Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Does Collaboration Stifle Creativity?


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For decades, we have been exposed to the virtues of collaboration, cooperation, and coordination – or team work.

Scholars have built models to explain team performance and team effectiveness.

Organizations spend millions to get to the notion of the “ideal team.”

The foundational concept in team work is synergy – the idea of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.

How real is this notion?

New research (Campbell et al.; Hot shots and cool reception? An expanded view of social consequences for high performers; Journal of Applied Psychology, 2017) suggests that collaboration may, in fact, stifle creativity by imposing social costs on high performers. The authors argue that cooperative contexts prove to be socially disadvantageous for high performers.

In other words, the innovators and hard workers may feel miserable and socially isolated in a typical team environment.

A team has people who bring different skill sets to any situation. Empirical evidence suggests that mediocre employees, rather than rising to the challenge, in effect drag team performance downwards by isolating top performers, spreading nasty rumors, sabotaging the total effort, and even stealing credit for the high performers’ work.

Still Skeptical?

Here are the top reasons for high performers leaving organizations – from a study involving over 5,000 executives:

1.    Rapidly changing priorities – it is very tempting to catch on to the latest fad; the bolt from the blue; the “aha’ moment – the reality is that lasting progress requires loads of patience and perseverance. If you keep the goal post moving all the time, it is unlikely that anyone will score a worthwhile goal. The lesson that we can learn from organizations that consistently outperform their peers is to have clear short-term, medium-term, and long-term goals, and to avoid being distracted for any reason.

2.    Tolerance of mediocrity – while it is true that all employees cannot be high performers, one of the fatal sins of leadership is to condone mediocre performance. Sure, honest failure needs to be accepted, indeed encouraged, but when leaders don’t spot the difference between laxity and hard work, trouble cannot be far away. The “democratization” of incentive schemes is a flaw frequently reported in the literature. If high performers perceive that their efforts are in vain, they will walk away.

3.    The absence of fit between job and person – most organizations try to find people to fit into jobs. They would do well to identify critical jobs and identify the best person to perform the job. The analogy is that of having a custom-built sports car and using it as a golf cart. When high performers find they are being used to do something that practically anyone can, they are frustrated – and leave.

4.    Poor utilization of available talent – study after study indicate that organizations rarely use more than 50% of their potential. Imagine an organization chasing linear growth when the entire industry is moving exponentially. Can you realistically retain your best people?

5.    Nepotism – this invariably touches a raw nerve. Let us face it. We are humans. We are fallible. We have our likes and dislikes. Much as we might want to think otherwise, nepotism is hard to hide. High performers prefer organizations that are fair and square.

It appears that individual talent no longer counts for much. Susan Cain (Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking; Crown; 2012) calls this the New Groupthink – the notion that great ideas can be generated only in an exuberant, boisterous workplace where the loudest voices prevail. The rapid transformation of the workplace into “open office” plans with little or no privacy is a telling example of this concept of “collaboration.” Thank you, star performers, we don’t need you. We can do much better with ordinary folks collaborating all the time.

Step back for a minute. Think of some of the greatest ideas that have emanated through history and think of some of the most acclaimed people in any domain:
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Start with Galileo and Copernicus and the Solar System.

Look at Euclid’s theorem.

Or Newton and Gravity.

Or Einstein and Relativity.

Or Edison and his inventions.

Or Picasso and Michaelangelo and their paintings.

Or Beethoven, Mozart, and Chopin with their masterpieces.

Or think of the philosophers – from Sankara (who propounded non-dualism), Aristotle, Jesus, Buddha, Marx, Sartre, Russel, Descartes, Kant, Nietzche, Cicero, Dewey, or Johannson.

How large were their teams? Who were their collaborators?

I am not for a moment suggesting that each one of us could have done what the souls above gave to humanity. Nor am I suggesting that collaboration per se is harmful.

