Wednesday, September 30, 2009

i-TFTD #221: Writers on Change and Action

i-TFTD #221: Writers on Change and Action

#221-1. Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.
-Nathaniel Hawthorne, writer (1804-1864)

221-2. All I ask is this: Do something. Try something. Speaking out, showing up, writing a letter, a check, a strongly worded e-mail. Pick a causethere are few unworthy ones. And nudge yourself past the brink of tacit support to action. Once a month, once a year, or just once.
-Joss Whedon, writer and film director (b. 1964)

221-3. Some humans would do anything to see if it was possible to do it. If you put a large switch in some cave somewhere, with a sign on it saying 'End-of-the-World Switch. PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH', the paint wouldn't even have time to dry.
-Terry Pratchett, novelist (b. 1948)

On the surface these quotes are unrelated: on planting and exploring, on action orientation and on stupidly mischievous tendencies. I like to relate seemingly unconnected things. The first quote underscores the importance of change of role, environment or knowledge domain in order to achieve growth. This applies especially to accomplished and experienced folk who tend to stay in a comfort zone. The second exhorts each of us to initiate such change if the organization or circumstances do not provide it in the natural course of events. The third could be seen as a word of caution against doing something for doing’s sake. It can also be a salute to the innate curiosity of humans. Isn’t that what has given us all of philosophy, science, innovation and any kind of progress?

 I have always been intrigued by the emphasis on roots. Long ago, I used to envy those who had knowledge of and pride in their belonging to well-known categories of communities identified by their own place of birth or that of their parents or grandparents. Or the profession of their ancestors. But I could never cultivate such a tribal instinctindeed, it diminished from negligible to zero to negative (i.e., anti-tribalistic preferences) as I read more of history and evolutionary biology. This topic deserves a longer article that I ought to write. For now, I am content with being a typical root-less, big-city-bred person who is biased favorably towards fusion, progress, novelty, globalization, modernization, the scientific spirit and even fresh perspectives on ancient universals.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

i-TFTD #220: Loosening Steering and Control

i-TFTD #220: Loosening Steering and Control

By Aries de Geus
Excerpt from a Mar-Apr 1997 article in HBR titled, The Living Company and a book of the same name

If long-term corporate health and survival across generations require a willingness to change the business portfolio, managers must heed the opinions and practices of other people. The organization must give people the space to develop ideas. They must have some freedom from control, from direction, and from punishment for failures. In other words, managers must! put the principle of tolerance into practice by taking risks with people and looking in new places in search of fresh ideas. Perhaps the best way to illustrate that notion is through the metaphor of rose gardening.

If you're a gardener, every spring you must decide how you will prune your roses: hard or long. Pruning hard means that you select three of the plant's strongest stems and cut them down to three or four growth buds. That technique forces the plant to channel all its resources into a relatively small number of growth buds. Why would you prune your roses in that way? Because you want the biggest roses in the neighborhood in June.

I don't prune hard. Why? Because it's a high-risk strategy. Where I live, the most terrible things can happen to my roses. I live on a hill, where night frosts in April or even early May are not uncommon. Also, many deer roam freely on the hill, and they love to eat rosebuds. If I prune hard and the nights are frosty and the deer are hungry, I might have no roses in June at all. So I prune long: I leave between five and seven stems on each plant, and on each stem I leave between five and seven growth buds. As a result, the plant is allowed to spread its resources over many growth buds. I have never had the biggest roses in the neighborhood, but I do have roses every June.

And something else happens when you prune long for a number of years: you get surprises. In two or three years, some of the spindlier stems have grown much stronger and have begun producing buds, and some of the old stems do not produce roses anymore. So what do you do? You remove the old stems and encourage the new ones. A tolerant pruning policy gradually renews the rose portfolio.

Synopsis of the above by Tom Peters in his book, Re-imagine!

The long-term fate of a rose garden depends on this decision of how to prune our roses. Pruning hard represents a policy of low tolerance and tight control. You force the plan to make the maximum use of its available resources, by putting them in the rose’s ‘core business’. Pruning hard is a dangerous policy in an unpredictable environment. The alternative is pruning longa policy of high tolerance. Tolerant pruning achieves two ends: (i) It makes it easier to cope with unexpected environmental changes (ii) It leads to a continuous restricting of the plant. The policy of tolerance admittedly wastes resources - the extra buds drain away nutrients from the main stem. But in an unpredictable environment this policy of tolerance makes the rose healthier. Tolerance of internal weakness, ironically, allows the rose to be stronger in the long run.

(Thanks to Anirudha Indurkar for sharing this.)

This is yet another management lesson borrowed from nature.

I would like to apply it in my area of interest: career planning and coaching.

Not only organizations, even as individuals we often have to make such tradeoffs in our career: between specialization and versatility, depth and breadth, vertical and lateral growth. My observation is that we do not always get to choose this as such but it is a useful way to analyze our past and then use it to nudge our career path in a desired direction. Depth and specialization has to be assigned priority in the initial stage in order to establish credibility! ! and achieve significant goals. This opens up more opportunities that we feel better equipped and confident to explore. Breadth and lateral moves make more sense at this point, though meteoric vertical rise is not necessarily bad for everyone. A shift puts us back into the learner mode and we need to focus and the cycle begins again.

