Thursday, December 22, 2011

Are We Hiring for the Right Reasons?

Had a long chat with an entrepreneur friend yesterday.  He had set up a concept restaurant which was extremely successful and he wanted the business to grow for which he needed people. Was discussing with him on what he was looking for a person who would manage his operations. In what would have been a typically short "job description" defined role tuned out to much more that.

Which got me thinking. 
  • When we hire personnel, are we being strait jacketed by the job profile? 
  • Are we not looking at attributes which signify an average regular professional rather than an excellent one? 
  • Are we more bothered about what the person has done before? 
  • Don't we reject persons for what they have done and not what they can do?  
In a hurry to hire people who fit the job description we are not looking at people who can contribute much more. Here is a list of the criteria which I would look for in a person
  • Positive Attitude - To me the most important factor is finding people with the right attitude. You can teach a person all aspects of a job but no matter how good the person is, if he does not have the right outlook, no program will help. A person may have the aptitude but without the correct attitude the person is as good as a nobody. Hire for attitude and train for skills. Infact I rather hire a person with 0% aptitude and 100% attitude. The person can atleast contribute to the team, thereby to the success of the team. 'It is true that one rotten apple can spoil the rest'
  • Self Motivated/ Starter -These people require less supervision or any prodding to get the job done within the parameters set. Once the employee understands his responsibilities he/ she will work towards the completing the assignment at hand. Moreover self-motivated people will make efforts to learn new aspects and implement it.
  • Strong Self – Confidence - Believing in one self-separates the haves from the have-nots.  The personae of self-confident people can be infectious and inspire others. Self-confidence comes from understanding of the job/ role and also attitude.  They are not afraid to ask questions when they do not know. The self-confident person does what he/she feels is right and is willing to take risks. These people don't let mistakes affect their performance and instead learn from them. Most importantly they have faith in themselves. A team leader will find it difficult to manage each and every person but can hire people who can manage themselves.
  • Risk Taking Ability - The ability to take intelligent risks is an important ingredient in a person's success and a huge determinant in anybody's level of achievement.  Sub-optimal performers settle into their comfort zone and play safe, falling into endlessly recurring patterns. They stop challenging themselves in significant ways. By contrast, top performers are talented and persistent risk-takers.
  • Decision Making Skills - Taking decisions and that to in a timely manner is a necessity. Many employees prefer to leave the decision making to others. Both amounts to procrastination and hinders the progress of any project. 
  • Team Player - A team player is willing to be an active participant who shares openly and cooperates with the rest of the team, thereby respecting each individual in his team. He will show flexibility, communicate effectively and take a problem solver approach. For the greater good of the team he will be willing to put his personal objectives aside as it may contradict with the teams for the greater good.
  • Creativity/ Lateral thinking - As we move to the experience economy any job or project requires creativity in thinking especially in customer facing functions. Creativity is not restricted to the arts domain  but are also solutions to problems - for a sales person in the B2B space to a techie designing an app for the smartphones. A judicious mix of right and left brain is required in any professional. While the term 'out of the box' is often misused, it is becoming necessary for professionals to look at alternatives which are completely unique, different and away from the beaten path.
  • Failure - I have noticed that failure has always been the path to success. A failure is not a crime, the ability to learn from it contributes to lasting success. Failure will help people learn, let people look at various alternatives before arriving at a decision, and more importantly drives change in the way a person works or tackles problems. Failure also makes people work harder so that they are not repeated.  
  • Adaptability - The market is a dynamic place and by that extension so is the workplace. We need people who are adaptable to the constant flux.  Adaptability also means adapting to the personality and work habits of colleagues. By viewing change as an opportunity to complete work assignments in a more efficient manner, adapting to change can be a positive experience.
While I do not question the need to hire people with the necessary skill sets for the job, I feel we need to go beyond that. 

Monday, December 12, 2011

How the Nonsensical can be a Rage (Kolaveri Di)

It was on November 21, 2012 when a Tamil sounding phrase started trending on Twitter - #kolaveridi. I had innumerable friends on Facebook share the link to this phrase/ sound - over 6 million shares!
I thought this was a new virus which was multiplying really fast and many were getting suckered into it.

Fast forward two weeks hence, more than 18 million views on You Tube from over 140 countries. This song was a rage. A frail looking man singing ' nonsense' as he called it himself, to a folksy beat! A song which had pretensions of being a Tamil song - but 90% of the lyrics were in English!

On a personal note, I thought it was a inane English song, with absolute illogical lyrics and the only saving grace was the Koothu ( a Tamil beat/ music) beat. See and hear it for yourself  -

The numbers speak for themselves and to get so many people interested in a song takes something. Social media and other online devices are effective tools to communicate the song/ content. They serve to distribute the content and create a viral. But it took more than that to create such a hit. A look at some of the reasons:

  • Focused Target Audience
    • With 50% of India under the age of 30, the chances are that anything that appeals to that age group is sure to be a success. The funny thing is that even the above 30s want to feel young and aspire to be a part of the age group. This song hit the right chord with the youth and young at heart.

  • Uniqueness
    • Natural feel (if not impromptu) - The song had no exotic dances, no oomph nor any of the typical attractions which represent a film song. The element of glamour was missing and present. There seemed to be a natural ring around it. It showed some talented individuals (forget their pedigree) joining together and creating a song. The typical film sequences which you expect around a film song were absent. The presence of glamour came from the individuals - many of them stars in their own right, in non filmi surroundings. In an indirect way the film was underplayed.

