Monday, March 10, 2008

8 Steps to Building Innovating Organizations

Manu Parashar would have completed 37 years yesterday. His book, "8 Steps to Building Innovating Organizations," which made it to bestseller lists was to have been reviewed by me last year for informing a wider audience about the book – I had read the book, took notes and discussed my observations with Manu. He was positive about the points made by me despite several of my remarks pointing out the shortcomings of his book. Given that various reviewers had already reviewed the book in major media outlets, I had decided not to go ahead with writing the review and Manu said that he was looking forward to address some of my concerns in the next version of the book. Today, as a tribute to Manu, I present my review of his book "8 Steps to Building Innovating Organizations."

"8 Steps to Building Innovating Organizations" is an interestingly written book in the sense that it does not try to use esoteric language to impress practitioners; nor does it dumb down their intelligence by quoting a string of high-profile yet unrelated examples with no theoretical framework in place. Comprising 8 chapters (corresponding to the "8 steps" in the title), the book is written in a Conversational and "directly addressing the reader" style, making the book racy. The book starts with the chapter titled "What is innovation?" with several types of scenarios presented to the reader so as to illustrate the multi-faceted nature of innovation. In the second chapter, innovation is defined as a capability with three components, viz., knowledge capability, attitudinal capability and creative capability. The next three chapters deal with each of these capabilities in detail. Having established the nature and the composition of innovation, the book proceeds to talk about the various building blocks of innovation at the level of individual, team and organization in the sixth chapter. The last two chapters deal with the importance of staying the course (especially in terms of vision) and the need for renewal.

Unlike most books on business management where the first chapter covers everything in brief and the remaining chapters just keep expanding the ideas from first chapter, this book gives an enriching experience even while going through each of the chapters – a quality that I found mostly only in Peter Drucker’s books, despite presence of several other stalwart writers on business management. What is also refreshing in the book is the operationalisation of some of the terms; for example, attitude is operationalised as consisting openness, awareness, curiosity and playfulness – especially as the last factor is ignored by most organizations. Similarly, the book stresses on importance of measuring impact of innovation – a point ignored by many people. At the same time, the author avoids the pitfalls of sounding theoretical; for example, he does not define creativity. Probably, it is only in trying to define new terms that he falters – for instance, the definition of attitudinal capability is made unnecessarily complex (pg. 78). Some of the ideas, while pretty resonant with the Indian context, could have been developed further – a case in the point being the inadequate attention to India’s demographic diversity, despite the book placing a lot of stress on diversity.

When academicians write for practitioners, it may so happen that they may not want to sound pedantic and hence, may not want to elaborate on some finer points. However, it may be important to explain the reasons for some of the pronouncements so that practitioners can be more easily convinced; for instance, chapter 2 talks of the importance of replicating optimal processes – the need for the same could have been elaborated. It would have been of greater utility to the practitioner if the types of knowledge such as technical vs. managerial knowledge, knowledge process vs. content etc. were distinguished; it could also be the case that managerial knowledge is explicated in creative capability – If so, it needs to be clarified. After reading the introductory chapter, it appeared as if episodic & continuous innovation seemed to correspond to quantum jumps & baby steps – however, it need not be the case and the relation between these could have been dwelt upon. Chapter 3, which deals with knowledge capability, should have also dealt with the notion that knowledge could also be embedded in “routines.” Again, some discussion on the elements of knowledge capability (pg. 65) would have helped the reader in understanding if these were complete and reinforcing, i.e., mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive. The chapter on creative capability makes several interesting points – the most important being the need for deliberateness in creativity; invoking the need for discipline would have further enriched the discussion and complemented the need for deliberateness.

