Does Math Have a Context?

Basic MathThroughout my engineering days as well as professional life, I always liked math. It has a certain cleanliness to it that I could not find elsewhere. Of course there came a point where it took more effort than I intended to put in to understand the intricacies. However, everything I learnt before that is still close to my heart.

So, when I decided to indulge in a newfound passion to create masterpieces for the mobile world, I naturally turned to math. The idea was to create something that would help kids understand, enjoy and excel at basic mathematics. The more I researched in this field, the more confused I got.

I realized that our learning process for different subjects is different. We learn the best when we learn within a context. Language is taught to children using action words which they can easily identify with. Right up to our learning in professional lives, our learning all comes with context. However, math is still taught in a very abstract way.

We are taught that 2+2=4. This is a “fact”. We are taught the process of solving this problem and how to extend it to other problems. However, there is no context. There is no storification. No wonder that children who do not immediately identify the beauty do not really like the subject even if they are good at it. A food for thought article I read from PBS prompted me to write this.

Can anything be done about this? Can math be storified? Can we create a context around basic math to stoke the imagination of children? In fact, does math have a context?

What do the 9-to-whatevers think?

Through The Looking Glass

secretlondonglasses_previewFinally, it happened. I had to get my first pair of reading glasses a couple of months ago. I got the lightest pair I could find given what I had read and heard about comfort levels.

I need them to read and read only. I am absolutely fine watching TV or moving about the house without them. In fact, the lenses distort the perception for anything beyond reading. What surprised me were some of the behaviors I developed.

As time moved along, I realized that I was leaving them on for some other activities. Even though the view was distorted, I was not conscious of this and went about my business. This happened until something made me realize the glasses were on and I removed them.

This got me thinking! What kind of glasses do I carry around with me in life? All perception is necessarily through the lenses of my collective experiences, but what distortions and prejudices have crept in that I am not conscious of? How aware do I need to be to have an open mind?

Applying this to a professional setting, do our built-up biases unconsciously drive our actions and decisions? What needs to happen for us to realize that we are carrying this baggage and for us to unload it? Mind you, this is not about ignoring all previous experiences. This is about identifying and filtering the parts that are appropriate in a given situation. This is about identifying whether the biases are taking us away from where we want to be.

Being aware of this seems to be the first step in building the self-consciousness to identify the biases. This will allow us to be more open to input as well as contrarian evidence. Having a confidante on the team who constantly challenges your leanings and status quo would also help. But, what helps most is our desire to do the right thing.

So, 9-to-whatevers, time to identify the lenses and figure out how to undistort the view? Let me know what you think.

Carrot & Stick

Since time immemorial, I can imagine, there has been a need to motivate people into the “right” behavior.

The first crime ever committed was probably soon after the first settlement was settled and somebody stole a goat from their neighbour.  This resulted in a verdict of “Thou shalt return the goat to thy neighbour; thine goat shall then be cooked for all”.

Punishment was probably easy to implement.  It produced results, was flexible, was (almost) costless and allowed for control of masses within limits of the available technology and philosophy.  However, it must have soon been realized that something was needed to prevent the crimes from occuring in the first place.  Also, there was something needed to make people do good; not just stop them from doing bad.  And this was a gap in the punishment theory.

Bang!  Religion was invented.  Punishment, already invented was included by default.  However, rewards for good behaviour were also included.  This allowed people not only to encourage good behaviour, but also define the parameters of that good behaviour.  Means were very limited though; the rewards could not be distributed freely.  The solution was to provide these rewards in the afterlife (or next life).  This meant no accountability and no feedback.  The required faith also ensured that any gaps in the theory could not be questioned.  A brilliant solution to the motivation problem!

Fast forward to the corporate environment.  The situation does seem to be similar here.  Punishment is easier to implement, easier to execute and requires a lower level of imagination and ability from the managers in-charge.  Loss of employment has always been a credible threat (and remains so today despite the changes in the competitive and HR landscape).

