Need Ideas? Dress Down

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Need Ideas? Dress Down

Despite the Mumbai heat, I don’t miss an opportunity to wear a suit. Especially to a first-time work meeting with people. However, things are different if the agenda of a meeting is problem solving or ideating. Then, I not just prefer, but also strongly recommend a casual dress code.

Why?

Think about the times you get the best ideas. It could be about work, about hobbies, about fitness, recipes, or even new businesses. I bet if you were to look back on your life, two locations might be the luckiest places to have a light bulb moment.

Starting with the second first, those were probably when you were in bed, or in the shower (or even in the loo for that matter). In bed, good chances are you’re either dressed light, or half naked. Then there is the shower. Remember frantically looking around for someplace and means of writing your idea, because you’re sure you’d forget if you waited till you finished. Like the hundreds of ideas before. Seemingly priceless ones that unwittingly got swept with the flowing water.

So, next time you’re sitting to brainstorm some great ideas for your business or at work. No, don’t stroll in in the buff. But strongly consider dressing casually. You and your teammates would be more at ease. You’d be able to think of ideas that might have otherwise remained elusive. Especially because you were busy adjusting your trousers around the thighs, or feeling the choking feeling of the tie around your neck.

Is it why most innovative companies are never stuck up about things like dress code? Seems obviously so!
So remember. Need ideas? Dress down!

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The Stand-off called Life

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The Stand-off called Life

Random musings.

Life, in some ways, is like a standoff with a wild animal.

You are puzzled, scared and unsure of its next move. So is the animal.

If you panic or succumb to your fears, it will pounce, attack, and possibly consume you. And fast.

On the other hand, if you can keep your sh!t together and stay calm, you might either cause it to run away, or kill it. Or better still, you might tame it.

Video contains violence. Viewer discretion advised.

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The Non-Financial Side of Business

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The Non-Financial Side of Business
A call with an industry colleague last week set in motion, thoughts on how we measure individual or business success.
As a kid growing up in India in the 80’s, studies used to be quite a tricky part of life. Studying history, for instance. We had a ton of dates to remember, and it somehow never made sense. The pointlessness of remembering precise dates of events ranging from a few decades to a few centuries gone by. Instead of, perhaps evaluating people gone by, on the basis of their actions, or the sum of their actions. Perhaps we would have learnt more about values. About actions and consequences. But they would not have it any other way. Events and dates of their occurrence was clearly more important to them.
Then came interesting subjects like physics, and a few deeper questions around it. [Link]
Subsequently, there was the ’Must. Read. Newspapers’ phase. Not just that, I guess people also expected you to remember current events. For someone who is not a keen quiz player, I felt it was pointless beyond just having a fair sense of what was happening. Somewhere I believed storing irrelevant information wouldn’t really matter someday.
Then, thankfully, the internet came to our rescue.
In my adult life, all around, businesses seem obsessed with numbers. Financials. Be it sales and profitability, or costs, or more complicated ones. Cost of acquiring a customer. Shopping cart abandonment. Customer churn rate. Average profit per visitor or Product conversion rate. Among others.
The world became, and continues to be increasingly obsessed with numbers and ratios. And that’s all most businesses focus on. The employee or customer can be at the receiving end of the bare minimum that a tight-margin allowance to appease a ratio will allow. But not more.
The day machines take over a business function, efficiency will jump up dramatically, as will profitability.
But where would that leave us? Put differently, have we always been missing a bigger point?
What will matter when machines take over (finally!), is what customers really want. Because then we won’t be obsessing over the numbers. Hopefully not at least.
And hopefully then, we’ll start to see that it is not a numbers game. That business is about relevance. If it’s useful or good, they will buy. If a process is well designed as per them, they will use it.
Numbers, as I’ve always held, are an incidental, intermittent aftereffect of a non-numerical, ongoing end-user pleasing process.
I’m not saying that top and bottom lines and all those in-between are irrelevant. Sure they help as indicators. But they perhaps help more when we are doing the more important job. Of ensuring the main objective of our business is met. Once you focus on the non-financial aspects that really run your business, you’ll see how the financials catch up. Automatically!

