Organsational Learning | Leadership ! Social Media | Long Distance running | Photography | Writing | Connecting ! All of this in perpetual Beta !

Features Dont Sell

It was in an animated conversation with a dear friend a quote came up. He said, quoting the Marathi playwright Mahesh Elkunchwar, as he spoke of writing, “the experience is always bigger than the writing”. His words have stayed with me ever since. Especially so, when I sit down to write and wanted to describe an experience. Last week, in the middle of a conversation on Digital change, I was so reminded of this again. As a fine bunch of tech colleagues focused much on the technology that they were getting deployed. I call it ‘Feature Focus’. And features don’t sell!

Helping organisations navigate digital change processes brings me front and centre of how much ‘feature focus’ dominates conversations. The top three conversation dominators in my experience have been like the following

  1. This product can do ‘X’ and then it can do ‘y’.
  2. If users face a problem then they can click button Q and hit enter and they will get a view of the help centre and raise a ticket..
  3. It runs on ‘XYZ platform with ABC technology that has been adopted by 85% of Fortune 500 firms.

You get the drift.

Products rarely succeed (or fail) solely by virtue of the features within. What a product can do, in this case, a technology, is also dependent on the context of the environment in question.  To have passionate conversations without the end user’s context in the room often proves to be the digital change efforts undoing. Falling in love with our areas of expertise ( geeks falling in love with technology, facilitators obsessed with their ‘performance’ etc). So much so that focus remains trained on the features within, forgetting that the technology is just a means to a larger business goal.

Reflections on my experience and conversations with fellow change practitioners lead me to three thought trails. To many, am restating the obvious. But I have been through serial surprises over the last few weeks on how blinding the obvious is, that it is completely missed.

1. Features are contextual

Features are not absolutes. They are always a function of the context in which they are deployed in. A 5G phone may be fantastic by itself. In a geography where technology is limited to 3G phones, 5G has no relevance! While this may occur to you as a rather inane example, it illustrates the point. Imagine sitting in meetings where the virtues of such ‘5G technology’ are extolled.

Business rhythms, organisational cycles, tendencies for change and the need for change all matter much. When these are drowned in the noise of features, the change effort goes nowhere. It, in fact, is a giveaway for how the change effort will unravel!

2. Tech adoption is not a function of features

Features are important. So is context. Yes. There are more elements that determine adoption. To me, a key aspect is demystifying the technology element and weaving it into daily work.  The time lag between the start of the change effort and when change hits every individual is a big factor too. The essence, however, is to focus on ‘work’ and how work shifts for every employee. Features and glory of the technology in itself have to be experienced on the ground, more because of the shift in work. There is no glory in them being on Powerpoint slides.

3. Communication is not the fancy poster in the hallway

There is a communication 101 lesson that I recall. Communication is always a function of how it is received. Numerous change efforts have fancy posters, screensavers, games, and contests. To my mind, communication is a ‘moment of truth’ thing. It happens at places closest where work gets done. It often happens between people on the ground. At least the communication that determines the sustenance and success of the change happens there. That’s why keeping the ear to the ground trumps hanging from the nail in a hallway in the ivory tower.

Designing effective change requires courage. It seeks a huge degree of going beyond the immediate and seeing the larger picture. It requires a raw courage to thrive in the ambiguous gray of change.  Above all, it mandates going beyond a feature focus. That often means going past a stated requirement and find a new plane.  For a change practitioner, that requires comfort in crowing heroes of change and staying in the shadows. Borrowing from my friend’s quote of Mahesh Elkunchwar, the change that is sought is more important than the skills it takes to orchestrate it!


Seven Characteristics of Awesome Facilitators

Any domain attracts attention, interest and following in its ascendency. Facilitation or ‘process facilitation’ is entering that phase now. This interest fueled by some reflection prompts me to write about the characteristics that I have observed in facilitators from around the world who continue to inspire me. It was a random reflective scrawl that morphed into “Seven Characteristics of Awesome Facilitators”.

As the world continues to get fragmented by narrow walls and as existing modes of engineering change creak more than normal, facilitation is more than merely ‘sought after’. Over the last few years, I have seen this in action in the first person. Conferences and events like the International Association of Facilitators‘ recently concluded Asia and India conferences are freshly minted in memory. Both conferences were well crafted with meticulous care and depth. Both organising teams deserved the heaps of praise and applause they got. What couldn’t be missed, was the enormous interest and attention that facilitation as a domain is drawing. I met people from diverse industries, geographies, professions, interest groups etc, all seeking to know and learn more.

