How Organizations Fail to Think

I recently came across a TED video by Margaret Heffernan, an international business leader and writer. In her speech, Margaret shared an insight which I felt was pretty radical: most organizations don’t think.

If like me, you work at an organization that requires you to do a decent amount of thinking on a daily basis, you might be wondering what this woman is talking about. According to Margaret, a critical component of organizational thinking is constructive conflict, and most of us do our very best to avoid conflict at work. The reasons for conflict avoidance are many, but some of the top reasons include:

  1. Conflicts can be messy and personal.
  2.  Conflicts are highly unpredictable, and it may be impossible to effectively manage the conflict once it has begun.
  3. People who start conflicts at work are usually labelled as not being a team player, or a whistle blower, and no one likes these kinds of people.

Despite the risks associated with engaging in conflict at work, the fact that the great tragedies of organizations and humanity happened in the open, and succeeded because people failed to speak up against the status quo, challenges us all to go beyond our comfort zones, and engage in the constructive conflict needed to develop creative solutions to our world’s problems.

So how do we do this? Margaret’s talk provided me with three good tips:

  1. Resist the neuro-biological urge to only associate with people who are like you. Instead, develop the patience and trust needed to engage with people with a wide variety of backgrounds and interests.
  2. Realize that speaking up in disagreement is not an end in itself, but is only the beginning of the path to a creative solution.
  3. When you have a question or concern about your organization’s product, service, or business process, it is very likely that others secretly share the same concern. The only way to find out is to speak up.

Any other ideas on how to effectively manage organizational conflict?



Why Google Gave Android Away for Free: The Business Case for Open Source Software

In 2007, Google unveiled the Android mobile operating system under an open source license. This meant that Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) such as LG, HTC and Dell could access the Android source code, and modify it to suit their specific needs, without paying a penny to Google. Why did Google choose this open source approach, when it could have made a decent chunk of money from selling Android?

While I don’t work for Google, I’ve spent some time researching and thinking about the business case for open source software. I believe that from a business perspective, an open source model might make sense for the following reasons:

  1. Monetization of Proprietary Add-Ons: Open source software is likely to gain market share faster than commercial software as its growth is not restricted by the friction of financial transactions. This rapid growth can then be monetized through the creation of proprietary add-ons. For example, Android now has about 65% market share in the US, and Google monetizes this growth through proprietary apps such as Google Search, Google Maps and the Google Play Store, which power its sprawling advertising business.
  2. Reducing Development Costs: Android’s open source license allows any developer around the globe to improve the Android source code for his/her benefit. These improvements are also available to Google for free, and while Google may not necessarily need the free development effort, it ultimately create a positive feedback loop where Android gets better faster, which leads to more users and growth which Google can then monetize.
  3. Attracting and Retaining Talent: Today’s software developers want to do more than write code that earns them a paycheck; they want to change the world. One way to do this is by contributing to cool open source projects that are used by millions of people around the world. Therefore, a company that releases and contributes to open source software projects is likely to be more attractive to talented developers.

Resilience By Sheryl Sandberg

Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, gave a commencement speech at the University of California, Berkeley a few weeks ago which I believe is worth sharing. There are two parts of the speech that I find absolutely outstanding: the medium and the message.

When I say the medium, I mean that the speaker was outstanding. I must confess that I’ve never really been a fan of Sheryl Sandberg. All that “Lean In” stuff really put me on edge and made me uncomfortable. Maybe it’s because I needed to hear it. 🙂 Anyways, what blew me away was how vulnerable she allowed herself to be during the speech, irrespective of the fact that she’s one of the most powerful business leaders in our world today. I was really inspired by her example, and challenged to become even more vulnerable with my co-workers, friends and family.

Now to the message. Sheryl Sandberg shocked her audience by stating that instead of sharing life lessons, she’ll share the lessons she learned from the unexpected loss of her husband. A key insight she shared is that when we experience a negative event, we process it through one of the following ways:

  • Personalization, which refers to thinking that we are to blame for everything that’s wrong in our lives,
  • Pervasiveness, which means that one bad event will affect all areas of our lives, and
  • Permanence, where we project our current feelings out indefinitely.

However, once we can sidestep these emotional land mines, and realize that:

  • We are not responsible for every bad thing that happens in our lives,
  • Being bad at one thing doesn’t mean you’re bad at everything, and
  • Our current emotions, whatever they are, won’t last forever,

We can go beyond our adversity, and instead choose joy and meaning. I’m really inspired by Sheryl Sandberg, and if you watch her speech, you just might be too. 🙂

Imabe by

On Work-Life Balance, and Setting Down Glass Balls…

glass balls 2
A few days ago, I heard a work-life balance tip from Peggy Johnson, Microsoft’s executive vice president of business development, that resonated strongly with me. My loosely paraphrased version of the tip goes like this:

When we think about the tension between performing well on the job, and catering to the relationships and commitments we have outside of work, it can sometimes feel like we’re juggling a bunch of glass balls. From maintaining a healthy lifestyle to taking care of a sick parent, there’s all these things that we feel we really need to take care of as screwing them up could have potentially devastating consequences.

