Subba’s Serendipitous moments

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?

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August 11, 2009

Mobile phones serve as catalysts for social media.

The mobile data services market is on an unprecedented roll. For the first time, wireless data revenue in the U.S. passed $10 billion in Q1 2009. Wireless data revenue in the U.S. itself maybe $42 billion by 2009 as per the respected analyst — Chetan Sharma who has provided details in his market update. The U.S. is now is the largest mobile data market, ahead of Japan and China. Verizon’s data revenues are close to $4 billion, just shy of NTT DoCoMo’s. The top four U.S. carriers figure among the top 10 global operators by way of mobile data service revenues.

I was curious to find out what could have led to the phenomenal surge. While there could be a few factors, in my view the single largest contributor has been the growth of social media. Let me explain:

As more and more people sign on to social networking platforms like Facebook, there is a compelling desire to share and be part of the communication. This naturally implies that more people are signing up for the mobile data plans which are far more profitable for operators. The key catalyst that contributes both to the social media and to the operator’s profit pool happens to be the ubiquitous mobile phone.

A simple, easy to use browser and a good camera on the phone is all that is needed. When the smart phone was invented, I bet no one saw this as a potential application. The iPhone showed what is possible and soon a variety of devices has made access to social media quite easy.

Now, mobile operators for a long time have tried to offer a variety of applications, but barring a few none took off. This only goes to show that managing a network and managing a application portfolio calls for different competencies. And suddenly when one was least expecting, there’s a big surge in mobile data services.

INQ Mobile — owned by Hutchinson Whampoa has launched a Facebook phone. In Hong Kong, where the INQ1 launched back in March, nearly 50 percent of its owners regularly use data services on a level that is four times higher than the typical 3G user base. Facebook usage is also 3-4 times higher than the average on other 3G devices on the 3 Hong Kong network, the company said. Soon we may have a Twitter phone as well.

So, we are back to where it all started: Carriers have become dumb pipes and the innovation is happening around the ends of the pipes — at the device level and at the application level.

So, like I normally say about innovation, the unintended effects of an innovation caused by seemingly disparate tributaries often causes a flood in an area that we least expected to happen.

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.


June 21, 2009

Will Singapore learn the lessons from the financial crisis?

Just finished reading Daniel Gross’s book, Dumb Money: How Our Greatest Financial Minds Bankrupted the Nation. It is available as an e-book too. It is a book that I recommend to all executives and civil servants who are responsible for developing policy and strategy because it is important to place emphasis on perception tools as much as we do for analytical tools. There are similarities between the actors in the dumb money operation and in the Singapore civil service.

Dan writes:

“The Dumb Money creed rested on four pillars: perpetually low interest rates, perpetually rising asset prices (especially for housing), borrowers of all types remaining perpetually current, and perpetually strong markets for debt. The high priests of this cult were the nation’s central bankers.

In 2007 and 2008, each of the pillars of Dumb Money began to crumble. The rules of physics still applied to finance. Interest rates, it turned out, could rise. Asset prices could, indeed, fall. Borrowers, having seen no income growth in a decade, fell behind on their debts. All of which helped cause the markets for securitizing debt and derivatives to break down”

The people who blew up the system weren’t anarchists. They were members of the club: central bankers and private-equity honchos, hedge-fund geniuses and Ph.D. economists, CEOs and investment bankers. And the (overwhelmingly legal) con they perpetuated on themselves, their colleagues, their shareholders and creditors, and, ultimately, on us taxpayers makes Madoff’s sins look like child’s play.”

Looking back, the investors who believed the stories told by Madoff and Stanford—that they could deliver steady, positive, market-beating returns in any type of climate, despite the manifest failure of virtually every other money manager to do so—were obviously foolish. But our best financial minds also spun tales and theories with great assurance, making seemingly irrational and unprecedented activity seem completely sensible. And we bought them.”

So, Why do the best and brightest get it so wrong? One easy way to explain it is here.

The arrogance of power. Combine that with great wealth, quick progress, a group think syndrome, limited thinking style and big responsibility at a relatively immature age and you have a potent mix. It invariably leads to hubris. Hubris was typically responsible for the downfall of heroes in Greek tragedy.

