Balancing the focus on outcomes and enjoying the process

I have been a coffee drinker from the time I was a five year old . I grew up with my paternal grandparents ( Dad and mom stayed in a distant town where the factory he worked for was situated and that place didn’t have good schools ) who were both coffee drinkers and I would get a small cup too when they had theirs . Kerala is famous for tea – and strangely I don’t like tea . Everyone else in my family enjoys tea except me 🙂

The very first trip to US – the ONLY food item I packed was a big bottle of BRU instant coffee . I also remember my excitement and relief finding BRU in the local Indian store in Colorado Springs !

I value efficiency a lot – and BRU instant coffee with milk was the easiest solution at home . A mug of milk takes 90 seconds in the microwave to heat up and another ten seconds , I can have a great tasting coffee . Outside my home – Starbucks cappuccino is where I end up spending all my disposable income .

I have always had great espresso makers . But the time it takes to get a coffee and the clean up afterwards essentially meant they stayed in the garage shelf more than on kitchen counter . Few years back – I shifted to a Nespresso machine . While definitely more expensive and not very sustainable – it was a great solution to having high quality coffee in thirty seconds .

A little while ago, I stopped having milk altogether . And this posed a problem – if I drank big mugs of coffee throughout the day, the acidity in my tummy took away the pleasure of coffee . So I switched almost exclusively to espressos . I really needed a small quantity of intense flavor and it will last me several hours . Two a day is plenty for most days . But for that – Nespresso wasn’t cutting it .

So with great reluctance – I dusted off the espresso machine and researched good beans and started grinding and making my own from scratch . It does take a lot more than 2 mins to get a perfect shot – and some days the magic doesn’t happen and I try experimenting some more .

The process – to my utter surprise – proved to be rather therapeutic . I no longer know what I enjoy more – the process of making a great espresso and the experiments to make it a little better the next time , or the resulting drink itself !

It is an interesting parallel to how my views on work have evolved similarly over time as well .

I used to compete in Dog shows actively while I was in college . It was not easy to find time to train my dog and also not let my grades drop – so I micro optimized both the study routine and the training routine . I was fairly successful from an outcome point of view – my dog won regularly and I had decent grades . But honestly I can’t look back and say I enjoyed the learning experience very much on either side .

As a young engineer – I only cared about making sure I could deliver high quality code within time and budget . My enjoyment was more about typing a few hundred lines of code and see it compile the first time itself . Someone created the rules and I improved my skills at optimizing within those boundaries and delivering what I was asked to .

By the time I was a senior manager – I had a little bit more confidence in redefining problems before solving them . The one I remember the most is convincing a finance leader at my client that she didn’t need 150 reports that her team scoped about and can get everything she needs with just 70 by redefining the problem to a certain business outcome that will “move the needle” . And then I had to convince my boss that we will make a lot less money doing the lesser scope of work. Both worked out fine and over a long period of time we earned good business from that client .

Looking back, I think the next evolution was in encouraging my team to redefine the problems and then optimizing the solutions while I try to spend more of my own time trying to gaze a little farther into future and preparing for what is yet to come . I minimize my intervention to what business schools call “management by exception” – and even then only to the extent of helping them think through. I guess that’s where I am now – with of course plenty to improve on finding the right balance .

My biggest learning from all this is the importance of operational excellence . If the routine blocking and tackling is not well taken care of – your ability to expand your horizon becomes rather limited . I have done more than my fair share of whining on operational aspects of executive roles – but I no longer do it with the kind of zeal I used to 🙂 .

This is why I call coffee as “liquid wisdom” 🙂

Watching the second CEO transition at IBM

Yesterday evening I had just finished a conference call when my phone lit up with slack messages , WhatsApp messages and calls all together about Arvind Krishna being appointed as our new CEO . Obviously a big moment for all of us . This is the second time I have watched a CEO transition here, and there are some good lessons I learned watching our leaders in action – albeit from considerable distance .

I was an account partner at a semiconductor client in Northern California in GBS in 2012 when Ginni became CEO of IBM . There are three things I remember from that time .

1. The CIO of the company telling me “this is the best CEO transition I have seen anywhere”

2. IBM stock price was around $210 or so . I had put 10% of my paycheck every month since I joined (when stock was around $70) in ESPP to buy the stock and I sold everything I had and paid off the mortgage of our home

3. My mentor, John Leffler, telling me about how accessible Ginni is to line leadership

I did not know Ginni at all when she became our CEO . Nevertheless, I sent her a short congratulatory email about 10 minutes after I saw the announcement email . To my utter surprise – she responded in about 2 mins thanking me . I showed that to everyone in the team and we were all thrilled that we have a new leader who would respond so fast to someone a hundred levels below her in the hierarchy 🙂

John later told me that Ginni actually knew a little about me from the SAP CEOs McDermott and Snabe ( they knew me from the SAP Mentor and blogger programs ) , and had asked him about me .