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Why Design Thinking is Here to Stay

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Why Design Thinking is Here to Stay

A close friend recently shared this article titled ‘Why Design Thinking will fail’, written in 2013 by Jeffrey Tjendra. Jeffrey is a designer entrepreneur and strategist. Among some of us friends, there was were points of disagreement on the article. Jeffrey does seem to have a good understanding of design thinking. This post, however, is an effort towards taking a closer look at each point mentioned there. And to see if it makes sense or not. All of this, with my limited but growing knowledge of design thinking.

Before I begin, here’s a quote by Mara Wilson. While her quote describes storytelling, I believe it offers a more far reaching explanation. With products and services too, for instance. She said, “The more specific you get, the more universal it is. (It’s a special alchemy of storytelling).” – Mara Wilson

Back to the article, here goes:

  1. Misperception of Meaning – I’ll agree, it can be misleading to some. I use either ‘human-centered’ or ‘user-centered’ design thinking in an attempt to bring a little more clarity, especially when interacting with people I believe might misinterpret the meaning.
  2. Loss of Meaning – Can’t do much about that. A lot of effective methodologies often see phases of hype and a lot of randomness being packaged and sold in its name. But as the dust settles, only the real stuff and an increased respect remains.
  3. Misunderstanding and Not Accepting Creative Elements – True. However, any company or more specifically, a management that has ever worked on any form of creativity or innovation, knows how boring, full of trials and iterations, full of mess and uncertainty it can be. Look at your kid’s school projects for instance. If it isn’t too simple, it is bound to take a lot of ‘random’, before it starts to make sense. Anyone who doesn’t understand that, will surely not use design thinking. And that’s alright.
  4. Lack of Business Elements – Coming from a management and finance background, with experience in strategy and marketing, I tend to build those critical business aspects to a design thinking project. And that is especially why the design thinking team needs to have a wide-enough assortment of skillsets. Using only UI/UX people or ethnographers or psychologists is not going to do the trick.
  5. Language and Perspective Barriers – There have been worse instances of communication gaps. For instance, if you have heard the almost unbelievable and heroic story of the Gimli Glider. An obvious technical specification got so conveniently ignored, that it put at risk, 69 occupants aboard a Boeing 767. Read the fascinating story! So, it just boils down to the intention and seriousness of the parties involved. Nothing is foolproof or idiot-proof. But a lot of change and innovation can be brought about with the right intentions. And no amount of left-brain learning and practice can fix unpredictable situations either. Because a lot of left-brain thinkers often learn a process from end to end. Any deviation could potentially leave them baffled. Creative thinking, on the other hand, helps one focus on the fundamentals. On understanding the building blocks more and more. And then, irrespective of situations or deviations to them, there is often more clarity as the building blocks can be used to better understand complexity. And it’s often easier to communicate fundamental building blocks across language barriers, as opposed to communicating complexity to begin with.
  6. Missing Future – Even design thinking veterans like IDEO have made mistakes, overestimating future demand of tech products. A strong problem or opportunity statement (which is open to being updated when you learn more about the end-user) helps reduce the risk. As does an unbiased and strong mechanism to interact with, and observe and understand needs, behaviours and desires of end-users, and capture that information towards building a solution.
  7. Wrong Implementation of Process – Which is why a lot of products and ingredients come with ‘Instructions to Use’. If an ingredient needs to be mixed and cooked, simply sprinkling it will not help.
  8. Poor Direction Scoping – This is where an intention and objective to start with, matters. There are billions of people, billions of problems and billions more opportunities. Which one or ones do you want to target. That’s what you pursue. Ignore everything else.
  9. Co-creation at the End of Process – all I’ll say is, phone sex doesn’t help create babies.
  10. Misconception of Approach to Creativity – This is true. Some people would tend to follow the design thinking process like it is a treasure map, when in fact, it is navigating your way through hostile jungle. Your senses need to be on alert all the time. Any input can change a lot of initial assumptions. That lions don’t climb trees. Or that chimps tend to rely on third party to help resolve disputes.
  11. Wishful Thinking for Culture of Innovation – Completely agree here. Which is why, a startup whose founders have the right values and give importance to innovation, can build it better into their culture, as opposed to trying to inject it into a global behemoth that has a century of history.
  12. The End Process is not the End – true – design teams, just like any other specialty teams, need to walk the talk. Leaving projects with solution advice that is abstract to clients, won’t serve anyone’s purpose. A lot of large consulting firms were infamous for doing this back in the day. Leaving clients many million dollars poorer, and with a big “report” that the client was clueless what to do with.
  13. Risk of Stagnancy – As Zig Ziglar said, “People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing – that’s why we recommend it daily.”

