Building a Better Version of Ourselves

Premise:

I strongly believe that irrespective of where we are in our lives, there is always a better place to be. We can always be a better person than we are today, we can have a better impact on our world than we are having right now. There is always a better future to look forward to. There is always a better goal to aspire for. If we agree about this, what is the force that can propel us to become the better person that we can become, create the bigger and more meaningful impact that we can create or even create the better future that we can envisage? Once we truly believe this to be true, we need to figure out what is it that we need to learn in order to create the better future or the better version of ourselves.

Reality Check:

The process of creating a better version of ourselves or a better future always starts with a reality check. We can do a reality check by asking ourselves questions like:

•What is working well? Why?
•What could be better? Why?
•What needs to stay as it is? Why?

Vision:

Once we have identified, what needs to change, we need to think about what does it need to change to? This is where our imagination and vision comes into play. Since we are imagining the future and building a vision, we can as well imagine something truly remarkable. Something that can take our breath away. Something that we truly believe will bring in the better future that we aspire for. In this process, it is okay to dream big, for that matter, it is better to dream big and imagine a future that is worth working towards. This future vision needs to be compelling enough for us to continue to put in hard work, even in the face of hardships and challenges, which will definitely come along.

Skill gaps:

Once we have a compelling vision of the future that we want to create, we need to look at ourselves and our teams (yes, I believe that there is nothing worthwhile that can be achieved without working with other like-minded people as teams). We need to self-reflect and find out what are the skills that we might need to build in order to work towards the future that we want to create. Some of these skills could be meta-skills that everyone of us in the team needs to work on (learning to learn, team work, collaboration, conflict management, communication, emotional intelligence, etc) and some of these skills could be specific skills that specific people in our team need to learn (coding, marketing, finance, selling, operational excellence, PR, etc). Not all of us need to learn these skills but someone on the team needs to have these skills.

Learning:

Once we have identified the skill gaps that we need to cover, we then need to go about acquiring these skills. In today’s world, we are both fortunate and unfortunate to be living in a world with information abundance. There are a lot of channels through which we can learn, without having to spend too much time or money. Sue Beckingham has put together a great list of resources where we can learn a new language or a new skill or take an online course. You can checkout all the resources she has put together here. The sheer volume of the sources is both an opportunity and a challenge. There is so much available that there is a possibility that we can get overwhelmed and not start learning anything at all.

Here I would like to suggest three strategies that we can use to learn better and continue our march towards the better future that we envisage.

Habitual Learning:

We all know that we are creatures of habit. Anything that we are able to commit to habit, we can be sure to do. There has been a lot of focus on habits, how can we create, replace or stop habitual behaviours. The key points that I have learnt from all this research can be summarised as below:

•It is easier to instill a new habit when you combine it with an existing habit.
•It is easier to replace a bad habit with a new habit (hopefully less bad) than completely stopping that habit.
•Every habit needs a cue to be triggered.
•Most habits are triggered in a specific place or a specific time (usually both).

Based on this knowledge, we can surmise that it is infinitely better for us to create a habit of learning than to depend on our willpower to do so.

We can find more information about how to create the habits here, here, here and here.

Deep learning:

Once we create a habit of learning, we need to learn the skill to do deep learning. There are multiple ways to learn deeply and thoroughly. However, one of the best learning techniques that I have seen is the Feynmann Technique. Richard Feynman posited that if you can’t explain a concept to a child clearly and simply, you haven’t learnt and understood the concept well enough. Here is a blog post (https://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2012/04/learn-anything-faster-with-the-feynman-technique) by Shane Parish who runs the immensely popular Farnam Street blog (https://www.farnamstreetblog.com) which explains this technique really well.

It is critical that when we learn something, we are able to learn it well and enough to be able to teach someone else the topic and answer any and all of their questions. If we are unable to answer the questions posed, it is a good sign that there is still a lot to learn about the topic.

Communal learning:

There is only so much time that we have in our days and there is so much more to do. There is a lot more to be done if we are going after creating a better future. This means that the total amount of time that we have that we can use for learning is a small fraction. The question that we need to answer in this case is the following:

“How do we use this small amount of time to maximum impact?”

