Friday, 17 March 2017

Gate Keepers to the Bosses

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This article written by me in 2001, was published in the Deccan Herald, a leading newspaper from Bangalore. Please give allowance for the time gap in case readers experience flavour and relevance of an earlier period...

The article has another history in the sense it ruffled the feathers of powerful persons who had moved up to occupy senior positions in the PSU, I was then working. Director (HR) called me and cross  examined me as to how and why I wrote it.When he could not find anything wrong with it technically, he directed that in future all my articles would be seen and cleared by him before publication. I politely refused citing writer's freedom but assured him that I would not write anything for some time.

It was after over a decade that I started writing again when I started my blog...


"We in the 21st century live in an age of information explosion. Today there is total transparency in the corporate world.With the internet and Email facilities, anyone can access information and communicate their views to any level of organizational hierarchy without the fear of disapproval."

The above statement is similar to saying that "India is now a developed country. The status of her being a nuclear power, the wide choice option of automobiles, electronics and other goods enjoyed by its citizens are all proof of its developed state."

We all know that reality is far removed in both the statements.In respect of corporates, the statement is true of very few companies having a genuine computerized environment.In most brick and mortar   companies nothing much has changed with respect to channels of communication.The feudal mindset continues to thrive and prevail. Various gates check and inhibit free flow of information, ideas or opinions. The gatekeeper is ever vigilant protecting his boss from inconveniences.

The personal secretaries and personal staff of senior executives described as 'gatekeepers' often bask in the privilege of free access to the boss. They often tend to get carried away, even risking the very effectiveness of the bosses whose roles they are expected to enhance. Of course there are exceptions to the general tendency and not all of the personal staff exhibit such behaviour .  The employees who are exceptions in this connection, are a pleasure to deal with. They not only contribute to effective working but also enhance the image of their bosses.

Although at a first glance the subject under discussion may appear to be unimportant,obnoxious behaviour of gatekeepers cause grave damage to the communication function which is acknowledged by academicians and practitioners as key to effective working.The problems arise due to a lack of clarity of the secretary/personal staff as to their actual role in the office.The secretary does not see himself as an aid enabling the boss to carry out his duties effectively.On the contrary, he sees himself as a 'door keeper'who has to keep people away from the 'busy'boss. In the process he himself begins to gain a lot of importance. He can enjoy the vicarious pleasure of curtly telling a manager to wait or listening to an employee pleading for an audience with the boss. It is a fact that it is difficult to detect arrogant persons since such persons are seldom unpleasant to those who have the power to make decisions affecting their career.

A retired director sadly remarked "We have ourselves contributed in some way to these people behaving the way they do."Yet the fact remains that if by a magic wand we could take the clock back to his pre-retirement period, the executive would deal with his staff in exactly the same way permitting them undue liberties. One of the main reasons for the behaviour of personal staff being what they are, is the total and helpless dependence of the boss on the personal staff like that of a newborn on his mother for all his personal work, be it booking cooking gas for the residence, drawing money from the bank, even investment in stock markets. To the net savvy, it may appear that these are no longer relevant or major issues which can be attended to by the 'busy'executive himself with the click of a button. Yet, the fact remains that the dependence is still a reality. The compulsive dependence works very well to the advantage of the staff but it almost invariably lowers the image of the boss who is perceived as weak and ineffective if he allows the staff to overstep their authority/ brief.

While a gatekeeper's role may appear vital and relevant as he seemingly saves precious senior executive time from being wasted, in reality it proves counter productive when officers reporting to the boss are prevented from meeting him by the 'gate keeper'who is more concerned with the inflation of his own ego to either see or understand the urgency of the matter brought for decision/discussion.
There is a saying in Kannada language which when translated reads "Even if the Lord is prepared to give a boon (vara) the pujari is unwilling to do so." We have also heard of a folk tale of a poet who wanted to meet the king but was prevented by the gate keeper.He was finally allowed inside on the condition that he give 50% of the presents he gets from the king to the gate keeper.The poet asked the king for a hundred lashes.We need to check with the boss whether in reality some of the instructions attributed to him are in fact given by him. We need to keep the boss informed of occasions when our functioning has been adversely affected by the behaviour of an overzealous gate keeper.

