Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Advertising as Association: Warranty as an Open Card

Every wakeful moment of ours there are two things that keep happening invariably. The first is that we continue to be ever so unaware of our real internal selves. The second is that we become constantly ever so aware of external things which are not necessarily real. The first is related to the ego that we grow with. The first is not the focus of this blog post. The second is related to a ubiquitous phenomenon called advertising. What began as a management process to provide information to those who need has become a managerial process or profession by itself. When we see a newspaper today we see more advertisements than news. When we view electronic media, we see already broken stories that are further fractured by advertisements. When we go through any event, we encounter directed self-promotion rather than genuine public purpose. Everything in life, including organizational life, seems to be anchored around mutual advertisements.

Advertising may be defined as the non-personal communication of information, usually paid for and usually persuasive in nature, about products, services, events or ideas by their sponsors through various media and channels intended for consumers. Professional advertisement, however, has gone far beyond the classic definition. Persuasion had long ago become competitive persuasion but has not stopped there. It has now become visually overwhelming demonstration even against natural instinct and personal space. The day newspapers started having full page advertisements as their cover pages, the day popup advertisements began clouding any information in social media and the day self-promotion became a surrogate to performance, truth has started becoming a casualty in some manner or the other, and to some extent or the other. Like technology, advertisement is a product of modernity that needs to be utilized for the good it offers rather than the distortions it creates.   

Creative but crafty

Advertising is a process that is considered creative. Similar products and services are presented in different ways by advertisers solely because of creativity. Like fine arts, advertising requires creativity while staying within the prudential limits of decency, integrity and realism. Even global products need be presented to reflect local tastes and preferences, embedding cultural ethos in presentations. Advertising happens through multiple channels such as hoardings, posters, print, radio, television, cable network, television and social media popups, besides word of mouth. It is considered the essence of one of the four essential ‘Ps’ of marketing, product, price, positioning and promotion. Advertising can be subtle or gross; it can just provide cues or mandate action. Over time, advertisement has become a specialized science of consumer psychology, seeking to understand, influence, and shape consumer mind.

Viewing in a very objective way the deluge of advertisements that impact our senses day in and day out, one can easily understand that advertisement is not only creative but also crafty. Crafty is a fairly broad word, ranging in definition from artful to deceitful but in essence implies a clever way of achieving objectives by artful and deceitful methods.  Advertisement unfortunately is made most on products that are either injurious to health or those whose health claims are plain exaggerated. Massive advertisements for sugared drinks and processed foods typify the former while intensively child focused advertisements for growth and memory exemplify the latter. Advertisements do expand demand and help companies create more supply side wealth. Advertisements which are paid for by companies create huge employment and also help media subsidise their services. Advertisements also can be great tools of responsibility messaging and social engineering. That should not limit us from exploring betterment of the art.

Style rather than substance

Advertisements are fundamentally supposed to be persuasive based on facts, rather than perceptions. The more technical and functional a product is the more important such factual explanation becomes. The more lifestyle and personal a product is the greater is the reliance on perceptions and imagery. However, advertising has strayed from mainstream objectives so much that these two propositions are not followed faithfully. Where products are technical, company rather than product is the base of advertisement. Advertisements have moved from building product equity or brand equity to building corporate equity. Measures to promote Google, Microsoft, Cisco rather than their products stands out as an example. Also, advertisements have started focusing on scale and pomp rather than facts to impress. The ever increasing garish advertisements in realty space as well as full page advertisements in India are a classic example.   

Apple iPhone advertisements in India are another example of condescending approach that brand and corporate driven advertisements can take. The advertisements expect the users to be psyched further into product supremacy with overwhelming product imagery, and some minor price concessions. When advertisements go long on style truth suffers. Airtel is presently running a very engaging creative advertisement series on its 4G network and nationwide data, and voice connectivity therefrom. The advertisement mesmerises people over the daily call drops they suffer in their core cities. The Indian advertisement scenario is replete with several suggestions of style without substance; the several campaigns by jewellery houses on gaudy ornaments is just another example. There is no correlation between the ornaments pf crores of rupees they advertise and the actual simple jewels that crores of Indian population can really afford.   

Life of style or lifestyle?

Advertisements in India have induced a lifestyle that is consumption oriented rather than consumer oriented. They have impacted the attention span and processing ability of individuals on matters that are more central or crucial to life. One is exposed to several advertisements that talk about offbeat products; like special rice for diabetics, health insurance for elderly, attractive mutual funds etc. However, not one advertisement would care to expand on the theme to advise how the products actually are offbeat. In some advertisements, thanks to the regulators, risk factors are provided but in such small print and with such disclaimers that no one can decipher any contextual meaning.  The objective of advertisement has been to encourage people to resort to additional or excessive consumption to achieve a life of style rather than a lifestyle that is truly consumer friendly. It is not surprising, therefore, that the expenditure on advertisement as a percentage of sales tends to be higher than expenditure on product development itself!

