Subba’s Serendipitous moments

January 30, 2007

Analysis and decision frames

Filed under: Business,Innovation,Leadership,Perspective,Stories,Strategy — Subbaraman Iyer @ 9:50 pm
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A  wonderful parable called “Parable of the kitchen spindle” published in the Harvard Business Review in the 60s continue to provide valuable lessons in consulting. This is one of my favorite stories and I use this to illustrate the analysis frame of mind.

In it, a restaurant owner finds his cooks and waitresses bickering about orders, especially during peak hours. To resolve this issue, the owner consults four different consultants.

The first consultant– a sociologist by training, frames the problem in terms of status and hierarchy: The cook resents receiving orders from the lower status waitresses. He recommends sensitivity training for both the cooks and waitresses.

The second consultant–an anthropologist by training stresses cultural norms, especially concerning sex roles.  The male cooks disliked having their actions initiated by women. He recommends that a senior cook be given authority to manage the system, who will parcel the orders to the other cooks.

The third consultant– a clinical psychologist diagnosed the problems as one of sibling rivalry: the cooks and waitresses were like brothers and sisters competing for the attention of the boss who was like a father figure. He recommended weekly counseling sessions to improve communication.

The last was an information theorist (modern day IT consultant) who diagnosed the problem as cognitive overload. At peak time, too many orders had to be memorized causing stress. He recommended that waitresses punch the orders into a new computer system which would display the right order at the right time.

The Manager was thoroughly confused because he couldn’t afford any of the solutions. In desperation, he mentioned the problem to a junior cook. ” You know in the restaurant I worked in, they had a rotating thing in the kitchen and we clipped out orders to it. The cooks would just turn it around and pull off an order each time they were ready to cook something new. It made everything a lot easier. Do you think something like that would work here”?

The boss said he didn’t know. So he took the idea to the 4 consultants.

Guess what happened and this is when it gets very interesting:

Each continued to recommend the course of action they earlier proposed, but added as an after thought that the kitchen spindle might alleviate the problem.

The sociologist said the spindle would align statuses since the orders will have to wait till the cook got them.

The anthropologist said the spindle would im-personalize the initiation of the action thereby freeing the cook from the despised reversal of roles.

The psychologist said the spindle would reduce the friction causing interaction between cooks and waitresses, minimizing sibling rivalry.

The information theorist (IT consultant)  said the spindle would give the system external memory, comparable to a computer, by recording the orders on paper.

The manager installed the spindle and it was a great success.

Here are the takeaways:

  1. Each of the consultant projected his knowledge and expertise on the problem. They saw that from a very specific frame.
  2. The moment they saw a different kind of solution, they gave their own “spin” to the solution.
  3. When a decision is seen through various frames, and it makes sense, then it is a good decision.

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Good bosses

Filed under: Leadership,Motivation,Perspective,Winning strategies — Subbaraman Iyer @ 6:23 pm

Being an effective boss is a challenge. Surveys have pointed out that more people leave their jobs because of bad bosses. And unfortunately those "bad bosses" seldom realize that, and don’t institute any behavioral change. Bad bosses can be defined by one simple term — just unfair. This small clip gives valuable tips to becoming a good boss.

From my experience, bosses need to calibrate their behavior towards subordinates. Subordinates in their formative years need a boss who can give them tough love. With slightly older subordinates, the right kind of freedom, participative discussions and a more democratic approach works.

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Decision making — Using the unconscious mind

Filed under: Business,Leadership,Learning,Perspective — Subbaraman Iyer @ 1:20 pm

The HBR issue of Feb 2007 has a list of breakthrough ideas. The one idea that resonates with me strongly because I have often used it is the one on using the unconscious mind to make the decision. It is titled as When to sleep on it.

Whenever I have been confronted with a challenging decision that I need to take, I have always processed the information after making sure that I have framed the issue from multiple perspectives and have a clear large frame that can accomodate multiple view points. Sometimes, I ask myself if Gandhi or Churchill or a Jack Welch was to make this decision, what factors would they consider.

