Thursday, December 13, 2012

A square peg in a round hole



...of clich├ęs and weasel words


My bank manager has been a very unhappy man for a long time. Yes, the same guy who has ‘I am not at my desk’ on his mobile phone voice mail. He has now become a good friend of mine because I empathize with him. I listen to him and I try to offer solutions to his (many) problems. He has often told me that he feels he is from a different generation. Much to my chagrin though, he insists on saying that he is from my generation. “Saar, I am from your generation,” he says in a desperate bid to find solace even though he is a good 10 years older than me.

His current problem is that he doesn’t quite fit in with the young and modern crowd at the bank. The young people at his bank are all fresh out of management schools – known as B-schools in these parts. When I hear that term I always ask: “Arre, I don’t care about those. Where the A-schools?”

I once went to the bank to meet with him and was stunned to see a sea of young faces all around. These young folk looked like Emraan Hashmi, Ranbir Kapoor and Virat Kohli in suit and tie. The poor fellow looked completely out of place in an office full of young people with gel-laden hair, tattoos and eyebrow-piercings. They were fresh, enthusiastic and young people: "dudes" apparently. The bank manager was told recently by one of these young dudes, “You are very old school dude,” to which the manager could only muster, “Arre, what are you talking? I did not go to school only. I worked my way up through the ranks. First you learn your facts and then talk.” 

The kids laughed at him.

That was when he called me. He could not understand the language these kids spoke. “They do not speak English. The other day one of them wanted to kick a few tires. I have no idea why they want to do that,” he said and asked me for help.

So I attended a meeting at the bank to assess the extent of his problems. The manager introduced me as an external reviewer of a project that an Emraan Hashmi lookalike and Virat Kohli lookalike were working on.

After the introductions were over, Hashmi and Kohli launched into a speech on a new consumer product the bank was about to launch. I asked them to describe what the new idea was, what it was all about, what made it unique and different and what it would do for the Bank. Four simple questions, one would have thought. No?

Hashmi started off first. He said “We had lots of ideas but we needed to socialize them and workshop this holistically. We started with a blank slate and put in the hard yards. We needed to first chew the fat a bit. All ecosystem synergies were looked at synergistically before we decided that this one idea had legs.”

At this point, Kohli jumped in with his own verbiage: “This is a win-win proposition. If we can foster key relationships, we can create a paradigm shift and score goals. But for that we need to wrap our heads around this and be on the same page. However, we first needed to be proactive and blue sky this, for it won’t be a walk in the park for us. But this idea will certainly separate the men from the boys, the wheat from the chaff as long as we walk the talk. Because, unless we aim for the skies, we will shoot ourselves in the foot.”

I was already exhausted by then. So I put my hand up, stopped them and said I had not understood any of what they had said.

Hashmi said, “I see where you are coming from,” to which our bank manager jumped out of his seat and thundered, “Arre, how do you know where he is put up and why does it mater? Anyhow, he comes from Powai only.”

Clearly, we had a problem.

But Kohli ignored the interjection and carried on, “Look, all we need is to pick the low hanging fruit. For that we need to get a few runs on the board, push past first base and look at benchmarking this gig. We will be happy to loop you in and keep you engaged.”

I still had no idea what they were talking about and so asked for clarification. “Could you tell me what exactly this product is and what it will do?”

Kohli continued, “Oh that’s easy. We are starting with a clean slate on this one. All we need is a few quick wins under our belt. From then on, all we need is to burn the candle at both ends, live it, breathe it 24-7-365 and get past first base. There are a few issues to iron out but we will certainly attempt to close the loop in a key manner.”

“Oh yes I do understand all of that,” I said, at which point my bank manager immediately fell at my feet and asked, “You really do?” 

I smiled at him, looked at Hashmi and Kohli and asked for clarifications on what they were talking about. I said “I know you guys are talking about something important but I do not know what it is.” Then, in a bid to join them, I asked, “Can you give me a thirty five thousand feet view of what this idea is all about?”

Hashmi said, “Oh that is easy. We have been underperforming as a unit. We decided to right-size our operations, wear out our shoe leathers and step up to the plate. At the end of the day, when rubber hit road, we decided that we did not have the bandwidth to do anything other than to stick to our knitting. We stuck to our core-competencies while we thought out of the box. We had to tear down our silos, and harvest fresh ideas. We developed a go-forward strategy, managed expectations and developed an open-door approach to synergise thoughts. We leveraged all talents and brought all minds to the plate. We had put many ideas to the basement and we left many others in the parking lot. But we put a stake in the ground with a winner. It has a wonderful value proposition.”

I was getting highly exasperated with this excruciatingly painful diarrhea of weaselwords. These two boys were extremely well spoken and well dressed (and well paid too). But they also appeared to be good at saying a lot without saying anything at all. By now, I was beginning to develop new respect my bank manager. “Yes, all that is fine, but I didn’t ask how. I asked what?”  I shouted, and for good measure I added with a smile, “This is the third time I am asking what is it that you are attempting to do... and as you know from your B-school notes, generally, three strikes and you are out.”

