Where does innovation end?

Last week, I was in India after 18 long months and when I stepped into Mumbai airport, I was amazed. It was stunning. I haven’t seen an equivalent airport in the western world and I was even more amazed when I landed in Indore, a Tier 2 city in the rather underdeveloped Madhya Pradesh. The airport again was stunning. The infrastructure development is steadily on the rise but what was missing in the infrastructure is the integration of ‘human factors’ — The processes, the service design and the user experience need so much improvement.

With the rapid industrial development, the face of India is changing dramatically. Massive shopping malls and well built roads are common scene wherever your travel. Too many cars, too many motor bikes and too much pollution is making the conditions extremely difficult. A common sight is women covering their faces with a cloth wrapped around the face to protect themselves from the extreme pollution in the cities. Automobile and motor bike manufacturers produce so many innovative new products but there is not a single product to take care of the after effects of their innovations.

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Lion Supermarket

When you see a Lion in the supermarket

The thing that I enjoy most is playing with (my) kids as my full self expression comes out during those times. A favorite activity among them is teaching them and working with them to complete their assignments. Last week, my son got this assignment from his language class and more than him, I was excited about this assignment. I thought this is a great opportunity to teach him about a crisis situation and how to respond during an emergency.

I asked my son what he thought happened next but he wasn’t excited at all even though animals are his favorite subject. I decided to do a role play and we enacted the whole scene where I was the lion and he was inside the supermarket dealing with the situation. You can find a video in the link below

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My Son’s story — “The Lion entered the supermarket and everybody got scared. I asked all the people to move to safe places. I slowly opened the freezer to take the meat packets and threw them towards the lion. The lion ate the meat and then, we all escaped”. I loved his story and it was very creative.

I decided to take it to few of my friends who are of my age group in Facebook and asked them what would be the story after the lion entered the supermarket.

One friend said “I will open the chilli powder packets and throw at it. It cant take the smell and will run away”. Another friend said ‘I will switch off the power and throw all the oil on the floor so that the lion will slip and cannot move. I will then call the local Zoo officials to come and take the lion”. My best buddy Akilan said ‘I will show a picture of a Lioness and then, when this lion is drooling over it, I will escape”. Another creative version of the story!

It got me thinking and led me to reflect on what was leading to the creativity. Each answer had an assumption and it was the breaking of the assumption through a ‘new definition’ keeping the context alive that led to the creativity. Below are the assumptions

  1. My son — Lion was hungry and it is going to eat all of them (It is a normal Lion)
  2. Friend 1 — Lion is going to attack everyone (It is a normal Lion)
  3. Friend 2 — Lion is going to attack (It is a normal Lion)
  4. Akilan — This Lion is not a normal Lion.

The first three answers were very logical and creative but Akilan’s answer was super creative because it broke the standard assumptions about the Lion and instead, it ‘redefined’ lion in a new way. Also, he understood the context of this exercise which is about creating an imaginative story.

I remembered a quote that my Brain Sciences Professor at London Business School shared in the class — ‘Ask not what is inside the head but what the head is inside of’.

If I ‘redefine’ Lion using the following criteria, my story will also become very creative.

  1. It is the most friendly lion in the city
  2. It can speak French
  3. Selfies with this lion are the most viral in twitter

This ‘redefinition’ criteria needs to fit the context and objective of what we are trying to achieve as a whole. If we observe infants, they do two things 1. Be fully immersed in their activity which is full of new definitions — mobile phone will be used as car, paper will be used as house etc. 2. Check in with their parents once visually or through physical touch. What they are doing, in essence, that makes them so creative and wonderful are Redefining things and staying connected to their source.

My learning — To be creative in any situation, we need to do the following

1. Understand the assumptions

2. Redefine the status quo using criteria that fits the context plus purpose

3. Tell a compelling story

4. Last but not the least, Spend some time with kids regularly

In fact, there was an unfortunate incident in a Delhi Zoo last week when a young man fell inside the tiger enclosure. The man was killed by the tiger after the crowds started throwing stones at the tiger and in turn, the tiger became furious. The following question is not just relevant for creating an imaginative story but also to save a life.

What will you do when you see a lion in the supermarket?

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Taj Mahal Hotel

A picture with Clayton Christensen

It was 17 March 2011 and I got a call from my ex-Boss Hari Nair that he was going to meet HBS Professor and the World’s Top Management Thinker Clayton Christensen at theTaj Mahal hotel in Mumbai. This was the same hotel where there was a massive terrorist attack in 2008.


Prof.Christensen is the Co-founder of the consulting firm that I was part of in India and Hari was leading the India Operations of the firm. Hari knows how much I idolize Clay and he was kind enough to extend the invitation to me. Clay had come to attend the TCS board meeting and we had an one hour appointment with him.

On the way to meeting Clay, we realized that we didn’t have a camera and our cell phone cameras(Nokia and Blackberry) were not good enough to get a good picture with Clay. Hari decided to buy a good camera as he settles only for the best. We roamed around Taj Mahal hotel area and we couldn’t find a single shop that sold cameras. We had 40 minutes before our appointment with Clay.After searching for a while, we got tired and we were concerned about the meeting time. We were looking for an answer and suddenly remembered the ‘jobs to be done’ framework pioneered by Clay which we used to advocate for our clients.

The ‘jobs to be done’ framework is a tool for evaluating the circumstances that arise in customers’ lives. Customers rarely make buying decisions around what the “average” customer in their category may do — but they often buy things because they find themselves with a problem they would like to solve. As legendary Harvard Business School Professor Theodore Levitt said, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!”

We asked this question ‘What is the job that we are trying to get done?’. What do we need this camera for? To take pictures with Clay. What tools can help us take a picture with Clay? Photographers, Studios, Cameras, mobile phones etc. Mobile phone and cameras are not an option now. We started looking for studios and after a while, we asked ‘Won’t Taj have a photographer or will they not arrange for a photographer if we want one?’. We almost got the answer. We went to the concierge services at Taj and asked them to help us to get a few pictures. They said ‘With pleasure sir!’. After our meeting with Clay, a photographer came to take a few pictures with Clay and to this day,this picture is one of my prized possessions.

What we were expecting from the Taj was a receipt to collect the pictures at a later date and instead, they had printed the picture, framed it in a way that was way beyond our expectations. They also emailed the pictures to us. What more could we have asked for?

