Tag Archives: goal setting

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?

StartUp Dilemma – 7 (How Much Smoke is Permissible For My Screen – or the new 2 Ps)

8 Aug

vc strategy

(Credit: Nasscom for startups)

I was talking to a young duo today – they are techies, working on coding a product for the Legal Industry. Product is maybe 60% ready, and they are beginning client conversations seriously.

Ofcourse, they’ve done the checks for attractiveness of the product right from the beginning, with friends and family. They also have a quasi “beta product client” who is using the product and giving feedback. And, they are making all attempts to demo their product to as many folks as possible.

They are an exceptionally honest bunch – they had a couple potential clients who were interested in their initial pitch; but most interested in a particular feature. When asked, “can your product do this now”, they said no, but we can do it in the next version….result – client lost interest as need was “here and now”.

Brings me to the familiar dilemma – how much smoke screening should one do on one’s existing products/ services, to enable client acquisition.

I think most startups work this way – you have an end vision, you create some capabilities, you have belief in what you can do, and the rest you “wing”…

I think in all my time at EmPower (> 8 years) not ONCE did we say NO to a client. We built almost all our services from scratch. With the exception of maybe the first division we started, where atleast we had some rudimentary skills at execution, we knew zilch about the others – we created 2 additional service lines, and then a product/ tech platform because our clients led us that way. But, when asked by the client – “can you do this” – our answer was always, “sure!”. This, by the way, ofcourse the market facing/ bizdev guys said – but invariably the ops teams – who often didn’t have a clue on HOW – backed up the bizdev folks!

The funniest/ goriest example (depending on which side you are) of this strategy was when we were considering starting our “pure play analytics” services. Now these were adjacencies to services we sold, and as we considered growth, almost a no – brainer to branch out into. The clients were common, the need was common, so it was really obvious. Our problem, it did need “specialist” skills – which we didn’t have, and were not necessarily ready to pay for, BEFORE we figured we would get traction.

So, after a fair amount of work, we did get a meeting with a senior analytics chap in an organisation – and, reasonably impressed by our pitch, he threw us a “pilot project” – a problem he was grappling with, that he said – “lemme test you on”.

Good news right? Wrong! We had no idea how to do it! In our usual way, we scrambled to “figure it out” – (by the way, I always feel that an alternative title for “entrepreneur” is “figurer out” – Imagine saying I am Sangita Joshi, Chief Figurer Out at EmPower!). So, we dug out our stats books, went to the net for quick tutorials and got one of our smart analysts to figure it out etc.. but then, someone hit upon the bright idea that since anyway we were looking to hire analytics experts eventually, let us start right now, and give this problem (disguised of course) as the “interview test”. It worked well for a while – we tested and interviewed scores of people and were able to glean a fair amount of knowledge this way. ofcourse, then the bomb burst – we got a call from our client who said – I understand you guys have given my problem out to someone else??? (One of the interviewees belonged to another company who had ALSO been given the same pilot problem, and they told the client). Much grovelling later, we extricated ourselves from the situation. Result – THAT was NOT when we started our analytics division!

But we also have success stories – our Information Support Services Division started again by our telling a client – ‘YES we CAN!” – which was borderline truth only. (The good part in processes is – yes, most people can – it’s not rocket science – the question is – can you do it WELL/ BETTER than others/ with expertise!) We hired, trained, set up and executed a project requiring some 100 people in a matter of 3 weeks – it involved a LOT of midnight oil burning, many palpitations and a fair amount of despair – but that division with the single client ultimately became our first/ biggest engine for scale, our excuse for better facilities, the reason for our acquiring a “second facility” via an outsourced vendor (read older post on this here), and probably an important reason contributing to a successful exit.

Similarly, when our first large client (one of the top five pharma companies in the world) came to us to outsource their entire media monitoring for their 29 brands – we were some 15 people, and had NO idea how we were going to scale to execute. But execute we did, and that client still remains with us.

So, what then is the answer – should one/ should one not smokescreen? At what point do you draw the line? If you are scrupulously honest, do you run the risk of never acquiring a client? But on the other hand, will you ever have a product/ service that can satisfy all clients’ needs?

