Design of Business

Business, Culture & Entrepreneurship

Category: Culture (page 2 of 2)

Discretion – a skill founders and CEOs need in spades

As parent of two teens, I’d like to claim that my wife and I never argue in front of them. I’d of course be lying. That being said everyone with children knows, that even if their kid can’t rattle off the 5 times table, they can recall every last word you said in your last spousal encounter, down to the tone of voice. And if you are [un]lucky, it will be saved for posterity in their biography.

Now as an entrepreneur, founder or CEO why should this story be relevant to you? Basically, this is a lesson on discretion – or the lack thereof – and how it can come and bite you in the rear!

As an entrepreneur, founder and especially as a CEO, you are going to having some rough times out there – being plagued by self-doubts, or worse yet certainty that you are screwing up. You will also wonder why you are doing what you are doing (or not) and is this whole thing a mistake? You wouldn’t be the first one to have had these thoughts nor are they likely to occur only once.  The question is what should you do when you are thus assailed?

What you should NOT do is share it with your partners – immediately or without reflection. Usually it’s best shared with someone outside your founding team – a friend, an advisor and if you are lucky, with a spouse. This last can be tricky and deserves a whole another blog post.

I have worked in and with multiple startups and started two of my own, where the founders were friends, sometimes having known each other for many years and other times, been colleagues who’d worked with each other. Almost in all cases the co-founders had been friends before becoming business partners.

And in almost everyone of these instances, when one or more founders have been plagued by self doubts, voicing it without forethought to other founders or senior staff has caused immense grief. Not unlike arguing in front of the kids (or other 3rd parties) who have no context on my wife and our deep abiding love or other ongoing issues 🙂

In every case, talking about it with a non-stakeholder first would have done away with much thrashing and grief that otherwise ensued. Talking it out with a third party always worked better – in terms of achieving distance which helped in gaining clarity and perspective before looking for answers.

Many a times, our self doubts maybe no more than a fleeting moment of vulnerability – or the result of a bad day or week, a setback. We may bounce right back. At other times, they may be grounded in facts – in that we are operating at the limits of our ability or capabilities, personal life (or the lack of one) may be intruding into our professional lives or we may be avoiding a critical set of actions/decisions at work to avoid unpleasantness.

And if there are real issues at play that need to be brought up to your partners, it should not be done in a flippant comment or regrettable aside that can be misconstrued or worse. It can be presented with some distance and perspective that you’d have gained in discussing it with a non-stakeholder first. This alone is a good reason to seek out a mentor or advisor, but almost any friend, who’s not involved in your business and has no axe to grind will do.

So the next time you think of making a casual remark to the other founders, especially those who are your friends, bite your tongue. You are a parent – or at least need to behave as a responsible one – if you want to keep the job!

4 Degrees of Separation – The Indian Network

Photo: marfis75 via Compfight

Photo: marfis75 via Compfight

As with many profound discoveries it began innocuously enough.

“I don’t believe that there are truly a billion Indians,” my friend Marcel has remarked more than once to me. Of course, when he first made this statement as a graduate student, maybe because it was after a late night party at Ms. Chan’s, I didn’t take him seriously. However, the events of the past few years, particularly each time I meet someone new, have convinced me that he’s probably on to something: There don’t seem to be a billion of us.

“Please meet my partner Habib, he’s coming down to the entrepreneur’s meet next week in Bangalore.”

Jaideep, a classmate who now was living in the U.S., and I had reconnected last Christmas at our 25th reunion. Despite, or more likely because of, the amount of libations consumed, he figured I must know a thing or two and asked me to share it with his Mumbai-based business partner.

Habib and I did connect over the phone soon after at a startup event and agreed to meet outside the auditorium just before lunch. When I made my way out of the hall a few minutes before midday, I found small clumps of people discussing the morning presentations and their own businesses. After several “Hail-fellow-well-met” intercepts, I heard my phone ring. It was Habib. As we exchanged “Where are you ats?” I spotted a bearded gentleman with a phone to his ear, standing next to my friend Dhruv just outside the gate.

“Habib?” I asked tentatively and the gentleman stuck out his hand

“You are Srikrishna?”

