Sunday, April 25, 2010

Talk, Walk, Rock

Who doesn't like being successful! We all dream of it, at each stage of our lives. Success, with all its accompanying accoutrements. Aha, the very thought!

So let me share this most important secret I have discovered - and rediscovered over the years - about successful people - "The biggest asset of successful people is excellent communication skills."

If I can generalise this rule of success, it will read - "Talk, Walk and Rock!" This means that you talk well (i.e. communicate effectively), walk the talk (carry out the promises made), and well, Rock!

In this post, let me focus on the first part of this rule. The "Talk" part. What are we referring to? Well, the very basic human need to connect with adequate warmth, and to understand each other well, and effect meaningful action. That's "communication" for you. So can we define communication? Let me try.
  • It is the art of connecting with other human beings (or animals*).
  • It is the art and science of getting your point across in the least obtrusive and most likeable manner.
  • It is the fundamental human action of getting things done through association, cooperation and team-work.
  • It is an intentional activity designed to have a certain output.
* The reason I wrote "animals" in the first definition was because I have seen people communicate amazingly well with certain animals. For more insights, read the book "What the dog saw" by Malcolm Gladwell.

And here is a typical management textbook definition of communication (and hence a useless one !) -
"Communication is an exercise in connection, defined by a speaker and a receiver (one or more), and the presence of a medium, through which the intended message crosses over, and is received and retransmitted over a period of time, with a certain intended objective in mind, and a certain output desired at the end of the expense of energy involved."

Managers, leaders, entrepreneurs and anyone else who has achieved any measurable success in their lives have a solid bank balance of this amazing skill. They really connect well. And as I have progressed through my 17 years journey of entrepreneurship, I have become very good at listening to good speakers carefully. I observe very patiently and try to see what truly defines excellence in communication.

My learnings are
  1. Excellent communicators are very aggressive listeners. They listen patiently to what others have to say. And while doing that, they generate interest in the mind of the person who is speaking. Example - I remember a student who was rather smart but would never let me complete my point and would be ready with his reply to any point I would make. It was horribly irritating. I never liked it. Slowly, I stopped making points to him. In his corporate career, he's likely to pay a very big price for his eternal impatience.
  2. Excellent communicators use their entire body to communicate. Words, physical looks, clothes they wear, perfumes they use, body language that excellent communicators use - it all adds up to a powerful package. There is no point in knowing good English, for example, when you dress up shabbily, are unshaven and haggard in looks, have a sad and despondent face to display in meetings and wear shoes that are not polished. Who'll believe you? No one. At least, not me! I am not recommending expensive clothing or footwear. I am advocating clean stuff. It may be inexpensive, no problems at all. Example - We had this very young and physically good looking marketing executive who would never shave regularly, and would wear clothes that were never clean or well-ironed (even informal clothes should be well-ironed and clean). While these may be an asset in some situations, generally it's not a good idea. It affected his chances with us.
  3. Communication is a package deal. You cannot communicate in isolation. All elements mentioned above are essential. They mutually reinforce each other. So you should start cautiously working from now (if you are a young one reading this) on this very crucial aspect of your professional and personal life. It will not happen automatically. You have to get reasonably good set of clothes, develop a habit of personal grooming (even if you are casually dressed) and so on. Sadly, many young people think this is a joke. They keep paying a price, without even realising it. Example - For an important students group, we had a Head (a student himself) who would simply degenerate when not supervised. Would get up late, come to work without taking a bath or shaving well, would stink literally, and would make it visibly clear as to what his lasting values were (since many years). This poor fellow is likely to get kicked big time by his employers again and again, till he realises what mistake needs rectification. At the same time, I have come across individuals who pick up the smallest of cues offered to them, and then make behavioural adjustments accordingly.
  4. Emotional intelligence is very crucial. Depending on the circumstances and people you are interacting with, your entire package must get redefined. Example - You cannot interact with senior citizens in the same manner in which you will interact with young professionals. Your tone of voice, your pitch, your smile - everything will have to be moulded to suit the specific instant(s). How many even understand this? Their monotonous approach remains as it is throughout. Painful. Another example - When we take classes, depending on the strength of the class, and also the overall calibre of the students in the class, we have to completely remould ourselves to offer stuff that's challenging to that particular set of students. You cannot remain the same always. Your offering must evolve. Your examples must evolve too.
  5. Respect the other person's perspective. While listening carefully, do not just pretend. Actually try to understand what the other person is trying to say. If you do not respect the other person's perspective, it is unlikely that you will be able to use your communication skills to the fullest extent. You may disagree with the other person, but you have to give a patient hearing and then put forward your perspective clearly. Example - You have certain expectations from your boss. But you may not know the full picture. So before you arrive at the final conclusion, you better take into account your entire 360 degrees facts-check carefully.
  6. Use passion to the fullest. Very rarely have I seen a successful person who communicated without passion. Do this self-check - do you have passion inside you about anything? Anything? Is it natural and genuine, or simply affected? Passion must ooze from your work, your actions, your decisions and your overall persona. It truly adds up. Example - I distinctly remember a student of mine, who would always "artificially" pump up his volume and facial happiness while meeting me, to impress upon me his positive spirit. But it was so obviously a fake! Pathetic. At the same time, I have come across genuinely passionate people - they are genuine simply because they are seriously doing the stuff they are talking about.
  7. Be very honest in your communication offerings. I observe people's postings in Social Media (OSN) carefully. People keep posting their views and ideas on Facebook and Orkut. Some actually think that while they are smart, the world reading their posting is foolish. Since I know some of these 'friends' personally, I am always amazed to see the H-U-G-E gap in what they make themselves out to be in their postings, and what they actually are in real life. You can fool those who don't know you, but those who do know you, will brand you forever. I don't think I wish to declare what branding I am referring to here. Warning - Young people, be warned! Recruiters and employers today have access to everything you post online. Anyone's page can be accessed from anywhere, anytime. Your postings will ultimately get assessed by a recruiter or employer some day. God help you when that happens. Just another day, I read the statement "F*** Off" in one of my student's Facebook wall posting. What image you think that creates? The poor soul is so blissfully unaware of the fact that other than his frivolous set of friends, others may see this too. So I realise that as much as social media is a boon for many, for the idiots, it'll be their undoing, their nemesis, their road to hell. Their entire glittering record of stupidities is writ large over their Facebook Walls, proudly displayed with sickening language, wrong grammar, hard to decipher punctuations (ex. ????????????, or !!!!!!!!!!!????, or .....,,,,,....!!!?????, etc.) and impossible attitude. Tut, tut.
I hope these points help you understand the road to effective communication better. Recently, we launched the STRINGS club (PT universe's Activities Club) and organised a series of talks by startup entrepreneurs. One thing common to all of them - AMAZING sense of passion, commitment and excellent communication skills! My learnings were validated.

