Monday, May 31, 2010

i-TFTD #283: The Safest Risk

i-TFTD #283: The Safest Risk

A backwoods farmer, sitting on the steps of his tumbledown shack, was approached by a stranger who stopped for a drink of water.

"How's your wheat coming along?" asked the stranger.

"Didn't plant any."

"Really? I thought this was good wheat country."

"Afraid it wouldn't rain."

"Oh. Well, how's your corn crop?"

"Ain't got any," said the farmer.

"Didn't you plant any corn, either?"

"Nope, 'fraid of corn blight."

"For heaven's sake," said the stranger. "What did you plant?"

"Nothin'," said the farmer. "I just played it safe."

Think of any situation when you chose safety and rethink whether it was this farmer's kind of safety.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

i-TFTD #282: Dal Chawal Innovation

i-TFTD #282: Dal Chawal Innovation

I am reproducing (with permission) an interesting little piece from the IdeasRS blog by R. Sridhar, the most serious creativity trainer I have met (let me hasten to clarify that I meant that as a good thing). Some discussion on the comments section have also been included.

Dal Chawal Innovation
May 18th, 2010

Let me tell you a story first. I use this story often in my Creative Blockbusting© workshops. I have a friend Natarajan (Nat to his friends) who is also a Tambrahm (Tamilian Brahmin) like me. He is a senior manager in one of the Indian Multi-Nationals. He! and his family are vegetarians.

Nat has a nice practice. Every month he takes out his family – wife, teenage daughter, and son- for dinner. This has been going on for years. Nat had his favourite restaurant list and would choose one from his favourite list every month. However, his daughter was not happy with his choice of restaurants.

One month she said, “Dad, I will take you to a different restaurant this month. It is of course 100% vegetarian.”

“Which one is this?”

“Little Italy”

“What cuisine do they serve?”

“Authentic Italian food.”

Before Nat could respond, his son jumped into the conversation and “Wow! Dad we must go there.” When he looked at his wife, she nodded and said, “Why don’t we try it? The children seem to like it.”

Nat said “Why not? I am all for experimentation. Let us go for it.”

On the appointed day, both his daughter and son asked his permission to bring their best friend. Nat readily agreed. (He was somewhat relieved too. He was constantly running out of subjects to talk to his children. What he found interesting, did not interest them.)

When they settled down the children were the first to get off the mark. They seemed to know the items on the menu pretty well. Nat looked at his wife and she smiled and said, “I will go by your choice.”

Nat read the menu card once again and was completely lost. He had never been to an Italian restaurant before. He did not feel comfortable to talk to the manager and find out more about the items on the menu. What will his children and their friends think?

Nat then beckoned the steward and told him “My wife and I are not happy with any of this. Can you organize for some nice dal, chawal, jeera aloo and a raita for us? We are sick and tired of our sambar & rice you see. This will be a good change.”

I stop my story here but use the story to explain what happens in organizations that start looking for break-through innovations, but end up with incremental improvements. Very often the culprit is the senior management.

The CEO declares that he is all for experimentation and will support any innovation, provided of course it is relevant. (This is like Nat saying ‘I am prepared to experiment with any cuisine, provided it is vegetarian.’)

This is a good beginning. However, what happens when the CEO is presented with outstanding ideas – ideas that have never occurred to him or his board members. If these ideas are implemented the benefits will be immense. Some of them could be game-changers.

Then the CEO and his colleagues on the board, start analyzing the ideas. They look unfamiliar, and they make them feel quite uncomfortable. They start making the ideas familiar by changing couple of features and introducing features that they like.

Finally, they have something marginally different from what they normally do. However, the ideas are not disruptive and will not cause any discomfort. Everyone is happy now.

They followed Nat’s formula and settled for “Dal Chawal”. They even felt happy that they made progress from their usual, predictable ‘Sambar Rice.”

This is what I call ‘Dal Chawal Innovation’. Incremental improvements like a marginal change in the menu. Status quo will be intact and safe.

