A myth called Influencing with Authority

It is been said that “influencing without formal authority” is the most difficult task to do. This comes from the old school thinking that individuals can be influenced by a person who has formal authority over him or her. For example, if a team member (say X) immediate supervisor (say Y) is considered to be a person who has higher authority mainly because Y does X ‘s performance assessment, career growth, opportunity spotting etc.  Since Y is perceived as a “power-center”, it is assumed that Y will be able to influence X better by using tighter control. On the other hand, if an individual is not having the direct formal authority (say Z), influencing becomes a challenging task.

Cut to reality! I got first taste of this whole paradigm when I took over a program management role quite some time back. As a program manager, I was supposed to get a program delivered with multiple features, developed/tested by different team member from different project teams. Individual project teams had formal reporting structure with individual project mangers, who used to lend resources on  a per program basis. In simple term, this is what is popularly known as ‘matrix organization’ where formal reporting and business reporting act as a perpendicular items to each other. Definitely it was a challenging ask to get things done as a program manager without control of individuals. However over a period of time, I was able to build on it by developing stronger listening skills, communication, big picture creation, creating an environment of abundance etc, because of which the program execution became smooth.

At the same time I started observing where people started opening up with big time, by sharing some of their deeper concerns. They were telling me about individual career plans, career aspirations, concerns that are coming from various sources etc. Without even me asking for it information used to reach me, because of which I was able to build even stronger influence on people. On the contrary individual people managers who had formal authority were never aware of these items as information never reached them. In summary I was able to influence more without formal authority mainly because people were more open to me, which gave me tremendous opportunity for me to get people influenced.

On contrary, when I wore people management hat I ended up seeing the other side of the story where folks with lesser authority than me started having more influence on my people. Lesser the authority, more the openness thereby increasing the possibility of influencing. Performance appraisal is no longer the key for influencing individuals.

Bangalore Ultra 2013

Bangalore Ultra 2013
Bangalore Ultra 2013

After my first season running with Kaveri Trial Marathon, enrolled for Bangalore Ultra 2013 with Runners High community. The first season was extremely challenging, as I was finding too difficult to get myself up and running. After long runs (especially on weekends), it used to pain a lot (especially in the calf muscles), which made my weekends really painful days spent by sleeping, icing and taking rest. There were multiple other challenges like getting-up early, showing up on-time to coaching sessions, coordinating with folks for car-pooling along added with  bottom line responsibilities from work and family. During Bangalore Ultra training challenges became multi-fold as I was handling a big workplace transition added with my folks falling in sick frequently with some family travel. The real fun of running with Runners High community is the togetherness and support we get in form of coaches, runners and special children from Ananya and Shristi, which helped me to run successfully irrespective of all challenges.

For ultra I had very few and specific goals were in my mind. First and foremost goal was about running continuously for the race distance. During my first season, I used to do run-walk-run sequence whenever I ran out of my breath, which happened quite frequently. Thanks to regular coaching and breathing exercises (as cross-training), rhythm has set in to a larger extent. During the coaching sessions I was able to run much comfortably without losing breath or taking breaks. This has given me a significant boost in terms of self confidence and can-do attitude. Diwali heavy-eating made my last week coaching little challenging, but overall I was confident because of regular coaching.

The race day was even better. One small mistake I did during my previous season was getting too excited on the previous night, thereby getting lesser sleep. On the run day I had difficulty between 6-8 KM as I just couldn’t push my legs forward. Also the race was happening in Mysore, I ended up eating outside food which I was never comfortable with. Since Ultra was happening in Bangalore (near Hennur Road), I wanted to plan well by taking good amount of rest. Especially on the previous night I went to bed early with having very simple yet ‘carb-rich’ idlis. Had a pretty comfortable sleep and I was very fresh on the race day feeling very light. We (along with my running buddies) reached the location much earlier. The route was misty with lesser visibility.  Fortunately one of our buddy’s workplace is near Hennur, who had quite a good idea about the whole route. In fact the previous day he drove all the way to race location and measured drive time approximately.