Inevitably, the discussion of “How do you know…” ensued between Dhruv (with whom Habib had worked for several years at an ad agency) and me. The longer we spoke, the more folks we found we knew in common.

Scientists in the U.S. as many as 50 years ago began exploring what they then termed “chains of acquaintances.” In fact, Stanley Milgram, then a young social psychologist (apparently you can study practically anything at Harvard) did his famous package-mailing experiment to see how short these chains of acquaintances were.

He mailed packages to 296 people asking them to post them on to a “final recipient.” None of them was told where the final recipient actually lived; just his name, occupation and some personal details (these were pre-Internet and pre-Google days, of course).

The folks who received the package were supposed get it delivered by passing it on to someone with whom they were on a first-name basis and who might have a better chance of finding the final recipient. Astonishingly, even without any Indians or Chinese being involved, the packages made it to their destinations in less than five hops.

Hollywood got in on the act with “Six Degrees of Separation,” based on the play of the same name by John Guare.

Before you know it, folks studying crickets and how diseases spread started working on this “Small World” theory. While the folks at the University of Virginia, in an urge to create something useful, released the Kevin Bacon game (look it up), Duncan Watts at Cornell published the first compendium of all key Small World theories.

What however was missing in all these studies is what my friend Dr. Sluiter, keen scientist that he is, formulated as Sluiter’s Lemma on Indian Connectedness or SLIC. I feel like Harrison Ford finding the Ark of the Covenant when I present these lemmas. If only these other folks had stumbled upon it sooner, the Small World theory would have made a whole lot more progress much earlier. But as the old saw goes: Better late than never.

Lemma 1: Any two Indians went to school with each other. Given the average Delhi Public School class has probably 300 kids in five sections, and every kid raised by a self-respecting, card-carrying Indian parent needs to become a doctor or an engineer, it’s almost inevitable that between 12 years of schooling and at least three years of college a good many of us have gone to school with one another. And this does not even count graduate school where a few more links can be forged. I can hear the mathematicians among you stating that the average IIT had only a class size of 400 to 600 and medical schools even less and that those are pretty small numbers. Fear not, Lemma 2 comes to the rescue.

Lemma 2: Or their siblings/friends went to school with each other. Regardless of what you may have read in this paper or other publications about the rise of nuclear families in urban India, we are blessed with a large number of siblings and cousins. When you now factor in all the other kids with whom we played on the street with marbles, tops, gilli-danda, cricket and numerous other sports, it quickly adds up.

Lemma 3: They are related to each other. In the unlikely event two Indians or their siblings or friends did not go to school together, they are usually related. “Oh, he’s my mother’s brother’s wife’s cousin’s son.” (In my case this person also happened to be my classmate in college.) In my brother-in-law’s case, he has found a good part of Tamil Nadu is related by blood — not that surprising when grandparents on either side have 12 siblings.

Lemma 4: If all of the above fail, they are married to each other. Drum roll on this one. Just when you felt that you’ve actually met a couple of Indians who are not connected, you’ll find, as Dr. Sluiter did, that they are married, either to each other or into each other’s families. Sometimes you can’t tell the difference in India, but that’s a story for another day.

This article first appeared in the India Real Time of the Wall Street Journal.

Talent, training and trust – building culture person at a time

This evening I read Peter Bregman’s blog post about his experience at the Four Seasons in Dallas. It brought to mind my own experience at the ITC Windsor Manor in Bangalore.  The family and I had been visiting some friends in the northern part of town. It was late in the afternoon, when we headed back. Of course the kids waited till we were a fair bit down one of Bangalore’s interminable one-way roads, before clamouring to use the restroom. Usually, the chorus of “I’m hungry” or “I need to use the bathroom” from the backseat would result in much heated discussion between my lovely wife and myself. Luckily we were right in front  of the Windsor Manor, so no discussion was needed. We pulled in, parked the car and dashed to the front door.

The liveried doorman, the one with the enormous moustache, held the door open. “Which way to the rest rooms?” I asked as my eight-year old wiggled in front of me. The wife was still walking from the car, dragging our reluctant ten-year old behind her.  “Straight ahead sir, through the arch and turn left. You will find the restrooms in the first corridor on your right.” We made it safely with time to spare. As the girls and their mom, took their time powdering their noses or discussing Dad’s driving – I hung around the corridor, admiring the Raj era landscapes on the wall.