After I have dwelt on the framing issue adequately, I generally put a definitive time stamp on when to make the decision based on the time that I have and the circumstances I find myself in.. It could just be a few minutes, hours or even days. During that time, I have found myself thinking along many different dimensions.At the time of making the decision, I have found amazing clarity, very little conflict between the head and the heart and more importantly rooted in principles and values which I hold dear.

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Breakthrough ideas

Filed under: Business,Innovation,Learning,Model,Strategy — Subbaraman Iyer @ 1:14 pm

Harvard Business Review (feb 2007) issue has an excellent article on breakthrough ideas for 2007. An excellent read. While some of the articles like User-centred innovation or the issues around partial attention have been around for some time, some interesting twists around The tipping point and and the "Think global and act local" models are actually interesting.

Recommended reading

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January 28, 2007

Business school academics and consultants

Filed under: Business,Leadership,Strategy — Subbaraman Iyer @ 10:02 pm

There are 2 things that are notable: His reading of other disciplines which are his source of stimulation and secondly his take on the cognitive challenge.
Great interview of Gary Hamel here. 

A lot of interesting and controversial insights as he has earned respect as an academic, consultant, entreprenuer and as a real thought leader.

My own understanding of changes in the business world and my view of it got considerably enhanced by reading and observing things from other disciplines especially history and philosophy.

The issue of dealing with cognitive challenge is indeed intriguing. In my interaction with managers, especially senior management, I have often found that their ability to deal with the cognitive challenge to be a key indicator of their ability to create and usher change in their organizations. Often their response seems to be one of denial or one of carrying on with the past albeit with a few tinkering.

Philanthropy Google’s way

Filed under: Business,Innovation,Perspective — Subbaraman Iyer @ 9:43 pm

It just goes to show that Google doesn’t invent just in technology and search engines or about the different kind of food that they serve, or the way they manage the huge server farms, but in something as philanthropy.

The non-traditional approach  can be seen in their site on

This is probably the first philianthropy  set for profit, and not as a tax saving mechanism.

The second, is hiring Dr. Larry Brilliant of WHO. Incidentally, Dr. Brilliant is famous for the eradication of the small pox in India. His lectures at the TED foundations are just brilliant and can be seen on Google video or You tube.

Mid-life realizations

Filed under: Perspective — Subbaraman Iyer @ 9:04 pm

Some months back, few of our college mates (all in the mid 40s) exchanged posts and experience about what it it to experience mid life. I thought it was pretty insightful and wanted to share with a much wider audience. This is just a compilation and not in any particular order.


It is when you gaze at those people who have tranquillity written on their face and you start wondering where the secret lies.

You start feeling insecure about the financial security you have garnered and wonder if all that was worth it.

You start realizing that people basically want to be loved, liked and admired. Those people who admired you when you were nobody are the one who are close to you.

You look at your career. It has given you more than you have asked for. Now is the time, to help build those aspiring young minds that have spark in their eyes and resolve in their commitments.

You watch college kids and wonder how matured and knowledgeable are they compared to what you were at that age.

You are beginning to understand yourself and take pride in your ethos without societal pressures and expectations.

Your opinions have mellowed down. You see what others are doing and find yourself seeing the nuances which otherwise were blinded .You realize that your boundaries and barriers are breaking in your life and adding things which hitherto never existed. You feel contented watching success of others.

You laugh with others and cry alone.

You realize the meaning Osho’s paradigm of ” be alone but not lonely ”

Suddenly change is your best companion. You try to savour nostalgic moments but race ahead to grapple with changing situation. You wish you were a bit younger in your knees.

You wonder how  just being a good human being fetches you all the love that has eluded you in twenties.

You realize love, marriage, sex may not same side of a coin and treat each one on its own identity.

You go through emotions and questions over and over and decipher the answers not only in learned and wiser souls but teenage people who have probing mind.

You worry about your country, poor people and wonder what it takes to make their fortune change.

You realize that you are fortunate to see extremes of abundance and scarcity and trying to figure our if life was contented in either.

You also tend to be pragmatic about issues. I always believed that if you weren’t idealistic at 20, something is wrong with you. And if you are not pragmatic at mid 40s, something again is wrong. Some people do tend to become cynical or even bitter about life based on what happened to them.

