Multi-tasking to multi-focus

A decade or so ago, multi-tasking was a much revered skill. People would flash it in their resumes, coffee corners would resound with whispers of the star who could do many things at the same time and supervisors would put that up as a skill to acquire proficiency in as you made your way up the corporate ladder.

Over the recent years, the experts have started leaning the other way – multi-tasking is driving you to distraction and driving your productivity down claim recent reports. If you are one of the people who have a chat conversation going on on your laptop, 50 emails screaming for your attention, your mobiles beckoning you for a calender meet or a whatsapp message and a colleague stopping by to drop off a memo for a priority task – you can but agree with the experts. Everywhere, everyone is busy but work doesn’t get done!

An alternate approach seems to be multi-focus – the ability to do many things but one thing at a time. Interestingly, this is exactly what the buddhist meditators have recommended for our wellbeing for thousands of years. There is a story where a disciple asks a monk what meditation is and the monk answers something to the tune of “be mindful. when drinking tea, drink tea. when walking, walk. when eating eat. when working, work”.

This principle seems to be at the heart of all successful work today. Jack Dorsey seems to be able to balance time between “twitter” and “square” – one company at a time. As does Elon Musk. As does AR Rahman with his “school for music”, his various concerts and of course his pilgrimages. Bill Gates brought in legendary focus into Microsoft and now into the Melinda Foundation – one thing (only) at a time. Dr.Abdul Kalam played rocket scientist, president and continues to be a role model – each role is perfect in itself.

There seems to be a lesson here for many of us. If dinner, TV shows and conversations with loved ones compete for attention – at the same time – time to evolve from a multi-tasking individual (where focus stretches thin) to a multi-focus individual (lesser time on each activity but with absolute focus).

You agree?

Takeaways from the wonderful “Steve Jobs” biography by Walter Isaacson

A few months ago having travelled to attend a conference meet in Pune, I was pleasantly surprised to meet a colleague and a respected leader at the breakfast table. We got talking about various things and the topic drifted to leadership traits when he reminisced about an exercise from long ago where everyone had to pick a leader and profile and his choice had been Steve Jobs – looking back he felt he had certainly picked the right guy – “for all his temperament and idiosyncrasies he’s an undisputed leader”. We talked about this a bit, and he recommended that I watch the movie as it brilliantly captured several shades of this iconic leader. The discussion made me realize how little I really knew about Steve – while I had been following the mercurial Jobs (as I am sure most of my generation would have), I had never really delved deep enough – and rekindled my desire to get to know more.

On my return I dutifully picked Walter Isaacson’s book (the movie is on the to do list) from the local bookstore – given Jobs’ misgivings about the Android OS, it seemed appropriate that I read Jobs’ biography not on my favourite kindle but on a neatly printed, solid tome (its over 700 pages long!). It stayed tucked away in my library – until the last week when I was a touch unwell and rummaging for something to read. And let me tell you, its a wonderful page turner – guaranteed to make you live through a gamut of emotions.

This post is really about a few takeaways for me from the book – a few I trust will come in of use to you as well:

1. No one is perfect at everything. That a surprising start, but the book zeroes in on the need for self awareness and the ability to bring in complementary skills for success. You need to be aware of what you are very good at and make sure you bring in others with “greatness” skills in areas you aren’t master off. There are quite a few references about Steve Jobs’ skills at programming not being top notch (in comparison to say a Steve Woznaik or a Bill Gates) while he was a master on user-centric design – his products though were sublime in both the areas

2. Masters bring in perspectives from seemingly unconnected fields, making big leads in innovation. Jobs for instance changed the desktop publishing industry building on skills acquired from his calligraphy classes, his designs were inspired by Zen minimalism and Italian architecture, several of his greatest innovations were adaptations of the Xerox lab’s work and so on…

3. Work should arise from an intent to “scratch your own itch” – if you build products that you’d love to use, chances are they would turnout awesome. There’s one chapter on the “making of the iphone” for instance where Isaacson details how Steve (and his team) were unhappy with the existing mobile phones (“they didn’t make their heart sing!”) and designed the iPhone to overcome those limitations and be a product they were proud to use.

