What 16months of stay at Antarctica taught me?

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

Rescuing an Adelie penguin near our station in Antarctica

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

Is your talent adorning the restroom?

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

Is your talent adorning the restroom?

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

Are we missing something?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why do you pay people? No, really?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four things I learnt as a volunteer…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Week 1 of my Lean Consulting Startup

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

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

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

  • What is my ‘market’?
  • Do I know who are my ‘customers’?
  • Do I understand the ‘problem’?
  • Do I know the ‘solution’?
  • Do I know what ‘customers’ want? and why?
  • Do I have the credibility in my market?
  • What is my unique value proposition?
  • How do I validate if people will accept me?
  • Do I have the passion, knowledge, skills and abilities to convert my interest into a viable and sustainable business?
  • Will I enjoy doing it? Especially, doing it alone? For rest of my professional life?
  • Last, and never the least, what is the revenue model?

Entrepreneurship is all about believing in your vision, and pursuing it against all odds


During the next seven years, I embarked on a series of activities to basically examine, and hopefully validate these questions first-hand. I had a day job, first as running the country operations at NetScout, then heading the business operations at Yahoo! and finally being a global change leader at [24]7 Innovation Labs during those seven years. However, I invested my personal time, effort and money to expand my thinking, and did things that helped me find answers to those questions:

  • I started blogging on my blog “ManageWell” at http://managewell.net and wrote over 150+ blog posts on various topics that were of interest to me. The idea was to test whether I have the flair to express my ideas and thoughts that resonate with people, and to discover what is my sustainable pace of writing.
  • I signed up as a visiting faculty for an Exec MBA and taught topics such as Project Management and Business Ethics. In addition to delivering a very practitioner-led thinking, I also did a few unconventional things. I decided to put up my entire courseware in public domain on my slideshare account (http://slideshare.net/managewell). Surely, many people do it nowadays though it was kind of rare in 2008-09, but unfortunately, a large number of us still don’t do it even today.
  • I got active in community of practitioners. After having delivered over 100+ talks, papers and workshops in various conferences and companies on a pro bono basis, I was discovering myself. I knew people wanted me to talk at their event, perhaps because of a few key reasons – I knew some stuff, I spoke reasonably well, I was ready to speak and I didn’t charge money. I didn’t worry about the last piece because I was already in a salaried job (and will always remain grateful to those three employers for all their support!). Speaking at so many places meant I delivered some ~30 talks every year for the last 3+ years (partial list available at http://managewell.net/?page_id=2). I never said no to anyone asking me to deliver a talk, how so much ‘unknown’ their event was, as long as I could spare time for it and there was something new I could talk on. And yes, sometimes I took PTO and even bought my own flight tickets to travel out of town just to deliver talks. Once I was in an event where we were seven speakers and just five attendees. We still went on with the ‘conference’. In short, I treated every opportunity and setback as a learning experience, and I am so glad I did that!
  • Every talk I delivered, had to be on a ‘new’ topic. I took the opportunity to learn new things. My mantra was – if you know some ~30% about the topic, take that up and sign up for a talk on it. Then spend some 30, 40 or 50 hours learning about it and deliver the talk. I know some talks of mine were not so good, but by and large, the strategy worked for me. There is no way one can be 100% ready anyway!
  • Last year, I signed up with a training company to deliver a training in Sri Lanka alongside a conference. They paid for the tickets and accommodation and I did the training free of cost. That experience allowed me to prepare the training material that I was able to later use at work for some 250+ trainings I did in my US and India offices. People talk about taking away training material from workplace, here I was building training material on my personal time and effort, delivering and testing them as a hobby and passion, and bringing it to the workplace! It reinforced my belief that knowledge must stay free (free as in zero-cost to the consumer and free as in freely available) while there should be value for the expertize, wisdom, facilitation, coaching and consulting. This realisation led to the next point.
  • After every talk, I made sure the deck was promptly loaded on my slideshare account and enough viral loop was created on social channels, but not so much in the face that people threw me out of their networks :). Over time, my slideshare account became a lead generation engine. People started reaching out to me based on what they had seen on the deck, and wanted me to deliver a talk at their upcoming event. Last year, I got invited to speak at innovation conference organized by University of St Gellen, Switzerland based on my previous work that I had put up on slideshare.