StartUp Doubling Up
(Credit: Nasscom for startups)

Lets take a step back – first of all, serial entrepreneurs apart, the minute you decide to go on your own and begin a “start-up”, you are walking on (for you) uncharted territory. From being an expert in your field of specialisation/s, you become a wearer of multiple hats – owner, boss, mentor, coder, program manager, HR specialist, facilities manager, Finance guy, funds raiser, business plan creator, marketer, sales person, motivator. Its highly unlikely that you have done much/ any of this work before. So what makes you take the step? The belief that you can do it, right? You believe in a promise, and have sufficient confidence in your abilities, and your own judgement of your abilities, to know what you can manage/ how much you can stretch/ and, even more importantly, what is outside of the bounds of possible for you! You sell this promise to your recruits/ the angel funder/ VC whatever, and anyone of your friends and family who want to/ need to know, and are interested! Remember, you are the “figurer out”! (reminds me of the famous Beatles song )

…Lend me your ears and I’ll sing you a song,
And I’ll try not to sing out of key.
Oh I get by with a little help from my friends,…..
Mmm, I’m gonna try with a little help from my friends.

lux beauty promise

Secondly, and this is something I realised after many struggles with my conscience on – OMG, we are telling lies, we are selling fool’s gold to clients, we have NO idea how to do this etc etc…that, business, specially transactions, are ALWAYS done on PROMISE – so, when you buy the Lux soap, you do believe (or want to believe, in the “promise” of film-star-like-beauty). This means, that most clients REALISE that you may NOT have all the answers to their problems – but they invest their confidence/ time/ money in the belief – that YOU will be able to GET them their answers/ “figure them out”. So, its their belief in the PEOPLE, not so much the product or the service. (There, Promise and People – thats the 2 new Ps!)

Thats why, any investor, asks for the TEAM composition first, before even asking for the product description! As they say, “there are no new ideas, only new ways of making the idea work!”

Does this mean you sell all air? No, ofcourse not! You DO have in place your “minimum viable product” or service – this is the core set of capabilities that satisfy the bulk of your vision, and, as per your best knowledge, satisfy the bulk of your client sets’ needs. What defines this MVP? aaah – it depends – and it would be really presumptious on my part to answer that!

But beyond that, ALL business works on versions/ enhancements/ upgrades what have you – now, some lenses may call it smokescreens, but you are allowed your kinder version :). I remember, when the CEO of the company who acquired us was talking to us founders during the due diligence phase, we told him – “we never say no to a client” – he said, “oh, we’re in the same boat then”. The interesting thing was, and this is a 1.6ish bil USD/ 60Kish people company, remember; he said “our clients know we screw up very often – but our clients also know we have the ability to fix it”!

As all advisers to startups say – “its not important to get it perfect; its important to get it done!” Which means, baby steps is the way to go – as long as you TAKE those steps! (See my earlier post on goals and baby steps) Which then translates logically to, are there scenarios when your steps are short of what your client wants? And the answer is – “of course!”. So, should you turn opportunity down? Duh, why on earth would you do that?

As for squaring it with your conscience, even Yudhishtira, the Dharma Raj, “lied” for a cause! It is said that, for that lie, “Ashwathama hatha, narowah kunjarowah” (Ashwathama is dead, I don’t know whether it is man or elephant) which he told his Guru Drona, and the latter half of which was obliterated by Krishna loudly blowing the conch; which also led to Drona giving up the will to fight in the Mahabharata, Yudhishtira was taken past Hell on his way to Heaven!

So, Smoke screen or your version of the truth? What say?

drona ashwathama

Of Goals and Gamification, and “Agile” Development a la Bubka!

7 Feb


A big influence on me growing up was Ayn Rand – (I just realized that my husband spent his youth reading/ talking and believing in largely left oriented – socialistic stuff, and I reading/ talking/ believing in Ayn Rand! This may have been an offshoot of city vs. small town living, or natural proclivities to one side or the other during the cold war! but, still point to ponder at the next marital discord session!. However, I’m getting sidetracked here – let me get back to the point!)