The pictures cost us Rs.350 as against the Rs.10,000 or more we would have spent for a digital camera. Had we got the camera, we would have asked ‘somebody’ who passed by to take a random picture but now, this picture was taken by a professional photographer of Taj Mahal Hotel. The ‘Jobs to be done’ framework taught by Clay saved the day for us and we both went back happily having achieved two things 1. Getting high quality framed pictures with Clay at a very affordable price 2. Practicing what we preached our clients.

Next time, When you are looking for a solution, try asking this question ‘what is the job that I am trying to get done?’ and then, suddenly the number of solutions will seem to be plenty.

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Market India

Discovering Mass markets

Some of the ground breaking innovations over the last two decades or so include the Google, Facebook etc. and these innovations impact the lives of more than a billion people on the planet on a daily basis. Google logs 2 billion searches everyday and 300 million people use google everyday. Out of the more than 943 million users of Facebook in the world, India accounts for 56 million users which is only 5.6% of India’s total population. What about the remaining 95% of the population who are not even aware of Facebook? It is easy to dismiss that these people are not tech savvy but the stats suggest otherwise. 900 million Indians use mobile phones and the adoption rate has been extraodinarily high.

Lack of usage of google and facebook doesn’t mean that these non-consumers don’t have needs similar to the consumers of Google and Facebook? My experience working extensively across India clearly validates the need for such technologies among the non-consumers, but because of digital divide and fear of technology, these non-consumers use a variety of other non-technological primitive tools.

One of the striking features during a visit to Madurai, my hometown in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, is the poster culture. Madurai people print posters for everything from ear piercing ceremony to welcoming the political leaders to celebrating the release of their favorite star’s movie to marriage to death condolences. This has been an age old phenomenon across the whole of India but is very big in Tamilnadu and that too in Madurai. One can see posters pasted on the buses to share info about an event, wedding or even death.

With the advent of new printing technologies like Flex printing, the poster culture has exploded. Previously, the posters used to be text based and now with Flex, they can print big banners with high resolution pictures. As a result, flex banners can be seen all across the city and its rural surroundings. In fact, there is a big competition between friends and relatives to showcase who printed the biggest banner for their friends’ wedding. Some examples of the events where the new flex poster culture is so rampant..

Friends collect money to set up these boards and they also have their pictures as you can see in the ‘House warming’ picture above. The above example clearly illustrates the need to ‘show off’, publicize their effort towards their friends’ wedding which is very similar to the FB campaigns where people try to attract their friends with a like button or send a hapy birthday message. The big difference is the reach of Facebook as compared to the localized reach of the posters.

The needs for the consumers and non-consumers are very similar but the non-consumers have barriers across skill, access and affordability to use these sophisticated technology. What is the way out?

Internet subscription is expected to touch 150 million users by the end of 2012 but with 900 million subscribers, the mobile phone market is suggesting something important for companies. Out of this 900 million, more than 850 million Indians (and 3 billion people worldwide) do NOT have access to a computer or mobile data plans (i.e. mobile internet). They have been missing out on important information and services that directly impact their lives, including government programs, job/career services, news, health, education, market prices, and weather — information and services that are often found on the internet, but not accessible with simple feature phones…until now. So how do we cater to the mobile phone users who are not mainstream internet users?

Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement came up with an innovation that leveraged the SMS behaviour of the masses in India. An average Indian sends 29 SMSes per month. One of common conversations in an Indian context is ‘I’ll give you a missed call and you save my number’. Some people give missed calls indicating that they want us to call back. Anna’s team leveraged this behaviour brilliantly. Instead of asking people to just participate, Anna’s team asked them to give a missed call to a a few national numbers. This will enable two things 1. people don’t have to spend anything for the calls 2. Anna’s team will get the cell phone numbers. Do you know how many missed calls they received? A staggering, 35 million missed calls. Riding on an existing behaviour and understanding the constraints led this movement to mobilize an unprecendented number of people in the streets of New Delhi to fight against corruption.

On the private sector, Intuit has a great case that is worth examining. Intuit, the leading personal finance software company, is trying to create such a new market in India with its txtweb product. txtWeb is a dynamic content publishing and service creation platform for making information and services available via SMS for FREE”. It is the WWW for sms world, the technology which is present in 700 million subscribers. Anyone with a mobile phone can consume content, similar to the content available in internet, by SMSing keywords (very much like entering domain names into internet browsers) to ONE national number, and receive back content (up to 900 characters per SMS). Keywords represent an almost unlimited number of applications that use content from the internet or have their own original content. These apps are created by an open community of publishers and developers (which can be anyone), and can include wikipedia content, local market prices, government programs, financial literacy tips etc. A mobile phone user can think of txtWeb as an SMS-based browser, but much more accessible than web-browsers on computers since anyone with a simple feature phone can use it. We will have to wait and see whether this service will create the same impact as the internet but nevertheless, it is a great attempt targeting the masses.

Human beings have the same needs and motivations if we go to the source and try to understand it. But the way they tackle the unmet needs depends on their context, affordability, access, education and several factors. Discovering these unmet needs and their contexts will open up interesting mass markets which may not appear at the surface level.

Image Credits: chaipanidecatur.com

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Freedom to Innovate

‘Freedom from the desire for an answer is essential to the understanding of the problem. If you understand the problem well, the answer will come out of it because the answer is not separate from the problem’ — J Krishnamurti

One of the important first steps in the innovation process is ‘discovery’, which is basically identifying the unmet needs of the consumer. Studying compensating behaviors is a good method to unlock the unmet needs of the customer as customers are compensating for the absence of a good solution either by using a product beyond its intended use or by using a product which was not designed to solve a particular problem. By capturing these compensating behaviors, aspiring innovators could develop new products or expand the scope of the existing products.

One of the classic examples of successful innovation by studying compensating behaviors is the ‘lasssi maker’ in India.

 Lassi , which is sweetened yoghurt in liquid form, is a popular drink in North India. But shopkeepers have to prepare lassi by manually stirring the curd using a wooden stirrer inside a pot. It is a time consuming process and takes lot of manual effort. One creative shop keeper realized that the washing machine that his wife uses does the same job as the lassi and started using washing machines to produce lassi in mass scale with less effort. An innovator who studied this compensating behavior started developing lassi makers to produce lassis on a mass scale.

