Subba’s Serendipitous moments

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.

September 1, 2009

At Telstra you get a bonus for delayed IT projects

Welcome to the Telstra’s compensation model.

Greg Winn, the Sol Trujillo-appointed chief operating officer of Telstra until February 2009, was paid a bonus of $2.2 million for outcomes related to the delivery of the carrier’s IT transformation, which has since been revealed to be running $200 million over budget. Read the details here.

What’s interesting is that despite it running over $200 million over budget ( the project was supposed to save $100 million a year in IT expenses), the CIO feels satisfied that many of the objectives of the five year transformation was achieved.

David Thodey — the Telstra’s CEO believes a $200 million overspend should be considered a good result, considering the awful experiences other industries have had attempting an IT transformation.

“I do not know of a better IT transformation,” he said. “I’ve never seen a transformation come in that well.”

I am wondering if this is Telstra’s compensation policy and if I can get a job there. I am also curious to study Telstra’s goal setting methods, budgeting process and their compensation model.

Last year, I was advising a IT services firm on the strategy approach to managing a business transformation program for one of their clients. Knowing the risk of such a program and the various dependencies, there was a discussion of how the compensation structure for the team should be built. While I didn’t have a hand at making the final recommendation, the consensus was that the bonus scheme should be weighted in favor of the benefits realization proposition. Benefits in this case was actual cost savings and hence the cost savings need to be computed, independently verified, communicated to the client who has to accept it. Only then could the bonuses be paid.

Ironically, the IT services firm has Telstra as one of their large accounts. I hope they don’t adopt the Telstra model.

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.


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.

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.

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.

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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June 13, 2007

Innovation at Apple

Filed under: Business,Innovation,Leadership,Model — Subbaraman Iyer @ 9:13 am
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The Economist has a great article on Apple and its model for innovation. Clearly some aspects of Apple’s innovation model stands out.

In fact, its real skill lies in stitching together its own ideas with technologies from outside and then wrapping the results in elegant software and stylish design.

Second, Apple illustrates the importance of designing new products around the needs of the user, not the demands of the technology.

Listening to customers is generally a good idea, but it is not the whole story. For all the talk of “user-centric innovation” and allowing feedback from customers to dictate new product designs, a third lesson from Apple is that smart companies should sometimes ignore what the market says it wants today.

The fourth lesson from Apple is to “fail wisely”.

While one can never deny that Apple can be counted as amongst the top innovation companies, they have been using a proprietary innovation model right from the beginning to their most recent product — the iPhone. Clearly a lot of developers have been asking that iPhone be opened up so that third party applications can be developed. Apple very deftly managed to side step the issue, by just launching Safari (the web browser) on the Windows platform. Developer access to the iPhone would be through the Safari, rather than releasing a iPhone SDK.

For one, the Web may be a better platform for application development, but by not opening up the iPhone SDK, the applications may not be multi-threaded and may even run slowly.

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