Thoughts?

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Venture Capital Elevator Pitches

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Venture Capital Elevator Pitches

I left my job at a venture capital (VC) firm in 2010. After freelancing for a bit I then worked with a high-technology company in the robotics space. I then started my own strategy consulting practice, which over the years has matured into an interesting blend of design thinking, management strategy and human behaviour. Three fields I am keenly interested in, and which I use to help companies. I help them understand their customers and customer needs better. I also help companies tackle complex problems or pursue opportunities and grow.

VC funding, business plans and elevator pitches however, are areas a lot of clients associate me with. My initial list of consulting services didn’t even factor business plans or elevator pitches. However, along the way, by heavy demand, it became a prominent service. I continue to get a lot of inquiries for elevator pitches. There probably will never be a shortage of companies aspiring to get their entrepreneurial dreams equity funded.

However, I have observed one common aspect across a lot of clients and prospective clients. It is in their view of what an elevator pitch is. Or should be. Given the overly enthusiastic, almost orgasmic effect that venture capitalists have on a lot of business folk and new entrepreneurs, they tend to assume that that’s what an elevator pitch is about too. That the brief time the pitch gets in front of the investor, with or without the entrepreneur actually being present, should blow their mind. And to achieve this, they start thinking like advertisers. They think loud. Or blingy. Or just outright abstract.

They assume the pitch needs to be all glitsy and filled with high quality images, video, and graphs! That’s it! And on occasion, it has been tough convincing them otherwise. Reasoning with them that having been an investor, I might probably have a better sense of what might bring out the core essence of a venture. And what might be outright distracting, or worse, confusing. But it doesn’t work often. They are so enamoured by a faceless and nameless investor who probably frequents their dreams, to reason.

Sometime last year, someone made Uber’s first elevator pitch public. For those working on their elevator pitches to seek investment, and if you haven’t seen this already, UberCab – Dec 2008. How many captivating images do you see? They seem to me like just random pictures pulled off a Google search. A few phones, a few cars. No plot, no sub-plot, no theme, nothing. Just a vision and a compelling business proposition and a plan on how to make it happen! Nothing else matters.

I have been quite blunt with clients when it comes to delivering a no-nonsense pitch. However, I have had my pitches go to design folk, artists, and even sent to experts in digital and web design to give them a ‘makeover’. And I’ve had others turn my pitches upside down to present what they believe is a better way to ‘pitch’. Only to then come back and use one previously made by me.

The reason being, at the end of the day, even if some people don’t agree, venture capitalists are humans too. They have similar attention spans. They aren’t fools not to spot a great opportunity, even if it is scribbled clearly on a restaurant napkin. And they certainly aren’t fools to accept a mediocre vision or action plan just because it was in a ‘beautified pitch’.

This is the third of a series I’ve written regarding entrepreneurs and VCs. In case you missed the first two, they’re here: 1. What’s Your Profession and 2. The Entrepreneur in a Venture Capital World

Hope you found these useful.

My attempt at sketching a puzzled investor.

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Bonded Labour vs Freed Slaves

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Bonded Labour vs Freed Slaves

There is a task to be done.

One dependent variable is whether the task is an enjoyable one or not. Then there is the quality of the completed task.

Then there is enthusiasm. The excitement and energy we have and channel towards the task.

And finally, there is, the ability to question the task itself. Or the ability to be able to choose one task over another.

Apologies for the possibly insulting title. But that’s unfortunately how a lot of employees end up becoming. Bonded labour. Either bound by the security of a job, or to the greed of acquiring more. Nothing wrong with either.

However, when it comes to the job, here’s what happens.

