Sunday, May 28, 2006

Nimble and Flexible

Some thoughts on a Leader's role in creating flexible and nimble organizations.

So how did David decapitate Goliath? We all know the answer.
Agility vs. Muscle Power;
Capability to strike accurately, from a distance, vs. waiting for the enemy to come within striking distance;
Focus and Concentration.
And the courage to go face an enemy so huge in the first place.
David also knew he had but One chance to strike with his slingshot and he just had to get it right.
What about Goliath, what would have been his thoughts? Standing in his huge shoes, he would have thought - 'what a joke! They send a puny 19 year old with what but a funny looking contraption and a stone to fight me! Me, the mighty Goliath!'
Of course the rest is history.

And recently history, for those of you who have read and seen Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, you would recall the scene where a giant gets into the school and is about to get at Hermoine, when Harry Potter manages to get on top of the giant who just could not shake him off, and manages to get the beast down using his wand in an unconventional way by stuffing it up the beast's nose! Wands otherwise, for the uninitiated, are supposed to be waved to cast spells and create magic.

Now that I am through with the preamble and building context, down to business.

In the business world too Davids all around us are getting the better of Goliaths, and the weapon of mass destruction they use is rapid response, quick to grab the opportunity and present a solution before others, sizing the opportunity with both hands before others have been able to initiate.

Smaller and nimble organizations are perfecting the art of, rather improving on perfection, to respond to changing market and customer needs; while the mammoths continue to spend energy on increasing internal process efficiencies or establishing taskforces to find out 'knots' in the red tape they have built over the years.

I love Nike's catchline "Just Do it". I think it sould be the Motto of All process owners. Managers should Paste it in Large Bold Red Letters across their Walls, with colors changed every week so they notice it. And hopefully some of it will sink in.

Managers' roles should be evaluated like Radio Engineers evaluate stages in a radio system. If a stage does not add any amplification or signal modulatione etc (read 'value addition'), it probably only adds Noise in the system and degrades the signal furhter. It then also puts more strain on the IF part or the signal processing part of the system to work on the signal.
And of course it adds delay!

So should passing a transaction through a manager be evaluated - either it adds value or just noise and further deteriorates the final result, apart from delaying the entire process.

Another area where Davids are routinely bashing up Goliaths by the ton are centralized vs empowered organization structures.

Every leader talks empowerment - very few give up control!

In the warfield of decimated Goliaths, nine of out ten headless giants have the words 'empowered in theory never practiced' etched on their chests.

Another factor that adds to the reams of entangled red tape in organizations is the pressing need of managers to justify their existance and the salary they receive. How else, but by authorizing or signing off each transaction.

Remember the Radio System analogy. Perfectly fine if they have good SNR( signal to noise ratio) and amplify the signal, else it is all Noise and Delay

Davids routinely win by putting the executor as close to the action as possible.

Imagine what would have happened if David had to write an e-mail to his manager who would have further written to his chief of staff to get a sling shot issued and then to take permission to swing the sling shot, at a pre-defined template driven speed, before taking on Goliath.
An of course, Goliath would have been advancing on him like an avalanche, while David would have been sending reminders on his blackberry to the scores of managers for a response and go ahead! The alternative - die or be fired!

So what did David's managers do right - train him, give him the right tools, and empowered him to hit as and when he thought appropriate.

The world does not wait or care for internal processes, we as customers do not care for what happens behind the fast food counter - we place an order and get it as per a predefined Service Level Promise.

The most successful organizations do a few things really beautifully -
Rigorous training to the client contact people.
Those who take the order also deliver the same - the promise the service level and deliver it
they are empowered to take decisions and respond on the fly
they reduce the distance between the client and ultimate doer, internal or external clients.

Clients or customers can be internal or external. The above holds true for both situations.

For large Multinationals there are as many internal customers dependent on response from internal service providers as there are external.

And empowerment to respond rapidly to internal requests for action are as critcal for success as empowerment to respond to requests for action to attack business opportunities.

Leaders have a major role to play on how they build their organizations.
Read also one of my posts on 'leaders and proactive organizations'

see you..

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Guts & Glory

Or another name for 'rewards & recognition'.

All of us working in organizations know of instances of people being rewarded and recognized for work they have done.

And several times people not being recognized even though contributing to success of several endeavors.

And of several winners not acknowledging those who enabled them to win in the first place

It takes GUTS to do so, COURAGE to acknowledge that they were not alone.. to recognize the sherpa who enabled them to scale Everest..

