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Have you found your niche?

“Charles, you care for nothing but shooting dogs and rats; you will be a disgrace to not only yourself but to your family too.” This was a father’s prophecy about his son. The father wanted his son to be a doctor like him. Charles entered Edinburgh University for medicine at his father’s behest, found it unattractive, later joined Cambridge, and earned an undistinguished bachelor’s degree in theology. He had no firm idea what to do. Charles was an aimless youth at 22. He wanted to do something different. He loved flora and fauna but did not know whether that love could be transformed into a livelihood.

Captain Fitzroy on his ship HMS Beagle was looking out for a naturalist. Charles asked for his father’s permission. His father refused but with a caveat, “If you can find any man of common sense who advises you to go on the discovery, I shall give my consent.” Neither the father, nor the captain were ready to grant permission to Charles.

There are two approaches of developing one’s career, the conventional approach and the niche-based approach.

  1. The conventional way of selecting a profession for self or for others is primarily decided by the demand for that profession, coupled with tangibles like salary and perks. No wonder Medicine, Engineering and MBAs among others make the cut.
  2. A niche-driven approach on the other hand is decided by differentiating oneself from the crowd by focussing on a niche . It is defined as a comfortable or a suitable position in life or employment. Alternatively, it also means a shallow recess especially in a wall to display something of value – a statue or other ornament. (please refer the image). Let us see what happened to Charles, the aimless youth discussed earlier?

When Charles approached Captain Fitzroy, the physiognomist in Captain Fitzroy said, “I doubt anyone having a nose like yours can possess sufficient energy and determination for the long voyage.”

His uncle drove thirty miles to convince Charles’ father to grant him permission to undertake the assignment on HMS Beagle as a naturalist.

The Beagle Voyage which included the circumnavigation of globe would be the making of the 22 year-old Darwin. Five years of physical hardship of mental rigour imprisoned within the ship’s walls, offset by the wide-open opportunities in the Brazilian jungles and the Andes Mountains, were to Darwin an eye opener in finding his muse. It took him 22 years to publish his theory of Evolution by Natural Selection in The Origin of Species.

Is it necessary to be a school or a college topper or those in the top percentile rankings to find one’s niche? Quite often the converse is true as ‘brilliant’ students have the best choices in selecting the conventional options in career and institution.

What can happen when one selects a career in a conventional way but is at the bottom of a pyramid in a specific career stream? Getting a job may look easy but one may be competing with a very large number of aspirants. For example: Rakesh had scored 100/100 in Sanskrit in SSLC. Having felt he had a flair for Sanskrit he decided to pursue his college education in that direction. He completed his BA in Sanskrit from Ruia College in Mumbai.

At this juncture he had two choices in further studies – to continue his studies in Sanskrit or look out for a qualification which is marketable in the job market. He decided to pursue a MBA in Finance instead. After spending around Rs. 8 lakhs in fees itself what can be the likely scenario when he passes out two years later?

For a person who wishes to do a M. Tech in Structural Engineering, a minimum qualification of B.E Civil is necessary. Likewise for a M.S. in surgery, a basic qualification of MBBS is mandatory. So, when a person pursues a MBA in Finance with Sanskrit as graduation the basic competency level expected of the student is that of Class 12th, as a MBA is agnostic to one’s field of graduation.

Conventional wisdom says that one has a wide range of job opportunities after doing a MBA. The opportunities are large but so is the competition. Annually about 360,000 students graduate from 4000 B-Schools of which 61% are unemployable due to skill gaps and low work experience.

Keeping those depressing numbers aside, can Rakesh compete with students from Premier Institutes or those with Engineering and Commerce backgrounds? It is not impossible, but it is a Herculean task.

What would happen if he were to pursue Sanskrit for his PG? In the absence of clear data let us assume that the number of students opting for Sanskrit may be 1% of MBA students that is around 3600. For Rakesh it would have been much easier to be in the 95th percentile after his MA and in the 99th percentile with a Ph.D. A lot of research happens in Sanskrit in US and German universities. By differentiating himself and finding a niche, Rakesh could have had a sense of purpose too.

From a financial perspective too, the cost of pursuing a MA in Sanskrit would have been at less than 10% the cost of a MBA. In case of a Ph.D. he could have explored UGC fellowships or opportunities in US or German universities where considerable research in Sanskrit is possible.

An example of a niche-based career is of my friend, Christopher Jayakaran who passed PUC, third class in 1962. With hardly any worthwhile career options, his father’s friend suggested him to take up a course in Geology. He completed his M.Sc in Geology at Presidency College in Madras by topping in the University. He worked for an NGO called ‘Action for Food Production’ for 7 years and for more than 25 years in different countries in Africa which include Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Sierra Leone etc. He is an eminent Hydrogeologist and a Paleontologist. His Tamil book In Search of Ancestors which is on evolution of man based on fossil evidence has run into six editions.

Why are people in general wary of pursuing niche fields?

  1. Obsession for Security: Education is normally pursued in order to get a job. The market demand is thought of. In the post-covid world there is no security either in a job or in one’s qualifications per se.
  2. Managerial Aspirations: Indians in general prefer to have a managerial title early in their career sacrificing expertise in a specific domain.

How to find your niche?

Around 30 years back, I came across an excellent concept in finding ones niche, based on cybernetic principles which was on identifying one’s core competency and focusing on a specific niche where the strength can be leveraged to maximum extent.

Werner Brandes was a German MBA Graduate who was working in a consulting firm but did not have career growth in spite of working hard in that organization for more than 10 years. He was unable to get good offers elsewhere. He was a mediocre student throughout his academic life and passed out from a tier-3 B-school.

The conventional wisdom of competing with others was not giving any results (like the example of Rakesh discussed above). His work profile was mapped for 15 different competencies. Werner was below average in all save one, which was on Industry Setup in rural areas. When Werner was pointed out that this was his niche. He asked, “How can I get a job with such a small niche?” He was advised to start his own consulting in this field and as he was in the top 5% of this ultra-specialized area of business consulting, slowly he was perceived as an expert in this field. Business started growing. Being a sunrise sector wherever the data was not available, his customers helped him in providing the necessary details.

