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Location: Mumbai, India

A dreamer to the core. A thinker. A writer. A marketer. A poet. A management guru in the making! A keen observer of business, organizations, leaders, society, economic environment, consumers, and innovation. A confirmed maverick who loves to turn conventional wisdom upside down!

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Sunday, October 19, 2008

Hands-off or Hands-on

Being a hands-off manager in an organization with predominantly hands-on management culture can be a frustrating experience at times. Surprising as it may seem, even in this age of knowledge worker, rampant micro management and repulsion for anything hands-off or true empowerment is prevalent in many organizations. For old timers it may not mean much as they have been living under the shadow of micro management for most of their professional career, but for the younger generation this hands-on approach is a bit uncomfortable.

The biggest problem with hands-on approach is that it prevents development of people. Instead of mentoring and coaching, a better part of the manager's time is spent in criticizing and judging people. Empowerment takes a back seat and command and control becomes a norm.

People become mere implementer of ideas they don't own. This often results in poor quality of output. People engagement suffers. They don't feel like partners in creating something bigger and better. Instead, they feel like running errands for their managers. All these work like creativity killers in the organization and act as major hindrance in an organization's quest to reach its true potential.

Isn't it time for shunning hands-on management in favour of hands-off management? Ingraining hands-off management culture in an organization's DNA would go a long way in –
  • Developing people through mentorship and coaching.
  • Increasing creative problem solving throughout the organization.
  • Speedier and more effective planning and execution through empowerment.
  • Spreading new ideas.
  • Developing a learning organization.
  • Decline of organizational politics.
  • Attracting and retaining talent.

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Monday, September 22, 2008

Tempted To Hire Additional Manpower?

Hiring additional manpower is a necessity in any growing organization. But often additional manpower is brought for all the wrong reasons. Instead of helping manage growth they turn out to be veils for protecting mediocrity. This is something to be wary about while taking decision to hire additional manpower. Very often optimization of the existing manpower would ensure that no immediate need for additional manpower is felt.

Always remember that quick-fix never works! Following are some of the situations (quick-fix temptations) which are not reasons for hiring additional manpower:
  • Having talented manpower but inability to get optimal use of them.

  • Incompetent manpower requiring additional hands.

  • Wrong person at the wrong place bringing in overall ineffectiveness.

  • Trying to find solutions for a business problem through additional manpower when the root cause is something else.
When should you bring additional manpower? Following situations may be the apt reason for hiring additional manpower
  • To manage growth and expansion in a rapidly growing (>40% growth) business.

  • If the existing manpower is over-burdened with genuine workload. A quick check would be to understand whether the current demand on existing manpower requires 120% of their energy. It is said that 100% effectiveness comes when someone's work demands 120% of his time (attributed to Azim Premji in the book GO KISS THE WORLD by Subroto Bagchi)

  • Changing business environment requiring additional skill set/ experience.
The next time you are thinking about hiring some additional manpower or creating some new profiles, ponder over the situations and try to figure out why exactly you want additional manpower. A little honest thinking would go a long way in maintaining the health of the business along with optimal use of all the resources.

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Free Telephony In India - An Idea

"Why do we need to pay for making phone calls?" This was the question that came to my mind while I was glancing at my phone bill. Why the phone calls can't be completely free, I thought. Well, it is indeed possible, at least in India!

Telephone tariff has significantly come down. Rs. 1 per minute call charge is routine. The question is how to make it completely free – no call charges; no rentals.

The key to free telephony is advertisement revenue. This is one area which most of the telecom service providers have ignored till now. The blind focus on increasing ARPU (Average Revenue Per User) has hardly bore fruits. A paradigm shift and rechristening of ARPU as Advertising Revenue Per User may open a goldmine.

It will work on these lines. The more a telecom consumer talks, the more advertising she hears (fixed number of seconds per minute of talk time), and the more money an advertiser pays to the telecom service provider.

Here are some of the options to generate advertising revenue sufficient enough to make telephony free.
  • Caller tunes to turn into 10 second advertisement. When someone makes a call, instead to hearing some song, he gets to hear an AD till the time the recipient receives the call.

  • When the call gets started, first 10 seconds of every minute are advertising time. Balance 50 seconds are talk time. Advertising and talk time cycle continues till the time call ends.

  • Every SMS that is sent has a footer advertisement of 25 characters.

  • At the end of every call, the caller and the receiver receive an advertising SMS.

