Tag Archives: motivation

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 πŸ™‚

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! πŸ™‚ )

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?

It really is about the PEOPLE

18 Nov

oscar the grouch

There’s a great google search ad doing the rounds – its about reunion post partition between India and pakistan. I think by now most folks have watched it, but if you havn’t, click here. (It even got written up in mashable).

For me, it drove home something I’ve been thinking about on and off for a few days – that, we sometimes tend to get so wrapped up in whatever we are doing/ seeing/ making – whether it is technology and all its accoutrements, parenting as a job, management strategies, that we forget a very essential point of any exercise – the people it affects/ for whom we are doing it.

Think about it –

Big Data – Cloud – Hadoop – Analytics – e commerce – social collaboration – smart meters — all big buzzwords of today. Many big names chase this – IBM/ Cisco/ Microsoft/ Google/ Facebook – everyone. But it feels sometimes like the chase overwhelms the purpose – the process/ the technology – whatever is almost taking over the final reason FOR the tech. (It parallels the age old “features vs. benefit” marketing debate – you know, better agitator vs. whiter clothes/ purer chocolate vs. smoother texture). To some extent, some advertising is changing – IBM’s smarter planet / (erstwhile) Nokia’s connecting people – were all attempts at getting to the raison d’etre. Thats why I like the google ad – its not about better/ more precise/ faster/ more relevant search, but the reason behind the search. Lovely!

I like that a lot of healthcare is moving towards this now – Sanofi just released an app that gamifies blood testing (you get more points the oftener you test your blood sugar) thus making adherence for diabetes easier for patients!

Most organisations are now moving from “product centricity” to “customer centricity” – run a google search on CC and you get some half a million hits…a few years ago, it was one tenth of this number!

customercentricity cartoon

Look at other aspects of this “people” thing – as I said in an earlier blog, enterprises are not run by processes – but by PEOPLE – if you can figure out how to motivate/ empower/ manage the people; you've got it made! I'm sure EVERY organization can cite examples of leaders who are maybe not so technically competent, but get better results than others because they are good with people – their people management skills are better! It’s heart breaking at times for those who do have the nuts and bolts, but not the guts and holds ..(over people that is πŸ™‚ (ok, ok, very contrived I know – just felt like incorporating some rhyming stuff).This is what also makes for organisational culture (that intangible thing that defines many org metrics – retention/ values/ client service…see my earlier blog on org culture) Its one of the things an org “loses” when it scales to a behemoth – and one of the things that folks in start up cultures value – the fact of knowing everyone around – their happiness/ their sadness/ their strengths and weaknesses what makes them tick/ what hot buttons to press. It’s also one of the hallmarks of different leadership styles (read another blog on theory x vs. y of leadership – and which one works better)

Think about home – our kids have become “projects” almost – we are forever exhorting them to – get up in the morning/ eat breakfast properly/ go to school on time/ change, bathe, whatever once they are back/ go to whatever class they are enrolled for in a bid to get upskilled/ finish homework/ study for tests/ attend the birthday party…blah blah blah – in our timely and efficient execution of all these projects – we forget that the “subjects” are KIDS – and they WILL NOT be as good/ as efficient/ as task oriented as maybe we are trained and constrained to be. Takes the joy out of childhood somewhat eh?

child with mask

School kids can figure this out easily – my older daughter and her clan don’t like one of their teachers – and, the reason is not that she doesnt know her stuff, or is strict, or the usual anti teacher reasons, but that “she hates us”. After all, if a teacher doesn’t LIKE kids, its self defeating almost. I see live examples of effectiveness in the community schools I go teach in as a volunteer. One of the schools is making a huge success of the volunteer program our folks are helping them with – mainly because the principle is involved, interested, and she LIKES the kids, and likes US! Another school, is the exact reverse because the principle is a grouch!