I am not disdainful of improvements of any kind. However, I feel frustrated when I see outstanding ideas transform to become ‘Dal Chawal’, because the senior management did not want to put in the effort make the big idea happen. “Too much work, too many changes” says the CEO dismissively. What annoys me even more are the ‘I know all’ attitude and a refusal to look at new things with an open mind.

The last straw on the proverbial camel’s back is when the CEO delivers a speech on Innovation at some forum and gets a standing ovation!

‘Dal Chawal Innovation’ is the staple food for many CEOs who could make a big difference to the culture of innovation in their organizations. Sadly, they constantly signal to the people that ‘Dal Chawal’ is good enough!

My comment was: While continuous, incremental improvement and radical, disruptive innovation are both important, you have brought out the danger of seemingly converting one to the other for the wrong reasons by top management. In your usual simple and profound manner.

There is a certain mindset of devolvement that all seniors and elders need to cultivate in order for the fresh, disruptive ideas of the next generation to emerge. This leads to the additional benefits of grooming youngsters for succession, and seniors retaining respect. Yes, some new ideas may not work. Nat may discover he never ever wants to eat fetta-filled ravioli but he can enjoy discovering that fact and try penne arrabiata next time, or Mexican tacos!

To which blog author and creativity guru Sridhar replied:

Thank you RG. I appreciate your taking the time to comment on this. And your point is absolutely valid: Nat should try and find out what suits his taste best rather than suffer Italian food he does not like.

On re-reading this piece I realise that I have probably created an impression that all new (disruptive) ideas are good and all old ideas are bad. Not my intention at all.

I am only urging leaders in organisations to listen to fresh new ideas, even if it seems a bit uncomfortable initially.

I have also seen CEOs add great value by smoothening the rough edges of a new disruptive idea and make even more powerful.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

i-TFTD #281: More Deadly Sho(r)ts

i-TFTD #281: More Deadly Sho(r)ts

Many liked i-TFTD #205: Deadly Sho(r)ts so here is another set.

#281-1. Either you succeed or you learn.

#281-2. Change yourself. Period.
-Anon (from a poster in the room of Dilip Kulkarni, a senior manager and great teacher)

#281-3. The only known cure for fear is faith.
-Lena Kellogg Sadler


Powerful mantra for today's rapid-changing world where companies that are innovative leaders create an environment of "fail fast". Management guru Tom Peters says, "Test fast. Fail fast. Adjust fast." At the beginning of my career I was lucky to come across the concept of rapid prototyping and achieved moderate success in propagating it in the field of software. Only later I discovered its profound applicability in personal progress and organizational agility.

We can only really change ourselves. And even that is not easy. This does not mean that we do not try to influence others. Nor does it prescribe that we have to forcibly accept or tolerate anything from anybody. It just highlights that our attention should more fruitfully be focused on what we can change in our views or our actions. Paradoxically, that focus would make us better influencers of positive change in others.

Faith, by definition, means believing something without evidence for it. While usually associated negatively with things that modern science has not proved, it is a popular and useful behavior—successful people everywhere demonstrate it. A positive belief in achieving success without rational data to support such a "faith" is something worth cultivating.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

i-TFTD #280: Rent. Read. Return.

i-TFTD #280: Rent. Read. Return.

To celebrate the opening of the first branch of Just Books, a successful chain of libraries in Bangalore, in Nerul, Navi Mumbai, by my better half, here is a bonus edition of i-TFTD with quotes on books and reading.

(Yes, the above is a not-so-subtle plug, please inform all your acquaintances and do drop by on a weekend between 9:00 AM and 9:00 PM. Navigate using this Google maps link. As you can see from the photos, there are thousands of new fiction, non-fiction and young readers' books to browse.)

#280-1. Books are the compasses and telescopes and sextants and charts which other men have prepared to help us navigate the dangerous seas of human life.
-Jesse Lee Bennett

280-2. If you do not have the time to read, you do not have the time to lead.
-Phillip Schlechty

280-3. Not to know is bad, not to wish to know is worse.
-Nigerian Proverb

280-4. Read, every day, something no one else is reading. Think, every day, something no one else is thinking. Do, every day, something no one else would be silly enough to do. It is bad for the mind to be always part of unanimity.
-Christopher Morley

(Thanks to Atul Kahate for sharing this.)

