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.


Innovation questions to management, some more

Which of the following gets an overwhelming yes from your leaders internally

  1. We don’t have to  innovate or invest internally in innovation, as there are other smarter players and start-ups, that we just need to follow suit or outright acquire them. Just tell me who they are?
  2. We know our team has ideas on strategies and priorities, that we are unable to invest time and resources. Can the innovation team just take up one/many such items and come back with solutions?
  3. We are all stuck in a very old thinking pattern and tenet, constrained by assumption. All we need is a training that will help us break that pattern and leave it at that. Can we also get a certificate at the end of the course?
  4. Problems provide the best low hanging fruits for innovation, can we just stick to problem solving, instead of doing open themes for innovation?
  5. Decision on strategy are made elsewhere at least in our area of work, really see no road ahead for any idea pipeline, even if they are only mildly disruptive. So we should focus on execution than innovation?

my original and building list of survey questions on innovation is here



When people discuss innovation, strategy gets tied in for various reasons,

  1. to prove the company will remain committed for the longer term
  2. to state that company’s future depends on it
  3. to show that it was a deliberate action

My cynical take why people tie innovation with strategy is for the following

  1. not having to do anything immediately (as it is for the long-term)
  2. not having to do it as a habit (as it is done only once every year or decade)
  3. someone else (usually senior leadership) can be held responsible if it did not work

Innovation is the opposite of all the above 3, i.e. I have to do something, I have to do it regularly and if something goes wrong, I take personal responsibility, learn and start again with trying something else.

Now the call is simple, do you want to make innovation a habit, everyone’s everyday responsibility more like operations? or orphan it?

Innovation everyday or strategic, your call


Notes on Knowledge Continuity

I was part of a content creation for the bspin conference recently held at Bangalore on Knowledge Continuity. These notes of mine which were part of the first version which got morphed into totally something else when we finished. I felt there were some key points here that may interest Knowledge Managers. So here it goes…

Knowledge Continuity 3 D

Business continuity (for target vectors like performance, functionality, availability, ability to change, etc in IT Services) is provisioned by Knowledge continuity.

Knowledge Continuity cuts across 3 dimensions

1. People Interface/Relationships

· Such as between roles that work only in few phases (tester, BA, Architect) or between vendor and business user

2. Time

· Such as tenure in domain/account/technology

3. Content

· Such as standard operating procedures and heuristics of how experts handle crisis and how it is traded or exchanged

Common reasons that lead to loss of continuity include

1. Forgetting

2. Attrition

3. Too much or too little governance/processes

KM Strategy

Knowledge management as a strategy for achieving continuity intervenes by each of these dimensions

1. Interface: Building newer relationships across diverse groups

· Participative culture builds relationships and sustains rituals

· Diverse (not in bred) relations are formed as part of social network stimulation

2. Time: Bridging gap between expert and novice

· High Cost Experienced Resource versus Profitability equation

· Concept mapping and expertise transfer as methods to reduce time to become expert in the knowledge domain

3. Content: Sustained Knowledge creation socially

· Wiki as a preferred tool, how peer review helps in increasing quality of wikis, differences between closed and open wikis

· Structured Story Listening methods and AARs (after action reviews)

Success Determinants

Success of such KM strategy will be determined by the following

1. Culture prevalent in the enterprise, specifically drivers that create habits

2. Information and Communications Technology and its social utility value (the bargain)

3. People Policies


Community Stimulation Ideas 2

In this post, I will touch one aspect of the stimulation exercise viz. visioning (not those usual platitudes, but something more real and has utility to the community). Both the methods are very similar and rely on the same simple cognition fact that we cannot tell lies backward in time. We can easily build a grandiose of lies as we move forward in time but try doing it backward, we cannot go farther than 2 steps. The methods are

  1. Ideal Final Result from the TRIZ method portfolio
  1. Future Backwards from the Cognitive Edge method portfolio

IFR/Ideality as it is popularly known is a combination of 3 things is defined as [Benefits/(Cost + Harm)]

Instead of taking incremental steps forward in time, you take a far reaching jump to sometime in future and assume that the functions/benefits of the community is achieved without any harm and cost to the members. As you move backwards you can notice the number of options/choices increase.

Once you have done this, you search for solutions for intermediates back from the IFR, you can bin time as is convenient to the community

3 questions that should be asked in the same order during this process are

  1. What is the IFR of my community?
  1. What is stopping me from achieving that and why?
  1. How could you make that disappear? What resources are available to help?

Finally you can possibly find other communities that have already solved those problems.

During the process of doing IFR you can actually surface many conflicts that exist between community and members, as IFRs tend to be vastly different, mark them as key opportunities or issues that need resolutions/agreements.

