How critical it is to be adaptive?

(Following is the gist of what I spoke at  Hyderabad Startup Saturday on Sep 14, 2013)

Lets start with a seemingly unrelated question.  Where would be household refrigerator manufacturers be investing now?

In 19th century it was ice-trade a huge global business that addressed this market. Then came the ice plant in 20th century  followed by household refrigerator.     Are we going to have these refrigerators after 100 years? If not, where will this market go?

I heard someone arguing that refrigerator manufacturers must be investing in  bio-technology or GMO (Genetically Modified Organism).    What if the next generation produces doesn’t need refrigeration to stay fresh for longer duration?

That kind of forward looking investment can happen only when the organization defines its business as “keeping food fresh” instead of any “ice-trade”, “ice plant” or “household refrigerator”.

Unfortunately, the software industry does not move at the rate of a century at a time.   Betting on something like  “ice-trade” that will give 100 year life does not happen in the high tech  world.   That compels the organizations to go the  equivalent of “keeping food safe” of objectives in the industry.  The only way organizations can survive the test of time is to have this vision and adaptability.

The Agile revolution gave enough tools and changed the mindset required for adaptive planning.   But Agile’s adaptive planning is limited at the solution level “Problem known, solution unknwn”.    Agile starts at the point the problem is fully defined.   In our story, Agile is what that helps in finding the best way to build a ship and transport the ice to the destination.  Agile suggests not to build a ship in isolation hoping that the end result is going to work as planned and desired.  It  lets you start with small, iterate and keep aligning your course towards the desired solution.   That whole process is termed as Adaptive planning which is at the solution level.

The situation is entirely different if the problem is also not fully known at the start, which is the case with most startups.   The lean-startup school is all about handling this situation “problem not known and solution not known”.  Every idea comes up with set of  “leap of faith” assumptions.  Lean starup book gives the example and compares Sony’s Walkman and Apple’s iPod.   When Sony first created Walkman it had to first validate the assumption that people want to listen to music on move and in public places.  Where as Apple doesn’t have to deal with that assumption which is already validated by Sony. But Apple has its own set of assumptions like would people like downloading music from internet?

The more number of such “LOF” assumptions that are there in the business, the more probability of some of them getting validated negatively.  The startup has to hear this from the market as quickly as possible and make the course correction.  This is the adapt mindset that lean startups must possess.

The entire Customer development theory of Lean Startup is about identifying the right customers and quickly validating these LOF assumptions.   The result is always a course correction (pivot).    The minimum viable product (MVP) is all about how quickly we can validate these assumptions.

Here are couple of words of caution from my personal experience of two failed startups.   Make sure the feedback you are getting on your MVP is from the right users of the system.  If your end users are sales people, it must be a sales person on the ground giving you the feedback.  Not the sales VP.   If it is a solutions for HR department,  get the feedback from the HR personnel on the ground who are going to use the system.  Not the Head of HR.    We must know the difference between a “smart-ass opinion” and “a critical feedback”

The other caution is about developing some level of indifferent to your idea when you had to make tweaks to it and pivot.   Very quickly you will face the Elephant and rider in you.  The feedback and rationale part tells you that you have to pivot. But the emotional side of you that has been parading passionately with the idea doesn’t let you pivot that easily.  The worst thing that can happen is closing your eyes and pretending “all is well”.

Some of the books  we discussed are

1. Lean Startup

2. Crossing the Chasm

3. Switch (A detailed description about Elephant and Rider)

Posted in Agile, Startup | 4 Comments

Do investors appreciate Lean Startup?

I had the opportunity to host the  Lean Startup stage at recently concluded AgileIndia2012 conference.   I personally had done a workshop (Innovathon) in this conference along with my friend Vinay Dabholkar.

Its almost unimaginable today where the startups endup  if they don’t know what Lean Startup thinking is.

Keeping my bias towards lean fully intact, I more than once wondered how this plays out with early stage investors (individuals, angels and VCs).   Do investors understand and appreciate Lean Startup?

Imagine, having to present to an investor your story.  You are presenting an idea that you believe will work.  But you are a humble and learned lean startup practitioner. You know you have many Leap Of Faith assumptions that need to be validated throughout your course.

If you are the CTO/Architect of the solution what would you do?  Wouldn’t you try to build a product that is flexible and can quickly be pivoted towards new direction?  This is more than modularization. This is laying a platform keeping the vision intact.

(Caution : Platformization does not mean you sit in a dark room building bottom up with no feedback loop from external world. This is more about how you organize your code)

For an investor who doesn’t understand this, it can sound as one or more of the following

  1. You are not entirely sure what you are trying to do
  2. You are not  “passionate enough” on your idea.
  3. Your focus is too broad and you seem to be trying to do too many things. (Platform is supposedly a tabu word in investment circles while that is the only savior for most companies surviving today.)

Eric’s lean startup literature is silent about this investment struggle of startups.

