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Friday, September 30, 2011

Lessons from the cognitive work path of Manmohan Singh


As knowledge workers, we already face many difficultiesI read this account of Manmohan Singh's career graph in October 2011 article of The Caravan by Vinod Jose. This has been written on the basis of accounts gathered over the course of four months of research that included lengthy interviews with more than 40 people who have known and worked closely with Manmohan Singh ( MS) in his private and public life during the last half-century. 

By donning the hat of  'career researcher', here are my six lessons of what corporate individuals can learn from the story. 

1. Change requires a 'pain' strong enough for everyone to rally around on one agenda

See the background that triggered the biggest change in 1991.

India’s debt to foreign lenders had nearly doubled between 1985 and 1991, and a series of external shocks—including the sudden spike in oil prices that accompanied the Gulf War—had reduced India’s foreign currency reserves to less than the amount required to finance two weeks of imports.

The government was so desperate to raise funds that it had pawned 20 tonnes of gold confiscated from smugglers, which were secretly shipped to the Union Bank of Switzerland in exchange for $200 million. When that proved insufficient, another 47 tonnes from the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) were sent to England and Japan to secure loans worth an additional $405 million.In a country where pawning the family jewellery would be an act of final desperation, the sense of alarm was palpable.

Learning for CXO's: More radical change requires more intense pain to justify the change. Please remember this when initiating any change in your organisations. 

2. To change the system, you have be 'part of the system'

MS had been working in different ministeries for 20 years, before he took over the role of Finance Minister in 1991. MS had authored the current Five-Year Plan when he was deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, and he was implementing policies in 1991 which were totally contradictory to his earlier plan. When the question of this apparent contradiction was first raised in June 1991, at Singh’s first press conference as finance minister, his response was unguarded: “I agree that I had played a role in getting the economy into a mess, and now I want to play a role in getting the economy out of the mess.”

Learning for CXO's: Thorough understanding of 'as-is' state of what the Government did before 1991 helped MS to move to the new 'to-be' state much more quickly. The same capability is required to ensure successful change in organisations. 

3. System picks you when your profile suits the need

In both the instances, MS was chosen because of the curious situational factors, not because he was the first choice.

Narsimha Rao picked MS in 1991 because it perfectly matched his need of a good finance minister who will help India get out of the trouble.Rao needed a finance minister who satisfied three criteria: he needed a skilled economist to conduct negotiations with the international financial institutions; second, in the event of a backlash against the radical policy changes, an ‘outsider’ would be easier to dismiss from the cabinet; and third, if the new finance minister was successful, he still wouldn’t pose any threat to Rao’s own position in the party. MS matched these three criteria.

Sonia Gandhi picked MS for PM in 2004, because his profile fitted the need of hour: Cognitive architect of 1991 liberalisation, the image of technocrat ( substantiated by the inability to even win the almost sure seat in 1999) that gave a good public branding, and above all the non-political humble background that ensured loyalty.

Learning: As you would have observed in the above case, even MS's liabilities became assets for the position.  If you aspire to reach the top of such a complex system, it is more prudent to 'be' what you are, along with your plusses and minuses, rather than trying to change to something else. Do not get tempted by self-help Guru's. 

4.Cognitive growth is important than ideology when one is learning
MS worked under different mentors and bosses without getting confused with their 'ideology'. He worked with with P.N. Haksar, who went against Indira Gandhi in Pre-Emergency, continued with PN Dhar, who had succeeded Haksar, RK Dhawan, an intimate of Sanjay Gandhi. When Indira was ejected and the Janata Party came to power, Singh worked closely with HM Patel, whose position was almost diametrically opposed to that of Dhawan. His capacity to adapt to shifting political winds was nicely captured by The Times of India in a 1991 editorial: “Manmohan Singh was perfectly happy with the garibi hatao phase of Mrs Gandhi, then with the Emergency, then with the Janata Party, then with the return of Mrs Gandhi.  

Learning: This sounds 'atypical' with the image of MS, but this is an ideal way to maximise the development of competencies of your cognitive talent in the phase II.

5. Behaviour is always contextual; do not get confused with preconceived biases

P V Narsimha Rao's indecisiveness was known to the world. However, this story so clearly shows how wrong we were.

PV, who was known to be so indecisive—at cabinet committee meetings he couldn’t even decide between tea and coffee—was surprisingly sure that India had to deregulate and open its markets, and he gave Manmohan the crucial confidence to make those moves.

