Of Temple towns and IT platforms!

A couple of weeks earlier I had the chance to visit the Pallakad Chariot Festival. This an extraordinary event when the devatas (the idols) on chariots are carried into the town – an occasion where Gods come to meet people as opposed to the general practice of people going to worship the Gods in the temple. The festival is a local favourite with close to a 100000 people visiting the city – ostensibly to have a “darshan” , but also to serendipitously meet friends on one of the hallways, indulge in some “impulse shopping”, feast on some of the local cuisine and generally have a good time. In short, it is almost a religious carnival going by the camaraderie, colors and variety of wares on display.

The shops that spring up are predominantly makeshift ones – sublet by the residents in many cases to nomadic craftsman. As are the food stalls – they sell whatever is seasonal and available locally (of course the ultimate soul food of popcorn and candy is available everywhere – this is an ubiquitous food after all!). New jobs become available (putting up a shelter, chariot mechanics, new car parks, repair services, guides, cooks, bookshops) and there is a force-multiplier of economy. Interestingly, most of the money created stays within the community – the goods (crafts, idols etc.) and services (tea/ coffee/ local snacks etc) trade have significant local diffusion.

  • As I happily strolled across, it struck me that there were several levels to this architecture:
  • The temple trust that provided a “platform” that made the festival possible. Central to the idea of the festival is a beloved God, a “chariot” and the rituals. Without these, the festival couldn’t take place at all – so significant attention to getting the right procedures, priests etc. is required. Also needed are some “institutional” patrons who can help fund the occasion and tap into the community mindscape to drum up support and enthusiasm from the community
  • The goodwill of the community is critical. The platform should coexist with the community –the communities need access to the festival, security and amenities. The community should not be put to too much distress with the sudden scaling that would happen. All of this requires significant organization and good infrastructure to be available
  • And once we have the above architected well (robust hero product, resilient infrastructure, motivated community), then the economic and social activity truly takes off. And these take off in a “self-organized” manner – the central authority (the temple for instance) may not even be aware of the multitudes of individuals who partake and make the occasion successful. And yet the community and the authorities step in when required (they cannot allow thefts for instance, it would bring the whole crowd down).

All of this is so akin to the IT platform product and “micro-services” architecture that are popular today. Micro-services are available through APIs – its upto the user to consume them as he sees fit – provided it’s legal and within the overall framework of course. One service then draws another – a kind of cross sell where you browse through some hand-made crafts and walk over to enjoy sugar-cane juice at the next counter. None of the micro-service vendors are a threat to the product or indeed the platform – they are symbiotic at best. If this is true, some analogies accrue:

  1. The platform creator has an idealistic goal – in the words of Guy Kawasaki “to make the world a better place!” Making money is important, but there’s a wider, more idealistic vision
  2. It has one or a few “hero products” that help make the platform sustainable and also find a few patrons who help expand the potential of the platform
  3. A community then self organizes around the platform and the “hero product” – they have some common binding – language, interests, vocation whatever. The community is incentivized (mostly by making it cool to be associated with the platform) to participate, bring friends and family and use the platform more
  4. Vendors appear on the stage to take the platform even further. They provide services that render the platform more valuable to the community while enjoying the security, community base and patterns that the platform enjoys.
  5. The cycle continues even further becoming a virtuous circle. Once the platform is up and running and a critical mass of community Is present, promotion at an external cost is not required anymore. The product is the promotion – word-of-mouth, free trials, gift cards, competitions and such become the model that carries it forward

The more I think about it – we’ve got more to learn from bazaar’s, temple festivals and community endeavors when understanding digital organizational models?!!

Of boxing world cups and performance appraisals!…

Today was a momentous day in the day of boxing with the ambitiously named “fight of the century” taking place in Las Vegas and occupying central position across media all over the world.

The boxing match saw the two contenders fight 12 rounds and the financial outlay generated around half a billion usd – no doubt, the costliest boxing affair on earth. A gruelling fight befitting a match featuring two of the best boxers in the world today.