If the company has to pivot and bring out a new value proposition, how would the investors look at them?

While I am mulling over this, I attended this  TiE Seattle event some time back.   It’s quite a revelation to hear some of the angels actually endorsing this ability and openness to pivot as a strength and not a weakness.

As much as we the self-congratulatory-smartass-startup-geeks are moving along the new ways of innovation (read lean startup),  investors are not behind.   At least not all of them.

Read this excerpt from Chris Devour (Founder’s Co-op)

“…if you are in the fight, and you’ve actually gone out there and you’ve got a team and you are building stuff and you are doing customer development, and all of that great, crazy lean stuff, I want to know what you are up to…”

If that is not enough here is what Dave Parker (Founder Institute) has to say

“The reason that team is so important is because your lame-ass idea is going to get pivoted a couple times, maybe more. So, if I back the team and not the idea, the ability for the team to go: ‘We had a hypothesis, it didn’t work, oh shit, we have to go find another hypothesis.’ And, it is by the way, an ‘Oh, shit’ moment. Because you are like: ‘Oh shit, everything we’ve been working for just it a wall.’ And that’s not an iteration, that’s a pivot. ‘We used to sell meat, we now sell cars.’ It is that wholesale of a change … and pivots are painful. And the reason you invest in the team is because you are going to have a pivot…. The idea that you think you are going to go do today for most of you … is not the idea you are going to finish with.”

(Read the full story at http://www.geekwire.com/2012/angel-mind-meld-earlystage-investors)

In essence, lean startup way of working is not anymore desired only by startup geeks and lean startup proponents. It is becoming an expectation from investment community as well.

-From Seattle

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Inviting Proposals For Lean Startup Stage

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Agile India 2012 is going to be the Asia’s largest Agile conference. It is the first Agile Alliance conference to be held outside North America. The conference is taking a great shape with some wonderful stages.

Lean Startup is one of the stages being produced at this conference. Given the surge of product startups in India, we believe the Lean Startup stage will provide a great help to the community. On this background, we invite you to propose an appropriate session at this stage.

Startups in India are on the rise. Specifically the product startups as it is discussed in this report http://tinyurl.com/6axyxbf .

Arguably, the Indian IT industry is built on the strong service/consulting mindset and heavy weight process models. That mindset and tools are ill equipped to offer any value to the startups. That also resulted in a clear scarcity of workforce suitable for startups.

On the other hand, Agile has been the champion of the startups for all the new generation product development organizations around the world. The ability it offers to mend ways to suite the changing market demands, its natural preference to create self managed teams are some of the reasons.

The emergence of “Lean Startup” concept has been readily accepted as the natural fit for the needs of such startups. It is considered to be the most innovative set of ideas to enter the Agile arena in the last few years. It pushes the boundaries beyond what people previously considered feasible and calls Agile orthodoxy into question. It is remaking the software industry, starting with startups and now changing enterprises as well.

This stage focuses on bringing out some of the following themes but not limited by them.

  • Startup case studies
  • Lean Startup concepts: Customer Development, Market based validation, A/B testing,
  • Lean Startup metrics
  • Product prioritization & laying the road map. What does agile offer in this. (like story maps)
  • How to structure the teams in terms of roles and responsibilities
  • How can Agile optimize the costs in all the above dimensions

    Any other dimensions of relevance

    While we give preference to a “Lean Startup” theme, we will consider any startup theme involving applying Agile principles for development if it is novel enough.

    Important Links

    Submissions
    Everything You Should Know about Submitting a World-Class Proposal
    Conference Site
    Conference Blog

    Conference Details

    Conference: 17th-19th February 2012
    Location: Le Meridien, Bengaluru, India
    Chair: Naresh Jain

    Follow #AgileIndia2012 on Twitter

    Lean Startup Stage Producing Team

    Akkiraju Bhattiprolu (Co-Producer)
    Owen Rogers (Co-Producer)
    Nanda Lankalapalli (Reviewer)
    Madhur Kathuria (Reviewer)
    Manuel Joseph (Reviewer)
    Sandeep Shetty (Reviewer)
    Dorai Thodla (Reviewer)

  • Posted in Agile, Innovation, Startup | Leave a comment

    When did you fail the last time?

    When did you fail the last time?

    Couple of years back, it was all still green! The word ‘recession’ hadn’t surfaced yet.   Suresh (not the real name) walks in for an interview.  He had 4 years of industry experience. He had cleared the preliminary HR round. He had also cleared the first technical round after supposedly have answered real tough grinding questions that my seasoned developers had asked him. Now it was my turn to interview him. After all the courteous questions, I realized that this guy is too much of self-congratulatory kind. He appeared very thrilled about his successful career. This was fine with me until he casually remarked that he already had an offer elsewhere and he was there just to give me a chance to interview him 😉 That’s when I changed gears and I asked him the question “Suresh, when did you fail the last time in your job? “. Honestly, I didn’t realize the significance of the question at that time. But I understood that I just found one good question that must be asked to everyone as soon as I heard his answer. “I never failed.  I am a successful professional and I never allow myself to fail” Then I asked, “describe the last tough situation you faced and how did you handle it?” That went on and on and it didn’t take too long for me to make up my mind on that guy.

