Sunday, May 28, 2017

monday musings 285: Inspiration in the skies

Monday Musings: Inspiration in the skies

It would be a lie if I claimed that I did not notice the dimples on the fellow passenger as I took my seat on the rather long flight. The long haul flight took off and everyone got busy in the routine – food, reading, relaxing. She was struggling to plug her mobile in the charging point between the seats and asked for help. I obliged although could not accomplish the simple task as there was something wrong with the plug point. We called the air hostess and struggled together, finally realising that it could not be done – the faulty plug point had however had managed to break the ice. As is the wont of two travellers, we got talking.

Travel companionship is a strange phenomena – no one can predict if it will blossom and if it does blossom then to what extend will it go. It can range from meaningless ‘’my name is- I work/live in-I grew up in-state of Indian politics-Indian businesses to slightly deeper exploration of ‘’what are you reading-favourite authors-books-movies-philosophies’’. Sometimes you just don’t strike the conversation as you want to be left alone to your own means to brood or reflect as the case might be. Sometimes the co-passenger does not give you good vibes and you want to withdraw. Sometimes the vibes are good, conversations starters are aplenty but sheer hesitation nips in infancy what could have been a great possibility. I wondered what would be this one. Thankfully the plug point came to the rescue.

It took an hour or so to wrap up the basic information exchange – of who we were, why were we going to where were we going and other such banalities which forms the basic foundation of what can be termed as ‘sizing each other up’ stage between total strangers – the result of this exchange decides if there is anything whatsoever in common, if there is a chemistry of comfort, an unsaid faith in the vibes, that will decide if the conversation will move to deeper realms or not. I call this the anatomy of conversation between strangers. The half life of such conversations and relationships usually is the duration of the flight. Not always though.

I had a thick Leo Tolstoy, ‘Anna Karenina’ in my hands and she asked me what the book was about. I told her whatever impressions I had about the book – that it was about love, relationships, class and the futility of high society pretentions as described in it. Something changed in her eyes as I spoke – I don’t know which part had that impact. I described Anna the lead protagonist of the novel to her – that she was fiery and beautiful, courageous and iconoclast, fragile and strong, all at the same time. She smiled and said ‘’..Looks like she is a lot like me’’. I asked her to explain.

I have always wondered why sometimes it’s so easy to share our vulnerabilities, our angst and our deepest wounds and hurts to strangers – maybe we just want to be heard or maybe we do not fear being judged. Proximity muddles perspectives – distance sharpens it. May be Anna was just an excuse – she just wanted to share. I had not bargained for the privilege of being ushered into her life in such matter of fact manner – as if there was no fuss in it. The fact that we were strangers was beside the point – inconsequential in the scheme of connectedness.

She tells her story like grannies do – to the point, with a certain detachment that only wisdom has the capability to achieve. She shares that she fell in love at an early age and decided to marry much against the wishes of the family. Youth has a mind of its own. Soon the dream sequence turned into a nightmare as the scourge of domestic violence and mental harassment raised its head. It was difficult to deal with the twin trauma of the situation – of the tyranny of the circumstance on hand and of the corroding pain that it was brought upon her by her own error of judgement. I could imagine her helplessness as a young person tormented by the burden of a choice horribly gone wrong; of her hesitation in seeking help from family who might have said that one thing that a person in trouble wants to hear the least -‘’told you so’’. So one day she gathers courage, calls in the cops, breaks free, reaches out to her family and puts an end to this misery. A few years later love comes calling again when a colleague evinces interest in her. After seeking parental consent she agrees. I ask her if it was difficult to give love another chance. She says it was not very difficult, particularly after a very encouraging discussion with her father. ‘’Just because one choice has gone sour does not mean we stop making choices – we must not lose faith in our instinct to search happiness despite knowing that at the end of the day it’s a roll of dice. Just because it’s a roll of dice does not mean we don’t play the game’’- she paraphrases. In the manner in which she is recounting the story I see neither regret, not pain, neither anguish nor grief – just a recollection of events as they occurred. The nonchalance with which the story is being recounted is so refreshing in times when it is quite normal to parade our version of the story as the only truth. I thought she was courageous and wise beyond her years.

As the plane taxied on the runway a few hours later we bid goodbye to each other like strangers do at the end of the journey – knowing very well this was it. It ends here. The story remained with me though – of courage, of optimism, of dusting off the fall and getting up again to give life another chance. As she smiled with the goodbye, the last thing I remember seeing were the dimples – dimples that dared!!

