Wednesday, August 25, 2004

The Animal Instinct

I just did the unfathomable. Going two and a half days without meat, and whats more, by choice. It actually felt good to rationalize all that meat that had been consumed during the steak buffet at Breeks on Saturday night. 'Tis was too good to last, however, and it was only a matter of time before some pan-fried variety of thai noodles made me give up my noble quest. Sigh!

When you live in South East Asia, it is hard to get your hands on a purely vegetarian dish. The concept of 'no meat' here suspiciously excludes fish. Even, for that matter, does an instruction of 'no seafood' to these enlightened chefs, who seem to think that fish are distant cousins of algae, or some other form of aquatic vegetable. It didnt take long for me to empathize with my 'purely veg' friends, who order food with options that would shame the most discerning car buyer. "One fried rice, no prawn, no seafood, no meat, no fish, egg can, veggies can, no, no fish, really, no prawn either..", you get the drift. Denny's would have been proud to have customers with such exacting requirements, who could *finally* appreciate the nuances of ordering custom-made dishes.

The icing on the cake is quite a laugh, actually. Despite the care that goes into ordering the 'plain vanilla' version of hokkien mee or kway teow, the chagrin on our vegetarian friend's face is there for all to see when, after all that, the food is made with prawn paste! The only way of getting around the animal instinct here, it seems, is to go to good ol' Komalas or Raj's, and order some hot idlis or masala dosas.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

These boots are made for walkin'

Walking back from lunch yesterday, a queer aspect of Singapore struck me (again!). Despite the miniature size of this island, and the remarkable efficiency/connectivity of its public transport system, it's amazing to see how much walking one actually gets done in a typical day.

By my reckoning, the average employed Singaporean who is not blessed with his/her own vehicle walks anywhere between 1-2.5 km a day, and here's the funny bit -> just to get to public transport, change modes of transport, get to a hawker center for lunch, etc. If Singapore is really as small as it is criticized to be, and the public transport as connected as it is vaunted to be, I figured we should be spending less time exercising our legs everyday.

I am not alone in thinking this way. I distinctly remember one of my friends tell me a couple of years ago that all else being equal, he could recognize Singapore from another similarly developed country just by the amount of walking involved in getting from one place to another.

But, I can't complain. I love to walk (though not necessarily in a desperate rush to make it to work on time), and Singapore's 'disconnected connectivity' does wonders for my otherwise unhealthy lifestyle. Atleast this way, I can truly say, "These boots are made for walkin', and thats just what they'll do!"

The ties that bind



One of my favourite photographs, ever. Taken just outside our house in Singapore.

Remote as it may be, we live in a palace, and will be sad to leave soon. But the ties that bind the 5 of us shall outlast our periodic predicaments about shifting homes as successive leases expire. Of that I am sure.

Friday, August 13, 2004

All the leaves are brown...

Well, not quite. Sitting on the equator, I dont think there's much hope of my being able to catch brown leaves, grey skies or a winter's day. But California Dreamin' is still very much possible, and I seem to periodically go through such bouts of remembrance.

One of my favourite memories of the year at Palo Alto is waking up to bright sunshine on a lazy saturday morning. There's really nothing more to it, and I sense that readers of this blog would find this a tad disappointing, considering California is home to so much else. But I contend that there is a unique charm to being woken up by the soft rays of peninisula california's sunlight on one's face...as opposed to the jarring sounds of an alarm clock that prematurely interrupt sleep for the first 5 days of each week.

As noon approaches, a typical neighbourhood scene unfolds...people washing cars, mowing the lawns, doing laundry, kids skating, cyclists (oh! so many of them) pushing themselves harder, moms unloading groceries from the boots of their huge minivans, the car park at the starbucks across the road gradually fill up, the odd Stanford professor walking around in a semi-trance (probably immersed in thoughts of his next innnovation), our next door hair stylists showing remarkable poise and good nature in the face of the increasing number of well-to-do women who decide to waste the day fussing about their hair, rich aromas emanating from the steakhouse in preparation for lunch time, in short, nothing that you wouldnt see in any other medium-sized American town.

Yet, Palo Alto seems to stand out, somehow. Maybe it's the grace with which all this happens (there is never any hint of pandemonium in this place). There is a quiet confidence and a hint of laziness with which this town goes about its business, and for me, there's no better time to watch Palo Alto's business than on a Saturday morning. Maybe it has to do with the fact that it is one of the most affluent towns in the U.S., not just in terms of money, but intellectual capacity too, and Saturday is the day this intellectual capacity takes a rest from the rigours of the working week. On Saturday morning, Palo Alto invites its intellectuals to join us mortals in living *normal* lives...