By this time, I was very clear that I will start out by summer of 2015 because that timeframe was tied to an important personal milestone. However, in mid 2014, I started getting approached by ‘customers’ even though I was still not in business. I had to then decide if I should wait until my arbitrary timeline of 2015 or grab the opportunity now. I decided to explore the waters. I had validated most of the hypotheses around my business models except for the revenue part of equation Though it was a critical factor, and a true lean startup thinking might not be complete without actually charging for the services offered, I decided to make that as leap of faith hypothesis. There were several other professionals offering services in this space, and my rationale was if I could do it better, revenue hypothesis was not an unknown-unknown par se, but at best a known-unknown that I could figure out on the fly.

All this time, I was having regular dialogues with my wife who was not in favor of me starting out, given other family priorities and upcoming commitments. I was trying to woo her with all my data points, but I was still far away from convincing her. Finally sometime in Aug, I was able to convince her. I promptly put down my papers and started working on launching my startup.

I identified some 10 or 11 business models that I started exploring. Some of them were extremely promising, while some of them fizzled out in just a phone call. All that prep work helped me validate the key hypotheses around my upcoming startup. I realized that all the work I did in preceding seven years, I had actually paid a lot of dues already. Most people want to ‘withdraw’ first and then maybe make ‘deposits’ maybe as a guilty conscious. I had already been depositing for over seven years, and people knew me. More importantly, they were willing to work with me.

Finally earlier this week I officially went live with my brand new consulting startup “Thought Leadership” – with three great paying customers. I couldn’t have asked for a better dream launch, and I believe rest of the journey will be as interesting as last seven years working towards it have been. The MVP of my startup is alive and kicking, and in a lean startup fashion, ideas and hypotheses are being tried and tested as I go about bravely showcasing my offerings. All this in the first week while:

  • I have no idea what the future has in store, but I am enjoying the present
  • Learning the joys and challenges of working from the dining table!
  • The domain name has been taken, though the web site is still not up 🙂
  • The business cards have been printed though they are as rudimentary as they can be.
  • New revenue streams are being evaluated while serving my early adopters
  • I don’t know where and how I get my future business, but I spent most part of last week as a volunteer helping organize an outplacement event for 150+ ex-colleagues.
  • Spent two days designing training program at a customer site, and freezing plans with other customers for next couple of weeks.
  • and, of course, focusing back on some badly needed exercise 🙂

My biggest learning is that the best time to start your lean consulting startup was seven years ago, and the next best time is now…or never!

Get me 200 rejections and let’s talk…

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

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

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

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

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

Rejection wins when you accept it!

Rejection wins when you accept it!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three questions every program manager must ask

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

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

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

What are the goals? If the goal is to put out a quick prototype that serves as a placeholder for conversation with customers (as opposed to a powerpoint-laden marketing brochure that no one trusts anyway), then no point in having a complex program management mechanism in place. OTOH, if the goal is to do something like build a skyscraper in two weeks (like this http://www.cnet.com/news/chinese-build-skyscraper-in-just-15-days/), then you will need a very rigorous program governance structure in place with months of advance planning, contracting, timelines, SLAs, and so on. Not knowing the goals is like not knowing where’s the finish line, or not having a clear picture of what the success will look like – we It is the thinking behind questions that matters!might keep pressing on but keep moving in circles, or might misdirect our efforts into something else that looks like success but is not! Kennedy’s vision of sending a man to moon – and bringing him back alive – before the end of the decade is a great example of what is the goal – it fired up an entire nation and aligned everyone to that one single goal.

I once led on a large program (over 190+ engineers in my team developing a complex 3G softswitch). It was an extremely important product for the company – perhaps the most critical endeavor that year, more so because in the previous year, we had blown away millions of R&D dollars building the product that never saw the light of the day, and wastage of money apart, we lost one full year in the market. I recognized the the goals were very clear – deliver an architecturally sound product as soon as possible, and ideally close the year with a field trial. I set up a rigorous program team in place that not only delivered the first version of product in 8 months flat, we did even better than the original goals – instead of closing the year with field trials, we actually closed it with an $18million sales of the product. On the other hand, a few years before in another company, while leading a product development in a very new area of Digital Video Broadcast, I took the risk-first approach and built an incremental development plan (think of the first increment as a simple yet technically complex “Hello World” displayed on your digital set-top box using the entire tech stack for the first time!) that helped us mitigate the technical risks and consolidate knowledge assets at each step rather than build it all in one shot. Even though the result was below par, any other approach wouldn’t have made it any better!