Persons who are in the role of the boss need to educate their personal staff as to the correct expectations from them. The right signals will go a long way in ensuring appropriate behaviour from the staff.An important requirement in this regard is to provide continuous training to the personal staff clarifying their roles and expectations as also appropriate behaviour in  different situations.

Free access to information and communication still appears a mirage.It may still be quite a while before the mirage becomes a reality in corporates of all hues.Access to information and transparency will not only ensure smooth communication and harmony in working but also help the personal staff to retain their relevance in the future as well, even in a paperless environment.   
  

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Design Thinking

NIPM Karnataka chapter organized a talk on the interesting topic of Design Thinking on 22nd February 2017. The speaker Mr Raghavendra.K. Senior vice president, Infosys BPO, gave an overall picture about the concept and shared his experiences of implementing it in his company. The sponsors of the evening program was Simpliance, a compliance solution company. As their work is relevant to HR, I would like to share what Mr Madhu Damodaran, Head- Legal operations of the organization  explained about their activities in a brief presentation. At a time when compliance of various industrial legislation has become even more focused and important, Simpliance helps companies to keep track of compliance through a solution that schedules recurring compliances in a single unified cloud platform and keeps the compliances updated without any manual effort when laws are amended. A live dashboard gives CEO/ other senior stakeholders the status of the compliances in the company including those related to contractors, client sites and provides the risk scores. Readers may obtain more information from their website www.simpliance.in  .

Coming back to our topic of discussion, design thinking (DT),the speaker underscored right at the beginning of his talk,  that design thinking has a lot to do with a different approach to issues or problems. What this means is a departure from linear thinking and looking at things creatively; beyond the obvious. The notion of design as a "way of thinking" in the sciences can be traced to Herbert A. Simon's 1969 book "The Sciences of the Artificial". Design thinking was adapted for business purposes by David M. Kelley, who founded the design consultancy IDEO in 1991. DT is a human centered design that looks at aspects such as 1) what do people desire? 2) What is technically and organizationally feasible? 3) What is financially viable? Of the three, desirability is required to be given its due place (the traditional thinking tends to be tilted in favour of  feasibility and viability). There is no point in pursuing anything if it does not meet the first test of desirability.

The process steps of design thinking are the following:-

Empathize: Find out more about the people for whom you are designing a solution. Answers to questions such as "Who is my user? What matters to this person?" can be obtained by observation and interviews.
Define: What are their needs? - create a point of view that is based on user needs and insights.
Ideate : Brainstorm and come up with as many creative solutions as possible including "wild ideas".
Prototype: A prototype is like a rough draft.How can I show my idea to others- build a representation of one or more of your ideas.
Test : Share your proto type idea with your original user and obtain feedback- what worked? what didn't?  
Mr Raghavendra gave an example of applying the design thinking model for "hosting a dinner party". All the steps discussed above need to be applied to ensure an effective and successful event. It starts with 'empathizing' by going into details such as who are the attendees? What kind of food would they like? What games would be suitable for that particular group of invitees to be relaxed and feel at home? Often times, instead of empathizing and finding out the real needs, we tend to make arrangements or take action based on assumptions or on our beliefs.

The speaker, who is a vegetarian found to his dismay that in the west, it is assumed that vegetarians only eat lettuce and other such leaves or grass! He had to go hungry many times as a result. Mr Raghavendra related an incident while on a visit abroad. The host had organized 'tasty’ mushroom dishes especially for him. As the speaker hated mushrooms, he had to make excuses that he had had a heavy 'high tea' to wriggle out of the situation, meaning that he had to go hungry that night. We should always keep in mind that "what the end user is looking for is the ultimate objective."

At the 'defining' stage, all aspects of the dinner party such as budget, parking, security, advice to the invitees on clothes (formal/informal) needs to be considered and defined. The next stage of 'ideation' will throw up different ideas in respect of the menu, details of arrangements and the various alternatives. Prototyping and testing ensures that hiccups are avoided. Design thinking addresses larger aspects other than the basic problem noticed. It focuses on not only resolving a problem but also looks at how recurrence of the same can be avoided. It is about upgrading within constraints.
The speaker then asked the audience- “What is the biggest HR problem that you are facing in your company today?” A person in the audience responded: “It is the problem of the candidates recruited and issued appointment letters, not showing up.”Mr Raghavendra encouraged the audience to seek a solution to the problem applying the DT principles of desirability, viability & feasibility and the DT process (empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test).

