Category Archives: Vision

Comparative Literature and Business Insights

Literature is the art of discovering something extraordinary about ordinary people, and saying with ordinary words something extraordinary.” – Boris Pasternak

 

It is literature which for me opened the mysterious and decisive doors of imagination and understanding. To see the way others see. To think the way others think. And above all, to feel.” – Salman Rushdie

  nobel

There is a common theme that cuts across literature and business. It is called imagination!

Great literature seeds the mind to imagine faraway places across times and unique cultures. When we read a novel, we are exposed to complex characters that are richly defined and the readers’ subjective assessment of the character and the context defines their understanding of how the characters navigate the relationships and their environment. Great literature offers many pauses for thought, and long after the book is read through … the theme gently seeps in like silt in the readers’ cumulative experiences. It is in literature that the concrete outlook of humanity receives its expression. Comparative literature which is literature assimilated across many different countries enable a diversity of themes that intertwine into the readers’ experiences augmented by the reality of what they immediately experience – home, work, etc. It allows one to not only be capable of empathy but also … to craft out the fluid dynamics of ever changing concepts by dipping into many different types of case studies of human interaction. The novel and the poetry are the bulwarks of literature. It is as important to study a novel as it is to enjoy great poetry. The novel characterizes a plot/(s) and a rich tapestry of actions of the characters that navigates through these environments: the poetry is the celebration of the ordinary into extraordinary enactments of the rhythm of the language that transport the readers, through images and metaphor, into single moments. It breaks the linear process of thinking, a perpendicular to a novel.

comp literature

Business insights are generally a result of acute observation of trends in the market, internal processes, and general experience. Some business schools practice case study method which allows the student to have a fairly robust set of data points to fall back upon. Some of these case studies are fairly narrow but there are some that gets one to think about personal dynamics. It is a fact that personal dynamics and biases and positioning plays a very important role in how one advocates, views, or acts upon a position. Now the schools are layering in classes on ethics to understand that there are some fundamental protocols of human nature that one has to follow: the famous adage – All is fair in love and war – has and continues to lose its edge over time. Globalization, environmental consciousness, individual rights, the idea of democracy, the rights of fair representation, community service and business philanthropy are playing a bigger role in today’s society. Thus, business insights today are a result of reflection across multiple levels of experience that encompass not the company or the industry …but encompass a broader array of elements that exercises influence on the company direction. In addition, one always seeks an end in mind … they perpetually embrace a vision that is impacted by their judgments, observations and thoughts. Poetry adds the final wing for the flight into this metaphoric realm of interconnections – for that is always what a vision is – a semblance of harmony that inspires and resurrects people to action.

interconnect

I contend that comparative literature is a leading indicator that allows a person to get a feel for the general direction of the express and latent needs of people. Furthermore, comparative literature does not offer a solution. Great literature does not portend a particular end. They leave open a multitude of possibilities and what-ifs. The reader can literally transport themselves into the environment and wonder at how he/she would act … the jump into a vicarious existence steeps the reader into a reflection that sharpens the intellect. This allows the reader in a business to be better positioned to excavate and address the needs of current and potential customers across boundaries.

“Literature gives students a much more realistic view of what’s involved in leading” than many business books on leadership, said the professor. “Literature lets you see leaders and others from the inside. You share the sense of what they’re thinking and feeling. In real life, you’re usually at some distance and things are prepared, polished. With literature, you can see the whole messy collection of things that happen inside our heads.” – Joseph L. Badaracco, the John Shad Professor of Business Ethics at Harvard Business School (HBS)

Aaron Swartz took down a piece of the Berlin Wall! We have to take it all down!

