Wednesday, November 05, 2014

The Business Of Thinking

This did hurt because I still remember it after a good seventeen years. As a young professional, appraisals meant a lot to me. This was my first year at a big brand company, and we had come through a difficult year with flying colours. And, I thought I did particularly well. Starting at a point when we were definitely trailing the competition, the business in my territory had a remarkable turnaround, expanding geographically and posting impressive like-for-like sales. Personally, I fought it out too: I was competitive and did everything I could to ensure that we trounce the competition. We worked well in teams, and my team won the best team awards in the company through the season. So, I was expecting a grand review, a promotion etc.

The review was good and I did get the promotion. Senior Managers came and complimented me, and one of them told me something that became a permanent fixture in my vanity, that I was the best Marketer in the country. But I did not get the blank sheet that I expected as far as the improvement areas are concerned (yes, I did expect to hear that I was perfect when I was young). It came with a single observation, almost as if my boss had to write something to balance out all the praises, but a potentially damaging one: Tendency to philosophise at work needs to be put in check!

In those years of runaway growth, in a company which was growing fast and was adored by its customers, the tendency to philosophise was a cardinal sin. Everyone simply acted. We did not have time to think about the social, ethical or even practical long term implications of what we did. To ensure that we trump the competition, I did create an extensive system of corporate espionage, knowing competition's every move well in advance, and even at some point, through a business partner, had access to their entire customer list. I did run an advertising campaign which was ethically borderline, justified only by the fact that the competitors were doing the same or worse. We congratulated ourselves that we won because we were smarter, which we certainly were, and never really thought about what we were doing. Being smarter, ruthlessly efficient, being in control, were the values that we appreciated, and being a philosopher could not have sounded worse.

I indeed protested, somewhat justifiably because I thought I was fiercely competitive: My boss somewhat conceded the point that I was competitive, but nevertheless won't budge on the observation that I tend to think too much about my actions. I was told that rather than trying to prove the allegation baseless, I should focus on the next year, which commenced already. It was a Catch-22: If I didn't protest, I accept that I philosophise; if I did, I proved it.

As life moved on, I would live a very action-oriented life: I would start businesses, migrate to another country, go back to school, build networks from scratch. I shall also discover the word 'reflection' and pride myself to be a 'reflective' professional. Indeed, my reflective practise will grow into a full-scale enterprise in my blog, which started as a creative writing exercise but wouldn't have been sustained for the ten years it did if I didn't turn this into one long conversation about my work. But that infamy of being accused of 'philosophizing' remained with me. I shall bring it up many years later in a conversation with my former manager when I saw her again, who had by then forgotten all about it. When I confessed to her how touchy I still was about this, she complimented me, as if to console, that I was the most intelligent person she had ever worked with; and then, as if to relive the past, she added that I should remember that intelligence was a double-edged sword. It was deja vu all over again!

But this is more than my personal story. Over time, as I travelled, saw several businesses from inside and outside, I came to see my personal predicament as a part of a general paradox. To put it simply, that while businesses claim that they want their people to think, they don't. Business is supposed to be action-oriented, at least in its current popular American-inspired version. In fact, the precise value the business form of organisation brings to the society is its ability to get things done. This is the underlying reason when public services such as hospitals fail, we clamour for privatisation and put our faith on businesses sorting it out. This is the sense we convey when we say something is business-like, or not. This is what Vice Chancellors in universities today want to adopt, and be action-orientated, and discard the traditionally valued Socratic styles.

But, at the same time, I have seen, particularly because I worked in start-ups and businesses going global (and sometimes both), that such an approach is decidedly inadequate. The first problem is that when the outside world is complex and uncertain, focusing solely on doing leads businesses into deeper holes. This is the sort of attitude that many of the commentators observing global businesses coming into India or China (read Rama Bijapurkar, for example) complain about. Because they have no license to think, the only question they ask when entering these markets is how to fit the market into their strategy. They have no time to lose pondering about strategy, and then they lose all the time and money because they entered, as in markets like India and China, a 'never-before world' (Ms Bijapurkar's term).

Indeed, I generalise: These companies entering new marketplaces have very sophisticated strategic planning departments which do indeed work on the plans. And, here is perhaps my broader point. All companies want their people to think, because thinking is as much as an essential part of business as doing, but the currently popular model is that thinking is done by a brain-trust inside the company. This was indeed the case of the company I worked for seventeen years ago: Their specially designated R&D departments did some of the most esoteric thinking that were way ahead of its time and only getting traction now; their senior managers went out every quarter to discuss strategy and came up with clear plans. Yet, they failed, as do many other businesses, to spot shape-shifting trends in the market, just as the companies entering India and China spend millions of dollars in crafting strategies in mountain resorts of Switzerland, that do not work. And, this is because, I have come to believe, that thinking is not an isolated activity.

So, this exclusive brain-trust for thinking is an unthinking model in itself. This may have been good for, to use a cliche, twentieth century tasks with predictable outcomes, but completely out of sync with twenty-first century tasks where creative abilities are the key. To give an example, if I did what I did to thwart the competition seventeen years ago, I would expose my company to a far greater reputational danger than I did then: I am not denying it was edgy then, but today they may unleash a Facebook furore. My company was better off me thinking, and contributing into their thinking, then; it would be absolutely suicidal not to do it today.

I usually plead to the businesses I know to create a thinking culture all across the company, and integrate their hiring, doing and reviewing models around the same (and to make 'ability to philosophise' a good thing in appraisals). However, there remain two significant paradigmatic issues in achieving such a culture. The first is that an execution culture is antithetical to thinking: We want our people to do rather than think, businesses often say. Second is this brain-trust model, that some people are good at thinking and they should do all the thinking, rather than everyone chipping in. But both of these insurmountable problems on the way to a thinking culture are connected to our inherent model of thinking, represented best perhaps by Rodin's Thinker, who is solitary, inactive and self-absorbed. However, in real life, most of our finest thinkers are within people, doing the work and soaking up ideas from other people: We have numerous expositions, in academic research and business culture, which point that thinking is a social, active and creative occupation. And, once we accept this model of thinking, we may start accepting that the people most qualified to think are those who are closest to work; or, if that offends the inherently hierarchical idea of human civilisation some people may have, even they should accept that if possible, if those doing the work could do the thinking, it would produce the best outcome.

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