Tag Archives: Leadership

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)

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)

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)

What 16months of stay at Antarctica taught me?

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

Rescuing an Adelie penguin near our station in Antarctica

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

So, why this blog post?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Effective Escalation Practices

This article was provided by Erin Palmer from the University Alliance. Erin writes about project management topics such as PMP certification.

Great leaders know how to focus on project management competencies. Perhaps nowhere in project management do effective soft skills shine through more than in the process of escalation and escalation mitigation. Knowing when and how to escalate requires more than just an intimate knowledge of the emerging issue, but a deeper understanding of the entire business landscape surrounding the events that have led you to this moment. Handling conflict in an action-oriented manner that effectively brings about resolution and promotes team cohesion may at first seem like contradictory goals. On the contrary, effective project managers know that teams work best when trust in leadership is palpable and when team members feel confident that if a problem arises, the leader will expediently and effectively resolve the issue. Strong leaders have strong teams and that is why it is imperative to spend time considering the finer points of an escalation strategy as part of your overall professional development process.

The Art of Knowing When to Escalate 

Establishing long-term communication protocol for all team members is vital to maintaining a feel for the pulse of the project and anticipating challenges before they become full blownissues. Some challenges cannot be avoided, such as a major upheaval in supply chain management when sudden events like natural disasters or international social unrest grind project progress to a halt. It is the more mundane situations encountered over the course of a career that will test your effectiveness more intensely than the occasional huge event. Here are a few questions to ask yourself before escalating.

1. Do I have all of the facts?

Escalation in its purest form is a strategic move. Make sure you have all your facts together and have taken the time to consider alternatives before escalating. If the issue personally involves team members, strategize how this escalation will be a learning tool if at all possible.

2. Will this issue come to a complete surprise to superiors?

If communication is open and effective throughout a project, then your superiors should have some indication that a challenge is present before the escalation occurs. The soft skills involved in finessing communication techniques over the course of a career become more complex and more important as the stakes grow. Be sure that your communication skills grow with increasing responsibility. Seek professional mentoring or other professional development to keep skills current.

3. What do I want from this process?

Escalation as a management strategy involves a comprehensive understanding of outcome goals and long-term project planning. Escalate too many issues and you may be perceived as the “Boy Who Cried Wolf” which may result in the lack of engagement of superiors when you truly need them. Holding back and waiting too long to escalate an issue can result in the project falling apart. Effective escalation takes skill, knowledge, and experience.

4. Am I prepared?

While seasoned professionals will disagree about when or how to escalate an issue, most will
agree that if you are going to escalate an issue you need to be completely prepared. Accumulate your documentation about what you have done so far to mitigate the situation; prepare a concise report detailing any related financials; have clear ideas about your outcomes. You want to be a partner in the process, so involve your team as necessary and engage your superiors as colleagues. An escalation can be an effective learning tool for teams if strategized properly.

Additional Factors to Consider

Effective escalation requires a certain level of professional maturity that emanates from top project managers. When you are in the presence of great leaders, how they handle conflicts and unexpected issues becomes the glue that builds team cohesion and is noticeable from a distance. Every company has divisions and teams that work smoothly despite issues that arise as projects evolve. Project management is a dynamic field with a strong history of building innovative solutions to business’ toughest challenges. It promotes a collegial environment where collaboration is a key element. Developing effective escalation strategies can help you keep your skills relevant and leverage career growth throughout the longevity of your career.

Is your project’s team spirit ‘flammable’?

You’ve hired the top experts for your new project. You’ve also found the right coach for the latest development process that you intend to follow for the project. Great! You are all set. You plan the project kick-off in a grand manner, the team seems to bond awesome at the kick-off party and seems like nothing could go wrong with this project…until it hits the first rough patch. And that’s when reality raises its ugly face from under the shiny hood. The same team now shows major ideological, political and behavioral cracks and divisions. People who earlier held ‘falling colleagues’ at the teambuilding outing just a few months back now secretly hatch a plan to push those very colleagues off the parapet! People who teamed up at the impromptu beach volleyball match and left everyone speechless by their sportsmanship and brilliant tactics still seem to be leaving everyone speechless – but this time more by their one-upmanship and dirty politics.

What happened?

Welcome to the ‘day-mare’ of leading a dysfunctional team with highly ‘flammable’ spirit – nothing is perhaps more detrimental to project success than such team dynamics. Assembling a crack team doesn’t automatically transform into a dream team. There has to be something that is the binding glue, the secret sauce that holds the team together through its highs and lows and makes people surrender their individual egos for the team to excel. This doesn’t come from individual skills alone, this is not a monopoly of knowledge industry alone, it doesn’t depend on national or corporate cultures, has nothing to do with age, race or gender, and isn’t something that money can buy. It is freely available to everyone as air but yet as rare as pink diamonds. It is as pervasive as the mythical ‘ether’ and yet it is not able to impregnate some of the most stubborn team cultures and individual mindsets. I call this as the ‘project spirit’.  Everything else being, it is what makes a team alive, vibrant, social, engaged, responsive, interlocked, courageous, agile, risk-taking, entrepreneurial, persevering, result-oriented and a true game-changer. And the absence of it can rapidly send the team spirit into a ‘flammable’ tailspin where mistrusting individual egos rip apart the social fiber of the team and lead it to inferno.

How do you ‘brew’ it?

In a true sense, project spirit is the elixir that gives vitality to the team. Too bad, you can’t buy from the pharmacy. However, if you work sufficiently hard, you too can ‘brew’ it in your teams.

In my experience, the single most important factor that leads to teams strong as steel is presence of a common, often ‘unrealistic’, unprecedented but extremely desirable, shared goal.

Before India’s first war of independence in 1857, India was largely a chaotic subcontinent of individual princely states that were better-off settling egos among themselves at the cost of poor people they ruled. Surely there were local battles and mutinies before 1857 that had limited effect, but 1857 war became a pan-Indian effort for the first time in history to throw Imperial British out of India. The cause made princes and people forget their individual differences and agonies, and they set out as one team, overcoming all obstacles in their way. Even though they were not successful, they set the pace and tone for Indian Freedom struggle that eventually resulted in Indian Independence in 1947.

I compare the great freedom movement like the French Liberation, and Russia’s Red Revolution, in the same league. They made the poor and the downtrodden sink their individual differences and come together as a single voice, single team that pulled down even the mightiest of the empires.