Mayweather won (aptly during the month of May!) and amidst the celebrations, something that really caught my attention was the defeated Manny’s post match conference. Manny said he thought he had won the fight! Indeed, he also hinted that had he known he was losing, he would have probably been more aggressive in the last few rounds!

Now just think about this for a minute. These are not words from an ignorant audience member (like me!), but from a champion boxer (who reportedly would take more than 100M USD!). And why couldn’t he gauge if he was winning –  – here’s me putting on my thinking hat:

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  • The scores weren’t displayed at the end of every round – the whole audience is left imagining who’s the winner (unless you have a knockout of course) through the 12 rounds
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  • There are rules – but not necessarily exact – 2 judges came up with an identical score and the 3rd judge with another (though they all unanimously declared Mayweather the winner)

Now let’s switch models and think about how typical annual performance systems compare to this scenario. They have mandated percentiles to adhere to too (in the boxing match someone has to win and someone has to lose, in the performance world its often a case of fitting people on a bell-curve to preordained numbers). Regular feedback doesn’t always happen (of course managers are encouraged to share feedback often, but quite a few do the annual thing alone!). And what’s more, the judges in the boxing world are super experienced (though they may still disagree on the scores!) – often times managers are often poles apart in their evaluations of candidates.

No wonder annual appraisals leave many folks unhappy. Of course to address this, the more caring corporates are now doing a lot to make the system more robust (defining goals that are more objective, formally insisting on more frequent reviews, multi-evaluator and supervisor normalization to ensure consistency across large groups, and so on). They do make the system a lot more effective – there’s no doubt about that. Some corporates are moving to different systems (real time feedback, 360-degree feedback and a lot more) – evidence has yet to come in if these are super successful as well.

So I’ll leave you with that thought – and another. The next time, you feel your manager didn’t do a good enough job on your appraisal sheet, just remember – you have the world-no-2 boxing champ for company!

Wearing apple in a windows world

Navigating a windows, white-collared world using Apple products is a very interesting experience, here’s my offer to take you by the hand and lead you to the promised land.

But I get ahead of myself there – let’s talk first about who I am not and what this article isn’t about (for 2 negatives make a positive!):

1. This is not a review of any apple product and I am not an expert on this topic by any length of imagination! If an in-depth-review is what you desire, please type “apple product review” in google and take your pick from the 10,000 search results google so obligingly throws up (p.s: I would go with “I am feeling lucky”)..

2. I am not an apple fanboy – at least not yet. I like some of the stuff and there are a few things I think they should do differently. Considering I am not an expert however, its likely my affinities result from me not understanding enough of these toys – so best to ignore me on this one.

Now with that out of the way, let’s move on with our story.

Like many (millions I suspect) others, I grew up on a staple diet of windows software – more specifically windows office software. By now, you may have decided on me being one of the many nameless, faceless millions working on spreadsheets during the mornings and then dutifully boxing them into ppts in the afternoon – only to repeat all of this the following day – albeit with an excursion detailing the charts out over 30 strips of “word” pages. You wouldn’t be far wrong – I am he! BTW, I also spend time on drafting meticulous, humongous mpp gnatt charts, much of which end up in a forgotten file in a lost folder on a terabyte directory powered by – you got it windows!

There was a day a year or two ago when all of this changed. That momentous day, I saw a colleague hunched over a very sleek looking tablet device, all too immersed in a game requiring him to chop fruits pushed by an unseen hand (from somewhere at the top of the screen) and collect points as his reward – 20 for chopping a watermelon cleanly, 50 for an apple – you get the idea. Pointless fun of course – unless you were planning to apply for the post of the fruit salad chef. I however, loved it – it felt just like one of my excel-based- astrology-sessions where I prophesize about revenues in remarkable detail three-five years into the future. To top it all, the brilliant colours, the smooth animation (and the inestinguishable fruit bowl which was now throwing kiwi fruits at him with reckless abandon) appealed to me like bingo! Long story short, I ended up buying one of those remarkable machines (it turned out to be the iPad) and taking the first steps to becoming an apple guy. Yes, the first program I loaded onto it was that fruit chopping game – a game I played for an exhaustive period of a day and a half before delegating it to our ever reliable lost folder (the apple one is called “purchased” and belongs to a fascinating-alienisque land called iTunes). More on iTunes later in part II.

