Thursday, September 29, 2016

Who's Going To War?

War is only bad for those who have to fight it, but it is good for everyone else.

For governments, war is a good way to remain in power. Every President or Prime Minister wants to be a war leader, which allows them not to worry about hard promises such as economic development or jobs, and keeping power just by sending a few poor people to their death. If things go really wrong, one can just blame that on anti-national elements, suspend rule of law and put them in jail; and indeed, one can suspend elections altogether and stay in power as long as the war goes on. It's a pity we do not have the 'hundred year wars' anymore. 

For businesses, there may be a nervousness about risks, but on the aggregate, war is good as it means new contracts, and good replacement demand. A bloated real estate economy can do with rebuilding some houses, and housing some displaced people, as long as the government is paying for it.

For the media, it is news. How much better is it to report on real fighting going on at distant fronts - real deaths, real bullets and for a change, even real heroes - rather than conjuring up storms on little tea-cups and hosting endless shouting matches on live TV. 

For the well-off middle classes and the WhatsApp diaspora, it is a real great opportunity to renew patriotism and live, or at least pretend to live, a real life outside the boredom of project endings and beginnings, rise and fall of house prices and tracking mortgages. 

If the description horrifies someone who has seen real wars, they are a minority among well-off middle classes. There are countries with emergent middle classes, where millions of people has never seen a war, never lost anyone dear, and never suffered a loss of property. They have grown up on a diet of media stories about distant and foreign wars, seen movies of heroism and mastered the rhetorical ideas of fighting and higher purpose: In their minds, the wars are clean, where bad guys die and good guys win the girl, without blood, soil, tears and mud. The wars they imagine and celebrate are most like video games, and fought by other people.

In the middle of this, we may have forgotten how incredibly messy wars can be, how deeply damaging to both the emotions and economies, how real people can die in them. The American Government, and the American movie directors, made a virtue of distant wars, comfortable as they are in their monopolistic control over war technology and war capital; but for most others in the world, wars, as and when they happen, are real, hurtful and close to home. A generation brought up on a diet of American Dream, gadgets and degrees may have forgotten this, but wars, when they come, it will hurt.

So, for everyone else in the world, it is best to keep wars short, phoney and ephemeral, as India and Pakistan have managed to keep theirs so far. There are incursions and insurgent, political claims and political denials, real deaths and imagined assailants, but the people who killed and got killed are perhaps a few poor Jawans and a few poor terrorists. At this level, everyone gets what they want: Indian government an excuse to look tough, Pakistanis a chance to straighten their military, media a story and punters a bear-and-bull to make money. But this far and no farther:  The horrors, the deaths and the destructions that may follow may not like swift or surgical, and the WhatsApp heroes would soon be outed as cowards they are if the real war hits home.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Politics of School Choice



The unacknowledged symptom of middle-class midlife when personal arguments and political choices converge into a farce. So was last week for me!

For me, with a 9 year old, it is that time when the conversation about school choice starts. The British middle class wisdom - State (schools) till 8! - knocks on the door. The juggling of post codes, entrance examinations and school ratings overwhelm dinner table conversations. The conversation about happy children looks quaint, and the intense race for 'future' starts. 

My protestation that the Secondary school is still a good two years away is pointless. I live within an enclave of Indian professionals, striving suburban middle-classmen who grew up in scarcity and embraced oneupmanship as a positive virtue: I am starting the race for future way too late. 

But, indeed, there is some truth in the obsession about schools, and that hits home as I google the local state schools. The story I see is consistent, ranging from grim to mediocre, that about half the pupils of these schools fail to get at least a C. As I look at the ones with about 17% pass rates and silently wonder why they exist, the I-told-you-so scores a home run.

In context of this full-blown personal crisis, have I failed my son already, another, slightly apocryphal, story hits home. Jeremy Corbyn's second victory in a year in the Labour leadership contest highlighted a story that his first wife voted for his rival, which led me to the Wikipedia trail of Corbyn's marriages - ultimately to the story of his second divorce, from Chilean Claudia Bracchitta, on ground of school choices for their son. As The Guardian reported the story in 1999, Corbyn's marriage ended as Ms Bracchitta insisted that their first son must attend a Grammar School, a selective institution that the Labour Party loves to hate, and Mr Corbyn demurred, on a point of principle! 