Even as I experienced top quality facilitation, I recalled some of the best facilitators in action. When I was amongst those being facilitated. Post the conferences, I was scribbling some notes about what stood out in the best of my experience. ( I continue to hear first-person accounts of great facilitation from the world over. Facilitators whose mastery I hope to experience someday). This post holds together seven aspects that are common in facilitators who I have experienced and admire.  Of course, this is my list filled with my biases and notions of what construes to be the best.  If you are a facilitator, I would encourage you to reflect, have a conversation and evolve your own list as well. For now, this is my list: Seven Characteristics of Awesome Facilitators.

1. Self Awareness:

Top notch facilitators realise that the journey within them is the real journey. They are well aware of their own mental models, preferences. and biases. They are keenly aware of where their true self-worth comes from. Often times, it comes from who they are and not from being a recipient of an award, certification, the position they hold in a hierarchy or even the kind of work they do. They are in the perpetual beta mode!

This is invaluable in my opinion, for they approach the position of a ‘facilitator’  with a degree of respect and an inclusive embrace. They are simple people with no airs. Not for them any ‘super manesque’ infallibility and Midas touches that sprinkle magic solutions.  They don’t hanker for power and have any need to holler into a microphone. Wearing their vulnerability on their sleeve, they walk amongst the rest of us. Like the rest of us! This makes them endearing. There is something in them that draws people seeking out a conversation.


2. It is never about themselves:

That is a straight one, isn’t it? To be able to keep the light shining on the group that entrusts itself with a facilitator is an important ask. Great facilitators do this with effortless ease. An important distinction that I became aware of is the temptation to take the stage, in the garb of ‘shining the light on others’!  Great facilitators ensure that the whole space belongs to the group and the community. They are part of the milieu.

‘Holding the space’ is a phrase that permeates several facilitator conversations. This piece has some good insights and it lists eight important tips to hold space for others. Amongst them, are “Don’t take their power away”, “Keep your own ego out of it”, “Give guidance and help with humility and thoughtfulness”.

Those are potholes that I catch myself falling often into. These jarred edges have sticky spikes.

3. Here and Now:

Presence and complete immersion with the group in front of them get great facilitators in a flow. Close your eyes and imagine an ‘ego-less’ state, where it’s not about showcasing oneself or the tools or the competence. A state where the sole focus of the group moving forward. It is a powerful idea that escapes capturing in its full essence here.

Just being present to the stated and unstated needs of the people in front can mean on the spot improvisation of well laid out plans. Sometimes, junking plans and taking different routes.  It didn’t matter if hours of preparation went into the design of a process. I have seen great facilitators drop it as though they had never thought about it because the ‘group has a different need’. To hold oneself at the service of the group is a mindset that switches on presence, in my opinion.

4. Tools are tools:

This is amongst my favourites. The best amongst us treat tools as mere tools. There is a respect for what the tools can help accomplish and a consequent need to be acquainted with these. But true mastery is not in replicating tools and processes. True mastery is in combining, shaping, mixing, axing of tools, processes, and ideas with imagination. Tools must always bow at the altar of outcomes that a group needs.

Heres a tip that I learned some time ago: Learning up a tool is good.  But true learning is when you have learned to go beyond the tool or the process. The quest for the new and shiny tools have sent several of us scurrying to far corners & writing down every word that an expert says. My experience of having practiced it in my early years gets me to wish I had realised how pointless an exercise it is. Unless accompanied by adaptation and reflection lead practice, it is a big house with no residents.

5. Curiosity:

The benefits that curiosity laden inquiry brings are often missed. Genuine curiosity and a spirit of exploration can lead to results that alter horizons.  It is in the nature of what Edgar Shein describes in Humble Inquiry. It helps unravel what groups are confronted with and the issues beneath the surface.

I have been in groups where some ace facilitators tease groups with a curious inquiry. To go beyond what is stated, to ask how to seek why to question if a broader ‘what’ is possible all means to challenge status quo. It is in such challenges that groups move forward beyond their immediate stated needs. Curiosity is a superb lubricant to move a conversation into areas that it hasn’t been to.

6. Working on themselves:

Perhaps the biggest learning that I have had from expert facilitators is their investment in themselves.  It is this aspect that gives them renewal. Investment in areas of skills and processes is eclipsed often by a conscious commitment to discover and work on the self.

The meticulous commitment to reflect, dialogue, debate and learn as a collective is a not so secret weapon in the arsenal of true champions. But it is something that can so easily missed in the quest for business or in the comfort of easy ‘success’. Lasting long term comes from the commitment a facilitator makes to the craft of facilitation.

7. Givers:

I kept this for the last because it is special.  It is when you truly give, that you are worth receiving.  I have approached members of the community with so much ease that it has made my inhibitions melt. Irrespective of their schedules and stature, people who inspire have gone beyond their brief to help.

People give their time to bounce off ideas, talk,  debate, often times for little or no consideration at all. This lack of seeking ‘whats in it for me’, sets them apart. To them, ‘to give’ is consideration enough.