(Pictures of all these are displayed in this blog-posting.)

There really is no other way. It's a tough road out there, and the sensible will read the signals and transform their attitude, approach and skills to make success come all that close(r). Else, the other option is equally clear! Remember, if you are getting repeatedly rejected in job interviews, or college-admission interviews, the problem lies "inside you" and not outside. So, work on removing the roadblocks that are stopping you everytime instead of cursing the world. By choosing do indulge in the latter, you are choosing to remain stuck in a groove as the world moves on. Don't do that!

Wishing my readers all success in their lives! Talk, Walk, Rock.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Learning to love Adversity and Scarcity

Popular belief dictates that availability of resources may be the biggest boon for an individual or an organisation. It is assumed that if all resources that are needed to be successful in a given situation are indeed made available, people will fare far better than otherwise. Ditto for organisations.

Far from it!

Experience suggests that the reverse may be more true. Lack of resources may be the biggest motivator for an individual to perform better. In other words, people and organisations may use "Adversity" and "Scarcity" as great tools for self-motivation and outstanding performance.

“Adversity and Scarcity are like a strong wind. They tear away from us all but the things that cannot be torn, so that we see ourselves as we really are.”

Simple scenarios

Example 1. Suppose you are leading a project management team. The team leader requests for certain resources to be made available. Out of sheer generosity and lack of experience, you make everything available. What happens next? The team is motivated to perform better? Or they take things lightly?

Example 2. A company floats its public issue. The issue is over-subscribed several times. What sentiment is that likely to ignite in the promoters' minds? "We need to do better", or "We made it! We are the best! Relax!"

Example 3. A student takes up a summer project. The company makes available all amenities and resources for the project to be done, with clear cut guidelines and parameters. What do you think? The student learns a lot in the course of this training, or he gains an impression of learning?

Example 4. You really love your young child. She demands lots of toys, drawing tools and books. You dote over her and get her everything, all the time. What do you think this does to her? She appreciates resources, or considers them as "always available" hence worthless?

