Breaking racquets – should we care?

As a ten-year old learning to play tennis, I had the habit of throwing my racquet or slamming the ball when I was furious for having misplayed a shot. I am sure McEnroe had something to do with this, but that’s for another day! Of course, hurling my racquet on the ground couldn’t change the shot I played, but I believed it helped me express my anger. However, my coach disagreed. Whenever I did that, my coach would ‘ground’ me – which meant I can’t touch the racquet for that day and the next day. I would however, still have to come and train – just not play. And the length of the grounding increased with the frequency with which I did it – so the next time I did it, I would be grounded for one more day. That hurt. As a result, over time, I stopped hurling the racquet or ball and started internalizing the anger and tried to rip the next shot I got – which didn’t always end well for me in the context of the match.

Now, some might argue that it may be better to hurl something and get it out of your system instead of bottling it and losing the next few points. And they will be right. However, I learnt again. I started realizing (thanks to some assistance from my coach and friends) that I was losing points and games due to me frustration and anger. Over time, I learnt to forget the last point and instead focus on the next one. I realized that I wasn’t bottling my anger any more, I was just staying in the present during the game. I can’t say I have applied this technique all the time and indeed to all walks of my life yet but am learning and hopefully improving. And again, thanks to several people who have mentored and coached me in all walks of life, I am better off.

But staying with this example, it all started with a rather physical restriction – not to break racquets. It wasn’t the right solution; it wasn’t even a solution for my anger. But starting with that, my coach was able to slowly work backwards and make me not just a better player but more importantly a better person on court. After watching kids training at a tennis academy every week now for the past year, I get the feeling that coaches prefer to let the kids ‘express themselves’. It is also true that a lot of parents today don’t give coaches enough space to admonish or punish bad behavior. There seems to be a view that discouraging bad behavior is somehow curbing the growth of their personality.

Like my coach did three decades back, I disagree. I think it is a coach’s job to ensure that a player develops not just physical skills but also mental ability. And that necessarily involves molding a person’s personality. This is not a curbing of personality but on the contrary the development of personality. And while you want kids to express themselves, it cannot be at the cost of doing the right thing.

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December 28, 2015 at 7:42 am 1 comment

Ads – do you need to draw a line?

Maggi launched Oats Noodles with a lot of fanfare (& Madhuri Dixit) as a healthy breakfast (see ad here). Since then, there has been a lot of fact gathering (based on Maggi’s own nutrient information on the back of the pack) that suggest their regular masala noodles might be healthier than the Oats noodles. Obviously there will be two sides to this story, but that is not the point. There are many such examples of ‘misleading’ ads world over by major consumer brands Colgate, Kelloggs, Unilever and more. It raises the question – is there a lakshman-rekha that brands should not cross in their communications?

I personally don’t think that one can draw a line in sand. There is no one rule that can apply across all kinds of products and consumers. I prefer the mangal-sutra analogy more than the lakshman-rekha. Brands share a relationship of trust with each of their customers and each customer is likely to react differently to ‘misleading’ ads. Some customers cannot tolerate any exaggeration (Maggi is healthy? Seriously?) while others may be far more forgiving (Maggi is definitely tastier than oats and healthier than the chole-batture!). So there can be no absolute lines. However, if brands put customer trust as a core tenet of their communication, then they can stay honest while still being creative and effective. Customers certainly allow for spontaneity and experimentation but not at the cost of trust.

So applying this rule, would the Maggi ad been different? Sure – it would definitely not try to insinuate that the oats noodles are a ‘healthy’ breakfast. Rather, it would have simply made the case that this is a tasty option that is healthier than some other alternatives instead of an absolute claim that ‘#HealthIsEnjoyable’. It seems like a small change, but consistently adhering to this tenet over the long term will win customer’s trust. Ultimately that’s what defines a brand.

December 28, 2015 at 7:40 am Leave a comment

Hit me!

