), you decide to take the loan right now. If the interest rates go down, you benefit.

Identifying and exploiting positive risks doesn’t require any special talent, but it does require a systematic effort to spot such opportunities. While negative risks are typically more dangerous and hence it makes great sense to avoid, transfer or mitigate them, positive risks could make a significant difference to your project’s chances of success. As we see in these examples above, many of these opportunities will fly under your radar if not proactively pursued. A holistic risk management strategy should always consider all types of risks and identify appropriate responses.

Do you care about positive risks?

How to avoid ‘curve of pursuit’ in three simple steps?

Imagine driving down a country road when a street dog starts chasing your car? The dog ‘attacks’ the car but by the time gets it closer to the car, the car has moved ahead, and so the dog changes direction and attacks at new coordinates. This game goes on for some time, but because the car is faster than dog, dog loses the race never quite catching up the car! The resulting curve looks something like this:

Curve of Pursuit 

In mathematics, this is known as the ‘curve of pursuit’ –  a curve constructed by analogy to having a point or points which represents pursuers and pursuees, and the curve of pursuit is the curve traced by the pursuers. The dog is attacking the problem as it see right now, but by the time it reaches near it, the problem has gone ahead a few steps! So, a problem-solving approach like this is perhaps only going to prolong the time it takes to solve it, and also make is costly in the process (not to mention, create opportunities for additional problems to breed in that time). A far more prudent approach will be to anticipate tomorrow’s problems and address them today.

It is always a significant challenge to chase such moving targets – but isn’t life all about such non-trivial pursuits? In nineties, a popular slogan was ‘quality is a moving target’ meaning the bar of quality keeps going higher every time. Similarly, whether we talk about performance of individuals (what is good this year might not be good enough next year!) or performance of companies (a company might be growing year-on-year but if it grows slower than the competition or the market growth, that still isn’t good enough), similar sentiments are at play. This even applies to product development – if your product development strategy is basically playing the catch-up game with competitors, you are probably only benchmarking against the ‘present’ and making projections for your ‘future’ but without a meaningful clue on what those competitors have in mind for their ‘future’?

And we see the similar challenges in projects – especially when the project is running late, or having major quality problems, falling behind on staffing targets, having serious attrition problems, major changes in scope, late design changes, late integration breakages, or some such significant deviation from the plan, the project manager is expected to fix the problems. That is natural and quite necessary, but very often the project manager becomes the proverbial dog chasing the proverbial car, which by this time has taken a life form of its own. So, the project manager starts working on fighting the problems of the day, and losing critical oversight of what lies ahead – which means even if he as much as half-succeeds in solving today’s problems, some damage gets carried forward and come another day, there are new set of problems waiting for him :). It could sometimes deteriorate into a rat wheel situation – a feeling of déjà vu every single day, or quicksand where whatever one does only seems to sink the project further. How can we eliminate, or at least minimise such curve of pursuit in project?

Here are three simple steps that I have learnt over the years – they can help you plan better to avoid curve of pursuit, or avoid the impact should such a problem still occur: 

1. Do scenario planning for major potential disasters

Any well-planning project can easily survive one major project disaster, or reasonably manage two major project disasters, but perhaps can’t survive two or more project disasters happening simultaneously. While risk management prepares one to address ‘known unknowns’ and having a risk buffer might even address ‘unknown unknowns’ to a large extent, not too much effort is spent in planning and analyzing scenarios – doing a ‘what-if’ analysis in event of major contingencies. For example, we are in 45th day of Mexico oil spill as I write this post, and we still have no clue how to fix the problem, let alone think of the day after scenario! Even if we are able to somehow magically bpug the oil well, we have no contingency plan to clean up the oceans, provide the so-important succor to threatened marine life in the affected region. So many infrastructure projects end up creating environmental aftermess that is never part of any plan.

2. Identify sub-team to handle project fires

The worst thing a project manager can in a fire is to get personally involved in firefighting until the complete fire is extinguished! While this could erode a team’s confidence in solving the problems, it could also lead to ‘task saturation’ and lead to other fires, or even bigger disasters. I remember attending a great training by Afterburner where they talked about a real-life example of how task saturation brought down a jetliner in the US in 80s because the pilots were fidgeting with the ‘red bulb’ and got so engrossed in troubleshooting it that they forgot the plane was on a descent! No one survived that plane crash. The NTSB video recreation of this event was chilling, and perhaps if one of the two pilots worked on the light bulb problem while the other one kept the plane on course, a grave human tragedy could have been averted.

The key is to identify the best people to fix the problem and empower them while maintaining complete visibility into the rescue efforts. These efforts can’t be on the mainline at the cost of normal project plan, and hence it is extremely important that the project manager doesn’t immerse himself in the problem.

3. Anticipate and plan for tomorrow’s problems

A fire today needs immediate firefighting action, but no firefighting ever led to restoration of original status before the disaster struck! At best, it might just about prevent further spread of fire to neighboring properties. Similarly in a project, a fire today could bring with it unforeseen problems in future. When a firefighting team is facing the extreme heat trying to douse the killer flames, they can’t think of the cost of reconstruction efforts. It is a good idea to initiate parallel efforts to keep an eye on how the fire is affecting the project, notwithstanding progress of firefighting efforts. And for all right reasons, the firefighting team or even the project manage is not the best choice for it. Have another set of team members to start thinking of Plan Bs and Plan Cs (that were created in point #1 earlier) and let the project manager, once again, keep a close eye on this scenario planning exercises.

I can’t claim that I been successful in completely eliminating the curve of pursuit, nor I have seen many people who can do it well. However, there is merit in realizing how such small acts of short-sightedness can completely kill the project, or simply carry it from one fire to the other. Commensurate to a project’s criticality, adequate efforts must be planned accordingly.

How do you avoid the curve of pursuit in your projects?

Do you doublespeak?

Management is often blamed for doublespeak. Quite often, it is blamed on management’s ineffectiveness and immaturity to cut the c**p and come straight to the point, however, truth be told, it might as well be its hard-earned and well-deserved ability :). Only the very best of managers have such gift of the gab and an extremely fertile vocabulary to manage a tricky situation with professional finesse. Average managers might not only find themselves at short end of the stick dealing with tough situations, they might even be inept in using doublespeak for a bonafide reason to save their company, job, credibility or life – whichever happens to be more important at that point.

Is it incorrect to use doublespeak? Illegal? Immoral? Unethical? Noncommital? Dishonest? Unprofessional? Immature? Employee-unfriendly? Slander? I don’t know the answer. Different people have different take on it, but I am sure pretty much everyone among us must have used it sometime or other to get out of a minefield. While the intent may not have been to cheat or mislead others, it perhaps gave you that extra time or ability to get your act together while people, still not fully convinced, at least stopped baying for your blood for now! At other end of the spectrum, such fine skills might also be handy in avoiding giving an opinion or a feedback when someone puts you in a spot, and there is no way you are going to speak up your mind in public.