Despite lack of information or even information that brings out the downside, companies continue to be blasé about their claims even as consumers continue to get swayed by advertisements. For example, despite the indictment in a judicial court in USA that a talcum powder of a leading company had cancer causing potential, the products of that company continue to be advertised as the safest even for the most tender skins without any reference or disassociation with such developments. When a food giant reintroduces its product that has been withdrawn, no explanation is offered in the relaunch advertisements on how the reformulation is different. The reason is that advertisements create a strong sense of association between consumers and their dream lifestyle through their products, and companies are indeed loathe to impact such positive associations with any negative association, even if it is established under certain circumstances.

Association, the key

Association is the relationship between two data items that is established through feeling, expectation or through memory. Creative and crafty advertisements seek to establish a positive and desired association and position their products as the providers or enablers of such association. Soaps, for example, seek to establish a clear association with skincare while some specialized soaps with hygiene. Ayurvedic products bring out association with natural cure, bereft of chemicals. Electronic products focus on specific attributes such as picture clarity to promote real life visual experience. Not all associations of advertisements are positive, however. The advertisements of yesteryears on cigarettes associated smoking with heroism and cowboy style, and in hindsight had been extremely negative for life and living. Advertisers continue to be crafty; even though advertisements for alcoholic drinks are banned they continue use surrogates and brands. Even more harmful are some advertisements which are sexist, crass and titillating. While there have been mechanisms like advertisement council to legislate standards and handle deviations, such mechanisms have been post-facto, and hardly serve to undo the damage.

There is a need to put in place alternative templates of advertising. This blog post suggests that all advertisements must have two sections; one the visual and descriptive part as now and the other a technical part which provides technical details of claims in a manner intelligible to common persons even. When an ayurvedic product advertises itself as having 21 herbs, the least that must be done has two components. The first is the theoretical aspect of what each herb is purported to do as per ancient texts. The second is the practical aspect of how the company has, in its view, succeeded in bringing those benefits to the product by virtue of material isolation, product quality and validated clinical trials. Similarly, the maker of a fan/air conditioner could speak of comparative strengths in terms of airflow, noise levels, motor/compressor durability etc. True and authentic advertisement is the one which can make an open commitment to consumers on product quality based on specifications, manufacture and usage with expected benefits. Each advertisement for any product or service needs to be an open warranty card more than anything else.  

Posted by Dr CB Rao on May 31, 2016

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Electronics as Bare Necessities in India: A New Sectoral ‘Innovate in India’ Paradigm

Fitbit is the hugely popular global manufacturer of fitness band and activity trackers. It has recently launched through Amazon in India its fitness watch Fitbit Blaze at Rs 20000 (USD 300). In US it is sold at a maximum of USD 200, with deals in shops like Best Buy dipping the price lower. Fitbit Charge HR is retailed at USD 225 (Rs 15000) in India, compared to USD 125 in US, promotional pricing being USD 100. Microsoft Surface Pro 4 in its mid-range specification (i5, 4GB, 128 GB) costs Rs 90000 (USD 1400) on Amazon India which is the price in US of the top rated Surface 4 Pro (i7, 16 GB, 256 GB) model. Similar is the case with all other electronic products, from smart phones to flat televisions and from washing machines to refrigerators, whether they are wholly imported or made in India.

A UHD curved television costs Rs 300000 (USD 4500) in India while in the US a comparable model costs USD 2500. The usurious pricing of Apple electronic products in India is well known.  It cannot be said that the rather high pricing that prevails in India is only due to import duties, if any. Customs duties on different types of products range from 6 percent to 28 percent, duties on parts being on the lower side. Samsung claims to make its latest range of Galaxy S7 smart phones in India; but they are priced no less with prices upwards of USD 800, a near 50 percent premium on corresponding unlocked models in US. Clearly, whether imported into India or made in India, electronic products seem to have their own premium pricing logic. The economics of electronic products need greater research, it appears.

Bare necessities

Someone must really put their pencil and pen to paper to understand the economic travesty of electronics in India. A pencil in India is probably 10 percent of the cost in US and a pen is probably 20 percent of the cost. There is no reason why we should not aim at cheaper pricing for electronics products in India, in terms of purchase power parity. Given that the exchange parity between US and India is 66 to 1, the impact of high pricing of electronic products on the consumer surplus in terms of broader ability to purchase more necessary products is evident. The price premium (over above the basic benchmark price) that is embedded in one electronic product such as a smart phone (which may be say, Rs 25000) sucks away the money that could be spent on 333 rice packs of 1 kg, 100 knowledge books of Rs 250 each, 12500 A4 white sheets, 2500 ball pens of Rs10 each, subscription for 5000 issues of daily newspaper, or an angiogram, in a manner of speaking.

The comparison is not to suggest that people of India should shun electronics. A nation, in contemporary and futuristic times, can only grow when it is electronics-oriented. However, it must just not be through only consumption of electronic products (that too imported ones); it must be through design and manufacturing of electronics products, from multiple base chips to a range of products in India. A review of history of developed nations suggests that only those nations which balanced competencies in electronics and non-electronics could become
 leaders in industrial development. The point is that electronic products must also be designed, manufactured and sold in India in a manner as natural as any of the bare necessity products. Electronics is no longer a luxury class of products; it is a class of bare necessities!

