Monday, April 19, 2010

Is the concept of Innovation culture dependent ?

The thoughts presented in this blog are as a result of an interesting question by one of the readers- Vittal, in my earlier post- Key Lessons from the life and times of Steve Jobs
Thanks for sharing your learning. The ideas are thought provoking.
I am not challenging the purity and the effectiveness of the ideas, but would definitely like to know, how they can be applied and be effective in our work models and culture.
Its different worlds when we look at western corporate and eastern corporate culture.
Do share your thoughts.

Certainly some interesting thoughts above and in this post i would like to share some of my thoughts around this topic. In all honesty, i understand that the complete answer to the question as vital as the title of this post cannot be answered in a source as abstract as one blog post.

First question that comes to my mind is, Are the cultures really different fundamentally ?

There is something i learned earlier on, it is that when we talk about cultures, there is nothing right or wrong. Each culture is right in its own way and has to be accepted for what it is. This understanding came from one of my earlier managers and over the years i have begin to realize that this is quite right. It also indicates that cultures are fundamentally different and that difference can vary from many unique factors such as one's religion, Geography, upbringing etc. I have not seen the concept of culture being so simplisticallly described as done by Yang Liu . Consider some of the below pictures designed by Yang Liu-

In the images below-
Blue= Western culture
Red= Eastern culture
The Boss




See more of these here
So, cultures are different. No doubt about that and these differences at the grass roots level do influence our thinking to a larger extent. Our cultural background has a lot of relevance in explaining what we do, how we take decisions and what thinking patterns do we apply to solve problems.
Having said the above, in my experience one of the things that i have observed is that we cannot generalize any culture e.g. if as indicated in above example- for eastern cultures the boss is treated above all the employees, it does not necessarily mean that all the bosses in eastern culture consider themselves superior to the rest. There will always be exceptions which defies the norm.

Is Western thinking really different from Eastern thinking ?
When we talk about the subject of thinking, any mention would be incomplete without the mention of work done by Edward de Bono . In his book- Six Thinking hats , de Bono provides a very interesting perspective on these Western and Japanese cultures.

Argument or No Argument:
Western thinking is more driven by argument. Japanese thinking does not value argument much. An attacking conversation by means of argument is considered impolite and harsh.

Conduct of meetings:
A Western type of meeting is usually the one which is more based on discussions and arguments. The meeting participants gives their ideas/thoughts and these are discussed, criticized and reasoned upon. And the idea thats usually "wins" is the one that stands all the criticism and questions.
A Japanese meeting usually has many people actually listening. Active Listening is a key virtue. Once after listening, they gather all the inputs and present their thoughts in a neutral manner, rather than pinpointing or criticizing anyone's ideas.No one tends to hammer the ideas by criticizing. So, the personal attack is not considered good.

The role of ego:
Western thinking is usually considered as more ego based with argument occupying the central space. Japanese culture is not ego based.

The process of ideation:
In his book- a fine line , Hartmut Esslinger talks about Japanese notion of ideation. It says that Japanese don't believe that they "have" ideas but ideas actually "come to them". Such selfless approach towards ideas certainly makes the whole ideation process ego-free with no one involved in the process having to worry about who owns the idea.

The handling of mistakes:
In the same book, Hartmut Esslinger also talks about the Japanese notion of handling mistakes. True to Japanese culture, the notion is that- "people don't make mistakes" but "mistakes are something that develop over time". This very notion really takes away all the focus from personal blame games. This may be exactly or somewhat opposite to Western culture.