Let’s assume that early in one’s career, enthusiasm is often (though not the case with everyone!) high. So any task, irrespective of its higher meaning or goal, gets done reasonably well. However, with time, and a multitude of mundane tasks, the enthusiasm drops. And because the employee feels bound to the company, he or she can’t question or reject a task. Which then boils down to two variables. Either the quality of work improves. The work becomes more challenging and exciting, that is. Everything’s good in that scenario. However, in the cases where it doesn’t, the employee eventually runs out of enthusiasm, and goes into zombie mode. One where they just go through the motions of the responsibility. Either out of personal greed, or fear of the uncertain.

The freed slave could be an employee who does not have, or succumb to, fear or greed. It could also be an ex-employee presently his or her own boss. They often tend to question the task itself. And since they aren’t completely bound to cravings for meaningless assets or illusionary status, they can actually choose the tasks they take. They can therefore regulate and maintain the enthusiasm levels. And thus, be in a better position to deliver above average work.

There’s a reason I said ‘freed’ slaves and not ‘free people”. There are more than enough examples of people who have become great business people with no prior experience. Then of course, there are those who had the privilege of working for great companies, before deciding to better it in their own way. However, with most people, working for at least one company first, helps. It helps to know the difference to be able to make a difference.

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Sunset Marmalade

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Sunset Marmalade

Why are some brands killing the obvious in packaging design?

If anything is better than the taste of orange marmalade in the morning, it is the sight of it in the jar. Like a beautiful sunset. With strands of peel as if in suspended animation.

However, some leading Indian brands, and probably many others too in India and abroad, tend to put an ugly plastic label all around the jar, with the pictures of oranges and probably some marmalade too on it. Why not just let the product you’ve created, speak for itself?

A beautiful looking product like that, in a transparent jar, would sell itself. So why take the trouble to cover it up completely? Not like it is an excuse for the design, marketing and packaging folk to justify their jobs and salaries. It’s like those people who order an exceptionally tasty dish at a restaurant, and instead of diving right in, spend the next few minutes getting a perfect snap of the food. And then eat the food while distracted by the editing of the picture for social media.

Look at the bottom of the bottle, at the marmalade below the label. That’s what I’m talking about.

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Rate Wisely

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Rate Wisely

Imagine the simple process of rating a book you’ve just read.

Let’s say it is a non-fiction. Perhaps a business or even a self-help kind of book.

The normal tendency would be that if it has even an average amount of useful stuff, you’d give it a good rating. Especially if it contained one or more things you weren’t previously aware of. Let’s say you give it a 4 or a 5 out of 5.

Now let’s say not only did it not add any value, it was illogical or nonsensical. Or, to add to that, it wasn’t spellchecked or formatted well. You’d probably give it a 1.

Now for it to be a 2 or 3, it might have been stating the obvious.

Now, as you learn more and more about something, your knowledge about the topic increases dramatically. Which means, when you pick up a book on the topic, there’s a good chance you already know what’s in it. Which means you would either drop the book, or continue reading in the hope there’s something new to learn. Put differently, it would take real veterans to perhaps write about a topic so as to receive a 4 or 5 from you.

So if you do read the book, and you are the critical kind, you might be inclined to rate it average or poorly. And as you might read more books in that field, your general ratings might trend from 5 towards 1.

However, that would be the wrong way to assess a book. Especially if is factual or logical. And has been spellchecked and formatted reasonably well. It might actually be of great help, especially to amateurs in the field.

But imagine if the first few readers are highly intellectual people like yourself. You would all give the book a poor rating. And those amateurs who might have originally benefited from the book, might avoid it thinking. Almost as if assuming it would be a waste of their time.

So, rate wisely.