One technique that I have used in my career really well is what I would call communal learning, i.e., we learn not as individuals but as a community. What this means is that each one of us or we divide ourselves into pairs and each pair goes off to learn something new and once they have been able to learn the topic deeply, they then teach the topic to the rest of the team members who need that skill. They in turn will teach what they have learnt to the others. This way everyone is teaching something (having become experts) and at the same time also learning something (keeping them humble and hungry for more). This also helps create a good side-effect. By this process, we are able to build teams that have “T” shaped people. People, who are great at something and good at a lot of other things. We used a half the time we had for our weekly team meeting, for a pair (or an individual) to teach the rest of us what they learnt. This not only helps everyone to learn but also bonds the team really well.

Execute:

Once you have a vision, a strategy to execute the vision, learn well to ensure that we have the skills necessary to achieve the vision, the only thing left to do then is to execute on our strategy. This is the step where most of us stumble.

This is also where an analogy can help us a lot. All of us know how to drive our cars and reach our offices and homes. These are the behaviours that we already know. Now, imagine, if we have to do a cross-country drive (from Bangalore to Jammu or from New York to Los Angeles). You need to be able to drive but, in order for you to do well and not stress out, we also need to learn a few more things. We need to know how to read maps, basic understanding of the car to be able to do some basic repair if needed, knowledge of the service centers of the cars, some plan of how much we will drive in a given day, which cities will be rest at, what routes to avoid and the general direction that we need to go in. Knowing all of this will not take us to Jammu or Los Angeles. We need to sit in the car, start it and move. Once we start our journey, there will be times when our plans would come to life really well and days when it will not. We don’t just give up mid-way. We course correct based on our current situation and continue our journey, until we reach Jammu or LA.

In Conclusion:

The same it is here. We need to take action and commit to the future. We will run into obstacles. As someone said, these obstacles are put in place to make us stronger and test our commitment to our journey. People who are committed to the journey and push through these walls or obstacles will find that not only do they reach their destination, they have become stronger in the process as well. So much so that they can now go on a much more tougher journey.

The point is that as long as we are alive, these journey’s will never end or rather it’s better that they never end. We constantly strive for a better future. Every time we build that future, we start again.

The important point is that we enjoy this journey. If we don’t enjoy the entire process of learning, doing and repeating, we will never be able to act on it.

So, the question is:

“What is the future that you are working to create?”

Quest for the elusive Innovation Framework

Premise:

I have read countless blog posts, wrote a few myself, watched videos, did innovation courses, read books on innovation, all in the quest to learn what makes innovation happen and if there is a way to institutionalize innovation. While there are people who claim that they can do so, I have come to the decision that it is an elusive quest, one that we may never be able to complete.

Innovation and Parenting:

As is usual, when I was taking a walk post lunch today, I was thinking about innovation and if there is a way to institutionalize it. I then realised that the process of innovation is very similar to parenting.

As parents, we want our children to do well in life and turn out to be good citizens. We try to create the right environment for our children to grow in, take care of them, ensure that they develop the right habits, send them to good schools so they learn well, coach them, get them to sports events, music classes, etc. We do this in the hope that they can find their passions and build their lives around these passions.

As leaders, we do very similar things to foster innovation. We try and create the right environment, help build the right practices, employ the right frameworks, bring in external experts to help our teams. We send our teams to conferences, to workshops and creative retreats, all in the hope that they learn something and can come up with interesting breakthroughs.

However, just like parents we can’t guarantee that every one of our children will turn out to be good citizens and a successful professional, we as leaders can’t guarantee that any of this will result in a successful product.

We have seen siblings grow up in the same home, with the same parents, under the same conditions, yet turn out to be very different from each other. So can two different products being developed by the same team under the same conditions, using the same processes and frameworks can have different results when it comes to success.

There are times when we have children growing in tough conditions go on to become really great men. There are times when we can see that products that were developed in not so great conditions for innovation go on to become extremely successful.