Some examples of compensating behaviors in an Indian context are highlighted below

So how do we study compensating behaviors? Other than the traditional immersion techniques like ethnography, social media technology can be effectively leveraged to capture powerful insights. The vast and diverse communities present in social media create rich conversations, visual communications and a curious question will lead to diverse perspectives and rich insights. An example is highlighted below

Once we study a compensating behavior and the real unmet need behind that behavior, the decision can be made on whether to borrow the ‘know-how’s from a product used in other parts of the world or rejig a product used for other purposes or to create a completely new product.

In the truck driver example, truck manufacturers can borrow cruise control technology used in cars in the developed countries and see how that technology can be used in the truck CONTEXT. It has to be made affordable and the context is key. The technology and the design will have to go through several iterations to satisfy the performance criteria in a different set of circumstances. In the absence of such products, a new product can be created.

Another ‘whitespace’ for candy manufacturers is to target the people who consume gutka or tobacco. Chewing tobacco is considered as the main reason for high tongue cancer rates among young Indians. People who chew tobacco place the tobacco in their palm and then crush the tobacco using their thumb as in the picture below.

Instead of trying to change their behaviour, if candy manufacturers can create a healthy product that is wrapped in a small pack with the strands similar to tobacco and allowing the users to crush it like how they do with real tobacco, there is a high likelihood for adoption among the existing users. It will also have a very positive social impact.

The answer lies in the problem and we need to ‘discover’ the problem by. Staying with the question and Studying compensating behaviors is a great first step to exciting new innovations.

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Social entrepreneur

Isn’t Facebook a social enterprise?

One of the hottest topics over the last decade is the idea of ‘Social Entrepreneur’ and ‘Social Entrepreneurship’. A social enterprise creates double bottom line results — Profits to sustain the enterprise and social impact. A few great social enterprise examples below

A. Muhammed Younus’ Grameen Bank and his microfinance initiatives created sustainablelivelihood for the rural poor in Bangladesh while making profits for the enterprise

B. My favourite social enterprise is Aravind Eye Hospitals in my hometown Madurai. They provide high quality eye care to the affording class and from the margins, provide free services to the poor patients who cannot afford an eye surgery.

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Ashoka Social Entrepreneur network defines social entrepreneurs as individuals with innovative solutions to society’s most pressing social problems. They are ambitious and persistent, tackling major social issues and offering new ideas for wide-scale change.Rather than leaving societal needs to the government or business sectors, social entrepreneurs find what is not working and solve the problem by changing the system, spreading the solution, and persuading entire societies to move in different directions.

While Embrace Innovations and D-Lite are great social enterprises, what about businesses which do all the above but still dont fall under this category and most importantly, why?

Let’s explore a couple of examples — RedBus in India and Facebook.

RedBus, started by Phanindra Sama aka Phani, to computerize the bus industry in India is one such example. Several years ago, the founder of RedBus, who was a Software Engineer at a large MNC in Bangalore in India couldnt get a bus to go home during the Diwali holidays. This is not just the problem of Phani but also the problem of millions of travellers across India because of the unorganized bus industry. He created RedBus to integrate the system — bus operators, tickets, travel agents — and also launched an integrated platform for 10,000 bus routes in India. Customers can sit at their home and view open seats from multiple operators, purchase tickets, and post ratings. Meanwhile, bus operators can track seat availability in real time, and travel agents can prebook passengers. RedBus tripled sales last year, adding 4.25 million riders. — Red Bus reduced the pain points of the middle class Indian traveller and it also helped the bus industry to grow itself significantly riding on the power of technology. It made a handsome profit while creating this social impact. Is it not a Social Enterprise? Why?

Facebook became mainstream in 2007. Because of Facebook, there is so much life after work and family. I talk to my Kinter garden friends, college friends, school friends almost on an everyday basis. Also, I have connected with long lost friends through Facebook. Earlier this week, I connected with Ramki, my cricket buddy during my time in Madurai and he left Madurai in 1994. After 20 years, I found a way to connect with him through Facebook. He lives in Houston and I live in Geneva. How else this relationship could have survived? I am sure this is the case with most of you who are using Facebook and it is a great business that reconnects people and helps to build lifelong relationships. Is this not social impact? Is it not a Social Enterprise? Why?

I think the distinction between a traditional business and a social enterprise is very blurry. If you compare a gadget manufacturer or carbonated drinks manufacturer with Aravind Eye Care, then Aravind is a Social Enterprise but if you compare Medtronic, the world’s leading medical device company that produces pacemakers, stents etc with Aravind Eye Care, which one is a social enterprise? I was struggling to answer this question. While Aravind’s model of generating profits from their paying customers and using the profits to give free eye surgeries for poor patients is definitely social and commendable, Medtronic’s efforts is no less.

I was an innovation strategy consultant for Medtronic and played a key role in launching the Edison Award winning ‘Healthy Heart for All’, a low cost business model aimed at providing affordable cardiac therapies to the poor patients and even, helping them with a loan. Even without this model, Medtronic produces pacemakers, stents, defibrillators that saves the lives of millions of cardiac patients around the world. Let me list out a few social things that Medtronic does as part of their business model

1.Develop high quality technology that comes out of top class R&D that goes through through stringent FDA approvals after clinial trials for years, to make this technology universal.

2.Share best practices from all over the world — a doctor in Durgapur, a city in the eastern corner of India has access to some of the best operating procedures that are practiced by Cardiologists in USA.

3.Adopt a stringent Global Compliance Model where their sales staff cannot bribe or use unethical means to sell their products.

4.Provide world class training to Cardiogists all over the world on a periodic basis by exposing them to new products and new ways of doing things.

5. Save the lives of millions of cardiac patients across 140 countries through their 46,000 employees.

Is Medtronic not a Social Enterprise? Why? At first glance, one may easily dismiss all the above saying that they are doing this for profits but let’s trace the time back.

If go back in history, Medtronic was founded in 1949 by Earl Bakken, an electrical engineering graduate and Palmer Hermundslie, an enterprising entrepreneur in a garage and wood working shop in Palmer’s family home in Minneapolis. Today, it serves 140 countries through 46,000+ employees while generating USD16 Billion. In the 70’s, Medtronic’s products saved a life every 52 mins and in 2013, it was reduced to every 3 seconds.

