Conflict is Fuel for Creativity

scream and shout

But why do you hate them?“, said the slightly exasperated friend.

My reply, paraphrased, was “Hate is too strong a word, I need a psychological crutch for motivation. Even an imaginary conflict is useful. Just as we did for our previous product when our competitor had to die!

Conflict has a bad reputation. Much like anger it is painted in a negative shade.

But there is a constructive way to view the situation, especially if you are a fledgling startup.

At the heart of all progress and creativity is a small kernel that sees the world differently.

A better way to do work, a better way to watch movies and so on. This different world view might not be what entrenched incumbents want.

But that is how it always is. Incumbents want nothing to change. Remember incumbents are invariably ex-dreamers who got comfortable, who latch on to the present than reaching out for the future.

As a side note, it is best to assess oneself, especially if you have a history of having pushed yourself in the past. Are you still reaching out or are you grasping for what you can get now? Are you part of the future being born or a past holding onto what is left?

To progress one has to intimately feel that a better way is possible, the existing scenario should just be unacceptable.

What you choose to be in conflict with is dependent on what you wish to accomplish. It could be how you feel about any social condition, about how people listen to music, or how people read e-books.

What matters is that you feel the conflict and help push the scenario forward.

If you feel nothing or love the present dearly then I wish you bold and grand conflicts that inspire action!

Conflict is fuel for creativity. Embrace it.

Creative Commons License Mindaugas Danys via Compfight

You Are Not A Genius..

Socrates

Socrates

..not at everything anyway.

But guess what, it really does not matter. Average, even below average, skills will do. What matters is if your immediate circle is smarter than you, especially in the areas that you are weak.

Stop whatever you are doing now and think how many people above, around and below you will call a spade a spade, call bullshit when it seems to be so. If that sounds abstract, here are some specific attributes that you could look for.

Objective

Does the person present facts to support their views? Is there a reasonable correlation between views held and the facts presented? Are the facts true? Or at least does it feel intuitively right to you? It takes time to assess if someone is objective or not. But trust me, its worth your time to judge everyone carefully. Of course not everyone remains objective 100% of time, circumstances make it difficult. But it is sufficient to know overall trend, there would be some benchmark to judge what is happening in a given context.

Confident

Objectivity will not be present unless the person around you is confident in their ideas, opinions and especially in themselves. The most useless or obvious feedback from someone is a good sign, you have something at least. Of course, based on their motivations, the feedback might be beneficial or irrelevant, but it is a sign nevertheless that the person is willing to deliver some message to you. From there, you will have to dig in, gain increasing trust to see if the feedback is genuine, not a repetition of what you already know, not being delivered to curry short-term favor with you and so on.

Humble

Humility is that which accepts its shortcoming. Allows better and other possibilities. Nodding to every suggestion or thought is not humility, it is slavery. Humility knows its limits, knows it has not all the answers. It is not contradictory to confidence. At the same time it should not be a politically correct acceptance of another view. The world is crafty enough to pretend when required, so do not fall for immediate praise or blame..always think through the context in which the opinion is coming from. Shades of grey permeate everything, learn to recognize it better.

Does this line of thought make sense? Do you agree or disagree? And yes, do share tweet and share this widely. I would love your help in understanding what you and your friends think.

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Will You Survive A Startup

I have had phenomenal luck in getting to work with some world class people for most of my career. But the good run ended last year, when a majority of my bets on the people front failed. In hindsight I think it was about expectation setting and lack of shared understanding in what it means to work in a startup like environment, specifically within the context of the new people who came on board.

I have attempted to provide my view of what factors are involved in working for a startup or startup-like environment. Obviously I have not covered everything and the factors listed below are relevant to resources I have worked with, or attempted to work with, in Bangalore, India. So some of these factors might not be relevant to your environment.

Technical Skills

This is the foundation upon which all others take their place. Not necessarily all technical but means skills relevant to the function one performs.

If you are an architect, lead or developer then to have skills commensurate with your experience. To think through a problem with rigor and completeness. To bring the same attention to naming a function or class as you would in drawing a grand architectural overview. Not just the syntax but to know the why and the how. Because real-world problems don’t come advertising the solution. You got to investigate, probe and analyze. You need to build a hypothesis and test it. You need an arsenal of techniques to understand and solve the problem.

To think broad during problem analysis and to think deep during execution. To balance form and function. To think of various costs(development, testing, maintaining, supporting etc.) when evaluating possible solutions.

Ability to learn a new tool quickly to solve a problem. To understand that an architecture evolves over a period of time, that nothing worth its salt is ever simple.

Ownership

To own something. Be it a feature, a module or the whole product. To own it in its entirety, from definition to rollout. Own it enough to shepherd it through the challenges of surviving reality. To feel every criticism of your creation as a barb in your being. To cherish every small win as your own.

An attitude and state that is the very antithesis of product efforts at most large organizations and especially service organizations, where one owns a small sliver and spends a life-time becoming an expert in it. An attitude that does not play by the rule book, that demands realization today. An attitude that takes pride in crafting something to be remembered by.

