A key leadership challenge is to initiate and lead systemic changes that will set the organization up for success in future. Indeed, nothing else perhaps sums up why we need a leader in the first place. However, the odds are brutal – the pace of change is already furious and it only seems to be accelerating with each passing day, and that pace brings an ever-increasing amount of complexity and uncertainty. There are no guarantees that the chosen direction and pace will lead to a better situation, for the changes are too complex for any one to understand and discern, let alone predict and assure.

In this context, any change can basically be boiled down to individuals in the organization, for every other non-human change is simply a matter of updating processes, or bringing up new policies or introducing new technologies, etc. For example, a company might decide to replace manned customer care by introducing the latest chatbots, or might decide to introduce robotic manufacturing. The reasons behind this might go beyond the direct economic advantages – they could introduce consistency in quality, flexibility in deployment, and scalability in operations that might introduce new opportunities that are simply not possible today.

This leaves a leader to essentially lead the change among people. I consider all change to be ultimately human at the fundamental level, with very high social context. If a leader can’t excite and motivate her team members to embrace the change and play their part in making it happen, there is no way the leader can succeed by herself. In a 2015 article in Forbes, the author Mark Murphy shared the #1 reason why CEOs get fired is for “mismanaging change”. The #4 and #5 reasons were “denying reality” and “too much talk and not enough action” respectively, and they also seem very close to the #1 reason.


Surely, a leader might have power and thus control over the team members to make them accept the changes, but in today’s employee-centric market, there can’t be any such guarantees. The days of a CEO or a leader doing a town hall in a trendy city hotel or sending a nice email and hoping that the change would happen are over. With change, there is no such thing as autopilot. A leader must walk on the floor and get down into the trenches, and work with the rank and file to make the change happen.

However, how does an individual contribute to change? While everyone expects them to simply participate in the organizational change, we mostly fail to recognize why they would be motivated to participate and how can we influence them appropriately to see the change as something that helps their own careers? Should leaders simply insist on individuals delivering the results, or their charter should go beyond the mechanics and instead play the central role in enabling conditions where individuals rise to the occasion and proactively lead the change instead of simply participating in it?

In my experience, I have seen these five key behaviors that can set any individual into what I call as “individuals leading the change”. These are simple behavioral changes that any individual in the organization, irrespective of their role, can adopt without needing anyone’s permission or support, and not just improve his participation in the game but also eventually raise the game itself. They kind of build on top of each other, so I don’t recommend skipping any of these – you might benefit best by starting from the first and building the rest of those behaviors on top of it. So, here we go:

1. Growth Mindset

Why is it that some people remain content with what they know, and even developing an arrogance that whatever they know is the best and they don’t need to learn anything new or put in any further efforts to hone their skills? On the other hand, some people seem to be undaunted by their seeming lack of knowledge about a given area – they simply dedicate themselves to learning new things, never mind how many times they fail in that process?

The work by Carol Dweck on “Mindset” is perhaps the best explanation of these two types of mindsets – Fixed Mindset and Growth Mindset. People with fixed mindset almost deny any opportunity to improve themselves or get involved in exploring newer ideas, and eventually become a deadwood. However, people with growth mindset are constantly seeking new challenges that stretch their physical or cognitive skills, and even if they fail in their efforts in the short-term, they don’t seem to give up and ultimately develop a mindset of continuously reequipping themselves. Needless to say, those with growth mindset will find a great opportunity to participate in a change.

2. T-shaped skills

In a traditional team, each team member brings his or her strengths, which could be key knowledge, skills and capabilities about a given area. In a functional team, it might end up being a “birds of a feather” team thus creating a high-density of experts with similar skills, while in a cross-functional team, it might bring people with complementary skills that help accomplish a given project task better. However, a functional team might have limited effectiveness, as they must collaborate with other similar functional teams in other areas to complete a task, thus bloating up the overall team needed to own and execute a project task.

However a cross-functional team might be more effective in bringing together a small team of experts who can truly own a project task much more economically. Unfortunately, a cross-functional team composed of individual islands of excellence is simply a very weak and low-energy container with passive players. However, when individuals move away from their comfort zone and acquire capabilities in adjoining areas, they create shared competencies that allow them to operate with much higher shared empathy about other team members, and also improve their own problem-solving because they are thinking of additional aspects other than their own, and eventually allows the team members to collaborate much better. Acquiring growth mindset enables an individual to become a more well-rounded T-shaped individual who understand a much bigger picture, which allows them to help others.

3. Help others

Most organizations mimic the arena where the gladiators fight each other, and the only way for one to survive is to kill others! While this might seem like a very gory analogy of what seems like a nice innocuous workplace, our outdated performance management systems actually make us do just that. A bell curve for a team engaged in knowledge discovery will only end up destroying the team spirit. While an individual might not (yet!) have the clout to change the performance systems, the least they can do is to challenge the myth of competition by choosing to collaborate. Helping others would be a great way to get started.

Helping others also creates an obligation to reciprocate, which is a key weapon of influence per Robert Cialdini, the leading expert on this subject. When we help others, especially when that help is offered without being asked for, it builds an expectation on part of the receiving party to reciprocate the gesture in future. This sets a system of gifts and reciprocation, which is the essence of social relationships, and helps foster trust, respect and collaboration. This sets the foundation for winning teams.

4. Make the team win

Imagine you are part of a football team. Each player has been hired due to his skills – striker, defender, goalkeeper, etc. Based on the opponent team’s strengths and potential game plan, the coach might come up with field formation at the time of kick-off. However, as the game progresses, new facts will emerge that might invalidate some of the assumptions that the coach had about the best possible team formation. He might rotate players; he might even redeploy them in a different way. If the team members continue to play per their fixed role or position, can the team win?

While the team might be formed based on individual strengths and configured in a fixed formation, in the real world, a winning team would adapt itself by those very individuals playing in a fluid formation, i.e., play where the game is. Their T-shaped skills allow them to be useful to the team in more ways than one, and their trust and respect among each other enabled them to leave their fixed position and help play a winning game.

5. Take initiative

Each one of us is sitting on a treasure of strengths. Even we don’t know what we are capable of! We come up with hundreds of ideas everyday about making things better. However, most of these ideas die a silent death because we don’t take any initiative in making or validating them, or simply lack the courage to bring our ideas to life. In my experience, more people fail (and ultimately get fired) because of not taking initiative than because of making mistakes. When you have a great team that wins, it also builds the right environment where people are not afraid of taking initiative. They know that if they fail, their team members have their back. However, a big question invariably comes up – how do I know if I am taking enough initiative or not, and how can I improve it?

A few years back, I had blogged about a scale of initiative that was introduced to me in the 90s, and has served me well. Those interested could refer to the blog post “How do you measure Initiative” available at http://managewell.net/?p=1100.


In today’s world, a leader can’t simply demand change from her team. She must build the right conditions where team members are constantly encouraged to participate in changes in a non-intimidating environment, and build relationships that allow them to harness the social energy that is needed to make any change successful.

Also, a leader must change the mindset that individual are there simply to follow the change. If the leader recognizes that each individual has immense power to lead the change at their respective levels, the leader can not only lead to more successful change, but create a long-lasting and self-sustaining culture of participation, ownership and engagement.

(A shorter version of this article was originally published as an invited article in PMI’s Manage India magazine, and is available online at http://pmi.org.in/manageindia/volume6/issue12/invitation.html)

What is Customer eXperience (CX)?

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

How will you define CX to a layman?

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

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

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

Keep it simple. Simple just work!

Keep it simple. Simple just works!

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the most challenging task for CX Management?

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

How do you connect Customer Acquisition to the Feedback?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are You A Tour Guide?