In any case – this one real time response to my note had a big impact on me. I am very prompt in my email and phone responses as well and a lot of that can be traced back to me thinking “If Ginni who has a thousand times harder job than me can be so responsive, I have no excuse to slack” . I have to add that Bill McDermott , CEO of ServiceNow ( and ex-SAP CEO ) is exactly this way too . Every email and call gets returned quickly .

It certainly couldn’t have been easy for Ginni being the CEO for 8 years facing constant criticism from all around . I absolutely admire how Ginni stayed so positive throughout this time and continued to make big bold bets for the future on research , cloud, quantum etc . The largest business I have ever run is a tiny fraction of what Ginni runs . Even at this tiny level – it’s hard to balance short term vs long term and it’s easy to get criticized whatever trade off you make . I can only imagine – barely – what she must go through routinely at the scale of IBM and with constant comparisons to others. I can’t honestly say I handle pressure with her level of ease – but seeing how she does it has certainly helped me learn how to handle it better .

I have only met her directly very few times . One thing I have always noticed is that she zooms into what is important very quickly without wasting any time. She also doesn’t hold back on feedback – good or bad . In one CEO level meeting at a client – she took me aside and asked about my family and what my daughter was learning at school these days . She was happy to hear about her interest in math and computer programming and asked me about how I thought IBM was helping shape the next generation of technical talent in schools . And an hour later she gave my boss and me some pretty hard hitting feedback on what we should improve on . Again, this was something I could learn from on the balance a leader needs to develop .

From time to time, I would get the pleasure of some quick feedback from her on my blog as well – which of course is major bragging rights . This one was about the future of software on New Year’s Eve .

And as of yesterday we have a new CEO-elect in Arvind Krishna , and a new President in Jim Whitehurst .

Right off the bat – I (and many others) cheered loudly when I heard a hard core technologist was chosen as our new leader (and especially sweet for immigrants like me to see it’s a person of Indian origin) .

When I joined IBM in 2006 , Arvind was already quite well known as a visionary technologist and he has been taking on progressively more senior and impactful roles . I have interacted with him only a handful of times – mostly when I led the consulting business in NA for AI, analytics and IOT . He is the most down to earth leader one can meet – and totally stays away from hype and yet communicates the value of technology so effectively. Something I admire and want to get better at myself !

Twenty years ago or so when I landed in USA as a young engineer, there were not a lot of people of Indian origin in senior leadership roles in tech companies that I could look up to . And now we have immigrant engineers from India as CEOs of IBM, Google , Microsoft , Adobe ! It is a great moment of pride as an American of Indian origin (and an engineer) myself – especially since not that long ago I couldn’t have even dreamt of such a scenario . I was not the only one going through this emotion – so many of us were calling and messaging each other well into the night . What a great testament to the education system in India , and what a great example of America promoting top talent with no bias based on the country they were born !

When I saw the news yesterday on a slack channel, I sent a quick note to Ginni – and the only request I had was for her to write a book on her time in IBM . I sure hope she does and there will be a lot for us to learn from it !

Good luck Arvind and Jim ! All of us are cheering for you as you lead us into the future .

Usual disclaimer : As always, these are purely my personal thoughts and not that of IBM . I am not an IBM spokesperson . I do own IBM stock .

What the heck is strategy ?

I don’t know what is more difficult to get consensus on a definition – “meaning of life” or “strategy” . And I am only partly kidding here 🙂

Vast majority of the literature and talks on strategy are about what it is not , as opposed to what it really is . This was true when I was in business school a couple of decades ago , and it’s still true in the work place debates today . Recently I attended some leadership training at HBS and apparently Professors still love to debate what it is not !

I don’t deny that I enjoy these debates – but with a business to run, I also need simple definitions to do something with it . The reason I am thinking about it one more time is because I have an “all hands” call coming up with my global team in a few days and as it happens every year – I am challenging everything one more time just to make sure I set the team on a good path to success .

So here is how I look at strategy

1. Strategy is a way to get to a set of goals under uncertain conditions and limited resources within a certain period of time

2. It can only be defined at a high level given the uncertainty , and there needs to be a plan for known trade offs

3. The plan to execute on it consequently need to be constantly refined as you learn more over time

4. It needs to be defined at the highest level of an organization since a good strategy needs a lot of decisions on allocation of scarce resources , the goals itself will need to be questioned , and the result of those decisions has to serve as a compass (as opposed to a map) for the rest of the team as they execute on it

5. It should leave plenty of room to improvise during execution.

The goals are fairly straight forward for the business I lead . Where I need to temper my enthusiasm is how many of those goals can I map to a bottoms up plan . It’s very easy to make too many assumptions and become over confident in attaining those goals – but that would be ignoring the simple idea that there is no strategy if there is no uncertainty ! The trick is to minimize uncertainty instead of eliminating it .