    But I kept on thinking about this conversation. Humor me with a few teasers…

    • “A successful professional is someone who has never failed”….True or False?
    • All the greats irrespective of their fields – Gandhi, Steve Jobs,  Michael Jordan, Madam Curie – reached there without any failure. True or False?
    • Who would have tasted more failures? One who reached great heights or someone who lived and retired in a modest routine job?
    • Did Sergey Bubka, who managed to break world record after world record in the sports of pole vault, clear the bar every time he tried?  Or did he go all the way till he failed to cross the bar?

    We all know the answers to these questions.  How are then all of us in the Indian software industry so afraid of failing?

    I personally have (unsuccessfully) tried to mentor people to write in their self-appraisals instances where they fell short of their own expectations. The predominant service industry is marked by the presence of too many shock absorbers between the market reality and the people like us on the shop floor. The ultimate success or failure of the projects has little or no impact on us.  We keep on getting our hikes, bonuses and promotions. We are told to be the guardians of the process and we managed the status quo.

    Unfortunately, the service industry as we know is dying. The false shield of processes is disappearing.  Time has come in and a new phrase “software craftsmanship” has started echoing in conferences. We  have to decide whether we want to endorse the change voluntarily now or to be forced to change when it is too late.

    We need to find zones where we can raise those performance bars where we have chance of failure – zones, where we can truly realize our own limitations – zones, where a programmer, tester, business analyst, technical writer, or dba can realize his/her true place in the prevailing world standards in the respective craft.

    Unfortunately, the big enterprises especially in the service industry seldom give such opportunities.  A casual observation reveals that the Industry (including service Industry) is trying hard to make the transformation towards the new harsh reality.  They are all struggling with their un-yielding elephants.

    That is where the startups come in to the rescue.  The lean agile startups are where the limits are always tested. Envelope is always in stretched state. There are about 400+ startups in Hyderabad alone today.  This is the new hope for anyone to test his or her true limits.

    Anyone who is smart and serious about his or her career has to make the move now.  While the big guys are struggling with their elephants, jump on now.  Test your limits until you fail, mark the bar and cross it again until you fail. The earlier one takes the step, the further they will be from others who wake up later to the new reality.

    Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

    Scrum – Maintenance Projects – Multiple Product Backlogs

    This is the presentation I used in my talk to Agile_Hyd.  It is a while back I gave this talk, it was on July 23rd, 2010.  The venue was OpenText office.   I was still working for ADP in July 2010.    I moved out of ADP in September 2010 and started working on my own gig  YAssume

    Find a brief notes of the session here.

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    Innovation Without Ownership?

    (As I mentioned in one of my earlier blogs, Vinay has been my thinking partner on Innovation.  Most my thoughts related to Innovation builds on our common understanding of the subject.).

    What is the first step to Innovate?   “Opportunity Identification”  is what we were told to build a “systematic innovation culture”.   How do you Identify an Opportunity?   Look at “Pain”,  “Wave” and “Waste” areas to find needs (or opportunities).  Pretty simple and logical, isn’t it?

    Get a group of people working in an organization, ask them to list what they see in each of these areas “pain”, “Wave” and “Waste”.   If the group is not given any boundaries within which they have to limit their thinking, most likely they will come up with areas related to their own life.  The traffic problems, the terrorism, the water problem, problems around education systems and so on.   The boundaries of thinking have to be narrowed down to make the group list opportunities related what the organization would be interested in in-terms of   domain/business, technology and/or process.  

    Will the group still be able to generate enough needs in the categories of pains, waves and waste?  

    IMO,  the answer to the above question depends on what the organization is working on.  If it is Tata Motors, it is possible for someone to identify next need on Indian roads after Nano.  If it is a typical S/W consulting organization, I am not so positive that a genuine need will be found in the domain the group has been working on.  At best, the need (most probably) will be related to some process improvement.

    Indian s/w industry most part has been working in the problems they don’t necessarily relate to. Be it 401K, US Benefits, US Insurance, Europe’s Automobile industry or an Australian pharmacy industry… none of them are the direct problems of an Indian S/W professional. We can find people in Indian industry who can tell you more about American tax laws than what they are personally paying to Indian government. Would that “knowledge” of US taxation is enough for someone to identify opportunities in there?

    My contention is that one has to “experience” and “emotionally bond” to the situation before he/she can come up with an opportunity in the space. That is what I want to term it as “owning the problem”. You tell me with all the vocabulary at your disposal the pain you went through after falling down from the bike. I can narrate back the whole story, probably using a similar are better vocabulary. But, no way I can fully relate to the pain you are going through.  Can any man ever know the pain of giving birth to a baby?  Similar argument can be made about the “waves” and “waste”.