  • Balance inquiry SMS has a footer having a 25 character advertisement.
Will consumers mind being exposed to so much advertisement?
Every sane individual knows that there is no such thing as free lunch. When a consumer is not being charged a penny to talk endlessly, she has to give something back. In this case, this something is 10 seconds to hear annoying advertisements for every 50 seconds of her talk time. Any rational human being like me would accept this fact of life even if she gets annoyed by the frequent intrusion of advertisement. We all are habituated of hearing rubbish all the time – at home, office, street, TV and where not. Does it make a big difference if we are forced to hear 1 minute of advertisement for 5 minute of free talk on phone? In India, only a fool will let pass this opportunity for free unlimited telephony! In any case, those who don't want to listen to the advertisement can always opt for the paid telephony option.

Will telecom provider find enough advertisers for profitable operation?
Of course yes. There are two compelling reasons for advertisers to opt for this new advertising medium. First, there can't be more apt medium for highly targeted advertisement. Telecom providers maintain excellent database of their customers which includes personal details. In any case, when offering free telephony, telecom service providers can always ask for more personal information from their customers to help the companies find right target audience for advertisement exposure. Second, it's a medium where the consumer can't shift channels to ignore advertisement. They are forced to hear it all, actively or passively, as they are still on line with the other person. These two reasons will not only fetch advertisement revenue for telecom service providers but will also help them in asking for a premium over other advertising mediums.

What it means for advertising industry?
It's a sweet-n-sour deal for them. On one hand it will open a new source of revenue; on the other hand it will demand high level of creativity and out-of-the-box thinking to survive in this medium. In this new medium, only 10-second ads are possible to ensure that the operation runs with least glitches. So telling all stories for all brands in 10 seconds flat would be the norm making the whole process extremely demanding.

A caveat for telecom service providers
This free telephony would result in quantum jump in talk time volume leading to acute network congestion. So strengthening of telecom infrastructure to cope multiplication of call volume is a necessity. Without extraordinary infrastructure, the concept of free telephony cannot take-off.

Isn't the idea of free telephony in India an idea that can change the world of millions? I feel it is. Will someone say, "What an idea sir jee?"

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Saturday, August 30, 2008

One Story; Multiple Brands

Everyday while driving to work, I get to see huge billboards advertising products and services on the road side. Today, a thought crossed my mind. Isn't the space too big for a brand? Annual lease for such billboards run in lakhs of rupees. Isn't it possible to have more than one brand in one hoarding in such a way that there is one story about two or three brands and not separate stories? It sounds absurd and blasphemous but may be there is some value in this madness.

Why the idea can work?
In a cluttered world, more than anything else brands get noticed by the simple yet engaging story they tell. It is all about the story your brand can tell, with or without the spoken words, in the few seconds of attention a consumer grants to open an opportunity window.

Unlike products stories are not physical. Stories are a communication medium; a kind of bridge between message sender and message receiver. They are all about integration of thoughts and ideas in a coherent way that conveys the intended message. Due to this nature of story, it is very much possible to weave one story on two or more brands without diluting the essence of any of the brands involved. It's all about right synchronization of the story and the participating brands.

The key to such experimentation is the degree of maturity level of respective marketing team and their advertising agency. The higher the level of maturity in understanding their own brand, better their expectation from one another in their marriage on billboards!

How it can work?
For this to become a reality, advertising agencies will have to show guts to experiment. It will not only take a high degree of creativity to execute a campaign but also persuasive powers to bring all the stakeholders together to solemnize the marriage of brands on the billboard. The problem is easier to solve if the advertising agency is common to all brands involved. If different agencies are involved it will become a tough nut to crack and will require a high level of collaboration and check on creative ego!

Absurd as it may sound, my gut feeling says that it can work, not only in outdoor media but, may be, in electronic and print media also if some out-of-the-box thinkers indulge in out-of-the-box creativity. Any takers?

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Leadership Mantra

"Leadership is action not position."

Noticed this beautiful quote on the wall of a multiplex in Mumbai. It succinctly sums up the essence of leadership.

Very often people complain that they were unable to bring about change because they didn't have the authority or the position to execute. Perhaps this is the biggest excuse for avoiding action. The truth is that anyone, irrespective of position and authority, can practice leadership. Leadership is all about action and action is neither big nor small. True leadership is about taking action for what one feels is right. It starts with self and gradually influences the surrounding. It's like an expanding circle, starting from the center (you) and gradually moving outward to increase the circle of influence to lead more and more people to desired action.