Why are we doing it? Knowing the ‘why’ helps us understand the desired end-state better, especially when the chips are down, a program manager will need to muster up all their energies and tactfulness to negotiate and broker agreements with various components teams (who, for all right reasons, might be more interested in their own line of sight rather than the overarching program goals) or stakeholders in a politically-charged battlefield (e.g. CEO’s pet project ?). On a more positive note, this is also the articulation of the ‘benefits’ of a program, and really distinguishes when a project ends (“outputs”) and when a program delivers (“outcomes”).

We have all heard of the story of the bricklayer, the mason and the cathedral builder. It is the deep understanding of the purpose that helps convert knowledge and skills into passion and an almost obsessions towards the end goal. When Tony Hseih says Zappos is not really into selling shoes online, but rather in the business of ‘delivering happiness‘, it sets the context and direction for everyone in rank and file and aligns everyone’s attitudes and behaviors towards the goal – even if sounds aspirational (and would you really want to pursue any goal that is not aspirational?). Not knowing ‘why’ behind something could be like being given the command to do something without knowing the context behind it, and people might go through the motions and do what is functionally expected of them, but will never be deeply passionate about the cause that might make the difference in the bigger scheme of things. An interesting application of asking why 5 times makes sure that we don’t get stuck as the superficial reasons but actually peel the layers and go to the deep cause underneath.

Where are the biggest pain points today? Are they inside the component teams inside the program, or at the intersections? While a program management approach is a great way to address friction at the intersection, given that technically it is still an ‘overhead’, it might not be the best approach to solve problems inside individual component teams. For example, if the product quality of a component is an issue, perhaps more of TDD or automation or CI or better code review practices might be needed in that team – rather than creating more checkpoints at the program level.  

I recently bought a data card from a very reputed company. The product was absolutely lousy and the service was atrocious. Funny thing is they were too preoccupied in building marketing ads without paying any heed to customer’s pain points. So much so, if you write your grievance on their facebook page, they will delete it no time, but they won’t come and address your grievance. When we shut out ourselves from customer feedback, we lose sense of what’s really making customer driving to us (or driving away from us, as in the example I gave earlier), and then we end up goldplating the requirements that we think the customers want. The end result is a train wreck in slow motion. When Flipkart realized that a major reason people don’t buy online is because they don’t want to pay upfront and then live in the anxiety of waiting for goods to be delivered or low credit card penetration, etc., they created Cash on Delivery, and when they realized they couldn’t own the entire customer experience cycle without really making the last mile of buying cycle – the physical delivery of goods – a painless affair, they literally built their own courier workforce. Acquiring a deep understanding of these pain points will help you prioritize and focus on delivering them with alacrity. 

I have found that these are not just relevant for a program manager but are helpful to anyone – a product manager trying to understand more about why his customers buy (or ignore) their product, or an HR manager trying to create the new hiring campaign, and so on.  

[This blog post was originally posted on LinkedIn at http://www.linkedin.com/today/post/article/20140423015413-3616140-three-questions-every-program-manager-must-ask] 

Hard work is killing people. Literally!

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

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

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

Karoshi and Karojisatsu cases in Japan, 1997-2011, ILO This data comes from Japan, and while the numbers might not (yet!) look staggering to many a folks, the trend is unquestionably disturbing, and our own deniability might only be getting compounded by lack of data from our own respective countries or industries, not to mention the social stigma that might be associated with someone refusing to ‘work hard’ on medical grounds lest they suffer an injury, suffer a burnout or commit suicide!

In the last few years, I have heard of small but increasing number of such sudden deaths among senior IT professionals – not just in Bangalore, but also globally. You can read about them here, here, here, and here.

Burnout is a serious issue for several countries, industries and people, even if we don’t acknowledge in as many words. In our industry, where heroism, cowboy programming and all-nighters are considered cool and an integral part of the software subculture, there has been a (really) small effort to address work-life balance by identifying that software development should be ably to proceed “indefinitely” on “sustainable pace” with XP explicitly advocating 40hrs a week (though some might disagree with this interpretation of “sustainable pace“). However, anyone who has ever done any non-trivial piece of software development will point out how hollow this expectation is in reality. When it is the release time, families learn to deal with their family members coming late or staying back office overnight, or working through the night even if home. Those in startup phase don’t have the luxury of ‘closing the day’, and those who are entrepreneurs actually thrive in such environment. So, is the thrill-seeking behavior at work here? Could it even be the case that we are only unknowingly aggravating the problem by hiring more people who think, talk and work like us – thereby creating a tarpit-kind of environment where there is no escaping it?

