Wednesday, March 18, 2015

When the ‘Second’ is the ‘First’: Getting the Perspectives Right

Many times in life, we are so obsessed with symptoms that we lose sight of the root cause. Also, many times we see a part as the whole. True, management thought has taught us to focus on results. True also that the industrial engineering movement, and even the famed Toyota Production System, taught us the benefits of division of work and specialization. In general, if each person does what he or she is supposed to do right, the next in sequence would occur with equal efficiency, Efficient parts, it is believed, make for an effective whole. This indeed is logical but only so long as the logic of what must override what in terms of the core purpose is not appreciated.

The issue at hand is almost like the distinction between Ayurveda, the ancient Indian science of healing and Allopathy, the modern practice of medicine. The former requires a patient to be studied in whole before a disease is treated. The Ayurvedic treatments offered in India are a case in point. The latter believes that unless the disease as expressed by the symptoms is addressed quickly there could be collateral damage. Obviously, both approaches have their merits and applicability. The debate, however, makes us think through what is primary and what is secondary in the real sense and meaning of various practices we are accustomed to in life. Some interesting examples, relevant for individuals, managers, leaders and organizations alike, follow.

1.       Teaching and learning 

There is so much focus on institutes which offer quality teaching. This focus is not peculiar to India; it pervades even the advanced countries. The basic purpose, one would presume, of good teaching is good learning. One should logically look for institutes which enable good learning rather than offer good teaching. Good teaching need not necessarily translate itself into good learning. In any case, rather than assume that good teaching makes students good learners, it would be appropriate to insist on both teachers and the students to focus on learning. While assessing graduates of institutes, it is important to assess if they had assimilated learning to the standard equivalent the teaching of an institute is expected to.

2.      Qualifications and education

As with the chase for quality teaching institutes there is an equal, if not greater, craze for educational qualifications and professional certifications. Without doubt, formal qualifications are essential means of ensuring that one goes through a prescribed process of education and evaluation. However, education can take place independent of qualifications, and all qualifications may not result in the same level of education. The challenge is greater when people acquire diverse qualifications. Whether one qualification de-educates one of the previous qualification or builds on the foundations is a key aspect. While assessing individuals with or without qualifications, it is important to assess the true level of education he or she would have got.   

3.      Assimilation and application

The main purpose of teaching and learning is to assimilate all knowledge within oneself. As modern research indicates human brain is an amazing library and storehouse of whatever information is deposited into it. Contrary to popular belief, the brain has the ability to absorb an endless array of information. Unlike a physical library, even if information is taken out from the brain it remains in the memory; in fact, it gets expanded with the way the retracted information is processed and acted upon. Assimilation is purposeless without application, just as teaching is purposeless without learning. Application of knowledge is the one that differentiates active achievers from passive followers. It is also interesting that it is the greater application of knowledge rather than just greater teaching or learning that results in greater assimilation of knowledge.  

4.      Hearing and listening

Hearing is the electro-mechanical process of receiving external sounds through the ears, whether from nature or humans. Every sound has its purpose and meaning, more so the speech of humans. In fact, the productivity of human relationships is based entirely on communication. Communication is complete only when the message is listened to, rather than merely heard. Listening, as contrasted with hearing, is the process of paying attention with a view to hear and/or hearing with an intention to take notice. Listening, therefore, is purposeful hearing. Hearing without listening does not contribute to human bonding.
5.      Managing and leading

Managing is the process of running a business. Leading is the process of taking a business to a new horizon. From a time not so long ago when management was considered all-encompassing we are now in a stage when managing is considered separate from (and unfortunately, somewhat inferior to) leading. Also, it is considered that management is a task of lower hierarchy and leadership is one of higher hierarchy. This un-discerning differentiation is misconceived. Leading is the sole purpose of management. A manager who cannot be a leader cannot be a true manager. The process of running a business perforce has to also lead the business to consistently better results.

6.      Facts and truths

Facts are real incidents that have occurred but truth is what they represent. The fact of one studying for long hours does not necessarily represent the truth or untruth of studying with concentration. Facts are visible and can be recounted with accuracy. Truth is invisible and can be only inferred or evaluated when disclosed. All truth is not factually discoverable while all facts may not disclose the entire truth. The dilemma in active and speedy life is to whether to progress on facts as received or get stalled in a potentially endless search for truth.

7.      Self-reliant and self-sufficient

India, since its independence days, has pursued a policy of self-reliance. This has prompted the governments to build dams and set up heavy industries as well as consumer goods industries. Self-reliance is the ability to develop its infrastructure. This has not been, however, accompanied by an ability to be self-sufficient in terms of technologies, equipment, finances or manufacturing capacities. Self-reliance without self-sufficiency is of little use as it would still leave vast sections of population unattended in terms of its needs. There can be no greater formula for economic growth and social equity than achieving self-sufficiency with self-reliance.

8.      Self-image and self-worth

All successful persons have an image of themselves. Their self-image prompts them to face the world and lead their teams with confidence. In a sense, self-image is in itself a success enabler (as long as it does not lead to narcissism!). Yet, such self-image tends to be the preserve of only the exclusive few. On the other hand, every person can, and must, have self-worth. Whatever be the avocation one is in, or the activity one chooses to do, one must take pride in executing it to the fullest capability. This leads to a strong sense of self-worth. Self-image that is backed by self-worth is a sustainable alchemy, not only for the individual but also for the broader organization.

9.      Empowering and enabling

Leadership (and management) is no longer about just controlling and co-ordinating. It is more about inspiring and influencing. Frequently used in that context is ‘empowerment’ as a concept. It is felt that leaders and managers should empower their team members to be able to accomplish the goals on their own. Empowerment is provision of more authority on one’s life and conduct. More than this oft used cliché, the real requirement for leaders and managers is to enable their team members to set and accomplish their own goals. ‘Enabling’ is making it possible for someone to achieve something by creating certain necessary conditions; this could include, among others, empowerment too. Enabling clearly is a more appropriate concept than just empowerment.  

10.  Title and stature

A key feature of social evolution, over centuries, has been the emergence of titles. Titles signify rank in a profession or in a society. Titles have such compelling attraction that everyone seeks them. Titles by definition tend to be for few. In comparison, stature is the importance and respect that a person has because of his or her ability and achievement. While titles can be had only by a few (and ironically, bestowed at times independent of stature), stature can be gained by all independent of their hierarchy through sheer dint of achievements and accomplishments. Virtuous individuals and organizations aspire to acquire stature rather than seek ranks.  

When ‘second’ is ‘first’

Many times, in the pursuit of visible results or even the activities, the central purpose gets lost in visibility. The preoccupation with the results and activities makes one equate the very act or the result (like teaching or qualification) to be the same as the underlying purpose (like learning or education), respectively. This makes achievements rather mechanical, sub-optimizing capabilities and creativity. The organizational designs, including structures and processes, as well as individual and social systems (including values and ethics) must focus on the underlying core purpose.

Oftentimes, playing a sport or participating in a competition is considered more important than winning the competition. Similarly putting in the best effort without aspiring for a result is considered philosophically appropriate. The spirit is considered more relevant than success, and the effort more relevant than result. That said, if in the ten aspects of life that have been discussed above, the primary driver of progress is recognized and followed, spirit will soar high as much as success will sustain for sure. The seemingly ‘second’ is the ‘first’ in most cases of life!

Posted by Dr CB Rao on March 18, 2015                 

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