Whenever my wife and I travel to historical places, we insist on taking a local tour guide. Not that internet or the Lonely Planet Guides don’t provide with enough information about the monuments and the ruins already! But, we find it fascinating when a local tour guide tells the story.

Their stories are raw, unedited, rustic, emotional, interactive, rich of emotions, dramatic events, romance, devotion, rivalry, jealousy, bravery, politics, honor, sacrifice, betrayal and friendship! They make the lifeless stones come alive, they make the old structures dance, and they make the dilapidated ruins tell a story that you never knew existed! They create a highly engaging show that not only has audio, and visual content, but even historical, cultural and anthropological element that is unparalleled in modern media experiences.

There were times when we didn’t engage with a tour guide – sometimes it was out of laziness, sometimes we felt they were overcharging (yes, I know it sounds a bit mean!). And I can tell you, those were the dullest visits that we never enjoyed! On a couple of occasions, we actually came back and engaged a guide and went back the second time and totally enjoyed the experience.

What's the story here?

What is the story here? (Picture taken by the author at the famous Jagdish Temple, Udaipur)

A lot of us treat our careers, accomplishments, pet projects and interests in a similar manner – taking visitors to a museum or a monument without a tour guide! When you ask them to tell their high points on their last project, you feel as if they are reading the weather bulletin. When you ask them about their passions, you feel they are reading some text from a book on integral calculus. There is no emotion, there is no attachment, there is no belongingness. In short, they are not able to tell their own story in a way that makes the listener sit up and take notice, get curious about what you have to say on something, and possibly ask you more! And when that doesn’t happen, the whole experience falls flat and leaves you wondering why people don’t take interest in what you have to say!

Not all of us born storytellers, but we can always improve from where we are. Here is a simple way to get started. Next time when you are asked to tell your story, start with these three simple steps:

Why did you do what you did?

Suppose you went out one weekend and helped your neighborhood charity, or you took some old painting to put it on canvas with your brush strokes, or you decided to build a web site. Whatever. Why did you choose any of those problems? What was so different, or compelling, or important, or engaging in it that you were drawn to the problem and decided to invest your time, effort and passion to it? By telling this, you can build a better connect with people and let them understand more about what you care, what your values are, what motivates and engages you.

What challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?

To say that you were this cool dude who simply “veni, vidi and vici” would perhaps sound too pompous (even if that is perhaps true!). People get interested in the story when they realize that you were up against this big dragon and you were as infallible as any other human being, but with persistence and hard work and a little bit of smart thinking and creative problem-solving, you slowly and steadily overcame challenges one by one and saved the day. Of course, they don’t want to know that out of one hundred and seventy nine team members on that project, you were the only one who actually gave his blood, sweat and tears to the projects’ eventuall success (while others all slept away to glory). They want to see you as a lifelike human being, and not a larger than life human being! By telling the story, you let others learn about your perseverance, your work ethics, your humility and your teamwork.

What did you learn from your experiences?

When you killed an eighty-foot long monster, what did you learn from that experience, or the half-a-million-lines-of-code enterprise software that was seriously behind schedule and budget that you managed to ship with just two months of delay, what did you learn from it? The learnings, goes without saying, are not the learnings about facts of nature (of course, they are important too), but more about what did you learn about yourself from those experiences that is likely to make you a better person, a better human being, a better professional, a better team player or a better leader. Sharing this shows you are not infallible (and not afraid to show your scars and tears), you are not above learning in the truest sense, and that you are melioristic. Only a person who can change himself, or herself, perhaps can ever bring a bigger change!


So, there you are. These three simple steps will help you get started to become a better tour guide of your own monuments, and ruins too! – after all, if you can make people interested in some of your grand failures and that helps people discover an aspect of yours that might be vital to a future endeavor or an indicator of your response mechanism in a similar situation, then why shouldn’t you?

But, do start with asking the more fundamental question. Are you a tour guide?

What’s your agenda?

We have all kinds of people around us – some people seem to have no agenda, while some seem to have hidden agendas. Most people don’t seem to know what their agenda is, though some lower-form of materialistic agenda might always be on their mind! Some people seem to content with others setting their agenda, while some very exceptional minds among us are so influential, they might help others set their agenda. Do people have the same agenda always, or it change with time (it does seem logical that agendas must change with changing priorities, but how?). If it changes with time, would it help to understand its shades just so we can know where we are at a given time, and potentially, set a goal around where we want to be next?

While thinking about all this, I got wondering if there was a way to “measure” people on what their agenda was? Would it be possible to create some scale that allowed us to understand where were we, not necessarily to compare against others, but just to know where do we stand, if we at all wanted to move further, could there be some kind of roadmap to it?


My quest for some answer (and not necessarily a right answer) led me to some interesting reflection, and I came up with the following perspective. Treat it like evolutionary stages of one’s agenda –  if one looks at any meaningful and logical slice of one’s professional (or even personal) life as a single unit, than it might appear to live its journey in an iteration. For example, when one starts their career, or when one starts their new job as a first-time CEO, maybe there are similarities among them as far as the stages of agenda is concerned, even if the scope and scale of their agenda might be substantially different. Surely, this isn’t any heavy scientific theory or some social experiment data – this is simply based on my anecdotal data and some logical thinking, and might very well be untrue, incomplete, inconsistent or simply useless! Time will surely tell me that :). Anyway, here I submit my reflection for your suggestion and feedback.

Let’s go.

Stage 1: You don’t have an agenda!

When you start your journey, you are the obedient learner, the humble follower, the curious child who gets attracted to the unseen, the unheard, the unknown, the unexplained, the un-understood…anything new, bizzare…and you may have no real agenda as to what exactly you want to do in life (or in your most immediate journey). You might travel from city to city, jump from adventure to adventure…but mostly you have no real end-goal in mind. This is the formative stage where your only agenda (if I can say that) is to absorb anything and everything without any motive, ulterior or not. You just “do it” without any particular reason other than possibly simply learning things, or doing it for the sake of doing it. Some people also might simply while away their time with either “busy work” or just a way to pass the time, and appear to be “living dead” in this stage, but more people are likely to live this stage with a bit more energy and enthusiasm even when there is no real agenda.

Stage 2: Others set your agenda

At some point, you find something that sets your agenda, or at least starts the process. It could be anything – an idea that inspires you, an obstacle that fires you, a friend who motivates you, a parent who pushes you, a manager who forces you, a guru who liberates you…whatever! The key thing is that you are not directionless, rudderless anymore but you have this big purpose dangling in front of you. At this stage, it is more likely that others are setting this agenda for you as you don’t have any real agenda of you own. You are still learning from others as to what might be some way to build a pipeline of activities that leads to the nirvana. Or, at least you believe that might be the nirvana!

Stage 3 You set your own agenda

For a seeker of truth and self-made goals in life, this is the moment when you discover your purpose. You discard what others have set for you (perhaps you think that’s not the real you, or you simply have a change in plan, or are attracted to something else than what you initially started out with, etc.). You have also become more knowledgeable, competent, mature, confident and perhaps even resourceful to write your own agenda – whether ready or not, right or wrong, high or low, realistic or ambitious – it doesn’t really matter. What matters is your belief in what you really want to do, and your desire to go for it. This could be the phase when you really start taking risks, learn something new, become an entrepreneur, take up a significantly challenging assignment much above your current level of training or experience, and so on. The key is to start somewhere so long as you actually gets started to create your own agenda!