“The world’s entire scientific … heritage … is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations… The Open Access Movement has fought valiantly to ensure that scientists do not sign their copyrights away but instead ensure their work is published on the Internet, under terms that allow anyone to access it.”  – Aaron Swartz

Information, in the context of scholarly articles by research at universities and think-tanks, is not a zero sum game. In other words, one person cannot have more without having someone have less. When you start creating “Berlin” walls in the information arena within the halls of learning, then learning itself is compromised. In fact, contributing or granting the intellectual estate into the creative commons serves a higher purpose in society – an access to information and hence, a feedback mechanism that ultimately enhances the value to the end-product itself. How? Since now the product has been distributed across a broader and diverse audience, and it is open to further critical analyses.

journals

The universities have built a racket. They have deployed a Chinese wall between learning in a cloistered environment and the world who are not immediate participants. The Guardian wrote an interesting article on this matter and a very apt quote puts it all together.

“Academics not only provide the raw material, but also do the graft of the editing. What’s more, they typically do so without extra pay or even recognition – thanks to blind peer review. The publishers then bill the universities, to the tune of 10% of their block grants, for the privilege of accessing the fruits of their researchers’ toil. The individual academic is denied any hope of reaching an audience beyond university walls, and can even be barred from looking over their own published paper if their university does not stump up for the particular subscription in question.

journal paywalls

This extraordinary racket is, at root, about the bewitching power of high-brow brands. Journals that published great research in the past are assumed to publish it still, and – to an extent – this expectation fulfils itself. To climb the career ladder academics must get into big-name publications, where their work will get cited more and be deemed to have more value in the philistine research evaluations which determine the flow of public funds. Thus they keep submitting to these pricey but mightily glorified magazines, and the system rolls on.”

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/apr/11/academic-journals-access-wellcome-trust

jstor

JSTOR is a not-for-profit organization that has invested heavily in providing an online system for archiving, accessing, and searching digitized copies of over 1,000 academic journals.  More recently, I noticed some effort on their part to allow public access to only 3 articles over a period of 21 days. This stinks! This policy reflects an intellectual snobbery beyond Himalayan proportions. The only folks that have access to these academic journals and studies are professors, and researchers that are affiliated with a university and university libraries.  Aaron Swartz noted the injustice of hoarding such knowledge and tried to distribute a significant proportion of JSTOR’s archive through one or more file-sharing sites. And what happened thereafter was perhaps one of the biggest misapplication of justice.  The same justice that disallows asymmetry of information in Wall Street is being deployed to preserve the asymmetry of information at the halls of learning.

aswartz

MSNBC contributor Chris Hayes criticized the prosecutors, saying “at the time of his death Aaron was being prosecuted by the federal government and threatened with up to 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines for the crime of—and I’m not exaggerating here—downloading too many free articles from the online database of scholarly work JSTOR.”

The Associated Press reported that Swartz’s case “highlights society’s uncertain, evolving view of how to treat people who break into computer systems and share data not to enrich themselves, but to make it available to others.”

Chris Soghioian, a technologist and policy analyst with the ACLU, said, “Existing laws don’t recognize the distinction between two types of computer crimes: malicious crimes committed for profit, such as the large-scale theft of bank data or corporate secrets; and cases where hackers break into systems to prove their skillfulness or spread information that they think should be available to the public.”

 

Kelly Caine, a professor at Clemson University who studies people’s attitudes toward technology and privacy, said Swartz “was doing this not to hurt anybody, not for personal gain, but because he believed that information should be free and open, and he felt it would help a lot of people.”

And then there were some modest reservations, and Swartz actions were attributed to reckless judgment. I contend that this does injustice to someone of Swartz’s commitment and intellect … the recklessness was his inability to grasp the notion that an imbecile in the system would pursue 35 years of imprisonment and $1M fine … it was not that he was not aware of what he was doing but he believed, as does many, that scholarly academic research should be available as a free for all.

We have a Berlin wall that needs to be taken down. Swartz started that but he was unable to keep at it. It is important to not rest in this endeavor and that everyone ought to actively petition their local congressman to push bills that will allow open access to these academic articles.

John Maynard Keynes had warned of the folly of “shutting off the sun and the stars because they do not pay a dividend”, because what is at stake here is the reach of the light of learning. Aaron was at the vanguard leading that movement, and we should persevere to become those points of light that will enable JSTOR to disseminate the information that they guard so unreservedly.

