Sunday, September 22, 2013

Slow and Steady Wins the Race: The Five Oxymoron Theorems of Good Life and Good Business!

One of the most interesting and intriguing adages that has been passed on through generations is that ‘slow and steady wins the race’. The message is further driven home by the rabbit and tortoise parable, where a slow and steady tortoise wins the race over a sprinting and napping rabbit. The proverb started losing its sheen even the jet age that set in a few decades ago. It is considered even more anachronistic in today’s instant world of random challenges and expectations of instantaneous results. In social life as well as in business life this instant phenomenon has resulted in a way of life that is characterized by intense competition and unthinking consumption.  This generation, for example, multitasks far more and builds redundancies far greater than earlier generations used to do.

The supply-demand equation is artificially altered in an instant world. Because everyone is in such a hurry to hit the market earlier and better than anyone else, there is that much more anxiety and speed, and even cramming more inputs in lesser space than ever. For individuals, it means a relentless focus on growing faster materialistically, offering more of one’s services and attention in exchange for monetary benefits in an ever-engaging fashion. For businesses it means churning out more products at a faster rate, pushing up physical deliveries and clocking up ever-greater revenues. There are several areas that have benefitted from such intense competition and consumerism but several areas have also seen adverse environmental impact.    
The only way these deleterious trends can be reversed is through the judicious application of certain oxymoron theorems which enable greater efficiency and effectiveness in individual and business lives. Some of these are considered below.

Less is more (LIM)

Fundamentally, the world will be a better place if with lower inputs we could achieve greater outputs. That said, we need to apply the LIM theorem judiciously, and certainly not perversely or cynically. At an individual level, it does not, for example, mean that with fewer educational qualifications one must target better job opportunities. It should also mean that one should aspire to succeed just because one has got into the ring. It should, however, certainly mean that one should practice a discipline of study that enables one to acquire greater knowledge with lower time allocation. It should also mean that the intent should be to reap a reasonable reward that is commensurate with genuine effort.  At a biological level, frugality of right eating is known to ensure disease-free longevity and at an economic level, prudence in expenditure is known to ensure stress-free prosperity.