In today’s context, the founders of Medtronic will be identified as one of the world’s leading Social Entrepreneurs and Medtronic would have been called a role model social enterprise — Medtronic is saving lives while generating profits and that too, successfully for 65 years. It is investing a huge amount of its profits into developing new products through their R&D division, creates value for its shareholders, pays its employees well, follows ethical business practices with strong compliance procedures, educates cardiologists all over the world, shares best practices so that cardiologists can learn from each other and has grown to touch 140 countries across the world.

Unfortunately, any business that targets the poor is considered social and the rest are not.Medtronic as a business was started in the US where the definition of poor is different from the definition of poor in developing countries. It also didn’t start as a business to serve the poor. It started as a business to serve cardiac patients and the primary goal of the Founders was to design an innovative solution to tackle the cardiac problem. They were not thinking whether it will serve a rich cardiac patient or a poor cardiac patient but rather for humanity in general. Once they found a technology that can solve the problem, they started selling the technology hospitals across the US and then, across the world. Unlike disruptive innovations which targets the least demanding and price sensitive consumers, traditional innovations require massive investments and till a business achieves economies of scale and scope, it is hard for them to serve low income consumers. But now through ‘Healthy Heart for All’, they are now trying to reach the low income patients who cannot afford expensive technologies fully realizing that this will call for massive changes in their business model, organizational culture and relationships with their existing hospital customers.

Profit making is not evil. What is evil is selling an evil product and making profit. If the profit is helping to save lives all over the world every 3 secs, educate cardiologists globally, serve 140 countries, employ 46,000 employees, follow ethical business practices and continue to invest their profits into R&D to develop new products that is making our lives lot easier, then that organization is a socially conscious organization. Medtronic is a social enterprise and so does many large companies that transform the lives of millions of people all over the world by selling good products and services in a responsible way.

Also, it is time to re-define ‘Social Entrepreneurship’ and move towards ‘Responsible Entrepreneurship’.

Image credits: entrepreneur.com

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Understanding Indian Railnomics

The Railway Minister of India presented the budget in India today. I really enjoyed the structured and thoughtful presentation but I think there is even greater scope for thinking further. I wrote this blog post sometime back when the fares were hiked but glad that there is no fare hike this time.

If I were tasked with running such a large enterprise called ‘Indian Railways’, then, I have to make choices on two things 1. Increasing revenues while decreasing costs 2. Ensure that Indians from all parts of the country have access to the rest of country in an affordable and convenient manner but right now, the rail ministers of several governments have made choices that 1. Increased costs while decreasing profits 2. Cleverly hide under the ‘social’ umbrella and don’t hold themselves accountable for the ‘losses’. What is going wrong? Passengers are increasing, fares are increasing and our losses also seem to be increasing.

What metrics does the government use to evaluate performance?How many routes are running profitably in India? What is the break-even for every route? Which are the loss making routes? How are they subsidizing the not so profitable routes? Above all, the big question— ‘Who needs to manage this business and generate capacity so that the trains run optimally?’ — has so many structural challenges that will require intervention of the highest order.

Let’s take one case study and try to understand the challenges of the Rail Business Model. I am originally from Madurai and I’ll use the example of the train that runs between Madurai and Bodi. I am going to make several assumptions but the objective here is to think expansively about this problem and not to get the details right. The distance between Madurai and Bodi is 120 kms. The train usually has 5 coaches and each coach has approximately 80 seats. So, the train can seat 400+400 = 800/day. Let us analyze the business model of operating this train in this sector.

Profit Formula:


Fuel Costs: Let us assume that the train needs 80 litres of diesel for a round trip per day. Total in a year = 80*300*50 = 12,50,000

Salary of Employees (25)= 25*1,00,000 = INR 25,00,000 per year. Employees include the ticket inspector, driver, support staff, rail gate staff at in between stations etc.

Let us assume that the train is bought on a loan for 5 crores and the 5 crore has to be repaid in 20 years which means we need to pay 25 lakhs every year.

Maintenance Costs = 10,00,000

Salary Costs = 25,00,000

Fuel Costs = 12,50,000

Train loan costs = 25,00,000

Total Costs = 72,50,000


At full capacity per day : 800 * INR 40 per ticket = INR 32,000.

At Full Capacity per year = 32,000 *365 = INR 1,16,80,000

To break even, the train needs to hit 62.2% capacity on average.

Target Customers:

People living between Madurai and Bodi who will want to travel either between these two places or between intermittent stops covering other cities or key landmarks like Madurai Kamaraj University, AAC College — Karumathur etc. From my experience, I know that there are several colleges on the way, important towns like Usilampatti, Andipatti and Theni that may attract traders, govt employees, daily wage workers on a daily basis. Could we find 1000 people who are willing to use the train and spend Rs.50 per day or 5000 people spend Rs.10 per day or 10,000 people spend Rs.5 per day? With an estimated population of more than 30 lakhs in the area between Madurai and Bodi, Is it going to be hard to find 10,000 people or 0.3% of population? Does the Railway Manager have a customer profile with key characteristics and their important pain point that this service will address?

Value Proposition:

I tried a simple ‘value curve’ across the various options available. While the cost of local trains is much cheaper than other options, that alone will not ensure adoption by people and hence cannot hit full capacity.

Value curve

If we analyze the value proposition,

  1. People have so many options these days for short distance travel like autos, share autos, buses etc and why would they choose a train for such short distances and when it comes to long distances, the buses reach Bodi in 2 hrs — Can this train compete with the buses for speed?
  2. The train’s sleeper style seating can accommodate only 800 people (both ways in its current timing)and it is hard to stand in these trains and go.
  3. There is only one train in the morning and there is one train in the evening. If the customer misses the train, there is no other option and so there is no room for ‘mistakes’ which is big barrier to entry.

Will customers pay and use a service that has so many limitations and one that needs so many behavioural adjustments?

Key Resources:

What resources do the managers have at their disposal to run this service? If we recollect some staff who work for this train, it includes ticket agents, TTR, Engine Driver, Station Masters, Gate Keepers etc and then, train tracks plus the train itself. If the train has a restaurant, then it is usually outsourced.

