Subba’s Serendipitous moments

October 28, 2010

Extrapolating the past Vs Inventing the future.

Filed under: Business,Innovation,Leadership,Learning,Perspective,Strategy — Subbaraman Iyer @ 10:41 pm
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Vinod Khosla –a co-founder of Sun Microsystems and its first Chairman is a highly respected Silicon Valley investor as the general partner of Kleiner Perkins. Over the last few years, he has moved away from technology to Energy and Greentech.

Yesterday he delivered an interesting talk at Caltech on Extrapolating the past Vs Inventing the future. The talk was peppered with some brilliant statements, some philosophical musings and scenarios for the future. I found the talk scintillating The entire talk can be viewed here. (The audio quality at the beginning of the session is poor quality, but when Vinod begins his talk, the audio quality is excellent)

Here are some of the excerpts:

Extrapolating the past is ridden with mistakes starting from forecasts:

On why forecasts go wrong (he talks about a number of forecasts that’s gone completely haywire:

Assumptions get embedded in our system. We don’t question our assumptions. Forecasting is about our embedded assumptions not explicitly stated.

On quantitative modeling:

Chasing the false precision, chasing the 3rd order effects

Input the measurable, ignore the immeasurable

Obscured embedded assumptions.

He concludes the section after giving several instances by saying that “The more rapid the change, the less likely are the assumptions to be right”.

On why inventing the future is absolutely critical:

He starts by explaining the Black Swan effect giving several examples and declares that much of what we assume to be true is retrospective predictability. Some great statements that he makes:

Improbable doesn’t equal unimportant and the only thing that’s important is the improbable.

No matter where you look, there’s room for innovation, however unlikely it looks

Bring me the ideas that has a 90% chance of failure!

If you take enough shots at the goal, failure doesn’t matter; it doesn’t exist.

“Imagine the possible”.

His final words in response to a question from the audience sums it all: “The talk is just to give a perspective; but most importantly is to convey an attitude”.

Well said, Sir !

October 11, 2010

If Google’s search speed is not fast enough, try Instant!

Filed under: Business,Innovation,Learning — Subbaraman Iyer @ 4:50 pm
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What does a company that powers 70% of the search market, has over $20 billion in sales relating to search believe the speed of search should be?

Google estimates that a search typically takes the following:

  • 9 seconds to enter
  • 0.8 seconds for data transfers between the data centers
  • 0.3 seconds for processing.
  • The users then spend 15 seconds choosing the link that the search results show up.

If anyone believes that this is a slow performance, Google Instant comes your way. It saves the average user 2-5 seconds per search via instant results, enhanced predictive technology and scroll-to-search functionality.

Google Instant will search at the speed of thought. Or at the speed of serendipity.

If every Google user used Instant, it would save 3.5 billion seconds a day. In other words that is 11 hours saved every second.

Now of all the great engineering prowess that Google deploys to make Google Instant, it is the predictive technology aspect that’s intriguing, deeply unsettling and maybe a big game changer. The search attempts to predict exactly what a user wants, showing the results that it thinks he wants in grey text, allowing him to choose. So, even if a user doesn’t know exactly what he’s looking for, the top prediction is shown in grey text in the search box and the user can stop typing as soon as he sees what he needs.

So, a search is a real time stream enabling the user to see more search results.

It essentially could mean that different people would see different search results for the same query. This could be just the beginning. The search results could again vary depending on the device from where the search is initiated or even by location.

This  means the world of search is just not getting faster, but incredibly complex.

Well, all the marketers and SEO gurus have to change. Sites will need to be optimized for letter combinations, not just complete keywords. This also implies that advertisers will have to purchase more keywords in order to optimize performance. More importantly, Google will gain another revenue stream through ad impressions as currently advertisers are not paying for impressions.

I reckon the compelling reason for this development is that Google’s mobile search traffic grew over 50% in first half of 2010 and 1 in 3 queries from smartphones are seeking information about nearby places. Now mobile users would just like to enter a few characters and choose the query from an autosuggestion list. Right now it is difficult to figure out what this engineering feat of Google Instant will mean in terms of revenues.

And I am not sure whether fast is better than good.

September 6, 2010

Fear is to be welcomed because it seeds courage

Filed under: Learning,Motivation,Perspective — Subbaraman Iyer @ 2:28 pm
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“Fear becomes not just an acceptable but even welcome emotion because it paves the way for courage and heroism. It is fine to be frightened, but not to run away from it.” says Vinita Dawra Nangia – one of the most respected columnist of The Times of India.