My two favorite games when I am in a casino (which is not as often as I would like it to be!) is poker and blackjack. Poker combines simple math with extremely complex human nature to create a thriller in every hand. Blackjack though is purely logical at every hand. While it lacks the sheer thrill of poker, it has the most even odds in a casino; so if I have to play any other game at the casino, it would be blackjack. However, even in this game, where you could write an algorithm to make the most optimum decision at every hand, human nature adds drama. There are always a few people who seem to make the most outrageous decision and still win hands. Sometimes I wonder if they are counting cards but eventually when I see them lose all their winnings, I am convinced they got lucky for a while there. The beauty of blackjack is that long-term success requires you to focus on input – the quality of decisions – rather than the output – the winnings. It’s something we should practice in our jobs and more generally in life.  It starts with resisting the temptation to tell your kid ‘well played’ or ‘well done’ just because the final outcome was good (or indeed criticizing her only because the outcome was bad).

Blackjack can also teach you to distinguish between risk and stupidity. Very often in life, we mistake stupidity for affinity to risk but it’s not. Someone who ‘hits’ when he has 17 and the dealer’s open card is 5 is stupid. Someone who doubles when he has 10 and the dealer’s open card is 8 has a higher tolerance to risk. And that distinction is also very important – in business and in life.

December 28, 2015 at 6:56 am Leave a comment

An alternate delusion

It is often said that cinemas and TV are a reflection of society. At a macro level, I tend to agree with it. It is possible to draw parallels with the evolution of cinema (I am exposed to hindi and tamil cinema the most) to the evolution of society and its tastes. However, every time I watch some of these dramas on TV, I cringe. I am hoping against hope that the truly diabolical (& not just metaphorical) in-laws and ‘friends’ are not a reflection of society. And yet, how does one explain the popularity of these serials?

The only possible explanations for this are that either people relate to the actions & feelings expressed in the serial or they find these programmes engaging because they are so unrelated to reality (a la sci-fi dramas). I’ve come to refer to the second option as the ‘hopeful’ option as I can only hope that these dramas don’t reflect our reality. However, my hopes are quickly dashed when I see people take such obvious pleasure from the manipulative and scheming nature of the title characters in the drama. The only saving grace is that in the end (which comes after many hours of ads interrupted by a few minutes of content), good always triumphs evil.

To quote John Lennon – “Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end”. And so I live in the alternative delusion, which seems a bit more palatable to me!

December 28, 2015 at 6:54 am Leave a comment

To talk or not

If the question is to me, the answer is always ‘talk’! I know, I need to tone it down every once in a while just to show that I have that side of my personality too, but it is very tough to resist the temptation to talk! While this *might* be ok in a social setting, taking up ‘talking’ as a profession should warrant a wee bit more thought into the question. Sunday night as I sat there watching the South African cricket team thrash the Indian team in the deciding ODI, it wasn’t the performance of the cricketers that irked me the most but the commentators! Why did all these ex-cricketers become commentators?

From their perspective, they were offered money to travel to all match venues and talk – so why shouldn’t they? Thinking in business terms, it’s the equivalent of a showing my business experience to become a news anchor – my subject matter expertise might be useful but it’s not enough to host a TV show. The same is true for sports commentary because it is much more about engaging the audience in a conversation that just talking about what’s happening on-screen, which by the way I can see already. So why is it this way?

Because there is a monopoly on the content and hence the absence of choice for me, the viewer. In this context, nobody has the time and incentive to improve the commentary. The only choices for the viewer are the mute button, a different sport (which in India almost doesn’t exist) or no sport. If the third option were real, I think broadcasters will work harder on better quality commentary – but we all know that in India it is unlikely that we will walk away from cricket (at least in the near term).

This is yet another area that I believe technology can help. With interactive viewing options becoming more common, it is possible (and I hope will become increasingly common) to let viewers choose whose commentary they want to hear (or indeed none) while a match is in progress. Commentators will then have to earn the right to be heard. And hopefully ex-cricketers will spend more time developing sport in the country instead of being lured by commentary contracts.

December 28, 2015 at 6:52 am Leave a comment

Would you rather win or lose?

The answer to this question is obvious. After all who would prefer to lose? This was my line of thinking in my 20s. However, the answer to this question is not as straightforward as it sounds – at least not for me. As always, my answers come from sports. Last week I found myself, rather subconsciously, choosing to be in teams where I shared similar team-play values rather than ones which maximized the chance of winning. Of course, this was not in the context of a tournament where winning could be more important, but even on that hypothetical, I found myself preferring to choose teams by the people and not by the ‘win quotient’.