Mahatma Gandhi once said, "Be the change you want to see in the world." Great leadership always starts with personal leadership - action guided by a vision. Every action creates a ripple of change. More the action, the more ripples of change are formed to influence larger and larger mass of people. But everything starts with an action just like a long journey starts with a single step.

Even if you are a nobody, you must act. Embrace action to lead yourself to your vision. Sooner than later, the world will follow you. Lead the world by leading yourself through action.


Sunday, March 02, 2008

Activity Based Performance Appraisal

In a typical corporate environment, one has to get things done through interaction with a number of people from various internal departments. Though your work depends on contributions from multiple heads, only a few directly report to you and many don't even indirectly report to you. Sometimes situations become tricky when pleading, badgering, threatening, cajoling, praying, etc. don't seem to work. The only respite in such situations is escalating the matter higher up with possible onset of another set of problems like departmental blame game resulting in even more friction in intra-department working relationship. Is there a way out from this dilemma?

Take an example of a Brand Manager. He has to interact with various internal departments like sales, R&D, finance, packaging, and purchase over which he has hardly any direct or indirect control. Yet the poor guy is expected to get things done (after all he is the CEO of his brand) by playing hard-ball or soft-ball with all these agencies. Sometimes things move smoothly while many times too much heat gets generated from friction. Personal egos emerge and personal agendas come. Yet, like Titan, he is expected to slaughter all obstacles. This poor guy's life would be much easier if the people he regularly interacts with have some proportion of their performance appraisal based on how they help this brand manager achieve his goal. What I am talking about is - Activity Based Performance Appraisal (ABPA). Wow, it seems I have coined something fancy and hopefully useful!

So, what happens in Activity Based Performance Appraisal? Let's see using the same Brand Manager example. For the sake of illustration, let's assume that six people are in play – Brand Manager, Packaging Development guy, R&D guy, Finance guy, Purchase guy, and sales guy. Typically, a brand manager would be handling one brand while guys from packaging development, R&D, Finance, Purchase, and Sales would be working on many brands (say, 5 brands).

In this example of Activity Based Performance Appraisal (ABPA), 50% performance appraisal of the Brand Manager would be done by the guys from packaging development, R&D, finance, purchase, and sales while the balance 50% would be appraised by his immediate boss. Similarly, 50% of performance appraisal of guys from packaging development, R&D, finance, purchase, and sales would be decided by various Brand Managers for whose brands they work in the ratio of time spent on each brand while balance 50% of performance appraisal would be done by their immediate supervisors based on quality of their work related to their technical area.

Of course this is just an idea. For making it work, it would need company specific judgement and refinement. But once implemented, Activity Based Performance Appraisal (ABPA) would ensure that no one takes the other for granted. Things would move smoothly and lesser degree of follow-up would be required to get things done. Democracy will come to organizations!

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Friday, February 29, 2008

Nuggets of Management Wisdom #20

A battle is never won with good Generals and mediocre troops.

Some companies suffer from a deadly corporate mentality that espouses the belief that if you appoint a few good Generals, you can sail smoothly even if you don't give much care to your troops on ground zero. But the question is – is it possible to win a battle with well fed Generals sitting in teak paneled offices while under-fed and mediocre troops fight it out?

Generals can use their experience to give direction, but it is the entire troop that executes the strategy by using their brain and brawn. The quality of execution of a strategy not only depends on how good the strategy is but also on the quality of the troop that will execute it. A troop that is sharp, agile, motivated, well-fed, and empowered to think and act on its feet is bound to execute much better than a troop that is mediocre, under-fed, demotivated, and disempowered.

The truth is very simple. For superior performance, you have to keep the strength, motivation, and empowerment well distributed across your organization. Any intention to concentrate them at one point at the expense of other points is bound to spell disaster sooner than later. A healthy body is one which has all the parts of the body working together in a well synchronized manner. If any part of human body ails, performance of the whole suffers.


Saturday, January 12, 2008

Nuggets of Management Wisdom #19

Don't promote the culture of "confirmation bias" if you want your organization to achieve greatness.

Time and again I have noticed that a large number of people in organizations suffer from "confirmation bias", a deadly corporate disease that attracts you to people who think in the same patterns as you do, while repels you from people who don't think at the same wavelengths as you do.

