Tag Archives: bell curve

Limiting Factors, Outliers, Managing Perception; and… Parenting!

18 Aug

Outliers Autographed

Outliers Definition

Parenting is, arguably, world’s toughest job!

The next probably is working out/ losing weight

And ofcourse, after that is managing a large work force 🙂

The correlation is not apparent – but, will be soon enough.

This thought actually got sparked off this morning as I was in my Aerobics class. I realised that over the one year I’ve been attending these classes, my trainer (and good friend) has considerably upped the level of the exercise regimen. This is actually sensible, since the bulk of her class is regulars – and obviously with continuous exercise, general fitness levels have increased – hence higher challenge levels required..In fact most students are now actively into running.

But, what I also realised is that N aims her class at the “stars” in the class – those as-fit-as-her, and as-Nazi-ish-about-fitness-as-she-is, people. Again, understandable, since those stars are a) able to follow the regimen best, b) show the effects best, but most importantly, c) challenge her to work harder at the training.

However, a corollary of N “speaking” to the best is that I get the feeling (probably unwarranted) that she doesn’t then focus so much on the “lesser beings” – people like me. I also ofcourse always rationalise it by telling myself that anyway I am “cheating” – i.e., doing many of the routines at less than 100% compliance – and, at least, looking at the stars keeps the benchmark always within sight. Having said that, I still sometimes feel that when I DO manage to get to the 100% level, it would be great if I would get those treasured words of praise fm the trainer – “well done”. But, my image of being the lesser being probably colors then the trainer’s view of me, and then she doesn’t look at me as often as she does at the stars, and so misses the occasional stellar performances I do manage and so I don’t do as well maybe next time…and so…and so…

(When she DOES utter the “good job, S!” magic words, I am tempted to work harder/ cheat lesser/ push myself more)

Interestingly, this is a direct contrast to what I do when I teach English to a 4th/5th grade class at a Kannada medium government school. Generally, most of my attention goes towards the “row 1” students – those that find it difficult to grasp most lessons, knowing that if they “get” most of the lesson, the rest certainly will!

Now, how does this fit in with parenting?

As with most parents, I have 2 kids who are diametrically apart in temperament, behavior, likes, dislikes, strengths and improvement areas. One is a dreamer, the other is a doer. One is a morning person, the other has to be dragged out of bed after loooong nights reading. One likes chinese food, the other doesn’t touch noodles — and so on.

But strangely enough, one lesson I found myself repeating for both in recent times is that of – self image, and perception management related to it.

Started with younger child – she is a fiend if you ever had one. Loud, brash, the world-is-my-friend, don’t-care-about-anything, finds-humour-in-everything kind of fiend. Bright actually, but “does” terribly at school – I have been called to school at least 6 times in the past 2 years for would-be-grave one-on-one lectures by her teachers (“would be” because I refuse to be cowed down by these strictures on the child). Each teacher tells me – “knows everything, if only she would be neater in her work, submit her work on time, not get distracted and want to go for frequent toilet breaks etc etc…) Now, by the way, P WORKS at this image – she thinks its cool to be brash/ funny/ don’t care-ish.

However, this post is not about what to do with children like this (though that is a real problem for sure), but the problem that occurs as a result – ofcourse, a few teachers “get” the underlying personality of the child, I am thankful to say – however, many of them believe the image is reality – and treat her accordingly! So, if there is a disruption in the class, most fingers point at P. More importantly, once branded with the image of “casual worker”, when she does turn it better work, its sometimes not noticed – and on the few occasions that she is serious about some stuff in school, there is a chance she gets overlooked.

P and I have had frequent serious chats about “how to manage” your image or perception (in so many words!). These serious chats are peppered with examples of her two “best friends” – one of whom is truly a “good child” and is widely recognised for that, and the other is more like P, but has managed to retain an image of a “good child” (in their lexicon ofcourse, to be branded “good” is probably almost abuse! 🙂 )

Older child faced this too – she used to be keen on Indian classical dance when younger. As she entered her teens, interests changed – and she is now passionate about dramatics. But, her lingering image of “dancer” leads school to pick her for dance related events and not theatre. Being older, and after some counseling, she did manage to assert her interests – and is now a happy camper. But the point is, this “change of image” took some doing!