Stage 4: You set other’s agenda

This is the pinnacle of peer and social recognition – you have fans who look up to you, you have peers who worship you, leaders who cherish you, and even have competitors who respect you (and not just secretly)! In some cases, like the legendary Guru Dronacharya who was not there physically for the archer-enthusiast Eklavya so he simply made his statue and “learnt” from it, you might not be physically present to (help) set other’s agenda but your thought, ideas, words and deeds inspire people across the time and space. And for those who have the fortune to interact with you – be as your team member, or colleague, friend, teacher, leader or anyone else – you are trusted and respected to the extent that others feel they can count on you for help in setting their own agenda. It is also possible that some people in this stage do it because of the hierarchy or the title, e.g., they might be a manager for a team. We are not really interested in this, but more interested in what kind of unofficial or the informal power, or rather influence, do you really wield in those situations. Very few among us get to this level, though a significant larger among us already believe we are here 🙂

Stage 5: You don’t need an agenda!

This is the nirvana. You have finally arrived to the point of self-actualization when you not only don’t need any social proof or endorsement from the society at large about who you are or what you do, you also don’t care for it! Not in an arrogant manner (though some rare eccentric geniuses are known to have gone to that point) but in a self-assured manner that your identity is not defined by how others measure you. Life comes a full circle for you, but not before having grown you as an individual, as a professional in your chosen discipline and certainly not before you have had an opportunity to influence people and help the world become a better place. At this stage, nothing really matters because you are that self-assured person who doesn’t need to derive “power” from even influencing others as in Stage 4, but you want to be like the sage or the heretic who goes into deep meditation and is on the path to become an institution by himself or herself, and doesn’t care whether people accept or reject his ideas. You may not even be known or become famous, but that doesn’t matter anymore – what really matters if whether you know who you are without necessarily knowing where you want to go next.

So, this is my reflection on the journey of an agenda – like all deep reflections, it ends exactly where it starts, and when you look superficially, a person with no agenda might look the same as a person who doesn’t need an agenda (because to you, it still appears that he has no agenda – but only he knows in his mind that he doesn’t have an agenda because he doesn’t need one!). However, when you look deep inside, you find a journey of a lifetime that starts with exploration and ends with self-discovery. Very few among us make it, though.

What’s your agenda?

Do you read the second line?

I was booking movie tickets online, and when it came to payment, the BookMyShow payment offers were clamouring for my attention. In the past, I have learnt to carefully disregard and safely ignore those smartly camouflaged shady offers like the “Citibank World Debit Card – Buy One Get One Free” or the “ICICI Buy 1 Get 1 Offer” because they were basically designed to fool the customers. At least from my point of view!

Oh, this offer is only for the weekdays

This offer is only for the movie tickets below Rs. 250

and so on. I mean why even go through all the efforts when you don’t want your customers to be able to avail of all those sexy offers? Surely, there are many other ways to lose customers. So, I have now given up trusting on the credit card offers (as if I ever trusted marketing!).

Speed limit...!

This time for a change, I decided to try the mobile wallets, hoping they will offer some new snake oil.

And I wasn’t disappointed!

The PayTM offer said 50% off….and it took my breath away for a moment! Imagine being able to enjoy two movies at the cost of one! I mean, just do little bit math, and you can actually have two Porsches for the price of one…it just doesn’t get better than this, does it? My life was made!!!

One click later, I got closer to the truth! I discovered the fine bold print – Every 10th customer gets 50% cashback upto a maximum discount of Rs.100. Of course, the smart marketing did get me for a moment…but only to make me a even more of the very-suspicious-shopper-of-PayTM-marketing-gimmickery-in-future!


At that time, my wife rightly reminded me that since the times immortal, it has always been the second line that’s been the most crucial one – rather more important than the first line. I am sure you remember this famous line from Yudhishtara to Dronacharya from Mahabharat, “Ashwathama mara gaya..(pause, and then almost an inaudible whisper)…par nar nahin kunjar” (Yes, Ashwathama is dead…but the elephant, not the man”. Unfortunately, Dronacharya was not able to hear the second line (or rather, Krishna’s grand plans ensured that was indeed the way it had to be!) and dropped his impregnable armour just for a few moments, which was enough for Dhrishtadyumna to kill him. Obviously, not reading the second line cost him his dear life.

Thankfully, our lives is not at stake, most part of the day. And not reading the second line does give some much-needed comical relief in the otherwise tense days. Imagine being re-told the joke of “buy one get one free” so sincerely, it makes you smile everytime you see it :).

But, not reading the second line could also potentially land you some genuinely spurious deals, and eventually leave you shortchanged. Other names for this have included “the fine print”, and so on, but I think it is as simple as reading the second line!

Do you read the second line?

How to go faster than you can?

How to go faster than you can?


Speed is a key skill in today’s fast-moving and forever-changing world. However, most companies are not designed for speed – instead they are designed for efficiency as they typically need to cover a long distance. They end up wasting a lot of time in simply waiting for decisions, or some critical resources, or approvals from management, and so on. On the other hand, startups are designed for speed and don’t (need to) care (so) much for efficiency, because they must perform on a very short runway. They have a limited amount of time and money, and while they still have the funds to keep them going, they must make the best of it and keep experimenting till they discover repeatable, scaleable and sustainable way to make money.  Speed is important to make the kill today, and if we survive to tell the tale, the efficiencies can always come tomorrow. Good or bad, that’s the way it works.

However, have you thought what exactly is the relationship between distance covered and the speed attained? Logically, it seems clear – we can always go fast over short distances, and must lose speed over longer distances. But is there any data to support this? And if yes, is that a straight line, a curve,…? Further, are there variations to it? Over the same distance, can we still go faster than what seems to be physical limits of a human being? For example, could working in teams make it faster?

I thought of examining the data.

The longer you go, the slower you get

Of course, you always knew it. But, do we have any data to support it? And, even if this were true anecdotally, is there any math behind the data?

I looked the men’s track and field world records (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_world_records_in_athletics) and plotted the speed vs distance for all distances from 100m to 100kms in running. The resulting curve looks like this:

It is interesting to note that the data is fairly consistent when it comes to human limits – there is an inverse relationship between the distance covered and the top speed achieved. In other words, the longer you go, the slower you get – even when you compare world records of different specialist runners. Of course, we might not be able to push it ad infinitum and achieve mach speeds or more by shortening distances to ridiculously low atomic distances, but then, who knows 🙂 – maybe there is some interesting problem waiting to be discovered when do do that!

So, what would be the most logical thing to do if you need to get there faster? No doubt – go short distances. What if the distance covered is more than what one person can sustainably complete – surely, we can’t just travel a fraction of it and stop? Let’s look at relay teams.

A relay team is faster than an individual

What happens when we take numbers from relay race and compare it with a single runner running (or swimming the same distance) alone? I took data from four men’s events and compared them side by side:

The data is limited only for short-distance relay races (and I was tempted to include data from ekidens and Swedish Relays, but maybe another day!). However, in each of the cases, the average speed went up (between 13% and 28%) when a relay team ran the same distance as an individual runner.

Again, is it logical to explain. One runner running the entire 400m will get tired, but each time a new runner comes and does next 100m of the relay race, he/she can put in fresh burst of energy and since they have to sustain themselves only for 1/4th of the total distance, they can be very fast – certainly faster than the individual runner who has already done first or second laps.

So, clearly, if we divide the tasks such that different team members can add value to it at different point in time, we can do the same work faster.

How about if we all did the same job together? For that, I had to leave athletics track and find something else where teams work together on the same task as the same time. Guess any sport that does it?

A simultaneous team gets faster when you add players

In rowing, there are multiple combinations that basically cover the same distance of 2km. Starting with a solo, it can go up to eight rowers, and the data gets interesting. Here is the data for sculls and coxless pairs:

So, when we add the number of people who are simultaneously working on the same problem, even when the problem gets bigger (weight of double scull is 2x of scull and that of quad is 4x, with the length going up by roughly 30% every time), we get faster! This seems like a great motivation for solving large problems as long as the logic of simultaneous players can be applied. Does this go ad infinitum? What about famous snake boat races that have upto 100-125 oarsmen in each boat (and 25 singers and four helmsmen too!). The top speed recorded is 20.8 km/hr, so clearly this speed starts to taper off at some point. But clearly, the speed does go up between 1 and 100+ oarsmen.