280-5. Successful people have libraries. The rest have big screen TVs.
-Jim Rohn

(Thanks to Shuja Rahman for sharing this.)

280-6. Be an explorer... read, surf the internet, visit customers, enjoy arts, watch children play... do anything to prevent yourself from becoming a prisoner of your knowledge, experience, and current view of the world.
-Charles 'Chic' Thompson in 'What a Great Idea'

280-7. A complacent satisfaction with present knowledge is the chief bar to the pursuit of knowledge.
-Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart in 'The Ghost of Napoleon'

280-8. Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information on it.
-Samuel Johnson

When talking about books and reading, some people retort, "Reading is not going to help" or, "You cannot learn this from books!" Other than a few rare situations, such statements are pointless and even dangerous. One can substitute anything in the place of "reading", like, "Talking is not going to help" and "Thinking is not..." What one learns from reading is one kind of knowledge, there are many other useful kinds that one has to learn through other methods. Look at any person who has had a positive impact and you will find they are readers and often give credit for their success to something they read.

Not everyone can buy lots of books, not all books worth reading are worth buying, which is why, it has been one of my childhood dreams to open a librarya place where many people can benefit from access to the treasure trove of distilled experience from around the world. While I continued to periodically imagine about ! doing such a thing in future, my wife, the person who is most evidently different from me, who disagrees with me on most topics, just went ahead and started one, right under my nose. Delicious irony?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

i-TFTD #279: We Are, But Do We Want to Be, Like This Only?

i-TFTD #279: We Are, But Do We Want to Be, Like This Only?

I am sure we all receive several forwarded mails a week containing scam schemes, irritating marketing offers (thank you, corporate firewall, this is only a problem in my personal email IDs) and occasionally a nice quote or anecdote a la i-TFTD, but often embedded in a huge presentation file with scenic pictures (something we avoid doing in i-TFTD).

Some mails provoke an immediate smile or a knowing nod but further reflection may lead to different insights. Here's one I received recently from Tejinder Sethi and a couple of others.

We live in a nation:

i) where pizza reaches home faster than ambulance/police
ii) where you get car loan at 5% and education loan at 12%
iii) where rice is Rs 40/- per kg but SIM card is free
iv) where a millionaire can buy a cricket team instead of donating the money to any charity
v) where the footwear we wear on our feet are sold in AC showrooms, but vegetables that we eat are sold on the footpath
vi) where everybody wants to be famous but nobody wants to follow the path to be famous
vii) where we make lemon juice with artificial flavours and dish washing liquids with real lemon
viii) where people are standing at tea stalls reading an article about child labour from a newspaper and say, "Yaar bachhonse kaam karvaane waale ko to phaansi par chadha dena chaahiye" and then they shout, "Oye chhotu, 2 chai laao!" (roughly translated as, "People who employ children must be hanged!" followed by, "Hey boy, get me two cups of tea!")

Incredible India, Mera Bharat Mahaan (My India is Great).

Cute and clever. Yes, this largely reflects reality in 2010 in India, indisputably incredible in many good and not so good ways. As a fun or even funny piece this can be appreciated. But drawing serious conclusions too quickly would not be rational.

Let us consider a few possible counterviews as a thinking exercise.

viii) (Chai boy) Irony, yes. Hypocrisy? Possibly. What should a good human being do? Is refraining from commenting on the article a better behavior? Some friends working to improve the lives of street children in India have narrated so many puzzling conundrums of survival faced by poor families that are not easy to form opinions about.

vii) (Lemon flavor) This I like. Too many people get fooled with the aggressive advertising of consumer goods companies. Preferences within one's affordability have to be exercised prudently b! ut to each his or her own.

vi) (Famous) Slightly out of character in this list. Preachy and broad statement that does not really illuminate.

v) Footwear can also be purchased on the streets and that unorganized market is probably larger than the one consisting of air-conditioned showrooms. See also ii) below.

iv) Anything a millionaire does can be contrasted with giving the money to charity. Luckily, most millionaires ignore such melodramatic mush and some of the richest billionaires (Gates and Buffett) are really trying to contribute to changing the world.

