Thursday, July 24, 2008

Vantage point

We do know cerebrally that all of life & all knowledge is interconnected. However, it is sometimes the silos which protect us from the vast stormy seas out there and we take refuge. A non-marketing person like me hears the word ‘positioning’ and decides to sleepwalk through the class because it is a marketing subject. I don’t need to know more than enough to answer my exam. Or do I?

Some random unconnected cells of my brain decided to talk to each other – so many things around were pushing them to make the awkward social contact. Some of those I am about to write about.

A certain company recruits some greenhorns and tells them that at the end of the one year long road, they will be sent away to the northern most populated country in the world. A few harmless jokes about the inexpressiveness of the people & the long dark winter are enough for those greenhorns to kick up a big fuss and not want to go there. Then the company wisens up and takes a different position for the next set. They are told that they will get to go to the land of a thousand lakes if & only if they drive along the one year road very well and arrive at its end successfully. It would be their reward for a job well done, to go to the magical land of Moomin and corporate Himalayas. This set is suddenly dreamy eyed about that very same land. It promised adventure & excitement, but more importantly, going there will be a symbol of success, of having met expectations, of having done well. It meant validation & confidence. It was the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow – it made them want to run towards it. It was a goal to strive for, not a bump in the road their predecessors thought they must brace for. Just changing the rhetoric and nothing else changed the meaning of the experience.

It’s the same reason I have always loved Tom Sawyer. The little kid understood the power of positioning & got his fence painted & managed to get paid by other people doing his work without lifting a finger himself.

It’s like society collectively positioning marriage to women. The ring, the party, the status. ‘You will never be an old maid’. The impact of marriage on an individual woman can be debated endlessly. But it is mere positioning that makes little girls dream about princes, white weddings & picket fences.

Positioning is an art for anyone who wants to sell – products, services, ideas, thoughts, ideologies… It is about knowing those who you sell to, knowing what it is that you are selling and knowing how to marry the two. It is to know which parts to light up and where to let the shadows fall. The simplistic & the pessimistic could call it manipulation. I think it is genius. If all of life is a jagged surface, then positioning is to find the smooth strip where to land your copter on.

This makes me think about something organizations do. Faulty & incomplete as it is, it’s common colloquial practice in organizations to segregate work/jobs as strategic or operational. Consciously, we do understand that planning & execution are too tightly linked & looped to have a real dividing line. But habit & ease have made it commonplace to use this distinction.
Ofcourse it’s true that operational work is as important to the success of an organization, but how many of us aspire to do it? Does it have the glamour of thinking ahead, thinking different, being pioneers in our own way? If operational means mechanical means routine means boring – is it sensible to allow the nomenclature to exist? What is the cost of inaction? If most of the employees will do operational jobs – can an organization allow them to think of their jobs as mundane & bring only part of their minds & hearts to work? If all employees are internal customers, is the faulty positioning cutting into customer delight or in this case employee engagement?
If work needs to be broken down to make it intelligible, divisible & doable, is the parameter of operational & strategic the optimal one? The work remaining the same, we need to find new eyes to look at it. So what is the solution? I think it is not merely about a cosmetic change of name. I don’t know what it is, but it will be one of those Eureka answers – simple & beautiful.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

These are a few of my favourite Finns...

I am the kind of person who takes an immediate liking to something, and also sometimes an immediate disliking. I have been wrong so, so many times in my first impressions that it doesn’t even embarrass me anymore. I have been advised, and I have goaded myself to fight this natural instinct to rate anything too quickly. I work on that, I think I am getting better… really slowly, really really slowly.

One thing that I was NOT wrong about in my first instinctive reaction was how I felt about the Finns. Not many people would agree to the epithet ‘cute’, but that is the first word that comes to my mind. People might find the Finns a little too straight, but for me it validates my own natural tendency and like here begets like. I liked them when I first walked into this country (actually, I must pat myself on the back. I had no opinion of the Finns when I first visited… I actually formed the opinion on my real arrival to Finland which happened to be the 2nd trip. It might not count because I probably made up my mind on the first weekend but trying to use positive reinforcement here so please let’s just go along).