Similarly, JFK’s famous Rice Stadium Moon Speech in 1962 fired the imagination in mints of an entire generation of American scientists and engineers on a journey that no one thought was possible in their lifetimes:

“…But if I were to say, my fellow citizens, that we shall send to the moon, 240,000 miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun–almost as hot as it is here today–and do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out–then we must be bold…It will be done during the term of office of some of the people who sit here on this platform. But it will be done. And it will be done before the end of this decade.”

Misery, common enemy and tragedies are often a great unifier of their victims – they bring people together like nothing else can. Soldiers battling the enemy from their trenches often go through extreme traumatic experiences that they become friends for life. When I volunteered to go to Antarctica for 16 months in 1993, I went through similar life-changing experiences. In that hostile weather, we faced challenges like the fire in our station – on day one of the winter (the ship had just left us a day before!), accidents with our helicopters, and many more. It worked like a charm – what no teambuilding or nightlong parties on the ship could do, the midnight fire brought us all on the same side within a matter of minutes, even though no one had been trained to fight a real-life fire in Antarctica – after all, our survival in that hostile terrain was not an individual matter anymore!

Shared ideology or a sense of purpose is another great way to bring people together and work with extremely high levels of mutual trust – so much so that they can end up taking causes that are beyond normal teams, even if bordering on being illegal. One of the best examples I remember is a work of fiction, “The Four Just Men” by Edgar Wallace published in 1905, where the four wealthy men have a common purpose that transcends the law because they believe they can bring higher good to the society at large by committing murders of people who seem to be above law. Hollywood movies like the Ocean’s series often bring a motley collection of people from different background united by a common purpose, albeit evil.

So, what is the right way to build such project spirit? Surely, cracking the whip to make all foot soldiers fall in line is the idea whose time is simply up. Even the CEO of companies that employ tens of thousands of people have realized the real worth of people. So, while putting the people under unreal pressure of delivery and time commitments might bring them together, but don’t count on it as a means to charge them – chances are that they might charge at you instead!

Creating a shared goal that has never been accomplished before is a sureshot way to build the greatest team ever. Not every project builds Taj Mahal, Eiffel Tower or the Dreamliner, but that’s where the true caliber of a leader is built – to achieve ‘extraordinary’ from ‘ordinary’, that ‘extra’ must come from the leader to raise the team’s desire to fly high.

One of Agile’s cornerstones is self-organizing teams where there is a presumption of unquestionable levels of high trust among the team members, they don’t need any external guidance or adult supervision on a daily basis. However, agile methods don’t really help teams understand the process that builds such ideal teams – it just expects it on day one! If every team could start with such highly mature, technical super proficient, and highly collaborative individuals, they simply won’t require any process to organize their work, let alone Agile! However, in real world, you constantly deal with hiring challenges, attrition, downsizing, delays, reduced resource commitment while the delivery timelines shrink, people who often need to be trained on the job, varying levels of competencies and motivation levels in the team, individual career preferences dictating day to day choices about the kind of work people like to do, and organizational needs and realities that need you to brave more inclement weather than what is romanced in the tiny hamlet where our agile team sits pretty!

The point is: build team spirit is a hard job. It requires endless sweat and blood. If you narrow down the problem by eliminating every single source of noise and self-appointing your backyard as the only problem you are willing to confront, then yes, you can build the dream team over a few beers. But that’s the deal – leadership is not about picking the sweetest of apples from the orchard but taking care of the whole orchard from wild animals, storms, invaders and other natural and manmade disasters. Anything short of it will make the team spirit ‘flammable’.

Is your project’s team spirit ‘flammable’…it might as well be because of YOU!

How does manager’s proximity to team affects team dynamics and decision-making?

Congratulations! You’ve got the long-cherished promotion that will make you manager – of your own buddies! You don’t quite know what it means for your relations with the team – are you better-off as their manager or as their buddy?

One key challenge with first-line managers, especially those fairly new in their roles, is how to strike right balance between formal reporting relationship and informal personal relations with the team. Considering that most people “leave managers and not companies”, this seems to be a critical issue, but seldom discussed. In my career, I have also seen similar issues when people became a second-line manager or a group manager for the first-time – so, this is not a one-time issue.

I have often seen managers who have been promoted from within going all too out to please the team that “nothing has really changed” and they are still the good old buddy that they have known him all along. In their earnest to earn brownie points from their once-colleagues-but-now-team, they behave and act like one of the guys. Nothing could be wrong with it, except when personal proximity limits or blurs their professional judgment, especially when pulling up low performers. At times, I have seen this was the ‘bribe’ such managers were willing to pay to buy their team’s ‘respect’. The team definitely loves such managers (“I drank till 3am last weekend with my manager”, or “We plan to watch movie with our manager this evening”), and the manager also has surely found a way to make peace with his team, some of whom might be secretly jealous of his growth. Sometimes, they also overdelegate, or recommend promotions too-soon for their teams – which could be an indication of the secret guilt or discomfort they carry inside them. Surely, this is not an easy seat to occupy, and with little preparation or onboarding support given to rookie managers, it is not surprising that people find what appeals to them best. Surely, these managers are extremely popular with their teams! I call them Santa Claus – they come to office with a goodie bag, and fulfill their team member’s wishes every day.

On the other extreme end are managers who think it will dilute their no-nonsense macho image to deliver results if they start mingling with the team. They maintain a two-mile distance from the team, and as a result, are not generally very popular, sometimes feared and often ignored from the social circuit of the team. They start moving with the ‘upper crust’. Even if such behavior might help those managers in maintaining a healthy professional-personal balance, sometimes they might lose their ability to influence their teams and motivate them to do that extra bit just to make sure the job is not just done, but is done well. At times, they might not even understand the team’s motivation levels, or their collective decision-making process, or their unappointed power centres, etc. I once had an expat manager who had never written code in his life and was clearly unfit to be a software manager. He regularly ‘bought’ respect and support by ‘delegating’ most of his work to the team. Actually, abdicating his responsibilities was more like it. While he sat in (literally) a corner cabin, the team toiled in a meeting room next door, which was ok – the team members got a lot of additional responsibilities in the bargain. What became a problem was when we ran into some some design bugs during system testing – he came and started getting angry at the team. What he clearly didn’t realize that by ‘delegating’ his responsibilities, he didn’t stop owning the consequences of the decisions the team was making without him! Within next few months, most of us left him and that company. Then I had another boss who was promoted from within as a group manager. While he was some sort of a poster-boy success as a first-line manager, he was all too-new as a second-line manager and without much mentoring on how to effectively lead first-line managers, he started behaving in an autocratic manner. When he wanted us for a quick conversation, he would simply shout names of us lesser mortals from inside his cabin! Goes without saying that none of those managers exist in my LinkedIn network :).