Ofcourse, nothing brings this whole people thing home as well as just meeting old friends – despite everyone being in the ratrace – and attempting to “achieve” more and more everyday – one afternoon spent with friends – old or new (as i did yesterday), reminds you over and over again – it really is all about the people!

In pursuit of Excellence

29 Mar

passion and excellence

While on a walk yesterday, I saw this amazing sight – a truck driver carefully diligently and lovingly washing the decorative bells on his truck. It really astounded me – after all, these bells are like less than a foot away from the road – within 3 minutes of its first trip post the rest, the bells will all be caked in inches of mud and dirt – I would NEVER wash these bells (in cleaning, I survive on the theory that “what the eye doesn’t see is not worth cleaning :)”). But, this guy clearly has a passion for his work/ workplace/ means of livelihood and is making sure that all aspects of it are impeccable!

It’s why my driver came back in the middle of a week long vacation from a place 400 kms away – just so he could perform the vishwakarma puja on our cars (a special kind of worship on a specific day of all worktools).

Reminded me of my husband’s cousin Hema (no more in this world sadly) who was a national level table tennis player and yet kept a fantastic,. sparkling house, was raising lovely well mannered and bright kids and was a super seamstress/ knitter and cook to boot. All this she did herself despite having a household full of domestic help. She told me – a quote I will always remember – “See, you are working at a job, and doing well there. But if a housewife doesn’t do the house related work well, then she is NOTHING”

It reminds me also of folks like my nephew Dhruv who is always striving to do better than his own best (remember Bubka?) – he is ALWAYS studying/ trying new algorithms/ models/ business ideas – has recently written a paper that got published in a peer reviewed journal (he’s not an academician!) – just driven by the pursuit of excellence.

Its what drives (or should drive) our sportspeople — hmm, maybe murky waters those πŸ™‚

But, shows how folks tend to get defined by what they are doing, but take pride in excellence in that work – it doesn’t matter whether you are head honcho in a large corporate or a truck driver!

That’s why I have NO patience with the kind of stuff you hear about – as an example in this latest study – when you hear that folks don’t take pride in their work and still feel entitled to enjoy the benefits of happiness!

As an old professor of mine said, “Anything that’s worth doing, is worth doing well”!…….

Short post today – its good friday and the kids are home :). But i will write more on this topic later – maybe this becomes the first of another series – infact perhaps worth making it contributory, so if any of you feel you have any stories to contribute, pls feel free to become a guest blogger πŸ™‚

Happy Long Weekend everybody!

Carrot Power! (Or, Do you really need to twist and shout?)

24 Jan

Carrot and Stick :)

For someone who didn’t lift a finger till a month ago at anything that even closely resembled physical exercise (actually, thats not really true – coz the only parts of my body i did move were my fingers as they tapped away at the comp/ iphone day in and day out), it’s surprising how much inspiration my daily aerobics class is providing me!

Every morning, from 8 – 9, picture me – wayyy shorter than normal, wayyy more obese than normal, – in company with folks who remind me of Erma Bombeck’s (yes, you have to excuse me, I’m re-reading her nowadays) famous one – “I exercise with women so thin that buzzards follow them to their cars”. But, as I huff and puff my way on the steppers and floor exercises, what keeps me going is the few words from Niru the instructor – all she has to say is – “Good job, Sangita!” – and I’m ready to pump a few more weights! This, despite the fact that I KNOW I’m not doing even a passable job – forget “good”. But i guess, as all leaders/ coaches/ mentors know, positive strokes don’t hurt you, infact they only inspire your teams to work harder.

It reminded me of an appraisal I had done for a mid level manager a few months ago – He was someone new we had hired via an internal company transfer from our larger (by far!) parent company. His biggest worry about his career was that all along, he had been given feedback from his previous managers that he “lacked aggression”. He thought this could potentially be career limiting. Now, this was a bit of a surprise to me – as – according to me, he had displayed a fair amount of aggression in terms of getting business, leading his ops team, flagging issues and coming up with suggestions to senior management. But then i got it – what this boy was, was mild mannered – he didn’t scream and shout at his team. Unfortunately, he came from a culture where success equated with features of “sternness of big leader” – i.e., if your team wasn’t shaking every time you uttered something, you weren’t a “good”/ “aggressive” leader!

