Simple Decisions in a Complicated World

There are so many decisions in one’s life that are made alone. You ask others – a friend, relative, coach, partner or a neighbor – to weigh in; but when the decision has to be truly executed – it is your name that’s etched on paper.

Having migrated to the US as a student, I was suddenly face-to-face with life decisions, during a very early stage of my life. Whether to move to an apartment from the dormitories, which roommates to pick, location of an apartment or what furniture one may need – are all simple, yet building-block decisions in one’s life. Growing up, my parents like many others, made most decisions; I was not necessarily prepared to have a “judgment call” on topics like these.

When you are nineteen or twenty, you don’t always understand the gravity of these decisions; there is a need to make a decision– so you make it; sometimes your roommate turns out to be a person who doesn’t share the chores or pay the bills on time – another time, the furniture you buy (from a garage sale) just collapses within a couple of weeks. However simple or mundane, the outcome of such decisions sometimes makes you the person who you are.

I have a childhood friend, who is paralyzed in front of the frozen food section, picking the brand of yogurt that he may want. To me it’s a simple decision; to my friend it’s complicated.  It requires one to make a choice – and to live with that choice – maybe for a day – or maybe a lifetime.

As one grows older, and realizes that the number of decisions we make, during our lifetime, may be growing smaller by the day; however, they may actually have greater impact on more people – and we may have to live with them for a very long time – if not, forever; now, it takes on a whole new dynamic of thinking.  

Today, when decisions have to made, I think of all the different stakeholders in the process – how will my decision affect all of them; I worry about the different outcomes, think of counterpoints – and strategies to balance the potential negative outcomes. I am not certain if the process is complicated – or I make it more so.

Few years ago, at a life-intersection, I had the opportunity to pick from three very exciting career opportunities. Each role was interesting and held the merit on its own. One would allow me to be an entrepreneur in a foreign land – another one would allow me the helm of a multi-billion dollar division of major US corporation; all with handsome packages – required relocation to a different city – and sometimes to different region, altogether.

After talking to a series of people and getting the pros and cons from friends and family, I came to the conclusion that whatever the outcome, the decision has to answer the following:

  1. Is the decision right? Does it feel right for where I want to go in life? Does it feel ethically and morally justified? 
  2. Is the decision fair to everyone involved? To my family, their needs? To my own aspirations?
  3. Is the decision beautiful? Elegant in nature or contrived to fit the needs of a certain time? Does it feel like I am trying to force it – or is it flowing naturally?

I realize that not all decisions require such philosophical pondering; however, there does come times, when it’s important to give the decision-making a due process. I have also found that when I use these guidelines, and, at least one of these criteria is negative, it’s much better to not make the decision.

Not making a decision, often, is a major decision.

Sometimes we get caught in a “false choice” of trying to rationalize that some criteria are met – so we should go ahead with the decision. I have found that, in the long run, with rationalization, I have regretted making those decisions.

I try to imagine where my decision-making skills originated; are they genetically pre-ordained– or did I learn them over time, through many different experiences? One is never certain if Gladwell’s “thin slicing” of decision-making (Blink) is innate or learnt over time.

It’s easy to digress and think how to help my teenager to make the right decisions every time.

The best I can do is to teach her to understand right/wrong in our world view, understand fairness – to consider others around her, and, finally, appreciate the beauty and flow of a river – natural and serene. I also want her to understand the contrast of difficult, contrived decision – that creates conflict, chaos and heartache.

Ultimately, she has to learn from her own mistakes and build her own decision framework. However much I try to protect her from her own circumstances, if I don’t let her graduate into decision-making, she can only make more mistakes.

After all the pondering, some decisions still go wrong – or not exactly as we intended. Like a complex, multivariate, calculation, life takes its own twists and turns and we are left wondering where things exactly went wrong. That’s the time faith comes to our rescue – whatever has happened, has happened for the best.

One can only make decisions about tomorrow. So, we move forward. Learn from our decisions and ardently hope and pray that the decisions we make tomorrow, are slightly better than the one’s made, the day before.