Now think about organisations – doesn’t this happen there too? How often have you had complaints at appraisal time from folks saying – “my manager doesn’t think I am good enough – and so has not given me x or y job”. It’s probably true, because in the natural order of things, the manager WILL pre select those he or she thinks are the best bets for any given job – thats what managers do – they “optimize” or “manage” resources. The question, however is, how much of that “image” is reality and how much just perception not directly related to reality?

A related point here is then – as the trainer/ teacher/ manager/ leader, do you address the “stars” or the “dogs”, or do you stay somewhat in the middle – my favourite – the golden mean!

Nature certainly selects the “fittest” – if Darwin is to be believed! (the fittest evolve into next generations while the others gradually die down) So, my trainer and P’s teachers seem to have precedent! Incidentally, I find this Theory of evolution video immensely funny! :

But, actually, on the other hand, nature ALSO looks at the lowest common multiple – think about Limiting factors in Photosynthesis ( the rate of photosynthesis is limited by the least amount of necessary resource available – see video for a slightly long winded reminder):

And ofcourse, in most organisations we work neither at the highest nor the lowest but at the average. This is what the bell curve does for you – it force-fits everyone in the organisation into a mean +/- standard deviation curve – and treats exceptionally the outliers. The problem with that? Think about the statistician who drowned while crossing a river that was on average 6 inches deep! (A nice explanation of averages – and what outliers do to them can be found if you click on the link)

In a diametrically opposite view, Malcolm Gladwell made famous his theory of outliers – where he correlated success to the amount of time spent working at that skill, and some factors not quite under control of the protagonists.

The question arising from of all of this dilatory musing is really this:

If you are a leader/ parent/ trainer: Do you focus on the outliers, or the average in terms of managerial/ parental/ teacher attention. And, if the former, should it be the “LCM” (those who need extra input); or the “HCF” (in other words, the stars).

If you are the led/ managed/ taught: How do I get a sense of whether I am LCM, average of HCF – BEFORE painful yearly evaluation sessions/ how do I manage the perception of my being LCM if I am not/ how do I match my self perception to that of the outside world?

Any answers? Suggestions?


The problem of Least Common Multiple came forth funnily in the movie Father of the Bride. Enjoy!

Is Excellence a De-motivator? On How to Walk the Motivation Tight Rope

11 Dec


As anyone who has been reading my posts knows, I pretty much, for the first time in my life, followed a new year’s resolution – that of joining an aerobics class (and, for the cynics amongst you, I have been a regular attendant all year long! so there!). It’s a fantastic class – very high energy/ great variety/ amazing set of folks – who have now become friends/ much fun and laughter/ and some great weight-loss and fitness stories. I ofcourse, was always a bit of a laggard here – agewise probably the oldest, fitness wise the worst, weightwise the most! But i persevered because I figured WHATEVER i do here, since its exponentially higher than what I did before (i.e. nothing), HAS to do my body good.

Also, interestingly, while I’m a big fan of goal setting, and of baby steps to achieve that goal (click on this link to see an earlier post), as well as result orientation (click on this link to see another post), in this case, I didn’t have a weight loss goal (my theory being, when I’m sooo far from my goal, let me just break it up into the task of going everyday, and not the end result – as Hazrat Nizamuddin said, faced by the imminent return of King Ghias-ud-din Tughlaq apparently to kill him,”Dilli abhi door hai” – i.e., Delhi is far away yet!)

But of late, I see the gap between the class’ abilities and performance, and my own capabilities – widening rapidly, to the extent that I am wondering if I should really go on here in the new year!