    I had the opportunity of attending CII’s innovation summit in 2009. Of all the sessions attended, the most exciting

    at least to me was the session on rural innovation. The kind of small little solutions the people are coming with for their own problems was shocking. These are the people with little or no education. The people whom the otherwise “raising India” hardly talks or celebrates. There are more of such stories being reported lately in the media….

    Probably my argument is circling back to the rhetoric “necessity is the mother of invention”.   My argument may or may not endorse that in toto, but I certainly started believing that some level of ownership is required for innovation.

    What happened in our IT industry is that the “ownership” has been completely taken out. Take a look at this presentation “Indian IT Industry” that I found on the net. Specifically check the slide “Offshore Product Development”.   Apparently, the list of things that Indian companies can contribute towards is

    • Development of patches and upgrades for core products
    • Support migration to multiple platform versions
    • Legacy product maintenance
    • Localization/internalization of core products
    • Development of specific modules and offer testing services

    Its no surprise that none of the above talk about creating anything new.

    If we notice, these are small segments/phases of a full life cycle of business opportunity realization. One may claim to have owning the entire SDLC. If we expand carefully, even the entire SDLC is a just a part of full business realization. The organizations that have been chasing this SDLC and most often few parts of it, it is a long leap to think of an opportunity identification and realizing it.

    For an offshore entity to contribute to these fragments of work, it is argued that they (fragments) have to be “well defined” and “scoped”. It would be safe to claim that this is one of the drivers why the Indian IT companies had to go in vein towards heavy weight processes. Those process models supposedly give the templates to make those hand-offs more controlled and safe! It is intuitive that more such hand-offs happen in the process, the lesser anyone would own the problem or the solution!

    How can this be broken?   Wait for next post…  I need few more beers and time to mull over this.   Share your thoughts if any that I may shamelessly copy/incorporate in my post.

    Posted in Agile, Corporates, Innovation | 7 Comments

    Best Practices Vs Bright Spots

    Finding an Auto Rickshaw on the wrong(?) side of the roads in Hyderabad is no surprise to anyone.  This must be a best practice they adapted from US.   Don’t they drive on the right side of the road in US?

    If the above doesn’t sound like a good idea, why should any standardized set of best practices termed as a "process model" be any different?

    Lets look at the preface of “CMMi for development 1.2

    “CMMI® (Capability Maturity Model® Integration) is a process improvement maturity model for the development of products and services. It consists of best practices that address development and maintenance activities that cover the product lifecycle from conception through delivery and maintenance.”

    “CMMI for Development is a collection of best practices that is generated from the CMMI Framework.”

    Why only CMMi,  it would be safe to claim that any standardized process model or framework is mostly a collection of best practices.      Some of those best practices may even be stolen (err.. adapted)  from other industries like Manufacturing.

    And then… you find people screaming loud at these best practices.   Why do companies spend enormous efforts in vain searching for “Best Practices”?    Screamed Naresh in his blog.

    Agile supposed to be a relief from this maddening  best-practice-gold-rush.      Agile (in my opinion)  was a collective loud scream against the best practices.   “Please allow us to find our way.  Probably we know what we are doing here better than anyone else.  Give us a chance to find our course”.

    Before the world settled down to a possibility of this new hope, we started finding “Agile best practices”  (Déjà vu ).    There are now people who can evaluate and tell you how much “agile” you are based on how much and how many of agile best practices you successfully have adapted.  No wonder Naresh summed it up by saying “Agile is the new waterfall”.

    It was instantly convincing to me what the other agilists were complaining about best practices.   However, I was apprehensive to accept them unconditionally.   I always wondered if we can really rule out the presence of these practices.   I was afraid,  discrediting best practices may make me a closed thinker and narrow minded.   Don’t we want to learn from others?  What’s wrong in doing that?  In fact, isn’t that desirable?  Hmmmm…

    So I waited.   I waited silently and until I read this book Switch from Heath brothers.   Besides a lot of other good stuff in this book related to making change happen, what struck me most was their concept of "bright spots".

    Look at their story about the problem of malnutrition in Vietnamese kids.     To find a solution to the problem,  it is intuitive (?) to first find statistics, data and history.   Then find experts who can decipher this data and come up with  (if I may call) best practices to be implanted to fix the problem.    Well, the heath brothers observed something different that happened there.

    All the data, the way Heaths called it, just  "TBU" (True But Useless).   What actually worked there was finding what is already working there in Vietnam and in that very context.  Despite all the short comings like poverty and such, find those few kids who are healthy and bigger than rest.   The story goes on explaining how the effort went on to replicating that bright spot across.

    This model, I am convinced, will work.  But standardizing that as a best practice and trying to roll out in India, I will not agree. That is the difference between a bright spot and best practice.