I would like to narrate a story here, adapted from this source. Here it goes-

The Japanese have a great liking for fresh fish. But the waters close to Japan have not held many fish for decades. So, to feed the Japanese population, fishing boats got bigger and went farther than ever. The farther the fishermen went, the longer it took to bring back the fish. The longer it took them to bring back the fish, the staler they grew. The fish were not fresh and the Japanese did not like the taste. To solve this problem, fishing companies installed freezers on their boats. They would catch the fish and freeze them at sea. Freezers allowed the boats to go farther and stay longer. However, the Japanese could taste the difference between fresh and frozen fish. And they did not like the taste of frozen fish. The frozen fish brought a lower price. So, fishing companies installed fish tanks. They would catch the fish and stuff them in the tanks, fin to fin. After a little hashing around, the fish stopped moving. They were tired and dull, but alive.
Unfortunately, the Japanese could still taste the difference. Because the fish did not move for days, they lost their fresh-fish taste. The Japanese preferred the lively taste of fresh fish, not sluggish fish. The fishing industry faced an impending crisis! But today, it has got over that crisis and has emerged as one of the most important trades in that country! How did Japanese fishing companies solve this problem? How do they get fresh-tasting fish to Japan?
To keep the fish tasting fresh, the Japanese fishing companies still put the fish in the tanks. But now they add a small shark to each tank. The shark eats a few fish, but most of the fish arrive in a very lively state. The fish are challenged and hence are constantly on the move. And they survive and arrive in a healthy state! They command a higher price and are most sought-after. The challenge they face keeps them fresh!
Humans are no different. L. Ron Hubbard observed in the early 1950’s: “Man thrives, oddly enough, only in the presence of a challenging environment.” George Bernard Shaw said: “Satisfaction is death!”
If you are steadily conquering challenges, you are happy. Your challenges keep you energized. You are excited to try new solutions. You have fun. You are alive! Instead of avoiding challenges, jump into them. Do not postpone a task, simply because its challenging. Catch these challenges by their horns and vanquish them. Enjoy the game. If your challenges are too large or too numerous, do not give up. Giving up makes you tired. Instead, reorganize. Find more determination, more knowledge, more help. Don’t create success and revel in it in a state of inertia. You have the resources, skills and abilities to make a difference.

Moral of the story: Put a shark in your tank and see how far you can really go!

There are some real life learnings from this story as this article talks about. But it also reflects one very unique aspect of Japanese culture which is that Japanese tend to imbibe perfectionism in everything they do. In the case of this story, its the taste of fish and there can be numerous instances in day-to-day, work life of such perfectionism. That is one trait that has really helped Japan during its formative years. Possibly no other culture comes closer in this aspect.

Repeating myself here again by saying that though the above may give a very high level distinctions between the cultures but it may be naive to consider the people in a certain culture behave the same way. So there will be exceptions and many at that.

What's Innovation got to do with culture ?
In think our cultural orientation definitely has a great impact on our basic thinking patterns as the numerous of the above examples state. I feel that Eastern cultures are more bent towards cumulative form of Innovativeness in which the ideas get matured going through the various stages and then eventually we have a big solution. And may be the breakthrough Innovation is more associated with Western culture. One example that i can think of is the advent of break-through products like Windows Operating systems, Office Applications, Apple Macs- all big inventions of our times happened in Western culture. They are no less than the breakthrough innovation but on the Eastern parts we had successful business models built up on the Computer services side (Infosys, Wipro, TCS etc.), and largely thinking, these business models had in its foundation, the success of core computing driven by the Western organizations. I think both these forms certainly compliment each other and it would not be right to treat one greater than the other.
Another culture aspect is that True Innovation has its basis in more free form of thinking and it generally does not breed in an hierarchical form of organization in which each idea would need to go through certain approval and each failure would be blamed.
From my personal observation, some organizations take Innovation as another “task” given that this is something that is “needed” for survival. And in doing so the very essence of Innovation is lost. As an example, I have seen many organizations reward the employees on getting through with Patents. And with a good monetary reward system in place, the talented engineers are definitely encouraged to get the patents and they get successful too. But i guess, this definition of success turns out to be a bit loose in overall scheme of things, for example when we glance at the data on how many patents filed actually get into the products or even turn to blockbuster product ideas. Though I don’t have a real time data but just common sense analysis of comparing number of patents granted to organization as against number of products it has in its rank, the whole story becomes clear.

Have you observed this trend ? Does it have any cultural basis ?

Do share your thoughts.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Wonder how your website looks on an iPad...

The recent iPad launch has for sure caused a lot of buzz in the market. With the sales figures topping 300,000 numbers in a single day, this is certainly a dream start for any upcoming product.
It may not even require a prediction to judge that the Software Testing community will soon be embracing iPad and testing their products on the same.

Just came across a tool that can help you simulate your websites look and feel on iPad. All about it at the URL below-

How Does your Website Look on an iPad?

A good tool atleast till you get your hands on a real iPad.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Key lessons from the life and times of Richard Branson

When i wrote this article on managing multiple passions, i had not really read through about the Life of Richard Branson . His life definitely adds a great dimension to article. To me, he is one the rare people who not only managed unrelated interests with great zest for life but also got a considerable success and fulfillment in doing so.
For starters, Richard Branson is the owner of Virgin brand which started modestly as a record shop company but the brand is humongous now with more than 400 companies around the world. Apart from managing such a huge business conglomerate, Richard has a certain flair for Adventure. He has made several world record breaking attempts like fastest to be Atlantic ocean crossing to travelling around the world in Hot air balloons.He do plans to take his Airlines- Virgin Atlantic to space. Apart from this, he is very much involved in social work covering diverse areas.
I got to know him better through one the book- Screw it, Let's Do it: Lessons in Life written by Richard Branson himself. The book presents a lot of learnings from his life capturing the key events and i have tried to capture the snippets in his own words) in this post. As usual, i have captured important learnings right from this book. Read on and Enjoy!
The personal pronoun "I" in the upcoming text represents the words said by Richard Branson himself.