 

 

 

 

 

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

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.

–        Rabindranath  Tagore

Among the many fundamental debates in philosophy, one of the fundamental debates has been around the concept of free will. The debates have stemmed around two arguments associated with free will.

1)      Since future actions are governed by the circumstances of the present and the past, human beings future actions are predetermined on account of the learnings from the past.  Hence, the actions that happen are not truly a consequent of free will.

2)      The counter-argument is that future actions may not necessarily be determined and governed by the legacy of the present and the past, and hence leaves headroom for the individual to exercise free will.

Now one may wonder what determinism or lack of it has anything to do with the current state of things in an organizational context.  How is this relevant? Why are the abstract notions of determinism and free will important enough to be considered in the context of organizational evolution?  How does the meaning lend itself to structured institutions like business organizations, if you will, whose sole purpose is to create products and services to meet the market demand.

So we will throw a factual wrinkle in this line of thought. We will introduce now an element of chance. How does chance change the entire dialectic? Simply because chance is an unforeseen and random event that may not be pre-determined; in fact, a chance event may not have a causal trigger. And chance or luck could be meaningful enough to untether an organization and its folks to explore alternative paths.  It is how the organization and the people are aligned to take advantage of that random nondeterministic future that could make a huge difference to the long term fate of the organization.

The principle of inductive logic states that what is true for n and n+1 would be true for n+2.  The inductive logic creates predictability and hence organizations create pathways to exploit the logical extension of inductive logic. It is the most logical apparatus that exists to advance groups in a stable but robust manner to address the multitude of challenges that that they have to grapple with. After all, the market is governed by animal spirits! But let us think through this very carefully.  All competition or collaboration that occurs among groups to address the market demands result in homogenous behavior with general homogeneous outcomes.  Simply put, products and services become commoditized. Their variance is not unique and distinctive.  However, they could be just be distinctive enough to eke out enough profits in the margins before being absorbed into a bigger whole. At that point, identity is effaced over time.  Organizations gravitate to a singularity.  Unique value propositions wane over time.

So let us circle back to chance.  Chance is our hope to create divergence. Chance is the factoid that cancels out the inductive vector of industrial organization. Chance does not exist … it is not a “waiting for Godot” metaphor around the corner.  If it always did, it would have been imputed by the determinists in their inductive world and we would end up with a dystopian homogenous future.  Chance happens.  And sometimes it has a very short half-life. And if the organization and people are aligned and their mindset is adapted toward embracing and exploiting that fleeting factoid of chance, the consequences could be huge.  New models would emerge, new divergent paths would be traduced and society and markets would burst into a garden of colorful ideas in virtual oasis of new markets.

So now to tie this all to free will and to the unbearable lightness of being! It is the existence of chance that creates the opportunity to exercise free will on the part of an individual, but it is the organizations responsibility to allow the individual to unharness themselves from organization inertia. Thus, organizations have to perpetuate an environment wherein employees are afforded some headroom to break away.  And I don’t mean break away as in people leaving the organization to do their own gigs; I mean breakaway in thought and action within the boundaries of the organization to be open to element of chance and exploit it. Great organizations do not just encourage the lightness of being … unharnessing the talent but rather – the great organizations are the ones that make the lightness of being unbearable.  These individuals are left with nothing but an awareness and openness to chance to create incredible values … far more incredible and awe inspiring and momentous than a more serene state of general business as usual affairs.