It is well-known in manufacturing that we never utilize machines more than 80-90% of their rated capacity (global stats on utilization are more like 80%). And yet, we don’t think twice before ‘loading’ human beings to much beyond their 100% capacity! Unfortunately, the data suggests that working more reduces productivity, as below:

Working hours vs. Productivity

Or, our ‘professionalism’ stops us from admitting that if I put out my case for a better work-life balance, I might be considered a loser and be considered unfavorably in appraisals, promotions and salary raises?  

So, how do you deal with it, or rather, ensure that you don’t get burnt out? Or, if you are a people manager or a leader, how do you ensure those supporting you are not getting burnt out?

Important to call out here that the old harmless joke “Hard work never killed anyone. But, why take chances?” suddenly doesn’t look so innocuous anymore. 

Worth thinking…

Let’s free up agile teams…

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

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

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

Similarly, the technology to collaborate over the wire is dramatically more potent, even if underutilized in mainstream due to various reasons, than ever before. Collaboration over internet is the most natural thing for the millennials – back in 2007, a good 97% owned a computer, 94% owned a cellphone, a good 74% used instant messaging and 94% of those multitasked while messaging. In 2013, they are spending over 25hours every week online – be it social media or online shopping, or consuming infotainment or what have you. So, it is natural that this generation is extremely comfortable – even prefers – in being connected online and getting its job done. How will you make them sit in the same office day after day, and why? Little wonder that companies such as Automattic, MySQL, 37Signals and Github are starting out as massively distributed teams – not just on day one, but are continuing with their thought process of virtual workforce that still values teamwork but prefers newer ways to stay connected with the mothership – online instead of being their physically. As they say – the technology favors the geek!

And finally, the human psychology. The more specialized the talent, the rarer it is to find than ever before, and the best talent might not always be ready to work in your office even if they are willing to work for or with you. Just like people want democracy but not necessarily politicians, they might want to work with you on specific projects or technologies, but without being part of your office politics or hierarchy. They may not aspire to a long-term career growth with you but still value working with you on that one small problem that really fires them up. However, the very thought of being on your rolls and then moving the family to your location might not make sense to them, especially if you also happen to be in the similar business of delivering services online for your own customers (and who isn’t these days?). So, will you still ‘force’ your agile teams to be collocated inside a single mothership, or take a very large pragmatic leap of faith and explore oasis wherever they are, and build distributed teams around them? To me, a process is a reflection of the social values and norms of the time when they were written. If the world has moved on since ~2000, why should we not revaluate what should ‘being agile’ mean for this world?

Let’s free up agile teams…


...and he might be a 'free bird' and work remotely!

…and he might be a ‘free bird’ and work remotely!

I draw upon several ideas for my hypothesis. Authors Ori and Rod give a compelling vision of autonomous teams in “The Starfish and the Spider” – while spider teams are more vulnerable, the starfish teams could be autonomous and perhaps more effective in “VUCA” times. These thoughts are getting echoed in leaderless teams in Holacracy, and are well-grounded in Complex Adaptive Systems. There is a whole new movement of “Office Optional” new-age companies where they work from home or Starbucks, and even the people who probably show up in a physical office have to dial-in for a call from a meeting room so that everyone is equally ‘remote’.

How will the currently established mental models of agile teams – specifically on business people and developers working ‘together’ daily, which is invariably assumed and expected to mean ‘face to face’ – scale up in such a scenario? If the people are changing the way they think and interact, with or without agile, and the organizations are changing the way they conduct business, can we expect our processes to hold out for us? Think about it – when our customers expect work to happen at their convenience when they need it, they are asking for a business model that is distributed in time and space – and all that is already happening around us! So, how could the teams designing and developing such solutions not put themselves in the shoes of customers and internalize such learning environment?

I think there is a strong business case of freeing up agile teams from the physical boundaries of collocation because the collaboration methods are both – efficient and effective – and create compelling business case – even if only a minority at this point. I definitely see a wave building up at the horizon…

How do you design agile feedback?

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

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

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

The experience report is accessible here.

How do you design agile feedback?

Design Vs. Innovation?

Look around. If you live in a concrete jungle, try to move outdoors and get a bit closer to the nature – you will probably appreciate this blog post better, and might even get more out of it than this blog post!

There is plenty of sunshine (hopefully you live someplace with loads of it!). The eternal source of energy and life without which we might simply be frozen back into an ice age, and might never survive as living beings. The sunlight makes photosynthesis possible, and though there is no such direct comparable with human beings, we simply need it! Lack of sunlight could be bad or even fatal, but excess of it could cause problems as well. So, what’s the best way to enjoy sunshine? Just 10-15 minutes of daily exposure can create enough Vitamin D naturally that your body needs.