    "Bright spots" are those that encourage learning from peers.  The collaboration that we talk about.     It encourages taking ownership of the challenges.  Building solutions from bottom up.  This is in contrast to  trying to force fit best practices from elsewhere to the local context.

    With this new learning, I have no problem joining the rest of the agile crowd to debunk best practices.   To me, being open minded is to listen to my own peers with respect and confidence.   Learning from and helping them with my little wisdom.

    You may also want to watch the video of Dan Heath talking about how to find bright spots.

    Posted in Agile, Innovation, Trust | 4 Comments

    Are We Trustworthy?

    I gave a 3 minute lightening talk at Agile Coach camp at Goa.   These were the quick thoughts I gathered and delivered.  Following is probably a little more elaboration of those thoughts.

    In all honesty, I want to be proved wrong on everything I am writing in this post. 

    In my article on Agile & CMM a while back, I passionately argued about the missing people focus in CMM and how Agile is the champion of that very focus.  Given the changing generation, I believed (and continue to believe) that the “mandate, control and track” models are bound to die.   The only way ahead is trusting your teams to self organize themselves and deliver… I argued!

    Unfortunately however, the ground reality is increasingly raising doubts in my mind,  “may be, I am wrong”.    We  the Indians may be not be fully trustworthy.  A racial, generalized, self defeating statement that is. So be it.

    I worked in multiple organizations in US.  Anywhere I went, the stationary room was wide open and there were full supply of pens, note pads and everything.  How many Organizations can afford to do that in India? It is cheap and embarrassing to talk about such things, I know.  I was talking to a facilities head of a reputed IT organization from Hyderabad recently.  He said, they started with a open stationary room.  But quickly they learned that the stationary started disappearing faster than they can refill.  It’s apparently beyond multiple times of any reasonable usage for a work place.  After a long struggle, mulling over the embarrassing situation of having to doubt their own beloved proud associates, they resorted to “manned stationary room”.  You enter your name and sign before you take a pen.   The facilities head told me that  the entire management was so upset for having to do that.  But then, the usage of stationary was less than 25% to when it was free. 

    All that started working at the back of my mind.  I started thinking with the premise that “okay we are not trustworthy”,  but what must be causing this?  I broadly could think of following few reasons.

    1. Hand holding

    At what age do kids in India are allowed to take decisions on their own?  Not even the serious big items like career and marriage decisions.  Even the minor day to day  decisions like what to dress, what to eat?

    I am aware of parents accompanying their sons and daughters to get them admitted into professional colleges.  They get them admitted into post graduate courses.  Show them the hostel, talk to his/her classmates/seniors to ensure the hot water is available in the hostel, the timings of breakfast, where to go for hair cut etc..  Sometimes, parents do these things to the utter embarrassment of their kids.  What happens once the parents leave is a total different story.

    Have you ever noticed any Indian matrimonial?  Something like “A 25 year old boy looking for a bride”.   I always wonder why we call someone 25 year old a “boy” and why a “boy” needs a bride.   At what age do we recognize our boys becoming men and our girls becoming women?

    In my opinion, our middle class is guilty of being over protective of their kids.   Most men (especially men) do not even know how to wash their cloths, cook their food … even the simplest basic survival skills are a big ask. 

    This very crowd at work, can we hope them to throw their hat voluntarily into a risky situation and take ownership?  Can we expect them to accept responsibility of something that goes wrong?     

    2. Overdose of Politeness 

    Our Indian parenthood, while celebrated for its middle-class-conservative-strong-family-values,  it made it difficult for individuals to become decisive and take a stand.  Our brought-up makes it very difficult to take a stand and have an opinion.  Lest being able to open up and say “I disagree”.  Especially if it involves people older than me with whom I have to disagree.  At home I can’t disagree with my zero-IQ-uncle just because he happens to have born couple of decades ahead of me.  I bring in the same personality to work and find it difficult to disagree with my colleague who seemingly is much smarter than me, who possesses a degree from a more reputed college than me  and  has couple of more years of experience than me.

    3. Indiscipline/Unethical

    Probably I don’t need to talk much about this.   Any traffic light at any part of India can tell you the story.   If there is no police man around, we don’t have to care for the traffic light.  Driving on the wrong side is no big deal.

    How many of us have a reasonable plan of what we do on weekends and on our personal times? 

    We don’t insist on receipts if that allows us to evade  taxes.  We don’t mind bribing ticket collectors if we can get a berth in a train.   Such acts have become so casual that they have almost become standard operating procedures :) 

    If I can cheat on my own fellow citizens and travellers in train, would I mind cheating my own team mates?  Think about it!

