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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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 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 6, 2009

Understanding competition — the Bill Gates way

I thought that I had analyzed the levels and degrees of competition fairly comprehensively. In fact, I have used that as an organizing framework to understand competitive advantage.

Recently a friend of mine sent me an excerpts of an interview with Bill Gates when he was still the CEO of Microsoft which makes interesting reading.

Flying on the Delta Shuttle with Bill Gates 12 years ago, Richard Karlgaard– the Editor of Forbes asked Bill, “What Microsoft competitor worries you most?”

“Goldman Sachs.” Richard gave Gates a startled look. Was Microsoft about to try the investment banking business? “Software,” he said, “is an IQ business. Microsoft must win the IQ war, or we won’t have a future. I don’t worry about Lotus or IBM, because the smartest guys would rather come to work for Microsoft. Our competitors for IQ are investment banks such as Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley.”

Getting the brightest bulbs to work at Microsoft has always been his obsession. It’s paid off. But what about now?

The best and the brightest want to work for companies like Google and Facebook. Microsoft seems to be losing the talent war. And does that explain why Microsoft has not made any ground shifting move in recent years yielding that terrain to Google and others?

Microsoft is caught in a classic dilemma of its own making. Its major revenue and profit streams continue to be Windows and Office which needs to be defended at all costs against young new attackers. Now will the smartest guys want to work for a organization where they would have to defend legacy or want to take a crack at changing the world?

The answer is obvious.

Unless you are a Singapore government scholar who has no choice but to work in the Singapore civil service because of the scholarship bond that you sign when you are 18 years old.

July 1, 2009

The U.S. Government’s dashboard — Elegant and simple

After Vivek Kundra launched the open access to U.S. government data he has now launched a new U.S. government dashboard that tracks the U.S. government spending.. This tracks government spending with charts and lists ranking the largest government contractors (Lockheed, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, etc.) and assistance recipients (Department of Healthcare Services, New York State Dept. of Health, Texas Health & Human Services Commission, etc.). Well, the site design is neat, user friendly but what took my breath away was the way the various trends that were displayed. Certainly they got inspired from gapminder.

This site has been built on Drupal– a open source content management software.

This clearly shows that the U.S. leads in transparency and even the Governments can innovate if they have the right leadership.

I strongly suggest all the Government CIOs visit the site.

Which other government will follow next?

June 18, 2009

What ails Singapore entrepreneurs?

I am not talking about the entrepreneur who sells red bun and starts yet another coffee shop. I am talking about technology entrepreneurs who create products, services, generate jobs and stimulate growth.

Singapore is probably the only country in the planet which has a Ministry of Entrepreneurship staffed by eminent and scholar Ministers. The first to head the Ministry in 2003 was Raymond Lim a Rhodes and a Colombo Plan scholar. Subsequently it was headed by Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan for a very short time before Lee Yi Shyan took over.

Despite such scholar Ministers, Singapore has had limited success as entrepreneurs and very less of technology and new media entrepreneurs. The Government has put in all kinds of incentives and generous funding.

My own assessment after having done some serious thinking is as follows:

  • Few angel investors or Series A investors
  • Start ups don’t collaborate and create partnership networks themselves
  • Start ups don’t think global – they depend too much on the local market
  • Big Singapore companies are not encouraging about start ups
  • Start ups build business the traditional way – Not disrupting anyone
  • They try to copy other successes blindly
  • Clearly no game changing ambition
  • Less idealistic, hence do not get the new business models.
  • Excessive focus on making money quickly – No big picture or long term picture in mind
  • Focus on sales, not on a compelling value proposition
  • Start ups don’t even do simple, free marketing – blogs, viral marketing etc.

James Chan has some interesting observations and I would agree with all of them.

Does anyone have anything to add to this?

Isn’t is a paradox that we were once a nation of entrepreneurs? Our forefathers from China and India arrived here without any support with barely to survive and set up businesses. Even today the Chinese and Indians have successfully set up businesses not just in their own countries, but all over the world.

Where and how have we lost the spirit?

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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