Official Blog of Center10 Consulting

A Stark Ilustration of the Pace of Innovation: And Why It's OK that the eReader is dead

on Friday, December 14, 2012
The eReader is dead, long live the eReader...the Book is dead, long live the book.

Source: SAI Business Insider Chart of the Day

I remember being hugely excited when I first heard about e-Ink around 2000. I tried to get Cominsky on an Innovation Panel I was setting up for a client, but got no response. I wished him luck, nonetheless. It was just such a cool concept and invention, it felt like Sci-Fi (I imagined my window reminding me to buy milk, etc. - oh wait, my iPhone does that now.)

Fast forward to Mother's Day 2010, and the family gives me the first of my kindles. I proceed to work through three of them in the next three years as the pressure of managing more than the 250 books that I power through (I download about 1000 pieces, including newspapers, and books I don't spend time on or put off for later.) Now, those who bemoan the death of the book, I encourage them to consider the fact that while the paper book may have been hit, reading itself received a fillip, certainly in my household!

What I loved about Amazon's approach to the kindle was that almost as soon as they'd started producing and shipping their physical product, they'd also created their killer app...literally, the app - the kindle app. How cool is that? A behemoth, that knows how to be agile.

Lessons to take away?
  • The core capability and value you bring to the world (reading, and the associated sale of content) should be the focus of any business
  • Killing your cool new product isn't such an awful thing, don't get attached!
  • ...and by the way, that works for individuals too!

Building Global Capability, While Being Relevant Locally

on Saturday, December 8, 2012
The past weeks of meetings with a wide variety of companies in India - from small, medium and large home-grown companies to multi-nationals with a serious local presence - has suggested that there is a strong focus on a few core institution-building needs: leadership alignment, broad innovation capability integration as they acquire operations in the West.

Photo credit: Roopa Unnikrishnan, Art Installation at New Delhi's Indra Gandhi Airport
This melds together when discussing Innovation. For one thing, this is a priority that is couched in other organizational groups. In a few cases, it's in the "Performance excellence" realm, and in others it's in strategic communication. I have to laud the very fact that it's a priority vs. companies having just a laser focus on operational excellence, which has been my experience in the past.

There does seem to be some opportunity for leadership to define and put stakes in the ground around what they mean when they talk about innovation. Are they making this about people's everyday work, and are they investing in the distinct skills needed for the kind of evolution/revolution that India needs to leap into the next level of performance?

The pace of change (fast, but sometimes in murkily slow waters) and day-to-day concerns make longer-term capability building a challenge.

Ensconcing performance excellence in homegrown peer-to-peer networking sites as many of these companies have done may build engagement, however, will we get the next ipod or groupon out of that experience?

Success in innovation may require a step-change in the approach:
  • True focus on leadership alignment on what it takes to be successful in the long haul. This is especially critical for founder-led companies, where expansion may have brought in a broader set of leaders who may need a coming together on what the true legacy and impact of the company in the eco-system might be
  • Capability-building to help embed some of the day-to-day skills that are required in leadership and at the front-lines to question or re-examine dominant logic and assumptions, engage in true listening to near and distant signals and finally, to work through the ideas without the fear of loss of control. After all, the trick in innovation is in having the ability to make the shift happen - execution, execution, execution!
  • Engaging around the issues: The education models may have placed theory-oriented folks in significant roles - a plus when value lies in establishing the ultimate, beautiful strategic construct. In the realm of day-to-day impact and innovation, behaviors of exemplars look and feel different. The conversations tend to be rich in content, context and actual impact, and the discussions are less oriented to placing role-definitions on each individual. In other words, everyone is at the table to contribute. Some of my experience has been of clearly defined limits to what can and will be discussed. My hope is that as the culture evolves and players are less constrained, these hour-long sessions feel more like true, value-delivering brainstorms, rather than structural and process conversations
  • Ensuring there is clarity on some of the BHAGs - with real work done around scenario planning and exploration with leadership so they are truly driving to real innovation possibilities.

Capability Building Any Which Way

on Friday, November 30, 2012
I had an unusual two days of the universe sending me signals - all of which screamed "women build true capability." It's unusual to find the same tune sung in so many different keys. It struck me that building the skills and capability for young talent and women is not about ticking the boxes, but thoughtful, ongoing, systematic effort.

Here's some light reading, going in order of scale from "home, sweet home", to "my friend, the entrepreneur" to "in memoriam to a robber baron's wife"....

I woke up jet-lagged this morning in Chennai, and found my mother coaching the maid's granddaughter, Viji. The young girl had failed her Tenth grade exams, and was on the verge of being married off in her village when her grandmother brought her along to the city. 