Here are some things that I see around and find adorable….

Escalators are for kissing… Finns are not big on public display of affection (atleast when sober). But there is something exceptional about escalators, especially those from a subway platform. It’s on those that they feel this strong urge to kiss their partners…. Just something I see :)

How they say ‘plus’ before saying the temperature as if it is such a rarity :). Like my favourite one, it’s plus 40 in Delhi in summer. Well it could not have been minus 40 right? I am so used to the minus being out of the ordinary that I would say it’s 10 degrees, not plus 10… In my head it is the Finnish twist to the metric system. The default is that temperature will be below freezing, so if it is ‘plus’ it deserves a super special mention. It’s like we Indians saying, it was MINUS 2 at night in Chandigarh… Perspectives, perspectives…

Summer holiday (not an exclusive Finnish concept, but I saw it here first)…. The legitimacy, the expectation, the build up, the universal applicability… not restricted to children or those not ‘serious’ about their careers… it is such a cute question ‘What will you do on your summer holiday’...

The amazing paradoxical combination of humility and nationalism... They care enough about protecting their language & making everything available in it to translate almost any foreign language book in it. They hold concepts like sauna, summer holiday, Lapland in almost religious reverence. But yet are so humble & self deprecating about their country. ‘Ofcourse must be tough to come here after living in India’, ‘ofcourse no one wants to holiday in Finland’… how beautiful is the mix and how seamless…

Baby hair… Even grown up Finns have baby hair, soft and downy… I love it….

How fast they walk… ok I admit it, all the Finnish grannies taking a leisurely stroll walk faster than me going to work….I was initially a bit surprised, even tried to be competitive. No, every single person walking a kilometer behind me will NOT overtake me in the next 5 minutes… I tried, really did…But eventually, I gave up… they walk fast… period…

Talk Finnish to everyone at first… yes I thought it a bit strange at first. Shop assistants, bus drivers etc all talk to you in Finnish even when you are so obviously not a Finn… puzzled me to begin with, is this their way of saying that you should learn Finnish if you live in this country? But no, I realized eventually, it’s not that at all. When they see you, the colour of your skin and hair and eyes doesn’t strike them, they don’t judge or classify you. They just talk in the way most natural to them, they just talk in the language they know best. They talking Finnish to me is not their way of saying ‘hey keep up or get out’… it just tells me they feel natural and comfortable around me and don’t pigeonhole me anywhere…

Does it make you want to know them?

Friday, May 16, 2008

That elusive thing called truth....

Somethings need to be simplified & put into a visual metaphor before we understand it; especially if it’s something that needs to be commonly understood by a large mass of people. The most obvious example of that is God & religion. At some deeper level many people understand that Sita did not really go through the Agni Pariksha, it is a metaphor for her trials and tribulations & probably was a figurative rather than literal trial by fire. The Red Sea probably did not part in the way we visualize it; it’s probably a way to say that the higher powers collaborate to help those who are righteous – so much so that the Sea was parted to let them pass. But on a surface level, we believe these stories and repeat them to our children and make them a part of hereditary wisdom. These are powerful, visual, memorable but possibly metaphorical stories which widen our eyes, fill our hearts with wonder and the warmth of being part of or descendents of something big and important.

One way to look at it is that human beings need heroes, need to believe in that grandeur and larger than life scope that stories give us. Most human lives are so insignificant in the large scheme of things and we are too smart to not realize it. These stories connect us to something bigger, grander, more important than us.

But that is not really the point of this blog. If mythology has many purposes, one of them being the glory of human existence, my thoughts today are on another point. The point is, metaphors help us digest the abstract. It’s everywhere around us – organizational charts, business models, family trees, maps… these are the obvious ones. But my thoughts lead me to another kind of metaphor – these are not pictoral but they are crystal clear in our heads. Some home truths. For example, the Hindu belief in Karma. It has many parallels in other religions and cultures – ‘do unto others….’, ‘as you sow….’ etcetera. I just think it is also a metaphorical way of connecting a little too directly, things which may have a more vague connection. Can the effect of one bad deed to one bad outcome actually be isolated? Or is it something convenient for society to believe, just to scare people into behaving well? Or is it something that as an aggregate for society is true, that too many people doing too many bad things will usually bring bad outcome for a lot of people. But can we cerebrally ever be sure - and I say cerebrally, not by faith or belief or intuition – that we reap exactly what we sow? I take this only as an example. If you think about it, there are so so many things which are linear at first sight but on closer thought, a lot more vague.

