Agile = No need for managers?

The Agile framework, especially implemented with SCRUM talks about ‘self-organizing teams’ as one of its benefits. According to definition, as the term says self-organizing-teams are the ones which regulate themselves, demonstrate very high amount of collaboration & teamwork by keeping customer as the first priority. This also means a self-correcting system where teams themselves figure out what has gone wrong and what can be made better.

Does this mean Agile SCRUM implementation results in getting rid of project or people managers? If agile is deployed can we give pink slips to people managers and ask them to leave? The answer is clear NO.

Agile don’t have any standard guideline or reference about people managers or project managers however based on my practical experience I would like to share few points:

  1. Agile requires very high amount of maturity among team members, till then it requires stronger involvement of managers. Here the role of traditional manager take a slight deviation where he needs to play the role of a coach by taking inspirational leadership approach rather than authoritarian.
  2. All people are not same, they need to be differentiated. In order to implement performance management system managers are required to work closely with team.
  3. Only prioritized task level activities are done by SCRUM framework, whereas program / product level activities still needs to be managed well
  4. Will bring down task-level or micro-level action done by managers by still requires supervision and management to run the business show.

Idea or Execution?

After taking up Entrepreneurial path, I have come across many interesting experiences on a daily basis. Every day is filled with unknown or unclear activities with more effort is put to make it more and more clear. In due course of time I also got an opportunity to meet a bunch of entrepreneurs, consultants, mentors and ecosystems partners in Indian entrepreneurial ecosystem. Also I also got opportunity to work more closely with a smaller entrepreneurial teams and execute things at ‘ground zero’.

It is a very popular (or hyped) belief that everything starts with Idea. If an individual has a breathtaking idea he can make it happen. Thanks to some of the recent bigger acquisitions, millions and billions are looking smaller and smaller. However when I work more closely with my organizations or meet people who are ‘really’ successful entrepreneurs it gives me totally a contrarian perspective. No matter how good an idea an individual or a team has, it’s all about execution.

The reason is very simple. Strong execution is what helps organization create customer value and business results. Let me take example of our education segment itself. It is very easy for anybody with decent technical knowledge to come up with a training program in a relatively niche area like Linux. Thanks to lower entry barrier it is easy for an individual to come up with learning materials, doing market research and coming up with value proposition of a particular training program. However following are the key questions are not hyped enough but very critical when it comes to business.

  • How quickly can I find a paying customer, who is in real need of my service?
  • How can I ensure that the customer signs a cheque?
  • How do I gauge current skill level of target audience and figure out what exactly they expect?
  • In case I already know I can’t exceed their expectations in the training program how do I manage it at least by meeting their expectations?
  • How do I tune my way of delivery so that audience have maximum take away?
  • How to I collect feedback from them, in case of negative feedback how can I address them?
  • In case of getting positive feedback how can I convert into a repeatable business?

The whole crux of all above mentioned questions directly relates with the way of a particular training program is executed. Apart from above mentioned questions there might be another bunch of questions, issues, challenges we face every day at ground zero level when we actually deliver something to our customers. When we go through this grind every day it has become quite obvious that execution is super important than idea. With technology advancements, mentor ecosystem and internet it is very easy for anybody to come up with relatively new idea. However ensuring that a particular product or service is really accepted from the customer end and generates value requires a strong execution backed up by the idea. I am not under estimating or downplaying the importance of having an important idea, building a strategy or having marketing/GTM activity, eventually execution is what makes all the difference.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

Aapkapainter – Home painting at ease

Aapkapainter.com
Aapkapainter.com

It’s been quite some time since I got my house painted. As our little one was growing up, she ensured home walls were her initial canvas using pencil and wax crayons! During vendor short-listing, I came across Aapkapainter (incidentally it is a start-up done by some of my RECW/NITW juniors), eventually signed up with them to get my house painting done. It’s been an awesome experience working with them, right from shortlisting to painting work completion. Wanted to write few details about the work done by them.

