Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Internet is going to be BANNED.

The internet has over a billion people connected to it today. Engaging with it, driving it, learning from it, conducting commerce and relationships on it. Its easy to think of the internet as one common, global identity which lives on facebook, google and twitter but of course that’s not the case. There’s the commercial internet, the information internet, the science internet, the pornographic internet, the internet of cultures and sub-cultures, the dark internet and so many others.
I feel we are still in the early stages of the internet — relatively elite, billion users who like to believe that the internet has rules, where we know UPPER CASE is rude and we are easy with our digital slang. Its easy to think of the internet then as a relatively calm forum, some unruly elements here and there but overall a place that can be open and peaceful forever.
I think we are wrong.
The next billion users are going to be a mass billion, driving the shape and nature of the popular and mainstream information internet - facebook, twitter, youtube. As the internet connects to the hinterlands of the world, we are going to see another kind of billion connected and that billion is going to be crude, raw, earthy, passionate — creating a “mass internet” and bringing to our stark attention the kind of world we really live in. That our society is not the really just our friends and family but a mass of possibly illiberal, local views. The next version of the information and social internet is almost bound to be ugly, seeing that the mass of people especially in populous parts of the developing world are still very ethnic, deeply-rooted, conservative to a local identity and as such are vulnerable to a crisis of a local identity — a crisis of custom or community. Not that the rest of the world is immune from these crises but what’s different is the sheer number.
This internet is not really built for balanced debate and equivocal, nuanced views but is driven instead by sheer numbers, and this is getting hard to control and manage without regulation.
Before we had the internet, we had the press, and it was relatively simple for a mass leader’s voice to be amplified to many by controlling or managing few information sources. Media was used intelligently, articulately even by leaders good and bad. Some chose to shut it down and have a state-sponsored vacuum. It was possible.
Today, the forces between leaders and masses have equalized. It’s harder for public leaders and governments to manage information flow, avoid personal attack and rise above the debate. This is going to get much, much worse.
Is this necessarily good? or just plain bad? I can’t really say. All I know is that it’s unmanageable. Especially in populous, semi-literate countries, its easy to spark debate, rage and conflagrations over almost any kind of issue. The very power of the internet — its virality becomes its death. Governments routinely shut down cellular communications in areas with unrest. How long before we see almost daily unrest in various parts of the nation flaring up over the internet? Twitter and facebook are platforms that can topple governments today. How long before we start to see them being regulated? Or Banned.
I hope I am wrong but If I was a leader , even a liberal one - I would see no other way to govern a nation but to manage the internet. Shut down mainstream parts of it where people connect and can address each other without barrier — and keep alive only essential parts of the internet- the commerce, the research and so on.
We liberals will scream ourselves hoarse about rights of free speech and debate heatedly about how history has shown that muzzling of the people has never worked. How its important to let people speak freely to let a nation breathe. As the mass internet grows and we start to see the ugliness parade on all our popular feeds, I am afraid we will start to feel differently.
Sometimes its hard to remember there never has been an internet in our planet’s history. And I am beginning to think there will never be.

Talking to your 20 year old about Careers — is it time for the Learn-Earn-Learn career?