What’s a better approach – sitting with the troops in the trenches and drinking beer till neighbors call the cops, or working from that corner office (or whatever that is called nowadays) and keep a safe distance from the ‘guys’? I guess there is no single universal answer – they come in all hues. Excess on either sides seems like something to be avoided. Also, this doesn’t seem to be a unique behavior associated with someone promoted internally or someone brought-in from outside the company. Newcomers also tend to be equally tentative in their first few weeks – they are not sure of their property rights, the holy cows in the organization, the informal power centrers, and so on. So, while they test new waters, there might be tendency to soft-pedal issues in the beginning. If they act too swiftly and aggressively, they might already make ‘enemies’. If they start weeding out the garden too early, they might not have enough ‘context’ and hence might lack the finesse to do the job well. On the other hand, if they start befriending people and build the right network, they need to invest time – something that they might not have. 

Striking the right balance

What are some of the best practices and strategies you have seen around? Are there some ideas with timeless appeal and culture-agnostic applicability? I am sure we can sensitize new managers on the nature of the beast, but one must read the terrain and decide what is the right approach at a given point in time.

How Mentoring can help Leaders too?

Last month, I sat through an interesting talk by two very senior business professionals, Ajit Chakravarti and Govind Mirchandani. The talk was organized by the Indo-American Chamber of Commerce (IACC), and you can read speaker profiles here. I found their talk particularly interesting because they did not talk any theory, and did not use any complex jargon or bulky models to explain their ideas.

They talked about how and why leadership also requires to be mentored, and how a mentor makes the difference. They used the analogy of Krishna as a mentor to Arjun in the Kurushetra battlefield. Arjun is torn by the value conflict – should he fight and kill his own kith and kin for the sake of getting his kingdom back? He doesn’t require training for the war, nor does he require any coaching for the battle – the fact that he is out there in the battlefield, all decked up means he is fully trained and ready to fight the war. What he needs is someone whom he trusts for his knowledge and his unflinching trust and support for him who can listen to him, clarify the value conflict (which, more often than not, is not between right vs wrong, but between ‘right’ and ‘right’  two equally competing options that are both the right thing to do individually, but when tested against each other, put one’s value system to extreme test), ask questions, show him the mirror – so that Arjun can take the correct decision. In their view, Krishna fills that role as a mentor, and they extrapolate the following traits of a mentor from how Krishna goes on to help Arjun:

  • Respected leader, inspires, and Role model
  • Willing to share
  • Is trustworthy
  • Prime importance: mentee’s development & growth
  • Guides, supports, counsels
  • Helps create value and realise vision

I think it sums up what makes a mentor quite well. It is not important for a mentor to be knowledgeable alone – he needs to have a legitimate interest in mentee’s development and growth. I especially like the reminder that a mentor should be willing to share – many ‘experts’ out there take pride in their knowledge but are unwilling (insecure ?) to share that knowledge. In today’s flat world, power is indeed with the one who has the knowledge and is willing to share with others for everyone’s good.

So, how does a mentor do all these things? In their view, a mentor hones intrinsic qualities, thinking, emotional intelligence, attitudes, behaviors, habits and mentee’s personality and character. He does this by holding a mirror for the mentees to check their values and alter the behavior, as deemded fit by the mentees themselves.

One question eventually comes to mind is whether a mentor is a coach, or someone else? They make a distinction between a coach and a mentor:




Domain expertise/skill

Holistic development

Akin to teaching

Unearthing potential

One to many

One on One



Across organisational levels

Senior leadership only

It is not difficult to see that mentoring (at least the way these two speakers define) is quite different from coaching. The aspect of confidentiality and one-on-one is quite different from coaching, and mentoring is all about opening up layers of potential that perhaps the mentee (or even the mentor) might simply not be aware of. They limit the mentoring to senior leadership, though I am not sure I agree with it. I think everyone needs a mentor.

They talked about their mentoring process and I found one interesting step in it – immersion:


 Mentoring Landscape 



They define immersion as the state where there is complete experential bliss in the process of learning – and metaphorically compare it with an ace swimmer really ‘immersed’ under water, blissfully enjoying the depths of his ‘environment’ and learning in the process. In their view, immersion is not really a mentee’s submission to the mentor but a necessary step towards building the complete trust where a mentee is able to explore inner depths of his character, mind or potential under complete trust for the mentor. I think this ability to ‘immerse’ a mentee might be the finesse that makes great mentors stand apart from the crowd of hundreds of so-called mentors. Of course, such two-way trust might never develop overnight, and can’t happen without having a mentor of impeccable credentials and a mentee’s complete and unconditional belief in his mentor’s abilities and intent. However, I am interested in ‘immersion’ as an idea whether that happens under supervision or not. I think the whole idea of someone soaking it up, being immersed in the experience, taking own sweet time to internalize the learning is a great idea as opposed to a canned presentation that expects cookie-cutter solutions.

It was a good exchange of ideas, and something that gave me new ideas, especially the concept of immersion, to think more about.

Why do you Innovate ?

Last week, NASSCOM organized a talk on innovation by Rob Shelton, co-author of “Making Innovation Work“, followed by excellent presentations by two of the previous year’s winner of NASSCOM Innovation awards, Intel India and Sloka Telecom. It was good learning to sit in Rob’s audience and listen to his perspectives on innovation. I liked his (probably) favorite punchline (because he must have repeated it couple of times during his presentation): “How you innovate determines why you innovate“. I think this is a great way to sum up if an organization is undertaking innovation as a strategic differentiator or just to play catch-up on a tactical level.

In his view, the three building blocks of innovation are leadership, culture and process. His perspective is that innovation originates from business strategy could be either a technology innovation or a business model innovation. I think techies who spend a lot of time doing the ‘core’ tech stuff don’t easily recognize the presence or importance of a business innovation, but from a business perspective, it does make a lot of sense. What Apple did with iPhone might not be so much of a technology innovation (because neither the technology nor the MP3 player as a product were really new) but more of a business innovation, especially when you view the entire food chain of iPhone: iTunes allow a seamless integration of iPhone with the music stores and allow maintaining a music library and buying and downloading music as micropayments and choice at song-level (as opposed to the Music CD model of buying per CD even if you all you want is a single song).