“Can I help you sir? Were you not able to find the restrooms?” I looked up to see the liveried doorman, who was clearly headed for his break. I assured him that I had already availed of their fine facilities, was merely waiting for the family and thanked him for his concern. After ensuring I had everything I needed he finally headed out the staff door. It was only then that I noticed the discretely designed staff door down the corridor, through which another staffer had just passed.

I was just blown away – there must have been 15-20 people at the front portico, as the family and I had passed through the front door. It was a good ten minutes or so later, when the doorman and I met in front of the restrooms. We were not guests at the hotel and I am sure that his job required him to manage matters primarily near the front porch. Yet, the care and sincerity with which stopped to inquire after my needs and the way he tried to address the matter of my possibly not having found the restrooms clearly reflected the sense of ownership he took over helping visitors and guests. Elsewhere at the Windsor Manor, at their incredible “Jolly Nabob” restaurant, I have seen the same excellent sense of ownership and pride with the maitre d’.

As anyone who’s been in the hospitality business knows, finding good help – the talent – is hard. Training them and inculcating in them the sense of ownership and service mindset is even harder. And institutionalizing it requires trust! This is a lesson all of us could use and Windsor Manor and the Four Seasons teach us well to use in our own business and lives.

Excellent service should seem trivial – a SpiceJet story

This evening I had one of those AHA customer service experiences. I had flown into Bangalore from Chennai on SpiceJet‘s afternoon flight. Even as I was headed home in a cab from the airport, I realized that I had left my (simple ruled 200 page) notebook in the pocket of the seat in front of me. I pulled my boarding pass, which amazingly had the customer service numbers (both toll free and regular) on it and in a noisy call from my cell had a customer service request put in. Before I got home, I got a call from the airline (from their local person I suspect) to whom the trouble ticket had been assigned. She called me to say that they’d expect to get back to me within the next 24 hours. At this point I was happy to have just remembered where I had left my notebook and having called it in. Their acknowledging my call was just icing. So I figured.

However within the next two hours I had six calls from them. Six – that’s right, six (missed) calls from SpiceJet’s customer service department – spread over a 15 minute period. And once I got home, I saw that they had emailed me a copy of my formal complaint with the relevant trouble ticket info. And having been unable to reach me on my mobile, they had sent a separate email, informing me that they had found my notebook and it now awaited me (armed with the boarding pass and a photo ID) to be picked up. Wow! What a feeling it was and I am practically glowing still (in the dark as I write this) from that experience of nearly eight hours ago. And to think I had picked SpiceJet (the second time this week) for my flight primarily due to their value pricing – for those not familiar with crowded Indian skies they aspire to be the Southwest or Ryan Air of India, especially with the leader in that space Deccan now moving upscale after their acquisition by Kingfisher Airlines. Such service on the phone, on-line and in person was unbelievable – Good work, SpiceJet!

All this, when I had only spent a grand total of Rs 2350 ($55) at SpiceJet, contrasted with my experience two weeks ago of trying to get a spanking new (2-day old) Nikon that had stopped working, fixed. But that’s a whole another story. This experience certainly showed how some training, committed service providers and simple follow through can make excellent service seem trivial.

Communication and culture in organizations

Discussion

Photo Credit: [phil h] via Compfight

A few months ago, I wrote about the need for communicating early and often and a recent article by Toni Bowers, Senior Editor, TechRepublic titled “Say what you mean, mean what you say” highlighted the sore need for clarity in these communications, even if done early and often! The readers’ comments to that post, due to their specific nature were extremely illustrative, reinforcing the core message of how critical clear communications are, particularly when it comes to individuals and dishing them unpleasant news.

Less than ten days ago two of my long-time colleagues, sat me down and after some initial politeness (“you have issues rather than you have a problem”) they got down to their core message “We don’t believe you handle unpleasant stuff well, what do you think?” Talk about a topic for reflection! The reflection has made me particularly receptive to Toni’s post and the discussion thread thereof.

