Subba’s Serendipitous moments

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.

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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

September 23, 2009

Netflix’s “crowdsourcing” approach is a success

I have been following Netflix unique experiment to improve its Web site’s movie recommendation system. This week Netflix announced the winner of a three year contest with the winner BellKore comprising of statisticians, computer scientists, data mining experts netting a cool million dollars.

The rules of the competition was fairly straightforward. The qualification for the prize was that the winning team has to improve by at least 10% the prediction of what movies customers would like as measured against the actual ratings. The teams were grappling with a huge data set of more than 100 million movie ratings.

Over the past three years there have been 44,014 entries from 5,169 teams in 186 countries vying for the top prize

I think with this experiment and with Google’s experiment with crowdsourcing described here, there will be a significant shift towards innovation management. The fact that there exists more intelligence and wisdom and the collective effort outside the company’s eco-system has gained credibility. I expect many such organizations embarking on the contest mode to solve intractable problems.

There are a number of lessons that this contest brings about.

First, it indicates that there can be a marketplace for innovation where companies could post their product development challenges and for an interesting contest, the best brains are willing to compete. It sharpens their own abilities.

Second as the BellKore team and other teams demonstrated there is a willingness for disparate people to actively collaborate. While cooperation and collaboration within many organizations has been challenging, I wonder how such disparate people could come together and collaborate easily for a bigger goal.

Third, for people who believed in having an inhouse R&D and saw that as a competitive advantage, this experiment seeks to blow that myth away.

Note: Netflix Prize 2 would challenge competitors to recommend movies based on demographic and behavioral data.

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.

September 1, 2009

Wikipedia wrestles with a growth and direction dilemma

Wikipedia has been an unqualified success of this decade. It is just not the product but the way they have created it. They spawned a new ideology, a new culture. In fact several enterprises have started to develop their content management and even the knowledge management practices around a wiki model.

However Wikipedia itself faces a deep dilemma about its growth and direction.

It started off as an encyclopedia from voluntary contributors and complete freedom to improve the content. Now, in its latest announcement it will impose an editorial review on articles. So, now the notion that everyone can change the entries is no longer true. In my view this is inevitable. A great ability to influence has to be accompanied by an equal amount of responsibility.

Currently they are doing a review about their culture and growth direction. I am particularly pleased that they are doing that because one of their commitments was to give a free encyclopedia to the world in possibly every language. They clearly seem to have lost sight of that.

The interesting thing is that Jimmy Wales — the man who created this movement and now an iconic figure is most critical about the direction itself.

Unlike corporations, Wikipedia is run by a Foundation which means that they have followers wedded to a particular cause. Changing the growth trajectory is not simply a matter of a CEO or the Board making a decision, but they would need to carry the thousands of volunteers with them — no easy task.

This would be an interesting organizational change to watch and learn from.

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 25, 2009

Singapore’s research institutes — suffering from split personality?

Is there a synergy between advanced technology R&D and standard training to mid career professionals so that they could garner yet another certification?

Or is it merely a case of making some revenues to cover their costs?

Or worse still, is it a way for the R&D institute to do some “notional national service” when there’s no local company to use the outputs produced by the R&D organization?

The strategies adopted by Singapore’s R&D institutions especially in the IT sector has always confounded me. The latest one is the Data Storage Institute and while on the one hand they claim they do cutting edge research, they are also offering standard training courses which can lead to industry certification (SNIA).

The milestones listed doesn’t talk about any breakthroughs in research or development but merely administrative or routine events. Has DSI lost it completely?

Well as an organization, sure they have resources to do both, but should they be doing both in the first place?

The data storage industry has changed significantly over the years and if DSI doesn’t find a clear and compelling reason to exist, they should redirect their strengths somewhere. It seems to me that there’s a huge disconnect between their areas of research and the aspirations of the local industry. The result — it is research for research sake and if at all there’s any benefit, it is for the MNCs who in any case can source such research from anywhere in the world.

This leads to the question — Does DSI have a compelling reason to exist?

Long timers in Singapore would possibly recognize that the Institute of Systems Science or ISS as it was popularly known had always a confused identity– It was a research institute, training institute, did consulting projects and many other things. It used multiple identities to its advantage sometimes, but despite being given dollops of dollars, it didn’t produce anything outstanding — be in in research, consulting or training. Finally it divested its research activities and became a training service provider. It does provide good training, but the courses it offers can be provided by any training service provider in the private sector.

Looks like DSI is going the same way as ISS?

Sometime back I wrote that Singapore’s research and development needs a rethink. It led to several interesting discussions amongst friends and quite a few work in the R&D sector. The surprising thing is that they do agree that it needs a rethink.

So, when will this happen?

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