    • Transcending language barriers -The song appealed to many sections of the multi lingual Indian population or the diaspora. English is largely understood by most in India. The lyrics of the song were not jingoistic and was not restricted to the typical south Indian populace.  Infact earlier songs which a mix of Tamil and English like 'Urvashi Urvashi, Take It Easy Policy', 'Mukkabala O Laila' and 'Mustafa Mustafa, Don't Worry Mustafa'  have all been fairly successful. It is the adoption of such lyrics which transcended language barriers which led to easy comprehension and adoption. 

  • Simplicity
    • Lyrics - Cow-u Cow-u and Moon-u Moon-u, all inane but simple lyrics-u! Even a kid like my son could sing this song. Why even Nivaan - Sonu Nigam's young son, could sing it! There was no deep understanding required. 
    • Music -There is a pronounced absence of complicated instruments/notes in the song. The omnipresent sound of the percussion holds the song together. Any amateur singer could sing this with any surface serving as a percussion instrument. This clearly would be a hit with the bathroom singers!

  • Self -Identification
    • The youth of today will only feel connected when they can identify with it. From the use of youth stars/ icons to a cool quotient brought in by all components of the song.  In effect the song brought in stars from different backgrounds - Dhanush has a rebel, common man kind of image; Shruti Hassan comes from a very pedigreed background with a certain hip factor; Aishwarya came in from ' God's" family and Anirudh was all of 21.  The diversity of the stars was tied in together by the song. The diversity blended in. 

  • Imagery
    • The way the whole song has been put together has a certain hip factor to it.  Youngsters in the video convey a certain 'I don't care a damn' attitude. And what's more they seem happy doing what they are doing. The cool quotient ranked very high. 

In conclusion this was a brilliant execution of marketing both the idea and the execution tied in together to create a rage. While the producers may have never expected the song to be such a hit, unwittingly they have hit the right notes!

Monday, December 05, 2011

What Modern Trade can Learn from Mom & Pop (Kirana)

Enough has been said about the FDI in retail (in India). And my views are very clear. I also strongly believe that the Indian players can stand the might of MNCs and infact capitalize on the efficiencies which these MNCs will bring to the table.
For the uninitiated, kiranas are shops that cater to the regular needs of food, grocery and also products like paan, cigarettes etc. within a locality/catchment area. There are also others like the headload and pushcart vendors.

Globally, as modern trade expanded, both organised retail players and unorganised retail participants have co-existed. The Walmarts and Costcos have co existed with the mom and pop stores (in India these are  called kiranas). I do believe that there is no reason why it cannot co-exist here in India.

However there are a few factors apart from systemic deficiencies which have worked in the favor of kiranas or the local store owner/vendor. 

Personalized service
  • Personal/ social touch
    • Ashraff, the person who runs our neighbourhood store knows all our family - where we stay, what we buy and our tastes. There is friendly banter and a relationship not just based on transactions. If he is free, he will discuss with you, the issues in the area and also about his family. When shopping ceases just to be transactional and more social, then the relationship has moved to the next level. Shopping becomes more a social activity rather than a mundane one. 
  • Knowledge of buying habits
    • Ashraff has a pulse on the consumer behaviour in our area.  He has a detailed understanding of consumers’ shopping preferences and habits - he knows what will sell, who will buy it and even at times when they will buy it. Even if a product is not available he will ring up the distributor and then tell you when he will get it. This level of knowledge is something modern trade needs to obtain. Analytics etc. are tools to facilitate this and while I do think it will be difficult to replicate in modern trade, a fair degree can be reached.
Daily top ups
Kiranas meet the needs of consumers who need to do daily top-ups of select food and grocery items. While the variety will be limited by virtue of size, kiranas keeping track are able to supply the daily and immediate needs. Modern retail formats offer the ability/ facility to buy several SKUs under one roof, but facilities do not exist to supply the customer daily/ immediate needs. The system needs to be re-engineered to work around this.

Order through telephone 

Given the proximity and relationship, we can call Ashraff and ask him for the products we want. We do not need to go physically there.

Home delivery
Within some time, we will have what we asked for at our doorstep. This kind of service endears us to the kirana. The convenience is unparalleled and sees us avoiding a lot of time and trouble to get the products home.  Modern trade can surely steal a page out of Ashraff's notebook and replicate with modifications ofcourse!

Ashraff allows us to pay once a month. I don't have to take my wallet each and every time. Actually he is smart, since I don't pay immediately, I end up purchasing much more than I require. A gentle upsell!

There are certain aspects which large departmental stores cannot replicate and hence there will always be a necessity for kiranas. The best which modern trade can do is to customize their services taking the key learnings from kiranas with the hope that the twain shall meet someday.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Why is the Indian Consumer Being Shortchanged? - An Opinion on Retail FDI

On November 24, the Union Cabinet decided to permit 100% foreign direct investment (FDI) in single-brand outlets and 51% in multi-brand stores. The opposition as well as some allies of the UPA have been vehemently opposing the decision, saying it would affect the small shopkeepers (kiranas), demanding a reversal of decision.