In addition, people in positions of great power and/or wealth will often interact primarily with people like them, both at work and in their social life, most of whom share a similar world view. They start believing that they are the only ones who understand what is going on and what needs to be done. Everyone who disagrees with them is just plain wrong or worse downright stupid. When problems occur, they tend to circle the wagons and become even more isolated.

Now Singapore’s civil servants are intelligent people, but they have become ensconced in their ivory towers. There is too much group think and there is rarely a marketplace where ideas compete. Most Ministers and civil servants come from the same elitist institutions and often have a tendency to very much function like a club. I do not know how much debate happens during the cabinet meetings, but after observing Parliament proceedings closely I have rarely seen a good debate or alternate viewpoints being pursued.

More importantly, having seen civil servants and executives in Ministries and statutory boards interact, the “group think” syndrome just continues to strengthen because they don’t want to be left out of the club. Worse, any alternate view is interpreted as a challenge to the authority, not just to a point of view. Has kowtowing the superior become the SOP (standard operating procedure) or is it a “survive and grow” strategy or worse the natural default behavior? With so many Minsters and civil servants coming from the military side, I would not be surprised if compliance fetches a better premium than creativity.

The Singapore media has never had a track record of triggering new ideas or debating current ideas. It has always served to propagate official thinking and giving it a spin.

Now, can the top honcho always get it correct? And what’s the risk of his reading the situation wrong or coming up with the sub-optimal solution? I shudder to think.

If the financial crisis has one thing to teach the Singapore government and civil service, it is that systemic failures of massive proportions are possible. And the best and the brightest (in Singapore they are judged when they are 18 years old based predominantly by their school leaving scores) with their group think cannot be the fountainhead of wisdom.

Wisdom and government dominance have been strange bedfellows. And incompatible too.

June 16, 2009

Why do smart people do stupid things?

This has always been intriguing. I always thought that it was perhaps the smart people do things on the spur of the moment. Courtesy my friend Shekhar Gupta, I understood that intelligence and rationality are different. Once one understand this concept, it is easy to understand why smart people can do stupid things.

Think of the mind as having 3 parts:

Autonomous mind that engages in problematic cognitive shortcuts or “Type-1” processing. The mind jumps to the first available solution automatically and without any conscious control.

Algorithmic mind that engages in Type -2 processing — the slow laborious thinking, often leading to analysis paralysis.

Reflective mind that decides when to make do with the judgments of the autonomous mind and when to call the algorithmic mind.

The reflective mind determines how rational a person is. When and how one’s reflective mind springs into action is determined by a number of behavioral attributes including whether one is dogmatic, flexible, open minded and so so. Most importantly it also depends on whether one has fixed mindset or a growth mindset.

An inflexible mindset or a fixed mindset person has trouble assimilating new information and hence invariably ends up force fitting the problem to the solution that he has in his head. And then even though he is smart, he is lazy to find a better solution.

This article provides a succinct analysis. For a thought provoking analysis I strongly recommend reading Carol Dweck’s book. It is bound to influence any thinker. For a very entertaining yet thought provoking book that can significantly change your perspective, I recommend reading Dan Ariely’s book — Predictably irrational.

Have you known of any smart thinkers doing stupid things?

May 24, 2009

Singapore and Israel — a study of contrasts

I had a chance meeting with a NUS don and we ended up discussing my post on whether East Asia can produce a Susan Boyle. While remaining neutral about the arguments that I put forth, he mentioned the reason about Singapore being “small”.

I have heard the argument of Singapore being “small” ad nauseam. Singapore uses that as a convenient excuse whenever there’s a short coming or if they have to justify any hard measure to contain order. They also use it to explain away many of the things where they have come short. But, if you turn around and ask them how Singapore achieved some wonderful things in specific areas despite its small size, the discussion has veered off into a different direction.

Size and stability may be good, but lack of size and stability is not a deterrent to be successful. This reminds me of the famous lines in the old classic The Third Man: ” For 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love and 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

To serious skeptics, I usually cite Israel (population of 7.2 million) as an example.

Israel since its independence in 1948 has fought a several wars with its neighbors. It is always in a state of military preparedness. Yet it ranks highest in terms of human development, freedom of the press and economic competitiveness amongst Middle East countries. It is a parliamentary democracy and the average span of Israeli government of 22 months. The governments have often changed for a number of reasons — political scandals, peace process with their neighbors and the role of religion. It has the highest level of civil and human rights comparable to any Western world democracy and the freedom of press has been ranked highest amongst the Southwest regions.