  1. Let us assume that the Madurai Divisional Rail Manager is responsible for the trains that start from Madurai and go to places like Bodi, Rameshwaram, Coutrallam etc. The train Madurai — Bodi is one account and I am not sure whether there is anyone person responsible for this account. Do we have an Account Manager?
  2. If the train is using this line once in the morning and once in the evening, what are the staff doing during the day? Can they be used to do some work that will generate additional revenue?
  3. The Managers who lead Rail services are hired through the UPSC/TNPSC Civil Services Exams.This exam is one of the most difficult exams to crack but does that mean that people who pass this test have the desired background to run an enterprise of this size. It is like assuming that the student with the best GMAT score is the best person to lead GE. What training is provided to them? Do they have any business background to manage P&L?

Key Processes:

  1. Money Collection: Can one ticket inspector ‘check’ all the passengers for tickets? How do we ensure that there is 100% collection? Right now, most of the passengers are free riders and there is no accountability,whatsoever, of any kind.
  2. Maintenance: Do we know how much it costs to maintain the tracks, cleaning routines, quality control for the maintenance?
  3. Ticket Counters: Is the process of getting a ticket easy? In a bus, the conductor issues the ticket but the train counters usually have long queues. Will a customer wait so long to get a ticket? How do we ensure that this is taken care effectively?

This is one example of how the model is flawed and the lack of thinking at the highest level. I am sure there are 100s of such loss making routes which drain all the profits earned by the busy routes. It is easy for the government to ‘hide’ behind the loss making routes saying that the people in remote places need access. People need access but not this kind of inefficient access which is why they dont use this service.

What can be done?

To make changes in even this one sector is not easy. This sector is part of a massive organizational structure and there is so much connectedness that serious rethink needs to be given for the following from the strategic level to the tactical level.

Integrating Transport Ministries: Instead of having three separate ministries — Surface Transport, Civil Aviation and Railways and even ports, there needs to be one Ministry of Transport which will have two sub ministries — Ministry of Transport — Operations and Ministry of Transport — Infrastructure.Operations Ministry will be run like a business with everal departments — Infrastructure Division, Business Operations Division, QC & Maintenance Division, Marketing & Customer Experience Division, Strategy Division etc. Infrastructure Division will be run like a VC firm and it will make investments that generate double bottom line — ROI and Social Impact. This way, the government can have a bird’s eye view of different transport options, their plus/minuses and make choices that will not cannibalize each service. It will also allow them to shut down non profitable routes and provide ‘road’ options that work. It will help them to achieve economies of scale in training, manufacturing, R&D. Right now, there is a complete lack of coordination between Road, Rail and Aviation Ministries. Everything is jumbled and there is no clear accountability.


  1. Are IAS Officers the right people to lead this enterprise? I dont think so. They dont have any business experience of any kind and we need professional Managers who can run the operations with a focus on ROI and that may be a better way to sustain this large enterprise.
  2. The staff who are sitting idle can be used to collect data about the people, do ethnographic studies and report back important data that could be used to segment people based on pain points. I am sure there are so many ways they can contribute to the department.
  3. Railways could be a platform where many private sector services can plugin to ensure quality and great service.
  4. Design metrics to track performance and ensure that the junior most employee know how his work is going to impact the country as a whole. Design a rigorous feedback system to continuously monitor and make adjustments. The ground level employees have the most knowledge of the problem and they are also better positioned to know which solution will work in their context.

Processes: The following things can be done differently in terms of fixing some of the processes.

a. Tickets: In Italy, city bus tickets can be bought at any local grocery shop. City train tickets could be made available at all Tea Shops and people can buy from anywhere so that they need not wait in long queues.

b. Technology: Gate Keepers can be replaced with technology. All the unmanned gates could be easily controlled by technology eliminating needless manpower who are not productive. One of the cost effective technologies that caught my imagination was the one that helps farmers to use mobile phones to switch on/off water pumps from remote locations saving precious time and money. This remote control mobile technology can be explored to open/close unmanned gate crossings and could be even used by the driver. Technology can also allow passengers to enter the train station with only tickets which will eliminate loss of tickets


a. All the above customer profiles need to use the train at different times which makes it inefficient to get these customers to use the train? Is it possible for the government to issue orders that will enable the markets, offices and colleges/schools to start around the same time?

b. Banning freights from road transport could drive adoption of trains by the traders but that is only possible if all the transport options come under one unit.

C. Any new infrastructure like colleges,schools, industries need to be approved if they fall along the railway line which will then create more opportunities for the train service.

D. Making the train line as a Hub and pushing various other surface transport as Spokes will help drive adoption. The tourists to Thekkadi could use this train and if they have good connectivity from Bodi to Thekkadi will generate new revenue streams.

E. The train starts at Madurai in the morning and returns to Bodi in the evening. Can this be flipped so that it starts from Bodi at 5:30am to reach Madurai at 7:45am which will enable traders coming to the city to use the train and its fleet service? Once it reaches Madurai, it can now target students/working professionals who can reach their places by 9am. College opening times can be coordinated as well if the colleges are okay with it.

All of the above may be feasible or may not be feasible. But has anyone thought about this issue in a systematic fashion? This train is in service for 40 years and I have never seen anything positive coming from this service. This is an example of a loss making route and there are 100s of such routes which are subsiduzed by the profitable routes. We can learn from Aravind Eye Care in Madurai which provides excellent service to their paying customers and use the margins earned to give free eye surgeries to the poor people who cannot afford them. It is fine to subsidize as long as there is some ‘logic’ and ‘reason’ for doing so.

What is Railways at the end of the day? It is a Social Enterprise — Needs to help the citizens of the country while making money to sustain the enterprise. If the Railways Minister acts like the CEO of a Social Enterprise, he will not be complaining about the losses while making investments on new train routes that doesn’t promise profits. If there are losses, he will find the reasons for the losses, cut the losses and make it work. Raising prices without showing how the increased revenues is going to increase profitability is continuing the madness that is going on for decades of poor governance. Either do a root cause analysis and try out an option like the above or even consider privatizing the service or shut down the service.