Multi-tasking/Context Shifting

The ability to juggle multiple work-streams, in sequence most of the times and sometimes in parallel. And yet not lose productivity or rigor in execution. One needs to be in the zone to hit the high mode of super productivity, but a startup environment has demands that will not wait or cannot be delegated because there are no people to delegate to.

Being annoyed or saying you cannot deal with context shifts is not an option. You deal with it and survive to battle another day.

Commercial Savviness

Developers usually have little sense of commercial considerations. Sales folks are slightly better at it, though their preferences are colored by the commission they can potentially make. In a startup environment where one person can play product manager, quality assurance/tester, sales and marketing roles, sometimes all in the same day, it is essential every person in the organization brings this commercial savviness to the table. Every decision has a cost and influences what options are available in the future.

Perseverance

When bringing out a product your first set of customers would, almost as a rule, gift you with a barrage of criticism. Especially if your product challenges any of the traditional mindsets adopted in performing a specific function.

A demo to a key large customer would fail because someone updated a piece code a couple of hours back. You would spend months coming close to sign off and the customer would walk away without explaining why. Or a client would be willing to sign only if you had features X, Y and Z, and give them a significant discount because they are willing to go with you.

Or, your new hire does not get the urgency of what you need, does not believe in what you do and spreads bad blood within the team, does not turn out to be the rock star you expected them to be, only provides arm-chair criticism of your strategy without providing a credible alternative. A developer you depend on to deliver a key feature leaves the firm.

You get the drift. Challenges on a daily basis is the norm. Yield and there will be no end until your vision is flattened. Trick is to persevere until the last man standing gets the job done.

Vision

This is the ability to look beyond the obvious. To consider approaches that are unconventional. Articulate needs the customer does not know about yet.

Not everyone in a startup needs this ability, most need to just execute well. But without this ability to see what is not there yet one lacks the key to understand a startup environment. Without the ability to be irrationally passionate about a vision, one does not get the rush of being in a startup. One just sees a bunch of people running about, has no clue what is so special about this effort and leaves disappointed.

Empathy

Finally empathy. It is hard to run a marathon every waking day. It just burns out people. Work-life balance, workplace diversity all come in once there is revenue and a org structure to support the product. Until then you push yourself and your team to the brink of their abilities.

But for those who attempt it, treat them with empathy. It does not matter who. From the junior most team member to the guy driving the show, each is a human with all the strengths and insecurities that make up many of us. Lend each other a hand. Each have their highs and lows. Take a balanced perspective.

Summary

In summary, some people are not just cut out for a startup environment. They might not be skilled enough, might be suited to lesser efforts, cannot offer the dedication required or just have different goals. And that is okay. They should be humble enough to accept it and move on, and you should be understanding enough to let them go amicably.

Because the Buddha did not ordain everyone who crossed his path, nor did Christ pick every passerby as a disciple, it is just the way it is. Some are destined and some are not 🙂

And for those who join the ride, reward dedication. Be fiercely loyal to the team that has trusted you. Believe in your vision. Craft beautiful things. Cherish every victory. Fight a good fight. And become the story a handful share with each other in the future.

[Note: Apologies for the lack of structure. I just had to get this out. Comments/Feedback appreciated.]

Conviction

A poem by Taylor Mali, set to video by Ronnie Bruce. To say any more would be redundant, so just watch this.

(via V3im.com)

#YearInReview What We Shipped in 2010

This post is inspired by Seth Godin’s post titled What did you ship in 2010? Seth goes on to provide a list of things he completed and provides some encouragement to share similar lists and not be shy. Given that shyness is not exactly my strong trait, here it goes.

What we shipped in 2010

  • Products: We went live with Compose, a research publishing product by Thomson Reuters(my current employer). You can look up details on the official product page. Everything about this product(vision, technology, commercials and more…heck even the brochure!)was envisioned and built out by us in Bangalore. I shall talk about the philosophy behind it and my ideas to bring some innovative thinking to the sell-side research function in other posts.
  • Vision: We put together a vision for the sell-side research market, that goes much beyond Compose. There are at least 5 large items here that I am excited about but for obvious reasons will not be able to share here!
  • People: Built-out a brand new team to reboot our sell-side offerings. We have some solid talent to help realize our vision for the coming years.
  • Collaboration efforts: Ideas that we have envisioned have gained traction amongst various internal teams. This is not strictly a deliverable but collaboration efforts such as these raise the bar for the entire organization and opens up new possibilities to serve our customers.

Doing all the above was not easy. We have seen organizational changes, differing priorities, changes in responsibilities, rampant attrition and various other dysfunctional elements. But what matters is that we shipped Compose, built out the sell-side vision and contributed to the organization’s IP.

As always, not even a fraction of this would have been possible without my team and those who supported us within the organization. To each one of you(you know who you are) my personal thanks.

Competing With Free

Time has an article on how four hackers almost caused the collapse of the entertainment industry. Many gems of insight in there, particularly how iTunes managed to succeed despite the availability of free music/movies on Napster, Bittorrent etc.

It turns out that there is something that can compete with free: easy.