No more monopolies

There was a time in the 1980s when the semiconductor industry was dominated by Japanese manufacturers such as NEC, Toshiba, Hitachi, Fujitsu, Mitsubishi, Matsushita, Sony and Panasonic. From the 1990s, however, Intel began to dominate the chip industry, partly abetted by Japan’s strengthening Yen. In the 2000s, it came to be believed that Intel and to an extent AMD only can dominate the chip industry. India, apart from failing to see the importance of a domestic electronics base, lacked the confidence to establish such an industry for want of basic research base in semiconductors. However, other manufacturers in US such as Qualcomm, Micron, Broadcom, SanDisk and Nvidia and manufacturers from Korea such as Samsung and SK Hynix began researching for newer chips and started dominating the chip manufacture. Part of the decline came from a dip in personal computer chips but the more significant decline was because of Intel’s misjudgement on the growth of mobile devices and the need for customized mobile chips.

At another level, monopolies in manufacture of electronic products got dismantled more decisively even earlier. Korea, followed by Taiwan and China started manufacturing a range of electronics equipment, including more lately tablets and smart phones. Japan, of course, maintained its pioneering dominance in electronics while European countries which were early pioneers recovered and kept making progress with renewed technologies. Throughout all this, China has emerged as the world’s chosen base for electronics manufacture, irrespective of the brand, so much so they have by now established their own status independent electronics producers (Lenovo, Haier, Huawei, TCL, ZTE etc.,). That a Chinese company (Foxconn) has become a white knight for a Japanese company in deep trouble (Sharp) shows the extent to which China has matured in electronics.  India has missed the boat during this period.

Ways to go

India has the promise to be the next hub for electronics manufacture as China has been a couple of decades ago, notwithstanding the missteps even on the few first steps such as Nokia Park. Notwithstanding this, Foxconn has signed an agreement with Government of Maharashtra to set up a USD 5 billion electronics manufacturing park. There are two routes to spur electronics manufacture in India. One is to encourage contract electronics manufacturers such as Foxconn to set up their manufacturing bases in India. The parallel step is to encourage electronics giants such as Sony, Panasonic, Samsung, LG and Apple to set up their own manufacturing bases in India. Both these strategies are likely to lead to a good multiplier effect on the industrial economy of India with newer component bases, newer manufacturing processes, and large number of jobs. What happened in automobile industry can be foreseen in electronics too in India. That may not be the whole story, however. 

The key to developing an electronics base lies in research into new materials, and new processors. Samsung has over 500 patents on graphene, the new material for a host of futuristic technologies. Similarly, global giants have patents on other materials belonging to classes of metals, polymers and biomaterials as well as wearables, sensors and other futuristic gadgets. Water and dust resistant smart phones use materials that conduct signals but do not allow water in their openings. Now, Apple would like to use a material that makes antenna holes invisible. It is difficult to conceive of developing new electronic products without developing new materials. For example, a new development in wearables envisages wearable skin-like polymer. Manufacturing of new electronic products under contract or captive use is one great leap for India but development and manufacture of new materials and new components would be an even greater leap.

100% research

China and India achieved major milestones in manufacture through 100 percent special economic zones for manufacturing. China has, however, gone forward by facilitating exclusive zones for innovation research and demonstration. There are 14 such zones in China now. China has also promised minimal governmental intervention in such zones and research endeavours.  In 2006 itself, China identified lack of indigenous technology intellectual property and indigenous innovation as two major national problems. A nationalistic Chinese government declared in 2006 that without independent innovation, China would be unable to claim an equal place in the world or achieve national honour. Apart from providing financial grants and incentives to encourage R&D, Chinese government openly traded access to the vast Chinese market for technology transfer by MNCs. In fact, as many as 400 of Fortune 500 firms have their R&D centres in China.

Interestingly, China has provided targeted support to key emerging industries over the last decade. These are electronics, supercomputing, semiconductors, digital machine tools, robotics, and more recently nanotechnology and rare earth materials. China has also relied on overseas Chinese diaspora in the fields of science and technology to lead such innovation efforts. India needs to develop a completely novel innovation strategy which has path-breaking elements. The following are suggested: (i) complete electronics value chain, from chips and semiconductors to electronic devices and electronics in other devices, (ii) Internet of Things, (iii) new materials (iii) nanotechnologies (iv) wearable technologies, and (vi) autonomous devices and equipment. The current strengths in information technology, heavy industries, capital goods and other industries must, of course, be continuously reinforced with new innovations.

100% research will happen with 100% support from public and private sectors, and all scientific and technical personnel in India and abroad. Governments in India are pooling or providing thousands of acres for airports, seaports, roads and conventional industries, and even financial cities and capital cities which support construction activity and provide direct employment generation. A few thousand acres must be allocated for National Innovation Centres for setting up world-class laboratories in the above areas, and provided free of charge in exchange with equity ownership, with returns expected from commercialized technologies through equity ownership. Governments, public sector corporations and private sector companies must also start making bold moves by acquiring stakes in overseas technology companies developing leading edge technologies. Electronics and electronic products in their various hues are the basic necessities of life, and require dedicated focus, investments and nurturing by all stakeholders in India. Otherwise, Indian economy will continue to fork out huge premiums on imports, and more importantly will not be able to fulfil its true scientific and technical potential.