A phone followed the tablet and more recently a mac air came into my life. I suspect, thats when “the endowment effect” started playing – i.e you value things in your life more (your car’s worth so much more than your neighbours’ – you get the idea)- and I started scanning the world for other comrades from Apple land.

Many of the Apple netizens I chanced first upon seemed to come fitted with vibrant hairstyles, sunglasses that were three times too big for them , clothes that would have made a peacock proud and generally looked liked folks who had walked out of a Speilberg ET set. These were pure apple folks – not “apple in windowed places” like the ones I was searching for. My kin I was more likely to find in the workplaces where meetings were meetings and managers were managers.

So I began to look around the workplace, and the travel places which conduit one (think trains, busses, cars, bullock carts….) to that remarkable place where remarkably, unremarkable work often happens! There behold, I began to see my fellow folks and the apple technology at work. The guy in the pinstriped suit and in the backseat of a small car had one, the important looking woman seated in one of the chennai-trademark “shared autorickshaw” had it too. So too did the benign grandfatherly-looking man who was playing a game (at least appeared to be) of “teen patti” on it. Just so you know, he also sported a single earring on his left ear.

As I looked closer, I discovered these apples weren’t all Cupertino natives. Some were from Steve Jobs’ hallowed land of course. Some others had those little white stickers of the now famous bitten-white-apple on decidedly un-apple products. There were even some real specimens (with stickers saying they were grown from Monsanto seeds in Nigeria) sitting on top of a Nokia feature phone from 1970 – which when you think about it is a jugaad-version of an iPhone (india phone). Of course it was functional – and did have the one most important feature that all indians crave – the missed call!

One fact struck me as ominous though; while the sticker and monsanto’ed folks sported a big smile on their faces , the cupertino-designed- apple-owners wore a big frown. They seemed worried that their precious “apple” was turning out to be a lemon in this pervasively “windowed” world. It’s for those friends that I write this piece. Be reassured my friends – I belong to your world too and have a few aces up my sleeves to reveal to you. These will transform your frowns into 32-tooth smiles I promise!

So let’s begin – tighten your seat belts and let the transformation begin already!

To start off, turn on your machine, whip out your credit cards and buy Microsoft office for Apple now. Right now! It’s available for the mac and its available for the iPad.

You may be tempted by the 100+ imposters on the iTunes store who promise equivalents that claim to be close to the real thing. Beware of them my friends – for they are telling the truth – they are close but not the real thing – a truth that is often realised (to our discomfiture) when the imposter software edits out the all-important punchline of your presentation and you and your client are left to launch an exploration together for the missing line during that super-critical presentation! Imposters build togetherness, they sharpen hunting skills – but they do little to build business credibility. The official software on the other hand handles everything you throw at it – macros, transitions and animation, pivot charts (yes that thing taken by all excel lovers with their morning tea!) and works like a charm. Be not penny wise, pound foolish comrade. Buy the software now (sure, the software costs a himalayan-volume of pennies, but in comparison to the cost of your Apple machine it will seem molehill-ish – so the proverb does hold good).

Second, buy the Microsoft communicator (or lync if you are on the iPad). Windows-nurtured office guys and girls (actually unix, linux and applefied unix all do, but let’s stay on topic shall we?) love to gossip, and this software will allow you to listen in all the water-cooler stuff. In case you are wondering – the gossip may not help you change the world, it will however make time go faster by – and that does make all the difference!

Dont stop with these buys – repeat the buy process for all microsoft office products you use a lot in your daily work life. The more, the merrier. So if you use share-point regularly, buy the share-point connector/ document connector software. Onenote – check. All of this look like a lot, but believe me – its stuff that will give you 8 hours of sound sleep.

