Happiness and balloons – The 200 words project

As it is Thanksgiving season here, we have a “happiness” edition on this week’s 200 word idea from, well, the internet. Try as I might, I wasn’t able to find a source for this story. So, my conclusion is that this is probably a made up story used by trainers. A good one, nevertheless.. :-)

A speaker at a seminar conducted a group activity. He gave each person a balloon. The attendees were then asked to write their name on it using a marker pen. Then all the balloons were collected and put in another room.

The attendees were then let into that room and asked to find the balloon with their name written on it within 5 minutes. That descended into chaos – everyone began frantically searching for their name, colliding with each other, and pushing each other around. Very few found their balloon.

Then, the speaker asked each person to randomly collect a balloon and give it to the person whose name was written on it. Within minutes, everyone had their own balloon.

The speaker then shared the lesson, “This is happening in our lives. Everyone is frantically looking for happiness all around, not knowing where it is. Our happiness lies in the happiness of other people. Give them their happiness and you will find your own. And this is the purpose of human life…the pursuit of happiness.”

Happiness - give and getSource and thanks to: www.EBSketchin.com

‘Thousands of candles can be lit from a single candle and the life of a candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases from being shared.’ | The Buddha

Your own R&D lab

Companies that rely on winning based on product leadership require top quality R&D labs. These R&D labs allow them to test out various ideas and bring the best of them to the market. The most innovative companies do a great job with sustaining high quality R&D wings. Failure in the market can be very expensive and, thus, not investing enough in research can cost companies who want to be innovative. Just ask any of the pharmaceutical giants.

So, let’s apply this to our own company – Me, Inc. How can we go about creating our own R&D labs?

The essence of research and development is to think of an idea that you believe will add a lot of value down the line, to find the cheapest and most effective way to test it and then to execute.

So, let’s say you believe learning how to build a mobile app will add to your future earning potential. The R&D based approach would be to pick up a book or two on app development, to invest in the necessary app development tools, and to just get started building an app.

In some ways, every side project you choose to spend your time on is an example of an R&D lab. The big questions, then, are – are you intentionally thinking about the ideas you want to test/the skills you want to learn? And, are you building an R&D infrastructure that allows you to test different kinds of ideas/skills?

The great companies of tomorrow will be built off today’s weekend research projects…

Deciding not to do any marketing – Building Help2Grow.org

It has been a long while since I’ve put up a “Building Help2Grow.org” thanks to an implicit choice we made a couple of months back. When we founded Help2Grow.org in January this year, we had many plans on the marketing front – an active blog to tell our story, an active Facebook page to engage the community, an active Twitter feed, a great monthly newsletter etc. Over time, these initiatives have fallen off the rails. The central reason for this is the fact that we’ve had our fair share of struggles over the past few months. These struggles have been on 3 fronts –

1. A distributed team that wasn’t getting its act together. Thanks to a variety of reasons, we seemed to be struggling to get our act together. On the one hand, after 6 months of attempting to run a charity in addition to all our jobs and commitments, the honeymoon phase was definitely over. On the other, a bunch of us faced disruption in our schedules with fairly valid reasons such as cross continental re-locations. We were struggling though.  We seemed to have lost our mojo and our momentum and we needed to gain it back.

2. Troubles with partners. We had a couple of partner situations that were just not working out. We needed to step back and take stock.

3. Legal hurdles. Getting a charity fully functional in India is no easy feat. Despite a solid track record, we were unable to get enough movement on the required legal certificates to receive tax exemption. That’s an ongoing struggle. We had also decided we’d apply for a 501c3 registration in the US as nearly half the team is currently based in the states. All in all, there were a few legal hurdles to jump.

