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.


Whats wrong with todays flipkart sale?

Several things went wrong with today’s sale at flipkart, here is my set of reasons why i did not buy anything and will not buy anything in the near future on any flipkart sales.

  1. Annoying and repeated advertisements on tv is my first personal reason, the same stupid ad in the middle of a live sports 5 times in a row, is an insult to the viewer’s intelligence
  2. You have no way of getting to a product detail page from the mobile app without knowing the code that is printed in newspapers i don’t read and the product search results never get you to the actual offer product pages. Classification on the mobile app on top, limited time, limited stock, steal deal is poor design that is adding to the search issues. Of course on top of this images never loaded during the first 30 minutes of the sale
  3. Most items felt like they were all clearance and possibly a preparation for upcoming season sales. It is a massive push for traffic with very less value for the customer
  4. Prices were of course increased and then discounted and there are multiple proofs for this across product categories
  5. If all the stock is going to run out in 5 minutes and why push so much for a traffic that will never convert, and in the process lose trust that you built over a long time

May be all the bizarre funding, silent aggression from amazon, simplicity of snapdeal, lack of original ideas for the indian, and recent successes of mi sales, blinded flipkart so badly that it did not even necessitate to check basic retail sense before starting the marketing and in turn losing at least major chunk of my trust in flipkart.

No deals here.


Why inventory notifications are not friendly enough?

Can’t believe there is no readymade feature on amazon, zappos, Myntra or platforms like shopify and magento for requesting notification on item becoming available in a specific size, color, style or other attributes?

Can you please let me know when brown uk 10 becomes available on this one.

Surely inventory is maintained that way, why customer notifications are not possible is beyond me?

books,, somedaymaybe

Panchatantra in VUE

Fable sets like Panchatantra are best performed with music and in the local language and a conducive setting. My intent is to recreate it with plain visuals, in VUE. All in all the exercise was satisfying, and I am happy with the outcome. Layers of narrative arising from the frame story, the complications of characterization and continuity becomes visible when done this way. The aim was not to give away stories which I strongly recommend for reading or hearing. I am not one to steal the thrill of hearing a good fable first hand, but rather to see how the fable will move from one to other in a map. I feel the use such a visual is only as an aid to performance. Click the image to see a larger version.

Panchatantra Book 4 Loss of Gains

Panchatantra Book 4 Loss of Gains

Loss of Gains is the smallest of the books in Panchatantra, I will need a long holiday to do the others where the number of layers are far higher than this. #somedaymaybe…


So you are offering Innovation as a Service

What we talk of services, when we talk of services differs from person to person. When you talk of Innovation as a service here is what I am looking for

1. About your service and the service terms

2. Team that delivers this service, preferably with photos of real people and their profiles

3. Contact details of a non-sales support person and his role

4. Follow options from a mutually convenient place say Facebook, twitter, blogs if any

5. Best and Worst customer story so far

Let me also add, I am NOT looking for a brochure with platitudes around the concept of innovation and why it is important for my organization or about another innovation management tool or technique.


To Indianise a Cartoon, please dont

I saw 2 curious editorials about importing Archie to India in Point Counterpoint in Times yesterday.

If I were to take sides, mine will be on the side of not trying to Indianise anything.

Simply because of the variety and colours that India offers, cannot do justice on any “Indianise” process however clever.

Secondly my personal experience with 2 of my kids with Cindrella, which they just don’t relate.

While fables are most easily transferable across cultures, (see how Panchatantra got the reach and derivatives across cultures)

stereotype transfers (like this Archie transfer) from another culture will fail to convey anything or even be mildly entertaining.

Archie will be in for a rude shock in India…


Org Vocabulary

All jobs include a vocabulary exercise, be it responding to a prospect need, or writing your appraisal or coming up with a methodology/strategy or just speaking publicly for a change especially KM jobs. What differentiates departments/companies is not their vocabularies but their stories and it takes long time to catch stories from different contexts.

Anyways problems of attrition in my industry gave rise to other problems as people migrated from company to company with their vocabulary.
To such an extent that even slidewares and pitches (to specific egos) across vendors started to sound same. I have heard vendor selectors claiming “that just changing the master layout of your presentation will make it exactly same as what I saw with the last vendor prospect”. I also know of some real stories when people moved from one large vendor to other with their slideware, actually confused these selectors because it was exactly the same “methodology”.

Second of the problem that arises from vocabulary is, for those that stuck around and got older in parent companies without switching. These seniors were stuck with limited stories in a restricted vocabulary/language of the company they are loyal to. That in itself is not the problem, it becomes one if all they have is old stories to make new changes in the enterprise, because nobody feels that story (distant in space, time and intent) and language itself has shifted to something else that these seniors cannot speak.

So sparking action internally or selling to your boss or prospect almost becomes impossible just by changing vocabulary or being stuck with one for too long.

What do you think KM Managers should do? What story should be listened? retold?


More Maps

After joining my current job, when I started "Knowledge Mapping" I have encountered and applied several other maps. I want to leave a record here of a few that I have been practicing.

Mind Map to Concept Map

Mind Map is basically a flowery diagram that helps you remember a "linear" hierarchy of concepts but without any cross linkages. Tony Buzan made this famous with case studies like "when I was a student, I had this hard course I had to take and when I started adopting mind maps for taking class notes it became so much more easier and recall just before exam was so good I became the university topper". This is great and there are so many tools available including the clunky but popular FreeMind

and tools like MindMeister available over the internet with a simple registration or as device apps.

