How Agile methodology has redefined the understanding of business in Indian IT industry

While it is commonly accepted that a business degree is not required for project management, those times have quietly gone by a long time back. What has caused this dramatic change is the concept of outsourcing. To get to the bottom of this, it is imperative to understand what project management is.

Every organization can be broadly split into business and management verticals. Based on the amount of business it is doing in the current year, the organization sets revenue and profit targets for the next year. Everything that happens in an organization in a financial year is the mad rush to meet or exceed those targets, which is the responsibility of the CEO of the organization. Business strategies are created to meet the targets which in turn creates objectives and goals that cascades down the organization’s hierarchy. It is essential to understand here that companies create profits in two ways, one through generation of revenue and the other through savings on its expenses. Execution of business strategies which leads to profit creation is done through projects. So essentially project management is for creating revenue and saving expenses for the company.

I was freshly minted into IT outsourcing way back in 2004 and was working on an IT support and service delivery project for a European client which had 400 odd software applications running in the virtual environment. One day, one of the applications stopped working and the ticket raised to report the issue was of medium priority. I was in the technical team at that time and we took our own sweet time to resolve the issue. When we reported back that the application was working again, the client’s employee told us that it was an invoicing application and they couldn’t take new orders for half a day. The situation was a little complicated. The client had outsourced their IT services and support for the first time. The priority matrix for the applications was not defined clearly because of which the client’s employee did not raise the ticket with the correct priority. But most importantly it was the lack of awareness of the technical team working on the issue about the purpose of the application. It was the first time I realized two facts about outsourcing : 1) It has separated business objectives from IT implementations and this is why 2) IT has become an industry in itself in India.

Fast forward to 2010 and I was working for an IT giant and had taken a team to a client’s premise for knowledge acquisition and was back in India to set up part of their support and service delivery team. Even this client was outsourcing its entire IT environment for the first time. I had looked back at all the mistakes I had come across through the years and had ensured that I understood the client’s business environment and objectives as much as I can. When I communicated to my management team in India that to provide better support the technical team needs to understand the client’s business environment I was ridiculed and threatened with pulling the project from me. All they wanted from me was to make my team work harder without knowing what they were doing. I resigned immediately, completed all the tasks required to set up of the team much before expected time and left. There was no way I was going to tolerate and live with a short sighted and overbearing management team.

Those 6 years were extremely insightful times for me. I was sent on an onsite assignment to the Netherlands in 2008. I was in a team full of Dutch people and I had a Dutch team leader. They do not normally speak a lot about work and the team leader would give me a task and not even ask for a status update. I realized quickly that people were assigned tasks according to their experience and abilities so the onus was on me to estimate the time I need, finish the task and report back to him. But he would answer any number of questions I had about the task. I understood that it was up to the person working on the task to understand as much as he/she could about the different aspects of the task. This behavior becomes more enhanced in the Scandinavian countries. Those people hardly ask anything and they open their mouths only to answer questions.

With all these experiences in mind, I went to do a one year MBA program to increase my skills and knowledge to have better understanding of the business environments of companies. In those intervening 2-3 years the IT environment underwent momentous changes. Fundamental to it were two aspects. Emergence of the Cloud and Agile methodology as the preferred way of project management. Agile has in fact helped to plug the vast distance between business requirements and IT implementations in India. Agile works essentially on two aspects: 1) the idea to market strategy and 2) the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) concept. When there is a new idea, the objective is to get it out to the market asap as a product because it is foolish to assume that no one else will have the same idea. Fundamental to this is the strategy to create the product with the features that would most likely to be in demand in the market and can quickly gain traction. This is where the concept of MVP comes in. It is because of these two factors that Agile has become the backbone of all startup initiatives.

Agile is used in the software industry primarily to create software applications. Rewind upwards and companies need IT applications either to generate revenue or save costs. For both, Agile works best but only if the objectives are clearly defined in the business case document. If the objective is creating revenue, the business case should clearly define which features of the application would result in maximum generation of revenue. Then the Product Owner can create a product backlog correspondingly and ensure that those features are developed first so that the product can be quickly released into the market. Even in the case of the objective being to save on expenses, the same rule applies. Develop those features of the application that would create maximum savings and integrate the application into the environment quickly.

Agile also defines a role called Scrum Master whose primary objective is to manage the sprint backlog and the sprint sessions. The role also has the responsibility of keeping all management overheads away from the development team so that they are not distracted and can fully focus on developing the product. This is exactly what I did with my team back in 2010. I filtered all the noise away from my team, took the heat from all meetings and management overheads, managed their work loads and allowed them to work freely. This did help significantly to finish the tasks required to complete setting up of the team.

I didn’t know any project management methodologies back then but I worked based on my experiences and commonsense. These methodologies were created long after people started trying out different ways to manage projects and it has never been the other way around. Agile has created the situation where understanding business requirements for all stakeholders is on a very high priority now and novices or less experienced people cannot be team members because of the extremely short and intense time spans of sprint sessions unless they are skilled and nimble enough. Both these aspects could be at loggerheads with the traditional IT industry environment in India which focuses more on technical than business aspects and makes use of less experienced people in projects to save their own costs.

All of this vindicates my decision and reasons to take up the MBA program at that time. Companies abroad have chosen to not sponsor work permits for me, Indian companies and the IT industry in particular have ignored and disowned me and I am having a tough time establishing myself as a freelance consultant. But having vision and pursuing it always creates short term pain and long term gains.

Advertisements

The MeToo hashtags can become the pivots of women empowerment & societal change

In certain jokes floating through the social media I have seen the phrase “That escalated quickly”. Given the situations it gets used, I find it hilarious. The same happened with the MeToo and MeTooIndia hashtags on Twitter but in extremely serious way. They started trending slowly but then hit the high notes so loud that mere hashtags are on the brink of creating a social movement.

It all started with the details of one powerful man floating around. But no one was ready to take out his name. Then someone did. Women journalists pounced on it and his name became a raging wildfire. M J Akbar, a lion in journalism and now a cabinet minister in the central government. Turns out he was a predatory lion, using his mammoth stature in the journalism industry to sexually abuse young women journalists and use his cape of fear of power and influence to devour their self respect and dignity. Then came Alok Nath’s name out. The epitome of culture, decency and manhood. Turns out he is a good old rapist. The burning embers had caught fire. Names of corporate honchos and familiar names from the movie industries followed. Social media has lit up. Journalists and common people alike are baying for the blood of sexual predators.