The sort of command displayed by the author in crafting the book resembles that of someone who belongs and not a novice. For instance, having a lead case for each chapter helped a lot in establishing clarity – especially for the individual chapters on knowledge, attitudinal and creative capabilities. While the book has a wealth of examples, they sound repetitive after some time probably because they are drawn from a small number of companies. Also, while the book can be read by any practicing manager, the tenor of the book has been set primarily set for an Indian audience and as such, I was a bit surprised with the incomplete treatment of the well-documented e-choupal case in the first chapter; more surprising was that the book lacked classic examples of Indian cases of innovation, such as sachet packaging or design of toothpowder. At the same time, the author appears to be in awe of companies such as the DuPont – What is the great difference between 33% and 35% (pg. 59)? Again, I do understand that first time authors are under tremendous pressure trying to understand the publishing process and meeting the dead lines with little help as most of the publishers’ resources typically cater to established authors. Which is why, the appropriateness of the title to the contents of the book or the evidence of 8 steps is something that need not be questioned to be informed by the book; the same applies to the strange section title, “The Indian angle” for Indian case studies. The only serious of error of commission, if I may say so, is found on page 83 – “An aware organization is one that is always aware of its surroundings.” Huh?!

Despite minor limitations such as the above, Manu does quite well in ensuring that the structure and flow of the book are reader friendly – an impressive feat for a first time author. I am certain that the book would be of immense help to practicing managers for times to come.

Aside 1: After I first posted on this blog about Manu, I found other friends of Manu paying their tribute as well - here (two posts) and here. I also found a blog reviewing his book in a short yet succinct manner.
Aside 2: Due to a variety of reasons, I could not be active on the blogosphere. From now on, I hope to increase the frequency of my posts and probably reduce the length of posts.

© Author. All rights reserved.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Doesn't BCCI deserve some credit?

Indian media has a favorite whipping boy in the form of the Board for Control of Cricket in India (BCCI) - which is almost always depicted as a body full of political squabbles or even worse, a bumbling but powerful idiot with the huge might of the Indian market at its disposal. BCCI is portrayed as a reactive body - I understand the hope that BCCI be proactive, but honestly, how many sports bodies in India are reactive at least? Also, the media does not appreciate enough, how BCCI brought in big money into cricket over the years; true, it capitalized on the success of the Indian cricket team in 1983, but again, how many sports bodies have been able to capitalize on the successes of their wards?

This post, though, is not about how BCCI has got the short shrift from the media in general. I stick to the specific instance of team selection for the inaugural Twenty20 world cup. These days, cricket is analyzed so much (especially the off-the-field shenanigans) by the media that I find this omission about the BCCI's good management of team selection glaring. First things first, though - this Twenty20 world cup has 12 teams participating, of which, eight teams, have been around for long enough on the international scene as more-or-less permanent fixtures in both the longer (Tests) and shorter (ODIs) versions of the game. Of these eight teams, Australia has been rebuilding in the spate of retirements of players post-Ashes glory and it was clear that their Twenty20 team will not hold any surprises. England had lot of experience in the shortest version of the game through several Twenty20 matches played between its counties and hence, picking up a team was not very difficult. Of the remaining six teams, New Zealand and West Indies do not command the same market power as the other teams, and as such, their Twenty20 teams were not expected to evoke much reaction from the media.

The remaining four teams had interesting pasts recently - Sri Lanka did well in the 2007 ODI World Cup; South Africa did alright but could not get rid of its chokers tag; India and Pakistan did badly. Once the teams for Twenty20 for these four countries had been made public, lot of controversy got generated except in the case of Indian team. The selection committees of these four teams probably wanted younger players, but the way they went about it was very different. In the case of South Africa, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, players such as Kallis, Yousuf and Atapattu were not considered and this had repercussions including these names being linked to the Indian Cricket league (ICL) that is to kick-off shortly in defiance to BCCI. In the case of India, the trio of Sachin, Sourav and Rahul made themselves unavailable for selection, leaving a free hand to the selectors. However, Sourav's statements later on seemed to clearly indicate that the trio has been persuaded by the BCCI behind the scenes - leading to graceful exit of the trio and a free hand to BCCI. More importantly, the trio seemed to have been taken in confidence very well - unlike in the case of the players in other teams, they did not sulk - the performances of Sachin and Sourav especially reminiscent of their halcyon days. Given that the media generally castigates BCCI for mismanagement, shouldn't it have doffed its hat to BCCI on this occasion for its good man management? I don't recall seeing any such article or analysis in the media - or is it possible that I missed such an analysis due to information overload? I can dismiss that possibility given the brush that media uses to portray BCCI generally. Which brings me back to the question, doesn't BCCI deserve some credit? and more importantly, perhaps, why is it that Indian media fails to see positives?

