Wednesday, April 18, 2012

3 challenges in implementing a strategy

If designing a good strategy is difficult, then designing a strategy as if implementation matters is far more challenging. Louis Gerstner articulates the challenge in his autobiographical account of IBM turnaround1 “Who says elephants can’t dance” - It [IBM] had file drawers full of winning strategies. Yet, the company was frozen in place. IBM hadn’t missed predicting any technological trend and yet the company was paralyzed enough not to act on any of those effectively. What are the challenges in implementing a strategy? Here is my reflection based on Prof. Richard Rumelt’s video interview.

1. Not simple enough: A few weeks back I witnessed following conversation in a senior management meeting. It got started when someone asked, “How is our innovation program aligned with our strategy?” One response came, “What is our strategy?” This was followed by a noticeable silence in the room. Then answers started - One answer was “Our vision statement articulates our strategy”. Another one was “We have percolated our strategy through a balanced score card. Hence, our KRAs tell us what to do in line with our strategy”. Each answer had an element of truth. However, my conclusion after witnessing this discussion was, “If the company has a strategy, nobody in the room has articulated it in a simple manner.” Each member in the room was making various decisions – including selection of large impact ideas. And yet there was no coherent view on how they would win in the market – today & tomorrow. I like what Rumelt says in the interview, “A good strategy is essentially simple. If you can’t explain your business strategy in a few minutes and in a few pages, there is something wrong.”

2. No good progress indicator: Infosys announced its results last week and missed its annual guidance for the first time in two decades. Infosys revenue had grown by 15.8% YoY and profits by 14.5%. Market reacted harshly; the stock shed 13% in a single day. It has been little over a year since Infosys announced Infosys 3.0 goal of getting its revenue equally from transformation, innovation & operation. In March 11, 2011, transformation, innovation & operation constituted 25%, 10% and 65%. Last week, Infy CEO Shibulal emphasized their commitment to make the portfolio balanced. However, its “innovation” bucket portion seems to have dipped from 9.5% to 6.2% of its revenue. Is Infosys strategy working? There is no easy way to find out, especially for an outsider, perhaps even for an insider. As Rumelt says in the interview, “It is difficult to determine whether or not you are accomplishing your strategy by looking at current results. You can have a company that is producing excellent results but has a poor strategy. Vice versa, you can have a company that has poor results but an excellent strategy.” My friend Prof. Rishikesha Krishnan who visited Infosys Labs recently is right in pointing out, “It may be premature to knock Infosys off”.

3. Ambivalent messaging: Andrew Grove tells a story of his Intel days2, when he & CEO Gordon Moore made a significant strategic decision in the middle of 1985 – that of getting Intel out of the memory business. This was the business Intel had identified itself with for more than a decade. Initially when Grove talked about it to his team, he had a hard time getting the words out of his mouth without equivocation. In his own words, “Saying it to Gordon was one thing; talking to other people and implementing it in earnest was another”. Several months after this decision, Grove was visiting a remote Intel location. He was still not ready to announce that they were getting out of the memory business. He would usually give negative-to-ambivalent answers to questions pertaining to memories. And one of the senior managers attacked him aggressively, “Does it mean that you can conceive of Intel without being in the memory business?” In Grove’s own words – “I swallowed hard and said – yes, I guess I can. All hell broke loose.” Communicating an intent (like that of getting out of memory business) with clarity is not easy. Most companies mess it up. Rumelt says in the interview, “There is an essence of compromise that is part of human character. While competitive success comes from focus of resources, our natural tendency in the organizations is to satisfy multiple constituencies.”


1 “Who says elephants can’t dance” by Louis Gerstner, HarperCollins, 2003 (reference to drawers full of winning strategies is on page 16)

2 “Only the paranoid survive” by Andrew Grove, Doubleday, 1996. (reference to the visit to the remote location is on pages 89-90).

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Highlights of the Tech Reach program, April 12-13, 2012

I co-facilitated the Tech Reach program held at Hotel Grand Mercure, Bangalore this week (April 12-13). The participants had 7 to 15 years of experience as technical experts and had designations like: Architect, Principal Engineer, Senior Lead Engineer, IT Manager, Program Manager etc. The objective of the program was to learn 3 levers that increase your sphere of influence as a technical leader. These levers were: communication, innovation and mentoring. Here are highlights of the program:

Destination postcard: As a first step, each participant went through a self-assessment exercise to answer the question: “Where do I stand?” Next, he reflected on what he would like his brand to be one year from now. Here is what we got (click on the image to see each card):

Communication: Taking and communicating a position on a technical issue is an important attribute of a technical leader. In this session, each participant wrote a 300 word position blog and got it buddy-reviewed using a simple framework. For example, we checked if the problem definition is clear. To add a fun element, some of the ideas were presented through a 2 minute skit.