All that I am respectfully submitting is the virtues of collaboration are vastly overrated. Great insights often require solitude, not noise. We will seriously undermine the efficacy of collaboration if we choose to ignore or overlook the limitations inherent in groups.

As I have written earlier, some of the great corporations of today have altogether abandoned the deeply ingrained models. Holacracy and Teal are the new paradigms. Jobs are no longer relevant. Roles are critical.

Beyond structure, we can make collaboration work by following a few simple rules:

1.    Brainwriting – a new concept which in simple terms is the written version of brainstorming. No member of a team can speak. Everyone writes ideas on post-it notes or another convenient medium. If you wish to eliminate bias, you can insist on printing – everyone uses the same font and size. Each idea is written on a separate note. All the notes go into a basket and then displayed in random order. People have time to study, understand and vote for the three top ideas. The idea that gets the most votes (and by default the greatest buy-in) gets the first shot. As an intermediate step, we can also have a window for developing on others’ ideas.

2.    Defining roles instead of jobs – a person may perform an activity related to marketing in the morning and accounting or finance or service activity in the afternoon. The transition can be during a day, a week, a month, or any convenient time frame.

3.    Air Cliché – list a few clichés (Bark up the wrong tree, Beggars can’t be choosers, Fish in troubled waters) and ask team members to write down possible ideas tied to a cliché that may solve the problem on hand. When complete, ask members to make paper airplanes and toss them to another team. Repeat till you have a consensus on the best course of action. Avoid hierarchy. The process is based on the premise that many of the best ideas come from a fun-filled, playful environment. (for more on this, please refer: James Rogers: The Dictionary of Cliches; Ballantine; 1985).

The next time you form a team, I do hope you can realize synergy.
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Monday, July 17, 2017

Reflect ... or Decay


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We live in a world where business, economics, and politics collide in ways that are frustrating and painful.

Some scholars characterize our existence as living on a nonstop treadmill.

The typical executive’s workday is full of meetings, e-mails, phone calls, travel, reports, crisis management, problem-solving, and decision-making.

The Boston Consulting Group’s “index of complicatedness” has been increasing 7% per year for 50 years now.

When was the last time you read a book in one sitting? Or in a day? Or in a week?

When was the last time you wrote down important points from your reading in a journal?

When was the last time you tried one of those “new ideas” in your work?

A Harvard Business School study of top leaders provides some startling figures:

They spend 60% of their time in meetings.

They spend 25% of their time on the phone or at public events.

That leaves 15% for everything else.

This busyness as if the world may end tomorrow has an indeterminable cost.

We do not know everything about the human brain. We know enough to appreciate that our brains have limits in their ability to concentrate, to pay attention to others, to understand, to remember, and to process information.

Our fascination with multi-tasking breaches those limits.

Today’s hyper-competitive environment creates a strong bias for action.

After all, we judge people by their performance.

Without action, there can be no performance.

The critical mistake is to confuse action with effectiveness.

Cal Newport says that many people mistakenly believe “busyness as a proxy for productivity.”

What is the solution?

Reflection.

While critical thinking tries to solve problems, reflective thinking examines one’s underlying assumptions, core beliefs, and knowledge.

A mass of empirical evidence suggests that reflective thinking enhances our ability to frame problems, search for new meaning, recognize useful (and useless) patterns, and provides a solid foundation for the future.

Mary Helen Immordino-Yang of the University of Southern California suggests that “constructive internal reflection helps us to make meaning of new information and to identify creative, and relevant relationships between complex ideas.”

Warren Buffet reads 5-6 hours every day. So does Bill Gates (he reads 50 books a year). So do anyone that you can think of as being among the top in their field.

Cognitive science tells us that reflective thinking and goal-oriented thinking occur at opposite ends of a “digital switch” in the brain.

When one is “on,” the other is “off.”

Three Simple Rules:

As with most other things, we can break down reflective thinking into three simple rules (an idea formulated by Kathleen Eisenhardt of Stanford).