Aside 1: One of the supporters of ICL took a very interesting dig at the name of BCCI, saying that BCCI is only interested in the "control" of cricket, and not its "development" and hence, it is opposed to ICL.

Aside 2: That India has defeated South Korea 7-2 in the men's Asia Cup hockey tournament, coupled with the success of the film "ChakDe! India" could potentially mean that any slip-ups by the Indian cricket team in the inaugural Twenty20 world cup would lead to increased interest in hockey. While I do wish that we do well in Twenty 20, the Indian men's hockey team deserves all the attention it can get especially after that victory margin despite playing with only 10 men for better part of the game.

© Author. All rights reserved.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Super Crunchers

People say that I have a good analytical mind; while I was always afraid of numbers, these people claim that I only feign fear. As a researcher, my creed has been of a qualitative persuasion. Friends take a dig at me as I argue that reality is socially constructed; I typically return the favor by saying that such socially constructed reality is statistically validated by the likes of my friends. I had, in the process of working on my morbid fear of numbers, undergone an internship with the analytics center of excellence in GE (GE-ACOE), Bangalore which later became a part of GECIS and is now a part of GENPACT. While I appreciated the way analytics were used to harness the power of numbers, I never really understood the import. Later on, the analytics industry grew and many people, including one of my good friends did their bit in evangelizing the analytics industry. Despite this, I failed to fully grasp the increasing importance of numbers in our life, till I read Super Crunchers.

Super Crunchers: Why thinking-by-numbers is the new way to be smart is an interesting book because its author Ian Ayres is primarily a law professor, and as such, he makes the book engaging by dealing in the applications of number crunching while keeping the math light at the same time. The book has a wide variety of interesting & informative illustrations with jargon reduced to a minimum. The technique dealt with primarily is that of randomization – the most interesting was the (unintended) experiment of reserving one-third seats of Panchayat heads in India to women, which led to establishing the difference in priorities of men and women heading villages. Indeed, the title of the book itself is a product of randomization, as Ayres tested at least 2 titles and 2 sub-titles before zeroing down on the present combination – surely one of the rare cases where an academician practices what he preaches? What is interesting is how he establishes the increasing feasibility of super crunching – thanks to advances in ICTs, the cost of setting up, data collection & analysis of large-scale randomization experiments has become simpler, faster and cheaper, leading to what he calls, a tad dramatically, “the end of intuition.” However, he does not elaborate on the negative effects of randomization – for example, large sample testing can have destructive effects, akin to testing the matches in a match box which become useless once tested. Also, intuition is still needed to decide on what to randomize. While Ayres argues that randomization cannot be used on once-in-a-while events like space shuttle launches, I was wondering if simulation, in combination with randomization, can help solve such problems. He also looks at regression and its applications in some depth in earlier chapters before moving on to introduce Bayes’ theorem and the 2SD rule (I never realized that the error margin indicated in polls is equal to two standard deviations) in the last chapter in an insightful yet enchanting manner. He delves into esoteric stuff such as neural networks and the counterintuitive strategy of limiting their number for achieving better results – taking me back to the time I learnt on a different conception of bounded rationality. Ayres looks to pause at the flipside too – the problems of errors in super crunching and the problems of reporters not understanding statistics; on the latter, he gives the example of Lawrence Summers’ statements being perceived as gender-insensitive and politically incorrect despite being statistically correct (Summers had to step down as Harvard president after the furor on the media coverage).

