Musings on books, technology, entrepreneurship, nonprofits and umm.. everything else …

Archive for May, 2013

Multipliers and Diminishers

One of the topics I keep coming back in this blog is about the workplace and different aspects of making that better for the organization, manager, and employees. Books such as The Carrot Principle talk about incentive structures and how they can be used effectively to arrive at a happy and productive workforce. Books like The Starfish and the Spider talk about organizational structures and how structures themselves affect how an organization performs, grows, transmits and retains knowledge.

I had also written about the Shane Battier Effect and how some amazing team players focus on maximizing the contribution from their team and using that as their metric of success rather than just their personal accomplishments. In a post titled The Batmobile and race cars on my Wharton blog, I had addressed the other side of the equation – employees that felt like they had multiple skills and were being under-utilized only along one of those dimensions.

In this post and the next one, I hope to highlight a couple of awesome books focused around traits of the leader herself. I just got done with reading Multipliers, a great book full of skills you can teach yourself to be a better leader. This was referred to me by Prof. Adam Grant, who’s book is next on my list (Give and Take) in response to my question about any work done on the Shane Battier Effect.

The authors condense a lot of research done with successful entrepreneurs and business leaders into a few key skills that they use to distinguish the multipliers from the diminishers, and then provide concrete steps that we can take to go from being diminishers, willful or accidental, to multipliers that get the best out of their co-workers and build leaders in their wake, not just yes-men.

Taking a leaf from the work of folks like Chip&Dan Heath on how to make ideas stick (Made to Stick) they give these five broad disciplines simple and catchy titles – ‘The Talent Magnet’, ‘The Liberator’, ‘The Challenger’, ‘The Debate Maker’ and ‘The Investor’.

Each of these disciplines has real world examples from leaders that exemplify that trait – from Ela Bhatt of SEWA to Abraham Lincoln. All in all, a great read and a good book to have on your bookshelf as reference material for personal advancement.

How “factual” is a fact?

In a brilliantly written book, Samuel Arbesman talks about the fascinating world of facts, about how they are not frozen in time, but have their own “half-life” that can be measured in many spheres of knowledge. If “On Being Certain” spoke of how our brain decides that we know for sure that something is a fact, this book looks at the reality of how a “fact” itself changes nature over time in recorded history. It serves as a fascinating introduction to scientometrics, the quantitative study of science.

 

One of the interesting sections of the book revolves around hidden knowledge – how people have been able to make remarkable progress towards finding cures to certain diseases, or figuring out some unsolved puzzle in the real world by combining knowledge from published works in different fields of science. This was brought to the fore pretty rapidly through recent advances such as the crowdsourced innovation platform InnoCentive.

As we saw in the announcement last week around the advances made in solving a weak version of the twin prime conjecture, using existing tools of mathematics but looking at a problem differently is a key to problem solving that brought this as-yet “unremarkable” mathematician to the media spotlight. As the saying goes, the more we know, the more we know that the less we know. So true knowledge must necessarily make you less rigid, more humble and more open to questioning your views. It shines light on all the dirt and frayed edges around what we used to consider as the absolute truth and tells us that all is not cut and dry. It tells us that over the arc of time, facts do change, and things that we took for granted as obvious observations get shattered in the light of new findings. The key to staying sane, and succeeding in this world of ever-changing information where the timescales of change are also rapidly compressing, is to keep an open mind, and question all that you hear and see with the curiosity of a toddler. As the saying goes, “Tamaso ma jyothir gamaya” – from darkness, lead me to light …

Knowledge and empowerment …

Image

Ah the familiar feeling of being a new grad. That extra spring in your steps. The feeling that you can conquer the world with your new found wisdom and tool chest. That the world will come knocking on your doors, begging you to lead them given that expensive piece of paper that you just acquired by toughing it out for two years. That smug smile you have on your face – partially hidden if you’re polite – when you hear some technical term that you learnt in class, though you probably don’t recall much about it any more. Those nuggets of “wisdom” you drop upon unsuspecting friends now that you have a freshly minted degree to back you up.