4. The much discussed “reality distortion field” does wonders – Steve Jobs believed in his vision (or version!) of things so much that he was able to get his team to rally around and do stuff typically considered impossible (there’s a reference to the “6 impossible things before breakfast!” from alice in wonderland in the book too!). Key takeaway – do we really, intensely believe in our work? – if we do, you can be sure people around you will catch the spirit as well and do miracles!

5. Go in search of “purity” as opposed to “compromises”. There are at least three instances quoted where Steve pauses and undertakes major redesign because he feels the work isnt perfect (for instance he completely changed the layout of the apple stores after a discussion with his partner because they found a more congruent way to do things). Time and again, we see instances where the average joe would have compromised a little and gone ahead (on the principle that 90% users wouldnt notice it anyway), steve wouldn’t. He recounts n example from his childhood where his dad encourages Steve to paint the inside of a fence (no one would know but the painter would) as well – a practice which made Steve detail stuff inside the box just as well as he did the outside in his later years.

6. Making sure your messages are very intuitive and targeted at your user . His ads (and the amount of time he spent on getting them right), the macworld appearances – you name it, the message was communicated just brilliantly. For instance the iPod ads didnt talk about memory, they talked about 1000 songs in your pocket.

7. Be brutally honest with feedback – your team will appreciate you for it– while the book lists several occasions where the receiver of the feedback took the feedback badly, there are also several instances where his Colleagues believe workign with him was an immense experience and they wouldn’t exchange the experience for anything in the world. He also is candid about experiments he got wrong (and there are several listed) – he indicates its this ability to be honest with his teams that ensures the team stays top class all the time

8. Learn from experts and share extensively – through the book you see him on long walks bouncing off ideas with extraordinary people – Larry Elison, Mickey Drexler, Andy Grove and many more – even Bill Gates. These are intense discussions – and raise the level of thought across the ecosystem (for want of a better word!). He also talks about how much he gained from others and how he’d like to give back to his country and the Silicon Valley. Worth thinking how many such discussions we seek out with experts and if we dont, maybe should schedule some huh!..

9. And my absolute favourite – he always seems to have had a higher purpose in mind – of changing the world. And the way he went about doing it was special too – check out this maxim of his “the journey is the reward”. And really the book celebrates the journey product after product.

Through the journeys are peppered many goosebumps moments (hope this isn’t a spoiler so will stop with a couple!):
– of how he considers the itunes journey more or less done only when he gets his favourite band “Beatles” onto his store – and his child-like enthusiasm on working on every aspect of getting them onto the store to maximum impact:

– the showman himself lost for words when he meets his idol “Bob Dylan” in person

– Of spending his personal finances on the creative work at pixar (even when he was running a tight ship elsewhere) because he couldn’t say no to artistry…

For those of you who are looking to know more about Steve the person – there’s plenty of stuff in too right from his “vegan” diets, to his zen and india travels in search of enlightenment, his college experience, his turbulent early years. his relationships, $1 salary…the whole nine yards.

So thats it then for this post – there are few biographies that are as well written as this one. Its extremely well researched but written in a very affable way with all typical distractions from scholarly type work (footnotes, jargon etc) eliminated for the most part – the author also stays hidden (no preaching and commentary at all) and gets you into the drama like in a well-written novel.

5 stars from me for this wonderful work and am sure I will be reaching out for his other biographies as well soon…..

Employability and context – deeply connected today

As we made our way slowly through one of chennai’s traffic-infested “Information Technology” zones, a friend observed that IT was probably the one industry where experience was more of a handicap than a boon. Companies increasingly wanted smart programmers at lowered costs, and middle managers were losing out.

On reflection, I think we ought to amend this statement a bit – today experience is no longer the USP it was and skills and attributes are what will decide who is coveted and who’s job is at risk. Relevance and currency of experience are more critical today.