This really started me thinking about motivation – how much is too much; leading by example; and, the process of natural selection obviating perhaps HR instruments like bell curves.

See, for most of us, the pursuit of excellence is not an option (click here to see an earlier post on this) – and neither is leading by example/ getting our hands dirty/ showing others how to do stuff (click here to see another earlier post on “doing vs. managing”). As a corollary, we also learn to “play to our strengths” (omg, here’s ANOTHER earlier post on that!), so we gravitate towards professions/ hobbies/ people/ organisations that help us maximise potential and performance.

So, how does the whole “learning/ training/ upskilling” thing play out here. At what stage does it become evident that you are out of your league? And how does one cope with it?


In nature, the process of “Natural Selection” automatically decimates those who can’t cope, and perpetrates the “survival of the fittest”. This means, you either “shape up or ship out” in corporate lingo, something I’m sure we’ve all heard quite often. To draw a corporate parallel, the bell curve kind-a sorts everyone on a relative scale, and most companies have a policy of weeding out those folks that fall beyond the lower sigma range repeatedly.

It then links with this thought many of us have very often in our jobs – “Is it better to be a star in an ‘average performing” organisation, or to be one amongst many bright folks in a really top notch one. I recently read Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s biography. She mentions this episode (which she has talked about very frequently) about her Piano Teacher’s daughter Laura (see slide 3/15), who basically made it to the senior volleyball team, because she opted to “play with and therefore learn from the best”.

So, the question is – should we endorse mediocrity? Looks like, no! So, try try again seems to be the mantra. But, to look at it from the other side, is there a role that the leader/ motivator/ mentor plays? Again, unequivocally, a yes!


I remember a picnic we had gone to from our old office. Part of the offsite activities were ziplining and rappelling. Now, for most folks, (including me) it was a first timer. We had a few adventurous types who went early (and, may I say, thoroughly enjoyed themselves!). Then it was my turn – now I have NO head for loss-of-gravity type stuff – I don’t even like getting on fast going elevators! I went and pretty much kicked and screamed my way through. As i disembarked, one of the folks asked me – (thinking I would say nice motivating things and so inspire the others who were sitting on the fence) – how was it. I shuddered and said “never again!”. Pfffttt – that was the sound of the gumption fading away form the others! I forgot for a bit my usual role of motivator :(. It took a lot of coaxing and motivation from my business partner Shoma then to tell the others to “get on/ its fun/ i did it so can you/ when was the last time you tried anything for the first time” type of stuff. Finally, most folks did it!

A trashy romance book I read long ago (sometimes you find pearls of wisdom embedded there) said – “Always hitch your bandwagon to a boss who is already a star – NOT one who is intent on climbing the ladder himself/ herself”. While this was not the case in my ziplining episode, the fact remains that a true leader, to motivate others, has to be VERY secure in his/ her own position.

So, coming back to how much does one raise the bar if one is the leader – do you set it at the Highest Performers, the Lowest Common Factor (Blackwell’s limiting factor), or the median? I think the answer is – show the end game/ highest possible – since that is always inspiring; but also show the path to achieving it by breaking up the goal. So, the whole repetition/ continuous improvement/ training paradigm does precisely this. And, the whole reward set-up (I play Tetris on my iphone; and LIVE for the rewards that I can get/ the challenges I can complete – and the resultant sense of achievement I own upto!)

What however the employee/ trainee needs to do maybe is get a sense of – am I being naturally selected OUT of the bell curve sigma range – and so, should I look for other avenues. NOT BEFORE I have tried to make it work, ofcourse, but only after!

Points to ponder? To help you along, as a final piece of reading, there’s an oldish article on this from Stanford which I found interesting.

As for me, I think I will continue in my aerobics class for sometime – unless I get naturally selected out of it!!! What say?

Absolute vs. Relative : Is there a universal truth?

23 Jul

blind men elephant relativity

We all know the story of the six blind men of Indostan – who, on touching various parts of an elephant’s body, had different descriptions/ definitions of the “object” – all correct in their own right, all with their version of the truth, but all just not the complete/ absolute truth.

