Sunday, October 27, 2013

Monday Musings186: Bias for Inaction

Monday Musings 186: Bias for Inaction

Any cubclist worth his salt will tell you that a 'bias for action' has been dished out as a panacea and as his corporate karma more number of times than any other corporate sermon ever; others include 'think out of the box', 'being proactive/creative/innovative', 'I don't know how but just get it done' et al. 

The phrase 'bias for action' in the corporate corridors was made famous by Heike Bruch and Sumantra Ghoshal in their book 'Bias of action' - and although the book itself never promoted wasteful action or frenzied overaction - this phrase snailed its way into the lexicon of business managers who usually used it to mean 'always be doing something'. In good times act because a semblance of work has to be shown and in bad times keep up the act to let others know that you are not sitting idle but trying to solve things.

I am sure action is good - but purposive action is better. Action must not be for action sake. It must be for the sake of a preferred outcome, after having satisfied oneself that the action will indeed lead to the desired outcome. Otherwise and till such time such causality is established, it may be wiser to do nothing. Considered non action is more powerful than mindless action. 

Non-action is not the same thing as inaction. Inaction means you are not doing when something can be done. Non-action means you are exercising a 'choice' - of not doing anything when you have both the inclination and the ability to do something because you believe on the basis of information and wisdom that not doing anything is a better thing to do. However in today’s frenzied context that may be a terrible thing to suggest. All around us there appears to be a premium on doing something or the other, keep taking some initiative or the other (I call it the 'initiative overdose'). Considered Non-action is misconstrued as intellectual lethargy or lack of application, that is surely not going to attract encomiums. 

Research headed by Michael Bar Eli at the Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Israel studied how the goal keepers should defend penalty kicks. He concluded that based on the two factors that influence the outcome of a penalty kick - one the distance a goal keeper can jump on both sides, two the time available for the goal keeper to respond (.3 seconds), it makes eminently more sense to stay still rather than jump on either side.( - that is considered non-action than non-purposive action. Yet goal keepers jump either side more often than not because it is better to appear losing a goal while doing something rather than just standing there. 

There is merit in purposive, passionate and perseverant action. There is wisdom in purposive non action. Sometimes it makes sense to dig in your heels, cover your head and let the storm pass. There are two billion dollar questions around this conundrum - the lesser evil is to know what the time for purposive non-action is, the greater evil is to know how to answer your boss when he hollers at you "why the hell don’t you do  something". 


Sunday, October 13, 2013

Monday Musings 185: New wisdom in old knowledge

Monday Musings 185: New wisdom in old knowledge

Sometimes things make sense only across time, when you connect the proverbial dots. 

More than a decade back I had read a seminal book 'Yuganta' by Iravati Karve. The book came recommended through some colleagues who were active in the area of human behavior while I was this wannabe who carries the drinks while the good ones play. The book, originally written in Marathi and winner of Sahitya Academy award, studies and analyses the central characters of Mahabharata, as if they were normal human beings and not heroes in a religious text. For those who are fed on one standard interpretation of Indian epics, this book will be thought provoking at best and sacrilegious at worst.  I did not understand much about the book because it did not align with my standard understanding about the lead characters based on the popular discourse. For example Yuganta lays a large part of the blame for the war with the selfless Bheeshma - in the many injustices he did and the many he condoned or let happen, only to fulfill his own vows. Yuganta describes the character of Kunti detailing her contradictions, some of them not very kind. Finally, and the one which had the maximum shock value for me at that time, was this seemingly preposterous suggestion that Vidura may be the father of Yudhisthir. The shock value of the whole book notwithstanding, I read Yuganta and forgot about it, more because i did not understand it, never realizing that it was such a celebrated book. 

Last year I read another book based on Mahabharat, called 'The difficulty of being good' by Gurcharan Das, the famous ex CEO of P & G, writer and now columnist. This book also looks into the epic more from a pragmatic standpoint and what it can teach for day to day living, rather than as a reverence seeking religious book. If Ramayana is utopian, then Mahabharata is practical. The book makes us see human imperfections in their true glory and concludes that 'Dharma is subtle' and that it is fundamentally difficult to be good. I have my own views on what is not good with the book, but I give full credit to the author to have attempted a scholarly dissection of the most popular Indian epic which has been rendered stale by looking at it as a monochromatic narrative, frozen in time. It tries to put some life in the epic by viewing it from fresh lens, something Yuganta had done many decades earlier. 

