Strategy as a narrative

A version of this post was delivered as a talk last week at a NASSCOM event for a few GIC leaders looking to drive innovation.

Fundamental questions around innovation are

      1. Scouting: What is the idea and how are we getting those ideas? Primarily it is about listening to ideas that are being tabled, presented or being talked about wherever and whenever.
      2. Investing: What is my next action after listening to the idea? Once you hear an idea, if it does not give raise to a “next action” there is very little chance for impact, even if it means just forwarding the email with a note and a presentation. Managers and leaders may choose to ignore an idea right in the inbox or kill it with many of those familiar techniques like death by delay or details. Point is there has to be a set of things that need to happen to the ideas that surface up, and of course lots of ideas surface up, and your capital, time and attention is very limited so you choose to do stuff only with very less number of ideas. When we say to do limited set of things the immediately “is this a process” comes to mind, but really it should be seen as a ritual, that whatever be the idea, your way to act has to kick in. It is generally never the same across 2 departments, I have seen in my company how, Finance is able to go live on ideas with a much lower management support, whereas marketing never goes live without a SVP approval.
      1. Testing:  What the world did about such ideas? Testing ideas at scale is a capability, it is easy for online or mobile; .com experiments are cheaper to run than  most other channels. MVP and lead user feedbacks are most important aspects to find if the idea is worth its salt, and if it can actually create the impact it claims. If the business decides to simply follow quickly rather than lead, testing of high capex technology can actually be delegated to competition that is raring/daring to lead.

Even if you understood how to scout, invest and test ideas, unless you are able to play to the current and historic narratives of the company, it will be very difficult to navigate structures and influence people to create the impact.

Enter strategy as a narrative

  1. If you take corporate and the CFO function, priority is given to investors where the narrative revolves around capex and return on investment, growth and these tend to be driven from the planning function that benchmarks against existing peer/competition. Specifically ROIC and EPS is set on the long range plans that can all be seen with a simple query.
  2. If you take customers as priority, you would account for specific trends for example shifting of shopping online and mobile (both experience and transaction), growth of subscriptions for everyday goods, willingness to pay for same day service, assuming free shipping and returns is affecting our business. Narratives here will be around who the customer is, why certain behavior change will profoundly affect the way of conducting business, how can business continue to provide the same level of experience and service across channels to the customer.
  3. Whereas a business pyramid may be interested in specific outcomes and ways (processes/technologies/partnerships) to achieve those. For example a supply chain or distribution narrative can range across the entire logistics ranging from sourcing countries to last mile delivery convenience to customers or a merchandising narrative cutting across the entire life cycle of the product (like partnership – product placement – price), while a marketing narrative may just focus on branding and advertisement and mode of delivery.

All of the above can be affected profoundly by technology changes, as Brian Arthur (who wrote The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves and advises companies like Google), makes a claim that technology changes brings forward need and further another set of technologies, and an easy analogy could be with the invention of automobile leading to all sorts of technologies across, oil refining technologies, road technologies like highway networks, signal systems, systems like satelite mapping, and now we get real time traffic information on mobile etc. In and of itself, where narratives shift rapidly and has to be made sense with any of the stakeholder outcomes above.

Finally I want to talk about how technology investments are shifting to business functions rather than the IT department. This can simply be seen by growth of budgetary provisions in your company technology and other business. For example out marketing department budget will be easily more than 7 times that of IT department budget. And Marketing do spend a large chunk of these investments in technology.

To be part of any narrative or a broad objective involves engagement with HQ and this is usually achieved by getting a seat at the table, and then building your way across to both receive and transmit signals to the General’s ear. Usually General’s hold cheque books and veto powers. I am not claiming in anyway that this is the only way to do it. For example when Jeff Bezos sends a note to country heads on India as a priority for the year and it means there is a support guarantee from apex leadership that can be summoned when needed.

Another way to achieve the same objective is to set standard processes for say estimating effort, quantifying impact, requesting resource etc.