Innovation: We were privlieged to have Lakshman Pachineela facilitate the session on Design Thinking. Lakshman is the Head of Innovation at SAP Global Delivery and also a visiting faculty at School of Design Thinking at Hasso Plattner Institute, Potsdam, Germany. Design Thinking is rooted in the three core elements of systematic innovation: multi-disciplinary teams, iterative process and variable space. Participants got a glimpse of the design thinking process through an exercise of re-designing the wallet of their partner.

Mentoring: When a junior engineer comes to you for help – either as a sounding board for an idea or with a technical issue – how do you react? Through role plays we explored the 3 different helping roles we take on – expert, doctor and catalyst. And various traps associated with these roles. We also assessed what role Gokhale played in this meeting with Gandhi as depicted in the movie: expert, doctor or catalyst?

Panel discussion: As one of the participants has mentioned in the feedback, the panel discussion with senior technical leaders was “icing on the cake”. We had Dr. Sanjeev Krishnan, Founder Director of Magic Lamp Software (earlier a Senior Architect at Sun Microsystems), Balaji Rangaswamy, CEO of Sooktha Consulting (earlier Chief Architect at Nokia Siemens Networks) and Abhijit Tongaonkar, Director, Software Development at Cisco to discuss the topic: Role of technical leader in Indian technology industry – today & tomorrow. Questions that got clarified were – Does a senior architect code? How do you innovate in a delivery / offshore organization? What does a senior manager value? How to overcome fear of failure? How to find a mentor?

Registration has begun for the next Tech Reach program scheduled on May 17-18 at the same venue.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Preparing to fight a crazy system? Learn to become invisible

Do you really want to fight a crazy system? Say, a system that is hugely corrupt & unforgiving to non-conformists? Or a system steeped in bureaucracy and unsupportive of new ideas? A system that can easily tame the likes of Anna Hazare and Dr. Kiran Bedi? Think again. As the Intelligence Bureau agent Khan tells Vidya Bagchi (Vidya Balan) in Kahaani, “This can be very dangerous”. Do you still insist? Then you may have to prepare an arduous journey like going through 36 chambers of Shaolin. Question is: what do you learn in the first chamber? Well, here is a good candidate: How to be invisible. Every crazy system has ingenious ways of making you part of its extended family. So, one of the best ways to avoid getting crushed is by becoming invisible. Let’s see how using the Hollywood movie “One flew over the cuckoo’s nest”.

Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) finds himself in a mental hospital and realizes that the whole system is torturing its patients through therapy sessions and subtle humiliation. McMurphy rebels against the system loudly and gets himself trapped in the process. What do you expect happens to McMurphy? Hospital management ensures that his brain gets appropriate treatment and becomes numb. Nothing new in this. This is what is expected from a crazy system. So what does one do?

Well, there is another dumb looking character in this movie whom McMurphy calls “Chief”. The tall Red Indian Chief (Will Sampson) is not part of any of the therapy sessions. Why? Because he is deaf & dumb. Or so everybody believes… until one day when McMurphy and Chief are sitting next to each other, McMurphy offers a gum to Chief. And Chief says, “Thank you”. And that is when McMurphy realizes Chief is not dumb. He is normal like anyone else but pretending to be deaf and dumb. Why? Because he can remain in the background – almost invisible – until he can figure his way out of the crazy system. And Chief does find his way at the end to escape the mental hospital.

Does this strategy work in real life? Yes, it does. Edgar Schein, Professor Emeritus at MIT, discovered this strategy when he talked to prisoners of war in Korea. He says in an interview, “In organizations, individual learners lie, cheat, go underground - they do whatever they have to remain invisible. And in large organizations, going underground isn’t that difficult.” Remember what Patrick’s boss in IBM, Jim Canavino, Senior VP for Strategy and Development, told him about their Internet project? “You know, we could set up some kind of department and give you a title”, Canavino said, “But that would be a bad idea. Try to keep this grassroots thing going as long as you can.” Here is a rare case where boss helps you remain invisible – away from the management review meetings. Do you work on a sunset product? Congratulations! You are already in the first chamber. Make the most of it.

In the world of Facebook and Twitter “learn to be invisible” may look just as bad as suggesting “learn not to breathe”. Don’t be so sure. Andrew Wiles used a brilliant ploy to fool “the system” before embarking on a solitary journey in his attic to solve Fermat’s Last Theorem. Instead of sending one long paper to a journal from the results he had before embarking on the journey, he split them into several smaller chunks and kept sending one small paper at regular intervals. “The system” kept thinking Andrew is slowing down.

Now, please go ahead and conclude what I am up to based on my Facebook status!

Image source: - McMurphy discovers Chief is not dumb