At this point, your purse your lips and ask (sternly) – “You (fill in your favourite swear word here) ask me to binge on Microsoft stuff on my apple – if I do this, how can I go out and say i am the Big Kahuna? Sounds more like wolf in sheep clothing ( actually the other way around if you think about it) to me?”

Here’s where I get to smile and say “Don’t worry comrade, statistics prove 60% of the office folks actually use a mac for just the above. You are in good company. So crunch your *numbers*, draw your *keynotes* and author your *pages* happily – and if you haven’t yet realised, the ones in italics are apple’s super cool (and what’s more free!) alternatives to the Microsoft office ones. By by all means use them and enjoy life (and even believe in the religion of “compatibility” all you want) – only be warned that if your boss is going to present to a key audience using Microsoft armoury, you’ll want to check and make doubly sure that when he presents his signature slide, his Ferrari isn’t magically converted into a dogcart. Compatibility issues can do that to you – and more!

Now, that we are past that hurdle (And I can already see you smiling), will sign off and be back for part 2 of the apple story next week. Like I said, once we are done with this series you will be like a toyota camry hybrid – everyone will cheer for you. And we will help you fill your tank before venturing into an electric-outlet-less-land journey. Cheers.

If More trust equals More success, how can we inspire more trust? An amble through the Covey framework

Deepavali – the season of colours, crackers and sweets is here. Its also the season of sharing gratitude and wishing each other well. So here’s wishing each of my readers’ abundant success propelled by the magic potion of TRUST; for it is TRUST that makes the world go round.

So what is trust really? A question which brings me neatly to the topic of this post — this post presents an insightful framework on TRUST from Covey’s wonderful book “The Speed of Trust”. And TRUST as he defines it (and we will see as we move further down this essay) includes not just honesty and such stuff which are nice but don’t produce tangible results- he also includes a multi-dimensional view allowing TRUST to inspire mega- success. So let’s get going already.

Here’s a wonderful picture from him elaborating the framework:

Stephen Covey's framework of TRUST

Stephen Covey’s framework of TRUST

1. Integrity:  He’s talking about congruence — where our thoughts, words and deeds all are integrated. Beings with integrity inspire trust — across fields — of course we all remember Gandhi and Mandela as symbols of integrity who spoke from their heart and walked their talk. But other folks — our young Nobel winner this year (Malala), the most successful financial genius of our times (Warren Buffet), maverick entrepreneur (Elon Musk and Steve Jobs before him) — all of them — when you think about it — are congruent in entirety. Integrity while not visible, holds the very foundation of trust (which is why its depicted by the roots)

2. Intent: Do you think win-win consistently? Do you have the welfare of your client, of your team-members, your peers — whoever it is you are dealing with — covered? If not, others will quickly sense this and wouldn’t be comfortable trusting you. The book has a wonderful example where Warren Buffet closes a deal sans lawyers — because he trusts the other team — and the whole deal gets closed much, much faster. Thats the power of intent at work for you!

3. Capabilities:  TRUST also needs capabilities when you think about it. If I am a good guy at heart, you’ll like me — but will you trust me to run your finances? You’ll want to make sure of my capability here. So upscaling continuously is critical to ensure we stay at the top of the game. When we look at the best sportsmen, this becomes clear. We know they have their hearts in the right place and are focussed on winning — but if they want to represent the best teams and be counted among the elite, they have to continuously train and stay on top of the game. Business is no different.

4. Credibility: Let’s say a friend has a health condition that requires a complicated surgery. A young surgeon has graduated at the top of his class (capability), has a great work ethic and inspires trust in his dealings with the medical fraternity and patients (integrity and intent) — wouldn’t we still hesitate to let him operate if this happened to be his first surgery? That’s detailing how critical credibility can be — a track record that establishes credentials and therefore trust is integral to successful partnerships.