Free is not an automatic choice if there is a cognitive cost or inconvenience attached to it. And easy by contrast is difficult to design and engineer.

The route to be taken will depend on the market you are in and the environment that you are trying to operate within.

In hindsight its interesting to note that all of them have gained immensely from the experience of executing their idea, though not necessarily on the monetary front. And they did not set off thinking to disrupt anything, they just wanted to have some fun and try out things. The tectonic effects within the entertainment industry was just a by-product.

Lessons for entrepreneurs who will end up disrupting an incumbent’s lunch.

Via John Gruber.

Why Most Enterprise Collaboration Initiatives Fail

Because tools are not invested with the will to collaborate.

Because before tools can aid collaboration people have to wish to collaborate.

Because some people would not collaborate if anything less than the very success of their endeavor is dependent on it.

Because for every person with an ounce of ego, the perfect solution already exists in their head, if only reality would yield to it.

Because metrics that measure success of their objectives do not account for the pathways taken to accomplish them.

Because every fiefdom has its lord who is reluctant to mingle with the peasants.

Or we collaborate so there are co-conspirators who can stand along side when its all in shambles.

What other reasons do you think make large enterprises have sub-optimal levels of collaboration going on?

Scale Amplifies Everything

Every business wishes to scale. More profits, lesser costs, faster time to market etc.

It is achieved by

  • adding more people, perhaps grouped by function
  • specializing the functions of these groups
  • defining rules of interaction between these groups
  • goal setting for the groups
  • tools and processes to facilitate interaction
  • and some means to monitor progress towards goals.

What usually gets ignored or underestimated is that scale has the side effect of amplifying everything. Every weakness, flaw and dysfunction is rendered large too.

Large systems and processes have the unfortunate side-effect of evolving niches where inefficiencies can survive and even thrive. Perhaps the goal is so critical that one grants the leeway for such discrepancies. Or perhaps visibility makes stakeholders vulnerable to increased criticism. And hundred other reasons.

Leave such dysfunctions unattended and scale becomes its own enemy.

I have my views on scaling while minimizing such negative side-effects. But what do you think? Would like to hear your views on the conclusions and what you believe to be solutions to scaling well.

The Bogeyman Called Corporate Standards

A corporation exists by virtue of being a logical unit of functioning. However diverse its operations, they all serve a single purpose. The individual and group relegates their distinct ideas to the background to ensure the main purpose is served.

But behind this idea lies a great evil. It is often deemed right to sacrifice the smaller aspirations for the larger good. This instinct to merge and blend in with the overall trend often kills what might turn out to be beneficial to the larger good.

Standards do serve to forge a single identity, a single theme to present a unified face to the external world. But in a time of change the tendency to merge is stifling to perspectives that are different.

Standards of behavior and ethics, equal opportunity, standards of conduct should be adhered to and I have no doubt on that.

But I see standards as a marker for how low a certain function can go. They are not the yardstick with which every superior effort is beaten down lower. Standards for productivity, usability and technological progress exist to be broken by better and superior functions.

The way I have dealt with resistance to what is new, different and unfamiliar to the larger organization is by relentlessly selling the benefits, overlooking the resistances and steam rolling my way through. Until something or someone really high up the chain stops the effort.

Remember that standards are tombstones for dead ideas. That which is living and evolving will have no such markers.

[Note: All mentions of the word standard in this post refer to corporate standard.]

Every Problem Has a Solution, If You Want It Solved

A characteristic trait of dysfunctional organizations is that of problems that are allowed to exist tacitly. As counterintuitive as it sounds it is the norm in most large organizations where competing perspectives collide.

Couple of high-level reasons seem to contribute to the state of messed up affairs : Business Reasons, Political Alignments, Incompetence. Allow me to profile these three villains.

  • Business Reasons : This comes in a couple of flavors. Existing customers make it impossible to change implementations. Or the cost of change exceeds the revenue or business value delivered.
  • Political Alignments: I use this bucket to group the following traits. One group does not want a competing perspective to see the light of day. Or wants the existing process/system to fail. Or just plain self-interest dictates they obey the law of self-sustenance above that of the organization.
  • Incompetence: This one must be obvious. Like a Deer in headlights, these types stand dazed at the oncoming situation. Instead of trying to understand the problem, they take up stock measures that have worked in the past and add another half-dozen nails to their coffins. Or drown themselves in inconsequential tasks, which make them look busy but adds nothing to the bottom line.

It is said that identifying the problem is half solving it. But these sorts of issues, especially the political alignment and power-plays is something that does not obey any logic beyond that of self-interest, so the means to solve these seem fairly limited.

But with the right amount of transparency and some creative noise-making it should be possible to get sensible messages to the right ears.

The current economic climate could be an added incentive for stakeholders to be open to unconventional approaches for long-standing problems.

In that spirit, my message to the people perched on top- The larger interests of the organization’s survival should take priority over concerns on whose perspective wins out.

Drive uncomfortable changes proactively. It is difficult to expose yourself as not being up to the task. But trust me, people will appreciate your willingness to learn and adapt.

The other option is for the markets to highlight your shortcomings in the most unflattering light. And that can never be pretty.