Friday, September 20, 2019

3 tips on being mindful in the corporate world: An Edgar Schein perspective

I have been a fan of Prof Edgar Schein, an expert on organizational culture. However, I was surprised to hear Schein emphasize mindfulness in an interview at Google. By the time of this interview in 2016, Schein would have been 87 years old, active as a researcher, teacher and consultant way more than half a century. What is mindfulness according to Schein? What is the role, according to him, mindfulness can play in a competitive corporate world? Let’s explore in this article.

Let’s begin with taking a look at what Schein means by mindfulness. According to Schein, mindfulness is not some kind of meditation process. Mindfulness is situational awareness of how culture inside of us and around us is dominating our thinking. The point Schein is emphasizing here is that the culture is inside us in the form of accumulated learning from family, school, corporate world, etc.

Here are 3 tips Schein offers on being mindful in a corporate world obsessed with measurement and winning.

Be curious about deeper reality: Situational awareness would mean being curious about what’s going on as we observe things, communicate with people and make decisions. Schein suggests a couple of questions that might help in this process. One, what’s the deeper reality? For example, in a meeting, can I become aware of the fact that I am trying to win an argument rather than focusing on the point of discussion, whenever that happens? The second question Schein suggests us to ask is, “What else is going on?”

Be relational vs transactional: In a fast-paced world, we need to make decisions quickly. That leads to interactions which are transactional – e.g. telling what to do and expect the other person to just follow. In some situations, this may be meaningful. However, in many situations, this doesn’t work. This becomes even tougher when the job is to fire people. Schein uses the example from the movie “Up in the air” to point out that firing people by hiring an agency to do it over a video call is transactional. A more humane approach would be for the manager to sit face to face and discuss options together openly.

Focus on process vs content: According to Schein, mindfulness involves paying more attention to the process of thinking as compared to the content of thought. Mostly our attention is grabbed by the content – the ideas, judgments, decisions, etc. And we are unaware of the process that fuels thinking. Many times the process is driven by anxieties and aspirations. Anxiety could be about losing out in one’s career or it could be about not winning. Situational awareness means being aware of this process, anxieties-aspirations driving the thinking as much as the content.

Schein points out that being mindful doesn’t guarantee corporate success. If your boss values only winning, you may be stuck. Of course, being mindful of one’s own anxieties about being stuck and how that is being reflected in everything one does may open up newer possibilities.

Why be mindful if it doesn’t increase the chance of success in the corporate world? I don’t think this aspect is discussed in the interview. I feel that being mindful in order to succeed is taking one away from mindfulness already. This is because every action now is driven by an aspiration to succeed or anxiety about failure.

Hope you get to explore the tips Schein offers and experiment with being mindful for its own sake rather than in order to achieve something. I thought Karen May, Google VP People Development has done an excellent job as an interviewer. Hope you listen to the interview which may have much more in store for you.

Image source:
Interview link: “Edgar Schein: Humber leadership” | Talks at Google

Sunday, September 15, 2019

My 3 takeaways from Scott Adams’ “How to fail at almost everything and still win big”

A few months back my friend RamP recommended Scott Adams’ “How to fail at almost everything and still win big”. At that time, I was struggling to convey the importance of “fail fast, fail often” principle to the students in my course on innovation at IIMB. The book helped me in showcasing to students how successful people like Scott Adams have a long list of failures and they are not shy of presenting it. But the book doesn’t stop at flaunting failures; it goes deeper than that. It presents some of the key challenges we face in our creative journey and suggests some practical approaches in tackling them. And it does so in a witty style. Here are my 3 takeaways from the book:

Fail often in order to succeed: “You want to be steeped to your eyebrow in failure,” Scott says, “It’s a good place to be because failure is where success likes to hide in plain sight. Everything you want out of life is in that huge, bubbling vat of failure. The trick is to get the good stuff out.” That’s quite an insight. In chapter 4 titled “Some of my many failures in summary form”, Scott presents 22 failures and the lessons he learned from them. Chapter 5 is dedicated to “My absolutely favorite spectacular failure”. I would buy this book just for these two chapters. When I present my failure resume in the class, students comment that my failures weren’t that bad. When I tell them the Nassim Taleb quote, “Learn to fail with comfort, pleasure, and pride,” they feel if you are failing comfortably that means you are not trying hard. Perhaps it is not easy to understand that for an idea with big upside, the cost and downside of experimentation doesn’t have to be high. In my failure to communicate this point lies an opportunity for me to improve my presentation in the future.

