Subba’s Serendipitous moments

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.

July 1, 2009

Social network for Government 2.0

Government 2.0 is clearly gaining momentum. I just stumbled on a social network platform to discuss government 2.0 initatives. GovLoop is the Premier Social Network for Government 2.0 connecting over 12,500 Federal, State, Local, Academics, and Good Contractors.

This is what I call tapping the wisdom of the crowd something that I have been strongly advocating. Some prefer to call it crowdsourcing.

Australia launches Gov 2.0. Will Singapore follow?

Another major country with pronounced democratic traditions and openness has set up a Government 2.0 task force. They rightly describe the opportunities that current technology provides, The current change in media behavior and habits is again seen as an opportunity not as a threat. The enthusiasm is clearly visible and the charter for the task force is clearly ambitious and could serve as an inspiration to other governments.

Many of the points made resonate strongly with me and I have written about it here and here. I only hope that Singapore also embraces this and does it soon.

I call it the inevitable path, because if people in government don’t wake up, the citizens will find some methods of forcing it to happen.

May 25, 2009

Managing change

Peter Drucker in a conversation with Peter Senge said, ‘Every organization will have to become a change leader. You can’t manage change. You can only be ahead of it. You can only make it.’

How true it is. Let us be ahead of ‘change.’

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.

February 25, 2009

It’s the perception, stupid!

Most decision making processes pay a disproportionate emphasis on the aspect of analysis after one has made an assessment of the situation.

In fact the more important the decision, the more sophisticated the analytical tools.

That by itself is not wrong. However what is wrong is that spectacular errors in decision making can occur not because the analytical tools are inadequate, but our perception tools are! In fact, I blogged about decision frames borne out of perception here

The recent crisis amply  illustrates why:

  1. Even the highly respected Alan Greenspan admitted that he made a mistake by assuming that self-interest would enable banks to protect their own share holders.
  2. Few people are even aware of the perception biases. Looking at and perceiving the world is an active iterative process of creating meaning. This process is dynamic and often it shapes the subsequent steps in the decision making chain including the choice of analytical tools.
  3. Like perception bias, we also suffer from some form of selection bias. There’s a strong predisposition to see data that confirm our biases and ignore data that contradicts them. We also seem to emphasize recent events than historical events when anticipating the future outcomes.
  4. We also seek refuge in the majority. Just because a majority hold a particular view is no proxy that they have to be right. Often a majority is caused by a social contagion and they tend to avoid facing the “Black Swan” moment. And as the crisis has shown, the majority need not be correct.
  5. We need to understand human motivation for sure. Rewards and penalties are one axis to monitor human behavior, but there’s another equally important axis that has been given less importance. The better we understand how fear and greed are represented at an individual level and how they respond to specific externalities, we would be able to avoid crisis. It more important for Type A personalities than Type B personalities.

So are there any ways to improve perception tools?

  1. First, there has to be humble admission that we have limitations and flaws in the way we think about a given situation.
  2. There has to be a more open and backwardly integrated communication of how we arrived at a particular assessment or how we ‘manufactured’ meaning as we saw the situation. Such a communication helps us to uncover the biases.
  3. Every feedback mechanism should be “de-politicized” so as to uncover inconvenient facts.
  4. I am actively looking for more perception tools, since I have long been convinced that better perception is superior to better analysis.

One of the approaches that I have adopted to improving my own perspective is to “sleep on it” for a while.

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June 4, 2007

How does this committee perform?

Filed under: Business,Leadership — Subbaraman Iyer @ 9:49 pm
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Just came across the fact that Citigroup’s Senior management committee has 112 members. I wonder how does this committee function, how it holds their meetings, manage expectations and arrive at decisions.

The list of members in the committee can be found here

By the way, the papal conclave which manages the Roman Catholic church has 118 members.

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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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