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Bala Mookoni

Monthly Archives / March 2016

  • Mar 18 / 2016
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Cautious Optimism: The oxymoron of Success

Experts are telling us that Optimism is a major, if not the most important, ingredient in the secret sauce of success. The ability to look at a difficulty as an opportunity for problem-solving, rather than viewing it as due to a personal flaw that cannot be corrected, is an important trait in those who transform setbacks into platforms on which to showcase turnaround capabilities. Yet we know of missions that unraveled because an overzealous generalissimo failed to read the risks adequately. This is especially true in the high-tech industry where not recognizing early the inroads made by competition is ignorance at one’s peril.

The success-time curve of a mission typically has a sinuous beginning, often nose-diving after the initial surge. Optimism helps in making those course-corrections that are necessary for the falling curve to pick up again, eventually leading to success. When optimism is missing, the ball gets dropped, and the mission fails. So, it can be seen that springing up from setbacks is a dominant capability in the winners. At the same time, an excessive bout of optimism can make one insensitive to the winds of change. Retaining the swagger even whilst being buffeted by the headwind is not the same as staying cool in the face of adversity. A winner has to recognize the signals before the wind is out of the sails, and the ship has begun to sink. The ancient philosopher Adi Shankara used a four-pronged method to interpret complex scriptures. The method was so effective that no one could ever vanquish him in a debate on the Vedanta. Let us see how this method and an analogy can be useful for analyzing scenarios and interpreting complex information:

  • Knowledge: Knowledge should not be from a single source. There are different layers to reality, all of which could be true in certain contexts. Therefore, knowing and reading a situation from different perspectives help in getting a better cover for the risks.
  • Reasoning: But which source of information should be relied on the most then? It is the one that you can validate with actual experiences; the one that can stand the test of reason.
  • Experiential Knowledge: This is the knowledge that we acquire with our experiences, and it forms our internal memory. Such internal repositories get built up primarily from our experiences out of the comfort zone. That’s why people who did challenging assignments, such as a stint abroad in a new culture, tend to handle complex situations well. They do so by testing things in the light of such knowledge.
  • Expertise: Some things look the same on paper. Apply all available yardsticks, and yet they appear identical in performance. But only the expert knows that the actual performance is different for different things, though she may not be able to lay a finger on the cause for the variation. This is not necessarily a failure of theory, it could well be a limitation of existing knowledge. That’s why the input of the experts becomes crucial in deciphering a complexity.

Root-causes can be quite contrary to perceptions. The dynamics at the micro level can be completely different from what appear on the surface. As consultants, we have seen that when people apply the above four aspects in interpreting new dynamics, results are along desired lines. Optimism is essential during execution. But cautious optimism is necessary before drawing up the plans.


  • Mar 02 / 2016
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Perfecting the Craft

In the Summer Olympics of 1988 at Seoul, Matt Biondi was expected to claim seven golds in Swimming. He came a cropper in the first two events, missing the gold. After these setbacks, people began to speculate on how Biondi would fare in the remaining events. Yet there was a psychologist named Dr Seligman who expected Biondi to do better than ever. And he was right: Matt Biondi claimed five gold medals in the remaining events.

Dr Seligman had studied Biondi’s personality in an experiment that he conducted along with the latter’s coach. Unlike most others, Biondi had the explanatory style or the ‘internal talk’ that could turn the course of events when the chips were down. In simple terms, he was ‘Optimistic’. For most people, a failure leads to an internal talk that blames themselves or casts limitations on themselves, such as, “I am not good enough …” But people like Biondi analyse failures more objectively, and they can do so because they are not passionate about winning. What! Yes, they are not as passionate about winning as they are about perfecting their craft. It is their passion for their craft or the ‘process’ that works for them.

Emotions can be self-perpetuating and can become habits. The blues after the lows lead to a vicious circle of blues and lows, each feeding on the other. A passion for the craft, on the other hand, is one high that is without a low. Every learning brings a kick and since learning is continuous, it becomes one incessant labour of love pegging away to perfection. And, hey presto, before long you slip into the zone or flow, reaching peak performance! Just as Brendon McCullum did when he slammed the fastest ton in test cricket. All that the man who helped put bums on seats, as Viv Richards himself said, wanted to do was hit every ball for a four or six and enjoy his last test. And before he knew, he had broken the record.