Posted by Dr CB Rao on May 29, 2016


Friday, May 27, 2016

Rich Resources Could Add up to Poor Results: Costly Lessons from Tollywood Movie Disappointment, "Brahmotsavam"

In recent months, two movies of Telugu movie superstars raised huge expectations but failed to live up to them. While Sardar Gabbar Singh, starring Pawan Kalyan in the lead role, and also scripted and pseudo-directed by him released about a month ago disappointed viewers, the even more recent release, Brahmotsavam, starring Mahesh Babu in the lead role, threatens to be an even greater disaster. In fact, Brahmotsavam was a greater shocker because it seemed to have all the right ingredients: the handsome and elegant Mahesh Babu as the central anchor, three glamorous heroines Kajal, Samantha and Praneeta, an ensemble star cast of over 30 veteran stars, soulful and peppy music by Mickey J Meyer, gorgeous sets by Thota Tharani, breath-taking cinematography by Rathnavelu, an editor known for slickness, K Venkateswara Rao, famed choreographers Raju-Sundaram, a production house that splurges, and above all, a director who has track record of successful family entertainers in the past, Srikanth Addala.

Brahmotsavam was also notable for an intense level of promotions starring all the major stars and the music director and director in the 3 week run-up to the release, with clips and talks which underwrote the feel-good value of the movie, driving up viewer expectations sky high. After a great pre-release extravaganza, the movie released in over 900 screens globally. It is remarkable that from the very first show, there was a negative view about the movie across regions and across viewers, most of it centred on a meaningless and meandering second half, and all the songs wasted in the first half in rapid succession. Although the movie team has tried out a rear guard action by chopping off 18 minutes of draggy scenes in the second half and one song, there has been no improvement of the sentiment. The author has held in some of the previous blog posts that movie making is a highly enterprising creative endeavour and offers valuable management lessons, both from successes and failures. Brahmotsavam too offers important lessons, both for movie making and enterprise management.  

Calibrating investments

The general expectation is that if an enterprise is able to commit huge resources, either as investment or expenditure, it will be able to build world class infrastructure and business. While there is some proportionality between resources and outcomes the curve of proportionality tapers off after a stage. In fact, expenditures beyond what may be called ‘functionality’ level tend to be sunk costs with declining levels of returns. The phenomenon may be comparable to what a specific piece of sponge can absorb. Brahmotsavam has a super-gorgeous mounting of a movie but the movie as a visual treat made possible by a lavish budget (by Indian standards) of Rs 750 million but had little meaning without consistent emotional tether (which would have required no investments of such scale).

In business too, luxurious offices and gold plated factories have a visual impact but beyond a functionally utilitarian scale, they add more costs and overheads than value.  Internal value generation at increasing levels, which is hard to come by, is required to cater to increased investments.  Alternatively, investments have to be tailored to the value that can be created.

Synergizing expertise

Expertise is the key to success. The foundation of Brahmotsavam was to have the best expert in each field contribute to his or her department being top class. Indeed, the assumption played out well individually, there being nothing to fault any department in terms of cinematic excellence. However, together it made incoherent sense. Potentially, experts took specialized views rather than a comprehensive view of the movie, and the movie director was more preoccupied in providing each stalwart with a sub-canvas commensurate with his expertise, rather than building a more holistic total canvas with appropriate embellishments from all.

In business organizations too, having too many experts could lead to functional specialization but business sub-optimization. The CEO would more often than not be preoccupied with satisfying the individual domain needs of expert CXOs rather than do what is holistically good for the enterprise.

Roles to drive numbers

Closely allied with having more technician-experts on board, Brahmotsavam had even more stars for the screen. In a movie of 150 minutes having more than 30 plus veterans would only mean not more than 5 minutes of screen time for each star. With the hero Mahesh being required to be in every scene throughout the movie to carry it on his able shoulders, each veteran’s average screen time has been even lower. Rather than tight story telling what emerges in such a scenario is a visual spectacle of all stars vying for screen space. In low cost economies the tendency to over-deploy people is endemic; seen in movies as much as in businesses.

Having too many people lumped into a value chain is less productive than their being spread out across the value chain, in a role based manner. When a technical or operational bottleneck occurs it is the qualitative ingenuity of a few rather than quantitative redundancy of a mass that works.

Book rather than chapters

Brahmotsavam is much like a classic case of a book with an inspiring title and having a few chapters that are brilliant and several which are weak. The movie certainly has its beautiful frames and touching moments which reflect the theme in the first half but there are also several frames which run away from the theme as the hero takes off on a rather meaningless pan-Indian journey to connect with some spread out relatives. A book must be interesting to read cover to cover; so must be a movie from start to finish. Continuing emotional connect with the reader or viewer underwrites success in both the cases.

Enterprise is a series of projects but is an unending book or movie. Participants in an enterprise, employees or investors, look to a continuing story that is engaging. The moment a project wanes, and gives the feel of a ‘done chapter’, and in fact has more such disappointments in sequence or in store, enterprise starts becoming an emotionally and economically losing proposition.   

