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.


pankaj gangwani said...

very true...

but this can happen either way as well

1 how the team will be motivated to work without initial resources & planning.

2 Without the guidelines. It will take a lot of time to know that, these are the things or works which one has to look after. Although there are no work limitations. In today's era companies want people who are multi tasking.

thanks for the thought
(adversity & scarcity)

pankaj gangwani
spring 09

Jagrat4life said...

Insightful post Sir.
I do agree to your approach that scarcity of resources have actually yielded far better results than vice versa. But there are numerous examples where its the sheer resources at disposal of an individual or say an organization which had helped it to withstand the onslaught of competition, rivalry etc. For eg. Microsoft, USA (I mean they stood successful for significant time).
I believe that the caveat should be to provide the team with at least bare minimum resources so that performance don't suffer and also as you have mentioned the continuous review to check the unidentified loopholes and remedies thereof.
*** Scarcity definitely brings out new innovations but also abundance of resources brings out them more quickly eg. R&D sector in India and USA for comparison.
Now the big question always remain what is the minimum required?
1. Insight of the person In charge
2. A good statistical study of the industry dynamics with inclusion of the uncertainty component
3. Start from something at least and be open to pour in or suck out resources as per the demand of the situation

More insights from you Sir would actually help us a lot on this.

Jagrat Sanadhya

prashant jain said...

I completely agree with your views sir lack of resources motivates a person to do better even when situation are unfriendly we have millions of examples of great leaders who were having lack of resources but still they work hard and now they are at pinnacle like Dr. Kalam, Sachin Tendulkar, Narayana Murthy, Sandeep Manudhane and many more.
I too in my WIP in a SME(Vikrant International, Jabalpur) which was having limited resources realize that their lack of resources forces & motivated us to do much better hence we were able to give better output.

Gold too faces the fire before becoming valuable to others.

Proton Prashant Jain
Spring 09

Pratik Agrawal said...

Good Morning Sir,
Truly very insightful article.
Compare this with India, China and America. The reason we are growing because we lack the resources and the reason why America is in this position is that there people have enough resources and these has become worthless for them and they became complacent enough to ignore. But the people esp. young minds (most of them) in India always had the scarcity of resources and it is motivating them to make them better and better.
Sir I am regularly reading your article and a big fan of yours. I even expect that you should write a book on management based on your experience.

Shoaib Qureshi said...

Dear Sir,

The blog was full of insights. I read it twice, very helpful in terms of project management.

Shoaib Qureshi

Neetu Jain said...

Respected Sir,
I am inspired by your blog because as a future manager we should learn how to become successful person in scarcity of resources.
When we have limited pocket money we use it properly. But it loses importance in case when money is abundant. For me, my father is a best example who is successful entrepreneur because he found opportunity between scarcity and adversity.

Neetu Jain
Fall 09

Neetu Jain said...

Respected Sir,
I am inspired by your blog because as a future manager we should learn how to become successful person in scarcity of resources.
When we have limited pocket money we use it properly. But it loses importance in case when money is abundant. For me, my father is a best example who is successful entrepreneur because he found opportunity between scarcity and adversity.

Neetu Jain
Fall 09

Paridhi Trivedi said...

absolutely sir... :)


Gautam Gunjaria said...

Respected Sir,

Its a nice post, full of real life experiences and learnings. In fact adverse conditions from last 4 years out of my home have taught me many invaluable lessons on regular basis.

Gautam Gunjaria
Fall 09