Then there is the constraint of limited resources . I have swung on either extremes of “constraints are good” VS “unconstrained is good” over the years . These days I am a believer that it’s best to acknowledge constraints right upfront – but then start challenging them from first principles to see if they are as real as they appear . When we don’t acknowledge real constraints , we end up saying ridiculous things like “it was a great strategy, but execution failed us”.

All strategies have an expiration date and I realize that over time – the shelf life is becoming shorter . What seems to work for me is an annual overhaul with quarterly tweaks . If operational results trend the wrong way – I don’t wait for the next year to overhaul the strategy though 🙂

The easiest way to communicate a strategy for me is in the form of a plan . Too high level and it gives the feeling of a “slogan on a banner” which gets you not a lot more than eye rolls . Too much detail and it gets tedious for everyone . So I run it by a few people to iterate and get it to a decent enough shape . No magic bullets have been found so far !

Iterations come in all sizes and are triggered by multiple factors . The most common reason is the variance during execution. But there could be really big factors like the economy going into a recession . The key here is to keep an eye for detail on operations, while also scanning the environment for changes .

Zooming in and out constantly takes a lot of time and energy – and this is one of the many reasons why you should constantly grow more leaders in your team. The more (and better) leaders you groom – the more you can focus yourself on fewer high impact decisions .

The last point I want to make here is on leaving room for everyone to make decisions during execution . There is no creativity in following explicit and prescriptive directions all the time . This is why I like to think of my job as providing a compass and not a map . Unless your team develops skills to make their own plans – and intelligently change them as required along the way – they will not develop as leaders !

When you are powered by good espresso !

Some of you may know that I am a big dog lover . I also used to compete actively in dog shows with German shepherds , labs and goldens . As career started taking more and more of my time – I gave up on dog shows . I actually don’t care very much about winning a show any more – I don’t miss that thrill anymore . But I terribly miss the fun of training a puppy from scratch and competing and the constant problem solving .

When you compete seriously – you need a puppy or young adult who is suitable for your specific needs and that needs a lot of research to find one. I haven’t been at the big shows or following pedigrees closely for a long time – so I had to make a fresh start . I have several friends who are active in the field and I will get plenty of good advice from them . But for me to follow along their advice intelligently, I need to do some homework first .

So during the vacation period, I decided to start my research. Seeing several people walking their beautiful and well trained dogs in the streets of London and Paris added to my motivation 🙂

First step of any good research is of course to stock up on coffee . And we had just returned from Europe and the Parisian cafes had set a very high bar . Thanks to Amazon prime – it only took a couple of days to get a few different coffee bean packs . For good measure I brought out the old Espresso machines from their boxes so that I have enough options to find the perfect match .

Then I opened up YouTube and started watching clips from the big german Shepherd shows in Germany . About ten videos in – and probably 2 double shot espressos – I realized there is an unaddressed problem . I am in no shape physically to train a dog at the level I need to . I need strength , endurance , flexibility and things of that nature .

Two years ago – I had lost a lot of weight by signing up with a personal trainer and working out at the gym . Well that ended up with muscle tears in both arms and that kept me away from the gym for a year . I still lost some weight but it was negligible . At that pace – I wouldn’t get to the physical state I need to be anytime soon . Darn !

I love outdoors – and I hate doing cardio at the gym with a passion . Thanks to our mild winter in Chandler – I put on tennis shoes , and started walking . About 45 mins later – I couldn’t figure out how much distance I covered or how many calories I burned . This is the curse of being an analytics guy at work – I get this intense urge to measure ! Thankfully there are plenty of apps that can do it all – and I dutifully downloaded the requisite apps and started measuring weight , exercise , food , water etc .

I started at around 2 miles and can now do 5 miles of brisk walk . And in the first week I lost about 3 pounds . I hope I can continue the good habits and get into the right shape by the time I get the pup .

Thanks to the insistence of my teenage daughter who has been using AirPods for a while – I had bought a set for myself too but never used them . It’s one of those things – I always felt like a total idiot talking with Bluetooth headsets and generally have avoided using them . But the daily walks proved to be a turning point – I am now a big fan , using them for work calls as well as music from the phone .

Anyways – back to my research on dogs. So I read through the breed standard again – and surprisingly could more or less recite it verbatim from memory . I started looking at my favorite dogs from 80s and 90s to get my eye tuned to the ideal version . And then I started watching the videos and pictures of the more recent dogs .