If I recall correctly from the last time around, the feeling lasts for a few months and gets lost when reality crushes it out of your system. The world does not change because you acquired a new piece of paper – unless it is green and has a lot of zeros next to it :). Which is where the distinction between acquiring knowledge and feeling empowered comes in. We assume that the moment of graduation is the moment of empowerment, that there is a clean transition into a new world where things are not the same anymore and where we should feel empowered to use the tools of the new trade that we just picked up. However, in reality, graduation only represents the opening of opportunities to the graduates. Opportunities that need to be sought, chosen and conquered. Empowerment lies in the ability to act upon the knowledge distilled from school and life, not in the mechanical act of acquisition of the tools themselves.

In that context, knowledge for knowledge’s sake without the ability to act upon it can be disempowering. The boredom of using older tools while newer ones rot in your toolkit can both serve as a disempowering dose of reality, as well as a sure shot way to gradually lose those new skills too. The medical world solves this by requiring that physicians get re-certified every few years, to ensure that they keep pace with the latest findings, un-learn dated materials and re-learn new ones, sharpening their tools for another epoch of usage. Sadly, this is not the case for most other professions such as engineers or MBAs.

At some level, knowledge also represents an elevation of the mind from precision to accuracy. Precision, in most aspects of life, has a banal finality to it. A “fundamentalist” view of things quoted to N decimal places, or to excruciating detail. Accuracy on the other hand attempts to get things directionally right, so that on average experiences align your views in the correct direction, so that you make the right choices for the most part. Yes the edges might be frayed, it may not be presented rosily, there might be dirt around it, but it reflects reality more closely. And being accurate requires a deeper command on subject matter than being precise. It requires that you be okay with being wrong, as long as the experience itself was empowering in that it provided you new information to stow away and act upon in future.

So as we contemplate how we will transform the world through our newly acquired degrees, setting our expectations straight will help us prepare for the long run. From those to whom much is given, much is expected. So set your bar high for what you expect out of yourself. Be less certain of what you think and more open to what you see that contradicts your beliefs. As Taleb talks about in his new book Antifragile, being robust to uncertainty is not sufficient. Being antifragile helps you grow stronger with uncertainty and build better, brighter careers and lives.

Coke, India and Pakistan …

Small World Machines

It is not often that one comes across brilliantly executed advertising campaigns. Ads that tug at your heartstrings. Make a political statement without any pontification or grandstanding. That steal the emotions behind the issue being portrayed and get it ascribed to the brand in the minds of the consumer.

And one often finds the most enduring brands being able to do this repeatedly. Coca Cola has been at the forefront of this for decades. And they get it right again with their Small World Machines campaign. Two vending machines placed strategically amidst the people of two countries purportedly at odds with each other. But with a special catch that makes all the difference.

What made this special in my mind? I found it interesting for the following reasons:

1. This leads directly to one of their missions “To inspire moments of optimism and happiness…”. Coke has been slowly shifting its brand identity towards happiness to capture a larger global mindshare, and this ad is definitely a right step in that direction.

2. ​This also represents a conflict that already exists where people might feel differently from the reality. Through this mechanism, Coke is able to bring associations from the feeling of happiness and camaraderie between the two parties to associate with its brand. Building those associations are hard, and who better than Coke to try to do that. As people try to question the status quo and wonder why that is so, they can remember that Coke was the brand that made them feel happy and feel connected.

3. The campaign itself ties very well with your normal behavior when you try to access the product – through a vending machine. So it is building brand reinforcement into the act of purchasing/acquiring the product itself – again something cool! It does not separate the brand building from the act of engaging with the brand itself – without making it very obvious.

4. Coke sidesteps any political ill-will it might have gained by not suggesting any long-term solutions, but just exploiting the situation to extract out only the feel-good factor that common people feel – the bond that ties the two nations together. This keeps them from losing their largest markets in South Asia through an otherwise risky marketing exercise. While one cannot expect large brands to make political statements through their marketing campaigns, this does raise the issue of cross-border friendship in one of the most sensitive regions of conflict around the world.

A relatively close idea that was executed equally well, but one that does not seem to have strong brand identity building and messaging around it is the Trident window ad.