While working with many people across India, and in multiple projects, I have learnt that the best performances were exhibited (in general, by most people) when the circumstances were not supportive. And not when they were.

History bears witness to the fact that outstanding performances have arisen only when resources were never available. Why is this so? Why do humans perform better when things go bad? Well, those have an "achiever's mindset", they can't see their actions turning to dust, and put in even more directed effort to bring results from their efforts.

I recall a project started by a huge consortium of telecom companies led by Motorola way back in 1996-97 to launch consumer satellite-telephony. It was titled "The Iridium project" and was launched with outstanding fanfare, with advt punchlines claiming "Geography is History". The project had IMMENSE resources allotted to it, with all major brands supporting. The project failed spectacularly in just 2 years. Analysis revealed that the overconfident project managers failed in the most basic planning - consumer comfort with pricing. I suspect that this happened due to a false sense of "resource security" that the always-flowing taps ensured.

Tips for sensible resource management
  1. Be conservative in approach. Never allow enthusiasm to succeed cloud your judgment while allocating resources for a project.
  2. Be aggressive in expecting results. Let everyone in the team know what you expect. Be clear. If possible, write down what you expect.
  3. Review performance regularly. See if you have overshot resource allocation.
  4. Remain market-sentiment agnostic. We have learnt that markets have a bad habit of motivating our decisions - we tend to overdo or underdo depending on a bullish or a bearish market sentiment.
  5. Be ready to be unpopular. It is rare that your team will appreciate your approach especially when it comes to resources allotted. If you wish to remain popular always, your organisation will suffer.
  6. Beware a sense of "resource-security". It is very dangerous. Remember the Iridium example.
Talking about "resource-security" - I also recall the early years of India's economic liberalisaion (1991-1995). There was a mad rush of MNC brands into the country, with a false sense of prosperity, security and success. It was assumed that most of them will make it big, as India's strong middle-class will rush to buy their posh products and services. None of that happened, and most had to either leave India, or completely reinvent themselves. It took McDonalds more than 10 years to get its Indian formula somewhat right. They never had a paucity of resources!

While appointing someone senior on an important position, it is important to judge her/his expectations. If he asks for very clear guidelines for work, then there is likely to be a mismatch. On senior positions, things remain unclear always - as market dynamics change daily, and frequent adjustment in operating procedures need to be made while keeping an overall consistency in policy objectives. So someone who expects too much support in day to day work may be a bad choice. I am always surprised on how little this point is understood even by many so-called senior people! A caveat though - it is the organisations's responsibility to ensure that the philosophy of work is explained to the candidate carefully, so as to avoid a cultural mismatch.

Thus, "Adversity" and "Scarcity" are great tools for self-motivation and outstanding performance.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Naxalistan rising

Taken lightly and as an issue emanating from and restricted to the forests and hills where those underprivileged adivasis (tribals) have lived for generations, the Naxalite problem in India has assumed menacing proportions. In my view, if India is facing one existential problem today, it is this. Unfortunately, those in power simply choose to ignore, dilly-dally and play-safe. They have done so for more than 3 decades, and the cancer is now in full bloom for rest of the world to see, and comment on.

In normal times, I would not have imagined writing a title like the one I have, for this post. I love my nation, and I love its democratic traditions. But like a nightmare from the Marxist past (19th century), Naxalism has emerged on the horizon as the ultimate Black Swan - a phenomenon of momentous proportions for which no one seems ready. And Black Swans enjoy a dangerous reputation - Nassim Taleb proved it beyond doubt that they can upset the best of calculations, and the most robust-looking of systems. In short, it's really bad news for India. It'll be worse because this is a 'known' Black Swan.

(One request : please do read this blogpost fully before reaching any conclusion about my views. Since it's a complex issue, it's easy to get misunderstood, hence the request!)

As I analyse the Naxal menace from a Project Management perspective (thinking I am the supreme decision maker in India, and I am mandated with stamping out this Naxalite menace), I realise it's quite a complex situation. It's cancerous, actually. Rooting out the secondary lesions will be of little use, as long as the parent tumour stays healthy and keeps up its prolific activity. And when I think of attacking the parent tumour, it seems my hands are tied with convention - democratic traditions - that pull me back, slow me down, and ultimately, may prove my undoing.

The potential ramifications for India are outlined in this article. It's not pleasant reading, so be prepared!

Let's break the huge problem into small pieces, and try to analyse it.