What I liked about the book was the flow in terms of how each seemingly disparate example seamlessly led to another, helping build arguments. Given the focus of the book, Ian did not dwell much on peripheral themes that I could glean (the much bigger role of government vis-à-vis private interests in randomization experiments; the increasing importance of number crunching in medicine, a theme touched upon in Malcolm Gladwell’s delightful Blink as well). He also does not explore some of the issues that stare you in the face as you read the book. He does not talk about the possibility of gaming behavior possible due to the results obtained through super crunching – when everyone starts engaging in such behavior, super crunching becomes a hygiene factor (a la “Does IT matter?” by Nicholas Carr); to me, the advantages of super crunching clearly lie in understanding (natural) systems that cannot be gamed. Despite these minor oversights on the part of the author, I really loved the book because it not only made me think but also made me feel as if I was in love with numbers!

Aside 1: I’d love to test which of these phrases is more effective using randomization: "100% improvement" or "increased by 2 times ."
Aside 2: I’d also like to write a sci-fi story on Super Crunching producing conformists.

© Author. All rights reserved.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Presidential Pollitics

Before you rush to urge me to run spellcheck on my blog titles at the least, let me assure you that the spelling is exactly what I intended it to be. If presidential politics refers to the politics related to the President, then presidential pollitics relates to the politics surrounding the polls for the positions of President (& Vice-President). Aah, you say - then, why this delay? Though the polls are done with, and the positions filled, there was a jarring note - none of the political parties covered themselves with glory and I find it strange; strange because, the choices for the posts were pretty much alright in terms of profile and expertise when compared with earlier incumbents. The genesis for this blog post, by the way, lies in my idea to creatively recombine two posts by a young friend of mine - if president is a rubber stamp and if third front is doomed to fail. Coming back, better late than never - and so, this post! Had I blogged along with everyone else, it would have been a mere piece of journalism; now that I do it later, it endows the piece with some distance and perspective, making it a historic piece.

Ok, coming to the actors - the most interesting was the case of the third front, named UNPA (United National Progressive Alliance) , which was an unfortunate, though probably unintended concoction of the names of the other two fronts UPA (United Progressive Alliance) and NDA (National Democratic Alliance). Critics sneered and said that the formation of UNPA is another instance of UNPAlatable opportunism and an UNPArdonable sin (puns intended). They believed that nothing positive could come out of such negativity - wrong! The critics forgot that (-)*(-) = (+) and UNPA scored by bringing the name of Abdul Kalam, the most popular choice as reflected in several opinion polls, onto the centerstage. Kalam declined contesting after some consideration; UNPA squandered the advantage and ended up scoring an own goal with some of them abstaining from the polls and some of them voting. One thing that caught my interest was that Karunanidhi remained silent on the prospect of Kalam contesting again - DMK was a party that was portrayed as always rooting for its sons-of-the-soil and what better choice to root for than a Bharat Ratna President? May be the blame lies with coalition politics. However, Bal Thackeray went by son-of-the-soil (or daughter-of-the-soil to be more precise) dictum to support Pratibha Patil, coalition politics be cold-storaged. And what about UPA? It seemed to lose some credibility from the varying utterances of its leaders about the disinterest that Kalam apparently expressed over a second term in office; more importantly, the process in which it arrived at the presidential candidate was also questioned - memorably by an India Today editorial which observed that the question now is not just "Pratibha who" but also "Pratibha why." The NDA seemed to be playing its cards well and there was some speculation in the media of NDA triggering some cross-voting - there was cross-voting, but against NDA. Not being in power at the centre probably means that it is that much more tougher to control dissidents. So, only Left seemed to have maintained its stand properly - they were the only ones to have opposed Kalam when he stood for the elections the first time and even now they were opposed to him - on consistent and principled grounds that only a political person must become a president. Yet, when it came to the Vice-President post, the Left canvassed for a non-political person - an inconsistency that I find baffling. From my limited knowledge, I can say that a President can still get by despite not being a political person, by taking recourse to a battery of constitutional experts at his disposal. The Vice-President, by contrast, is the ex-officio Chairman of the Rajya Sabha and as such, he has to draw from his own experience to conduct the proceedings of the house smoothly - this calls for more political experience than the position of a President, IMHO. A lack of explanation or rationale from the Left makes it even tougher to understand this perplexing choice. Thus, none of the major political parties could cover themselves with glory in the recently concluded presidential pollitics - all the more surprising given the capabilities of the contestants, including the eventual winners. If only things were managed properly, we would have savoured and rejoiced at having two competent people in the highest offices, rather than quibbling unnecessarily.