Competitive pricing

Initially I had no idea about how to get the painting done. Upon some search, I came to know popular brands (Asian Paints, Nerolac etc…) are offering home painting service on a contract basis and took initial quote from them along with Aapkapainter. To my surprise prices quoted by Aapkapainter was very competitive compared to popular brands, even though they assured me that they will use standard paints for the work. Please also note the fact that standard brands redirect their work to local contractors/vendors, we are also not sure how well they do the job. Finding competitive pricing and placing initial trust (as you know they are my college juniors) I signed up with them for my house painting work.

Professional approach

Right from initial phase, Aapkapainter folks have been very professional in their approach. Understanding painting requirements in detail, providing quotes, suggesting which paint to use for what type of wall, recommending some cost optimization approaches etc, were something I didn’t expect from them. It was a very professional approach in area like home painting, I could clearly differentiate this approach from other vendors with whom I had some initial observations.

Quality in execution

After starting the work, painters showed up properly every day on time, without any major hassles or follow-up. Since we are also living in the same place, they ensured a step-by-step approach by starting the work from one room. Before starting the work they ensured house hold valuables (TV, sofa, fan, wooden/glass cupboards etc…) are well cove

Texture wall
Texture wall

red. None of my family members need to put any effort to move any single item as the painters themselves taken care of it completely. Every day before winding up the day’s work painters ensured cleaning is done in order to ensure living conditions are maintained. The same thing they demonstrated after completing painting work at a particular room by moving back things and setting up in the way they have taken the work before. During the painting they ensured work surface preparation, main-painting and minor corrections were done to the minutest level possible. Check out some main texture work done at my home wall to have a look at their quality of work.

Concerns on safety

As I spend most of the day time at workplace, I was having some initial concerns on my family safety as painters would be working throughout the day in my absence. Aapkapainter folks ensured they sent qualified and proper painters with regular supervision. This ensured here is no safety concern.

What they can do better

This article would remain incomplete if I fail to mention on areas that they can do better. Primarily Aapkapainter has taken an approach to connect consumers to paint services in a vendor independent manner, where their website plays a major role. In that context, their website user-experience can improve. I understand they started off recently, can think of making it much more interactive (ex: Some links are broken in the website). Also some interesting tools (ex: Color comparison, Paint calculator) can be introduced using which users can get a better online experience.

Definitely an area like Home-painting is an unorganized segment. Even though big brands are trying to get it organized, eventually it is up to the local vendor to execute it, where there are definite challenges that need to be met. This also presents a huge opening, which Aapkapainter is trying to address.In summary I got my house re-painting work done in a cost-effective manner with very high quality with zero hassles. I would highly recommend Aapkapainter folks for people who want to get their house-painting work done.

Ten types of Innovation – Concluding notes

With article on Bigbasket, the ten part innovation series comes to an end. When I understood the innovation types (created by Doblin) way back in 2011, my idea was to apply it from Indian context and make case studies fitting various types. It took two long years for me to complete this series with decent satisfaction.

Innovation has gone beyond building a particular product or service. By building something different doesn’t guarantee a business success, whereas ensuring customer derives value will. India, unlike some of the developed countries, is in the cusp of transformation where we have both traditional old school thinking and new school of thinking co-existing with each other. This made my inquiry to innovation all the more interesting. As and when I observed some innovative way to serve customers, I started mapping them back to Doblin’s model and came up with this whole series spanning across industries.

Please find URLs to individual posts as follows:

Innovation – Type 10 – Customer experience innovation [Case: Bigbasket]

Bigbasket
Bigbasket

The tenth and final type of innovation is around customer experience, which is all about creating a superior experience to customer’s entry to exit. In India many players attempted to do online grocery store for quite some-time now. It is extremely challenging business in Indian context (logistics, poor roads, unpredictable traffic, varying climate conditions etc…), which Bigbasket is able break by creating very good customer experience around it. I have personally tried and tested this many times, it works all the time with great experience.