What do the Naxalites want?
An overthrow of the parliamentary democracy system in India. They want a (Mao style) Communist ruling order (for at least the part of modern day India which they control). Note that they do not want money, or government jobs, or reservations, or Coca Cola, or Malls, or films. They want a new nation as per their rules.

How did they come into being? What started it all?
Societal injustice led to the first armed uprising in some small village in West Bengal (called Naxalbari) several decades ago. They wanted instant justice through violence (guns), as they lost faith in democratic institutions like the Parliament (legislatures), the Courts and the Police/Media/Administration. They claim these institutions only serve the purpose of creating an illusion of progress for the common man, nothing more.

Are they mercenaries or terrorists?
Frighteningly, they are none. They are, so far, ideologically strong forces who are chasing an overriding goal. Overthrow of democracy in India. This makes them difficult to beat. You can buy out a mercenary, and black-label a terrorist, but it's very difficult with ideologues. History has proven that you may kill the leaders of ideologically driven movements, but that only serves to strengthen the ideology even further. Want examples? Recall Che Guevara (Cuba, Bolivia..)

What's the Indian government doing?
Practically, as of now, nothing seriously consequential. They are training and preparing the para-military, intelligence and police forces for head-on collisions with the Naxalites, but there are little signs of deep success that can be celebrated. And for every success, there is a crushing defeat that follows almost immediately. Despite interesting and partially successful government interventions like the Salwa Judum, there are bigger threats that Naxalites keep posing.

Who's responsible for fighting these Naxalites?
Both the Centre as well as the States are responsible. And that's a big problem. Coordination issues bog everything down, at times. I must add that there are many patriotic and nationalistic politicians (and of course police officers) who truly want to solve this problem. Some of them have gotten assassinated, some face life-threats. I was surprised to see the instant (negative though muted) reaction of the Chief of Indian Air Force in the media the next day after the Home Minister suggested we may use Air Force to counter the Naxals. He suggested things ("..they are Indian citizens after all..", "..we are geared for total destruction not surgical strikes inside forests.." etc.) that may have inadvertently encouraged the Naxals!

Is our democracy slowing us down?
It's a fact that the sympathisers of Naxalism use the very instruments of democracy to subvert it!! They will file cases against police officers in courts of law, alleging human rights violations. And in many cases, succeed in slowing down the operations, and of course, in demoralising the forces.

What are the actual problems with stamping out Naxalism?
Well, there are many. To summarise -
  1. They are fighting a battle of ideology
  2. Democracy seriously cripples large-scale internal security operations
  3. Indian military's involvement seems remote
  4. Porous local politics will incessantly aid the cause of Naxalites
  5. Democratic institutions (media, judiciary..) will harm the cause of long-term democracy itself!
  6. Sheer scale of Naxalism's spread in India (200+ affected districts so far)
  7. Genuine problems of citizenry going un-addressed for decades
Are there historical precedents of this problem?
Very interestingly, the Naxal problem - in my personal opinion - in India resembles the 16th century story of the great Maratha king - Shivaji Maharaj. The big difference, though, lies in the fact that while Shivaji's battle was noble - he fought the foreign invaders (Mughals and Nizams) who were well-settled in India (both North and South) to establish a "Swarajya" based on clear-cut honest rules, the Naxals have subverted such a system already existing (the Indian democracy). Shivaji Maharaj had NO choice but to wage a war against the Mughals and the Nizams. The Naxals have a choice. They can participate in the Indian democratic system, which they choose not to. There's another interesting side to this story. Both are using strong guerilla tactics in fighting their enemies. This is what made Shivaji invincible in most cases. This is precisely what's slowing the Indian state's total rooting out of the Naxal menace. Just like Shivaji would have been destroyed in a face-to-face battle with the Mughals, the Naxalites will be eradicated in an open battle with Indian forces. They have not fought a single battle that's pre-declared. In summary, while Shivaji was a positive and successful force for India's resurgence, the Naxals represent the opposite.

Are the Naxalite forces really very strong? Very large?
The Indian state is TOO strong and TOO large for the Naxalites to overrun. It will be foolish to even being assuming that one day in the near future they will declare independence (the very thought!!). Our forces can crush them anytime they want to - but the constraints of a guerilla warfare, sympathy for them as they are our own citizens after all, and the democratic slowness of the system is holding the Indian state back.