Toni’s core message is –

  • Be direct and specific when giving feedback, particularly relating to problems
  • Don’t be heartless but use simple statements that preclude misinterpretation

Key points the commentators added include

  • Communicate expectations up front (my early and often mantra) to avoid misunderstandings
  • Don’t tell the team they have a problem, when you want to communicate to a particular person – do it one-on-one
  • Be open and interested to find out reasons for why you are where you are (ask and listen, not just talk)

As with all good advice, once stated it seems simple and self-evident. The fact that more of us don’t practice it consistently only points to the need for periodic reminders. Which brings me to the whole running water and rock metaphors of many Zen koans. The Buddha said (with regard to cultivating virtues) diligent practice will work like a “… small stream being able to pierce rock if it continually flows.” Alas this is true not just for virtues but for bad habits like poor or no communication, a constant stream of which can wear down the enthusiasm of even the most motivated team member.

Even one dinosaur brain manager or toxic teammate when not dealt with direct and clear communication can start a tear in the fabric of your organization’s culture. Subsequent failures of communications, however small, only grow this tear till soon all we’ll have left will be shreds! So whether rock or fabric, our organizational culture needs continual renewal through simple, clear and sustained communication – to grow and prosper!

A Stake in the Outcome – Building a Culture of Ownership

These last six months, I have been doing a good deal of reading; on average maybe two books a week – at least one of which has been a business book! I have gone back to reading books that have been in my library a long while such as Paul Hawken‘s Growing a Business as well as reading new (to me) ones such as A Stake in the Outcome by Jack Stack and Bo Burlingham.

(c) livemint Stake in the OutcomeI ran across A Stake in the Outcome (ASitO) while browsing business books at the Easy Library (a great online library with a brick & mortar presence in Bangalore). Having read and been influenced by Bo Burlingham‘s more recent Small Giants, I began browsing ASitO at the library itself. As the saying goes, “When the student is ready, the Master will appear!” Certainly that’s how I felt as I scanned the book quickly right there and subsequently brought it home to read.

Chapter 3 titled The Design of a Business, begins:

Most people, I know, don’t think about the company they’re designing when they start out in business. They think about the products they’re going to make, or the services they’re going to provide. They worry about how to raise the money they need, how to find customers, how to deal with salespeople and suppliers, how to survive. It never occurs to them that, while they’re putting together the basic elements of the business, they’re also making decisions that are going to determine the type of company they’ll have if they’re successful.

I felt someone had just hit me on the head with a two-by-four. Every week I meet someone who is thinking about starting something. Nearly every last one of them talks about their product or service idea and if at all they talk about their company, its only when they intend to “flip-it” (“Built-to-flip” as Jim Collins speaks of as does Sramana Mitra in a recent blog entry). Jack Stack in contrast, states clearly that

Ownership Rule #1
The company is the product

It is worth pausing here and reflecting on his assertion. All too often I see entrepreneurs, young and not-so-young, pitch their businesses as I have heard Hollywood scriptwriter’s do! “Think Netflix but for Indian movies,” “Waiter.com meets iTunes,” “Google but for contextual search.” I’ll refrain from speculating whether the internet bubble begat this or this begat the bubble and what role VCs had to play in this. This focus on what a company does, rather than what a company will be, Stack asserts misses the opportunity to explicitly design your business from ground up. If you haven’t figured it now by now, I agree whole-heartedly.

In many ways, the practices of visionary companies that Jim Collins and Jerry Porras discuss in their book Built to Last have been explicitly operationalized in Stack’s company Springfield Remanufacturing (SRC). The big difference is that Stack’s direct writing style and first-hand experience makes this a gripping read rather than an dry business book. Also unlike most business books that appear to document management’s clever (often infallible) strategies, Stack walks us through both the good and poor decisions they made, as they set out to remake SRC. In the end (in fact in the epilogue), Stack quotes Herb Kelleher, cofounder and former CEO of Southwest Airlines responding to The Wall Street Journal’s question on what he meant when he said Southwest’s culture was its biggest competitive advantage.