It reminded me of a conversation I had heard between my daughter Riddhi and her friend Kaveri as I was chauffering them back from school. Describing one of the differences between the IGCSC and the ICSC systems, Kaveri said that the former had the Percentile system of grading. And she said “that is scary, coz someone will always fail…but its also easy, coz you just have to make sure you are as good as most of the people – not necessarily the best!” Coming from a 13 year old, I really found that insight very interesting.

Got me thinking about relativity in its various avatars – and when you start thinking about it really, they span science, philosophy, human behavior, corporate culture, branding….a whole host!

Avatar 1 – Einstein’s Theory:

Ofcourse the best known context for Relativity is Einstein’s theory. For those who want to learn about it and related concepts, apart from Wikipedia, this is a nice visual series kind of explaining simplistically how it applies. (Click on this link and the subsequent 3 segments for a full explanation)

I just thought I’d do a check for how well most folks understand it/ know about it. The poll had interesting results – Most science students have studied it and remember the crux of the matter. The majority of non science students remember peripheral/ associated concepts. Younger kids have not been exposed to this. And ofcourse, there are a surprising number that haven’t the foggiest 🙂

Understanding relativity

I thought the funniest answer to my poll question “What, according to you, is the Theory of Relativity. (Shortest answer you can think of)” which my friends and family were supposed to answer without googling was Meeta’s.

She said – “depends” :), and then went on to surmise that the reason I was conducting this poll was because I now had “time on my hands” – uggghhh..

Manoj and Avinash both cited (apparently Einstein’s “funny” version) too – When you sit on a hot stove for two minutes, it feels like two hours. However if you sit with a beautiful girl for two hours, it feels like two minutes

Ajay, the scientist/ researcher par excellence said “Einstien theorized that time, space, speed etc. are all “relative” in the sense they depend on each other and not constant. The only exception being speed of light in vacuum which he theorized was a universal constant. Some examples I remember were: if a person travels at a certain speed through space and returns to earth after a few earth years, his siblings on earth would have aged more than him.”

Corollaries of relativity can be observed in optics experiments – calculation of focus and centre of curvature using “parallax error” – parallax error essentially comes down to space-time and relativity.

So, yes, a full spectrum. And, ofcourse we have arguably the nuclear bombs attributable to this same theory of relativity and the famous E=mc square equation, a fact that apparently made Einstein a very sad man.

Avatar 2: Performance Management

Probably the biggest source of angst that one always comes up against in an organisation, specially during evaluation/ appraisal time is – “are you measuring me on absolute terms or on relative terms”. Or, “OK, these are my areas of improvement, but tell me one person who doesn’t have these!” This, of course, also makes the basis of the infamous bell curve.

It is unfortunate actually, but while performance evaluations are more or less absolute (maybe I should say “relatively absolute” – an oxymoron if there ever was one! But, after all, the “absolute” evaluation is also being done by someone and so, the rating is relative to the evaluater’s point of view!), the outcome of these results is increments/ promotions which become very very relative! So, most corporate systems almost force fit an order – or ranking – thereby very often ignoring the very concept of multiple skills/ intelligences (the minute you create ONE number out of a series of variables – like in the multi-attribute rating/ ranking system, you make everything unidimensional!)

The famous/ gory-ish joke doing the rounds here is that of 2 men and a lion.

Lion and Men Cartoon

Two guys in a jungle come around a corner and meet a lion head-on pawing the ground.
One guy ever so carefully reaches into his knapsack and slowly takes out a set of Nike running shoes, never once breaking eye contact with the lion.
The second guy hisses: “What are you doing, you can’t outrun the lion” And the first guy says: “No, but all I have to do is outrun you”!