Given that it was clear that the local comprehensive that Mr Corbyn's son could get into was a failing one, this surely sounds crazy! One must do what is right for one's children, and this adds more colour to the claim, made by middle class politicians across the spectrum (the claim that led to the recent leadership challenge that Mr Corbyn had to fight off), that people like Mr Corbyn fails to understand the middle class aspirations of Modern Britain. The middle class is all about striving, getting better than the 'competition', earning kudos and careers along the way, and Mr Corbyn's views - the one that objects to Theresa May's perhaps only lovable policy of more Grammar Schools - is surely completely at odds with everything my friends and neighbours hold dear.

So, as I get back to all-too-familiar conundrum of the school choice, whether I sign my son up to the preparations of Grammar School examinations, or endure the climbing tuition fees to get him into one of the private schools, there are two questions that obsess me: Why are the non-selective state schools so bad? And, indeed, does Mr Corbyn and people like him live in an ideological cuckoo-land?

That State can not run schools, the familiar argument, is a clear nonsense because there are whole countries and territories - talk not just of Finland, but also of Canada and even our Northern Ireland - that do it very well.And, coming back to Grammar Schools, it is indeed not good enough to say that better schools can only exist if they can select their students, as that will turn the argument on its head and the value-add of the school would be unclear. And, yet, there is something in this conversation about selective state schools that may explain why non-selective comprehensives that perform so badly.

If one knows anything about education, it would be this: It takes a village to raise a child! Despite its obvious African origin and connotations, there is an universal truth here: That education is an ecosystem activity! School is not a self-contained institution, a factory that processes the Children's brains few hours every day. School is one part of the learning environment a child lives in - perhaps the most structured part of her world focused on learning - and everything that makes this world matters in learning.

This sounds obvious, but this is entirely forgotten when discussing the role of parents in education. Our paradigm, that the school is the factory of knowledge and competence, and parents are just paying customers, is completely wrong (for Higher Education, we substitute the parents with the students themselves) and yet it dominates the way we think about education, public or private, and the way we shape policy.

The selective schools are better because they sort out parents who are concerned about their Children's education from those, who, by force of their character or circumstance, do not. And, private schools do the same - with an additional criteria of money thrown in, which helps in segregating the class of parents. 

Therefore, what happens when Private schools (confusingly called Public Schools in Britain), selective Grammar Schools and non-selective Comprehensive Schools exist side by side in a borough? The private schools invraibly have more resources, as they attract students from more affluent households, who could afford more discretionary spending on allied or extra-curricular activities, offering the most attractive options in terms of education and exposure. Selective schools absorb the more academic ones, those with parents who are serious about education and competitive in their worldview. This leaves the unfortunate majority, without money or households focused on education, to go to non-selective comprehensives, creating an ever poorer feedback loops and ghettos spreading their effects on the neighbourhoods.

This phenomena, observed and documented with great conceptual finesse by economist Albert Hirschmann, flies in the face of the Conservative doctrine of 'Choice' - that diversity of school choices in a territory creates incentives for all schools to improve. It is no wonder that the Comprehensive schools in London and South-East of England, where there are more private schools because of the Higher Per Capita income and more selective schools (not uniformly across the boroughs though) historically, are particularly bad, unless they were saved by house prices in the neighbourhoods [some of the best Comprehensives are in Central or West London, where peak house prices ensure a selective demographic]. So, creating more grammar schools, or providing school vouchers so that parents can choose their schools, do not improve the educational capacity of the State schools, they just impoverish them further.

So, does Mr Corbyn live in a cuckoo-land? From my vantage point, fully braced for endless Open Days to be spent in conversations with over-eager parents, he indeed does: He believes that he could change this system, which is a disaster for a democratic society. It is so not just because it creates extreme deprievation among those who lose hope early as their schools fail them, but also delusion among the others who live in the bubbles of private education, lose visibility of the people on the other side and grow up without the compassion that is so critical for democratic survival. This intentionally created Chasm, created early and therefore foundational to how we live, undermines the very systems that we swear by, and creates both the angry voters that voted for Brexit and the manipulative fools such as Boris Johnson.