Economically it is rated 3rd in the World Economic Forum’s Global competitiveness report. It has the 2nd largest number of startups after the US and the most number of companies listed in NASDAQ. Many of the large technology vendors like IBM, Microsoft, Cisco have advanced development centers in Israel.

Contrary to the Singaporean thinking, the Israelis have used the small size of Israel as an advantage. A Israeli start up knows that is home market is limited and hence function as a “mini-multinational” from day one. A surprising thing among Israelis is that they are never scared of failure and if 5% of the start ups in US are headed by repeat entrepreneurs, in Israel the ratio is well over around 30%.

Now coming to creative arts, Israel music has influences from all over the world. The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra has been operating for over 70 years and performs over 200 concerts each year. It also has a vibrant theatre scene.

How does one explain these successes in so many diverse fields despite its size and lack of peace? My view is their ability to be an inclusive society and they valuing diversity. All Jews irrespective of their lineage are welcome and they constitute 75% of the population. Muslims are the largest minority and it equally welcomes Christians.

The difference between Singapore and Israel was neatly summed up by Guy Kawasaki in one of his recent visits to Singapore. He called Singapore an one-opinion town. His precise words were: Israel has 5 million people, six million entrepreneurs, and fifteen million opinions. Singapore has 5 million people, six entrepreneurs and one opinion. Yesterday Lydia Lim a political correspondent from Straits Times referred to this difference, but only to defend Singapore and make a statement that Singapore has more than one opinion.

Her effort was painstaking, but what she ended up doing was only to reinforce the Singapore’s stability mantra which gives the society the order, but fails to deliver the innovation and creativity that Singapore badly needs in these times of global slowdown.

May 20, 2009

Can a Susan Boyle happen in East Asia?

My learned friend Ananth put this question to his email group. His precise question was: Can Susan Boyle, (58 million views on YouTube), Julian Smith and Diversity happen spontaneously / organically in East Asian societies?

Here’s my answer to him and I just thought I would post it here as well:

I don’t think it can happen spontaneously / organically in East Asian societies. Let me try to deal at 2 levels: — The nature of East Asian society and the issue of culture and specifically creativity.

For such things to happen, society needs to be a genuine melting pot. East Asia may have immigrants, but the practice of assimilation and morphing of identities is only residual. Cultural pluralism may exist on the surface, but politicians and institutions have often curbed growth because they felt the need to retain control or sometimes even believed that they need to architect society, and hence have never allowed cross-cultural pollination to take place freely. Hegemonic practices have often imposed covert forces on the sections of society which have lived on the edge and tried to dominate them. In Western societies there is a not merely an appreciation of diversity, but a collective conscious to make it inclusive.

Now one aspect of spontaneity and organic growth is that it should be possible to have keen debate, not dumb reverence for just great personalities; historical consciousness and self-reflection not adherence to supposedly timeless values; and a continual expansion of a societal canon to match a necessarily unsettled sense of who we are and what we care about. East Asian societies in its singular adherence to Confucian thinking has led to creating a hierarchical and often authoritarian social constructs which has curbed spontaneity. Now add to that, the sheer fixation on commerce and materialism becoming a prime pursuit, it is natural to see less emphasis on experimentation and spontaneity.

Culture is not a package of knowledge, attitudes and customs which can be parceled up, handed over to the child and then passed on intact to the next generation as seem to be the general thinking in East Asia. It has to take deep roots and often allowed to find its own flow.

There is a dialectic between culture and learning which in turn is a manifestation of spontaneity and growth. Creativity thrives when the social substratum has been enriched with diverse experiences and perspectives. And such diversities occasionally produce creative conflicts. East Asian societies have often shunned anything that could even remotely produce a conflict and placed a (undue) premium on compliance.

Now coming more specifically to creative minds (the Susan Boyle of the world), immersion in an environment of cultural ferment is more likely to fuel the selection process. Pablo Picasso is a case in point. He borrowed, stole, and assimilated his way and produced over 20,000 works of art in varying styles because there was a deep cultural ferment during his time. Being surrounded to by contemporary creators often inspires even marginally talented people to attain heights well above what they could possibly achieve in isolation. The individual genius often flowers through cultural interaction.