I was talking to my 20 year old niece -an Economics grad about “career advice” and “job opportunities” and I surprised myself. Surprised myself with how boring I sounded to myself. And it got me thinking — this is old hat. The world is going to be very different for a 30-year old in 2030.
I thought about how much the world has changed for India in two decades. And how much more so for skilled Indians — Lawyers, Doctors, Engineers (software engineers), MBAs and even artists. There has been economic hyper-growth for skilled Indians who are seeing their incomes double every 3–6 years. And it might jump even more in the next two decades. With it has come so much economic freedom and financial security — yes even for the notoriously doomsday predictors — incomes are far outstripping expenses, and if you net out the asset building mentality (read houses, gold and more houses), most Indians born north of 1980 are / will be very well-off (relative to what they grew up with). In no small measure, due to the fact that for most Indians, beyond a certain point they remain relatively frugal in their spending.
What then of our children? our 15-year olds and our 20-year olds? Do they have to go get hyper-educated and then “build a career” like we had to?
For the large part, building a career=do meaningless work for the first five years of your career, find your sweet spot, earn money, buy a house, get married and then earn some money, hit vice-president or senior consulting physician or and then earn some more? Until you pretty much hit a wall of cholesterol and stress and general irrelevance before you go into hyper-retirement consisting of chess, arthritis and the odd mentee meeting.
I think we can do better than that when we talk to our 20 year olds. And there are a few reasons why they are different from us.
A) Zero Drive to buy homes: One of the biggest drivers for a lot people so far has been the ability to own a living space. Today, there already exist multiple homes in the family, and they just don’t know the ownership scarcity that we grew up used to. They don’t have to have the “home EMI” or even if they do, I doubt they will maximizing square footage. What this really means that notions of “security” are changing. From assets to… ? something.
B) Hey, Look at my Ferrari ..errr.. NOT really: We don’t realize how used to we have gotten to ‘competing’ for respect and how old hat its gotten. These guys have grown up with relative wealth and more importantly, their entire ‘social status’ set has moved online. Its far easier (or tougher?) to carve your niche and gain respect with your own life story than it used to be.
C) Its about Skills: I think peer respect has moved from a paradigm of “what do you own?” to “what can you do?” or “what are you world-class at?”. Being an accountant or an investment banker just isn’t cool enough any more. Coding, Science, Engineering, Psychology, Photography, Design, — so much to choose from — and why choose only one?
Something else is happening in a parallel universe.
Learning has gotten ridiculously accessible and democratic. Average students are getting into good universities — there are enough seats to go around, as long as you know the tricks. The elitism of red-bricked premier education is not as intimidating as it used to be.
From remote learning programs to short duration, high intensity courses from good institutions, learning doesn’t have to be the long decadal grind that it used to be. I believe its a lot easier to super-specialise and I also believe there is more of a market for niche skills than there used to be and lot easier to earn money deploying just skills as opposed to a resume.
So what then?
Career — In a nutshell, I don’t see careers as defined as long accumulation of skills experience and reputation as being as relevant going forward. (Caveat: hard skill guys — Lawyers, Doctors? A scarier thought is what if the caveat doesn’t apply!) I think the new age Gen-Z “worker” won’t really work as an employee who will “invest” years into an organization to earn her equity and respect by climbing the intricate hierarchy we built and nurtured.
It might instead evolve to a cycle of deepening skills in a “Learn- Earn- Learn” cycle with a working life of say 40–45 years being split over 5–7 year bursts of earning in various organizations, roles, ventures interrupted by a few months of deep learning or sabbaticals.
Its sounds blasphemous to say but money and career is not going to drive the next generation employee in countries like ours. Human labour is going to be a lot, lot more valuable than we imagine it today. Among other things, happiness, learning and freedom are going to count for a lot more.
So what are you telling 20 year olds today?

The way we think about death is broken.

