Friday, December 22, 2006

Myth and truth : "so true that it can't be real"

I have been interested in myths for a long time. Initially(when I was a kid) I liked them as nice (unreal) stories. As I explored them further (and as I became older) I became more interested in the deep truths expressed through the myths. I understood that myths are non-facts that are truer than facts.

However probably because of my science background I was a still a bit uneasy that myths are not real/factually correct. A few days ago, I realized that in order to be able to express deep truths myths can't afford to be real. If myths have to entirely real, then myths would also be constrained by the limitations of physical reality (time, space, context etc.) and hence they won't be able to express deep truths that goes beyond the physical plane. A myth is something so true that it can't be real.

Let us look at a very common example. Dragons never existed on earth. However we find stories about dragons in practically all cultures. Now the reason for the popularity of the dragon myth is the deep truths contained in it. The myth of a dragon(a snake that has learned to fly) symbolizes the ability of human beings to rise above the animal nature, raise above limitations etc. If some real animal was chosen instead of the dragon, there would have been a limited effectiveness in the symbolization/expression(constrained/contaminated by the physical features of the animal). Moreover it would have created a situation where some people would argue that "since this animal is found only in these countries, the truth is applicable only to these countries" etc.

Sometimes we have to go beyond reality to express deep truths !!!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

The best context for an OD job

In the last few months, I have seen quite a few 'OD' jobs advertised/posted in India. I do wonder how many of these 'OD' jobs provide a realistic opportunity to do OD (or at least the kind of OD that can make a significant business impact)

Based on an analysis of the 'OD' jobs that I have come across & my understanding of the business needs/opportunity for OD, I have come to the following inference.

"My best opportunity to do 'OD' would be in a mid-sized organization"

Let me explain what I mean by this. First of all, let me admit that this inference is being made only in a particular context (i.e. for me as an individual AND for doing 'my kind of OD'). Here, I define a 'mid-sized organization' as an organization with an employee strength anywhere between 3000 and 15000 (in India). These numbers are not absolute figures. The idea is that in 'too small' and 'too big' organizations there could be more barriers to do OD as compared to a mid-sized organization.

Of course, organization size is only one of the variables that could have an impact on the 'OD friendliness' of an organization (actually, defining organization size purely in terms of employee numbers itself is simplistic). There are many other factors like the organization culture, the way the HR/OD function is structured globally, past experiences with 'OD' initiatives in the organization, perception of the business leadership about OD, the stage of the organization life cycle the organization is in etc. There could be interrelationships between some of these variables themselves and a factor analysis might throw up interesting factors/loadings.

'Problems' with very small & very big organizations

(a) It requires a certain minimum organization size to create space for OD ( i.e. to dedicate headcount for an OD team/invest in building OD capability).

(b) When an organization gets very big, the tendency is to separate 'structural OD' and 'process OD' (For example, at Infosys the structural OD/OE initiatives are done by the OE team and process OD is done by the Infosys Leadership Institute. In many organizations structural OD/OE is part of corporate HR while the process part is managed by the training function). While process OD is quite close to the old definition of OD, its business impact/centrality to business is dubious. To be fully effective, both the process and the structural dimensions of OD has to be integrated. Also in very big organizations the OD lead position might be many organization levels away from the business leadership making it more difficult for the OD lead to influence/gain better understanding of the business/to be part of the decision making process.

As the organizations have become complex (with large degree of interrelationships between the parts) and fast changing doing isolated interventions in some pockets of the organization would not create significant business impact. Also traditional OD is giving way to OT (organization transformation), OT is more business results focused as compared to being more process/technique/relationship focused& also OT undertakes multiple integrated initiatives at the same time (keeping in mind the systems perspective) to create a business impact in a complex fast changing organization. .