When we consider these two factors as primary vehicles of delivery of an innovation, we can consider a 2×2 grid on how close is the change to its existing state. If both technology and business changes are brand-new, then we are talking of Radical Innovation. However in his view, Radical innovation is very infrequent, Breakthrough innovation leads to high growth and Incremental innovation leads to average growth. Breakthrough Innovation is when any one of the axis is new and the other factor is close to an existing one, and Incremental Innovation, as the name suggests, is very close everything exisiting.

I also like the emphasis Rob puts on innovation being a team activity. He calls it a team sport. Of course, if you only think of innovation as an individual sitting through long evenings and coming out with a new super way to do something, that might not conjure up images of innovation being a team sport, but I guess Rob is painting a picture where Innovation is a serious top-down activitiy undertaken at a strategic level, and hence requires the entire affected organization to work as a team.

Rob also talked about ‘Open Innovation’ and what is really meant was ‘opening up of Strategy, Organization and Culture and Practices and Capabilities to achieve best results for an organization. In his view, Open Innovation has a higher ROI. I want to read more on it.

The presentations by Intel and Sloka were awesome. Intel worked on Dunnington chip at its Bangalore centre and built its first chip for the world – a true accomplisment for any remote engineering centre and not just Intel India. Sloka is a 33-person 5-yearold startup that is doing some cool work in building low-footprint and low-cost base stations. Its founder Sujai spoke about how they faced every successive challange to build such world-class products from India without any serious VC money and purely on their talent and grit and determination. May their tribe prosper! 

If the presentation was enlightening and interesting, the Q&A was also lively and interactive. There was a question on when you call an idea ‘failure’ ? Interesting ideas to followup on.

Rob ended his presentation with answers to three questions he started the presentation with:

  1. Why can’t companies develop strong effective innovation ?
    • They are unwilling or unable to fix what is broken or underperforming
  2. Why do companies find it so hard to sustain robust levels of innovation ?
    • They use an outdated strategy or operational model for innovation
  3. How do leaders create meaningful levels of innovation ?
    • They manage innovation as if their future growth depends on it – because it does !

I think these are pretty important questions for an organization in these tough times.

I found Rob’s presentation addressing some core issues with very hard-hitting frankness. He puts the entire onus for an effective innovation strategy on leadership, and believes it can’t be a short-term tactical move just for some small gains. Of course, my favorite is still How you innovate determines why you innovate.

So, why do you Innovate ?

Shu-Ha-Ri and Situational Leadership for Managers

In the previous blogs What is the leadership style in your software teams ? and Situational Leadership in Software teams, I explored how leadership has evolved over time, and how we could relate it to the concept of situational leadership in the context of software development teams. Those thoughts were from an essentially western perspective where the ideas such as democracy in life and at work, free thinking, equality, participatory management, individualism (followed by a re-discovery of team-oriented approach to managing work) and shared leadership have been uniformally accepted in the social values and ably institutionalized by legislation. The net result is that we are seeing a great shift in the balance of power from the so-called ‘management’ (a.k.a. the role in an organization responsible to get the job done) to the so-called ‘labor’ (a.k.a. the role in an organization responsible to do the job). The four models of leaderhip helped us understand how leadership evolved at a macro-level down the ages, and the concept of situational leadership helped us understand how a guru, or a manager, could adapt his style of leadership based on the growth of his teams.

In this context, it is interesting to see how Shu-Ha-Ri, an old Japanese concept of staged learning, guided empowerment and inner learning in martial arts supports a learner to graduate through a process of blind loyalty, learning, discovery, questioning and finally figuring out things on his own. In my view, this is complemantary to the situational leadership in the sense that while the emphasis in situational leadership is on the leader (even though his style depends on his follower’s growth), the focus is clearly on the follower in Shu-Ha-Ri model, even if his/her growth is supported by the guru himself. I think a study of this model helps us understand where and why a student’s journey must begin, and what are the stages of evolution. In my view, this model doesn’t explicitly tell how a guru must lead as the student grows in his learning, and I think therein lies an important application. But, let’s first look at the model.

Shu-ha-ri is “a term the Japanese use to describe the overall progression of martial arts training, as well as the lifelong relationship the student will enjoy with his or her instructor.

Shu can either mean “to protect” or “to obey.” The dual meaning of the term is aptly descriptive of the relationship between a martial arts student and teacher in the student’s early stages, which can be likened to the relationship of a parent and child. The student should absorb all the teacher imparts, be eager to learn and willing to accept all correction and constructive criticism. The teacher must guard the student in the sense of watching out for his or her interests and nurturing and encouraging his or her progress, much as a parent guards a child through its growing years. Shu stresses basics in an uncompromising fashion so the student has a solid foundation for future learning, and all students perform techniques in identical fashion, even though their personalities, body structure, age, and abilities all differ.

is another term with an appropriate double meaning: “to break free” or “to frustrate.” Sometime after the student reaches dan (black belt) level, he or she will begin to break free in two ways. In terms of technique, the student will break free of the fundamentals and begin to apply the principles acquired from the practice of basics in new, freer, and more imaginative ways. The student’s individuality will begin to emerge in the way he or she performs techniques. At a deeper level, he or she will also break free of the rigid instruction of the teacher and begin to question and discover more through personal experience. This can be a time of frustration for the teacher, as the student’s journey of discovery leads to countless questions beginning with “Why…” At the Ha stage, the relationship between student and teacher is similar to that of a parent and an adult child; the teacher is a master of the art. and the student may now be an instructor to the others.

Ri is the stage at which the student, now a kodansha (high ranking black belt), separates from the instructor having absorbed all that he or she can learn from them. This is not to say that the student and teacher are no longer associated. Actually, quite the opposite should be true; they should now have a stronger bond than ever before, much as a grandparent does with their son or daughter who is now also a parent. Although the student is now fully independent, he treasures the wisdom and patient counsel of the teacher and there is a richness to their relationship that comes through their shared experiences. But the student is now learning and progressing more through self-discovery than by instruction and can give outlet to his or her own creative impulses. The student’s techniques will bear the imprint of his or her own personality and character. Ri, too, has a dual meaning, the second part of which is “to set free” As much as the student now seeks independence from the teacher, the instructor likewise must set the student free.