1.    We need a schedule and a structure – reflective thinking is not a random process. It is as much a part of executive life as anything else. And it takes as little as 12 hours to make it a habit. Some of the questions that can help start the process are:

A.    What are some of the patterns/issues/dilemmas in our company that we rarely, if ever, acknowledge?

B.    What are some highly successful business models of today that we may be overlooking?

C.    What are the explicit and implicit aspirations and dreams that we want to achieve – personally and professionally?

2.    In a world that worships success-stories and swiftly condemns a failed initiative or a misstep, and the advent of social media creates relentless pressure, leaders tend to amplify “heroic stoicism.” Leaders can do no wrong. Leaders are always optimistic. Leaders embody confidence and success. All this is fine except that it can exist only in utopia. One of the best enablers of reflective thinking is a person who you trust – completely and unconditionally – and who is not afraid to challenge your assumptions. A dialogue with a trusted person is a powerful catalyst for reflection. Ideally, the person should be from outside the organization.

3.    Most importantly, we need to practice noting down important ideas/lessons/shortcomings and turn to them to guide future action. A random act of reflection may be useful but cannot provide lasting value.

The reflective executive is rich in imagination and exemplary in execution.

I am indebted to Roseline Torres, Martin Reeves, Peter Tollman, and Christian Veith of the Boston Consulting Group for the core idea presented in this blog.


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Tuesday, July 11, 2017

What Would You Do?

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In 1997, Bowen McCoy wrote an article in HBR titled "The Parable of the Sadhu."

Here is the abstract:

A group of executives (among them the author) from different countries is on a Himalayan trek. As they prepare to reach their destination, an 18,000 foot pass over a crest, some memories about the problems that one faces at high altitudes swirl through their minds. Having reached 15,500 feet, they don't want to give up.

They wake up at 3.30 AM and start climbing. Barely a few minutes into the climb, they spot an almost naked sadhu (Indian ascetic) struggling on the way down. No one knows what to do. One team member is so excited about the crest that is only a few hours away that he walks ahead. The others manage to cover the sadhu with some clothes. The sadhu is alive. The team spots another team coming up and leaves. 

On reaching the crest and congratulating each other on their "success", the author remembers the sadhu. An argument follows. Did they do enough for the sadhu? Which was more important - accomplishing their mission or saving a fellow human who was clearly in need of food and shelter?

One member feels that what happened with the sadhu is a good example of the breakdown between the individual ethic and the corporate ethic. No one person was willing to assume ultimate responsibility for the sadhu. Each one was willing to do a bit as long as it was not too inconvenient. It transpires that the team that followed provided the sadhu with some food. Another team carried him to the nearest village and left him in a home. Nobody knows whether the sadhu lived or died. 

One member calmly says: "What we did is the typical affluent Westerner's response to a problem. Throw money - in this case, food and sweaters - at it, but not solving the fundamentals."

Counter-argument: "We are at the apex of one of the most powerful experiences of our lives. What right does an almost naked pilgrim who chooses the wrong trail have to disrupt our lives?"

The first member responds: "What would you have done if the "pilgrim" was a well-dressed Western woman in distress? Would you have done exactly the same?"

To quote the author:

"Real moral dilemmas are ambiguous, and many of us hike right through them, unaware that they exist. When, after the fact, someone makes an issue of one, we tend to resist her or his bringing it up. When the full import of what we have done (or not done) hits us, we dig into a defensive position from which it is very difficult to emerge."

What are the practical limits of moral imagination or vision?

And why do I bring this up in 2017?

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I respectfully submit that nothing has changed between 1997 and today. If anything, as a species, we are at a lower point than we were twenty years back.

Specifically, let me pose you a question that is thrown at us every day, practically on every channel.

A commercial by a not-for-profit hospital that treats children who are very ill without any cost to the parents: "For just $19 a month (that is 63 cents a day), you can make a change in the life of a child. Call now!"

A commercial by a UN agency: "For just $19 a month (that is 63 cents a day), you can change the life of a child in need (a refugee). Call now!"

