Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Key professional lessons learned from the last over of Wankhede test (INDvsWI)

Last weekend, i got to witness a thrilling Cricket Test match between India and West Indies. After first four days of rather dull Cricket, the match seemed like headed towards a Darw. The result seemed a distant possibility only to see things reverse on the fifth day. The wicket started assisting the bowlers and West Indies who scored runs in excess of 590 in the first innings, got bowled out for a mere 134 in their second innings. That meant that Team India had to score 243 to win the Test match in little more than 2 session of batting. At the start of the dramatic run chase, India seemed to be going steady being something like 100/1 or so and then they lost their way somewhere in the middle and finally managed to make the score of 242 for 9, which made it a last ball draw. There were many exciting moments on the final day of the match but most dramatic were the last few overs and the last over to be very specific. Here is the account of what happened in that last over-

- India needing 3 runs to win and 2 to level scores. Ravichandran Ashwin and Varun Aaron (both playing their first series, Varun his first match) were batting at 13 and 1 respectively).
- West Indies needed 2 Wickets to win.
Ball 1: Varun Aaron tried to hit the ball to off side. Misses the fast ball by Fidel Edwards.
Ball 2: Edwards, just before delivering the ball saw Ashwin short of crease. He could have run Ashwin out within the rules but chose not to in the right Spirit of Cricket. Edwards finally bowls and Varun manages to connect the ball but it does directly to fielder.
Ball 3: Varun plays a wild swing off the third ball and misses.
Ball 4: Varun connects the ball and with some mis-fielding and good fortune, makes much required 1 run. This makes it 2 runs needed off 2 balls to win for India, 2 Wickets off 2 balls to win for West Indies.
Ball 5: Ashwin does not go for his shot and defends the ball and this rules out the possibility of West Indies winning.
Ball 6: Ashwin hits the ball hard to mid-on. The ball goes fast, Ashwin runs the first run hard and seeing the throw on top of his head, does not show much interest in running the second one hard and is run-out. The result: a level scoring draw, something that has happened only once in 120+ years history of the game.

The video for that eventful last over is below-

I could gather some meaningful lessons from this last over and match in general that could be applied in our normal (and work) lives. They are as follows-

Lesson#1: Sometimes the bias towards Action is necessary:
In his book- "The Habit of winning", Prakash Iyer mentions about the aspect of "Action bias", he says-

I came across a research by a team of scholars in Israel. To understand the goalkeeper's mind-set, the team studied 286 penalty kicks from major league football games from around the world. As you probably know, a penalty kick is taken from a distance of just 11 meters from the goal. The goalkeeper gets about 0.1 seconds to react- a window so tiny that goalkeeper must guess which way the ball will go, and commit themselves to a dive- left or right.
The research team tracked the direction of the kick (left, right and center) and tabulated the statistics. And he is what it found: a goalkeeper's best chance of stopping a penalty kick is if he doesn’t dive and stays put in the center!
That’s not all. Though the probability of stopping a kick is the highest when the goalkeeper did not move, the team found that in 92% of the cases, the goalkeeper committed himself to a dive to the either side. Why then do they dive, when standing still would give them their best chance of success!

One way to explain as Prakash Iyer does in his book is because most of the Sportsperson or even High achievers have something called as an "Action bias" i.e. desperate tendency to act in most situations. If say goalkeeper does not commit himself to a dive in a penalty of a World cup final, most of the people would tend to ridicule him stating "He didn’t even try". If he dives and fails to collect the ball, people would probably think- "Atleast he tried (his best!)".

If you now compare Ashwin's situation in Ball 6. He completed one run quite quickly and then seeing the throw going over his head, he didn’t commit himself to the second run fast enough. Later he said, there was no way second run could be done as throw had already almost reached wicket-keeper. Though that lack of immediate action could be debated saying that wicket-keeper "could" have missed the ball and he "could" have got some extra time to make the run. He had to face quite a deal of criticism for not taking that run quickly but more important thing to note is how fast do the people notice the lack of action. That is quite true when the stakes are high.

This is an interesting situation to what Prakash Iyer calls High achievers having bias for action. In this case, Ashwin deliberately didnt act quickly because in his mind he knew his fate was sealed. This is a classic case of people expecting him to act though the result in 99% of times would have been same as what is now (how often do we see Wicket-keepers fumbling straight-forward chances?)

In some circumstances, the "Action" may be unnecessary like in the earlier example of goalkeeper but there are many situations in the our work lives and otherwise in life, when the very notion of "Action" gives indication that things are alive and kicking. For example, if your boss or team is in a different country than you are you, you ought to make sure to keep him/her updating on the various aspects of work. If not, some communication may go amiss. Sometimes, the action is necessary just to instil the belief in the people that you gave your 100%. Here is a simple thing that i learned- If you can act in a situation while still maintaining your genuineness of intent and not sounding artificial, the action (whatever it may be) is worth an attempt. After all who can forgive a goalkeeper just standing still if the football whizzes past from his side.