India has been known as the nation of shopkeepers, for every 1000 people there are 11 shops, and these shops include the paanwallah, sabziwallah, the barber etc. Unlike other nations which have densities of around 5 (UK and USA), the Indians are serviced far better by the neighbourhood store. According to a study by industry body FICCI, the total retail trade in India was worth Rs 11,00,000 crore in 2003. Of the approximately 12 million retail shops, 96% occupy floor space of less than 500 sq ft.

With over 120 crore consumers India is a land of opportunity, modern trade has only tapped 5% of the business. This is just a start. 

The proliferation of the neighborhood stores is to exploit the systemic deficiencies in India. Poor supply chain, poor cost control, archaic rules etc. have resulted in a mushrooming of such stores. Agreed that the there are certain outlets like the paanwallah which cannot be replaced.

The lacunae in the system cannot be reasons for the opposition from the 'opposition'.  Some of the issues which will be tackled are:

Supply Chain

  • Thanks to our public distribution system, more than 50% of the production goes waste or is siphoned off illegally . More than a third of the fresh produce goes waste because of lack of distribution.  Rs. 8,000,000 crore is worth of farm produce traded annually through a network of 28000 wholesale agents and primary rural markets and 7500 regulated markets across the country. Wastage is high because India has only 5400 cold storages most of which are used for potatoes. Imagine 50% of produce going waste!
  • Moreover in the existing supply chain there are 7 layers between the farmer and end consumer resulting in a commission or added cost

  • It has been projected that with efficient SCM, thanks to modern retail, there will be a  reduction in layers from 7 to 4.
  • There will be a huge reduction in wastage and thereby improve earnings for the farmers to the tune of 15%
  • End consumer prices may also be reduced due to increased efficiency
    • Columbia University, in a study has mentioned that inflation can be controlled.
  • Indirectly agricultural  productivity which was  far below potential would work towards maximizing outputs as the life of the produce would increase. So in non seasonal months - agri produce could be sold. Seasonal fluctuations could be avoided

Archaic Rules

  • A law which was meant to help farmers but proved to be a bane is the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) Act. Rather than protect the interest of the farmers it is the middle men who gained from this. With a 70 - 80% increase between farm and final store prices, the middlemen make the maximum money. 

  • With the middlemen ruling the roost, reduction in this will actually benefit both the end consumer with lesser prices and farmers with more earnings (pl refer earlier example)


  • With only 5% of trade covered by modern retail there is huge potential for more employment. Experts feel that FDI in the  retail sector will boost employment and has the potential to create about 80 lakh jobs in the country.


  • Efficiency is the crux of the retail business. Single digit margins are achieved by use of expertise gained over the years. This expertise requires huge investments in technology and other infrastructure. Given the experience till date, Indian companies have only scratched the surface and they lack the capital to take modern trade to the next plausible level. Hence it becomes more imperative that the FDI will bring in the necessary financial investments.

The Chinese Story
When China opened up its retail industry  in 1992, it brought in over $22-billion FDI in the span of a decade.  Today, 40 foreign retailers with hundreds of local retailers make up a $1-trillion industry, expected to double in five years.  The retail industry grew at 19.4% annually since 1992.

Interestingly traditional outlets increased (not decreased) from 1.9 million to 2.6 million over a five-year period. Retail employment shot up from 4% to 7% of the labour force.

The Indian Story (Other)
Whenever we talk about opening up the market there is talk about selling our soul to the devil. It seems to be a crime to ask a foreign company to do the job more efficiently.

In 1991,  the then-finance minister Dr. Manmohan Singh opened up the economy much to the disdain of the naysayers. The results speak for themselves - GDP growth has accelerated from just 1¼% in the three decades after Independence to 7½% currently, a rate of growth that will double average income in a decade.

Every industry which has been opened up from electronics to automotive have only served to increase the options for consumers. With stiff competition, Indian players have also played catch up and are giving their foreign counterparts a run for their money. 

Final Shots

  •  Why should the end consumer pay the price for inefficiency?
  • Why should they pay the price so that certain sections (especially the politically connected) are able to fatten their bank balances? 
  • Why should these few hold hostage to the majority?

Do we want to perpetuate the past or take the future road to prosperity?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Copy Cats - Copying Can Be Cool

There is an aura about innovation. To be called an innovator is a big ego boost. It creates a superiority complex and there is a rarefied air around the innovator.
On the flip side I wonder how many like being called Copy Cat or Not Original?  Not very cool and certainly not a tag which you would like to have.
But if you look at successful companies and products there are a list of them which have been very very successful.

The dream of many - Apple had copied the Mouse and also the GUI ( Graphical User Interface from Xerox  PARC). Infact PARC did sue Apple but lost out to due some technicalities. The first Apple Macintosh was inspired by the GUI.

The list from Microsoft is huge.  MS Basic copied Tiny Basic. MS DOS copied CPM-86. Windows copied the early Mac OS. Word copied WordPerfect. Excel copied Lotus 1-2-3. Access copied FoxPro. Windows Server copied Novell Netware. Exchange copied Lotus Notes. Internet Explorer copied Netscape Navigator. C# and .net copied Java.

Rumour has to Google copied bits from iOS for its Android.  Not surprised that Jobs was livid with Google especially since Eric Schmidt the erstwhile CEO of Google was on the board of Apple.

