Monday, April 29, 2013

Leadership Lesson from a Navigation System

I was returning from an unusually bad day at office. Till this morning I thought, I had everything worked out. The goals were attainable. I had worked every minute aspect of execution plan and I was with my team leading the mission from front. Every deviation was noticed, relevant team members were involved and corrective actions were taken. Then why did this happen?

I was lost deep in my thoughts as I got behind the steering wheel. I had to go one of acquaintance's home for dinner. I didn't know the way so just entered their address in navigation system and went back to my train of thoughts. I was quite happy with the progress so far on the project. We were well on track and ahead of schedule. Today, we delivered a milestone and received positive feedback from the client. Today was supposed to be a team lunch to celebrate a milestone but it turned out to be a grievance sharing meeting. My team felt directionless. They felt everything around was uncertain and I was virtually sitting in a command room and asking them to do certain tasks with no lead time. They failed to see the big picture. Although, I assured them that we were on right course, they were not sure. I failed to empathize with them. Why would you think directionless when you are perfectly on course!

I didn't know the answer as I kept driving. The navigation system was doing its job and asking me to take turns, exits, keep lane and I was just following the orders. As I switched off from my thoughts and started concentrating on the driving, the first thing I noticed was I didn't know where I was headed. I didn't know how from my current location, I would arrive at my destination. I didn't know what the navigation system would order next. And suddenly, I started empathizing with my team. May be navigation system had it all worked out but I didn't know, so I was feeling the same directionlessness when probably I was on right course.

I decided to pull over and take a closer look at the navigation map. I took an overview, looked at my current position and final destination. Looked at which direction I was generally headed and started driving again. It worked like a magic! Now I could anticipate what the next turn might be. I still needed the navigation system commands to stay on course but since I knew the big picture I could understand and appreciate what was happening. The directionlessness had vanished and I was quite sure where I was headed.

Needless to say, I spent next few days showing the big picture to my team and help them anticipate what direction they may have to take. I was still in the command room but now my orders were well understood and well received.

Unless, your team knows and has a buy-in in the big picture they will feel directionless irrespective of where you are headed. Knowing the big picture does not eliminate the need for having a navigation system. It is still required to work out the nitty-gritties, warn us about speed traps and slow moving traffic to enable course correction. But knowing big picture makes the driving experience so much more predictable. This was a great leadership lesson from an inanimate object.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Armor test to get a lifelong client

Akbar was a noble mughal king who ruled India in 12th century. It is said that he had a very intelligent, witty and smart advisor called Birbal in his court.

Birbal was quite friendly and approachable for anyone who faced problems with burocracy or dealing with ministers, courts and the King in general. One day he was approached by the best armor supplier for royal army. When the supplier's men were delivering armors as per usual routine, they were stopped by some ministers who were jealous of his success and wanted to promote other suppliers. They took out an armor kept it on floor and attacked it with sword with all their might. The armor broke into pieces. They reported this to Akbar who was naturally very upset and had summoned the armor supplier to the court the next day. He sought Birbal's advice on how to deal with situation.

"But why did your armor broke into pieces? Was it bad quality?" queried Birbal. "No", exclaimed the supplier, "you put any armor on the floor and attack with the sword it would break. Thats not how it is supposed to be tested. An armor is supposed to be tested by putting it on". Birbal thought for a while and said, "then that is precisely what you should do tomorrow".

The next day, the armor supplier reached the court wearing the armor. He requested, "I would ask the mightiest warrior to run a sword on me now. If I survive that means my armor is good quality. If the armor breaks, I would die any way and thats the punishment I deserve". Needless to say, he passed this test with flying colors and won back the armor contract.

I thought this story is relevant in corporate environment today. Isn't it quite common that no matter how good you are and how well you serve the client, there would be a set of people who would not want you to be there. They will put roadblocks and create situations to get you out. Sounds familiar?

It is also quite common that the clients would evaluate your product or service in a completely wrong way and blame you for results. Thats not all, it may be impossible to tell the client that their testing or evaluation criteria are wrong. What do you do in such a case?

Well, the big boss has to wear the armor and face the mightiest warrior from the client side. No doubt it is risky. There are chances that armor may break. But that is your best chance. Unless you show unshakeable confidence in your product, service or solution, how can you win back the trust? What is good about risky decisions is they also come with high reward.

You can earn clients for life but you should be ready to pass armor-test with them every once in a while.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Wrong story - right conclusion!

It was story time with my 5 year old son again and today's story was "Friend in need is friend indeed"

An old man wanted to cross the jungle and reach his village as fast as he could. He met a young man who was also going in the same direction. Both decided to travel together and help each other if there is a difficulty. Suddenly, they saw a bear chasing them. Both started to run. Obviously, young man ran faster. Old man said, "I can't run fast. Let's take my stick and fight with the bear". The young man did not listen and climbed the tree and hid. The old man shouted for help but no avail. Suddenly, he thought of a bright idea. He lay still on the ground as if he was dead. The bear sniffed and went away as the bears don't eat animals which are already dead. The young man climbed the tree down and asked old man what happened. The Old man was quite upset and said,"the bear whispered in his ears that the young man was not worthy to be his friend since he did not help him to save his situation." Moral : Friend in need is friend indeed.

With all due respect, the old man was expecting too much from the young man. What was he supposed to do? Fighting the bear with stick does not sound like an exciting plan and had very low probability of success. Running as fast as you can when the hunter is chasing you is an animal instinct. It is in our genes we can't not do it. When a herd of wild buffaloes is chased by lions, they run. If the stay together as a group instead of running probably lion won't be able to hunt them. But they don't. They run for their lives. Thats what the young man did. He did not want the old man to die. He just wanted to save himself.