Avatar 3: Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle

“We have to remember that what we observe is not nature in itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.” – Werner Heisenberg

heisenbergsuncertaintyprinciple (credit: http://nargaque.files.wordpress.com/2009/12/heisenbergsuncertaintyprinciple.png )

The uncertainty principle essentially (and simplistically) states that the more you try and define something, the more undefinable it becomes. So, in quantum mechanics, or actually in all matter behaving like waves, your observing a sub atomic particle actually impacts/ changes what you are observing. It hinges on the observer effect (or position vs. momentum). For a simple explanation, click here

The question that arises then if perception of the particle is dependent on the observer, what is absolute???

Avatar 4: Universality and The Absolute Truth

An absolute (or universal) truth, is an unalterable and permanent fact. The existence of absolute truths has been debated among many different groups of people. An interesting debate-type article on the absolute truth can be read here . Per wikipedia, In philosophy, universalism is a doctrine or school claiming universal facts can be discovered and is therefore understood as being in opposition to relativism. In certain religions, universality is the quality ascribed to an entity whose existence is consistent throughout the universe. When used in the context of ethics, the meaning of universal {from Gk. katholikos) refers to that which is true for “all similarly situated individuals. In logic, or the consideration of valid arguments, a proposition is said to have universality if it can be conceived as being true in all possible contexts without creating a contradiction.

Avatar 5: “Good – Better – Best” Brands

Ofcourse Marketing uses this. In that discipline, it connects to the concept of “value” and how the price-quality equation is relative to the consumer. So, most product categories of a company have a “good-better-best” strategy. There is very often a “value” brand, followed by a “mass” or “middle ground” brand, and then a premium one. Whether it is Old Navy – Gap – Banana Republic; Camry/ Prius/ Corolla – LandCruiser – Lexus; Rin – Surf – Surf Excel; or for retailers The Store Brand – Mass Brand – Premium Brand – it really relates to the question of who can pay what price for what perceived value!

Marketers nowadays are evolving to debunk the good-better-best theory and talk better-better-best – but these are all variations on relative value to consumers.

Actually, many second brand acquisitions result from a desire to create a good – better – best lineup in the range.

Avatar 6: Competitiveness

My 80 year old dad, when he gets on his car, becomes a road-maniac. He gets completely bogged down by the guy/ gal next to him who is outgunning him. This leads to road rage, and his very natural desire to get one up over the teenager, while conveniently forgetting his age! My young nephew, probably being that very guy whom dad is outgunning, ofcourse behaves similarly on his motorbike!

Road Rage

It is a natural human tendency – we want to do better than the other people. Very often, performance eval time notwithstanding, our own benchmarks are relative. I have to confess, I do it to my very non competitive daughter – whenever she brings home results, my invariable question is – what was the highest? This is just fact – it is how we behave! Maybe it is a natural byproduct of being social animals – after all, being part of a community/ society means that our behaviors (and maybe our standards) are defined by our environment – so, much like Mr. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle, our very existence implies that we seek relativity…

A construct I wrote about in a previous post, the Johari Window, actually touches on many layers of relativity in people’s perceptions – about themselves and others.

Think about advertising – a very famous detergent ad in India goes “Bhala uski kameez meri kameez se safed kaise!” (how is it that his shirt is whiter than mine!) Ofcourse the same brand then indulged in very direct competitive ad, naming their competitor too – and was loudly decried!

The more I think about this, the more examples come to mind – I really could go on and on. But, I thought I would leave you with a really funny cartoon from my favourite facebook page – I fucking love science…enjoy!

einstein relativity

The Merit of Moderation/ The Golden Mean; or 50 Shades of Grey!

13 Mar


So I experienced a mild form of an age old affliction – writer’s block. To get over it, I started re-reading old posts on my blog – and realized that many of them talk about seemingly contradictory concepts, in personal as well as professional life – doing vs. managing; theory x vs. theory y; focus vs. multitasking; strength enhancement vs. weakness consolidation etc etc. Also, in most of them, my advice at the end is pretty much – the golden mean. In effect, what I’m propounding most often is – be transactional/ situational. It’s in general impractical to practice “extreme” behavior – you really need to adapt to circumstances, which very often means get some kind of balance. I.e., there are no blacks or whites but shades of grey – 50 or not, I can’t say (have to confess btw I didn’t manage to get through the book – the only others I havnt gotten through in my entire life are Midnight’s children – Salman Rushdie and The Good earth – Pearl S Buck).