Thats one powerful framework in a wonderfully easy-to-remember picture(needless to say, any errors in interpretation are mine alone too!). The book also details a set of behaviours which enable trust to be built (and even a few tips on regaining lost trust) and has a few questionnaires that help you evaluate and orient yourself to a target – in short it leads you by the hand on the steps toward a world of greater trust. Let me reiterate, this is a life changing book — and written well. Do grab a copy when you get the chance — and in the meantime here’s wishing you success in developing all the four dimensions and becoming the epitome of TRUSt for all those who come in contact with you.

A lesson on TRUST on an auspicious day!

Deepavali – the season of colours, crackers and sweets is here. Its also the season of sharing gratitude and wishing each other well. So here’s wishing each of my readers’ abundant success propelled by the magic potion of TRUST; for it is TRUST that makes the world go round.

So what is trust really? A question which brings me neatly to the topic of this post — this post presents an insightful framework on TRUST from Covey’s wonderful book “<a href=”http://www.myspeedoftrust.com/How-The-Speed-of-Trust-works/book”>The Speed of Trust</a>”. And TRUST as he defines it (and we will see as we move further down this essay) includes not just honesty and such stuff which are nice but don’t produce tangible results- he also includes a multi-dimensional view allowing TRUST to inspire mega- success. So let’s get going already.

Here’s a wonderful picture from him elaborating the framework:

<a href=”https://c2blogimages.cognizant.com/blogs/126859/b/files/2014/10/Trust.jpg”><img src=”https://c2blogimages.cognizant.com/blogs/126859/b/files/2014/10/Trust.jpg&#8221; alt=”” width=”2448″ height=”2448″ class=”aligncenter size-full wp-image-211″ /></a>

<strong>1. Integrity</strong>: Covey’s talking about congruence — where our thoughts, words and deeds all are integrated. Beings with integrity inspire trust — across fields — of course we all remember Gandhi and Mandela as symbols of integrity who spoke from their heart and walked their talk. But other folks — our young Nobel winner this year (Malala), the most successful financial genius of our times (Warren Buffet), maverick entrepreneur (Elon Musk and Steve Jobs before him) — all of them — when you think about it — are congruent in entirety. Integrity while visible, holds the foundation of trust and is the foundation of trust (which is why its depicted by the roots)

<strong>2. Intent</strong>: Do you think win-win consistently? Do you have the welfare of your client, of your team-members, your peers — whoever it is you are dealing with — covered? If not, others will quickly sense this and wouldn’t be comfortable trusting you. The book has a wonderful example where Warren Buffet closes a deal sans lawyers — because he trusts the other team — and the whole deal gets closed much, much faster. Thats the power of intent at work for you!

<strong>3. Capabilities:</strong> TRUST also needs capabilities when you think about it. If I am a good guy at heart, you’ll like me — but will you trust me to run your finances? You’ll want to make sure of my capability here. So upscaling continuously is critical to ensure we stay at the top of the game. When we look at the best sportsmen, this becomes clear. We know they have their hearts in the right place and are focussed on winning — but if they want to represent the best teams and be counted among the elite, they have to continuously train and stay on top of the game. Business is no different.

<strong>4. Credibility:</strong> Let’s say a friend has a health condition that requires a complicated surgery. A young surgeon has graduated at the top of his class (capability), has a great work ethic and inspires trust in his dealings with the medical fraternity and patients (integrity and intent) — wouldn’t we still hesitate to let him operate if this happened to be his first surgery? That’s detailing how critical credibility can be — a track record that establishes credentials and therefore trust is integral to successful partnerships.

Thats one powerful framework in a wonderfully easy-to-remember picture. The book also details a set of behaviours which enable trust to be built (and even a few tips on regaining trust where required) and has a few questionnaires that help you evaluate and orient yourself to a target – in short it leads you by the hand on the steps toward trust. let me reiterate, this is a life changing book — and written well. Do grab a copy when you get the chance — and in the meantime here’s wishing you success in developing all the four dimensions and becoming the epitome of TRUSt for all those who come in contact with you.