So, if such are the untold virtues of doublespeak, why don’t they teach it in B-schools? I mean, come on, let’s not kid ourselves. We are all grown-ups here who understand our own moral, values and ethics and pretty well understand the invisible fences of responsible behavior at workplace. Given that no classroom prepares you for real-life snafus, why not stop pretending that corporate life is a bed of pink roses, and instead, prepare people to better face those tough moments with grace and deftness of a master.

Here are some of the jewels of corporate doublespeak that I have picked up from the net (source unknown, but duly thanked and acknowledged). They are simply marvelous, and can take your ability to handle tricky situation, public speaking skills and stage confidence to levels you never thought were possible. Here it goes:

  • “We will do it” means ” You will do it”
  • “You have done a great job” means “More work to be given to you”
  • “We are working on it” means “We have not yet started working on the same”
  • “Tomorrow first thing in the morning” means “Its not getting done… At least not tomorrow !”.
  • “After discussion we will decide – I am very open to views” means “I have already decided, I will tell you what to do”
  • “There was a slight miscommunication” means “We had actually lied”
  • “Lets call a meeting and discuss” means “I have no time now, will talk later”
  • “We can always do it” means “We actually cannot do the same on time”
  • “We are on the right track but there needs to be a slight extension of the deadline” means “The project is screwed up, we cannot deliver on time.”
  • “We had slight differences of opinion” means “We had actually fought”
  • “Make a list of the work that you do and let’s see how I can help you” means “Anyway you have to find a way out no help from me”
  • “You should have told me earlier” means “Well even if you told me earlier that would have made hardly any difference!”
  • “We need to find out the real reason” means “Well I will tell you where your fault is”
  • “Well… family is important, your leave is always granted. Just ensure that the work is not affected” means “Well you know…”
  • “We are a team” means “I am not the only one to be blamed”
  • “That’s actually a good question” means “I do not know anything about it”
  • “All the Best” means ” You are in trouble” 

Indeed, what an inspiring collection – it shows and how! It must have taken years of practice to achieve such fine level of perfection. Perhaps its time to take such doublespeak out of its inglorious past and elevate to craft status, where it so rightfully belongs :).

Do you doublespeak?

Our methodology is 100% pure, our result is another thing!

What is worse then an anarchy ? You might say that is the absolute abyss, but I think blind allegiance is even more dangerous (and that includes following the letter but tweaking the spirit – things like ‘creative accounting‘ or its parallels in every field). Anarchy at least allows for things to become ‘better’ in order to survive – whether it is the idealogy, resistance, or even musclepower, or any other ills (and hopefully at some point, social forces of constructive destruction take over). But in a land where unquestionable compliance and blind allegiance rule the roost, IMNSHO, is like a terminal patient off the ventilator support. When people are on their deathbed, they don’t regret things that they did but much rather the things they did not do!

In project management, life is no less colorful. We have process pundits (read “prescription police”) shouting from the rooftop with a megaphone on how heavens will strike them bone dead with lighting if they ever as much as strayed from the ‘standards’. When projects are being postmortemed, we don’t often ask what or why the project did something that they did, but why they did not do things that they did not do. And quite often, you find answer in the map itself – because the map did not factor-in those conditions that were actually encountered on the terrain, the blind followers just followed the Pied Piper and danced their way into the river of death. What a terrible waste of human talent.

Why do we get stuck with methods so much that our result-orientation takes a back seat ? I think there might be many answers, but some that deserve merit:

We fall in love with ‘our’ methods

Let’s face it – introducing a new methodology in an organization, or a team, is not easy. People have their favorites, and it already is a fairly serious political game to get such groups to a decision (whether or not there is a consensus). After you have sold the executive sponsor to go for a particular methodology, you have to now somehow sell to middle-managers and the teams – without their support, you are toast. Sometimes you might have legitimate power (“position power”) to thrust the decision down their unwilling throats, but most often that doesn’t work anymore (even in jails!). So, you have to use your charm offensive to somehow make the other stakeholders believe that this methodology is the god’s greatest gift to mankind, and how it will take their next project to unprecendented glories. If only that were half-true! What follows next is a qunitessentially Bollywood storyline – the project is in tatters and the project manager and teams are exhausted and some even ready to bail-out. You go and put some more pressure on them, ask for weekly reports to be given on daily basis and take away even more productive hours into endless meetings to discuss yesterday’s weather. In short, we do everything but realize that our methods might be wrong…perhaps…for a change? Most people don’t get it, but sometimes, the smarter ones do get it. But by then, they are so much neck-deep in love with their methods that they can’t afford to take most obvious and the only correct decision – take a U turn, and admit their mistakes. Our professional ego checkmates us. Falling in a bad relation is bad, staying in it even after realizing one’s folly is worse.

We believe blindly in marketing claims

These days, there are dozens of marketing gurus, each extolling the virtues of their methods. In a way, it is like entering a village market – each vendor selling the same portfolio of vegetables, but each has to ‘differentiate’ from his neighboring vendor, and hence some make wild performance claims, quite often unbacked by any reliable data, and almost always trusted by gullible buyers at face value. So, some of us just go by the tall claims in glossy marketing brochures. You don’t believe me – tell me, how else you can explain those knowledgeable investors getting duped by Madoff’s elaborate Ponzi scheme in this age and day! Tell me how most banks fell for easy money in the subprime market. And if we were to assume, for a moment, that everything these marketing brochures said was indeed true, how come rest of the world had not quite figured it out already ? I think intelligence is not the elite preserve of a learned few – the rest of us lesser mortals also deserve to be treated with some professional respect that we can figure out what works and what doesn’t. In a previous blog, I once did an interesting analysis of one such marketing claim Blame your flaccid developers and your flaccid customers for your poor quality products !.

We are are too scared to experiment and take sensible risks

This is a real classic. Many organizations, certainly many more than we think there are, are so stuck in ‘command and control’ that they create a system where compliance is rewarded and creativity is shunned. This might work well in some industries or companies, but certainly doesn’t work for most of us. A beauty about such companies is that such outright disdain to new ideas might not just start and end at the top – depending on how deep-rooted the indoctrination is, it might be running in every employee at all levels. In the zest to display unflinching loyalty and to project oneself as a corporate citizen second to none, many employees (and many managers) simply abort new ideas because that might threaten the ‘status quo’ and makes them look very bad in front of the powers that be.