 

“The intangibles are more important than the tangibles,” Kellher replied. “Someone can go out and buy airplanes from Boeing and ticket counters, but they can’t buy our culture our espirit de corps.”

 

ASitO walks us through SRC’s journey of building such a culture of ownership from that day in 1982 when Stack and his managers did a management buy-out of their struggling engine remanufacturing factory to twenty years hence when their 10cent stock was worth $86 (since then has grown to over $136). Most importantly the authors don’t romanticize the journey and are explicit in periodically setting our expectations with insights such as “Stock is not a magic pill” (ownership rule #4) and “Ownership needs to be taught”(OR #7).

ASitO is a must-read for any one contemplating starting a company or looking to effect change in their organizations through employee participation and a culture of ownership.

A much more detailed summary of the book itself can be found here

Hiring for Skills, Talent AND Values? One Story

In a recent Forbes article, Nathan Bennett and Stephen A. Miles state,

Repeatedly we hear from executives that the talent pool is not nearly as challenging to navigate as is what we have come to call the “values pool.” We suggest that, […], the real shortage facing companies in the future will be less about finding individuals with the knowledge, skills and abilities to do the job than about finding individuals whose personal value system provides a fit with the company’s values and mission.

Talent

Photo Credit: –Mark– via Compfight

Anyone who has run or worked in a startup knows how true this is. In our own startup Impulsesoft, at the very beginning (circa 1999) there was no such separation of values and talent. When you are less than eight people, everybody better be able to pull their own weight – but then again the reason you do a startup (at least the reason we did) is to work with people who share your values and vision. It’s when you try to begin hiring beyond the first few – the core team, the importance of values becomes real apparent. We went through four distinct phases in our startup –

[i] can we get anyone else to even join us?
we got started without a lot of forethought or planning. We even got our first customer signed up, before we bought our first computer. Now there was the minor matter of actually doing the work. It dawned on us then that with no money, no office and no clear grand strategy could we even get anyone else to join us. We talked a good story I can tell you that – but when our first prospective employee’s dad showed up to check us out, we knew we had a challenge on our hands. However values were paramount at this phase, as we felt we had the talent to get the job, any job, done!

[ii] lets focus on bringing only these three/four folks on board
Once we had our share of new college grads (NCGs) come by, wisdom bloomed. We were not going to be able to do it all – hustle customers, write proposals and actually write code – let alone direct the still not-steady-on-their-feet NCGs. By now we’d been talking to ex-colleagues who shared our values and skillwise walked-on-water; they saw that we were not yet dead and realized there might be something here after all. Suddenly we had a core team, that was incredibly talented and well aligned.

[iii] how fast can we hire hands & bodies and bring ’em on board?
Suddenly we were a real business, with customers signed up for products we hadn’t built yet, and paying customers expecting us to support them with prototypes we had shipped as product. The software managers wanted more coders – the hardware folks more designers and everyone wanted more testers – we just went crazy trying to find the “talent pool” – if you could walk, string a set of C code together and didn’t drool excessively, we hired you! Even the talent bar probably got shaky in this phase.

[iv] what the hell where we thinking in phase [iii]
When products still didn’t work as advertised and customers were no happier, having paid up even more money and our own managers ready to kill some of their staff, we began wondering what the hell had we been thinking? The questions now were how do we let go of these folks and get folks with the right values and attitude even if we have to teach ’em the right skills? The lesson we learnt was that though we had hired talented folks, they had come up real short in both attitude and vision alignment. Our hiring process about which we had become quite proud (It’s hard to get hired at Impulsesoft, we’d say) had become too much talent focused and too little value focused in phase [iii]; the fact that I am writing this today means we learned from this and while it hurt us, it didn’t kill us. But then again that’s the sort of lesson that stays with you.

Bennett and Miles are right – only the future is here NOW!

 

Storytelling and Culture in Companies

Storytelling

Photo Credit: Bindaas Madhavi via Compfight

I was lucky enough grow up with a paternal grandmother, a maternal grandfather and even his mother, my great grandmother (GGM), who were always ready with a story. My GGM’s life story itself is worth a whole separate post – widowed at nineteen, while pregnant with my grandfather, she raised him, through a polio attack (when he was two, that left him crippled in one leg), saw him through college, then when he was widowed with ten kids, she then in her sixties, raised the kids, (and the first grandkids) while managing the household, ten cows and a small farm sized garden.

