Sunday, February 24, 2013

Monday Musings: 169 – Invest in writing the history of organisations

Monday Musings: 169 – Invest in writing the history of organisations
Organisations have histories like nations, societies, cultures and individuals. Very often they also have legends, folklores and stories, that one generation says to another and the legend or the myth perpetuates. After a while truth mixes with fiction to create strange but deadly cocktails. A larger majority perpetuates the legends and the myths because status quo suits them. No one questions history as it might upset the apple cart.
India is particularly averse to this. We do not allow our myths and histories to be studied scientifically. A few who managed to do so get persecuted. Ramanujam questioned the single narrative of Ramayana in his article ‘A hundred Ramayanas’  through an intensely academic article, whether we should consider the singular canned version of Ramayana, popularised particularly by the TV serial by the same name as the only narrative. In response, his paper was dropped by the academic council in the Delhi university. A book on Shivaji led to the venerated Bhandarkar institute in Pune being vandalized. Movies on historical figures often generate so much heat and dust that directors hesitate to analyse the life of icons lest it shall create mass protests, imagined hurt and if they are (un)lucky enough, a ban. Researchers of all kinds study history, its icons and events to see if there are alternative narratives of them which we might have missed. The popular version need not be the correct version.  The west is clearly ahead of us. Their authors, movie makers and artists can question anything and anyone. This scrutiny makes all of us richer.
But this is not about nations and icons only. It is also true of organisations. We either do not do a good job of documenting history clinically, dispassionately and secularly – and even if do get past this challenge, we do a poor job of referring to it at all times to learn from it. History can be a cross on your shoulders in two ways – History can be a memory that permanently looms on the horizon. Even when it is gone, it is never gone. Classical phrases one hears in such a system  – we tried it and it did not work, it won’t work here, we are different, this business is different, we are a different people, people won’t accept it,  so on and so forth. The second way in which history acts like a barrier when it is a history of failure. If things go wrong once, it might sap the sense of initiative of the whole system. Instead of learning right lessons from the failure, which is to strengthen the muscles of the organisation, the wrong lessons are learnt i.e do not take an initiative at all.
Now let us also talk two bits of how does organisational history gets written, or rather how it should get written, if it is written in the first place. All initiatives, business plans, organisation transformation journeys must be documented by specialised organisational historians. History writing should move beyond collecting and preserving memorabilia – it should capture successes and failures. It should capture the thought behind strategy formulation and its impact both in the short term as well as the long term. Intended consequences must be captured as must be the unintended consequences, and from history writing point of view, it is the latter which must be the focus. Ripples of a stone thrown in water travel far and wide, much beyond the point at which the stone hit the water. Capture collective assumptions, collective stupidity and collective lapses as much as capture collective success and heroics. And if one has to make an error of bias, then capture mistakes more than successes. History writing is not about witch hunting and finding scape goats – in fact people should be mentioned only to make the story real. The real purpose is to learn lessons. Genuine lessons are learnt only when history is secular.
Now as mentioned earlier, India does a shoddy job of writing history. It does an even shoddier job of exhuming it and learning from it. Indian organisations, by and large, are not any different.
PS: Many large and old organisations have a archives. Some of them like Coke have museums.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Monday Musings 168: When Gods have feet of clay