These were my data-backed insights:

  • If you cover short distances, best is to go alone. You can go fastest.
  • For short distances, when you want to go still faster than one individual, working in a relay format seems to be better than a single runner. This strategy might not work for very short distances, because the overheads in coordination and switching might offset any potential gains from relaying.
  • If you cover long distances, best is to work in teams. You can sustain it farthest.

Guess what does it tell us about teams at workplace? Agile teams are small, typically not exceeding 7+/-2 members and they often work in pairs or might even swarm together to solve complex problems. And the data from sports seems to suggest that it work!

I’d love to know if you have data from your software teams – do they have data that supports – or contradicts – the data from sports? It might make for an interesting conversation…

(Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/how-go-faster-than-you-can-tathagat-varma) 

They always laugh at you…

They always laugh at you...

They always laugh at you.

When you are a nobody, they laugh at you.

When you tell that you don’t know, they laugh at you.

When you sign-up to learn, they laugh at you.

 When you don’t have ideas, they laugh at you.

When you tell your idea, they laugh at you.

When you ask for help, they laugh at you.

When you offer to help, they laugh at you.

When you startup early, they laugh at you.

When you startup late, they laugh at you.

When you take small risks, they laugh at you.

When you take big risks, they laugh at you.

When you keep trying, they laugh at you.

When you make mistakes, they laugh at you.

When you fall down, they laugh at you.

When you fail, they laugh at you.

When you keep struggling, they laugh at you.

When you make something new, they laugh at you.

When you find no takers for your idea, they laugh at you.

When you eventually succeed…they stop laughing at you…but just for a moment…and then they start laughing at your jokes…but behind your back, they still laugh at you.

When you fall from your success, they laugh at you.

When you don’t restart, they laugh at you.

When you restart, they laugh at you…

Yes…they are always gonna laugh at you…whatever you do, or don’t! So, let this not be the factor that defines your identity. Let it not be the reason for you to lose heart. And most certainly, let it never be the reason for you to stop trying!

Of course, they are not laughing at you…they are laughing at themselves…because if they had guts, they would be out there in the sun and trying hard…just like you!

Just ignore them…

(Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/always-laugh-you-tathagat-varma)

Medici, Goa and a bit of Chindogu!

Last weekend, I was at The Goa Project, an annual pilgrimage for some 240+ oddballs from all over India, and some even taking a long-haul flight to get to Goa. Yes…“oddballs”…that’s the best I can describe a bunch of super enthusiastic, high-energy, talented, multi-faceted, young at heart and spirit (both, literally and metaphorically!), and daring and raring to go folks who all descended at Bay15 – after all, you have to be an oddball to spend your time, effort and money to come all the way to Goa and not spend the time at the beach or going to Tito’s, but talking to people who are equally unique, and probably as crazy as you!

You can’t be at TGP with any expectations! You can’t possibly anticipate who you are gonna meet – someone blending poetry with analytics, or someone installing solar panels in high mountains up in the Himalayas, someone directing theatre, or someone talking about the BDSM scene in India (ok, now I really have your attention J), someone telling about learning from the Gita or someone telling about stained glass, and so on… You name it, and it’s all there. Even Milind Soman for a keynote! So, if you seek knowledge about diverse topics, and are comfortable being a crossover artist or geek or entrepreneur or just someone who likes to be a sponge soaking up in the spirit of meeting such amazing folks and learning from them, then you should definitely have TGP on your annual itinerary!

Yes, and don’t worry about not having an idea what are you gonna do over there. Most people don’t have a clue either 🙂

I Have No Idea!

The Goa Project, as TGP as it is fondly known as, is now in 4th year. I was there for the last year (and conducted a workshop on change and habits “Why we do what we do, and how to do what we really want to do!”), and while I was a bit unsure last time whether I liked it or not, and whether I would go again this year or not, I ended up putting in three proposals, and the awesome organizing team selected two of my proposals. So, there was no way I was getting out of it.

I liken TGP to India’s very own “Medici Effect”, or at least a 2-day mini-Medici, if you will. I don’t know of any other place or event in India where people form literally all walks of life come together and exchange thoughts with each other on different, complementary and often conflicting points of views. Given the increasingly complex interdisciplinary nature of problem-solving, I think there is a dire need for such conversations and help people build a better thinking and problem-solving framework. Of course, the ambience of Goa’s very own sun and sand makes it compelling enough. And the beer does help :)… 

One of my talks was on the book I wrote recently “Agile Product Development”. It was nice to share my journey how I was lucky to get a great break, and what did I go through as I wrote the book last year, and so on. The best think I liked about delivering a talk at TGP was that I could actually deliver a talk wearing sunglasses, shorts and slippers!


However, the more interesting session that I want to talk about in this blog post was a workshop on “Chindogu” – the Japanese art of creating “unuseless” inventions. Unuseless because while the problems a chindogu tries to solve are real, and to that end, the solution is “useful” but the way it it is designed makes it so clumsy or difficult, no one actually uses it. And hence the term “un-useless”. Created by the crazy Japanese inventor Kenji Kawakami, this is a great exercise in creativity. For example, do you know that the original selfie stick was originally “invented” in 80s? You can sample some of these at Ripley’s, Pinterest, and several other sites all over the net. OR, you can straight go for one of the books – “101 Unuseless Japanese Inventions”, “The Big Bento Box of Unuseless Japanese Inventions” or “99 More Unuseless Japanese Inventions: The Art of Chindogu”. Now before you get carried away and discard it as a mindless activity, Chindogu comes with its own ten tenets. Not just about anything will qualify as a Chindogu!

Having read all this, I was naturally curious to experiment. I didn’t find any reference to any Chindogu happening in India, so I felt even more determined to do this crazy stuff. I boldly proposed the session “Let’s build something “unuseless”” to conduct a Chindogu workshop!

My session was on Day 1 evening, and there were some major sessions competing for the audience (guess what sessions I am talking about 😉 ). Still, I was thrilled when some ~10 participants showed up. They made some interesting that blew us away. Here’s a sampling of the pics and the video from the session:










and finally, this is the video of the participants proudly presenting their chindogus:


Aren’t they nice 🙂 

I would encourage you to conduct Chindogu workshops in whatever setting you are: a Montessori, a team building and even en executive retreat! There is a great subtlety that Chindogu session hides in a very innocuous manner – and that is the freedom to experiment and the liberty to fail. No amount of formal communication can convince people to get out of their comfort zone and experiment without worrying about the results better than a Chindogu session.

Of course, you can always call an expert to lead this session 😉

Building Credibility in Four Easy Steps

In the old world of hierarchical organizational structures, the “seniority” of the role pretty much decided how much “power” the role-holder commanded. The notion of power was not just metaphorical, it was even literal! The power of the person often dictated how far their ideas – no matter how dumb they might be – would fly, and how much resistance would they likely attract on the way. To that end, it was like the horsepower that fueled organization decisions, or key changes – senior folks simply had more horsepower than the lesser mortals. In such a Dilbertesque world, needless to say, it didn’t matter much if the boss really knew the stuff – the fact that he was the boss was mostly enough to get things done. The power was in the role, and not necessarily in the role-holder.