I did not like most dogs . I started saying things in my mind like “great head but too long in the body” and “great movement but don’t like the tail set” . Highly frustrating to say the least !

And then came some sad news – my mentor in dog shows passed away and a dear friend from India sent me a message about it . I was so terribly sad and spent a lot of time thinking about the times I have spent with him when I was in college . And then the light bulb went on – I was doing a cardinal sin of evaluation of dogs called “fault judging”. My mentor – Nawab Nazeer – had warned me about it several times .

Purebred dogs have a written standard . Everyone knows the standard is for an ideal dog and no dog is ideal . So the principle of judging is to figure out how close a given dog comes to the ideal . However it is a lot easier for less experienced and lesser skilled people to judge all the faults and compare that way . That’s what fault judging means – and it’s a bad idea . I knew that from before – and yet I was doing it with full enthusiasm . Go figure !

Any way – I have some unlearning and resetting to do before I continue my research to find my puppy . Probably that gives me a bit more time to lose the weight 🙂

Today, I am typing this from the plane to NY – the first business trip of the year . And as I am slowly getting back to the normal work routine, I started thinking about how much fault judging happens in the work place . It’s much more easy for many of us to spot weaknesses and criticize people about it than recognize strengths and give them credit for it .

It’s funny how one thing leads to another when you are powered by great espresso ! For good measure , I just ordered some more espresso beans 🙂

Nuking code and starting over – revisited

I had an extensive debate recently on why monoliths are not universally such a terrible idea, where a young developer told me “Most of the code you would have written in your time as a developer is now what we call legacy code” .

I don’t blame the young man for thinking “legacy = bad”. I believed it too when I had his role many years ago . And then my thinking evolved over time and I am sure his will too.

I wrote this blog “Nuke that code, lets start over” nearly a decade ago, and I think many of the points discussed in there still hold true . There is a lot of wisdom in the comments section under the blog that I just finished reading again .

The young man’s comment made me think a bit about all the code I have written – from games in BASIC that I have sold to others for 50 rupees on cassettes while in high school to C/C++ , ABAP and java Programs that did more “Enterpisey” stuff for big companies across the world .

“Most” of the code I wrote probably have not lasted very long at all !

Some of the best code I wrote never made it to production – because priorities changed, projects were shelved , acquistion happened and a host of other reasons .

Most of the code I wrote has been refactored – some times by me , but mostly by developers who owned those repos after my tenure . I know of a couple of places where a bit of my code still runs in production – but it’s a tiny fraction of what I have written in total .

Legacy code survives because of many reasons – some good and some bad

1. It does something exceedingly well and it’s hard to make a case to replace II

2. It is way too complex for anyone in the team to rewrite now – usually due to poor knowledge management , not because the code itself is bad . Even with sophisticated tooling – it’s hard to understand logic completely from code, DB schemas and logs .

3. Refactoring is a routine activity in good tech shops . But the truth is that vast majority of large enterprise shops have ignored the importance of refactoring for a long time . They paint themselves to a corner and then need massive modernization projects to get out of the mess and cater to the business needs of today’s and tomorrow’s market . It also shocks me that some shops after finishing the modernization, they still refuse to follow any structured process to refactor along the way !

4. Another common pattern I have seen is that modernization is attempted purely for “tech fashion” – and usually with tragic results . I was quite amused once to watch the code of MRP process be rewritten to a new technology only to realize that even though the results now showed up in a fraction of the time of the old system, it was all wrong and hence useless !

Being honest about the need to rewrite is a good starting point in all modernization projects . There is only limited time, effort and money available and there is never a good reason to waste it by doing a project for the wrong reasons .

“we need to modernize because mainframe is dead” or “we need to move to NoSQL because RDBMS is dead” or “Our code base is a big monolith and we need to be serverless for our future” . It’s very common to hear these kinds of reasons being touted as the reason to start a modernization project . These are not bad reasons by themselves !

These statements are all good starting points to explore what is the real issue – do you take more time to deliver a new feature that business wants , and is that leading to less than optimal business results ? If the answer is yes – is it a tech problem or a process problem primarily that causes it ? Can you quantify the value of changing to a new system and prove that it is greater than the estimated cost ? What happens if the modernization project fails – how much risk can you take ?

Bottom line – you need an honest case for why you want to modernize . This case will then serve as your North Star in your modernization journey . It also will serve as a dose of reality check – which we will all need from time to time . The case itself has a shelf life – so it’s important to revisit periodically to check what changes are needed .

Big Bang vs Incremental changes – how do you decide which is the best way to go ? I will share some thoughts on that in another post . For now , I need to get back to my day job 🙂

Three snippets from my year end conversations

As 2019 is heading to its last few weeks, I had a chance to catch up with a lot of friends, mentees and my own mentors and also take some time to reflect how things worked out for me this year . The consultant in me immediately started grouping and classifying the common themes, apply MECE , and map it all to a 2 X 2 . Don’t worry – I somehow resisted the temptation and stopped at just grouping 🙂

I thought three repeated themes were worth sharing here on my blog .