This trend seems to be getting more pronounced as we serve younger customers across the globe.

A programmer who does not intuitively understand the social and mobile propensities of his customer can just not make a great product, no matter how good his programming skills may be.

And managing a team of millennials does need some insight into their value systems and the willingness to accept them without passing judgement. Pass judgement and you’ll find your job relegated to history – no matter how many management degrees or books you acquire.

Whenever we head into such discussion, we hit a wall – the naysayers believe it to be but a mitigation that will ensure we are employable for a little longer. “The situation is loaded against the senior folks” they voice again. I truly believe they’ve got it wrong – when managers and programmers get into the skin of their customers/business (ie get the context right), they thrive (not just “survive”). Of course it does require some childlike curiosity (or beginners mind as the zen folks say!).

It seems to have succeeded for many. Bill Gates seems to have made the transition from an uber-competitive corporate to a globally compassionate NGO pretty seamlessly – and as his annual letter indicates his earlier experience is helping him bring in some cool insights.

Nicholas Negroponte and Ward Cunningham aren’t getting any younger, but they continue to lead technology vision with flair.

Steve jobs (do look at his Stanford address) wasn’t a teenager by any means when he led Apple through several iconic products that changed The company’s fortunes and in many ways the world for ever.

True Gates, Negroponte, Cunningham and Jobs are superstars – what about the rest of us? We too can perhaps make the shift in our little (if not their earth changing) ways. Contribute to a kickstarter or wikipedia project/topic of your choice and experience the power of virtual crowds. Or get onto twitter and discover the immense power of 140 or so characters – brevity and wisdom at the same time. Or take a course at udemy on a new project management model (say the lean startup) and discover the magic of agility. Or join your team on their Facebook page and just soak in the fun.

I guess that’s my thought for the day. If I were to tweet this, it would read “be irreverent, not irrelevant. Focus on context, skills and behaviours. And enjoy change!”….. Or some such thing……..

Decoding Success

Delivered  a 40 mt talk on decoding success at the Knowledge Community, Chennai. Focussed on three major themes:

1.  Accepting the world is interconnected – and illustrated this with a railway ticket booking example!

2. Being mindful of the world around us is paramount to our success. Watch out for externalities (including 100 USD burgers!) and technology disruptions (like skype) which may render your job unsustainable/ obselete

3. Focus on the whole thing – like the buddha advices us to see the miracle in the flower blossom

Along the way, touched upon some insights from leaders, how designis driving success today and so on.

Do take a look at; and click on Decoding Success (28th edition). There are quite a few other videos too and KCC videos are awesome – so do have some fun watching…

Some links you may like to follow through on:

The $100 burger (and there’s a more enlightening one on the $200 burger too!)

Bill Gates in the gates Foundation Annual Letter

On Christian fabre (the saint and the fashion ceo!)  –

and finally – a wonderful non-traditional commentary to the Heart Sutra (with several read in between the lines stuff!) reviewed at amazon and on this very site..

Adieu Michael Jackson….and thank you to other greats

Michael Jackson’s demise seems to be what the world is penning, talking, reading and watching today. Rightly so – an icon and a legend deserves this kind of adulation for sure. For many of us in India – especially those from the more rural parts “English music” translates as “Michael Jackson” – period….

Here’s a thought though – all this remembrance would not make him happier today (unless of course St.Peter has given him a balcony seat and suitable headphones in heaven). While the news does draw all of us together in shared grief, I wonder if it would have made more sense to have “celebrated” his genius earlier rather than “mourning” on it now….

