Success in a VUCA world – ancient wisdom

It’s a VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambigous). How do we survive here?

I guess the best answers will come from other times that were even more VUCA than this. For instance let’s travel back to the times of the “Gita” which is a dialogue occurring in a battlefield with both sides having weapons drawn and ready to fight. Or the times of Marcus A’s “Meditations” which chronicle’s a Roman emperor’s thoughts during a period of extreme uncertainty on all fronts. The answers these tomes which were written to counter a VUCA world and have survived until now surely must have insights for us?

I guess so, lets check them out.

Volatility: The antitode to volatility seems to be in embracing it. Looking into the fear (albeit a watered down version) consciously gets the fear to flee. Seneca advised us to periodically fast so as to be rid of the fear of hunger – indeed to live occasionally a “life of poverty by choice” is liberating! Ignoring volatility until the odds are overwhelming is defintiely fatal – its better to get used to volatility periodically (you actually get stronger – there’s a superb explanation by Taleb on why this is so).

Of course, if you happen to own a lot of bitcoins, the advice is harder…..

Uncertain: The best way to handle uncertainity is to do two things:

a. Create strategies that have limited downside and lots of upside

b. Accept that you will work toward your plans, but in no way can you determine the outcome for sure

This is best encapsulated by a beautiful word “saranagati” – which by the way is not a misspelling for the Sarengeti national park! It can be translated as “thy will be done” – but setting up a situation in such a way that the downside is limited.

For instance, ascetics try to reason like an unwell child who cries for chocolate but is handed over some bitter medicine by their mother instead. It’s impossible for the child to understand the benefits of the medicine at this time – the only thing it can do is trust. So they set themselves up in such a way that they surrender to an higher ideal (god/eternal consciousness etc) and expend all their efforts in a system (yoga/ prayer/ meditation – whatever) they have investigated and trust to take them there. They also give up other desires (limited downside) and any failures related to the experience are but medicine for them – they remain steadfast in their goal.

Or in a more materialistic model, a businessman may invest in a venture and mentally write off the sum. If it succeeds big time – he’s happy (all upside). If it fails, that’s ok (he’s already written it off). The secret is in capping downside.

Complex: A series of rituals that unpack the complex into very many simple activities is the prescription. And in todays world you may want to then automate some of these simple ones as well! Unpacking the complex into many simple ones allows you to feel more in control and also refactoring where required with minimum impact to the whole (yeah unless it’s that butterfly whose wings cause rainfall across continents!)

This I believe is why all ancient wisdom is encapsulated into a series of small rituals that remove the complexity of a situation and build positive muscle memory through successes (its easier to do a simple ritual successfully) over time as well.

Ambiguous: Its tough to even see if we are winning sometimes. Your portfolio goes up and up and up and it seems like it will forever. And just as you are preparing your winner’s speech, it disappears out of sight. The antidote for ambiguity is a very simple definition of what you are after (good) and what you are not (bad).

Ancient wisdom has this too. Good/ truth is what does not change (permanent through time). Bad/ untruth is what can change rightaway. And it also adds a third component (mithya) which stands for stuff that is relatively stable (say a man’s life – for 100 years he’s alive). So just looking at these three – give you a view and a metric of how you are doing. In the portfolio example – transient movements shouldn’t be your metric of success – you have established criteria irrespective of other factors that decide your actions.

So that’s one lens on looking at a VUCA world. Do you agree?

Happy Independence day India!

Happy Independence day India. And Congo, Korea, and Liechtenstein – all of who celebrate their Independence day today.  And “happy independence celebrations” wishes to every other nation in the world. For independence celebrations not only have an aspect of “independence from something” but an aspect of providing “independence to something” – truly a world that is independent is interdependent – and happily so. We cannot have “independence in a box” – it has to be underpinned by inclusiveness.

Independence from external invaders is what our forefathers fought valiantly for and achieved bequeathing to us a country that has immense resources, culture and a grand people. Thank you – to a generation that lived and died for the concept of freedom – a fruit they earned not for themselves but for all of us. Indeed thank you doesn’t do justice – perhaps a salute is more appropriate. A reassuring “we will take care of India” is something that would bring even more of a smile to our illustrious brethren I’d think?

And we haven’t done too badly – honestly. For while corrupt Politicians, bureaucracy, illiteracy, social ills make headlines – they aren’t  really the only or even major truth. Green villages, the girl child outshining the boy at school, a successful journey to mars, Indian-CEOs leading the technology wave, spiritual leaders taking the message of peace and meditation globally, a bank account for everyone, an army that is the hallmark of grit and innovation to other super-powers, helping our neighbors when they go through calamity, our artists recognized as some of the finest in the world – these are things to be proud of – and shared. There’s no doubt India has its doubts and its challenges, but in spite of that she is walking a journey that is making the world a better place. It’s truly a privilege to be a citizen of this country.