I got into a row with popular South Indian singer Chinmayi on Twitter. She had called out the name of Vairamuthu, a song writer of almost legendary status who has collaborated on many of the Tamil songs of A R Rehman. Many aspiring singers and artists who had been abused by him were reaching out to her and taking her help in disclosing their experiences anonymously. My problem was two fold. How did the situation deteriorate to the level where so many women in the case of M J Akbar are reporting their abuse sagas and some of them happened 2 decades back? They kept quiet. So I wrote to Chinmayi requesting her to reveal the names of the victims as keeping quiet for so long and hiding behind anonymity are the reasons why sexual abuse has become a daily affair and common practice in the corporate world. She replied saying they have their career to worry about which is why they cannot call out their abusers. Exactly. Abusers are feeding on this fear to continue abusing. If Chinmayi had spoken out about her experiences long back, many younger singers may have escaped being preyed on by Vairamuthu. This is just one aspect of the situation. Victims are compromising on their self respect and dignity by choosing to suffer the indignity in silence. What is more, all men have become potential predators in the eyes of women. It is scary how women see men trying to engage with them in lighthearted conversations as flirting.

Women are also complicit in helping create such a toxic work environment. They have waded into a male bastion demanding equality in work and social status. This is not a Utopian world where men would step aside and let women take over the reins of power from them. What would men seek from women in return other than sexual favours? The ones who agreed laid the foundation stones of the system. From then on, everyone who went on to enter the system were conditioned to live in the system. From bedrooms sex became an accepted practice inside boardrooms. Women who couldn’t digest and come around to accepting all of this were scarred mentally with abuse. The heritage of the system has been handed down to the next generations of men who have only grown on to become more brazen in their actions.

What is astounding now is, other than a few murmurs in the movie industry and corporate offices, there is almost a deathly silence. It is improbable that the world of glitz, glamour, fashion and wealth could be a perfect world. Rather, it almost seems like everyone has taken shelter for the storm to pass. Shobhaa De the acclaimed writer and journalist was on TV to talk about sexual abuse in Bollywood and she said the ones who have been caught in the net are the expendables and small flies. The big and the mighty ones are hiding in plain sight. She was right on the money. Women have had to go through hell and back especially in the movie, aviation (airline) and healthcare (nursing) industries to even hold on to their jobs. But not a single mouth is opening to complain. Goes to show the heights of male dominance which in turn shows how low women have allowed themselves to be buried in the mire of sex, abuse and oppression.

Every individual’s responsibility in the society is to make it better for the next generations. It is not enough that we only try to make our children’s lives better. A life with self respect and dignity should get priority over everything else in society. All urban men who become influencers in the society are raised up in similar environments. Then how do some go on to become such wily predators? It is upon every individual to introspect and ask do we want to continue living inside such a slimy system where we have to keep worrying about our women’s safety and well being all the time. MeToo and MeTooIndia is a desperate call for change. They are the atomic bombs of the urban society. Their explosions have been triggered. What the abusers and predators fear is the mushroom cloud that emanates from it and envelops one and all. This may be the only chance for women to go up in arms against their tormentors. This has to become a movement, cleanse the urban world and it’s fire should then spread into rural heartlands. Women have always called out for equality and empowerment. Their time to take centerstage seems to have finally arrived.

Sexual harassment thrives only on the fear and complacency of women

Bollywood actor Tanushree Dutta seems to have opened up a massive cupboard of skeletons of sexual harassment. So many women in the corporate world are taking to Twitter to narrate their tales of similar sordid experiences at the hands of men and vent their anger. The hashtag Metoo is trending like fire on Twitter. Though I am glad that this discussion is finally happening, sadly, women are opening up with their stories years after their ordeal. Why? Because they were forced to hush up for the sake of their careers and lives. Why again? They were more fearful of the backlash and repercussions from the society. They simply had nowhere to go so they had to gulp down the venom and stay quiet.

Before getting into sexual harassment we need to understand what sex is. The answers are in the very foundations of our existence. We share many common traits with animals and one of them is procreation. Why do male species of animals exist? Essentially to reproduce. Their purpose is to pass on their sperms to the females. Male butterflies and males of some species of animals engage in a frantic race without even having food to deposit their sperms inside the ovaries of as many females as they could before they die. There are many more bizarre cases of reproduction process in nature. In many species including ours, males have evolved into taking care of their families. Human males have never been monogamous which is why society was created and marriage as a concept was enforced upon us. Marriage to me was actually a desperate measure to control the reproductive urge of men. When this was not enough, prostitution was created. This is why the Devdasi concept was introduced in ancient Indian society. Upper caste males were allowed to prey on girls and women from the lower castes and satisfy their sexual needs so that they would stay away from girls and women of their own castes. The term sex in itself exist only in our world and is not part of the animal world. Intercourse is just one aspect of the entire process of procreation among animals. But we have made it complex and convoluted. From discovering and understanding foreplay to creating contraceptives to writing an entire book on sex positions, we have actually wasted a humongous amount of our time and energy on something that was actually meant to be a clear and simple process.

Now where does sexual harassment come from? Males of all species in nature are supposed to woo females before mating with them. They engage in fierce battles to win over the right to mate with females. Male birds dance before the females, bring food, build nests and do an array of other things as part of the wooing process. This is why males of all animal species are beautiful and brightly colored. Only among us are women required to color themselves up and look good which for me is one more example to illustrate how male chauvinism dominates human society. What we call as flirting is actually the wooing process in nature. Thousands of years of societal rules have ensured that men don’t ask for sex the moment they like women. But there are men who do it nevertheless. One category consists of the ones with prominence in the society who misuse the value bestowed upon them by people and who knows how to use their influence to clamp down mouths and keep their dirty secrets in the dark. The other category consists of people from the lower strata of people without enough education and without proper nurturing who grew up seeing women getting treated with contempt and without value. The raging debate currently is about the first category. But there is only a thin line that separates the two categories. In both cases, men begin with flirting and move towards seeking sex. When both doesn’t work, men of first category resort to sexual harassment and men of second category indulge in rape. Why? The only difference is, men of the first category have too much at stake to lose if they resort to rape.