Because everyone else is doing it

This is groupthink at its best. Just because every Tom, Dick and Harry about town is doing it, I must also adopt (simply continue following mindlessly) the latest management fad. For example, we have all heard of (often unverified) stories how investors in the bay area during the dotcom boom era would only look at business plans that had an India component. Just because everyone is doing offshoring might not be good enough why I should also do it. Similarly, just because everyone I know is into Agile, does that make a strong case for my business also ? I think we should stop and think before succumbing to trade journals that routinely publish such forecasts and doomsday prophecies.

We are looking for easy cookbook solutions

Let’s accept it – some people are just plain lazy, or just too risk averse to do any meaningful research on what works for them. Instead of investing in figuring out what’s best for them, they are looking for some quick wins, some jumpstart, some fast food, some room service, some instant karma. They believe they can learn from other’s mistakes (which is definitely a great way to learn – definitely a lot better than not learning from anyone else’s mistakes!) and sometimes they might be successful, if they have copied the right recipe, but very often, that only results in wrong meal to wrong people at wrong time. What people don’t realize is that every problem is cast in a different mold, and whatever one says, there simply is no way one could airlift a solution and drop on the face of a second problem – in its totality – and expect the solution to work. Similarly, there is no way a cookboo solution might work. For example, Agile was designed around small collocated teams that have so high communication among itself that trust replaces formal contracts and communication replaces documentation – I mean they thrive on such a high-energy environment. But, sadly, simply to prove that Agile can fix any problem in the world, management consultants have stretched (should I say ‘diluted’) those very Agile princinples and they now try to forcefit those methods on a distributed, large team, that often has a heterogeneous ‘salad bowl’ culture than a homogeneous ‘melting pot’. So, you land in the situation that just because it worked for some random cases, some among us just naively believe it could work for our random case too. Does it get any more smarter than this 🙂

We believe compliance leads to repeatable success

Standards are often treated like insurance against catastrophes – both the termites and the tornadoes types (think of tornadoes as something that just comes out of the left field and kills a project overnight – like a meteor hits a neighborhood, and think of termites as slow and steady erosion that goes on and on and goes undetected until the time the damage is complete, comprehensive and beyong damage control). They ensure that no one deviates from the beaten track and tries something adventerous (without getting rapped on the knuckles), because that could lead to unpredictable results. And we all look for standards and certifications – ISO-this and ISO-that, CMM and CMMI (and the sunsequent obsession with all other 5-level models), Scrum, PMP, PRINCE2, MBA, PhD, IEEE, …so much so that even in the field of creative arts, there are schools that specify what creativity is allowed and what is out! There are success formulas for Bollywood movies – rich girl meets poor boy and the anti-social forces strike boy’s family. Eventually, our hero saves the day. Similarly, in Hollywood movies, it has to be the hero saving the nation from external threat (very often, coming from the space). In software development, ISO championed the cause of non-negotiable compliance and blind CMM practitioners only perfected it. Agilists were born out of the promise to create a world free of compliance, but it seems they have also ended up growing their tribes with their own mini-rules that give an instant gratification by useless things like Scrum Test to massage one’s ego that my Scrum is more Agile than your Scrum! Do, if you score a certain score in the Scrum Test, you are almost ‘guaranteed’ to get some x level of productivity improvement! Does that remind you of yesteryears, or does it make the future look more scarier?

Conclusion

Human behavior never ceases to amaze. For every one rational thinker, the world has to produce thousands of blind followers. Our schools and colleges teach us to learn the knowledge but they don’t always teach us how to convert it into wisdom. So, when we reach workplace, we are deeply apprehensive of trying out new stuff. We are excellent followers, but simply shudder at the mere thought of questioning status quo. We often behave like the monkey whose hand is stuck in the cookie-jar but refuses to release the cookies even when it knows that the only way he can extricate his hand out of the jar is without cookies. When those workplaces ignore result-orientation and only worship the compliance, the story only gets murkier. Think of a state where compliance is handsomely rewarded and questioning it seen as full and frontal attack, and its timid citizens are only too happy to oblige. They think a lifetime of blind obedience to methodology is far more superior than a moment of experimentation, even if leads to bad results.

After all…our methodology is 100% pure, our result is another thing!

(Inspired by a slogan on a tee: Our vodka is 90% pure, our reputation is another thing. very inspiring, indeed :))

Does your project management methodology lets you free think?

Its not about the project management methodology anymore. Frankly, it never was, even though it has triggered off some of the most senseless wars in the history of project management. Starting with Frederick Winslow Taylor‘s Scientific Management to Henry Ford‘s assembly-line based mass production system and eventually landing in a flavor-of-the-day methodology (CMM, ISO, Agile, XP, Scrum, Lean, Kanban…and add your favorite one here), project management community, especially in software field, has seen it all…and still counting! All these project management methodologies have been eulogized as silver bullets in their heydays (and some still continue to be worshipped as we speak), and have subsequently been improved upon by the next wave of innovation driven by ever-evolving business needs, state of technology and the sociological changes at the workplace. However, each predecessor has been uncharitably rejected and unceremoniously relegated to trash by every successive methodology champs. However, that doesn’t seem to have stopped project woes, certainly not – going by the claims made in their marketing brochures :). So, whom are we to trust – the overzealous champs or their ever-evolving methodologies ?

For most practitioners, novices and experienced folks alike, project management methodology became this one large target to shoot at, the advertisement to get the project deal, the crutches to hold the project on to, the lame excuse against change in project specs, the insurance against failures, perhaps the raison d’tre for project managers ? “Sorry, the manual says do it this way, we can’t change that”.The process handbook says we can’t take any changes anymore – tell customers to wait until the next release which is just six months away”. “You are not approved to prototype, so stop that effort”. “Our company’s org structure doesn’t allow an engineer to manage the project – the risks are too high”. “Our metrics are within the control limits, so I don’t understand why engineers fear a project delay”. Goes without saying, they come in all hues.

Little did we realize that the “problem” was a moving target. We continued to evolve our solution blissfully unaware that the problem was also upgrading itself. Every new fix has led to a newer generation of problem that seems to have outpaced the development of solutions so far, and I see no good reason why we will ever have a perfect solution for every type of problem. So, it doesn’t amuse me when people on Agile / Scrum discussion boards try to indiscriminately apply those principles to just about every type of problem under the sun, and then when, predictably, things don’t work, they blame that Agile / Scrum is not being applied in its spirit. Have you ever seen a project manager so baptized that he won’t think beyond the book ? I think those blind preachers are just living like a frog in a well.