Monday Musings 168: When Gods have feet of clay
We ae discovering that Gods have feet of clay. This is a season for fallen heroes. The latest one is the highly inspiring ‘blade runner’ Oscar Pictorius, who ran the last Olympics in the so called normal category, now charged with killing his girlfriend. A while back it was the trial and sentence of the legendary Rajat Gupta of McKinsey in the much talked about case of insider trading. Much earlier than that was the fall from grace of the legendary Lance Armstrong in the case of doping and even earlier than that there were stories of Tiger woods, Bill Clinton, OJ Simpson; and closer home we have stories of Satyam ‘Raju’, and the Reebok cooking of books by its managing director, Shubhinder singh prem. What binds them is the fact they had already made it big – their fame, or now notoriety, is not because of what they have done now, but that they chose to walk the path of infamy after they had already been famous.
Almost all of them had so much going for them. They epitomised glory and success achieved through the dint of hard work. They were symbols of what brute ambition could do to the trajectory of an ordinary man. They showcased not only their indomitable spirit, but in their unwillingness to let their circumstance decide the extent of their accomplishment, they became role models to millions. 
When the blade man ran, undeterred by the absence of limbs, a lump rose in the billions who watched him. He made us feel so puny caught in our mundane concerns. It is said that her mother used to comment for him and his brother as they would go out to play “(to the elder one) you put on your shoes, and Oscar, you put on your legs”. Rajat Gupta, was a text book middle class dream come true. He reached the highest echelons’ of the corporate world through sheer drive. When one saw him rubbing shoulders with global business and political honchoes, one could not help admire how much in a single life, bereft of pedigree and a family surname, one could achieve through the sheer dint of hard work – the good old fashioned HARD work! When one read stories of Lance Armstrong’s return from the battle of cancer and go on to win the tour de France over and over again, one remained in awe of the sheer greatness of the man and his feat. He was some kind of a superhuman who made us realise how tiny our vision was how tinier our efforts were. Each of these heroes had so much to offer us in terms of inspiration. Ordinary mortals could only swing between disbelief at what these could manage within one life and our own state of mediocrity.
Then the heroes fell – one by one like nine pins. They gave away all that they had to lapse of judgement, or sudden flare of anger or greed or indiscretion. They grander the rise was, the more tragic the fall became. The moot question is WHY?
What would the shrink say on these matters? What would the psychoanalyst, the therapist, the psychiatrist  offer as an explanation? Is it compulsive flirting with the wrong, the high one gets when he lives on the edge? Is it sheer greed – the unadulterated human desire for MORE? Is it depravity or deprivation at a fundamental level, a kind of unfulfillment, that seeks completion in doing what is wrong but exciting? It is a blinded state of entitlement that one starts believing in as one grows in stature and power? Is it the grandeur of invincibility that one builds around as one fights battle after battle to rise up, and then everything becomes yet another battle?
What do we do with these stories now. Should we continue to get inspired with them or should we not? What will we remember them for – the extraordinary tale till the fatal moment or that one little, but decisive blot that spoilt the story for them? The fall does not take away anything from what they achieved and yet only the story does not tell the whole truth. If the meteoric rise made them God-like, the drastic fall revealed that even Gods can have feet of clay.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

167 Monday Musings: The Contrarian and the Despot

167 Monday Musings: The Contrarian and the Despot
Dipankar Gupta, the renowned sociologists in a newspaper article argued beautifully that it does not suit leaders to hide behind the arguement of the ‘will of the people’ and take a stand on issues of significance, even though they are contrarian to the wisdom of the times. He goes on to illustrate the point through many examples which includes that Gandhiji did not seek popular approval before fighting against untouchability, or Nehru did not hide behind public opinion before promulgating the Hindu Marraige Act so on and so forth.
I can recollect two examples from organisational history that echoes the same sentiment. Henry Ford is believed to have said something like this  “I don’t ask customers what they need, because if i would have asked them they would have said we need faster horses” Similarly the legendary Steve Jobs is believed to have underplayed the findings of customer research in determining what to create and sell. He rather believed in his own convictions on what the customers would ‘want to have’ and then went on to put his money where his mouth was.
So here is the dilemma. It is clear that the mob does not have a mind. It certainly does not have a sane mind. It is nice to believe in democratic processes, collective wisdom, consensus and co creation – as at one level they are great principles to abide by and at another level they are constructs on which this modern society based on free will and individual rights are based.  But it is difficult to ignore evidence that visionaries have always taken a contrarian stand. They have always gone against the popular wisdom, the conventional logic, the established norms – and they have quite literally bulldozed their way through the vox populi and stood by their convictions. It is difficult not to be thankful to their steadfastness, to their bull headedness or else much of what we cherish today may not have seen the light of the day. Abraham Lincon fought for abolishing slavery much against the views of society at large and his own partymen. Raja Ram Mohan Roy definitely did not seek popular approval before picking up cudgels against sati. Transformative change is often led by contrarians.  
Philosophically then, what is that separates from a visionary from a despot – because the methods employed and the attitude demonstrated by both are often quite the same?  To my mind very little. Most of that difference perhaps unravels itself only in hindsight. Perhaps the intent of the person might make a difference but even that is questionable, for we have many a benevolent dictators, who have with the best of intent created very despotic regimes. The road to hell is paved often with good intentions, as they say. In the everyday organisations that we work in where we negotiate not only multiple points of view but often entrenched status quo rooted in individual self interest, what is the sweet spot between pliant co-creation and dogged contrarianism?
A few months back a colleague sent a message (and i wondered quite a bit if there was a message intended for me), which goes like this – “ Of all tyrannies a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron cruelty may sometime sleep, his cupidity may at some time be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience”.  Most despots actually believe in this despotism and believe that there is a larger purpose in their monochromatic world view – and by the way that is exactly the way the contrarian leaders of yore think.
So i go back to my own predicament – what is the difference between a contrarian and a despot? Philosophically speaking, the jury is still out.