Tag Archives: Talent

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)

Time to throw away your Talent Pyramid

Ask any HR Manager on talent profile for their organization and you will get a ‘talent pyramid’ – an odd-looking ‘pyramid’ that is supposed to reflect the talent profile of the organization. Ask them further – what is the measure of ‘talent’ in this pyramid, and chances are 9 on 10 that the answer will be ‘experience’. This experience is typically the number of years of (supposedly relevant) experience in the workforce, and pretty much determines how roles, and consequently the compensation are derived out of it. Question is – is that the right measure of talent?

I was in an interesting industry-level peer discussion a few weeks back where we debated on the utility (or, rather futility, at least in my opinion) of talent pyramid for R&D organizations. A conventional view is that talent pyramid helps us understand the operational costs better and hence it makes sense. Unfortunately, it ends up creating linearity between experience, role and eventually the compensation. So, while we might talk a lot about being a meritocratic organization, in the end, we are just paying lip service to those tenets.

Another interesting point was that while talent pyramid makes sense for software service companies because they get billed slab-wise (and hence, there is a business case to inflate roles and titles disproportionate to the real capabilities), it is really an anti-thesis to product development where talent has no linearity with experience, at least not in the classical way it is ‘measured’. Some of the most compelling and life-altering products in recent times have come from folks who were still in college, or had no ‘talent’ when they hit upon the next big idea. By all conventional yardsticks, they would never get a second chance. What, then, should be the best, or at least better way to measure talent?

So, here is my take on new-age talent metrics that makes much better sense than the traditional ones:

Democratization of Innovation Index

In the old economy, innovation was essentially limited to the large organizations because if often needed huge capex (and opex) to build and run large R&D facilities. With the advent of globalization and Internet, the entry-level costs of innovation have irreversibly deflated, and one can pretty much source ideas from anywhere in the world. Companies that continue to take a narrow view of the ‘thoroughbred’ innovation will eventually find themselves at the short end of the stick that deprives them of the wisdom of crowdsourcing ideas from just about anywhere in the world – including their own companies. In this fiercely fast-paced and ruthlessly ultra-flat world, it is hypercritical to be able to harness the power of ideas coming from just about anywhere in the organization. If you don’t create avenues to your employees to take their ideas further, they will take it to just about anyone who is willing to listen to them. Worse, they will create their own company around it. And we have seen it happening for a long time – Xerox, KFC, FedEx, and scores of companies are prime examples of what happens when ideas are rejected but their creators continue to pursue them with dogged determination.

P&G owes a lot of its recent success to its so-called Connect+Develop program has established over 1,000 active agreements with innovation partners – worldwide! They have clearly embraced open innovation as a much more effective and viable alternative to yesteryears’s internal R&D capabilities alone. The question that you need to asking in your organization is how much (rather, how well) are we learning and borrowing from other adjoining, or even remote, areas.

How many of your new product ideas are coming from top-down PRDs created by product managers and how many are coming from bottom-up ideas from engineers and customer support folks?

Intellectual Property Creation and Adoption

What is most important for your R&D organization – managing within some arbitrary budgets or coming up with futuristic cash flow ideas? Costs must be managed, but after a point, we must remember that cost is there to serve us and not the other way round! The larger aim is to eventually create a great workplace where creative individuals and teams can fire their imagination and come out with supercool innovative ideas that create intellectual property and competitive advantage for the organization. How about measuring the IP Density as the total number of IP ideas filed per unit employee? Much like the sales productivity? This number by itself is meaningless, but a trend over a reasonable period of time will help us understand if the company as a whole is moving towards the right direction. Similarly, IP Quality is the measure of how many of these ideas get converted into public filings? To me, these two measures are a great indicator of the real R&D happening in a team, center or a company.

These are more like the entry-level metrics, but one might eventually move up to things like IP Adoption – how many of the ideas are really used as opposed to just being filed, and actually create future cash flow? Or, generate royalty by protecting the entire marketplace?

Cross-pollination of Ideas

Success in the past depended on narrow and deep specialization in a given domain. However, as we have come to learn from the brilliant ‘Medici Effect’, it is anything but true in today’s complex world where there are too many lookalikes a dime a dozen. If we continue benchmarking against today’s competition, we will only end up doing more of same. How many of your people are willing to tear-down functional and political boundaries of the organization to create better products and services that delight customers as opposed to simply complying with some silly organizational diktat? How many products are coming out of efforts that systemically break down ‘associative barriers’ that stop people from learning ideas from even more remotely unrelated areas? Long back I worked at a large company where I was surprised to find that we had three versions of basically same products competing against each other. Years later, when I worked at a small company, I was shocked to discover that we had something like 5 products essentially trying to compete with each other on product features. Why? Because not only were the ideas not cross-pollinated but the product managers were all trying to outcompete with each other – rather than the competition.

When Steve Jobs wanted to design the chassis for mac laptops, he saw how industrial designer used brushed aluminium. George de Mestrel got inspiration to design velcro from burrs of burdock. August Kekule reportedly saw a snake catch its tail in his dream and got the inspiration to design Benzene formula.

So, there you go. Are you still measuring your talent pyramid by the number of software engineers or number of people in 5-7 years experience band? Do yourself a favor – throwaway your talent pyramid.

Inexperience is the new Competency?

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

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

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

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

Why?

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

He chips and putts equally well.

And will probably have a better knowledge of the course.

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

Experience.

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

The young player is either ignorant or reckless to caution.

That is his edge.

It is the same with all of us.

Knowledge makes us play safe.

The secret is to stay childish.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Are you carefully grooming your inexperience as the new capability?