But, then, Mr Corbyn did not become the Leader of the Labour Party without believing that he could change all this, and build a fairer Britain. That work must start from ending the segregation in schools, building mixed and democratic classrooms. If there is to be a higher form of civilisation, if we are to remain democratic, his vision, however out of context it may appear from a middle class vantage point, has to be realised. And, finally, here is the sad fact about the middle class vantage point: It is over! However much we like to believe that we are on a straight path to Genius economy, where men with brain would rule (and therefore, it makes sense to strive and strive harder for a better school) most of us, unbeknowingly, would actually be left out there. Our hopes should reside in a fairer, cooperative, human-centric society, and not in the vision of a segregated society of winners, run by robotic workers and deluded leaders. Mr Corbyn not only represents that vision, but also the integrity of action that is needed to realise such a future.

 


Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Global E-School: A Plan

B-Schools had their day. There was a time when we thought we knew how to do it - capture the future in a web of models and processes - and created the big, successful institutions charging top dollars for educating business leaders. 

Then, a few things happened. We overdid it. There were just too many B-Schools and too many business 'leaders'. We also lost faith in big businesses. According to a recent Pew survey, only 40% of Americans have a positive image of big businesses, down from 75% a couple of decades earlier. And, big businesses stopped creating jobs, as they continued to automate and spread their global supply chains. And, then, came the Great Recession, sweeping away the dreams of middle class life of the most, and what emerged is a completely different future. No wonder that only a small fraction of MBAs now find appropriate employment, and all but the top B-Schools are able to fill their seats today.

The truth is, today, not the company men but those with enterprise rule the world. In this world, the B-School education became a hindrance, the proverbial chip on the shoulder that B-schools were designed to install became the stumbling block, as new values and competences are needed for the ever-reconfigured world of enterprise. 

So, we need a new education. It is no longer processes or models, but people, ideas and flexibilities. The aspirations can not any longer be limited to Business Administration, but must encompass Business Creation, and indeed, for the best, denting the universe. It is no longer enough to reside inside small, elite networks of people from similar backgrounds as us, but about being global and knowing people from diverse backgrounds and interests, because new ideas almost inevitably lie in the fringes. This is a topsy-turvy world of open business models and liquid networks, a new, global, diverse, enterprise-centred education is needed: This is the central proposition of a Global E-School.

Now, the question - whether entrepreneurs can be educated in a school - may come up here. But there is a difference between educating entrepreneurs and making all learners entrepreneurial. The E-School would be designed to operate with an 'entrepreneurial frame of mind', never giving final answers but always insistent on finding solutions. Its education will centre not around models and theories, but on finding problems by engaging in real life. And, its focus will not be on the past and who said what, but on the future - its emerging possibilities and how to shape it. As opposed to B-Schools, it would not be designed as a factory for the chip-on-the-shoulder, but a place for humility, flexibility and inventiveness.

How do we go about building a model? As with any good enterprise, we look to start with an existing model - yes, poor old MBA - and build a new-economy wrap-around to make it fit for purpose. The school, as we envision it, needs to be global, hence we need a framework that can be location independent. We also need a competence-based framework, which can be mapped to real life entrepreneurial activities quickly and cheaply. The idea, therefore, is to take a model of remote delivered, competence based MBA and turn it to be the basis of a global Enterprise programme.

What we add to this core framework is important. The idea is to add one or two global residencies to this framework - one in London or Cambridge and the other potentially in Silicon Valley - where the learners could immerse themselves in enterprise ecosystems interning in Start-ups. The other thing that we add is a T-Programme on New and Emerging technologies, an overview of new technological developments along with specialist programmes and internships focused on one or another area. And, finally, the third element to be added is a Social Project, an opportunity to set up a Social Enterprise inside a community, in close collaboration with a member of that community, which will integrate all that was learnt on the programme and off it, and provide an opportunity for application.

