Friday, September 23, 2011

i-TFTD #341: Seeing the Seen

#341-1. The world is a looking glass, and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face.
-William Makepeace Thackeray, novelist (1811-1863)

#341-2. If you've ever taken on a major, challenging project, you know that finishing it doesn't just create the output you had planned on, it transforms you.
-Dr. Venkatesh Rao, author of Tempo, independent researcher and blogger (1974-)

#341-3. There is a road from the eye to the heart of things that does not go through the intellect.
-Gilbert K. Chesterton, British writer and philosopher (1874–1936)

The first quote reminds me of the following lines from the melancholy ghazal by Jagjit Singh,
"Zindagi kya hai jaanne ke liye zinda rehna bahut zaroori hai" (to understand life it is necessary to live):
aao hum sab pehen le aaine
saare dekhenge apne hi chehre
saare haseen lagenge yahaan

(come, let us all clothe ourselves with mirrors
everyone will see their own faces
everyone will look beautiful here)

What we see when working on a tough task we handled changes dramatically when we look back. Each of us can remember at least one major task in life that stretched the boundaries of our abilities. Undoubtedly such an endeavor has a lasting and positive impact in some way or the other. It reveals our limits or hidden capabilities, makes us more resilient and overall boosts our self-confidence. Why then do we all not eagerly rush to more such challenges?

Reflection and analysis of our thoughts or f! eelings makes our conscious mind aware of certain patterns and takes us to the next level. But the belief always persists (and maybe becomes stronger) that there are important things just beyond our conscious awareness. Interestingly, that does not scare us but excites us and hopefully encourages to explore more.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

i-TFTD #340: On Seeking Answers

#340-1. The wrong answer sometimes is the right one in search of a different question.
-Bruce Mau, designer

#340-2. If you want the truth to stand clear before you, never be for or against. The struggle between "for" and "against" is the mind's worst disease.
-Sen-ts’an, 8th century Chinese Zen master

#340-3. The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.
-Leo Tolstoy, author (1828-1910)

(Thanks to K. Shailesh for sharing this.)

Our logical, analytical mind tends to jump to finding the r! ight answer on encountering a question. We have trained that ability of the brain throughout the formative years. Any answer on offer, if not judged to be the right one, is wrong. Real-life situations involving real people with real feelings and irrational emotions have a way of disproving this fundamental belief in the single right answer. The question may be framed incorrectly or there could be more important ones underlying the asked question. This is why our creative thinking needs rekindling, and techniques are used for this.

Of course, the binary mode of thinking pervades all aspects of life. The month of August 2011 almost seemed to force every Indian to announce whether he or she is “for Anna (Hazare)” or “against Anna”. Maybe someone was supportive of one of the suggestions made by the activist and against some of the other suggestions. Nor could it be taken to imply that the person is supportive of the Indian Government who spectacularly mishandled it. Yes, there are important matters, especially concerning our values, when we have to take a clear stand but the complexity and dimensions could indicate deferment of judgment, more data gathering or discussing specifics rather than a simple Yes/No vote.

Such kind of advice would only help those who have not already made up their minds about making up their minds.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

i-TFTD #339: Grow Up and Move On

Grow up and Move On
For one to move into a position, there should be someone ready to move out.
By Devdutt Pattanaik

In Vedic times, life was divided into four stages: the first quarter was Brahmacharyaashram, the stage when one is a student; the second was Grihastha-ashram, the stage when one is a householder; the third was Vanaprastha-ashram, the stage when one retires from active household duty; the fourth was Sanyasa-ashram, the stage when one detaches oneself totally from the world.

In the corporate world, the ashram system is very much a reality. But not explicitly. When one takes up a job, one spends a lot of time learning the new job. This is Brahmacharya. Then a point comes when the learning stops and one becomes increasingly productive with higher and higher ! levels of efficiency and effectiveness. This is Grihastha. Then there's a stage when one outgrows a job. One desires to move on. This is the time when one must step into Vanaprastha, the twilight zone, when one empowers and enables the next generation to step in. Having created the talent pool that can take one's place, one reaches Sanayasa, free to move on, out of the current-job paradigm into a new challenging paradigm. And the cycle starts all over again.

Conventionally, Vanaprastha is seen as retirement. But it can be seen as the stage when one passes on one's skill and knowledge to the next generation so that they can flourish while one moves on. The ashrama system need not be applied only to one's entire professional life – it can be applied to each role one takes up. Thus one has the four stages as an executive, then the four stages as a manager, then four stages as a director. If we have to grow, we have to constantly keep retiring.

The per! fect organisation is said to be one that respects the march of the four stages; where things move predictably – people move on and move in at the appropriate rate. This is celebrated in the Ramayana where as soon as Ram completes his education, he is given a wife and as soon as he marries, his father, Dashrath, declares his intention to retire, move out of the palace, and let Ram be king.

The ashram-dharma in the Ramayan is a theoretical construct. It assumes that people are willing to move on to the next stage and they know when to move on. Life is not so simple. There are executives who do not want to be managers. And there are mangers who will not let executives become managers. And there are directors who realise they are quite illequipped to direct. This disruption in the orderly course is the theme of the Mahabharata.