Directorial deficit

All said and done, the director remains the central anchor for a movie. Only he or she holds in his mind a mental picture of how he or she would convert the emotional theme to visual frames. He alone knows why he has engaged the stars and technicians he has engaged and the results expected of them. In Brahmotsavam, the director has failed in his primary role, probably with the misplaced belief that conversion of the concept of his earlier successful family movie set in rural background into an urban setting would provide a similar success. He is also responsible for all the deficiencies listed above, again due to excess of confidence and infallibility. Sometimes, directors are hamstrung by weighty producers and stars which also impacts their delivery on screen.  

The CEO of an enterprise wields a similar powerful role. The growth script or turnaround script can only be in his hands. Those CEOs who do not exercise this right and obligation or are not allowed to exercise such a role by the promoters and boards could lead to sub-optimal, if not disastrous, results for their companies.  

Expectations management

The modern society grows on expectations. Expectations management which is relatively new is different from advertisement management which has been age old. While the latter largely explains what a product or service stands for, and only subtly raises expectations, expectations management through a series of leaks, chats, promos presents an alluring image of great things to come. That said, there must be some link between the delivered reality and promised utopia. The issue with Brahmotsavam is that expectations were driven to crazy heights by focusing only on the good parts of the movie. Those who were exposed to such feel-good promos expected that the entire would pan out like the promos and were highly disappointed when things did not turn out as promised.

Companies are well within their rights to promote their products. In fact, it speaks of the collective confidence of the corporate sector that they are able to openly present futuristic features without concerns of copying by competition. That said, expectations have to be set in realistic zones to be able to deliver on them.

Customer supremacy

Even after the high profile debacle, the stars and the makers of Brahmotsavam must be wondering what hit them and why things went wrong. The reason lies in the possibility that all of them took the viewer for granted, and assumed that flashes of brilliance would suffice to impress the viewers. The fact, however, is that the user has his own way of feeling the experience which develops as one sees the movie. While many reasons for viewer dissatisfaction can be adduced as above there may indeed be no one reason why the viewers reject a movie. It can only be related to rather qualitative phenomenon of user experience.

Enterprises are not immune to failing to gauge user experience. Apple has tasted many successes by providing a great user experience on its iPod, iPhone and iPad products but has failed to provide the same user experience with its Apple watch. The customer continues to be supreme in judging a new product regardless of the past successes of a firm.  

Open to feedback

One can have open-to-sky ambitions with a relentless focus and unremitting faith in the goals and processes.  In fact, such passion is needed to fuel growth ambitions. However, as with many things the dividing lines between healthy ownership of a concept and unhealthy possessiveness, and between positive commitment and blind obsession are indeed thin. When a movie is taken with a few overarching themes (eternal family sentiment, charismatic Mahesh Babu, best-in-class departments, successful director etc.,) everyone believes that the success is assured. The makers must, however, be open and sensitive to feedback, which alone can course-correct disasters in the making.

Enterprises tend to be far less interactive and open-house oriented as movie houses are. Yet, if movie houses themselves suffer from myopic or obscured approach towards open feedback, the asphyxiating situation in tightly run enterprises can only be imagined. The need to facilitate and receive continuous feedback in an open manner and respond to that meaningfully is quite evident.

Result not a sum of parts

We are all aware of the constant exhortation that organizations must aim at synergy, whereby the sum is more than a mere addition of numbers. As this blog post illustrates parts are extremely critical but even the best parts cannot automatically make for even a viable product, let alone the best product. Just as in a mechanical watch all components must be fine-tuned for perfect assembly and perfect operation, every product and a project whether it is moviemaking or product manufacture must have parts that are fine-tuned in a success formula that is, in the overall, cohesive, balanced and integrated. Without coherent, balanced and unified thought as well as execution, the result of an endeavour may not even be a sum of parts!

Hopefully, the lessons of Brahmotsavam will be learnt. There was once a movie, Dil Se, made in 1998 by an ace director (Mani Ratnam ) with a star hero (Shahrukh Khan) and some of the finest technicians ( A R Rahman and Gulzar, for example) which raised huge expectations as a visual and musical masterpiece but turned out to be a huge box-office disappointment. Both the director and actor (and, of course other technicians) picked up the pieces and went on to make great movies, individually and collectively, post-failure. All stakeholders of Brahmotsavam, likewise, would hopefully bring out their collective best in their future movie endeavours.

That said, why should anyone, movie makers or enterprise leaders, fail at all when success can be assured with some sensibility and sensitivity as well as some reflection and introspection?

Posted by Dr CB Rao on May 27, 2016

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Goals as Triggers: An Outcome-Process Matrix

Goals are an essential part of life for individuals as well as organizations. Goal setting is an important mechanism for development. In individuals it reflects leadership to take charge of one’s life and live optimally. In organizations it reflects a leadership capability to drive the organization on development path. Goals that are easy to achieve and will, anyway, happen in the natural course are not goals truly in a developmental sense. Goals which require planning, generation and deployment of resources, and which involve complex managerial processes are usual goals in an organizational sense. Goals by themselves are meaningless without they becoming outcomes, and outcomes are impossible without dedicated efforts. Aspirational adrenalin and situational stress are two important components of the journey towards converting goals into outcomes.