It is not that even consumer products have not faced this. Closer home the big daddy- Unilever copied Henkel's Fa in India and called it Liril. The marbled effect, the shape, the colors and the fragrances were copied. Why even the advertising jingle was copied. The success of Liril is the story of lore in India.

Modern trade chains regularly  successfully copy products from established manufacturer brands.

There are a string of products/ molecules copied by pharmaceutical manufacturers which have helped bring down costs and increase distribution

There are examples aplenty of how many brands/ products have been copied of inspired by others.  The key implications are:
  • There is no harm in copying provided IP is not violated.
  • The copier can give a better a product/ value than the original creator.
    •   Microsoft was smart to learn from the mistake of others launch a products with was far more acceptable and then use the leadership (near monopoly) position to ensure that customers adopted the software.
  •  Success does not come from creating a product/ service but reaching and providing value to a customer.
  •   Leverage customer accessibility to increase value to customer
    • Distribution costs especially in the online world is negligible.
    •  Modern trade chains have access to a set of customers and hence can provide products which compete and provide more value to the end consumer.

I, Me, Myself - Personalization Will Drive Businesses of Tomorrow

Couldn't help overhear a conversation between two mothers complaining about their children - " This is generation is so self centered, all they think about is themselves".

We had done a dipstick amongst our customers and asked them what merchandise they wanted in our cafes and many of them asked for personalized products - products which had their name, customized to suit their requirements.

The two examples are very significant of the orientation and inclination of customers across segments. Consumer behavior has changed from buying a product which was made for everybody to a product which made for 'me'. 

Actually the Internet is all about personalised experiences. We get information when we want it, at a time convenient to us and customized to a large extent.

Look at the way Internet products have evolved. First we had the general all encompassing portals like Yahoo; then came the language portals and specialized portals; following it came the messengers and chat; and finally came products which focused on the individual like iGoogle. These products or experiences centred around giving the user, services and information which he/ she wants and not a generalized one. 

Facebook, Twitter etc. are all about communicating one's own thoughts and actions. It is not surprising that these have been a hit with most of world's Internet friendly inhabitants.

Loosely put, even the form factors of Internet access have changed. The smartphones and tablets are manifestations of the personalized behavior. Once upon a time we accessed the net through the large PCs (infact one PC was shared by many) and now we access the net through our phones!

High end hotels & resorts are looking at personalizing your experience at their properties. The loyalty programs have morphed into relationship programs which gathers information on the food you eat, the rooms you like and many other personal preferences. Infact some airlines have also done so for some of their premium class frequent fliers.

Even some iconic brands have got into the act. 

Australia went into a frenzy. Coke was seeing diminishing sales in the youth market. And they personalized Coke! In the first stage 150 different Coca-Cola bottles were released, each with a different name. Using the most popular names in Australia- Matt, Jack, John, Steve, Mary, William, Isabella, and Chloe among others, each name was written boldly on the bottle in the Coke font. And naturally as soon as these bottles reached the shop shelves they were picked up. The second stage involved 18 chosen shopping centers, where you could go to have your name printed. People waited hours to get their 'own' bottle.

Lego went a step ahead. They allowed customers to take a photograph of their choice. Lego would develop a set which will allow everyone to view the same picture built through a customized Lego set of blocks. 
Custom Stamps

Governmental organisations are not far behind. The Japanese postal service took the lead in releasing personalized stamps. Go to the Japan Post's website, and design your very own stamp. Within few minutes you have your own personalized stamp which is legally valid!
All brands need to adopt techniques and technology in which they will be able to personalize their experiences. Apparel brands will need to offer bespoke services, cars are already being customized (sorry Ford), Food is made - made to order and unique. Examples can be reeled out but the reality is that with the 'I, Me, Myself' generation the uniqueness is 'I, Me, Myself'!

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Humanoid Machines or Mechanized Humans

The other day I was talking to a few friends from the retail business. They were mentioning the importance of processes and systems. It made life easier for the team on the shop floor and catered to nearly all situations. When one of their wives very innocently asked - ' But what about the human touch ?'.

Across all businesses we have been making efforts to streamline and remove variables arising out of the 'humanness' of service. The motto seems to be the same service wherever you go.

Was flipping through the pages of the newsletter from the robotics department of a large university and the objective there was to humanize the robots. Loads of time and energy have gone into research across many educational and research establishments. Imagine a machine which behaved just like a human!

What a strange conundrum!

We want humans to behave more and more like machines and on the other hand we want machines to behave more and more like humans.

Individually, each example I had mentioned earlier, seemed relevant and necessary but when the twain meets  (and seems a possibility) it will present to us - the next conundrum : whom do we choose or do we go back to where we started?

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Cut the Crap - How Brevity is in Fashion Now!

Was in a meeting the other day with a client when he told me that since he did not have the time could I describe our proposition in 5 minutes. And to think we had prepared a presentation which detailed our offerings. And while he was interested; you see - he did not have the time!

It's the world of keeping it short, keeping it brief - brevity is the key!