So those are my seven from a long list I drew up thinking of the people who I have experienced first-hand several times. Thiagi, Kimberly BainBarbara Mackay, Martin FarellNoel Tan, Martin Galbraith,, Tom Schwartz, Rhonda Tranks, Lawrence Philbrook amongst international facilitators.

I hesitate to list my colleagues from India. For the well of knowledge that I have drawn from far exceeds the small bucket of my memory and experience. Let’s leave it at that. Many of them feature in some of the pictures of the Asia and India conferences, courtesy the wonderful organisers from the Chennai and Seoul. (Please give it 2-3 minutes for the pictures to load. You may get a message that “This slideshow requires javascript” before the images load)

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So those are the items that make the Seven Characteristics of Awesome Facilitators. Facilitators who I have seen a few times in action and who have left an imprint on me. I am curious to know about your list. Perhaps we should talk about it soon.

Awareness of Privilege

It was a straight long road to run on. It was Sunday, the day of my ‘long run’. I had to go down the stretch turn at a particular point and come back where I started. Cruising along until the time that I had to turn. I quite didn’t realise that the return stretch was quite a lesson on ‘awareness of privilege’!

For it was when I turned, I realised that I had the wind backing me all the while I was cruising. I wasn’t seeing any of it, leave alone acknowledging that it was making a difference to my ease of cruise. But after making the turn, I was expending the same amount of effort and having far little to show compared to my run in the other direction. I cursed the wind.

As my body stabilised and as my muscles started working harder, I realised there was no point in cursing the wind. The support that the tailwind had offered me I had appropriated to myself and my capabilities. The wind had remained the same all through!

Headwind and tailwinds are invisible. The headwinds are felt more because we are up against it. As I finished the run I realised that this applies to life as well. We are hardly aware of several of the privileges that we are bestowed with, let alone crediting it with playing a part in success.

Earlier this week, a video on youtube held my attention. Take a minute to go over it. It is a simple yet powerful demonstration of what ‘privilege’ can mean and the material difference it can make.

To be aware of this privilege can be a great start.  I was shooting the breeze with someone who requests anonymity. After three hours and two brimfuls of coffee, we agreed on few foundations.

Some foundations emerged as the coffee coursed our veins. Being born into privilege didn’t mean we didn’t earn our spurs. Or that we were bad people. We were clear that we couldn’t undo our childhoods or born the way we were born. Not that we intended to. Nor did we want to dismiss our achievements or the hard work that contributed to getting us where we are now.  We were proud of what we had accomplished and were energised by what we wanted to do in the future. We still wanted to shoot for the moon and perhaps change the world too.

Accepting that privilege that the system bestowed on us, also contributed to where we are was a good start, we concluded. A modest start. But an important one at that.  What does an ” ‘accusation’ of being privileged do to you?”, was a question we asked each other and examined for a long time.  We had to examine the discomfort with examining the question too.

What more could we do? It was a long conversation and these were our top three conclusions. A call to action for ourselves, so to speak.

a. Examine the day

Between the two of us, we decided to examine our days and weeks. Deciding to sift through random events and uncover each other’s mental models was a natural consequence.   We sought to examine the context of the content of what others spoke or acted and how it impacted us.     Between the two of us, we decided that we would poke each other with questions that are curiosity laden.  We must get somewhere with that.

b. Examine the voices within

Like the wind behind my back that I perhaps would have known better if I had been present to it. There I was coasting in the success that was coming my way. An examination of the ‘why’ is useful.  Reflection and journaling can be a super place to start. “Once in a while is ok”, I proposed. And the gingerly proposal was met with a violent head nod in agreement.

c. A change of context

Privilege and the lack of it become apparent in different contexts. To change contexts, to travel, to work with people of different classes, to sit down and shoot the breeze with someone we usually will not, and several other things of the same ilk were going to be useful. That is one more area we will choose to examine.

We need to understand each other better for us to live rich meaning-laden lives. How better than understanding our contexts and our views of the world to get started. How better than counting our blessings and crediting that wind behind our backs as well.

One more thing we decided on: Share our resolve. Talk about it. Blog about it. Whatever. And this is the first step towards building awareness of my privilege!

The Song Of A Neo-Generalist

When you have been humming a favourite tune for a while and then to have it sung to you by the singer who sung it in the first place, is rare. To put it mildly. “The Neo-Generalist” has several tunes that have stayed with me.  And then, Kenneth Mikkelsen one of its authors came to Mumbai.  We have exchanged notes and followed each other’s work for a while now. So to catch up with an original neo-generalist and hear the context behind the points of views, was fascinating.