Goalsetting by itself is an emotional trigger. For some, setting mild easily achievable goals acts as a relief while setting lofty and tough-to-achieve goals could be stressful. For others, the reverse can be true. Outcomes, apart from the developmental satisfaction of achieving, involve emotional outcomes too. There are many components that vest in goals the stress dimension or lack of it. Time is the most impactful component. There is no linear correlation, positive or inverse, between factors supporting goal achievement and actual achievement of goals. It is not necessarily true that few is better for goals and more is better for resources for smooth goal achievement. It is this complexity that makes the theory of goals a challenging one. This blog post proposes a simple outcome-process matrix to understand the goal theory.

Goal-resource conundrum

Many advise that fewer goals make for better accomplishment. In matter of practice, there is nothing like being able to live with fewer goals. Even a singular goal has a cascade of goals. A singular goal like “I should join medicine” has several goals like “getting top ranks in certain qualifying subjects”, “getting top marks in the qualifying entrance examination”, “arranging resources for the costly medical study” and “preparing with the family for separation into hostel life” etc. In respect of organizational goals, there is never anything like singular goal. Something as singular as “we want to achieve the highest market share at X percent” has to be viewed really as a cascade of goals even at business level, let alone at each functional level. The goals would cascade into revenue, cost and profit goals at the business level, and each of these will further cascade into functional goals. Each organizational goal has a hierarchy of goals. And, some of the goals could conflict each other too!

Resources are also complex to decipher. The law of proportionality does not work beyond a point. When a company has a design, manufacturing or quality issue just throwing more people into the ring to solve the issues would not help. In certain situations, quality rather than quantity would be more important. In certain other cases, just giving more time (time being a very important resource) would help. Resources are, more often than not, are shared. In most cases, the impact of doing or not undertaking an activity or not providing a resource allocation would have its impact much later. Relating goals and resources uniquely, in a defined time frame, therefore is a problem in itself. Budgeting is a process to regulate resource allocation but it is a set of numbers. Achievement of goals, and the process thereto, is an emotional ownership journey. The outcomes and process interact in a way that ownership comes with a tinge of emotions.

Outcome classification

Outcomes are basically of two types; those that are potentially feasible and those that are seemingly unworkable. For example, in a market duopoly where both the players have equal share, it would be potentially feasible for one of the players to aim at a 75 percent market share. However, aiming at 95 percent market share would certainly seem to be unworkable. On the other hand, in the same duopoly, if the shares are 10 and 90 percent, it would be potentially feasible for the 10 percent player to become a 20 percent player or a 90 percent player to further become a 95 percent player. It would certainly seem to be unworkable for the 10 percent player to become a 90 percent player, however. In a way, the feasibility or otherwise of outcomes is contextual, depending on organizational, technological, market and environmental conditions. More importantly, it is a function of passage of time impacting these dynamics.

It would have been impossible to conceive of a smart phone which can be assembled and disassembled to suit different functionalities in user’s hands. The first step towards that has been made with LG G5 modular phone which enables upgrade of certain functionalities with addition of certain modules.  Google Ara with its Lego like phone construction which seemed infeasible prior to LG G5 suddenly becomes feasible now. Travel en masse to other planets and setting up human colonies would seem infeasible even today but could become feasible in a few decades. Visionary leaders set goals which are not easily visible to people reasonably versed in current state-of-the-art. Feasibility or otherwise depends on the processes adopted to work towards such goals. 

Process classification

The processes for achievement of goals are of two basic types; those that are carried out as they are instructed to be performed and those that are performed with experimentation. For example, most processes followed in most organizations by most individuals are all instructed processes. The advantages of process instructions are evident; they lead to repeatability and consistency with predictable results. They allow quality checks to be performed at key stages. Instructional processes promote learning, and lead to productivity. Well instructed people tend to be compliant and focused. Certain goals benefit immensely by instructed processes; in general, goals in industries with high safety risks or quality variations are better off by following instructional processes.  In goal setting, however, certain processes have to be extrapolated or creatively constructed; yet in instructional processes these are also codified.

Experimental processes are those processes which are generally first time processes. In certain aspects of business, experimental processes become inevitable. Most R&D goals can be achieved only with experimental processes. Market positioning of new products requires experimentation with consumer preferences. Even in a manufacturing setup, certain experimental processes would have to be gone through before standards can be established. Experimentation of even standardised processes occurs in empowered organizations which seek continuous improvements.  Experimental processes which are successful bring pride and ownership to the developers. Tolerance to mistakes is an essential requirement for successful evolution of experimental processes. When goals are lofty, resources thrifty and timelines tricky, experimental processes are the better option. Typically, not all individuals may be well suited to experimental processes.