You look around and you will see brevity touching our lives in more ways than one! A snapshot.
  • Relationships -
    • Kim Kardhashian may take the cake for her marital longevity (or shortness) but in the age of quick relationships and 'wham bham thank you ma'am' one night hook ups, relationships are fleeting and so is commitment. No wonder divorces and break ups are increasing. Partners change within days.                                                                                                                                  
  • Clothing -
    • Dressing less. Skin is in. For both sexes. Cleavages are common and so is the decreasing hem line. The motto seems the lesser the better - the oomph factor aside!
  • Communication -
    • Look at any print ad. The copy if any is limited and the visual is large. The effort is the communicate the message in a jiffy. Long copy is long gone!
    • The micro blogging site - twitter is a clear way how the world is portending. 140 characters and that's it! 
    • Texting on mobiles - SMS and BBM. 'Whtevr hppnd 2 gud engl?'                                                              
  • Sport
    • Even sport has evolved into shorter formats.
    • Cricket has the T20 formats and even a Super Sixer tournament. 
    • Field Hockey has a 9 side game with shorter fields and shorter game formats. 
    • Golf has a speed version
    • So does Rugby, Chess etc.
  • Business -
    • Earlier we had announcement of full year or annual results, then it became half yearly and now this has been further shortened to a quarter. I wouldn't be surprised if analysts start asking for a monthly number. What is even more surprising is that the same analysts will talk about long term strategy of a company
    • No wonder many employees have a short term focus. They are only bothered about the immediate results and do not have a long term perspective. I know of people who will work for an organization only for 2 years after which they move greener pastures. 
    • Even the presentation to investors have now become famous with the 'elevator pitches'. 
  • Religion - 
    • Even God has been given a shorter shrift. Churches, temples and seen shorter services and ceremonies. Nobody has the patience to communicate to god for a long time. 

Why is there a brevity syndrome?
  • Information overload (thanks to Toffler!) - With an ever increasing dosage of information which can be a deluge at times, people are bombarded with disparate information. They have to sieve through all of that to pick out the best. As we speak there are some 7 business news channels in India alone apart from the multitude of international and national news channels ( both English and local language)
  • Attention deficit  - As people have to do multiple things at one time and receive stimuli in different forms it is difficult to sort all of it. Hence people are not able to focus on any one bit of information. This lack of focus percolates everywhere.
  • Spoiled for Choice - Any person has a bewildering array of choices across any aspect from relationships to machines. The variety creates both confusion and disdain alike. 
  • Paucity of Time - Multi-tasking, pressure, double careers other interests - all euphemisms for a lack of time to spend and dwell on subjects.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Marketing is an Ongoing Love Affair

Why can't we have a commonsensical approach to business in general and marketing in particular? We have this habit of complicating things way beyond what is necessary. There are instances when marketing managers get into an intellectual masturbation by using data points, pie charts and cross tabs without there being any reason for it. Graphs and data are meant for clarity and not to confuse.

What is marketing? It is a relationship which you build with your customer through various means/ devices. And coming to think of it pretty much like a love affair!

Since I am experienced in these worldly matters let me explain.
  • You need to decide which girl is right for you. Some are good and some are not the match - Consumer Research 

  • Based on your thoughts you have an idea who she is. You decide to focus on her - Target Audience 

  • Then starts the huge task of wooing her. You ask her out for dates, meetings, etc. At every right moment you try to connect with her. You obviously show your best behavior - Advertising/ Direct Marketing/ Promotion 

  • She has many people wooing her and you are one of them - Consideration Set & Competition 

  • Since you have show you are the best  you are obviously showcasing the best in you - USP & Product Benefits 

  • Obviously she is impressed with you and decides that she likes you amongst the various guys she knows - Consumer Adoption & Purchase

  • Once she decides to date you starts the next phase. She does not like to be ignored . She needs to be listened to, her needs to be addressed - Customer Service 

  • Once in a while since you have to be the best for her and you decide to make her feel special again by buying some goodies like roses, gifts, treating her on special days and not so special days - Customer Relationship Program 

  • An investment now will last a lifetime and the returns can be good like marriage and..... - Lifetime Value 

  • In case she says she has had it with you, she dumps you! - Customer Dissatisfaction. Yuck! Maybe she was not the correct TA! 

  • You woo her back, you correct your mistakes - Service Recovery
I could go on and on but then again this blog is not to confuse but show how simple marketing is! Actually marketing begins in your own backyard! There are small and big examples around you, relate to them and then solve problems.

Marketing was never easy but then again neither was maintaining a relationship! You have to keep working on it and working on it!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Learning from the Business of Crime

(Note: I do not subscribe to criminal activities nor am I justifying them. Such activities are anathema to me.)

I was narrated a very interesting anecdote by my friend. An acquaintance of his was asked to consult with a man of questionable credentials (from a business perspective). While the acquaintance was deflecting the topic of working with the man, finally the man spoke up and actually said - “In my kind of work only one thing works and that is trust. Without trust we cannot survive".  The acquaintance was surprised and later took the assignment and it was to her, one of her best.