Actually, the way we think about life is broken. How many of us think about death and life anyway? Why should we after all? Isn’t death inevitable? Why spend time thinking about something that is going to happen any way? Besides, we aren’t wired to think about death. We push it away. We are wired to think about life. About survival. Which is why we may be missing the bus on an incredibly important thing.
Once you get out of your teens, and arrive at reasonably stable identity for yourself, your mad rush, in the next four or five decades or so (for the majority anyway) is to fighting the fear of running out. You work very hard to provide for your family and yourself for a time period that is damn near infinite in your mind. If there are children in your family, you are almost certain to feel the responsibility of providing for them and their children. To put it bluntly, you are feeling the pressure of creating wealth for an infinite period. Which means you will push the daily and final boundary of your productive life.
It is possibly natural to think that way. It’s possibly also very foolish.
Is there another way to think about this? Yes, and its been around since mankind itself. At least the theory exists. Practiced by a rare few.
Choose your time to die. At a certain age.At a certain level of physical health.There are a million ways to think about it. But choose.
And once you are past that age, why wait for an illness or a truck or a fall down the stairs. why not choose a day? Spend it with friends and family. Have a glass of wine. Go to sleep. Go away laughing. I know I have decided. I know I need to let everyone important know. But I need this to be my choice. I need to be in control if I can.
I have been spending some time with seniors of late — and it shocks me how much rationality can erode with age. People I have known all my life seem to change with age. Some literally fall off a cliff after a certain age. A lot of fear seems to set in. A lot of “irrationality”. These are of course qualitative judgments and there is so much to correct for. But one thing is blindingly obvious — I cannot take my mind for granted.
I think I was prepared for physical frailty. But seeing myself thirty years on, I am shocked at how much I am going to degenerate even in relatively good health. It is like all the inconsistencies and eccentricities, which I smooth over and manage today to present a reasonably consistent personality, are going to be magnified and find explosive expression. I am not going to be able to trust myself to stay on as a being of relative reason.
It’s a shattering realization.
And I know now I need to plan for it. And the more I think about it, the happier I find myself. In fact, I find oddly clarifying. Like someone with a terminal illness, it makes suddenly every day quite valuable. It makes me think about my self-inflicted cages. It makes me think about breaking them.
The cage of money
For long, I seem to have thought of money as a surrogate for how smart I am. And like most people, I want to be very smart. Of course I have rationalized it a thousand different ways. But at the end of the day I know there’s a thrill about earning money and power. It’s like beating other people to win a video game. And what’s funny is how much I am going to give up for it.
Now, If I choose to live a certain number of years, I need to have X(money I want to spend every year) x Y(Number of years I plan to live). It’s a simple equation. Like fuel left in a racing car at the end of a race, anything left is pointless. For people with healthy children, I don’t know if I am simplifying but it seems to me that it isn’t our job to provide for their whole lives. The first couple of decades ought to be enough.
For many of you who haven’t ever done a financial planning exercise, every planner worth his salt will ask you to put down your life goals on a piece of paper. And he will strive very hard to get you to a finite number for wealth, however ridiculous it may be.
It’s a healthy exercise for every one. It also asks you to assume a certain age. I think everyone says eighty in the sheet. Like thinking about anything more may come across as greedy and anything less may be just too morbid for polite conversation. It’s a daft thing to do and not a little worrying that these are the only transactional conversations we actually have about death.
I now find that if I shave a decade off the assumption of eighty years as my life time, my present life gets dramatically easier. How about five? Or what If I stay at eighty? Even if I stay with eighty years, I find that I now need no “buffer” for those awkward I-am-now-past-eighty years. And what it does is lift the pressure. Like exhaling a breath I have held in for too long.
The Cage of Time
This cage is much more closer than money. It probably afflicts fewer but it binds you tighter; till you can’t breathe — the need to be productive and doing something. Or die of guilt. It’s a legacy of the scarcity economy we grew up in, drilling into our minds from a very early age the virtue of being purposeful, preferably economically purposeful. It’s scarier to give up for we don’t really know what to do with time if not work and clean and rearrange.
It’s as if it would reveal us for who we really are –lazy, somnolent asses who are happy to consume packaged art and packaged food in perpetuity. I think we do ourselves an injustice but my point is that we have an incredible opportunity to find out what we really love and could create or experience.
I fantasize all of us at a small cozy pub at the end of our lives, sitting by the fireside sipping ale and raucously telling each other our most fantastic experiences on this planet. I think that’s the metric for time I would like to use. Of course that’s just me.
These are just two cages but there are many, many more.
So that’s it? The secret to life is planning your death? Of course there are unanswered hows, what-ifs and why-nots. My point is that thinking about death will make you think about life itself. And it’s a long deep delicious thought. We have the time for it.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

What are you getting paid for?

Organizations are made of two kinds of people: People who are compensated for Competency and People, who are compensated for change.

How am I defining a competency person? People who define their contribution by their functional competency and make themselves valuable by showing improvements in their job every year.
These guys will turn up and say at the end of the year “We executed our plan well and clocked 22% improvement /growth. We’ll do this better next year and am confident of 20% gains again. I am a top performer.”

Change drivers? People who don’t define their contribution as their competency but instead their ‘delta’ value as people in a business that needs to get better.  These guys will say “well, I changed our working model and we got 20% growth. Next year, we should go up/down/sideways in the chain and see if we can change things there to get 40% next year. I am your best bet to do this and I am a top performer.”

What’s different in the two is an ability to step back from your competency and work across and question surrounding elements to drive the business better (as opposed to just his process).