I read “The Neo-Generalist” co-written by Kenneth Mikkelsen and Richard Martin months ago. I was then in the eye of a personal change storm myself. Busy trading cartons of corporate experience for a flimsy backpack-wielding walk across the big wide world. The first tentative steps towards discovering what it meant to be ‘boundaryless’ were fulfilling and occasionally overwhelming.

‘The Neo-Generalist’ had held me together as I read stories of several others who had gone on this path before. Clutching a bunch of interests, sharing a worldview that was broad and most importantly, acting on their beliefs. The book fascinated me and has served as ready reckoner many times since. ( Richard and Kenneth and share their thoughts and work and do take a moment or two to follow their work).

The book tangibalised my meandering ways. Wrapped in the assurance that emerged from stories of different people, curated with care and laid out with brilliance, my ways found my feet. It taught me the importance of ‘serial mastery’. The importance of hybridisation in a world that favours labels and specialists. To specialise multiple times and to see the vastness of potential that resides within every person was energising beyond liberating.

Several aspects of the book have kept me unwavering company.  Am going to state two here. One, an image. Another, a phrase that morphed into a couplet. The image is that of an ‘infinite loop’. 

Pic from Hackernoon.com

An infinite loop of seamless movement through life that made the pathways credible. The seamless movement offering much energy and life to careers and life, that have become limited by labels, functions and designations. Through a rich array of examples, powerful metaphors, and flow, the richness of what it means to be a ‘neo-generalist’ emerged.

Now for the couplet.  “Jack of all trades and master of none” is pretty well known. Often spoken with an undertone of negativitiy and dismissal.  This morphing into a couple was unknown to me. The couple was “Jack of all trades, master of none, though oftentimes better than master of one”. Pretty neat. I thought. 

As much it was personal, there were other aspects too.  After reading and debating with friends, mentors, colleagues and other experts across the board, it was becoming clear that the ‘Future of Work and learning’ was going to be quite different than our present ways.  It was obvious that broad perspectives coupled with possibilities of dialogue and convergence were important. Linear thinking and limited ways has brought frayed success and deep residual issues.  Polymathic ways of thinking and living needed a shot in the arm and the book was precisely the remedy the doctor ordered.

That’s about the book. My good friend Tanmay’s sketch note in should give you a drone’s eye-view of the book. ( Read his blogpost here).


Neo-Generalist Sketch Note

It is one thing to read a book and it is another to spend a few hours with the author. It is quite something else to do both! We shot the breeze, exchanging ideas and experiences from the roads that we have trodden. Similar roads and different pathways and here we were, talking to each other.  Exploring the neo-generalist in each other and relishing the intensity of our current multi-disciplinarian pursuits.

Cut to Tata Institute of Social Sciences ( TISS ). Heres some context.

Amongst the things I do, I am a visiting faculty at TISS and teach Advanced Learning & Development to a bunch of enthusiastic students who are pursuing their masters in Human Resources.  We are trying our hand at mirroring the modern world with its tools and tackles in the classroom. It has challenged our collective imagination but the class is doing good.

The class has its own slack channel where there is a continuous conversation that’s on. A fledgling hashtag ( #Tisslabs ) on twitter, the class is often punctuated by bursts of hard reflection and active conversation online. Much of it is under the hood. We recognise that we are just about warming up and have all the excitement to go a long distance. If you have a point or two about what we should be doing in class, or if you are interested to participate,  please do give us a shout.

So, when I proposed the idea of interacting with Kenneth and learning from conversations with him, the class took it to the next level. They proposed that the stage must be that of the Centre of Social and Organisational Leadership ( C SOL ). A body that is working to advance global and local thinking and practice of Organisation Development, Change and Leadership. Working with Prof. Vijayakumar, Chair and Professor at C SOL, the class made an interaction possible.

odX invite - TISS - Leadership futures

The evening was special. Kenneth drew from the book, his experiences, his India story, research, anecdotes from around the world and such else. Students, professors, practitioners, research scholars were in the audience. The thoughts elicited discussions, questions, and dialogue. Much to the curiosity and surprise of the chai vendor for people forgot about a chai break!

Heres a sketch note by Shilpa Srikanth, that captures the conversation.

Sketch Note by Shilpa Srkanth

The neo-generalist is perhaps ahead of its time said Kenneth in his talk. I think the neo-generalists have always been there. They are the ones who didn’t take the beaten paths but had it in them to weave a different warp and weft.  As the sounds of predictability, precision, clarity and definitiveness grows in the modern world, the music that a neo-generalist can create is of a different order. As we discovered with Kenneth.

Hearing him speak took me back to the book. The book is interlaced with some awesome quotes. One of them that I seek to mention here is this: “Nothing changed, except the point of view – which changed everything” – Nick Sousanis, Unflattering.  A new-generalist view of the world will change the way we approach ourselves. And our work too. That is precisely what the future needs.