Aside 1: A young friend is a friend who is young; then shouldn't an old friend be a friend who is old rather than the friendship itself being old? ;)
Aside 2: Overheard - Why did Kalam say "fantastic! fantastic!!" to the names of N. R. Narayana Murthy and Pratibha Patil as potential presidential candidates when he himself later planned to contest? Fantastic, when jumbled suitably, becomes "can't-fit-as"!

© Author. All rights reserved.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Games Indians Play

As I see my blog evolving, I am beginning to believe that a majority of my posts would comprise book reviews and the like. And when I visit many Indian blogs, I find that most of the blogs let out a collective groan on why we are the way we are. So, I thought I should kick off my book review posts with the review of a book that carries the tag "Why we are the way we are" as the subtitle. Yup, I am refering to the book "Games Indians Play: Why we are the way we are" authored by Prof. V. Raghunathan, former professor of IIM Ahmedabad, who headed ING Vysya for sometime and who is now a part of the top management team of the fast-growing GMR group. Those of you who are into off-the-track hobbies may also be interested in knowing that he has the largest collection of antique locks.

Ok, coming to the book - while the title of the book succinctly captures what the author wishes to express, I am afraid that the book in its final form does not do justice to the title. The book was a racy read but not fully satisfying. I don't think most of the Indians would have any problem in recognising and probably identifying with the situations that the author talks of; however, we may have a problem in the way it is written, that is in employing game theory. At one level, it appears as if the author makes observations about game theory and behavioral finance on one hand and observations about Indians in general on another hand but does not try to connect them. While the application of game theory is very very interesting, I would have also loved to see the concept of "bounded rationality" being applied to analyse why we are the way we are. Also, the application of game theory itself is inadequate - the concepts like Prisoner's dilemma etc. are all fine but why do they apply to the mindsets of Indians alone? A huge let-down was the incomplete treatment of pseudo prisoner's dilemma, relegated to the appendix; I would have liked to see and know if the pay-offs in the Indian context are akin to pseudo prisoner's dilemma when compared to pay-offs in the context of other developed economies. If so, what is the cause and what is the solution - is it liberal institutional reform by the government or does it have to do with inculcation of value systems through education? I thought of several such questions while reading the book but sadly, it did not proffer any answers. I did enjoy one part of the book immensely and that was the parallels that game theory seemed to have with Bhagavad Gita - especially the "do the right thing" part. I am always amazed by the ways and means through which people use the versatility of Gita to make their point. Of course, the best example in my mind would forever be the way Mahatma Gandhi utilized Gita, what was essentially a call to arms, for propagating non-violence.

All in all, "Games Indians Play" is an interesting read, especially if you do not have too many expectations to start with. Unfortunately, I had lot of expectations as I still remember fondly a book written by Raghunathan many years back - it was on the Indian economy and capital markets and was one of the first books I read as I was plodding myself deep into management education. What I liked about that book was its witty style, with pot shots at the controller of capital issues (now replaced by SEBI) and cheeky references to famous quotes from "Alice in wonderland" as applied to Indian economy invariably followed by obligatory yet humorous apologies to Lewis Carroll. "Games Indians Play" lacked that witticism. Or it is possible that I am being unfair about the book - I had read it sometime back and luckily took some random notes on a scrap of paper; luckier still, I could find that scrap of paper without much drama as I was trying to post it as a blog. So, while I may be using the words on that scrap of paper, I may not fully be capturing the exact feelings I had when I was reading "Games Indians Play."

© Author. All rights reserved.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Freewill or Destiny?