50 shades of grey

Aristotle and Socrates both advised this – their philosophy was – the golden mean is the desirable middle between two extremes, one of excess and the other of deficiency. Wise men across the ages and lands have endorsed this view – Icarus of the wings dying because he did not follow his dad’s advice to “fly the middle course”; Confucious and his “doctrine of mean” (The Doctrine of the Mean represents moderation, rectitude, objectivity, sincerity, honesty and propriety. The guiding principle is that one should never act in excess) – also called the unwobbling pivot; the saying at the temple of Delphi (Nothing in excess) being the most famous examples.


Moderation is an admirable trait really. We get advised moderation in everything – drink not more than 2 glasses of wine a week, eat not more than one tablespoon of sugar per week, watch no more than 5 hours of TV, exercise no more than 4 hrs a week (you wish!)..

This advise to follow moderation vs extremism is closely linked maybe to our desire to “have it all” – we want to eat our cake and have it too – which maybe means we are afraid to put a stake on the ground. While debating choice of school boards for my 7th grader (IGCSE vs ICSE – what’s your vote incidentally?) with a fellow mom, we were saying that while M is an extremely competitive super hyper and therefore highly stressed child – who gets up at 5.30 every morning in order to prep for lessons, continuously nags her mother to “study with her” and gets upset because the mum does not know Math and Science well; and btw, tops the class; R is the complete opposite – I don’t know when she has exams; she is not uncompetitive – she is anti-competition. So, she out of principle does not want to know how someone else did/ what was the highest mark in class etc. The day before exams – one can find R catching up for the 12th time on Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Therefore, mum continuously nags R to ‘study with her” (to no avail ofcourse). As the other mom and I were commiserating – wouldn’t it be great if we had a child that was kind of the union of these two traits – K worries about M’s health and I worry about R not maximizing her potential. A child that had some of M’s drive and some of Ri’s phlegmatism would be a SUPER child – golden mean!


Its kind of like the universal truth of employee behavior types. In many cases, you have the hard working, never say no employees – but they do only what you say, don’t have the spark that propels them forward. And then you have the really bright guys/ the live wires, but they come with a lot of angst/ maintenance issues/ they are your highest attrition risks…wouldn’t it be nice if you got a good mix of the two – the golden mean – the perfect employee!

perfect employee

Coming back to shades of gray, actually a) blacks or whites don’t exist – and anyways characters with shades of grey (remember Severus Snape – arguably the most heart wrenching character in the Harry Potter series?) are far more interesting than “pi” or “evil” ones.


Let’s look at it mathematically – average (or arithmetic mean if you want to be exact) essentially shows the tendency of a data set to graduate towards the center. The law of averages states that outcomes of a random event will “even out” within a small sample. It shows a more or less predictable ratio between the number of random trials of an event and its occurrences – i.e., basically it expects probability to catch up with you sooner or later :). That’s the reason why in competitive sports, they take out outlier scores when they get to averages for performance (think gymnastics and swimming). The average rules our life at work too – not only do we view a lot of data by averages, we evaluate ourselves and others by averages as well (remember bell curve).


I recently came across a funny on this:
One graph telling the other: You’re below average.
The other one responding: You sure are mean! 🙂

I have to say, in most cases i agree with this whole golden mean thing – I am a “mean” kind of person – I “mean” balanced, circumspect, not extreme. In an argument, I am able to see both sides of the coin. In our partnership at work, I was often the voice of reason. I like Bangalore precisely because of its moderate weather.