1. You need to tell some managers what they want to hear

So there is this guy who comes from a non tech background and does a good job managing a team of developers to hit milestones ahead of schedule (mostly by overworking them) . He is a flight risk, and the only way to keep him is to promote him to an executive rank . If he flees, his manager probably won’t earn his own promotion any time soon – so there is plenty of motivation to make this happen.

The only trouble is that this promotion needs the blessing of a very senior tech exec . There is no way this non tech dude is going to pass that level of tech scrutiny . That’s when the manager has a flash of brilliance in his thinking . The senior techie is somewhat of a philosopher and his current pet topic is “culture”. He coaches the up and comer to focus heavily of culture when the interview happens – which he masterfully does and gets promoted .

About half the people I caught up with had a similar story where promotions or raises were secured by telling their bosses what they wanted to hear .

2. Diversity seems to be a bit easier than inclusion

While it’s still a long ways to go, a lot of managers have been acting on improving diversity in their teams . There is a lot more awareness and training at all levels . In many cases there are top down directives like “by end of the year there needs to be X% women in your team , Y% URM in your team” etc . In a some of these cases, these are KPIs tied to the manager’s bonus too . All of these are great of course – and I hope it’s not just a one time exercise .

Then comes the question of inclusion . Are these “new” members of the team supported and set up for success ? Are their voices considered with the same importance as when your team was homogenous ? I was a bit surprised that even the people who actively champion the need for diverse teams haven’t done as much thinking on how to make inclusion happen in their day to day work.

That said – I was quite happy to hear that almost everyone I spoke to had done something good about making sure people doing similar roles are paid the same.

3. Being a newly promoted executive continues to be really hard

Before I made Partner , I had attended an exceptional internal training course in IBM called “Cornerstone”. And that’s where it was drilled into me that “what got you here won’t get you there”. Excellent advice which helped me and many others who attended that course . It is also very hard to put it into practice !

Everyone wants to make an immediate impact as an exec . Most have someone else they treat as their role model and want to be like him or her. Nothing wrong with any of it – just that what works for one exec in one context might not translate 1:1 to you in your context . Almost every single story I heard from the newly promoted folks made me say in my inner voice “oh no – I did that too” .

Here is one story I heard from someone who got promoted and took over a new team as its leader in January 2019. All six direct reports were asked to make 1 hr presentation to the new boss . The first one made a less than stellar presentation in the new manager’s opinion and the next day it was announced that this person will have a new role to be announced soon . Long story short – we are in December now and that position is still not filled , and two of the key next-in-line leaders quit because they couldn’t stand the ongoing chaos.

I asked them what were the words of wisdom they got from their leaders after their promotion and it was the usual list of “Have a bias to action”, “Lead with courage”, “Make your voice heard” etc . Those are all invaluable in their own rights – but perhaps we should add “slow down a bit now to speed up later” to the list .

Three disastrous interview stories

A young engineer I met last week asked me “Sir, you have had an impressive career since the time you left college . Did you always ace every job interview? ”

That question took me back a couple of decades and I realized I only aced one from the first four interviews – which was when TCS hired me from Business School as one of their first SAP consultants.

The three I failed were all painful at the time – but funny enough in hindsight . So I will share those three here – just for some fun 🙂


It must have been 1996 or 97 . Infy was THE place to be – hot young company where all the cool kids got hired . They did not visit our college – but they had an open hiring day where we could apply and go through their evaluation process .

If I remember right – it was a three step process . Step 1 was a multiple choice test on math etc . Step 2 was a problem solving round where they gave a puzzle and you have to solve it and walk the interviewer through your solution . And the third – I am told – would have been an interview with a senior exec and an HR partner .

I had no trouble with the written test and was asked to appear for the problem solving round . The interviewer was a young lady not much older than me. She gave me a printed sheet of paper which explained the question . Funny enough – I had once solved this exact question and in full honesty I told her that I already knew the answer . No problem – she found me another sheet with a different question . And she sat across me , crossed her legs and started reading a copy of CHIP magazine . Well – I couldn’t solve the problem at all and I gave up . She promptly kicked me out of the process and said I can apply in 6 months again .

I never got around to applying again 🙂

2. IBS

When I was in Business School in 1998 , IBS was just getting started at Technopark in Trivandrum . Our Dean , Dr M.N.V Nair , asked me and few others to check it out . A bunch of us took him up on it . I remember a very fancy office and some well dressed people conducting the test .

