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"Success is never final. Failure is never fatal. It's courage that counts." By John Wooden

Wednesday
Apr092014

Ordinary People, Extraordinary Results

Have you heard of the Dabbawalas of Mumbai? If not, you can either read about them in the famous HBS case study "The Dabbawala System: On-Time Delivery, Every Time" or watch the Bollywood flick "The Lunchbox". The Dabbawalas is an organization with a simple goal to deliver a person's lunch box from their home to their workplace. You see in India, people still do things the old fashioned way - they want a warm, home-cooked meal at lunch time. Dabbawalas make this happen, and that too with precision - Their delivery process has a 6 sigma accuracy (99.99966%). In other words, only 1 out of 1 million deliveries either goes to the wrong location or the wrong person or is delayed!

How do you explain that kind of precision and rise to that level of performance? How do you get a set of ordinary people (majority with only a high school diploma in the case of Dabbawalas) to deliver extraordinary results? Managers across the world have ordinary people in their teams but are expected to get their people to deliver miraculous results. You may be thinking that if these Dabbawalas in Mumbai can do it, why can't we do it? I wish I could tell you that there is a maginal formula or recipe here, but sadly, there is no such panacea. Things always drill down to the basics - its about execution, its about transformation, its about recognition, its about inspiration - in that order.

I'll briefly elaborate on each one of these -

  1. Execution - If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Once you have a plan, your team must stick to their guns and execute it. Strive for optimization and excellance, NOT perfection (because that is a myth). Outliers or naysayers are the ones you need to watch out for.
  2. Transformation - Build those checks and balances in your plan/process so that you have ongoing performance monitoring and continuous improvement. This is called "maturing the process". Nobody gets it right the first or second or sometimes, even the third time. Your leadership needs to understand that and support that. Don't look at things in absolute terms, rather look at them in relative terms. Watch the Trend and Trajectory!
  3. Recognition - Doing good work and delivering extraordinary results is hard work. In the extreme case, your staff may probably hate you for putting them through all of this. Take time to recognize your people - they are humans, not machines. They have families and a life that they often compromise for your and your organization's goals. Give them an inch and they will go a mile for you!
  4. Inspiration - You must lead by example. You must inspire. Something about you must click with the people, and I am not talking about your title here. People will hate you if you push rank on them but will love you if you hang with them, do things with them, listen to them, follow through on your commitments, and are honest.

I am sure the Dabbawalas weren't a homerun on day 1 or month 1 or even year 1, but they stuck to the basics to get these extraordinary results and that is what it really takes. 

Saturday
Mar152014

MOOCs and The “Free” Curse

Thanks to the MOOC onslaught, world-class education is now available at your fingertips and your doorstep. With the comfort of your bed, couch, lawn chair, fireside, etc., you can now take courses in a variety of topics ranging from programming, business, philosophy, and engineering. While this is all great, the problem with free is that the consumer usually doesn’t have “skin in the game”. Behavioral economists have shown extensively that people put a different set of value/commitment towards products/services that they purchase versus the ones that come free to them. How bizarre! On one hand we crave for free stuff but on the other hand we don’t take care of it. We want it but once we have it, we don’t take care of it the way we would for some that cost us money.

Back to education … A similar outcome is being demonstrated by consumers of MOOCs (Udemy, Coursera, EdX, etc.). The completion rate of these free services is abysmally low – only about 23%. So what is going on here? How do you explain this? Well let’s think about it – A typical MOOC comprises of ~12-15 hour-long sessions. Unlike a season of “House of Cards”, you can’t just sit and complete the entire course over a weekend. The course requires you to do some assignments and reading offline so that you prepare for the next session. All this requires commitment, discipline, and focus. Guess what  - the average person out there does not have these traits. Yes, its real easy to get excited about a course with the buzz words, the elite faculty teaching it, get over-ambitious about learning new things, over commit - But can you follow through? More than often, the answer is NO.

MOOCs have come with a lot of promise and potential to help raise the average knowledge and skills level in the economy but somebody has to pay the bills. In order to generate revenues, you need to show traction and engagement. MOOCs have to figure out how to get these KPIs going/trending in the right direction. They aren’t non-profits that can just keep touting their mission; firms and people have invested in them and want to see returns. As a service provider, you cannot pick your consumers. What you need to do is show individuals how they can do better and hit their maximum potential. There are a number of tried and tested tricks on influencing the right behavior – Group Think, Social Norms, etc. MOOCs need to leverage these to their advantage and show individuals examples and pathways of other students who are faring better and are farther along. Not just that, MOOCs have to figure out how to make the curriculum and instructional design more relevant and case-based without diluting the importance and rigor of the course. Finally, MOOCs may want to go from “free to fair” pricing and see if that shift changes the consumer’s perception and performance. Maybe start charging for course completion certificates and partnering with employers who recognize them.

MOOCs are on the right path and it is only a question of time when they figure out a profitable business model that makes both investors and consumers happy. The key is too keep trying different techniques (like social forums and gamification) and providing choices to consumers so that they can self-select the right pathway for personal success.

Saturday
Jan182014

Goal of Education: Health & Happiness

Kazira friends and visitors -

A very happy and joyous 2014 to you. I know I've been quiet on Kazira for some time. Lots going on in life on the professional and personal front. But there is one constant - my passion for education and the belief in it's transformational power. So as we all kick of the new year, I wanted to share a must-see Ted Talk that I came across recently.