And true leadership is all about recognizing and nurturing these enablers - they are mortar that holds the facade together, the millions of rivets and welds and bonds that hold the aircraft together, the nuts that hold the wheel to the rim.

Remember the few ceramic tiles, which weakened and brought the space shuttle down..

Enablers and silent background workers are these ceramic tiles, these glue.. actually nuts - recognize their contribution, or risk the fate of the shuttle.

Have the GUTS to deliver GLORY to all the people who enabled you win. That is character.
That is leadership.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Leaders and Proactive Organizations

All of us come across several instances in organizations where we feel the process owner could have demonstrated more 'ownership' or thought through the details of the process.

The result could be a combination of a very sloppy execution of the task, frayed tempers, disgruntled employees, unimpressed clients, upset managers, and a lot of finger pointing.

In most instances you would hear "but I was never told to do this..."; "I did not know this was my job"; I was expecting department abc to do this"; or a variation of the above.

There is clearly a lack of proactive action and ownership on the part of the individual or team or process owners.

Leaders, managers and the organization have a great influence and role in building a culture of ownership or proactiveness.

How an individual develops is largely dependent on the direct reporting manager of the individual, and then the culture of the organization.

Organization Culture as a topic has itself continued to be dissected, written about and discussed. i.e what creates a culture and how can we change it. I will not hazard to get into details of culture now, but surely will do so in a later article.

However, my take on how specifically a culture of ownership develops or can be inculcated is that it is largely dependent on the level of control that the leadership of the organization is comfortable or willing to give up. It also largely depends on the extent of 'Trust' that exists between leaders and subordinates.

Delegation and Empowerment also play a pivotal role in building this culture.

Another variable is the leaders' operating style - Micromanage vs. specify; highly directive vs. democratic; delegate vs. specify; Results vs. Checklists...

Leaders and strong personalities like to get things done the way they think is appropriate, which in itself is not a bad thing given their rich experience and the fact that they want to build towards their vision the way they think is fastest.
But where this could cause problems is when the leader over-directs, over-manages or over-specifies in most situations. Subordinates, in these scenarios, hesitate to do anything before taking permission, or checking at each stage, for each action and activity.
Managers usually do not discourage these, in fact many of them actually get an ego boost from their subordinates checking back with them before taking any or each small step! They feel in control!

This is counterproductive in several ways -

One this causes an unnecessary strain on the leader, a high degree of transactional load that could easily be delegated to the team. This is true at all levels of hierarchy - right from C-Level and senior P&L owners reporting into them; to project teams. After-all, why are so many capable individuals being paid salaries if not to do things on their own and use their brains?

Second - the team and reportees, over a period of time, turn into highly cautious, 'do only as told' lot and stop using their own judgment, creativity and thinking while doing any task. They wait for detailed instructions and do not dare to take any action till their boss has given an OK. They lose their initiative and originality and turn into an army of transaction processors.

The more independent ones might fight this out for some time, would try to do things their way etc and maybe do something radically better. But if they are a minority, and the leader continues to micromanage, they will either choose to leave rather than fight, or conform. Either way this is not the best of outcomes for the organization.

Aggregated at an organization level, if there are a large number of leaders who get into transactions rather than delegation, instructions rather than results etc, it will turn the organization into a slow, reactive, cautious, low-risk taker, and a dull place overall. Creative and innovative workers will slowly leave or conform, new people will be assessed on their ability to follow instructions and a culture of apathy and sluggishness slowly develops.

Another interesting point to consider here is the proportionately large impact of the leader on the building of this culture
- higher the leader in the organization's hierarchy, greater the impact. The top-down effect of leadership style can either build or destroy the 'ownership' culture at the execution level and lower down the hierarchy. It is a classical case of diffusion of leadership style.

If most team members in the organization hear their managers say 'let me check back from my boss' for most decisions, it means the organization is already well on its way to being a reactive, lack of ownership culture organization.

How to recognize and reverse this trend, or change a deep rooted culture itself if it has already set in, requires leaders to have the capability to pick these signals from various sources, employees, clients, allies and partners, and vendors. It requires them to read between the lines of loads of e-mails floating around. Look out if there is a high degree of 'I did my bit but the other did not do their bit' flying around and also an inordinate large number of managers attempting to highlight 'As directed by you i did this..' in their communications - watch out!

Other signs include frequent breaking down of processes involving more than one department, clients or employees giving direct or indirect feedback on increasing response times or degraded performance for previously efficient processes.