    4. Public sector mind set

    (Before I make my point, I want to make it clear that I am a strong supporter of public sector.  I never supported and never will  the maddening uncontrolled privatization that is going on in India for a while now. That is due to my political/ideological beliefs that are outside the scope of this post/discussion.  I am only limiting this post to talk about the culture part)

    Our public sector has been inherited from the colonial British Raj.   The clerical Indian staff always had to work for the ruling “sirs” from a foreign land.  The independence just replaced the white-sirs with brown-sirs.  The culture has not changed much.  The strong bureaucratic system of boss controlling the entire operations still prevalent in most govt offices.   The peon walking behind the big sir carrying sir’s office bag/folder is a common scene even today.

    Public sector has been the major employer for very long.  The private sector always been looked down until recent times.  The safe, secured government officer job was the most desired job around.    That resulted in major portion of educated middle class becoming the primary beneficiary of this public sector.  This very middle class is what made their kids go into engineering colleges and then onto private corporate sector. 

    How does that matter?   Imagine the first day of work for any engineering grad at any office.  It’s more likely that he/she will address his/her supervisor as “sir”.    It takes few weeks to correct that and bring them to modern/current day professional work culture.   It is actually not that difficult to correct such obvious behaviours like addressing bosses as “sir”.  What is actually difficult to change is the internalized culture/mindset that they have acquired from their earlier generations at home  since childhood “be subservient  to your boss”

    Needless to say that this behaviour suites perfectly for strong process oriented organizations.   Boss gives the work, tells how to do it, tracks how it is happening, appraises how it has happened at the end.   No wonder so many organizations in India were able to go for such heavy weight process models without much dissent from their truly qualified smart engineers on the floor.  That’s how so many process slaves have been created in India.  It probably comes natural to our ilk.

    With a work force who never trained to take a decisions on their own, who are not disciplined, who cannot disagree with anything, who are brainwashed to be subservient to their bosses….  can we really aspire to build self-organizing, self-managing teams and working models?  What Agile are we talking about here?

    (I dedicate this to my friend Madhav, who has been pestering me to write a counter point to my own strong opposition to top-down-control-freak-process-driven models and my favouritism towards bottom-up-trust-driven-agile models.   The truth is, I am deliberately being provocative to generate discussion and validate the above)

    Posted in Agile, Corporates, People, Trust | 10 Comments

    Corporate Ethics

    Recently I had this opportunity to be part of a group discussion.  Its an honour, a reputed university invited me to be part of the discussion.   Senior and established academicians at one side.  Highly  accomplished IT industry professionals at the other side.  I am part of the IT industry professionals side, minus the accomplishments of course.   The sides I mentioned is to say that there were two kinds of expertise that were present there.  Everyone exercised enough respect for everyone around,  that only created a wonderful learning experience for all.

    Well, I was in the midst of all this. Me, a meagre me,  a jack of all.  More opinionated than informed.  More emotional than logical. More stupid than anything else.   It was me who was nodding most part allowing everyone else to speak the most. 

    The discussion flirted around many areas.  How much (if any) the corporates care about and/or consider during innovation process or while marketing it.   The interaction between corporates and universities dealing with innovation and what ethics influence this relationship.  

    Some of the following are my takes and understanding on whatever transpired in the discussion. 

    Does ethics mean the same to everyone, every time and everywhere?

    I doubt.  There is not so much difference between individuals and corporations when it comes to standing up to values. 

    Someone in US asked me once.  “You guys drive on the left side of the road right?”.    My answer was  “depends on our my mood on a given day”.

    It is absolutely fine if I drive on the wrong side of the road in Hyderabad.  I don’t have to feel guilty about it.   If a policeman ever catches me, it’s just a nuisance.  He must be in need of some money or he is under the pressure from his bosses to meet the targets. In either case, all that I need to do is to quickly settle the account and move on.  But you see, tomorrow is another day, I will drive in the same direction.

    The same me,  if I have to land in California next week, I don’t even dream of doing a similar thing there.  Why?  Multiple reasons.  Police catching me is not going to be an easy episode.  Even if they don’t catch me, its not easy to just get out of the car and walk out casually without being looked down upon.  The looks are going to be hard to deal with. They force me to feel damn guilty.  Besides the police and the looks,  it’s going to be extremely dangerous to drive on wrong side in CA to start with.   No one there would expect any traffic coming from the wrong side.  The probability of a head-on collision and me dying instantly has highest probability there.   This fact that “they don’t expect me” on the wrong side makes me feel either guilty, die or pay huge fine.  But the origin is, what is expected in the general public. 

    Quite often it is attributed to the inefficiency and corrupt police for the situation in Hyderabad/India. I don’t subscribe to it.  It is not because of the umpteen number of police standing in US and elsewhere that is making the situation better there. It is rather, the conduct and expectations of the general public that is making the police and me to behave the way we behave there or here.

    Now, why wouldn’t I bring back the same discipline and guilt while coming back from California to here?  Why can’t I just follow the rules. Yes, I may try that for  a day, a week and a month. But, day after day I find myself being the last one to reach the destination.  Will be a regular loser.   Will be honked from behind.  Will become a laughing stock.  All this for not breaking the rules.   Not sure how long I can hang on to this.  I don’t have to win,  at least, I don’t want to lose because of I happen to have this burden of value system. 

