Subba’s Serendipitous moments

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.

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September 20, 2009

How to find meaning?

Last week as I was involved in a deep discussion with a good friend of mine, (I also happened to coach him in a difficult professional transition) I had an epiphany. He asked me whether I found the meaning of life.

The question was sudden without any preamble and as he looked deeply in my eyes, I discovered that I have been in a similar quest perhaps all my life. I only don’t know whether I have finished finding the meaning of my own existence.

Meaning is not something that you find as you normally try to find a location in a map. It is not something that you look for as you would for an item in a supermarket.

It is something that one has to build in one’s life. The elements to build it is already there in one’s consciousness. It is built out of one’s own past, out of one’s own talent and aspirations for oneself. It is based on the values that one has developed and what one stand for. It is based on the things that one believes in and out of the things that one cares about in a deep sense.

Now, each of us have to take the elements and combine that into a unique pattern that will resonate with oneself. The discovery of that unique pattern could take years. Once discovered, it becomes precious.

Meaning guides a person and sometimes becomes the raison d’être for one’s existence. It is nourishing and provides the dignity to one’s life.

I also discovered a strange connection between the outcomes of events and the meaning of life. A material success which doesn’t resonate with the meaning in one’s life seems hollow, superficial and doesn’t give much joy. A success that’s congruent with one’s meaning in life gives fulfillment.

Has anyone else found meaning of life? How did you all find it?

I would be curious to know.

August 20, 2009

How to build a successful innovation team?

Recently I delivered a talk on business innovation. My main thesis was why that offers a competitive advantage and offers the best barrier to entry. There were interesting questions, but the question that flummoxed me was asked by a young MBA student and it went as follows: How to build a successful innovation team?

Not having worked in R&D or an innovation team, I had to admit my ignorance. I promised that I will think about it and revert. I asked several HR managers, consultants and even some innovation experts. I was not satisfied with most of the responses because they talked about examining past track records, achievements and so on. That doesn’t say much and I don’t necessarily agree with experience being a true predictor.. So here’s what I have come up with:

  • Hire someone who doesn’t care much for stability, hierarchy, order and predictability. Every problem is unique and will need a different thinking approach.
  • Find someone who appreciates and thrives on ambiguity. Ambiguity often has negative connotations, but to me to be able to appreciate the grey area and to live in the mental conflict zone is key to finding the breakthrough.
  • A deep competency is good, but the person should be genuinely interested in other things. It is when you are looking at something else with genuine interest, a serendipity play converts the competency to a breakthrough.
  • Have the ability to “abstractize” a practical problem and see a practical problem and hence an opportunity in an abstract thought. This calls for people who can have their feet on the ground and the head in the cloud and span the space between them.
  • Finally and I think this is the most important: The last thing a team needs is finding another clone. Stop looking for something similar to what you already have. You need to fill gaps that are in your team and complement the competency and hence the more of the same doesn’t always make it successful.

(I am assuming that there exists some amount of passion, enthusiasm, respect for people and inter-personal communication strengths.)

It would be difficult to expect all this in an individual. However collectively the team should have these qualities. Whether they become successful or not is a different question. It depends on the mindset and a whole range of factors. But at least you know that we have a good capable team of cracking a problem.

Does anyone have a competency model to build innovation teams?

August 3, 2009

Be yourself

“Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are.” — Chinese proverb.

I can’t think of a more simple, yet a deep truth. I was discussing my earlier blog post with 2 of my friends. Both believed that to be successful one should adapt, which means constantly changing oneself to circumstances. And if one has to change, one has to let go one’s true self. I will write my response to their observations in a separate post, but for now, I just want to do a follow up post which hopefully should clarify my stance.

I think most of us have a tendency to sell ourselves in situations even when we faintly perceive that we are being evaluated or judged. We worry too much about who we think we should be, instead of just being who we are. We over-value what we aren’t and undervalue what we are.

Regardless of where, when, or why of any situation, we should always be ourselves. I am specifically referring to a staying true to one’s principles and faith. The challenging part of this that there will be times when we need to challenge ourselves from a personality standpoint. We cannot just say, “Well, that’s the way, I am”. We all have such opportunities to challenge ourselves in matters of ability, growth, mental models and even beliefs. I say this with a smirk because I can tell from experience that it isn’t easy, though it may sound so.