Shu Ha Ri is not a linear progression. It is more akin to concentric circles, so that there is Shu within Ha and both Shu and Ha within Ri. Thus, the fundamentals remain constant; only the application of them and the subtleties of their execution change as the student progresses and his or her own personality begins to flavor the techniques performed. Similarly, the student and teacher are always bound together by their close relationship and the knowledge, experience, culture, and tradition shared between them. Ultimately, Shu Ha Ri should result in the student surpassing the master, both in knowledge and skill. This is the source of improvement for the art as a whole. If the student never surpasses his master, then the art will stagnate, at best. If the student never achieves the master’s ability, the art will deteriorate. But, if the student can assimilate all that the master can impart and then progress to even higher levels of advancement, the art will continually improve and flourish.

It is interesting that a Shu-Ha-Ri journey must always start with a complete blind faith in the guru’s skills. Perhaps this is more oriental concept, but in India too, we have great examples of how students excelled when they reposed complete faith in their guru’s skills and knowledge. To me this is like climbing Mt. Everest – you can’t just get airdropped close to the summit and complete the final climb – you must undertake the journey from the base camp. This is important because the skills you require for the final assualt are the ones that you need to master right from your formative years as a student of that subject.

An interesting part of this model is that the end objective. It is expected that the student shall surpass his master in knowledge and skills for the ultimate benefit of that trade. Situational leadership doesn’t talk in that many words, but Shu-Ha-Ri model probably is all about the ultimate liberation of a student’s faculties. However, in modern times of nano-careers and floating workplace relationships between a mentor and a disciple (or a manager and his team members), it is perhaps very hard to expect that there is a guru for each one of us, who is helping us improve every single day, with the eventual goal of making us better than himself. Managers are exposed to their own traumas – job unsecurity due to economic situation or other organizational chances, skills obsolesence, stagnation and so on. How do we expect those managers to actually go out of the way and help out their disciplines in their careers ? If the average tenure a manager is with a given team member is not more than a few years, is it even reasonable to expect ?

Looking at it from a disciple’s eyes, there might be yet another set of issues to confront. How to choose a guru who can selflessly teach him to fly like a carefree bird and scale heights that he can’t do by himself ? How does he know that his guru won’t sabotage his career? Assuming his guru is a good guy, does he have all the skills and knowledge to help him at every stage of his career ? In the context of an immediate manager as his guru, how many managers will be willing to help him grow and risk their own obsolescense at workplace. Do today’s job pressures even leave one with that much time for a long-haul development of one’s skills and abilities ? Is it even worth doing it given that in every 5 to 10 years, perhaps the entire subject might be re-written and replaced by a new body of knowledge?

I think these are very relevant questions, and with no easy answers. A manager must outgrow his fears and invest time and effort in developing his teams in a way that helps grow them. The process of taking a student from Shu to Ha and finally to Ri is highly rewarding and educating process, not to mention the obvious challenges. Better managers among us have mastered the art of making difference to the people who worked with them. They all faced similar challanges that I mentioned above, and that probably made the entire experience even more rewarding for them. In the process of liberating their disciples, those gurus also became little better gurus.

After all, a guru is known by the work of his disciples.

Situational Leadership in Software teams

In a previous post, What is the leadership style in your software teams ?, I discussed about four key types of leadership and their evoluation, and how it could possibly relate to software teams. In this blog post, let’s dwell on this topic further, and explore how to decide what leadership style suits a given situation. The assumption here is that there is no such thing as an “all-weather” or a personal favorite leadership style – each tool and method has pros and cons depending on why, how, when, what and where they are applied. The value one derives depends on how well a given style ‘fits’ the context – to that end, it it highly imperative to identify the ground conditions and only then decide what could work here more effectively.

Our industry has a difficulty articulating with what type of leadership we want to have. We surely don’t like the ‘Great Leader’ or the ‘Command and Control’ leaderships (discussed in my previous post). We believe this leads to a highly autocratic or centralized organizations which is the not the best way to manage highly educated, unapologetically assertive and fiercely independent knowledge professionals. We feel empowerment is the way to go, and eventually want to be able to manage own destiny by ourselves. There is a fair amount of consistency in these thoughts among young professionals cutting across countries and cultures. This should make the task for managers easier, because they kind of know what is expected of them, and all they need to do is to just do it! However, like every management advise, it is easier said than done. For one, most managers from the shop-floor era of management might not be skilled or ready for the new-age management mantras. They might feel insecure letting go of almost all their authority, or might feel underconfident about younger professional’s competence, or some other reasons. So, that’s one part of the issue.

Second part of the issue is how young professionals want their leaders to support them. Contrary to most people’s beliefs, everyone does want someone ‘above’ them to support them when they are need help, give them some directions when they are doing something for the first time, give them feedback when they have done something, shower them with praise and recognition when they accomplish something, and (surprise ! surprise !) even pull them up when they mess things up (of course, not in a way that kills them, but in a way that lifts them).

Most managers understand these intuitively or learn them from the school of hard knocks. First-time managers often have the tendency to either overcontrol the team (by using management tools such as “death by process” or “death by compliance”) or the other extreme end to overappease the team. We have seen them in all shapes and sizes. What I found is that people generally tend to overcontrol because they don’t want to fail, and want to do everything possible to ensure that projects stay on tracks. It is not so much about them not trusting their teams, but more about whether the project will be completed successfully if they are not involved. They want to look good to their seniors that by making them the manager of this project, they did not make a bad decision. Some managers share their solidatiry by following every process to the hilt, some will overstuff their plate full of every possible requirement because they don’t want to be seen as the project manager who says ‘No’ to a customer, some might make the team work extraordinaliy hard over weekends so that upper management sees their ‘commitment’ to the project and the organization. They probably believe that overcontrol and being a tough manager can solve all people issues on a project.

Other type of extreme behavior is about turning the team environment into an Osho commune. The idea is to ‘buy’ motivation to the task, commitment to the organization and loyalty to themselves by ’empowering’ the teams. Most people will never admit that they are ‘buying’ motivation, commitment and loyalty from the team but that’s what it is more often than not. After all, the are not ’empowering’ their newly assigned teams on the basis of their merit and performance just yet, so that else could explain their motives? I have seen managers who were technically or managerially weak buying their team’s respect by trading their authority. I have seen managers who do not want to spoil their relationship with team members (especially low performers) using this strategy. They are trying to ‘please’ everyone on the team. Obviously they haven’t heard “I cannot give you the formula for success, but I can give you the formula for failure: which is: Try to please everybody” by Herbert Swope.