Lesson#2: Dont forget the Fair play even when the going is tough

If you remember what Edwards did in the Ball-2 of the last over, he actually held the spirit of the game high by not dismissing Ashwin on his run-up. The laws of the game state that the batsman should be in his crease when the bowler is taking a stride to bowl but the spirit of the game suggests that you ought to warn the batsman atleast once before attempting to running out in this situation. The latter is what Edwards did. Had he plainly followed the rules, Ashwin would have been run-out and West Indies could have been within a sniffing distance of victory.
There is a great stuff to be learned from this. In work and even in our lives, never forget to act ethically irrespective of the situation you are in. Following your profession ethically is not an easiest thing to do especially when the stakes are high like it was the case in this match but doing so is always the right in the larger context. You may lose a million by following stuff ethically but can save your organization a billion by avoiding the dangerous law-suites.

Lesson#3: When in trouble, first thing to do is break the monster task into small pieces

Varun struggled to score a single run the first three balls of the last over. Its not as if he didn’t try, he tried hard but somehow fell short. One more thing to note is that he was trying quite hard during this phase. To me it occurred that he made situation quite complex in his mind (naturally for a person playing his first match) and what would have helped in this case is to somehow simplify the situation.
The lesson to learn here is that whenever a problem of huge proportions trouble us, the first thing should be to break that problem in manageable parts and not get overly bogged down by it. Often the problem does not appear as big once we put effort to simplify the same and separately deal with its various parts. Once we have dealt with parts, suddenly we start seeing the light at the end of tunnel.
Try this for your "complex" problem for today, you will certainly achieve more in a day!

Lesson#4: Demonstrating Innovation in crisis is much harder than when things are rosy

Varun did the best he could during the first three balls of this over, considering it was his first match. For sure, he was facing a high pressure situation. Its quite funny how we, as humans, sometimes act in such crisis situations. We usually get tied to a single action and keep trying the same thing. Something Varun kept doing, playing the similar looking shot or within his limitations as a batsman. The lesser related example from our daily lives could be when the TV remote stops functioning, we start bashing it, hitting it against our palms continuously till we realize the problem is with battery. Such a thing is usually called as Blind Persistence meaning we are persistent towards something but keep trying the same thing again and again whereas the need of the hour could well be to innovate a bit while in crisis. Again, this is easier said than done but i do feel the ability of an individual or an organization to innovate when faced with survival crisis always rates high while innovating when you are provided with all the resources. Innovating in crisis requires that extra bit of mental strength and maintaining positivity while in a grave crisis. Not many possess this ability naturally but this quite something that could be developed for sure.

Lesson#5: Leaving too much for too late

In this post, i focused mainly on the last over the match where the situation was already tense and tight. Spare one thought about how we actually reached that situation. It was primarily because most of the batsmen in the top order did not take the responsibility of batting right-through the end and India kept losing wickets.
One of the important lesson here is that one should not keep too much towards the end of the project. This holds good even for the way one plans for a day. Do the most difficult tasks at the start of the day as the more complex ones usually take more time and it would often hold you up from reaching home on time. Afterall, you got to Eat that frog (Ugly task), the first thing in the day.

What did you learn today ?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Key professional lessons from a Long distance run- Part-2

I wrote about the Part-1 of this blogpost may be 2-3 years back. I got reminded to update this while i participated in
Ultra run at Bangalore on 13th-Nov. For starters, Ultra Marathon is any sporting event involving running longer than a traditional marathon length of 42.195 km (as defined by Wikipedia). I participated in 25 Km run event, which incidentally was less than actual marathon but was quite challenging for me. I had run long distances and even cycled longer distances before but not at a high scale event like Ultra, which had close to 900 participants running in different categories up to 100 Km run. Yes, you heard it right- 100 Km run!

I did manage to finish the run and was quite happy in doing so. While i ran at the event, several thoughts ran through my mind and i realized some of these i had not written about in my previous blog on this topic. These are essentially the lessons that i could take back to my life- both work and personal. These are as jotted below-

Life starts where the Comfort zone ends:
This run was a substantial challenge for me personally as i had not attempted such a long run in a public event before this (discounting the numerous practice runs). Moreover, the race day and track had something peculiar about it. The race day was scorching hot- may be in excess of 35 degree Celsius and the race track was uneven and full of dirt. It was so uneven that i almost felt misbalanced on momentarily lapse of concentration while not watching what lies on the ground. Long distance runs especially the Ultra runs does push you beyond your limits, both physically and mentally.

While running one thing that i realized that when your limits get stretched, the challenge takes an altogether different dimension. The challenge no longer remains- "How can i excel in my endeavour ?" it more becomes- "How can i survive somehow ?".
And when it comes to survival, one starts to look at things in a much different perspective than usual situations. Let me share a real life story at this instance-
Once i interviewed one of the General Manager (popularly Known as "TV" because of his name initials) from my past organization (while i was an Editor of In-house magazine). TV shared a very interesting experience about his stay in Antartica for about 16 months. Some excerpts from his website-

I was a member of theƂ XIII Indian Scientific Expedition to Antarctica (ISEA) and XI Winter-Over Team (WOT) and stayed at Indian Scientific Station at Antarctica, Maitri, between Dec 1993 and Mar 1995 (almost 16 months). I was the youngest Indian scientist at that time to do what is known as ‘wintering’ (i.e., spend 16 months in the icy continent away from comforts of home and hot food). I was also the Post Master of Maitri Post Office, the philatelic post office of Indian Post Department (they still owe me an honararium of Rs. 16 for my services, one rupee per month). Among other things, I worked on HF radio based Data Communication between Antarctica and India.

