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.

How Strict are You?

This question is about reactions we have in our daily lives.  The breadth of these reactions can range from being overjoyed to being really upset.  For the purposes of this blog, I will concentrate on things that produce negative reactions in us.

Negative reactions are generally produced when we are disappointed in the results of an action – more often actions done by others which we are dependant on.  The level of this reaction (internally) is directly proportional to the degree by which the desired result is compromised.  The question is how it gets represented externally.

These situations can occur anywhere – with our family/friends (specially with the kids), with our service providers (domestic help, vendors, retail establishments, etc) as well as in the place of work.

When we have a negative reaction, we have multiple ways to express it.  First of all, we must decide whether to express it at all.  If we do, it could be done as a positive (you tried your best!), negative (how could you do this?), negotiation (what would it take to do better next time?) or coaching (you may want to try it this way!).  The decision on how to do this has to be made relatively quickly (until you subscribe to the count to 10 theory) under stress and has to take into account the history of the subject in question – is this result an exception or the norm with this subject, etc.

Each reaction causes a different counter-reaction.  The expression of this disappointment should be done in order to generate the appropriate counter-reaction.  Keeping this control goes a long way in being a good parent, manager or whatever other role you are playing at that time.  Also, the level of expectation should be internalized to evaluate the situation correctly.  High levels of expectation can be difficult to achieve and cause a higher percentage of disappointing results.

A person who maintains high level of expectations consistently is typically labelled strict.  So, is being strict really bad?  Not if you are are able to generate the correct counter-reactions.  These need to be based on the history of the task at hand, history of the subject as well as the criticality of the result.  But if carefully controlled, they can allow the subject to be motivated in the right direction.  Leading by example, and performing at the same level as your expectations will also allow you to use this in a positive manner.

Parents are the easiest example to observe for this behaviour.  If you look around you, you will find parents with this skill in all shades of gray.  You will also observe that there is no right or wrong, but that finding the shade of gray which suits the parent and the kid best, will produce the desired result.  So, the question remains: How strict are you?  and maybe more importantly: How comfortable are you with that level of strictness?

Old dog; New Tricks

The last couple of weeks have been a revelation to me.

To explain, I will have to give a little bit of insight into my nature.  I do like to write, and I do like to teach.  Given that I do not get the opportunity to do so on a regular basis, my circle of friends, relatives and co-workers often suffer my verbal diarhhea.

For the last year or so, my sister, neices/nephews and one friend in particular have insisted that I become ‘active’ on the net.  To satisfy them, I did join a professional networking site.  However, I was not active in that space.  Unfortunately, over a short time-period, this stopped satisfying the contingent and the pressure resumed.  So, two weeks ago, I relented.

I have started writing this blog.  I hope you find some value in it, because I definitely find value for myself in writing it and getting the comments from you (on and off the blog).  I also joined a social networking site (something I was dead-set against), which to my surprise did not turn out to be a complete waste of time.

So, what has been revealed to me?  From the blogging (yes – I know it has only been two articles), I have begun to re-connect with the passionate side of myself.  Not having done this before, I am only able to write about topics I truly believe in.  This has given me a renewed sense of vigor and confidence.  I am able to put into words my feelings and leave it out for the world to read.  I am able to say with confidence things which many people have much more knowledge of and experience in.  And I can do this without fear of criticism or argument.  This is a liberating thought, if I ever heard of one.  I believe that this will also benefit me in the offline world (or the ‘real’ world as I like to call it).  Hope, I continue to find the inspiration and confidence to write.

The social networking site seems to be changing the game for me.  I had read the articles, I had read the reviews, but was not prepared for the results.  Within one week, I have already connected with 2 dozen people who I had given up on interacting with ever again.  This includes family I had not met in years, friends in a different age that I barely remembered, colleagues who had moved on to better things over the years.  I still have to build up the courage to post regularly on the wall (personal messages visible to all???!!!), but I spend a significant amount of time using the chat functionality to renew the links that had been interrupted.  I can see the possibilities of the future and am finally beginning to understand the articles that I had read before.

Why are these thoughts blog-worthy?  Firstly, I feel a change I wanted to talk about.  Secondly, I wanted to find out from other people how they felt when they started.  Thirdly, give a first hand account to people who still troll the web, but have not started connecting.  Send me your views when you get the chance.

Moral of the story:  You CAN teach an old dog new tricks

Contrasting Election Stories

Elections – what reaction does this word evoke in you?  For me, it brings out the words participation, self-determination, leadership.  But, that is too individual a thought.  From a larger perspective, this is about a mass movement, actually multiple mass movements all trying to outdo each other for success.

What does this mass movement consist of?  This, normally, belongs to a single political party.  The hierarchy begins with the senior party management.  Then come several levels of party leadership as the structure goes from the national level to individual constituencies.  At the constituency level, come the party workers.  They are the people who consist of believers, supporters, leadership wannabes and are the day-to-day touchpoints for common folk; the people who spread the ideology and belief; the people who eventually garner and mobilize the vote.  There is no successful politician at any level who can ignore this fact.

So, let us talk about contrast.  Is the election process identical everywhere?  Definitely not.  What follows is a comparison of the process that is used in India to what is prevalent in the USA.  Let us see what we can learn from these observations.

In India, the decision on who gets the ‘ticket’ in an election is through an interesting process.  The party high-command publishes a list of the winners!  What is this decision based on?  Winnability should be the sole criterion for party success.  But, rumors (maybe they are fact) sometimes point to familial, financial, quid-pro-quo or other similar instincts which on a pure analysis level, do not help the larger organization.  The base of the party – the workers, may or may not be consulted or satisfied through this process.  This process is not necessarily autocratic, but there is surely room for more transparency.

In the states, anybody can throw in their hat into the ring for an election.  The candidates then run a campaign to be elected.  However, this election is from multiple candidates within the same party – they are fighting to become the nominee for their party in the general election.  This process is called a primary.  The layers of party leadership along with the local party workers can show their partisanship by supporting their desired candidates.  However, the result is driven by the ballot, which is cast by the registered party workers or the general public (depending on the party constitution).  Given the transparency of the process and the involvement of the mass movement, this process is necessarily not autocratic.

What is the difference?  By being necessarily not autocratic, there is an involvement of all levels of the party in the decision on who will be the final candidate.  This improves the winnability of the seat for the party and benefits the larger organization.  Interested in examples?

How many of you really think that Mr. Obama would have run for president from the Democratic party without the primary.  His lack of experience and his color would have been huge barriers.  However, the primary allowed him to showcase his abilities which guaranteed 4 years for the party in the White House.

In India, Mr. Khanduri has resigned as the Chief Minister of Uttarakhand.  This was because the party workers did not believe in his leadership which resulted in no efforts during the Lok Sabha elections on the party’s behalf.  The BJP failed miserably in the state due to this autocratic appointment.

Is the solution perfect?  Nope.  But it is an improvement in my belief, and a very important one at that.  But, then again, this is not a political column.  What can us 9-to-whatevers take away from this?

How many strategies have you either created or seen come down from senior management?  How many of these have been pre-synced with the people who need to implement them?  How many of these have met the original estimates of success?

We forget too often, who our “party workers” are.  We take our believers, supporters and executors for granted.  Strategies which have buy-in from them will always have a greater chance of succeeding.  This is because their inputs will ensure that the strategy is grounded in day-to-day realities which they are much closer to.  This is also because the commitment to the cause and motivation to succeed increases with their involvement in the decision.  We could try to be more necessarily not autocratic.

What do you think?