Outcome-process matrix   
As mentioned earlier, outcomes and processes constitute a matrix. Depending on whether the outcomes are potentially feasible or seemingly unworkable and whether processes are instructional or experimental, four grids get formed which influence the emotional stress or satisfaction that gets generated. The four grids are: (i) feasible outcome-instructional process, (ii) feasible outcome-experimental process, (iii) unworkable outcome-instructional process, and (iv) unworkable outcome-experimental process. Each of the combinations leads to different levels of stress and satisfaction levels. A stress-free situation occurs when outcome is considered feasible and people just follow instructions. In this situation, the stress of failure is on the lower scale. When the outcome is considered feasible but people need to experiment their way to the expected outcomes, there would be a positive stress and joy of discovery through experimentation.

When the combination is that of unworkable outcome and instructional process, there would be dissatisfaction of failed goal but there will be lack of guilt that the failure has occurred in spite of following instructions. The grid of unworkable outcome and experimental process is all the more stressful and dissatisfying due to outcome failure and guilt of failed process discovery.  This does not mean that the feasible outcome-instructional process grid is the best solution, and others lead to stress and dissatisfaction in varying degrees. In fact, the driver for industry leading growth is to be seen in terms of making the impossible possible and exploring the unexplored processes through experimentation.    

Impossible to possible

There are two simple steps to pursue the impossible to possible even when the route to achieve is completely unknown. The first step is to put in place a base case wherein an aspirational but feasible target that can be achieved in a well-planned manner is set out. The next step is to stretch the feasible to seemingly unworkable level and leave it to the team to explore their way to achievement. This enables the team to bring out their best to achieve the impossible with their ownership of processes, with the full knowledge and confidence that a backup is feasible and permissible. This approach is particularly relevant in space exploration, drug discovery, deep sea exploration, polar expeditions, and the like, where the impossible and unexplored can be pursued with the fall-back in play (space ship can be brought back after testing out the trajectory, exploration targets can be moved after the unknowns are discovered, molecules can be re-purposed after initial failures etc.,).   

Positive marginal stress and emotional ownership are critical factors that differentiate industry-leading teams from industry-average teams. Seemingly unworkable goals and hitherto unexplored pathways are well in order if the leadership understands how to inspire the team members on the discovery path. Ideally, if individuals are also hardwired to be unguided achievers of the impossible from their early educational and career days, the possibility of seeking and accomplishing the impossible becomes real in an organizational setting. Leaders in organizations, teachers in schools and colleges and parents in families have a responsibility of standing by the goal seekers in this process. The dividing line between positive stress and negative burnout on one hand and exhilaration of achieving the impossible and the disappointment of slipping from the peak on the other hand are too powerful to be left unattended.

Posted by Dr CB Rao on May 25, 2016    

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Time as a Resource: Inevitable Erosion, Continuous Refill or Invisible Accumulation?

It is well recognised that in human life time is the most precious but most limited resource. From the time one is born to the time one breathes one’s last, time is the constant companion of one’s life. One ought to be conscious of this once the cognitive abilities start developing but unfortunately few accord the importance to time as one must. The importance of time in acquiring education, gaining experience, developing relationships, promoting careers, preserving health and delaying aging is well known. However, how to deploy and utilize ‘unit time’ as a resource for maximal efficiency and effectiveness tends to be a highly personal matter, varying from individual to individual and family to family. Approach to time is a core value that one imbibes based on one’s family and educational backgrounds.

It is not unusual for kids to watch their parents and siblings at work and in undertaking family responsibilities and imbibe certain values with regard to use of time. Likewise, the educational systems of the institution a person joins and the approaches of friends further supplement the approaches to time. Over time, a person develops an approach towards life  that could be ‘structured and systematic’, ‘flexible and tactical’ or ‘fatalistic and philosophical’. Depending on which of the three approaches govern a person’s view of life, his or her attitude towards time also would vary. These approaches to life are not usually static, and could vary with phases in life. Accordingly, one’s approaches to utilization of time would also vary. Though this blog post is not life approaches, some discussion on the topic would be in order.

Approaches to life and time

Structured and systematic approach to life is the ultimate planner’s and productivity expert’s trip. This person is an industrial engineering expert of sorts, knowing exactly what should be done when, how and why. Obviously, the structured and systematic person knows the value of time the best. He or she considers life as a duty to be fulfilled diligently and efficiently. Flexible and tactical approach to life depends on sizing up each activity as it emerges and responding to it accordingly based on perceptions of risk and reward for each activity and the modality/time for fulfilling it. The flexible and tactical person seeks to manage life for happiness than be managed by it as a duty. Fatalistic and philosophical approach to life follows a minimalist and mindful approach to life without exerting effort to seek more than what follows from circumstances. The fatalistic and philosophical person seeks nothing other than emotional fulfilment from life.

Typically, during the educational phase of life, a person is likely to be and expected to be structured and systematic. As one takes up a career job he starts appreciating the utility of a structured and systematic approach to life but also starts understanding the opportunistic benefits of being tactical and flexible. Somewhere during the journey, and certainly after retirement from active service, he starts giving up being in the race of life and begins to appreciate the fulfilment of being fatalistic and philosophical in life. An ideal calibration could be to see a phase-in of the three approaches as being sequential. These approaches are not mutually exclusive. A fatalistic and philosophical person may still be quite ordered and disciplined how he conducts his daily chores. As one struggles in career despite being structured or tactical, one may begin appreciating the benefits of being philosophical. It is easy to appreciate that the approach to life influences one’s approach to time.