Recognizing these danger signs and hence reversing this requires leaders to step out of the hectic pace of daily transactions, observe, take feedback from relevant teams and people, create an environment of trust so people feel free to voice concerns, listen as against hear. It also requires leaders to have the ability to sift through the noise, that will ensue with opening direct channels of communication, and pick out the signal ( much like the LNA low noise amplifier in radios, Leaders need to have a high SNR - Signal to Noise Ratio!)

A culture of ownership differs from the opposite when leaders and managers set expectations and results, set direction, but not necessarily detail out all the steps and checklists. They allow a higher degree of independence in decision making, set authority limits and empowerment limits for all levels, and follow them. But they also define the boundary conditions for operations, and not necessarily let the teams free float and absolutely give a free reign! the extreme too leads to troubled organizations. Balance, middle path, whatever we call it, needs to be maintained.

I had intended to not write on ‘organization culture’, but as it turns out most of the above thoughts gravitate towards culture! But then, organization culture is to a very large degree a reflection of the organization leadership!

More on culture change and how it can be really effective in my coming articles.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Leaders and Innovation

I am at the Bangalore Airport, headed back home to Noida, my last 3 days having been spent with Tom Koulopoulos, thought leader in the area of innovation and author of Smartsourcing ( .

The discussions have triggered a gamut of ideas and thoughts, some have substantiated some of my thinking and perspective and others as brand new points of view.

As Tom says, The innovation concept is not new, it has probably been driving thinking and thinkers for ages - prehistoric humans discovered fire, which was not an 'innovation' per se, but several subsequent generations of humans have found many innovative used of fire. From keeping the beasts away, survival, to smelting iron, industrial progress, to pyrotechnics for pure pleasure!

Leaders need to view innovation from the same perspective. i.e does the leader, and hence the organization, pursue innovation for 'survival', or for 'progress'i.e. does it drive productivity or organizational growth; or is it for pure entertainment - the latest buzzword and everyone is talking about and oh, it is a good thing to tell our clients we do it, a great marketing tool.
While the value of innovation as a marketing value creator is no doubt strong, innovation can pay much larger dividends if practiced.

But is practicing innovation and actually 'innovating' as easy paying grand tributes to it being so critical and putting it on a mission statement and preparing attractive slideware or grand plans to innovate?

Definately not!

And here is where leadership and leaders comes in. The guts to dedicate their best people, some could be top revenue generators, to pursue the innovation agenda, to build a culture of innovation, to personally track and measure it, to invest in tools technologies partnerships, to be ready for failures, and disappointments. And to sustain all of the above.

Across organizations innovations and creative ideas get lost in the day to day hustle of work and deliverables, and several others are crushed at the alter of 'do what is required to be done and do not waste time'.

While we cannot give everyone a free reign to experiment with and at all stages of day to day, and there is no magic formula whereby the CIO( Chief Innovator Officer) says 'go forth and innovate' and several innovations appear; there are simpler ways of encouraging and kindling creative solutions leading to innovative solutions leading to innovation.

And another important point, inspired by Tom and which he brings out very lucidly, is the dangers of 'Innovating for Innvation's sake'. Innovations that do not benefit the society at large, or improve the lives of people, improve productivity, comfort, or are not affordable or manufacturable at large scales, are of no use.

Similarly, for organizations, innovations, including patents or trademarked methodologies etc, that really do not bring about any benefits of increased productivity or reduced costs that can be passed to the clients of the organization are of no use. Innovation for the fun of it could be a good distraction to keep 'idle minds' from not turning into 'devil's workshops', but would be just that.

Leaders need to be careful that they do not overdo the innovation bit and go overboard seeking innovation in everything the organization does.

But that is same in all areas - underinvestment or overinvestment, both are dangerous. While The former carries with it risks of never reaching critical mass, the latter leads to increased expectations, frustration of not seeing returns and ultimately scrapping the initiative itself. The same risk, of course, is in the case of underinvestment - no returns lead to scrapping the initiative all together.

The leader, hence, has the unenviable task of first investing, then assessing if this is over or underinvestment, and is this timely, and balancing the returns.

My flight has been called, and i risk being left behind, so this is all for now..

Thursday, May 18, 2006

More on Engine Replacement

Keying this in from the back of a car in Bangalore traffic, like the one i keyed in yesterday!

Just extending the thought on replacing engines.

An organization or Business Unit is itself an engine, which carries several sub engines on it. Something like a large Cruise ship. One Large Engine carrying the entire ship forward, and several parts of the ship performing their respective tasks, each with their own engines.. airconditioning, lighting, communication etc

So when the main engine starts to strain and scream what do you do? Change it?