Let’s keep moving.

You see sources of life-giving water – small rainfed streams or perennial rivulets that carry the life-giving natural resource not just in the form of water, but also minutest amounts of those vital nutrients that our body must simply have in order to keep functioning well. Unfortunately, we have taken it for granted for last few centuries of industrial growth, and who knows – we might be condemned to drink recycled water in future! We can’t survive without it for more than a few days (and check out the rule of threes for some interesting trivia on it). And yet, having water aplenty doesn’t mean we drink all we can, for an excess of it can cause water intoxication, which can lead to other problems – even death!

OK, let’s go a bit more further.

There is something that we feel all around us, and yet never see it. Yes, the air that distinguishes us from other planets that have no lifeform on it. A few seconds without oxygen, and we will be all but dead, and yet too much of it can cause oxygen toxicity.

What are we driving at?

Take any natural resourcesunlight, water, air, heat, cold, heights, depths, or a common human habit like seating, walking, sleeping, working, exercising, even video gaming, or any form of intakeeating, drinking, meat, spices, sweet, fatty, fast food, soda, alcohol, vitamin, and so on. While a lack of it could cause short-term challenges and even be potentially health-damaging in the long-run (though it might not be the same case in, say, soda or fast good or video gaming), the excess of it could cause yet another set of problems, often manifesting in the long run (and hence they tend to get trivialized,perhaps).

So, what’s the point?

Nature seeks balance.

A mere abundance of any natural resource doesn’t make us overconsume it beyond what is needed by a healthy human body. The best of us create a quality of life by maintaining a wise balance between the near-term gratificationsvs. a wisely thought-out ‘no’ for the sake of long-term sustenance. Yes, sometimes we all lose that balance, but the ones who are able to quickly able to recover from their occasional indulgences finally get to enjoy life to the hilt.

Ok, but what’s the point here?

Just like nature creates a high-quality life by creating a balance – which essentially means removing the excess till it is just about right – we need to understand and imbibe it in developing products too. For example, just because you have all the real estate available on the web page, you don’t actually end up using it, of if you like purple-pink combination, you don’t end up using that everywhere on your web site. Rather, using it judiciously lends itself to a much more aesthetically appealing design. Examples are well known, like the google.com web interface or Apple’s user interfaces starting with iPod. Long back, perhaps in late 90s, I was at the Philips Medical System’s training center in Best, Netherlands. We first saw the console of one of the modalities, it was like200 control knobs on it – perhaps operating such a machine was more complex then the surgery itself! However, Philips realized that such overengineered product was not really user-friendly and then redesigned the entire console that has just two knobs. Now, that was a major paradigm shift back then.

Steve Jobs said this as the Apple Worldwide Developer’s Conference in 1997-

People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.

You might have seen the so-called featuritis curve that is a comical take on how the user satisfaction first goes up as features are added to a product. However, the user satisfaction then comes down rapidly as even more features are added to the product, eventually leading more to dissatisfaction than satisfaction.

The Featuritis CurveHere’s the thing – it is not just valid for products meant for customers – I have seen this pattern repeatedly holding out for much more mundane things as well. Take software process. Long back, when I used to work for companies that adopted CMM or ISO9000 as framework for process improvement, we ended up creating voluminous process documents. We even had over one and a half dozen metrics to show how serious we were about process improvement. Over time, we learnt (at least I surely learnt) that process is not about adding things but about removing things that don’t make sense. In that spirit, I believe that the size of your process documents must reduce as you gain more mastery over the process – just like how it should be for a product. Some of the guidance for a product owner says remove one feature every week until the time you feel there is nothing that can be removed from the product anymore.

So, what is design then? And how does it relate to innovation? We seem to use these terms very liberally and sometimes it is not clear how do they co-exist in a single context. Here’s my perspective: design is about eliminating things that are too distracting or confusing to the user so that the end result conforms to its end-users expectations about its utility and usability, and in some cases, it exceeds those expectations. However, a good design might not always sell – the world is full of examples that the designer thought was a cool idea but the customers couldn’t care less! So, we clearly can’t party on design alone! We need innovation which is all about figuring out what the users want, and then Development / Execution on how best to deliver those features or services to them at the desirable price-point. While Innovation addresses the ‘what’ aspect of a product or a service, Design addresses the ‘how’ aspects, and Design Thinking must address the ‘why’ aspect  – there is no point bullnosing something without first establishing why do we need something in the first place. I don’t believe principles of design can solve that problem (though application of design thinking could lead you closer to truth, but that is not design). Design is one of the ways in which we bring about innovation, though other aspects of innovation could be brought about by things such as improving hardware resources, or bundling different services, or using low-cost components, etc. In our industry, several aspects of ‘design’ remain under the hood – for example the decision to use a private cloud or a particular database might never be known to the end-users and hence might have no direct bearing on their assessment of a product design that appeals to them, but those decisions will have a major bearing on how the end product or services impact them.