Try to imagine this scene pictorially in your mind: You are walking down the road with a map in hand. You see a puddle of water that’s not on the map. What do you do ? Agilists will have you believe that waterfallists will merrily walk through (or drown through, depending on depth of the puddle) whereas Agilists will “inspect and adapt” a sophisticated term for “trial and error” (which is, by no means, a bad term). So, they will step into the puddle a little every time, and based on the results of that, determine if they want to go ahead or change the course. I will ask you something: forget the books (its actually much better if you burn them literally), what will you do if no one told you anything. You will simply avoid it. I think humans are infinitely more capable of acting on their own, especially in matters of their own interest, that they don’t require anyone to tell them what to do. So, let’s not try to be their parents. Right? Or wrong?

In my small world, we are all grown-ups who have a right to view the problem with our own private lenses without owing anyone an iota of apology about the unique problems we alone face and struggle with, whether we understand or not. And we are free to blend any major or minor, known or unknown, new or old, and right or wrong methdologies to solve our own problems. As real-life practitioners solving non-glamorous, project management template-agnostic problems, we don’t need to display our camarederie and unflinching loyalty to some obscure methodology whatever anyone says. After all, they don’t sign your paychecks, but your customers do! Your solutions should only be aligned to what your customer wants – and not what a methodology wants!

So, it is simply not about methodology. If anything, its all about:

  • Refusing to get ringfenced by a process document, howsoever great that might be
  • Outrightly rejecting the idea that things can’t be improved any further
  • Optimizing things that can be done better than in the past when a given process was written
  • Eliminating deadwood from a process simply becuase something makes no sense
  • Embracing change because your problems were not designed keeping your process in mindIn fact, it is not even about a project anymore. If anything, it is about your fundamental right to free thinking. But then, my view should not come in your way of your free thinking :).

So, think again….does your project management methodology lets you free think?

Where is the shark in your cubicle ?

A friend sent this story sometime back:

The Japanese have a great liking for fresh fish. But the waters close to Japan have not held many fish for decades. So, to feed the Japanese population, fishing boats got bigger and went farther than ever. The farther the fishermen went, the longer it took to bring back the fish. The longer it took them to bring back the fish, the staler they grew. The fish were not fresh and the Japanese did not like the taste. To solve this problem, fishing companies installed freezers on their boats. They would catch the fish and freeze them at sea. Freezers allowed the boats to go farther and stay longer. However, the Japanese could taste the difference between fresh and frozen fish. And they did not like the taste of frozen fish. The frozen fish brought a lower price. So, fishing companies installed fish tanks. They would catch the fish and stuff them in the tanks, fin to fin. After a little hashing around, the fish stopped moving. They were tired and dull, but alive.
 
Unfortunately, the Japanese could still taste the difference. Because the fish did not move for days, they lost their fresh-fish taste. The Japanese preferred the lively taste of fresh fish, not sluggish fish. The fishing industry faced an impending crisis! But today, it has got over that crisis and has emerged as one of the most important trades in that country! How did Japanese fishing companies solve this problem? How do they get fresh-tasting fish to Japan?
 
To keep the fish tasting fresh, the Japanese fishing companies still put the fish in the tanks. But now they add a small shark to each tank. The shark eats a few fish, but most of the fish arrive in a very lively state. The fish are challenged and hence are constantly on the move. And they survive and arrive in a healthy state! They command a higher price and are most sought-after. The challenge they face keeps them fresh!
 
Humans are no different. L. Ron Hubbard observed in the early 1950’s: “Man thrives, oddly enough, only in the presence of a challenging environment.” George Bernard Shaw said: “Satisfaction is death!”
 
If you are steadily conquering challenges, you are happy. Your challenges keep you energized. You are excited to try new solutions. You have fun. You are alive! Instead of avoiding challenges, jump into them. Do not postpone a task, simply because its challenging. Catch these challenges by their horns and vanquish them. Enjoy the game. If your challenges are too large or too numerous, do not give up. Giving up makes you tired. Instead, reorganize. Find more determination, more knowledge, more help. Don’t create success and revel in it in a state of inertia. You have the resources, skills and abilities to make a difference.
 
Moral of the story: Put a shark in your tank and see how far you can really go!

Not sure if you agree with such extreme measures to push people (or is it motivate people ?) to achieve the impossible or even accomplish everyday tasks, but I think there is an important message in the story. Quite often, we underestimate the power of ‘positive pressure’ (some might prefer to call it a negative pressure, though) dismissing it as a constraining force rather than an enabling one. However, there might be situations where such tactics might actually be a good, rather better, way to get things done.

I believe opportunities almost always masquarade as problems. I have never seen an opportunity present itself as a career-building assignment, or a game-changing company event on a silver platter. They all present themselves as a small, constant irritating pain of no major importance or immediate consequence. Most of us ignore them and walk right past them, prefering to often wait to work on ‘bigger’ problems, strategy and so on. I remember a highly inspiring talk by Scott Cook, founder of Intuit, a few years back in Bangalore. Scott talked about how they do the strategy for their products. Instead of a very hi-tech way to define product development strategy, they go about identifying pain-points their customers experience while using their products. They simply work on improving the user experience as the primary way to create opportunities for themselves. And it works for them.

Don’t run away from the shark in your cubicle, and if you have none, start by putting a shark in your cubicle first 🙂

Initiative + Continuous Improvement => Superior Performance

Disclaimer: I got this in an email. This is not written by me, and is not my intellectual property. If you know the original source to it, I will be happy to link to it, and if it is copyrighted, I will be happy to seek permission to repost on my site, or take it off, as the case might be. I am sharing it here because I think there is good value in this illustration that everyone can learn from. I enjoyed reading it, and hope you enjoy too 🙂

Every company has a performance appraisal system in place to measure the effectiveness of its employees. Employees are normally rated in most of the companies in the Good, Very Good, Excellent, Outstanding categories. Apart from the above, non performance category is also there, which is not depicted here). Needless to say everyone wants to be rated Outstanding.

What is the yard stick and how do you measure these aspects?  

  • Employee “A” in a company walked up to his manager and asked what my job is for the day?
  • The manager took “A” to the bank of a river and asked him to cross the river and reach the other side of the bank.
  • “A” completed this task successfully and reported back to the manager about the completion of the task assigned. The manager smiled and said “GOOD JOB”

Next day Employee “B” reported to the same manager and asked him the job for the day. The manager assigned the same task as above to this person also. 

  • The Employee “B’ before starting the task saw Employee “C” struggling in the river to reach the other side of the bank. He realized “C” has the same task.
  • Now “B” not only crossed the river but also helped “C” to cross the river.
  • “B” reported back to the manager and the manager smiled and said “VERY GOOD JOB

The following day Employee “Q” reported to the same manager and asked him the job for the day. The manager assigned the same task again.