This is a serious problem. Ideas always blossom amid diversity of thought and action. If the diversity is discouraged, staleness sets in any organization and one finds oneself gasping for fresh air in such an environment. In current times, when world is always in a flux and operating environments of organizations are extremely dynamic; innovation and execution come at a premium. Innovation is something that realizes its full potential only when divergent minds meet and collaborate to shape it up. So is the case with flawless execution; multiple hands of many a thought collaborate to execute an idea to action. When you exhibit "confirmation bias", you stifle the flowering of ideas and innovation in your organization as there is always an "inside-out view" in play without any "outside-in view" to spice up the things and let the creative juices flow in search of an out-of-the-box solution.

One major offshoot of the "confirmation bias" disease in any organization is that it repels talented people away from the organization. In a culture that promotes "confirmation bias", it is very difficult, perhaps impossible, to attract and retail talented people. Talented people tend to question the status quo and often look away from routine way of solving problems. They tend to ask difficult questions and challenge others, even their superiors. This threatens comfort zones of people who are deeply rooted in the culture of "confirmation bias" and prompts them to alienate, ignore, or even punish those who think differently. As a result, talented people tend to move away from an environment that punishes them to think differently.

In the end, it is the organization that suffers. In the absence of an internal environment to fuel fresh, innovative, and divergent thinking, it keeps doing same thing again and again till it is done to death by the ever changing external environment.


Friday, January 11, 2008

New Product Development

New product development is always a tricky business. A certain degree of uncertainty is intrinsic to the process. Some new products click while many fail. Yet, despite the uncertainty and risk, chances of success can be improved to a large extent with some commonsense.

I am often surprised to see that again and again new products fail in market not because of lack of resources to market it or the product's attributes and features, but due to marketer's inability to understand the consumer and her need - obvious or hidden. The problem starts with marketer's myopic thinking. The culprit is 'company centric' view of a consumer. This 'company centric' view of consumer comes in various flavours, all equally lethal for company's health and well being. Below are some samples:
  1. Marketers try to make a product that they feel is best for the consumer and then go and try to sell it to them. Most of the time this approach fails because how a marketer views the needs of a consumer is often vastly different from how a consumer views her needs!

  2. Marketers get a brain wave for a new product idea. They develop the product after investing lots of money and resources. Once the product is ready, they start searching for consumers who could buy it. It's like shooting arrows in a blind allay in the wild hope of hitting the bull's eye. Seldom have they succeeded.

  3. Marketer sees a product at some far away land and feels that the product seems so nice. He comes with a sample and hands it over to his R&D people to develop a similar product for his market in his country. Once the product is ready, he starts searching for consumers to sell it and then finds that the overall market for the product is so low that there is no business sense to launch the product.
Successful product development has few basic features apart from the luck factor. From what I have observed in my career so far, great and hugely successful products are built around following pillars;
  1. They are backward engineered from consumer. Hence, when developed they have a ready or at least, a latent market to tap.

  2. They are simple from consumer's point of view and satisfy her needs in a simple way sans complication and at a price and experience that gives her maximum utility value and satisfaction.

  3. They have a 'consumer centric' DNA.
New product development requires simplicity. It needs to put the consumer at the center of the gravity and then develop itself around the consumer. This is perhaps the only way I know to develop great products that are loved by consumers and are commercial success.

In the world of marketing, only those products end up with consumers which start with consumers.

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Sunday, December 09, 2007

Fighting Attrition - An Idea

Human nature is such that it gets stimulated most through steady flow of rewards even though they may be small. They key is frequency rather than magnitude of reward. I was just wondering whether this fundamental human nature can be exploited to tackle the menace of attrition in organizations.

We have appraisal system that may be quarterly, half-yearly, or annual affair. Bulk of the reward comes annually through promotion, raise, trips, bonus, etc. Even though many companies give rewards half-yearly, the proportion of these is extremely low in the total reward universe.

I have a simple question - can't we divide the annual reward package into many smaller parts to give at regular interval to employees and associates? This would not put significant additional burden on the organization but will definitely play a psychological trump card to engage employees. And even the additional burden would turn out to be much less than the cost of attrition.

The biggest advantage of this reward mechanism would be its role as a motivation accelerator. Frequent rewards in various monetary and non-monetary forms can help in effective engagement while keeping the morale of employees high. These small but frequent rewards would act as a validation of their capabilities and talent. These would force them to think that they are valuable for the organizations and their contributions matter in the well being of the organization.

I feel it's worth experimentation.