Nature has a great way to play around with both Innovation and Design and keep evolving in that process. In my mind, nature’s self-regulating behavior about eliminating the excess is all about creating a sense of design such that we experience bliss without either overconsuming those previous natural resources, not starve ourselves without them. It is likely that a good design will actually impede further innovation because innovation can lead to departure from established standards of design – howsomuch good they might be! So, there has to be a sense of balance between these two forces as well – one is liberating beyond the known boundaries, while the other is putting constraints on those liberties and building something that is of utility and is usable for intended users. 

However, it is worth thinking how did nature ‘stumble’ upon those balances? For example, how did nature ‘discover’ the golden ratio or the value of pi? Why is pi not an integer, or why there is a notion of health and ageing as opposed to perpetual yough, and so on. Surely this is an endless topic. But starting with big bang (or whatever else makes sense), nature must have had to experiment bigtime to start with lower lifeforms to end up with what we have today. Do we know if evolution of species has stopped, and if one were to come back to earth after half a million years, we would still see the same species, by and large? We don’t know, but certainly the evolution can’t happen without breaking the established boundaries and conventional rules of creation? So, is promiscuity is the key to evolution, and I say that in the broadest sense as a means of experimentation as a source of learning, not just for some fanciful one-night stands!

Even the ideas need to procreate in order to produce better ideas! Innovation tells which ideas should procreate, and Design tells how they should procreate! They both must be present in a ‘cooptetive’ manner – competing and yet collaborating at the same time. If Innovation always wins, we will have chaos because there will be high amount of uncertainty, change, failures and very frequent learning curves. On the other hand, if Design wins everytime, we might all end up thinking, dressing, behaving alike? I think both of these extremes are dangerous, and successful initiative is all about recognizing the power of these two opposing and yet complementary forces that collectively bring the best out of a product or service…and even our lives!

Dude, where’s my customer?

I am delivering this talk at the Lean India Summit, Bangalore, Nov 15-16. Ahead of my talk, this Q&A captures some of the key ideas behind the talk.

Abstract of the talk: Startups that operate under a stealth mode achieve over 90% failure rates. While they might have bright ideas, access to top talent, adequate funding, etc., they typically fail to accomplish their original objectives. A key reason behind such spectacular failure rates is premature scaling at each stage of the startup. In this talk, we will examine the mistakes that startups make, and what we can learn from the Customer Development model proposed by Steve Blank to improve better chances of survival and growth.

Q1. You mention that premature scaling at each stage of the startup leads to failure. What is the right time to start scaling for the startup? How can the startup course correct if they realize that they have started scaling prematurely?

A:   As Steve Blank says, a startup exists to search for its business model and not to execute it, I think the right time to scale is when you have ‘discovered’ the ‘business model’. What that means is that unless you have gone through Customer Discovery and Customer Validation process and turned your hypothesis into facts based on actual market feedback, you don’t really have any need (and hence the justification) to scale up.

Why Startups Fail

If you have started scaling prematurely, I think you should stop and introspect. Ideally, stop all other marketing and sales and other activities of scaling up the product development organization, and just focus on validating your initial hypothesis. One important point to remember is that sometimes having excess cash could force one to scale up, so avoid getting more cash than you really need!

Q2. There are couple of questions we asked one of our other speakers Wes Williams, which we think is relevant to your topic as well. Would like to hear your thoughts on this – a) How does the size of an organization impact its scalability? Would you need to think of a different scalable model for large sized organizations?

A: Large organizations have typically been cash-rich and hence were more eager to scale-up in the past. However, the harsh realities of today’s economic environment have forced them to be more conservative. I believe even the largest, most cash-rich organizations are thinking twice before scaling up prematurely. I know how hard it is in most product companies to get an additional resource even, so clearly, the old rules don’t apply so well anymore.