 He shared an instance of how design thinking was used in his company, Infosys BPO when plans were being made to celebrate a major event of the company in a grand manner. It appeared as if cold water was thrown on the grand plans when finance refused to sanction the huge budget requested. On applying the DT process, a wonderful solution emerged namely to invite Ms Sudha Murthy as the chief guest which addressed many needs at the same time. She provided an emotional connect of employees with the chief guest. She was a respected and distinguished personality in her own right. As the visit was by the chairperson’s wife, all infrastructural support from the general serviced department was assured.  

Addressing the Problem of Attrition through Design thinking

Mr Raghavendra then shared his experiences of using DT to address the problem of attrition, which is very high in the BPO sector. Instead of unilaterally coming to a conclusion as to the reasons, applying the DT process encourages one to ask questions to the employees   that are not open ended so as to elicit a more detailed answer (not ‘yes’ or ‘No ‘answers ). Empathy interviews were conducted at the 1200-acre campus of Infosys engaging them in conversations that reveal “What is going on? What is the problem?“ Various aspects were discussed such as what do employees think about the manner interviews are organized, about the shifts, about how they are talked to. One overwhelming feedback was “My manager does not talk to me about my career, training etc. He is only interested in whether I have met my targets.” It was clear from the exercise that money far from being the only issue for attrition; it is only one of the many reasons that influence employees to leave.

Applying the design thinking process, employees were asked as to “what do we need to do differently?” They were encouraged to visualize “what they would like to see happening” and then articulate the changes desired in the form of charts, crafts, models etc. The company studied and responded to the prototypes developed by the employees. They were happy that along with market correction in respect of salaries, the other aspects brought out by them were addressed. As a fitting finale to the exercise, their managers took out the employees as a team for lunch. Some of them commented, “For the first time, we felt valued.”  

HMW (How Might We)

One thing to be always kept in mind in the DT process is not to force your own ideas on the target employees. It is and should be a process of co-creation.In an era of complexities, co-creation by taking that leap of faith and taking the risk of asking people their real feeling is a necessity. It resets the expectations of employees which when addressed creates a bond between the employees and the company.

Mr Raghavendra stated that DT could be used in any situation or environment. It can be used to address the issues of employees, suppliers and customers. It can even be profitably used in personal domestic matters like say organizing a wedding.

Some Success Stories

The speaker shared some instances when DT was effectively utilized by various companies.Bank of America evolved the “Keep the change”program involving customers, front end employees and clerks to make their services robust. The introduction of emoticons by Facebook for conveying “Likes “was the result of such an engagement with their users. GE involved kids to address the problem of the little ones refusing to go under the MRE scanning machines, as they were scared. After engaging with the kids, the company introduced pictures of cartoon characters like Mickey mouse and Donald duck in the inside view of the machines so that the children were no longer scared. The concept of ‘Pepsi’s Pyre’ introduced by PepsiCo makes available 500 different flavours to choose from came about as a result of engaging and involving the customers.

Mr Raghavendra wound up his very interesting and enlightening talk, sharng information on the use of design thinking for revamping the performance appraisal system in his organization. The design of the new system was based on the inputs given by the employees as to what they want. Their requirements of flexibility, relevance, peer-to-peer feedback were important inputs. It was comprehensive in the sense, the employees contributed to all aspects right from goal setting,24x7 working, appraisal cycle, the nuances and challenges faced in terms of milestones etc. The new appraisal system is set to roll from April of this year.The speaker expressed confidence that it would be effective, given the involvement of employees.

“Follow all the steps of DT meticulously,” advised the speaker as a parting shot. Indeed, it was a very rewarding evening for me and I am sure for many others in the audience. We were exposed to the new concept of " Design thinking" that promises exciting new possibilities much beyond what the traditional linear thinking can offer…