Simple and effective User interface

The first thing that impressed me about Bigbasket is their simple and effective user interface. It was very easy to search/navigate for individual grocery items and create an order in a hassle free manner. Every item contains optimal information (neither too less nor too much) with put me into ease. Also when individuals go back for re-ordering, it keeps previous list handy for modification, which saves time for second time. This works very well for monthly grocery ordering.

Prompt alerts

While building an easy to use user interface might look relatively easy, integrating with backend supply chain to meet the promise is super critical. Especially in India, where the probability of providing prompt service is less (due to inherent challenges like infrastructure) providing prompt alerts to customers about the order status creates a lot of trust. In case of Bigbasket I get regular alerts (both in form of email and SMS) about my order status. Just before the final delivery of goods, authentication PIN is provided via SMS, so that both delivery person and customer can be assured about delivery.

Service delivery guarantee

Bigbasket
Bigbasket

After placing order, customers get to choose the time-slot in which they wanted the goods to be delivered. This super critical item (similar to Flipkart’s cash on delivery service) which helps office goers to get goods delivered at a convenient time. Their interface also shows the current booking status and slot availability in order to help customers choose the proper delivery time. From execution point of view, I have always seen they deliver goods on the time promised.

Return policy and wallet

During delivery, in case of item mismatch (ex: quantity) or damage (ex: broken seal), Bigbasket delivery folks take it back without any questions. Upon entering these items in backend (using Mobile application) customers again get immediate notification about when the updated item will be delivered. In case of item return, the money is kept back in a digital wallet which can be adjusted for next purchase.

In summary right from order placing to goods return, Bigbasket has done massive integration and prompt execution of their service. This gives a great end-to-end experience for customers in terms of quality, on-time delivery and reliability.

Innovation – Type 9 – Brand [Case: Decathlon India]

Decathlon
Decathlon

It’s time to catch-up with ten part innovation series. The Ninth type of innovation on Brand is about how offerings are expressed to customer to their benefit. It’s been quite a bit of challenge to identify a right case for this innovation, finally nailed it with Decathlon sports India. Decathlon entered India as a sports goods retailer, primarily catering to high end customers by having closed membership association. This was partly due to their positioning and partly due to retail industry regulations in India. Over a period of time they changed the way their brand is expressed to customers, which has made Decathlon as a popular brand today.

To start with, Decathlon instrumented making their employees as brand ambassadors by hiring sports enthusiasts for specific departments. Say if you are passionate cyclist, then you will be hired and made as cycle department sales person or supervisor. Naturally this makes a huge difference to a customer who walks into the shop to buy a bicycle. Given the pre-existing expertise and passion, naturally the sales person will understand customer needs better and ensure they are suggested with proper options in comparison with the person who don’t know anything about cycles. Added to that these employees are positioned well in their marketing communications, hoardings and future job hire needs.

The store and employee appearance also establishes a unique brand image among customers. Unlike other stores, Decathlon’s real estate size is relatively large in order for customers to try out various sports goods (ex: cycles). However they ensured their internal store arrangement (ex: racks) is very simple with lesser investments in order to optimize cost. One gets ‘no-nonsense-I-get-what-I-want’ feeling by entering any of their stores. Their employee appearance (ex: French beard with trendy hair-style) is also something different that I have observed in comparison with other places.

When Decathlon entered India, it was not open to all retail customers. One needs to get membership in order to shop from them, which got repositioned now. It is not open for all retail customers. By targeting upper-middle customer segment, they are able to establish Decathlon as a synonym for quality with decent pricing. This repositioning and communicating right message also changed the way Decathlon is perceived among common people.

In summary Decathlon changed the sports expression by innovating around their brand – in terms of store design, employee appearance, profile of employees and positioning. Globally they have been existing for more than three decades, but by adapting to some of the local challenges, they are well positioned their brand in sports goods retailing.