What does this say about me? Probably says that I am stubborn or that I prefer the comfort of cohesion over the chaos of conflict or even that I am too judgmental about people. Or maybe all of the above. My own perspective is that it says there are some things that are non-negotiable to me even if it means losing in the short-term. I take it one step further – I think it might be the starting point for creating a culture where ‘winning at any cost’ is not the core value.

As the details of the Volkswagen controversy still continue to unfold, one can’t help but wonder – was the ‘win at any cost’ kind of culture the reason the company collectively cheated consumers and harmed the environment? Could this kind of attitude be the reason so many investment banks folded up under the weight of their crazy risks (on their client’s money!)? Corporate history is littered with a number of such examples and it would be too simplistic to assume that one person was responsible for such frauds (even if it takes just one person to bring down the house of cards). There is usually a culture in the team that drives those results.

Maybe it’s time to revisit the question “Would you rather win or lose” and see it for what it is – a trick question and an incomplete question. The context matters. The definition of success and the means to success – both matter. That’s what corporate (and individual) reputations are built on.

December 28, 2015 at 6:48 am Leave a comment

What we can learn from Federer

As a die-hard tennis fan, I have always enjoyed watching Federer play – I can’t think of any other contemporary player who would qualify to be called an artist. When he is in full flow, he makes tennis look so easy and effortless – to me that is the big difference between Federer and the others.

However what is amazing about Federer’s performance in this US open is that he came with a new energy and approach to the game. Despite the fact that he is already a legend of the game, he went to work on his game and reinvented himself. He has inspired me and reminded me of some key life lessons.

Answer only to your own self: Federer was still in the top 5 in the world. He had very little to prove to anyone and could have continued with a ‘do-nothing-new’ approach. Conventional wisdom (& ‘expert commentators’!) seemed to suggest that a 34-year old should retire. And indeed nobody would have faulted Federer if he had. However, Federer believed he had more gas in the tank. But he also realized he needed to do something different to counter younger (& talented) players. By working on a new more attacking approach he took a big risk – if he had lost early in the tournament the calls for his retirement would have gotten louder. Only someone supremely secure about their own self could have made that choice and that’s the reason he can be happy with where his game is even though he didn’t win the tournament.

Play the game, not the opponents: While most of the tennis world is moving towards power hitting from the baseline, Federer chose to the serve & volley approach. Federer has not been winning many matches against the top players when he is playing from the back of the court. Instead of going to work on that ‘gap’, he decided to instead work harder on the serve & volley game. Did he know it will work for sure? Obviously not. But given that he is much older and that his strength is in the fluidity of his game & not power hitting, the serve & volley approach made more sense for him. Ultimately, he was focused on playing the game and not his opponents even if it meant going against the current trend.

Focus on the inputs: It was obvious to everyone who saw Federer play that he had put in a lot of effort into practicing his strategy. The most visible proof of that was the SABR which caught everyone’s attention. (if you don’t yet know what the SABR or Sneak Attack By Roger is, check this out). Even a seemingly out-of-the-box innovation such as SABR was actually a result of the hours he put into practice. In addition to volleys from the net and half-volleys from the back of the court, he practiced moving well into the court to take the second serve – which is how he accidentally discovered the SABR. He also made important choices – he chose not to participate in a number of tournaments so that he can practice without distractions. He chose to get help from someone who was arguably one of the best serve & volley experts in the game.

Every one of us and organizations as a whole are often at similar decision crossroads – we need to choose a strategy and execute. In making decisions, we could choose to risk failure or avoid turbulence. Both options are perfectly fine options but the only way to be happy about the consequences of each option is being true to yourself. In defining our strategy, we can focus primarily on what the competitors are doing or we can focus on the end game, look inside and play to our strengths & passion. And once we identify the strategy, we need to focus relentlessly on the inputs, make tough choices, minimize distractions and importantly measure success on how well we execute on the inputs we control.

September 17, 2015 at 5:22 pm Leave a comment

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