The written test was on logic and quantitative ability – I aced it . The very pleasant HR lady told me that I only got one question wrong and that I was the highest scorer she had seen till then . So at this point my confidence was sky high and I had no doubts that I am going to kill it in the interview as well .

There were four interviewers in the panel – including the company CEO and the CEO of Technopark . Right off the bat they congratulated me on the high test score and asked me what was my strategy for the test . I said I solved the easy ones first , then the medium complexity ones next and finally attacked the hard problems for which I had conserved time .

That was the end of the interview . One of the panel members cut me short and said “You won’t be a good engineer for us . We are looking for people who tend to attack the hardest problems first” .

Uh oh !

Never tried to get a job there after that . When I reported back to the Dean – he said “everyone makes mistakes”. I didn’t quite understand whether he was referring to me or my interviewers 🙂

3. SAP

While I was working as an ABAP programmer at TCS in Colorado Springs, I interviewed for a programmer role in Washington D.C with SAP in their public sector development team . I did fine in the phone interview and the in-person HR round . Then a Dev manager did a technical interview with me – and asked me to write some code on the white board . We had a great discussion on optimizing performance of the code I wrote on the board .

Pretty soon the interviewer and I were furiously writing and editing code on the board and then at a random point he shook his head and declared “I can’t hire you man . You got the syntax of FOR ALL ENTRIES in ITAB wrong . I cannot look past that . Sorry – you can leave now” .

This was painful ! I knew the syntax since I used that construct quite often in daily work . Somehow I messed it up that day and if it was done on a computer – obviously I would have fixed it in a second . But it was not to be !

Several years later – I did get hired by SAP . And I recently read somewhere that “for all entries” is no longer cool in ABAP once ERP moved to HANA . Oh well 🙂

That is just how I like it !

This weekend I ran into an unusual problem – I did not have a single book to read . To the best of my recollection, I have never had this situation in my adult life . Now – the rational thing to do would be to get a book on kindle . But that’s not my thing . I need a physical book – I don’t like to read on kindle .

I don’t even own a kindle . My preferred way of getting a book is to order on amazon prime on my mobile and get it delivered to where ever I am . This way I don’t need to carry more than two books in my bag when I travel . If I particularly like a book – I give my copy as a gift to someone that I think will find it useful , and buy a couple more .

I do miss the experience of walking into the local library, chatting with the librarian , browsing the shelves and driving back with a half dozen books . I might do it today after a few years gap . Amazon with its large collection of books and easy access to reviews have helped me not miss the physical library experience to a large extent – but that strangely has not translated to reading books electronically .

There is a contradiction here that I find weird . I rarely print anything at work to read . I read big documents on my MacBook and redline them as needed . And yet when it comes to books I need to hold it in my hand or else I feel I can’t get past the first page . I have tried and I have failed .

As much as I love reading work related stuff on my laptop – I rarely use my laptop to take notes . I need to write it in my notebook with a pen myself . And consequently I love great pens to write with . Those pens are as expensive today as it was when I entered the workforce – and never once have I thought they are a luxury item . I can’t rationalize an expensive pen that gives me pleasure to write with – because I barely write 5% of all the content I create . Other 95% is electronic – including this blog that I am typing on an iPhone using the WordPress app . I run most of my business from my phone . There is literally no business case for me to justify an expensive pen other than “that’s how I like it” 🙂

Talking about writing – and expensive pens – I have my name engraved in cursive on the pen I use frequently . A young kid recently looked at it and could not make out that it is written in English . I realized – with some shock – that not all schools teach cursive writing now – which of course makes all practical sense . I have horrible hand writing myself – and often write in block letters if someone else needs to read it . But I have always been a big fan of beautiful cursive writing – and I think my dad is one of best in that craft . It is painful to note that cursive writing will become a lost art in my life time .

Times are of course changing fast and ideally we have to change with it . Talking about time – I like the old school watches to put on my wrist every day and not glance at my phone for time , or use a modern electronic one line an Apple Watch that can also tell me that I haven’t walked enough steps today .

The old school watch – as much as I admire the excellent craftsmanship – is not super practical for a guy like me who travels across time zones frequently . I have to check time on my phone when the plane lands to correct my analog watch . Rationally – there is no reason to keep doing this for the millions of air miles I have travelled , but again never once have I felt this was a pain .

In my day job, I am reasonably good at convincing my clients to let go of their past ( that we lovingly refer to as LEGACY ) and move to cutting edge new solutions . A big part of that is building a rational case on why change is good – and try to get their head to over rule their heart . But everyone – literally everyone – has an emotional connection with their past that they won’t let go .

I fondly remember my very first client who let me automate two complex reports – and then looked at them both to manually prepare a third report . Why ? Because – he said with a genuine smile – “That is just how I like it” .