Right now, It looks like we are taking a blood sample to conclude that a patient has fracture and giving medication to cure the fracture. We need CT scan or Xray, blood sample, urine sample, patient symptoms and a doctor’s interpretation of how all the connections affect the body and what treatment is needed. A systemic diagnosis is required. Government at the end of the day is a social enterprise — it needs to work for social impact and also, it needs to generate money to sustain profitably. For that, bold and tough decisions need to be taken at the structural level. Right now, the government claims that it has taken bold decisisions but it has given medication to treat a fracture using evidence from a blood sample. We know what the outcome will be with the old structure — it will be like investing in a aircraft engine to drive a train in the old tracks.

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The Art of Engagement

One of the biggest challenges in the world today is ‘engagement’ — Whether it is engaging audiences in a presentation, engaging kids at home, engaging colleagues at a brainstorming session in office, engaging employees, engaging citizens to participate in governance and so on and so forth.

What is Engagement? If we google it, this is what we get


Before we get into the ‘how’ of creating engagement, we need to understand the ‘why’ of engagement and ‘why’ it is hard. Lack of engagement creates all kinds of problems between companies and consumers, husbands and wives, parents and children, employers and employees, governments and citizens.

I would like to use the videos below from the interviews of Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, J Jayalalitha to show what ‘disengages’ people and what ‘engages’ people.The intention is not to compare the two interviewers but rather what drives engagement.

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If you watched this interview, there is a complete ‘disconnect’ between the interviewer,Karan Thapar and Jayalalitha. In the first few mins, she says ‘It is my mistake that I agreed to do the interview’. She was angry throughout and she gives plain answers for each of the so called ‘tough’ questions. One can say that the interviewer ‘grilled’ the CM but what purpose did it serve other than the fact the interviewer could proudly say that he asked tough questions to the CM. There is a clear lack of engagement. — The interviewer’s tactics may work with few leaders, who keeps emotions away in interviews but not with every person.

I am going to show another video of the same Chief Minister with another interview, Simi Garewell.

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In this interview(I strongly recommend watching this full interview in youtube), the Chief Minister talks about her childhood crush on Nari Contractor and Shammi Kapoor, talks about her childhood memories and even sings her favourite song (09:53 — 10:20). Jayalalitha is considered to be one of the most difficult persons to interview but this interview shattered all myths. It is not about the other person but rather about the person who needs the engagement. Towards the end of the interview, Jayalalitha openly acknowledged and praised the interviewer who was able to elicit responses from her which nobody else was able to do before. What worked here that didnt work in the interview before? One can say that the objective of both the interviews are different, which is true but there is an ‘engagement’ that was clearly missing in the first interview. It is not about the other person. It is about us. We are the ones who are responsible for creating the engagement.

Analyzing this interview and similar interviews plus reflecting on my professional experience as well as personal experiences including raising two beautiful kids, I believe that trust is the biggest factor in creating engagement and there are three factors that generates trust that leads to engagement — Acknowledgement, Safe Space and Nudge.

Acknowledgement: One of the most important factors that causes trust that leads people to engage is acknowledgement. Every person does things for a good intention but the outcome of their action is perceived as right or wrong. A good first step in a discussion is to ‘acknowledge’ the other person’s point of view before making any judgment or interpretation. In this interview, Simi acknowledges JJ several times in the initial stages ‘It must have been painful’ ‘I am sure it was difficult’ which lets the other person to share more and generate trust in the process.

People need acknowledgement all the time.Acknowledgement conveys to the other person that you are willing to step into their shoes and see the world from their point of view. As a parent, I encounter this situation with my kids on a daily basis.When my kids fall down and cry of pain, I used to say ‘It is okay. You will be fine’ but for kids it is not okay. I learnt to say ‘I am sure it must be paining a lot. Even when I was a kid, I had experienced this kind of a pain. What do you think we should do?’. The kids now say ‘It is okay Appa. It will be fine’. Kids need acknowledgement and the moment we acknowledge without judgment, one can notice a sudden change in their stand. — even small physical gestures like kneeling down to get the eyesight at the same level as the kids is a physical acknowledgement and demonstration of interest in hearing what they have to say. Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen is a master of appreciation — His seminal work Innovator’s solution appreciates that managers do everything right and still end up in the wrong side. Appreciation combined with acknowledgement is a powerful tool to generate trust.

Safe Space: Once we appreciate and acknowledge without any pretence, a huge amount of trust will be generated. With the trust generated, one may be able to create safe spaces for the other person to start moving from their position. In the Simi interview, she beautifully creates a safe space for JJ to share stories like her childhood crush with Nari Contractor and Shammi kapoor. Anyone who is following the Tamil Nadu CM will know how much of a tough cookie she is and it is so refreshing to see her open up because she felt that the interviewer has created a ‘safe space’ for her to share in such a pleasant and friendly manner.

Safe Spaces can also be created with the right rules and norms coupled with vulnerability. In my office, as part of the INSEAD training, we have created peer coaching groups for our Fellows. Among all the groups, our group was the most successful because each one of our group members were making ourselves vulnerable by sharing some very personal stories. This created a safe space and today, each one of us share any kind of personal challenges and difficulties with ease.

Nudge: Once the safe space is created, it is time to ‘nudge’ people to change their positions. In the Simi interview, the highlight was when Simi makes JJ sing. She will ask Jaya for her list of favourite songs and as Jaya listed her favourites, she will ask Jaya whether Jaya can sing. After Jaya refuses twice, Simi will tell Jaya that she will sing with her which is a powerful nudge for Jaya to participate. Even after they start singing, Simi will lead Jaya to safe space where she could sing alone and then stop singing. It was so beautiful. I have read an example in the book ‘Nudge’ that there was a 30% increase in the number of people who visited a hospital for tetanus injections when they were given a map along with the information pamphlet as against just giving a pamphlet.

To sum up, if we really want to engage people, be it in professional or personal settings, we need to acknowledge to get into their shoes, create a safe space so that they can open up and create positive nudges to move them from their position with ease. Hope this idea resonates with you.

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Hindiyaa? : The Tamil – Hindi divide

The recent controversy surrounding the government’s circular enforcing Hindi in social media created ‘noise’ from all sides especially from Tamilnadu saying that the government is attempting to impose Hindi and many Tamil leaders protested the decision of the government. The government later clarified that it is for only the Hindi speaking states. I chose this title Hindi’yaa? for this blog post because it captures the Tamil accent which is often made fun of in Hindi movies and social settings. This blog post is MY OPINION standing on both sides and an attempt to provide some new perspectives through my experiences.