Some of my favorite memories of my GGM are from dinner time. Six or seven of us kids, cousins and siblings, would be sitting in a semi-circle, on the floor of my grandfather’s dining room. GGM would be seated with her back to the wall, at the center of the half circle, with a large stainless steel bowl of mixed steamed rice and yoghurt. Each night, she’d narrate a story as she fed us dinner. She’d scoop up one handful of the rice and drop a dollop in each of our outstretched hands, going clockwise. And with each handful or mouthful, she’d narrate what happened next, in the tale for the evening. Oh, on so many nights, we’d have to stop eating and console her, as at particularly poignant moments in the tale she’d stumble, stutter then sniffle before a stream of tears would run down her wrinkled face. At other times, she’d have to stop the story to urge us to continue eating or close our mouths as we’d listen to her all agog, our food and outstretched hands totally forgotten.

Those local tales of lions that came as bridegrooms and sparrows that stuffed themselves and the longer tales from the Indian epics have not only stayed with me but taught us the values that my GGM held dear. In a very small way I have tried to share that with my own two children. However, the larger lesson I have learnt is the value of stories and storytelling to imbibe culture in families and companies.

There is a large swath of didactic and somewhat intimidating academic research done in recent times on the role of storytelling in business. Leaving that to the experts, in every company I have worked with, there has been storytelling – of dream deals that were saved or won by heroic individual or team efforts; customers from hell or my own favorite, of a customer who insisted on paying by Sep 30th ahead of our delivery milestone, as his budget would vanish on Oct 1st, but wanting a handwritten personal note from the CEO assuring that we’d still deliver on our commitments; our own story of how we asked engineers and managers to have their pay raises deferred and then to take a pay cut and my wife’s favorite, of how I was a zombie the day we lost that truly big, already-in-the-bag and company-saving quarter million dollar deal and the mourning we went through (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – all in a day.)

Of course storytelling need not be just in front of the fireplace, over dinner or by the water cooler. Books, emails and memos can just as powerfully share stories and values. The best examples I can think of include

    • Memos from the Chairman” by Alan C. Greenberg, former Chairman of investment
      banking firm Bear, Stearns & Co. In a series of memos, many at less than 150 words, he has shared his views, thoughts and narrated tales (with a fictional protagonist) in an informal and easy style
    • Small Decencies: Reflections and Meditations on Being Human at Work” by John Cowan – a collection of fluid essays that narrate tales from John’s personal and work life and lend tremendous insight into our own lives, without hitting us over the head

I’d recommend both these books for a hearty good read, even if storytelling and organizational culture are not your favorite topics!

Culture in Companies and Business Success

In what’s becoming an annual event (okay, it was two years in a row), I attended a workshop titled “Values-based Leadership” lead by Richard Barrett. Despite the slow start, and initial misgivings when Richard quickly put on a video of his that’s available on YouTube (hey, I have come to hear you in person, was my first thought) – the day proved to be thought-provoking and productive, for two reasons. Firstly a full day away from the daily grind at the office, just thinking and discussing things from the sublime, (Who am I? What is my purpose in life?) to grimy reality (What is the culture in your company?) was a much-needed breath of fresh air. Secondly, the workshop turned out to be completely about culture, ways of measuring it and the role culture and values play in the business success of organizations. Many thoughts that had been stewing below the surface of my conscious mind or even the few that had cleared the surface and were still nebulous at best, began to get some definite shape and dare I say, validation through the course of the day.