Surely, this is a continuum with these two being its extreme ends, and the right way is somewhere in between. However, what might be the ‘right way’ for some might not be seen as the ‘right way’ by another. To illustrate what I mean, look at the same behavior but which could mean entirely different things to different people:

  • Behaviour 1: A manager is heavily involved working with the team in discussing and resolving every single issue, looks into the details of every single decision, participates in all estimations and commitments, sits and writes code and reviews it, etc.
    • Interpretation 1: She is a great leader. Supports us in all our problems, gets involved, and an eye for details. By getting involved in the commitment-making process, I feel more secure that I won’t be blamed for any issues, and that my manager is in it with me. She still knows the entire code by heart!
    • Interpretation 2: She doesn’t trust us, and gets involved in every single issue. There is no freedom to do what we want to do. I would say she micro-manages us. If she also contributes as an individual performer, she should be one of the engineers and not a manager

We have a manager here who might have felt her involvement with the team will be welcomed. She might have had her own reasons to get involved (maybe new project for the company, very critical, high expectations, her own views about team being capable of executing it, etc.) but different team members are likely to view it differently. Similarly, let’s take another case on the end of the spectrum:

  • Behavior 2: The manager is not involved in day to day team inolvement, allow the team to manage its own issue
    • Interpretation 1: he is a great leader, he has delegated every decision-making and empowered us like we have never known. he trust us with our ability to do things
    • Interpretation 2: he is totally aloof from the team and takes no responsibility for the team. has no feeling for what pressures we go through in the trenches. I wonder why the company pays him. He doesn’t come and help even when we are knee-deep in hot water. A simple illustration like this can bring out the fact that we are all different and likely to interpret same observed behavior differently. As you rightly point out, 99% depends on context – we should know all possible permutations and combinations and what are the specific issues in each of those, and what would be the best way to address those issues.

Again, the behavior of this manager is likely to be interpreted differently by different people in his team, irrespective of what and why he thinks about it.

Clearly, these trivial and overexaggerated examples do highlight the fact that a singular style won’t serve all needs well. The need is to identify an approach that individual people could relate to personally, and feel that their concerns and needs are addressed individually by the leader rather than being met with collectively by the leader (which essentially means that no one’s needs are being met, because an ‘average’ by definition is at best a numerical compromise what falls short of numbers higher than it and scores higher than number below it, thus matching none of the numbers).

Hersey-Blanchard Situational Leadership model serves as a great example to address this dilemma:

Situational Leadership modelEssentially, this recognizes the fact that ‘followers’ undergo development in stages when following a leader, and based on where a follower is in the stage of development, a leader must modify his leadership style. As we see in the Situational Leadership model, a leader adjusts his style (from quadrants S1->S2->S3->S4) from ‘Directing / Telling’ style when his followers need very high direction but not so much of support. This is pretty much a one-way, centralized leadership that realizes the fact that followers are not skilled enough to decide for themselves, and hence must be clearly guided on their tasks.

As the team matures and is able to understand much of task requirements, they require lesser direction and are able to contribute to tasks in terms fo ideas,knowledge and skills. This turns the communication into two-way and requires the leader to get into a ‘Coaching / Selling’ mode.

As the team matures and requires lesser of directions, the leader changes gears again and gets into ‘Supporting / Participating’ mode where more responsibility has been handed down to the teams but the overall control still remains with the leader.

Finally, when the teams have grown to the stage where they are self-directed, they assume decision-making from the leader, who is only involved when the teams want him to get involved. At this point, the leader is in ‘Delegating’ mode and has delegated responsibility as well as authority with his followers or the team.

As we can see here, the ‘power’ of a leader is gradually shared with the team as they develop. This model is cognizant of the fact that no one behavior could suit every situation – it all really depends on where the team is at this point of time. Of course, the leader is also responsible for developing the team from R1 through R4 and in that process, he must be prepared to ‘lose’ his traditional power and authority to the teams. In a way, he must work towards making himself redundant! But that is what transformational leadership is all about.

Some interesting and important observation from this model:

  • However seasoned a leader might be, she can’t always start operating in a particular quadrant in which she is currently operating, or is proficient in. When being part of another team, she must analyze the follower preparedness and readiness before directly getting into the empowering mode lest that be midsunderstood and create a chaos.
  • There is nothing good or bad about a given leadership style. Like a right tool in the right hands, it must be seen as the right response to a given problem. So, if some manager comes across as a ‘Telling’ manager, that might not necessarily be a bad thing.
  • Leadership style mismatch typically happens when the leader opens the floodgates a little too early for the team to handle. This could result in a chaos, as the team has not yet had the opportunity to transform itself into a high-performing self-organizing team. On the other hand, other leadership dysfunction is about not letting it go even when the team has demonstrated its ability to manage its own fortunes. We took those examples earlier in this blog.
  • There might be individuals with high competence in their functions, but what matters in our context is the preparedness and readiness as a team. There will always be individuals in any team in any stage who will either be very self-directed (and hence, not very open to being directed) or highly dependent for directions. A leader’s job becomes difficult because she must not only maintain a particular leadership style to suit the team development stage, but also make adjustments as per the individual differences.
  • To be a good leader, one doesn’t always have to be in S4 quadrant. One could be in S1 quadrant and still serve the team with excellent results. Similarly, a bad leader doesn’t always have to be always the one who is seen as wielding control over the team, say, in S1 quadrant. A leader operating in S4 quadrant could come across as an incompetant leader.
  • Finally, (a) organizational culture for decision-making (centralized vs/ shared), (b) risk apetite and (c) the task under question will also determine how much ‘allowance’ a manager has in developing his team and sharing decision-making with them. This model dosen’t factor-in those external environment factors that will often have an overriding influence on the development of leadership, often even when the team has (or has not) matured to a given level of readiness.

We have barely scratched the surface with this discussion. Surely, there are many more critical factors that will eventually determine (a) which leadership style an organization will let a manager decide, and (b) how successful would that be. Some of these might help us understand better why Agile adoptions don’t always work in some organizations, or why some organizations prefer a formal project management method. At a team level, this model could also help us understand what type of team members are likely to be motivated and productive and what type of team members are likely to become disenchanted and eventually leave the team or the organization.

