Archive for June, 2015

I am sorry I couldn’t take the time to be brief!

This quote (or a variant of it) has been attributed to Blaise Pascal and Mark Twain (and maybe a few others). The beauty of the quote is that it is true and yet it is counter-intuitive. Almost everyone who has written an essay or document to fit a word limit knows how incredibly hard it is to convey everything and yet stick to the limit. It takes a lot of effort and time. And yet, I routinely receive requests for notes or documents from folks with the byline – ‘all I need is a paragraph, can you send it in the next hour’! My usual response is – ‘I can send you whatever I have, can you shorten in?’. I can confidently say that this response usually works.

In most organizations the primary use of writing is for communicating through emails. At Amazon, we write documents for any new product, plan, update, strategy, review, etc. Imagine writing a document for anything that most other companies use a presentation or spreadsheet. And then imagine being forced to stick to a page limit. The volume of documents I have created (and read!) in the past three years has taught me a few useful things about the science and art of writing which I think can be applied to emails and most other forms of writing where brevity is important.

The best documents I have read have managed to convey the core message very succinctly – in almost a line. The key skill to doing that seems to be to focus on the core message only and supporting it with a cogent & simple argument/finding. The simplest and most effective way I have found to enforce that discipline on my writing (and on the reader) is to start the document by explicitly state the purpose and scope (what’s in and what’s not). While it is initially hard to focus on just one key message without providing the context and everything else that’s also important, through the discipline of sticking to the approach and iterating a few times it’s possible to distill the message to the most important piece. By all means, we should provide the context, support data and everything else but later in the document or in the form of appendices. If you fail to deliver the most important content in the shortest possible volume of words possible then you risk not only losing the message but also confusing the purpose of the meeting.

To me, this is the genius of using documents over presentations – it forces you to write, review, iterate and perfect – which then leads to a lot more clarity in thought and message. While presentations are useful in some situations, I have become a believer in writing the details instead of talking to high-level themes. At the same time, I have also seen many people who definitely know what they are doing but find it very difficult to write long-form. It is something that may need training, coaching and mentoring, but is frankly inescapable in business communication.

June 29, 2015 at 6:51 am Leave a comment

What is the role of business – social responsibility or profits?

A long time back I remember taking a walk with Sanjeev, my manager back then (& mentor now) talking about the role of a company. ‘Why does a company exist?’ he asked. It was long before I went to b-school, but even then my immediate answer was ‘to create wealth for the shareholders’! And then he patiently went through the process of asking a number of ‘Why’s to try and help me come to the answer that a company too is a social organization for it cannot exist without people – a company is an abstract concept that only exists when there are people working together to serve the needs of other people. A lot of my thinking thereafter has centered on the notion that a corporation is a social organization and have been part of many a debate in business school on this very subject (debates are one of the big reasons I miss school – but more on that sometime later!)

Recently I came across this TEDx talk by Prof. Alex Edmans where he addresses this very question – purpose or profits? He makes the argument that the conventional view is exclusively focused on profits – which may not be as narrow as it sounds as companies must care about making good quality products in a responsible and ethical way, else customers will stop buying its products/services.  However, the problem with this argument, especially today in a globally connected market, is one of awareness – can customers really be aware, understand and then evaluate companies on their social commitment? What’s more companies (& shareholders) cannot calculate if and by how much ethical behavior can produce at least the same profits as otherwise.

Anyone who has tried to teach a child can tell you that it is not possible to always put a value on doing the right thing – yet we teach our kids to do exactly that. It is exactly the same case for companies. However that doesn’t deter Prof. Edmans from building a strong case for companies by analyzing data from the last couple of decades that proves that doing the right thing can be more profitable than others in the same industry. And this information, he argues, should be used to invest wisely in companies that act responsibly for very good long-term returns – which completes a virtuous cycle where companies act responsibly, which draws more customers & employees and which eventually generates more profits.

