Sunday, November 02, 2008

Sparring with Nature

Until man appeared, Nature had Earth all to herself to play with; it was Man who coined the term ‘Natural Disaster’. Natural Disasters are nothing new to Humanity; they’ve been around longer than Man has. History records the destruction of whole cities Pompeii, Elba, Tannis, perhaps even a place as well planned as Mohenjodaro.

It is only in recent times that the Population Explosion has made it impossible for Nature to even breathe without hurting Man; The effect is impressive.

India is no stranger to Natural Disasters; as recently as the last few years there have been drought, and extreme floods. The most recent this year in Maharasthra, and before that in Bihar. The impact is extreme; both in terms of damage to human life, livestock, and property. Any disaster is augmented by the infectious panic that follows as all flee leaving all but their most prized possession behind.

It is almost impossible to provide adequate warning to all before Nature strikes. Even Nature’s smallest sneeze is liable to affect at least thousands of human lives; therefore it becomes that much more important to have a decent response mechanism in place. Here, on the sub-continent, a knee-jerk reaction is to press the armed forces into service. The armed forces have an impressive record in providing succour in cases of Natural Disasters; be it Bhuj in Gujarat, Morvi & Mowad in Maharashtra, Orissa, or most recently Bihar. Natural Disaster Relief is not the charter of the Defence Forces; albeit they do the job with aplomb. But, Destiny Forbid, what if a Natural Disaster should coincide with any attempt to violate the territorial integrity of our Nation?

Before we can address the question ‘If not the Army, then who should we call?’ it is important to recognize what makes the army so effective in dealing with these situations. After all, the army is comprised of Humans too; what makes them immune to Panic?

Panic rises from the thought- There is nothing I can do that will help improve the situation I am in. A soldier is conditioned to react to survive; he does not have the time to formulate this thought.

How can the army continue to function in scenes of Natural disasters? The answers, I believe, are these

  1. Communication – This provides the means to revert for advice, definition of priorities when required.

  2. Defined Chain of Command – Without a chain of command, all the ability to communicate, is meaningless. The soldier on the spot knows exactly whom his instructions should come from.

  3. Broadly defined instructions – Broadly defined instructions leave the Soldier on the spot the freedom to act on his initiative where required. He does not need to be told how to achieve an objective; only what the objective is. Thereafter he is free to act upon his initiative.

The next question is – Who, if not the Army?

The army is comprised of trained men, equipped with the necessary tools required to do their job. The answer therefore must be an alternate group of people similarly trained, and with access to the necessary tools required. Possible candidates, in my opinion, are – Police, RAF, NCC, Home Guard [taken in order]. In addition, it would help to have a volunteer group defined for each mohalla who may liaise with the disaster relief agency. Such a volunteer group will be aware of potentially hazardous areas, and may prevent needless casualties. In addition, the presence of a volunteer cadre will free up resources to be utilized elsewhere.

Each year hundreds of people lose their lives to the vagaries of Nature. Losses in terms of livestock, and property is incalculable; but it cannot stand against the value of Human Life. There may be those who argue that the capital expenditure in setting up a dedicated Rescue&Relief unit to respond to Natural Expenditures may be huge. Can we afford to not make this investment to save Human Lives, to mitigate the loss to property & to livestock?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


I'm jusssst a little accident-prone lately; walking into things, having vehicles drive into me, dropping buckets on me feet, catching my fingers in the car door, losing balance on the stairs, having puppy discover it's fun to pull my hair out by the roots.

Bright Side (+: I've discovered why demons/ogres in the old tales were always shewn with malformed/misshapen bodies and appendages. Their bodies weren't that way because of their demoniacal behaviour/mentality; 'twas the other way around.

Ever notice how irritable a person can be when they have a toothache?

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Organismics – Towards Omniscience

God, and Big Brother know all there is to know about everything. Unlike the rest of us, mere mortals, God is truly Omniscient. Big Brother, on the other hand, is not really omniscient.In spite of being served by mere mortals, Big Brother has got around his mortality by arranging to have an excellent memory. Big Brother has an institutionalized memory. Ideally, once something is known it shan't be forgotten albeit it may be lost.

Compared against God & Big Brother, I am not immortal. My memory too is not institutionalized; there're actual gaps in my memories. Of all that I know, I learnt some things at School. Some other things I learnt second-hand. Still others I learnt from first-hand experience. The last category is also the most ... pervasive.

Waiting to report at my first job, I was speechless with the knowledge that my education would finally be applied to challenging tasks. Within a month I was disillusioned. This probably happens to the majority of us. The first job carries with it the aura of finally proving to the world what we have learnt over years. Sooner or later, every one of us realizes that little of what we learnt at school is really directly applicable. The sooner this moment of truth comes, the better.

Of all lessons we learn at school, the most important are not taught in class. Rarely, if ever, are these lessons even mentioned in words. And yet these lessons form the keystone of all our education, and lie as the bedrock for a successful career.

At school, we had as many as 8 different subjects covered during the day in blocks of 45 minutes each. The teacher would, at the end of each block, hand out an assignment to be delivered in the next block for that subject, and woe-betide anyone who neglected to do it, or gave the excuse they hadn't understood in class. The impression, of course, was that we were expected to know everything.

Looking back, I now realize that these were the real lessons we were meant to learn, albeit they were never vocalized.

  1. You do not know everything; nor are you expected to know everything.

    Of course we do not know everything. When the answer is wrong the first thing that comes to mind is 'All that effort gone waste!', right?