The only thing, there’s a streak in me that says – hey, mean is fine, but are you kind of depriving yourself of the “highs” and “lows” of living, of “passion”, of “experience” by following the mean? Look at electricity and currents – AC vs. DC – one sees volatile highs and lows – from the peak of pleasure to the depth of despair; while one is always calm. I would certainly prefer to see the highs of life even if there is a chance of a fall – rather than spend my life in a vegetative apathetic state. In addition, what I DON’T subscribe to – is the concept of “average” performance – to me, anything worth doing, is worth doing well. So, i DO believe in maximising performance, which certainly is an extreme/ outlier :). Which basically means, that even here – in my advice to follow the mean, there is no extreme – in general, “mean” is good; but you should absolutely go out and render “extreme” behavior from time to time, otherwise you lose out on a lot of pleasure!

Ofcourse, if I tell my kids about “mean” all they know is Taylor Swift and Mean – here it is – not half bad, huh?

taylor swift

Playing to Your Strengths? Really?

1 Mar


I came across this article from the CEO of Gallup Jim Clifton about how his dad advised him to “follow his strengths”, saying “Your weaknesses will never develop,” he told me, “while your strengths will develop infinitely.” This mantra was then a big reason for his success. Apparently this also allied with the Gallup Strength Finder, a tool that has been used across enterprise for a lot of psychographic profiling.

You know, I actually agree with this in general – to be successful, it is important that you work in an area of your strength – this will a) make you work well, b) enable you to give your best to your organization, c) make you happy, and finally d) be the incentive to become even better at it – like the Gallup CEO above said.

But I think to do the above you first need to take a simple step – this sometimes takes a LOT of time even though it shouldn’t – it is finding out what a person’s strength is. It is something that education should direct you towards finding, but very often doesn’t really.

I wonder about this thing fairly often – my kids go to umpteen classes – Dance, Hindustani classical vocal, Western classical guitar/ piano, Tennis, Swimming, Drama – really, they try everything. And this by the way is a continuously rotating thing – in the last 8ish years we have tried skating, basketball, art, soccer, ballet, robotics, chess – what have you. Many of these we give up because the kids protested loudly – it was such a struggle to send them to those classes every week – they would call at really inconvenient times at work – and whine and whine and whine! Others we gave up because it was not sustainable to take them way out logistically.

But what was clear – or started becoming clear was that my kids really did NOT like certain things – and more often than not those very classes were skills they were not good at/ showed no signs of developing. Ofcourse, they very often did not like some things they were good at as well! And herein was my dilemma – should I keep encouraging them to go to classes that they showed promise at (dance and drama for my older one and skating and swimming for my younger one), or atleast kept them at classes that they weren’t good at, but I thought were good for them – till atleast they acquired a threshold level of dexterity at those. I think most parents deal with this, specially if u throw in the “like” equation on top of the “good at/ good for them” one.

I think what I ended up doing probably works for parenting just as it does in corp life – you give everyone exposure to all business functions – so u allow them to test all, and you get a chance to evaluate their inclinations at it (I’m talking freshers here obviously). This is why “management traineeship” in most orgs is a fairly successful one year program. Then you slot folks according to their interest and aptitude.

This allows them to find out what they are good at, and then build on it. One also has to recognize that the more u rise in the hierarchy, you need to have atleast a working knowledge of many functions whilst you keep your specialization active. This is what I had referred to in my earlier blog on focus vs. multi-tasking. Typical corp journey makes you first a generalist, then a specialist and finally a generalist again! (On multi-tasking btw, my 7 year old Achchu has caught on like fire! The other day sitting at the pot executing bodily functions 🙂 before school in the morning – she said “mom, why don’t u change my T shirt while I’m pooping – see we will multi task then!”)

I see this in my aerobics class also – Niru sets up a routine that basically through the week works each set of muscles in a particular, pre determined order – they’re not all done the same day, they aren’t even done in the same sequence, and as I wrote earlier, she varies her routine EVERYDAY (in two months I have yet to see her repeat something – I guess that’s what a true artist does!). But she does work every muscle individually – and THEN builds some up more than the others — the “threshold level of competence; with a view to attaining strength in others” principle.