However, in the new flat world, power is mostly displaced by “credibility.” It is not enough to be a senior anymore to bring about changes or make key decisions – if you don’t have the credibility, people are likely to reject your ideas. And given the nature of roles in today’s workplace, roles don’t guarantee credibility. One must work hard to build it. The challenge is – how do we establish genuine credibility when we are new to a system, or when we don’t have enough data points about our track record? Is there a roadmap that can help people evaluate what are they doing, where are they at this point and what more could they do to improve their credibility?

Mumbai’s world-famous “Dabbawalas” have built a rock-solid credibility over time.

Merriam-Webster defines credibility as “the quality of being believed or accepted as true, real, or honest“, and comes from the Latin word “credo” which means “I believe.” To be truly believed is not the same as simply knowing someone, or even be colleagues at work or good friends. Indeed, it takes a lot to be believed upon by others! While someone being perceived as credible might not require one to possess a superhuman personality, earning that credibility could take years of sincere hard work. Credibility is not about being the smartest or the most knowledgeable person in the room, or someone who has the most charismatic social personality, or has the most “power” or “connections,” or is the loudest, or even having the most number of followers on their social media. If anything, credibility is all about being sincere, honest, transparent, person of integrity, objective, self-confident, knowledgeable, professional, humble, and authentic. But, how do you build credibility? As Henry Ford said, you can’t build reputation on what you plan do to. Clearly, you must deliver something of value so that people can take you seriously.

I have been experimenting and studying about building credibility for some years now, and based on my readings, anecdotal data, observations and first-hand experiences (read that as “mistakes”), I have distilled my learnings into what I call as the 4E model, which has four distinct stages. This has served me well, especially in new jobs and groups where my past credentials didn’t matter much. I had to every time start in those forums from a clean slate and find a way to build solid and genuine credibility.

Here’s how the 4E model goes:

Stage 1. Evangelize: You refer to the experts

When you start your journey, you are a rookie in the field, and have nothing much to offer. More often than not, you are more like a pilgrim in search of the truth than a source of wisdom or truth yourself! To that end, you have no real credibility to offer. Perhaps the best approach at this point is to find someone you look up to as the true north and follow them like hell. Just make sure you are not following a ‘fake north’. The idea or the individual you choose to follow could be an established thought leader in the chosen space – someone whose work influences a significant number of people in the community, and whose name inspires trust in the community.

By choosing to refer to their work and building upon it (say, apply those ideas in a given setting), you will first have to commit yourself to study their work deeply – for nothing is caught as fast as a fake, and you surely don’t want to build genuine credibility on the foundations of fake expertise! It will also be relatively easier for you to find the right audience, for the ideas that you support and evangelize are already well-known and reasonably well-accepted by the community at large, it will make easier for you find a toehold among other practitioners. Make no mistake – talking about experts won’t make you an expert yourself, but will help you find other like-minded people who will begin to accept you in their circle. Starting with enthusiasm, you will steadily graduate to a higher awareness, more knowledge and eventually to mastery of the idea.

As an Evangelist, you essentially have no credibility of your own apart from being a loyal follower and perhaps a passionate evangelist of an idea, or an individual. For example, you might be a big believer in animal rights, and might utilize every opportunity to talk about the seminal work of great giants in the field, but have no real story of your own to share. However, you could take those ideas and build upon it in your neighborhood. When you have achieved a fair amount of success in being an able follower and share your story, it will open doors for you to be accepted by other followers, and then your hard work will help you stand out in your mastery of the subject.

Stage 2. Experiment: You talk of your own work

Once you have built a rock-solid understanding of a topic, and enough people are willing to give you credit for being a subject matter ‘expert’ (though in all honesty, you are not an ‘expert’, you are simply being an ardent follower of a well-known idea or an individual), it opens the doors for you to experiment with some tweaks. Perhaps you see the opportunity to collaborate with someone else in the community, or adapt some of the peripheral ideas – without really touching the central idea. Given the already earned “credibility” by now, chances are high that people will accept your experiments without outrightly dismissing them as something too shallow without really much understanding of the core idea. The fact that you have paid your dues will help people take you more seriously, even if they don’t take your idea itself very seriously at this stage. In the first stage, you were piggybacking on someone else’s idea to build your credibility, now you are encashing a little bit of that hard-earned personal credibility to provide some tailwind to your own idea. The more credibility you have earned in Stage 1, the more it will help propel your idea further.

It is important that we don’t blow our own trumpet just yet! In fact, we should never do that. If anything, it’s the people, the community that might like your ideas, and bestow you with their faith in your work in the Stage 4. However, at this point, one must simply be very humble about one’s experiments. You aim is not to make noise by punching holes in some expert’s work, but simply to solve the problems well, and if you discover something novel, then build enough ground support so that people around you will help you launch it. At this point, you are still a learning – just that you have graduated to being an experimental learner in Stage 2, from being a evangelical learner in Stage 1. By no means, should your experiments be construed as demonstrations of expertise, especially by you!

3. Endorse: You recommend other’s work

If I go out on the street and start endorsing your work, chances are no one will notice either of us! If I don’t have enough credibility on the street, people don’t care even if I am endorsing a known and a well-proven idea or something very amateurish. However, when I have made my mark as someone with an original idea of my own, chances are high that my word will be take a bit more seriously than before. When a well-known critic reviews and praises your book, she is trading her own credibility by your ideas, and risks losing her own hard-earned credibility if your ideas turn out to be not so good. So, endorsement is not just saying good words about anything and everything, but carefully picking what to bet on!

As opposed to Stage 1, in the Endorse stage, you are endorsing not just well-known ideas but also new and emerging ideas, and the reason people will accept them at this point is because you have been through Stage 1 and Stage 2. If you directly start endorsing ideas without having first built your own personal and professional credibility, there might be no takers for your endorsements. We see this all the time on LinkedIn. In general, you can very easily spot fake recommendations not by looking at what does the citation read but by checking out the profile of the endorser.

4. Expert: Your work is referred by others

This is the pinnacle of credibility – you have done something new and innovative, and helped advance the professional body of knowledge. Your ideas have withstood the test of time, and now other practitioners are beginning to refer to it, and even extend it (just the way you were doing when you started out in Stage 1. The community at large recognizes your credibility.

Being an expert is not a matter of instant nirvana! One must go through the painful process of building one’s credibility that allows the community to understand how well your ideas help them, and how good you really are. I don’t believe one can become overnight expert without putting in solid efforts to go through these stages. Of course there are statistical outliers, but most of us have to go through the trial by fire.


In my experience, the most important “power” one has in a flat world is their credibility. Sometimes your credibility proceeds you, but mostly, you might find yourself in a situation when your past laurels don’t matter much to the people, and you must restart from scratch. In such situations, I found the 4E model as a good starting point, and depending on how much you are willing to commit yourself in Stage 1, you might be able to build credibility faster. However, I don’t recommend that this model is used like a project plan. It could be like an invisible roadmap in the back of your mind that guides you to stay honest to your mission rather than simply check the boxes and somehow move on to the next stage.

The 4E model doesn’t give you are timeline. It depends on how well you achieve credibility in a given stage rather than how fast you do it. Everything else equal, I would always recommend doing it well over rushing through it.

The 4E model also doesn’t really give a linear sequence. It might appear to give you a sense of progression, but you don’t stop doing things of earlier stages. Knowledge is always growing, and I don’t believe there is anyone out there who can proclaim they have nothing left to learn anymore! So, its very likely that you will find yourself in all the stages, and that’s OK.

Finally, the 4E model won’t make you an expert, ever. Your hard work will lead you to that, and the 4E model can at best be your GPS, because remember that no journey worth doing is ever a straight line.

(Originally published at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/great-work-cultures/building-credibility-in-f_b_8579094.html)

Not another diaper-selling app please!