In a world of increasing competition between companies and between employees within these companies, business relationships are guarded and safe guarded by legalese. Reams of papers with clauses and sub clauses bind these relationships. On the other hand, crime and criminals are held together by the minimum of documents (for fear of being caught and providing fodder for prosecution). They are infact held together primarily by trust which relies largely on a verbal agreement.  Incidentally there are high risks involved in such an agreement. Many of the institutional safeguards designed to compensate for the consequences of, such as the legal system (which comprises of courts, police and other sanctioned bodies like law enforcement agencies) are unavailable.  Trust, it is said, reduces the uncertainty regarding the behaviour of potential accomplices to a tolerable level and thereby stimulates the willingness to co-offend (Weerman 2003; Zaitch 2002). The importance of trust is best highlighted by Nkilas Luhmann  "Without trust, only very simple forms of human cooperation which can be transacted on the spot are possible, and even individual action is much too sensitive to disruption to be capable of being planned, without trust, beyond the immediately assured moment. Trust is indispensable in order to increase a social system's potential beyond these elementary forms"

Apart from this there is need and also a tendency of the criminals to be part of the 'clan' - a kind of kinship which explains to a large extent the trust factor between them. Kinship creates a sense of belonging and it is this feeling which drives criminals to stick together. Infact kinship and the resultant trust is a competitive advantage in the crime business. These bonds created through kinship are seen largely in the organized crime business which functions much like a parallel corporate business without the professionalism.

Given the situations these persons work in, it is without doubt extremely difficult. Fear exists of being caught unaware, fear of being caught by the legal system, fear of being caught by rivals, fear of no legal recourse and last but not the least the fear of the ultimate punishment - death!  It is in these extreme emotional conditions that these criminals are expected to perform efficiently. Working under pressure usually separates the men from the boys.

Apart from the emotional angle the very same conditions along with the fact that most activities have to conduct clandestinely makes it even more taxing physically.

In a corporate scenario, in the failure of a relationship and especially if it gets nasty, the option to turn legal always exists and hence the need to such have long drawn out legal agreements. In the criminal world it is less if not non-existent. Infact as is seen by the documentation the Indian legal system has been able to implicate so called powerful politicians. Since the criminal system eschews documentation - any break down in relationships/ dealings cannot go the legal way. However justice in this case can be drastic.

Failure to commit a task or even breaking the trust (in different ways) can result in retribution which can be also of the final order - life threatening. In such a scenario where punishment can be in the crudest form of emotional and physical torture, the downsides are very very high!

While I do not have to delve deep into the various factors which I have listed above with respect to the regular corporate world, there are times when I do think that corporate life can be 'not so pleasant' if not a vicious experience - a political minefield so to speak. Factors such as trust, belonging etc., seem to be a memory of the distant past. One-upmanship seems to be the order of the day. It is important for any organization to function as a team/ family. Disparate messages create dissonance.

I have noticed that people are not committed to the cause of the organization, they are merely there as travelers. They are not bothered by failure and look at short term goals. When time for analysis comes in - the person is long gone!

With such a dynamic and rapidly changing environment it become more than imperative to roll up one's sleeves and face the battle in the marketplace. Business today can be emotionally and physically draining. The rules of business are constantly changing and it is best to be prepared for it. Many employees come in with the intention of taking it easy!

It is for us to take the better parts of the criminal system to understand where we stand in the 'real' world. There is no substitute for hard work and there cannot be a parallel system. However it is startling that the parallel economy is half the size of the main economy in India! Therein lies the success and the worry!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

KISS - Keep it Simple Stupid! (The Complexity of Simplicity)

When I was in school I remember my mom telling me to clear up my table which was always cluttered. Arrange your books, toys etc. It would be easy to search. Very simple straight forward thinking!

Imagine the plight when you cannot find what you want – it is physically and mentally exhausting. Where is it? Where else can it be? It is not surprising that someone has theorised that that clutter is actually emotionally exhausting too. As humans are constantly scanning their environment, the more the clutter the more the physical and mental power needed to process.

In the present day world how I wish everyone followed mom’s thinking. It’s greed. What the &%*$?  Humans want more and more. Be it money, be it food, be it gadgets or be it anything. And this thought has percolated into all parts of life. From the simple water tap to the technologically superior television. I have had instances where we had TVs with 200 channels but we do not use more than 30. I look at the TV remote and wonder if this is from outer space. Look at the PC keyboard and I notice I don’t use many functions as I don't understand them.

Why and how is it that all the things that were supposed to make our lives so easy instead made them more complex? Why is so much technology still so hard? And the more we want – the more complex it gets.

Interestingly the consumer behaviour polls say something unique.  In a 2002 poll, the Consumer Electronics Association discovered that 87% of people said ease of use is the most important thing when it comes to new technologies.

Philips deployed researchers in seven countries, asking nearly 2,000 consumers to identify the biggest societal issue that the company should address. The response was loud and urgent. "Almost immediately, we hit on the notion of complexity and its relationship to human beings," says Andrea Ragnetti, Philips's chief marketing officer. Consumers told the researchers that they felt overwhelmed by the complexity of technology. Some 30% of home-networking products were returned because people couldn't get them to work. Nearly 48% of people had put off buying a digital camera because they thought it would be too complicated.

This is probably the greatest human – innovation paradox:  We demand more and more from the stuff in our lives--more features, more uses, more functions, more power, more of XYZ --and yet we also increasingly demand that it be easy to use. It's a conundrum--between the need to load it with arguably cool features and the need to make it simple to use. How paradoxical it sounds when the sales pitch harps on “fully loaded” (features –yes! complexity – full loaded!)