Building a Story Ecosystem

Post By Stephen Berkeley

In 2011 I had the fortune of spending three days with Peter Senge, the Author of “The Fifth Discipline: The art and practice of the learning organisation” and “The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies for Building a Learning Organization” identified in 1997 by the Harvard Business Review as one of the seminal management books of the previous 75 years. The event was the Society of Organisation Learning‘s “Fundamentals of Leadership” workshop in Boston. It brought alive for me the importance of active listening in the building a story ecosystem.

Peter has a very Zen style, so when he spoke his words seemed to go deeper into the cerebral cortex than any speaker I have ever heard. One of his pearls that has shaped my work as an Organsiation Development Practitioner was “What we say and don’t say and what we do and don’t do creates culture”. From my experience of working at a leadership level in healthcare over the last thirty years in Australia, UK and India, I would rephrase this to, “what we say and don’t say, what we do and don’t do, creates stories, in our minds and the minds of others, and it is these stories that create culture”. And of course, as Peter Drucker famously said: “culture eats strategy for breakfast”.

One of the hypotheses we are testing with the “Building Bridges and Breaking Walls, One Story at a time” workshops is that “When whole systems engage in deep listening to each other new realities emerge for the whole system that can be infectious. Systemic change will bring about lasting impact for the system and its constituents”. The exact opposite is also true, when we do not engage in deep listening to each other, new realities will still emerge and can be infectious for all the wrong reasons, because the untold stories live on in our behaviours.  The grapevine is stories that have not been listened to. So it can also be said that untold stories can have a “lasting impact on the system and its constituents”.

In healthcare, a reputation that has taken years to be built can be destroyed in a flash, whether it be an individual or an entire organisation, because lives are at stake. However, a system does not break down overnight. There generally is a steady stream of stories that would have been symptoms that the system is about to implode. But as leaders, we are often caught up in getting things done that we do not pay attention to the emerging stories within our organisations. Stories not tended to, have the capability of derailing everything from our overall vision to a new product launch, to a project or just everyday productivity. Not to mention destroying relationships. Stories like stones can be used to build a bridge or a wall. How we tend to stories determines whether we build a bridge or a wall.

I took the above picture at Haines Falls in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York shortly before my workshop with Peter Senge in Boston. I had just finished co-facilitating a 4 day Dialogue with 60 healthcare leaders from 7 countries who gathered to explore the intersection of spirituality with healthcare. It was a vibrant but intense experience as I was the graphic recorder, my first attempt. But I needed a bit of a release so I decided to go for a walk in the woods and discovered this epic bridge.

After four days of listening to stories and synthesising them into a graphic, this bridge represented our journey. We started the four-day dialogue with our own individual stories, but through a well crafted facilitative process involving Open Space Technology, World Cafe and Appreciative Inquiry we identified our commonality and the areas we could individually provide more leadership on. Each story was like a stone, we could have used them to build a bridge or a wall. We chose the bridge.

Trust plays a central role. To draw out the stories that are shaping your culture needs a facilitator skilled in creating a safe environment for conversations that count. Currently, there is a trend towards “storytelling”, but it is only part of the picture. There is, in fact, a Story Ecosystem. We need to pay equal attention to the component parts of this story ecosystem.  The art of story work requires you to be a story detective, a three-dimensional listener, a harvester, a curator, a synthesiser, a sense-maker and a facilitator. You need a systematic way of hearing all the perspectives and understanding the narratives.

Our workshops on “Building Bridges and Breaking Walls, One Story at a Time” and the online conversation we hope to create, will dive deep into the StoryWork Ecosystem. Do hope you can join us at #IAFAsia17 in Seoul on the 18th August. You can also follow our journey on our FB page

Building Bridges & Breaking Walls. One Story at a time.

August will be the curtain raiser month of sorts for me. I along with Stephen Berkeley will be working with interested and interesting participants at a one day Pre-Conference Workshop at the International Association of Facilitators‘ Asia Conference and exploring the power of stories in bridging the world.  The IAF Asia Conference 2017 is happening in Seoul in August 2017.   What better of a setting for a topic like  “Building Bridges and Breaking Walls. One Story at a time”! I think it fit to build context the IAF Asia Conference 2017 Seoul Pre Conference Workshop titled: “Building Bridges and Breaking Walls, One Story at a time” through a series of posts here.  This then becomes a space for conversation and dialogue on the power of stories.

IAF Asia Conference 2017 Seoul Pre Conference Workshop

IAF Asia Conference 2017 Seoul Pre Conference Workshop “Building Bridges and Breaking Walls, One Story at a time”

Stephen and I have been bouncing ideas off each other for a while now on a variety of topics. From Systems Thinking to organisational structures. The power of local communities.  Change processes in organisations. Process facilitation. And a variety of other topics. Even as the conversation evolved, we realised that we were very different individuals with a different take on most topics that we discussed. United only by a strong idea of staying engaged with pursuits that are meaningful.