One of the scenes that stayed in my mind was when Dominique asks Howard Roark if his life was more a series of “stops” i.e., did he just live everyday in a “continuous” stream, or kind of progress from one point to another in “discrete” intervals. I forget what the point of that question/ and the context behind it was, (I tried googling and found many “quotable quotes” from Fountainhead, but not this one – I should borrow it from the library and see what my adult self thinks of my youth-time obsession – but, if I run true to Rand’s philosophy, then “There’s so much nonsense about the human inconstancy and the transience of all emotions. I’ve always thought that a feeling which changes never existed in the first place. There are books I liked at the age of sixteen. I still like them.”).

But, again, to get back to the point – that scene I do often remember, coz that’s certainly the way I live. You have a fairly humdrum life in general – getting more and more routine and frustrating everyday, – as little peccadilloes keep piling up and irritating the hell out of you. But what makes you survive is those “golden moments” that you keep looking forward to. So, it’s the next nice lunch with your friends that you havn’t met for a while, or the great concert you are going to, or the next time you complete a new algorithm; or the time when you close a deal…small milestones achieved, leading to rewards…

Its kind of like my friend Shoma, who “signs up” herself and her family for every single class going – mind reading, guitar, drama, robotics, tennis, dance, yoga, basketball, ….- as long as that class has exams to pass! So a lot of time on her weekly schedule consists of going to Lamda/ Gandharva Mahavidyalaya/ U-14 play offs – blah blah blah.

I have to confess the greatest kick I used to get out of one of my kids’ classes was the martial arts one. That guy had his business model down pat – charge for the monthly class, but every 2 – 3 months hold a “belt test”. This was held early in the morning in a school far off from home – there were excited kids of all ages dressed in the traditional white whats-it-called dress, sleepy eyed parents, the master – and many coloured belts! After an hour of waiting, there would be a 10 minute “test” (euphemism for vague arm waving by kids en masse), and then the “belt award ceremony” – where each child got a belt of the next higher color. Incidentally, for each belt test – you coughed up more money (this belt test fees increased in correlation with order of belts!) Fantastic, wasn’t it? But it’s understandable – as someone once told me, you put me in a masters program, I’ll do really well. Put me in a PhD – I wont ever make it! Translated, most of us react well when we have achievable goals, and then opportunity to celebrate those goals, in front of us. So, discrete movements – not continuous stream 🙂

I’m often asked about running a company – when did we make a business plan (answer – never really till we were selling it off!); how did we set our vision (answer – my partner Debjani just “set it down” one day as we needed one for the website); how did we decide we wanted to move onto the social media space (anwer: we didn’t really, we were using existing data for research, it so happened that Social Media started becoming bigger – we were in right place at right time, so hopped onto the bandwagon…) (you may remember from my post, entrepreneurship was pretty much “thrust upon us”). But, allied to vision, is the issue of “goals” – and that I think we took a pragmatic view of. While we did have the grand “end vision” of making the next Google (we wanted to be the B2B search engine – ie, you need a business question answered – we will answer it for you – from EXISTING data!); but in everday life, we really set ourselves small goals – baby steps. There’s a lot to be said for that – it makes sure you set yourselves enough challenges, and yet award yourself the chance to feel happy/ fulfilled and therefore motivated when you achieve that goal. As life is all about moving forward, you then repeat the cycle by setting another set of baby goals, and then go bust to deliver that, reward yourself and others when it’s done – repeat cycle again and again.


Though I’m not a software person, I think this is what the “agile” development methodology is about – break up the task into smaller pieces, gives you an opportunity to control better, align with client’s objectives better, showcase progress to client better, and course-correct if required – also gives you goals that you can “see” – that you can work towards – and therefore, maybe, work BETTER towards.


This is also what Gantt charts enable – breaking down of larger project into smaller bite sized pieces. I think its what every seemingly impossible dream needs – it is, in my view, the only way you can move forward and not feel bogged down by the enormity of the task.

I think closely allied to this thought is that of “optimal” vs. “perfect”. My partner Kyung and I kind of had opposite–ends–of-the-spectrum approaches on this. He would work on a plan/ ppt/ pitch – and work on it again – and work on it again – annnd againnn – and againnn – till he got it completely right. It HAD to be the perfect circle/ the right color of blue on the page/ the size of the box. The end result used to be beautiful/ perfect – and, often, late! I on the other hand, would definitely work equally hard, but the point was, is it good enough for what I want? If yes, finish it, and move ahead to the next job. I’d like to believe I got a lot more done this way (if you have a people as well as client facing role, you do have to juggle many many balls up in the air as we all know). To again draw an analogy with software development – it’s like various releases of software – version 1, 1.1, 1.2….you can keep refining, but unless you RELEASE – how will you test/ get feedback/ even get ideas on making “perfect”?