At a business level, Henry Ford pioneered how just one standardized car model can generate a mass market. More contemporaneously, Steve Jobs demonstrated how just one iPhone model can generate close to 200 million units of sales. General Motors and Samsung as respective follow-on competitors did exactly opposite in terms of differentiation and segmentation through multiple products to upstage the pioneers in terms of sales volumes and market share. The LIM theory at a business level needs to be applied judiciously. For example, simple technology that can achieve greater functionality will deliver greater value even in a mono-product situation. Doing a few core management processes correctly will fetch better results than undertaking scores of peripheral processes elegantly. There is no classic 80-20 rule that is universally applicable (varies depending on industry context) but mastering the core is mightily important for maximal impact.
Filtration adds more (FAM)
The second oxymoron theorem is that filtration adds more to strategic and execution power. In a technical sense, filtration removes impurities and makes a liquid pure. In a life sense, filtration helps the individual or business to add more content and catalysts. At an individual level as well as at a business level, we are today spoilt for choices and never left starved for inputs. From education to employment, an individual has choices that confuse and confound, with the added signals and compulsions from parents and families. FAM theorem states that the more an individual filters the inputs based on appropriate sieves of existing competencies and intrinsic aptitude the more effective will be the individual’s growth plan and its execution.  Use of inappropriate sieves, on the other hand, would lead to wrong residues.
FAM theorem works somewhat differently for businesses. Existing businesses need to be continuously osmotic with the environment to achieve the right equilibrium. Business competencies have to be built up to meet the higher business opportunities of the environment. In respect of new businesses, competencies have to be absorbed from the environment to prepare an organization that can fit the environment. In both cases of business, appropriate osmosis can occur only through appropriate cultural filters. In business, people speak of stage gates, decision trees and funnel- down approaches as approaches to filter business ideas. The more effective filtration approach in business is truly invisible. Competency-opportunity osmosis tends to be effective only with cultural filters that can only be experienced rather than explained.
Complex is simple (CIS)   
Complexity rules today’s world.  Even the apparently simplest decisions are challenged by the need to evaluate several simulations with multiple choices and alternative logics. At an individual level, such complexity can be tackled by inherent simplicity. There exist two ways to delayer complexity to discover the internal simplicity; understanding what one wants and understanding what it takes to get what one wants. Matching aptitude to opportunity through a means often reduces complex decisions of life to simple pathways. The same imaginative ability of an individual that enables him or her evaluate several alternatives will also help the individual relate each of the scenarios to his or her desired scenario. Often, there tends to be only one criterion that is relevant; the rest is noise. The CIS formula for tackling complexity is simple: hear or see everything, listen to or retain a few things and accept the right thing.
At a business level, complexity is tackled by focus. Business development, strategic planning and operational excellence often require evaluation of complex situations. Corporations, by design, are tuned to create and relish complexity, given multiple functional departments and multiple professional viewpoints. The same CIM formula that helps an individual achieve simplicity helps corporations achieve focus. What business or businesses the corporation would like to be in, what core competencies and core strategies the organization needs for realizing those businesses and in what operations that the corporations need to excel in are questions that provide the focused pathway of success to corporations encountering business complexities. Often, strong leadership is required to engage corporations prone to plurality of thinking into simple choices and focused execution.  Successes of organizations that are driven by entrepreneurs and strong leaders point to the validity of the CIS theorem.
Instant is distant (IID)
In today’s instant world, the drive to achieve instant results keeps real success distant. In this case, the word  ‘instant’ needs to be interpreted in a manner of speaking; in terms of seeking results as fast as possible without understanding what, and how long, it takes or without marshaling requisite resources. At an individual level, strategic goals require long term planning and assiduous effort. Individuals seeking success in terms of entry into premium institutions (such as IITs and IIMs in India or Top Schools abroad) and premium courses (such as medicine, genetics, robotics and nanotech) require the requisite time and effort. Making sporadic and spontaneous efforts with expectations of instantaneous results almost always makes the goals elusive. The proliferation of development handbooks abroad and coaching institutions in India reflects the recognition that personal and professional growth is a process. Individuals who aspire for instant success and adulation, more often than not, tend to get disappointed.   
In successful businesses, what seems an instant success is, almost invariably, preceded by unseen focus, effort and lead time adopted, behind the scenes, by such business corporations. On the other hand, rapid business development (eg., seeking to grow twice as much and twice as fast as industry leader) and hasty product launches (eg., seeking to saturate market with self-cannibalizing products) tend to  lead to weak foundational support with risks of business collapse. Similarly, mergers and acquisitions that are carried out without due diligence by managements as quick-fix solutions for instant business expansion, diversification or growth tend to flounder on challenges of misaligned expectations, troubled integration and elusive synergies. Forbes in a March 2012 research article concluded that almost 50 percent of the mergers and acquisitions either fail completely or do not generate the substantial part of anticipated value. Clearly, instant calculations and instant results are not so synonymous with success in business
Slow is speed (SIS)  
Edmund Burke stated, “The march of the human mind is slow”. He also said, “To read without reflecting is like eating without digesting”. Confucius said, “The expectations of life depend on diligence; the mechanic that would perfect his work should sharpen his tools”. He also said, “Those who break down the dikes will themselves be drowned in the inundation”.  Mahatma Gandhi said, “Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from indomitable will” He also said, “There is more to life than increasing its speed”. For individuals as well as corporations, these sayings from educational, philosophical and spiritual leaders across generations indicate that it is important to be thoughtful and deliberate in planning, and appropriate and contextual in governing the speed of one’s life. Different people are blessed genetically and developmentally with differential abilities to shape and cope with life. Being slow and safe saves individuals from huge setbacks that could occur with impulsive, unplanned and momentary speeding up in life.  
The Japanese corporations are living examples of giving less importance to speed and according more emphasis on durability, illustrating the SIS theorem. Though the Japanese economy and industry have been beset by decades of flat growth, the Japanese corporations remain technologically competent, competitive and relevant; the same cannot be said of corporations of certain advanced and emerging countries which race ahead under propitious circumstances only to stall and stutter under the first signs of adversity. The Japanese are able to succeed despite being slow and steady because internal standardization and external harmonization as well as intrinsic politeness and extrinsic elegance which are essential constituents of the Japanese society are integral components of the Japanese corporations as well. Societies and corporations in emerging economies must emulate the Japanese credo of being slow and steady, sure and safe, polite and persistent, consistent and standardized, and harmonious and elegant to ensure sustainable success. A behavioral mindset on these lines alone can ensure pleasant progress, for individuals as well as businesses.
Posted by Dr CB Rao on September 22, 2013     




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