It is strange that we often do not have the time or the inclination for important questions in life - it is probably a reflex reaction of not wanting to deal with uncomfortable issues - which, while important, are perhaps not urgent. However, I believe that I should reflect on the name of the current URL of this blog - - before proceeding to publish other posts. It emerged from the issues that I was grappling with at the time I started the blog - Do we have a freewill? Or is it all destined? Viewing "Forrest Gump" around the same time was instructive - the opening and closing shots in the film capture a feather in the breeze (now you know how my identity on the blogosphere has emerged). In the film, Forrest goes with the flow, lacking the faintest idea of what he wants to do in life, BUT doing his best that he can. Jenny, his love, apart from having a clear idea on what she wants to achieve (a singing career) , goes on in life to seek and find "harmony." Jenny clearly shows freewill but gets exhausted (some could say that she failed, but I don't want to get judgemental here); Forrest has spectacular successes and it looks like it is all destined. Or is it? Are destiny and freewill mutually exclusive?

I beg to differ. Think of the time when you were asked to address a gathering. When is it easier to talk - when you are given a brief or when you are free to choose the topic? I would bet that, more often than not, we would go with the first option. It is very difficult to operate without a structure in place. Think of all the great achievers in any field - poets, scientists, classical musicians - they were those who built on an inherited structure and transcended it later on. Even those who did not built on such a structure, like Srinivasa Ramanujam, became famous only after adhering to, and then, surpassing the structure. Destiny is probably indeed like that structure - one needs to acclimatise oneself to it so as to overcome it and let freewill kick in. And how do we do it?

Probably the best way to do it is to do it the way our scriptures have ordained and Forrest demonstrates - without attachment. As I was commenting on a blog, it is very difficult to understand the nature of attachment. Almost 15 years back, I remember asking a Swamiji from Ramakrishna Mission as to how it is possible not to be attached. He said, "Please be attached to your work, who is not asking you to? But only, immerse yourself in it so much that your attachment gets dissolved." I did not understand it fully then. While I may not be practicing it, today, I feel I understand what he said better - "Be immersed in your work so much that you are not bothered/ do not have time to worry about the results." Incidentally, Bhagavad-Gita doesn't tell us not to have attachment with the work; it tells us not to have attachment with the fruits of our actions. The journey is many a time more interesting and important than the destination. Thus, one need not probably be overawed by questions regarding freewill and destiny - one just needs to go about doing his work with sincerity and commitment. May be, just may be, a majority of people have already figured this out and hence do not engage with the debate, freewill vs. destiny

© Author. All rights reserved.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Manu Parashar

Zindagi lambi nahi, badi honi chahiye!

The length of your life is unimportant; what is important is its depth.

However, when I got to know the news of Manu passing away, I thought for a second, how great it would have been if only the reverse was true, if only the length of life is important - if only I could have enjoyed his company for a longer time. Then, fighting tears, I chided myself, this is probably the way he would have preferred it. He lived life kingsize, touching hearts in a myriad number of ways, lending a helping ear, offering a witty suggestion and inspiring ambition & igniting jealousy in equal measure. He did what was close to his heart and I dare say, lived without any regrets. He finished his dissertation in quick time, wrote a best-seller, completed another one, carried out a variety of academic research and lent his services as an innovation consultant. The one trait I admired in him the most was the infinite capacity he had to remain cool and keep others cool. What was endearing about him was how he looked active and full of beans all the time, despite an air of lazy countenance. I regretted not being able to see his body before cremation but I now doubt if I could stand seeing his lifeless body.

While our interactions were limited, our discussions were animated. I got to know him much better when I was reviewing the advance copy of his book - he was a good sport to tolerate my jibes about the title of the book and cribs about its contents; moreover, he was ready to get a publication outlet for my review! I was stumped as I had heard several stories about first-time authors and the size of their egos. I wondered momentarily if he was tolerating me as I was his senior student or if he was indulging me as I was a bit younger to him; and he made my day when he signed and gifted an author's copy of the book to me. Needless to say, it would be one of my most prized possessions for times to come. His actions inspired me to follow what my heart says. I had, for a long time, thought of starting a blog but put it off on one pretext or other. Today, finally, with this post on Manu, I start my blogging life. I humbly dedicate this blog to Manu Parashar and pray to the Almighty to give me and his other near and dear ones, the strength to tide over his physical demise.

© Author. All rights reserved.