Importance of Heroes and Narratives in Organizations

“My own heroes are the dreamers, those men and women who tried to make the world a better place than when they found it, whether in small ways or great ones. Some succeeded, some failed, most had mixed results… but it is the effort that’s heroic, as I see it. Win or lose, I admire those who fight the good fight.” – George Martin

 

Stories, like people and butterflies and songbirds’ eggs and human hearts and dreams, are also fragile things, made up of nothing stronger or more lasting than twenty-six letters and a handful of punctuation marks. Or they are words on the air, composed of sounds and ideas-abstract, invisible, gone once they’ve been spoken-and what could be more frail than that? But some stories, small, simple ones about setting out on adventures or people doing wonders, tales of miracles and monsters, have outlasted all the people who told them, and some of them have outlasted the lands in which they were created.” – Neil Gaiman

Heroes are not born. Circumstance and happenstance create heroes. In some cases, heroes are individuals who walk into a minefield of uncertainty that threatens their natural inclination for self-preservation in the interest of value systems and people that are alien to the individual. Thus, a private in an army is a hero already in the fact that he/she is walking into possible harm’s way and serving a cause to serve and protect people not necessarily related to him/her. One has heard the adage – one man’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist.  Thus, someone whom we call a terrorist may be perceived a hero by someone else. Thus, in this case …it all becomes a matter of a point of view, but the fundamental point remains – a hero is considered a person who abnegates and abjures their rights to self-preservation for some greater perceived good.

Sustaining innovation is a vital yet difficult task. Innovation requires the coordinated efforts of many actors to facilitate (1) the recombination of ideas to generate novelty, (2) real-time problem solving, and (3) linkages between present innovation efforts with past experiences and future aspirations. Innovation narratives are cultural mechanisms that address these coordination requirements by enabling translation. Specifically, innovation narratives are powerful mechanisms for translating ideas across the organization so that they are comprehensible and appear legitimate to others. Narratives also enable people to translate emergent situations that are ambiguous or equivocal so as to promote real-time problem solving. With their accumulation, innovation narratives provide a generative memory for organizations that enable people to translate ideas accumulated from particular instances of past innovation to inform current and future efforts.

The concept of collective identity has gained prominence within organizational theory as researchers have studied how it consequentially shapes organizational behavior. However, much less attention has been paid to the question of how nascent collective identities become legitimated. Although it is conventionally argued that membership expansion leads to collective identity legitimacy, one draws on the notion of cultural entrepreneurship to argue that the relationship is more complex and is culturally mediated by the stories told by group members. Legitimacy is more likely to be achieved when members articulate a clear defining collective identity story that identifies the group’s orienting purpose and core practices. Although membership expansion can undermine legitimation by introducing discrepant actors and practices to a collective identity, this potential downside is mitigated by compelling narratives, which help to coordinate expansion. And that is where the heroes can be interwoven into organizational theory and behavior. It is important to create environments that by happenstance and circumstance create heroes. The architecture of great organizations imputes heroes and narratives in their tapestry.

Heroes and narratives are instrumental in organizations that forge a pathway to long-term sustenance and growth. Hence, we are quick to idolize figures – Iacocca, Welch, Jobs, Ellison, Gates, Benioff, Gerstner, Branson, Bezos, Zuckerberg, Brin and Page, etc.  We learn narratives through case studies, news print, scholarly books on successful companies; and we emulate and steal and copy and parody and so much more … not necessarily because we want to be them but we want to create our identity in our own lair in ecosystems that move with or against the strongest currents.

So it is essential to celebrate the heroes and the narratives of great companies as an additional instrument to ignite engagement and foray into uncharted territories and conquer the unknown. Hence, personally I have also found solace in reading biographies of people who have made a difference, and a great pleasure in vicariously living through the ebbs and troughs of great companies

 

Reality Distortion Field: A Powerful Motivator in Organizations!

The reality distortion field was a confounding mélange of a charismatic rhetorical style, an indomitable will, and an eagerness to bend any fact to fit the purpose at hand. If one line of argument failed to persuade, he would deftly switch to another. Sometimes, he would throw you off balance by suddenly adopting your position as his own, without acknowledging that he ever thought differently.  “

–         Andy Hertzfield on Steve Jobs’ Reality Distortion Field.