In Conclusion:

Realising this, I believe that just like we as parents can’t fully control the destiny of our children but only control what we can (teach them good habits, give them a good loving, caring environment, teach them well, allow them to make their own mistakes and learn) and hope that they go out in the world and do well; as leaders responsible for innovation should do the same (help our teams build good habits, allow them to make their mistakes & learn from them, give them a good loving, caring environment, let them learn well, etc) and hope that they come up with interesting and successful products.

There is no institutionalizing of innovation. So, instead of spending our time to find this ever elusive framework, it is better for us to behave like parents and allow our teams to innovate, in their very own pace and using a framework, the one that works for them. And see magic happening.

PS: This post is in part inspired by a book that I have read by Prashun Dutta (https://in.sagepub.com/en-in/sas/systems-thinking-for-effective-managers/book259327).

Seeds of success

Premise:

After the hustle bustle and the celebrations of the new year, we are now entering the time of the year, which is fraught with opportunities and dangers in equal measures. This is the time to celebrate the past year, the peaks we scaled and give a pat on our backs for all that hard work. I am sure every team does that. This is also the time to reflect at the valley’s we encountered in the past year and think about the reasons we ended up in there. And think about what did we do get ourselves out of that situation. And analyse what worked and what didn’t. And why? This is the time to do reflections and learn from our past actions – both that led us on the path to success and that which made us dig a hole for ourselves.

Analyse why we succeeded:

The first set of analysis needs to be about our successes. We can use the following framework that can help us analyse our successes:

  • What did we do that produced the best results? Why did we decide to take that action? When we took that decision, did we expect this kind of result? Why?
  • How much of the success was due to our planning and execution of the plan? How much was it due to course corrections made while executing the plan?
  • How much was it luck? If we got lucky, what did we do to get lucky? What would have happened if we didn’t get lucky? Would we have still had a good year?
  • What can we learn from these successes? How can they help us plan the upcoming year?

Analyse why we failed:

The next set of analysis needs to be about our failures. We can use the following questions that can help us analyse our failures:

  • What did we do that produced the biggest failures? Why did we decide to do these activities? What were the assumptions behind the decision? Which one of them were flawed? Why did we make this assumption?
  • How much of the failure was due to poor planning or execution of the plan? Where did we go wrong? Why? How can we ensure we don’t make the same mistakes again?
  • How much of it was luck? IF we were unlucky, is there something that we could have done differently to avoid this?
  • What have we learnt from these failures? How can these lessons help us plan the upcoming year?

Plan the year ahead:

Based on the learning from the analysis of failure and success and the goals that we need to achieve in the upcoming year, we need to work with the team to come up with a plan that builds on the strengths, compensates for the weaknesses and has the potential to succeed. The one thing that would help us really well, going forward is to document the assumptions that we are making while creating the plan. This will help us course correct as soon as we see that our assumptions no longer hold true.

Every tree sprouts from a seed. A seed that has all the information that is necessary information that it needs to grow into a healthy tree. All it needs is the right environment and some care for it to grow into a tree.

So it is with every team. The seed that will allow us to grow, which has all the necessary information is the past performance and learnings from the same. Once we have this, all we need is the right environment and some care to sprout into a successful year ahead.

Cultivating the Right environment:

Have the right environment that can aid the team to plan well, execute the plan and find its success is the responsibility of the leaders. We need to make the environment that is conducive for the team to execute the plan well.

  • We need to remove roadblocks (don’t allow bad behaviour in the team, shield them from the pressure from above, help them navigate organisational politics & bureaucracy, coach the team members based on their individual needs, etc) to the teams’ success.
  • We need to pave the way for their success by ensuring that everyone is constantly learning {from their actions, from others actions and some new skills}, are constantly being challenged {giving them the right level of stretch goals, finding projects that can allow them to strengthen a core skill that they need to develop, etc} and are constantly evolving their own leadership skills {personal or organisational, depending upon what they want to become}.