Fascinated by this counterintuitive concept, I launched a program called Strategy for Quantum Growth. After 4-5 programs I had to withdraw as most of the participants did not want a long-term strategy but a new job which paid them 3-5K more.

One crucial difference between the conventional and the niche-based strategy is the type of growth. In case of the former it is logarithmic growth – where it is easier to get a good well-paying job immediately after graduation but after a few years the growth may taper off. In case of niche areas there is a considerable struggle initially but after a few years when the market perceives you as specialist, the growth becomes truly phenomenal and is termed as exponential growth. ( Please refer the graphs below) You are considered as a pioneer and get a first-mover advantage.

Log_Growthexponential-growth

Conventional Approach                                                         Niche-Based Approach

Whether in business, profession or a job; there are some who go on competing  against  a vast majority in a commoditized market as if running on a treadmill and getting exhausted. On the contrary, the likes of  Christopher, Werner Brandes or Charles Darwin though not brilliant in their school days in the conventional sense were able to find their niche. Have you found yours?

Two roads diverged in a wood and I…and  I took the one less travelled by and that has made all the difference. – Robert Frost.

Acquiring New Customers – Participant Feedback

1.The Program was Interactive, where connecting to the customer on a common ground was shown as an important aspect. Different methods of sales pitch was also highlighted to win over new customers.    – Koshal Reddy, Anritsu Instruments

2. It will help me during cold calling, how to talk as a stranger to new customers which will increase my confidence during the customer interaction.-  Ritesh Kadam, Multidimensions

3. One action I would implement is an elevator pitch for Multidimensions and  modification based on main product sold and customer references
e g Main Multid pitch , if the customer says conveyor OEM looking for Maedler product , speak about  product -German origin and conveyor customer  references.. or say end user , speaking about NSK, give references of Japanese and American OE references
Recommendation – it would be generally difficult to get, referrals ..we will get it!- Pushkar Kulkarni, General Manager, Multi Dimensions

4. The Webinar was very interactive and informative. The Positive thing from the webinar was the concept to break the stereotypes which help for the future activity. I want to thank you for making this webinar so productive and I will look forward to attending more training session with you if possible. Aman Shukla – Scientific Mestechnic P Ltd New Delhi

5. Some points  worth to mention that changed my concept are: Intent, Commonality (Using Referrals on  Linkedin, Common friends)   Competence &  Trust : Building. I have realized that  Trust with customers is more important before introducing product in achieving Result. – Preetham, Unipar Energy Systems P Ltd.

6. This session will help us to meet our goal by transforming our “cold calling” culture… Haresh Kumar, Unipar Energy Systems Pvt Ltd.

7. The topics covered (Imperatives for new customers,Why new prospects wary of talking and the tool kit to break the stereotypes through trust and rapport building) are very relevant for sales people. More now than before where market expectations so high.Another key point was the difference between the sellers’ market and the buyers’ market. The diagram or the cartoon was an eyeopener. It would surely change the paradigm of many participants. – Nahan Thiran,  Trainer – Kuala Lumpur  Malaysia

8.  I have enrolled as a member of Builders association of India face book group,Kerala small industries association,  face book group to generate contacts at senior level. The importance of powerful mission statement also felt during the training program. This was a new insight for  us to join membership with professional bodies. – Benoj George , Essae Digitronics Pvt Ltd. Kochi

BATNA – The Tool to Improve Your Negotiating Leverage

“Rajeev, we have been given a mandate by our management. Due to the Covid-19 crisis leading to a steep fall in customer demand, you are expected to reduce the price of your cutting tools by 50%,” said Mr. Padmanabhan, (the purchase manager of Shockproof, a shock absorber manufacturing company from Delhi) adding a veiled threat, “else we have no choice but to switch over to the competition.” Rajeev is a technocrat running ‘Techno Enterprises,’ a MSME manufacturing cutting tools enterprise with a turnover of around Rs. 10 crores. When asked about the customer details, he shared that ‘Shockproof’ is a major supplier of shock absorbers with a turnover of ₹ 1000 crores catering mainly for the two wheeler industry.

One of the questions often asked in our training and consulting assignments is ‘how does one deal with such arm-twisting tactics, especially when the customer is too big compared to the supplier?’

One important concept in Negotiation theory is BATNA, which stands for the Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement, a term coined by Roger Fisher and William Ury of the Harvard Program on Negotiation. BATNA is an important tool while preparing for negotiation. Both parties have their BATNA independent of each other. The party having a stronger BATNA has a stronger negotiating leverage. In case the parties are not able to conclude the negotiation, the best option each one has can be called as their BATNA. In the above example, if the negotiations fail, the BATNA for the customer and vendor can be improved as follows:

Customer: Look for other vendors who can give a similar product at the desired price.

Vendor: Develop alternate customers who can provide the requisite amount of volumes at the desired price.

It is not as simple as it looks above. Does the customer have a vendor who can provide deliveries just in time to meet his production targets? Alternatively, does the vendor have alternate customers where his current inventory can be offloaded? Now you will appreciate that BATNA is not only decided by the number of options but also the feasibility and attractiveness of those options.

Whose BATNA is stronger? The conventional answer favours that of the buyer who is much bigger in size. Some points to ponder:

  1. Identify your BATNA: The tool required for cutting/drilling is made with precision which requires tungsten carbide or diamond as the raw material. It also requires a great deal of R&D to develop a tool for a specific application. The vendor has been supplying the tools for the last 15 years. With considerable technical expertise, the production department found the tool useful. The rejection rate was less than 1% and the cost-per-component was low.
  2. Identify the weakness in the other party’s BATNA: The seller knows that the buyer has the option of other vendor but also has the critical information that the rejection rate of the competition’s tool is close to 50%. Also, the shop floor people do not appreciate the tools supplied by the competition.
  3. Spot the customer’s bluff: Even though the Indian two-wheeler volumes fell by 15% in FY 20, the impact on Shockproof was much lesser at around 8.4%. The customer was able to absorb the shock (pun not intended) as it focussed more on improving the content per vehicle. As per a newspaper report, Shockproof had notched up a top-line of ₹ 5000 crores and its EBIDTA rose by 4% to Rs. 800 crores. (Remember the excuse of the Covid -19 crisis the purchase manager articulated earlier?)
  4. Do Proper Homework: Rajeev shared that the customer’s turnover was ₹ 1000 crores, whereas in reality it was 5 times. This can be perceived two ways: conventionally it may produce a feeling of helplessness. Alternatively the helplessness could be transformed into strength as in the end result of a David vs. Goliath fight. The vendor could feel that a supply of ₹ 1 Crore of material is insignificant from the customer’s perspective and there need not be any need for the customer to be so aggressive in reducing the price. Can David stand his ground?
  5. Improve your BATNA: Let us take a different example where both the customer and the vendor are equally strong. For its Power PC, Apple had developed its microprocessor in collaboration with Motorola and IBM. In 2005, Steve Jobs took a call to switch over to Intel, which apart from being a market leader in microprocessors was offering a cutting edge technology in computing. Developing microprocessors needs a huge investment and also technical expertise. Intel had both and was the only vendor for such a high-technology product. With a single vendor, the vulnerability was high for Apple.

Three years later, Apple bought over a 150-employee start-up in chip design called PA semi. Most of the team members had worked earlier at Intel, including Johny Srouji who now reports directly to Apple CEO Tim Cook. In 2020 Apple announced that it will use its in-house microprocessors for the new range of Macs.*

  1. Risk Mitigation: Apple was giving a business worth $3.4 Billion of microprocessors for Macs to Intel every year according to C.J. Muse an Evercore analyst. For Intel it was like losing a major account which was powering around 20 million Macs shipped by Apple annually. The impact of such a Key Account leaving Intel can be minimized when the figure is perceived not in absolute numbers but by the percentile share. Apple was contributing to 5% of Intel’s annual business and the total no of PCs sold annually are 260 million.

While understanding one’s BATNA, apart from the actual value an account produces, the share of the total business also needs to be considered. It is better not to keep too many eggs in too few baskets. An important tool in risk mitigation is the sales funnel which can help in improving your BATNA.

  1. Guard against Pitfalls while analyzing one’s BATNA: There are two mistakes people make while going in for negotiations. Either they are too optimistic or too pessimistic.

Being too Optimistic: There is a tendency to aggregate all the options and assume it to be The BATNA. Consider for example, Rajesh, an unemployed engineer in Bangalore who has applied for a job in IT and feels that he deserves a salary of Rs. 10 lakhs as he has the following options:

  1. Has applied for similar jobs in Mumbai and Delhi.
  2. Has plans of a start-up in 3-D printing.
  3. Is exploring further studies in the US by answering GRE and TOEFL.
  4. Is pursuing MBA by giving CAT.
  5. Joining the family’s 2-decade old fabrication business which is running well.

It is risky to assume the sum total of all these options as the best alternative because at any moment Rajesh can select only the best one. Contrast this with Gautam who already has a job with a ₹8 lakhs CTC. You will appreciate that Gautam has a better BATNA than Rajesh as a bird in hand is worth two in the bush!

Being excessively Pessimistic: The other mistake in negotiation is being too pessimistic when one is too committed to reaching an agreement without any preparation. There is an assumption that agreeing to all of the customers’ demands will make him happy, giving rise to a long-term business and relationship.

In the cutting tool example, the vendor though small in size vis-à-vis the customer, had a better product quality, a low rejection rate, a lower component cost and a shorter delivery period vis-à-vis the competition, which meant him having a better BATNA than the customer. Does it mean that he should rest on his laurels? Competition will be always trying to catch up with him, which necessitates him having to improve his BATNA all the time so as to keep the competition at bay.

Thus, negotiating strength, rather than being decided by the absolute size of a party or the size of the deal (as in Apple vs. Intel) or the number of back-up options, is decided by your BATNA.

Whether you are a buyer or a seller, starting a new venture or looking out for a new job opportunity, please spend time in identifying and developing your BATNA.

Remember, in life, you do not get what you deserve, but what you negotiate and that is decided by your BATNA, the Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement!

(* International Herald Tribune, Don Clark and Jack Nicas – After 15 years Apple prepares to break up with Intel DH – June 23, 2020)

Webinar on How To Acquire New Customers,Tuesday 14th July,

Inspiring Leadership

My first interaction with Deepak Parab, the CEO of Metrohm India Private Limited (a leading company in Analytical Instruments and Solutions) happened around two years ago when he called me from his Chennai HQ and said that he would like me to conduct a ‘Managerial Effectiveness’ program for his pan-India team of service managers. “Rajan, I shall ask my National Service Manager, Vinod Salunkhe to get in touch with you to discuss the further modalities.” The call hardly lasted five minutes; a client taking a quick decision in finalizing a 2-day training program was a rarity in my training career of 25 years. I could not help recollecting a MNC client who took approximately six months with more than a dozen meetings to finalize a 1-hour keynote address. (See my earlier blog titled ‘A Tale of Two Key Note Addresses’ – https://rajanparulekar.in/2018/03/29/a-tale-of-two-key-note-addresses/ )

More than the ability to take the right decisions, the leadership traits I admired in Deepak were:

  1. Focus on results: After he took over as CEO and Managing Director, Metrohm India has progressed very well under him and results have been great. They have been able to capture and maintain major market share for their products and increase the turnover and profitability multi-fold. Today, Metrohm India owns all its offices across India and these were bought in the last ten years.
  2. Retaining Talent: His core team of 30 senior managers including the COO, Branch Managers, Service Managers, Application Laboratory Manager and Product Managers are with the company for the last 20 years. The core team has remained the same for the past two decades.
  3. Creating Value through Service: Peter Drucker said that the purpose of business is to attract and retain a customer, which can be restated by the formulae below:

a. Vc > Vp where Vc is the value perceived by the customer and Vp is the value inside   your product or service. You get a customer only when the perceived value is more (short and/or long term) than what the customer pays for.

b. Vc = (Q+U+S)/P where Q is the Quality, U the Utility, S the Service and P is the price. Remember that QUS is not what the salesman claims but what the customer perceives. The four ways to increase the perceived value is either to increase the QUS or to reduce the P. Quite often desperate salespeople reduce price to create value which in turn affects profitability.