When we reached the race location (about 5 AM), folks who were doing ultra long distances (100K, 24 hour continuous run etc…) were winding up their last minutes, which literally blew me off. They started on the previous day about 5 AM, were still running when I reached the location. Trained human body, driven by a strong will to succeed has no limits. I have heard and read similar stuff in many book, it was really an experience to see things unfold in front of my eyes. Some of my RH members have clocked more than 150+ KM in 24 hour time which is a remarkable achievement.

Bangalore Ultra 2013 - Completion
Bangalore Ultra 2013 – Completion

Bangalore Ultra is relatively a flat track with excellent running environment of Bamboo forest. This government protected forest got opened up only for running purpose, otherwise I understand it largely remains closed. The temperature was just perfect with 25K runners starting on time few minutes before us. My pace was steady around 3 KM mark, taken quick breaks (for few seconds) at aid stations to take enough of water and Electral to keep myself hydrated by maintaining appropriate  salt levels. I was not taking separate salt pills as my coaches mentioned taking electoral at break points will have the same as salt pills. On the way I was able to see some of the 25K runners coming back with lot of cheers and support. The pure joy of running and clocking every other kilometer was visible. There was also good number of friends (outside RH

running community, from my professional side and some college buddies) running as a part of this event, met them on the way. I couldn’t spend as much as time I could have wanted other than waving my hands on the way.  The last 2 KM mark was very comfortable for me as I was taking steady and strong steps towards the closure line. Buddies and chief coach from RH accompanied me in the last 300 meters or so asking me to push hard by increasing the speed. I was able to do it quite comfortably and finished the race in style. Food after race was also really tasty (unlike KTM, where we had a major disappointment with respect to food) ended up gulping some good number of idlis and pongal.

During my first season I used to have so much of sourness in my leg. When I was mentioning this to one of my seniors (whose son is training for national level badminton tournament for years now), he gave a tip of taking bath in cold water, which worked wonders. I don’t exactly remember the science behind this, it brought down my post-run pains to a larger extent. With cold water bath becoming part of life now, I am looking forward for my next reason with my own goals and objectives.

Book review – The speed of trust

Speed of trust
Speed of trust

Price: 500 INR

Author: Stephen MR Covey

This book was suggested to me quite some time back (by one of my mentors) got a chance to complete it recently. Written by Stephen MR Covey, son of Stephen Covey (senior), Speed of trust is a wonderful account of trust building in human relations. Personally, my experience with trust building is been a roller-coaster ride for me. I enjoyed tremendous amount of benefits in cases where I enjoyed higher level of trust, on the other hand struggled a lot when trust levels are low with the other person. Its hard to explain trust, mainly because “things happen” when it is there and “you feel it when you have it”. I was looking for some framework to work on getting better with trust building, where this book perfectly fit into. To start with Stephen establishes a business case for trust by connecting trust, speed and cost. In case of high trust environment, more things happen in real than talking or following-up. Hence speed goes up and cost comes down. On the other hand when trust levels are low, both individuals and organizations end up paying “trust tax” which slows down the progress of the overall progress. So level of trust has direct impact on organization’s  top line and bottom line in terms of financial implications. In case of no tax, top line and bottom line both goes up creating a ‘win-win’ proposition.

After establishing business case for trust, Stephen delves into multiple layers of trust and what are the key behaviors that will enhance the level of trust in any given situation. He starts with individual trust and further followed by relationship trust, organizational trust, market trust and societal trust. He goes on explaining key elements of building trust at various levels starting with individuals. Because if as an individual we don’t trust ourselves with highest level of authenticity, it becomes naturally reflected in other activities we handle and it gets passed on to others as a lower trust message.