Perhaps, it’s human nature to appreciate goodness only in its absence. Is darkness only present so we can appreciate light? Does suffering exist only so we can appreciate god?  Rather dwell on this borrowed thought (I seem to remember the bible having a better version of this somewhere), I’d like to spend a little time celebrating greatness in several fields – folks who expertise has transitioned them into legends. Here’s a shot at this – please add the tons that I have for sure missed…this lot wouldn’t even suffice as the tip of the iceberg I am sure:

  1. Roger Federer – Having won all the grand slams and enough of them to be considered the greatest, he continues to be all poise and grace while wielding his magic tennis wand. Here’s a kudos to Federer – and to wish him a grand slam year (or whatever they call winning all grand slams in year) and many more wins  – we’d sure appreciate being enchanted for a few more years….
  2. Dalai Lama – Statesman, godman, human, teacher – no matter from which angle you look – the dalai lama comes out tops on all of them. Life hasn’t been all smooth sailing for this great man – exile and political pressures, connecting with west and the east and a lot more – but he has taken everything in his stride and continues to inspire generations evermore. Read his gems, the compassion flows out of the pages onto you!
  3. Bill Gates – There’s no doubt who created the software industry – it was this man and his team. After creating a virtual monopoly in the software market, he set out to start a second innings with his charity work. The official “Bill Gates and Melinda foundation” website proclaims “All lives have equal value”. Wikipedia states that “the primary aims of the foundation are, globally, to enhance healthcare and reduce extreme poverty, and in America, to expand educational opportunities and access to information technology.” Can we ask for more? Incidentally, Infosys seems to be an Indian success story in the same light. It helped create a brand for Indian software (of course in the company TCS, Wipro and the other big guys), created wealth for very, very many, has a very active social wing and very importantly provided an opportunity for each of the founding partners to reign at the top.  I hope Narayanamoorthy goes on to create more impact on a larger canvas (Nandan Nilekani has already moved on from the corporate world to help the government with its unique identification scheme)
  4. Steve Waugh – A few years ago, a “who’s Steve Waugh?” would have elicited replies including “a tough Australian captain, a batsman who thrived when the odds were against him and a bowler who always delivered in exacting times”. Today, Steve Waugh focuses his efforts on Udayan and other social activities which has resulted in hope for a lot of children who had none before. Interestingly he states that a meeting with Mother Theresa was a reason to propel him on here – another evidence of how a person’s legacy continues to live and inspire.
  5. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar – A soft person who has brought spirituality to our doorsteps, here is an example of the impact one person can do in a very short time. In 1982, he is said to have started his “sudharshan kriya” courses – a holistic method of relaxation using pranayam and some yogic poses. Today his art of living course has reached over 25 million people in 140+ countries – perhaps, only the internet grew faster than this! Numerous programs, keynote speeches in international seminars – this godman has done it all. Recently, in one of his visits to Srilanka, he was moved by the suffering and spoke out on the need for the Indian government to do more – which it did finally – hopefully providing some comfort to the many impacted. A white robe, a zillion dollar smile, large- scale social impact and a very inclusive blessing – there’s sure hope for tomorrow when this gentleman’s around.
  6. Jeffrey Archer – What a chap to choose agfter all the do-doody folks chosen earlier you ask right? Here’s the thing – Jeffrey Archer’s story parallels in a loose way Michael Jackson’s. Both of them are very, very good in what they do (pick up any of Jeffrey Archer’s fiction books including his latest “The path of glory” and you’ll see why he’s a first story teller justifying sales of over  250 million+ copies) and published in 60+ countries and 30+ languages) but have courted controversy outside their field of expertise. Jeffrey Archer has narrowly escaped bankruptcy, enjoyed political success and downfall and has been in prison. For all this though, let’s hope he continues to write books that will continue to enthrall us for time to come…..   

I know I have left out tons of deserving folks – both out of ignorance and being short of space. The idea though is to raise a toast to the many folks who are making a difference to our lives today – be it on the social, economical or spiritual sides. Most importantly, let’s salute our families today – parents and grandparents who have made it their life goal to ensure we live ours to the maximum. With the current trends in play, I don’t have a doubt we’d be celebrating grandparents’ days soon (mothers’ and fathers’ days are already on the calendar!) – but perhaps even better than the gifts our retail friends promises us will do the job adequately, we should perhaps start a “ thank you” hour every day (and if it goes the way of thanksgiving, we’ll still have all the turkey, beer and football games right!).