Many of us have heard the word – Reality Distortion Field.  The term has been attributed to Steve Jobs who was widely known to have communicated messages to his constituency in a manner such that the reality of the situation was supplanted by him packaging the message so that people would take the bait and pursue paths that would, upon closer investigation, be dissonant from reality. But having been an avid acolyte of Jobs, I would imagine that he himself would be disturbed and unsettled by the label. Since when did the promise of a radiant future constitute a Reality Distortion Field? Since when did the ability of a person to embrace what seemingly is impossible and far-fetched and instill confidence in the troops to achieve it constitute a Reality Distortion Field? Since when did the ability of leadership to share in the wonders of unique and disruptive creations constitute a Reality Distortion Field? Since when did dreams of a better future underpinned with executable actions to achieve it constitute a Reality Distortion Field?

The Reality Distortion Field usage reflects the dissonance between what is and what needs to be. It is a slapstick term which suggests that you are envisioning tectonic dissonance rifts between reality and possibilities and that you are leading the awestruck starry-eyed followers off a potential cliff.  Some people have renamed RDF as hype of Bulls*#t.  They believe that RDF is extremely bad for organizations because it pushes the people outside the comfort zone of physical and logical constraints and is a recipe for disaster. The argument continues that organizations that are grounded upon the construct of reality and to communicate the same are essential to advance the organization. I beg to differ.

So let me address this on two fronts:  RDF label and if we truly accept what RDF means … then my position is that it is the single most important attribute that a strong leader ought to embrace in the organization.

The RDF label:

We all know this to be true: A rose by any other name is still a rose. We just happen to call this rose in this context a RDF. It is presumed to be the ability of a person to cast possibilities in a different light … so much so that the impossibilities are reduced to elements just within the grasp of reality.  Now I ask you – What is wrong with that? For a leader to be able to cast their vision within the inimitable grasp of an organization is a huge proxy for the faith of the leader of the people in the organization. If a project realistically would take 3 months but a RDF is cast to get a project done in 15 days – that is a tall order – but think of the consequences if people are “seduced” into the RDF and hence acts upon it. It immediately unfolds new pathways of collaboration, unforeseen discoveries into super-efficient and effective methods, it creates trench camaraderie, it distills focus into singularity points to be executed against, it instills and ignites a passion and an engagement around the new stakes in the ground, people become keepers of one another for a consequential and significant conquest, it brings out the creative energies and the limitless possibilities, once the goal is accomplished, of disruptive innovation in means and ends.  Of course, one could also counter-argue a plethora of incidental issues in such cases: employees would burn out under the burden of unrealistic goals, employees are set more for failing than succeeding, it would create a disorderly orientation upon groups working together to meet RDF standards, and if one were to fall short …it would be a last straw that may break the camel’s back. So essentially this speaks to the ordinal magnitude of the RDF schema that is being pushed out by leadership.

RDF and the beneficial impact to an organization:

It is the sine qua non of great leadership to be able to push organizations beyond the boundaries of plain convenience.  I have, in my career, been fortunate to have been challenged and on many occasions, forced out of my comfort zone. But in having done so successfully on many occasions, it has also given me the confidence to scale mountains. And that confidence is a perquisite that the organization leadership has to provide on a daily basis.  After all, one of the biggest assets that an employee in an organization ought to have is pride and sense of accomplishment to their work. RDF unfolds that possibility.

We hear of disruptive innovations. These are defined as innovations that leapfrog the bounds of technology inertia.  How does a company enable that? It is certainly not incremental thinking. It is a vision that marginally lies outside our aggregated horizon of sight.  The age today which is a result of path breaking ideas and execution have been a result of those visionaries that have aimed beyond the horizons, instilled faith amongst the line men to align and execute, and made the impossible possible.  We ought to thank our stars for having leaders that emit an RDF and lead us off our tenebrous existence in our diurnal professional lives.

There is absolutely no doubt that such leadership would create resistance and fierce antipathy among some.  But despite some of the ill effects, the vector that drives great innovations lies in the capacity of the organization to embrace degrees of RDF to hasten and make the organizations competitive, distinctive and powerful.