First, I am going to wear the hat of an ‘advocate’ for learning new languages and explore this issue.

I grew up in Madurai in Tamil Nadu and I could speak only in Tamil and English till 2002 since Hindi was never taught back home in Tamilnadu. I worked in Mumbai for 4 years and so learnt to speak and understand Hindi. I married a Sinhalese and so could speak and understand Sinhala. I went to Japan for my MBA and so learnt to read, write and speak in Japanese which I forgot in due course due to lack of opportunities to practice in India. Then, I lived in Bangalore for 4 years and started to understand little bit of Kannada. Recently, I moved to Switzerland and started learning French. What I realized in due course is that the more I move away from my language by learning new languages, the more closer I feel to my mother tongue Tamil. It is a paradox. All through my early years, I was taught by the dravidian movement that we should not learn Hindi and we should protect our language. As I started learning more languages, my respect for all languages grew and most importantly, my respect for my mother tongue Tamil grew even more. In fact, I have gone to the extent of reading J Krishnamurti in Tamil and bookmarked several Tamil literature websites to read the works of popular tamil writers like Jeyakanthan which I would not have thought of earlier.

As I think more about this paradox, it is true not just for my language but also for my country, my food and my city. When I was in Madurai, I had been to Meenakshi Amman temple only once or twice till I left the city in 1998 and I didn’t even know how to get in and how to get out. After I left Madurai and when I meet people from outside who rave about Meenakshi Amman temple, I used to feel bad that I didn’t know anything about my own temple. Whenever I came back to Madurai, I used to spend more time at Meenakshi Amman temple and that too with genuine interest to explore the temple with the curiosity of the child.

This curiosity would not have been there had I not seen other temples, had I not interacted with my friends, had I not exchanged different view points about temple architecture, rituals etc. I also wondered why only in South India and only in our religion, rich people can get to see god faster than a poor person. I was able to see both sides. I came closer to my temple than before and I also, feel that there are lot of things that my temple can learn from other temples.

Also, if we say ‘Hindi’ should not be imposed, We need to realize that we are against imposing anything of any kind. It is not about the language but the forceful implementation that needs to be criticized. In that case, it is wrong to impose on the Tamil people that they should not learn Hindi.

So, to sum up, to protect a language and help it to thrive, we need to create opportunities for people to learn more languages and the more they learn, the more closer they will get to their mother language. If we say we are against imposing Hindi, we should also be against the Tamil leaders who are imposing the idea that Tamils should not learn Hindi. Language, Food, places of worship and our cities form our cultural identities. If you ask any Tamilian today how much they are connected with their language outside movies and music, I am sure it will be very little. I don’t even remember when was the last time I wrote something in Tamil. We can help a society to shape its identity by letting them explore different identities and enabling them to make informed choices to shape their identity. It has the power to make any society more open minded, more balanced and more inclusive.

Now, I am going to wear the ‘Tamil hat’ to talk against this imposing of one language over others.

After the government passed the circular and later clarified that this circular is only for Hindi speaking states, I saw several posts in FB where some of my close Tamil friends shared posts that was asking this question — What is wrong with learning Hindi? In the comments section, there were all kinds of abuses (which is typical of Social Media these days) and one theme that was recurring was that Hindi should be the unifying language because majority of the people in India speak Hindi and that it will improve the efficiency of our administration.

The logic that majority speak Hindi and so Hindi should be the unifying national language is as absurd as saying India has more crows than peacock and so crow should be national bird or there are more rats than tigers and so, rat should be our national animal.

If the above argument is silly, How about this? Majority of Indians eat chapathi and it would be lot more efficient, if the whole of India eats chapathis. So to achieve this, we should make it mandatory that all farmers in India need to grow only Wheat. This will help us to become the world’s biggest producer of wheat and as a result, we can become the biggest exporter of chapathis, wheat halwa, pani poori, poori and it is lot more easier this way for accounting and administrative purposes because we don’t need different pesticides, different packaging, different storage mechanisms etc. Also, it is easier to transfer best practices, predict the output and achieve economies of scale. Imagine if we pass this as a law, What will happen to the rice based foods? What will happen to the food eco systems created and the millions of innovations that happen because of the intersection of food from different parts of India and the world? What about our Idlis, Dosas? What about our Idiyappams? What about our Vadagams? What about our Saravana Bhavans? What about our Maiyaas? If you think this argument is weird, the argument that majority speak Hindi and hence it has to be the unifying national language is weird to me.

Food is as much important as language in shaping a culture.The food ecosystem has already taught us how powerful and how pluralistic it can get without affecting each other in any way. In fact, if you notice, in recent times, some of the foods that were once considered rural and not available anymore are becoming mainstream like the Karupati Coffee, Ragi Kool etc. As food industry in any state expands to cater to the various emerging tastes, it also digs deep within its culture to unearth so many unique dishes which are not cooked in our houses anymore. This is a classic example of the paradox that I highlighted earlier — the more we explore and reach out, the more we come closer to home.

On the need for an unifying language to improve efficiency, I would like to use my friend and colleague, Krish Sankaran’s metaphor of the agricultural land to explain the need for diversity over standardization. For the sake of standardization and efficiency, if we start growing the same crop again and again, we know how ineffective the land will become. It holds true for language as well. My mother-in law land, Sri Lanka, is a great case study of how sensitive language issues can get and how violent it can turn out if these issues are not managed properly.

Switzerland is a great case study on why we may not need a unifying national language and still achieve the efficiency plus effectiveness.The Swiss have seamlessly integrated all the four national languages — German, French, Italian and Romansh. People in Geneva speak French, people in Zurich speak German and people in Lugano speak Italian. Every official transaction is in French in Geneva and in German in Zurich. English is also used where it is required. They have designed effective processes along with solid integration programs instead of trying to oversimplify things. Switzerland is one of the most competitive and high performing countries in the world inspite of having so many national languages for its size.

Languages can co-exist and each language can thrive in the company of each other as the above examples from the food ecosystem and the success of Switzerland teach us.