I have never been closer to realising the E-School idea, which I have spoken and written about for several years, than now. The expansive idea that I described above may be a hard-sell for some investors, but not to those who know the education market, and know that it has matured and differentiation is the key. The market of meaningless degrees, which swelled up with newly emerging economies joining up with their millions of students, is essentially over: China, India and other countries have expanded their education systems rapidly and the 'demand-absorbing' For-profit sector in the West has lost their appeal as job numbers shrunk in the wake of global recession. The education investment now needs to be serious and mature, focused on differentiation and value creation, and E-School is one big opportunity to establish a model that really works.


Monday, September 19, 2016

My China Pivot

Over the last several months, I have made one significant change in my work. I have pivoted to China.

It is fashionable to do so, and my own little project has nothing to do with the geopolitical shift of the Obama administration (though it was handy to borrow the term). It is also interesting. Only back in 2012, when I was starting my business and when the potential investors asked me endlessly which countries I should target, I was not sure. At best, there was this hyphenated pair of India-China, as two big Higher Education markets, and I spent the good part of the last four years focusing on India.

But, as it would happen, my work shifted, somewhat on its own momentum, to China. Despite spending more time on India, the business got more students in China. And, more generally, when we explored new ways of doing education, we realised the difference between India and China: We got polite nods in China, though the Chinese partners mostly accepted the ideas for their own use; in India, we were told new ideas would not work there. And, finally, as I explored opportunities in the UK, and it seemed that even in the UK, education is primarily a China play.

As I find out, my excitement about China is hard to explain, particularly to those who had been old 'China Hands' at the UK Universities. For them, China is a long term game which never really matures. For them, China is as bewildering as India, only more unfathomable. So, as I try to build an UK education business this time keeping the Chinese students in mind - and experience has indeed made me very very focused on China - I am forever explaining that China has changed. And, perhaps, we are at a tipping point of change when decades worth of quantitative change - the age of 'more' - is transforming into qualitative change, a change for better.

Indeed, there are those who say that China is bound to fall apart. They point to unsustainable levels of debt and expect everything to stall like Japan, and they point to the 'totalitarian system' and expect all this to go the Russia way.  But, one way to look at it is that the supposed 'totalitarian system' has more economic manoeuvrability than the democratic ones, and the strength of the Chinese economy makes a Russia-like meltdown unlikely. And, besides, there are a number of things that all but the astute China watchers miss: For example, the One-Party system in China maintains a level of meritocracy, whereas multi-party system of other democracies (such as India) often run on cronyism and corruption. 

On the economic front, China is making a very effective transformation from investment-led growth to consumption-led growth, dealing with its environmental issues as it goes along. Its continued prosperity has created an English-speaking, aspirational, young people, more open and world-ready, just as big democracies, such as India and the United States, turn inwards. It has almost willed - over the last decade or so - a world-class education system. It has acknowledged its mistakes in experimenting with the Healthcare system, and restored universal healthcare. It is an amazing transformation, never before attempted in history in its scale, scope and intentionality, and our mental models - whether we ask if China will overtake the United States or if India can compete with China - fall short to fully comprehend such changes from the outside.

I should perhaps illustrate this point with examples from within my own context. When in 2012, investors were asking me which country I should be focusing upon, China and India had roughly comparable number of students in Higher Education. In the five years from 2011 to 2016, while both countries expanded Higher Education capacity at breakneck speed, the enrolments have only risen marginally in India, China's numbers have nearly doubled and reached the 40% Gross Enrolment Ratio mark (while India's remained at around 20%). This is reflected in China's impact on Higher Education systems in other countries as well. In 2011, roughly the same number of students arrived in the UK from China and India, about 38,000. After this, as UK tightened the visa requirements and crucially abolished the provision of Post-Study visa, making it impossible for students to stay on after their study, the arrivals from India collapsed, to only about 17,000 in the latest count, whereas the numbers from China continued to rise, simply due to sheer demand, and in 2016, this is going to be about 80,000. For the year we have data available, 459,800 students have left China to study abroad, representing a growth of 11% year on year. And, this is not just about quantity but quality too: A number of Chinese universities have broken into the top 50 of global rankings, for whatever they are worth, and it had 380,000 International students at Chinese universities coming from 200 countries.