Now comes the third dot, which incidentally is the trigger for this musing. Although I have not seen even one frame of the new Mahabharata on the telly, my better half has - and what she has seen, she has liked it, to an extent that she was moved to talk about it. She found the new Mahabharat 'refreshing', 'more balance for the characters - that each character is presenting his/her point of view' and hence 'we see those characters in a new light'. Kudos to the script writers of the new Mahabharata that they have injected some freshness into a stale tale to an extent that the ordinary viewer is able to discern a difference, see those characters in a new way that she has not seen them so far. 

The point of this musing is twofold. One is that it is time for me to read Yuganta once more. I think I am more prepared to understand the book and hence the epic. The second and the more important one is that we must reinterpret all our epics. We must not only read more and more interpretations of them because there is a lot of work that has happened on critically analyzing them (read the banned-in-DU essay "300 Ramanayans" by AK Ramanujam), but more importantly we must read them ourselves and create our own narratives. Some of these epics, in most of the core religions of the subcontinent has enough and more to consume our lifetimes. If not for the esoteric satisfaction of metaphysical development, then for the mundane joy of reading an old story and understanding it in a new way, these epics must be read and re read. Who knows what they might tell us this time.


Post script - the cubiclist in the corporate world is a worm busy in its survival. He has the industry report, the competitive analysis, and the monthly review presentation to read. The epics can wait – and by the way so can his life.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Monday Musings184: The inanity of company taglines

Monday Musings184: The inanity of company taglines

LG, the Korean company changed its famous tagline 'Life is good' to 'It is all possible'. As a common consumer who is not trained in the science of crafting company taglines, it appeared to be unimaginative at best and a counterfeit at worst. It did not take me long to realize that it reminded me, and not without reason, of another famous tagline by the footwear giant Adidas, 'Impossible is nothing'.  A little bit of research on the subject also revealed that ABN AMRO BANK has used a tagline 'Making more possible' and Huawei a technology company in Asia is using the tagline 'Make it Possible' or yet another case when HP invent claimed 'Everything is possible'. Frankly there might be verbal jugglery and a distinction of semantics in each one of them, but for the layman on the street, me included, they appear all the same, or least suspiciously similar. What were the creators doing while crafting these lookalikes? Weren’t taglines supposed to be boldly original, thereby differentiating companies in a boringly cluttered market? 

Another example, though not as grotesque comes to my mind, this time a little more subtle. Shahrukh Khan exhorted all of us to 'Thoda wish karo, Dish Karo' in a commercial which wanted us not to be satisfied with less. The intention was to push us 'satisfied with less' morons to want more. Kareena Kapoor has been tugging at our heart strings these days by saying 'Pyaas badhao', again with an intention to want more, desire more, ask for more. Nothing connects the two product lines but clearly the tagline writer looks likes he was 'inspired'. Curiously Shahrukh Khan in yet another ad has also said 'Chalo Paint Karen', suspiciously similar to the Dish TV ad. As I remarked earlier this category is not shamelessly same as the first category but subtly similar in the construct and the imagery.

We know that imitation is the best form of flattery, but guess the taglines of companies by design are supposed to be different. I also wonder at times what is the exact role that these taglines actually play in the success of a company or a brand or is it something that is nice to have. Is it a statement of intent that guides the company in its day to day operation or is it nothing but the worm that attracts the fish to the hook? AIG spoke about 'The strength to be there' before it went turtle and what a deadly combination of hilarity and irony was the Lehman brothers tagline 'Where vision gets built'. I wonder why Enron said 'Ask why’; because that is exactly everyone else is asking since it sank without a trace. 

So look around, in the companies you work with or have worked with or plan to work with - how much these taglines mean to them and how much meaning these taglines have for the day to day decision making. And if you are not the serious kind, then keep looking for and keep enjoying the inanity of some of them.