As a part of trust framework, Stephen mentions how credibility is fundamental in establishing trust. In order to establish credibility four cores namely intent, integrity, capability and results play a vital role by laying down strong foundation. If these four codes are having issues with an individual, no amount of behavioral tactics will help in building trust. Once these cores are established strongly (thereby having higher credibility), individuals need to demonstrate certain key behaviors to establish higher trust environment. He talks about 13 behaviors (Talk straight, Demonstrate respect, Create transparency, Right wrongs, Slow loyalty, Deliver results, Get better, Confront reality, Clarify expectations, Practice accountability, Listen first, Keep commitments, Extend trust) as key behavioral elements.

With lucid examples and case studies Stephen takes though the framework of trust building. Stephen also talks about “Smart trust” where balancing right level of trust by tuning these parameters. Extending too much of trust sometimes might backfire (and I have personal experience in doing that) whereas extending less might create lesser trusty environment. So assessing the situation and extending right level of trust is key to have desired results. From outside trust might look like a intangible item, but its implications are very deep. It was a very hard and enriching learning to go through the framework and understand various elements of building trust.

Quality Healthcare in ‘Lean’ manufacturing way

Lean is a production practice that considers the expenditure of resources for any goal other than the creation of value for the end customer to be wasteful, and thus a target for elimination – Wikipedia

Delivering quality healthcare in countries like India is really challenging due to lesser affordability of patients with lesser doctors. Aravind Eye care made made its first attempt to radically change this by adopting McDonald’s hamburger approach to eye care. I have provided YouTube video below which talks about this innovation. Also in my innovation series, I called out Narayana Hrudayala who has taken similar approach to cardiac surgery. Recently I visited Shankara eye hospital in Bangalore, where I saw similar approach. Across all these healthcare organizations I see the following things in common:

  1. The hospital is primarily started as a charity by setting up basic infrastructure with the vision of providing quality healthcare at an affordable cost
  2. In order to make the operations in a sustainable, they need to ensure hospital cost is optimized to the maximum extent by reducing waste at all levels
  3. Since patients can be charged only minimal, they need to operate in volumes (ex: in terms of eye checkups, eye operations etc…) with quality built in every step. Number of doctors are limited, who anyways cannot handle higher volume.
  4. In order to handle the volume problem, doctor’s time spent with per patient needs to be optimized. This can only happen by making him as a key decision maker by looking into diagnostics information/data rather than starting with basic questions in each and every patient.  In order to achieve this optimization (for example, in case of eye-care),  the whole eye check-up, initial eye diagnostics, getting problem statement and checking medical history etc are handled by well trained para-medical staff so that doctor only spends time for decision. Thus every doctor will be able to see more patients per day, thereby addressing the volume problem.
  5. Since paramedical staffs are trained only on a specific activity very well and they only do that activity, quality is inherently built into the system. Paramedical staff salaries are lesser than doctors so the overall cost is also optimized

In summary by reducing non-core activities of doctor and optimizing it, multiple health care organizations in India are able to deliver affordable healthcare. In manufacturing world Lean manufacturing talks about various elements (like waste reduction, value creation, value stream mapping, Just-in-time production etc..), which is exactly getting implemented by Indian healthcare giants so consistently, so well! I would say this is a lean manufacturing approach to healthcare, not sure why this is not so popularly spoken about in the media.

Product discovery – what exactly you call as “product”?

For my related post on involving customers during product development by making them co-creator, one of the readers comment that the same approach will not work in every product development. By involving customers during product development, it might look like a “service” to the customers by taking example of Google v/s Apple way of building products. In case of Google, they work on a product discovery approach, whereas Apple has taken the approach of “Don’t ask the customer what they want, many of the times they themselves don’t know” approach.  In my opinion, major differentiation between these two approaches come from what we “refer” as a “product”. Buying a “box” product  from the store and experiencing  it with hands-on is way different from accessing an online product. This has a significant change the way products are developed. Let me explain this from my own experience.