Look at how academics runs it – most higher level studies have a “core” level – basic knowledge, and then an “elective” level – where you specialize!

What spices up this from time to time is if u throw in a little bit of change – at Gillette we used to have a program of Job Rotation where folks sat at any other employees desk for – hmm – actually I forget how long. I think it was a month.. The idea was, one cross trained a bit, changed the routine of one’s work, and more importantly, developed empathy for the “other guy’s issues” – so it facilitated team work and collaboration. Pretty nifty I thought.


I remember seeing an old Hindi Movie – I think it was called Nayak – where a common man gets to be the Prime Minister of the country for a day. Ofcourse, being a Bollywood movie, he got to perform all kinds of miracles despite insurmountable odds, but the basic premise really was job rotation.

Then ofcourse you have the actual/ real job rotation – my earlier company Genpact was pretty good at this. The head of infrastructure and admin, as an example, had never done it before in her life – she was a lawyer. There were senior folks in HR from business and vice versa. And ofcourse everyone was/ had been – in sales (that’s my next post btw – so watch this space). In that space, maybe it made sense – as one of the HR folks once told me – we are all BPO people – we made this industry, we grew it, and that’s all we understand ☺. Like most home-grown business, early pioneers pretty much have to wear many hats at different times – sometimes many hats at the same time. But the concept is the same.

In our entrepreneurship journey, we kind of took turns at doing both these – but at different stages of our lifecycle. In the beginning, all four of us did everything – sometimes all together, but we certainly consulted one another on every single thing! This was very inefficient probably but great fun and also immensely comforting – remember we were all first time entrepreneurs, with NO clue about what to do – so there was comfort in consensus. As time elapsed, and we became comfortable with each other and also with the whole entrepreneurial thingie, we graduated to our areas of respective strength – Debjani the eternal striver and super networker/ convincer to Business Development, Kyung the troubleshooter and Mr. Client Man to Account Management, Shoma the meticulous process person and executor par excellence to all admin etc support functions and Media Monitoring, our division that was very process oriented; and yours truly into making something out of nothing – i.e. creating solutions where none exist – both in research and information support services divisions.

It doesn’t work in some situations by the way – think Sports – and what would happen if your quarterback was made your goalkeeper – or, as we see very often in India at moments of desperation, when the 7 down/ bowler/ allrounder is sent in to bat at 2 down! There IS something to be said for specialization and making sure you win competitions!

Where it does work ofcourse is the outsourcing industry – this was the very fundamentals of the industry – concentrate on your strengths, and outsource the others. I am sure most of you have seen this funny parody of 12 days of christmas – you should be Indian to appreciate many of the allusions) (specially focus on the 9th day for context), but for those that havn’t, enjoy!

And then not to forget there is the SWOT! I think all Marketing 101 techniques are great – even though simplistic, they really apply to most situations, and can help analyse even contemporary problems. SWOT was one construct we used a lot in our initial days as a business research company. Ofcourse, we always had difficulty finding the “O” and the “T” – we essentially ended up making up really obvious/ simplistic stuff but couched it cleverly – like “macro economics ordain that marginal utility of xyz product is diminishing so there will be a competitive share of wallet participant that will usurp this fm its leadership position” – just kidding – this sentence made no sense, did it ☺?


But all said and done, there is immense merit in finding out stuff you are good at – and then working in that area to hone it further. Now, the problem arises when what you are good at is not what you like doing (and vice versa) – I think that’s what triggers many start ups and alternate careers….book writing anyone? (that’s my future career, you know ☺ )

If all above is true, isn’t it a pity that most performance appraisals focus on weaknesses and how to improve them rather than strengths and how to “make them develop infinitely” ? Is it time to abolish the bell curve? Your vote?