Future Backwards is a complexity based facilitation technique that is used "to increase the number of perspectives that a group can take both on an understanding of their past, and of the range of possible futures. It can be used to discover what entrained patterns of past perception in an organization are determining its future"

In a Future backwards you will have

· Current state (the situation that we are currently in and going backwards what decisions, events and turning points led to it)

· Hell (if Murphy’s law was in full action ("everything that can go wrong, going wrong"), what events can lead to it and what would happen to the situation in a specific time period usually 1-2 years)

· Heaven (if everything was going right, what would the situation look like and what events might lead to it in the period)

· Turning points or Accidents (that can lead from one event to previous i.e. backwards in time)

Like in the picture below

You will start with explaining the current state and drawing key ideas/events. Choose one of the most significant idea/event and keep going back in time identifying prior turning points. This is step 1.

Start from top right to map back from the impossibly extreme heaven and do the same process of mapping backwards turning points possibly towards a past event. This is step 2.

Next start from the bottom right to map back from impossibly extreme hell and do the same process of mapping backwards turning points possibly towards a past event. This is step 3. Time stamps are optional for all the events. Facilitation takes 2-3 hrs with some deep silences in between.

Several outcomes are possible from the above 2 methods that include visions, roadmaps, patterns of entrained thinking, seeing how past influences our future, marked differences in different groups’ understanding of the current state etc.


Community Stimulation Ideas 1

I presented the below concept map to one of our client managers for stimulating a community. We did an ideation afterwards and came up with ideas relevant to each facet of the map. This post is a listing of some of those ideas.

To start with I am picking members and their identity, this is one of the most important foundation of the entire community movement itself. Without a shared sense of identity and purpose there is no community action, but it is necessary for us to keep them independent. Example, A local Rajinikanth fan club (the identity) might take up a community drinking water project (the purpose). In IT Services industry we tend to overlay identity and purpose a lot and hence neither becomes magnified well enough for action.

Subroto has this ‘twice away’ rule, that the purpose should be for someone who is twice removed from the community like a ‘customer’s customer’. This rule makes you keep the identity and purpose distinct in a natural way. There have been communities within MindTree that have used this in their roadmap specifically Technical Leadership community.

Here are the ideas on identity

  1. Creating a visual identity, these could be logos, icons, website themes, etc
    1. Better will be to allow the community to come up with its own images
  2. In addition to the visual identity catering to other senses like having a slogan or tag line
  3. Gift these logos in forms that can be used, worn, shown, carried around. I call these ‘props’ these can include mouse pads, bags, pens, vendor ware type t-shirts, mugs, etc
  4. Have the community identity/logo printed in business cards
  5. Introduce members to the community in a rigorous schedule like 3 per week and continuously for 30 weeks. There are several ways to do this
    1. having a standard set of 5 questions and leaving the last question for the member to ask and answer
    2. Sabre asks its employees their hometown while profiling and that is a strong identity
    3. Including a personal version of the vision from every member
    4. Asking specialization while introducing
    5. Allowing for self declaration of expertise
  6. Building expert locator page from above introductions
  7. Have a competency mapping that is not more than 2 levels
  8. In a loosely connected virtual world it is unfair to assume that members will only use your community space, poll for where majority members are and move your community action there
  9. If members are participating in external discussions or conferences magnify them internally. Example that is popular is participation in forums, commenting on external blogs etc
  10. (Re-)Publish case studies of members that are openly available, this will add value and recognition to the virtual space in the set identities
  11. Allow and finance members to take field trips to proximal domain areas in academics or industry. Supply chain community will want to spend a day in UPS to see what is their supply chain process like.
  12. Arrange academics to come in and present new concepts to the community
  13. Identify local chapters of larger communities and get invites for events to members
    1. Get active members to go together
    2. After the event get them to present it internally
  14. Find and encourage behavior of active members. Move peripheral members to participate with one action example is marking “like”, rating content etc
  15. If a member is active, remove any road blocks to further activity
  16. Publish non-intrusively about member activity, live feeds, activity streams are doable
  17. Give active and central members role to play in strategy and plan meetings
  18. Identify at least 5 heartbeat measures example sessions, views on site, discussion responses, connects, new members, introductions, newsletters etc
    1. Support all of them
    2. Set targets for all of them and follow up rigorously
  19. Empower financially to the allowed maximum as per budget
  20. Identify a social object that members relate to

    You have more ideas? please do comment…


    3 point social media strategy

    I see several parallels between what is happening in the web versus what is happening within an intranet on social media. Example, What the brands are doing about consumer behavior is what functions/management should do about employee behavior within the enterprise, however then that’s just one aspect. While it takes much longer for enterprises to catch up with the available open internet technologies, fundamentally designing a social media strategy can be done in a technology agnostic manner.

    I call it in cliché terms the ‘Connections > Conversations > Engagement’ or the E=MC2 strategy

    Engagement equals My actions on Connections and Conversations

    Connections are made, at multiple levels of abstraction. Several types of connections are possible such as a person to person connect or between a person and a brand.

