Friday, April 24, 2009

Learning and prepared mind: approaches of Gary Hamel and Ramana Maharshi

Gary Hamel is one of the most influential management thinkers of our times. Personally, I find his work on core competence and innovation markets insightful and useful. Hence, when I read his following remarks from an interview with McKinsey, I was surprised:

For almost 20 years I’ve tried to help large companies innovate. And despite a lot of successes along the way, I’ve often felt as if I were trying to teach a dog to walk on his hind legs. Sure, if you get the right people in the room, create the right incentives, and eliminate the distractions, you can spur a lot of innovation. But the moment you turn your back, the dog is on its fours again because it has quadruped DNA, not biped DNA.

I am not surprised that most large organizations don’t have innovation DNA. What I am surprised of is to see that Gary attempted to change DNA of so many organizations. I don’t doubt Gary’s genuine intent to help. However, I feel that we need to give more importance to “preparedness of mind” in the learning process. Let’s contrast this with Ramana Maharshi’s approach.

Here is an excerpt from the visit of a nirvana seeker U. G. Krishnamurti to Ramana’s ashram in Thiruvannamalai. U. G. recalls:

That man [Ramana] was sitting there. From his very presence I felt "What! This man -- how can he help me? This fellow who is reading comic strips, cutting vegetables, playing with this, that or the other -- how can this man help me? He can't help me." Anyway, I sat there. Nothing happened; I looked at him, and he looked at me. [snip] I have been sitting here for two hours, and the questions are still there. All right, let me ask him some questions" -- because at that time I very much wanted moksha. "Can you give me what you have?" – I asked him this question, but that man didn't answer, so after some lapse of time I repeated that question -- "I am asking 'Whatever you have, can you give it to me?” He said, "I can give you, but can you take it?" Boy! For the first time this fellow says that he has something and that I can't take it. Nobody before had said "I can give you," but this man said "I can give you, but can you take it?"

UG got hurt by this remark and walked away. Perhaps it caused him to think about his own preparedness (or lack of) to learn. Ramana mostly communicated through silence and believed that a “prepared mind” ignites when it comes in contact with “wisdom”.

My take-away: Changing DNA is a noble social cause, not a good business model and it helps to pay attention to “preparedness of the mind”. The last thing I want to do is to get into a business of changing DNA.

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