Goals are for losers, system for winners: “If your goal is to lose ten pounds, you will spend every moment until you reach the goal – if you reach it at all – feeling as if you were short of your goal,” Scott adds, “Goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary.” He suggests that one should treat the system as primary rather than the goal. How is system different from goal? He says that running a marathon is a goal while exercising daily is a system. If you do something every day, Scott calls it a system and if you are waiting to achieve it someday in future, it is a goal. My take is that both have a place but the question is where do you place emphasis? Scott suggests that system should be primary and I feel the same.

Maximize personal energy: How does Scott approach the problem of multiple priorities? He says he focuses on only one metric – “my energy”. Scott says, “The main reason I blog is because it energizes me. I don’t need another reason.” In fact, Scott goes on step further. His Dilbert comic creating process is divided into two stages to maximize the energy-generating ideas and drawing the final art. He has observed that his creative energy is at its best during morning time. So he tries to get new Dilbert ideas at that time. And he draws the final art in the afternoon which is less creative. Shopping drains his energy, so he minimizes shopping. Everyone is different and hence one should pay attention to things that give and drain energy.

I enjoyed the book and strongly recommend it to anyone who wants to preserve or develop the creative part within oneself. I find all the three suggestions valuable, keeping a failure resume, focusing on the system rather than goals and paying attention to the sources of energy. Hope you get to experiment with them.

image source:
Nassim Taleb quote is from his interview by Alleb Webb in McKinsey Quarterly, December 2008 issue.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Could “Create a margin of safety” be the toughest of the 8 steps to innovation to master?

Café Coffee Day founder V. G. Siddhartha’s unfortunate demise coincided with my class on “Margin of safety” in “Strategic Management of Technology and Innovation” course at IIM Bangalore. “Create a margin of safety” is the 8th step of the "8-steps to innovation" book I co-authored. Siddhartha allegedly committed suicide by jumping into the Netravati river near Mangalore. We would never know the exact reasons why Siddhartha took such an extreme step. Given the debt situation of Café Coffee Day group, could it be possible that Siddhartha lost track of margin of safety? And, if a seasoned businessman like Siddhartha can overlook margin of safety, could it be the toughest step to master?

When I discussed this question with my friend and co-author of “8 steps to innovation”, Prof. Rishikesha Krishnan, he suggested I read the book “Failing to succeed: The story of India’s first e-commerce company” by K. Vaitheeswaran. It turned out to be a textbook case demonstrating how difficult it might be to internalize the principle of “margin of safety”. Let’s look at a few anecdotes from the book which illustrate this point. But before we look at it, let’s note that we are looking at a venture story when it hit a downward spiral. The Indiaplaza story contains several ups and many things that the founders should be proud of. Moreover, innovators and especially entrepreneurs should be indebted to K. Vaitheeswaran for the candid narration of his experience. It is so rare in the Indian context.

June 2009:  "A jewellery vendor from Delhi came to our office with a few thugs and abused me with choice expletives in front of all staff members and threatened to beat me up physically if I did not pay up the dues within two days."

"An apparel vendor from Surat came to the office accompanied by a local policeman. The policeman threatened to arrest me if we didn’t settle the dues in one week."

August 2012: "I had stopped drawing my salary from August 2012, and worse, I had made the mistake of using my personal credit cards to spend for the company. Every day private collectors visited our home on behalf of credit card companies and loudly demanded money to embarrass and shame me in front of my neighbours and family. Then I decided to withdraw my Provident Fund (PF) because we desperately needed money."

December 2012: "The last week of December was terrible. On 31 December 2012, New Year’s Eve, a group of drunk people banged on our apartment door loudly and in front of my neighbours, family and some friends abused me for non-payment of dues. I was falling into bouts of depression and my health was taking a severe beating."

April 2013:  "When this deal (a potential acquisition) fell through, the creditors became furious. In a few days, our office was swarming with creditors in person. An electronics merchant, during the conversation in our office, pulled out a dagger and placed it on the table. The managing director of a big publishing and distribution house from Delhi met me in Bengaluru and said that he would ‘throw babies in front my car’ when I was driving."

August 2013: "I was standing inside the Ulsoor police station on Cambridge Road in Bangalore. I waited to be interrogated by the inspector on a complaint filed personally against me by a merchant."

8 December 2013: "I had quit and I was not coming back. I had nothing to show for my efforts over fourteen years except for several court cases against me, social media abuse, being avoided like the plague by people I knew and being branded a failure."

At one point the author says, “Whenever I read about people taking their own lives due to financial troubles, I confess, I can understand and sympathize with a moment of madness.”

Building a “margin of safety” involves asking two questions: “What kind of catastrophic risk is there? And, can I live with it?” From the anecdotes above it looks as if the worst-case scenario was not difficult to imagine in 2009 itself. And yet no major action was taken to protect oneself against such a situation. Hence, I am beginning to wonder if creating a margin of safety could be the toughest of the 8 steps to innovation to master.