I cite these numbers for two reasons. One, the obvious, is to make the case for China in the context of Higher Education, the sector I am engaged in, and understand its trajectory. Two, it is important to see China beyond the geopolitical prism - Communist and all that - and appreciate fully the massive transformation now underway. Whether or not the Chinese experiment succeeds, and we know that speculating about history is a perilous game, such rise of a nation invariably creates its own opportunities. And, in this case, we do not have to necessarily see conflict - with United States or anyone - as an inevitable outcome, because China, at least so far, has refrained from building systems of alliances, did not indulge in Colonial conquests and while it competed with United States in building scientific and technological capability and healthier and a more educated workforce, it has not done anything comparable to the madness of the arms race that undid the Soviet Union. We have to remember that it is America pivoting to China (though, arguably, many of its 'friends' in South-East Asia may be building bridges with China) rather than the other way around.

For me, with my heritage and natural connections with India, it is a difficult act of priority setting. India remains important and growing Higher Education market, and it took me time to focus my efforts on China over India. While China and India gets hyphenated for good reason - for their large population and relatively recent development - the difference between the two. The two countries are completely at two different stages of development, and the middle class person in China earns around 5 times more than her counterpart in India. While India is planning to improve its infrastructure. China has become a world-leader in Infrastructure development and is now exporting its expertise. The Chinese millennial population is bigger than the whole population of the United States, and many of them speak English (not so in India) and given China's vast export sector, it makes sense for them to have foreign education and exposure, a business that I am in. And, finally, and importantly, it is important for the Modern Chinese to learn from the world - Deng famously asked the Chinese to learn from the successful Chinese diaspora - whereas India is an 'open society with a closed mind', as Kishore Mahbubani said. 

Hence, my China pivot: I am building a high quality global education solution primarily aimed at Chinese students, which involves collaborating globally and also coming over to UK and do a part of the programme face to face at Cambridge and London. This means doing things differently - I am building networks among Chinese diaspora in the UK, making efforts to learn Chinese customs and practises, and building the brand with overt sensitivity to this market - and this is an exciting experience.

 

  

Friday, September 16, 2016

The Democratic Turn



There are many possible ways of looking at history. One could be a pessimist or an optimist, see progress or decline, and believe in either preserving the past or reinventing the future. 

Indeed, the facts or truth, if there is such a thing, should perhaps be free of such ways of seeing, but then facts, without such interpretation, however subjective, may have no intrinsic value. History is most useful in shaping our ideas of the present and of our future, through these narratives or processes of making sense. And, the way we look at history makes all the difference.

And, besides, one could see progress either as a straight-line and a continuous story, or one of struggle - two steps forward and one step back - to make life better. And, which one you see depends on what side you want to be on: One could see progress as providence and destiny, or a gift from the great and the gifted, or a few hard-earned accomplishments through accidents and agitation. These are really ways of looking rearward, our attitudes towards today reflected on the process of history, projecting ourselves in the narrative and demonstrating that even when we agree on somethings, there are other things we may not agree on.

All this in mind, I feel less guilty for being subjective about my own time. There are people who had claimed that history has already ended, settled into a zone of continuity such that the narratives of the past became less relevant. This is an influential view, which, one could reasonably suspect, led to the rush to technology and business principles at the universities, and a decline of humanities and history in particular. And, yet, it is possible to see ourselves in the middle of a tectonic change - at one of those precise moments when the water reaches the boiling point and time for the frog to die - from which the closeness of time blinds us all. 

I speculate - with an intent to imagine! The gulf between the rich and the poor, the elite and the plebeian, the North and the South, the State and its enemies, indeed seem unassailable at this very moment, assuring continuity and making history redundant. The lessons of history, well learnt in policy, are used to maintain a coalition of the elites, and a cradle-to-grave system on instruction and warning that make us aware of the costs of incohesion among the powerful. So, what may actually go wrong for a fault line to appear and history to begin?

I think it is Democracy. The representative democracy was resurrected and implemented, partly as a reaction to the terror of French revolution and partly as a system of co-opting the new Middle classes everywhere. This was the great enabler of the Capitalist revolution - if I may call it that - the process of chipping away the powers of Absolute Monarchs and creating a system of commercial peace. It assumed a different importance with the resurrection of revolutionary terror in Soviet Russia, and then after the emergence of alternative ideas during the Cold War.  It was indeed never straightforward - democracy versus the other - as the Western powers often propped up dictators and replaced democratically elected leaders (Iran, Congo, Chile are some examples). But the excuse was always democracy - free elections, free speech, free trade was the ideal - and the other side did not own the term. 