While it is important to identify the glass balls in our lives, it is also important to realize that we are not slaves to our priorities. Life always happens, and when it does, it’s totally fine to set down some of these glass balls so we can pick them up later. Failure to do so will keep us in a perpetual state of stress, which may lead to us dropping – and shattering – a few glass balls.

What does this idea look like in real life? When I put in long hours on a high profile project, and am invisible to friends and family for a few weeks, that’s okay! When I take off during crunch time at work in order to attend a friend’s wedding on the other side of the globe, that’s okay too! Our work-life balance will constantly change as we move through different phases of life. The challenge is to ensure that our balance goals are created not by our friends, family members, colleagues or the media. Rather, what work-life balance means to us at every phase of our lives, should be decided by us.

Peggy suggested that we set a glass ball on our work desk as a way to keep this idea fresh. I’m yet to get mine… 🙂

Nurturing BSchool Connections

Joining Kellogg grew my network exponentially, and enabled me to build relationships with and learn a lot from really smart and admirable people. Fast forward to life after school though, and then comes the challenge of maintaining and nurturing these really valuable business school relationships.

The typical post-MBA job is pretty challenging, and forces MBA grads to spend their weekdays struggling to stay on top of things, and weekends recovering from the struggles of the previous week, while planning for new struggles ahead. With this tightly packed and mostly overflowing schedule, how can we find the time to nurture our existing relationships, not to mention build new ones?

I’m currently struggling through this challenge, and have been chatting with a lot of friends about it. While I still haven’t found a silver bullet, I’ve stumbled on some pretty good ideas:

1. Intentionally Plan Your Connections: This tip comes from Keith Ferrazzi, the networking guru who wrote the bestseller titled Never Eat Alone. Keith talks about creating a relationship action plan, as a way to stay on top of your relationships. His approach is pretty structured (which is not surprising as he’s an ex-consultant), and involves categorizing your network into 3 segments, and committing to an interaction frequency for each segment. Keith’s approach didn’t work very well for me, as categorizing my hundreds of friends was too cumbersome. Instead, I decided to identify the top 10 – 15 people that I really wanted to stay in touch with, and then tried to make plans for that small set of people. These plans included activities such as coffee or brunch meetups, and phone calls over the weekend, or during lunch time at work. The most important part of this tip is the PLANNING. Schedule a specific time and put it on your calendar like you would a business meeting because this stuff is actually more important in the long run.

2. Turn Facebook Time into Connecting Time: No one plans Facebook time into their day, but somehow most of us get to check Facebook an average of 14 times in a day. How does this happen? More importantly, what if we could turn that time into networking time? We all have ‘gifts of time’ during the day; examples include commute time, waiting in line for coffee, or waiting for people to show up for a meeting. In times like these, as I find myself reaching for the Facebook icon on my phone, I stop and ask myself: who can I ping right now to let them know I’m thinking about them? I try to hit at least 3 messages a week which is a super small goal, but I think this is beneficial in two ways. First, social media is already a widely accepted additive (although not a substitute) to our face to face interactions. Second, these low cost drops of pings on Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social media sites easily become an ocean of thoughtfulness and connection.

3. Just Do It!: This last tip seems to be in contrast with the first, but they actually work very well together. After making a networking plan, it’s really important to not stay welded to it. Don’t worry if certain people are slipping through the cracks and not being reached out to by you. Just keep reaching out and staying as connected as you can with those that are top of mind for you. The interesting part of this approach is that it helps you power through your inertia, and get started really quickly.

Any other good ideas on how to nurture business and personal connections?

Walk Breaks Are The New Smoke Break

Smoke breaks used to be cool. Workers could recharge themselves multiple times during the day, all the cool kids did it, and important relationships were forged in the smokers’ den. Still not sold? Alright then, let’s ask Rachel 🙂

Fast forward to today though, and smoking is no longer cool. First, there’s all this talk about lung cancer, which leads to companies and governments asking smokers to move at least 15 feet away from their buildings before enjoying a cigarette. In addition to the lung cancer ‘scare’, non-smokers sometimes complain about the additional time off enjoyed by their colleagues who smoke. This CNBC article estimates that the average smoker takes 4 smoke breaks a day, with each break lasting about 10 minutes. This adds up to smokers getting a month’s worth of additional time off each year!