Creative people by their innate nature often tend to have wider interests and are open to more varied influence. They thrive on ambiguity and have varied interests. They are non conforming and independent minded. They have the capacity to expose themselves to a full range of cultural variants available in their milieu and then choose to adopt a unique subset that develops their talent. In East Asia such creative people do not have much opportunity and hence even if there existed such people, they tend to migrate to environments where their nature is better appreciated.

People have often asked me both seriously and causally about whether India or China can produce the next Google or Facebook. My answer is the same — The chances are very low, because while Indians or Chinese may be smart engineers; the kind of business thinking that needs to envision something novel is not there.

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.

March 13, 2009

Play, not persistence drives innovation

Filed under: Business,Innovation,Model — Subbaraman Iyer @ 5:03 pm
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The spirit driving innovation is undoubtedly complex. And these drivers vary depending a lot on the individual’s motivations, the overall context of the problem. Some innovations happen through painstaking effort, some occur due to serendipity and some occur due to a certain “fun process”.

If you analyze the major breakthroughs that we have seen and some of the significant innovations that led to great products, it has been because there was an interesting and intertwined relationship between passion and play. There was persistence, but in the absence of passion and the element of play, the dogged persistence served little purpose.

In an interesting article, Microsoft Research Principal Scientist Bill Buxton suggests some important ways to innovate.

He suggests that it is always better to be a beginner at something and always be in love with the thing that you are beginning.

The energy to be passionate can be addictive, and you need the balance.

When you get good in a skill, make room for a new passion.

You can learn from anyone.

And finally innovation comes about by sustaining the passion, curiosity, delight, energy and enthusiasm of the beginner with the wisdom and experience of the expert.

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May 9, 2008

A leader should know how to manage failures

shri-kalamjis-interview-with-knowledgewharton_030408Dr. Abdul Kalam was undoubtedly the best President that India had.

He talks about the 6 key qualities of leadership and gives praise to his own boss –for the way he handled failure.

His 6 key lessons of leadership:

  1. When failure occurs, the leader of the organization owns the failure

  2. When success comes the leader gives it to the team

  3. Leaders should have the courage to make decisions

  4. Leaders should have nobility in management

  5. Every action of the leader should be transparent

  6. Leaders should work with integrity and succeed with integrity.

He gives complete credit to Prof Satish Dhawan – the Chairman of ISRO of how he took responsibility for the SLV-3 failure. Typical of Dr. Kalam to be unassuming in how he handled the failure himself. I have it from a very authoritative source of how he himself handled the SLV-3 failure. After the failed launch, many of the scientists (including my mother’s cousin)were shocked, embarrassed and some even traumatized. Few even wept. Dr. Kalam himself was apparently quite shocked initially, but retained his composure. 2 days after the failure, he started meeting the project teams in groups and told them that it was a bad failure, but one could easily learn from it. His only instruction to the project teams for the following month’s review meeting was that everyone should discuss what they learnt from the failure. And that note would not go into the official files. He would cut any discussion short if the discussion moved in the direction of blaming other groups.

He didn’t change the project teams though there were a number of suggestions that the team be reconstituted with some members of the team responsible for the failure be dropped. He said only if he were to be removed from his position as Project Director (a request that he made to Prof Satish Dhawan himself, which was declined) then the teams could be reconstituted.

Despite the failure, he trusted the team. His management style didn’t change. In fact at some point when the scientists felt nervous, he was always there to encourage them and his simple message to them, was to do their best and what they thought was to be right.

Subsequently, some of the scientists got transferred to DRDO and worked under him in the missile program. And that included some of the scientists and engineers who had erred in judgment during the SLV -3 program. He just didn’t hold their failures against them.

His short poem is a remarkable case of simplicity and clarity. He writes:

Learning gives creativity

Creativity leads to thinking

Thinking provides knowledge

Knowledge makes you great.

Another instance of simplicity, clarity and profound wisdom:

“Peace comes from strength, because strength respects strength.

His interview at Knowledge@Wharton is another gem! To read, see the attached pdf file.

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