A commercial by ASPCA: "For just $19 a month (that is 63 cents a day), you can change the life of an animal (dog or cat). Call now!"

Hypothetically, let us assume that you can support any one of these.

Which one would you choose? And why?





Thursday, June 22, 2017

Lessons from a troubled Unicorn

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Once upon a time, not long ago, there was a company called Enron.

In 2001, Fortune magazine ranked Enron at No. 7 with revenues of over $100 billion, profits of nearly a billion, and a market value of nearly $50 billion.

The “icing on the cake” for Enron was Fortune naming it (Enron) “America’s most innovative company” 6 years in a row.

Enron went on to innovate and grow. In 2017, it became the No.1 company in the world with revenues of over half a trillion and a market cap to match. Employing over 100,000 people, Enron represented the best in American entrepreneurship and innovation.

Well, you know that the last paragraph didn’t happen.

Fortune had to “red circle” Enron in its 500 lists. The company collapsed spectacularly after it was discovered that key top executives and Arthur Anderson (company’s auditors) had “managed” to keep huge debts off the balance sheets resulting in “fake earnings” of $1.7 billion.

Shareholders lost some $74 billion, thousands of employees lost their retirement accounts, and many lost their jobs. CEO Jeff Skilling and former CEO Ken Lay went to prison. Lay died before serving time. Skilling got 24 years in prison. Arthur Anderson was found guilty of fudging Enron’s accounts and was fined $7 million.
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How did the malfeasance become known?

Sherron Watkins thought something was fishy about the stock prices and turned whistleblower.

Fast forward to 2017.

Who could have predicted a few months back that the “poster boy” for Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial spirit, Travis Kalanick, Co-founder and CEO of Uber would be stepping down?

The company has had a meteoric rise and earlier this month had a presumptive value of over $70 billion.

Please read the transcripts or watch the videos of Kalanick’s speeches at conferences, his inspirational addresses to students across the world, his numerous and unabashedly arrogant interviews. You would probably think that the next great leader has arrived.

Then hear Adam Lashinsky’s fascinating audio book on Kalanick (Wild Ride: Inside Uber’s Quest for World Domination; Penguin Audio; 2017).

I won’t spoil the fascinating (and often disturbing) account by revealing anything.

However, it is worth noting a few important lessons from the rise and (at least temporary) fall of Travis Kalanick:

Leadership matters – leading by example matters even more. Using expletives every other sentence may be “cool” but I would respectfully submit that behind the façade is a probable realization that something could be terribly wrong.

Organizational culture matters – a toxic culture that is impervious to real problems and real issues is an almost guaranteed path to failure.

Rapid and constructive responses to crises matter – the more you try to push issues under the carpet, the more cancerous they become.

In the era of social media and instant “breaking news” negative publicity is probably a hundred times as potent as positive publicity. The ability of the latter to generate goodwill is incremental. The ability of the former to destroy a brand is a near certainty – quick and brutal.

A parallel to Enron is Susan Fowler whose blog on discrimination and sexual harassment triggered the present crisis, the appointment of a former Attorney General to investigate matters, and the forced resignation of Kalanick.

Which begs the question – have we lost the capacity to learn from history? More on this in a subsequent post.

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Friday, May 26, 2017

Transportation 2030


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Last week, Ford abruptly changed its CEO. Moody’s reported that the move reflects potentially negative developments inside the automaker. The credit-rating agency declared that the ascension of Jim Hackett is credit-negative for Ford.

Meanwhile, Tesla has overtaken both GM and Ford as the most valuable automaker in the US.

Let us try to place this in perspective. Last year (2016) GM sold 10 million cars and earned a profit of $9 billion.

Tesla sold 76,000 cars and suffered a loss of $776 million.

Investors seem to view Tesla more favorably than either GM or Ford.