Also, if we ask the question on how Tamil Nadu has fared without Hindi as an unifying national language, we will realize the following

- A vibrant movie industry that produces some of the best and original movies like Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kanom that succeed on the strength of their stories and not on the good looks of its lead actors, talents like AR Rahman, Kamalhassan that our whole country can be proud of and the December music season that still celebrates carnatic music.

- A socially progressive state where nobody uses caste names as surnames as in other parts of India. Father’s name is used as surname. A person by name Thangaraj , son of Rathinavel and whose caste is Nadar is not called Thangaraj Nadar but rather Thangaraj Rathinavel or simply R.Thangaraj. This doesn’t suggest that caste has been abolished completely but it was a great step taken by the society as a whole because of the Dravidian movement.

- A state where other state people are never under any threat. For example, the Sourashtra community in Madurai is originally from Gujarat during the King Thirumalai Nayakkar days and this community is the biggest community in Madurai city. There was never a single incidence of violence against this community or against any community for that matter in any part of the state. My North Indian friends complain that the Tamils speak only in Tamil even if they know Hindi. This is not true as a majority of Tamils really don’t know Hindi.

- A state which is considered the most urban state in South Asia with excellent bus connectivity, telephone infrastructure, high literacy rates, a diversified industrial base from IT to Automobile to textiles to electronics and hence, can be safely called as the most developed state in India since the outcome of industrialization is urbanization

- Above all, Tamils are very passionate about their language — Tamil is the oldest living language in India and was the first Indian language to be declared a classical language by the Government of India in 2004.

Am I making Tamil Nadu look too glamorous? Tamil Nadu has achieved all the above despite not knowing Hindi and if we compare it with the Hindi speaking states, the difference will be starkingly evident. If every state is as passionate and as intense as Tamil Nadu and if we can ensure that differences are celebrated, India will live up to its image of a truly pluralistic society.

Let me throw away both hats and come back to my original self.

In India, we are always taught to take sides and vehemently defend our position. What I have attempted is to provide the perspective from both sides and in turn, see the merit in the argument of each side. This way, we can pick up the best from each argument and explore how we can fit them in the larger context. A language needs to be protected not by banning other languages but by encouraging people to learn more languages and creating cultural ecosystems that will help socially and economically. After all, language creates the reality and is the biggest gift given to mankind.

Let us not waste our time to fight for languages. Let us use language to unite all of us. The unity needs to happen by preserving our diversity. As Rumi said, ‘Beyond our differences, there is a place. I’ll meet you there’. Beyond our cultural differences, a country called India was created 60 years back by integrating the various kingdoms in the region. Let’s start to meet each other as Indians while passionately pursuing our language and culture.

Jai Hind! Vanakkam!

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Strengths & Weaknesses

One of the most important interview questions that we, MBA students, are asked in almost all the interviews are “Tell me about your strengths and weaknesses”.

I was trying to answer this question but am finding it very tough to answer. Before I identify my strength and weakness, I need to know what is strength/weakness and in what context do they ask me? If a question comes to me “What is your name?” I cannot say “Vijay Anand Raju”.Before I answer this question, I’ll see who is asking this question and in what context is he asking this question.Suppose if my father asks this question, I will say “vg”, which is how my family calls me.But if he is asking this question infront of a relative who I dont know, then I may say “Vijay”.The answer here is not for my father but for the relative. It also indirectly tells the new person that this is how I want to be called.If the same question is asked infront of my school teacher, I would have said “Vijay Anand Raju”. In this case, there is an element of obedience which stays above my personal preference. So, as context changes, the outcome changes.

I think the same holds true for strength/weakness questions also.Let’s discuss in detail.

What is a strength? There are many meanings given in dictionaries but two of the closest are “Quality or state of being strong” and ” the degree of intensity”.So what is a weakness? “Lack of strength or character flaw”.

So if weakness is lack of strength, then both strength and weakness are defined by the same scale. So naturally, the question goes one step further towards personal attributes ,which may be creativity, passion, enthusiasm, communication skills etc, for which it is a degree. Lets choose one attribute, for example, “enthusiasm”. On a scale of 1-10, if it is 8 -10, then it is overenthusiasm.If it is between 4-7, it is enthusiasm.If it is below, then it is “lack of enthusiasm or apathy”.

If someone says “My strength is enthusiasm”, it is really difficult to understand the person’s viewpoint. Lets say he likes chinese food, reading and problem solving. He dislikes uncleanliness, backstabbers etc. He is neutral on issues like war, poverty.If he sees a good book , he will show “over enthusiasm” to buy and read the book. If he sees someone who has “backstabbed” him before, he will show “lack of enthusiasm” to talk to him. If he is watching some news on poverty or war, he may show enthusiasm to the news but will not do anything beyond that.

So his strength takes many forms and it takes the form of a weakness also.Strength is not something that is fixed and cant be changed.It gets “iterated ” depending on the circumstances and the other external factors that are beyond his control.It is dynamic and varies over circumstances and time.

Imagine a “winamp” equalizer.We can use this as a metaphor to explain strength and weakness.There are various columns which dynamically move up and down resulting in music to our ears.Let us imagine that if the column is tall, then it is strength and if it is small, it is a weakness.

If all these columns are static and at full strength, then it is noise.If all these columns are polarized towards the bottom at the same level, then also it is noise.You will hear music only when these columns dynamically move up and down.Similarly, if we want music in our lives we need to adjust the scales according to the circumstances.It is the same for individuals, organizations and countries.

It is very clear that the same strength will be a weakness in some circumstances and a weakness will be a strength under certain circumstances. For example, “Influential talking” will be a strength in a sales job and will be a weakness if you are in a class full of hearing impaired students.

Also,the equalizeer has various presets and we can save custom presets. We can do such presets based on some of the dominant circumstances that we face in our lives. But it needs thorough reflection and identifying the true calling.Once we identify the calling, then we can broadly identify some of the potential interest areas based on that calling.We can build our own personality archetypes based on this broad contexts and ofcourse, there will be “n” number of circumstances for which these presets can be used as a benchmark to build the needed archetype for that particular circumstance.

It is very important to build a portfolio or an archetype of competencies that can be effectively used to manage the uncertainties of the future. If we get stuck in a few competencies, then we cannot have “music” when the circumstances change.

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