As I said Mind Map is linear hierarchy that does not allow cross linkages, so to represent a domain that is complex you need support for all hierarchies and relationships, which is what concept map does. You can form meaningful propositions and make sense of a complex domain easily. My faith in concept map was reinforced specifically by 2 sources

1. Cognitive Task Analysis (CTA) work done by Gary Klein and others who have been propagating concept map as a standard way to represent knowledge domains

2. Ed Rogers CKO NASA who visited us last year, was doing the entire presentation from a single concept map and NASA also applies concept map internally a lot.

Nowadays all my presentations have at least one concept map (around 6-10 slides get represented in 1 concept map) , I use VUE in rapid prototyping mode to create the representations quickly

Here is a reproduction of a concept map (on concept map) from Working Minds

that is one of the greatest references for CTA.

Perception Map

Recently we did a conversation based training on Perception map. This is a powerful technique when it comes to dealing with perceptions on highly sensitive or people oriented issues within teams. It lets you define the core issue more clearly, as people problems gets cloudy when the number of perceptions gets beyond 3 (another limit of our pre-frontal cortex)

I am particularly interested how the teams actually do the mapping, after perceptions are collected and de-duped. In my opinion, you can enforce a lot of rules into this, or you can simply let it emerge by constraining the leads to step (one perception can only lead to one other perception not more). All sorts of collectors, loops and conflicts surface and it is fun to watch as this happens in groups. Making this step anonymous helps, with managers or other leaders excluded from the meeting.

Tree Map

When you look at a visual there are only 3 cues actually, 1. relative size of the object 2. the color of the object in relation to others and 3. the text that is there in the object. If it is a representation of some form of flow then you will have connectors, but tree map is not suited for those. Tree map is suited when you have a hierarchy of data elements and you want to drill down layer after layer in that data set. I use it for parsing our internal MIS reports and make sense and to decide where to put the focus effort.

I think I encountered tree map first in Many Eyes but started using the tree map application of UMD

Story Map

I got interested in story maps when our user centric design community

floated a session. The concept is as simple as a time line on a specific user action (I will call this The Spine) and you will have multiple user stories that is mapped against the spine. Key take away is not just that, you can actually classify based on user need and from this plan which story will be developed in a Sprint cycle.


Assorted Coll of Links from 2009

Story Methods and Culture

Thanks to Bob Sutton for quoting this awesome story about the Naskapi Indians and the lessons on sensemaking

Bob again Confirmation from pyschology research on how accurately people evaluate others even when time slices are as small as 30 seconds. So applying STC when time needed for evaluation tends to zero which means you are in the “present moment” aware your responses/evaluation are all the more accurate. Well beware of the induction approach here. My friend Sajeev  had this idea long time back about being able to predict how loyal an employee would be based on such time sliced behavior

Social math is just a new jargon for telling stories with data. But the examples are great starters.

Story telling resources from through Karen

More and more video sharing from folks at Green Chameleon specifically
this practical contribution to the CE open source methods. Covers both Anecdote circle and archetype extraction  also check out other videos like telling tips from Shawn in the site

Story colored glasses blog is booming and this is becoming an important reference point and a brilliant starter kit for those entering  narrative research.

I need to dig into SouthWest stories more, and see how it got embedded in the culture

One of the popular cultural records of a live company netflix

Piece from Seth on Cultural Wisdom very relevant even within organizations where different practices and functions are running with different cultural norms. And if KM has to succeed you better be culturally wise.

Knowledge Strategy

Knowledge Strategy from Cory may be a business relevant KM strategy can come forth

Been grappling with bringing business relevance to km as part of day job. Key problems cited here are not necessarily solved by appointment of CKO but a willingness to see problems through the knowledge lens at a top management level.

Other Methods and Misc

I had this AAR poster on my desk for quite some time till I recently shifted my desk, the IKEA analogy poster works

Wenger’s original Learning is social CoP paper   from Library clips
It still serves as reference to Key interventions that a community facilitator reporting probably to a central function should at least be aware of.

Loved  the list of lies from Kawasaki and it only becomes truer by the day. I see more CEOs in my company now than I did in my entire career.

Dysfunctions list from Jack Vinson Abilene Paradox was interesting.

Must have collection on dystopia/utopia from Dave

From part 1 on the training series at another domain, but the broad problems of training or the lack of it remains the same in my domain as well


Ideas Dec 2009

As usual ideas are plenty and free and usually the best thing to do is share the idea and may be inspire a couple of people. You know this trait becomes a pathology if you happen to be proficient in generating ideas with a few innovation methodologies. Eventually with every opportunity you end up with numerous ideas and unable to pick the one to run with. That said predicting success or future is not my thing, still there are several selection methodologies as well, possibly in another post later on.

If you cant spark action at least clarify the concept to make it more marketable.

  1. Social entrepreneurs or the citizen sector professionals are increasing widely. Much data available elsewhere on the growth of the sector. Innovative use of social media for information exchange is growing and is evident across several popular networks. First idea is to create a matrix of functional features for the sector along the lines of wikimatrix.
  2. Second idea is create a framework (I realise the cliche effect that this word has) for measuring impact of change. Change measurement in the citizen sector in my opinion can be modelled along the lines of Human development index and can be further extended for specific changes. Core competency in development of trackable parameters, reliable measurement mechanisms and associated methods are needed. Narrative methods have huge applicability here.
  3. Testing a series of stories with  and making a campaign that will solicit preferred behaviour is the third idea. This has both sensing side and synthesis side for actually creating the right stories for marketing.