I did blog about reframing the fear of failure for success and to Vinita’s credit she makes the point well. She has expanded the thinking from the fear of failure to fear in general to all the so called negative emotions. Her column – The emotional trap is a good read.

She goes further and destroys the myth of negative and positive emotions completely in a very compelling and persuasive style.  Selected extracts from the article:

Fear is as important as courage; sadness as important as happiness; to cry is as critical as it is to laugh, to grieve every bit as needed as to celebrate. If positive emotions help give us confidence and cheer, negative emotions too serve a purpose.

The important thing is to feel. And, to feel with intensity. In the movie, Beyond Borders, based amidst the suffering in Ethiopia, Clive Owen talks to Angelina Jolie about pain, "In the city, we drown it, numb it, kill it — anything not to feel. Here (Ethiopia) they feel….. We have no idea what courage is. It’s the weirdest, purest thing — suffering."

And from that intensity comes mental, emotional and spiritual growth.

I like the way that she puts fear and other so called negative emotions in perspective. She puts it succinctly when she says:

It is critical to be in charge of your emotions, not allow them to control you!

And of course the best thing about emotions is that they don’t stay with you long. Try as you might, you can neither catch happiness by its forelock, nor pain by its tail. They visit us and in time, after having served a purpose, they leave…

I am reminded of the clear definition of courage: Courage is not absence of fear. It is the ability to function despite fear.

The best way to lead life is (as the Bhagawad Geetha says) by having a sense of equanimity or through inculcating the “samathva”. Easier said than one, but every small step in the way is progress.

August 17, 2010

Commitments precede choices

Filed under: Business,Learning,Motivation,Perspective — Subbaraman Iyer @ 4:16 pm
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Clayton Christenson’s address to the graduating class of HBS 2010 had pearls of timeless wisdom. I summarized his address with some comments in my blog post here.

All his wisdom is predicated on one simple and basic premise – that we all know our life’s purpose is known to us apriori. Once that life purpose is known, allocating resources and making trade-off decisions should come about systematically. That’s a well planned life.

But what about situations and people when we do not have enough clarity on the life’s purpose. There is an alternative approach as David Brooks seems to write in this wonderful piece. Thanks to Anand Srinivasan who brought this to my attention.

The starting point here is that life cannot be planned and there are too many unknowns. It is an unknowable landscape with all its interesting twists and turns. Sometimes the life purpose eludes many of us. David calls this the Summoned Life approach.

Here commitments precede choices. Commitments to family, nation, faith, cause etc. These defy many of the standard business metrics like returns, cost-benefit analysis and so on. While we are a product of choices, our deep commitments serve as a useful compass to make the choices.

The person leading the Summoned Life starts with a very concrete situation and most times it starts off with a rude wakeup call.

“At this moment in my life, I am confronted with specific job opportunities and specific options. The important questions are: What are these circumstances summoning me to do? What is needed in this place? What is the most useful social role before me?

These are questions answered primarily by sensitive observation and situational awareness, not calculation and long-range planning.”

David puts this eloquently when he says: “For the person leading the Summoned Life, the individual is small and the context is large. Life comes to a point not when the individual project is complete but when the self dissolves into a larger purpose and cause.”

In the lives that I have observed, both the Well Planned life and the Summoned Life can co-exist peacefully but there is bound to be a creative tension between the two. In my own personal life, the Well Planned life helped me to stay on course and avoid distractions. It gave me anchor and rooted me in values and principles. Trade-off decisions came to me naturally and quickly and I rarely felt paralyzed. But occasionally the Summoned Life due to the situational awareness helped me fine tune the choices based on some of the deep commitments that I myself didn’t know that existed in my consciousness.

July 16, 2010

It’s not what you think, but how you think that matters!

 

Clayton Christensen the celebrated Harvard Professor and the guru on innovation speaks to the HBS graduating class of 2010 on how to apply management lessons to personal lives. It is not just an inspiring read, but an instructive read for everyone.

After a preliminary introduction where he establishes with amazing conviction the 30 minute conversation that he had with Andy Grove which led to the development of Celeron, he gives 6 key lessons which should be applicable to all of us.

Create a strategy for your life:

“I promise my students that if they take the time to figure out their life purpose, they’ll look back on it as the most important thing they discovered at HBS. If they don’t figure it out, they will just sail off without a rudder and get buffeted in the very rough seas of life. Clarity about their purpose will trump knowledge of activity-based costing, balanced scorecards, core competence, disruptive innovation, the four Ps, and the five forces”. In my view, the pursuit of purpose surpasses all other pursuits. I learnt this quite late in life.