But why does all of this happen? Because women blame fellow women for their ordeals. Why? Because there is a huge gap in the mental makeup of women from older and current generations. Women from older generations used to suffer immensely and surrender to the whim and fancies of men to keep the relationships from breaking apart. But this goes a lot deeper. Men with power and influence in the past used to try and hook up with women they fancied. Some women in turn used men’s lust for sex to satisfy their own societal needs. This is very much in relevance and vogue even now. This is the origin for the need of complicity. This is why men expect all women to comply and give in to their needs which is why men often say when another man’s wife doesn’t have a problem doing something why are their wives complaining about it. So the burden of blame falls squarely on the shoulders of women who do not want to comply. This is why women cannot go to other women and open up about their ordeals because of the fear and apprehension that older generations could put the blame on them and use it as an opportunity to make them give up their careers for a domesticated life and their more naive friends and peers could possibly advise them to give into the wishes of men and keep quiet about it to save their careers.

Women of modern times have hardly reasons to complain though. Here is the amazing and heart wrenching saga of Nangeli (https://www.speakingtree.in/allslides/did-you-know-19th-centurys-breast-tax-in-kerala-is-the-darkest-spot-on-humanity-ever/401758). In the erstwhile Travancore kingdom in Kerala about 300 years back, women from the lower castes were forced to walk around without covering their breasts and had to pay taxes based on the size of their breasts. Nangeli chose to defy the demented rule and all the ensuing odds by covering her breasts. When authorities came to collect taxes, she chopped off her breasts, gave them as tax and bled to death. Her act of unimaginable courage was enough to stop this horrendous practice forever. When the entire society was complacent, all it took was one woman’s sacrifice to bring about the change.

Its a pity that educated women still fear backlashes from men and society, suffer the ignominy of sexual harassment and choose to speak about it much later. They need to look for inspiration from history, from the lives of heroic women like Nangeli who chose to not bow and lay down their self respect and integrity at the feet of men and societal diktats. Sexual harassment and sexual predation continues to exist because women in the past have shied away from opening up their torturous lives to the world. Speak up and force the society to change now. That is the only way to make the lives of the future generations of girls and women better and safer. Nangeli, Joan of Arc, Rani Laxmi bhai and countless more brave heart women must be looking down and smirking at the pathetic state women have put themselves in.

Business lessons from the life and times of Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits

Its a curious case about Dire Straits & Mark Knopfler. People who know them would die for their music. People who don’t know them don’t know them at all. When I tell the younger generation about them and make them listen to their music, they find it weird and boring. But when I go on the internet I see kids swearing by their music. The disparity is so vividly glaring. This is the legacy Mark Knopfler has created for himself and for Dire Straits.
The name of their band in itself defines their music. They were asked to give a name to their band during their struggling years and what came first to their mind was that they were broke and had no money with them. Dire straits actually reflected their situation at that time and was not put as a funky name like other music bands at that time. This honesty has always reflected in their music. Mark Knopfler has been in many ways the Steve Jobs of the English music world. As music evolved from jazz and rock and roll from the 1960s to fixed categories of rock, pop, blues, etc. towards the late 1970s, Dire Straits was inspired by all the different categories. Their music had everything going on together. In those times when heavy synthesizers, guitars, drums, long hair and crazy outfits came to be considered necessary to be successful as a music band, Mark Knopfler refused to throw in the towel and give up his dream of making music he wanted to in exchange for fame and money. This is essentially why they were initially in dire straits. For quite some time, Apple did not make computers for everyone to use. Steve Jobs waited for his computers to evolve in the market and its demand to build up. Microsoft makes Windows for everyone to use which is in fact the hardest business model to follow. It is simply not possible to have something for everyone which is reflected in the numerous updates Windows versions needs and the different Windows versions themselves. In the similar vein to that of Apple, Dire Straits made the music they wanted to make and let people evolve into their music. Commercially this is a huge risk to take. But thankfully, in the world of art and music, creative satisfaction always takes precedence over commercial success. What this translates into is how we should position ourselves and/or our products in the market. If what we have is genuine and can truly cause disruption and create it’s own space in the market, put it out there, keep working on making it better and be patient. Success will eventually catch up.

The second and the more important aspect is evolution. From the late 70s when they started off their music evolved as more and better musical instruments were added. Mark’s lyrical and singing skills became more silken with each album. Their popularity peaked in 1985 with the release of their “Brothers in Arms” album. After being on the road for almost 2 years on shows across most of the world, Mark seems to have realized that they were moving away from making music for themselves to playing music for the people. It might have sounded ludicrous to many at that time, but when the passion goes out, so does the creativity. He could not let fame and fortune take control over his passion for making music which was possibly why he disbanded Dire Straits. This is a massive lesson for the business world. No matter how successful a company or a product becomes, to continue to be successful it has to keep evolving and to evolve the passion for it has to remain intact. This is probably why Bose Corp. has never been on the stock market. They do not seem to want business and commercial success to take precedence over their need for creative excellence.
Dire Straits did come back together to make one more album “On Every Street” in 1991 but that experience also taught them an important lesson. It is a superb album by all means but unfortunately ended up being compared with Brothers in Arms which should have never happened. They were like two different products from the same company and should have been seen and evaluated as such. If Dire Straits fans are longing for their reunion which Mark is staunchly refusing to go back into, it is because people themselves killed the confidence he had on them. Mark disbanded Dire Straits forever and started collaborating with other great artists such as Eric Clapton, Elton John and Phil Collins among many others and eventually started to make music under his own name.
Here is the most critical lesson to learn. Be it with someone’s life or academics or jobs or business or products, the growth graph will hit a high sometime. But it won’t stay there for long. What goes up has to eventually come down. Many musicians and music bands shot through the roof initially and then disappeared without a trace. This keeps happening all the time. There are two aspects to consider here. The lessons we learn from our experiences as our graph grows up and realizing that our graph has hit the high. Mark seems to have realized this when On Every Street got compared to Brothers in Arms. Dire Straits had hit their peak with Brothers in Arms. Unless they created something better than Brothers in Arms, every album they released in the future would have had been subject to comparison with Brothers in Arms. That was a phenomenal expectation and disappointment to live with. Their evolution was complete with Brothers in Arms. The option was to either continue to exist in that painful situation or let it all go and mature as a musician by himself and give everyone else in the band the opportunity to figure out their life ahead on their own.
When businesses grow and hit their highs their evolution gets complete at that point. Then they need to settle down and mature. True fans of Dire Straits know what a gifted and amazing songwriter and guitarist Mark is. He has wisely and craftily used the reputation of Dire Straits to build his own brand name. Steve Jobs has always used this strategy with Apple products. Apple has a core consumer segment that will buy anything Apple sells. After establishing that segment they released a dazzling array of products to bring more customers into that group. Now they are in the maturing phase and are focused on improving their products.
Mark Knopfler still makes music and does world tours but at his own pace. His music has always been what his passion for music has brought out from him. We need to tread the same path, be it in our professional or personal lives. True passion will eventually bring in fame and fortune but the key is to hold on to that passion at all times. Fame and fortune will wither away with time. But everything we do and create with passion will have the hallmark of fine quality and it is the quality that always stands the test of time.