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The Illusion of Ratings and Feedback

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The Illusion of Ratings and Feedback
Life in present times has become an increasingly rapid process of experiences and feedback. Businesses are always asking us to rate the services or experiences they offer. And often, they feel inclined to “reward” us for it. While no one’s complaining about the free stuff or great discounts, are we losing perspective of what’s genuinely good? Because, while the feedback is certainly far more in quantity, it can’t be as clean in quality.
Why, you ask?
For starters, the moment you bribe (yes, a strong but apt word) someone for a feedback or to leave a rating or review, you’re automatically influencing the purity of the feedback, rating or review. Same goes for a 10% discount for simply “checking into” a restaurant.
Everything from a review to get the free ‘dry fruit pickle’ or a discount on the food bill, establishments are literally paying to distort their own reality of their business.
A few years ago, a friend of mine started a business, and reached out to friends on Facebook to like their business page. I was well past the years when I’d actually ask people to convince me (or at the least, fill the ‘About’ section on the page), before asking people to simply like the page. So, while I liked the page and got on with my work, some months later, seeing the 800+ likes, I asked how business was. There was none. Even though am quite sure a lot of common friends might have had a need for the products being offered. What happened, was that the Facebook page (in herd mentality), gave them a level of instant gratification, while distracting them from the core. Is, or how can I make my offerings increasingly relevant?
Recently, an entrepreneur found me online and requested a meeting to help their business turn profitable and grow faster. They had exceptional social media following and activity, which of course I didn’t take at face value. But what came next from the entrepreneur was even more disappointing. That while a lot of the followers were fake, when visiting any business page, seeing a good following gives him a sense of trust and confidence too. That justified it.
Let’s forget fake following and likes for a moment. Besides, I’ve already written a fair bit about them years ago. But consider just the fact of a business incentivizing a feedback or review that should ideally be happening without influence. Each time we do that, we willingly distort our sense of the pulse of our business.
Last month, I had dinner at one of the Taj restaurants with relatives. While the starters and main course were exceptional, the service was aloof, and one dessert was a disaster. On another occasion, when at a relatives place, I ordered butter chicken from the Butter Chicken Factory, a nearby joint. The butter chicken was terrible! I wrote reviews about the Taj dinner and the butter chicken place on Zomato (neither ratings were too terrible). Both establishments responded. The Taj staff thanked me, saying they would incorporate the inputs. And that they looked forward to having me there again soon. The city head of the Butter Chicken Factory called to understand what in my opinion, they had gotten wrong about the taste. As I was busy, he called at a time I said I’d be free, and tried to understand. He had inputs of his own to reason out, like the very different taste of the dish in northern India and other places, and how theirs  was influenced more by a certain part of the country. It was a good dialogue, with me recommending they try out the dish at another old joint which I knew, was good. This felt like a far, far more human and involved business, as opposed to a template perhaps pasted by the Taj folk.
Now imagine, if the Taj people had offered me a 10% discount on my next visit. But the service remained unchanged and the same dessert was still on the menu, and still a dess-aster! Perhaps my reaction would have been milder, as I would have been indebted to the 10% discount. And the restaurant wouldn’t have learnt anything from the feedback.
And these are instances that are still the more evident, at least to most of us. There are so many where one aspect of the business could cause us to completely write off another aspect of it. Or an offer could skew our perception of what we’ve just experienced, be it food, an experience, an electronic product, anything.
A startup might justify the need to influence reviews to obtain a minimum critical mass to even survive. But in doing so, do businesses ignore real feedback and let performance slack? Thanks to early illusionary success, do they risk missing the growth bus?

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Pigs Rule

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Pigs Rule

I recently found myself around a humorous discussion around politics at a relatives’ home.
A grand aunt asked another relative if they planned on getting into politics. The relative laughingly retorted that for one to be in politics, they must be prepared to hit and to be hit. As an example, he cited a recent incident involving some politician.

My grand aunt, matter-of-factly replied that those are some of the things one needs to be prepared for, if one is convinced and focused on an important goal. She added something about the need to keep a certain type of people close. They were those who would attack, protect and defend. She quoted what sounded like ancient but obvious wisdom in my mother tongue. It translated to something like, ‘that is why one needs to rear stray dogs.’

I recently read the classic ‘Animal Farm’, written by India-born English novelist, essayist, journalist and critic, Eric Arthur Blair, a.k.a. George Orwell.

Rear dogs. Interestingly in the book, that’s exactly what the pigs did to achieve and stay in power. To muscle their way to the top. To eliminate any competition. And to enforce their way on the people.

The philosophy of the ruling pigs in ‘Animal Farm’. Image source: link

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