One of the problems is that the engineers, marketing men and designers operate in silos that make delivering on the simplicity promise so hard. They are far removed from the demands of the customer or as in many instances one department holds sway over the other.

You can also blame it on arrogance. My son cannot figure out why both my wife and I go to him for some tech issues in our PC. He has an air – oh that’s simple, you could not get that?! And to be honest, I do it with my mom too. Some of the engineers and marketing folks cannot believe that are people who have problems even finding out the reset button on a mobile phone.  Some find it difficult to even use a Blackberry Messenger.

  • Blame it on competition wherein the order of the day is ‘mine is better than yours’. ‘My TV has more buttons on the remote than yours!!
  • Blame it on technology where the incremental cost to add features is minimal – thereby adding a little more becomes the order of day.
  • Blame it on a competitive landscape in which piling on new features is the easiest way to differentiate products, even if it makes them harder to use.
  • Blame marketers who don’t think "ease of use” is a USP.  It is easier for a marketer to market technology over ease of use. It’s sexy to talk technology; I don’t see any marketer saying it is sexy to talk ease of use.
  • I think technology itself is to be blamed for this. The chips and transistors get smaller and smaller making themselves more complex.

However there are few brands whose hallmark is simplicity and that according to me that has been the key success factor.

Google - The technology that powers Google as complex as it can get. I am told that in a few nano seconds, the software solves an equation of more than 500 million variables to rank 8 billion Web pages by importance. And  in the actual experience  all you get is a clean, white home page, typically featuring no more than 30 lean words; a cheery, six-character, primary-colored logo; and a simple  search box. It couldn't be friendlier or easier to use.

Compare this with its competition namely Yahoo & MSN/ Bing. Google's design has been mimicked on the search pages of MSN and Yahoo, whose portals are messy throwbacks to the "everything but the kitchen sink" school of Web design. ( However the Bing standalone page copies Google – imitation is the best form of flattery). The popularity of Google pretty much rests its case.

Apple – According to me, if I were to credit Jobs for anything it would be ‘ease of use’ in the Apple products.  Starting with the Mac to the now ubiquitous iPad, simplicity has been at the forefront at all levels. The product design – simple, clean & classy. User Interface – simple, common sensical and easy to use. Add ons – Easy to connect and again easy to use. For example – the mouse has only one clickable surface! (And Apple actually created the mouse).

There are other examples of too. Philips changed itself from an organizational and product perspective. Its famous campaign, christened "Sense and Simplicity," required that everything Philips did going forward be technologically advanced--but it also had to be designed with the end user in mind and be easy to use experience. Philips invited 15 customers to its Consumer Experience Research Centre in Bruges, Belgium, to see how they unpacked and set up a Flat TV. After watching people struggle to lift the heavy set from an upright box, designers altered the packaging so the TV could be removed from a carton lying flat on the ground.

How do you make your company's products simpler? The erstwhile CEO, Gerard Kleisterlee actually started by simplifying the company in 2002. Instead of 500 different businesses, Philips is now in 70; instead of 30 divisions, there are 5. Even in mundane things like business meetings have had a simplicity touch: The company forbids more than 10 slides in any PowerPoint presentation.

Often, when hearing about compelling user experiences, people immediately associate it with flashy productions with lots of visible bells and whistles.  And that’s a problem.

In a complicated world getting even more complicated, great user experiences don’t have to be flashy with infinite buttons on a remote to innumerable icons on your PC screen.  They need to be easy and obvious (as a reminder, feel free to go visit Google or Twitter).   Choose the right approach for what your user wants and needs and everyone will be happier and less distressed.

Oh! I am reminded of a phrase from the past  - KISS - Keep It Simple Stupid!

Sunday, October 09, 2011

What You Don't See is What You Want to See

Sitting back at a favorite restaurant of mine, was wondering what appetizers do. Do they stimulate your appetite or do they create a setting for better food to come?

Actually they do both. And funnily enough they are related. The appetizers set the tone, the tone for better food and the main course which we would expect to be even better than the appetizers.

I am sure we would have all heard ' you can't imagine' how good it was'. This will get us thinking as to how good it was!

Imagine a extremely attractive girl (and I'm talking from a male's point of view). There are two scenarios, in one she was fully clothed and in one she was at her sexy best - mini skirt, an appropriate cleavage and a generous amount of skin show. There are no guesses for what will grab your attention - skin!

(Since I am not sexist) This is pretty much like a strip tease by men. The women are teased and teased and teased for the expected end result. The very act is exciting for many. Just like some foreplay before sex!!!!!

Why is it so exciting? Humans by nature are inquisitive and curious. Inquisitiveness results in humans wanting to know more about what they have not seen or heard. Exactly why gossip is so exciting for many.

Pretty much like our canine & feline friends, we humans are thrilled by the  chase. Whatever comes easy is not as exciting. If we were to put a naked man/ woman next to a person who is undressing slowly I am pretty sure the latter will get the votes for excitement!

There are similar parallels to marketing especially communications. The more we tease the customer the more mileage we will get because humans by their innate sense of curiosity will try to want to know more. Case in point - Look at product launches like Iphone, Galaxy or Kindle Fire. All these launches were  shrouded in secrecy resulting in tantalizing amounts of speculation, rumors and grist. The hype creates more curiosity and..........