Even as we discovered more of our worlds we saw how similar they were, despite having completely different contexts. Set in different times, time zones. As much as we had our differences, we were united in our openness to share and exchange stories from our respective worlds. Over time this became to be the fulcrum of our friendship. It was but obvious that the willingness to listen to and share each other’s stories bridged gaps.

One day as we sat on a rock after a small hike, a little idea came upon us.  We perhaps could work with larger groups to explore the power of telling and listening to each other’s stories too. Perhaps, we thought, that would bridge larger gaps in the world that surfaced in our conversations many times over. We ran a few experiments, ran the idea past friends and colleagues.  The idea seemed to have currency. It kept growing. We wondered why and came up with our own set of hypotheses.  The set is only growing.  Here are the five that I connect to the most.

a. There are too many wedges in the world we live in. Cultural. Political. Generational. Economic. The trouble is that those wedges are seeming to appear like irrevocable divides. Walls of steel, so to speak!

b. The world has newer tools and additional power to communicate in the modern times. Sadly these tools find increasing use in amplification of these divides.

c. Listening to each other’s stories helps understand points of views and helps explore our world views.  Examining these with an open mind brings greater awareness and possible shifts. Stories are integral to these shifts.

d. Shaping and shifting of the narratives and stories, both inside our minds and in the world around us will determine the shape of the world our kids will inherit

e. When whole systems engage in deep listening to each other new realities emerge for the whole system that can be infectious. Systemic change will bring about lasting impact for the system and its constituents.

For now :

Armed with the first-hand experience of leading change initiatives in large organisations and communities, we seek to further the conversation to see what more is possible. Would it be a new set of skills and abilities? Perhaps a deeper understanding of the process of change? Maybe a clearer way to harness what emerges from a story? We don’t know for sure what else the questions are. And thus begins this journey.

While it is a personal journey to take the ‘story of the story’ to newer areas, new bridges will perhaps get built. In the telling and retelling of the stories, new ways and connections have greater chances of emerging. All of us who jump into participate are going to be better off depending on how much we are willing to give and take.  Seoul in August ’17 will be the first pit stop. And we intend continuing the conversation, armed with whatever comes from the previous pit stops. This space will curate the journey and will continue to evolve.

This is work in progress. And this is far from complete. Wonder if we will all ever be. So, do jump into the conversation. Spread the word. Let’s see what stories emerge.

A book & an open road

Decades ago, as we tossed empty ideas into the evening air, my dad jumped to reach a book from his collection. He passed it my way with a flourish and care that he reserved for books he had a special affection for.

The cover said “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert Pirsig. I thought it was a bag of tricks that would stop my incessant trips to the mechanic (and the consequent demands it had on his frayed wallet). But within a few minutes I spotted in the foreword: “It’s not very factual on motorcycles, either.” That was indication enough that what was to come was not as much of a trip to the garage as much as my seeking debates with dad.

Pirsig passed away last week. It caused me to dust off the dog-eared book and go over several underlined passages and random remarks with a firmer handwriting. Pirsig’s account of a motorcycle trip across America with his 11-year-old son and two other friends was not so much a travelogue as it was a treatise. As a young man, the allure of the bike and the open road held together the space for my exploration of his deeper musings. I remember reading and rereading the book. In part for what it offered, but also because I wasn’t able to comprehend all that it offered at one go.

It was much later that I learnt that the book had sold a million copies in the first year and that Pirsig had spent time in Asia (and India) as well. It suddenly seemed to hold greater potency than it had struck me as having when I first read it. The book was published in 1974 but its meandering conversations stand as a poignant pointer for us to examine our world and the times we live in today as well.

The book is set in the ’60s and ’70s. When America and the world was coming to terms with all the scientific advancements and the entirety of its consequences: industrialisation, mass production and other aftermaths including the hippie culture.

One particular incident from the book has stayed with me. Where the narrator takes the motorcycle to the mechanics and is left with a less than happy experience. To put it mildly.

It dawned on me then that a mere mastery over tools is as incomplete an experience as thinking of a home as just bricks and concrete. A home is defined by those who live in it. Similarly much of meaning emerges from our approach to our tools, our work and our lives. Just tools or a mere mastery over them takes us a good distance but it doesn’t complete the journey.

Many pages are devoted to the idea of ‘quality’ in the book. Quality as an unseen yet omnipresent way of working and living. (And not as a limited measure of a person, product or process.) The dusting off of the book brought me front and square with several aspects that have continued to stay with me, both consciously and otherwise: the criticality of the whole self, the heft in exploration and the need to reflect on the lenses we use to view the world around us, etc. But the most important elements, I realise, are the importance of nuance and the need to expand our horizons through reflection, dialogue and conversation.