Leadership Optimality in an Imperfect World: August 2010

Once upon a time, a young plant manager of a heavy assembly operation walked through his plant and saw significant risk of injury to the team members; he instituted a required safety shoe and safety glasses policy (that the company would pay for). Next week, the local union filed a “grievance” (formal complaint) against the plant manager. The parent international union had to intervene (and educate) the local union to withdraw the grievance; the union only withdrew in fear of a future lawsuit that may incriminate them for an accident in the plant. As that plant manager, it felt as if I was slapped on the face for trying to do something good.

Different work experiences have allowed me to observe similar mistakes, negligence and waste, in large or small companies, that are difficult to explain.  As engineers, we are trained to attain process optimality; in many business environments, such optimality often emerges from a series of compromises that managers make, to keep harmony or simply avoid making the tough decisions.

This week, I walked to through a large multi-national plant at the cradle of the spectacular mountains in Northwestern Virginia. Recently, we sold them spare parts, to retrofit a piece of equipment; the young engineer, who gives me the tour, believes that it would have been the best option for their company to have us (the original equipment manufacturer) re-build this product and give them a warranty on the re-built equipment. The job was awarded to a local mom/pop contractor who charged them $50k more than my company had quoted. The frustrated young engineer, signals his hand underneath a table to describe an impropriety in their purchasing behavior.

Later, we walk through areas where the yellowish-brown effluent from the paper making machineries flow all over. You notice many side streams of these untreated fluids flowing into the pristine river by the plant where four elegant swans are swimming on this humid mid-summer day.

In twenty-first century America, such scenes of alleged bribery, gross violations of environmental or safety regulations, are difficult to comprehend. Every day, in thousands of  businesses, imperfect decisions like these, are made in a series of small accidents that add up to create our the imperfect business eco-system.

Human beings, intrinsically, want to do the right things – we are aware of consequences of our actions; we still make imperfect compromises with our every-day lives. Having once walked in their shoes, I know that these engineers and plant managers want to do the right things – meet environmental standards of water-discharge, treat their people right – “do good” for their communities. But in a complex world of running a plant, business or service facility, things are going wrong all the time and your reaction is typically dictated by what you are measured by.  In my past manufacturing experiences,  I was usually measured with one objective – make more product.

As leaders, we must align our organizational incentives to “balanced objectives”.

Early in my career, I was trained that businesses have only two goals: Make as much money as possible – for as long as possible. More often, this goal is misunderstood, misinterpreted and misrepresented. If one keeps the longer term view of “for as long as possible”, we would not pollute our rivers – treat our teams unfairly or the communities we function in, wrongly.

If you ask a stockholder in any company – would you like to maximize profit of your stock knowing that it hurts people and communities – or have child labor in factories – or destroy our environment – versus, given the choice of “balanced objectives” – profit and doing good – the typical stockholder would pick the balanced scorecard.  But rarely are stockholders given such a choice.

The world doesn’t run on binary choices of 1 or 0; making profit does not need be mutually exclusive of taking care of our teams and our surroundings. We can choose the elegant solution and want both – and deliver both. It’s a choice. As leaders, we have to make that choice – and communicate our dual expectations, clearly.

Creating a Win Everyday

I love filling up the dishwasher and turning it on; or (especially on vacations) take out the laundry from the dryer and fold it. I like making lists before going to the neighborhood Publix; lettuce, tomatoes, ice-cream sandwich and dishwasher liquid.  

However mundane and repetitive, this act of “checking off” on a list,  gives a sense of accomplishment – as if I have done something that day – that has an immediacy of impact. It makes me feel, at that moment,  as if I have won something. 

I realize that farmers/gardeners feel connected to the soil, especially when they see their harvest come home. As a child, I watched my mother plant a vegetable or flower garden and was mesmerized by her “magic” of growing something. The repetition of seeding or watering the garden/land and watching your crop grow on a daily basis – observing the flower and protecting it, as you protect your child.   

Most everything we do today, or take on as a project, are long-term from resulting in any consequence; a new product development initiative that may take years to gestate; a new geographic region to enter – that may not see results for years, or building a personal 401K plan that may take years to reach its desired objective.

That’s why we must create small wins in our lives, every day. Winning is important – for our psyche – for our mental well-being. We have to create opportunities to win. It doesn’t always need be something we love to do or something really large – to derive that mental satisfaction.

When I get to work, usually, there are a series of things to do – people to meet, proposals to approve. However, at the end of the day, after keeping this busy calendar, I still don’t necessarily feel as I have accomplished anything. 