Many of us seem to learn these fundamentals of career growth a bit too late. We aspire to becom
e generalists too early, thereby lacking the necessary depth of expertise, or we stay stuck comfortably in our so-called core competency for too long, making ourselves inflexible! and uncomfortable when circumstances demand change.

Friday, September 18, 2009

i-TFTD #219: Buzan's Bytes on the Brain

i-TFTD #219: Buzan's Bytes on the Brain

Nuggets gleaned from a participant at a seminar titled, "The Brainsmart Way to Surviving in a Changing New World" conducted yesterday in Mumbai by Tony Buzan, originator of Mind Maps and author of over 90 books:

-From the Age of Agriculture, humankind progressed to the Age of Industrialization, then to the Age of Information, then the Age of Knowledge but now, we have moved to the Age of Intelligence. The brain, as the manager of knowledge, needs to be managed now since information and knowledge have become easily accessible commodities. Notice the increasing frequency of magazine cover stories on the Human Brain in the past decade and a half

-While the brain does have specific regions with specialized functions, most of our thinking activities involve both hemispheres of the brain. Effectiveness is increased by synergetic utilization of different parts of the brain

-It is simplistic to characterize Einstein's thinking as left-brained (logical, analytical) and Leonardo da Vinci's as right-brained (visual, spatial imaginative) but these and many other great thinkers demonstrated ample use of both types of thinking. One commonality across Einstein, Newton and da Vinci is regular daydreaming!

-Many people say they are not good at drawing but that is due to a flaw in how we were taught. Everything else we have learnt as children (speaking, writing, arithmetic) involved imitating first and then giving freedom to make mistakes. Somehow when it comes to drawing, there is ridicule at the initial attempts, and copying is not encouraged

-Progress involves classifying and creating specialized branches of knowledge but we should not forget the reality of inter-connectedness.

Once, when narrating some anecdote from an early stage of my career, I mentioned that there was no Google or even Internet in those days, and a participant at the training programme wondered aloud, "Without Google, how could you do any work?!" Many of us have witnessed a dramatic tranformation in our work and lifestyle with the advent of the worldwide web but we rarely pause to consider whether it requires us to act differently with respect to our thinking habits.

Leonardo's notebooks were a mixture of textual notes and drawings. Einstein's "thought experiments" involved visualizing strange scenarios combined with reasoning.

Buzan's propounding the use of mind maps in any topic he covers can put off some people but he deserves credit for bringing such simple tools to widespread use.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

i-TFTD #218

i-TFTD #218

#218-1. I don't need a friend who changes when I change and who nods when I nod; my shadow does that much better.

(Thanks to Mona Cheriyan for sharing this.)

218-2. It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

(Thanks to Rajeev Shah for sharing this.)

218-3. A goal is not always meant to be reached, it often serves simply as something to aim at.
-Bruce Lee

(Thanks to Ankur Pandey for sharing this.)

True friendship rests more on a general sense of trust than agreeability. Note that trust here does not necessarily mean truth or honesty at all times.

Vivekananda, a person with a different background from Emerson, said the same thing in another context. He recommended leading a life of values and contemplation of the divine amidst the ordinary affairs of living in society as a better alternative to retiring to the mountainswhere,  of course, we will have no excuse for our mind wandering back to what we ran away from. I also recall Chinmayananda's hilariously explained commentary of Chapter 2 of The Gita, which says the perfect person stays awake where others are asleep and sleeps when others are awake.

Some i-TFTD readers tell me that they feel motivated on reading the good words of great people but somehow are unable to translate it into action in a sustained manner. Bruce Lee's quote above provides a useful perspective on this. We should keep aiming and trying, suddenly we may find the goal nearer. I like to believe that some of the ultimate goals are not even goals but useful goal posts. As a new addict of Nintendo Wii (it's not just a glorified video game), let me add a golf analogy: The flagstick is there to help the ball reach the green, not always to get into the hole.

Friday, September 11, 2009

i-TFTD #217: Personal Change is Tough

i-TFTD #217: Personal Change is Tough

Marshall Goldsmith is a great teacher who conveys practical tips based on solid experience in a humble manner that belies the fact that he is one of the world's leading executive coaches.

The short article below lists five traps people tend to fall into, when trying to make a personal change in behaviour. Notice how many times Marshall uses the word, "real". It would help to reflect on the example statements listed against each trap and whether we have ever spoken like that. I have highlighted a few statements that are worth savouring. The quoted CEO statement is superb. The Harvard column

I have included my comment on this post. I was glad to receive a good response, which is also pasted below.

Don't Give Up on Change
10:12 AM Friday September 4, 2009

(From Marshall Goldsmith's Ask the Coach column at at

Change takes longer than we think and the process is difficult. Acknowledging these facts can make your attempts more successful. My co-author Dr. Kelly Goldsmith, Assistant Professor of Marketing at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management, and I researched why people give up on their goals. We discovered that there are five common reasons. Understanding these roadblocks will help you apply some preventive medicine—and increase the odds that you won't fall into the same old traps.