iii) (Rice vs SIM) Let us not waste injecting logic by questioning whether one SIM card is the equivalent of one kilogram of rice. I am reminded of a picture from the early 1990s in The Economista brilliant magazine except for its occasional condescending tone towards Indiawhich showed a satellite dish being carried by a bullock cart. It symbolized the contrasts that is India. Many Indians think it is obvious that we should not invest in expensive space exploration when we cannot provide foo! d and basic education to millions. This ignores not just the a! vailable evidence of the impact of science and technology, but the entire history of human progress. On a lighter note, the comparison probably indicates the penchant of Indians to talk more than their need to eat!

ii) (Loan rates) Free market economics decides whether the nature of the product and its demand-supply equation would make education loans cheaper than car loans. We as borrowers benefit from competitive market forces and our behavior guides market trends. Hmmm... if all of us sell off our cars to fund the costs of sending our children to an American university, maybe...

i) Should quick home delivery of pizza be banned until ambulance services are made available in a shorter timeframe? We need people like Steven "Freakonomics" Levitt and Tim "Undercover Economist" Harford to enlighten us with statistics on the number of ambulances and their coverage along with those for pizza delivery.

Our Bharat will be mahaan (great) when we regain the supremely logical thinking ability that this land has seen in ages gone by (Buddha circa 460 BCE, Shankara 780 CE though some argue BCE) and adapt, as only we with the jugaad factor can, to the realities of the modern world with a scientific spirit and yes, Indian values.

BTW, I am conscious that the comments above could be construed as a typical example of the argumentative nature of Indians.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

i-TFTD #278: Amzanig Sepillng?

i-TFTD #278: Amzanig Sepillng?

I cd not blveiee taht I cluod aulactly uesdnatnrd waht I was rdeanig. The phaonmneal pweor of the huamn mnid - Aoccdrnig to a rserecah, it deosn't mttaer in waht ored! r the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseaae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

Amzanig? and I awlyas tohught slpeling was ipmorantt!

One of the nicer forwards that has been in circulation for a while. Some clever and logico-analytical readers (like me) may think that this is rigged, that there is some specific pattern in which the letters have been jumbled. I have tried a few times to make up such sentences and found that it works in almost all cases.

This triggers many thoughts: (i) there are fascinating aspects of the human mind and language that continue to be discovered (ii) Sticklers for spelling and grammar (like me) need to remind themselves that the essence of communication of mean! ing lies elsewhere (iii) Part of the reason the above garbled text seems to work is that we rarely pay close attention to what is in front of us, approaching things with a preconceived bias so in situations when we feel an impulse to react strongly we should step back and look at the facts afresh. (iv) Another good reason for this to work is that the mind tries to understand things in relation to the context! rather than in absolute terms.

Points (iii) and (iv) are the source of many perceptual tricks and psychological experiments.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

i-TFTD #277: On Owning Up to Decisions

i-TFTD #277: On Owning Up to Decisions

#277-1. These days Wall Street bankers sound like the lady who killed her husband and then asked for mercy because she was a widow.
-Nitin Desai in his article, Welfare for the Wealthy, on, Feb 19, 2009

#277-2. At most companies, people spend 2 percent of their time recruiting and 75 percent managing their recruiting mistakes.
-Richard Fairbank, CEO, Capital One, quoted by Harvard prof. Jim Heskett in his article, Why Can't We Figure Out How to Select Leaders?, at, Feb 5, 2009

#277-3. Difficulty in reaching consensus rises with the number of 'stakeholders' and usually means the end result is too many 'holders' and too little 'stake'.
-Dean Procter in his article, Collaboration Does Not Always Lead To Innovation, on, Nov 23, 2008

A lot of people at the helm of banking and the US economy are talking about learning lessons from the past but their actions belie their stated intent.

Part of the problem is that there are no foolproof, universal methods of selection. Another problem is that the people who have the deciding power on critical appointments may not be the most effective judges.

I can involve my team and seek inputs from many other peers but I should never confuse such a participative and inclusive approach with my decision-making responsibility. Once a decision is taken and acted upon, I have to own the consequences.