Book retailing: Traditional v/s online

Recently I had a casual conversation with owner of a large scale book store. His is a family owned business, been in book retailing for decades with great passion for reading. Upon further discussions he mentioned about his book retailing business heading south (for months together) due to the emergence of e-commerce portals like Flipkart. It is quite obvious that e-commerce portals enjoy benefits of on-demand inventory, lesser operational costs (ex: rental) and direct supplier relationships helps to offer a better price. Added to that, most of Indian e-commerce portals are backed by heavy funds from venture capitalists, which help them to provide un-realistic discounts on books with additional benefits like free shipping, cash-on-delivery etc. Over a period of time, these e-commerce portals build valuation for the company based on number of transactions and incrementally grow by bringing more products (apparels, electronics, toys etc…) thereby becoming online mega store. On the other hand, traditional book retailers are struggling to keep up their operations with increasing rental/labor costs, overhead of inventory and limitation of not able to offer higher discount as it will affect their bottom line.

As a matter of fact this problem is not new. In countries like US e-commerce portals (likes of Amazon) took away significant market share from traditional book stores but some of them re-invented themselves and survived this challenge. I was wondering what Indian book stores (considering Indian context) can do to compete fiercely online bookstores. Here are some of my ideas which can be considered:

  • Similar to book stores of the west (ex: Barns and Noble) traditional book stores should re-shape themselves as modern libraries by creating a compelling reading experience around it. Readers should be compelled to walk in, take a look of their choice and spend hours in the shop by going thru their favorites. By adding additional factors (like coffee shop, comfortable table & chairs for reading, offering sample chapters for free etc…) these book shops can attract regular visitors who will potentially end up buying these books
  • There are some specific types of books (ex: Children books) come in various shape, size and weight, which is still not comfortable to buy online. As a parent I spent lot of time considering these aspects before buying book for my daughter by physically visiting the shop. Such type of books still has a lot of ‘touch-and-feel’ factor associated with it. Traditional retailers should think of some special promotions and tie-ups to push these books thru young parents and readers
  • Among adult readers (both fiction and non-fiction) there is a strong possibility to build a community based on common interest. Such communities combined with social media can be made as early adapters of new releases and share their viewpoints in terms of face-to-face get together, sharing book reviews, meeting authors directly and exchanging book related practical experiences. Such community should be provided with special discounts and covered under loyalty programs, thereby attacking clusters
  • Even now many of the traditional shop owners are expecting customers to physically walk into the shop and order for books. This should be changed by adapting home delivery based on phone order, building a micro-site for the bookstore where alternative channels of reaching out to the customer. Such new channels should be backed with excellent customer service in terms of delivery time and quality to re-invent the whole business.

I am not sure if any of the traditional book store owners got necessary mindset to re-invent their business by adopting new ways to sell books in this digital era. Unless they adapt to this change and re-invent the way they do business, it is going to be extremely difficult to survive.

Bowling coach to Sachin Tendulkar – Make sense?

Of course it doesn’t make sense!

Why do anybody want to appoint a bowling coach to the greatest batsman that cricket has ever produced? Why do we want him to get better with bowling when he is so good at batting? He has been pretty decent part-time bowler who bowled few overs and got some crucial wickets (with some special ones like 1993 Hero cup semi finals against South Africa) as well. All he did for his two decades of historical cricketing career was to bat, bat and just bat!

When I look beyond Sachin, here are the key attributes of Indian top order today:

Sehwag/Gambhir (attacking, aggressive) – Apt for first 15 overs

Virat Kohli (controlled aggression, matured stroke-player) – Apt for 15-35 overs

Raina/Dhoni/Yuvraj (excellent strikers who can effortlessly clear the field plus great finishers of the game) – Apt for 35-50 overs

Of course, when wickets fall early, batsman should adapt to the situation and play. Definitely, this batting order is not arrived in a random fashion. It is arranged based on which position a batsman is exactly good at, based on his natural game. It is done with specific intent in mind so that the possibility of success in a match can be maximized.