Allocate your resources:

“People who are driven to excel have this unconscious propensity to under invest in their families and overinvest in their careers—even though intimate and loving relationships with their families are the most powerful and enduring source of happiness.

If you study the root causes of business disasters, over and over you’ll find this predisposition toward endeavors that offer immediate gratification. If you look at personal lives through that lens, you’ll see the same stunning and sobering pattern: people allocating fewer and fewer resources to the things they would have once said mattered most”.

Create a culture:

Knowing what tools to wield to elicit the needed cooperation is a critical managerial skill.

Families have cultures, just as companies do. Those cultures can be built consciously or evolve inadvertently.

If you want your kids to have strong self-esteem and confidence that they can solve hard problems, those qualities won’t magically materialize in high school. You have to design them into your family’s culture—and you have to think about this very early on. Like employees, children build self-esteem by doing things that are hard and learning what works.

Avoid the “marginal costs mistake:

It’s easier to hold to your principles 100% of the time than it is to hold to them 98% of the time. If you give in to “just this once,” based on a marginal cost analysis, as some of my former classmates have done, you’ll regret where you end up. You’ve got to define for yourself what you stand for and draw the line in a safe place.

Remember the importance of humility:

If your attitude is that only smarter people have something to teach you, your learning opportunities will be very limited. But if you have a humble eagerness to learn something from everybody, your learning opportunities will be unlimited. Generally, you can be humble only if you feel really good about yourself—and you want to help those around you feel really good about themselves, too.

Choose the right yardstick:

Think about the metric by which your life will be judged, and make a resolution to live every day so that in the end, your life will be judged a success.

My own mid life realizations and some of the life lessons have been written here.

Well, I would strongly recommend that you read his entire lecture as he backs up the brilliant instructions with observations and decisions that he made in his personal life. The entire lecture can be found here.

July 15, 2010

We are a product of our choices!

Filed under: Business,Inspiration,Learning,Perspective,Winning — Subbaraman Iyer @ 3:13 pm
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Jeff Bezos of Amazon (someone whom I have admired deeply) puts this simple truth amazingly well in his 2010 Baccalaureate remarks at Princeton University. The complete address can be read here.

Jeff brings out the distinction between gifts and choices. He says: “Cleverness is a gift, kindness is a choice. Gifts are easy — they’re given after all. Choices can be hard. You can seduce yourself with your gifts if you’re not careful, and if you do, it’ll probably be to the detriment of your choices.” How true!

The tragedy for most people in the world is that they are blissfully unaware of the choices that they have! It becomes far more tragic when they ignore or dismiss the choices presented to them. Clearly the choose to wallow in their misery. The defining argument they give is what if the choice was wrong! Jeff handles this possible question again very well.

To me, maturity is not a function of age or even intelligence. It is the element when they become aware of their choices and making the right choice.

May 20, 2010

Can trauma be healed?

Filed under: Learning,Perspective — Subbaraman Iyer @ 11:39 am
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I would guess that all of us have at some or the other gone through traumatic incidents in our life. Much of that trauma continues to reside in our subconscious memories and continues to affect us in unknown ways.

The trauma could be a broken relationship, a major injustice, a heartbreaking death or anything to which you has not reconciled. The memories linger on for a long time. While we try to mask it intelligently or ignore it, they rear their ugly head at the most unexpected moments.

The question: how do you reconcile yourself to trauma especially if there’s someone responsible for causing them?

For years, I have been trying to find the tools to deal with trauma effectively as I believe it is the first step to heal myself.

Forgiveness is one surefire approach. It is a proactive approach, more effective than mere acceptance of the fact or trying to hide the event by putting on a mask. Yet forgiveness doesn’t come easy. No wonder, the capacity to forgive is considered to be a divine blessing.

I have always approached forgiveness through a rational prism. I was enthralled by Nelson Mandela’s Truth and Reconciliation effort. It was an attempt to publicly air the feelings and experiences of victims of apartheid and for perpetuators of violence to also give testimony and request amnesty. The famous movie Forgiveness is a gripping tale of such an event and left an indelible mark on me.

More recently, I read an article (translated from the original Spanish to English) of an address by Perez Esquivel (Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1980) of his long years in prison where he was horribly tortured. He talked of doing "active goodness" – even to his torturers – which goes beyond forgiveness. He wrote that perhaps that’s the only solution to go beyond the "horrific" things that happened to him in prison.