Have you ever thought what your goals from all the years of school/college was or what you children's goal from acquiring education should be?

  1. Making money?
  2. Owning fancy things?
  3. Getting a good job?
  4. Becoming smarter?
  5. Making a difference in society?

I am sure you have your own goals but do being healthy and happy feature in that list? Isn't that what it really boils down it at the end of the day that you and your loved ones are healthy to do the things they want and are happy doing those things. Education makes those 2 uber goals in life, happen. Education is a journey which helps you achieve those 2 very important goals. Yes, I am making a bunch of assumptions and approximations here but I think you get the idea. Be sure to think about this and then assess whether you have these two precious things in life. If not, its probably time to smarten up by reading something valuable, registering for a class/course, or going back to school.

Now, check out this amazing talk by a 13 year old kid who has learned ealry on about what really matters ...

 

Tuesday
May142013

MOOCs | Promise & Perils

If you don’t know what the acronym MOOCs stands for by now, don’t even bother! So yes, there is a ton of excitement and energy behind the MOOC movement, specially its ability to teach “stuff” to people “at scale”. But let’s slow down for a minute as there are still a ton of questions that remain to be answered when it comes to, say, the validity of the teachings/learnings derived from a MOOC session.

Here is my attempt at summarizing the promises/opportunities of MOOCs and the thorny challenges/threats that may slow down its march. My goal here is to raise the awareness of state of the MOOC business model and then allow you, the reader, to pick one or more relevant area(s) and dive deeper into it.

Opportunities/Strengths

  1. Delivery of education on a large scale
  2. Delivery of education to masses at extremely low unit cost/price
  3. Ability for people to collaborate from all economic/social levels and all parts of the world
  4. Discovery of Rock star Teachers/Professors across the world
  5. On-demand, Just-In-Time education
  6. Student’s ability to learn from some of the world’s best teachers

Threats/Weaknesses

  1. Monetization/Profit (revenue streams in lieu of tuition fees)
  2. Higher-Ed College credit/placement policy
  3. Industry/Firm recruiting/placement policy
  4. Assessment of teaching/learning outcomes & its Validity and Security
  5. Completion pace and rates (often MOOCs have no time limitations)
  6. Curriculum quality & IP rights
  7. Student focus, independence of work, and comprehension
  8. One size may not fit all

Thanks to technology, education is at an interesting crossroad and the traditional ways of delivery/consuming/assessing education are being transformed. The state of MOOCs will improve with time but it is important to be mindful of its pros and cons.

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Monday
Apr152013

Innovating like Startups

Corporations are like human beings – when they are young, they have a lot of energy and motivation to try different and new things. Much like a teenager or a 20-something, young companies move around freely, they don’t let constraints bog them down, there is nothing that can stop them, and they are quick to act/react. Most importantly, young firms (i.e. startups) are willing to listen, learn, and change. As a result, they are more likely to bring new, innovative products and services to the market.

Lets contrast the above to more established firms and older people – low on desire/motivation to try new things, slow to act/react to situations/opportunities, bogged down by personal/social constraints, and unwilling to listen/learn/change. In other words, as firms and people age, inertia sets in and things slow down. As a result, the company culture becomes lackadaisical, they stop innovating, and whatever they bring to market is mediocre at best.

So what can we do about this inertia and this mediocrity? Unfortunately for people, aging is a non-reversible process but you can certainly slow things down by exercising (your body and brain), dieting, etc. and keep up your energy levels. What about corporations? What can they do to stay on the cutting edge, despite their age? How can established firms be agile, relevant, and most importantly, innovative like the cool/hip startups giving them a run for their money? Here are some techniques that are working –

  1. Change the leadership – The job of a company board is to keep a vigilant eye on the leadership team and assess whether they are “leading by example”. If you don’t see the excitement and energy in the CEO or CIO or other leaders that the staff looks up to, it is time to shake things up. The top management sets the tone for the rest of the firm!
  2. Encourage risk-taking – If you have a culture that will look down upon people who make mistakes because they took a chance or made some weak assumptions, you will stifle creativity and ideas. Risk-taking, the calculated kind, should be encouraged because that is the only way you will try something that is outside your comfort zone. If not, you will stay glued to things that you are most comfortable doing.
  3. Run challenges – Try setting some stretch goals. When was the last time you ran a work related contest? Ever heard of hackathons? The point is to cultivate an environment that is funny yet competitive, that brings the best out of people, spirit and talent.
  4. Celebrate creative efforts – Not every swing will result in a home run; there will be plenty of “strikeouts” but then every once in a while, you will hit a single, double, or home run. It is all about the law of averages – the more you swing, the better the chances of the bat connecting with the ball!
  5. Leave the title/ego at the door – Seriously, titles and egos are the biggest killer of people’s creativity and excitement. If your firm has not realized this simple fact of life, you are SOL!
  6. Spend time with the customer – Finally, please encourage your staff to step out of their cubes and offices. 30 minutes spent with a customer will be more valuable than 10 hours spent in a cube. Remember, you are not the customer, no matter how smart you think you are. Customers can and often will tell you things directly or indirectly about what you are selling that will give you that “aha” moment to go and create something even more cool and useful.

Finally, innovation is not a single event but is an outcome of a process that plays out over time. And to achieve this outcome, the firm has to create the environment. The above are exactly the kind of things that start-ups are doing.

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