Cut to corporate! In teams we end up having different set of people who has different set of strengths. For example in a product development team I typically find individuals who are good in different areas – innovation, requirement analysis, customer interfacing, coding, software designing, user experience, crisis handling, quality assurance, critical problem solving ability and some all-rounders who can do all the above mentioned roles fairly well. It becomes extremely important to have right people in right roles (similar to cricket batting order) to maximize success of the team. Again “success” here could mean anything – increased customer satisfaction, increased sales numbers, quality and on-time product launch etc.

Its always a puzzle and challenging task to identify what individuals are actually good at and provide them with right set of opportunities. In my opinion this is THE critical responsibility of leader who should spend good amount of time in doing that. When roles are identified according to individual’s strengths and corresponding responsibilities are defined, it can be completely left with individuals to produce desired result. When individuals feel they are doing the job where they are good at, it automatically increases their self esteem thereby lifting the overall moral of the individual. In summary is multiples result produced by the team. Let me explain this with some example.

Say an individual A who is extremely good at finding new technology and passionate about innovation. Driven by his creative mental ability he can almost always suggest a new way to get things done. However he may not be a process oriented individual, who might even think process kills creativity. There could be another individual B, who is meticulous when it comes to getting things done by following the process with 100% discipline. He would love to do same things again and again and improve it over a period of time. For him the maximum pleasure comes from continuously refining it, whereas for the former case it could be continuously creating something always. Given the core strength of individuals, they need to be placed in appropriate nature of work. For example A can be part of organizational technology incubation team, which demands frequent survey of latest technology and suggest future business possibilities. B can be placed as a customer facing individual who can champion by following meticulous steps with each and every customer, failing which can cause customer dis-satisfaction. Now what if these roles are reversed? The answer is obvious – planned disaster! A will get completely bored and frustrated with customer facing and B will get scared to come up with new things very frequently.

Identifying individual strengths and providing them with right roles is not always 100% possible in an organization, where there could be multiple options. The team/business may not require a particular strength or skill which an individual is good at. In such cases it is much better to rotate individuals to different opportunities inside the organization where their skills can be utilized in a better manner. Or in some worst scenario, it is better to let them go (or they will get frustrated and leave the organization) rather than wasting both individual and organization’s time. In some cases there would be a possibility that the individual skills matches to the role to a larger extent (say 80%) who can be still provided support for making him effective in the role.  In some other cases individuals need to be rotated across different roles (ex: R & D -> marking) to expose them different aspects of the business, which is part of leadership building process. As a direct impact, this will immediately reflect in an individual’s performance ratings. I will talk more about this in a separate post.

Leadership dichotomy: Compassionate Vs. Ruthless

Let us start with two case studies.

Case-1: Consider a situation where one of your top performing members (person A) in the team is going thru a serious personal problem. The problem could come in many forms (love/affair failure, wife pregnancy complications, parents/kid having serious illness, perennial conflicts at home etc.) which make the individual disturbed because of which his focus on work might come down, due to which his intermediate deliverable may not be up to the mark. However he has earned his credibility in the team by consistently delivering on the expectations.

Case-2: Consider a situation where another member (person B) in the team, is not delivering on his business commitments where results are way below the expectations due to lack of ownership. Every other time, he comes up with some or other excuse for not doing the work, where proper effort is not spent let alone the results. However this individual has necessary capability to complete the work.

As a leader of the group, you end up facing cases mentioned above very frequently, which needs to be handled totally differently. With person A you need to be in ‘compassionate’ mode by understanding humane aspect of an individual by understanding personal issues/challenges faced. By considering the past record of this individual he needs to be given certain flexibility to sort of the personal problems. As a leader you can also offer solution or suggestion for him to come out of personal problem. But in simple terms, the leader has to take the ‘high on people, low on business’ approach by taking humane view into perspective.