I can conjure up numerous memories of California when I hear the Beach Boys sing, but there's something special in the thoughts of those Saturday mornings. Simplicity is sometimes beautiful, no?

"All the leaves are brown
And the sky is grey
I've been for a walk
On a winter's day
If I didn't tell her
I could leave today
...
California dreamin'
On such a winter's day"


Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Lets talk about strategy...

Last night I was shooting the breeze with Prashant, and we got talking about how people at his company have gotten the 'balanced scorecard' all wrong. He said that there was a presentation of a two dimensional table which was supposedly reflective of a balanced scorecard analysis of some company's strategy (for those who are not aware of the balanced scorecard, visit http://www.balancedscorecard.org/ to see what all the noise is about). Now, Prashant is no stranger to this tool, and neither am I, having tried to work my way through the complexity of this all-encompassing monster for a class assignment in my honours year. He was confused at the presentation, and made no bones about telling me later that his company royally screwed up with the concept.

This is not a critique of his company, nor of the balanced scorecard. I just want to use this as context for a discussion on the notion of strategy. Strategy is (you would all have to agree) one of the most used and often-abused words, especially in corporate circles. The debate on strategy rages on, and like most vague concepts, each new hypothesis on what strategy *really* is remains relatively ephemeral. Some say that this is caused by the pace of change in today's world; others claim that each new hypothesis can coexist with previous ones, as there is no 'one-size fits all' strategy that can be relied upon to be a panacea for problems that exist across the organizational spectrum.

I believe that the recent literature (especially some of the stuff that came out in the early 2000s) on strategy is, well, not worth the paper on which it is written (omigosh! this is strong language!). Each new set of writers who argues for a revolutionary way of a) looking at customers b) looking at the market c)not looking at customers or d) not looking at the market, is really saying nothing new. In the end, I find that the most succint explanations of the strategy concept are captured in the essence of Porter's generic cost and differentiation strategies, or arguably, in the essence of the word 'differentation'. After all, isnt low cost also, in the end, a means of differentiating oneself? When all is said and done, I contend that differentiating oneself to satisfy some customer's latent/expressed need is all that there is to strategy. Either a company does it or doesnt. Overly simplistic? Maybe, but I think it relieves our mind of much of the jargon associated with modern thinking on the subject.

There is an interesting caveat here. One of my professors once said (almost in exasperation, I think) that the distinguishing feature of Porter's logic and writings is the lack of empirical support for his theses, or near absence of it. Sure, he uses market anecdotes to support his material, but die-hard researchers would be hard pressed to find solid empirical methods in his books/papers. Yet, what he says seems to be intuitively correct. Perhaps strategy is about intuition after all, an intuition that is extremely context specific...and the absence of solid empirical data only reinforces the notion that strategy cant be taught from an instruction manual. There are some ground rules, sure, but beyond that, one can only point to prudence, experience and commonsense as being the cornerstones of sustainable strategies.

So when I hear people like Prashant say things along the lines of the balanced scorecard being an extremely powerful tool for strategizing, I am a bit skeptical. Each tool has its pros and cons, but
I fear that they are useful in as much as they help us to grasp the context within which to frame a forward looking strategy. These tools are useful, then, not in conceptualizing strategies for the future, but in gaining a measure of what has happened and where we stand today. Predicting the future, or better still, changing the course of the future, is still an art mastered by the precious few...a skill I am expected to possess in (hopefully!) less than a couple of weeks' time, at the ripe old age of 24, as I take on my new role of 'Strategic Planning Manager'. Expect to hear more on this, for I suspect that there will be mistakes aplenty. But an adventure is in store, so hop on for
the ride!

Ok, talk to me ppl. Rosh, you'll probably wonder where turban-bearing, conservative chadda took the left turn into life's adventures. Prem and Yusuf, stop banging your heads against the wall about my ranting about strategy (again!) and contribute your two cents' worth! Karthik, I realize I do not have my '+1 offering' any more, but join in the conversation anyway. Ppl like Prashant and Rahul, I realize that you're going to be working at reputable consulting firms, but that is no excuse for you guys to not patiently explain to me the potential use of frameworks such as the BCG matrix, 5 forces, balanced scorecard, performance management, CSFs or whatever mantra takes your employers' fancy. Show me that I'm wrong :P