  • Employee “Q” before starting the work did some home work and realized “A”, “B” & “C” all has done this task before. He met them and understood how they performed.
  • He realized that there is a need for a guide and training for doing this task.
  • He sat first and wrote down the procedure for crossing the river, he documented the common mistakes people made, and tricks to do the task efficiently and effortlessly.
  • Using the methodology he had written down he crossed the river and reported back to the manager along with documented procedure and training material.
  • The manger said “Q” you have done an “EXCELLENT JOB”.

The following day Employee “O’ reported to the manager and asked him the job for the day. The manager assigned the same task again.

“O” studied the procedure written down by “Q” and sat and thought about the whole task. He realized company is spending lot of money in getting this task completed. He decided not to cross the river, but sat and designed and implemented a bridge across the river and went back to his manager and said, “You no longer need to assign this task to any one”.
The manager smiled and said “Outstanding job ‘O’. I am very proud of you.”

What is the difference between A, B, Q & O????????
Many a times in life we get tasks to be done at home, at office, at play.
Most of us end up doing what is expected out of us. Do we feel happy? Most probably yes. We would be often disappointed when the recognition is not meeting our expectation.

Let us compare ourselves with “B”. Helping some one else the problem often improves our own skills. There is an old proverb (I do not know the author) “learn to teach and teach to learn”. From a company point of view “B” has demonstrated much better skills than “A” since one more task for the company is completed.

“Q” created knowledge base for the team. More often than not, we do the task assigned to us without checking history. Learning from other’s mistake is the best way to improve efficiency. This knowledge creation for the team is of immense help. Re-usability reduces cost there by increases productivity of the team. “Q” demonstrated good “team-player” skills,

Now to the outstanding person, “O” made the task irrelevant; he created a Permanent Asset to the team. If you notice B, Q and O all have demonstrated “team performance” over an above individual performance; also they have demonstrated a very invaluable characteristic known as “INITIATIVE”.

Initiative pays of every where whether at work or at personal life. If you put initiative you will succeed. Initiative is a continual process and it never ends. This is because this year’s achievement is next year’s task. You cannot use the same success story every year.

The story provides an instance of performance, where as measurement needs to be spread across at least 6-12 months. Consequently performance should be consistent and evenly spread.
Out-of-Box thinkers are always premium and that is what every one constantly looks out for. Initiative, Out-of-Box thinking and commitment are the stepping stone to success. Initiative should be life long. Think of out of the box.
 

This is a nice illustration that the ‘performance bar’ keeps getting higher and higher as the time goes by, and doing something the same way won’t count as equally good performance as the last time. We all must constantly look for ways to improve the way of working. People who don’t take initiative and continue the routine way of doing things will soon find themselves out of place, literally ! The best performers in any team can be spotted by the way they go about the initiative they take to approach a problem. These is a clear linkage between initiative and performance. In another blog, I will explore a model to measure initiative that was handed over to me by a senior HR professional while working at Philips, and I have used it for last ten years and found great value in using it.  

This illustration also brings out a rather unfortunate fact of life: that life as a pioneer is not always kind. Perhaps the challenges (and odds) in doing something for the first time are far greater than subsequently improving upon it (well, mostly, I think), but we tend to short memories about initial contributions. I don’t have a good answer for it, except that I feel this is little unfortunate. I guess the only thing one can takeaway from this is not to sit on one’s laurels far too long, but get going as soon as the party is over !

Solution to Bangalore’s Traffic problems ?

We Bangaloreans love our city, its greenery and reasonably well-maintained gardens, its great weather, its wonderful people who are mostly peace-loving and gentle in nature, its attitude (“swalpa adjust maadi“), its food (simply too good !), its openness and warmth towards non-Kannadigas (thanks for making us a part of your culture), its intellectual capital and its generally understated elegance anchored by universal middle-class values like simplicity, respect, hard work and honesty. We also love its IT industry like a rare vintage wine, and its newfound romance with its vibrant enterpreunership eco-system that continues to attract best of the talent from all over India to its doors.

Of course, we don’t love its roads…and we simply love to criticize its perennial and ever mounting traffic woes.

After living in Bangalore for last 14 years, and paying all my taxes to Karnataka government on-time, I feel I have earned the coveted rights of being called as a ‘Bangalorean’. It is with this self-endowed right and pride that I share my view of what ails Bangalore traffic.

I think the real problem in our country behind unmanageable traffic in big cities is GOI-sponsored sixty-year old policy to only create mega-facilities in select cities. This self-appointed eliteness and preferential treatment, even if highly irrational even back then, of national capital and other so-called metros has ensured a huge and irrconciliable chasm between ‘India’ and ‘Bharat’ and has caused mass-scale migration of economic labor across all socio-economic strata of the society. For example, up until 10 or 15 years back, for every damn thing, you had to go to Delhi because that’s where the real ‘power’ was played. Similarly, by not doing any development in North East (and graciously supported by commies), we have a time bomb in Calcutta with some 11million+ population (and events like Lalgarh are only the beginning). Today you go to any state in India – I think more than 70% of economic output is generated by its capital city and except another 2-3 cities, other cities have virtually no industry or miniscule economic contribution. The only source of income in over 90% of such cities and towns is government jobs and small trading. Take UP – systemic misgovernance over last several decades has ensured there are today virtually no industries in UP. Commies have ensured there are no industries in WB and Kerala. The horror stories continue in almost all of the top 5 or 6 most populous states, with other states being only marginally better off. 

All this is forcing people like you and me to travel to such megacities in search of livelihood – this is not only the white-collared salaried professionals hailing from Lucknow or Baroda or Vizag or Madurai, it includes the carpenter from Kanpur, the mechanic from Patna, the plumber from Ujjain, the kirana shopkeeper from Kota, the jalebiwala from Ambala, the cabbie from Dharwad, the cash counter girl from Salem, and the Watchman from Nepal or Darjeeling – look around and you will find those are people who have also come to Bangalore and other big cities along with us. Why? For the first time in their several generations, they have all got an opportunity to do something bigger in life – move up the pecking order, so to say. With opportunities to make a decent living dried up in their hometowns, all they carry is hope in their souls and reams in their eyes to take a small sip from the fountain of newfound prosperity that a modern India has to offer – but unfortunately, only available to a select few in some big cities. Who are we to stop them from buying their first mobike (even if second-hand) or their first car ???? Just because we have enjoyed all that an urban life in such a wonderful city had to offer, do we have the right to stop others from having the same ??? I think that is a very selfish thought. So, whether we like it or not, economic labor migration is a reality that has always been there ever since human beings started settling down, and will continue to – it is as simple as water finding its own level. You and I can’t stop it.