I used to work in a firmware development team, which had very close traction with hardware. We made certain firmware changes specific to hardware, any further changes to it will result in re-manufacturing the whole PCB. Also product milestones, changes/defect fixes were controlled (ex: All level-1 severity defects should be fixed before manufacturing release, which is the final release). Later point I moved to other team, where we were building cloud solutions from the scratch. Our first major launch was two days away where we had at-least a dozen level-1 bugs were open. When I asked how we can make the release, the product manager replied “We can go ahead and launch then regularly roll-in patch releases by observing customer usage. If customers are not facing any issues, it is fine. After all for this flexibility only we are moving to cloud”.  Well, this fundamental elementary thinking of how we look at defect fixing itself different when it comes to looking into products as something.

Thanks to advancement in cloud technology, tons of mobile and internet products are getting built every day by following the discovery process. They can release, iterate and then improve their products depending on how customers are responding to it.  Recently there was an article about Amazon’s product building which talks about similar approach. On contrast, when you are building anything that is closer to the hardware, taking this approach might create more problems. For example, given a trial a customer might say he wants infrared interface in it, which might result in months of time to tape out and re-design a new board. Whereas in case of web, if the customer wants a button to be changed, probably it can be done in few hours.

In conclusion, I would say product development largely depends on what exactly we call it as product. The development methodology should change and be in sync with it.

Product Innovation – A a non-linear item

Doing product innovation is a tricky affair, irrespective of organizations. Especially for product R & D organizations working on ‘end-of-the-life-cycle’ items, this becomes even more challenging.  Having associated with many innovation practices, councils and approaches I have had my own share of successes and failures. Want to share some experience in form of this post.

To start with innovation is a non-linear process, where predicting output is not very obvious. It is way different from linear activities as a part of software development life cycle, where activities and outputs are very well defined. Even though there are some changes expected from the customer (during development), it can be managed as long as risk management and stakeholder buy-in is place to a larger extent. On the other hand, nobody can predict who, when and how a new innovative idea can emerge. It doesn’t matter about the experience, background or designation; innovation cannot be planned but can only be nurtured by inspirational approach.

In my experience I have seen innovation as both top down and bottom up activity. In top-down typically it is driven by the senior leadership as a special initiative, task-force or specific activities by having a well defined approach. In such cases, many leadership teams take the decision of making it as a ‘project team’ approach where individual leaders and team members are ‘appointed’ and they are asked to take a deterministic approach towards new idea creation. In case of results from innovation becoming critical from innovation, it becomes as a ‘force’ from the top where people are asked to innovate by applying of pressure. In such cases I have hardly seen innovation happening.

On the other hand, when innovation is taken as a bottom-up approach I have seen it working pretty well. For example, I used to work on a consumer device which was initially considered as a standalone entity. Before even cloud or internet-of-things existed, some of us had the conviction that this consumer device should connect with some kind of server (because terminology of cloud was totally unaware of) which can push interesting contents into the device for consumption. As firmware engineers we built initial working prototype which demonstrated the so called ‘cloud-to-device’ functionality by fetching information from the remote server. Then we also got an opportunity to showcase in internal conference and well recognized by senior management.

However the real-fun began when we started interacting with product management folks to take it as a feature in the mainline product. The product marketing folks came back saying they had similar idea in the past, which received lukewarm response from their initial customer survey, hence they may not be interested in taking it as a formal requirement in the product. It was not a easy thing to digest as we have put our heart-on-soul to make the idea fly, but eventually came in terms with reality. Of course, when the cloud computing became a differentiation in business, it was implemented as a big ticket project. It was interesting to be part of idea generation, developing prototype, showcasing in internal conferences and making sincere selling attempts to internal stakeholders, even though it was not accepted as a ‘formal’ item for implementation.

What are the lessons learnt from this whole exercise:

  • Innovation works well when it is driven bottom-up with lots of passion behind it
  • Having a great idea and making a prototype definitely helps to generate initial buy-in as working prototype builds a lot of credibility
  • All ideas might not have buy in from product marketing folks as they have an altogether a different point of view about product and their features. On the other hand one cannot take the route of understanding the business needs first, which might actually block the creative process
  • Innovation is a non-linear activity where there is no success or failure. The biggest reward as an engineer is all about hitting upon an idea and evangelizing it among the organization and give a best shot to make it as a success. One in hundred might receive the success and visibility but it is worth giving it a shot.