Before I push ahead, it’s worth stepping back and trying to get a working definition of culture spelled out. Many serious thinkers have come up a variety of definitions – ranging from the anthropological all the way to organizational – I will confine myself to the rather simple assertion, that culture is how people in an organization behave and expect others to behave, on a daily basis. This behavior is almost always driven or at the very least most strongly influenced from the top, down. In other words, the leaders (in small enterprises these are almost always the founders) set the culture and the everyday actions of the people in the organization reinforce this culture. Here again, I use the term actions to include explicit inaction or lack of action as much as deliberate actions taken. For instance, not confronting (constructively or otherwise), or avoiding conflict is as much an element of organizational culture as an action such as yelling at your subordinates or sharing recognition and praise as well.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should also state my position – that I believe that culture trumps all other considerations in building healthy, dynamic and long lasting successful organizations. Yes, all those things we learned in business school or at our fathers’ knees are still true – operational excellence, technology, and R&D, financial performance, killer products or services are all important for success but culture is critical to sustain and build upon the gains made. After six years of running a bootstrapped software company, from the giddy optimistic start, through axing one entire department and having those folks out-placed, asking the remaining team to take 10-15% pay cuts, even as we worked to deliver newer products, fend off competitors and keep those fickle customers who hadn’t yet gone out of business in the downturn or been gobbled up, to achieving market leadership in our niche and finally selling our own company, the number one insight I have gained is that culture is the critical ingredient for organization success.

In the coming weeks and months I hope to share some of the lessons I have learnt from my journey as an engineer, manager, CEO and general factotum (they are nearly the same thing, you sometimes have a little more freedom as a factotum) and in the bargain, I hope to learn as well. The journey continues!

When in doubt, communicate early & often

Bullhorn

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In early September, a colleague and I checked into a hotel in Tokyo and were given rooms on the 29th floor. We headed for the elevators – there were 12 of them, in three sets of four that would get us up to our rooms. When we pressed the UP button for an elevator, immediately one of the lights in front of an elevator to our right turned on. Expectantly we stood in front of it, waiting for the doors to open. A few minutes later, the light that had been steadily lit up, began blinking and the door opened. Later the same evening we went through the same process on our way DOWN to the lobby — press the DN button, immediately one of the four elevator indicator lights come on, soon the light blinks and the elevator door opens. It is then we figured out that the first time the light comes on, it indicated which elevator was coming for us and once the elevator got to our floor, it would blink to indicate its actual arrival.

As managers we could do well to emulate the designer of this elevator system, namely “share a fact the moment we know it” — which elevator is going to come up; and “continue to share as and when more information becomes available” — once the elevator is there, notify its arrival explicitly. It sounds so simple yet our own behaviour every day belies this very simplicity.

Communication is learned behaviour
Many of our organisations are plagued by poor communication. All the technology we have at our disposal, often no further than our fingertips, only seems to add to the problem. If you have at times, felt that the only sharing in your organisation seems to be unabashedly flaming e-mails, you are not alone. What makes it so hard to follow this simple dictum to share? Why do reasonable people, who complain that they do not get the information they need, turn around and act in an opaque manner?

Simply put, communication within an organisation is learned behaviour. Regardless of individual idiosyncrasies or insecurities, employees are quick learners with regards to acceptable corporate behaviour. They pick up on cues — when more than one e-mail goes unanswered or every e-mail discussing the smallest technical problem in their department is copied to 20 other people – most of whom they have not met. When a co-worker, who seemed either comatose or on sabbatical, responds with alacrity to the same question from a vice-president, the message is loud and clear on what works and how they need to act to get things done.

Review communication behaviour
What can be learnt of course can be unlearnt, if not always easily, as our spouses will vouch. As individuals, managers and leaders we can effect change in our organisations’ communication process through deliberate actions. Begin with your immediate team – your manager, your staff and your colleagues. Are you sharing everything they need to know, not just what you feel needs to be shared? Are you doing it in a succinct and clear fashion? Are you doing it in a timely manner – with adequate advance notice for things that need preparation or the earliest possible opportunity after a relevant event? Are you sending emails when a face-to-face meeting might be more appropriate? Are you dealing with things verbally which are better put in writing?

A rule to live by
Ask yourself would I or someone else be surprised later, if I did not share this information and share it NOW? Would I have liked to have known this sooner or in private, or with more context?

A simple rule that covers all of these and hundred other possible communication pitfalls is “No surprises!”

When in doubt, communicate early and often!

Communication as with most things in life, needs moderation. There will certainly be times when discretion will be the better part of valour and less communication may be more! Go forth and communicate!

This article was first published in the Business Line in October 15, 2007

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