Then people complain that all these migrants are the real reason behind traffic problem – they are causing undue pressure on a city’s public transport system that simply can’t scale up anymore. And when these people arrive in life, they upgrade to personal mode of transport and then once again add to the already overcrowded roads.

So, off we go thinking for a solution. Since we are not Singapore (though we aspire to be like Singapore but don’t have the guts to put in decades of hard work and no-nonsense governance before we become Singapore), we can’t stop people from buying vehicles. We don’t want to levy a city decongestion tax like in London. And since we are not China, we don’t want to control a city’s population by ‘regulating’ who all can come to a city and who can’t (90% of China’s wealth, top jobs, internet users, businesses, etc. are all in 5 cities – and yes, no common citizen who doesn’t have the skills to contribute to the economy of these 5 cities is allowed to just like that enter and live like a parasite). So, we neither have the stomach for tough decisions nor the wherewithal to implement hard measures. Some people say use public transport, some say use two-wheelers instead of cars, some say Metro will solve the problems…..

I think all that is just nonsense. You tell me how safe it is being on a two-wheeler on Bangalore roads where BMTC drivers start, stop and drive buses at their whims and fancies, and almost after 8pm any day, every second car is driving drunk. It is very easy to advise people to give up their four-wheelers and use a two-wheeler – question is, will you do the same and compromise on your family’s safety ? If not, then you have no right to advise others to do it. Let’s take buses. Every day I pass by the stretch of land in front of Lido Mall (can’t call it ‘road’ howsomuch I try to imagine!) and at 8am, I see some ~100 people waiting for bus. Probably there are more people already inside the bus! This must be true of pretty much every bus stop. This is not the life I asked for. No, I don’t think it is a sustainable solution. Let’s take Metro. IF and WHEN it gets completed, it would be yet another frivolous experiment at the cost of taxpayer (just like the fun that will begun IF and WHEN Worli-Bandra sea link opens – there are problems of congestion at the entry and exit points waiting to happen the moment the sea link is thrown open). It won’t solve any real traffic problems in a meaninful manner. For one, it won’t be point to point. So, first I need to drive to my nearest metro station, then catch the metro, alight at the station closest to my office, and again find a way to reach the office. Many times it will be too early in the morning or too late in the evenings, or it might be raining, so I can’t always walk down to the metro station. I need either an auto or I need to drive. But if I drive, where do I park my vehicle ??? I think it is not difficult to visualize the problems that will come up. I am not overcriticizing it or dramatizing it for effect – doing something once or twice is easy, very easy, but sustaining it over a prolonged period of time is what tests a system. I don’t think most people who drive cars today will consider Metro as a viable option to commute to work. Secondly, if BMTC buses are NOT taken off road once Metro starts operation, then we are worse off then when we started. I don’t think Metro will ever have the extensive connectivity that BMTC buses offer today, and hence there will be too much public backlash if any of the existing routes are discontinued. Then there are thoughts of widening the roads – you would have seen those red-colored hand-painted signs like “+4.5 mtr” – tell me, if that compound wall has to be pulled in 4.5 meters, the commuters on the road will probably be within kissing distance of the building occupants! Is that how we want to build a modern city ?

Meanwhile, some people thought of another clever solution: carpooling.

I think of all these things, carpooling is a collosal waste of time becuase its hides the real problem and creates illusion that it is really a simple problem that can be solved by taking small baby steps. Do we all really think 10,000 carpoolers will change the real problems in Bangalore in the long-run in a sustainable manner ? Even if tomorrow we have 100,000 carpoolers in Bangalore, that will not have any meaningful impact on traffic snarls. The problem with such models is first of all they are impactical to be scaled up beyond a point and that they give you the illusion of over oversimplicity that such a model is scalable to address Bangalore’s traffic issues which are nothing but some youngsters with an indifferent civic sense wanting to drive their newly bought cars everyday to work, and take away focus from core issues that the city is simply not enough for us all, and today it is traffic that is choking – tomorrow it will be housing, then water, then schools – traffic is only its first visible symptom! We need to realize that traffic is not a problem – traffic is the first victim of a much bigger problem that is waiting to explode anytime in future – and not just here in Bangalore, but in every such mega city which is target of mass migration of economic labor.

I think the solution lies only in decongesting cities over time. Develop other cities. Make sure no new industries can come to Bangalore, or at least no new staff augmentation happens in existing companies. Create tax incentives so that people setup industries in Hassan, Dharwad, Mangalore, Mysore and like. Make really good highways that ensure even if you worked in Bangalore, you would not mind living in the serene Doddaballapur or some other such place because commute will be such a breeze. Make sure all future IIT, IIMs and any other new engineering and medical college only goes to a Tier3 city. Make sure their is great 3G connectivity so that I could actually work from my ‘hometown’ and not just from home. Change labor laws to make teleworking attractive (today some 25% of Australia workforces does teleworking of some kind a few times a month) so that people can live anywhere in India and still work for a Bangalore-based office. Make sure no one has to ever stand in queue for doing silly things like making payment for electricity bills (at least in cities like Bangalore) – ensure 100% e-governance. I think these are real impediments that are choking us, not the traffic.

Noble efforts by a few, like the carpoolers (and I have admirations for their efforts – just that I feel their efforts won’t bring in the results that believe so passionately in), will help us highlight the problem and raise civic awareness, but no sustainable solution will come out of them and achieve critical mass unless we attack the root cause. When faulty policies are the root cause, the solution also must be found within correcting them.

And yes, let’s not envy those lesser blessed countrymen who, for the first times in their generations, have the real opportunity to improve the living standards of their coming generation, even if they have to live 2,000 miles away from home and survive on bare minimum.

Art Fry shares views on Failure…

In  my previous post When are you planning to fail ?, I argued that early failures were a far more effective learning tool than early successes. Those ‘gentle failures’ could help you avoid, or at least minimize the chances of ‘grand failures’.

My colleague from PMI NPDSIG, Kimberly Johnson, shared that post with some of her ex-colleagues (Thanks Kim !), including Art Fry, inventor of perhaps most-well-known office product, Post-It Notes.  Here is what he wrote back:

“Good article, Kim. In most product development programs you must consider dealing with failure, because only one in 3000 to 5000 raw ideas become a success. So the question is, How do you check out the failures as quickly and inexpensively as possible?

One technique we have used with brainstorming sessions is to first brainstorm for the good ideas. This can be an individual or group effort. After a day of incubation, come back and brainstorm the barriers to success for those ideas. On day 3, Brainstorm the ways around those barriers. Sometimes a program that didn’t look so good at the start, turns out to have the most promising path. It is amazing how much time it can save in a program with a lot less cost than charging ahead with unchecked enthusiasm. Action without thinking is the cause of most failure.