How do you go about determining leadership style on your software teams ?

What is the leadership style in your software teams ?

Do you like to believe that the so-called ‘command and control’ is an exceptionally distasteful idea for intellctual work such as software development?

I don’t particularly disagree with you, but just wondering – have you ever worked for a stereotypical ‘command and control organization’ in software industry, where things were forcibly thrust down your throat without taking your views, or you not having any freedom to question or disagree? We all seem to have romantic ideas and idealistic opinions about what it means (rather, what it should mean) but let’s ‘inspect and adapt’ our understanding with the real-world experiences so that we have a correct understanding of an incorrect idea.
In my close to two decades of working with European, Chinese (yes – contrary to what most people believe, Chinese also disagree with their managers very passionately just like anyone else, and won’t take a so-called ‘command and control’ directive lying low) and US product companies, I am yet to see one. Prior to that, I worked for Defense Research (not as a military officer but as a computer scientist) where I closely interacted with defense personnel, and as far as I can tell, I never saw a blind ‘command and control’ anywhere – if the guy taking ‘orders’ was not convinced, there was an element of positive negotiation about exploring better ways to do things. It is probably the bollywood style ‘command and control’ (“koi shak ya sawal (Any questions)?”. “no sir”) or the Hollywood-style action-packed patriotic flicks where soldiers are constantly getting instructions on radiosets from generals to “do this, and do that” that makes us think it is all about one-sided communication?

So, is the military really a bad C&C model that serves as good reference for how software teams shouldn’t be run, or it is just our figment of imagination to ringfence our own position and call everything outside as C&C – perhaps taking a safe position without really understanding what is C&C really ? Here, let me share three purely unrelated but relevant pieces of knowledge that might make you think and question how much prevalent ‘command and control’ really is in the military:

  • The Swiss Army manual says “if there is a gap between the map and the terrain, trust the terrain”. I don’t think it is for its literal meaning alone, and it couldn’t be made any more expilcit that the on-field judgment is considered far more supreme and much more critical than the plan you start out with or made by the generals in the war room. (kind of similar to one of the recent Tiger Woods ads for Accenture where actual golf course has trees instead of an open field in the simulation practice that he had done).
  • Second one is unverified, but I read this long back. I could not trace any source on the net on it, so take it for what it is worth, and if you can get a reference, please do let me know whom to thank for it. Here is goes: in Malaysian army, the highest military honor is not given to a general, it is given to the solder who takes on-field decision, even if a wrong one.
  • This comes from Indian Army. Most of us have no clue what the life at border posts is (even I have not lived that life, but just being a medium here to share with you all). We all have heard of terms like Post #5648 that was recaptured during Kargil, etc. In reality, most such ‘posts’ are a small bunkers probablay not any bigger than a few square feet where two soldiers man the country’s borders – living there at a stretch for 6 months, completely cut-off from the world, and often from their own commander. Whatever might be the state foreign policy, state of armistice, or any such macro-level condition – these two soldiers are constantly under the threat of being fired at and they must survive against all odds. Their micro-level policy is not dictated by any macro-level national policy told to them through ‘command and control’ – for them it is just a matter of survvival. They either kill or get killed. If they have to wait for real commands from the top everytime, you and I won’t be enjoying a comforting life far too long.

During my 16-month scientific expedition to Maitri, the Indian research station in Antarctica in 1993-95, I have seen airforce and navy pilots work with airmen and technical staff in hostile weather conditions (freezing conditions and high winds), and I have seen the general respect, bonhomie and camaraderie between ship’s officers and its seamen – the lives of these pilots depends on an airmen not latching some bolt properly (I have also seen accidents happening when that was not done – and no, no one had to die for screwing up) and the captain of the ship must trust that his instructions to turn or slow down have actually been carried out by the seamen – and none of this could work if it really were command and control as we think it is. Every single armed forces officer of India that I have met would be willing to lay down his life to save even one of his men. And that’s why when he asks his soldiers to do something a particular way, the soldier doesn’t think twice. A very narrow definition of command and control doesn’t capture such human interactions and a two-day dependency and respect for each other.

So, what is the real explanation of C&C: the unverified explanation that we carry in our minds, or the one that actually happens in modern-day military? Before answering this question, it might help us to understand the various models of leadership and how they have evolved. There is a general consensus that leadership styles have evolved from ‘Great Leader’ to ‘Command and Control’ to ‘Empowering Leader’ to ‘Learning Leader’:

Great Leader

The Great Leader relied on their personal charisma, leadership traits, personality, oratory skills, negotiation skills, unique talent, superior physical powers, etc. to motivate and lead their followers. People like Churchill and Gandhiji could fit in that. Typically, the leadership and decision-making responsibility here was not shared – it was basically centralized, whether for good or bad.

Great Leaders were like a one-man force – they did not have to rely on an organizational hierarchy to support them. The were capable of thinking the strategy, leading their forces, motivating their staff, handling contingencies and replanning, removing roadblocks and political opposition -essentially all by themselves. They might ask someone on their staff to do a small chore for them, but they were the masterminds, the elite brain behind the idea. Rather, they were the idea, and they were the force.

In today’s context, such leaders would soon find themselves out of place. Still, it might not be unusual to find such Great Leaders leading their companies, perhaps a small company, or something in a startup phase.

Command and Control

Command and control was created as a step towards democratization of the workplace. From a small trade shop run by a founder-manager, Taylor’s Scientific Management created a new model to build huge production facilities that required complex coordination between thousands of people to carry out a task most effectively. Naturally, this was a problem of scale, and the Great Leader just couldn’t be everywhere to manage things. Since Taylor’s model (rather the way Ford implemented in his famous Ford Production System) relied on typically illiterate and semi-skilled workmen (who could often start theiw new job with little over 15 minutes of training), special roles like supervisor were created to coordinate the work and monitor the work progress. Workmen did not have to think a lot – they just had to follow the instructions but that was something they were not able to figure out by themselves. So, there were layers of management, each lower layer working on a problem with more focus and details and less scope than its immediately higher layer.