That’s why, on a busy day, I try to make a simple checklist with no more than five things to do – of which at least 3 things are easy to do. Pay a credit-card bill online, or call so-and-so to resolve an issue, or to return a DVD to Blockbuster. 

This simple act of writing down, on a post-it note, and then, at the end of the day, checking the list off with a pen, gives me a tremendous sense of accomplishment – again, I feel emboldened by having finished something. Someone observing this activity from afar, this may seem trivial – but it helps me make through the day of all the really difficult things that I may have to do – the series of “no’s” that I may have to deliver to different constituents. 

There is enough negativity in the world – and counter-currents that dislodge you from your desired path – critics who believe they are helping you improve; you cannot always win on your large goals. Keeping that view in perspective, like a marathoner, one may want to consider orchestrating little victories that provide that adrenaline rush – those (hunter-gatherer) instincts a jolt of renewal through a mundane victory. So that when you lie on your bed that night – you don’t feel like you just wasted another day in your life. 

I realize that, not everyone likes discrete beginnings and ends. Some just like the journey – continuous and flowing – like a river.  Then there are others, who buy a lottery ticket every day, to try and create a “win”. I believe, in this river like journey, there needs to be check-posts – ports you can call and have a nourishing cup of coffee and start back on your long journey onwards to that ubiquitous sea. 

You have come far – and there is a long way to go. Celebrate where you have arrived. Tomorrow, the tides and wind will be different.

Balancing Contradictions: Finding a Rainbow

Free wallpaper / desktop wallpaper - rainbow, farmland, by mick y

Typically, we love our children and want to fill their lives with all our own unmet, unfulfilled expectations – buy them all the toys we never had, or enroll them in the piano lessons we never recieved. On the other hand, we don’t want to have everything spoon fed to them – want them to become self-reliant and independent in decision-making. This contradiction of love and protection, and developing self-reliance, is something that most parents struggle with, specially, like me, if you have a teen-ager at home.

In a business setting, you are constantly besieged by new opportunities (and risks). A new market in Brazil, a strategic-alliance opportunity with a Fortune 50 company, or a new white space that could be capitalized on immediately; all of this is, with the daily backdrop of exceeding current customer expectations, making a profit for the shareholders, and keeping your team members (and other stakeholders) satisfied. Balancing the contradictory expectations of today’s profit and tomorrow’s growth is one of the critical decisions organizational leaders face in private or public enterprise. 

On a daily basis, whether you are a parent, an organizational leader, you are searching for balance between emerging, contradictory expectations. 

Typically, there is no one, perfect solution to these conundrums; what is more common, is the degree of risk associated with making significant mistakes, or, in engineering, we call it, achieving optimality conditions. Not always achieving the “maximal” profit that you believe you deserve from a decision – but balanced a growth and profit objective for corporations – or if you are a parent – a balanced independence – indulgence quotient. 

To achieve such an optimality condition, we don’t have to  make a compromise, or what we typically call a “cop out”; often, we get caught up on “false choices”. Recently, we moved into a new office space. At the time of the decision-making, we wanted take an environmental position and  move into a Green building (LEED certified), yet wanted to lower our annual operating expenses.

Most people told me that’s impossible; the excuse: the initial investment is too high. However, with creative, team thinking, by lowering our projecting energy costs over the short/medium term, we were able to meet both our cost objectives and meet a corporate goal. Reaching such a solution needs complete “system thinking” and understanding the Total Life Cycle Cost of a decision. 

As a leader, this often means taking into account, the time horizon of the decision and how it impacts all stakeholders in the long-term avoiding a “win-lose” situation and striving to create (and articulating) a “win-win” scenario. I have often heard the term – an elegant solution – something that’s acceptable by everyone and it’s good for everyone in the long-term. 

Elegant solutions are not easy to find and most often are not the first solution we think of. Usually, the first step to reaching such an elegant solution is: genuine engagement of different stakeholders in such a decision. As organizational leaders, when we are asked to make a decision, we are presented the viewpoint that is beneficial to one side of the equation and asked to make the decision quickly (because, in business, time is money).