With high definition video collaboration pretty much the status quo in communications, the time is ripe for campaigns that leverage the human desire to interact with people around the world. with our ability to get pleasantly surprised through unexpected positive interactions and the element of discovery of something new. Maybe time to dust off those pay-it-forward literature and see if there are any messages in there that can be reintroduced into the advertising world.

On knotty issues …

 

In honor of the Tumblr acquisition, this post will be short and sweet.

Many of you might have faced this problem, but not had the time to go read up on it, so here goes. 

 

I’m a lazy “shoelace-tier”. I’ve learnt it one way and stuck to that all my life. I didn’t seem to have any problems with it until I came to the US, where the shoelaces started coming off quite often. I’ve heard several explanations for it – that it is due to static, that the material of the shoe lace matters are among them. 

All this, of course, until I came across Professor Shoelace. In one quick video, he set me straight with what I had been doing wrong all these years. And of course, the shoelace coming undone problem has gone down by an order of magnitude!

Also came across another site devoted to shoelace knots. Go re-learn your knots and liberate yourself!

A look back on graduation day …

As the WEMBA East folks get ready to graduate today, us on the West Coast are celebrating our first weekend after our graduation ceremony. It has been a peaceful week of plentiful sleep, and unhurried focus at work and in other aspects of our life. So while we raise a toast to celebrate the graduation of our WEMBA East family members, here’s a quick summary of what transpired last Sunday.

ImageSeismic retrofitting at the Herbst Theater meant that this year the Wharton San Francisco graduation ceremony had to be moved to the Marines’ Memorial Theater, an equally impressive building. The day began with an open house at school where all of us took our families, took pictures with them and showed them where a significant portion of our lives was spent in the past two years. The day was a bit chilly and cold but it cleared up to offer us the beautiful views of the Bay that we so wanted to show off to all our families.

Relief, pride, joy, and a bit of nostalgia – these emotions were among the many that ran across the faces of my classmates as they took one last walk around campus as students and then headed out to get lunch before heading to the graduation venue.

After spending about an hour taking photos of each other and on figuring out how to wear our graduation gowns and avoid any wardrobe malfunctions, we finally lined up outside the theater, ready to walk in with pomp and circumstance. It was fun to see the professors in all their interesting regalia. I believe David Bell was actually wearing sneakers .. got to be a Stanford PhD tradition.  It was also interesting to see that the professors that were PhD holders from Chicago had non-square caps that looked sort of cool, amidst the sea of square caps that we had to wear.

We spent a good few minutes standing in the front rows, facing our families and waving to them, applauding them for their tireless support over the past two years. This degree was as much an accomplishment of theirs as it was ours. Many had brought along their sponsors from their companies as well to thank them for their support. Doug kicked off the evening with a special award to Len Lodish for vision in helping start Wharton SF and the years of support that he gave the school. Dean Robertson followed next with five key lessons for us – “Be curious”, “Get a life”, “Its not all about you” and a couple more that was lost in the excitement of the day.

Inder Sidhu, the keynote speaker from Cisco provided a few vignettes from his life through the examples of his mother, wife and daughter and how that brought to bear three key lessons for him – courage, caring and curiosity. It was pretty interesting to hear how these experiences shaped his career. After the awards were done, we also had the class gift committee hand over a check for over $125,000 to Wharton as a contribution from our class. Several classmates made big donations and we had a couple of matching donations as well. What was really cool was that we had 100% participation from the class.

To use a Seinfeld analogy, for those of us with kids who’s families had not come to school much, the graduation dinner presented with the ultimate George Costanza moment. There’s the Wharton student, and then there’s the parent or the spouse, and these two worlds were hitherto fairly non-overlapping. It was interesting to see how my classmates managed to alter between those two roles successfully, talking to their kids and spouses for most of the dinner, and yet, finding time to walk around to other tables as well and meet and greet other classmates and their families.

I’ve not been big on ceremonies in general but looking back, I realize that the formality of this process serves as closure in our minds – that we are now MBAs, that for better or worse, we have acquired skills that we could use, or lose. It will be interesting to see how my classmates progress through their careers and lives and go on to do amazing things in the coming years!