Product quality as an experience

“It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing and nowhere is that more true than in these post-PC devices,” –  Steve Job’s statement during iPad 2 release

I was able to relate well to his statement, which is visible in terms of user experience when it comes to Apple products. I still remember the day when my mother (60+ year old) was seamlessly able to listen to music from iPod when I handed over to her for the first time, even though she didn’t had any previous idea about using any sort of gadgets. The same was true with iPhone, where I felt immense amount of joy owning it. Till date I don’t think any organizations or products can beat Apple when it comes to the seamless experience of integrating software, hardware and user experience.

Purely taking a software view, I could say the excellent user experience achieved because of the high quality software. Professionally I have been handling multiple software programs and projects, mainly focusing on quality which has multiple elements like quality control, quality assurance and metrics based project management. Often as a project manager, one gets into so much bogged down in meeting project metrics, often customer and his experience goes out of window. For example, having a lower priority defect in user interface v/s higher priority defect in corner case scenario resulting in device crash. From the defect density or defect index perspective, it will look better to have lower priority defect open but imaging the impact of it from user perspective.

In such cases I feel metrics based project management should be abandoned and quality should take user experience route. All design and measurement mechanisms for project should be attuned to ensure users get a great experience, which is what Agile or Lean software development is trying to advocate. Perpetual beta, demo releases, iterative development are better ways to do this I also wonder what Apple should be doing in their software development method to ensure such a high quality with on time releases.

After all no customer talks about defect density while using iPhones!

Product building – A discovery process

“If you build it, they will come” is becoming more and more outdated when it comes to product development. In most of the cases former thing (i.e. building) happens but later one (i.e. paying customer) never happens. It is mainly because product development mainly has been focusing on “what I can offer” (as an organization) rather than “what customers want”. The only way to understand what customer wants is to involve them during the product development activity by providing them with working product incrementally (which is popularly known as “perpetual beta” these days)  and ask them to try it out. When the actual customer uses it he will figure what he actually wanted. In summary this is what Agile methodology advocates. Activities like perpetual beta, multiple demo releases to validate the idea, building product backlog based on customer requirements have become critical elements in product building rather than making it as a static activity.

After being part of multiple product development teams, I could also see changes in the way even customer see this way of building products. These days customers are also more than willing to be part of this “discovery” process they will eventually get what they want even though it is not coming out at one shot. Recently in conversation with one of my friend he put it in a very simple way when it comes to a simple item like providing Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) to customers:

  • If you ask FAQ in first week, I will give you a notepad file
  • If you ask FAQ in second week, I will give you a PDF file
  • If you ask FAQ in third week, I will give you in HTML file hosted as a part of my website
  • If you ask FAQ in fourth week, I will make it as a interactive platform where you can contribute back to FAQs by making it as a collaborative activity

Recently I came across a very interesting presentation which talks about this whole new product development paradigm. Have a look into the presentation below.


New blog creation – three options

This post might sound elementary, it will be definitely useful for folks who want to start their own blogs. Here is a brief on three options that are available:

  • Creating in WordPress/BlogSpot: This is plain vanilla approach where anybody can create an ID with these two popular blogging platforms and get started. Both of them offer excellent configuration and customization options (in terms of plugins), ideal for starters. In fact I know some of the very advanced and popular bloggers still run with same old WordPress ID. The best part is it comes with 100% free with almost unlimited storage options.
  • Having a domain + linking back-end with WordPress/BlogSpot: This is next level of sophistication where you can buy a domain name (ex: myblog.com) and link back-end with WordPress/BlogSpot by providing re-direction option. This gives advantage of having own domain, but back-end is still provided by WordPress/BlogSpot. However if you want to extend it beyond a blog, this will not be a feasible option as there is no control on the server. Only blog interface is provided to configure/change blog posts. The same holds good for option 1 also. Buying a domain name is relatively less costly (say about 500 INR) per year.
  • Having a domain + having own hosting space: This is second level of sophistication, where you get to control anything and everything. Creating a blog, content management system, web pages, e-commerce etc, can be done at a single button click if you have this option. Provides complete freedom and control over anything and everything. However one needs to pay for domain name (say about 500 INR) and hosting space (say about 3000 INR per annum). There are multiple providers (like Godaddy), where jwritings.com is currently hosted. Their service and support quality is quite good.