As leaders, it behooves us, to take the time and find the counter-point to the proposal – what are all the possible things that could go wrong with the decision. There is always a counter-point and a constituency that is against the decision;  we have to go and find that counter-point and not get swayed by only immediate gains (or satisfying the need of one constituent). Once we know the counter point, it will make us seek that balance, that will benefit both sides of the equation.  

Often, a decision, of such nature, requires selling it to all the stakeholders; the idea (e.g. going into a Green Building because we are an environmental technology company) maybe completely foreign to some of the constituents. I was asked by a senior official in my organization why we would spend this kind of money in a difficult economy. A very legitimate question – even if it’s born out of ignorance or lack of “system thinking”.

 I have found that as leaders, we often assume that everyone has the same level of information we have or have the same decision-making path/model. The mental trap we get caught is that everyone (in the decision-making authority) is highly compensated and intelligent and they should (automatically) know this path!  This is where we need to get beyond our pride, and make the case for change – both with facts and emotions.

Ultimately, good leaders have to make the right decisions and stand by their decision. Indecision is synonymous to poor leadership. 

On a South Florida summer afternoon, after some torrential, monsoon-like rain, when suddenly the sun starts shining, we see  nature’s contradictions; we are mesmerized by the magnificent rainbow that emerges in the distance. 

When as a parent, or a leader, we face this need to balance expectations, we have to search for this elegant, beautiful rainbow, that appeals to everyone. There is always a solution – that meets our contradictory expectations. We need the courage and perseverance to go and find the rainbow. 

Now, only, if I could find the rainbow in my teenager’s constant need to stay connected with her friends via texting, cell-phone, Facebook and all the other electronic media.

There  has to be  a rainbow in this constant connectivity. I have to go and find it.

Cravings for the Mundane Repetition of Daily Activities

Sitting in yet another crowded airplane, heading home after three days of conference rooms with no windows, my mind craves home.

I slip into my imagination of walking into our kitchen/dinette, as the music on the stereo is comingled with the noise of utensils clanging against pots and pans or, maybe a salad being chopped on our wooden cutting board; our five year old is yet inventing another costume party with her own plastic pots and pans and brings me a cup of tea in her miniature plastic tea cup.

This is my loving home; my warm embrace, my innocuous brush with fate, my solace after any treacherous day. I love coming back home into this sensual cacophony which welcomes me with open arms.

Sitting anywhere, anytime, I can imagine the smells, sounds and embraces of my little piece of heaven.

After a three month hiatus, some of my travel responsibilities have resumed. It’s Washington DC this week; next week I am in Dubai, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. The following week: Houston. In many roles nowadays, it’s not unusual to have some travel. I do my share.  

Those who don’t have to travel for a living, often think about how “romantic” it is to travel,  from city to city, living in hotel rooms and having to greet complete strangers every day. People ask me about all the great cities I get to see – London, Tokyo, Shanghai, New York, Dubai; often, people tell me how “lucky” I am to have tried so many types of food, wine or coffee. Really.

What one may not realize is that most of these business travels take us from a plane to a hotel to a conference and then a repeat back of the sequence.  Yes, the hotel rooms are comfortable and we do eat at fancy restaurants. However, I am yet to find a hotel room that makes my soul “light up” with harmony and joy. 

In over fifteen years of work/travel experience, I have had a few memorable work related travel trips; once I had the chance to walk the Great Wall of China, twice, in the same week, albeit on a cold and frosty day. The trip was fun because my co-workers were goofy and fun to be with; they bought silly, fur hats with communist insignia and wore them during the whole journey.

Yet another time, I walked the Red Square in Moscow at midnight, with bodyguards and translators in toe. The drive from the Russian customer’s site to the airport, in a bullet proof Mercedes with a driver, who spoke no English and insisted on driving on the yellow striped center median and at over 70 miles/hour during rush hour traffic.  I felt like the unsuspecting victim of a bad mafia movie.

Sometimes, these trips do turn out to be loaded with adrenaline. However, a vast majority of these trips typically constitute of an airport pickup, a business dinner, a clinically bland hotel room followed by restless sleep; next morning, you wake up to your own time zone alarm clock and wonder where you are, followed by learning to adjust the new shower temperature, another bland breakfast, two or three meetings (or one very long and tedious meeting) and then a rush back to the airport to catch a plane back.