So you ask the question – whats “good enough” vs. “perfect” – who defines these? Can one person’s “good enough” be another’s “perfect”? Since I started with Howard Roark, let me use one of his quotes to illustrate what he said about the guy who first made fire – “His truth was his only motive. His work was his only goal. His work, not those who used it, his creation, not the benefits others derived from it. The creation which gave form to his truth. He held his truth above all things, and against all men. He went ahead whether others agreed with him or not. With his integrity as his only banner. He served nothing, and no one. He lived for himself. And only by living for himself was he able to achieve the things which are the glory of mankind. Such is the nature of achievement.”. But on the other side of the coin, you are taught Pareto Optimality (btw, as i was searching for the wiki link to pareto, i discovered that there’s a lot more to this than i thought – OK, homework for me after I finish writing this post!) – the 80-20 rule. Get atleast the 80 right, and you can move forward. Not perfect, see, but largely right! Eddie Rabbitt said it too – “step by step” you win her love!


So, which is right? Are these opposing philosophies? I think these are NOT opposing – but one is a subset of another. The point is – definitely strive for perfection, aim for the stars, define your larger goal and work towards it; but, MOVE forward – break it up – make smaller goals – finish them, then work on the next set of goals – finish those…(which means Kyung and I were kind of working towards the same objective – its just that I broke it up, while he eternally strove for perfection)

A common question asked by clients who are wrestling with building social media programs is, how do I set goals (actually, these are the most evolved clients – at least they are talking goals! Many don’t – just want to open their facebook page and twitter handle). But, as they devise their OGST program – objectives, goals, strategies, and tactics, they ask – we don’t have a precedent, how do we set goals? What is too big/ what is too little? How do we set KPIs such that our teams believe in them and work towards them?

Your standard/ cop out answer to such questions is – what do you WANT to do – how much effort will you spend behind it (or rather can spend?). But in a new area – how do you set quantified/ measurable goals? We had a few methods – a) benchmark similar situations for similar companies – since everyone is new to Social Media, you don’t get obvious parallels – but use proxies – e.g., when enterprises started putting KPIs for trial campaigns, what goals were set? By your competitors/ early entrants in that field/ across other industries? b) Of course, another way out was take your own historical performance, compute moving averages of say 3 month performances, and benchmark accordingly. (But if you are in a completely greenfield area, and say you bust all benchmarks in the first month itself, how do you deal with it?)

My answer, put a stake in the ground – it need not be right (remember, the search for perfection may bog u down!) – but atleast it’s something – if it’s wrong , pull up that stake, set 10 others – you have incrementally better knowledge of what you want to do – but for chrissake, MOVE!

This is what all these new gamification (new word for old hat) techniques are doing – the badges for “world’s best nerd”, the “reward points collected everytime you shop- with the payoff in the form of freebees (yes, these are forms of “loyalty” marketing – but see, that’s the point, it’s all related – loyalty points are a form of giving you goals – in this case shop more – with payoffs!); the Linkedin endorsements (I HATE those!), the metrics for website views, the number of “likes” you get when you post content. There are businesses being crafted out of measurement and metrics (rightly so), and they play upon a very human tendency to work towards a goal, feel fulfilled when that goal is achieved, and get motivated to strive further.


I am doing this all the time in my aerobics class (nyaah, still not got any better at it!) – when Niru displays a particularly complicated piece of choreography – while all the others follow effortlessly – I take it step by step. She helps me break it down – I get one bit right, then another, then the third and by the time everyone is repping it for maybe the 8th time, I get it right ☺. I then award myself these – I call them “Bubka badges” (remember Sergei Bubka, who would keep breaking his own record at the pole vault?). So, for every step that I got right the first time, I get the smiley one, then if I got it right in the 3rd attempt, I get the straight faced one and so on ☺. Gamification, you got it in one!

So, what do you think – perfect or optimal? While you ponder this one, let me go out and buy a few more Bubka badges – at the rate at which I’m going at aerpobics, I’ll need LOTS more!

Sergey Bubka of the USSR