Three generations of heroes – and counting!

We’ve been privy to three generations of heroes:

1. The icons of old were those who “owned or controlled” the most capital – money, assets and people. Remember those early industrialists (think Rockfeller for instance) whose legendary status emanated from their skills managing capital best in those times? It is of course a tribute to many of these great minds that they were also philanthropic (and their successors continue the spirit of giving) – Rockefeller/ Carnegie/ Tatas – you get the idea!

2. Then there was the time when those who had the ability to own the “information flow” were the kings. Newspapers, Radio and TV were the guys who gave us gospel truths. We followed these pied pipers with our wallets – and minds. This was the period when the media and advertising companies and TRP was truly king. The Murdoch empire springs to mind in this context, dosent it

3. Today, the folks who have the most “reach” seem to be the “new gods”. Facebook, Airbnb, Uber, amazon, google, apple – its an almost frenetic race to capture the most reach. The Sharing economy has thrown up new heroes – these guys dont necessarily own the message – they are but facilitators/ platforms where people share stuff/ experiences – and the more authenticitic the platform allows the participants to be, the more do people flock there. Think how Amazon’s user reviews and Airbnb’s shared rentals work – and this becomes very clear?

So what’s the next step of evolution? I have no idea – I do know though that it’s going to be exciting. That said, wouldn’t it be wonderful if the “reaching out” of today evolved into a “reaching within” movement tomorrow – an evolution that allowed each of us to understand ourselves better and make truly authentic choices and a sustainable world? Of course the RoI then would be a greener, happier, world!

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?

Performance Management time – ramblings from the other side!

Its that time of the year again – the time when managers get to play judge (or god if you will!) and sift through their teams – leaving the successes on one side and the not-so-successful on the other.

Yes, I am talking about the promotion cycle – when men and women suddenly find themselves deciding another’s destiny. Many – infact most of the folks I know – dread this period. While you can take pride in the fact that a few from your team will now play wider roles, the emotional drain is massive.

“You wouldn’t have this problem if you set the right goals and criteria” – say the management gurus. And they are right – in their own way. But there are other aspects, consider:

1. Many of your Colleagues have morphed into your friends. Joys and worries have been shared, laughter and sorrows have been shared. Families are friends, sometimes thicker than relatives. The thought of your friend having to tell his/ her young one that he isn’t the chosen one this year is heart wrenching. I had a leader on my team almost in tears last year when he got the “promotion list” for his team ready (based on very extensive analysis and as he said “to the best of his ability”) – it meant leaving a very hard worker (and very trustworthy guy) out. He checked back many times and was convinced he did the right thing – that just didn’t make it any easier for him.

2. A large part of today’s life is uncontrollable. An oil crisis, a climatic phenomenon like the El Niño, a landslide election mandate, a president’s veto or the bank’s response to inflation, a friendly client deciding to move on – can (and do) change success outcomes dramatically (unless like steve job’ you decide the “journey is the reward”) – and it is extremely complicated to decide who the winners really are. Are the results we are seeing the effect of “causation” “correlation”? Who decides?

3. There are people who will make some noise, who will cajole, threaten consequences, plead if they don’t make it. There are heroes who sleep for a while and then when their project is in crisis mode – turn things around brilliantly. There are others who will perform quietly – always green – all signal, no noise. These guys wont even pop up on your radar (unless you are listening very intently with your ears to the ground). Differentiating between these categories is really tough – and sometimes – you may be tempted to take the easy route and go with the noise (after all thats how the world runs for the most part right – follow the noise!)

And on and on……

We understand performance management, and its certainly essential to the well being of the corporate world. People want to perform well and be rewarded for their performance. Its but the right thing to do.

While its the right thing to do. its not easy to do. Or easy to accept. And the mental energies required are immense. As a friend quipped

“when I lose out on a promotion, I certainly take it hard. The world seems a less sunnier place. Friends and family see me brooding. However, we humans understand life is unfair – there’s always a readily available sympathetic ear nearby. My family takes extra care of me too.