Good friends seem rare as one gets older. It is difficult to find people who like you back for good reasons.

Some people grow old without growing up. Suddenly they realise that they are just over- sized kids. And have forgotton to learn adult behavior. The problem is very few schools teach that subject.

You also realise that compassion is more important than raw passion. Sometimes you get the feeling that life just whizzed past when you were busyworking and earning a living.
There is just another element that charachterises middle age. And that’s the amount of mental energy and time talking about the past (nostalgia) and plans / dreams (for the future). While nostalgia isn’t bad, if there’s a continous indulgence in it, we often become more irrelevant for the present and the future. One clear indication that we are still young at heart is to keep dreaming / planning about the future, even if it is retirement.

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Filed under: Inspiration,Learning,Winning strategies — Subbaraman Iyer @ 8:53 pm

Some say life is a struggle. If it is, every problem we face leads us to one of two choices. Either we choose to be victorious or we choose to be a victim. Either we choose to be responsible for the life we create or we shirk our responsibility by blaming others for our failures and unhappiness.

Those who choose to be victorious don’t find life to be a struggle. They find it to be exhilarating. They don’t encounter PROBLEMS; they merely face THINGS THEY WISH TO CHANGE. When they find something blocking their way, they look for a way to get around it or to overcome it. In a word, they look for, and find, solutions. On the other hand, those who choose to be victims are experts at looking for excuses. They almost delight in finding others to blame for their self-inflicted misery.

Let’s take a look at two real-life examples.

Carl is in his fifties and claims he wishes to recover from a long string of failures. To this end, he enrolled in a college course to update his skills. One day, when the instructor was writing on the blackboard, he shouted from the back of the room, “Write larger! I can’t read what you’re writing.”

Carl was miffed when the instructor ignored his pleas. A few weeks later, he complained to his classmates, “I’m afraid I’ll have to drop out of this course. I have bad eyes and our teacher writes too small. How can I take notes and learn the material? Our instructor doesn’t seem to care about my ‘disability’.”

“Why don’t you come to class early so you can get a seat in the front of the room?” suggested a classmate. “Because the bus in my area runs only once an hour. If I took the earlier bus, I would arrive much too early.” replied Carl. “Get a pair of glasses.” another classmate advised. “I have a pair,” said Carl, “but they are not very helpful.” Exasperated, another classmate asked, “Well then, why don’t you get a pair of opera glasses?” Carl had an answer for that too: “I can’t afford opera glasses. I can barely afford to pay the bus fare to get here.”

Carl had an answer for every suggestion. Although he could never find solutions for whatever was troubling him, he was proficient in finding excuses for his inaction. He was convinced he had certain ‘disabilities’ that warranted special treatment. The world should conform to his ‘special needs,’ he reasoned.


Kyle Maynard is an entirely different breed. Born with stumps in the place of arms and legs, he believed it was his responsibility to adapt to the world rather than demanding the world change for him. The challenges that Kyle has to face make Carl’s pleas for special treatment embarrassing at best and laughable at worse.

Despite the enormous obstacles facing Kyle, his lack of arms and legs did not prevent him from learning how to write and type. Neither did it prevent him from becoming a defensive lineman on a football team, a university student, and the top wrestler in the state of Georgia. Though still a university student, you can add to his list of accomplishments author, world traveler, and motivational speaker.

“No Excuses” is the title of Kyle’s book (Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2005), and it points out the difference between him and Carl. Kyle realizes that making excuses holds us back while assuming responsibility moves us forward. He understands that responsibility is empowering, and the more of it we take on, the more we will be, do, and have what we want.

Problems, difficulties, challenges, or whatever we choose to call them, shouldn’t stop our progress. Rather, they should cause us to ask the following three questions.

  1. What do I want from life now?

  2. What is preventing me from getting what I want?

  3. What am I going to do about it?

    The answer to the first question introduces purpose, direction, and meaning to our lives, for when we know what we want to be, do, and have, we have goals to achieve, mountains to climb, and a reason for being.