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Friday, November 02, 2007

The New Marketing Agenda

We have always been trained to hard-sell to customers through various marketing vehicles. This worked well in the old economy. But the big question is - will it work in web 2.0 world? I predict it will not. In the last 10 years, world has witnessed a shift from scattered islands of civilization to a highly sophisticated network of seamless human interaction. Suddenly, we are finding ourselves at the center of the universe with ability to tap into endless choices and resources. In this networked era, hard-sell sounds like a pre-historic concept. When the reach of customer was limited and choices few, hard-sell made sense. But with endless options to choose from and virtually entire universe to tap into, hard-sell makes no sense at all. Everyone is hard-selling and creating noise resulting in a cacophony which only irritates customers.

In this changed equation between customers and marketers, the rule of hard-sell is giving way to the rule of being found. The essence of this rule is to strive to generate that 'aha' moment we feel when we discover something amazing. The new marketing challenge is how to play the game of treasure hunt and help customers discover products and services and let them feel the 'aha' moment more often.

There are four factors driving this shift to the concept of findability.

Suspicious customers
Today's customer is suspicious. She thinks that all marketers are liars. From the time she wakes to the time she sleeps, she is bombarded with sales pitch to buy something. Naturally, not everything she is pitched with is good for her. Some may be good and some totally harmful. How can she trust? How can she decide? Suspicion, as a result, is at the highest level and every sales pitch is viewed with utter distrust. The problem is that the confidence level of customers in products or marketers is at its lowest ebb. The only way to engage such a customer, who is high on distrust and low on confidence, is to help her find what is best for her without active sales pitch or hard-sell.

Miracle of network
World has become a highly connected network, thanks to the internet. An average customer has access to information across culture and geography which her forefathers could not have even dreamt of. Network has jettisoned her to a world of plentitude where she may not like 99.9% of what she encounters. But 0.1% is something that can fill her with a sense of joy and satisfaction that only she can feel and understand. And, this joy of discovering that 0.1% is hardly related to satisfaction of her basic need. It is something higher. Her ecstasy is because of the satisfaction derived from her ability to serendipitously discover a fish, she could relate with, from a vast ocean. It’s a joy of discovery; no less than the joy of discovery Euclid felt in the bathtub which made him run on the street shouting "Eureka, eureka."

Virtual neighbour
Customers may love their neighbour or hate them but they indeed hear them. Since ages neighbours have played a role of adviser and influencer in purchase decision, apart from being the agents of "neighbour's envy, owner's pride" syndrome. Earlier, neighbour was a localized phenomenon confined to surrounding households. But now, thanks to the power of network, concept of neighbour has acquired a global status. Today, we have 'virtual neighbours'. These days customers find the neighbourly advice on internet all too often in the form of recommendations, user feedback, rants, blogs, discussion boards, groups, forums, et al. The challenge before marketers is to find ways to use the 'virtual neighbour' syndrome to their advantage.

I am what I am
Every customer is part of a larger group yet she is also an individual. The individual aspect is increasingly making its presence felt in decision making. It doesn't mean the end of mass production or mass marketing rather it means a new challenge for marketers to include individuality to mass marketing campaign. It's like designing a marketing program to appeal to the masses yet emanate some subtle individualistic theme with which the customer can connect. Here, the essence of the brand remains same though how an individual customer experiences it may be different. It's like conveying "there is something for everyone to relate to."

In light of the above, the new challenge before a marketer is to devise ways in which his brand can get discovered by the customers and in such circumstances that they feel an 'aha' moment and emotionally relate to it.

Building an "architecture of discovery" can be the solution to this challenge. But that is going to be the subject of another blogpost.

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Monday, October 08, 2007

Nuggets of Management Wisdom #18

Skepticism, if used diligently, can bridge the chasm between unrealistic expectations and realistic possibilities.

The world of business is not perfect. In fact, it is not supposed to be perfect. It is perhaps a collage of contradictions. Every situation is grasped differently by different individuals. Some see amazing potential in an idea, while others trash it. In such a scenario, the real challenge before a leader or a manager is to how to bridge the chasm between two extreme ends to marry optimism with reality.

Skepticism may be the answer to this challenge. Skepticism, as in philosophy, is based on the principle that "there is no such thing as certainty in human knowledge." The word is derived from Greek verb "skeptomai" which means "to look carefully, to reflect."

Generally, skepticism in business is taken with a negative connotation. But, I feel, this should change and skepticism should be used as tool for "reality check" of an idea or situation. Every idea or a situation, seemingly however breath-taking or absurd, should be subjected to a series of harsh questioning. Only upon passing this trial by fire questioning session, should an idea be approved or rejected. This is not to see any idea or a situation as suspicious; but to see it as a hypothesis and test its validity by trying to prove it wrong by all means of logic and questioning. A great idea in all likelihood would survive the grind while many a hollow idea, though brilliant sounding, will perish.