Now what? Instead of complaining about the lost productivity, I’m proposing a new type of break for non-smokers: the walk break. How it works is simple. At least once a day, get out of your building and take a 15 minute walk. The benefits of the walk break are huge. Just like the smoke break, walking helps to break the monotony and/or stressors of your work day; giving you some much needed time to regroup and recharge. In addition, walk breaks – unlike smoke breaks – actually improve your health by increasing your activity levels and getting you closer to those magical 10,000 steps (a 15 minute walk gives me about 2000 steps on average).

So what are you waiting for? Get active and stay productive. Take a walk break! 😀

How to Think about Business School Debt

I was recently catching up with a friend when he said “Wow so you’ve finally graduated. You must be in like 200k worth of debt by now correct?” While most top business school programs cost about $200,000.00, the median debt burden for a top ten school according to Poets & Quants is $88,500. This is because some students get generous scholarship awards, and others save substantial parts of their pre-MBA salaries to offset the cost of their graduate business education. While I didn’t get any scholarship money from Kellogg, I did have some meager pre-MBA savings. This meant that I definitely had to borrow “big”, but I didn’t have to borrow as much as $200,000. 🙂

Before attending business school, I spent a lot of time agonizing over business school debt, and I asked current students and alums lots of questions about it. The questions I asked, and the answers I will give today – with the benefit of hindsight – are as follows:

1. How Easy/Difficult is it to Pay Back the Loan?: I think this was the main source of my agony. What if I did this MBA and the debt burden made me financially worse off than I was before my MBA? A lot of people told me that this was not a very likely scenario, and that I’d be fine, but I wasn’t ready to take their word for it. Instead of asking you to do the same – take my word for it, I’ll provide you with a loan repayment tool. What I tried to do here was make some estimates that helps one see how much she might have to pay after business school, and how easy the payments might be to make. In using this tool, you’ll have to make some estimates about:

  • how much you’ll be borrowing,
  • your interest rate,
  • your repayment duration,
  • your post MBA salary (please don’t be too optimistic here),
  • where you’ll live after business school (and the corresponding taxes of that location)

Notwithstanding the amount of “guesstimation” involved, and the fact that I use a fixed salary for the total duration of the loan, I still think this tool can provide some valuable insight into one’s financial situation after getting that flashy but expensive MBA. From my analysis, I think that it is in most cases possible to easily pay back your loan. For example, if you want to spend no more than 20% of your monthly after-tax salary on loan repayment, and you borrow $95,000 at an interest rate of 5.5%, the only scenario where you will fail to achieve your goal is with a post-MBA salary of $80,000, and a payback period of 10 years.

loan repayment

It is important to pay close attention to the variables mentioned above, since as they get more aggressive (payment duration gets shorter, or loan amount gets larger), payment becomes more difficult. Please feel free to play around with the tool, and let me know if anything seems off.

2. Is it worth it to take on this incredible amount of debt?: This is definitely a more nuanced question. How does one decide if an amount of debt was worth it? For me it came down to this question: has the business school experience delivered what I expected it to? While my answer so far has been yes, I know that this is not the case for all of my classmates. With that in mind, I’d say that there is an element of risk associated with funding an MBA through debt. In most cases, you will get what you want from the experience, but sometimes you may not; you have to be comfortable with both outcomes.

3. Should you borrow more to go to a higher ranked school?: Now that I’m out of the business school bubble, I can tell you for a fact that the people who care the most about rankings are the students deciding to go to business school, and the business schools themselves. Most employers are satisfied with knowing that you went to a ‘top’ school. How you decide to define ‘top’ is another matter, but I won’t touch that one. My point is that going to Wharton instead of Kellogg, or Booth instead of Ross will not significantly affect your career prospects. I work with people from a bunch of different business schools right now and we’re pretty much interchangeable. That said, I think there’s something to be said about the experience of a school. I decided to attend Kellogg even though it was the only school I got into that didn’t give me any money, and the reason for my decision was the people I met during my campus visit.

4 .Should you borrow more to get a richer business school experience?: Short answer: yes, I think it’s fine to borrow for certain parts of the bschool experience, but you have to be smart about it. If you’re like most students, you can’t afford to do everything, and you will have to pay back this money sometime in the future. I’ve started my own repayment process, and I can tell you that it’s not fun. 🙂 I’ll definitely love to be using that money for something else at this point. Therefore, my advice would be to optimize for things that have lasting value to you. For me that was participating in the tech trek to San Francisco and Seattle and doing my study abroad in Madrid.

This post is longer than I’d have liked it to be. However, I hope it’s helpful in some small way to someone somewhere, asking the same questions as I was in 2012.

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