In my discussions with friends (in India) on this topic even after the talk, I still hear two points of view. One that says – “Of course! The data proves something that we always knew” and the other that says “This is BS. Do you think people would pay 40 rupees (INR) to buy the same pack of noodles that they can get for 5 rupees (INR) just because the company acted responsibly?”. Of course, it is not the same pack of noodles if the company invested in machinery that ensured safe disposal of toxic waste instead of letting everything flow directly into the river – but do customers care about the long-term effects of the toxic waste hitting the river? I think the answer is yes and no! Customers making a purchase decision today probably don’t care about the long term effects of toxic waste in the river, but as most people in India would agree today, customers buying a pack of noodles do care about the amount of toxins present in the noodles! The unfortunate truth is that these two sets of customers are likely to be in different decades & hence mutually exclusive. But societies learn (I live in hope!) and as they learn, they start valuing responsible behavior. While India might be behind on awareness about the long-term effects of irresponsible behavior currently, this will improve in the future. My take is that the companies that invest today in doing the right thing and creating the right level of awareness around this will benefit in the long-term.

Would love to hear feedback from others on the topic. What do you think? If you were a startup in India today, would you invest in doing the right thing now or do you think the market is not ready for it yet?

June 22, 2015 at 9:12 am Leave a comment

Feeling good about work may not be all that hard

Intuitively, most of us realize that feeling good about the work we do is not directly proportional to the money we make. We all know of overpaid people who aren’t happy at all and underpaid folks who are absolutely thrilled with what they are doing. While most of us want to be paid more for what we do, more often than not the pay is not what gives us joy at work (and while the term ‘joy at work’ sounds mythical, I have experienced it a few times and it is a good feeling).

In this TED talk, economist Dan Ariely talks about the various experiments he has conducted to understand what makes us happy about our work. I strongly recommend that everyone see it – not because it will open your eyes to a major insight, but because it will help you remember how simple it really is. But if you really cannot do that, let me summarize the talk in one line (at the risk of generalizing a whole lot of substance covered in twenty minutes) – most of us thrive by making progress and feeling a sense of purpose. While it sounds grand and seems like I am seeking an answer to my mid-life crisis (which I undoubtedly am), a sense of purpose can be as simple as knowing that I putting together lego blocks that my kid will eventually play with. On the flip-side it seems very easy to have that sense of purpose destroyed if the work is simply ignored or worse trashed in front of your eyes.

Having worked long enough, I can confidently say I have experienced both emotions. The elation of accomplishing something that was very well appreciated as well as the disappointment of having invested a lot of time & effort in something that was quite suddenly dumped. I know that while my wife finds much meaning in teaching, it is amplified on the days the kids say they now ‘get it’. I have spoken to a number of friends who have also experienced these emotions – elation on their work meaning something and disappointment when their work is ignored. While all of us go through the grind in one way or the other, it seems like the final step has a big influence on whether we feel good about it or not.

This has two big implications. Firstly, being aware that we all are attaching so much importance to that final outcome should hopefully help us reduce the emphasis we place on that. After all, if we can all find professions where we enjoy the process more than the final outcome, we can learn to be happier. Personally, I can’t think of too many professions other than sports and arts where we can do that. And even in those professions, at some point, one yearns for recognition of at least their peers. The second more actionable insight is to ensure that we look all around us and try to bring joy to all the folks who are doing something that we interact with quite simply by acknowledging their work. I am not talking only about the people who report to us at work, but also about those who do many small (& big) things in our lives such as our spouse, our parents, the waiter at the restaurant, the janitor at work, the security personnel at the gate, the delivery associate of your favorite e-commerce company (couldn’t resist that one, could I!) and even the rare driver who stops to let you cross the road. After all, all we need to do is acknowledge their effort.

June 16, 2015 at 10:33 am Leave a comment

Hiring by Playing?