Cheers,

Art”

He sent one more viewpoint:

“One more thought. Why would people want to work on new things, if most of their work is going to lead to failure? The good news is that when one of the individual’s ideas does find a successful path, it requires the help of a lot of people who have the satisfaction of building something successful. It is like hitting a good drive on the 18th hole. It keeps you coming back.

Cheers,

Art”

It is indeed great to have Art’s views on this highly underrecognized subject (in my view, at least). Art raises a very pertinent question: when the success rates are as low as just about 1 in 3,000 to 5,000, what is it that keep people going on and on and on ? Surely, large organizations could fund ideas in various stage of a concept-to-realization pipeline (that is, starting from thousands of raw ideas to finally the ones that will get productionized and are expected to be released on a commercial basis) even though they also need to count their R&D dollars (very carefully, I must add !), more so in these tough economic times. In the startup world, there is Darwin again at work – it is perhaps the democracy at its best that the strongest ideas stand up to various survival tests and eventually make it big. However, what is it that keeps people pushing at their ideas, day after day, week after week and year after year – just based on the strength of conviction about their ideas ? Are those ideas winners by themselves (i.e., genetically endowed), or is it the tireless efforts of those individuals that bakes those ideas to be a winner (i.e., genetically engineered) ?

Another colleague of Kim, Wayne wrote back:

“This conversation reminded me of the question Russ Ackoff posed to me when he came to town to speak for a day about 10 years ago . . .
 
Russ asked “Is it true what I hear about 3M that you give an annual award for the Biggest Failure to reinforce it is OK to fail?”  
 
Russ will always be a hero of mine for his insight into systems . . . see his wikipedia summary at this link –>
 
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russell_Ackoff
 
Wayne”

Wow…wouldn’t that be splendid to be awarded the “Most Promising Failure of the Year” or some such ‘recognition’. I think it is a valuable (and rare perhaps ?) skill to be able to ‘smell’ failures from miles away. Imagine the power of an action that helps a company move out of random choas and uncertain future into a clear direction. I think Performance Management Systems are overdue for a big overhaul, for they glorify and celebrate achievement-orientation and happy endings. I would really love to hear back about an appraisal system that actually places premium on intelligent failures as opposed to run-of-the-mill non-consequential routine ‘successes’.

Failure is the new Success. Do you care ?

When are you planning to fail ?

Yes, you read it right…when are you planning to fail ?

In the world where insatiable hunger for ‘success’ is an obsessive-complusive disorder (OCD), we don’t think of ‘failure’ much. It is shunned, scoffed at, systematically eliminated (or mitigated, at least), avoided, bypassed, ignored….everything but embraced with open mind and open arms. All management ideas are directed towards the age-old wisdom of “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail” and not on something like…”what won’t kill you only makes you stronger”. All project management philosophies are centred around safeguarding the projects from any possible failures…but has that stopped projects from grand failures? Every risk management action is towards making the project safe from failing…and yet we still see so many projects biting the dust, struggling for survival. Failure appears to be a social embarrassment that is best avoided at dinner table conversations. New-age enterpreunership, especially in Internet world, has helped a lot to eliminate the stigma that eventually comes with people associated with any well-known failure, but in everyday lives, we still continue to play safe, rather extremely safe. Of course, I am not talking about breaking the law and driving without seat-belts on or driving in the middle of the road jeopardizing everyone’s life. I am talking about thinking like Fosbury and challenging the established way a high jump is done – even at the risk of failing because what you are about to propose hasn’t been tested and certified to succeed. I am talking about taking those small daily gambles that strenghten you when they fail. I am not interested in those small daily gambles that are supposed to strenghten you if they succeed – honestly, they don’t teach you anything. In fact, those small successes might limit your ability to reach for higher skies because you remain contended by those sweet-smelling early successes. In my view, people who don’t want to risk gentle failures must prepare themselves for grand failure !

The word ‘fail’ is such a four-letter word that is evokes very strong emotional responses. In an achievement-oriented society and success-intoxicated corporate culture, fear of failure drives people to seek safer havens. When choosing what subjects to take in college, we ‘force’ our children to take the ‘safest’ subjects – they are the subjects that have maximum job potential ensure maximum longevity in job market. (I agree that ‘force’ is not the right word here, but it is not in its literal sense that I use this word here. The ‘force’ can come from parental expectations, societal pressure, peer pressure, ‘coolnees’ of a job, perks of the job, etc.). Traditionally, they have been Engineering and Medicine and anything else that ensured a government job (in India, and I am sure every country has had its own fixations at different times). So, the foundation to seek safety from failure gets laid right at the start of one’s career (well, in my view it is erected right after birth and we are still curing it by the time we start our careers, but that’s for another blog post). After graduating, there is once again a massive derisking operation: find some company that has a ‘big’ name (even if one is doing a fairly mechanical job there). Basically, trade any hopes or ambitions to do something new and creative in life with rock-solid jobb safety in a mundane assignment! As a rookie, you then become a link in this enormous chain where your job is dictated by the volumes of SOP (Standard Operating Procedures) that trade your urge to experiment / innovate with a higher ‘percieved’ safety of the given process. The logic being: this is the way we know it has been done before, and since it worked the last time, we expect it will always work and hence this is the standard procedure. Wow !

You then become a manager and have to now run a project. You have the ‘process police’ breathing down your neck challenging every single thought, let alone a decision, to deviate from those SOPs. You want to try an innovative recruitment…no, that is too risky. Why not first prototype this sub-system…no, the finance won’t allow that because we can’t bill the customer since nothing tangible has been delivered. How about a 200% make-or-break bonus for this team that is up against Mission Impossible….no way ! we will have mutiny in other projects. How about this….and how about that… Finally you give up and give in…and the project somehow starts. Most optimizations, if any, have been seriously watered down by now, and are highly local at best. The result is predictable – no substantial improvement from the previous project, at best, and an utter fiasco, at worst.

Let’s pause for a moment and quickly run through the script here. We are taking every beaten path that has individually been successful in the past (or so we have been told), and yet there is no guarantee of success in its next run. In each of these situations, the project manager faces the music – after all, the process did work the last time and if it is not working this time, this must be a capability issue (or, even worse, attitude issue) with the manager. Being at short end of the stick and facing an imminent loss of professional credibility, the manager pushes his team to burn themselves over really late evenings and long weekends and somehow gets past the finish line…but not before incurring emotional and professional scars, not before pruning down some of the original features, not without some ‘known’ bugs in the release and definitely not before going way above the original budget.