As a consultant, I have learned over my career that my clients all have a unique mix of a genuine fascination for the new and a tendency to hang on to the old – and I can’t push for all the change in one step .The trick is to know how much to push and when to stop and agree this is as far we can go for now .

This is a big reason why transformations are always journeys – and not destinations !

Three ways to NOT to handle war time pressure in business

Pressure is a fact of life – especially so in businesses. You cannot eliminate it, but you can probably minimize it with good preparation and training and so on. But whatever you do – you are bound to end up in high pressure situations from time to time. It could be your boss promising more profit to the board or the market changing too fast and all your carefully laid plans going for a toss – there are many reasons why you may end up there.

action adult fast fire
Photo by Pixabay on

The part you have a greater chance to control is how you handle it as a leader. And I think this is where a lot of traditional tactics that we seem to take for granted become counter productive. I want to highlight just three such “common strategies” and why they may not yield the expected results .

Centralized decision making 

The most common tactic when pressure builds is for people higher in the hierarchy to take direct control of execution – especially of what appears as low hanging fruit. You will start seeing memos that go “All travel needs to be approved by the CFO” , “All purchases over $100 need to be approved by the GM” and so on.

On first blush it seems like a real good idea. People will be careful about what they spend money on because no one wants to go to the scary CFO to ask for a $500 air ticket. And multiplied by hundreds of people – that is real cost that is saved.

But what is the reality ? The good sellers will switch to a competitor with less draconian rules. The next best will stay paralyzed thinking they can push their deals when the rules ease off. The CFO would rather spend $500 to get the $100K deal – if only he knew. But this set of people won’t always ask. They will wait. It proceeds along similar lines across all segments. CFO might win the cost battle for a short time and still  lose the larger business war over time.

The accounts payable clerk could have handled this $100 restriction – or automation could have, if the company had the IT skills needed. So on top of killing everyone else’s productivity – the CFO now has a lot more low value work to do. Is that the best use of a highly paid executive’s time ? You cannot manufacture more time for yourself even if you have the most powerful title !

What about the mid level managers who actually lead their teams ? They feel powerless, and for the most part their teams realize it in no time and lose respect for them. So now you have a morale issue and the good managers start floating their CVs in the market too.

A CFO I respect a lot once told me – about a decade or so ago –  “When the business knows what they are doing, my job is to report what they do. When the business does not seem to know what they do – my job is to get it to a shape where I can get back to reporting again”. I think my appreciation for his words have increased every year since then.

Cutting the workforce 

When the going gets hard and saving travel and stationary cost is not enough, leaders have to let go of people. It is a harsh reality of business. Many companies manage cost very effectively on an ongoing basis and even they will occasionally be pushed to cutting head count significantly from time to time.

The traditional wisdom is to cut the bottom rungs first. What gets ignored or forgotten typically is the difference in org structure to handle peace time vs war time. In peace time – you need the matrix and hierarchy to make sure you are investing sufficiently for future. So you will see roles like “Chief of transformation” , “Chief of culture” and so on – and with great conviction, the big bosses will put their best leaders in those roles. That is absolutely the right thing to do as well in that context.

War time is very different. You need your best leaders leading the charge – dealing with the market and your employees directly. If they truly are your best leaders, they cannot be hidden in internal roles managing spreadsheets and on vague ideas.

It is common to hear “all hands on deck” messages from the top at war time. But how many of these peace time roles are actually redeployed to the front line immediately at war time? How many of those senior and expensive people are shown the door if they don’t have the war time skills needed to keep the company alive ? And what saves more money – getting rid of peace time leadership roles at war time , or getting rid of a lot of lower cost less experienced people ? Same question about over lay and ops support roles – matrix requires significant operational overhead. When you are fighting to stay alive, does it really matter much how many ways you can slice and dice your results ?

In my admittedly limited exposure – I have always felt that most leaders are optimists. They think of all troubles in business as temporary – and hence will go away very soon. So why go through the trouble of redeploying etc when there is a less complex way that looks good on a spreadsheet ?

Over communicating 

One of the things that leaders often encourage their teams to do the moment pressure starts mounting is “Please over communicate”. This often happens after most of the critical decision making has already been centralized – thereby reducing the usefulness of the lower level managers . Pleas to over-communicate  is done with great intentions as well –  for example, if people can alert their bosses of important issues early – they can help solve it before it becomes a disaster.

But what really happens when leaders try to over communicate ?

Even when there is no real pressure, communication is not usually a real strength for many business leaders. When they start to over communicate under pressure – the team starts to wonder a few things – “Wow this sounds desperate – should I brush up my CV” , “Clearly you have no respect for my time – and I seriously doubt you understand what my job really is” , “I lost you after the first five minutes – can we get to the point?”, and so on. The reason is simple – the more senior you are, your only way to over communicate is via some “one size fits all” strategy. When people are under pressure – they need clear instructions and specifics, the exact opposite of “one size fits all”.