If you were hiring someone for your team and you knew that the candidate would habitually do one or more of the following things when they are playing a sport, would it influence your hiring decision

  • Constantly questions line calls, even in situations where he is not in the best position to make the call and always looks for confirmation of the opponent’s call from spectators
  • Makes the same mistake repeatedly without even realizing it
  • Gets angry every time her teammate made an unforced error, but has this look of disbelief each time she makes a mistake as if the universe conspired to force the error
  • Cheats, especially on crucial points
  • Blames everyone (and everything) but himself when he loses a game
  • Stops a game midway to answer a phone call and keeps everyone else waiting while she continues chatting
  • Refuses to give others a chance to play even when all the other players are taking turns between games
  • Constantly cusses and swears loudly even when there are kids within hearing distance

I have often found that observing a person’s behavior when they are engrossed in a sport is a good predictor of their behavior in other situations too. I have known people who fight over line calls during a game and sure enough they behaved in a similar way in their personal and professional life – untrusting and whining. One could argue that I carry a biased view of the person to begin with and therefore see all actions through that lens – and there might be an element of truth in that. But I have also heard other people’s unbiased opinion of these people also confirm my impression – so there must also be a strong correlation between their behavior on and off the court.

One big reason I think this is true is because when you play a sport, you are completely yourself. Your reactions to events are instinctive and your behavior natural – unlike most social interactions where what you say and do are usually more conscious and thoughtful. And that’s the reason, if I observed any of the behavior I described above in a candidate, it would be a red flag and I will need much more convincing to let him/her in. I am aware that this may not be foolproof and may not apply to all candidates equally, but if it is at least a marginally better predictor of culture fit in an organization than the current process, then should we be considering ‘hiring by playing’?

Update: Following this post, I have received one major theme of feedback from many folks: people behave differently in different situations – so you cannot infer much from their behavior in one situation. Examples cited range from the hunter dog that can be ferocious in the jungle yet gentle with a baby to the Bangalore driver who can be very aggressive on the road but passive otherwise.

I will not deny that there may be an element of truth in this and it was not my intent to say that hiring by watching someone play would be the best solution. However, if I am trying to hire someone who fits in with the culture of my company and lets say one of the core values that the company lives by is integrity, seeing someone cheat on court is a red flag. If being vocally self-critical is an important aspect of a company’s culture, watching someone always blame others but never take the blame himself for any mistakes would be a red flag. It can be argued that these people will behave differently at work, but how confident are we that our current interview process will help uncover the truth. If I don’t know better, I would tend to infer from what seems to be a much more genuine and instinctive reaction than an artificial situation where everyone broadly knows what to expect

June 12, 2015 at 10:47 am Leave a comment

Keep Tripping!!!

In an earlier post (i use ‘earlier’ loosely here as the post in question – Tripping on 30s – was written in April 2009!), my wife described her entry into the 30s as somewhat troubling times that forced a lot of introspection which is seldom a pleasant experience. While I hide behind my wife’s feelings, I have to admit that I had some of those same thoughts and questions on my life’s purpose.

The post ends with these poignant lines:

I seek consolation in the fact that I have a good number of years before the 40s bring in their own set of embarrassing questions. So I’m going to try (note the confidence level of the statement!) to stretch the irresponsibility-of-youth thingy for a bit longer before I let the depressive weight of maturity take over!

I am not close to my 40s, but no closer to answering any of those original questions. And sure enough, as my wife predicted (by the way, she is always right about most things), the 40s have brought their own set of gifts. I tell myself I have matured enough to realize that all these questions are but rhetorical and are not meant to be answered until I hit the 60s – at which time I can pass them to the next generation so they can benefit from my ‘wisdom’. The only good end to these questions is when I buy my red convertible. Which might just have to be a bicycle as that whole ‘stretching the irresponsibility-of-youth thingy’ my wife wrote about didn’t quite work out as expected!