    Wrong! It's not gone waste. We know now -

  1. At least one thing the answer is not

  2. At least one approach that is not applicable

  1. When you have expended sufficient effort towards an objective, Ask!

    Remember those sums Teacher used to give us at Math; All those words, and numbers? It sometimes seemed as though nothing we could try would work, and it was so easy to get stuck in a thought-loop. [It still is! (+:]

    Well, the approach that applied there applies in professional life too -

    1. If, at first, you do not succeed; Try, Try, Try Again

    2. Keep track of what went into each effort

    3. When you've spent a reasonable amount of time without getting the solution, Ask!

      A colleague with an as-yet unlooped mindset may be able to solve the problem by a mere a look. When an outright solution is unavailable, someone will certainly be able to put you on the right track. Even if that doesn't happen, merely breaking out of the loop by doing a different task will help.

  2. Manage your time!

    This is the most important lesson, most of us never really learn at school. With 8 subjects spread over 45 minutes daily, our approach to homework was usually haphazard. In hindsight, that we even managed to get homework done is just short of astounding.

    Working towards an objective does not mean focusing at one item to the exclusion of all else (albeit such tunnel-vision does help at times). Tunnel vision, or applying single-minded effort for a week doing naught else is usually not justifiable. Such tunnel vision starts up the backlog on other tasks in hand; every one of us is a cell in the organism that is the organization. In biology, when one cell ceases to function effectively; one of the following happens -

  1. The cell dies, and is replaced at some cost to the body itself

  2. The body's auto-immune system tries to flush the cell from the body

    Such extreme situations may not arise in our professional lives. Typically, the worst case condition is that the inability to manage time will hurt the organization that pays your salary.

True omniscience is elusive for individuals & organizations aline, but we can use these lessons as a step towards organizational omniscience.

Kept in mind three lessons, learnt subconsciously at school, form the foundation of a successful career.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Organismics - The Balancing Act

I've been working in/around IT for several years now. As in any industry there are companies that merely survive, and there are those that thrive. One part of it is the timing involved. Timing is not everything though. As it caters to more customers, as it creates different products across different geographical locations... as it grows, each company has it's own share of teething troubles.

Those companies who make it good & succeed do so because they approach the task at hand as a single living breathing entity. Management are the brain, deciding upon what to do. Human Resources are the auto-immune system, working to ensure the cells in the organization are content, and healthy. The various departments are the different organs performing their tasks to keep the organization function optimal. The Department head is the synapse, reporting on the status of the department to the brain.

In all my time (that sounds so ponderous ...) i have never seen a person to be irreplaceable; In an organization, none of us are. Each individual may be likened to a member of a football team. Whilst each of us is capable of playing the position of the goalkeeper, the forward, the defender; we may do better at one particular position.

Compare playing football to working in an organization -

  • Project is the goal
  • Task assigned to the team member is the ball
  • Coach, manager/supervisor, defines what is expected of each team member
  • Each team member knows what to do with the ball, but how to do it is his prerogative

The entire purpose behind an organization is to commit all necessary resources into play at the same time towards achieving a common goal. The key, as we all know, is to communicate well within ourselves. Where communication fails or isn't complete, it results in friction causing avoidable loss of time, and effort. A failure to communicate effectively manifests ultimately as conflict within the organization.

No organization is ideal. There is always some conflict involved. To even attempt resolution of every tiny conflict would be an overkill. As in life, it is neccessary to choose our battles. But every single battle must be fought to a plan. The first thing to do is to identify the enemy. The disgruntled employee who talks down the new employee is not the enemy; why he is disgruntled, and why he chooses to vent at a newbie is what needs to be identified. If anything, the fact that a person is dissatisfied is cause for concern; the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.

As with any problem, a solution can only be found after the problem is well-identified. Before we even make an attempt to resolve the conflict, we must identify the conflict. Broadly, in my experience, symptoms of conflict are these -

  1. The most obvious is probably finger-pointing within the team; it's the equivalent of the goalkeeper claiming the player who passed the ball back to him is the reason for the own-goal. Each task assignment is met with the equivalent of - 'Why Me'?
  2. The second most obvious symptom is lack of pride in the work being done; this typically manifests itself as that murmur which goes like 'what's the use? even if we achieve it, this will never see the light of the day & it will never benefit us. we'll always remain anonymous in the background'.
  3. The third, and probably the least obvious symptom, is when nothing obvious is mentioned. Things aren't obviously wrong; they're quietly wrong. This is probably the most dangerous form of conflict within the organization; conflict of this type only becomes apparent when things are almost at a head, nearly irreparable. Say, for instance, the rest of the team relies upon one piece of work assigned to Vishwas; e.g. a daily database update. If now Vishwas does his task, but _regularly_ fails to convey the relevant details to the rest of the team then something is quietly wrong... and it affects the entire team. As i've mentioned earlier, the entire purpose of being there as a team is to work together to a common goal. Here, Vishwas may have personal troubles which affect work, and instead of choosing to confide in his team-mates atleast as far as the work-related aspect is concerned, he's going it alone; That is cause for concern.

As part of the effort to avoid conflict, the person responsible for the team might

  • Impress upon the team, the need for each member of the team behave responsibly towards the output expected of the team.
  • Define & Enforce the guidelines for unequivocal communication.
  • As a corollary to the above, continually make sure team members refrain from 'guessing' what is expected.
  • Prevent exhchange of disparaging remarks between members. If possible by calling on their sensibility & sensitivity. If necessary by drawing their fire to him.

Each occurence of the symptoms listed above are not a sure-shot indication of conflict. They are merely signs to watch out for. It is upto the more experienced persons on the team to notice these flags in the context of the work at hand, and the general mood of the team. There is no panacea to deal with conflict. Each of us is an individual, and our troubles are personal too. Therefore, to achieve the best results, conflict too is best handled one-on-one, and subject to the need of the hour. As with any malaise, prevention is better than cure.