But, how does one motivate good behavior?  This is pretty much a requirement for any organization, not only to thrive, but just to survive in today’s world.  Tools similar to religion were used; lifelong employment, retirement benefits, etc.  This provided the returns on a perennial basis and enabled ‘faith’ and trust in the organization as well as employee.  As the landscape became more competitive, organizations decided they could not afford the largesse.  Individuals also found it more lucrative to sell oneself to the highest bidder in the market.  The lifetime contract was buried once and for all.

So, the conundrum becomes quite accute for the managers of today.  Motivation has become a very complicated field.  Gone are the days when motivation was limited to monetary gains and job security.  Employees as well as organizations concentrate on non-monetary methods.  Also, the expectation of the employees are keeping up with general social trends (they are the same people, are they not!) and demanding instant gratification – and that is if they are not demanding things as incentives before they perform.  Today, the concept of an annual bonus may not make sense due to this.  Even the annual appraisal is being shelved in some brave organizations in favor of a more continuous process.

What is one to do?  In order to succeed themselves, managers (ably led/supported by HR departments), need to break the mold and do things that were unthinkable a few years ago. We need to make the benefits more short term, more flexible (based on the need of the individual). We need to make them more realistic and of real use to our staff. Only then will they give 110% (defined as more that we demand). These are active thoughts in new gen companies such as Google, but for the vast majority of the corporate landscape, the answer continues to be “this will not work for us?”.

Then, the question is what will? Until we redefine the “Carrot” and continue to adjust to the needs to today, we will not be able to get the newer generations to continue working for us. It will take us, the 9-to-whatevers, to open up our imaginations, our biases, our assumptions to really make the worker of today feel Welcome!

Do We Want to Know?

Knowledge Management is everywhere. In discussions, blogs, corporate strategies, individual minds, etc. If one is unaware of or not convinced about the benefits, there is an army of consultants and vendors who can change that. I am a convert without needing any more help.

For evidence, one needs only to look at traditions passed from one generation to the next. The artisan/farmer/xyz made sure that the next generation understood and learnt the sum of their knowledge so that it may be built upon and improved. This was actually necessary for survival. Today, organizations are fighting for survival/success in a way they have probably never fought before. Every asset is being analyzed in order to increase the efficiency of usage. Knowledge is one such asset which is underutilized and can provide significant returns. The question then is, why is knowledge underutilized? To use any asset efficiently, the nature of the asset needs to be understood; the asset transformed to be usable in the manner desired; the asset used in an optimal manner; the asset maintained in a usable/relevant state and measurements of the benefits coming out of this. Let us apply this to knowledge.

The nature of “knowledge” has been well studied and classified and is constantly being refined. Most of the literature I read today relates to the transformation of knowledge into a usable state. Tools to capture explicit knowledge are widely available. There is also good direction on how to start capturing implicit knowledge; direct interaction and collaboration between the haves and have-nots being used to speed up this process. Curation and maintenance of this “library” is also an oft-touched upon topic. But what about the users of this knowledge? When there is a need for context based answers (typically quick problem-solving type things), people do approach other people. However, a large part of the problem is around re-inventing the wheel and re-learning lessons. My experience has shown me that the not built here syndrome continues to exist in this space. Large swathes of the organization (including and specially managers) do not believe that solutions created and lessons learnt by other people apply to them. Their problem is always different. (Code re-use & Service re-use anybody?). What is done to change this attitude will decide the pay-off from any KM strategy. Another issue is training. While internal corporate providers can play a just in time game with knowledge, vendor organizations and service providers need to be on the bleeding edge. They need to prepare people with knowledge in expectation of its use, not after they develop a need.

I have seen multiple organizations repeat mistakes or re-invent things because people do not want to talk to the people with the knowledge. I have also seen different groups at different levels of preparedness with knowledge (within and across organizations) which they know will be needed. Unfortunately, this depends on the attitude of individuals. We need to work on the culture to spread the “correct” version of the attitude.

We know that Po’s father would confide the secret ingredient to him at some point. But, we need the whole organizational kitchen to know it. What can be done to make it happen? Any thoughts from the 9-to-whatevers?

Bluntness & Motivation

I have been going through a confidence crisis recently (not what you think though).  I have been trying to think why people are not confident in doing what they need to do.  The thought had reached a crisis level.