This is the golden age of entrepreneurship, and I think humanity is fortunate that so many bright people have decided to solve some really hard problems of our times. Even when we know that history – and statistics – are not on their side and that more than 90% of the will eventually fail, their efforts need to be saluted, for they are giving up a cushy comfortable job and the opportunity to be with their friends and family or generally pursue their hobbies and interest, and instead have chosen to purse the hard path of experimentation, failures, more failures, frustration, many more frustrations….and hopefully some light at the end of the day!

When all apps start to lookalike, you know that innovation is all dead!

However, a good number of us are getting it totally wrong.

No, we don’t 59th app to order groceries at home.

No, we don’t need 134th app to buy diapers from the net.

And we most certainly don’t need yet another mobile wallet, yet another taxi booking app, yet another bookshop app, yet another food-ordering app, yet another househunt app, yet another app to sell undies on the net, yet another…..

What we do need is something a bit more simple. For example:

  • Help millions of educated unemployed create opportunities to develop our nation
  • Find a way to save millions of tons of food that rots in our godowns
  • Prevent farmers from committing suicide
  • Find a way to raise people’s standard of living by creating opportunities for them
  • Send every child to school
  • Let no child die of preventable diseases
  • Let there be running water in every household
  • Let there be a computer in every home
  • Decongest the cities and redistribute the economic activities back to villages and small towns
  • Clean up nature, air, water and land
  • Make better roads
  • Reduce crimes
  • Improve governance
  • Remove (or at least reduce) corruption
  • Reduce lead time (and preventable delays) in public projects
  • Help people become better people
  • Clean up our nation
  • Make neighborhoods safe
  • Speed up justice

I know there are a few of us who are working on some of these hard problems, away from the limelight, painstakingly changing the world…literally in inhuman conditions. They need to be applauded and supported. More talent needs to go there rather than using their advanced computer science degree and machine learning knowledge to find a way to make more users view online ads and click on the lead-generation links. More funding needs to be made available to solving these important problems that serve the humanity at large.

Selling diapers online is sexy. Saving a child from preventable death isn’t.

No, not another diaper-selling app please! 


Learning to Lead Without Authority

In 2007, I experienced a career-altering moment. After being in the general manager role for Sniffer’s India R&D center (subsequently acquired by NetScout) for four years, my new SVP of Engineering asked me if I would accept being a functional manager for my current direct reports. As a good company man, I consulted with all involved leaders and my direct reports, and enthusiastically said yes, while, to be honest, not completely grasping the importance of the opportunity.

What started off as an innocuous query from my leader soon became a chance to explore and grow myself as an individual contributor at a deeper leadership level – what I now refer to as an “Individual Leader” – someone who doesn’t need a hierarchy, department or budget to make an organizational impact. An individual contributor operating at organizational leadership level is like a cross between Greenleaf’s concept of “servant leadership” and Maxwell’s 5th level of leadership. People follow you because of who you are and what you stand for.

True leaders don’t need authority

What happens when you separate leadership from authority? Over the next seven years, I learned a lot about leading without a team. My experiences were in India which is a rather hard place for such radical ideas — as a hierarchical society, we value seniority, and as a successful IT services industry, there is a fair amount of achievement-orientation. So, some of my insights could be very contextual, though I believe most have universal relevance.

1. Leaders are hired for change

Change has changed. In the past, change was mostly large-scale, which meant it was episodic, costly, and initiated by those who wielded “power”. However, most of these changes were about improving efficiency, or the bottom line of an organization. Today’s leaders must raise the game to create a new top line, and bring about innovation, which has more in common with knowledge than traditional power.

In the knowledge era, change changes at a much rapid pace. Even the role of change initiators seems to have been democratized if not altogether reversed. Those with knowledge now have the “power” to initiate change irrespective of their level inside an organization. In a level-playing field, it is meaningless and rather risky for leaders to bring about changes without involving the true power in their organizations, for the boardrooms can’t match what those working on the front-line know. In fact, the visible “symbols of power”, such as a heavy-sounding title or a corner office, stands in the way of a leader being perceived as genuine by employees, thereby reducing a leader’s credibility to effectively lead change. An individual leader offers a great alternative to a more “human” and “humane” face of change by bringing authenticity to the employees, and inclusivity in representing them to the organization in order to raise trust – which is the key ingredient for disruptive change.

2. Leaders are measured by impact

Until now, leaders were ‘measured’ (and ‘rewarded’) by absurd status symbols – large team sizes, additional territories, fancy budgets, executive administrators, or large offices! And these don’t even include the perks doled outside the office such as golf club memberships or annual family vacations to exotic places — no wonder they were called “entitlements”!

None of these status symbols has anything to do with the ability to make impact. On the contrary, they only hide the weakness and incompetency of leaders by making them look larger than life. Real leadership impact is measured by the ability to cut through the organizational red tape and institutional mental models. ‘Leaders’ who hide within the safety of four walls of their glass cave to feel powerful are far too detached from reality to recognize that true power is all about having the humility to learn and bring about the right impact by engaging with employees in the hallways and cafeteria.

3. True leadership is servant leadership

Hierarchical leaders need direct reports to carry out their designs. Paid followers, (i.e., followers receiving a salary to follow the leader) appear to exist to serve the hierarchical leader rather than the organization. The world has seen enough of power-hungry leaders who believe that their position is an endorsement of their ability and that their title gives them unbridled power, and their team exists to solely serve them.

Individual leaders don’t require direct reports to create an impact. They build their networks, and use their passion to recruit volunteers from across the organization. Volunteers are experts in their own field who want to get involved in a community of like-minded peers and contribute to the change. Individual leaders selectively recruit volunteers and develop them into individual leaders.

Developing social intelligence

Plunging into a leadership role not defined by a position of authority gave me a unique opportunity to acquire new set of leadership skills where the only “tool” was persuasion and mutual understanding, and the only “method” was empathy and transparency. Anyone with those skills can be a leader, but any leader without skills will eventually fail to step up when challenged.

Leadership from a place of individual responsibility is not for someone seeking comfort in a familiar and static job description. In all the three companies where I gained invaluable experience, the job description was fuzzy at best and useless at worst – finally I just did what I felt was right. Sometimes it required sticking my neck out to confront the status quo. Fortunately, my peers supported me, and I also kept my communication lines transparent.

It takes a huge helping of professional humility to start on a track where you feel alone. You have to get past the idea that you need an army to report into you to make an impact, and that realization was sometimes painful. Some people saw me as a pushover. Other times they thought I was on vacation with no pressure to deliver. In the end, one simply stops defending and lets the results speak for themselves. Finally, taking on an individual leadership role without a position of authority demands you to accept the social implications. I dealt with that pressure by ignoring it, and just focusing on what was the right thing to do.

Here are three ways to prepare yourself as an individual leader:

  1. Develop your social skills that allow you to succeed without traditional power or roles;
  2. Build your professional network inside (and outside) the company;
  3. Grow yourself in your chosen knowledge area and develop yourself as a T-shaped professional having horizontal knowledge and skills.

Preparing yourself will permit you to take advantage of new opportunities as they arise.

And next?….

Last year, I took individual leadership to the next logical level: I became a solo-preneur. Though more secure options were available, my experience prepared me for taking the plunge and for serving my clients with the benefit of all I learned from my journey as an individual leader.

Are you ready to take the plunge into leadership without the crutch of authority to lean on?

(Originally published at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/great-work-cultures/learning-to-lead-without_b_7883062.html?ir=India&adsSiteOverride=in)

How fast you can change?

In my talks, I often ask a trick question – what is the most important part in a bicycle and a formula one racing car?

I get all kinds of answers – wheels, engine, chasis, tyres, steering, even the driver…. No doubt, they are all right answers.

However, my favorite right answer is the brakes! Why? Because they make us go faster! 

Let me explain.