Let’s take this case for a sales person. A competent sales person will manage his territory well, nurture his channel relationships and keep them interested and their working capital locked in and growing. Occasionally, he will turn a blind eye to his dealers shipping product off into another sales managers territory. Hey – its not his fault that the sales guy there isn’t running a tight ship.

A change driver sales guy will do all this, but he will keep trying out new ways to sell more. He will say ‘can we bill my biggest customer directly? It will bring us more business.” Or he will motivate his dealer to open two more stores and get more organized. One of our sales guys set up a crude consumer referral program for 300 key consumers in his territory and it was years before we even got around to finding out.  We are now considering scaling it up to a 2 Mn $, 50,000 consumer program.

HBR has this to say about change agents  “ People who bridged disconnected groups and individuals were more effective at implementing dramatic reforms, while those with cohesive networks were better at instituting minor changes.”

I love that. And if you think for a second about how and why change agents are bridging disconnected individuals  - its with a purpose to drive dramatic change to improve business as a whole– not just a sole function or a competency. Would it matter then if this person were HR or IT or Legal?  Wouldn’t you want this person doing similar things at more senior levels for bigger impact? And then, wouldn’t you, by definition, be paying and promoting this person more? 

So, what needs to change? Our communication of a ‘role’ to a potential new hire. Stop giving Job descriptions and start giving out change targets.

If you are an employee who’s wondering why promotion cycles are skipping you, ask your self what have you fundamentally changed for the business? Am not talking about what’s gotten better – am sure your collateral is now better designed, and reaches sales teams at least it in the middle of selling season (as opposed to after its over). What have you changed? Do your sales teams now have a way to get their collateral printed and shipped themselves?

Let's talk about impact on compensation.

Too many good people wonder why they don't get promoted enough or get high appraisal ratings often enough. And I can understand that. Here is some change related perspective - you don't get rated highly for just doing your job well. Even if it is very well.

You are still high on only the competency line. For you to score and score big, we need to demonstrate change. Purposeful, directed , positive change. Change that means the system works with less dependence on people. Or lesser people. Or has an expanded growth boundary.

While this is almost certainly a better paid skill set, it is totally okay to not want to invest the effort in driving change necessarily. It doesn't mean you are not valued. It doesn't mean you can't do it. It may be that you are not motivated to.  You may be investing the delta effort in your personal life with your family or your interests. Just to manage expectations though, you will be called a successful performer but probably not a top talent at work. And that's okay. You are being paid for keeping the lights on. Someone has to.

Disclaimer: All the images shown are illustrative - and not meant to be necessarily the right examples of what's higher order and what isn't. Apply them to a situation of your choice and see where you bucket yourself.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Put them out in the sun….

This is going to sound ridiculous, but it happened. Apologies for the long story, But I am reliving this as I tell this and I still panic. 

14 years ago, back when I was a 22 year old garment chemical salesman in a small company, I managed to win an account with a notoriously demanding French MNC. It was a reasonable account but was prestigious for our small company
. In the day of crowded, smelly sweatshops, their manufacturing plant had rolling landscaped lawns, outstanding work conditions for their uniformed workers and a demanding but fair management. 

The plant head was this tall handsome Frenchman, Guillaume who would ask salesmen for the chemical formula for the products they sold. (I am a polymer engineer, and I knew enough to sound intelligent - He said to me "if your company had hired bright people like you earlier, we would have been a loyal client by now".)

It was a fun visit - I got friendly with all the plant engineers and even ran into the Guillaume's super glamorous wife, Louise - she looked ten feet tall to me - with high cheekbones and gorgeous clothes. I heard she handled the front end of merchandise and schmoozed with clients all over Europe. She looked the part for sure. 

Anyways, two weeks after they started buying our product,  I got a call from my GM - "Prameet, you have to run to Guillaume's plant right now. He has a problem and he doesn't want anyone else but you". 

I didn't know whether to feel flattered or sentenced but I knew my job was on the line. I raced to the plant where the mood was grim. Guillaume came out to meet me holding yards of printed fabric "Your product has ruined an important shipment for me! this fabric stinks!" and by god, it did. It stank of a combination of rotten eggs and dying fish. "I have got a 100,000 units of this - " "Is this the guy from that damn company?" Louise stormed in - cigarette dangling and as tall as a skyscraper "I am going to SUE you guys - I am losing 900,000 Euros on this shipment alone! Get out and fix this or you are not going to leave this plant." 