June 10, 2015 at 10:02 am Leave a comment

Learning by Playing

I have long believed that there is no greater classroom for teamwork than sports, particularly team sports. One of the lessons that has stayed with me from the early days in my tennis career (I like to call it a career at least in my own blog!) has been how a combination is more than just the sum of the parts. I realized this (what I called a “key insight” in my MBA essays!) when I teamed up with a friend to play doubles and ended up defeating a combination of the top two singles players. Nobody – including our parents and even ourselves – expected us to win, but we did. Interestingly this wasn’t a flash in the pan – we would consistently do much better at doubles than we did individually! There was something about the chemistry we shared and the way we complimented each other that made us more formidable than just the sum of the individual games. Later in life, I saw the same pattern in men’s doubles – Woodies, Bryan brothers and Lee-Hesh are great examples of the same.  And of course we see it in other team sports such as soccer and cricket.

Very recently I re-learnt this lesson on the badminton court. A new member of our apartment community joined us at the court and I ended up partnering him. Without trying to sound mean to my partner, I can safely say that it was quite obvious that the opposition was targeting him and we ended up losing the game by a big margin. At the end of the game there was the proposition of mixing it up for the next game, but my pride wouldn’t allow it (more on that weakness in another post!). One of the things that became obvious from the first game was that my partner was not too comfortable moving forward & backward but was quite ok moving sideways. While most amateur players including me preferred sides, he clearly was not one of them. So we decided to change it and we decided to play ‘front & back’. It was difficult for me to adjust to that style and we still ended up losing the next game but by a smaller margin. Of course we refused to change teams again and continued the same strategy in the third game. You know how this ends now, don’t you. We won the third game & the fourth and though we couldn’t play the decider, in my mind we had won (funny how my mind often reaches that conclusion!).

Isn’t that how teams work? Organizing teams to take advantage of each individual’s strengths and complement each member is the recipe for high performing teams, isn’t it? Most of us know that, but sometimes it takes an example to remember that it really works. And sports is full of such moments and that’s what makes it one of the best ‘head fakes’ – you think you are learning to play, but you are really learning to work together. And there is no greater skill than that in any kind of working environment.

June 9, 2015 at 9:50 am Leave a comment

Customer Experience in India

Almost every person in India has more than a handful of horror stories to tell you about their own experience as a customer. Whether we are trying to get a new utility connection, find the ETA on our delayed flight at the airport, buy a platform ticket at a railway station, hail an auto-rickshaw, visit a bank’s physical branch, watching the French open finals or talk to any customer service agent, all of us have experienced the frustrating helplessness of realizing how insignificant the customer is. Indeed, the lack of customer trust in most businesses is a result of decades of putting the customer last when designing processes, evaluating priorities and building organizations.

It seems fairly intuitive that a company that can do right by the customer, set itself up around serving the needs of the customer in the best possible way (for the customer) and build a reputation for earning & keeping customer trust should do well in the long term. I can’t think of a company that proves this philosophy better than Amazon.com. And while many investors will point to their stock charts as proof that the company is doing well, to me the fact that Amazon.com is on top of the list of most respected rankings of customer trust for many years running is the real story behind the numbers. Indeed, having had the privilege of observing the company from within, I can state without hesitation that I will be an Amazon customer for life – and there is no other company that I can say that of today.  The secret sauce for Amazon winning its customer’s long-term trust is truly its culture and while this is well known, replicating the entire system of strategies, policies and activities that makes this possible is incredibly hard, giving Amazon a sustainable competitive advantage.

Based on this, I would argue that there is enormous opportunity to innovate purely on the customer experience even in already existing industries in India to create sustainable businesses. Uber and Ola are attempting exactly that in the transportation industry, Amazon & Flipkart in shopping, Paytm & Freecharge in recharge, makemytrip and cleartrip in travel bookings and many more. Whether these companies can keep doing this over the long term depends primarily on one thing: can they inculcate a culture of obsession over the customer experience within the company as they continue to scale. And while some of these companies might be losing sleep over short term price wars, the real winners will be the companies that maintain its focus on constantly improving the customer experience over the long-term. Let’s hope that there are several more entrepreneurs who will innovate on behalf of the customer, deliver superior experiences and transform entire industries at scale.

June 8, 2015 at 8:04 am Leave a comment


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