Sunday, July 28, 2013

Imbibing Yama and Niyama to Enrich Life

This post has been published in SpeakingTree.

I am not an entrepreneur. Yet! I am a professional who has worked in various positions and managed to do reasonably well. I was tuned to working in a structured environment where my roles and responsibilities were quite clear. I knew where I belonged in the corporate food chain, what I was expected to do and when to deliver what kind of results. And that is what I have been doing for close to eight years until I was propelled into joining our family business due to various circumstances.
I was not averse to the idea but I was not too excited either. I did not know why. Logically, it should be a wonderfully enticing proposition considering how much I can do in it, the flexibility and latitude that comes with such choices but there was something holding me back in my subconscious mind. I shoved the uncanny thought behind thinking it will go away with the passage of time.
The business was an absolutely virgin territory for me. I did not have any idea about the offering, manufacturing process, inventory, client handling, finance etc. Being a small business, many areas required people to multitask. There was no system of handover or training. It was purely “learn as you do” environment. A lot of things were done with the notion “that is how it has been done till now”. There were lot of ad-hoc measures and no one could clearly explain the internal workings.
There was too much to learn and understand, too many things were haphazard, no mentoring, the intermittent guidance was disjointed. It was like various people telling me about the head, trunk, hind legs and tail of an elephant but no one could explain the elephant in totality. I was struggling to figure things out. There were couple of things which I identified as potential area for improvement but the efforts fell flat as I could not drive through the initiatives. I simply could not “sell” my vision. I had always worked honestly in earlier places and spoke my mind clearly about any issue but here things were different. Here I was being constantly shutdown or diverted.
There was also the fact that I was university educated with reasonable prior work experience and belonging to the promoter’s family. People expected me to deliver without giving me enough inputs or assuming that I knew already. At times I felt that I was being tested. I realized that managing perceptions is a huge challenge because there is no apparent logic and people seldom try to accept an alternate theory or concept.
It was becoming extremely frustrating and slowly I was losing confidence in my abilities. I was routinely angry and felt on the edge with minor impulse. People close to me started pointing it out. I did not know how to plough my way out of this situation especially since joining the business being my conscious choice.
There were questions and questions.
How do I make decisions?
How will I know that it is the right decision?
What should I do in the business to make it sustain and weather the storms?
Should my sole objective be profit maximization?
How should I deal with my employees, customers, stakeholders?
What information should I share with whom?
Who can be trusted? Whom should I be wary of?
How can I judge the intention of a person?
Am I being given the full facts or there are details obscure from my eyes? 
How should I conduct myself?
How do I gain respect of my people?
One thing that was constant is my belief that the answer to all turmoil is within or around us. We just need to tune in our senses and feel. We have to be sensitive and introspective enough to attune ourselves to the vibrations. It all lies in our mind. If we can control it we can achieve just about anything.
And one day I saw the light at the end of the tunnel. While reading an instruction on a particular Yoga Asana, my eyes fell on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. It was my “Eureka” moment.

Read on . . . 

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Startups and Entrepreneurship

Few days back I was changing my mobile phone plan seeking a faster Internet service. There was no lack of options and the wait time between deactivating one service and activating another was probably 48 hours. But in that interim I was not connected to my business and personal contacts through WhatsApp; something that I was not even using few months ago. It was a huge impediment in my otherwise efficient way of working. I had to go “old school” and email, text or call people whenever I needed something. That is the power of startups; innovations which are disruptive and change the entire rules of the game. 

When Clayton Christensen talked about Disruptive Innovation in the mid 90s, he probably had not fully envisaged these amazing startups which have effortlessly embedded themselves into our lives. Those were the times of dotcom magic. However, today we have Facebook, Google, WhatsApp, Viber which are all taken for granted as our modes of communication. Leaving aside the controversy surrounding Oscar Pistorius, imagine the advancement in prosthesis which helps a man (without a natural limb) outrun otherwise physically intact compatriots. All these innovations came up through startups driven by people who had a vision, who believed in themselves and their idea and went ahead to take the risk and convert their ideas to reality. The list of such startup is endless and spreads across a lot of industries

A disruptive innovation is an innovation that helps create a new market and value network, and eventually goes on to disrupt an existing market and value network (over a few years or decades), displacing an earlier technology.

In this growing climate of self – employment, business and entrepreneurship; startups are often confused with small business. Let us clear the facts.
Startups are not small business. Entrepreneurship is also not small business.  