Both Mandela and Perez are intellectuals and philosophers of a high order who could conceive and act on the higher order of things. Even Priyanka Vadra’s (daughter of assassinated Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi) visit to meet her father’s assassin in prison was praiseworthy and was covered in my blog here.

The point is: How does someone like me with less intelligence yet suffering from painful memories deal with that? That’s something that I have been looking for till someone sent me the story of Mama Wangele.

Mama Wangele, a poor and uneducated widow, lost her only son in the Rwandan Civil War. She lived on, unable to come to terms with her grief. She hated her son’s killers, yet she was powerless.

One day, a worn-out, one-legged child soldier knocked on her door and asked for food. By the tribal marks on his face, she recognized him to the enemy. She asked him coldly "Have you ever killed anyone?"

"Yes, many", he said.

Mama Wangele shut the door on this face and wept for her dead son. But something kept tugging at her heart. She followed this new stirring. She opened the door. She had no idea of what she was going to do. She saw the boy had gone a little distance.

"Mutabani" she called. The boy turned back and saw her. "Mutabani, come back."

The boy was surprised. She asked him to come in. She gave him some food and filled water in a tub for his bath. Then she brought out her son’s carefully preserved clothes and gave it to him.

"These are my son’s clothes. You can have them now, Mutabani," she said very quietly.

The boy looked at her with tears in his eyes. Had she really called him Mutabani? (Mutabani is the Lugunda equivalent of son). In that moment, she had forgiven her son’s killer. And, that was the beginning of healing.

After hearing this story, I wonder how does one create the stirring. Does it come naturally or is human intervention possible?

For years, I have wrestled with this question, till I decided to recommend the gratitude diary approach to someone who went through a life-scarring experience. A gratitude diary is a simple compendium of events and people to express gratitude. The power of gratitude is vast and untapped. It helps in tapping into the dormant good in everyone.

I asked this person who has suffered trauma to maintain a gratitude diary and make entries in it daily. The sheer thought process is elevating. I can’t say for sure, but the thawing process started. Slowly she managed to feel the reason to forgive. Just talking about the event, the perpetuator and the weight of her trauma was possible only because she could open her heart – thanks to the gratitude diary.

While most of us feel the need to heal ourselves, few accept the thesis that it is forgiveness that makes it possible. Most people see forgiving as a sign of weakness. We cling to our hostility and relive the trauma, keeping ourselves from healing. It is the rare person who understands the need to forgive, but waits eternally for the divine moment.

Forgiveness can come in a magical moment like that of Mama Wangela or through intellectual deliberation of a Perez Esquivel, but one has to be prepared for it. I believe having a gratitude diary makes us ready for that moment of realization.

April 22, 2010

Twitter’s cruel irony

Filed under: Business,India,Learning — Subbaraman Iyer @ 2:52 pm
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In the media frenzy world that we all live in, Twitter has suddenly taken center stage, especially in India.

Twitter came into its own during the Mumbai 26/11 terrorist attacks when it even upstaged the mainstream media. Now the irony is that India’s best twitter – Shashi Tharoor (with over 750,000 followers) had to resign as Minister of State for Foreign Affairs had to quit in ignominy in a scandal which had the potent mix of cricket, illicit romance, politics and of course money. All of it triggered by a rival’s tweet (Lalit Modi commissioner of IPL).

The saying goes: “Those who live by the sword, perish by it.” Lalit Modi himself who conceived the IPL and generated more than $4 billion in revenues in just 2 years got a taste of his own medicine, when a tweet by Shashi Tharoor had the tax authorities making one of their biggest investigations against him and all his partners.

That Lalit Modi is now toast is a foregone conclusion. Worse things await him based on all the news stories that’s breaking out every moment.

It all happened because two egoistic, pompous, publicity seeking and twitter addicts were stupid to tweet in the middle of the night and wake up the whole world. Had they not done so, the party would have gone on.

A fine instance of the law of unintended consequences.

January 4, 2010

Looking backward, looking forward

Filed under: Learning,Perspective — Subbaraman Iyer @ 11:34 pm
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Having lived all my life on the edge, I am kind of used to the vicissitudes of life and have taken it in remarkable stride. By all standards 2009 was a very difficult year as I found myself helpless or vulnerable at some very crucial moments. Now, 2010 appears to be challenging — a new environment and a different set of expectations. And since challenge is something that I have always thrived on, it should be exciting.