I would build a much shorter runway where I can demonstrate tangible results in terms of customer discovery and customer validation that allow me to pitch my case for incremental funding that is backed by solid data from the market. That way, my expenses and promised revenues are growing in tandem rather than making a wild promise about the revenue without a scientific basis and piling up a large expense plan in anticipation of revenues.

Q2. b)What do you see as the difference between scalability, flexibility and agility?

A: Agility is the ability to achieve (or exceed) the set goals by being flexible about how to accomplish them. Flexibility is the means to accomplish agility as an end-goal. Even there, let me correct myself – agility is not an end-goal. It is once again a means to accomplish the next higher-order goal, viz., create a successful business.

Scalability is very different, though an effective scalability might require them both. In traditional manufacturing, it was all about building something at a large-scale so that economics of manufacturing or production could become much more affordable. The problem is that accomplishing scalability invariably requires lots of sunk costs and irreversible decisions and might be fraught with risks if the underlying assumptions turn out to be false. Henry Ford was able to reduce car prices by creating a process that eliminated user customization (“you can have any color of car as long as it is black”) to create a standard one-size-fit-all car that could be mass produced to achieve unprecedented economics of scale. However to achieve such economics of scale, he had to pump in millions of dollars in manufacturing plant and a car design that might hopefully sell in the market. So, in manufacturing, mass production brings down prices, and hence, scaling up is good, but one needs to make sure they have the product that the market wants, lest they be stuck with deadwood!

In software, scalability needs to be understood differently from manufacturing. Presently, there are two key manifestations of scalability – one is scaling-up product development process across the organization, e.g., going outside a single scrum team and aligning to the strategic portfolio, etc. One such framework that attempts to integrate all organizational functions together is Scaled Agility Framework. The other one is scaling-up your software product or services, e.g., offering the app on all major OS versions of mobile or tablets, or offering the software in all languages, or offering the product in all geographies, etc. The first one is all about being internally efficient and reduce friction and hand-offs across different departments in achieving a seamless supply chain to ‘scale up’ your agility throughout the organization and not just limiting to software teams alone. The second is all about scaling up your product and services from the market coverage or product capability standpoint and is conceptually more akin to traditional notions of scalability. One needs to be pragmatic about market potential before committing to any such expenses that involve sunk costs or are irreversible in nature. To that end, the principles of agility are a must to establish early proof points about the real assessment of market potential.

Q3. The Customer Development Manifesto suggested by Steve Blank mentions that “A Startup Is a Temporary Organization Designed to Search for A Repeatable and Scalable Business Model”. In your experience, how much of scaling is good for the organization? At what point does the startup need to pause and introspect on whether to scale any bigger, or to look for some other way to scale?

A: There is some very good data from Startup Genome Project that captures such data points. While I think such guidance is very comprehensive and highly relevant for all startups, it must not be construed as universally applicable. Take the data as a guidance and question before committing any fixed expense item whether you really need it at this point? To me, it is not any different from how one would commit to such expenses in their home or even as a group manager in a company.


Customer Development model provides a framework to systematically validate all hypothesis before going out and scaling up the startup prematurely

I meet so many entrepreneurs who build a large team – VP of Sales, VP of Marketing and even 8-10 developers before they have built a serious product to market! If you follow Steve Blank, he is very unambiguous in his guidance – during customer discovery phase, it should only be the founder of the company to validate the ‘leap of faith’ hypotheses, and no one else! I also find that sometimes getting funding early in the day could make people scale-up prematurely and that’s just as bad.

Is there an alternative to scaling up? Yes, first off, build an MVP and keep your expenses low. A key thing about the MVP is that you must aim for selling the MVP as a means to validate your Business Model – freebies don’t give the proof point that you need to turn your hypothesis into facts. Once you have a reasonable confidence backed by solid data about customer validation, then you might be better-placed scaling up.

Q4. Could you talk a bit more about the Customer Development model proposed by Steve Blank and how you are going to extrapolate from this model in your talk?