So being open to work and play with a broad set of narratives that keep changing as needs, approaches, technologies change and the speed at which we can do this sitting in a far off location and scaling the way in which we listen and respond, largely will determine the future, including your very existence.


How running your college workshop can fetch you a better job

You may have heard about graduates not being ready for industry, industry not having investments into finishing schools, about the rapid growth of disconnected/under-equipped/unregulated finishing schools throwing still unusable talent, industry accrediting academia with no standard method among other problems of disconnect between education system and industry.

In my opinion this is an issue at personal level that collective systems or their coordination cannot solve. In other words we are turning a universal problem into a global problem and throwing costly resources at it including student time, tax money to solve. Approach to such universal problem solving begins at student level.

Here is a back story of an unused workshop at IITM. It used to be a workshop heavily funded with staff supplies since inception, that was post second world war with developed countries funding or setting up labs in IITs (IITM has a lot of lab equipment from Germany, while Kgp most was from Russia, Kanpur was US equipment). I was probably one of the last set of students to touch an old German particle classifier that was almost defunct till we decided to do something with it. Actually number of students using the workshop steadily declined as industry needs, student interests, technology shifted over years, leading to under used infrastructure with no useful outcomes. Now one fine day (actually over a year) this workshop was converted to a student run lab, with much lesser resources than before but with complete freedom to do what interests students. Fast forward 2 years this lab establishes itself as national champion in robotics, new materials, among other accolades.

Now as a student it makes a perfect place to find your own version of ‘cool’,  follow on what’s interesting to the student, instead of working on lab experiments that industry does not need anyway.

If I were a recruiter and I get a student who can clearly explain his 2 failures while really doing something in such workshops, and not a shiny bright power point slide with all adjectives pre-loaded, he is on board…


Making a process ‘social’ on your intranet

Consider a project plan, i.e. only the artifact and now you want to make the plan review process ‘social’ on a platform. How will it happen, say on your collaboration or other platform? My idea for this post is to enlist actions from various dimensions and possibly facet them for doing requirements to make a process ‘social’.

Content Responses:

Predominantly 2 types of responses depending on where

In-situ, in this case wherever the plan is located

While we are looking primarily at text, the responses could actually be a same content type e.g. idea on top of an idea or just a related idea, responding to an youtube video with another video, in this case responding to a plan with another plan that may be similar or related

Ex-situ, example as a link back from elsewhere or even back channels

These off site response could be within the intranet, or outside. I have not seen simple ping backs being implemented within intranets, so we are little far away from this future.

Giving some direction to content responses have been tried for example deBono’s 6 Thinking Hats or simple cost/risk/revenue comments

Emotional Responses:

We will only consider ‘like’ emotional response here, this will get overly complex when we add other emotions e.g. hope/fear, happy/sad, pride/shame

“Why only ‘like’, why not ‘dislike’?” is a fundamental question. Response to this comes from Max Weber "I am not what I think I am and I am not what you think I am; I am what I think that you think I am."

If you see too much of what I dislike, you may not like me, and I don’t like it.

So what if there are 20 ‘likes’ for the project plan in question, would you commission them for the project?

Would it affect adversely on recruitment for the project if many ‘dislike’ the plan

Social demand / Cost-benefit Actions:

In our example, Project has a plan > Project has a Manager > Plan has a reviewer > Reviewer is a volunteer > Reviewer spends time (cost) > Reviewer benefits from review > Manager benefits from review > Review costs the Manager > Review costs/benefits others (externality)

While these are not direct actions on the artifact, they provide an important basis for reasons to act. Specifically on the demand side i.e. desire to get the plan reviewed, ability to review, and willingness to review.

Network Actions:

These include share, tag, and follow type actions across a network. Every intranet worth its salt respects its users to subscribe on content, tags, person, groups, with almost no push to inbox actions. Negative action here would be removal from personal stream, reporting spam or abuse.