Last couple of weeks I had no human contact or access to an electronic network. I was practically shut out from the outside world. It was rich solitude barring the chatter and noise from the deeper self. It gave me time to build new perspectives and perhaps shed some old ones.


Clearly, five key passions either individually or some combination has governed my life: the longing for understanding and love, the urge to learn constantly and pass the learning to others, the drive for personal excellence and to build excellence around me, the deep empathy for the underprivileged and finally a sense of fairness to others even in the most intense conflict.


These five passions have driven me to unknown stations in life, thrown me amidst deep chaos, and yet helped me emerge stronger and more rooted to life, growth and humanity.


I longed for understanding and love, because at a deep level, I am a loner despite my extrovert self. I am a solitary thinker and learn independently. Understanding relieved the loneliness and the occasional feeling of love moderated the rebel in me.


Learning came naturally though I despised formal learning approaches. I was always intrigued by the ambiguous and the dichotomous, the interface areas between two disciplines and the process of discovery . That explains the number of posts on learning here. I also cannot contain my enthusiasm to share what I have discovered.


The pursuit of excellence served as an elixir for growth and discovery. I have often got upset when some people routinely chose to be mediocre without even examining the trade-offs.


While the above helped me soar, the sufferings of the deprived and the underprivileged held me to the ground. Their pain often brought tears to my eyes. I could empathize with their state and reach out to them. Whenever I saw them struggle them to break out of their circumstances, they inspired me. I just wanted to be a catalyst in some way to help them in their endeavor.


A sense of fairness has always governed every action even if I have to deal with conflict. Perhaps I am intrinsically cognizant of the law of karma!


As I said earlier I passed through some big challenges last year and in a way felt compelled to review my passions. The solitary sojourn was a great opportunity. I realized that the law of unintended consequences applies to personal passions as well. Delving deeply, I discovered the following:


I have been naive that by discussing people’s weaknesses and/or the system’s weaknesses and showing them a better path, I would contribute to a better individual, community or organization. I have learnt now that people have interests, beliefs, biases and prejudices that, once firmly entrenched, are not easily dislodged– and certainly not by logic or even by evidence. My role is to do my best, understand my boundaries and respect their mental orientation


Yes, people do change their minds, but experience has more influence than even the best argument.


Helping people change their minds is more art than science. As a change artiste, I need to have a lot more tools in my repertoire.

Many people would rather live with a problem they can’t solve rather than adopt a solution which (they think) is risky.

Pragmatism often decides people’s choices. And sometimes the pursuit of excellence is too high a price to pay for pragmatism. The same is true for honesty and sincerity. My role at best is to highlight the tradeoffs and not champion my values.


I just have to accept that the longing for understanding especially the philosophical and emotional dimensions of an issue combined with the pursuit of excellence have led me to be overbearing. Some have benefited, but quite a few have been bruised. I am only fortunate that I managed to keep this streak under control whenever I wore the counselor’s mantle or took on a coaching responsibility.


For me, the passions– no matter how contentious or futile– has a stand-alone meaning. It is called freedom. As I start the new year I hope to improve my awareness and understand the boundary conditions better.


Hopefully the world will follow Kahlil Gibran’s dictum: To understand the heart and mind of a person look not at what he has already achieved (or failed), but at what he aspires to do.

October 1, 2009

Swami Viekananada and John Rockefeller

Filed under: Business,Learning,Perspective,Stories — Subbaraman Iyer @ 2:07 pm
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When visiting Chicago, Swami Vivekananda stayed in the house of a businessman who was an associate of John D. Rockefeller. Many times had Mr. Rockefeller heard his friends talking about an extraordinary and wonderful Hindu monk, and many times he had been invited to meet Swamiji but always refused.

At that time Rockefeller was not yet at the peak of his fortune, but was already powerful and strong-willed, a hard man to advise. One day, on a whim, the millionaire briskly walked through the door and said he wanted to see the Hindu monk. Swami Vivekananda, who was behind his writing table, did not even lift his eyes when the magnate entered the study room. In their ensuing conversation, Swami told Rockefeller secrets about his past that Rockefeller alone knew. Then, Swami boldy explained that God had given him all his wealth in order that he might have an opportunity to help people and do good.

Annoyed that someone dared to tell him what to do, Rockefeller stormed out. Coming back a week later, he brought plans to donate an enormous sum of money to charity. This was Rockefeller’s first large donation to the public welfare. “Well, there you are,” he said to Vivekananda, “You can thank me for it.” Swamiji then said softly, “No sir, it is for you to thank me.”

source: The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, vol. 9

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