Startup Entrepreneurship vs. Small Business

This nation was built by men who took risks - pioneers who were not afraid of the wilderness, business men who were not afraid of failure, scientists who were not afraid of the truth, thinkers who were not afraid of progress, dreamers who were not afraid of action.  ~Brooks Atkinson on America (American Theatre Critic for New York Times)
A startup entrepreneurship is different from small business. There are three fundamental differences –
1.      Startups take shape due to an innovative idea which has the potential of becoming a disruptor that changes an existing order. E.g. How USB pen drives revolutionized storage from CDs and DVDs.  
2.      Startups are pursued by entrepreneurs as they are ready to move out of their comfort zone and past the tried and tested. Small business can be a beauty parlor or bakery. The rules of the game are established. Business models are in place that can be tweaked here and there to increase profitability. Where startups can take the world by storm and function across borders, small business is restricted by its geographic presence and reach. When Computed Tomography (CT) was developed, that was a startup idea. Manufacturing generic pharmaceuticals using a well documented master manufacturing formula is small business.
3.      Startup entrepreneurs are risk takers. When they start off the vista is unclear. Learning happens along the way. But once startups hit the tipping point, it simply grows in geometric proportions unlike small business which continues to remain small.
The difference is between doing something new and revolutionary or doing something that is generic. As an individual ask yourself Are you aiming do something new and disruptive or venturing into a tried and tested business model with few advantages in your basket to create an edge and remain profitable? 

How Startups Evolve

I have a selective bias towards education and technology. Let us take the example of Edutor Technologies ( Their website says –
“Edutor's Augmented Classroom Solution enables Schools & Coaching Institutes to leverage the power of Tablets in engaging students – within the classroom and at home . The solution is designed to lighten the school bags of students and drive effective learning – through enriched learning materials and by facilitating individual attention & focus from the teacher.”
We have all been carrying heavy school bags during our childhood and there were no mass availability and accessibility to computers till mid 90s in India let alone tablets. Today the there is a technology available to address the issue which not only reduces the weight of the school bags but makes learning more enjoyable and interactive. All of us have learnt about the water cycle in school. It was a simple diagrammatic representation that we drew in our notebooks. Today students can see a video with a supporting audio to understand the entire process in an interactive form. Which is more effective?
A startup starts with an idea. The entrepreneur (or the team) realizes that not only there is a problem, but a probable solution to address it and convert the entire experience into something more pleasant, efficient and superior result-driven.  Everything is in a state of flux at this stage but the entrepreneur has faith in his idea.
Today there is whole ecosystem available to support startups from its initial stage till it scales up considerably.

The subsequent stage is conceptualizing the idea for roll-out, testing, and modifications followed by retesting. Here the entrepreneurs work out the development of the solution, the delivery process, initial revenue structure etc. Most of the startups slog through these stages with the founder entrepreneur’s funds.
Using a robust model, the startup entrepreneur now tries to convince the investors in taking interest in the idea and support it financially. The model’s efficacy is proven through data and analytics. An idea is an idea till it becomes economically promising with a market ready to be served. Once a startup achieves funding, it is ready to scale up and grow rapidly taking the market by a storm. And as the product reaches out to more audience, it is further tweaked to make it more lucrative and desired. The way Google has evolved as a company and its product basket has flourished need not be reiterated. Look at the success of Groupon or Zynga.

What Startups Need

What startups need is freedom to dream and experiment. An idea can get strangulated if it is not allowed to breathe. An established business with a tried and tested business model that is profit-making can form a small subsidiary and venture into a startup. Once it gains traction, funds can be channelized to create momentum and fuel its growth. Another perceived benefit of this structure is image and network. Interested investors know who is behind the idea and that makes them feel secure about investing. This perception is however debatable. In case of startups, it is the strength of the idea that attracts investors not if a Fortune 500 company is behind it.
A startup benefits enormously through business incubators and accelerators. There are quite a few incubators active in India. Center for Innovation, Incubation and Entrepreneurship in IIM Ahmedabad, Technology Business Incubator at NIT Calicut, Indian Angel Network and National Design Business Incubator at NID Ahmedabad are few examples. Edutor was incubated by IIT Madras’s Rural Technology and Business Incubator. Germany has an association of Business Incubation and Innovation Centers with over 200 institutional members.
The incubation centers provide support and resources to entrepreneurs and startups for myriad activities like accounting, marketing, labeling, designing, liaison with banks and financial institutions to process loans and funding, technology acquisition to name a few functions. They have a network of service providers and they interact amongst themselves to learn and replicate services and fill gaps. They are useful in all kinds of industries. The aim is to not only help entrepreneurs gain a foothold but by helping enterprises survive they help in creating jobs and general economic activity in the area and in better cases down the line investments and entrepreneurship.