My real problem with this story is that we are setting a wrong expectation in our children's young minds about what a real friend is. This story sets the bar too high. Nobody including your best friend should be "expected" to make a sacrifice or put their life in danger for you. If they do it, they are great and are definitely the best friends but if they don't do it one can't blame them.

We have to educate our kids that in extreme situations they have to take their own responsibility. In real life , that is what happens. For extreme situations, the best person to counter the situation is YOU and you have to do it bravely. That is likely to bring out the best in you, like it did for the old man. As long as he was expecting the young man to help, he did not do anything to help himself. When he knew he was alone and young man was not going to help, he came up with a brilliant idea to save himself.

This story tries to deliver a positive and altruistic conclusion by sighting a negative example. That is simply not convincing. I agree with the conclusion but story does not do justice to the great thought. So I decided to re-write the story.

An old man wanted to cross the jungle and reach his village on the other side as fast as he could. He met a young man who was also going in the same direction. Both decided to travel together and help each other if there is a difficulty. Suddenly, they saw a bear chasing them. Both started to run. Obviously, young man ran faster. As they were running they thought of a plan. The old man to lay down still on the ground and the young man climbed a nearby tree. As the bear came nearer the young man reached out to some balloons in his pocket. He quickly blew up a few balloons and as bear bent down to sniff the old man and he bursted them to create a loud bang. The bear got scared and ran away. Both were happy that their plan worked. They became very good friends for rest of their lives. Moral : Friend in need is friend indeed.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Dream Team - Utzon and Columbus

I was inspired to write this blog when I visited Sydney Opera House recently. They have a beautiful tour within Sydney Opera house to explain the history and the making of Opera House, the story of how opera house came into being. A global competition was held for designing Opera house. Most reknowned architects and designers participated from all over the world. Most of the entries had shown a roomy, boxy conventional designs, except for a dutch architect Mr. Utzon, which eventually got selected and is standing near harbor bridge for us to see. We all know that the design is very distinctive, innovative etc etc. But what intrigued me was when Mr. Utzon sent this design it was just a sketch. They liked it but nobody knew for sure - including Mr. Utzon whether such a structure could be built. They just embarked on a dream project and eventually fulfilled the dream after several years of delay and several million dollars spent over budget. Mr. Utzon oversaw the project for a very long time but Sydney government had to relieve him of his duties as he could not get job done. Mr. Utzon, despite making such a great design, could never visit his dream project after its completion. The creator of the concept just remained a pure dreamer who could not even see his dream turned to reality because of his poor execution skills.

That reminded me of Columbus - the great for different reason altogether. He had a completely different skill set. He set out to find alternate route to India and accidentally landed in American continent near carribian islands. When he landed he did not know where he was, when he returned he could not explain where he had been. Till he died he believed that he had found an alternate route to Indian subcontinent. In short, he had absolutely no idea about where he has reached but he did complete 3 more voyages to America in next few years. Without knowing big picture he could achieve the same result under complex conditions with impeccable accuracy. Thats what I called implementation excellence.

Look around you. You will easily spot lots of Utzons and Columbuses. The Utzons may tell stories that look infeasible, may appear dreamy and may be easily written off as useless. Thats where the columbus should begin. he should strive hard to get that dream to reality. He may not understand the dream or appreciate the big picture but thats not his job. His job is to implement it without worrying about whether its doable or not.

We find scores of Utzons and Columbuses in any organization. Both of them may struggle to find their own space and succeed in the organization. Somehow, our modern organizations are built for people who are closer to the median on most organizational skills, not for people closer to extremes. Thats where the management skill is required to bring these two complimentary skills to gather and make the dream team. The team that has capability to dream the impossible and then bring to reality against all odds, again and again, the team that consists of Mr. Utzon and Mr. Columbus.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Managing the Career - Diet plan way

One of my friends recently underwent a detox­ cum ­weightloss program. His daily diet consisted of some pills that had measured and balanced nutrition with all the vitamins, proteins and carbs, he needed for the day. Technically, he could just pop those few pills and all his nutritional needs were met. He need not eat anything else for rest of the day for his nutritional needs. But diet plan consisting of pills won’t work as the stomach is not built to run on pills. Hunger strikes and then you got to eat certain volume of food. His diet program had a fiber jelly which just filled the stomach and did not have considerable nutrition. Thats how the balance in the diet was managed.

I thought our careers were no different. A balanced career should keep you gainfully occupied for the whole day and should pay you enough at the end of the month. Keeping gainfully occupied is similar to nutritional value provided by your diet and salary at the end of the month fills your stomach..literally.

But how many of us really have such careers?

Feeling underpaid and overworked is quite common and apparent. This is very similar to spotting a hungry person, quite straight forward. If you look around you would find many who are not happy with their salary. There are many who complain about the being overworked. It is quite easy to spot the problem and even correct the situation - just find yourselves a better paying job.

But there are many who are suffering in silence because they feel underutilized. Their pay might be good but the job does not challenge them enough or does not give them enough mental fodder to think about. The job is simply not challenging enough. It feels as if your brain is rusting. This is very similar to sufficient diet which is not nutritious enough.

Watch out ... have you fallen in this trap? Unfortunately, if you have then you have to go the diet­plan way. Separate feeling of being well utilized from feeling well paid. You deserve to have both. Push yourself in current job, get out of your comfort zone, volunteer for the new position nobody wants to take. If none of these is possible, look for something that will challenge you outside your workplace. Volunteer to run the charity donation drive, join support groups, mentor a budding entrepreneurs, teach some students... Make sure you feel well utilized.

You can easily spot imbalance in diet and join a plan to set it right. Balanced diet means enough quantity with sufficient nutrition. We should also look at our careers once in awhile and rebalance it. Like a balance diet, you should be well paid and also well utilized. There is no real choice.