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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.

MECE Framework, Analysis, Synthesis and Organization Architecture toward Problem-Solving

MECE is a thought tool that has been systematically used in McKinsey. It stands for Mutually Exclusive, Comprehensively Exhaustive.  We will go into both these components in detail and then relate this to the dynamics of an organization mindset. The presumption in this note is that the organization mindset has been engraved over time or is being driven by the leadership. We are looking at MECE since it represents a tool used by the most blue chip consulting firm in the world. And while doing that, we will , by the end of the article, arrive at the conclusion that this framework alone will not be the panacea to all investigative methodology to assess a problem – rather, this framework has to reconcile with the active knowledge that most things do not fall in the MECE framework, and thus an additional system framework is needed to amplify our understanding for problem solving and leaving room for chance.

So to apply the MECE technique, first you define the problem that you are solving for. Once you are past the definition phase, well – you are now ready to apply the MECE framework.

MECE is a framework used to organize information which is:

  1. Mutually exclusive: Information should be grouped into categories so that each category is separate and distinct without any overlap; and
  2. Collectively exhaustive: All of the categories taken together should deal with all possible options without leaving any gaps.

In other words, once you have defined a problem – you figure out the broad categories that relate to the problem and then brainstorm through ALL of the options associated with the categories. So think of  it as a mental construct that you move across a horizontal line with different well defined shades representing categories, and each of those partitions of shades have a vertical construct with all of the options that exhaustively explain those shades. Once you have gone through that exercise, which is no mean feat – you will be then looking at an artifact that addresses the problem. And after you have done that, you individually look at every set of options and its relationship to the distinctive category … and hopefully you are well on your path to coming up with relevant solutions.

Now some may argue that my understanding of MECE is very simplistic. In fact, it may very well be. But I can assure you that it captures the essence of very widely used framework in consulting organizations. And this framework has been imported to large organizations and have cascaded down to different scale organizations ever since.

Here is a link that would give you a deeper understanding of the MECE framework:

http://firmsconsulting.com/2010/09/22/a-complete-mckinsey-style-mece-decision-tree/

Now we are going to dig a little deeper.  Allow me to digress and take you down a path less travelled. We will circle back to MECE and organizational leadership in a few moments. One of the memorable quotes that have left a lasting impression is by a great Nobel Prize winning physicist, Richard Feynman.

“I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist takes this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is … I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to theexcitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower! It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.”

The above quote by Feynman lays the groundwork to understand two different approaches – namely, the artist approaches the observation of the flower from the synthetic standpoint, whereas Feynman approaches it from an analytic standpoint. Both do not offer views that are antithetical to one another: in fact, you need both to gather a holistic view and arrive at a conclusion – the sum is greater than the parts. Feynman does not address the essence of beauty that the artist puts forth; he looks at the beauty of how the components and its mechanics interact well and how it adds to our understanding of the flower.  This is very important because the following dialogue with explore another concept to drive this difference between analysis and synthesis home.

There are two possible ways of gaining knowledge. Either we can proceed from the construction of the flower ( the Feynman method) , and then seek to determine the laws of the mutual interaction of its parts as well as its response to external stimuli; or we can begin with what the flower accomplishes and then attempt to account for this. By the first route we infer effects from given causes, whereas by the second route we seek causes of given effects. We can call the first route synthetic, and the second analytic.

 

We can easily see how the cause effect relationship is translated into a relationship between the analytic and synthetic foundation.

 

A system’s internal processes — i.e. the interactions between its parts — are regarded as the cause of what the system, as a unit, performs. What the system performs is thus the effect. From these very relationships we can immediately recognize the requirements for the application of the analytic and synthetic methods.

 

The synthetic approach — i.e. to infer effects on the basis of given causes — is therefore appropriate when the laws and principles governing a system’s internal processes are known, but when we lack a detailed picture of how the system behaves as a whole.

Another example … we do not have a very good understanding of the long-term dynamics of galactic systems, nor even of our own solar system. This is because we cannot observe these objects for the thousands or even millions of years which would be needed in order to map their overall behavior.

 

However, we do know something about the principles, which govern these dynamics, i.e. gravitational interaction between the stars and planets respectively. We can therefore apply a synthetic procedure in order to simulate the gross dynamics of these objects. In practice, this is done with the use of computer models which calculate the interaction of system parts over long, simulated time periods.

The analytical approach — drawing conclusions about causes on the basis of effects – is appropriate when a system’s overall behavior is known, but when we do not have clear or certain knowledge about the system’s internal processes or the principles governing these. On the other hand, there are a great many systems for which we neither have a clear and certain conception of how they behave as a whole, nor fully understand the principles at work which cause that behavior. Organizational behavior is one such example since it introduces the fickle spirits of the employees that, at an aggregate create a distinct character in the organization.

Leibniz was among the first to define analysis and synthesis as modern methodological concepts:

“Synthesis … is the process in which we begin from principles and [proceed to] build up theorems and problems … while analysis is the process in which we begin with a given conclusion or proposed problem and seek the principles by which we may demonstrate the conclusion or solve the problem.”