These issues led to a complete loss of momentum. We were soon showing up to our calls but not really getting things done. The frustration began to show, people began to drop from calls, and not preparing for calls became the norm for a couple of months in between. And, somehow, our actions aimed to get the momentum back just didn’t seem to be working. That’s when we stumbled onto 2 insights –

1. We needed a real core team that would keep each other accountable. When we started out, we had a team of 14. Over time, this came down to a more manageable group of 7-8 folks who were actually getting things done. We needed to make this official and begin to create accountability within the team again. So, we did just that. We still keep our whole team copied on emails but we have a separate group on Whatsapp for the core group and we’ve begun expecting each other to show up prepared. A culture of accountability goes a long way.

2. Good managers give their team members clarity on what needs to be done. This was entirely my failing. Over time, I’d assumed that we’d just respond to the sheer magnitude of work by just getting things done. That clearly didn’t happen. Why, I wasn’t doing anything myself. We needed someone to break work down and give people clarity on what to do. I had completely neglected this. So, we spent all of last call aligning on the major projects and priorities and broke up these projects down to granular tasks so we had absolute clarity on what needed to be done. Voila – things have begun moving again.

Through all of these changes, there was no movement on marketing and I took it up as my responsibility. We needed to re-think our initial goals. Over this time, we had implicitly decided not to do any marketing and I thought I’d just make that official and continue with inaction. Hopefully, I’ve made our reasons apparent. But, in case I haven’t, it is a combination of two reasons –
– We have very limited bandwidth. This bandwidth needs to be used carefully so we’re delivering value to our partners who, in turn, can impact the lives of the kids we hope to impact
– We want to be authentic about the problems we’re facing. At this point, we just aren’t at the operational level we desire. And, we need to work hard to fix our ship before we share stories of success. The good news is that we’re putting in the work and should have more to share shortly.

Does this mean you’re not going to hear from Help2Grow.org? Absolutely not. We will continue to share stories as and when possible. It will just not be a key priority. We’re going to work hard to fix the leaks in our ship and deliver value to the kids and organizations we aim to serve. More to follow soon – just forgive us for the occasional silences. We’ll just plan to make it worth it when you do hear from us.

And here’s hoping our actions make a difference..

This blog post has also been posted on the Help2Grow.org blog.

Gaining IQ points

Someone recently shared that people stuck in poverty have a lower IQ score on average than those better off. However, this IQ score goes up almost as soon as they know they’re out of their current financial condition. Researchers have posited that this is because a large portion of their mental resources are taken up by questions around requirements at the low end of Maslow’s pyramid. Constantly wondering whether there will be a next meal, whether the roof will hold up for the night or whether they’ll be able to survive their current illness doesn’t leave much mental space for much else.

So, if you don’t need to worry about any survival necessities, you ought to know that you’ve just been gifted a whole bunch of IQ points. These IQ points enable us to think long term, build for the future and work towards causes bigger than ourselves.

Or, we can just choose to focus on the latest minor setback, the sarcastic comment on Facebook or our envy at an acquaintance’s relative short-term success.

We can also choose to give thanks for the 30 odd IQ points we gained out of sheer good fortune of being born in the right place or focus on all those things we don’t have.

Completely our choice.

Marathon runners and CEOs | MBA Learnings

A Google search for “CEO Marathon study” reveals a slew of articles talking about how marathon running CEO’s lead successful companies.

CEO Fitness Firm Value


The study has been quoted in numerous blogs and articles since it was published. Now, let’s take a closer look at the abstract of the study (the first line will do).

This study finds a positive relation between CEO fitness and firm value. For each of the years 2001 to 2011, we define CEOs of S&P 1500 companies as being fit if they finish a marathon. The literature suggests that fitness moderates stress and positively affects cognitive functions and performance. Accordingly, we find the strongest effects on firm value in subsamples where fitness is most important, i.e., for CEOs with high workload, above median age, and above median tenure. Fit CEOs are further associated with significantly higher abnormal announcement returns in M&A bids for large, public, and cross-border targets, concomitant with high stress. Our findings can explain the importance of CEO fitness in the managerial labor market and the trend among CEOs to stay fit.

This is a classic example of the identification error – mixing correlation with causality. Here is an example of the kind of issues that this study might have –
1. What if CEO fitness does indeed have a positive relation with firm value but, given the absence of other control variables, we don’t realize that it is actually healthy eating that really contributes to firm success? This is a great example of omitted variable bias.
2. There is just a positive relation between CEO fitness and firm value. What if it is high firm value that causes CEO’s to get fit and not the other way around?
3. Are marathons the only way CEO’s mitigate high stress environments? Could Yoga / video games be an option?

I could go on.

I have been guilty of not being critical about the identification error multiple times. And, a discussion of this study in our statistics class was a nice wake up call to be more critical about results from studies. Studies that might be published in obscure publications might be obscure for a reason. And, we should worry when we see studies that just find a positive relation between two variables.

To illustrate, some researchers in the 1980s concluded that the key to success was to boost self esteem. So, an entire generation of parents and educators focused on boosting self-esteem of kids by giving prizes to everyone and ensuring they always felt encouraged. It was only in the late 90s when a panel of psychologists who reviewed these studies concluded that the researchers had done it wrong. A trait that causes success is self control / high willpower. Kids with high self control inevitably do well and have high self esteem. So, while self esteem might be correlated to success, it is self control that has a causal relationship. There are many such examples.

Pay attention. This stuff matters.

Seeking clarity

I have a tried and tested formula for every time I feel overwhelmed. The typical situation begins a long to-do list where everything seems both urgent and important on first glance. It becomes clear that this list of tasks isn’t likely to get done in the time period I have in mind. And bam! I’ve hit that wall. I realized this as I spent 30 minutes this morning attempting to muster enough inspiration for a blog post.

My instinct, when I feel stuck, is to motor through. Get the post out, build momentum, get to work. But, after 30 minutes of frustration, it was time to trigger the process to get unstuck.
The first step? Sleep.

Yup, right when I feel I have no time to get the things I want done, the step that works first is an hour or so of sleep. Somehow, when I wake up, I find it much easier to break through that wall. It ends up revolving around answers to 2 questions –

1. What REALLY matters?
2. What does a successful day/week/period of time look like? What are 3-5 things I’d like to have done?

These questions pointed to a bunch of decisions this morning. Some things needed to be postponed while others needed to be moved up the priority list as they were the chief source of stress. That clarity was all I needed. And, it came from stepping out of the “zone” at a time when it felt like doing so went against all natural instinct.

I guess many of the best decisions we make tend to be counter-intuitive. That’s what makes life tough and interesting…

Unusual and sustainable

Every employee of the Ritz Carlton has $2,000 to resolve a guest issue without asking for permission. That is unusual. Almost every hotel on the planet likely has a value around customer service. How many actually walk the talk?

That said, the Ritz Carlton model would not be sustainable if it didn’t have the systems to back up this unusual policy. If the Ritz Carlton’s systems were a mess, they could easily find themselves spending tens of thousands of dollars every day resolving guest issues.

It is this combination of unusual and sustainable that makes the Ritz Carlton special.

This idea has numerous applications. Let’s think of personal competitive advantage. If every peer in our company works 60 hours per week, it would be unusual to work 100 hours. But, is it sustainable? How many burned weekends before you realize your productivity has completely dropped? The more important question that it raises is – what are you doing wrong? If everyone else can get their work done in time, why do you need to work so much more?

Too often, companies and marketers go for unusual. Giving every viewer on Oprah a car definitely falls under that category. But, if it isn’t sustainable, it is unlikely to be a source of much advantage. Gimmicks like that rely on luck.

Consistent success requires process.

10-10-10 rule – The 200 words project

Here’s this week’s 200 word idea from Decisive by Chip Heath and Dan Heath.

Imagine you are deciding whether or not to avoid a difficult conversation with a teammate. An idea suggested by author Suzy Welch to help make the decision is to conduct the 10-10-10 analysis. Consider how you would feel about the decision –
– 10 minutes from now (anxious)
– 10 months from now (probably glad you had the conversation)
– 10 years from now (most likely, it won’t matter)

Similarly, if you are chasing a hot-shot to hire in your company, perhaps the 10-10-10 analysis will warn you not to offer too high a pay package that you may regret 10 months from now. Besides, the hot shot may probably not even stick around for 10 years.

The purpose of the 10-10-10 analysis isn’t to negate short term emotions. What we feel now tends to be strong and heavy and it exists to ensure that short term isn’t the only voice on the table.
Source and thanks to: www.EBSketchin.com

‘Knowing your priorities may help you with the 10-10-10 process, but the great thing is that it can also help you discover them.’ | Suzy Welch’s response (paraphrased) to a student who pointed out that 10-10-10 works best if you know your long term priorities.

The tale of the two egg cartons – Product design trade offs

We buy basic groceries at two local supermarkets near our place – CVS and Jewel Osco. You’d think supermarkets would have nailed the basic grocery experience. But, it turns out that the egg buying experience is very different in these places.  Let’s begin by taking a look at the egg cartons.

Egg cartons - CVS and Jewel Osco

CVS goes for a cheap looking soft plastic carton while Jewel Osco packages its eggs in a tougher cardboard carton. My guess is that someone in CVS’ packaging teams decided to save a few hundred thousand dollars in egg packaging by going cheap. Was that the real cost, though? Let’s look at the egg shopping experience at CVS –

1. Find where the eggs are and pick a box.
2. Carefully open the box and check every egg to see if one is broken.
3. Every 1 out of 3 times, find a broken egg and repeat process with another new box.
4. Take the egg to the cash register. Invariably, the lady at the register will take another look at the eggs as it is a known problem.
5. Check out and walk out.
6. If, somehow, you forgot to check if your eggs are broken, well, be prepared to find yourself working hard to clean a smelly refrigerator.

The experience at Jewel Osco is simply ‘pick up a carton and leave’. Scarred by my experiences with CVS, I often open up the carton to make sure nothing is broken. But, that’s a waste of time. The cartons just work.

The only reason I shop at CVS right now is because it is a 1 minute walk from home vs. 15 minutes at Jewel Osco. Should there come a day when a Jewel Osco store is closer by, I’ll definitely be shopping there. In some ways, that’s the real cost of the trade-off decision CVS made.

It is worth thinking about the corners we cut in our lives too. We are always quick to see the gains and identify some costs on the surface. For example, I’m sure the CVS team thought of the inconvenience caused to customers. However, I’m not sure they really understand how they’re making what should be an easy, frictionless experience into an annoying one. Simple choices can have big consequences for your users.

Beware cutting corners on your products. When you do, make sure you really understand the trade-offs.

The importance of picking yourself

Seth Godin, as is his wont, had a thought-provoking post on choosing those who choose you a few days back. He wrote –

“Pity the foolish 8-year-old boy who gives a kid just a year older the power to make his day. In that moment, being picked for the kickball team is the most important thing in the world, and his dreams are in the hands of a kid with a demonstrated history of poor judgment. If you were walking by the playground and he yelled, “Hey Mister! Wanna be on our team?” it would (I hope) mean little to you. You’re no longer willing to be judged by a kid who can’t even ride a bike.”

I’ve had a few recent experiences that have only reinforced this idea. The amount of unhappiness created by idea of not getting picked is incredible. So, the best way to reduce its influence in your life is to just take initiative regularly and pick yourself. There are going to be many many areas where you will be engaged in the picking process anyway – finding that important first client, looking for your next job, recruiting high quality team members to join your team etc. These processes will have enough reasons for you to experience a few ups and downs anyway.

So, when you can avoid it, avoid it. Create your own basketball team, your own event, your own project team and just have fun running with it. It doesn’t mean it’ll work any better. It just means you’ll focus on the game and quit worrying about whether you’ll be picked.

Seth goes on to say – “The ultimate privilege is to pick ourselves.” My only addition would be that it isn’t just a privilege, it is a necessity.