Each one of us bequeaths a destiny for the generations to come. While our forefathers battled territorial freedom – we battle issues due to a strange mix of consumerism and poverty – at the same time. Carbon footprint, work-life balance, artificial ripening of fruits, unhealthy lifestyles, a large population devoid of basic benefits, literacy – are all aspects that demand our attention today than ever before.

The inspiring note really is that many of our fellow beings are doing something about it – and having fun while at it. Kahlil Gibran was right when he said “ work is love made visible” – and when we work in this spirit we include not just great output but also sincerity, compassion, a touch of irreverence and a dollop of fun

Isn’t it time we joined the movement – if we haven’t done so – of leaving the world a little better – and our succeeding generations a world that’s interdependent and happily so? And isn’t it time we shared the stories of success a little bit more – it may bring a spring to someone’s step, a tear of joy and provoke an act of courage. Let’s start with an act of kindness. Today. Jai hind!

Emailing etiquette!

Imagine this. Two people are speaking to each other. A heated conversation is underway. And fifteen of us are standing around, hanging on every word – at the same time wondering why we are there in the first place for the conversation has no worthwhile import for any of us! Now imagine that we employ an even more insidious tool for this mass eves-dropping exercise. We keep recorders close to the conversationalists and listen from our rooms. One of the folks having the conversation (the listener) is actually oblivious to all of us – she doesn’t know we are listening in.

Now transpose this scene to the cyber-world and presto we are bang in the world of cc and its more invisible cousin the bcc. Welcome to the world of emails – and very bad manners (at least if undertaken in the physical world!)!

I just don’t get it – not after over a decade of seeing this behavior time and again. To understand the irrationality of it all though, you need to transpose it to the real life:

  1. Lets say you have a party organized for your friends. Chances are you will call them/ check schedules and invite just the folks who will make it a super day. Now look at how we do our calendar invites in the eworld – we many a time don’t check if someone is available, whether its an appropriate time (since it’s a global village, chances are the status meeting is actually at midnight for someone somewhere in the world!) or if the addressees are really required (hey its free anyway right -if they don’t want, they don’t have to make it!). Many a hapless soul wanders from meeting to meeting with no clue of whats really happening and why he is in the loop! In this case, all those wander are lost!

 

  1. Or think about when some work is over-due. In the real world, you probably will walk over and let the person know. Maybe you will get him and his leader/ someone who’s an expert together and discuss the way forward. You are not likely to get 10 random “senior” folks across the globe countries into a room (and periodically scream an update no one cares about over the loudspeaker!)). If you tried something like this in your school years, you may have been ostracized for life!

 

  1. Or take the note with the restricted rights (and addressed just to you). It’s like someone sending you a confidential document delivered by hand – letting you read it (while they are watching from behind – and locking it in your desk – and most importantly taking the key back with her. What will it do for trust?

I guess, with email being free and all – and with many of the earlier adopters not realizing the unacceptability of some of these practices – they have flourished. And now, its so pervasive – almost part of tradition – so we don’t stop to think about whether its appropriate.

 

But deep down when something like this happens, there’s a twinge in the heart. And a little voice cries out that maybe we changed a behaviour or two. The easiest way to validate if that voice is right is to transpose the situation to a physical world scenario – if it doesn’t seem appropriate, time to change it. You agree?

Of Goals, Systems and Success metrics!

How do you set yourself up for success and maximise your chances of getting there? Its a question to which I guess philosophers have forever thought about – and will continue to ponder on. I came across a very interesting perspective from Scott Adams’ book “how to fail at almost everything and still win big“- a droll title worthy of the creator of Dilbert. He believes (among other equally entertaining and enlightening things!) that:

1. Believe in systems (not goals!). Systems are for winners (and goals are for losers!) in his mind

2. Prioritize your activities based on your “personal energy” level – your patterns should be the guide and not an external system. So if you are alert in the morning, do your coolest work then and you can do your exercises in the afternoon (or whatever – the key point is that your personal energy levels should guide your activity). This metric he feels will let you be at your most efficient self and therefore significantly improve your chances of succeeding at whatever you happen to be doing.