Is India's internal stability important for the rest of the world?
Absolutely! If India falters, and Naxalism shaves off a few percentage points from our national GDP over the next few years, the world economy will suffer. We must not overlook the fact that Europe and the US are looking towards China and India as the lead anchors in their roles as rejuvenators of the sinking world economy.

What's a good scenario mapping?
There are three possible scenarios we are headed for.

Scenario 1. The central government acts hard and fast, starting 2010. Army is called in to support (not just train) the paramilitary forces. The Naxals strike back with full force, but as the army is involved, they gradually start losing out strategic battles. Despite loud shrieks from the pseudo-human rights activists and several brainless (and unpatriotic) media channels, the government simply presses ahead with cleaning the cancer. The Indian military uses lessons learnt by Sri Lankan forces in their war against the LTTE, to the maximum. In all this, Naxalites' key leaders are killed, arrested or go underground. By 2015, they are a pale shadow of their earlier self. India returns to business as usual. The government brings in massive social rebuilding programs, and spends billions on actual grassroot projects. The government gets sensitised, and ensures Naxalism turns into just a bad dream that got over.

Scenario 2. The Central government tries to rally everyone around the single point agenda of building a two-point solution to the Naxal issue. (a) The Hard solution - para-military action, and (b) the Soft solution - large scale economic packages for tribals and poor in the Naxalite affected districts (200+ in number at present). The media channels keep shrieking about possible human rights violations, and Naxalite sympathisers (many of India's unpatriotic pseudo-intellectuals) keep waxing eloquently on prominent channels. As the intellectuals slog it out in the airconditioned media studios, and then head out to party, the Naxalites keep killing security forces without a hint of compunction! On ground, regular battles (big and small) keep getting fought between the forces, and Naxalites. Nothing major seems to happen, other than status quo. But in reality, the Naxalites strengthen their hold on the interior regions strongly. With every passing day, they spread their cancer in an incurable format. The mission is clear - declaring independence from the Republic of India, and creation of an independent state of Naxalistan. In October 2018, they declare the official launch of the ragtag state of Naxalistan. Many media channels are invited to cover the 'glorious' event. The world is stunned, so is the rest of India. Under strong international pressure (mainly from the now totally bankrupt USA and a strong China), the Republic of India decides not to fight back - the human cost would be too much. After all, the Naxalites are now spread intelligently in more than 500 million of India's ordinary population across 300 districts! Two states (widely different from each other) start uneasily co-existing in the Indian sub-continent.

Scenario 3. Nothing substantial happens till 2018. Central and State governments keep passing the buck. Top political leaders of ruling parties in Delhi avoid taking the bold decisions which are desperately needed (they fear their personal safety, and losing major political ground to opportunisitic opposition parties). Many state level leaders strike individually profitable deals with Naxalites helping them win local elections, and promising only symbolic paramilitary action in return. The virus spreads dangerously till the Central government realises India is losing out on large chunks of foreign investment due to consistent bad press internationally. Suddenly, in October 2018, the Naxalites declare an independent state "Naxalistan" comprising areas from more than 300 Indian districts, and several nations in the world are approached to grant it recognition. India stands divided - The democratic India, and the Naxalistan. Fortunately, Delhi is still controlled by a patriotic government, not willing to see the dreams of founder-fathers tattered to pieces. The Indian military is still apolitical and willing to obey the civilian establishment's orders. Democratic Republic of India calls in the Army finally. It's war. Large scale massacre of Naxalites (and citizens) takes place over the next decade. Many leading politicians lose their lives in the battery of assassinations that Naxalites carry out throughout the country in retaliation. It's April 2025 when the Indian Army finally declares victory over Naxalistan. Remember Sri Lanka's war against LTTE? It took several decades in that small island. In India, it's a problem at least 10 times bigger in magnitude, to put it crudely. By then, deep damage to the fabric of the sub-continent has already happened. India's image as the haven of democratic tradition and peace is dented severely.

I have speculated on the future, based on the past and present. As a nationalistic Indian, I pray to God that none of these scenarios turns out to be true, and that the Government(s) and Naxalites can sit across the table, talk with a cool head, and arrive at a mutually agreeable solution. I hope that our governments can offer them peace, resources and progress, and that the Naxalites (especially their leaders) accept those. I hope and pray that more lives are not lost. I pray that in this land of Gandhi, Bose and Patel, we maintain what we got with so much struggle - an undiluted sovereign republic of India. I pray.

all images, maps etc. are only indicative in nature, and are taken from the internet sources. All future dates mentioned are the author's personal imagination using present facts.