The challenge is when I am not able to get someone else promoted really. Everyone on my peer team has a favourite they think should have gone through instead of the final list – and they really cannot understand how you couldn’t have not seen such a simple thing as this! Boy, are they disappointed! And everyone agrees unanimously that those who didn’t make it on your list deserve a sympathetic (and many times hard conversation) with you – the emotional drain on you is immense. Don’t we also need some empathy for the guys who play judge as well?!!“.

Amen to that!

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…..

Of farms, innovation and all that…

The other day, a few of us got together and the discussions moved on to how we would need to consistently work on ourselves to stay relevant in today’s fast moving world. A collegue Kartic pulled out a slender book “How Stella saved the farm“, and recommended we read it – this is a mini story of how we make the transition from cash cows to the “next big thing” he said.

The book lay on my table until yesterday – when I tentatively started to read it. It proved to be a quick and awesome read – and seemed to be just the topic to offer on the blog post.

First up, you should know that its two authors (Chris and Vijay) are experts at innovation – so expect that to be the theme of the story. Delightfully though, the book is shorn of jargon – and is plotted around an animal-run-farm (yes you got that right!) which is trying to find its next growth business. Its certainly fun and has been written to engage – its hard to not be regaled when stallions, bulls, turkeys and sheep are the central characters in a book – and with a little poetic license it may even turn out to be a good bedtime story for your kids!

Now the story reads well and it has a few questions at the end – if you want to go into “back to school” mode, all you need to do is sharpen your pencils and there are enough queries to have you working for 3 hours or more. There were certain takeaways though that I thought were important – and sharing those in this post:

1. Existing businesses and the “next big thing” both need attention – albeit on different aspects. That said, they also need to coexist and even share some parts (maybe some teams/ infrastructure etc.). And the extent of sharing isn’t static – it keeps changing. So you need to keep your ears close to the ground – The leader makes 5 org structures in the book to reflect changing needs.

2. Next big things(NBT!) need some dedicated teams and they should be measured on different metrics. The book offers a wonderful insight of how viewing NBT progress as a series of disciplined experiments is a better approach than using traditional metrics. This is so cool an idea, I think I need to dedicate one whole post to this sometime. You also need to have the right experts and may need to bring them in from outside – enthusiasm is good, expertise is a must!

3. It has some wonderful leadership stories. How the young CEO’s open dialogue with a very disgruntled (but high performing) elder convinces him to stay on for instance. Or a clarion call to the teams on the ground to stay together and work as one – when things are at their worst – is inspiring. Or the CEO’s ability to create new roles, change operating structures, connect across levels and generally be very agile in her thinking – is worth emulating. Finally, the ability to be humble and own up her mistakes (she forgets to close the gates and a few hens escape!) . Good stuff.

A good yarn – the last time I enjoyed an animal story was a decade or more back when I chanced upon “Animal farm”. That book moved me – this one doesn’t go that far, but its certainly inspiring – and a in a few ways enchanting.

Are there things I would have liked added to the book? A couple – one, the motivations of the animals seem to be very similar to the humans it models – and that is a bit of a downer – but then this is but a fable. Also, there is very little focus on the joy of working (except w.r.t maisie the cow) – its my belief that its this joy is what keeps the folks “in search of he next big thing” going – even more than market conditions?

Thanks kartic for the wonderful share – and will now pass the book along – and keep the learning going.

Lead without a title – a Robin Sharma seminar experience

Late last week I attended my first Robin Sharma seminar – this one was titled “lead without a title”. This post captures my impressions and a few takeaways (have taken a lot of poetic license with the verbiage but trust it would cover the essence well) that I thought will benefit all my readers.

