Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Infinite vision and the questions that shaped Aravind Eye Care system

India is a land of paradoxes. On the one hand, we have sixty people losing sight in an eye camp and thirteen women losing life in a sterilization camp in the last two months. On the other hand, we have Aravind Eye Care system – overlooking 1000+ sight-restoring surgeries every day with world class quality standards, serving poor and rich with compassion, and in a financially self-sustainable way.

The canvass that Aravind covers is so vast that any narrative that tries to present Aravind story will be incomplete. But some are less incomplete than others. “Infinite Vision: How Aravind became the wold’s greatest business case for compassion” by Pavithra Mehta and Suchitra Shenoy is perhaps the least incomplete and lucidly written tale of Aravind, its founder Dr. Venkataswamy and many others who shaped the infinite vision. Here are two things that I found most interesting in the book.

1.      Questions behind the answers: If Aravind is the extraordinary answer, what were Dr. V’s questions? This is the core riddle the book aims to address. Through the personal journal Dr. V kept over the decades, the authors get a peek into the questions. “How to organize and build more hospitals like McDonald’s”. Reads a journal entry from 1980s. Notice that there is no question mark (?) at the end of the sentence, a peculiar characteristic of Dr. V’s writing. It is as though each question contains a seed of the answer. Another entry reads - “How was Buddha able to organize in those days a religion that millions follow. Who were the leaders. How were they shaped.” At Frankfort airport Dr. V watched a plane land and the process that followed and said to his friend, “This is how we should run our operating theatre.” In 1978, Dr. V visited 40,000 square-foot training facility at University of Michigan School of Medicine. After seeing the training centre, he mentioned to Dr. Suzanne Gilbert, “One day, I would like to have a centre like this one.” She was baffled by this remark of the Indian doctor who at that time ran an 11-bed eye clinic.

2.      Light behind the spirit: Dr. V was deeply influenced by the teachings of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. The spiritual quest got translated into questions like – How do I become a perfect instrument? (1980 journal entry). The book beautifully weaves the thread of Dr. V’s spiritual journey towards becoming a perfect instrument in the narrative. However, a question arises - What did it mean on a day-to-day basis to Dr. V? Following excerpt from a journal entry gives a glimpse:

You feel drawn to a patient because he’s from your village, known to you, and then you try to do your best for him. But at times, a patient is aggressive and demands some privileges. He says, “Could you see me first?” This upsets you, and with that feeling of annoyance you treat him. You are not able to disassociate him from his mental or emotional aggressiveness. … To do this [treat him well] you must bring into your own being silence, calmness, and quietude. It needs enormous practice to realize the experience of silence in you.

“This man’s spirituality wasn’t incidental to the story. It was what everything else hinged on,” says Prof. V. Kasturi Rangan of Harvard Business School who wrote the case on Aravind that became popular world over.

Personally, “Can spirituality be integrated in organizations?” is a question I have carried with me for some time now. The book gives a ray of hope. Kudos to Pavithra and Suchitra for bringing out such a wonderful story. Hope it reaches out to more people.

I would like to thank Mr. Thulsi for giving a copy of the book to me. He is playing a key role at Aravind in shaping the “Infinite vision” and inspiring many.

Book image source: flipkart.com. 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

How to build curiosity stamina?

Stefan Hawking, the famous Physicist, in his first Facebook update in October said, “Be curious. I know I will always be.” That’s not very different from what Einstein said, “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” Most of us may not be passionately curious about anything. Is there a way one can build curiosity stamina systematically? Let’s explore it in this article.

Many times we confuse curiosity stamina with what kids demonstrate. They keep asking “Why?” questions one after the other. That is a useful start. However, that is not an indicator of curiosity stamina. Jamsetji Tata took a soil sample near Nagpur for testing in 1882. He wanted to check if the soil is right for steel production. The result was negative. He continued to perform such tests whenever a soil showed promise and kept a journal to keep track of the results. For how long? 17 years! That’s curiosity stamina. It is remaining curious around a single question or a topic for sufficiently long time. Not jumping from one question to another question from moment-to-moment. Ask yourself – how long do I remain curious around one topic? For most of us, the topic is over once a quick-fix is given.

Here are a few more examples of people demonstrating curiosity stamina:

·        Andrew Wiles: Remained curious about Fermat’s Last Theorem for more than two decades before committing to the problem for another decade. (See the story).
·        Rahul Bhatia: Remained curious about starting an airline in India for more than two decades before starting Indigo. He and his friend Rakesh Gangwal first discussed the possibility in 1985.