    The answer to the second question is the first step in finding a solution. After all, we cannot solve a problem until we admit that we have one.

    The answer to the final question comes in the form of steps we can take to defeat our difficulty. It is a road map, an action plan that, as long as we follow it, will take us where we wish to go.

    Those who choose to be victims can usually answer the first question because even they know what they want most of the time. However, they blind themselves to the truth when it comes to the second question. For instead of looking for solutions, they doggedly search for excuses. They blame anything or anyone else for their problems. They refuse to get involved in finding a solution because they are, after all, victims. Their answer to the question, “What am I going to do about it?” is “I am going to do nothing. I’m going to stay put. Even though I’m unhappy where I am, I’m not going to change. I prefer to have the world change, and I refuse to do anything until it does.”

    If there is something in your life that you wish to change, but are finding it difficult to do so, you may find it helpful to understand the five steps of change.

    In the first step of making a change, we will feel AMBIVALENT. That is, we will both want to and not want to change at the same time. That is perfectly natural. You see, although we WANT TO improve our lives, we DON’T WANT TO experience the immediate, though temporary, discomfort that usually accompanies making a change. So, when you find yourself hesitant, don’t get discouraged. Rather, understand the cause of your hesitancy, focus on the benefits that change will bring, and force yourself to take the right steps.

    You begin the second step of change when you answer the third question (What am I going to do about it?). For the second step of change is one of preparation. In this stage you outline the steps you need to take to get you where you want to go.

    The third step is implementation. That is, you carry out your plan by taking the necessary steps.

    The fourth step is broadly called maintenance. You check your progress and make corrections when needed. Reworded, you make sure you stay on course and are headed for your target.

    The fifth step or stage of change isn’t experienced by everyone, but is important to understand. It is the step called relapse. You may suddenly find that, despite your initial progress, you have slipped back to your previous state. Like step one, relapse is a natural event. It is to be expected. Although not everyone experiences it, many people, if not most, do. So when it happens, just pick yourself up, brush yourself off, and say, “I’m not going to get discouraged and give up now! I refuse to choose to be a victim! I choose to be victorious, so I’m getting back to the program of change and regaining control over my life!”

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    Interesting reality

    Filed under: Perspective,Stories — Subbaraman Iyer @ 1:12 am

    A group of working adults got together to visit their  University lecturer.

    The lecturer was happy to see them. Conversation  soon turned into complaints about stress in work and life.

    The Lecturer  just smiled and went to the kitchen to get an assortment of cups – some  porcelain, some in plastic, some in glass, some plain looking and some looked  rather expensive and exquisite.

    The Lecturer offered his former  students the cups to get drinks for themselves.

    When all the students  had a cup in hand with water, the Lecturer spoke: "If you noticed, all the  nice looking, expensive cups were taken up, leaving behind the plain and cheap  ones. While it is normal that you only want the best for yourselves, that is  the source of your problems and stress. What all you wanted was water, not the  cup, but we unconsciously went for the better cups."Tags: , ,

    "Just like in  life, if Life is Water, then the jobs, money and position in society are the  cups. They are just tools to hold/maintain Life, but the quality of Life  doesn’t change."

    "If we only concentrate on the cup, we won’t have time  to enjoy/taste the water in it."

    "Faith gives us a new vision of the  world. Without it we see only the darker side of life. We are still slaves. It  is faith which liberates us and makes us see the Spirit of power and love at  work in our  lives."

    January 26, 2007

    Innovating for a prize

    Filed under: Business,Innovation,Learning — Subbaraman Iyer @ 4:13 pm

    In an earlier post, I appended a presentation on how Goldcorp turned to the world to make a decision on whether to mine for gold. Essentially, the instituted a prize money, and got people to participate.

    The WSJ carries an interesting article which takes this concept even further. They list out cases where the proliferation of money attracts the best brains to solve stubborn problems.

    There are some specific advantages in following this practice. For one, it is possible to tap brilliant minds from all over the world, and second outsiders come with a whole new perspective to deal with the problem.

    This indeed shows the potential of globalisation.

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