Kohli jumped in at this point, rolled up the sleeves of his crisp, white, neatly-ironed Pierre Cardin shirt and said, “See, as we said, we needed to address the elephant in the room. We were not right sized. We needed to level-set expectations for we had far too many chiefs and not too many Indians. We hired a change-agent and made him the go-to guy to run with this gig. We empowered him fully and convinced ourselves that he would not drop the ball. We had a hot potato in our hands. So we carefully looked at benchmarks and best practice methodologies to ballpark this. We also carried out due diligence and applied the 80-20 rule to many other ideas that struck us from left-field. We then decided to home run this one. We have built in redundancies for we don’t want to be thrown under a bus and be caught on the hop.”

I had had enough. I said to Kohli and Hashmi, “I don’t think you have compared apples with apples on this product. This idea has to be moth-balled. There, I have declared all my cards. Let's touch base later. We may need to take the rest of this offline guys,” and got up suddenly.

I looked at the bank manager and told him that he was, unfortunately, a ‘square peg in a round hole’ and left.

-- Mohan (@mohank)

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Motivation cycles and rhythms...


I do not like intensely motivated people who get up every day at 5am to go for a jog or a gym session. These are the sorts of people who use the phrase “24x7x365” a lot in everyday conversations even with their drivers. You know what this kind of person would do that is most irritating? At a critical juncture in a work meeting they’d stretch their calf muscles and squeeze their face in agony. One of the people around the table would inevitably ask, “Everything all right?” to which the calf stretcher would often say: “Oh, nothing much, really. I overdid my run today,” pretend as though everyone else in the room wanted to hear the rest of the story and continue, “I should have stopped at the 33 kilometre mark, but continued on to complete 35 kilometres. That probably did it for me.”

That sort of intensely motivated person... The world is full of these types of people. 

This sort of person brings such supreme levels of motivation, drive, determination, energy, commitment and focus to everything they do, whether it is running, gymming, work, studies or even the organisation of the office football competition. They give the anal in analytical a new meaning. This sort of person scares me more than Himesh Reshamaiyya. This sort of person appears to have no imperfections at all.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a bit of a runner and a gym fiend too. I too get up at 5am and there are work meetings when I get severe cramps in my calf muscles. But I go through cycles of intensity in everything I do. There are phases when I am intensely focussed on an outcome and will work incredibly hard to get there. For example, November (2012) was a tough month for me from a work perspective. It was also a month when there was much non-work nonsense that was swirling around too.

However, what I did first in November was to cut out much of the obvious distractions (Twitter and Facebook, for example). We live in an age of monumental distractions; each with its own customizable alert tone or vibration. If an incoming email doesn’t compel you to reply immediately, even as you run on the treadmill, your Facebook will let you know, through yet another unique alert tone, that someone liked the silly picture you put up just a few seconds before you hit the gym. Most of us are almost always on the losing side of the distraction battle that today’s electronic media has with us and imposes on us.

In November, I defined my purpose and goal rather clearly and succinctly. More importantly, I was able to rid myself of debilitating negativities that tend to make the ‘calf stretcher’ look better than they actually are. For me, at times like these, I also work on shortening the list of things I do rather than lengthening; which is a temptation because there is just so much to do. I prioritize my goals rather brutally. Being productive is not about doing everything. It is about doing a few things really well. I write these down as a reminder and only focus on these.

All of this delivered the focus that enabled me to get through that work-month... and more. I was productive even though I put in many 3-hour sleep nights and 15-hour work days. My gym work and my running suffered. I had no sore calf muscles to draw attention to at work meetings. And I did not organize any office football competition. But I got through the month even though it was an imperfect month when seen through the lens of my personal fitness.

Now this is an imperfection that the intensely motivated person perhaps does not have. They focus on a few things and do them really well; they drive these to within an inch of perfection.

I am not like that. I exist in what I call ‘motivation cycles’. I like that rhythm, that imperfection and that lack of continuous focus to everything I do; and I do have many interests that ebb and flow over time.

I go through periods of lethargy. A very good friend of mine refers to this by asking me whether I am in the ‘fit or fat’ part of my fitness motivation cycle. I go through similar cycles in all other pursuits of mine; professional and otherwise.

I do normally get up at 5am and, after sending out a few work emails, I am either out on a run or I hit the gym for at least an hour and a half before I head out to work. However, when there are other priorities – such as my work-intense November – I am able to switch priorities quite easily. I easily slip into the trough-phase of my fitness regimen. I remember there were days in November when I would get up at 5am – having only slept at  2am – with the intention of going for a run. I would wash my face, don my running clothes and stealthily climb back into bed without even a semblance of guilt; I soaked it.

Even after my intense November work-phase concluded, I just could not bring myself to get into that gym routine for a week. Perhaps it was the mental exhaustion caused by work. Or perhaps I had reached a burn-out point. I just had to get out of the trough; the valley of the Sine curve I existed in. I knew I would. I had done that before too.

At times like these I rarely beat myself up with a wet towel; I build resolve. I accept, embrace, understand and cope with the resultant guilt. I do not deny the sloth. I grow determination instead.

I then monitor the return carefully until the endorphins slowly take over again. There is a process to this. I maintain records in this period; records of how much I run each day, or how far I cycled, or what weight I pressed on the bench press. I am most cautious and deliberate at times like these without beating myself up; I try and identify the reason for the sloth (usually mental exhaustion or other work  personal priorities).  And I am more honestly observant of myself at these points in time than at any other point in time on the motivation curve. The most important step in this journey is monitoring the return process honestly, deliberately and slowly. It works. Always.

Especially if you are not one of those intensely motivated people who like to complain about their insanely taut calf muscles at meetings...

--Mohan (@mohank)