Wednesday, May 13, 2009

i-TFTD #204: Planned Opportunism

i-TFTD #204: Planned Opportunism

Planned opportunism is about responding to chance events
Prof Vijay Govindarajan on how chance events have shaped his career, not least his latest assignment at GE as chief innovation consultant
by D. Murali and N.S. Vageesh

Excerpts from (highlights mine)

Look at your careers! Fundamental changes have happened because of chance events. Life always changes because of chance events. But how you respond to a chance event is anything but chance. That's the planned part.

The planned part is about self-knowledge. In Hinduism, that is the highest form of knowledge. Most of us don't understand who we are, what our passions are, what our capabilities and competencies and skill sets are, what we want to achieve in life. If we understand ourselves, then we are confident when taking a risk on a chance event. We see thousands of chance events every day – but we don't act on every one of them. The ones we act on are related to our self-knowledge.

I'll give an example of planned opportunism in my life. I did my CA – one of the reference texts was a book by a Professor Anthony of Harvard Business School. The first line in that book on accounting was, "Accounting is not a technical subject. Accounting influences human behaviour!" I thought, "Wow! I always thought accounting was boring – debits and credits." It had a profound impact on me. I still remember, I decided that day – I must go to HBS – do an MBA, study under professors like this.

That was a chance event – but it fundamentally changed who I am. Many times, there are things you create indirectly. It's a combination of chance events and intentional choices that shapes one's life. That is why you can never plan fully. But unless you invest in capabilities, and unless you build skills that shape your life, you won't be ready for the random events that you come across.

Jeff Immelt, Chairman and CEO of GE had come to Dartmouth to give a talk at our commencement a couple of years ago. When he came, I requested half-an-hour with him – I always do that to find what I can learn from these personalities. In the course of the conversation, I told him about what I was working on – the three-box approach to strategy. Something I said then must have clicked in his mind. About two years ago, when I wrote the "10 rules for strategy innovators", I sent him a manuscript and asked him if he would care to endorse the book. I never thought I would get a response because he could be getting millions of requests for favours. To my great surprise, I got a handwritten note saying, "I would be happy to do it after I read it." Probably something about our earlier conversation triggered this response.

Now I'll come to the interesting part. Jeff wants to leave a legacy of innovation as his stamp on the organisation. The focus is going to be on organic growth. You can imagine, if a company that is $175 billion grows at 10 per cent, they would be adding something like a Nike every year. Jeff decided that he would place bets on six areas. When GE places bets, it places big bets. The six areas he identified were: Environment, demographics, digital technologies, infrastructure, emerging markets, and liquidity.

If you take environment, the biggest challenges are water scarcity and global warming. If you take demographics, the biggest challenge is an ageing population and rising healthcare costs. GE is now looking at how it can use its competencies to build breakthrough models to address these mega trends.

GE decided to invite an academic to push their thinking. Only a great company wants to do even better – and has self-confidence to say – 'I can listen to others. I don't have all the answers'. I am not there to tell them what to do. It is more to accelerate their thought process. Sometimes it is good to bring an outsider and get his perspective to just question the logic and push their thinking. Hopefully, I'll create a teachable set of lessons, which they can disseminate to others.

When I got a call six months ago, I asked for two seconds to think about it. I jumped at it. It is a great honour. The sheer symbolism – GE is a big company with big resources and they can go after anybody they want – was good. The takeaways are phenomenal.

First, the opportunity to learn. I am getting a front-row seat in a company that is solving a lot of basic problems. And because I am embedded in the company, I'll see things which I'll not see even if I go there as a researcher or educator. I had been to Boca Raton, Florida for four days (January 2 to 6). It is a tradition at GE, where the top 600 executives get their heads together and plan for the future. There were 40 business presentations. It was extremely confidential. I was part of it. These guys were laying out the big issues and challenges and giving you distilled wisdom. I took 30 pages of things I learned in four days.

The second benefit is the potential for converting this experience into articles and books – of course after clearance from GE. The third is reputation. I believe that the institution you are part of always casts a shadow – good or bad. I have a brand. That will get strengthened.

This is almost the same feeling I had when I went to Harvard to do an MBA. I didn't know what good things would happen after that – but I knew good things would happen. It would open up a whole set of possibilities. I am a student – a learner. That's the posture I am taking. The experience has been fabulous.

Like CK Prahalad, Ram Charan, Bala Balachandran and the late Sumantra Ghoshal, Vijay Govindarajan is one of many modern management gurus who easily blend their Indian origin with a global perspective. I loved his self-confidence in making a big career decision after taking "two seconds to think about it" and his humility in taking the posture of a student.

I have had the privilege of conducting over 45 sessions of something I call Strengths Workshop in the past 12 months. The audience is usually a mixture of software developers, project managers, staff from diverse functions and senior managers with over 20 years of work experience. The younger participants start off with an eager mind to learn when I say that the strengths-based approach is a foundation tool for your entire work life. Some of the experienced folk start off in a slightly sceptical mode but by the end of the workshop, all of them assure me that this is an energizing tool. The essence of the strengths-based approach is that our innate talents (traits) have to be identified and channelized into strengths, thereby leading to excellence and career success. Regardless of your role and organization, your strengths and talents can and should be utilized for progress.

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