It turns out that shifts in the education system meant that kids can go all the way to tenth grade, never having been tested. So here is young Viji, who my mother discovered has a photographic memory, with absolutely no ability to work with English or Math. When my mother encountered her, she put the kibosh firmly on the marriage idea, and has taken on the task of coaching the young girl and funding some occupational training. My contribution was copy writing and early math skills work books. Through small victories are the battles won!

It's a pity that the system doesn't quite address the needs of young, talented girls like Viji, who could so easily have been lost in the mire of early marriage, motherhood and drudgery.

At a slightly different scale, yesterday I met a young entrepreneur in Mumbai. I got to know her a few years ago in NYC when she kindly coached my kids in Hindi while she completed her Masters in Education at the Teachers College, Columbia University, NYC.  Shraddha returned to India with a vision of truly making a difference, and after a few corporate roles, decided to go independent - she founded EduStop "your one stop shop for all your educational needs." 

In essence, she was responding to a gap she saw - the gap in entry-level professionalism and productivity. 

She and her partner run courses to help high schoolers and their teachers hone their soft skills. I loved that she'd just plunged in there and started a business based on her savvy, a great partner, a computer and some apartment space. The impact she's already had on the lives of thousands to young kids making their first set of career decisions is heartwarming. And practically speaking, I'm glad that they'll be more attuned to their work environments. 

India doesn't yet have a vibrant internship approach and there's an opportunity there for a business person to train and farm non-MBA, non-Engineering interns to businesses so they are better prepared for their careers and realistic about their capability levels. (I know all of y'all who work with Gen Y'ers are saying "m'hmm"!)

Laudably, this is a start-up team that's already doing good - they have run free workshops for those who can't make it to the paid sessions.

So, capability-building was on my mind as I took one last scroll through my emails before hitting the pillows. This note from my Alma Mater Balliol College in Oxford got me thinking.

"In a bid to increase applications from female candidates to subject areas where there is an imbalance in the female-male ratio, Balliol College will select three female students to be Dervorguilla scholars. The divisions that are under-represented by women are Humanities, the Social Sciences, and Maths, Physical and Life Sciences."

Ummm - so in what disciplines exactly are women appropriately represented or, dare we dream, over-represented?  

Click here to learn more about the scholarships, ladies.

I love that the scholarship is named for the true founder of Balliol college, not John Balliol but his wife Dervorguilla who seed-funded the school. A woman of substance, she funded a school for the poor as part of her husband's penance for his land dispute with the Bishop of Durham. A lady of good works, she was also plenty savvy, and seems to have quite a history of litigation to her name. 

Given she was walked this earth about 900 years ago, I'll overlook the fact that when Sir John died in 1269, Dervorguilla had his heart embalmed and kept in a casket of ivory bound with silver. The casket traveled with her for the rest of her life. 

Just a few of the women worth emulating out there.... 

Innovation: Beyond Patents To Business Possibilities

on Wednesday, November 28, 2012
I am in India for two weeks of work and time with family. I plan to share on this blog some of what I see around business and innovation as I travel through Trivandrum, Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore.

Earlier this week, while speaking to the MBA students at the Asian School of Business and the DC School of Management, we discussed the challenges of developing innovation-oriented behaviors in a culture and economy that doesn't often encourage or value them. We discussed the lack of patents, the sense that sticking to the knitting was more important than the behaviors that allow organizations to question their own models and systems as disruptive innovations nip at their heels.
    Photo credit: T.P.Sreenivasan
A more general query if India had inherent obstacles to truly drive to transformational innovation seemed to be a bit of an over-reach, though.

In fact, the energy I found around me as I met entrepreneurs (in flights, at dinners, you name it) suggests that even if larger organizations may not be ready to evolve, there is more than enough innovative juice out there. Indeed, this makes India pretty much the same as any other market.

There is one difference, though. There are many more nationally owned or regulated sectors in India, even as the economy continues to slowly deregulate. I urged the students to pay close attention to those systematic shifts - looking at each part of the value chain of a sector that's being deregulated can open up a multitude of opportunities.

For example, imagine the economic activity that could emerge if the food distribution system were truly deregulated. The food "Ration" system was introduced to meet the pressures of World War II, and has been retained as a deliberate social policy. While a life saver in many ways, this is a system riddled with inefficiency and waste. The businesses and innovations that could happen at each point, and indeed, at each of the interstices of the process would be hugely valuable to the innovator, not to mention, potentially socially beneficial.