Time erodes

Sure, time ticks away from one’s life but one can try to gain a little by trying to live longer, and by living healthier without loss of time. That said, whenever it hits, time erosion as a concept hits one like a sudden fall of a ton of bricks. People respond to this realization with a variety of emotions: from frustration and desperation on one hand to recovery and urgency on the other.  The former is counterproductive while the latter could produce certain results. Both the types of responses lead to needless stress, and if encountered continuously accelerate aging of individuals. That time dissolves is a truism. However, if we fail to make good use of time, negative emotions and stress are not the solutions. Improved learning and enhanced productivity are the better solutions.  

Learning requires additional time even as the pressure of lost time mounts. That is where time management as a concept comes up. By decluttering activities, listing the uncluttered ones, prioritising them, and even delisting the low priority, non-value adding ones, one would be able to release more time in a day than lost. Time thus released can be utilized to learn and carry out things more productively. Structured and systematic people, even when disrupted by flexible and tactical approaches, can overcome erosion of time with the above approach. There is, however, a more meaningful approach to understand the true value of time, as an eternal clock. Life may freeze but time shall never freeze. Therein lies a great awakening.

Time as continuous refill

We know the sand filled hourglass as the classic depiction, and when well engineered a classic measurement, of time. While time for an individual may be limited time as an absolute resource is indeed timeless. The way to look at time is not to get exercised that time is getting lost but also to be excited that time is getting continuously refilled. In fact, compared to any other resource time is the only resource that gets continuously refilled. For example, when we expend money it will not be automatically recouped unless specifically earned. On the other hand, even if we expend time, we can be sure that the next unit of time will be available to be utilized. Time is therefore a continuous refill to be positive and optimistic about. If we are unable to perform certain activity in a given period of time, it can be performed soon after.

The concept of time as continuous refill is not meant to cause complacency. In fact, it is worthwhile for all of us to keep time logs to keep an account of time we spend on different activities such as priority activities or vital-essential-desirable activities, and if the time has been spent productively or wastefully. By linking the time log to results in terms of happiness and satisfaction we could become even better on linking time to our emotional wellbeing. This exercise is an individual choice as each one’s goals, schedules and approaches vary. Many people in work life believe that busyness makes good business. Research has established that doing nothing and concentrating mind on serene matters has helped improve productivity. The greatest support for this approach comes from the fact that the moment a rejuvenated person is ready to take on work again, time will be at hand.

Invisible accumulation

Whether one is productively work focused or meditatively leisure focused, time ticks by alright but something invisibly accumulates. That accumulation takes place in three categories; experience, wisdom and stature. Experience helps one manage time effectively along with other resources. Experience helps one to come up with the right recipe for mixing resources in a time effective manner for desired results. Wisdom helps one identify whether certain endeavours are worth the while at all or those facing neglect are the ones that need to be picked up right away. Experience and wisdom together help a person in accomplishment of results in a more effective manner than others could. Series of such accomplishments based on experience and wisdom lead to stature. Stature again is not something that can be metricised; it is also an invisible accumulation that can be only felt by others.

Invisible accumulation of experience, wisdom and stature ideally must remain invisible. It is a completely personal achievement that is related to one’s approaches to life and time as discussed so far. Any public display by one on what he perceives as his wisdom and stature would only erode those invisible assets. There is reference in Hindu mythology to mystic powers that are developed based on continuous prayers and penances which must be utilized, if at all, for good causes in a discrete manner. Utilization on inappropriate matters and boastful references to such powers are said to lead to dramatic dilution of such powers. Invisibly accumulated experience, wisdom and stature are akin to this. Interestingly, those who are experienced, wise and statured realize the importance of time, and its judicious use in vesting them with such invisible accumulation.

Kala chakra

As understood so far, a typical accomplished person used to reach his or her full wisdom and stature in his or her sixties, and thereupon lose it progressively as he or she falters with age. If one were to see this evolution as wisdom and stature travelling with time, the apogee is reached after six or more decades but thereafter when it gets down to the final low varies with individual, given (a) the low and uncertain longevity, and (b) the differences in longevity. However, with increased longevity of human race, the journey from apogee to low point can no longer be taken as an inconsequential, immaterial and natural decline. On the other hand, with increasing longevity, there is an increasing need to preserve, if not enhance, the invisible accumulation.  

As the human race moves forward on better physical health (with more advanced healthcare and nutrition), the need for better emotional health becomes self-evident. The approaches to life and time discussed in this blog post, structured and systematic, flexible and tactical, fatalistic and philosophical continue to be relevant over a much longer time horizon, beyond the sixties. The need to think of time more as a refilling rather than eroding resource is more important than ever. The need to continue to nurture the invisible accumulation of experience, wisdom and stature is also self-evident. The wheel of time, which starts from the first breath will keep spinning till the last breath of a human. It is entirely up to him or her to govern the speed to apogee and thereafter!

Posted by Dr CB Rao on May 21, 2016