The intricacies of resume writing and job search in an automated corporate world

Writing a resume has been the biggest bane of job seekers and sometimes it would seem to be much worse than not getting a job itself. We pore over 100s of different formats available through contacts and on the internet, but we are never sure if our resumes are good enough to land us our desired jobs. This apprehension increases exponentially every time our job applications get rejected by companies when we believe we have applied for the jobs that are the best fits for us. I have gone through all of it and I have learned very important lessons as well.

Now what is the challenge to writing a resume? There are three aspects to a resume. One that represents who we are, the second that positions us in the job market and the third that satisfies job requirements. Then they say resumes cannot be more than two pages long. Freshers and people with less than 3 years experience usually struggle to make their resumes to 2 pages. For people with more than 8 years of experience, the pain is to keep it down to 2 pages. Now bringing together these three aspects into 2 pages does seem like a humongous task, but it really is not.

Most companies now use automated systems to screen resumes which means technology rather than humanity is scanning rather than reading our resumes. Now technology is not intelligent so it is taught to look for keywords. We are traditionally used to writing sentences to describe ourselves so suddenly articulation is not in vogue anymore. We are being made to run helter-skelter in search of keywords. Even job sites are using keywords to filter out and show us jobs that match our profiles. I am wondering how long before keywords get replaced by hashtags.

Keywords represent only industry standard definitions and requirements and has got nothing to do with a person’s skills, abilities and most importantly experience. The primary problem with a resume is that it only allows us to list our activities in our previous and current employment. There is no way to speak out about our experiences through our resumes unless we are called for interviews. A business analyst may have far greater experiences with understanding of different business environments in day to day activities than what is required for a particular job profile but because he/she is not able to express it through the resume, a person assessing the resume will never get to “feel” the way the candidate feels about a job profile. Keywords have only compounded this problem and killed off the human aspect completely.

Now, there is no perfect format for a resume. Standard formats vary across jobs and domains. But what we need to do is to create a relevant resume that clearly highlights our current status, past experiences and our aspirations. Everything starts seeming important- what we have done before, what we are doing now and what we want to do in our next job and all we have is 2 pages. What I do is to write down everything that comes to my mind and let it go to 4 or 5 pages. Then I start thinking about what jobs do I want to apply for. I cannot position myself to be a candidate for 10 different types of jobs or roles. Spreading myself that far and thin will only result in my profile losing relevance in the market. I have to narrow it down to mostly 3. Find 2 job profiles I am aspiring to work on and keep the 3rd one as the continuation of my current or previous job as contingency plan if in case I do not get the jobs I am aspiring for. Then start searching for open vacancies corresponding to these job profiles on company websites and read through the job descriptions. This I believe is the best way to understand the expectations of companies regarding job profiles and also find relevant keywords.

The tricky and interesting part is yet to come. The challenge is to use these keywords and job descriptions to tailor our present and past experiences to make our resume a good fit for the job and worthy enough to be noticed. We are not required to list out all our experiences in our resumes. Only what is relevant for a particular job is required. Our experiences with older companies should get lesser in the number of words and more streamlined towards what we are aspiring for in our next job. For example, client engagement plays a major role in consulting gigs. So if someone is aspiring for consulting jobs and has extensive experience in client engagement through a variety of jobs, highlight client engagement and the ability to handle clients and leave out what is not relevant. This way the 4-5 page resume will get streamlined into a 2 page one. We do not have to actually worry much about all of this now. The challenge was before the time of LinkedIn. Now we can write whatever we want on our LinkedIn profiles, use it’s condensed version as our resumes and put the links to our LinkedIn profiles in our resumes. The automated resume scanning system works somewhat similarly to website SEOs. SEOs scan websites for keywords. The search ranking of the website becomes better when more keywords are detected. The resume scanning system must also be ranking resumes based on keywords so the strategy should be to show these keywords in our resumes to the scanning system.

Indian job market has always been notoriously inconsiderate to the aspirations of job seekers. An ex-colleague  in the Netherlands was completely into medical research when suddenly he developed the affinity for computers. He studied computers for a bit and eventually moved into a IT support job. It was a jaw dropping experience for me. In India, not even in my wildest dreams in a million years would this be possible. In the early years of my career, I was interviewed by someone who opted to hire me on contract. What I didn’t know was that the HR person wasn’t convinced about his decision to hire me and she had a strong intuition that I would get another offer very soon which was exactly what happened. What this translates into is that if we are not getting the jobs we are aspiring for and if we apply for jobs that do not require the academic qualifications and the experience we have, we will get rejected even if we are open to working on a lower pay. The perspective is that the job would be a stop gap arrangement for us and we will move out as soon as we get the job what we are looking for.

There are no perfect jobs so there are no perfect resumes. Stuffing up our resumes with keywords is no validator to our relevance in the job market. Candidates for senior roles are all being searched and dug out from LinkedIn now. Well written resumes and completed LinkedIn profiles shows how much time people have invested on themselves which in turn indicates how much they value their work experiences. Job search has become a maze of complex uncertainty and resumes are just one aspect of it. If a resume is being scanned for 30 or 60 seconds before a decision is made, then what we need to do is to first see if there are any lucky stars beaming at us before applying for jobs.