What went wrong ? We did everything to prevent ‘failure’ but we still failed to deliver a decent product on-time, within budget (even if overtime is unpaid, it still means shooting out of the budget), blah, blah, blah …???

This is what went wrong – in order to safeguard our project from any (all?) possible failures, we fortified the project. We poured money like water to avoid being mousetrapped. We used innovative processes that allowed us to take baby steps and gain early successes. Those early successes, after all, helped us validate our assumptions and only then did we go all out. And yet? In this process of scaffolding the project, we actually erected artificial life-support systems to make the project stand on its feet. Most assumptions were then tested in isolation for its validity under ‘standard test conditions’. Unfortunately, those early successes gave a false illusion that everything was fine, even though several of the chinks in the armor were not fully exposed. Absence of ‘gentle failures’ early in the project lifecycle ensured that the team thought they were on rock-solid footing. However, in reality, we could never fully guarantee that, especially when those early cycles were done with the intent to make something work and not make something fail ! Imagine you were testing a tool to detect landmines. To do acceptance testing of the equipment, you operate it under ‘specified test conditions’ and accept it. However, the enemy won’t lay mines under those very standard test conditions! Chances are extremely high that enemy’s plan will fail your equipment. I am only asking you to fail it yourself before someone else does it for you.

Here is something you might want to do on your next project. Identify all possible and potential ‘points of failure’ in the project (there are always more than one). Challenge everything and everyplace where Mr. Murphy can strike. Design the project plan to fail, fail softly, fail early and fail as often as required to ensure there is no grand failure (or at least a significantly lower chances of a grand failure). Design your test criteria such that success is measured by how many of those assumptions have failed. Cull out important lessons from those failures and now build your project plan to avoid grand failures. Of course, you won’t completely eliminate grand failures, but will have moved a couple of steps closer to avoid them or minimize their impact compared to what an early success approach would have given you.

So…when are you planning to fail ?

Ability to innovate is directly proportional to constraints in the system

We human beings love to innovate, create better ideas and solutions, achieve efficiency in operations and so on. To do so, most people ask for the latest and greatest tools, the newest of the management fads, the really costly consultants so that they could ‘innovate’. The solitary aim and hope being those ‘new silver bullets’ have the right power to fix your problems.

However, they could not be any further from truth – real innovation happens when there are real constraints on the system and not when you have infinte amount of resources and problem-solving tools. When you try to remove or reduce the constraints just by adding resources alone (which could be time, money, people, tools, methodology, ..whatever), you are actually making the problem worse. Without challenging the people to come up with smart solutions, you are asking them to move away from that ‘source of innovation’ and do something else. This might be ok in some cases, but invariably, it deprives the golden opportunity to find some real cool way to solve complex problems. A far more effective way would be to respect that constraint without trying to satiate the bottleneck by throwing money (or whatever you can afford to throw) at the problem.

The great Indian epic, Mahabharata, has the story of lower-caste prince Eklavya who is an expert archer and wants to become the world’s best archer ever. He goes to the guru of noble princes, Dronacharya, who refuses to teach him as he comes from lower caste, so what if he is a prince. Not to give up so easily, Eklavya makes a statue of his ‘guru’ and ‘learns’ from him and become the ace archer ! Who says you need a guru to learn something – you can even learn something without having the right tools in hands. When I was growing up, my father told me the story of a poor boy who is determined to learn typing and win the typing contest. The only problem is that he doesn’t know typewriting and has no means to attend typing classes. He comes up with a novel idea: he copies the QWERTY layout of the typewriter on a piece of paper and practices ‘hitting’ the key on that piece of paper ! After a month of practicing ‘typing’, he finally makes it !

Innovation, or atleast the innovating thinking flourishes at its best in places that have traditionally been deprived of capital to buy more fancier solutions and there was a dire need to change the current status. In the annals of history, names of people like Edison, Strowger (an undertaker who made the first automatic telephone exchange so that a telephone operator  favorable to his competitor could not favor him anymore) have a special place . They all challenged the status quo and neither dearth of capital not serial failures could dent their enthusiasm or efforts to find a more innovative way to solve a real-world problem. Go visit the countryside of India, or any country. From the ‘lassi’ shop guy who so smartly uses a washing machine to make ‘lassi’ to the innovations that help peel a coconut faster, we have it all. A couple of years ago, I went to this fabulous place known as Bhimbetka near Bhopal, India. Apart from the magnificant pre-historic cave paintings that this place is world-famous for, I also saw very strange and interesting things. All the dogs there had a spiky collar – it had like millions of nails jutting out of it. When I asked the reason, the locals told the most obvious reason: that area has many wild animals, including leopards and tigers. They attack the dogs in the night. Having such collar saves the dogs because when they attack the dogs, they first go for their necks, which doesn’t provi to be such a smart move after all. So, having such dog collars actually saves the dogs. Similarly, I read somewhere that the single biggest innovation that has saved human lives in similar rough terrains is usage of a human mask worn on the backside of the head. The tiger thinks the human is watching it and stays away. Innovation to survive doesn’t seem to be the elite preserve of people being chased by tigers and leopards. The desire (or rather the desparation) to survive is equally strong in urban jungles…the types that exist in corporate world 🙂

On the other hand, sometimes the brightest minds do seem to bungle up. You might have heard of the suppossedly true (?) tale of how NASA spent millions trying to develop an anti-gravity ballpen for its astronauts…and failed. The Soviets just used the pencils.

In software development, we have seen it all. From the CEOs who read the latest management fad in the airline magazine and wants to start ‘doing it’ rightaway to the architects who want to bet on the latest (and often, unproven) technology to the project manager who thinks having a couple of more engineers will help him complete on time….these are all classic examples of how we human beings are throwing more fuel on the buring house. Instead of hiring more people, he probably might be well-advised to look inwards as to why there is a delay after all, and how can he avoid any further delays. The architect who wants to solve the problem using the latest tools might be risking far too much in the bargain – including his own career. Where is he going to find people who also understand the new toolset, the proven ways to architecture the system for achieving best performance, and so on. The CEO who wants to implement the latest management mantra might be jumping too soon to the conclusions without having the right assessment of problem or having the buy-in of his team. Do you think any of these are really innovating ? In my view, they are simply avoiding the tough discussions by trying to take shortcuts.

So, instead of trying to create a picture-postcard version of the problem, try to understand the systemic constraints. They are the sources of what will ultimately make your solution stand apart in the crowd. Because in real-life, you don’t have a photo-editing software like Picassa to obliterate the blemishes to make your picture a picture-postcard quality.

[6-Aug-09] I am thankful to a reader, Prateek Narang, for pointing out a mistake in the blog title. It has now been corrected 🙂