When MS told PV that the country immediately needed a huge standby loan of at least $5 billion, “There was no ambiguity in Rao’s mind,” the senior secretary recalled. “He was more convinced than Manmohan Singh.” Rao approved Singh’s proposal on the spot.

Learning: Our behaviour is determined by the situation. We are decisive in certain situation, and indecisive in others. Our traits are contextual. Even honesty, motivation, confidence are contextual traits

6. Transition from one role to another is the most difficult phase to negotiate   

See the initial examples of transition that MS went through in 1991 after becoming a FM ( after being in Government for 20 years):

a. “During that month of budget preparation, the Cabinet Committee for Political Affairs met almost every day,” the senior secretary told me. “Manmohan was so indecisive and nervous that Rao ended up doing most of the talking and convincing the others himself.”

b. Singh’s budget, which would come to symbolise the unleashing of the Indian economy, met with a cold reception within the Congress party. At a meeting after the budget speech to discuss the new economic policies, a sizable crowd of MPs vented their outrage. They were certain that slashing fertiliser subsidies, among other measures, would spell doom at the polls. “There was considerable unrest in the Congress ranks,” a CWC member and former cabinet minister told me. “There were as many as 63 backbenchers who spoke against Manmohan. PV really had to save him in that meeting.” 

Learning: In the early days of transition from one job to another, either you are changing from programmer to PM, or GM to VP or VP to CEO, the transition is the most difficult phase to negotiate where maximum derailments occur. Seek support during this period.


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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Unfolding process of Cognitive talent

What is talent 

As human beings, we use our five senses, our body muscles, and our cognitive abilities - combination of all three in different proportion - to perform a task. Initially our performance in  a task is average. If we however practice it repeatedly, slowly and surely, we manage to acquire a talent in performing that task. Talent is not a 'potential' ability; it is a demonstrated ability in a person who can replicate the performance of a task  consistently in different situations.

A singer primarily uses his sense of 'hearing' along with his body muscle of 'vocal chord' to sing. His task is to sing. A sportsman, like a batsman, primarily uses his hand/body movements to coordinate with his ' visual sense' of judging the ball's trajectory. His task is batting. An innovator primarily uses his 'cognitive abilities' to rearrange the earlier thoughts of innovators along with his psychomotor skills to create a new engine, a computer or just draft a new idea. His task is innovating an engine. All three performers use all three sets of abilities, but the emphasis on each of the ability is varied. 

We therefore call dancer as an Aesthetic performer (because he primarily uses his five aesthetic senses), sportsman as a Psychomotor performer (because he primarily uses his finely honed muscle movements) and knowledge worker as Cognitive performer (because he primarily uses his cognitive ability to categorise data and correlate with other unlinked categories).

A&P performers can easily 'name' a task ( which they want to excel and convert it into a talent),  such as dancing, painting or playing cricket, to identify their talent zone. Cognitive performers, on the other hand, find it difficult to identify their task because cognitive task is multi-dimensional.

What is cognitive talent/task

In knowledge work, a cognitive task requires a combination of
- Subject Knowledge in specialities and sub specialities such as mechanical engineering ( not just engineering) or civil law (not just law)
- Domain Knowledge about domains such as manufacturing, banking, software, and
- Accompanying set of Skills based on the type of jobs such as front end jobs like sales and service and back-end jobs like  manufacturing, design or quality.

Unlike singe-dimensional tasks in aesthetic and psychomotor fields, cognitive task in knowledge work is multi-dimensional. It demands a combination of subject knowledge, domain knowledge and accompanying skills. Because of this multi-dimensionality, knowledge work exists in multiple varieties.

Unfolding of Cognitive talent

Talent unfolding process of A&P performer is well known and understood by researchers. Cognitive/knowledge performers can use this knowledge to guide them. Both A&P performer and cognitive performer use four phases of talent unfolding, although the duration and challenges faced in each of them differ widely. If you observe these differences closely, you will be able to anticipate the challenges better if you are a cognitive performer.

1. Talent exploration of A&P performer versus Ability exploration of cognitive/knowledge performer 

Because of uni-dimensional nature of task, A&P performer can chose his talent zone, say of dancing, at the age of 5, because the task of dancing at the age of 5 remains same when he becomes 25. His talent exploration phase commences at the age of 5-7 and continues for next 4/5 years to explore different options.

For cognitive performer, his cognitive ability exploration starts at the age of 6 and continues till the age of 22. Slowly and surely, he funnels his resources on a narrower area to increase his chances of developing his talent. For instance, by the end of high school, he chooses to focus on a narrow area of engineering or accounts. Later he may continue to narrow down the focus further, by say choosing to do a post graduation in a specific technology, or a course in law.