    And so, my value system gets base lined based on where I am individually.   Will that be any different for an organization?  Should that be expected?    I would argue and believe that the corporations struggle with the same dilemma every day.

    “Child labour is bad”.  Okay, well said. But what age determines childhood?  If an organization has to compete in a specific country where it is alright to employ a 15 yr old (hypothetical).   Should it hold back to its parent organization’s standard of not recruiting younger than 18yrs?  

    Open Source?

    There was a lot of discussion about Open Source vs captive ownerships of s/w.  To confess, I don’t claim I completely understand the discussion.  The name Microsoft figured multiple times as a poster-bad-boy of the discussion.   

    I am not sure what Microsoft are others s/w orgs are expected to do to be good boys.   Are they supposed to open up all the intellectual property rights?  Give out all their code of their operating systems and applications?  

    I found the discussion utterly silly.  (Or may be I didn’t understand the context and misrepresenting here).

    Well, I can comprehend this argument fully by taking an extreme leftist stand.  Opposing private property.  Specifically the knowledge/intelligence becoming monopoly and private is fully opposed in a socialist system.   Whether you and I agree with such a system is a totally different discussion.  

    We all know and aware that we are in a capitalist system. We all own lands, homes, properties and so on.   Once we agree to be part of this system, what is it so surprising about an enterprise holding its own creation?     As long as they are complying with the laws of the land, its entirely up to them to decide.

    (Well,  some of us in the industry believe opening up will revolutionize the technological development.  That is due to the collaborative nature of it and by exploiting the collective wisdom of many.  We here are arguing that it may be a better “business decision”.  Not evaluating any ethics  here.  And we don’t expect organizations like Microsoft  would have to listen to us let alone agreeing to us)

    I am sensitive to the fact that there are a few innovations that are currently proprietary but are needed for the larger causes of humanity.  Imagine an expensive AIDS formula.   Can the world demand the industry to make it available cheaply to all the mankind?  In Africa and in third world?   Question is, on what grounds such a demand be made?   The world chose to be in the capitalist system.  What are they cribbing about it now?   That is where the govts are subsidizing those formulas and making those available to the world.   That is where some of the corporations have their CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) initiatives to address few societal needs.  But again, the CSRs should not be taken any more seriously than me throwing a one rupee coin at a beggar on the street corner.

    My Criterion

    Lets get it.  Corporations are there for making profits.  Who is surprised?.     That is their purpose of existence.  Their DNA.   Trying to define ethics of an organization in terms of emotions, sentiments, intents and ideologies is not going to take us anywhere.    Following are what I look at to see how much “ethical” an organization is.

    Legality

    In a capitalist system, we are entitled and have a right to expect each of these corporations to follow the laws of the land.  For example, there are multinational manufacturing industries in India who are apparently not honouring  the unionization of their work force.  The Indian law fully permits the workers to form unions.   Whether unions are good or not, that is to be decided by our own elected leaders and parliament.  Once it’s a law, I expect American, EU and Japan companies to follow the law by dot.  

    Conducting business legally is the primary characteristic of conducting business ethically.

    Greed

    The recent recession has been attributed to the  poor business decisions of some of the banks, financial institutions and such.   Can that be called greed? May be.     Is greed World crisisunethical?    Not long ago the whole media, including hollywood chanted “greed is good”.   It went to the extent that the entire development of human race is credited to greed.   Just when the market started falling down, people started questioning that wisdom :)   How do we understand this greed, again within the same context of capitalist world we are in. 

    If I move all my money into high risk investment option and lose everything, it is just my bad luck.   And you trusted me to invest your money along with mine, bad luck to you too.    in all these matters, yes I am greedy, yes you are greedy.  But neither of us are unethical

    However, if I have successfully lured you to invest in my fund by giving you misinformation, that’s when I become unethical. 

    How does this translate corporates?   Basically identical.  

    Corporations trying to steal competitor’s  plans and data,   spreading wrong information to customers,  making wrong promises to employees, customers and investors etc., are all unethical behaviours. 

    Trying to make more money doesn’t make them more ethical or less ethical. 

      Responsibility

    Do corporations have Responsibility?   This is exactly the same question,  do citizens have responsibility? 

    I have the responsibility of complying with the law.  But do I have the responsibility to donate Rs 1000/- to flood victims?    How can you demand me to be charitable?  Corporate Social Responsibility is exactly the same.

    The more complicated question would be, what is the responsibility of the corporate against  environment and surroundings.  Even in these matters, there is no point in becoming emotional and rallying against corporations.  Unless they have violated a law.  Its our polity and government that allowed them to operate the way they are doing.   There are allegations that few multi national beverage companies are drying out the ground water and polluting whatever is remaining.    No point in here trying to classify this as ethical or not.   Its the state and central government that have to set the norms.  If they are not complying, take them to task.   