Companies and products don’t die they become irrelevant and fade away

I have heard from many people that the startup initiative in India has been a failure but no one said why. Below is a list I obtained from a social network about the top reasons why startups fail.

 

Interestingly, a startup company had contacted me few months back asking me if I could be their mentor. Their product is on the lines of Askme.com and they were trying to market it in Kerala, my state in India. The key problem was the people of Kerala are not even fully used to the shopping mall culture yet. We still prefer buying from local grocers, medical shops etc. So searching about products on the internet is still a long way away. My question to the company was, do you know if there is a need for your product in the market you are targeting? They had no clue. This is the top reason on the above list. Lack of proper due diligence. What they wanted from me was to understand how to market their product. I told them that you need to go back to your drawing board and figure out something crucial. Simply putting your product out there is of no use. You cannot force people to use your product. So what can you offer them for using your product? You need a better product strategy before you get on to business strategy and that is where marketing strategy comes in. I haven’t heard from them after that.

Even worse is not understanding when the product is ready to be in the market. Mature companies too have new products and services in their pipeline but what makes and keeps them successful is their ability to time their launches precisely. The extreme of this is Apple launching their products whenever they want to because they have a phenomenal market following. But that’s Apple. There is a concept called Minimum Viable Product (MVP) which can help understand when to stop working on the product and launch it. How do we know this? Work on creating those aspects of the product which could create market disruption or get noticed in the market quickly. When this is successful then it becomes easy. People will take over from there. All we need is to take feedback from customers. Customer expectations will tell us which features of the product are more relevant and need to be out there in the market quickly.

There are two phases of every lifespan be it that of the Universe itself and everything within it. Evolving and maturing. Business also follows the same pattern. A friend is learning to be a professional cake maker and my advice to her was simple. If she is going to bake cakes like everyone else is, she is not going to get far. Evolving stage is the experimenting stage where she needs to mix and match and see what unique she can create. So how will she know she has matured? When customers start calling her for her cakes.

My dad has always loved cooking non-vegetarian food. He looks up on a lot of recipes on the internet but then finds his own niche way of cooking. He has been asking me to help him find a market for his food. He cannot compromise on the quality of the products he uses for cooking which essentially means he cannot target the lower and the lower middle strata of the market. If he tries to sell at those levels, he will have to lower his price thereby lowering his profit margin considerably and moreover there will be very less appreciation among those customers for what they are getting. All of this means the key is in the positioning of the products. Positioning will determine the pricing and marketing strategies.

I believe products and companies become irrelevant and fade away rather than fail. Nokia and Kodak are great examples. Nokia phones became irrelevant when their Symbian OS was run over by Android and iOS. With Kodak, the most fundamental mistake happened. They matured and stopped evolving and got run over by technology. Evolving to maturity shows the growth trajectory of the company or the product. Sustaining and staying relevant in the market demands continuous evolution of another kind. This is where the sheer genius of Steve Jobs shines brightly. In the middle of iMacs and Macbooks and iOS and iPods and iPhones and iTunes, he still found the time and space to figure out that there could be demand for a device that could bridge the gap between the Macbook and the iPhone, thus creating the iPad. I have wondered how tuned his mind was into the world of business and how he used to keep his ears to the ground. He seems to have understood the threat of stagnation and becoming irrelevant which should be the reason why he created such a huge product catalogue and a possibly unknown product pipeline on which he was supposedly working till the time of his demise.

There are great companies and greater leaders to look up to. But ultimately success depends on the course we charter and when we are able to muster the strength, wile and guile and navigate ourselves through the choppy waters of the business world.

The relationship and disconnect between business and projects

In an interview a few years back for a project management role, the interviewer asked me what project management was. I was taken aback a bit. First of all that’s too generic a question to ask an experienced candidate. Second, project management is such a vast area that it is not possible to explain in a minute or so what it is unless I were to record and playback what is known as industry standard definitions. So I replied that project management is the management of execution of business strategies. The interviewer looked lost for a moment and for a very good reason.

The evolution of the IT industry has created mayhem and consternation in the understanding of business and projects. The mid section of the IT industry has swelled up with managers and is bursting at it’s seams. The hierarchy and designations are complicated and ridiculous. Even more confusing are designations that are total mismatches to the roles. I have worked with the designation of Senior Consultant and the role had got absolutely nothing to do with consulting. Then there are companies with Project Manager designation but the role would be as an individual contributor. What would make sense is that a project would have a team and the manager of the project would also manage the team. The designation of Business Analyst is even more bewildering. Fundamental requirements are to have in-depth knowledge of some software applications.

In one of the case studies during my MBA program I had read about a company whose founder and CEO had approached a venture capitalist (VC) for investment. After due diligence, one of the conditions put forward by the VC was to appoint a new CEO for the company. The founder refused and walked away. Six months later, he came back to the VC and agreed. The VC had wanted him to focus on the products and services his company was offering and let someone else handle the business and financial aspects. So every company has a top management team that walks, talks and breathes only business and money.  It is here that business strategies get created with the objective of better financial outcomes.

I use a simple analogy when talking about business strategies. If I get stamped on my foot, my foot doesn’t cry. The sound comes from my mouth. Similarly if there is a problem in business the red bulb may not necessarily be flashing from the problem area. This is why understanding the business problem is so crucial. Business problem could also be a new venture for the company without proper understanding of moving ahead. Digging deeper into the business problem has direct impact on the quality of business strategy development. But having the best business strategy amounts to nothing without taking action on it and execution of business strategy is a different beast altogether.

One critical aspect of having different functions inside organizations comes into focus during execution of business strategies. The business strategy could have a strategy for the sales team which in turn could result in a strategy for the finance team and so on. Once strategies for different functions are established, then comes their execution. It could be as minimal as a small change without any consequences. But where there are financial outcomes then there would be accompanying risks as well. This is where the whole premise of project kicks in. So projects are essentially execution of business strategies with the objective to create positive financial outcomes. The execution of a business strategy can be broadly visualized as a change management program with several projects managed and executed within its boundaries.