Is it possible to build curiosity stamina systematically? Here are a few tips:

Start a curiosity diary: One way to get started is to maintain a curiosity diary. That is what I do. It contains links to articles or newspaper cuttings which have aroused my curiosity. For example, see the clipping of the Rahul Bhatia article and highlighting of the part that made me curious. Most of the themes will be forgotten over time. Some themes will recur mostly because they resonate deeply within. They are good candidates to pursue further.

Identify the core challenge: Frame the challenge differently. For example, see “5 ways of framing a challenge”. Ask, “Why is the problem not solved yet?” See how others have tackled the challenge. Ask, “Can I make progress here?” Andrew Wiles was suggested not to work on the Fermat’s Last Theorem for his PhD because he was told, “You could spend years getting nowhere”. It is only after a new mathematical result was published in 1986 which suddenly created new hope for proving Fermat’s Last Theorem. The new result had created a linkage between Fermat’s Last Theorem and an area in which Andrew was already a known expert (called elliptical curves). It meant chances of progress were now higher.

Perform low-cost experiments: Prototyping is a great way to get to know an area. It tells you whether some aspect of an idea works and it also demonstrates whether you have the skills to make progress. It allows you to get quick feedback. You may want to try what others have already tried, just to make sure it doesn't work. Don’t forget to re-frame the challenge as you learn new things.

Look for collaborators: Many times things don’t work out the way we would have imagined. Pressure from your day-job mounts and you really feel drained. Where do you get your energy from? In such situations, it helps to have a buddy who shares your passion. It is not easy to find one. However, you increase your chances of finding one if you socialize your idea. Write a blog / paper, join a community / forum and share your thoughts / challenge / ideas. You never know from where your collaborator may come from.

These are a few things I do to keep my curiosity alive. Perhaps you may have your own ways. Please feel free to share your thoughts.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

4 reasons why innovation programs in India flounder

Over the past five years, I have been fortunate to have witnessed several dozen innovation programs. I have seen the journey of some innovation programs over 3 to 5 years. In this article, I would like to present 4 reasons why I believe innovation programs in India flounder.

Before I present the reasons, let me share the point in the journey where the programs struggle. Here is a simple and useful 5-level maturity framework that I have used to map various programs.

Most of the programs struggle around level-3. The parameters where the difficulty starts are typically: participation (difficult to sustain at 30%), review process (maintain the rigor and rhythm), prototyping (ideas don’t move) etc.

The four reasons why the programs struggle are: (1) Poor program management (2) Lack of emphasis on experimentation (3) Lack of rigor and rhythm in innovation reviews and (4) No champions. Let’s look at each one briefly.

1.      Poor program management: Any serious program needs a person or at least a function that holds the roadmap. Innovation program is not a one quarter project. It runs over multiple years. You need people who are constantly watching what is working and what is not working, trying to remove the hurdles which are holding things back, deciding quarterly targets, publishing a dashboard, holding events, running campaigns etc. If you tell someone that management of innovation program is 5% of his KRA, chances are high things will not move. Most innovation programs need a full-time or at least a half-time program manager.

2.      Lack of emphasis on experimentation: Ideas by themselves are of little use. You need people to build prototypes and validate some of the assumptions behind the ideas. Many organizations don’t acknowledge experimentation as a legitimate activity. Hence ideas don’t move forward.  Some organizations (e.g. Ericsson) offer sponsorship in the form an experiment week to good ideas. In some places, it is considered acceptable to spend part of your work time (say 15-20%) in experimentation (e.g. Google, 3M). Some places organize events such as hackathon or prototyping workshops where ideas take shape.

3.      Lack of rigor and rhythm in innovation review: Small ideas can get implemented at team level. However, big ideas need attention, review and investment from business leaders. Moreover, funded ideas need to be reviewed regularly to see if they are stuck somewhere or need to be dropped etc. Many times innovation reviews are not given a priority. They get postponed due to priority scheduling of other meetings. Many times the reviews are too lenient. No criterion is used to kill unviable projects. Sooner or later they run out of oxygen. That creates a lot of bitterness. It is much better to systematically kill non-working ideas so that more fresh ideas can be funded.

4.      No champions: I strongly believe in the saying - An idea either finds a champion or dies. A champion commits to a challenge long term and puts his weight behind it. An idea may get stuck due to lack of resources, lack of connections to right people or a narrow vision. A champion pitches in any or all of these areas. This is what George Fernandez did for Konkan railway, what Einstein did for Satyendranath Bose and what Mike Markkula did for Apple. If your organization doesn’t have any champions, then it is going to be difficult for big ideas to move beyond prototyping stage. You should be asking your senior managers, “Which idea are you championing?”