When the bosses talk in generalities – what are the chances of the lower level employees to go back to them with specific topics ?

So what would be a sensible approach for leaders to handle pressure in their business ?

  1. If you are going to war – declare it explicitly so that all your troops hear it loud and clear .
  2. Define what it takes to win the war. Delegate battles effectively and stay focused on the war.
  3. Act decisively to get rid of the peace-time org structures and redeploy troops for war.
  4. Treat those who are not fit to be warriors with extreme kindness – and try to make it up to them when peace-time returns
  5. Take the lower level leaders into confidence and empower them – centralize strategy as needed without choking information flow, and decentralize execution and communication.
  6. Keep everyone posted as needed – focus on specifics. Resist the urge to over-communicate especially in “one size fits all” fashion.

Blocking and Tackling

“Football is two things. It’s blocking and tackling. I don’t care about formations or new offenses or tricks on defense. You block and tackle better than the team you’re playing, you win.” – Vince Lombardi

men in white and black playing football
Photo by Pixabay on

Just like in football, there is a perception that blocking and tackling has no glamor and it is beneath us to focus on those activities if we were to be successful. Not a month passes without me getting an SOS ping from someone with “Save me from this madness – I don’t want to be stuck in creating decks, business cases, managing utilization and creating pricing sheets. I want to be in the strategic stuff”. I have some empathy – I have made such calls too when I had their roles in the past. And one such call today is the reason I started typing this post 🙂

The main reason to hate the blocking and tackling work is because we generally don’t know why we do these “boring” tasks at all when we start out.

My favorite way of getting people (usually my younger colleagues) to see the WHY aspect is to bring them with me to a meeting where their work is used. A few years ago, a young senior manager came to me for some advice and told me how much she hated the mindless work around pricing deals. So I asked her boss to have this senior manager present the deal on his behalf for the deal review next time.

Our CFO asked her “Why should we make this investment instead of putting the money in an index fund”. She did not have a good answer, but her boss did. He walked us through the fundamentals of the analysis she had come up with and showed why it is a better deal than alternate ideas we had suggested.  She knew the mechanics of pricing very well – she just did not know the context of how her work was used by others for their decisions. Now she is masterful in how she crafts business propositions and is well set for an amazing career. To her credit – she now explains the WHY aspects of the work to the people in her team when she assigns them such work.

People who grow up learning to block and tackle well will have some advantages in business that are hard to learn later in life. I learned this from the head of manufacturing of a car company some twenty years ago when I was a young consultant collecting business requirements for an SAP implementation project.

He used to let me sit in his Tuesday morning staff meetings and for every problem that came up – he would ask “Should we make this problem go away, or should we solve it?”. That was a test to see who knew WHY the problem exists and hence can explain how to make it go away by making upstream changes. Over the course of several such meetings, I realized that people who passed the test were the ones that got better roles and more money and so on. It was counter intuitive for me on why he thought less of the people who just thought about ways of putting in a solution for the problem without questioning why the problem came up in the first place. Those were the people who got a lot of extra coaching and formal training. The irony was that often the solutions proposed by this second set of people were the “requirements” I captured for the ERP implementation 🙂

I am a big fan of delegation and have written about my thoughts on how to do so effectively a few times already.  As I look back at my own career, a good part of my success over the years happened because my bosses felt comfortable delegating more and more to me. And the reason they had that confidence in delegating to me was because they knew I had a good command over the blocking and tackling aspects of the job, and they were positive I can make “some problems go away for good” because I have a first principles understanding of the issue. Now – the honest truth is that I did not always have that understanding . There is a little halo effect that you earn for yourself when you are good at blocking and tackling – and that buys you a bit of extra time and room for mistakes to make the problems go away.

Blocking and tackling are less boring when you understand the WHY aspects . But that does not mean that boredom and grief will not return if all you do is block and tackle. When you are really good at blocking and tackling – you become good at solving problems the RIGHT way . The next logical step up from there is solving the RIGHT problems.

The people who have the most fulfilling time at work are the ones who can do both – identify the right problems to solve, and then solve it the right way. The reality is that majority of leaders become good at only one of these two things, and hence companies need multiple leaders working in tandem to bring both these much needed skills together . Personally, I prefer leaders who are awesome at execution to the ones who are hailed as strategic thinkers. To be more precise – I believe it is a step in the wrong direction to separate execution from strategy. There is no such thing, in my opinion, as a great strategy, poorly executed. Strategy that does not take into account the ability to execute is at best called marketing/PR/advertising. At worst it is just called a MISTAKE.

%d bloggers like this: