Are you failing enough? – MBA Learnings

I thought about this morning’s post a few times. I had a learning in queue that I had been thinking about from our Microeconomics class this week. But, I decided to shelve that this week and write about something that is top of mind – failure. That also leads me to the other related thought – when I’d first thought of the “MBA Learnings” series, it wasn’t just to share learnings from class. It was also to really touch upon life in business school and share my thought process as I approached it.

One of the questions I ask myself from time to time is – am I failing enough? I ask myself this question for a few reasons. First, it is because I think there is a strong connection between failure and learning. I have come to realize that the biggest by-product of success is self confidence. Yes, if you are smart, you will sit down and discuss what went well. And, yes, you will learn a lot from it. But, when you fail, you don’t have anything else to hold onto except learning. That’s powerful. Second, it is because failure helps guard against complacency. There is no mechanism that makes you eat humble pie as much as failure. I think that’s incredibly important because humility is what keeps us in touch with reality. And, it is people who really understand reality that are able to drive change and do something with it.

I received a few texts from a friend last night that I saw as I woke up. He shared that a project he’d been working on had failed. He said – “I couldn’t do it. We couldn’t do it.” I could feel his disappointment. But, I also thought that was a great way to think about it. Even if we’re working in a team that has a share in our failures, the best way to think about failure, in my opinion, is to start with the “I.” Sure, you can blame everyone and everything around you. Sure, the circumstances must have been extenuating. But, you played a part. And you have to own it.

I say this because I’ve spent the last two days reflecting on a project I consider very important. And, after a few weeks of intense effort, I feel I’ve made a large enough collection of mistakes to slow down and reflect. We’re in a creative stage of the process and I’ve enjoyed this stage and have experimented heavily. The nature of experimentation is that a few work and most do not. And, every once in a while, the collection of experiments that don’t work threaten to overshadow the ones that do. And, I think I am at one such point – a real learning moment. I woke up at 4 this morning and spent the last hour and a half putting these thoughts together. This isn’t the first such learning moment of course.

It made me remember a moment 5 years ago now when we were in the early stages of putting together a team for what felt like an audacious project as a university student – to put together a new university version of Britain’s Got Talent (inspired by the Susan Boyle moment) and to do so despite not having an assurance that we’d have enough funding to pull it off. We had only secured 30% of the funds required, had no venue, and had just begun putting together a small team. 2 weeks into working with the team, I received an email from one of the team members asking to withdraw. I went back to that this morning and thought I’d share a small part that I still remember –

Also the entire experience of working (together ?) in this student based team has not been completely great either. Yes, you might claim to model this on the real life workplace environment, but once again I fail to see true justifications for certain aspects. While I do understand from our brief interactions, that leadership skills are what are being aimed for by each of you, I have to admit, that I was not really motivated to look up to you as a person who could lead us to work for <> (maybe because I failed to see the part of ‘lead by example’ coming in anywhere).

Following this note, 2 others withdrew.  Oh, it hurt. There’s something to be said for moments when people around you look at you and say (either verbally or not) that you’re not deserving of their trust.

That definitely was a learning moment.

But, I also know now, with the benefit of hindsight, that, the eventual success wouldn’t have occurred without such moments. They’re painful in the short term but meaningful in the long term. And, five years later, I can say with a lot of certainty that I look back at these moments with a smile.

I find myself facing new kinds of challenges today. It has been a challenge finding the time to reflect amidst two packed days. This stuff doesn’t happen when you are sitting idle and looking for things to think about. I guess that’s what is great about waking up early and getting some time to yourself. After two days of thinking about it, I think I’ve finally understood where the problems lie. And, I realize I’m going to approach it as I normally do – own up to my mistakes, be open about my intentions and have a conversation.

That goes back to my original question – Am I failing enough? Before I answer that, I’d just like to say that this is what I’ve loved about the MBA experience. You have a huge number of opportunities to experiment, learn and fail. There’s only so much you can fail at work – there are way too many things at stake (most of all, your own job). But, I’m now in a place where I’m paying a couple of hundred thousand dollars to learn and I intend to make the most of that. The new Kellogg rebranding led to the “inspiring growth” tag-line. That’s easier said than done, of course. Growth can be painful because it requires you to experiment, fail and learn. But, is it worth it? Absolutely.

And, as of this morning, I definitely think I am failing. And, I am fortunate to be in an environment that allows me to fail spectacularly. It is occasionally painful but I’m glad for the opportunity.

Bad design makes you look stupid

Flush toilets are not designed for men. I take particular issue with American flush toilets as they have an absurd amount of static water once you flush. As you can imagine, the combination of a high level of static water and water dropping from a height means the resulting physics isn’t pretty. I’ve joked about this issue for many a time now and, from the reaction I get from other males, I realize I’m not alone in this view.

Why, then, are flush toilets designed so bad? Well, I don’t know yet but I intend to find out. I guess my second question is – why don’t we just have urinals at home? I’m guessing men all over will appreciate that.

The deeper point here is that bad design makes users look stupid. So, if the users of your product/service are exhibiting stupid behavior, it is not their fault, it is yours. User error is regularly just a manifestation of poor design. A small tweak in design can fix the most absurd problems. For example, making sure the ATM card pops out before the cash comes out ensures users don’t walk away with the ATM card in the machine.

The flip side of this is – as a user, if you are unable to figure out what to do on an app or a website, it probably isn’t your fault. That hotel shower handle that gives no indication about which direction you need to turn to get the right water temperature? Definitely not your fault. Sadly, many designers’ biggest takeaway from Apple’s success in the past decades has been to make things pretty. The iPhone didn’t become the phenomenon it is because it is pretty (it definitely is pretty), it became the phenomenon it is because it is simple to use.

At the end of the day, great design is all about making things easier for the user. And, as we’re all designers – of experiences, events, and lives – and primary users of our products and services, it is important that we design processes and environments that, first and foremost, just work.

Mental adventures and our search for engagement

Bored teens often cause all sorts of societal problems by getting into bad company. Bored office workers spend most of their time making up forwards and memes. Bored couples have affairs and mid-life crises. And, bored elders become negative, cynical and turn their energy on their family members. I call these ‘mental adventures’ as they speak to our need to infuse some drama into an otherwise boring life.

The first principle of boredom is that – if you are bored, it is really not anyone else’s problem. However, it often becomes someone else’s problem if you don’t do something about it.

We’re all built to handle a bit of boredom. But, not too much of it. We care most about feeling engaged. This is why Amazon purchased Twitch for nearly 1 billion dollars. What is Twitch? A website that records other people playing games. 1 billion dollars for a website that just records other’s playing games? Yes. Twitch is, of course, a small part of a video gaming industry worth nearly 100 billion dollars.

In short, engagement matters. And, we need to gift ourselves that feeling of engagement. There are many ways to do it – we can choose to read more, get involved in more activities that stimulate our mind, and do more for society. However, they’re all much harder than switching on a video game and settling down for hours on our couch. That’s what makes finding engagement hard. To find real engagement, we need to overcome the resistance.

The other massive challenge here is that it is not an easy concept for teens and the elderly to grasp. That’s why a teenage child often turns out to be a parent’s most difficult challenge. If parents pass the engagement test and keep their teen engaged (largely) on stuff that is productive, that’s a massive victory.
It gets much harder with the elderly and that results in a vast disparity between how the elderly behave. On one side, you have the the Warren Buffetts and Jiro Onos of the world who are still taking the world on in their 80s. And, on the other side, we’ve got many older folk who can barely walk straight at 75.

Engagement is critical for a happy and productive life. And, it is entirely up to us to keep our mind engaged.

Do goals prevent success? – The 200 words project

I hope you’re having a nice weekend. Here’s this week’s 200 word idea thanks to Cal Newport’s Blog and Dr Saras Sarasvathy on Effectuation..

Dr. Saras Sarasvathy, of the Darden school of Business, conducted a study in 1997 with 27 expert multi-millionaire entrepreneurs from around the world. Instead of simply asking them their approach to business, she had each talk out solutions to a 17-page problem set containing 10 decision problems relevant to introducing a new product. The patterns she identified became “effectuation theory.”

In a nutshell, this theory notes that we’re used to thinking about problems by identifying a goal (e.g. sell 10 shoes) and then attempt to identify the optimal path to accomplishing this goal given our current resources. However, these entrepreneurs didn’t start with a final goal in mind. Instead, they began with what they had in mind (e.g. I have leather and a manufacturing plant) and allowed goals to emerge contingently over time (e.g. I could sell shoes or handbags or belts. I choose..).

This focus on the approach and process ensures that the entrepreneurs are open to changes in the environment around them and are optimizing for success given what they have rather than being stuck to a goal.

Do goals prevent successSource and thanks to:

‘Through their actions, the effectual entrepreneurs’ set of means and consequently the set of possible effects change and get reconfigured. Eventually, certain of the emerging effects coalesce into clearly achievable and desirable goals — landmarks that point to a discernible path beginning to emerge in the wilderness.’ | Dr Sarasvathy

People who believe in you

Most people who you encounter in life will be indifferent to you. Who you are, where you are going, what you care about, etc., won’t really matter to them.

Then, there will be those who will find creative ways to tell you that you aren’t good enough. And, that, if it wasn’t for them, you would go nowhere.

But, every once in a while, you’ll come across those precious few who actually care. They get you, they think about your well being and really believe in you. Belief is a beautiful thing – you just know it when you see it, you feel it in your veins. They make the effort, try hard to be helpful and show you they care.

Such people rarely come by. So, when they do, keep them close.

And, if possible, as often as possible, be that person yourself.

The opposite of viral

I know a lot of content creators (bloggers, video creators, etc.) would love for a post to go viral. It is one of those fascinations when you start a blog or video channel and wonder what going viral might be like. It doesn’t help that you see all sorts of random content go viral and think – “Hang on a second, so much of my stuff is better/funnier/nicer/more meaningful, etc.”

After nearly 7 years/3365 posts, my learning has been to not hope for viral. In fact, I’d even say – dread viral; because viral brings fleeting fame and you don’t really want fleeting fame. You’ll find many who’ll show up to read that one post or watch that one video and simply go away. The spike in your analytics will soon be gone as well. Nothing tangible would have been built.

Instead, focus on slow organic growth (the keyword here is slow because it is incredibly slow). Delight one reader or viewer at a time. Over time, if you are lucky and good, you’ll find a small group of influential readers who begin spreading the word about your work. Now, instead of one reader, you’ll have two who show up every day. Then 3, then 4, and soon, it catches on. The nice thing about such growth is that you grow with your reputation. You learn how to build your video channel in a sustainable fashion and don’t resort to gimmicks. That builds trust and trust is how important things are built.

Viral, on the other hand, is devoid of trust and, as a result, a sham. You deserve better. Those whom you delight and serve deserve better too. So, if you are creating content, I wish you the opposite of viral. And, I wish you the strength and courage to keep at it for 10 years. Rome was not built in a day. Enron was.

When you most need help..

.. take the time to help someone else.

If you are in need of time, give away your time. If it is resources are what you need, give some away to those who need it more than you.

In the long run, the universe has a nice way of rewarding you for the good you do. But, the real reason to help isn’t that.

As we go through the day-to-day, it is easy to forget how much of the good we already have at our disposal. And, helping someone else is a nice way to remember that. It is generally all in your head. Life is good.

Diversity and “inclusion” vs “exclusion” – MBA Learnings

I ordered a burger at a burger joint run by a crew completely who seemed to all be from the Philippines in San Francisco airport. At a time when it is hard for skilled immigrants to even enter the U.S., how did this happen?

Yet, I wasn’t surprised. I have seen this far too often by now. I’ve found a KFC in the English countryside that was run by a crew from mainland China, many McDonalds outlets in Europe run by Bangladeshis and Indians, etc. Why is it that these very distinct cultural groups form?

The reason, very simply put, is inclusion (hat tip to Prof Adam Waytz for sparking this thought in our Values Based Leadership class). As humans who make all these decisions around hiring, etc., we go a long way to bring in people we like. People we like often tend to be people like us. And, when we keep bringing in people like us, we then tend to create safe and inclusive echo chambers.

That’s why you see entire areas in metropolitan cities that are filled with a certain group of immigrants and, to bring in a popular example, you have corporate boards at most of the top 500 companies in the world filled with white males.

We’ve reached a point when there’s no doubt that diversity is great. Researchers have repeatedly demonstrated that teams with women outperform teams with men. If you’ve ever worked on a team with diverse points of view, this finding isn’t surprising. Making sure you have women, or Eskimos for that matter, seems like tackling a problem of such depth on the surface. However, surface diversity is a big first step to real diversity. And, yet, despite knowing this, problems with diversity still exist everywhere.

Why? Because we focus too much in exclusion. And, our solutions tend to either be creating diversity groups or putting in admission quotas. I feel we’re thinking about it wrong. These are quick fixes and presume the problem is an intentional exclusion problem. And, I think they will not work. Yes, you might have a bit of short term success, but, it will be fleeting because the diversity hires you bring in will not be set up to succeed.

My thesis is that the way to solve this is to focus on the people within the existing system and to help them become inclusive. This is a long and challenging process and is definitely not a quick fix. But, it is the only way you fix the real problem.

Now for a personal story – the last time I was in university, I built a 15 member team to work on a university version of Britain’s Got Talent. I intentionally went about putting together a multi-cultural team of 15 people from 6 countries (all from South East Asia as we were in Singapore). The final core team of 5 that became incredibly close, however, were all Indian. It doesn’t stop there – we were not only Indian, we all came from the same city and effectively spoke the same language and enjoyed the same kind of food. Was this a hiring problem? Absolutely not. It was a Rohan/retention problem (depending on your point of view) – I was still overly biased to be inclusive to people like me to create an environment for people different from me to succeed.

This is an interesting contrast to a team I’m working with now which is almost as diverse as it comes. The interesting note here is that I made little effort to ensure it was diverse – I actually began by speaking to my friends. What changed? Well, me. Many things have changed with time – most of all, it’s been the understanding that there are people with similar values all around the world and really embracing the idea that the world is my family. But, the real change is an understanding that while people might have similar value systems around the world, it takes a little longer to really understand where they’ve come from because you don’t quite have the same common knowledge base. And, trust flows from understanding which, in turn, flows from knowledge. So, it takes much longer (and requires more of an investment) to understand someone really different from you. It is, of course, completely worth the investment.

What does this all boil down to?

1. On a personal level, make the effort to really get to know and understand people who are different from you. Look around and check for what your friends look like. If your friends all look exactly like you whilst you are in a diverse environment, that should be a warning sign. This is much much much much more important if you are in a school of some sort as that’s the single best environment to make friends who’re different from you. It is much harder to find diverse friends at work.

2) On an organizational level, create an environment where the norm is to make the effort to really get to know people. This is hard to do and depends a lot on the culture you create. While it definitely relies on you making sure you have enough surface level diversity to start with, you need to work doubly hard to make sure that translates to real inclusion. You also need to make sure that the basic norms when working in teams in your organization involve leaders who build teams that trust each other. More on this in a different post.

There’s no easy solution to this, no secret sauce. Diversity is going to be a tough problem for us to solve because the real solution is difficult and requires a huge investment in the long term. Yet, it is the single biggest step we can take towards peace and understanding in what is an incredibly diverse, yet connected, world. We’re not going to get over differences in religion and caste and creed without wisdom. And, wisdom, like trust, comes from understanding.

The hardest part about thinking about and working on such topics is that, for very long periods of time, it will feel like you’re constantly banging your head on the proverbial brick wall. And, after feeling like you’ve not made progress, you inevitably begin to question whether it is all worth the effort.

That changes when you do break through the barrier, of course, because figuring this out for yourself, your organization, and your community will likely be the most impactful thing you’ll do.

The process wisdom frontier

As you all know, I’ve been going on and on about the idea about the idea of focusing on ‘process’/systems vs. goals for many months now. I’m sure a search for process will provide an inordinate number of hits in the past year. It has definitely been top of mind in my approach to life.

As I reflect on the progress I’ve made in the past 3 years, I realize that, overall, a lot of things have worked well. For example, I’ve learnt to enjoy the journey a lot more instead of simply driving with an eye on the destination. This, in my opinion, has translated to a better quality of work and deeper learning. It has also resulted in more repeatable processes wherein I’ve focused more on the “how” of learning instead of just attempting to get through it. And, finally, I find myself judging my preparation and performance a lot more than the outcome. That’s a big change and means it has definitely been a happier journey as we spend 99% of our time on the process.

But, there is one frontier I still haven’t overcome and this promises to be the toughest of them all. For important results, I find myself having to work very hard to truly let go of the outcome and just focus on the next process instead. I have to keep repeating the ‘you’ve done all you can and thinking about it now is useless’ idea. It still hasn’t worked nearly as well I’d like.

I realize it calls for a certain amount of detachment from outcomes and a fair amount of wisdom to channel energies only on things we control – both of which have, for the most part, eluded me so far. I guess I’m still experiencing very basic human instincts when I experience these feelings of anticipation. However, I also realize that wisdom is often about letting go of some of these instincts and learning to be above them. Perhaps a part of getting there is not doubting that great processes lead to great results. I don’t doubt the idea especially considering I’ve seen plenty of evidence of the truth in it. But, as far as my own experiences go, this has been a relatively new part of my life and I think I do have a pretty high internal burden of proof. So, perhaps, the full unquestioning belief will come in over time as I experience more good results following good processes.

Either way, letting go of results after a good process is likely to be the final frontier in my process quest. Looking forward to making progress. I will keep you posted on (you guessed it) the process – of course. :-)

Finding root causes

Every once in a while, there comes a day when I feel like I’m just stumbling through it. One mistake or misstep seems to follow another. And, within a few hours, they all seem to snowball into something bigger than they really should be.

This happened again a week ago and, for the first time, I did something that was unusual. I was waiting for the an event I’d organized to start in 20 minutes and was thinking about how best to use the time. Instead, thanks to a suggestion from a friend to relax and slow down a bit, I did just that. I stared into space for 20 minutes.

This ran completely counter to how I was feeling, of course. I was feeling all over the place and it felt like I’d only get better after a few corrective actions. But, I realize now that those are the moments when you need breaks the most. Slow down and take a step back – especially when you don’t want it and particularly when you are making mistakes. It is very similar to the idea of doing less and going to sleep early when having a bad day. The previous distinction in my mind was that bad days were when the universe seemed to go against you while these days were your own doing.

Second, I spent time in the 20 minutes thinking about the snowball of mistakes I’d made in the morning and attempting to find the root cause. I did this by working my way through each of them and asking “why did I do that?” I soon realized the root cause issue was straightforward – I hadn’t slept well. I’d woken up in the middle of the night and, as I was worried about something, thought I’d start working. Bad decision. Always prioritize sleep. After an hour, I’d realized that was futile and tried going back to sleep. And, I didn’t sleep so well. This really hit home as sleep has been the single biggest root cause for days when I’ve felt error prone over the years. I guess a lack of it robs you of willpower, bandwidth and thinking capacity. In short, you say the wrong things and make bad decisions.

A study done a few years ago found many executives and politicians barely got 4 hours of sleep.

Can you imagine what that can do to companies and the world?