    All connections have one thing in common, connection are made in a specific space.

    Physical proximity is a key factor in making connections, people don’t look for the perfect or the most relevant connection, they just go with what is the closest even if less relevant. After all it is only 6 degrees of separation between any of us, Milgram proved it before we were born

    Virtual Spaces is next, with multiple channels opened up and each with its own level of information noise.

    How clearly and loudly can you hear your audience speak about you in a virtual space, be it the bulletin board or on twitter?

    If your people are more connected via SMS it might make sense to build a mobile phone directory than deploying a content management system.

    Identities play a key role in connections, while it is easy to connect with people who have multiple matching identity facets.

    Have you heard of the social objects, these take background center stage and necessary for connect to happen.

    Connections trigger conversations (and spam)

    Context to the conversation is what my social media presence does for me, if I am a brand and all I have is a badly packaged shoddy product.

    I may hide my brand behind any social media and all I will end up getting is firing from every connection.

    On the other hand you have a small but staunch following on your product and you intend to hear all the voices from this following, your strategy is to be all ears to any comment on a convenient platform, preferably where your users already are registered.

    Building trust through conversations is based on honesty and just being who you are.

    Being prepared to have the nasty conversation in open is an option, but to ignore it is not.

    (Note to Self: While expressing thoughts and viewpoints it must be noted that downright honesty and first person content gets far more responses than preachy second or third person passages.)

    Conversations when acted result in engagement

    It is not enough to be conversing in the social media, it is plain necessary to act on feedback and respond in surprisingly delightful ways to the followers. I exist only because of them and I see no better way to improving myself than through this conversation. Trending follower needs through conversations and seeking active feedback is hard work, there are thankfully many tools and methods.

    So, What is your social media strategy?


    SBI Think BIG, Think Global

    This post is dated far back from 2007, when I entered into an open competition held within SBI. Most of the below strategies, I think was strongly influenced by the orange papers I was regularly reading then. Many of them still have the potential, some of them are no more relevant. Here it goes…

    Think BIG, Think Global

    Suggesting strategies with regard to core concerns of the Bank (SBI)

    For Increase in market share

    Adopting a diversified business, financial services model with support at micro level to include brokers, co-operative units, NBFCs, insurance companies and others A new set of distributors will always get a new set of customers, which in turn will help the Bank grow. As revenues from cities are saturating the Bank should tap new areas with product pushes. A very similar model is now being increasingly adopted by mutual fund houses for rural areas, which would be looking at the Bank for partnership. This can be emulated by the Bank to partner with other micro finance institutions.

    Increasing overseas business banking support With the popular success of Antwerp branch supporting diamond businesses, which had a whopping $3.8 m for the first half this year compared to the $3.3 m for full last year, the Bank should focus on identifying key businesses where there is a requirement for financing Indian companies overseas. The appetite of Indian companies entering into various M&A activities in Europe and Latin America increasing, these are the next green pastures for the Bank.

    Increasing core credit across Industry sectors specifically Power, Infrastructure and Roads. Total bank credit in infrastructure stood at only 20% at Rs. 108787 crores and the domestic banks serve only 7.5% of the total $320 bn requirement as pegged by the government. With strong lobbying and push for reinstatement of the tax sop under section 10(23)G existing growth in infrastructure exposure should be maintained even if it means to raise fund overseas.

    Understanding specific needs of customer and equipping systems to service consistently through different delivery channels. With technology enablement it was possible for large private sector banks to reduce branch transactions from 90% in 2000 to less than 25% in 2006; this in turn translates into bigger available bandwidth for the Bank resources to concentrate on specific customer needs. Bulk of transactions currently happening over the counter in branches need to move to various delivery channels like ATMs, kiosks, internet, mobile phone and call center. It is critical to define consistent service levels across these channels.

    Defining customizable work flows for varied needs across markets, sectors, regions at branch level. The key differentiator in today’s market to customer satisfaction and retention is primarily how quickly the system is responding to changing needs. At the branch level work flows should be flexible and customizable depending on factors like sector, region, or market it serves.

    Driving new banking product ideas from customers. The input that a needy customer can give to the Bank regarding a new product or service is valuable and there needs to be an idea management system in place to collect, evaluate,  conduct feasibility analysis and due diligence.

    Establishing wealth management for customers with strong branch loyalty with various banking and investment products. Wealth management for customers is a growing area in retail banking; it even goes to the level of managing bank accounts of next generation of customers who have a strong branch loyalty. This loyal customer base gives a ground for pushing innovative products and services.

    Deployment of human resources with local knowledge for distribution of banking products and services. To speak the local language and knowing whom to talk to are key differentiators and Bank can do this by deploying local resources for distribution of products and services. The Bank can even partner with the India Post to further its reach and increase its customer base.