Yesterday, I came across a simple and direct article (completely unrelated to the topic) on bluntness (by Kate Nasser) which got me thinking tangentially yet again.  The article included a point on bluntness being different from diplomatic honesty.

Bluntness is considered a bad thing due to the connotation of the message not being given in the right spirit.  The basic assumption, though, is that the message being given is a negative message.  My thought raced to what if the message is positive?  Will being blunt become a pleasant experience then?

The mind then reverted to the confidence issue.  One of the elements of confidence is positive feedback for your actions.  Negative feedback is useful for correcting incorrect actions, but re-enforcing and motivating positive actions is critical to the act of confidence building – ask (almost) any parent.

We are often “blunt” or “diplomatically honest” when the results are not upto our expectations (what we perceive as incorrect actions).  We are quick to remind people about appropriate customer service (as customers), appropriate performance (as managers), appropriate xyz (as abc), etc.  We love it and feel like we are contributing to society as a whole.

What do we do when things happen correctly?  When we get a coffee at the right temperature?  When the travel department books the right flight?  When the resource at our disposal writes the correct piece of code?  Well that is just as expected!  The lack of negative feedback should clearly indicate our satisfaction?  Introspection time!  We all typically feel the need for a little bit more than that.

I am not suggesting that we lower our standards; that we should start giving people accolades for showing up to work.  Going beyond expectations should stay exactly where it is and the rewards should remain tough to get.  However, we should adjust our attitude to the “met expectation” rating.  There should be something in it for people who are able to achieve that.  A “thank you”, “that is exactly what I was looking for”, “this is appropriate” and myriad such examples could go a long way…

A long way to what?  To building the confidence of the person this was said to.  Of ensuring that they understand that they met your expectations and relieving them of the need to be body language readers to do so.  I am proposing that we stop making the lack of negativity represent positivity.

Thinking about my own behavior, do I do this?  Yes!  Consistently?  No!  Often enough? Not sure, but no harm in trying!  From today, I pledge to be more complimentary and verbal than I have been before.  I pledge to be more “blunt”.  9-to-whatevers: your views?

The Laws of Accountability

Accountability is a word that is thrown out very frequently these days and, maybe, correctly so.  However, I find that every persons version, or understanding of accountability is different.

Wikipedia compares it to responsiblity and lists several different types of accountability – talk about confusing.

Oxford Dictionary defines it as “the fact or condition of being accountable; responsibility”

A Project Manager I know defines it as “I will try my best”

Take your pick or make one up of your own, but what is clear is that when two people are talking on this topic, they are probably talking about different things and different standards.  The best colloquial definition that I have heard is “having my neck on the line…”.  Even that is open to interpretation.  Aaaarrrggghhh!!!!!

In my opinion, accountability, in professional terms, is not a deliverable.  It is an approach, an attitude, a culture; which is imbued into individuals and organizations that deliver.  It is very difficult to create a “law” around this; but, I decided to give it a shot anyways.  Without further ado, and with due apologies to the Late Sir Isaac Asimov, here goes.

  1. An accountable person may not harm the objective, or through inaction, allow the objective to come to harm
  2. An accountable person must drive the solution, including tracking and resolution of all dependencies that exist in achieving the objective
  3. An accountable person must escalate issues out of their control before they impact the achievability of the objective

These laws can’t create culture by themselves, but they can definitely stop answers that we are all too familiar with.  Also, these laws will not make the person aware of their accountability, or bring them in alignment with the objectives – those are external actions that must happen before these laws become applicable.

But, these laws (or something along these lines), can clear the communication, set the expectation, create a benchmark, etc – something that we try to do for all important things in our professional lives.  And accountability is something I consider really important.

From the 9-to-whatevers, looking for comments on the laws – critiques, suggestions, improvements, etc.  Maybe we can all get on the same page – does anybody want to take the accountability for that?

Working With Internal Clients

We all work with clients in our professional life. There is a large number of us who work with external clients – the kind we generate our revenue from; for a large number of us, however, the clients are internal to our organization. These internal clients may then work with the external client directly or the chain may be longer.