Imagine you are riding a bicycle without brakes. You won’t be able to go faster because you have an in-built fear in your mind that if you pick up pace beyond some ‘reasonable limit’, you won’t be able to control it lest it becomes important for some reason. Now imagine riding the same bicycle with the best brakes that your money can buy (or, even better, that you can build!). You not only can ride the same bicycle with much more confidence, you can actually imagine going much faster than before. Of course, you can take the analogy much further and argue that you could go even faster if there was a better helmet, a better kneecap, jacket, leather gloves, even the insurance to make the rider free themselves up from the worries of a possible accident…then you might zoom even faster and potentially reach closer to the Peltzman Effect, but we will stop at just having the right brakes in this blog post.

Now the mental model about brakes is that they keep a stationary object at rest (at least on a downslope), or slow down or stop an object in motion, but never make anything go faster. And yet, that’s what they do – they give the courage and confidence to the rider to go faster than without those brakes. In that sense, the brakes are the feedback and the control mechanism rolled into one. Without a brake, you still have access to the same power (or the engine power in case of a formula one car) as before, but your decision to use it judiciously as opposed to using it as unbridled raw power is based on your ability to get that feedback and adapt to it. In general, the sharper the ability to get the feedback, make a decision and execute it, the faster one could go.

Of course, one can (rightly) extend the argument that it eventually depends on the rider/driver of the vehicle – for the real ability to handle a machine lies not in the machine but in the mind (and the hands) that operates it. We will get to that in a moment.

A lot of people think agile is all about faster deliveries, and then they set unreal expectations which often sound something like this – let’s do agile so we can ship the product in 3 months which today takes 9 months. Like they say, you can’t put ten pounds in a five pounds sack, I have a bit of a bad news for them – the quantum of work that takes 9 months to ship can’t be shipped in 3 months without seriously undercutting either the breadth (i.e., the scope or quantity of work) or the depth (i.e. the quality, performance, usability, reliability, etc.) of the deliverables. Agile isn’t quackery (even though it has been oversold as one by some overenthusiastic souls!). 

Speed is not fast you can go, but how fast you can change!

Speed is not fast you can go, but how fast you can change!

For me, brakes are the metaphor of agile. They provide the feedback and enhance the ability to manoeuvre, even more so at high speeds. The more real-time and actionable (i.e., more “byte-sized” than “brick-sized” to clearly understand and identify the cause-and-effect relationships that allow the feedback to be “meaningfully actionable”) a feedback is, coupled with the internal ability of the machine to rapidly absorb and assimilate it, the sooner it can respond and adapt to a potential event. Remember – making a third-stage spacecraft change its position even by a few micro-degrees is much more difficult and perhaps valuable than a car changing its lane on a highway. Just like any serious competitor who will adapt the brakes based on weather and other operating conditions, there is no one-size-fit-all brake here. The term “agile process” is a fairly useless one, for it creates a mental model of a laminated process that will enable people to operate with (guaranteed?) agility out-of-the-box, and yet, it is hardly ever going to be that! If you have already nailed down every single nook and cranny so that the resultant process is a certified “agile” one, than one must only be smoking pot. Neither the creator of that uber-agile process could have anticipated every possible future condition (the last time I checked, I was told that job description was reserved for God!) nor anyone knows enough to prescribe a single templated solution to all kinds of problems. Net-net, everyone must create their own “agile process”. Of course, they can start with what we know today, but remember – what is know today can only be a (better) starting point and not the limiting rate factor for what you must eventually accomplish. In that sense, an “agile process” is like “best practices” – you can’t simply copy someone else’s best practices and expect them to 10x your results. Rather, you must painstakingly solve the hard problems, and evolve your own best practices – to that end, best practices are things that are created as an outcome of a problem-solving activity by smart people, and not really something that others can use as a shortcut. Sure, some of these might be very universal, but I guess most all have been already discovered long back, and we are mostly rebottling and recycling them these days.

So, there you have it. There is no such thing as a universal agile process that will solve all maladies. Like Edison said we are able to see further by standing on the shoulder of giants, we simply take what exists today as a starting point and create our own agile process. Nothing more, nothing less.

And just like the picture in this blog, agility is not something that takes you faster, but it enables taking you to new, unknown and exciting places when you think there might be something interesting there. If you don’t find the cheese interesting, you can always come back to the last stable state, and start another journey, till you find something better!

Speed is not how fast you can drive and deliver. It is how fast you can change and adapt. And life and product development have more hairpin bends than you think… 

Stop ‘teaching’ students about entrepreneurship…!

Last weekend, I was at one of the youngest IIMsIIM Udaipur to be a mentor at their annual event Prarambh where students and young entrepreneurs slog for 32 non-stop hours to build a ‘startup’. No, not just a cool code hack but a (near-real) startup. The event ends with the teams pitching to real VCs. And who knows what can happen there…

Looking at the organizations and sponsors associated with the event, I was keen to get there. Clearly, for a young institution hosting its second annual event, getting such an impressive list of supports was never an easy task.

Now I don’t need any special invite to ever go to Udaipur. I grew up in this wonderful city of lakes. So, any visit, and especially an opportunity to pay forward is always welcome. When my old friend Atul at IIM Udaipur asked my availability to spend a weekend mentoring these student-entrepreneurs, despite having a back to back commitment both before and after the weekend, I just couldn’t say no.

So, after twelve hours of travel and waiting at two airports and inside aircrafts, here I was finally at Udaipur, saturday evening 8:30pm. I simple headed to the arena where students were working to solve some really interesting problems. One team was working on a solution for shopping malls to increase conversions from footfalls to real dollars. One team had this unusual idea to build a business around people carrying shopping list items while travelling overseas. One team had this cool way to make notifications form ‘temporal’ to ‘spatial’ and so on. The one that won was all about smart chat/messaging and they also had an interesting implementation on a safe encryption that utilizes doodles rather than alphanumeric passwords. One team had an idea owner coming from mom-and-pop store background and he understood how to build a solution for that ‘enterprise’ – including there issues and challenges. One team from Mumbai wanted to radically change the entire home buying process – much beyond what some of the best ones offer today. We all mentors spent time with them helping in whatever meaningful manner we could.

Most of the 8 or 9 teams (of 4-5 idea owners and techies each) at the event were very tech savvy, and despite being in a rather ‘non-tech’ place like Udaipur, were reasonably aware of people’s needs and wants. In fact, if anything, I felt they understood it as well or even better than say someone from Bangalore where sometimes we sort of take things for granted. When I finally called the day at 2am, I was tired but the teams went on till 5am.

Those who didn’t have answers, were simply reaching to their online friends and peers across cities and continents and getting whatever help they needed. Having been involved with several hackathons before, including organizing similar events where we got up to 700+ folks and would run on a budget that would need robbing a small bank, here there was no live band, no midnight laserman show, no red bull on the tap (beer was out of question in the college), and definitely not even decent cappuccino – which goes on to show that creativity can flourish under natural conditions :). And if you ask my brutally honest opinion (unfortunately, I don’t have it in sugarcoated flavor), the creativity only flourishes when you take away all these man-made distractions. But that’s for another day…

Next day by 10am, most teams were back doing what they came there for. Most of them had a reasonably good problem statement, some of these did listen to us mentors and took to talking to real humans despite being in a 32-hour timebox. They worked the whole sunday (despite India-South Africa historical world cup match going on without any live broadcast happening inside the work area!) and by 5pm, they had to stop work, and by 6pm, they started making their pitches – 7min for pitch and 3min for Q&A per team. I was quite impressed by what I heard. Their passion and confidence was palpable, and their story was getting better time they would tell it to someone. Many of these teams worked hard to demonstrate the MVP, even if that was a very multi-device use-case and rather clumsy to use. Of course, the ‘poor’ UI didn’t matter 🙂 at that point.