1. Ownership ("I wasn't sure that this would work in the first place. I tried it out—it didn't do that much good. As I guessed, this was kind of a waste of time.")

The classic mistake made in leadership development, coaching, and self-help books is the promise that "This will make you better!" After years of experience in helping real leaders change real behavior in the real world, I have learned a hard lesson. Only you will make you better.

To have a real chance of success, you have to take personal ownership and have the internal belief that "This will work if, and only if, I make it work. I am going to make this work."

2. Time ("I had no idea that this process would take so long. I'm not sure it's worth it.")

Goal setters have a chronic tendency to underestimate the time needed to reach targets. In setting our goals for behavioral change, it's important to be realistic about the time we need to produce positive, lasting results. Habits that have taken years to develop won't go away in a week. Set time expectations that are 50% to 100% longer than you think you will need to see results—then add a little more.

3. Difficulty ("This is a lot harder than I thought it would be. It sounded so simple when we were starting out.")

The optimism bias of goal setters applies to difficulty as well as time. Not only does everything take longer than we think it will, but it also requires more hard work than we anticipate.

In setting goals, it's important to accept the fact that real change requires real work. Acknowledging the price for success in the beginning of the change process will help prevent the disappointment that can occur when challenges arise later.

4. Distractions ("I would really like to work toward my goal, but I'm facing some unique challenges right now. It might be better if I just stopped and did this at a time when things weren't so crazy.")

Goal setters have a tendency to underestimate the distractions and competing goals that will invariably appear throughout the year. A piece of advice that I give all of my coaching clients is: "I'm not sure what crisis will appear, but I'm almost positive that some crisis will appear."

Plan for distractions in advance. Assume that crazy is the new normal. You will probably be close to the reality that awaits.

5. Maintenance ("I think that I did actually try to change and get better, but I have let it slide since then. What am I supposed to do—work on this stuff the rest of my life?")

Once a goal setter has put in all of the effort needed to achieve a goal, it can be tough for him to face the reality of what's needed to maintain the new status quo. When one of my high-potential leaders asked his boss, the CEO, "Do I have to watch what I say and do for the rest of my career?" the CEO replied, "You do if you plan on ever becoming a CEO!"

Here are the cold, hard truths. Real change requires real effort. The "quick fix" is seldom a meaningful one. Distractions and things that compete for your attention are going to crop up—frequently. Changing any one type of behavior won't solve all of life's problems. And finally, any meaningful change will probably require a lifetime of effort.

Posted by Ganesh Ramakrishnan
September 7, 2009 7:00 AM

Long ago I heard about the four steps involved in any personal change: Awareness, Acceptance, Desire for Change, and Change (Action). The killer is that one can get stuck at any stage for years (or one's entire life)! In some situations when we are receptive, a trigger event can make us progress through the first three stages in a few seconds. A typical example is a remark from a loved one that suddenly focuses our attention on our unthinking reaction, which we instantly regret.

Many of the examples of top executives you have quoted elsewhere (e.g. "I am open to suggestions" while my subordinates don't think so) seem to be stuck in the awareness stage. Feedback and coaching could help with awareness. The next trap is denial. We find it easier to find fault with those who make us aware of something we ought to change.

Things are not necessarily easy after we surmount the acceptance hurdle. Some seem to consider it fashionable to say, "Well, this is who I am. Learn to accept it." Or, "We all have our faults." The simple answer to that is, "Do you care about the consequences?"

After all this, initiating and sustaining a changed behavior requires willpower, humility, and positive belief tempered with realism. Your five points brilliantly capture the traps to beware in this stage.

You caution against optimism bias. But a dose of optimism seems essential to even believe that one could change one's habitual behavior. I guess Balance and Flexibility (with uppercase 'B' and 'F') are universal prescriptions in all these matters.

Posted by Marshall Goldsmith
September 7, 2009 9:07 AM

Ganesh - Thank you for these thoughtful comments. I had never thought about it that way, but you are so correct. We can get 'stuck' in any phase for years. I like what you said about optimism. I agree optimism is wonderful - when it is combined with hard work!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

i-TFTD #216: On Strategy, Execution and Innovation

i-TFTD #216: On Strategy, Execution and Innovation

#216-1. The future is not a place to which we are going, it is a place we are creating. The paths to the future are not found but made, and the activity of making them changes both the maker and the destination.
-(variously attributed to John Schaar, Martha Cleary and Peter Kenyon)

#216-2. Invention requires an excited mind; execution, a calm one.
-Johann Peter Eckermann, poet (1792-1854)

#216-3. It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can only do a little.
-Sydney Smith, writer and clergyman (1771-1845)

I find the first one to be profoundly true at various levels. The second explains why creativity does not always result in innovation. The third is a mistake we often make.

In these days when we are bombarded by tips on strategy from the McKinseys, Harvards and Sloans of the world,  while Ram Charan, Hamel, Prahalad and other gurus exhort leaders to focus on action and innovation, the above three should be put up on large posters in any strategy discussion room.