Deepak took a different approach to create value. To command a premium, he focussed on the numerator (QUS) rather than the denominator (P). Service was given prominence vis-à-vis sales. In a team of 135 executives for each sales person there are 3 service executives. Normally one service engineer is deployed for 100 instruments, with an equal share of warranty and AMC (annual maintenance contract). Today Metrohm India has 12 Offices and 12 Home Offices from where Service is provided. The home office concept for service was used to extend the reach. For example for clients in Goa, service engineers used to travel every week from Mumbai to Goa. With 250 instruments, 2 service engineers were deputed to Goa, which created value in the following ways:

  • The travel fatigue for service engineers was considerably reduced.
  • Improved work-life balance for the Service Engineers who were back to their home in the evening.
  • Cost of resident engineers was lower than with the travel and related costs.
  • Delighted Customers due to an improved response time and a lower down-time. Customer confidence in Metrohm also increased due to the now closer proximity of the Service Engineer.

Having created value for the customer in terms of QUS, Metrohm was now able to command a premium vis-à-vis the competition. There is a general tendency for companies to club sales and service to control costs, especially in the case of executives operating from home offices. However, Deepak resisted this temptation, as with dual responsibilities, executives tend to focus more on sales and ignore service. Now, dedicated service engineers in turn enhanced the perceived value!

  1. Delegation with empowerment: Ganesha Chaturthi is a major festival in Maharashtra. Deepak belongs to a small village called Hiwale in Sindhudurg District from the Konkan region. For this important festival, Deepak used to take leave for 10 days every year. However as a CEO designate, when he applied for leave now, his boss questioned the logic, considering his elevation to the new role with additional responsibilities. The major concern apart from the leave, was in Deepak being incommunicado due to poor network connectivity at his village. Deepak’s thought process was quite clear. He said, “I shall prepare my team in such a way that my help is not needed in those 10 days.” His communication to his team members went on the following lines:

– “Please take decisions. I am not going to blame you for the consequences, if found negative in posterity.”

– “Please think of the worst–case scenario. The company is not going to sink from any such decisions.”

– “All of you can learn from your mistakes and a wrong decision and its consequence can be termed as the cost of learning.”

– “If in spite of all the above, you still need my advice, please drop me a SMS. In case I go to the village market (which has a better connectivity), I shall respond.”

The discounts and pricing are controlled by the respective Managers and all are empowered to take decisions. As a normal practice at Metrohm India the senior management team does not have any extra power to give additional discounts.

5. Genuine Concern for Employees: Even though a nationwide lockdown was announced on 24 March 2020, Deepak took the call on 20th March to shut down the company’s offices across the country. Most of his team members who were at different locations then, had enough time to go back home.(Contrast this with the 4 hour time frame given by the PM which affected not only the general populace but also the millions of migrant workers!) He announced categorically that there would be no salary deduction, nor would anyone be forced to go on leave. The salary for the full month of March which normally gets paid on the last day of the month was credited on 24th

6.Creative Problem Solving: Every year the company used to invite its Pan-India sales and service team in May to the Chennai HQ for training. The month-long exercise for a team of 130 executives used to cost around ₹ 70-80 lakhs; the quarterly reviews used to be around ₹ 5-6 lakhs each. During the lockdown, the time was used for online trainings and reviews thereby saving a big cost for the organisation, while at the same time keeping the employees engaged. They also ensured that all employees are engaged and connecting with the customers, so that they feel like they are doing their routine work and no health issues crop up due to no work. In the earlier phases of lockdown, the instruments which needed attention were diagnosed remotely, thereby reducing the down time. For the Pharmaceutical industry which is a major customer (as well as the sector doing well during the pandemic), Metrohm’s service support was crucial. In a few cases, even the installation was carried out with the help of the customer along with support via a video call by the Service Engineer. Digital Platforms have been used by the organisation extensively to connect its employees and customers.

7. Effective Decision Making: Be it a minor decision of a trainer selection or major ones like shutdown or salary disbursals, an effective leader does not shy away from taking decisions.

8. Strong Ethics: Deepak shared that a strong sense of ethics and moral values are a sine qua non for effective leadership. Deepak spent his childhood in the IIT Bombay campus. His father, Raghunath Parab was a governing member of the Co-Operative Society and was entrusted the job of supervising the IIT Staff Canteen operated by the IIT Staff Co-Operative Society. As a principle, his father did not prefer his children to visit the canteen; lest it be perceived that they were availing food free. Some years down the line, when Deepak entered the canteen and when his father admonished him, he told him, “Dad, now I am working as a Technical Assistant in the Department of Chemistry and I have come here as an employee and not as your son.” Caesar’s wife must indeed be above suspicion.

Since 1982, Metrohm AG, with HQ in Switzerland is a full subsidiary of Metrohm Foundation, as the only shareholder. With neither a specific owner nor any other shareholders, part of its profits are earmarked towards charity and R&D. Being a zero-debt company, the obsessive pressure for quarterly results is absent.

rajan@paraadigm-info.com, http://www.paradigm-info.com

 

FREE Webinar on Stress Management

Saturday 13th June @ 10 AM (IST) Duration: One Hour

Major Themes:  

  1. Myths and Truth about stress
  2. Impact of Stress on Mind and Body
  3. Importance of developing a Shield to protect oneself
  4. Types of Stressors: Acute, Chronic and Catastrophic
  5. How the human brain creates its own reality
  6. Stress Reduction Technique: Whatever you focus on, Expands

Participant Feedback: https://tinyurl.com/y9cjfen4

 Faculty: Rajan Parulekar – he has conducted training programs for 1000+ companies since 1995; which include Emotional intelligence, Work-life Balance etc. Practitioner of Vipassana, Mindfulness since 1986, Initiated into Zen by AMA Samy, Trainer in NLP, Rational-Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT), Transactional Analysis (TA) etc.

Registration: rajan@paradigm-info.com, WhatsApp: 98450 14098

Limited Seats! Registration on a First-Come, First-Served Basis!!