Beyond the sensational headlines, it is worth noting that if we consider enterprise value instead of market capitalization, we get a different picture:

Tesla’s enterprise value (debt + equity – cash) is about $66 billion.

Ford’s enterprise value is about $238 billion.

GM’s enterprise value is about $216 billion.

One way to understand Tesla’s valuation is to realize that equity constitutes 74% of assets, while the corresponding figures for Ford and GM are 18% and 22% respectively.

A different, perhaps disturbing way of understanding the valuations is to look at the future of transportation.

Enter Tony Seba, Stanford University economist, and futurologist.

According to Seba, clean disruption projections, based on technology cost curves, business model innovation, and product innovation) show that by 2030 (that is right, just thirteen years away):

Solar or the wind will be the sources of all new energy.

All new mass-market vehicles will be electric.

All these vehicles will be autonomous (self-driving) or semi-autonomous (minimal human intervention).

The car market will shrink by 80%.

Gasolene will be obsolete. Natural gas and coal will be obsolete.

The concept of individual car ownership will be obsolete.

The taxi industry will be obsolete.

The car insurance industry will undergo massive disruption, with rates falling as much as 90%.

This scenario (that will make Tesla very happy and cause anxiety to others) rests on a fairly simple premise: electric vehicles (EVs) will be ten times cheaper to run than fossil fuel-based cars, with a near-zero marginal cost of fuel and an expected lifespan of 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometers).

Mr. Seba adds for good measure: “We are on the cusp of one of the fastest, deepest, and most consequential disruptions of transportation in history. Internal combustion engines will enter a vicious cycle of increasing costs.”
The next generation of vehicles will be "computers on wheels." Tesla, Google, Apple, and Foxconn have the disruptive edge and are going for the kill. Silicon Valley is where the future of transportation will take shape. Not in Detroit or Wolfsburg or Toyota City

The “tipping point” will likely occur in the next two to three years. EV battery ranges surpass 200 miles, and electric car prices in the US will drop to $30,000 with low-end models available at $20,000. The ensuing avalanche will sweep all before it.

What the cost curve says is that by 2025 all new vehicles will be electric. All new buses, all new cars, all new tractors, all new vans, anything that moves on wheels will be electric, globally.”

“Global oil demand will peak at 100 million barrels per day by 2020, dropping to 70 million by 2030. The long-term price of crude oil will be $25 per barrel, with fossil-based fuels in use only in certain chemical industries and aviation. Certain high-cost countries, companies, and fields will see their oil production entirely wiped out. Leading companies in the oil sector today will see 50% of their assets being useless.”

You may not agree with the dire predictions.

Other experts disagree not on the core message but on the timeline.

The trends are clear if one is willing to take the blinkers off.

China, the most populous country in the world, is aggressively pushing “new energy” vehicles, a euphemism for electric and hybrid vehicles.

Wang Chuanfu, the head of Chinese electric car maker BYD, backed by Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway, says “The Trend is irreversible.”

India, the second most populous country in the world, plans to phase out all petrol and diesel cars by 2032. The approach is a mix of subsidies for electric vehicles and car pooling, and a cap on fossil-based cars.

Global shipping rules are clamping down on dirty high-sulphur oil used in shipping, a move that may lead to the industry switching to liquefied natural gas.

Even the leading OPEC countries seem to believe the inevitability of it all. Why else would one of the largest state-funded oil companies in the world sell-off chunks of its equity to fund diversification away from oil?

At the heart of this unprecedented disruption is elegant simplicity.

The Tesla S has 18 moving parts, compared with nearly 2,000 for a traditional car.

Maintenance is nearly zero. No wonder Tesla is offering infinite-mile warranties.

EVs are four times more efficient than petrol or diesel cars, which lose 80 percent of their power in heat.

“What changes the equation is the advent of EV models with the acceleration and performance of a Ferrari costing ten times less to buy, and at least ten times less to run.”

The effect will not be confined to cars. Trucks will switch in tandem. Over 70 percent of US haulage routes are already within battery range, and batteries are getting better each year.