Of course, this is not a full-proof way of assessing the potential of an idea or a situation. Mistakes will still happen. Nevertheless, the success rate of striking gold and avoiding future disappointment would be higher with the help of diligent skepticism.


Sunday, October 07, 2007

Cutting A Long Story Short...

As a marketer, I want the biggest bang for my bucks. With tight budgets and astronomical expectations, every penny counts. In such a scenario, when advertising agencies come up with 80 seconds and 120 seconds creatives, it becomes tough not to lose cool.

Advertising is a business of story-telling in as few words (I must add seconds also) as possible. If it takes longer and longer (both words and time) for an agency to tell a story, they definitely are not masters of their art. In current scenario, I am slowly coming to a conclusion that if an agency can't tell a story in 20 seconds flat, they are either too lazy or too dumb!

Average attention span of a consumer is declining at the rate of speed of light. With a stressful life at every step, who has the time to concentrate for long on advertisement of a biscuit, or hair oil, or soap? If something doesn't grasp her attention in first 5 seconds she changes channel. Similarly, if something doesn't tell its story quickly (20 seconds) she changes channel. Patience to watch irritating and long commercials is not the cup of tea of current consumer. To grab her attention, you need to be a master in the art of quickie. Else she will become trigger happy and kill all your investments in production and airtime.

An off-shoot of this rapidly declining attention span is the growing importance of frequency. It is not that reach is not important; but with a disinterested consumer, the only way to get some attention from her is to bombard your advertisements on her as many times as you can without irritating her too much. In the current scenario, I feel that one can trade-off reach with frequency to some extent but trading off frequency with reach would be catastrophic. And the best bet to increase frequency is to have short and sweet creatives to get the most mileage from the spending on commercial time. By reducing length of advertisement from 80 seconds to 20 seconds, one can increase the frequency by 4 times (assuming everything else as constant)!

Isn't it time for our advertising gurus to don their thinking hats and set a 20 seconds limit on their creative works? If they could tell the brand story in 20 seconds, it would be true reflection of their creative brilliance. The end result would be a win-win situation for both the brand and the consumer!

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Saturday, September 22, 2007

Surviving in Times of Massive Change

"In times of massive change, it is the learner who will inherit the earth, while the learned stay foolishly tied to a world that no longer exists." - Eric Hoffer

This is one thought on which every executive must ponder upon, particularly those who are on the wrong side of age. This is a very relevant thought for the present times when almost everything in business, technology, and society is undergoing massive change. Unfortunately, many of the experienced people fail to recognize these massive changes and how these changes, many a time, make their vast experience and learning meaningless.

By failing to adapt to the new realities, they keep themselves and their organization stuck in the past. When things demand radically different way of managing things, these learned people keep on applying the old tricks and tactics that may have worked in the past but have become pre-historic in context to present and future. More often than not things never seem to work. Instead of making any progress, things seem to move backward.

In these times, only those survive who see themselves as life-long learner and continue learning new things to tame present and future. Those who think they have had enough learning, fail all along.

The key to survival and growth is to cultivate LFA, the acronym coined by me which means "Learning Focused Attitude."

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Friday, September 21, 2007

Nuggets of Management Wisdom #17

Rate of growth up the corporate hierarchy is directly proportional to the rate of growth of one's skills at critical questioning.

Visualize this scenario: I go to my boss fully prepared. After hearing me he asks a few questions, some of which I never thought existed, and I and my plans are floored. I think my boss is very smart. After an hour, I accompany my boss to the cabin of his boss to discuss a proposal. My super boss asks a few questions to my boss, some of which he never thought existed, and he squirms in his chair. I guess he must be feeling the same way I felt when his questions floored me!

This was one of the corporate eureka moments that I sometimes hit upon. Someone is your boss because he can ask better questions than you. Corollary, if you want to step into your boss' shoes, consciously upgrade your skills at critical questioning.

Of course, critical questioning has a lot to do with experience. But at the same time, I have noticed that skills at critical questioning can be remarkably improved by consciously asking "why" again and again. "Why" is perhaps one of the most powerful words of management but often quite underestimated and underutilized.

If you want to rapidly move up the corporate ladder, you should sharpen your skills at asking incisive and unexpected questions. Your best friend in this endeavour would be the power of "why". Never accept anything as perfect. There is always some scope for improvement and value addition. Consciously ask "why" all the time and you would be surprised to see yourself on the fast track.