I made my way out to the massive shop floor  - where all the equipment was shut and silent (The worst sight to see on a shopfloor) with yards of stinking fabric everywhere like some sort of horrible germ attack. The tech guys wouldn't even make eye contact with me. I got them to start running the machines so I could tinker around. Was like a death row request. 

I walked around the shop floor for the four loneliest hours of my life. Changing temperatures, chemical dosages and whatever else I could try. I must have looked a sight muttering to myself, looking under
equipment runs, taking pH at different points. And the fabric line just kept humming. And stinking. It was late afternoon and it started to finally to get better, and the smell had come down to a mildly unpleasant odour instead of knocking you out. I still didn't know what I got right, but at least something was working. 

I met Guillaume and explained my theory and what I had done. He was a tech guy at heart, and in spite of himself he got interested in my abstract explanations of how polymers cross-link and some times don't. I actually made it sound that it was because he was using a GOOD product that he had process issues and his tech guys and his equipment needed to be calibrated to it. In the state I was, I believed it myself.

But he ended by saying "okay I understand this and think we can make it work from here. But Louise will kill me if don't salvage what we have already made. The shipment has to leave tomorrow and it takes three days to make all this again".

It was then that I said it - the six words that were either going to be genius or put me in prison. 

"Put them out in the sun." 

He blinked at me.  "Wot!" 

I don't know what made me say it - the green sunny lawns that I could see from the windows probably. But I knew it was the dumbest thing I could have said. 

Promising a do-or-die simple solution instead of getting him to re-run the fabric with some satisfying changes in process or dosage - which may or may not have worked but at least would have looked intelligent - is tech support suicide. 

I decided to push on and built a whole reasoning behind it and to my amazement, he agreed. The next half hour saw about 20 workers scurrying out with hundreds of yards of fabric and laying it end to end across the beautiful lawns.  I stood there and supervised this ridiculous operation trying to look calm and cool and like this was an everyday thing but honestly I was in danger of collapsing from the panic I was feeling. 

In the midst of all this, Louise came out and her eyes went wide in shock "what the fuck are you doing?" I began to splutter before Guillaume explained to her very quickly in French that I had a solution and was trying something that could just save them from their irate customer. 

She looked like we were trying an African tribal ritual to save them. I guess it was a measure of her desperation that she didn't throw me and Guillaume out (At this point, Guillaume was suffering from a version of the Stockholm syndrome  - we were well beyond a client-salesman relationship now. We were saving the world together). 

She shrugged "I don't believe this. I don't care - you have two hours to try whatever the fuck you want. After that I am calling your company management"and stormed back into her office. 

There hasn't been any other day where I willed the hot Indian sun to be as hot as it could get. I just sat there watching the fabric gleaming whitely in the sun. I didn't have the guts to walk out and smell it to see if it was getting better. If a miracle was going to happen, I wasn't about to review its progress every 20 minutes. Best to give God some time and space. 

Guillaume couldn't take the stress and skulked back to his office to read up a couple of chemistry books and smoke his pipe.

Two hours later, Louise walked out - "how is it looking?" I had no heart to say anything "why don't you look for yourself?" trying to look as assured as I could. 

She sent a woman scurrrying out to get a patch of the fabric. Guillaume walked out as the woman came back. My heart hammered like a dam as Louise snatched the fabric from her and sniffed it.  

"Its still smelling!" 

Guillaume took it from her and sniffed it deeply. Paused and broke into a broad smile "C'monnnn louise! its not!" and turned to me beaming. "You were right". 

I just shrugged. I might have looked calm or whatever but honestly I just couldn't say anything. I just wanted to collapse. I took the fabric to smell it for myself but honestly I can't say if I smelled anything or not. I had smelled a ton of that fabric day and my nasal sense was dead as a doornail. 

All I could feel was relief and a feeling that I needed to get on my motorcycle and ride back before I passed out. I  stopped at a pay phone on my way back and called my GM who was waiting for my call "It's solved. No problem any more. They are ordering some more product" and went home and crashed for 12 straight hours.