The Telegraph of London quotes Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England and Chairman of Basel’s Financial Stability Board:

Fossil energy companies are booking assets that can never be burnt under the Paris agreement. The energy revolution is moving so fast that it may precipitate a global financial crisis. It took a small shift in demand for coal to bankrupt three of the four largest coal-mining companies in short order. There will be losers. Whole countries will spin into crisis. The global geopolitical order will be reshaped almost overnight.”

It is worth remembering that the Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stones. It ended because a disruptive technology ushered in the Bronze Age.

In the last two decades, we have seen the complete disruption of entire industries – mainframe computing, publishing, landline telephony, and information access.

The forthcoming disruption will be quick and brutal.
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Monday, May 22, 2017

Capitalism's Dilemma


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Addressing shareholders recently, Warren Buffet defended 3G Capital’s method of cutting costs and shoring up short-term profits. The comments came in the aftermath of 3G’s $143 billion failed bid for Unilever.

It is worth examining the two models of capitalism that 3G and Unilever represent.

3G’s last success was with Kraft Heinz. Kraft Heinz today is notable for its clock-like efficiency. The company has closed many of its plants, sold off non-productive assets and has waged war on costs. Fortune magazine has reported that the company has been able to shrink overhead costs from 18% to 11% in two years.

As noted by Professor Julian Birkinshaw of London Business School, the executives at Kraft Heinz (mostly planted by 3G) have transplanted the performance culture of an investment bank to the world of fast-moving consumer goods. The culture transformation is nothing short of breathtaking. If you perform well, rewards and bonuses await you. If you are sloppy, you lose your job. Period. There is no scope for emotions or empathy. 3G’s overarching mission is the maximization of shareholder wealth. Although not explicitly stated, but evident from its actions, other stakeholders simply do not matter.

It is possible to argue that 3G’s approach is perfectly consistent with the core principles of capitalism. After all, “Capitalism demands the best of every man – his rationality – and rewards him accordingly. It leaves every man to choose the work he likes, to specialize in it, to trade his product for the products of others, and to go as far on the road of achievement as his ability and ambition will carry him.” (Ayn Rand: Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, PP20).
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Unilever is at the other end of the spectrum. Unilever’s mission is to “make sustainable living commonplace.” Paul Polman is at the forefront of “pro-social” goals and wants to double Unilever’s revenues while reducing its environmental footprint and increasing social impact. Unilever extolls performance but in a much more nuanced way. Integrity and impact mean a lot more than hard numbers. Unilever’s executives may not earn as much as their counterparts at Kraft Heinz, but they do have a more relaxed work setting, devoid of relentless pressure to deliver quarterly results.

We have these two companies, both in the consumer goods space, trying hard to push their brand of capitalism. 3G capital controls Kraft Heinz and has become a force to reckon with notwithstanding the fact that some of its methods are open to debate. Unilever has become the poster-company for “conscious capitalism.” When you think of corporate social responsibility, you cannot but think of Unilever. The notion that corporations exist to serve all stakeholders and not just shareholders is equally debatable.

Jorge Paulo Lemann (3G) is not accustomed to failure. His strategy is simple – slash costs and merge. 3G’s ruthlessness emanates from the fact that thousands of workers have lost their jobs in the target companies. That does not seem to deter either Lemann or 3G. After all, investors are happy (at least in the short term) and should owners (shareholders) worry if people lose jobs in the process of wealth creation? This is one end of capitalism where inequalities will increase, jobs will be disrupted, and people who do not or cannot acquire new skills just won’t survive. The whole idea may make you squirm, but you cannot wish it away. After all, 3G represents what textbooks advocate and very few firms can pull off – managers who act like owners (and are rewarded accordingly). It is worth noting that Kraft Heinz’s sales have fallen in four of the six quarters since the two companies combined, placing a big question mark on whether cutting costs relentlessly is compatible with growth.