Have goals but be practical about them:
I believe in goals. Its never a bad thing to have a dream, but I'm practical about it. I don't sit day dreaming about things that are impossible. I set goals and then work on how to achieve them. Anything i want to do in life, I want to do well and not half- heartedly.

Just do it:
The best lesson i learned was to Just do it. It doesn't matter what it is, or how hard it might seem, as the ancient Greek, Plato said- "The beginning is most important part of any work." A journey of a thousand miles start with that first step. If you look ahead to the end, and all the weary miles between, with all the dangers you might face, you might never take that first step. So, take that first step. There will be many challenges. You might get knocked back- but in the end you will make it.

Getting things done:
The staff at Virgin have a name for me. It is "Dr yes". They call me this because i wont say no. I will find more reasons to do things that not to do. My motto really is: "Screw it- let's do it!". I will never say, "I can;t do this because i don't know how to." I wont let silly rules stop me.

Never say "Can't":
I don't believe in that that little word "can't" should stop you. If you don't have the right experience to reach your goal, look for another way i. If you want to fly, get down the airfield at the age of sixteen and make the tea. Keep your eyes open. Look and learn. You don't have to go to art school to be a fashion designer. Join a fashion company and push the broom. Work your way up.

Brilliant ideas come when you least expect them:
Here's an anecdote from the book which proves the heading-
Our plan was to travel on to Puerto Rico- but when we got to Airport, the flight was cancelled. People were roaming about, looking lost. No one was doing anything. So I did- someone had to. I chartered a plane for $2,000. I divided that by number of people. It came to $39 per head. I borrowed a blackboard and wrote on it: VIRGIN AIRWAYS. $39 SINGLE FLIGHT TO PUERTO RICO. The idea of Virgin Airways was born, right in the middle of a holiday.

Don't moan a bad boss but Love your work instead:
If you do still have to work for a boss at a job you don't like as almost everyone does at some point, don't moan about it. Have a positive outlook on life and just get on with it. Work hard and earn your pay. Enjoy the people you come into contact with through your job. And if you are still unhappy, make it instead your goal to divide your private life from your work life. Have fun in your own time, you will feel happier and you'll enjoy your life and your job more.

Have dreams and never give up on them:
It's easy to give up when things are hard but i believe we have to keep chasing our dreams and our goals. And once we decide to do something, we should never look back, never regret it.

Keeping your words:
One thing i always try to do is to keep my word. I set my goals and stick to them. Success is more than luck. You have to believe in yourself and make it happen. That way others also believe in you.

Embrace challenges:
As the writer and mountain climber James Ullman once said- Challenge is the core and mainspring of all human action. If there's an ocean, we cross it. If there's a disease, we cure it. If there's wrong, we right it. If there's a record, we break it. And if theres a mountain, we climb it.

Self belief:
I believe in myself. I believe in the hands that work, in the brains that think, and in the hearts that love.

Have no regrets:
I believe the one thing that helps you capture the moment is to have no regrets. Regrets weigh you down. They hold you back in the past when you should move on.

Live in the moment:
Always living in the future can slow us down as much as always looking behind. Many people are always looking ahead and they never seem content. They look for quick fixes like winning a lottery. I know that goals are important. Money is important. But the bottom line is that money is just a means to an end, not an end in itself. And what is going on now is just as important as what you're planning for the future. So, even though my diary is full for months ahead, I have learned to live for the moment.

Compartmentalize life:
The man who started IKEA divides his day into ten minute sections. He says, "Ten minutes, once gone, are gone for good. Divide your life into ten-minute units, don't waste even a minute.

My final thoughts:
I think this blog has gotten far longer than i had thought but i really couldn't help it. I still ended up omitting a lot of what i thought i would put across after i read the book but the above represents the best of my learnings from the life of Richard Branson. Going by the precept- "Best is yet to come", i am sharing one more key learning as below-

One of the great things that i found impressive in Richard Brason's life is ability to overcome odds. In his school days, the teachers not realizing he has dyslexic tendencies considered him quite slow in reading and writing. To overcome this, he taught himself to memorize things and became good at his perceived weakness and went on to even win a School level Essay contest, which is indeed an achievement for a guy written off almost at the early age. Certainly, he showed flashes of greatness even at a early age!