So far, democracy was this big Anglo-Saxon thing that underpinned progress. Whatever the actions, all the Western leaders, guardians of human progress as they saw themselves as, agreed on the centrality of democracy as an idea. And, at the least, the most cynical among them, the imperialists, the robber-barons, the arms dealers, all saw democracy as a convenient piece of rhetoric, to be used effectively against the Left's dream of equality. And, as it turned out, there was something common-sense about it: As long as you voted for it, you could not complain if the world turned out to be unjust. 

This is now changing. There may be several reasons, but chief among them is the celebratory mood among the victors of the debate: The Soviet system crumbling under its own weight was taken as the surest sign of Capitalist system being the superior one, and sustainable without the political protection of democracy. The fear of revolution that kept the leaders of the states, captains of industries and agents of the secret services awake at night, has finally abated. It was a time of throwing away the shackles of inconvenient rhetoric of giving people voice.

And, of another reason, the conviction that when given a choice, people always choose poorly. It is surprising how many of the great and the good really think that way, but they do. After some democratic decisions going against them - like Britain's EU referendum or the rise of Trump, for example - leaders are all full of praise of a China-like system, which is an authoritarian capitalism rather than a popular democracy. Now, there are books and talks openly advocating a shift away from democracy, policies and institutions that operate outside the democratic process and new doctrines of propaganda that look beyond the democratic age.

And, this, very moment, may be ripe for a democratic turn in history. The other way to see what's happening to see democracy becoming redundant as an instrument of power, but at the same time, becoming most powerful. It is being discarded not because it is superfluous, but because it is inconvenient; it is not because people are not participating in it, but because they are. Democracy's role has suddenly flipped - from the maintainer to status quo to the engine of change - which it once was, and always could be.

 



 


Wednesday, September 14, 2016

A Programme for Entrepreneurs

Among various projects that I am considering doing is one that involves creating a global programme for Entrepreneurs. 

As always, things that I do represent a coalition of interests. The current conversation involves someone I have known for a long time, and respect for his business savvy, backed by investors wanting to leverage UK qualifications in the global markets, and primarily in China. My role will be to craft a programme that works, and I am setting myself to the task as earnestly as I can.

However, I have always harboured doubts about degrees that look to certify entrepreneurship. For one, I think it is a purely defensive move: I can not think of a person who would be a successful entrepreneur in the end trying to an MBA in entrepreneurship first. Besides, while I do not deny that there are things entrepreneurs need to learn, I would always see entrepreneurs as men (and women) of action, who needs to learn not from text books and lecturers but from the action itself. I have failed enough times to know entrepreneurship is not business planning - and, therefore, exploring what a course can teach entrepreneurs.

These 'objections' are not, I should add, about denying the need for a programme for entrepreneurs, but to set the framework for the task at hand. I know what this programme should not be: This should not be made up of endless lectures and assignments on how to do business. They should not be about innate principles of economics or marketing, but about action, engagements and understanding of real life. And, indeed, the key thing for me is to make this 'Global' - an opportunity to connect and collaborate, to refresh the ideas and open minds to new possibilities, by bringing together people from different places and backgrounds.

The point, of course, is that an MBA is an MBA, and not the needs of the learners, but the frameworks that the regulators set, take precedence. It is always a fine balancing act to manage these, alongside the ideals that I enumerated. Right now, at this stage of ideas then, I am thinking of different models: What if the MBA has no teaching at all, but rather real work which gets translated into credits? What if there are no essays or examinations, but just a reflective summary of an entrepreneur's life? Living within a start-up ecosystem in London or Cambridge, the two places we have in mind to deliver this programme, can be another very interesting aspect to integrate, and such experiences could be transformational to an young African, Chinese or Indian graduate.

This is all new and exciting kind of work for me, the kind of challenge I love to deal with and have spent most of my life doing. Even the regulatory bit does not bother me much, as I have lived in that world all too often. This one project is a signifier of what is changing in my life - I am moving from things that I had to do to things what I really want to spend time doing - and it is indeed changing fast.
 


Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Three Rules of Survival

I have always maintained that Start-ups and established companies, small, medium or big, are two kinds of organisations. Rules that make one thrive at Start-ups do not necessarily hold in larger companies, and indeed, they could jeopardise one's prospects seriously.

But then, it is hard to distinguish between Start-ups and Small companies. This is because, however much we talk about company cultures and values, it is people who carry them. So, it is not whether a company is a start-up or not, but whether the people that run the company are company-people or startup-people.

And, indeed, one could have a start-up full of people who succeeded at big companies, because that is what investors really want. The other is quite rare - companies full of start-up people - though it is now a deliberate cultural objective, and even IBM would say that they want to hire 'failed entrepreneurs'.

All this is relevant because of a strange third kind of people, who work for start-ups. We may see the world in black-and-white terms of employees and entrepreneurs, but there are those people, and more of them than ever, who are employees of start-ups. And, even when their very existence may be proof of shades of grey, they continue to see the world in the black-and-white terms of how start-ups should be. And, often they fail - because all start-ups may not be really start-ups.

Interestingly, I have lived in both the worlds, and truth be told, survived in both. And, I have known enough people who could not survive in one or the other, as they are quite different. My basic rule of survival has always been to start with people, trying to understand what they are like and what they like, rather than assuming what they should be like. But then there are three specific rules I follow to judge this, and I thought it may be helpful to spell these out clearly.

Rule 1: Watch Out For BCCs

Blind Copy, that wonderful feature that gives away that email was really meant to be a big-company thing, is the first sign that Start-ups may not be start-ups after all. Because in the fast, flat world of start-ups, often confined in a room (or, famously, in a garage), there is no space for BCCs. It is more the world of chat, or, as in some cases, plain shouting!

But, isn't BCC supposed to be blind? How is one supposed to know BCC is part of the culture or not? There are many ways, really. One can be receiving some of them. Besides, BCCs always have a way of revealing themselves: They may supposed to be blind, but they exist because someone somewhere needs to know something. So, next time your boss accidentally mentioned seeing the email spat you had with your colleague, you know! And, once you know, if you are observant, you can tell from emails - okay, roughly - which ones had a BCC and which ones did not.

Now, if you know there is a culture of BCC in your company, what are you supposed to do? One obvious way is start BCCing yourself, though one may not win the game because you are not supposed to be BCCing everything (only when you are pointing out your colleague was wrong, and never when you are saying sorry, is a kind of rule of thumb). The other, more sensible, way is to write emails more often, particularly to make your points, even when you could have just talked to your colleague or sent a chat message. This is because if BCCs come back, you can forward - and that is such a decent thing - all those subsequent emails that your boss may have missed out on.

Rule 2: Follow The Conversation

Start-ups talk more often about doing things rather than not doing them. By definition, Start-Ups are experimental entities set up to make low-stake mistakes before hitting the right formula. They usually do not have the resources or time to ponder over issues, make empirical judgements and then get things wrong.

Big companies, on the other hand, is set up to do exactly that: Ponder! There are many reasons for the same. They have the resources to do this. They also often have people whose roles are to reign in others from experimenting. They are also designed to avoid risk and continue doing what they do well.

Now, if you notice that conversations in your company is more about not doing things rather than doing them, assuming that you want to survive (because there are supposed to be rules for survival), it is best not to try to do things. Instead of being hailed as a champion, you may fall in one of the following categories: Self-promoter, Underhand Dealer or Plain Naive. The rules of survival here is simple. In such settings, as in big companies, Activities are deemed to be equal to Actions. So, instead of trying to do things, you may make PowerPoint and you will flourish!

Rule 3: Giving Up As A Strategy

Now, indeed, how does one get anything done in this setting, one may wonder. And, indeed, you have to get things done, because, whatever the culture, the start-up will die if nothing gets done. One can not survive if the whole thing sinks, after all! So, therefore, the third rule of survival: If you want to get anything done, give up!