    Conclusion

    Can we classify all the mankind into good guys and bad guys?   May be possible in Hollywood, Bollywood and Tollywod. Not in the real world.

    Similarly, organizations who  balance their greed,   who are reasonably well aware of their impact to their surroundings   and finally  who never would violate any law of the land are the ones respected everywhere in the world.    

    Apparently, most fortune 500 companies also figure in the most respected companies lists.   It should not be a surprise.    The ethical behaviour has been proved time and again as a long term business strategy.    We will not open an account in a bank that we suspect will sell our personal details to someone else.  

    It would be a futile exercise to have an ideology driven, academic discussions and assessments when we are talking about corporates that lived the test of times.   

    Posted in Corporates, Ethics, Innovation | 2 Comments

    “Don’t Try This At Home” – The Risky Experiments

    It was year 2001. Was strolling, literally with my then 1yr old in the stroller around pier 39 at San Francisco.   A good place for beer, chocolates, shops, interesting water tours and of course the stinking sea lions.   The same place you can also witness street performers performing magic, stand-up comedy, jugglery all mixed into one.  

    This time around, the guy shouted loud  “DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME”.  And he repeated “DON’T EVER TRY THIS AT HOME”.   He sounded serious and concerned.   We the audience standing all around him got attentive.  Everyone paused their respective cell phones and wives (to be politically correct, spouses).   And then the performer said it in even more louder voice.

    “DO IT AT YOUR NEIGHOBOR’S HOME”

    Hmmm… a big laughter all around.  I heard this joke a lot many more times ever since. But that was my first time I Heard it.  Had a hefty laugh.    The performer moved onto some juggling act involving fire that definitely should not be tried at home.

    Laughter aside, I learned, there are a few things you don’t want to try at home. 

    I heard this story from car talk 1010.    They had a Volvo car that was accelerating to high RPM without any control.   They suspected the computer cluster onboard to be the problem.   Okay, how can they assert it?   They found a similar Volvo having an identical computer cluster number but from a different customer  awaiting a simple oil change.   aha… they quickly resorted to what they called it a “time tested” method.   They removed the good cluster and placed it in the first car.  

    First few minutes the first car’s acceleration came into control.   Excellent. Point made.  Assumptions validated.  Good experiment! Yahooo..     But is that the end of the story?  They can only wish!

    Before they could celebrate enough,  the engine started accelerating again.  What happened?  They learned they have successfully burned down the good computer cluster by placing at the faulty location.  They had to buy a new cluster for a huge expense to the unsuspecting, oil-change Volvo customer.

    My sympathies to them aside, I learned that there are experiments you want to think before attempting! 

    The celebrated father of the systematic innovation Thomas Edison was also not spared.  Few believe, he lost his hearing due to an experiment that went wrong in a moving train.  He supposedly may have caused fire in a compartment.   The aggravated  conductor of the train lifted him by his ears and caused the hearing loss.   (There are also multiple versions of this story).                                                                   

    If these were not enough,  look at the Hollywood for all the infinite wisdom they never stop spreading around the world.  Starting from Frankenstein to Jurassic Park and beyond,  there are umpteen number of experiments that went terribly wrong!  You find more disasters created by experiments in movies than the positive impacts created by them. That’s Hollywood for us anyway 🙂

    What is common in all these stories?

    Experiments do come with inherent risk associated with them! Surprise!

    Lets see if we can apply this understanding to evaluate idea selection for exploring and experimenting.

    Vinay has been my thinking partner on innovation for a while now.  We gulped enough beer discussing, exchanging, arguing, fighting on this subject. He presented some interesting  thoughts on how to evaluate ideas.  

    Its the cost of the experiment and the impact of its success are the ones suggested to be used to evaluate an idea.  The impact may be defined as how high or low the fidelity is.  And how many innovation assumptions it can assess/address.  Fair enough.

    However, I started to believe that there is a third dimension here that must be considered.  

    “Amount of Experiment Risk”  would be my third dimension.

    Well, even that “risk” could be a black-swan.  Still one must assess and isolate the risk from the innovation process.  That may mean isolating experiment itself.

    How do we do that?   “Not experimenting” is not an option to avoid any potential risk, we all know that. 

    There are two possibilities.

     

    1. Pick a different low-risk experiment with lower impact of success
    2. Pick a different low-risk experiment even if the cost increases but don’t compromise on the impact of the success

    Does it sound very complicated?  Doesn’t have to be.  Most often it only translates to isolating your research/experimentation area from your production area.    If it is a software development team,  we cannot afford anything going terribly wrong on the development environment, the production data and/or compromising any security and hence conduct the same outside the above environment.   

    While innovation and experimentation are an absolute need of business today, one must apply caution of not going overboard of putting their business at risk by ill construed experiments.   Experimentation has to be seen as a serious, responsible act.  Never it is a playful activity!

    Posted in Innovation | Leave a comment