People miss the amazing leverage that can come into play when they do buy into their vision for their own life and determining what’s preventing themselves from achieving it.

Death isn’t the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside of us while we live.

August 2, 2009

Underdogs can win

Underdogs win more times than we think, but is there a set approach that characterizes their win? I have always been intrigued by their winning approaches and the tipping points that gives them the decisive competitive advantage.

Having delved into business strategy research and practice for a while, I still couldn’t come across any clear framework that advises underdogs of how to take the battle against the more powerful opponent.

Malcom Gladwell (author of The Tipping Point, Blink and the more recent Outliers) writes a brilliant piece on how David can beat Goliath. The article is a bit long, but it makes compelling and instructive reading. It has several brilliant anecdotes written in the typical Malcolm style. What is amazing is how Vivek Ranadive uses the principles of real time information processing and the way he built TIBCO — a hugely successful software company, to coach his daughter’s school basketball team for the National Junior Basketball championship. Vivek never played basketball, nor was he a coach, yet his astute assessment of the game’s dynamics and mapping out to the real time information processing and how TIBCO became successful shows what a smart mind can do given a challenge. Vivek is also the author of the bestseller: “The Power of Now: How winning companies sense and respond to change using real-time technology”

Malcolm also draws from various other examples in sports, conventional wars to illustrate the following principles:

  1. First acknowledge your weakness and then choose an unconventional strategy.
  2. Choose not to play by Goliath’s rules.
  3. Be bold and do what could be even termed as “socially horrifying”— challenge the conventions about how battles are supposed to be fought.
  4. Do not be scared of being disapproved by the insider.
  5. Believe in the fact that a defender’s dilemma is very often the attacker’s advantage.


July 27, 2009

When intuition outsmarts rationality

In October 2001, a fire crew was fighting a fire in a disused bingo hall in Leicester in the UK. Even though it was big, the fire chief decided it was safe enough to send the crew into the building.

They were starting to make progress in knocking the fire down when the fire chief decided something was wrong, and ordered his team out of the building. The team protested, unwilling to give up the progress they had made. But the fire chief insisted and as they exited the building it exploded in a massive fireball. If the decision to evacuate hadn’t been made the entire team would have been killed.

It turns out that the fire was one of the rarest and most dangerous phenomenon in firefighting – a backdraft. The fire chief had never experienced a backdraft before, he just knew that something was wrong and they needed to get out. In the ensuing investigation it turns out there were three things that were unusual: the smoke was more orange than usual, air was rushing into the building rather than out of it, and the fire was unusually quiet. The fire chief was right in his decision, he just didn’t know why at the time.

Well, all is well, that ends well.

But let’s take a moment and reflect what could have happened to the same event in a different set of circumstances. Assume that the fire chief was not the decision maker but he had to refer the decision to his boss.

There was clearly no evidence that something unusual was underway and that the teams were in disagreement with the fire chief. The teams were actually making progress and were engaged in a great endeavor to put out the fires. Normal rational thinking would have demanded that the boss would overrule the fire chief. The firemen would continue to fight the fire and the entire team would have been killed.

An investigation would have ensued and the decision would have been termed as rational and the whole thing written off as a terrible tragic accident.

July 16, 2009

Accept your true self and be happy.

A plum once said, just because a banana lover came by, I converted myself into a banana. Unfortunately, his taste changed after a few months and so I became an orange. When he said I was bitter I became an apple, but he went in search of grapes. Yielding to the opinions of so many people, I have changed so many times that I no more know who I am. How I wish I had remained a plum and waited for a plum lover.

Just because a group of people do not accept you as you are, there is no necessity for you to strip yourself of your originality. You need to think good of yourself, for the world takes you at your own estimate. Never stoop down in order to gain recognition. Never let go of your true self to win a relationship. In the long run, you will regret that you traded your greatest glory – your uniqueness, for momentary validation. Even Gandhi was not accepted by many people. The group that does not accept you as you is not your world.

There is a world for each one of you, where you shall reign as king / queen by just being yourself. Find that world… in fact, that world will find you.

What water can do, gasoline cannot and what copper can, gold cannot. The fragility of the ant enables it to move and the rigidity of the tree enables it to stay rooted. Everything and everybody has been designed with a proportion of uniqueness to serve a purpose that we can fulfill only by being our unique self. You as you alone can serve your purpose and I as I alone can serve my purpose.