That may sound crazy, but this works if you spot the big company culture. Because one good thing about such culture is no one really wants to be responsible, about anything. So, instead of trying to push things through against the resistance of all assembled, which gives them all the brownie points and you get both the blame and the risks, just give up! This shifts the blames and the risks to people who said no, and usually, that is the way to get your way.


All this may sound very political. But, being political is about dealing with people. One does not have to be Political with a big P, out to grab power and push people out, but one needs to understand one's workplace and act accordingly if one has to survive (till it becomes too much, emotionally). I write this with experience, not of one company but many, and I have lived through some of the most brutal workplaces imaginable (including one where every email was read by the owner, making BCCs superfluous). And, I write this not to criticise anyone I may have met, because I believe most people are acting out of habit rather than intent, but out of concern to people like whom I have known, good people who failed to act according to the norms of their own organisations. And, this, in my reflection, are my steps through symptoms-disease-cure to live in the world of small 'big companies'.



Monday, September 12, 2016

A Pivot All Too Necessary

I resume the rest of my life today. 

That sounds good. All it is, though, is a return to work, after a forced break of two weeks, as I had to go away to India to attend to my father. But, as forced breaks do, this was a break in all senses - a reordering of priorities and focusing of minds - and there is nothing better to restart on an unusually warm, sunny, mid-September morning in London.

Timing is right otherwise too. It has been two years I had to step back from entrepreneurial life, primarily as money was running out. It was like going back on time, taking on a limited role, doing what I would have done several years ago in my career, and settle into the usual balancing acts characteristic of 'corporate' life. In my mind, it was always temporal, a compromise, a tactical retreat - two steps forward, one step back - meant to build up to the point that I am at today.

The trick, though, was to keep remembering this. For all its faults, monthly paychecks can seriously distract. Particularly if they come after a long fallow period, of declining credit ratings and not-too-subtle social humiliation (when some people stop coming to your parties, or your lack of income was cited as proof of your lack of abilities). With all the world approving, it is difficult to remember that the monthly paychecks bring the opposite, but more damning evils, like wrong people flocking to your parties or your own creeping doubts about your abilities! I had to keep reminding myself that this is not about the paychecks, though in a hard sense it certainly was, but about reaffirmation of my ability, of learning and thinking, in order to try again soon.

The other challenge was choosing the moment. Realistically, this should have been financially or opportunistically defined. The question to ask should have been, either, do I have enough money to try again, or, is there an opportunity walking through the door. However, in this blog and other conversations, I kept asking a different question: Do I feel ready? And, this question, the inward turn, was perhaps natural as I started from a state of giving up, a psychological point unconnected, I shall claim, from the declining bank balances or limited opportunities (the latter was never the case). Feeling ready has been all that mattered.

And, I do feel ready. After all these trials, I feel more connected, and more committed, to what I set out to do. And, this quest for readiness has the additional advantage of being deliberate - I am not being pushed to change my life either by a positive or a negative development, but by myself, at a time of my choosing and for something I deeply care about.

Indeed, it is silly to claim that I arrive at readiness just like that - I go to India and the moment arrives - and I was working towards this for a while. I knew I was not ready, but I was good to explore. Over the past several months, I kept myself open, saying yes to almost everything that came my way - exploring every conversation a little, seeing some to its logical conclusion and keeping the worthwhile ones alive for the future. Being ready now makes me do the opposite - choosing the things I would pursue and saying no to the ones I would not want to do.

And what I want to do is completely different from what I have been doing so far. I am staying home and travelling less, focusing more on UK and doing a lot less in India. I have started building a portfolio of projects, primarily expanding on the previous work that I did to establish a competency-based learning platform, but focusing on Open Frameworks rather than closed business models. I am also trying to focus on writing too, side by side with all the other work, and combining the ongoing blogging with more serious efforts, as well as my explorations in History of Ideas. And, finally, I have started working on two 'long-view' projects, one focused on Africa and the other one on Kolkata, which are about developing entrepreneurships, particularly in the new and emerging industries. 

So, in all then, a pivot - and hopefully, the most significant one I have attempted since 2004, when I left everything behind and travelled. The fun is in changing and in chronicling that change, as I intend to do as I go along.

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How To Live

"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."

- Theodore Roosevelt

Last Words

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

- T S Eliot

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