The epic tells the story of a king called Shantanu who has a grown up son called Devavrata, who is ready to marry and become king. ! But then Shantanu falls in love with a beautiful young fisherwoman called Satyavati. He wants to marry her but there is a rider: only her children should be declared his heirs. To Shantanu's great relief, Devavrata voluntarily gives up his claim to the throne. "But what if your children fight my daughter's children?" asks Satyavati's father. In response, Devavrata takes a vow never to marry, never to touch a woman and never to father or adopt a child. For this vow, the gods declare Devavrata to be 'Bhisma'. Bhisma is celebrated as the obedient son. Nobody condemns the father. As one reads the epic, one realises that Bhisma's act of obedience is one of the prime reasons for the great carnage on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. If the older generation had made way for the younger generation, as the scriptures advised, the Mahabharata would not have happened.

The Mahabharata also tells the story of one Yayati who was so desperate to stay young that he begged one o! f his sons to suffer old age so that he could cling on to youth. His eldest son, Yadu, refused this request. The youngest, Puru, agreed. For obeying his father, Puru was made Yayati's heir (the Kauravas and the Pandavas are his descendents). For disobeying, Yadu was cursed that neither he nor his descendents would ever be king (which is why Krishna, of the Yadu clan, is always kingmaker, never king).

As in the Ramayana, this story of Yayati in the Mahabharata clearly celebrates obedience and submission of the younger generation to the older generation. But there is one crucial difference. In the Ramayana, the older generation does not behave like a parasite – it willingly makes way for the next generation. In the Mahabharata, the older generation takes advantage of the obedience of the younger generation to indulge its appetite for power and pleasure.

Organisations need to constantly look out for Yayatis and Shantanus – men who refuse to move on and me! n who refuse to let the juniors grow.
Men who use hierarchy to dominate and control rather than simply for order and stability.

Take the example of Jaisingh. He is a brilliant store manager. And he is comfortable in this position, so comfortable that very deliberately he keeps mocking and demotivating his juniors, telling them how they are not fit to get a promotion and doing nothing to help them grow. He fears that if they learn how to be store managers, he will be redundant and that he will be kicked out by the management. What the organisation does not realise is that Jaisingh is behaving exactly as his boss, the regional manager, Vijaysingh, who is fearful that Jaisingh will make him redundant. Both Jaisingh and Vijaysingh are stuck in Grihastha-ashram. No one wants to move into Vanaprastha, because everyone fears Sanyasa.

Letting go, moving on, is perhaps the most important skill one needs to master in the corporate world.
Imagine the human pyramid cr! eated during the Janmashtami festival of dahi-handi to help the one on the top get to the pot of curds and butter tied high up. Unless those at the lowermost level rise up, the one on top will never get to the butter. Ask yourself – are you rising to help your boss reach the pot? Ask yourself – are you allowing those below you to rise? Unless you do, the pot will never be yours.

(Thanks to Sheenam Ohrie for sharing this.)

Devdutt Pattanaik writes regularly in Corporate Dossier, The Economic Times supplement. He has the uncanny ability to relate the essential concepts behind the mythological stories to modern business management. Succession planning is a concept that is widely paid lip service but rarely practised. A leader must make himself or herself dispensable through grooming, coach! ing and empowerment of subordinates in order to be free to move on to newer roles. If I am comfortably ensconced in my job I reduce the probability of upward mobility, I stagnate – dangerously.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

i-TFTD #338: On Thinking Clearly

#338-1. The greatest challenge to any thinker is stating the problem in a way that will allow a solution.
-Bertrand Russell, philosopher, mathematician, author, Nobel laureate (1872-1970)

#338-2. Clear thinking requires courage rather than intelligence.
-Thomas Szasz, author, professor of psychiatry (1920-)

#338-3. Our heads are round so that thoughts can change direction.
-Francis Picabia, painter and poet (1879-1953)
One reason we get stuck when trying to find solutions is that we accept the problem description or question as stated originally. Redefining the problem is a powerful step in innovation. One has to cultivate the habit of creating many versions of a statement. If we ponder over, “What deterrent will make people be more careful and avoid mistakes in this process?” it leads to a set of solutions, which are very different from those that occur when we ask, “How can this process be designed and communicated that enables people to correctly execute this process?” The latter leads to the mindset behind poka yoke.

Think of someone who you believe is an excellent communicator and the odds are that the person has clarity of thought and the boldness to express it. It is difficult to think clearly in the age of abundant information and access to opinions. More than being ‘brainy’ it demands confidence to accept our own thoughts and feelings, especially when dealing with personal problems.

Some people who have the habit of saying, “I am very clear!” use it as a shield to prevent further probing of their thoughts or exploring other ideas. Real clarity is to focus on the objective and relentlessly pursue it even it means reversing our stand or revising our thoughts.

Friday, September 2, 2011

i-TFTD #337: They Want to Look at You When You Say It

This anecdote has been quoted by Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, author of 'The Nonverbal Advantage'. Practical tips on body language are available on Carol’s blog.

In a Fortune 25 Company, teleconferences provided an ongoing opportunity for small groups of employees to get up close and personal with the CEO.

Time after time, employees would ask questions that had already been communicated in various company publications and through dozens of email announcements.

After the sessions, the beleaguered CEO asked his communication manager, "How many times have we told them about that? Why don't they know that?"

"Oh, they! know it," the communications manager replied. "They just want to hear it from you. More importantly, they want to be able to look at you when you say it."

Anyone working in a corporate environment would be familiar with the "Don't people read their mail?" puzzle. This little story emphasizes the importance of face-to-face communication, especially for leaders, something that is becoming less frequent due to distributed teams and availability of conferencing technologies.

Highly effective people travel a lot, and also wander around the office. Ram Charan, one of the top-rated management gurus today, is said to have clocked 500,000 miles (800,000 km) on aircraft in 2008.