In conclusion:

Once we do our jobs as leaders and provide the right environment, the right plan, the chances that the team does well is really high.

We reap what we sow. This is the time for us to sow the seeds of success so we can reap success at the end of the year…

Here is wishing you all a great planning season and a rock star performance for 2018!

 

 

10 Lessons in Leadership from Amitabh Bachchan’s first movie – Saat Hindustani

Premise:

I have always been wanting to watch Amitabh Bachchan‘s first movie – Saat Hindustani (7 Indians). The story of the movie is how a band of 7 Soldiers wreak havoc in Portuguese occupied Goa and show to the Goans that they are also a part of India and that India had not forgotten their Goan siblings in their fight for freedom.

As I watched the film, I could not notice but see a few things that we can all learn from. I would like to share the same here:

The movie starts off with a large group of Indian satyagrahi’s (freedom fighters) trying to make their way into Goa but are cut off by the Goan army in every one of their attempts. So, the leader decides to send 6 people to carry out a mission and asks for volunteers.

He clearly lays out the argument as to why this is important. He then also clearly indicates that there is a good chance that the people who will volunteer may not come back alive at all. They are not only able to get through but also succeed in their mission.

Lesson 1: Small teams with purpose almost always will win against large teams.

Once he has his volunteers, he gets them onto a rigorous training regimen so they can learn to overpower anyone without having to kill them. As satyagrahis’s, they are supposed to be using non-violent means to fight for freedom. This initial training keeps them in good stead in all their missions.

Lesson 2: Training & team discipline is crucial.

Lesson 3: Clearly defined boundaries help teams execute better.

One very interesting thing that the leader does at the start of the mission is to say that there is will not be a single leader for the mission. Everyday, one of them will get to lead the mission and that everyone else needs to follow the leader and his/her instructions. What this does is it makes everyone feel empowered and understand the burden of leadership and decision-making under duress. This makes the team strong and everyone a leader.

Lesson 4: Everyone in the team is a potential leader and needs to be treated as such.

The six people who volunteer are all from different parts of the country, from different professions, practicing different religions and very different temperaments, strengths and weaknesses. Each one of their strengths comes to play at some point in time.

Lesson 5: Diversity matters.

The seventh Indian is a lady from Goa who meets the rest of the 6 satyagrahi’s once they enter Goa. She knows the topography of the region where they need to execute their missions. She knows the local language. She has the support of the locals, everywhere they go.

Lesson 6: Intimate knowledge of your battle field is critical.

If we don’t have it in our team, we need to bring in someone who has that knowledge. We can either hire them permanently or partner with someone.

The seven Indians are able to take the mighty Portuguese police by surprise through planning and being open to serendipitous opportunities that present themselves. They are able to hoist the Indian flags at 7 police stations manned by the Portuguese police.

Lesson 7: When taking on a big, entrenched player, being nimble and opportunistic works best.

Lesson 8: Symbolism works. This is the reason why national flags & badges still work. Create a symbol that stands for your cause.

At the start the diversity among the 7 Indians leads to stereotyping, chaos and conflict. However, then the team goes through trying times, they are able to come together and become one unit. There is one person in the team who takes initiative to release the tension every time there is a conflict.

Lesson 9: You need someone in the team who can deal with conflict and release tension, which is inevitable in a diverse team.

The movie starts with the same 7 Indians having become disillusioned with the freedom struggle and in some cases, even harbouring anger against each other. Then the story of the past unfolds.

Lesson 10: Team culture can change for the worse anytime if not maintained.

Once we start seeing success, it is quite possible that the team culture can change dramatically. Addition of new people, old people leaving, some people getting promoted or moved to different positions, can all have a telling impact on the culture if care is not taken to continue to maintain the culture that we worked hard to build.

In Conclusion:

I can only say that when I decided to watch the movie, it was due to the fact that I adore the actor and I always wanted to see the first performance of an actor who will rule the Indian cinema for almost 5 decades. I could already see the spark and the potential in his performance and i loved it. These lessons in leadership was a gift that i had not anticipated.

You can watch the full movie here if you want: