Friday, March 28, 2008

Success vs flowering

“Success” is a powerful word. So many lives revolve around it, chase it & sometimes embrace it only to discover later that it was temporary. I re-discovered the strength of this s-word recently. It was little over a year ago that that I started offering a workshop on technical leadership. Initially I had titled it “Understanding the facets of technology leadership” The response was lukewarm. Participants would say (not in so many words) “This understanding part is ok. But, where do we go from here?” After suggestions from my friends I changed the title to “Becoming a successful technical leader”. And then suddenly the interest level jumped. While the core content may not have changed much, it gave a purpose to the participant: “To be successful”

“Success” clearly belongs to the world of “becoming”. It is no surprise that so many books get written just by analyzing so-called “successful” personalities. “Success” is always a projection in the future. When it becomes “past”, the experience can be quite unsettling. Gary Kasparov narrates one such experience in his interview in Harvard Business Review (April 2005).

The greatest challenge for all successful people is to get past their own successes. It is especially hard when the success is extraordinary. In 1985, after winning game 24 against Anatoly Karpov, I became the youngest world champion in the history of chess. There was a huge celebration. I was feeling on top of the world. Then, in a quiet moment, Rona Petrosian, the widow of Tigran Petrosian, the ninth world champion and one of my great predecessors, came to me and said, “I am sorry for you”. I was incredulous. “I’m sorry for you,” she said, “because the happiest and best day of your life is over.” I was too young at the time to recognize the profundity of her words, but today I understand how wise she was.

“Flowering” on the other hand belongs to the world of “being”. Have you watched a flower? Do you think it is competing with the neighboring flower? Unlike “success”, you don’t ask a question, “How do I flower?” Flowering happens when you just “be”. It is no surprise that this f-word is not so popular. Human mind is so obsessed with “becoming” that it has no time for “just being”.

Where do you see “being” in action? I see it every day when kids are playing in the sandpit in front of our gallery. But then they don’t have to take care of family, they don’t have EMI and they don’t have to worry about looming downturn. And so life goes on… After all, don’t you want to become somebody?

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Warren Buffett and Disruptive innovation

From time to time I turn to Warren Buffett and always come out refreshed. I find his letters to shareholders piercing and at the same time a sheer joy to read. In every letter, Warren delves deeper into one or more his favorite topics such as inflation & tax (1980), acquisition behaviour (1981) etc. In his 2007 letter, Warren goes into length to explain what he believes is “truly great business”

According to Warren, A truly great business must have an enduring “moat” that protects excellent returns on invested capital.

What is a “moat”? Warren explains later in this report, moat is a metaphor for the superiorities businesses possess that make life difficult for their competitors.

And what does “enduring” involve? Warren likes cost-leaders like Walmart and world-wide brand leaders like Coca-cola whose “moat” may last several decades.

Warren elaborates on what “enduring moat” precludes: Our criterion of “enduring” causes us to rule out companies in industries prone to rapid and continuous change. Though capitalism’s creative destruction is highly beneficial for society, it precludes investment certainty. A moat that must be continuously rebuilt will eventually be no moat at all.

Classic example of this is Motorola. During 2004-2005, Motorola’s RAZR was synonymous with “innovation”. Ed Zander was the “innovation” hero. If you look at market share numbers, a drop by 2% or 3% may seem harmless for a giant like Motorola. But looks like it is enough for it to go into tailspin. Even after pumping in several billion dollars, it could not bring out another “disruptive innovation”.

It is interesting to see that something like “disruptive innovation” is cool from a technologist’s and strategist's perspective and the same thing is totally “uncool” from wise investor like Buffett’s perspective. Buffett is right, society needs all kinds of people.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Will carpooling be a social innovation in Indian metros?

It was interesting to read in TOI about how carpooling is catching up in Mumbai. The news said that Mumbai traffic police department along with a carpooling site has tied up with a private insurance firm, multiplexes and restaurants so that carpool members will get a discount on a variety of allied services. For example, you can avail of a 50% discount on cinema tickets at PVR multiplex outlets and free Pepsi and pop corn during intervals besides a 20% discount on beverages and food at all Cafe Coffee Day outlets, plans are now afoot to provide a discount for the car insurance premium for carpoolers. has got 1700 members and 560 groups who are using the site individually or as part of sharing group within a 70-80 km distance in the city and suburbs. 40% of the carpool users are working women who have a harrowing time traveling. But

We can see that a number of interesting factors have come together in the process:

  • There is government (police department) and private firm partnership
  • Mobile phones / sms are now ubiquitous and everybody is comfortable using SMS
  • In a metro like Mumbai, it is common to have commuting distance of 20 to 30km.
  • Best alternatives like train is painful during peak hours
  • On the demographic side, there is sizable population of working women

Will it really catch on? I hope it does but you can’t be sure about it yet. It will take at least a couple of years before one can say for sure.

Can this be replicated in a city like Bangalore? Not sure. Don’t know whether we have a sizeable population with long commuting distances. Almost all companies with at least 1000+ employees offer commuting bus/taxi services. What about Delhi? Perhaps yes.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Reva and Nano: 2 approaches of innovation

These days I am doing a lot of reading on innovation. In fact, I hope to write a survey of my favorite innovation literature soon. I am quite intrigued by the 2 approaches to “know the future” Peter Drucker talks about in his book Managing for Results (I read it in the compilation of his work called “The Daily Drucker”):

  • Finding and exploiting the time lag between the appearance of a discontinuity in economy and society and its full impact – Peter calls this anticipation of a future that has already happened.
  • Imposing on the yet unborn future a new idea that tries to give direction and shape to what is to come. Peter calls this making the future happen.

The discontinuity that Peter talks about could be a change in society, knowledge, culture, industry or economic structure. However, when you recognize the pattern, it introduces a new perception of the world. The challenge lies in recognizing the pattern. Both types of innovation are essential, latter is perhaps a riskier approach. Let’s see if we can identify these approaches in what we know.

I feel that Nano (Tata Motors’ Rs. 1 Lakh car) belongs to the first category (anticipation of future that has already happened) while Reva (a leading electric car) belongs to the second category (making the future happen). Let me elaborate.

Reva is the leading electric car in the world. It has been in production for since 2001 and around 2000 cars have been sold worldwide (see news). In 2006 it went through another round of funding for its expansion. Deputy Chairman of Reva, Mr. Chetan Maini says that they are hoping to sell 30,000 cars in 2008. It is priced more than three times Nano and is appealing to people who are environment conscious. Reva has won a number of innovation awards and I was myself thoroughly impressed by the talk Chetan gave at Innovation Summit in 2005. Having said that I see it as an uphill task to “cross the chasm”. Where are the electric charging stations? It takes 2.5 hrs to charge upto 80%. However, innovations like these do play a role in shaping the future.

Nano, on the other hand, is trying to capitalize on the discontinuity which has already occurred. There are a bunch of 2 and 3 wheeler owners who would love to buy a car if it is priced around Rs.1 Lakh. Observing this segment (which is non-car market) and creating a product which fulfils their need at an attractive price is where the beauty of Nano lies.

The objective is not to say one innovation is better than the other. It is to share an observation that these two innovations are of different kind.

Who cares?!

“Becoming” and its close cousin “Progress” have fascinated me for long. The way these two things have kept the human mind captive is really amazing. Every once in a while you come across a gem like this giving you a high. Here is a story taken from a book “Enlightened Living” by Ramesh Balsekar that makes you ponder on the latter i.e. Progress.

Every month the disciple faithfully sent his Master an account of his progress.
In the first month he wrote: “I feel an expansion of Consciousness and experience my oneness with the Universe.” The master glanced at the note and threw it away.
The following month, this is what he had to say: “I have finally discovered that the Divine is present in all things.” The Master seemed disappointed.
The third month the disciple’s words enthusiastically exclaimed: “The mystery of the One and the many have been revealed to my wondering gaze.” The Master shook his head and again threw the letter away
The next letter said: “No one is born, no one lives, no one dies, for the ego-self is not.” The master threw his hands up in utter despair.
After that a month passed by, then two, then five months – and finally a whole year without another letter. The master thought it was time to remind his disciple of his duty to keep him informed of his spiritual progress.
Then the disciple wrote back: “Who cares?”
When the Master read those words a look of great satisfaction spread over his face.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

I woz really impressed by iWoz

One question that keeps popping up in my workshops on technical leadership is, “What is an engineering mindset?” In an earlier blog, compiler architect Ayonam Ray talked about having an engineering mindset as a pre-requisite to becoming a successful technical leader.

Well, let’s take this question one step further and ask, “How does a super-engineer think and work? What sort of environment creates a super-engineer?” Perhaps there is no one answer to questions like these. But then, you come across a book like iWoz which goes into details to explain how a revolution came about from an engineer’s perspective and you say, “Wow” or perhaps “iWow”.

iWoz is an autobiography of Steve Wozniak, inventor of Apple I and Apple II (first commercial desktop personal computers) and co-founder of Apple. Here are some of the gems from iWoz:

1. Habit of “building” things: Right from age six, Steve got into a habit of building things. His dad had what he calls “my single greatest influence”. At age six, his dad got him a radio kit and he built “crystal radio kit”. The whole book is about how Steve kept building one thing after another, e.g. tic-tac-toe, ham radio transmitter & receiver, flashlight, carbon rod project, periodic table demonstration, TV jammer, Cream Soda computer and so on. It goes on to show how important it is to “build” things rather than just study to shape an engineering mind.

2. Patience & “One step at a time” mantra: Steve says, “Having a huge project is a huge part of learning engineering – learning anything probably. Doing long, long jobs that aren’t just some real simple quick thing like a flashlight, but things that take weeks to build, really demonstrates that you have mastered something great. I learned not to worry so much about the outcome but to concentrate on the step I was on and to try to do it as perfectly as I could when I was doing it” Then he goes on to caution today’s kids “Not everyone gets this in today’s engineering community you know. Throughout my career at Apple and other places, I always find a lot of geeks who try to reach levels without doing the in-between ones first, and it won’t work. It never does. I kept telling them, like a mantra: one step at a time.”

3. Power of vision & role of network: Seeing a vision about end-to-end solution is a sign about maturing as an engineer. Steve describes his first vision when he visited a bowling alley and played with a video game called “Pong” (produced by Atari). He says, “I stood there awhile and started at it and said, I could design one of these” Such powerful visions keep repeating throughout the book as end-to-end solution would flash in front of Steve. The most powerful vision, of course, was that of a desktop personal computer and it was flashed on the night he visited a “Homebrew Computer Club”, a club of geeky technology buffs who had a goal of bringing computer technology within the range of the average person. Steve recalls, “I was scared, but I showed up (for the first meeting). And you know what? That decision changed everything. That night turned out to be one of the most important nights of my life”. This demonstrates the power of an informal network.

4. Role of “angel investor”: We keep hearing about “angel investors” and the role they play in “innovation eco-system”. Apple certainly had a real “angel” in its destiny. Mike Markkula was only thirty and had already retired from Intel. Steve says, “I had always thought of the Apple computer as being something for a hobbyist who wanted to solve a work simulation or play a game. But Mike was talking about something different. He talked about introducing the computer to regular people in regular homes, doing at home things like keeping a track of your favorite recipes or balancing your checkbook.” When Mike agreed to sign up, he told them, “We are going to be a Fortune 500 company in 2 years. This is the start of an industry. It happens once a decade”. Boy, was Mike right?