I know these look anathema to what most of us have been taught so far, so its a little worthwhile to understand how and why he comes to these conclusions – and evaluate if these will indeed make a difference to us – so here goes…

1. Why does he believe its “Systems and not goals” that help people succeed better? Its because goals use up your willpower (and there’s only so much available in the first place!) while systems make use of knowledge so you internalise them better.

Here’s an example in his own words:

“Going to the gym 3-4 times a week is a goal. And it can be a hard one to accomplish for people who don’t enjoy exercise. Exercising 3-4 times a week can feel like punishment – especially if you overdo it because you’re impatient to get results. When you associate discomfort with exercise you inadvertently train yourself to stop doing it. Eventually you will find yourself “too busy” to keep up your 3-4 days of exercise. The real reason will be because it just hurts and you don’t want to do it anymore. And if you do manage to stay with your goal, you use up your limited supply of willpower.

Compare the goal of exercising 3-4 times a week with a system of being active every day at a level that feels good, while continuously learning about the best methods of exercise. Before long your body will be trained, like Pavlov’s dogs, to crave the psychological lift you get from being active every day. It will soon become easier to exercise than to skip it – no willpower required. And your natural inclination for challenge and variety will gently nudge you toward higher levels of daily activity while at the same time you are learning in your spare time how to exercise in the most effective way. That’s a system.”

Check this wonderful post of his where he details his thoughts lucidly.

2. Now let’s say we setup a system – how do we even measure if we are doing good? He recommends aligning activities to our personal energy levels on the premise that when energy levels are high, your best work results. Let’s hear him expound this in his own words again (here’s the link to his own post):

“Maximizing my personal energy means eating right, exercising, avoiding unnecessary stress, getting enough sleep, and all of the obvious steps. But it also means having something in my life that makes me excited to wake up. When I get my personal energy right, the quality of my work is better, and I can complete it faster. That keeps my career on track. And when all of that is working, and I feel relaxed and energetic, my personal life is better too.”

Over the last few days I have tried to test this out (it certainly seems a plausible read but the test of the pudding is in the eating right!) – and initial results are very promising. Let me explain:

– One of my focus areas has been to identify new solutions to take to the marketplace. The traditional approach would be to put a goal “2 new services”, a strategy “say blue ocean strategy”, bung in a timeline and then work toward it. The systems view on the other hand involves exposing myself to more opportunities (twitter/ yammer/ conferences/ books/ blogs/ connects with leaders) across multiple areas. While I may or may not come up with the required number of new “solutions”, I have had multiple leads over the last few days on very interesting paths. I suspect I have increased my chances of success by a factor of 3 (and in just a week!). In addition – some new exciting areas – requests for “speaking” sessions, coaching options, introduction to some great mind minds to learn from etc. – all of which I believe will stand me in better stead have come my way.

– Personal energy as a metric allows you to look at what works for you particularly. For instance, I realized I like to do my writing in the evening hours, but like to do some problem solving/ working ideas out in the morning. Meditation seems easier in the early morning and actually ups the energy level, while walks/ exercise do the same better in the evenings (again this is just for me – one of the laziest guys in existence today!). I realize late evenings generate big ideas well (as do walks, so worth carrying notebooks with you on them!) so spending some time over thoughtful books/ contemplation are an awesome idea – and so on…. Again, am sure these patterns will change – but aligning activities to personal energy certainly does seem to be a good approach and get things done with least will power, better focus and are more productive.

Would you agree with this and would you be prepared to give it a shot? And dont forget to check those posts (and if possible his book as well ) out – some really wonderful ideas detailed out there.

Happy Independence Day

The Independence Day is a day of celebration, a precious reminder to offer our gratitude to the generations gone by for teaching us the power of freedom and making this possible; and a day of hope – for what the future will bring.

The right time in short for being enchanted by Tagore’s magical, visionary and inspirational poetry (and a special thanks to my kolkata friends for introducing me to this genius’ works). Come, lets hear what he has to say:

Where The Mind Is Without Fear

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high

Where knowledge is free

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments

By narrow domestic walls

Where words come out from the depth of truth

Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way

Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit

Where the mind is led forward by thee

Into ever-widening thought and action

Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

Multi-tasking to multi-focus

A decade or so ago, multi-tasking was a much revered skill. People would flash it in their resumes, coffee corners would resound with whispers of the star who could do many things at the same time and supervisors would put that up as a skill to acquire proficiency in as you made your way up the corporate ladder.

Over the recent years, the experts have started leaning the other way – multi-tasking is driving you to distraction and driving your productivity down claim recent reports. If you are one of the people who have a chat conversation going on on your laptop, 50 emails screaming for your attention, your mobiles beckoning you for a calender meet or a whatsapp message and a colleague stopping by to drop off a memo for a priority task – you can but agree with the experts. Everywhere, everyone is busy but work doesn’t get done!