Virtues of Boredom

How do you conclude whether you have liked a training program or not? The trainer may be highly knowledgeable but if he is not able to engage the audience; the feedback is considered to be negative confirming you have not liked the training program.  The different techniques trainers employ to engage the audience include ice breakers, fun session, individual and group activities , case studies, role plays,  exercises etc. Particularly during the post-lunch or the graveyard session, the relevance of  activities becomes very critical. With a sense of humour coupled with interesting videos, all the stakeholders viz. the participants, the HR manager and the trainer feel happy. Such programs are relevant for topics like sales, negotiation, team building, communication etc. for conceptual understanding and are called as pragmatic programs.

Imagine a training program where there is absolutely no  audience engagement; be it the ice breakers, videos, or group activities. To add insult to the injury, the trainer talks in a drab monotonous tone; session after session. He will ask you to watch your breath and after a few days to watch sensations on your body. Your constant companion during the sessions may be boredom. And if this is not sufficient, the trainer does not even bother to take a feedback at the program conclusion.  Let us call such programs as the reflective type. Would there be any takers for such type of programs vis-à-vis the pragmatic programs discussed earlier?

I have been conducting the conventional pragmatic programs on Sales, Negotiation, Emotional Intelligence etc. for corporate clients since 1995. However the program which contributed immensely to my personal growth was Vipassana, a ten-day course in noble silence, a program of the reflective type. The essential difference between pragmatic and the reflective type is the way boredom is perceived. In case of the former, boredom is treated as a ‘bad’ or as an unwanted emotion and has to be done away with at all costs. In case of the latter (like sensitivity training ) it is treated as a valuable emotion in knowing oneself.

If you watch your mind, you will observe three types of thoughts which are:

  1. Pleasant Thoughts: These include the positive thoughts indicating happiness, success, achievement, pleasant memories etc.
  2. Painful Thoughts: These include undesirable situations like losing a job or an order leading to anxiety, anger, uncertainty etc.
  3. Neutral Thoughts: Beyond the pleasant and painful thoughts, the majority of thoughts are neutral which do not produce any emotions boredom being the major one. Human beings are programmed to chase the pleasant thoughts, run away from the painful thoughts and ignore the neutral thoughts. It is estimated that hardly 10% of the thoughts belong to the pleasant and the painful category and the balance 90% to the last category.

So the moment a feeling of boredom arises,  people generally start looking at WhatsApp,  switch the TV channel, hardly realizing that it is akin to running on a treadmill either chasing a pleasant thought or running away from a painful one and in turn getting exhausted being at the same place.

Like any other positive emotion like happiness, joy, contentment or the ‘negative’ emotions like anger, fear, jealousy; boredom has its own validity. It can make you reinvent yourself, look within and also become creative. Doris Lessing an eminent writer and Nobel Winner in Literature says, ”If you really want to do something fundamental in life; you should embrace solitude and boredom to such an extent that they engulf you.” Pablo Picasso, the great sculptor and painter says, “without solitude no great work is possible.” Beyond developing creativity, utter boredom can also lead a person to self-actualization. (Refer to the Award winning speech by the writer titled The Purpose of Life: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=amF_V_FaSuA )

Those of you who have watched serials like Buniyad, Hum Log, Ramayan Or Yeh Jo Hai Jindagi in the late 80s will realize that the serials were not exceptional per se. Apart from a reasonably good content, one of the major reasons for their popularity was the audience’s threshold to boredom was much higher then( Doordarshan being the only choice) vis-à-vis the current times. Would you agree that with  1000+ TV  channels clubbed with internet related options like youtube, Netflix, Amazon prime etc. our threshold to boredom has come down significantly?

Can boredom help us to be more creative? While watching a Hindi movie on Netflix or Amazon prime, the moment a song sequence appears; there is a tendency to fast-forward due to our antipathy to boredom. How to deal with such a boring situation?

Think of a Hindi movie song  where the hero is carrying the corpulent heroine in his lap or on his  back and ponder over  the possibility  that the shot might have taken at least 10-15 retakes including a full day of shooting. Just visualize the fatigue and exhaustion the hero might have undergone! On similar lines when they were rolling down the hill or drenching in the rains think of the likely spinal injuries or the possibility of catching a flu.

When the hero is running around trees or performing weird postures ( a la Govinda and Karishma )in a group  of 100 extras dancing to the tune of the choreographer; simply mute the audio; you will start enjoying the scene in a hilarious way. You may also develop compassion for the hero and the heroine and realize what Buddha meant by his first noble truth that life is suffering.

Anyone while dating has undertaken such exercises to coax and cajole his sweetheart in real life?  And then you start looking at the song sequence symbolizing  the utter meaninglessness of  life as conveyed in a play called Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett.

It is a tragicomedy that focuses on the meaninglessness of life. It centres around two tramps waiting for someone called Godot. We are not told who or what Godot is – a man or a God who will solve all their problems; a change in their circumstances; or death. The tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, do not know who Godot is either. They meet each day near a tree and wait, experiencing cold, hunger and pain. They try to distract themselves from the endless wait by arguing over trivial things; sleeping; chatting with the only two passersby – Lucky and Pozzo.  Each night, a boy arrives to tell them that Godot will again not be coming that day but will surely come the next day.

In the end, the reader or spectator suspects that Godot represents the emptiness that the writer sees at the centre of human existence. Like the tramps, we go through life, waiting for we don’t know what. We pass the time in work and other activities; and we continue to wait; for Godot.

When we fast-forward a song sequence; we are trying to avoid boredom (like Vladimir and Estragon) hoping to complete the movie faster in spite of the predictable climax of the hero and heroine getting married against all odds and living happily ever after! (which may be a myth after all!) Instead, why not embrace boredom and start enjoying the inane song? Boredom may also lead you from the temporal to the eternal aspects of life and you start enjoying the present moment! The pragmatic programs may help you earn a living, the reflective ones- the so called boring ones may help you realize who you are! Both of them have their own validity.

P.S. If you find this blog article boring, please rest assured it has served its purpose!

Relevance of Ambiguous Thinking in Challenging Times

In one of my webinars I posed the following questions:

To swim to and fro across the banks of a river; it takes a swimmer half an hour. What is the maximum number of rounds can he complete  in an 8 hour schedule by diving  into the same river?  Most of the participants responded with the answer as 16. Some considering the fatigue of the swimmer provided answers which ranged from 4-12. When it was pointed out that by the time the swimmer dives for the second time, a lot of water has already flown; and the river is no more the same. The swimmer can dive into the same river only once. After this explanation when the same question was asked once again, everyone responded the correct answer to be ONE.  (How obsessed we are with the correct answer!)  Then it was pointed out that it need not be one as it depends  on the frame of reference and the answers can vary from 1-16.

Welcome to the world of ambiguity which is defined as the quality of being open to more than one interpretation which is going to play an important role in the current situation.

Our education system does not encourage ambiguity and the intelligence of the students is correlated with the ability to give the right answers. This worked in a world which was relatively stable. In uncertain   times, there are no right answers but a range of operands which needs to be tried and tested. Whether the answer is right or wrong is not decided by the technique but by the result. Like in theory it is said that theory and practice are the same but in reality they are different.

The concept of Operant  Conditioning which was proposed by B.F.Skinner. When faced with a problematic situation, an organism retrieves a solution which has worked in the past. It is also called as a trial and error method.  When the problem becomes novel and complex, he tries a hierarchy of potential solutions, each becoming increasingly improbable. In the absence of complete solutions, he recombines potentially relevant operants to find a solution.

Pigeons and rats were made to acquire new behaviours by a phenomenon termed as operant conditioning. The hungry subjects were rewarded by food pellets  by pecking a disk or pressing a specific lever. By  working on a number of combinations, the subject could realize that the specific behaviour has resulted in a reward, which when repeated got reinforced and the subjects learnt a way of getting results.

In short, operant conditioning is nothing but a trial and error method where one does not have THE RIGHT ANSWER but goes on figuring out the approximately workable answer by incorporating ambiguity.

A simple exercise in developing ambiguity is to take a thought and a contrary one and ponder over the feasibility of both.

e.g. Life is not bad as you think. & Life is as bad as you think. Can you be comfortable with them both at the same time?

Which is the most fundamental of all the relationships? Is it of husband and wife? If so which is the most superficial one? Just think it over.

Multi- tasking helps improve your efficiency. Can you juxtapose this with multi- tasking may not help you do any work which needs deep thinking and focussed attention?

One needs to be comfortable with paradox of life called as the yin and the yang of Tao. Logical thinking, language are a part of life. But life is beyond them.

Ambiguous thinking is also associated with childhood upbringing. Some  parents feel that their children should not be exposed even to minor problems in life which in hindsight may prevent developing ambiguous thinking in future.

e.g. This incident happened in one of the upmarket gated communities.  It was around 8 am; father and his 10 year old son were walking towards the main gate. The father, a Vice President in a MNC was carrying his son’s school bag on his shoulder and adjusting a tie knot around his neck. Son was following his dad playing on his mobile lost in his own thoughts. As they approached the main gate, the father took out the tie and put it on his son. Both of them got into a chauffeur driven car.

There is only one thing worse than unhappy childhood and that is having a too-happy childhood – Poet Dylan Thomas

Dean Simonton ( Distinguished Professor of Psychology at University of California) in his book Origins of Genius states that children from too-happy childhood  have role models as their parents, elders and the teachers. Thus they become well adjusted to the system. They may become successful in terms of qualification, job, designation, material success etc but may not walk the road less travelled in becoming original thinkers. However children from deprived childhood have to look out much beyond the above repository. They have to figure out life on a daily basis thus increasing the number of role models which may include an adverse situation, kindness shown by a stranger, a book, or even a newspaper article. This act of figuring out in life, working by trial and error is what makes one comfortable with ambiguity which leads to creativity.

Janus is a Roman God which had two heads looking in opposite directions. Albert Rothenberg coined a term called as Janusian thinking which is similar of being comfortable with ambiguity.

Albert Einstein in one of his thought experiment said that if a man were to jump from a house rooftop and dropping an object simultaneously the object would be stationery in reference to the man but will be perceived  by an observer on ground as accelerating downwards by the gravitational pull.  Both the view points look contradictory; what matters is the point of reference.

Louis Pasteur was able to arrive at the principles of immunology in a similar manner. In one of his experiments some chicken were able to survive bacillus cholera. He injected  a new virulent culture in healthy chicken as well as the one survived. The healthy chicken died whereas the infected chicken survived. Pasteur came to the conclusion that chicken was diseased and non-diseased at the same time.

In 1801,Thomas Young demonstrated a revolutionary theory with a relatively simple experiment. Called as a double-slit experiment, he focussed a laser beam on a plate which had two parallel slits and the light passing through the slits was observed on a screen behind the plate. Alternate dark and bright bands were seen but it was also found to be observed individual particles at discrete points of the screen. Light can be both a particle as well as a wave as in quantum mechanics can be another example of ambiguous thinking.

This paradox is quite crucial in the current times. Physical  hygiene is very crucial and one should wash hands and face regularly. But can it negate the fact that number of bacteria on a square inch of human skin far outnumber the cells? Scientists have come to a conclusion that the human body is nothing but the agglomeration of billions of bacteria.

The theory of relativity, the wave-particle behaviour of light, or the immunology principle are an outcome of ambiguous thinking on the lines of swimmer jumping in the river with both answers of 1 and 16 being true at the same time.

Someone has defined a genius as the one who can hold two  contradictory thoughts in one’s mind at the same time and still be comfortable with them!

Rajan Parulekar , rajan@paradigm-info.com  98450 14098

How To read A Book- The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading – By Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren

Mark Twain once said, “A person who does not read good books is no different from a person who cannot read them.” In this age of information overload where what’s app, blogs, magazines and newspapers are vying to catch the reader’s attention are we more knowledgeable and wiser than our ancestors? Most of us would reply in the affirmative. We may have more information of things around us but more knowledgeable may be a bit debatable.