Every project is intended to create a positive financial outcome so I visualize every project manager as having a small cloud of money over his/her head. A senior manager who manages several project managers would then be having an accumulated bigger money cloud over his/her head. Scale this up and the CEO will have the biggest money cloud over his/her head. The divide between creation and execution of business strategies has given rise to the concept of outsourcing. MNCs develop the entire premise of projects before shipping out to their factories and back offices where the projects are executed to create products and services.

Better understanding of business strategies and organizational requirements has a direct bearing on project management. But project managers usually do not get their sights that far and are not expected to stretch their understanding beyond the boundaries of their projects. This is why I believe projects either fail or project outcomes do not result in positive business outcomes. Outsourcing has only complicated and compromised the purpose of projects. A project manager in another corner of the world may not have any idea about the intended outcomes of the business strategies which has given rise to the project he/she is managing. Early in my career I had to resolve a problem with an IT application of a client and according to the SLA with the client I had 3 hours, so I worked on other more important issues. When I finally reported the resolution, the client’s staff lamented about how their work was stuck and the amount of business they lost in those 3 hours. Poor understanding of client’s business environment and requirements coupled with poorer understanding and communication were the reasons.

The relevance and importance of projects and project managers should never be undervalued. In India business degrees are not required to manage and execute projects. This in itself shows the disconnect between business strategies and projects. This is why the growth of project managers gets restricted to the project and program management levels and very few get to break into the top management. This can be observed from how companies hire for executive level positions from other companies rather than their own employees growing through the ranks into those positions.

What ails India’s IT bellwether behemoth

There was a time, till not so long ago when a job at Infosys used to be a crucial factor in arranging marriages in India. The enormity of influence Infosys used to have over the Indian job market has parallels with Siemens in Germany. I have heard of small towns in Germany with an office of Siemens and one or more people from every house in the town working there. A job in the Indian IT sector was at one time the aspiration of every graduate but when it came to marriage, a job at Infosys would add brownie points and with a very good reason. Infosys has been the public sector company in India’s private sector. Job security at Infosys has been the differentiating factor from other IT companies. Add to this their policy of hiring spouses that was borderline outrageous. Employees were easily able to onboard their spouses to Infosys and if one such employee got the opportunity to work from a client’s location abroad Infosys would figure out a way to find a similar assignment for the employee’s spouse at the same location and send them both together. But the company has become a pale shadow of those glory days because of internal factors and external influences.

During my MBA program, I came across a case study about how Infosys, in 2004 had developed strategies to evaluate and figure out the best road to the future. One of them was investing into the infrastructure in India which they did not pursue ultimately. While I admit that the Indian ecosystem is extremely complicated right from acquiring land to bureaucratic red tape to political and religious influences, Infosys, with it’s enormous influence over the society as a whole could have had easily negated every obstacle. The strategy they chose was to focus on expanding their clientele abroad. I believe this choice was made with the sole purpose of increasing their earnings because of the value difference in the Rupee and the currencies of western countries. There were two major issues here. After a point in the lifeline, be it that of an individual or a corporate company, influence and the ability to get things done takes or should take precedence over money and wealth. Infosys caters to clients in retail, manufacturing and other sectors abroad and all such companies are in India also. In 2004 they were poised perfectly to bring the entire Indian corporate sector under their hegemony. Secondly, sitting on a mountain of profits with no debt makes any company vulnerable for a takeover bid by another company. No debts and a huge list of clients abroad are enough mouthwatering prospects to go on a takeover offensive.

The company’s woes in the last few years have been created by two factors. The first one is with the blatant misuse of the US H1B visas. Infosys reportedly has more than 80% of their clientele in the US. The H1B visa ecosystem has been created for US multinational companies to recruit and take bright minds and experienced people from foreign countries to work in the US. But Indian companies, right from the heavyweights like Infosys to small recruiting consultants have found ways to bend and bypass the visa rules. Hogging the H1B visas and eating away the job market in a foreign country by replacing local people with people exported from another country on lower pay scale was never going to be a sustainable business strategy. The powerful Indian lobby in the US had barricaded any investigation into the H1B visa usage by Indian MNCs for a long time but some day the skeletons were all going to tumble out of the cupboard which is what happened with the ascent of Donald Trump into presidency.

The second and the more critical factor that has brought Infosys down from grace has been it’s management of employees. A very good friend of mine is a senior project manager at Infosys and we have had numerous discussions about the work he is doing and about the management in particular. There is one profound aspect about Infosys that distinguishes it from all other IT companies. For the longest time, the founding partners of the company had taken turns to occupy the CEO’s chair and be at the helm of affairs, thereby fostering a very unique corporate culture. Once their terms ended, there was no one else within Infosys to take their place. Did they not understand the enormity of the corporate culture they had created and because of this, did they forget to set in motion the wheels of inheritance? After everything that has been happening, maybe not. Instead of promoting their employees into the top management, like other IT MNCs, they started hiring executives from other companies. These external hires are undoubtedly experienced and seasoned players, but question is, how many years of experience with Infosys do they have to be at it’s helm of affairs? None. Their initial impressions about the company are formed by the opinions and words of the people at Infosys they interact with when they join which usually makes them skewed in any one direction rather than being balanced in their comprehension. This is usually the case in all companies but the unique culture of Infosys has become the stumbling block.

Above all of these, I believe one aspect of the company could threaten it’s very existence. They have changed their business and organizational strategies to remain competitive in the market and have been restructuring their work flow hierarchy but with a critical deficiency. They seem to be clueless about identifying the right stakeholders within the organization, the most critical aspect of Kotter’s 8 steps of transformation. My friend has been with Infosys for about 15 years now and never has he been asked or consulted about changes in company strategies. Now why should a manager know about changes in company strategies? Because project management is essentially the management of the execution of business strategies. Projects are after all born from business strategies. He has been working on projects of a particular domain for a very long time so I asked him how much does he know about what Infosys is doing in that domain. He said 70%. So I asked him does that much knowledge help him to understand the deficiencies and help create better strategies in that domain. He said yes. Stakeholders need not be executives, directors or even managers. Even a team member can be a stakeholder if he/she has enough influence in the team to understand deficiencies and drive changes. Stakeholders have to be identified from ground up because all of them can provide critical information from their levels. All of this information has to flow up and become the most important aspect of developing the organizational and business strategies. The fallout of what has been happening is immensely disturbing. Employees at all levels are feeling uncertain about their future in the company which could kickstart increasing employee attrition and the propensity among IT employees to stay away from the company.

