Disconnect: The Root of All Execution Evils
Date: Friday , July 01, 2011
These days are a mixed bag for me. Of late I have been considering "doing something bigger and better," in my life, perhaps seriously thought about "going back to India and start a company," but have not really done anything about it. And then the other day when I saw this quotation in a friend's email signature I felt self-conscious and told him it was like a poke in the eye. The quotation, by Johann Kaspar Lavater, was this: "Who in the same given time can produce more than others has vigor; who can produce more and better, has talents; who can produce what none else can, has genius."
I am going to admit here in this column something that I did not say so openly before; I am actually not all that confident that I can find the "right set of people" to work with if I go back to India. By "right set of people," I mean those with whom I can be comfortable working in a team, those who exude professionalism, those who possess a strong ethic and foster an inspiring ease in others, those who do not make others feel insufficient for one reason or the other and most important, those who execute.
By admitting to this lack of confidence, I know that I am also admitting to a preconceived judgment on the quality of the business and management professionals in India. I ask myself, "How can a technology culture that has not successfully developed and marketed a tech product in the same class as other world-class products can possess the kind of maturity in management?" All this may be true or not, but actually I think the real problem I am facing can be summed up like this: I do not relate to the Indian management scene, hence I am afraid of the risks involved and I come up with these judgments. But as soon as I say these words, my twenty years of life centered in the high-technology profession - nearly all of it in the silicon valley - replays before me in a flash and I remember how naive I was in matters of management when I was a design engineer. I too did not relate to matters of marketing and management back then. But over time, from an emotion-driven nosedive into quitting my engineer job to “do a startup,” to a wonderful failure of it and then to a series of passionate forays into product management careers, I am struck by how pervasive this phenomenon of not-being-able-to-relate is among the high-technology professionals.
I think something very similar to this not-being-able-to-relate phenomenon lies at the root of all professional management and business execution problems.
Having made the discovery of such pervasiveness, a few years ago, when I was convinced I made a successful shift from engineering to marketing, I wrote up a whole chapter in my notes on how I myself came to overcome this phenomenon of not-being-able-to-relate. For the remainder of this column, I would like to share this experience of mine with the readers by taking one specific topic, the topic of differentiation.
For most professionals in high technology industry, to think for differentiation is a forced response. The first time we heard of it, it was more likely presented to us as a necessary evil that we must wrestle with to survive in the “cut-throat” markets we are in. For most of us, differentiation lies in the relative difference between the features of the two products. We think it is a good thing that we should grab that opportunity to claim “we have a better feature,” whenever we pull up our presentation foils. And so we religiously put this acquired skill into practice whenever we break down the products in terms of their features, draw up a nice comparison table and show the superiority of our product over that of the competitor.
This is a problem
A proper way to create differentiation differs from the above approach in a crucial way: it turns around and asks the customer the question: “What do these products mean to you?” and “What problem are you trying to solve?” In other words, in the right way, everything involves making the end-user an integral part of the differentiation.
Surely it is not the case that we do not comprehend the concept of the benefit. The problem is much deeper. It lies in the way we have been presented the idea of differentiation in the first place. The problem began, way back in the beginning of our professional careers, when we encountered this idea of differentiation as a concept. The curious thing about a concept is that when someone comes up with it for the first time, it is usually announced to a wider audience as a generalization of a series of consistent observations. In this sense, the originator offers us the finished-product of the concept, while keeping the ingredients that led to the formulation of it hidden, more often cleaning them out as an unnecessary clutter.
This is where the problem begins
Concepts work best when they are about an aspect of a science or a technology, the areas where the abstractness goes hand in hand with the intellectualization of it. For example, a data processing unit in an Intel processor chip at its heart is a concept. It has a deterministic, fixed definition for it. It also exists in reality. Though very few of us have seen this data processing unit we know it is there. We don’t have to experience this data processing unit to believe that it is there. We would be quite happy even if the idea of the data processing unit were to be an abstract one, outside of the human experience, as long as it does the job and keeps processing those bits at the breakneck speed that it does.
Differentiation, on the other hand, is a phenomenon that is so intricately tied to the subjective experience of an individual that in order to grasp the essence of it, we need a different approach. It requires us to comprehend it not from the finished-product concept of it, but from a much earlier stage where the raw materials of an individual’s subjective experience start to come together to form the essence of differentiation.
A phenomenon like differentiation is quite unlike that of a data processing unit. It is different in the sense that unless someone, an individual, actually feels that difference, is clearly convinced in their minds, the differentiation does not exist. The differentiation is not a physical entity that is manufactured in fabrication plants, put on a silicon chip and delivered to the customer. It cannot show up on its own, nor can it stand on its own. It is a quality that lies entirely within the subjective world of the audience to which a product pitch is made.
Let me go back to our finished-product vs. ingredients analogy. The basic point of this analogy is that certain aspects of high technology management function are better understood from bottom up. This bottom-up perspective makes one arrive into ways of doing things. When we have this perspective, we always remember how we ourselves have originally come to realize a certain management function and that personal experience never leaves our memory. Now this same memory makes us gravitate towards the habit of drawing in a team member into a similar experience, thereby making this team member a part of our value criteria. A conceptual approach from the top, on the contrary, tries to retrofit the team member to an already formulated feature, in a manner that is fraught with alienating her. In my preconceived judgment on the quality of management professionals in India, I think I once again have fallen into this ignorance of an abstract conceptual notion of lack of quality instead of a true discovery with the help of experience-driven phenomenon. Until now.
The author is Chief Operating Officer, Legend Silicon