SAP pools in their huge knowledge base and case studies gathered over the years of implementation and interaction with clients all over the world into this program to help entrepreneurs through mentoring and training. SAP Ventures is a win-win proposition which has launched the Real-Time 100 Million Euro Fund aimed at startups that are launching solutions for big data challenges leveraging SAP HANA as their application database. The company is committed to investing at the growth stage of IT startups with investments to the tune of USD 5 Mn atleast!

Do you have an idea waiting to intensify?

If you have a fantastic idea that can make a marked difference in people’s lives then this is the age to work on it. Today we are at a stage where there is whole fertile ecosystem that can support an idea and take it to a commercially viable stage. There are investors looking for the next Twitter or Facebook which will create a flurry of economic activities around it. These innovations have changed how marketers are promoting their products or engaging with customers. There are tools like Cloud solutions ready to help accelerate your idea at a rapid pace. Whether you become a small business owner or start-up entrepreneur will depend on your life’s objectives. You choose to setup a mom and pop shop or build the next device which makes you a household name. If there are risks, so is the chance of immense satisfaction and contentment.

While writing this piece one of my most favorite poems by Robert Frost came to my mind.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference. ~ Robert Frost 

Role of Culture in Project Management

Let us consider the example of Germans, Chinese, Japanese and the Indians.

The Germans are extremely detailed in their approach; control oriented and has exemplary planning and execution skills. Germans have specialized skills and the person who installs a server will most likely not install the database in it. There division of roles and specialization in their areas are visible in their cars and their soccer formation. This cultural aspect is also displayed in their expectations from projects.

The Chinese over the years of Communist rule are like the bees. There is a queen bee and then there are worker bees. They are extremely good at taking orders and execution within a given time frame. I think they are the fastest in getting a project off the drawing board and converting into reality.

Japanese are more calm and collective in their approach. This is displayed in their products and their approach towards planning and execution. They are cautious, calculated and future oriented. There is a general aim for harmony in whatever they do.
Indians are good at multi-tasking. One man can do multiple things. This is a useful feature in projects which throw up sudden challenges but it also hampers the quality of output. Another important aspect is the discipline of sticking to deadlines. Indians are extremely fluid and a commitment for Monday can easily mean Friday.

When we talk of Project Management; the first thing that comes to our mind are Gantt Charts, MS Project sheets, start and end dates etc. We think of how many people will be required to do the job, how long will it take, how much will it cost, how are we going to control the entire show so that the Project is executed as per schedule. Let us not forget that the singular factor in projects is people. They are the ones who plan, control, monitor, execute and deliver. Thus, in order to become successful in any project it is vital that we understand the culture of the people for whom the project is being executed and that of the people who are responsible for the execution.

7 Aspects Where Culture Plays a Serious Role
There are atleast 7 good reasons why project managers should focus on culture and take it into account in any project big or small.
1.      Vision – Culture manifests itself in the Vision that we create for a Project. Take the example of a random flyover. Where some people aim for short term solutions others use it as one of the building blocks for future constructions and town planning.
2.    Dedication and Accountability – Our attitude towards a project is dependent on our culture of dedication. In certain cultures, people require very little supervision and are diligent in their approach. They believe in coming forward and sharing their views rather than waiting on the side lines to be directed what to do. Many cultures promote independence and leadership capabilities from childhood. In others there is an attitude to shirk responsibility and turn a blind eye towards any deviation.
3.      Planning and Buffers – This is a very clear area where culture plays a dominant role. Germans would be very specific whereas Indians will add relaxed buffers since down the line people might not stick to the schedule.
4.      Execution and Reporting – Cultures determine how each step of the project is executed and honestly reported to the next person in the chain. Often, dishonest people would cover up lapses and shift the onus on someone else.
5.      Quality and Acceptance – One of my European bosses had once raised a query on why a particular mesh had slight rust. It was not even a critical part but his eye for detail and his standards of acceptance of quality forbid him from accepting anything substandard.
6.    Analysis and Post Project Learning – Advanced cultures promoted learning and value the lessons of each activity thus ensuring that the same is never reported. There is a show on National Geographic about air crashes. Each unfortunate crash is followed by detailed analysis and learning. It often leads to change in standards and parameters. The same is required in any project. Simply building the house is not all. What were the obstacles? Why did they crop up? What did we do to address the issues? What should we have done differently?
7.   Resource Utilization and Wastage – Projects are often mired by delays and cost overruns. It is because the people who plan make inaccurate assumptions and waste resources in the process. Then all kinds of buffer are loaded onto it. Thus, where something could have been done in 3 days, according to the plan it is being done in 6 days and we pay for 3 extra man-days.
Oft overlooked the success or failure of a project is dependent on the type of people who are at helm and their culture, values and beliefs.
Jack Welch said Culture drives great results.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Managers or Damagers?