Late Dr. Gopal Valecha was an Industrial Psychologist and a renowned trainer. While attending his training program in 1997 he narrated an interesting anecdote. After completing his Ph. D. at Iowa State University his guide asked him what can Gopal term as his major accomplishment? He said that from then onwards he can put ‘Dr.’ behind his name. His guide replied, “More than that you will understand how to read a book.” I found that statement a bit weird but around 7 years later I could understand the significance of that statement. Not that I did my Ph. D. but came across a book titled How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren.

It was first published in 1940 and later on got translated into French, German, Swedish, Spanish and Italian.  After reading this classic of 426 pages, I was shocked to know my limitations in reading. Montaigne speaks of “an abecedarian ignorance that precedes knowledge and a Doctoral ignorance that comes after it.” The first is the ignorance of those who, not knowing their ABCs cannot read at all. The second is the ignorance of those who have misread many books. One of the errors is to assume that to be widely read and well read are the same thing. The book is divided into four parts:

Part I – The Dimensions of Reading: This covers the first two levels of reading viz. the Elementary Reading and the Inspectional Reading. Elementary reading is more to do with grammar, syntax, sentence construction etc. which is generally covered in school.

Inspectional Reading involves skimming or pre-reading. This will help you decide whether you really want to read a book, and whether it requires analytical reading. Time being the major constraint and a number of books needing your attention, inspectional reading helps you make that critical decision. Inspectional reading should not involve more than 15-20 mins. It includes reading the blurb, the preface, and scanning the book to see illustrations, tables to get an overall feel of the book.

Part II – The Third Level of Reading: The Analytical Reading is the complete and thorough reading which requires maximum effort. Inspectional reading is the best option when you have limited time, whereas analytical reading is apt when you have adequate time. Francis Bacon once remarked, “most of the books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and a few to be thoroughly chewed and digested.” Remember analytical reading is primarily for the sake of understanding.

Ponder over a title to understand the classification. A title as well as the subtitle conveys vital information about the book.  A group of 25 reasonably well-read people were asked to name the book which shot Charles Darwin to fame.  Darwin is known for his Theory of Evolution and the participants guessed the book as The Origin of the Species. Having not read the book, they assumed that the book must be about the development of human species. Actually, the title of the book is The Origin of Species and discusses the proliferation of the natural world of the great number of plants and animals from a small number of species.

The evolution of human race from apes has been covered by Darwin in The Descent of Man. Title  and preface are generally ignored by the readers  as they are  perceived being insignificant from the angle of classifying a book.

Part III – Approaches to Different Kinds of Reading: This part contains seven chapters which include reading of practical books, imaginative literature, history, Science and Mathematics, Philosophy and social sciences. One chapter is devoted for reading of stories, plays and poems.

Part IV – Fourth Level of Reading, The Syntopical Reading: When you are carrying out a research on a topic and know very well that one book is not sufficient, you need to refer a number of books on the same topic or related topics. You can either devise a bibliography of the number of titles available on the subject or scan few books at random.

Let us say your research topic is: Have the economic reforms really benefitted the country? In such a case you need to refer books not only from economists like Getting India Back on Tracks by Bibek Debroy, An Uncertain Glory by Jean Dreze etc. but also the biographies of Narasimha Rao and Dr. Manmohan Singh. The other purpose is you need to look at different perspectives of the topic. You may read the complete book or you may read only the specific topic. In case of syntopical reading, the emphasis is more on the reader’s priority than on the book.

To enhance the reading competency, a reading list of 150 books has been recommended which include works of Greek philosophers like Socrates, Plato, Essays of Francis Bacon, Voltaire, novels like Don Quixote, Karl Marx’s Das Capital etc. Exercise and tests to understand the four levels of reading are also provided. The book provides intellectual satisfaction on the pleasures of reading.

 

Reason and Excuse: The Crucial Difference

Amit, a participant who had attended my sales training program around four years back called me over phone two days back.

A: Sir, I am working for a small  Indian company selling Test and Measuring Instruments (TMI) What is the secret that our competitors, the giant multinational companies, go on consistently getting orders from customers beating us all the time? I know they have technically superior products. But are their sales engineers likewise?

I: Amit: such companies not only have a good product range but also have a systematic sales and a training process.

A: Now I understand why the salespeople from MNCs are so good.

I: But is that your real question? What is bothering you?

A: My main worry is, how do I improve my order booking performance? I am not sure of my job in these difficult times.

I: what is the reason?

A: I come from small town called Akola, working in a company which does not have a great brand. On top of that, our company does not spend much on training either. I am so passionate about attending training programs and learning new things.

I: You said you have attended my training program four years back. After attending did you ever felt like clarifying your doubts or getting new insights from the trainer?

A: No sir, I was extremely busy with my work.

I: Did you ever get time to refer to the course material?

A: No sir.

I: You said, your company does not believe in training, but you have attended my program.

A: Yes sir, that was an exception.

I: If I am not mistaken, along with the course material, I had presented a copy of my book Contextual Selling?

A: Yes Sir, I have started reading the book now. It is quite interesting.

I: After four years?

A: Now I am having some time. All these days there was absolutely no time.

I: Did you pay for the training program?

A: No sir, the training program was sponsored by the company, and the course material as well as the book was a part of it.

I: So you did not buy the book either!

A: Sir that is OK, being from a small town, I have an inherent disadvantage compared to my counterparts from competition who are from metros. They have all the exposure and opportunities.

I: Out of the three legendary Khans in Bollywood, who have the advantage of lineage and pedigree?

A: Obviously it is Amir and Salman.

I: Anyone who did not have such an advantage while entering the industry?

A: I think it was a Shahrukh.

I: Any other examples you can think of who have made it big and carved out a niche?

A: Irrfan Khan, what a great actor he was!

I: Anybody beyond the Khans?

A: I think of Nawazuddin Siddiqi, Ayushman Khurana etc.

I: You said you belonged to a small town which was your main disadvantage. Can you think a of a cricketer from a small town and still made it big?

A: Is it Dhoni from Ranchi?

I: You are right. Which year did you complete your engineering?

A: In 2008.

I: Did you attend any training programs or self-development activities for the last 10 years?

A: No

I: Did anyone prevent you from attending such programs?