It is becoming very clear that Infosys is no longer sure about it’s road ahead. They hired an assertive Vishal Sikka as the CEO who had an ambitious agenda backed by mighty plans. Then the fallout with Narayan Murthy and the spat in full public view ensued which has caused immense damage to the company’s reputation and more importantly shaken the company’s confidence in itself. They seem to have realized their mistake but instead of finding someone with the right balance, they have brought in Salil Parekh who seems to be on the opposite polarity of Sikka. My friend was telling me that it’s been more than 6 months since Salil has become the CEO but he is yet to address the employees, explain what has been happening, what would be the road ahead and try to calm their uneasiness and uncertainty. Not even by an email. When communication flow from top management to the base of the company pyramid stops, it means only one thing. Everyone at the top are fighting their own battles and are trying to save their own skins.

My friend has been helplessly watching his career growth stagnate over the years. At the level of his immediate manager he says there are people with 25 years of experience. Most of them seems to have reconciled with their life at Infosys because they have family responsibilities, loans, etc and have become totally risk averse. The company seems to have piled on a bloated middle management, an obese company midriff. It is very evident that Infosys does not know what to do with them. What is saddening is, Infosys will never know what these people might be capable of and what they can do to transform the company. There is only one strategy for mature organizations to follow. Empower and transform their employees, let them grow and simply ask them. They will know how and where to take the company ahead.

Why the value of the corporate world, it’s management and education system has eroded

Being a Manager has been the most coveted designation in the corporate and industrial realms. Not so much now as designations do not match the actual role the employees play in their jobs in many cases. General Management has gone under the corporate knife and has been chopped into many pieces. There are interesting reasons why management has lost it’s sheen and why the business world has become cold and calculated.

The pyramidal structure of the corporate hierarchy has become pot-bellied through the years. The middle region of the pyramid has been burgeoning because of the exponential increase in the number of managers and manager hierarchy. I see this from a very simple and real life perspective. Consider a big farmland on which different types of cultivation is done. There is paddy, corn, apples, oranges, grapes, olives and different types of vegetables. When the farmland was set up, only a single manager was needed. But as the number of items being cultivated grew, it gradually became impossible for one person to manage it all. So now there is someone who manages paddy, one for corn, one for apples, one for oranges, etc. Up until this point, it looks feasible and relevant. But if they start having different managers for sowing and harvesting paddy or different managers for planting and growing apple trees and yet another manager for plucking apples then it slowly descends into a huge long term problem. Every company goes through corporate restructuring periodically for a variety of a reasons and this is when the biggest problem rears up it’s ugly head. With so many functionalities and managers to consider, it becomes blinding as to what roles and functions are relevant and needs to stay and what needs to be scrapped. A peep inside our history is enough for conclusive proof. The biggest empires of the past all grew beyond manageable proportions and decayed away with time simply because of management issues.

Management is an art we need to keep learning and practicing throughout our lives. The entire concept of management can be sliced into two big pieces. Self management and people management. Self management starts from the time we start walking. Now here is something interesting. Our society has migrated from a community based life to an individualistic isolated lifestyle. But the rules of raising us up hasn’t changed. We walk, we fall, we try again. We are taught the art of patience, perseverance and resilience very early in life. Our preparation on time management also starts very early when we are made to write exams from school days. Now Japanese schools do not think this is right. So there are no exams for kids till they reach the 4th grade. Till then they are not evaluated on their academic or time management skills. The focus is on building their soft skills especially their behavioral skills and making them live like in a community with other kids. There is a very important aspect to this. Kids are made to get their fundamentals in place rather than crowd their minds with numerous aspects of life and confuse them. Science says 80% of our brain development happens in the first 3 years of our lives which makes it most critical time of our nurturing. When we take all of this into account, it boils down to one thing. Good managers start early at learning management.

Then comes people management. Till the 4th grade, Japanese schools focus on developing two critical aspects of the personality of their kids : Empathy and Compassion and they have a reason for this. They follow the Clan organization culture and Democratic method of leadership. It requires a very inclusive mindset of working and decision making needs the consensus of everyone involved, no matter what their role in the organization is. But this culture is in perpetual conflict with that of the rest of the world. Empathy and compassion foster emotional intelligence in us but becomes the biggest roadblock to decision making. Take the example of policemen and lawyers. They are trained to focus only on evidence. If they grow emotional intelligence, no crime will be a crime and there will be no punishments which means there will be no law in the land. Ideally, we just need to add excellent communications skills, empathy and compassion to self management skills to become good people managers. But in the corporate world we are part of, none of these are required. Managers are expected to drive people at work like shepherds drive cattle to graze. Team members are neither expected nor encouraged to learn anything more than what they need to know to do the work assigned to them. There are also organizations where managers are used as thugs and enforcers to hire, intimidate and coerce employees to quit unwillingly which I have seen and experienced.

These are the reasons why the world of business seem so cold and hard. Empathy and compassion have no place in that realm. Banks cannot function on emotional intelligence. No loans will ever be recovered. This is why outside of Japan, kids start writing exams early. Our lives are made competitive and good scores are rewarded so that we focus solely on getting better scores to get the rewards. We are not allowed to grow emotional intelligence and our personality development is done devoid of empathy and compassion. This is why there is growing discontent and ire against the existing education system. The education system is being blamed for creating robots rather than humans that can easily fit into the corporate world. Corporate world runs only on numbers and our lives are far more complex and evolved to be measured and defined with just numbers. A growing population of people are homeschooling their kids simply because nothing much has changed in all these years. Schools are nurturing kids the same way their parents were nurtured, to grow up and fit into corporate jobs. Education no longer symbolizes learning. Older generations have had to unlearn many of the things they learned through the education system to understand the world and life around them.

Brigette Hyacinth, an influencer on LinkedIn has been creating quite a stir in the community by openly questioning the stale hiring policies in the corporate world. Resumes of candidates are being evaluated by automated systems run by software and they use keywords to connect and match resumes with job roles. This is the best example of the corporate world needing robots rather than human beings to work for them. Those keywords take precedence over talent, hard work, skills and experience which filters out people who truly deserve to get those jobs. I have been a victim of this system as well.