And what do you do with the existing engine?

And that is what M&A is all about - selling an engine at peak performance vs finding suitors for a dying engine!

Good leadership is also about getting engines to peak performance and keeping them there.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Perspectives on leadership

Leadership and the art of Changing the Engine

How many times do we get that feeling that the organizational systems are not able to cope up with the demand of the process?

What do you do when you realize the system was built for a particular load and that we are streaching it to breaking limit?

To put it in context, lets restrict ourselves to organization processes and supporting systems, workflows etc.

And what do leaders do when they encounter such a situation?

Most of the times the pressures to perform and to deliver are so great that we end up with a patchwork of incremental improvements and quick fixes.

But taking the analogy of the car - it has an engine with a maximum horsepower and performance capacity. We can get it to deliver great results and enjoy the ride till the time we restrict to pushing the car below the max capacity.

Changing the upholstry and repainting it and also changing the driver will not make the engine go beyond the capacity it has been designed to perform.

Similarly with organizationals systems - changing the process owner, or the user experience, or giving it fancy UI will not make the system deliver to load beyond it was designed for.

It is logically time to change the engine!! No, not overhaul it, and getting a Formula 1 driver will not solve the proble either!

So go check out the engines that you are attempting to push beyond their limit - and then replace them!!

Good leadership is all about knowing which engines to replace before they break down.

see you..

Tuesday, May 16, 2006


Or another name for typecasting a brand.
Based on its legacy, current perceptions and positioning..

Some brands just cannot seem to get away from theit typecast - good or bad! and an example 'Apple' = Innovative / fun products. it did bounce back did'nt it, with iPod!

There are numerous brands typecast with messages that they long stopped giving, and replaced them with new ones. Or at least attempted to replace with.

Just that no one seems to listen. Or they do hear it but do not 'listen'.
They just do not get it, don't they? ( pun intended!) Both those who are singing and those who are hearing.

Would it not be better to change the brand? And then attempt to send the new messages again.

Try it, it might work. At least you will get noticed!

The alternative is to continue to sing the same old 'new' melody.

And, oh, it also matters how many Watts of music power you are pumping out... whistling softly will not carry the message far, nor will a hand held megaphone.

Invest enough, or it is all a waste of breath!

Monday, May 15, 2006

Is Marketing 'The Strategy'? Or does Strategy drive Marketing?

What came first ? Strategy or Marketing? Define what we should sell or sell what we have defined!

This is another avataar of the the cliched 'chicken and egg' story. The traditional debate - do we sell what we make or make what we sell.

Kotler in his recent book, 'Q&A on Marketing' is emphatic about the role of marketing in setting direction for the entire corporation. About Marketing in fact being Strategy

In reality however, how many organizations have reached marketing nirvana, and allow their marketing leadership to influence, let alone direct, critical decisions.
And here i mean decisions about Investment - in new products, on R&D, geographic expansion or exit, M&A, and hiring the right kind of people!

How many times does marketing really decide what the organization should do about their core business?
It is mostly entrusted with packaging what is already available, giving the car a new coat of paint and fancy accesories, while the engine remains the same, or maybe even rusts with time. As someone said, it is entrusted with 'perfuming the pig'.

In most organizations marketing 'inherits' or are handed over what needs to be marketd.

Spefically, for marketing managers, rarely do we get an opportunity to Make what would sell, or what we could market. More often than not we are handed a set of attributes and differentiators already available and expected to weave the magic.

And in fact, these differentiators could be imagined or even 'desired'.

How many organizations really possess differentiators in the first place. Most differentiators fast turn commodity.

So where does marketing come in? Turn commodity into differentiators?
Get customers in and leave the rest to the delivery ( of products or services or experiences... every one delivers something )?

Or should mot marketing be guiding to the next set of differentiators, of real product and service value, of listening to markets and customer needs and directing the next set of service offerings, of product features, indeed of 'innovation' itself.

That brings to mind another question - how many marketers really know their products, the market, their own differentiators, their own strengths and shortcomings, competitors strengths and weaknesses, cometitors plans and strategies, the business environment and economic trends and their impact, the socio-political undercurrents, the rising price of oil, the weather and its impact, and so on and so forth.. to be able to truly guide their corporations to leadership.

An if they do know all of the above in the preceding para, do they remain marketers or do they turn into strategists?

i.e. do they remain artists ( like marketers are supposed to be ) or turn into mathematicians.

And this raises another question - is marketing about an art or a science?

more on the above later..