 Paul Polman of Unilever is one of the most ardent exemplars of responsible capitalism. In his worldview, products that meet the highest standards of social and environmental sustainability perform better than products that don’t. Polman’s assertion appears to hold in the long-term but not in the short term, as the graphs above and below show.
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At the heart of capitalism’s dilemma is the ultimate goal of the corporation. Agency theory suggests that managers are “agents” and hence “maximizing shareholder value” is the primary responsibility of managers.

Professors Joseph Bower and Lynn Paine of Harvard Business School point out in their illuminating article “The Error at the Heart of Corporate Leadership” (HBR May-June 2017) how flawed the agency theory is. “The idea that shareholders are owners of the corporation is at best confusing and at worst incorrect.”

Come to think of it; shareholders have absolutely no incentives to think like owners. Therefore, the agency theory produces a moral hazard. Shareholders are not worried about the morality of decisions nor do they have a clearly defined responsibility as to the consequences. It is unrealistic to assume that all shareholders have a common purpose or an overarching vision. Managers feel constrained in their ability to perform due to the constant pressure from over-zealous shareholders.

What is the way out? Which “brand” of capitalism do you espouse? Why?


Thursday, May 11, 2017

Design Thinking For A Better Life


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Design Thinking is a problem-solving approach that uses a combination of empathy, creativity, and analysis to tackle unique problems. At a macro level, the approach can be used by governments and organizations. An emerging economy launching a hundred smart cities project or an organization looking for the next big business idea can both use design thinking.

Design Thinking can be applied equally well at a personal level.

Bill Burnett is an adjunct professor at Stanford and leads the Design Thinking program. In a distinguished career spanning decades, Bill has used the principles to generate dramatic new designs in a variety of domains. In the last decade, he has also pioneered the “Design Your Life” course at Stanford. The course, among the most popular at Stanford, is now offered at the freshman, graduate, and doctoral levels. Bill is the co-author (with Dave Evans) of the book “Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-lived, Joyful Life.” (Knopf, 2016).

Most of us have faced the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” multiple times over our lives.

Bill Burnett argues that this is a wrong question to ask.

Suppose we reframe the question:

What can I do to keep exploring throughout life?”

In other words, how to we nurture the curiosity of a five-year-old over a lifetime?

Psychologists and behavioral scientists (and employers) try to find out what our passion is.

Bill and Dave propose this is the wrong approach. It appears that only 20% of any population can identify a single passion. For the overwhelming majority (80%), there simply is no single passion. Most of us are passionate about many different things, and these may vary from the time of day to particular days of the week all the way to different stages of life.

The challenge is to apply the principles of Design Thinking to the “wicked problem” of life – be it managing one’s career, pursuing one’s heart, or realize one’s true potential.

A “wicked problem” is a large, ambiguous problem that is poorly defined, and even more poorly bounded. You will agree that life fits this definition.

First, the principles of Design Thinking:

1.    Empathize: Design Thinking places people and their needs at the center. What does the end user want? What is the “job to be done”? This step requires observation, engagement, and conversation. Most market research studies fail this first step. It should not come as a surprise that most products and services fail.

2.    Define: Once we identify the real “job to be done” from the perspective of the end user, we need to define the “problem” or “challenge” in a meaningful way. Defining the problem right is half the solution.

3.    Ideate: Use your creative mind to generate as many “solutions” as possible. Never mind whether the solutions make sense. Don’t try to figure out the “right” answer. Just allow your mind to come up with solutions that do not exist at present. Brainswarming (not brainstorming), mind mapping, and doodling are some of the useful tools for this stage.

4.    Prototype: Design Thinking is all about “learning by doing.” Convert as many solutions as you can into working prototypes. The essence of this step is speed. Don’t aim for the perfect solution. Look for a tangible solution that the end user is likely to be pleased with. Remember: it is better to fail and cheaply at this stage than to fail spectacularly later.