You are here to be you… just you.

There was a time in this world when a Krishna was required and he was sent; a time when a Christ was required and he was sent; a time when a Mahatma was required and he was sent; a time when a Einstein was required and he was sent. There came a time when you were required on this planet and hence you were sent. Let us be the best we can be. Don’t miss yourself and let the world not miss you.

In the history of the universe, there has been nobody like you and to the infinite of time to come, there will be no one like you. Existence should have loved you so much that it broke the mould after making you, so that another of your kind will never get repeated. You are original. You are rare. You are unique. You are a wonder. You are a masterpiece. .. your Master’s piece. Celebrate your Uniqueness.

May 3, 2009

The negative side of positive thinking

A positive thinking mind is an advantage. But an intense positive thinking mind bordering on the “pathological” often has negative or even severe repercussions. I have had the occasion to witness firsthand the perils of excessive positive thinking recently as I coached someone who has been having severe performance problems at work which has spilled over to his personal life as well. He was reluctant to make the hard changes that he had to; and often believed that thinking positive can solve his problems.

Positive thinking in this case only obfuscated the issue and clouded his judgment. In his case it was getting obsessive, but I have noticed that people tend to slip into a denial mode even with less intensity of positive thinking.

I am all for positive thinking, but it has to be balanced with the repercussions of failure. I have noticed that people try to shut out their fear of failure, or have an obsessive attachment to their desired result and rationalize that by having positive thoughts, they can accomplish it. Such an overwhelming positive thinking can be disastrous.

Positive thinking has been reduced to a cliche. Things are alarming when companies are investing more training dollars on motivational speakers than improving skills and competencies.

The notion that success is often achieved by attitude than aptitude is a reproach to rational thinking. It erodes the reverence for hard work, talent, diligence and other elements which are necessary for human progress.

Sometimes such delusional optimism can be dangerous. The recent architects of the sub prime crisis and the global financial meltdown are just a case in point.

Positivity and positive thinking are about optimism, self-confidence and diligence; not about micawberism, brashness, or pulling-a-fast-one and not living in a make believe world. Positivity with disregard to cost, risk and proper planning is day-dreaming — or worse setting oneself to disappointment, shock and even trauma.

Due caution does not destroy positive thinking but tempers it as fire does steel.

Pursuing excellence

I place a premium on pursuing excellence in all things I do. I have found it to be rewarding because there’s less competition in that pursuit.

Well, when I was coaching a senior executive on the importance of using that as a rallying call for his team I was reminded of this story that I listened to when I was a student.

A foreigner once visited a temple under construction where he saw a sculptor making an idol of God. Suddenly he noticed a similar idol lying nearby.

Surprised, he asked the sculptor, “Do you need two statues of the same idol?”


“No,” said the sculptor without looking up, “We need only one, but the first one got damaged at the last stage.”


The gentleman examined the idol and found no apparent damage. “Where is the damage?” he asked.


“There is a scratch on the nose of the idol.” said the sculptor, still busy with his work.


“Where are you going to install the idol?”


The sculptor replied that it would be installed on a pillar twenty feet high.


“If the idol is that far, who is going to know that there is a scratch on the nose?” the gentleman asked.


The sculptor stopped his work, looked up at the gentleman, smiled and said, “I will know it.”

The desire to excel is exclusive of the fact whether someone else appreciates it or not. “Excellence” is a drive from inside, not outside. Excellence is not for someone else to notice but for one’s own satisfaction and growth

April 13, 2009

Goal setting

Saw this snippet from a news magazine that I chanced to browse yesterday.

Ted Turner (founder of CNN) had just joined his father’s billboard advertising business when he was in his early 20s They lived during the depression and this strengthened Ted’s determination to work hard and be a millionaire and a own a plantation.

By the time Ted had joined the company, his father had all those things and and Ted remembers clearly his father taking him aside and saying, “Son, you be sure to set your goals so high that you can’t accomplish them in one lifetime. That way you’ll always have something ahead of you. I made the mistake of setting my goals too low and now I’m having a hard time coming up with new ones.”

I then remembered one of my school headmaster who once told me: “Not failure, but low aim is crime”. It has remained with me since then, and continues to inspire me.

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