Is there a difference in dealing with the two? To begin with, let us talk about the similarities – in both cases, we need to address product quality, service quality, engagement levels, ROI for the client, and the ilk. I cannot think of many significant parameters that would not apply to the internal client.

However, there are significant parameters that need to be considered in addition when dealing with internal clients:

  • Captive Relationship  With internal clients, the relationship is in captive mode.  The client is forced to accept the service from you.  This breeds complacency.  As Google also says, complacency leads to a reduction in the motivation to improve – something we need to be very careful of.
  • Benchmarking  As the relationship is captive, there is no competition to benchmark onself against.  You need to develop a very clear structure of KPIs and SLAs along with your client which will allow you to measure and track you performance and it’s progress.  Without these objective measurements, ROI calculations and other benefit statements will be difficult to determine.  This will replace the pricing and product feature/range efforts that determine success in a competitive environment.
  • Strategy  As part of the same organization, both you and your internal client will be part of the same strategy framework.  In your day to day offerings, you need to defend the principles of this strategy.  This means standing up and saying no when the client requests go in a different direction.  This is tougher with internal clients since you can’t just “walk away”.

In essence, working with internal clients can be more challenging in certain areas, demanding external clients notwithstanding.  Well, are we 9-to-whatevers up for it?

Teaching Creativity…

Oxymoron, right?  Well, let’s see.

Today, creativity, innovation and the ilk are corporate buzzwords.  Every manager is looking to increase these to improve product appeal and to reduce costs.  The debate is over how.

Can we increase these competencies in our teams today or do we need structural changes to happen.  The answer may depend upon what the organization’s views on these skills are.

One point which elicits agreement is that there are already instances of creativity and innovation in most teams.  The incentive structures and organization around these efforts, in most cases, is not sufficient to tap into these instances and derive the desired benefit or sustainability.  Further, some of the organizational frameworks actively discourage out-of-the-box thinking which is a severe limitation towards these competencies.  Tapping into the existing instances is necessary, but probably not sufficient for the needs of the organization.

Solution?  A culture change is necessary.  The people need to believe that the creative and innovative competency is something that is not only rewarded, but is expected.  However, the larger question is can they deliver?  Is this competency static or is something that can be built up in the individual and the team?  That is where I see disagreement.

One argument is that you cannot teach people to be creative.  That is an inherent part of ones nature and cannot be infused.  To really be able to create these competencies in an organization, you need to acquire it externally.  Evidence the increase in evaluation of creativity and innovation ability during the interview process!

My view is different.  I believe that these competencies can be encouraged, nurtured and taught.  These competencies revolve around a state of mind where people think outside of the standard script.  This can be encouraged if there is sufficient latitude for bringing up new ideas and sufficient allowances for failure.  The expectations also have to be realistic.  We probably will not get a Mona Lisa, but we can definitely do better than draw stick figures.

There are also some reasons that internal growth of these competencies is preferred over external infusion.  The subject matter experts of the organization, especially a knowledge organization, are the key drivers.  Without this expertise, creativity and innovation will mean little.  You cannot create a masterpiece painting without knowing how to paint.  Similarly, you cannot create a concept car without understanding cars.  If you know the current product range inside out, the concept product will be much closer to your organizations ability to deliver – faster time to market and better quality!

Fact of the matter is that these competencies cannot be “taught” in the sense that there is no roadmap or textbook which can be followed blindly.  The acquiring of these competencies is riddled with experimentation and hitting brick walls.  But, if teaching is limited to imparting skills which can be learnt only with a roadmap, our whole education system is in trouble!

Wait a minute!  Isn’t that what is already happening???  Aaagghh…

What is Customer Service?

There are multiple aspects of customer service; and they are not necessarily aligned.

So, here goes a recent conversation I had…

Ring, ring…
Me: Hello!
Oper: I am calling from xyz mobile company. Can I speak to Axxxx
Me: Nobody by that name here
Oper: Is this 9xxxxxxxxx?
Me: Yes, but the name is Aviral
Oper: Please go to the store at location x and submit your documents
Me: I did that 2 days ago. Can you please get this fixed?
Oper: Sir! This is a welcome call. I cannot do that. Please take your documents to location x
Me: (in my mind) What are you welcoming me to – bad customer service?