5.    Test: Go into the real world and test your solution/s. Don’t expect the smell of sweet success. Expect end users to trash your solution. Learn from their feedback. Iteration is at the heart of Design Thinking. Don’t ever think that your first solution is indeed the best. More often than not, your first solution is likely to be your worst – from the end user’s perspective.

Applying Design Thinking to Your Life

Use the core principles of Design Thinking. Find out what is working and what is not. Experiment. Dare to challenge the status quo. Applying Design Thinking to life involves “improvisation” and “wayfinding.”

1.    Maintain a “Good Time” Journal.

Assumption one: We find something missing in life. How do we improve this situation?

Start with a “Good Time” Journal. Keep a record (hour to hour) of all of your daily activities for a week.

Check the activities that you find most fulfilling.

When are you completely immersed in what you do? Why?

Which activities make you happy? Which ones make you unhappy?

Which activities help you to be calm and poised? Which ones create anxiety, fear, and anger?

When do you feel that life is a smooth flow? When do you find it turbulent?

What are you doing when you are most alive, present, and animated?

This is the critical step. The more insights you gather in this step, the better off you will be. Use the Design Thinking process to reinforce the activities that make you happy, and relegate or do away with activities that are not fulfilling. Iterate.

For the rest of your life.

2.    Track Your Energy.

You will find from the Journal that some activities energize you. And some activities just drain you. Maintain the Journal for a few weeks. You will have a clear idea of activities that energize you and activities that drain you. Merely knowing how each activity affects you propels you to do more of what energizes you and less of what drains you.

3.    Create Three Odyssey Plans.

Think of the next five years. Identify three paths or scenarios which you can pursue realistically.

The first scenario is a continuation of your current state. Status-quo.

The second scenario is what you would do if your current situation suddenly changes. What if you lose your job? What if you have a quarrel with your boss? What if there is a natural disaster in your area?

The third scenario is a hypothetical “wish list” of all that you might want to do over a life time. Sell off everything and walk or bike across the world? Become a chef? Go para-gliding or bungee-jumping? Go ahead. Create the most preposterous list that you can imagine. The point of the third scenario is to explore many different paths – most of which you might not have thought of consciously till now. Remember it is never too late to learn. Ten hours a day for three years can get you to the magical 10,000 hours to master anything.

4.    Define Your Problem.

Use the first three steps to generate a template.

What makes me happy and how can I do more of it?

What makes me unhappy and how can I do less of it?

What do I want to do next?

What skills do I need to move in a different direction?

Honestly, how much room do I have to maneuver?

Now that I have examined my situation, how can I make it better?

How do I create the next version of myself?

What do I need to change the most?

How do I reinvent myself?

5.    Ideate.

Please understand the difference between navigating and wayfinding.

You can navigate when you know exactly where you want to go.

Life does not afford the simplicity.

We know we want to go somewhere, but we are not sure exactly where.

Wayfinding is the answer.

Wayfinding is the method hunters use to identify their target.

Look for clues. Come up with alternatives. Brainswarm. Doodle. Draw mental maps. Once you have what you think will make you happy, start prototyping and testing your ideas.

6.    Prototype and Test.

When it comes to life, a prototype is a quick and inexpensive way to determine whether a certain idea will make you happy or not.

As an example, let us say you want to run a marathon in three years.

Ask a runner what it takes to do a marathon.

Start running short distances.

Increase the distance gradually.

Do you feel energized?

If yes, continue.

Taken to its logical conclusion, one day you might indeed run a marathon.

Or at some point, you may realize that running itself is more beneficial than running a marathon.

You may find that running two miles every day makes you healthier and more full of energy.

Make these course corrections and iterations again and again.

Do you want to learn a language? There are many portals that allow you to learn languages for free. Try one for a week. Feel excited? Continue. Feel drained? Think of another language, or music, or an MOOC. Experiment.

Don’t be afraid of failing.

Failures are the stepping stones to success.

What are you waiting for?

Use Design Thinking to create a new future – and a new YOU.
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