It took place at a prominent Chennai landmark – the ITC Grand Chola – and was packed to capacity – about 800 delegates turned out for the meeting. What stood out was Robin’s involvement in the seminar – a lot of the delegates were leaders in their own right (and perhaps cynical of management guru speak) – to his credit, Robin displayed great energy, focus and had the participants engaged through the 3 hour meet. His delivery and voice modulation (not to mention the simple but impactful slideware) added to the experience.

He opened with a very engaging question “In your last hour of your last day on this planet, what would you be proud of?”.

At that point obviously office sizes didn’t matter, nor did bank balances or assets owned. He let the question hanging in the air for a while and offered an answer – you will be proud of just two things – on that fateful hour of the destined day:

1. Who you have become as a person

2. And how many people you have helped

Reinforcing this point was a wonderful Steve Jobs quote

“being the richest man in the graveyard doesn’t matter to me. Going to bed knowing we have done something wonderful matters to me.”

That got us thinking – and we were invited to identify 1 idea that was most meaningful to us – and the idea had to be expressed in just a few words. An example chosen by one of the delegates (who led a 3000 strong company) was “make 3000 leaders”. Another doctor decided “founding a medical college” was most meaningful for him.

Ideas have no value until they get implemented was the next clarion call.

Toward implementation, a few powerful insights were provided:

1. The 90-90-1 rule: For the next 90 days, spend the 1st 90 minutes (which apparently are the most productive minutes of the day) on your most powerful business opportunity/ personal goal identified in the para above. The focus would make this a reality

2. The 66 day rule: If one kept up a behavior for 66 days, it would become part of your muscle memory – become a habit infact. Great sportsman for instance don’t think about the special moves they make – the moves are hardwired into their system by force of daily habit. Interestingly, the Hindus (and I suspect the Buddhists) believe that 21 is the magic number (also called a mandala) – so whatever works for you – 66 is Robin’s magic number though

3. Genius = Focus.Practice.Grit. Genius is not about only talent. His view was 5% are super achievers (the majority 95% are the average set!) not because they have the maximum talent but because they were persistent in developing genius through continued focus, extensive practice and remarkable grit.

A couple other vignettes which caught my attention:

a. An average person apparently spends 2.1 hours/ day getting distracted.  And why would they do that – because being distracted makes people feel productive! Busyness is not equal to effectiveness! Eliminating this he opined will alone free up enormous times

b. You are paid not just to work, you are paid to be scared! His feel was that if we felt we were successful due to being associated with a successful company, we were very vulnerable. The seduction of safety is most dangerous people!

Finally, there was this Mary Angelou quote somewhere toward the end which I thought summed it all very well

 “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Thanks Robin and the organizers – Eyeball Media  – was a good experience – and time to pass on the stories for others interested as well……

Technology is at its best when it is invisible

And that my friends is a quote from Nassim Taleb’s thought provoking book “Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder”. Good technology he maintains allows the job to be done without drawing attention to itself.

Take the Nike hyperfeel shoe for instance – it prides on making the runner feel the ground he is running on better/ get attuned to it as it were. This is the latest in a long evolution of footwear – and while hyperfeel’s ancestors prided on insulating the runner from the environment (Nike air with all that padding for instance!), the new generation prides itself on inclusiveness with the environment. This shoe is meant to allow the runner become one with his environment – its success is in making itself invisible!

Or take this quote from a fastcodesign.com article on google’s newly found design ethos “Google’s aesthetic aim is clear: to disappear. The most beautiful Google experience is the one you never notice”. An ethos that has found its way into many of google’s new products delighting its customers.

The living root bridges at chirapunjee where bridges are “grown over a decade or so” from live roots are great examples too. The bridges work, the trees continue to live and people use them to get across – the design is invisible. There are bridges that are reputed to be over 500 years old – talk about innovation, sustainability and invisible design all at one go!

And finally, this idea seems to not just propel technology and design, but also leadership – here’s a wonderful quote from the great Chinese sage Lao Tzu on leadership:

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves”

That’s that then. Time to ask ourselves if our designs and our work (or for that matter, our very selves) are invisible and very handy or “in your face – more attention seeking than solving a purpose”.