Nuance, diversity and dialogue have been at the core of several things that we do at Founding Fuel. Take for instance the stellar conversation my colleague NS Ramnath has had with Nicholas Agar, author of The Sceptical Optimist. Do take the time to dive into the piece titled The Sceptical Optimist: A philosopher’s take on technological progress. There are several gems in there that made me pause and ponder over the inevitability of technological progress and the importance of comprehending its consequences.

Technology in the connected world of today is all pervasive. Having said that, both wholesome adoption or blind rejection of technology limit our living in these modern times. Deep questioning, dialogue and inclusive discussions are necessary. As Tom Brokaw said “… it will do us little good to wire the world if we short-circuit our souls”.

There is a heap of work to be done. Even as the spotlight remains trained on the tools and all the glamour associated with what they can do, there are other spaces that we need to train our attention on as well. Especially in the space where technology intersects with our lives and changes us and our societies forever. I will leave you with that thought.

The other thing that I want to leave you with is an invitation to stay connected here, and subscribe to Founding Fuel’s newsletter if you haven’t already. May I also invite you to have a conversation on the content here with someone you know. You never know where one conversation can lead you to.

In the spirit of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I am going to indulge myself by leaving you with three quotes from the book to mull over.

“‘What’s new?’ is an interesting and broadening eternal question, but one which, if pursued exclusively, results only in an endless parade of trivia and fashion, the silt of tomorrow. I would like, instead, to be concerned with the question ‘What is best?’”

“If you want to build a factory, or fix a motorcycle, or set a nation right without getting stuck, then classical, structured, dualistic subject-object knowledge, although necessary, isn’t enough. You have to have some feeling for the quality of the work. You have to have a sense of what’s good.”

“The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.”


This piece was first published here.

Of Curiosity and exploration

A few weeks ago, I was tasked with curating Founding Fuel’s newsletter. I wrote there, “As new walls are coming up the world over, history points in the direction of bringing in diverse ideas and people to collaborate for new frontiers to get established.”

Diversity of thought, opinion and domains have been factors that I have been exposed on a regular basis over the last year. If there was one element that is central to this exposure, that would be curiosity. It is curiosity that has been central to all conversations that I have immensely enjoyed.  More on curiosity, later.  For now, allow me to let you rest you with this Zulu phrase that I spotted in this brilliant piece.

To drift into another area now. What does depth in a subject mean? The last year or so has been a pointer to have my own answer to this question has evolved. ‘Depth’ in a topic/domain is no longer a lonely chair in a unitary pipe at the bottom of an ocean of knowledge, but rather is a noisy couch at the intersections of disciplines.  Depth in a domain has now come to signify a deep knowledge and understanding yet a sense of not being bound by that domain alone. You know it well enough to think of how it relates and connects to other aspects around.

Depth in a domain, therefore, has leaned more towards the ‘connection’ and in the ‘relating’ to other domains and disciplines. You need to go beyond a domain to see how it relates to other domains. Needless to say, to go beyond one’s core domain and see how it relates to other domains requires a depth that is greater and much-varied depth.

Where better to see the interplay of disciplines in an airport and airplanes. They bring alive some of the best and worst behaviour in people. Some of my best travels have been with total strangers as co-passengers. People who are innately curious about my domains of interest and have had no hesitation in sharing theirs. I have had some fantastic conversation with doctors, scientists, traders and even a football coach. These have been people who did not hesitate to share or ask pointed questions on my work.

By the time the plane touched down at a new airport, I knew a thing or two about what it meant to be a doctor or a football coach. But more importantly, I knew a thing or two that I had to look up, reflect and dive deep into my own areas of work, based on our conversation in air.  These explorations have lead me to something else, triggering an infinite loop of search and discovery.

The other thing that I have now concluded is this: people are nice. Generally speaking! If you share a perspective, expose a vulnerable sleeve and are prepared to lend a patient ear, people share. There are the odd ones that are exceptions. But they are really the odd ones and yes, they are exceptions!

One more thing. I have met some true masters. Their mastery of their own craft that was belied by a simple demeanour but superseded by an innate infinite curiosity to explore other areas. It is this curiosity that held our conversations together. It is this curiosity that I hope to have by my side. To me, it is this curiosity that will surface the depths of what’s possible and what needs to be explored.

That brings me back to curiosity.

There is a ton of research that points to how relevant and important curiosity is to learning and growth.  There are pointers to how you could build curiosity in kids as well. I find it very easy to just ask questions and stay fully present to answers. It is as simple as that! And it is the best way to find others and in their answers find more of yourself.