One of thoughts that TV shared regarding his experience in Antarctica that has stayed with me all through these years was that living away from the comforts of normal city and staying far away at remotely cut off place for long time gave him a unique perspective towards life and dealing with problems. Most of the problems that we face in our day-to-day life are almost trivial when you compare the same with experience one has had in staying in such tough conditions in a place like Antarctica (in a time when probably only way to get connected to your family was through snail mail and you get to probably eat same stuff every day, not to forget dealing with sub zero temperature without Sun for 16 long months). Thats a very valuable insight, something similar (probably in less proportions) that i got to experience while running that long distance run.

Similar to this, I remember to have read one quote regarding dealing with Stress in one of the HBR forums something like- "You dont know what the real stress is unless you are required to walk 10 km everyday to fetch water and food for your thirsty, hungry and mal-nutritioned kids". Like most problems we face, managing stress is often about looking at your situation with a right lens i.e. with a right perspective.

What i eventually learned was that once you overcome something substantial physically and mentally, it gives you a confidence that you can face other difficulties with greater poise. In our usual lives we are so far away from the notion of Survival that we often give much more importance to seemingly trivial issues at work and in normal lives.

Dont let your Survival instincts die, routinely push yourself beyond that cushy comfort zone.

Mixing Risk with caution:
While i was running, may be somewhere around 15 Km mark i started feeling a bout of cramps. I had to think and strategize my run because i still had a good number of kilometres to do. I Stopped, took a stock of things and started gradually running dropping my speed. The fact that i entered this run without an ideal practice was a risk in itself but keeping the overall scheme of things in mind, i had to add some bit of caution to the overall risk i had taken.

It often helps at work and in life to sometimes Stop and Introspect. This is especially true in the fast paced urban life which undervalues the importance and fun of doing things slowly at a pace comfortable to self without worrying about what the world is thinking.

So what i learned was-
Take Risks, Move fast- All that is fine but it helps sometimes to add that "Slowness" to our lives that makes us feel more human.

What did you learn today ?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Key professional lessons learned from the bicycle shop

There is this real incident that took place sometime back and which i recently recollected.
This one instance is about the time i went to service my bicycle. I landed in the shop and started to look for someone who could talk to me. I noticed one person sitting on the chair behind a table talking to a customer. I moved ahead and stood next to the other guy who he was speaking to. I patiently waited for a while for him to atleast acknowledge my presence when he was talking to other guy. Sensing him not do it, i barged in politely and mentioned to him that i had come for the servicing my bicycle. Without looking at me, this person calls his assistant and rather impatiently asks him to attend to me. The assistant addressed my questions and by this time the guy on chair also got free but kept looking at both of us. I negotiated a price and conditions for Servicing and was about to leave when it occurred to me to ask the assistant for his number so that i could call back before coming. Listening to this, the guy still sitting in chair, remarked with a rather superior and rude voice- "Take my number, he is just a mechanic. You will be talking to me."

Thinking over what happened at the bicycle shop makes me feel like going back to the basics of dealing with humans. Was the guy sitting on chair right in all that he did ? Well, if you ask me as his customer, i wont answer in affirmative. Lets delve a bit deeper-

When i stood by his side for a while, as a customer i subconsciously expected him to atleast acknowledge my presence atleast (if not smile and greet me). Thats where he failed to make a connection and that elusive first impression on the customer.
I do feel in our day-to-day chores of work, at a very basic level we as employees seek this seemingly simple thing called "Respect from others". It is the instances like the one narrated above that gives you a perception whether you are being respected or not. i.e. a mere act of not acknowledging the presence of a colleague or failing to say a simple "hello" routinely has more damaging impact than what we perceive generally. This is something that eventually causes the disconnect between people.

Again going back to the story, the way the guy in chair addressed his colleague rather rudely as a mechanic in front of a customer was rather uncalled for. As a customer, it gave me an impression of an autocrat managing the shop. Just like i as a customer demanded this Shopkeeper's attention and respect, the mechanic too had the similar needs. Apparently in this case, was badly shot down.

Some of the thoughts that got reinforced again for me after this incident-
- No matter what the situation, irrespective of your stress levels, "Treat people with Respect".
- If you work with people, Make efforts to acknowledge their presence, Always.
- Be conscious of the way people around you perceive you. Bad perceptions once created are hard to overcome.
- Autocratic Leadership is needed in certain situations but most of the workplace situations can be handled in a democratic way.
- Delegation is a fine art. Empowering people while making them accountable for the deliverables works wonders in most situations.

What did you learn today ?