In my view, this was essentially creating a job specialisation to manage scale. Imagine your startup. In the initial days, you can do everything and you are able to do everything. As you grow (as you eventually will), you can’t handle everything – either because that is so routine (and hence, relatively risk-free) that your doing takes away lots of cycles that could otherwise be put elsewhere on some other important task, or it is different from your special expertise, or some other similar reason. So, you get other specialists in your team to man specialized functions like Sales, Marketing, Operations, Manufacturing, Program Management, R&D, etc. (“Horizontal Differentiation”) and also create levels of hierarchy to deal with the size of problem effectively, like Project Leader, Project Manager, Senior Project Manager, Director, Regional Direction, VP, etc. (“Vertical Differentiation”). Why do we do that: ask anyone to effectively manage more than a handful of tasks. It is not necessarily bad to create such differentiation – however, misusing it definitely is bad.

It won’t be unfair to say that C&C was a half-step: it delegated the responsibility but generally retained the authority at the level that was delegating the work. While this in itself was a substantial improvement over the Great Leader, where not even responsibility was delegated, its limitations were soon exposed as soon as all low-hanging fruits had been picked up.

So, is Command and Control useful: in some situation it is. In military, the soldier can maximum engage the enemy in front but doesn’t know the big picture. Maybe he has to move out to give aircover to his buddy who just got shot, but he has no clue about that. Who can give him that ‘command’ – by himself, his line of sight won’t ever give him that perspective, but someone at 30,000 feet view can see the big picture. So, it was a division of responsibility to ensure that people at each level in the organization had enough expertize, resources and authority to take decisions in a decentralized fashion. We might not believe it, but C&C is actually an improvement over Great Leader model in decentralizing the authority and decision-making power. It was never designed as a model to stifle people’s talent or limit their potential, or any other generally considered ills of C&C model.

Empowering Leader

Then came the age of flattening the hierarchy becuause people felt stifled by too many levels of decision-making and often an ineffective middle management that was more of an obstacle than facilitator. Along with changes at workplace, the socio-economic changes and the general maturation of democratic ideas in society also made sure that people were not going to accept the tyranny of the hierarchy, as C&C had indeed degenerated to in many cases. Along the same time, markets were becoming dynamic and technology advancements were picking up pace. This mandated further empowering the lower levels of managerial and technical workforce without having to seek permission every time.

In came the era of empowering leader: the one who delegated work and shared authority with his team. The power was decentralized further down to where people actually required them in their day to day work. This reduced the dependency on a central role in the hierarchy for every small thing. The workforce was able to become more productive because along with responsibility, now they also had the commensurate authority to carry out the work. Management tools like MBO (Management by Objectives) eveovled in this era that allowed a manager to identify objectivtes for his subordinates who was then ‘free’ to decide how to go about doing it, and as long as he was hitting those objectives, his manager was not really required to get involved. Manager’s role changed from constant supervision and directing in C&C (a la “micromanagement”) to one that was empowering his team members.

Needless to say, this was a great improvement over any of the previous models. The workplace democraticisation was (almost) complete. There is still a remnant of hierarchy and authority in thie model, as it perhaps always will, but that is not so much of a bother for teams who get much more independence and authority that they are perhaps more than happy to ignore it. After all, some aspect of work specialization will always be there, and the teams that are engaged in a specific function might not be competant or interested in understanding the higher-level business issues.

Empowering model could also be misused, as leaders have been found completely abdicating their responsibility to teams in lieu of maintaining excellent relations with them. Some managers don’t understand their new role, and hence either resist such changes, while some are clueless about the transition to a coach, mentor, facilitator-style of management. While these are not the mainstream issues anymore, managers from the past era surely find challanges at times, especially working with Gen X / Gen Y workforce that is highly self-driven and fiercely independent as it is.

Learning Leader

Today’s age is of a learning leader. It is widely acknowledged that a senior professional might not have all the answers (in fact, his skills might be so outdated, a newcomer might be more informed than him on some technology that just came out 3 months back). So, in this model, authority doesn’t flow from the hierarchy – it flows from the source of knowledge. A positional leader must continuously upgrade his skills to be able to serve and lead the team. But, the true source of leadership is not positional anymore in this model – anyone who knows can lead. A learning leader is someone who goes out to the world and learns what could make his/her team perform better and effectively. He/she comes back and shares such learnings with the team. For example, it could be learning about a new technology, or a new management method, or a new tool. There are no monopolies on knowledge or skills to a chosen few anymore. With enough interest and efforts, everyone is allowed to acquire new learnings and ‘lead’ the teams.

Some organizations have taken this idea very well. VPs in some comapnies are paired to be ‘mentored’ by junior engineer on new technologies. Most companies now routinely have continuouing education / skill upgrade as part of everyone’s development plans – and perhaps the most important of it all, for the first time in history of leadership, we have a model that says it is ok for a leader not to know everything. In all earlier models, leadership was expected to know most answers, if not all. But in this model, we have turned the concept on its head. A leader is someone who can lead by virtue of his/her knowledge, skills and unique abilities. He/she doesn’t need to have organizational support (like hierarchy or titles) to help him/her get legitimacy in that ‘role’. Further, there is no constant or perpetual leadership – depending on the type of work, leadership is like the honeybee that keeps going to the brightest flower with the freshest aroma of the sweetest nectar!

It is also important to understand that continuing changes in society, values, economy, globalization, outsourcing and virtual teams, understanding of cross-cultural issues, mutual respect for people with different skills, diversity at workplace, legislation that bars any kind of discrimation in society or workplace or public, etc. have made a huge impact in getting the leadership to open up to this stage.



Different industries and even companies could be in different stage of evolution based on their unique characterstics. In my personal view, software industry has come out of Great Leader and Command and Control (if it ever was in any of them – however it is not unusual to find companies in Great Leader mould, especially where founder of the company is also the function expert and the company has still grown to the stage where it needs to create horizontal or vertical differentiation) and currently in Empowering / Learning leader phase, but there might be certain organizational decisions that must be taken right at the top, and that doesn’t make it a C&C organization. In fact, every organization will probably require all 4 leadership styles, albeit in varying proportion – we are looking at a predominant method of problem solving and must acknowledge presence of other competing methods as well.

Goes without saying, not every social setup and national or organization culture can overnight adopt or adapt to a single preferred way of doing things. Also, not every problem in any organization can be best solved by always taking same style of leadership approach. As we have seen the Situational Leadership model, an effective leader changes his style from Directing to Coaching to Supporting to Delegating as the team matures through their development phases.
Good leadership requires not having a perpetual preference or disdain to some “all-weather” leadership style, rather adjusting the style to suit the context.

What is the leadership style in your software teams ?