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Monday Musings 284 -The many faces of solution givers!

Monday Musings 284 -The many faces of solution givers!

The great Peter Senge said something to the effect - “Today’s problems are a result of yesterday’s solutions”. I believe it must be taught, reminded and hammered ad nauseam in all leadership development journeys- from the management classes of an MBA to the rarefied galleries of CXO development.

The irony is that there are more leaders who are trigger happy in their zeal for offering solutions however poorly thought through they might be. This unabashed exhilaration of being known as an idea factory makes them a believer of the brilliance of each one of these ideas. We must be fearful of them. In a way, we must question the way this folly of equating quality of talent to his ability to shoot from the hip a-solution-a-minute, and take a reflective pause to ascertain how have we come to this brink. There must have been a systemic fault line that would have allowed things to come to the precipice of mistaking quantity of solutions for the quality of it.

Let’s step back for a minute- Lets look around in spaces that we occupy – teams, functions and organizations. Let’s list down the top 3 problems that plague us and go back in time to ascertain the genesis of those challenges. The pursuit is to find what did we start doing that created a ripple effect of consequences that has led us to what we have on our hands now - a root cause of sorts but a deeper philosophical one. For instance if we reward for how fast have we answered a customer call, it is not tantamount to how fast we have solved a customer problem. The former is a turnaround time to a "part of the process" while the latter is about a credible customer problem solving. However the system which would have put the former as its metrics would have done so in all earnestness to solve the problem they would have been grappling. There is no reason to doubt that they deliberately short changed the system so as to favor a lower order metric instead of a higher order one. May be that choice made eminent sense then – and may be the urgency of the problem blinded the individual who proposed the idea in the first place. The individual blindness to foresee the second and third order consequence to a well meaning solution powered by genuine intent is understandable even though one can take a philosophical position that good leadership is being sensitive to such consequences and may be even predict it – what is not only difficult to understand but is actually unpardonable is when a group of people, a team, a management think tank suffers from such myopia. The whole idea of a bunch of competent people coming together is to be able to see through the consequences of such solutions. Some of those consequences may be difficult to predict and we must live with these – the tyranny of unintended consequences – but those which a group of reasonable minds must have seen, ought to have seen are grossly unpardonable. Such myopia is bad for the organization.

I am fast coming to the conclusions that misplaced, half-baked and myopia of solutions givers are a greater curse than perhaps a lack of solutions - because hopping from one half- baked solution to the next half- baked one lulls us into believing that credible work is happening while all that is happening is pretence of deep work.


Let me attempt humor to tell the rest of the story. Here are some peculiar archetypes around on the subject of solution providers. - Enjoy with your tongue firmly in cheek.

1.       The solution factory- He has a solution for everything – sometime for even what is not yet a problem. He rattles an idea an hour – which would be quite tolerable but what is travesty is his firm belief in the inherent brilliance in each one of those ideas. Non-acceptance of his solutions does not deter him from proposing his next.

2.       The fundamentalist – He is the deadliest of all. Like all fundamentalists his trouble is that he not only believes in his solution- but he believes that it is the only solution that will solve the problem. Any other solution is the child of a lesser God. His resolute belief in the brilliance of his own mind is scary if not irritating. Organizations must be most wary of such loose cannons for they wreak the greatest havoc on its future – They might solve the imminent problem and in the process become heroes of the year but they unleash such devastating forces that with time leaves only debris on its way. There is a thin line between passionate evocation of a solution and its fundamentalism – the same way that there is a very thin line that separates a benevolent believer and a destructive fundamentalist.

3.       The nonchalant – This one is the other extreme – equally dysfunctional but much less devastating. His curse is that he has no skin in the game. His solutions, the quality of which notwithstanding, suffer from no escape velocity – because the author himself cares too little in whether they are accepted or not, in whether they worked or not. He gives his two bits and lets it be there. If only he put in a little more of himself in his solution that we come to know if the author himself believed in his story.

4.      Lets Discuss – This is a solution avoider possibly.  Cometh the moment – runneth the man! His pet response at the altar of a problem is to bide more time, ask for more data, and suggest one more rework- basically avoid suggesting a solution. He does not want to author a solution for reasons that could range from plain incompetence to lack of conviction, from intellectual lethargy to fear of failure. He is the second worst- just behind the fundamentalist.

5.       What are the Jones doing –This one only wants to do what others are doing – either the market leader in the industry or his previous company. Aping the market leader is the closest he comes to being the best in a roundabout surrogate way and in replicating what he did in the past company is his way of keeping his past glory warm and alive. His solutions have a stench usually – of irrelevance and imitation.