A: No. But I feel training the executives should be the responsibility of the company.

I: Why?

A: Ultimately it helps to reach the company goals.

I: Do you have monthly, quarterly, and annual targets?

A: Yes.

I: Do you deserve to get your commission, incentive or bonus (whatever is applicable) if you were to reach your targets?

A: Certainly

I: Do you feel good quality training can help you improve your sales. Negotiation and communication skills?

A: Yes.

I: Amit, in that case, can you see that you also need to take responsibility for your development.

A: I can see your point.

I: Let us look at a concept of Locus of Control.

Locus of control states that the degree of stress perceived by a person depends on the control (or the lack of it) that he/she has on the situation. The cause of the stressor may be seen as stable or unstable, global or specific, and internal or external.

1.Stable and Unstable causes are enduring and temporary, respectively. My competition is always going to have an upper hand is an example of stable interpretation.

2. Global and Specific causes are relevant to many events or to a single occasion, respectively. E.g. Competition products are technically superior, is an example of global interpretation.

3. Internal or External causes indicate personal characteristics and behaviors or the result of environmental forces, respectively. E.g. I feel inferior because I am from a small town and not trained is an example of internal representation.

The more stable and global the cause of a stressor seems, the more people feel and behave as though they are helpless. Likewise, the more internal the cause of a stressor seems, the worse people feel about themselves. Together, these feelings and behaviors contribute to a depressive reaction to the stressor. Let us look at an example:

It is not advisable to take either of the extreme positions (Global or Specific, Stable or Unstable etc.) but should be treated as a continuum where a combination of both can be thought of.

Test & Measuring Instruments (TMI) range consists of products like Oscilloscopes, Logic Analyzers, Protocol Analyzers, Signal Generators etc. TekEdge was considered as a market leader in TMI in general and Oscilloscopes in particular. There was a small company called Le Croy which had some unique offerings in Protocol Analyzers.  However the company was much smaller to TekEdge. Analogous to David Vs Goliath battle, the Le Croy engineers while making an offer used to intentionally keep their price low vis-à-vis TekEdge offer.

A new manager called Santosh wanted to question the Global paradigm of TekEdge being superior in all respects. To one of his clients, he quoted a price which was $1000 more than the competition. When the customer questioned Santosh’s logic, he said, “even though my competition is big in the overall TMI market, my company has a unique advantage in the niche Protocol Analysers segment which is tailormade to your application.  Santosh changed his paradigm from Global to Specific and was able to close the order with a premium.

Another example: consider a  case where a  guy’s girlfriend breaks up with him and he thinks that his love life is always in the dumps (i.e., a stable interpretation), that nobody really cares about him (i.e., a global interpretation), and that he must not be a dateable guy (i.e., an internal interpretation). Such an interpretation could contribute to a depressive reaction, such as him coming to the conclusion that he might as well not try because there is nothing he can do about it and that he is pretty much a lost cause.

I: I hope you might have understood the concept of Locus of Control and that your interpretation (of your competition, your company, customers and yourself) being stable, global & internal was causing you considerable stress. Would you agree with that?

A: Yes.

I: I shall ask you three simple questions, One, what was your original problem?

A: Sir, my original or the surface problem was: What makes the sales engineers from competition so successful?

I: What was the actual or the fundamental problem beneath the surface problem?

A: How should I improve my performance?

I: What is the root cause?

A: I am lazy. What I felt as genuine reasons were excuses. I need to take responsibility for my development.

As human beings we go on telling a number of lies to others, but rarely do we recognize the lies we tell ourselves!

Rajan Parulekar, rajan@paradigm-info.com,

Participant Feedback for Stress Management Program

  1. The impact of program was so much on me that I stopped worrying too much from the time I came out of The Times of India Building and concentrated on living in the present moment. – Periyaswami , Regional Sales Manager, Fronius India, Bangalore
  2. Keeping Expectations too much is not healthy and one should know his/her capacity before expecting too much.  Ramprasad, Director -Lakshmi Vacuum Treatment, Bangalore
  3. We are getting good feedback from our managers and some of them are requesting to conduct such programs for their teams. – Rajeev Tyagi, COO, Metrohm India, New Delhi
  4. The concept of energy wheel and using hobby as a rejuvenator of energy will be implemented in practical situations sir. Thanks for your inputs. – Seetharam, Sah, DGM – BEML. KGF -Karnataka
  5. We have to reduce the expectations  because expectations reduce joy in life.  We have to accept the situation as it is. We have to find out stressors in our life and a way to overcome it. – Savita Bhide, homemaker, Mumbai
  6. The wisdom wheel was very useful; we also need to know and differentiate what we can control and what we can’t and then figure out how can we make better of things we can’t control and accept things we can’t change. – Paritosh Saha – Engineering Head, Star TV Mumbai
  7. You have given a mantra to face any challenge , ‘This too shall pass’ is indeed very powerful. -Bindesh Singh, IT Project Manager, Indian Railways, Mumbai
  8. The energy wheel with four quadrants is interesting. It will help us to help us understand where we stand and where we can go, for example boredom can lead us to creativity. – Sai Pradeep, GM Axon Interconnect Bangalore
  9. The key takeaways are: when to say NO, how much additional tasks you can take and check for alternatives. – Jay Shah, Program Manager, CS Systems , Mumbai
  10. Rajan’s excellent oratory skills and well articulated steps to manage stress are indeed helpful. Better to attend such sessions again and again to gain new insights and revise old sessions. – Madhuri Pradhan, Homemaker, Thane
  11. Overthinking negative thoughts about things not in our direct control can be detrimental to us. The present intensive lockdown has given us a lot of extra time. However, we have to fill it with useful activities. As they say, an empty mind is a devil’s workshop.                                                                                                                         I would like to create a daily routine for myself, with both personal and professional goals, which would be a mix of work, physical exercises, helping out with cleaning the house and cooking and a limited amount of social connectivity  (like engaging with school mates, friends, cousins etc. over video calls). I feel this is important to stay positive, get over the confinement fatigue and keep myself cheerful and constructively engaged until things return to some normalcy          – – -C.S.Ramachandran- Service Manager, Metrohm India