Thus, I feel that a mid-sized organization is more likely to have a structure that is more conducive to an integrated approach to OD (integrating the both the process and structural dimensions in one team) while providing enough space/room to build OD team/capability.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Making problems disappear

Problem solving is the central activity of business and life. If we look at the behavioral training catalog/calender of any organization we are highly likely to find at least one course on problem solving. While I fully agree with the importance of developing problem solving skills, I feel that there are 'many levels of problems and problem solving' and that the traditional problem solving techniques/approaches are suitable for addressing only one type (level) of problems. These are problems that are resolved best by solving them (in the normal meaning of the word 'solving').

But there are some other problems (at a different level) that are resolved best not by solving them but by 'swamping them' (e.g. by putting them in the larger perspective of time, situation etc.), 'evaporating them' (e.g. by reducing the criticality/relevance) or even by 'making them disappear'.

This post deals with the third category(problems that are best resolved by making them disappear). While the details of this approach would require much longer/ more extensive treatment than what I plan to discuss here the essential idea is that this kind of problems are resolved by grappling/struggling with the problem unsuccessfully (over a significant period of time, somewhat similar to working on a Zen 'koan') and from that struggle developing/reaching a level of awareness which would make the problem disappear. Without getting into the details, let me tell a small story that illustrates this(although in a simplified manner).

While I was studying at XLRI for my MBA there was an elective on 'Management of Relationships(Applied Psychoanalysis)'. As part of that course we were given many case studies(actually these cases were highly sought after by those students who did not take that elective - because of the 'porn' value of psychoanalysis cases).

One of the case studies dealt with a woman who exhibited a 'strange' pattern of behavior. In some situations she behaved in a virtuous way and in some other situations she behaved in an immoral way. We were split into sub-groups and the task given to us was to make a presentation(in 45 minutes) on whether she was a 'Devi' (a goddess) or a 'Vesya' (a prostitute). Naturally, this kind of a discussion is unlikely to reach any conclusion - with some members arguing for one position and the others for the opposite position. While most of us were enjoying the discussion one of my friends (who was the most sincere and result oriented among us) was getting increasingly uneasy because we were nearing the time limit set by the professor while being nowhere near any consensus/agreement on the answer to the question posed to us. Finally he could take it no more and he said "OK, OK let us agree that she is 70% Devi and 30% Vesya". While there was some 'logical' merit in this solution' (i.e. if one were to analyze each of the incidents given in the case, one will find that in most of the incidents she behaved in a virtuous manner), in a way it completely missed the point. The 'real' purpose (though it was not stated explicitly) for giving us the case was not to solve it. The purpose was to develop our awareness of the paradoxical nature of the issue (and also to be aware of the tendency/compulsion of Indians to classify a woman either as a Devi or as a Vesya). So the solution was to grapple with the problem unsuccessfully and from that struggle develop/reach a level of awareness which would make the problem disappear.

Related Link : For further discussion on the topic, see here

The art of being a jester

Over the years I have spent quite a bit of time thinking about the kind of roles that would interest me(possibly as part of the effort to 'finding my place under the sun'). One role (image) that often comes to my mind is that of a court jester.

Though the word 'jester' is often (incorrectly) interpreted to mean 'fool', a jester is a much more profound creature than a fool. Of course, at a superficial level both a fool and a jester might appear quite similar. When we look at them more deeply, the similarities vanish. While a fool entertains others by 'making a fool of himself', a jester enables others to laugh at themselves. While the techniques of a fool focuses mainly on the physical plane (doing funny things, acting in a funny manner etc.), jester operates mainly in the mental and/or spiritual plane (generating insights). We can also say that fools represent simplicity on 'this side of complexity' (or simplicity before reaching complexity) while jesters represent simplicity on the other side of complexity (simplicity after going beyond the complexity).

In terms of impact a fool leaves his audience 'entertained' while the jester leaves his audience 'enlightened'. In terms of their influence, fools are quite 'peripheral' while jesters are quite 'central'. Jesters often had the right (or even the 'duty') to criticise the King and get away with that(or even get rewarded for that). Often Jesters possess 'shibumi' (great refinement underlying common place appearances). Actually 'shibumi' is another concept that interests me greatly and it deserves a separate post.