 

So we have wandered down this path of analysis and synthesis and now we will circle back to MECE and the organization. MECE framework is a prime example of the application of analytics in an organization structure. The underlying hypothesis is that the application of the framework will illuminate and add clarity to understanding the problems that we are solving for. But here is the problem:  the approach could lead to paralysis by analysis. If one were to apply this framework, one would lose itself in the weeds whereas it is just as important to view the forest.  So organizations have to step back and assess at what point we stop the analysis i.e. we have gathered information and at what point we set our roads to discovering a set of principles that will govern the action to solve a set of problems.  It is almost always impossible to gather all information to make the best decision – especially where speed, iteration, distinguishing from the herd quickly, stamping a clear brand etc. are becoming the hallmarks of great organizations.

Applying the synthetic principle in addition to “MECE think” leaves room for error and sub-optimal solutions. But it crowd sources the limitless power of imagination and pattern thinking that will allow the organization to make critical breakthroughs in innovative thinking. It is thus important that both the principles are promulgated by the leadership as coexisting principles that drive an organization forward. It ignites employee engagement, and it imputes the stochastic errors that result when employees may not have all the MECE conditions checked off.

 

In conclusion, it is important that the organization and its leadership set its architecture upon the traditional pillars of analysis and synthesis – MECE and systems thinking.  And this architecture serves to be the springboard for the employees that allows for accidental discoveries, flights of imagination, Nietzschean leaps that transform the organization toward the pathway of innovation, while still grounded upon the bedrock of facts and empirical observations.

 

 

Risk Management and Finance

If you are in finance, you are a risk manager. Say what? Risk management! Imagine being the hub in a spoke of functional areas, each of which is embedded with a risk pattern that can vary over time. A sound finance manager would be someone who would be best able to keep pulse, and be able to support the decisions that can contain the risk. Thus, value management becomes critical: Weighing the consequence of a decision against the risk that the decision poses. Not cost management, but value management. And to make value management more concrete, we turn to cash impact or rather – the discounted value of future stream of cash that may or may not be a consequent to a decision. Companies carry risks. If not, a company will not offer any premiums in value to the market. They create competitive advantage – defined as sorting a sustained growth in free cash flow as the key metric that becomes the separator.

John Kay, an eminent strategist, had identified four sources of competitive advantage: Organization Architecture and Culture, Reputation, Innovation and Strategic Assets. All of these are inextricably intertwined, and must be aligned to service value in the company. The business value approach underpins the interrelationships best. And in so doing, scenario planning emerges as a sound machination to manage risks. Understanding the profit impact of a strategy, and the capability/initiative tie-in is one of the most crucial conversations that a good finance manager could encourage in a company. Product, market and internal capabilities become the anchor points in evolving discussions. Scenario planning thus emerges in context of trends and uncertainties: a trend in patterns may open up possibilities, the latter being in the domain of uncertainty.

There are multiple methods one could use in building scenarios and engaging in fruitful risk assessment.
1.Sensitivity Assessment: Evaluate decisions in the context of the strategy’s reliance on the resilience of business conditions. Assess the various conditions in a scenario or mutually exclusive scenarios, assess a probabilistic guesstimate on success factors, and then offer simple solutions. This assessment tends to be heuristic oriented and excellent when one is dealing with few specific decisions to be made. There is an elevated sense of clarity with regard to the business conditions that may present itself. And this is most commonly used, but does not thwart the more realistic conditions where clarity is obfuscated and muddy.
2.Strategy Evaluation: Use scenarios to test a strategy by throwing a layer of interaction complexity. To the extent you can disaggregate the complexity, the evaluation of a strategy is better tenable. But once again, disaggregation has its downsides. We don’t operate in a vacuum. It is the aggregation, and negotiating through this aggregation effectively is where the real value is. You may have heard of the Mckinsey MECE (Mutually Exclusive; Comprehensively Exhaustive) methodology where strategic thrusts are disaggregated and contained within a narrow framework. The idea is that if one does that enough, one has an untrammeled confidence in choosing one initiative over another. That is true again in some cases, but my belief is that the world operates at a more synthetic level than pure analytic. We resort to analytics since it is too damned hard to synthesize, and be able to agree on an optimal solution. I am not creaming analytics; I am only suggesting that there is some possibility that a false hypothesis is accepted and a true one rejected. Thus analytics is an important tool, but must be weighed along with the synthetic tradition.
3.Synthetic Development: By far the most interesting and perhaps the most controversial with glint of academic and theoretical monstrosities included – this represents developing and broadcasting all scenarios equally weighed, and grouping interaction of scenarios. Thus, if introducing a multi-million dollar initiative in untested waters is a decision you have to weigh, one must go through the first two methods, and then review the final outcome against peripheral factors that were not introduced initially. A simple statement or realization like – The competition for Southwest is the Greyhound bus – could significantly alter the expanse of the strategy.

If you think of the new world of finance being nothing more than crunching numbers … stop and think again. Yes …crunching those numbers play a big part, less a cause than an effect of the mental model that you appropriate in this prized profession.