But all does not seem to be lost. I happened to read about how people from the corporate world in the US metropolises are quitting jobs and moving to far away places like Arizona to live in organic farm based communities. The owner of a large golf course seems to have redesigned the golf course to start an organic farm which indicates that the situation has become quite serious. On a funny note, this should have been expected as organizations have been creating cattle managers all this time and they must have grown tired of managing people who have become robots. Organizations are streamlining and making their hierarchy flatter with lesser number of managers. The growing support Brigette is receiving for her comments even from the HR community is very heartening. The wind of change seems to be blowing, slowly but surely.

Nature’s insights for the millennium life

There is a very good reason why we are causing mayhem in the world. We no longer feel the need to fit into the realm of nature. Two things are happening as we continue to evolve away from nature. We are no longer understanding and learning from nature and we are losing our survival instincts. The problem with this is, we are still part of nature’s ecosystem and though we have built our own Matrix, our roots are still buried in nature. What we are not realizing is that if interpreted correctly, there are reasons and solutions in nature for everything we experience in our modern urban lives.

Consider this. Traditional martial art forms such as Kung-Fu evolved from the observation of movements of animals such as snakes, monkeys, tigers and cranes. But as our society evolved past the Renaissance we stopped observing and learning from nature. Aren’t we bored and tired of our monotonous 5 day weeks in the corporate world? Then head out to a lake or a water body where there are Cormorants, Darters or Terns and observe them fishing. 50-75% of the times they dive into the water, they come up with nothing. When they do catch a fish, half the time the fish slips out and escapes. How many times do they need to keep repeating the dives to find enough food to satiate their hunger each and every day? There are no weekends in nature. What if they thought this is boring and monotonous? What if they said we had enough and we are not doing this anymore? They would perish in hunger, as simple as that. And people complain about not getting jobs and talk about retirement. There is no complaining and retirement in nature. Just one rule exists out there: Try till you die and die when you quit.

There is something very fascinating in nature we don’t reflect upon. Why is it so difficult to spot animals in the wild? It is because of the prey-predator relationship. A successful catch of a prey depends on who sees or senses who first. What we see as beauty in nature is actually camouflage, to hide or distract, be it from the prey or the predators. Everything in nature is trying to hide itself from one another all the time. Lions are colour blind to the stripes of zebras so when zebras run together, lions do not get any visual sense of what is happening before them. But they still hunt down zebras. How? Because they have heightened levels of their other senses. What does this come down to? Nature always pushes the boundaries of every being in her ecosystem. Nothing comes easy. Every being has to be at the top of it’s game all the time to stay alive and procreate for it’s species to survive. The primordial force of nature keeps pushing the limits of everything within it and this is what propels evolution; every animal tries to evolve continuously to be a dominant species in nature.

How does all of this translate into our lives? For wildlife photographers they have to stay ahead of all these hide and seek games in nature to get great pictures. There are 3 aspects to getting great wildlife photographs: spotting the subject, anticipation and hand-eye coordination. Take this to Agile methodology, the management practice that has taken over almost all industries. Whenever I hear or think about Agile, what comes first to my mind is the image of a tiger. Agile methodology is not just about doing things faster. Why is Agile predominantly a product based methodology? Because it is essentially about spotting those little opportunities in the market, anticipating which way market conditions could swing, what customers might need and getting the products out into the market accordingly. This is exactly how tigers or any predators hunt in the wild. Be it in nature’s jungle or concrete jungle, success has the same underlying roots. The change management principle of focusing on small wins, consolidating them and targeting bigger goals is a lesson that comes right from nature.

What has changed about us is that we evolved into beings of a complex cooperative society and what has got affected the most because of this transformation is our surviving skills. A support system gets built around every individual from where we get help whenever we are in need. The size of the support system depends on our needs and what we can give to the society. Social media networks are all examples of such systems. This highly interconnected way of living reduces our need for surviving skills and this I believe has been the biggest liability of becoming intelligent beings. Our needs have grown exponentially which in turn has raised the bar of our desires. With our waning surviving skills, when life becomes difficult, we become frustrated and start feeling helpless, turn to Gods and eventually to superstition. No other being in nature believes in getting help from a higher power to succeed. Every animal believes in it’s own skills and abilities to survive. This is why in highly competitive market conditions, mere skills and abilities do not take us far; it is our contacts in the favours based society that help us to get ahead.

But there is an anomaly here. Less surviving skills should ideally make us less competitive but the reverse is happening. Urban life has become a mighty arena for wealth based competition. We are vying to buy bigger and more expensive houses, cars, gadgets and an infinite number of assortments. This is an endless pit and once we fall into it, we spend our entire lives chasing more wealth to keep buying newer and supposedly better things. Think iPhone and all it’s die hard fans who literally live in queues for days outside Apple’s stores to buy new versions. Our status quo in society built around wealth mandates that we keep chasing wealth all the time. Business is thriving with marketing strategies fine tuned to exploit this wealth based competition to the hilt. But wealth is a commodity and acquiring wealth is not a skill; it is all about exploiting the needs of our fellow beings. A great example is the real estate industry. Buy land for lower cost and sell for higher price based on demand. All business models are built around understanding and exploiting people’s needs, going to the extent of creating new needs if they do not exist, something which Apple epitomizes. Is there anything in our society that keeps egging us on to become better human beings? Nothing. This means we are not evolving and we have stagnated. Technology has only made us dependent on it and has not helped us become better beings.

Nature develops 3 critical aspects in every being for survival: Patience, Perseverance and Resilience.  Nature teaches us to keep scouting for every opportunity, keep doing the same things relentlessly till we succeed and to keep moving ahead in the face of every adversity. Nature teaches us to appreciate every moment of our lives. We take time for granted, ours as well as that of everyone else’s. In nature, a lapse in moment is what stands between life and death. Nature sharpens our skills and abilities continuously and keeps us ready to face the next challenges. We need all of these, even to live in the bubble we have created for ourselves. But we have made ourselves lethargic enough to choose the easy way out every time. No schools or universities can teach us nature’s lessons. In the extremely competitive world we live in, we need our fundamentals firmly in place. Only the eternal Mother can make us evolve into better beings.