Unfortunately, experiences such as this are not limited to Telecom companies. In the city that I call home, customer service often takes a back seat. This is true in stores, restaurants, and even in the professional organizations.

This led me to question why we put up with it. I did an (extremely) unscientific survey and came up with the following observations:

  1. People tend to pay more attention to what they receive than how they receive it
  2. People tend to avoid thinking about what they will do when/if something goes wrong

This led me to thinking about the various facets of customer service. My thoughts, incomplete on hindsight, identified customer service as what I got from people – sales, queries, complaints and the ilk. I was completely ignoring the initial quality of the product as an element of customer service.

I now agree that the best customer service is one where one never needs after sales support. However, this is not realistic and companies need to cater for the other parts also. This is especially true for places with forced interaction such as restaurants – food quality is necessary but not sufficient.

So, the unanswered questions in my mind:

  1. What is the right balance as far as the definition of customer service goes?
  2. What are the drivers for organizations to achieve this balance?
  3. As consumers, how much and how can we impact these drivers to get the right balance necessary for us?

For us 9-to-whatevers, the question translates into how much we think about the customer vs. the product as we perform our duties…

We Are in Safe Hands

I often wonder about the future of this country.  In my observation, while we do have stellar leaders, on average our leadership leaves a lot to be desired.  This is true in all fields from politics to sport to corporations.

Today, I had an experience which made me feel much better.  It all began when I was invited to give a talk on leadership to kids in my sons’ school.  The attendees would be about 20 boys and girls recently elected to the highest student positions that the school had to offer.  They would be from grades 5 to 7 – the seniormost in the school.  I was grateful to the school administration for providing me this opportunity.  I began to prepare with full vigor.

I scoured the net for information on leadership programs for kids.  I looked for enticing stories from the childhood of leaders to recite.  I looked for fictional and non-fictional tales which would communicate the ideas.  I was torn about how “adult” to treat them.  After all, I had not had a serious discussion with 10-12 year old children since I was their age.  I had also never held an official position in school and wondered what it felt like to hold one at such an early age.

All of the above work came to nothing.  I did not find a single article/story/game which I considered useful for the exercise.  I had spent a week and a half looking.  Now I had one weekend left.  I was nervous.  I finally decided to go back to the basics – look at what had been most important to me over my career in handling the situation that these “little adults” were facing today.  I came up with some very basic concepts which I decided to elucidate to the group.  I wrote 7 words on a piece of paper and put it in my pocket: Character, Service-orientation, Vision, Communication, People Skills, Bravery and Capability.  I decided that these were the most important characteristics that the students had to develop in order to succeed in the environment they were in – and in that order.

Still being nervous about this, I kept the paper close at hand.  After the initial introductions, I asked the students about who they admired as leaders and why.  I was very surprised at the answers.  The three selected were Barack Obama, Mahatma Gandhi and Franklin D. Roosevelt (no Shahrukh Khan??).  The reasons, to my elation, were very eloquent and encompassed 4 of the points that I had decided to talk about.  What a beginning!

From that point, it became a very interactive session with my job being to ask questions and the students, together, taking us from the point of having good character right through to being successful.  They were very articulate about their individual weaknesses, as well as how eager they were to work on them.  They were able to articulate the issues they were having today, and figure out what they needed to do about them.  It was a very enlightening experience for me; one which I will cherish for some time to come.

So the question is why do I consider us to be in safe hands.  Since children are the leaders of tomorrow, any organization would be lucky to have such students at the helm.  Being so aware of the needs of leadership; of their own abilities and weaknesses; being prepared to work hard to succeed; understanding that being leaders makes their own needs the least important in the group; and having the years of experiences left to hone their skills, I would not like to bet against these people.  A lot of credit, obviously, goes to the school administration for this.  If this school is even slightly representative of what schools in this country are doing today, I can happily say we are in safe hands.

P.S.  Never had to pull that sheet out of my pocket for the points.