With spare time between meetings, sometimes one may take a walk outside on a Paris late afternoon or take a run by the river in Bratislava. But not having the loved ones next to me to show the beautiful blinking lights of the Eiffel Towers after dark or to show the castle on top of the hill in Bratislava – It’s as if I am talking to myself and saying, look, isn’t that beautiful .

After a typically haranguing long day, as soon as I step back on the plane, I feel relieved. I sit down on my designated seat, put on my noise cancelling headset with my selection of music and start my journey back to where I really want to be.

I think about a kissing Daiyaan on the forehead, or reading a story to Shania that evening – and to feel the warmth and love in our kitchen that evening;  I stroll in and pour a nice, full-bodied red in my glass, and intermingle with all the on-going activities. 

I am one step closer to where I want to be. A few more hours.

I count the blessings for the simple pleasures of my repetitive, daily, mundane life.

Experiencing Adversity as a Source of Competitive Advantage

a racing yach sailing in the whitsundays, australia

Is this person strategic?

Do they deliver results?

Can they develop other leaders?

How do they work in leadership teams?

Do they build customer loyalty?

When recruiting leadership talent, these are the top 5 questions we ask about potential candidates. However, in addition to these key skills, one of the more subtle areas worth probing, is to see how an individual deals with adversity.

Death or acute sickness of a family member, working to pay for college, experiencing a civil war or national tumult, immigration to a different country, are all examples of different forms of personal adversity that each of us deal with differently.

Those who face adversity, where they have little/no control of the difficult external environment, truly understand the sense of abject helplessness in such circumstances. However, once you navigate out of such a situation, and are able to “re-ground and re-orient” yourself to what needs to be accomplished, this new found reality makes us stronger and much more determined than where we started off.

Such personal adversity injects both humility and entrepreneurial spirit in a person, which maybe a very valuable source of competitive advantage in the workplace.

 Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart grew up during the depression as a teenager in high school, milked the family cow, bottled the surplus, and drove it to customers. Afterwards, he would deliver newspapers on a paper route. He worked through his entire college life and worked to pay for his own meals. His experiences during the Great Depression as a teenager, and later in the military, shaped his core values and played a strong role in building one of the most successful corporations in the world.

 Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, mentions in a speech at Stanford (http://www.ted.com/talks/steve_jobs_how_to_live_before_you_die.html) about how getting fired from Apple was one of the best things that happened to him. It helped him re-focus on what he really wanted to do and what was important to him. it’s that “hunger” that made him successful in thinking through new solutions in all his future endeavors. This is what, Jobs believes, is at the root of the recent renaissance of Apple.

People like Walton and Jobs are iconic examples of how people deal with adversity and make difficult circumstances the source of their own personal strength– which ultimately translates to organizational competitive advantage. 

 Having worked with a wide variety of people over the last twenty five years, I have noticed that  folks who may have experienced a bout with cancer or significant trauma from an accident, or lived through a tumultuous time, e.g. a civil war or wartime military engagement,  have a different disposition when it comes to both creative decision-making and action orientation.

The style is typically “no-nonsense”; they appear to be invigorated by a level of versatility and “hunger” that is non-bureaucratic and refreshing. It’s as if, nothing really matters (for them) any more.  They want to do the right things, the right way – in the right amount of time.

As we emerge from yet another economic downturn,  leaders look at their organizations building them with talent that provides both, immediate results and long term competitive advantage. The key characteristics desired  to shape our organizations are: creative problem solving, with speed, which can provide a significant source of competitive advantage in organizations, big and small.

The competitive dynamics that are core to any business environment, stem from either dramatic cost reduction (example: Wal-Mart) or new “leap frog” solutions (think IPods from Apple) – in either case, if you are not way ahead of the competition, someone’s most likely to “eat your lunch”. To win in atypical competitive battles, and duel with inevitable economic downturns, we need to have in our teams, folks who have couragously dealt with signficant adversity in their personal or professional lives. 

It’s not that, only experiences in adversity makes one a strong leader; however,  strong leaders, with the experience of adversity, turn out to be exceptional leaders when things go wrong in our complicated and constantly changing world. Adverse personal conditions can be a source of both personal strength and organizational competitive advantage.