A: Traditional startups, for example during dotcom, were known for the so-called ‘stealth mode’ development where they could work for an extended period of time, often away from public glare or any meaningful form of real-world customer feedback. However, we now know such a model is fraught is too many risks. It is the Hail Mary pass of entrepreneurship! On the other hand, Customer Development model is a highly scientific approach to entrepreneurship that recognizes the need to have real-world market data before going out and building the product. In today’s time and age, technology and consumer preferences change at warp-speed, and it is no longer realistic to build a product with a long-lead time. The worst thing that can happen is to build a product that no one wants! This might appear as poetic exaggeration, but the world is literally full of such experiments. Think of McDonalds Pizza or Colgate Breakfast Entrees or Frito-Lay’s lemonade or hundreds of such products – they were all created by highly successful companies that definitely knew what it took to built new products. And yet, they all failed. Why? Because essentially, they built something that the market didn’t need. Surely, they must have done market research throughout the lifecycle, but clearly they missed something much more fundamental – product development is not simply developing a nifty idea but also entails a parallel cycle of customer development, especially in new markets. Customer Development model is one such model that helps figure out what and how to do to do customer development – whether one is a true-blue startup or a brand-new idea in an established company.

Q5. New research by Harvard Business School’s Shikhar Ghosh shows that 75% of all start-ups fail. In your experience, generally what must the remaining 25% be doing right?

A: One thing we could be safely assured they are doing well is that they are listening to early feedback and adapting to it rather than going out and building the complete product or service based on untested hypothesis. And to be able to do such adaption both effectively and efficiently, they are using short iterations where they are able to give functional products in the hands of the customers so that they can get some valuable customer feedback. Popularly known as an MVP (or a Minimum Viable Product), it allows a high degree of prioritization of features from users point of view, and an agile development process that allows creating rapid iterations of high-quality and well-test features.

Q6. If I am part of a start up like organization, operating within a giant organization with its set business models and processes (that are also required to keep the big brother organization up and operational), how does one navigate the plethora of subsidiary business groups like facilities, infrastructure, HR, etc. to enable a lean start up mode for my particular group?

A: No easy answers here! In fact, history has repeatedly shown us that the more successful an organization is, the more it is difficult to get a radically new idea going. No wonder why Sony, the undisputed leader in Trinitron technology, completely missed the Plasma and LCD display bus (before eventually joining the LED display party, even if if a bit late) or the Internet leader Google who has never quite figured out its social strategy (well, some might argue that with Google+, they do have it, but that’s one point of view). So, traditional methods of pitching an idea and expecting the upper management to bless might work in theory, but I wouldn’t rely on them.

Over year, I have found one approach that perhaps works much better compared to anything else – skunkworks. If you are truly passionate about the idea, let that passion help you ‘recruit’ other co-creators (always remember – it takes a village to raise a child) and then put your spare cycles to build a prototype to demonstrate your idea. If you are not willing to take risks and spend days and weeks in even trying the idea, why should you expect that the management will give you budget for it? It’s like going to bank asking for money, whether to buy a house or to build a company – they want you to put down some money first in the form of your contribution or a guarantee, and the logic is same – if you are not willing to take any amount of risk behind your idea, why should others do it?

Java language came out of skunkworks at Sun. And so did the first Apple Macintosh. I have seen several good ideas come out like this in large companies, though I don’t think anyone can guarantee skunkwork projects. However, on a relative basis, it is much better demonstration of the power of your idea (compared to a powerpoint deck) and your passion that might improve your chances of getting the necessary organizational support to take your idea to its next leg of journey.

Q7. Finally when is it the right time for an organization to realize that it has grown too big to be in a startup mode anymore, and might need to revisit its way of working to adapt to its current size?

A: This might be the next million-dollar challenge and I wish I knew the cookbook answer! Unfortunately, we build the bureaucracy one day at at time and before we realize, we have built an impregnable wall of self-preservation that blunts any attack on status-quo. We don’t realize it because it is like slow-boiling the frog. Initially it looks innocuous and we tend to trivialize it, until one day it becomes so huge that we can’t get rid of it even when we try so hard!

I think an organization has stopped being a startup when people stop complaining and simply give up on you, when no one volunteers and there is generally a diffusion of responsibility, when people build territories and silos, when we are intolerant of failures and anything perceived disruptive, when people want to join because of the perks of the company rather than the challenges they can work on and the impact they can create, when more time is spent in waiting for decisions rather than learning from actions following implementing those decisions, and so on…

Q8. Who is the target audience for your talk? Only startup organizations?

A: Anyone who is undertaking a new endeavor under conditions of extreme uncertainty.

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

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

For example –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When does experience get ossified into dogma?

When does experience get ossified into dogma?

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

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

Is your agile still a lot like dogma on steroids?

Does the internet know you?

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

Does the Internet know you who you are?

Does the Internet know you who you are?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But for now…does the internet know you? 

Is your plan just a placebo?

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

So, is your plan just a placebo?

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

Bill Hewlett said this about HP’s early days

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

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

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

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

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

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