I have a story which illustrates how the incidentals tamper with the truth. I am 12 years old and there is a practical science class where we are boiling water to see that it boils exactly at 100 degree centrigrade. Well you know what – it doesn’t! I felt so shocked – betrayed almost – when the textbook says 100 degrees without any ambiguity how could it possibly be boiling at 104 degrees? Well the teacher said something about atmospheric pressure and purity of water blah blah blah… but in my mind it was clear. Even the textbooks cheat us. They make it simple so we can digest it. Sometimes maybe the information is not important enough for us to be exact. But we can never lose sight that the information is probably not exact.

The linearity of life is an imaginary line. It’s the line marking the north pole…if you go there you will know it keeps shifting a bit. What is easy to understand need not be the truth, it is just the truth told in comic book form.

So what is the point? The point is that the story told is for the lesser mortals. The truth is to be found on my own. The skill is to know where you need to find the truth and where it is enough to be a speck of dust of humanity. When it is enough to eat out of a can and when is it worth the effort to produce my own food with the labour of my hands. What is enough to hear & memorise… and where do I need to go out to find my Holy Grail….

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Art of Work. Work of Art.

Why is it, I have always wondered, that when great work is done, it is not marvelled upon too long? Why is work done with diligence & passion & skill not celebrated too long after it's over? Why is it that what people devote their life, their creativity & the best of themselves is lauded for sometime & then forgotten? It has always troubled me, what will I create that the world will remember & celebrate after I have gone? Why are so many passionate lives spent in vain?

I recently thought of something. There is work & then there is art. For argument sake, let's assume this is top quality work & art we are discussing. Work is celebrated when it is done - it's the flavor of the month. But that celebration does not last long because truly good work is just the foundation for more good work. Thw good work eventually comes into the realm of the ordinary, infact that is probably the test of it's success. Unless it becomes ordinary - it is still not useful. As opposed to that, art may or may not be lauded when it actually is created but is celebrated for aeons after. Work enables something, it is a mean to achieve some other 'end' but art is an end in itself.

The science of making aeroplanes is hardly feted anymore - but planes ferry tens of thousands of people & has obviously brought in tremendous social, cultural & economic growth. If we compare that to a great work of art, say the Mona Lisa - it inspires awe & respect everytime it is looked at or spoken about but has little direct, tangible bearings on humankind in general. The telephone might be indispensable today, but we rarely invoke the spirit of Graham Bell to thank him for his invention. Nokia epitomises human technology & easy user interface for a lot of people - but I am pretty sure that is not the first thought that comes to your mind when the phone rings. On the other hand, a beautiful sculpture, a lilting melody immediately rouses respect for the beauty, the skill, the art, the greatness.

Ofcourse both work & art have their own place in the scheme of things. We can't do without either. Work is needed so people are better off, comfortable, healthy. It's benefits are tangible so it motivates people & stokes ambition. Art is uplifting - it elevates you from the ordinary to the divine, it brings life to a halt for a few seconds, it forms memories & impressions & links us to each other beyond boundaries of generation, time, language & distance. Without art, life would be empty & mechanical.

So if we believe both to be important, what should we devote ourselves to? It depends. The first thing to establish is that work and art need not be mutually exclusive. You could be a hard nosed investment banker by the week and a singer (or atleast a listener) by the weekend. You could be a paper pusher somewhere but choose to spend your evenings decorating your home with 'rangoli'. You could be the most talented actor but still might need to wait tables before your calling is also your living. Secondly, it is also important to remember your orientation & the outcomes of the different kind of work discussed earlier. If you like to see hard results and have the drive to see solid outcomes of your work pretty often - maybe you don't want to spend 3 years of your life perfecting a symphony.

For me - it's a tune in my head & I walk to it. I don't know the whole song but I like what I hear so far....