This is classical Mecgregor’s Theory X vs. Theory Y isn’t it? And modern management principles teach you that Y is better than X (infact, Theory Z – which is a kind of derivative of Y and says that what drives most employees is self motivation (as assumed in Y) but with active and empathetic company support) is what most pundits propound. Unfortunately, it looks like most managers do believe in the fear psychosis to get work done.

Now i have a theory on this – I think Theory X as a CULTURE has been propounded and lauded of late in companies that have grown really big really fast. Think large BPOs/ IT companies – we know that the outsourcing industry, while it propelled India into the next wave of growth, gave rise to large corporations with a very YOUNG workforce. Because of the exponential rates of growth witnessed, young employees had to become managers very fast – and didnt get the chance to garner appropriate ORGANIC experience and maturity – most of which, by the way, comes from handling many and many more people situations. But the growth of the industry mandated that they had to deal with responsibilities way earlier than they were ready for it. Ofcourse organisations invested in training of all kinds – soft skills, managerial acumen, project management, people management – etc; but the fact remains that there were 22 year old Team leads needing to manage 25 year old associates. They obviously didnt have that much extra experience, so the only way they had to assert superiority was – fear! (translated to screaming and shouting!). As the orgs got bigger and bigger this culture got so ingrained that everyone thought it’s THE way to get work done – instill fear, use sheer “muscle power” – become “Laxman” instead of “Ram” in Hindu mythology…(btw, I think Ram was a bit of a wimp myself and Laxman was way more interesting, but…). To be fair to them, that was also probably the only way you could afford to deal with LARGE groups of people – so large, that they are not people anymore, just statistics and metrics (He is an E performer, while she is only A!!!)

You know what this results in — people in large organisations start managing not so much by a sense of “what is right”/ “what needs to be done”, but by their sense of “what will the boss like”, or, taken to an extreme – “what will make my boss not yell at me!” I was myself in a bizzare situation as a result of this – we were, in a group, deciding pricing for a big (I’m talking 5 million USD) bid, and ofcourse it was controversial. We had to get clearances from the boss – guess what the finance guy told me – “why dont you talk to the boss about this, he’s less likely to yell at you!” (I think that day cemented my decision to not work in a large company πŸ™‚

So, am I saying that everyone should always be honey and sugar, sweetness and light? That’s a foolish deduction, and you know it πŸ™‚ Also, if I’m naturally autocratic, should I become “anti-me”, thus rendering a Jekyll and Hyde type personality and confusing everyone, including me? Certainly not! The answer, which boringly is really really obvious, and everyone knows, continues to be – one has to be situational – stick with what is commonly “you” – be “true” to yourself largely (and if u do it well enough, you WILL lead successfully in general); but temper your “Y” style leadership with some sticks (note the picture above has “angry birds” on the stick! appropriate, I thought πŸ™‚ ), and your “X” style leadership with some empathy…This, remember, is not really a treatise on personal leadership styles – we know successful people of all kinds – but a diatribe against people who think its the “right”/ “done” thing to do to always yell and shout, irrespective of what state of Maslow’s hierarchy the employee in front is/ what the situation demands..

By the way, (and don’t even get me started on this – this post is too long as it is), the situation becomes many times more complicated when it is women managers. Remember Sheryl Sandberg’s (I love her, btw!) famous TED speech on “successful women are NOT liked”? I think that needs to be the topic of another post.

While you think about the above, decide whether you want to “smile and shake” or “twist and shout”, I’ll go do a few more bench presses with Niru telling me – “way to go Sangita”!! Happy hunting!