Subba’s Serendipitous moments

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

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 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 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.

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?

July 16, 2009

Accept your true self and be happy.

A plum once said, just because a banana lover came by, I converted myself into a banana. Unfortunately, his taste changed after a few months and so I became an orange. When he said I was bitter I became an apple, but he went in search of grapes. Yielding to the opinions of so many people, I have changed so many times that I no more know who I am. How I wish I had remained a plum and waited for a plum lover.

Just because a group of people do not accept you as you are, there is no necessity for you to strip yourself of your originality. You need to think good of yourself, for the world takes you at your own estimate. Never stoop down in order to gain recognition. Never let go of your true self to win a relationship. In the long run, you will regret that you traded your greatest glory – your uniqueness, for momentary validation. Even Gandhi was not accepted by many people. The group that does not accept you as you is not your world.

There is a world for each one of you, where you shall reign as king / queen by just being yourself. Find that world… in fact, that world will find you.

What water can do, gasoline cannot and what copper can, gold cannot. The fragility of the ant enables it to move and the rigidity of the tree enables it to stay rooted. Everything and everybody has been designed with a proportion of uniqueness to serve a purpose that we can fulfill only by being our unique self. You as you alone can serve your purpose and I as I alone can serve my purpose.

You are here to be you… just you.

There was a time in this world when a Krishna was required and he was sent; a time when a Christ was required and he was sent; a time when a Mahatma was required and he was sent; a time when a Einstein was required and he was sent. There came a time when you were required on this planet and hence you were sent. Let us be the best we can be. Don’t miss yourself and let the world not miss you.

In the history of the universe, there has been nobody like you and to the infinite of time to come, there will be no one like you. Existence should have loved you so much that it broke the mould after making you, so that another of your kind will never get repeated. You are original. You are rare. You are unique. You are a wonder. You are a masterpiece. .. your Master’s piece. Celebrate your Uniqueness.

June 27, 2009

In Government spin zone

In the times we live, the quality of a first rate mind is to be able to identify spin. The only negative side effect is that in the process one gets labeled as cynical. What was once purely seen as creating an image to put a sheen on performance, has now degenerated into an orchestrated spin often to substitute performance.

The best way to do spin on a co-operating and conniving media is to use data. Since the art of spin was invented in the U.S. let’s start there:

The data dished out indicates that continuous claims for unemployment benefits dropped. The naive reader would be led to believe that job creation is happening and unemployment is declining. The reality however is that once continuous claims are made, the recipients drop out of the claims rolls. This is confirmed by my economist friend — Dr. Ananth in his column as well. So, the drop in unemployment claims has nothing to do with generating jobs. This disclaimer is not stated even in the fine print.

The US non-farm economy lost only 345,000 jobs in May though it was expected to lose 500,000. One just inflates the “expected” figures and when the real number comes it is seen as better than expected, notwithstanding the fact that even the real numbers are high.

The flurry of visits to China by important officials in the Obama administration goes beyond the apparent significance. The US Treasury Secretary’s visit and before that the U.S. Foreign Secretary’s visit reiterating their U.S. was committed to a strong U.S. dollar is laughable. This is crude spin at best.

The U.S. is the biggest debtor and China has no choice but to accumulate U.S. dollar assets and suffer erosion of value as its currency is pegged to the U.S. dollar. As long as U.S. outsources its manufacturing to China, and as long as vested interests dictate that China’s economy has to be export driven, a weak U.S. dollar serves both sides. The U.S. keeps asking China to revalue its currency is nothing but a meaningless side show. Another case of spin.

The reality is that job creation in the U.S. since 2000 has been very low, and yet to keep the economy expanding the interest rates were kept low which created the asset bubble. We saw the repercussions of the asset bubble. Despite the bubble and the meltdown, China didn’t seize the opportunity to build a domestic economy. It simply increased the export rebates and boosted manufacturing capacity. Making the shift from export driven economy (which helped China taste success) to a domestic economy is akin to making the step from a state led economy to a market led economy. The present Chinese ruling elite has chosen to postpone the inevitable.

So, to keep up with the fact that Governments are doing something and that the economy is recovering we are entering the “spin zone”. Markets have rallied sharply since March 2009 and this is often cited as saying that all the stimulus spending is working. President Obama’s stimulus may become the cause of another bubble.

However if there’s more transparency and if the governments follow the principles of Government 2.0, by sharing all data and empowering citizens, it would be hard pressed to reveal the truth and curtail the spin.

Investors like bubbles. Media, to be relevant loves them. And Governments these days are too willing to generate one. And did I say that getting firmly entrenched in the “spin zone” and expanding the zone is often the first step.

I would certainly like to hear about the other spins that the Government puts across.

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?

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