Pretty much like a teaser ad. Teasers can create excitement. If the question is why don't many brands use this? I think it is primarily out of commercial considerations. However many brands use Public Relation activities to drive this curiosity. And if properly done this can create a lot of buzz. Look at how Apple milks PR to provide fodder to the rumour mills! I m pretty sure that Apple by themselves will providing selective news bites which tickles the appetite of the public.

The motion picture industry has done a very good job of this. Just before a release, there is a blatant disregard of anything sensible; and consideration for everything sensational. There will be the traditional hero heroine link up, the spats between the stars, how the stars got injured and many other 'newsworthy' items.

Actually communication by itself is pretty much a teaser to the real thing. All advertising creates excitement towards the product/ service with the hope that customers will try them.( However, how advertising should be - is a topic for another time).

So for a marketer, the more curiosity you create, the more buzz, the more buzz the more curiosity, so on and so more!

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Blurring the Boundaries of Business

The Amazon Kindle Fire just set fire to the tech world. The pricing is exciting and the features very good. But what is a online merchant/ retailer doing with an Ipad competitor?

A few years earlier a software/ hardware manufacturer Apple had turned the music industry on it head by creating a gadget (ipod) which is made listening easy but more important that turned the distribution of music on its head. If that was not enough, Apple extended the same innovative thinking into a phone. the question was then whats a HW/SW company doing with phone? I don't think that really warrants an answer now!

The IT space has seen a transformation of sorts. IBM is a software services firm. Dell transcends both hardware and software and HP is confused. Consulting major Accenture has IT services and BPO wings.

Starbucks faces its biggest competition not from Caribou or Costa but from McDonald's and Dunkin Donuts. Whats a burger company doing with coffee? McCafe and I am told that do make a good cup of coffee.

In turn McDonald's faces its biggest threat from a brand which sells chicken - Col. Sanders creation - KFC aka Kentucky Fried Chicken which had its name shortened to expand into other categories than just chicken pieces. KFC sells some interesting burgers and other eats which directly takes the Big Mac head on.

If that was not enough, many brands especially in the premium and luxury space have transcended from their parent category to others. Benetton, FCUK, Nautica etc. has watches, foot wear amongst its product portfolio. Even in the formal/ semi formal space - CK, Louis Phillipe amongst others have transformed themselves into a wardrobe brand than just apparel.

Closer home we have many examples especially within large corporate houses both out of necessity due to the erstwhile licence raj and now out of choice. Be it the Birla's or Tatas, they have have fingers in various businesses. Infact the Birlas incubate new businesses through the existing ventures and then later spin it off.

The list is endless and I can fill a few pages on how brands have been extended into various categories. Al Ries will probably have to relook at his book " Focus" and probably have to rewrite to his book. Core Competency be damned, sorry Mr Prahalad.

The hunger for  more is what keeps business growing and this hunger can drive organizations to take turns which are not really a part of the core business. Some succeed and some don't.

While I do believe that Focus is important, given the dynamic nature of business today it has become important to look at alternative areas to grow. But as they say ' the grass is always greener on the other side' and this can result in mistakes which are detrimental to a company's growth.

All organizations cannot be an Apple or even a 3M. Interestingly organizations like these have a strong innovation led culture with healthy risk taking ability as a part of their DNA. This helps the organizations to adopt and adapt depending on the environment.

When the boundaries of business get blurred, organizations loose focus and a confused message goes out both internally and externally. Quite literally - a blurring of vision. A clear case is Starbucks which had to go back to its roots and stick to its core - coffee. And they soon got their customers back!

My take on this. As far as possible  each new venture should be treated as a separate company with a separate team otherwise there would be a tendency to carry the baggage of the past which cloud the venture itself. IBM is a good example - the software services arm was different from the HW division.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Self Centered Personal Interest Drives Revolutions

Nassim Taleb would be happy that the Black Swan Theory has shown its face in various parts of the world. Tunisia, Syria and closer home Nepal.

In a sign of increasing courage and confidence, people from various parts of the world and interestingly mostly the Arab world have been raising their opposition. There has been a surge of people power rising up against the rulers.

These rulers had treated the land as personal property with ad hoc and whimsical decisions which were warped and unjust. Fundamentally the rules they framed were biased and skewed to helping a certain minority.

The natural inherent behavior of humans is selfish & being self centered. The degree of which changes and varies with different people. When a situation is perceived as unfair, this creates dissonance in peoples minds. This dissonance has again various levels. An agglomeration of dissonances creates a huge cumulative dissonance or mass explosion. And that's how we have a revolution. I will not deny that there are exceptions but more often than not the main motivation for people to revolt is personal interest.

However it does not reach the levels of egocentrism where people have the tendency to perceive, understand and interpret the world in terms of the self

These dissonances are lesser in many countries and hence revolutions of the kind (mentioned earlier) are not seen in such places. However smaller but effective campaigns like Anna Hazare movement against corruption in India.

It is seen that in largely democratic nations, the people are a lot happier than the non democratic ones. The fact remains that in democracies people get more avenues to voice their opinions and get themselves heard without fear or repercussions.

My predictions for the future - Burma, China  Watch Out!

The Age of Distrust and The Age for Trust

Loss of Faith The last few years have seen an increasing ‘loss of faith’ against politicians and media (because all communication happens ...