Lasting Impressions

There are facilitators and facilitators. Not just the ones that have gone on a podium and facilitated a workshop, but the numerous other bosses, leaders, colleagues, partners and such else. When I look back and think of people who have left a mark on me and the teams that I was a part of, a couple of their attributes becomes apparent. First, lasting impressions have nothing to do with ‘striving to impress’. In fact, it can be counter-productive.  The second is this : It is futile to think of ‘control’ of a group. Especially so, using a position of a ‘boss’ or even worse, as a ‘facilitator’.

It is International Facilitation Week and here are some reflections on lasting impressions that a few global facilitators have left. I view both of these, ‘striving to impress’ and ‘seeking to control’ as memes that can interfere with success.

IAF #FacWeek

To try and engage in flamboyant (and ‘new’ ) action catches attention. The clamour for new ‘processes’ explains it well. But facilitation is more than ‘process’ and is very often diminished by a striving to impress. Some facilitators are natural on the stage. Others wear a new jacket. Dropping their voice, playing with intonation etc, cracking jokes to fill the silence, throwing in new tools etc. These by themselves aren’t bad. Just that, they stand out when someone who is not a natural at all these, attempts to weave it as part of a routine! The routine of trying to impress. Groups easily spot the incongruity between who the person is and the act the person is putting on.

To be comfortable with who I am as a person, with my biases and predispositions, is important for a facilitator. It makes a huge difference. Self-awareness and constant working on the self is perhaps one of the most underrated aspects of building a practice around facilitation. When we are comfortable with who we are, we don’t strive to ‘impress’! Inauthenticity is transparent.

The other meme that I frequently encounter is that of ‘control’.

Control for a facilitator has many inviting dimensions. Control over the participants is a non-starter in most cases. Unless you are talking of kids of yesteryears! With adults in the room, the best that can be done is to invite and create opportunities for them to voluntarily co-create and stay engaged.  Right from framing collective norms that help the group set the rules to working on arriving at cogent solutions.

Control over every minute of what will happen in a facilitated session is stuff that I have attempted early in my career. To disastrous results.   As a facilitator of a meeting or a program, of course, a facilitator needs to have a broad plan of action of how the day will flow. But it is just a broad plan. To be present to the needs of the group, and to stay flexible and ready in the moment to change course is important. Taking into account the energy of the group and its participants.

Facilitation at its very core transcends both of these memes. At its very core facilitation is less about the facilitator and more about the group. Less about the process that is ‘done to’ the group and more about what the group does with whatever that comes their way.

For a facilitator, there is great merit in standing away from the limelight and holding the space for the group to figure out a few solutions.  Some facilitators view that as an abdication. To me, that is hardly the case. In fact, that reinforces belief in the full potential of the group. In any case,a facilitative leader doesn’t see his position as a ‘throne’ to abdicate from. He or she sees his/her role as just another constituent member of a community., shifts the onus to the group, while the facilitator is also present. More channelising the conversation and ‘holding the space’ for it to emerge from the dark ridges of random argument to the possibilities the meaningful dialogue present.

Going past these two memes helps a facilitator to shift the onus to the group. The facilitator takes on another role. A higher order one. The one for channelising the conversation and ‘holding the space’ for new insights to emerge from the dark ridges of random conversation.  The possibilities that meaningful dialogue presents are tremendous.

The most effective facilitators that I have worked with blend into the group, yet stand apart. They listen to the conversations in the group and have little of solutions to offer to the topic of discussion. Yet, at the end of the conversation, people walk out with far more that mere solutions. They have new energy, meaning and purpose. For the energies from each one of them stands well woven into the solution.

Facilitation is a lot like sailing. The ace sailor navigates by the stars but adjusts the sails to catch the wind.  To act decisively and engage in reflecting on all the action.  To stay curious yet quiet. To seek people and conversation by listening with active intent. All these creates the space for success showing up at opportune moments.

The next time you are called in to facilitate, relax. Look at the field and catch the wind. The answers are blowing in the wind. Catch it. Its in fashion these days. Besides, it leaves lasting impressions!


SHRM India Annual Conference 2016 ( Part 2) #SHRMI16

This post is a summary of DAY Two of SHRM India’s Annual Conference 2016 ( #SHRM16 ). Day One is here.

If Day One set the bar high, Day two surpassed it with ease . Day Two was an expansive play of ideas, debates and some olympian stretches of the imagination. Overall set the agenda for a longer conversation thereafter.

If Amitabh Kant held the audience together with statistics from the Indian growth story, the big debate and product pitches provided fuel to the story. That the future is indeed filled with possibilities. And with the launch of Abhijit Bhadhuri‘s Digital Tsunami, there is a narrative to read about it all too.

Catch a glimpse of Day II of #SHRMI16 below