Book Review 
Sharu Rangnekar.
In the wonderland of Indian Managers
Vikas Publishing House, New Delhi. 2010. pp. 165, Rs. 137 (Flipkart)

This is one of the best and honest books that describe the quirks and habits of Indian managers. A Carnegie-Mellon University alumnus, Sharu Rangnekar has extensive experience working in well known companies like ICI, IBM, Union Carbide and Searle. He has conducted many training and lecture sessions on management practices and the book is an extension of that. 
The book has been written in 1974 however much of what he has written then is still relevant in the Indian scenario especially in the MSME segment. These MSMEs are still run by the owner and his/ her family with the help of one or two trusted “managers” who have been promoted to the rank simply by obeying orders or supporting any decision of the owner however twisted it might be. The owner feels secure that my “manager” is supporting me which means my decision is absolutely right and the manager in return is happily enjoying the cushy life without the need to perform. Basically, the manager is more of a damager.
The first chapter on decision making (or rather not taking any decisions) is a master-piece. Readers will be able to relate to innumerable such incidents in their lives. No one wants to do the hard work, go into the details and make a sound decision that is beneficial to the company. The biggest issue is lack of ability of the management to seek accountability and efficiency from their managers while bestowing all kinds of unjustified privilege. It is a different matter that the manager still feels inadequately compensated.
While touching upon topics of recruitment and training, it is the section on “five faces of Indian managers” that is hilarious and lathered with sarcasm. Every word is however true. Many of the managers are glorified head clerks who are given fancy titles that they do not deserve at all. The decisions that they make are flawed, unjustified and weak but no one is there to question them. The owner is in his own halo and it is the company that keeps on bleeding. When statistics say that about 50% businesses fail in the first five years, lack of experience is said to be one of the prime reasons apart from incompetence, neglect and fraud.
The section on “problem of illiterate managers” is essential for small business owners who for whatever restrictions often hire below par people and end up promoting them to higher levels. The quantum of inefficiency keeps on increasing and interestingly the owner keeps grappling for the reason of his business’ underperformance. What these so-called managers resort to is defensive management where practically nothing gets done and a whole lot of resources are wasted. Or they manage by creating crisis thus building up a pseudo sense of movement and urgency.
There is often halo around organizations that they have systems and are system – driven in their approach. Fact of the matter is they are run based on the directions of the top management. Rangnekar points that the executives and managers are more of implementers rather than true managers who are supposed to be playing the role of management. That is why they lack any kind of professionalism, cross functional dependency and awareness or the ability to visualize the big picture. The larger issue is the inability to learn new skills or technique and inch towards obsolescence from day one.
As Leo Rosten said, “First-rate people hire first-rate people, second-rate people hire third-rate people.” This is what often happens in Indian firms. The top people hire less threatening people below them so that their own position is not challenged. And this concept percolates down. Everybody wants to hold on to their positions without performing or taking a bold step.
Though the book was written decades ago, its relevance still holds prime even today. The book beautifully analyzes what is fundamentally wrong in the way we run our businesses and the root cause of our non-performance. Reading through the book, the reader will easily remember a known acquaintance that fits into each one of the characters or examples described.  Interspersed with cartoons by R.K. Laxman, the book is a wonderful read and its short to the point chapters are truly appealing for the time – constrained reader. Every business owner micro, small or big must read this book. In my opinion, this book is not prescriptive; this book is not the answer to the problems. This book highlights the problems in very simple terms, problems that can be avoided or corrected for superior performance. How it has to be done will vary from company to company, person to person.
The book might be cynical and mocking in its tone but really gives a reason for the readers to contemplate where the organization is going wrong. There is probably no other book written in these lines which is so hard hitting and honest to the core. To succeed, we have to attack the core bottleneck and not try to control inventory of C class items.