An alternate approach seems to be multi-focus – the ability to do many things but one thing at a time. Interestingly, this is exactly what the buddhist meditators have recommended for our wellbeing for thousands of years. There is a story where a disciple asks a monk what meditation is and the monk answers something to the tune of “be mindful. when drinking tea, drink tea. when walking, walk. when eating eat. when working, work”.

This principle seems to be at the heart of all successful work today. Jack Dorsey seems to be able to balance time between “twitter” and “square” – one company at a time. As does Elon Musk. As does AR Rahman with his “school for music”, his various concerts and of course his pilgrimages. Bill Gates brought in legendary focus into Microsoft and now into the Melinda Foundation – one thing (only) at a time. Dr.Abdul Kalam played rocket scientist, president and continues to be a role model – each role is perfect in itself.

There seems to be a lesson here for many of us. If dinner, TV shows and conversations with loved ones compete for attention – at the same time – time to evolve from a multi-tasking individual (where focus stretches thin) to a multi-focus individual (lesser time on each activity but with absolute focus).

You agree?

Football, a world cup and a wildly cheering populace!

Its World Cup time folks and the world is being dazzled by some of the world’s best footballers in the home of the game – Brazil. Its a wonderful sight, and everywhere you go there’s football fever in the air.

 

And why not? For one thing the football is just awesome. You get to see some great footwork, some brilliant saves, great thrillers, moving melodrama, victory dances – a whole world of wonder. But football is special I guess for other reasons too:

 

1. It provides great insight into management and team dynamics (what a first up point huh!): Its the only sport I know where the players turn out in Tees, shorts and tattoos while the management come fully decked in suits and ties – looking like they are in a shareholder’s meet. While the players are fresh and vigorous (and could step right into an advertisement for a health spa), the managers (paunchy, older, i trust wiser!) look like they have serious bouts of indigestion (actually they resemble parents of specially troublesome teens – which is perhaps not a bad comparision)!  And yes, there are the experts too – these are like our very own corporate gurus – they know tons of stuff but get the results often wrong! The only very reliable predictor so far has been the octopus in the 2010 edition – and am not sure Paul took an advanced course in statistical prediction at Harvard!

 

2. You see fashion statements everywhere: Looks like the current haircut of choice is a mushroomy attempt which leaves one looking like a bushy umbrella (without the stalk) or a small UFO has settled onto one’s head. There are variations of this – there’s a sunflower variant, there’s one seemingly inspired by the evergreen bridges of chirapunji – even a pony- tail- type effort which seems straight out of the vedic times. Of course these are instagram-friendly and about 300 times more expensive than their counterparts!

 

3. Footballers may be stars, but they also have the spirit of youth alright (almost feel like singing Nirvana’s – “smells like teen spirit”!). No matter if a player is from a sophisticated EU country, a hard-working Asian, a sporting Australian, a capitalist American – when he is upset he cusses. And it takes very little to upset him. Which goes on to prove that the language of the rebel (in sailor blushing detail at that!) is perhaps the official language of the youth – the world over. There’s just one difference – sometimes, they decide that football skills are a better way to express their emotions – and when they do that – boy, oh boy – do they make your heart sing!

 

4.It gives everyone a chance to bring out the sports(wo)man in them- and I don’t mean just the players. 50,000 spectators are on the grounds cheering their teams every match and half the world is cheering them on TV/ Web whatever – truly it brings out the sporting spirit in each of us. A grandfather uses his fork to show his grandson how Pele used to do it, a teenager emulates Ochoa’s hairstyle in a last-ditch attempt to win some attention from that girl across the street who seems immune to all his charms, a manager cancels a meeting (to the relief of all involved) as he decides his football team deserves his attention more for a very important fixture, a child deduces the goalpost must really be in the television set and smashes the screen in – everywhere the spirit is on display. Smiles, grins, exasperation (oh! if only he had listened to me on how to take that corner!) – its a rainbow of emotions – everywhere.

 

I guess all of this is what makes this perhaps the greatest spectacle in the world. And this time around, there are wonderful places to catch all the action:

– On TV of course – live action unlimited

– Go to the google homepage and some wonderful doodles are present, clicking on which you get details of all the action

– Social media has plenty of analysis and streaming news. Check the World Cup page on twitter – simply, simply wonderful..

and on and on….

 

So enjoy the game – and may your whistles and cheering be louder than ever. If you’ll excuse me now – got to go take a look at a match myself!