Difficulty with Endings: October 2009

At every step of life, and almost at every school learn many ways to start new things… a new adventure, a new relationship, a new business; very few, if any, has taught us to understand, when an end is near and how to call it quits, gracefully.
It has always amazed me to think why we have such difficulty with endings; it could be our Abrahamic faith views life very discretely, with a distinct beginning and an end, and therefore, why worry about this unpleasant ending scenario? Or, simply, it could be the western inclination of our values that views ending and death as a failure of some sorts, thereby negating any need for training to gracefully and meaningfully, close a chapter in our lives or its enterprises.

Whatever it maybe, such fear of endings leaves us completely unprepared to diagnose when things are getting close to end and thereby paralyzing us with fear of calling it quits even though, in our hearts, we may know that such a venture or a relationship maybe untenable in the long run.

In my leadership roles, I have known people whose current role was about to end very soon; the only person who seems oblivious to this fact is the incumbent in the role. It is not his fault; he walks around the office with a bullseye on his back without anyone ever telling him that it doesn’t matter how hard he tries, this role is not going to continue for long.

Similarly, a pet project, that may have run its course, often needs to be cut-off before they become gargantuan in size and drain the organization both financially and emotionally.

I know the leader of a company who had a pet project that was not supported by many of his business leaders. The leader personally championed the project and poured millions into it. At the end, the project cost a lot more and never really delivered on its promised results. The leader lost his job as a consequence of such a large undertaking, during a transitional time in the marketplace. More importantly, no one in the organization had the “heart” to tell him that this project was headed downhill and could eventually lead to his downfall.

Both professionally and personally, it is very important to let our instincts guide us; if one is not enjoying something, work or personal, it’s probably not working right. By no means, this means that if you had a bad day at work, you should go and quit (I know some people who are prone to do that too); but if you have had a bad year at work, you should clearly question yourself and have the discussion with your peers and boss about what’s wrong with this situation. If you don’t, they will most likely bring this to your attention, soon. It is very likely, that they are not thinking about the same things and once they decide to talk to you, it’s already too late for you;  at that point, you have very little control on the outcome.

In one of my business roles, I had one of the best jobs of growing a business, both globally and organically through new products and “white space” entries. Over five years, I enjoyed considerable success in this role of moving the organization forward, and in return, building wonderful relationships with one of the most talented group of people I have ever worked with.

There came a time though, that I realized, I had accomplished what I came for couldn’t see a “next step”; As realization set in, I actually decided that I need to create options for myself. This was a really sad moment because I had a hard time separating my emotions from what was practical and necessary. However, once I crossed that bridge, I went and talked to people and within a very reasonable time frame, had three wonderful opportunities pop up that met both my personal and professional needs.

Lesson learned, at this juncture, was that it’s very important for one to create options. This allows one to look at things objectively. You may never exercise the option, but the fact that you have them, allows you both flexibility and provides mental leverage. Without well planned options, one is likely to feel trapped and unable to think objectively about how to get out of such a mental barrier.

Why do things change and why do good things come to an end? Why can’t we just “keep the good times rollin’”?

Of course, we wish that all good things keep going forever; however, every fun party has to end at some point; things change; people change; the environment around us changes constantly. Sometimes, things we did in an early stage of our careers (or relationships) were fine for that time frame. As people (and environments) change, we are sometimes unable to identify and adapt to these changes or our expectations may change, all of which lead to disappointments. Our children grow up and have different expectations from the world than we did.

One of the very powerful questions I have found helping me in changing situations (both personal and professional) is: knowing what I know today, would I start this (particular project)? If the answer is negative, I try to re-evaluate the strategy or seek alternatives to improve the scenario.

By no means am recommending that one abandons their responsibilities, but I think it is critical to evaluate alternatives and seek balance.While there are many things beyond our control, I also believe in the power of perseverance and effort to “right wrongs”. We owe it to ourselves, and those who care for us, to make things right. One always has choices; make it work right, or get out of it.

At the end of the day, we have one life to live. Life’s too short to live miserably, have meaningless conversations or do things you detest in the first place.

When you decide to do the right thing, and end this journey, let’s do it with grace, dignity and holding our head held high. Not everyone will be happy with our decision;  however, in the long run it will be the best for us and those we love.

Even if we don’t have a choice about whether we will live long, we do have a choice to live Big!