Another phenomenon that has to be taken into account is the back-channel of social. In the case of a plan, there may be a private email thread floating around or a twitter conversation that neither the PM nor others are even aware. But it happens socially anyways.

Here is the taxonomy for all actions from above


Head, Hand and Heart for Change

I am not a philosophy major, but I understand the differences between reason, will and desire. In a corporate setting, most published “content type” from top is just plain reasons viz. whys to do something, to approve a budget, to take up a new initiative, an ROI and more such. But the will and desire are left out mostly. When you hear “to lead by example or walk the talk”, it is an indication of will, and when you hear “did not feel like doing it” “ Yes, but…” it is an indication of desire (or the lack of). At this point, we depart from the simple system definition to one in the complex domain as the agents and actions are intertwined. Will and desire (or the lack of) spreads faster and influence actions more than the published reasons. To work only with reason and undermine will and desire is a forceful push from the complex domain to simple domain.

A simple framework for action/change thus in any reasonable sized system should handle all 3 (reason, will and desire). One may be more magnified than the other, and in fact, they should be. When this happens, a series of actions unfolds with no clear attribution possible. These are system responses and agents are playing part. Here is where stories that people tell each other and social objects come in, bringing players from all over the system for action willingly.

A simple metaphor for this framework is the simple head-hand-heart to reason-will-desire respectively. In action/change scenarios, all 3 operate simultaneously, but you can never determine outcomes. If boundary conditions are favorable, outcomes are impactful and always contextual.

Now to orient a bunch of leaders on this head-hand-heart framework is easy, make a list of past failed initiatives like below

  Head/Reason Hand/Will Heart/Desire
Initiative 1 <<Enter biz case/ROI/5W etc>>    
Initiative 2   <<Enter policy change, mobilized support, experiments done etc>>  
Initiative 3     <<Enter social objects, desires tapped, etc>>
Initiative n      

When you fill this up, you will notice that the last column will be the most sparsely filled or even empty.

Coming from an industry that runs on perennial initiative fatigue, I was not surprised when I filled one for myself.

Try it …


What should sebi do with the settlement-fees?

Both the Reliance Group companies have gone to SEBI for settlement using what is called a “consent process”. The Anil Ambani marketing group action is in full swing to do the following

  1. Make case for this “internationally accepted norm” for settlement, in which process we will never get to know the whys of the case
  2. Message that the group has not lost any of its financial/market muscle to do what it does as against what is on the media

In complexity theory there is this concept of “powerful stranger”, one whose action can actually trigger disproportionate downstream impact. In this case it happens to be the “anonymous” complaints received by SEBI on violation of insider trading regulations by the group companies back in 2007 and mis-representation of investments. Interesting thing is, the regulation is in the complicated domain and denies the complex nature of how markets operate. And the current system is taking a non-complex action response through the consent route.

Should SEBI not install probes that act from the field than try to regulate under covers and a fishy process? If the money whatever sum earned by the directors’ trades is never going to reach the investors who lost an equal sum (actually we will never know who), at least the SEBI fine should be spent on installing the probes.

Anyways the markets are for real and it seems to have dumped the stocks, currently trading at 6% lower than the Friday close.


Global and Universal Problems

Dennis Meadows in his great lecture at Santa Fe makes the distinction of 2 kinds of problems

Type 1 Global Problems are those that affects everyone and needs concerted action from big players like nations, for any possibility of solving them. He puts nuclear proliferation, terrorism, oil depletion etc in this category.

Type 2 Universal Problems are those that affects everyone but can be solved by local action. He puts groundwater contamination, urban air pollution etc in this category.

My feeling is in organizations people tend to use existence of global problems as reasons to not take action on universal problems.

Global problems include the ever escaping top management approvals, blanket buy in for an initiative etc.

Some even predict the upcoming REVOLUTION as solution to global problems.

Innovation is all about being able to solve those universal problems with local solutions, without being bogged down by global problems.

And local solutions emerge only from safe-fail experiments.