Knowledge about Data to Knowledge conversion will go a long way in helping a cognitive performer in making smart choices and even to guide him better in identifying and nurturing his abilities.

2. Talent development of A&P versus Competency development of cognitive/knowledge performer 

Once the talent (either of piano or violin) is decided at the end of Talent exploration phase, A&P performer starts developing his talent from the age of 9-10 and commits all his efforts and time in developing his talent for next 6-10 years. He gets all the necessary help from his coaches, support from parents, to develop all the necessary skills to become the top class in his talent.

Cognitive performer, on the other hand, choses a task or job at the end of Ability exploration phase. While choosing his job, he unwittingly choses his domain. The domain chosen could be automobiles, Image processing or software. Even if a person choses to join a BPO, he works in a specific domain, such as mobile call handling or financial products selling.  

While engaging in a task/job, cognitive performer converts his abilities into competency. In a competency, an individual has to synthesise his subject knowledge, domain knowledge, and develop accompanying skills required to perform the task. An engineer may join sales department of a Engineering and construction company and develop his Sales competency, or a CA may join a MIS department and develop his competency in 'Management decision making'.

While A&P performer takes long time ( 8-10 years) to develop his uni-dimensional talent, competency development takes shorter time frame of 2-3 years. Unlike A&P performer, cognitive performer gets no assistance from anyone either to identify the gap in the skill or to fill the gap quickly. For instance, many cognitive performers suffer poorly in their task due to lack of basic skill of perception-management.

As such, process of competency development is not well understood, and neither coaches are used as guide. This often lead to several changes in the work-path of a cognitive performer. This is why you see many cognitive performers change many jobs in the first part of their work-life: sales engineers becoming design engineers, software engineers leaving software, or salesman moving from selling medicines to selling shampoos.

Some cognitive performers, who succeed in their first task, develop multiple competencies one after another. The example of Noble Prize winner, Venkatram Ramkrishnan, depicts this development of multiple competencies vividly.

Some cognitive performers, though, find their their unique competency quickly and, instead of developing another competency, develop the same in a focussed manner.  Like A&P performers, they engage in Talent development.  I know of many Sales professionals, for example, who have spend considerable part of their lives in developing their Sales competency into an exceptional talent. Management consultants, trainers, Consultants in Engineering, Lawyers, Software and hardware engineers are some other examples. They are the happier lot of cognitive performers because they have found their element. 

3. Talent expression phase of A&P versus Competency convergence of Cognitive/Knowledge performer

For A&P performer, this is the stage where they express their uniqueness. Till now they were involved in the technical mastery of their talent area, be it violin or piano or chess. At this stage, they 'leave behind' all the technical mastery in their armory, and develop their own 'style' or 'innovation', which is truly unique.

Some cognitive performers use their multiple competencies to find an area where they can use all their developed competencies. They find a task where, everything they have achieved in life, becomes useful to them in their new task. This is converging all the competencies together in one task. I have met many corporate professionals who do not reach this phase at all.

4. Talent embedding phase 

This phase is common to both A&P and cognitive performers. Till this phase, the talent was an 'end' for which all their activities and decisions were meant to support. In this phase, they find a purpose or value where their talent becomes a 'means' to achieve the 'higher end'. Talent, instead of leading, becomes the follower. Talent is embedded in the lives of the performers. Nandan Nilekani's work as UAID Head is one such example.

Summary 

If you are a cognitive/knowledge performer, this is what is important to be remembered:

1. Ability Exploration: As compared to 4-5 years for A&P performers, your ability exploration phase is about 20 years long. Unlike A&P performer, you do not have to commit to a path early. That is both bane or a boon, depending how you use this period. In other words, to capitalise on the situation, you have to be one step ahead of the unfolding process.

2. Competency ( or talent) Development: Like A&P performers, you can focus on one unique competency and convert it into a talent. However, you also have another option. You can develop 2/3 major competencies in the next 10 years of life, provided you know how to do it.

Unlike A&P performer, you have lot of constraints though. During this phase, A&P has no family responsibilities. He also gets huge teaching/coaching support to develop his talent. On both counts, you have a handicap. You have to learn to develop competencies within your given constraints. That is why, you have to be one step ahead of the unfolding process. 

3. Competency convergence and talent embedding

Do not chase the illusive 'talent', as books seem to tell you. Just focus on 'converging your competencies'. If you are one step ahead of the unfolding process, you can jump this stage and move to the stage of talent embedding.

If you remain behind the unfolding process, you are constantly chasing, trying to control the damage.