I had to leave halfway to catch my last flight out of town before the final winners were announced. However, from my viewpoint, they were all already winners. In a matter of 32 hours, they all came to the event as individuals and strangers from different cities, but got together to build something of value as they learnt to trust and respect each other and channelise their talent and passion to something creative and innovative. Most importantly, they mastered the entrepreneurial mindset rather than the entrepreneurial curriculum. And that’s my point – we should stop ‘teaching’ entrepreneurship and start learning by doing:

  • Let them think big,
  • Let them ‘discover’ problems,
  • Let them make mistakes,
  • Let them build pie in the sky,
  • Let them learn to lead as peers,
  • Let them figure things out on their own,
  • Let them sell their dreams and inspire others to join them,
  • Let them learn all the ‘101s’ by stumbling upon them rather than sitting in boring classroom sessions,
  • Let them break rules in the safety of an event and learn more about entrepreneurship than they will ever learn by learning and following them!
  • Let them build something and let them teach us back what they’ve learnt…

At the end of the day, I believe if you want to teach them swimming, the last place to teach that is a classroom. Get them into a pool, or a lake and get them started.

Even better…just follow this great advise from Antoine de Saint Exupery:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

(Originally published on https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/article/stop-teaching-students-entrepreneurship-tathagat-varma/edit and republished on http://yourstory.com/2015/03/stop-teaching-entrepreneurship/) 

Using blog as a teaching aid

Last year, I started conducting an experiment in my classes. For the class assignment, I asked my students to write a blog post that they would need to share among all class mates. Also, I insisted that the blog post be visible to anyone on the internet.

Here’s why I did that:

Address fear of rejection

Whenever I deliver a talk, conduct training or teach a class, I ask how many people blog. I still continue to be unsurprised by disappointingly low numbers in the ballpark of 1-5% – despite geography, industries or experience levels. Having been a blogger myself for close to a decade now, I recognise that apart from lack of blogging skills and an interest in sharing ideas and knowledge, there is another deeper fear at work here – the eternal fear of rejection. What if people don’t like what I write? What if they reject me and leave nasty comments? Would I make a fool of myself among my friends and family? and so on.

Blogging could be a great way to learn, reflect and amplify the learning

Left to themselves, I haven’t seen most people conquering this fear. So, I literally push them out of their comfort zones and make them stand on a tin roof in the hot sun. By ‘forcing’ them to write a blog that they must share with their batchmates, I create a reasonably high challenge for them that they must conquer. First they must read up stuff so that they can put together something that they feel reasonably comfortable (if not massively proud of!) sharing with their cohorts. Secondly, most have no idea where to blog (I can often see that people go and create blog accounts because my class assignment is almost often the only blog entry they have!). Then they have no idea how to actually write a blog post (not that there is some single right way to do it, but how to go about organizing their ideas and thoughts in a concise and interesting way). So, they go and learn looking at other blogs. Finally when they share it with friends, they are working in a group that is all undergoing similar challenge – so it doesn’t matter much that I might make a fool of myself. In fact, from what I have seen so far, if anything, students want to shine in front of their class, and often write pretty good blog post (definitely a pretty one for a first-timer).

Auto-filter against plagiarism

A teacher’s worst nightmare is plagiarism. Actually it is not a nightmare that much because you must already factor that in. With internet at your beck and call, you shouldn’t be surprised if students copy from other source on the net. However, I tell students that I want them to write a blog post that shows up when people google for them. Surely, most of us won’t want a dumb looking or a plagiarised blog post to show up on that search! I haven’t asked them yet to write on LinkedIn and link it to their profile, but that’s worth considering :).

So, making them write a public blog post that they must share with the class helps build an auto-filter against such blatant plagiarism. Of course, I don’t try to fight off negative behavior with negative rewards. I try to give them an opportunity to build a positive artefact that they could be proud of, and might want to ‘show off’ to their friends, and who knows – the kudos they get might just be the right trigger that helps them discover the writer inside them!

Learn from each other

Most learning experiences are dependent on teacher’s knowledge and facilitation skills and an individual student’s interest and ability to grasp as much as possible from them. In case of assignments, students don’t share them with each other much because they don’t want to lose the ‘edge’ lest others copy them. By asking students to share the blog post among them, I open them up for learning from each other – they might find someone’s content very rich, or someone’s style of explanation very helpful, or someone’s usage of examples very creative, and so on. I have often seen students hi-fiving each other on each other’s blog posts, which is also a great way to convert peer pressure into peer respect.

In addition to learning in the process of writing a blog post (which aids the learning process by itself due to the simple act of writing down your thoughts), learning from each other is also a great way to not only reinforce that knowledge, but in order to outshine other students, I have seen many students go out on the net and find some hitherto unknown sources of knowledge and ideas and refer them or build up on them. As a teacher I have no shame in admitting that sometimes that is new to me, and I too end up learning something new and valuable in that process!

Is it all hunky-dory?

Of course, I offer no resistance (and any hope) to people who wilfully want to shortchange themselves! But my students are all working professionals who have decided to get back into college to enhance their learning. No one asked them to do that. Most of them are paying full or a large part of fees from their pockets. More than money, they are taking away serious amount of time (from work and from family) and putting in serious efforts to acquire knowledge and capability that they believe will give them an edge in the coming years. No doubt their diploma will figure high on their resumes, but I doubt that will get them a promotion or a new job if they are not otherwise ready for it. To that end, we are only playing a role in helping them reach where they have decided to take their journey.

They can always disregard all that I have mentioned above, and quite possible some of them do. But my overall experiences have been good enough to continue this experiment.

After all, a teacher’s job is not to just teach them subject. It is to facilitate the process of self-learning.

Want best impact? Change yourself!

A lot of us want to create an impact, especially the ones that comes in B-I-G font size. Change the world. Stop global warming. Establish world peace. Find cancer cure. Stop wars. Leave a legacy that lasts forever. We want to conquer the world with our ideas, our creation, our accomplishments.

And we want to do it in style. After all, we want to make it BIG! So, we join various causes, we become volunteer and even take up leadership positions in such volunteer organizations without having any understanding of what is needed, and whether we are up to it. I often meet people who claim to help others by organizing various forums, teaching others on how to solve their problems or matchmaking investors with entrepreneurs, and so on. What I find strange is that most of them have themselves never done any of that stuff. Most of them are armchair theorists who have this romantic view of what it takes to change the world, with them, naturally, playing a central role in it.

Changing ourselves is not only the easiest, it is perhaps the best way to make an impact…

Sadly, we don’t want to take up the most immediate problem right under our noses, but take the most complex problem that mankind has ever seen and might even be beyond us. We want to solve world peace problem little realising that the best way might perhaps be simply starting with addressing the problem in our own backyards. We want to make earth a green planet once again without really first trying to make our own abode a green patch, howsomuch small it might be. We want to take care of all the underprivileged children on this planet, and sometimes our own children are deprived of our attention and love.

We don’t find solving the small little problems sexy enough to be taken up. Because they don’t quite fit in our nice little mental model of BIG IMPACT.

Changing the world is sexy. Changing ourselves is not.

Having volunteered for over twenty years now, I have come to realize that we create the best impact when we commit ourselves to continuous change and self-improvement – and not when we go after chasing the big problems. Once you start facing and fixing your problems, fears, uncertainties and vulnerabilities around you, you bring real change and you build tremendous credibility – both are needed to take you to next level. Your credibility helps people discover you, and your work speaks for you so that you don’t need to. Over time, your body of work becomes your referencable work, and people come to you for help. That’s the time you start making bigger impact.

But the trick is to start small…preferably starting with changing yourself.