Depending on your need and objective, appropriate option can be chosen.

Electronics Rocks 2013

Electronics Rocks 2013
Electronics Rocks 2013

Last weekend, Electronics for You (EFY) folks organized a very interesting electronics related conference (called as Electronics Rocks) at NIMHANS convention Center Bangalore. I got a chance to attend the conference after a long time. The primary objective was to attend the hands-on workshop organized by Kits and Spares folks on their Mango Pi development board as I wanted to get more insights into these embedded learning kits, which was coming as a free item along with the workshop. Though workshop was a major flop show (details below), there were many interesting takeaways.

As mentioned in my previous post on Embedded learning kits, I spent quite some time surveying development boards that can be used for educational/learning purpose.  I started off by looking into the latest Beaglebone black board (by Texas Instruments) with ARM 335x Cortex-A8 processor, which doesn’t come with TI DSP for media processing. Upon conversation I understood, there are applications available, which can do decent graphics processing. However for higher end graphics related stuff, Pandaboard still works better as it comes with multiple media interfaces. Definitely there is also a 4 times price difference between these two (Beagle comes at USD 45 v/s Pandaboard at 174 USD). On business side, I could observe all these boards are sold by multiple re-sellers, who were having different stalls in the conference. Considering the price point and target audience, it perfectly makes sense to take re-seller option.

On the electronics components side, I could see many vendors who were showcasing their list consisting of various parts. Had some conversation with folks from RS components, who are into component selling from almost all the major semiconductor manufactures.  They also seem to have a hub of interesting embedded projects in platform called Designspark, where design engineers can can exchange their ideas and create projects. Along with components, there were also many vendors demonstrating debuggers, tools and embedded design services capability. The debugging space is definitely interesting, but I was not paying much attention as it makes sense only for devices with at least a JTAG interface, which was not my area of focus. From governance side, erstwhile Indian Semiconductor Association (ISA) has changed their name into Indian Electronics and Semiconductor Association (IESA) with responsibility of promoting electronics ecosystem in India.

Coming to Mango Pi workshop, it turned out to be a major flop. During initial promotion they mentioned this workshop as “Build a wireless robot in 60 minutes” using Mango Pi board and mentioned participants can take away a board at the end of the workshop. I was excited about it and registered for the session by paying extra 1500 INR, specifically for this workshop. It was a total chaos where they messed up everything starting with schedule. I was supposed to attend 11:30 AM slot, but they asked me to to attend the 12:30 PM slot due to increased number of participants . I waited for almost an hour, where there was a big queue and people were flocking into a small room. The workshop co-ordinators were relatively junior guys, who couldn’t manage this chaos, eventually mentioned they will do the next session in a bigger room located upstairs.

The upstairs location was an open one, where the sound system was not at all conducive for a workshop environment. On top of that, workshop speaker was of very low quality, neither he was good in communication nor he had much idea about technical aspects. He went on demonstrating building robots with totally a different kit (where Mango Pi board only plays a part), where there were other components like Arduino board, RF sender and receiver etc. I got totally irritated with this poor organization  ended up leaving the workshop within 15 minutes. When they organize an event of this scale, proper attention to be paid as it creates a strong impression on the whole product that is getting demonstrated. Executing it in such a ad-hoc manner has resulted in nothing short of a disaster.

Apart from the items mentioned above, there were a series of talks happening on multiple themes which I couldn’t attend due to personal time constraint. Probably I should plan and attend those sessions next time. Overall it was a decent conference, which provided me deeper insights into many aspects of embedded systems, educational kits, open source, Linux and related technologies.