I only hope behind this tongue in cheek archetype of solution givers described above, you see the dark underbelly of the phenomena. Organizations need decision makers and people who solve problems for sure – but great teams and great organizations are built by not pursuing solutions for the sake of solutions, but the ones which are coherent, deliberate, thought through, not only for their intended consequences but also for unintended consequences. Good solutions must solve – for today and tomorrow. There is no redemption in solving for today and messing the tomorrow. Leader must pay heed to Mr. Senge wisdom - that today’s problems are a result of yesterdays solutions – So beware and watch for what you offer as a solution - they are in all likelihood going to cause the problems of tomorrow!
PS: first published in Peoples matter.


Monday Musings 283 – The Lost Summer

Monday Musings 283 – The Lost Summer

The summer as looked down from the 15th floor window, from behind the artificially maintained temperature is just not the same as experienced on the ground floor of dusty mohallas of mofussil India. Of course I am indulging in the most virile or the most impotent of human activity, depending upon what kind of use it is put to, called nostalgia.

Summer in the heartland of Indian plains, away from either from the cool indulgence of the mountains or the moderating caress of the shores, can be oppressive. I never found it oppressive then, when the notion of an AC had yet not corrupted my comforts. More than three decades ago there was poetry in even the heat. It had its own rhythm, its own festivities, its own celebration.

The mornings would often take birth in the ever cool flowing waters of the stream nearby which would end with the Bael (Bengal quince)l sherbet done gloriously through the thin cotton cloth. As the clock reached 10, the world would start to recede. The charpoy beneath the mango tree would come out for a few hours. The sunlight would shimmer through the thick maze of leaves, not tormenting but ever present – the heat not yet violent but threatening to be so. The crows and the cuckoo would be active in fairly loud conversations without a care for who might be evesdropping.

The mother would offer thin butter milk made from the slightly tangy curd of the night before taken out from the earthen pot. The afternoons would be a tussle between angry parents on one hand, who would want a reprive from the long days – and the recalcitrant children who would want to use the peace to creative use. Tiptoeing to sneak out to go back to the fields, climb up trees or do absolutely nothing was a daily attempt – many times caught red handed, after which it would be difficult to ascertain what contributed to hot cheeks more, the weather or the slaps.

The evenings were often long hours of running in the dry fields which would now be open to alternative uses before the next crop is sowed. Playing indigenous games in the rough terrain of erstwhile paddy fields is an experience difficult to imagine for those who have not done it. Marbles were played with gusto and an increase in the evening count would make the day very well spent. The joys of kite flying would only be matched by the joy of the process of making the kites and sharpening the threads. The kite making often happened in the cool shade of a fruit that would be used as adhesive (i don’t remember its Indian or English name any longer but never seen it outside Jharkhand ever), failing which fresh boiled rice be used as an adhesive(ingenuity and jugaad at its best!!)

The wilderness of Jharkhand has much benevolence – the roads, fields and the desolate lands is laden with tamarind, custard apple, jujube, jamun, and indigenous varieties of mangoes. Summer was associated with a band of vagabonds going in search of these, aim at the fruits with stones and then admire our own accuracy as the fruit would fall down. The spoils would of course be shared. Sometimes the tree would belong to some household and hence the entire act would acquire the seriousness of a covert operation – a kind of surgical strike in the middle of the hot afternoon when everyone would be sleeping. For the longest time I thought mangoes are to be sucked rather than cut and eaten because of the ones we got there – thin peeled, juicy and syrupy. A bucket full of mangoes a person would normally not raise eyebrows.

The bath would often be at the well and the mother would sprinkle Nycil (remember that?) quite liberally.

Summer nights would often also be absolutely still but starry. The roofs would become community bedrooms and it on those still nights when even whispers would sound stereophonic, the children would giggle helplessly and without reasons. There is great joy in community laughter particularly when the only reason is to irritate parents who want you to sleep. Mosquitoes added to the charm. No one had yet heard of dengue, chickegunia and having malaria was like an annual pilgrimage – everyone had it.

Summer then was a season that i experienced – and so did everyone else around me. It was embraced like life, with all its folly and all its prickliness. I experience the summer now from a distance, from the 15th floor window pane, from the temperature controlled comfort of the room - as if its someone else’s summer. My summer is lost. Not sure if i will get it back ever – and even if i do get not sure if i will enjoy it as much.