In case of person B, you need to pass on a clear message with sharp feedback for not delivering on his commitment. If the situation prevails you need to quickly switch into ‘ruthless’ mode  by taking some strict action (ex: providing a performance improvement plan) or ask him to leave the organization if the situation worsens. When individuals are not delivering consistently, resulting in lower performance it should be treated very strictly. But in simple terms the leader has to take the ‘high business, low people’ approach by taking the business perspective into consideration. After-all organization and people are here to get things done and deliver on business commitments.

But the real challenge comes when you as a leader face multiple cases where you need to switch between ‘compassionate’ and ‘ruthless’ mode. Sometimes the mode switching has to happen in back-to-back meetings with hardly few minutes interval in between them. Based on my experience, the success of the leader depends on how seamlessly the leader is able to handle switching between these two modes, which is not an easy task at all. Also when it is not executed properly it may create disaster situations. For example, being ‘ruthless’ to the person A will create a ‘Hitler’ image of the leader to the individual (and eventually to the team) where the individual might feel his human aspects are not taken care. Also being ‘compassionate’ to person B will result in him enjoying paid vacation as a part of his job!

It really takes a lot on the leader to read the situations day-in-day-out and take decisions accordingly. Given the fact that leaders also human beings that have emotions, it is likely possible that leaders fail to switch between modes, which is normally known as ‘getting carried away’ by the situation. Achieving right balance between people and business is always challenging, which also makes leadership an ever evolving and ever learning journey as far as individuals are concerned. After all when it comes to leadership nobody can say ‘I am done’.

Who is the real “top” performer?

The performance management or appraisal system is one of the most debated topics around the globe, irrespective of the organization. After seeing different systems in different organizations, I come to a conclusion that most of them operate with same fundamentals. It can be summarized as follows:

  • What an individual has done in terms of given responsibilities (ex: Work volume)?
  • How an individual has gone about doing his responsibilities (ex: Behavioral aspects)?
  • What results (ex: Quantified) did an individual produce against given set of responsibilities?

While there may be minor differences in implementation among organizations, some of the members in a team or group need to be selected as ‘top’ performers, who did well in all the three dimensions mentioned above. These individuals are showered with higher salary raises, bonuses, perks, plum assignments etc. Sometimes these people are also regarded as ‘role models’ by giving rewards and recognitions. There is absolutely nothing wrong in doing this. High performing individuals need to be celebrated and showered with all possible benefits that organizations can provide.

However, there is a catch in identifying ‘real’ top performers. In my opinion these are the individuals who demonstrate strong character during adverse situations, which often goes missing in many evaluation methods. Given a team or group dynamics, things do change in terms of opportunities and situation. In such cases, there is a possibility where some of these top performers fail to meet the expectations, because of which their performance rating might come down a little bit. This is not because they have done really badly (after all they are high performers) but there are some other external factors (like somebody else in the team is doing better than him/her, other individuals are getting better opportunity etc…) which might have caused the situation.

The real litmus test starts when a high performance individual comes to know that his performance result has come down. Given the fact that we are all human beings, it is highly likely possible for those individuals react by saying – “No! I didn’t expect this”, “This is highly demotivating” or the most popular one “manager is biased; It’s all BS out there”. In some of the cases I have seen extreme cases where this “top-performer” becomes negative and starts spreading negativity in the team. In some cases we tend to wonder “Is this the same guy whom we rated high last time? Is this the same individual for whom we given so many awards in the past? Is this the same individual who was considered as role model one year back?”

The bottom line is very simple. Real top performers are the ones who not only do well when given higher performance ratings, but also accepts feedback in challenging situations and work for better performance next time. These individuals have a strong character which comes out during difficult times which is the sign of the “real” top performers. In fact I would rather bet on a guy who takes lesser performance rating and ready to work on it than a guy who just simply fails to accept the fact that he cannot be rated low.