I feel a research piece coming on - looking into some of the sectors being considered for increased openness, and laying the innovative businesses we could put into play. It's needed, if we're actually to meet the longer term GDP expectations that have been projected for India. I've seen numbers as high as ~1000% growth over the next 30 years. Given an average 8% GDP growth rate over the past ten years, the only hope for delivering on such ambitions is Disruptive, Transformational Innovation.

In Praise Of Failure: Thoughts from Hershey, PA

on Tuesday, November 6, 2012
Originally Posted October 30, 2012

The family and I spent this past weekend at Hershey, Pennsylvania. Apart from the mandatory Hershey Park and Zoo America visits, we decided to take a whirl through the museum, called the Hershey Story, and also took a trolley ride, which is an hour-long drive that zips you through Hershey's notable spots while plotting Milton Hershey's evolution from an impoverished 14-year-old newspaper apprentice to child-less millionaire who changed the lives of thousands of poor kids through the Milton Hershey School (he left his entire fortune of $60 million to a trust that is now worth more than $8 billion).

While the experience could have been a simple hagiographical trip down memory lane, I was struck by the number of times various tour guides and exhibits would point to Hershey's mistakes and failures. They recount his being fired from the initial newspaper apprenticeship early, they recount his failed business ventures, first in Lancaster making and selling sugar candy, then in Philadelphia making and selling caramels.

Milton had only a fourth-grade education, but he seems to have had significant energy, vision and fortitude... but mostly, he seems to have kept his ears open and learned and grown. He eventually heeded his mother's advice to set up his next venture near home, and there, was struck by the brilliant idea of mixing in fresh milk into his candy bars. From that set of ideas, a multi-billion dollar business grew.

You'll roll your eyes and say you've heard versions of this story with each enterprise. What impressed me was the fact that the company retained the memory of these failures, indeed, celebrated them. The museum talks about bars made for war-time rations that sank without a trace once peace broke out, while the competitor's product went on to become a huge success - that's where M&Ms came from, since these were chocolates that would not melt in the heat of far-flung theaters of war.

I loved the story of Reese's - H.B. Reese, local dairy farmer and Hershey packing foreman, pitched Milton the idea of chocolate-covered peanut butter multiple times. Milton nixed the idea, convinced it wouldn't sell. HOWEVER, he sold Reese sugar and milk at cost - and Reese went on the create an amazing product. The Hershey corporation bought Reese's in 1963 for $23.5M, and now that combination of chocolate and peanut butter has around $400 million in annual sales. Talk about embracing your mistakes.

Leaders need a certain level of credibility and ownership of results to be able to candidly examine mistakes and help their companies and teams learn the right lessons. Embrace the fact that one failed, missed an opportunity or made a mistake - then glean the right truth.

For example, Milton's lesson was that the price of sugar did him in twice. So he bought sugar plantations in Cuba and became the second-largest producer of sugar pre-war (and had the foresight to sell before well before nationalization!)

It takes a pretty special company culture to see and appreciate the beauty of failure and resurgence post-failure. I suspect the amazing variety of creative confections must have some tasty mistakes lying by the wayside, and I also suspect nobody's "head rolled" for creating them. Nice!
Hershey's is an interesting case study, because well before it was fashionable to have "jugaad" innovation going on - he was letting his front-line employees design tools and techniques that best suited the chocolate bar-making process. More on that another time.

Romney's Binders: Haven't we all tried that?

Binders Full of Women
Originally posted October 18, 2012

Ok, maybe not all of us…. But, I know I’ve tried to generate real enthusiasm in a few organizations around their female and minority talent. The challenge, like in the case Romney seemed to highlight, is that the issue comes to the fore at the point of decision-making. An in-touch exec, sitting around a hiring table might ask “Hey, we need to hire someone to this role yesterday, why don’t we have more women in the mix?”  The HR lead, perhaps having waited to hear just that question for 10 years, will whip out a handy “binder full of women”, and a discussion ensures, which might go something like this:
  • Didn’t know she had an engineering degree, look at that!
  • Not sure she could do this, haven’t seen her step up at the conferences we’ve had
  • Heard she just dealt with a death in the family, and has some family obligations. Great person, let’s keep an eye on that one, ok?
I exaggerate, but let me tell you, I’ve actually heard this one…Have you seen her tan? Don’t think I can put her in front of the Industry Council without us getting laughed out of the room.
I’ve felt the sense of immediacy that has resulted in my generating some of those “binders of women”…in my case, also “binders of people of color.” The one difference for me has been that I’ve been persistent and long-term oriented. The key is to get beyond that point of decision-making, which is only a window into the issue for most leaders. It’s the start of the long haul.
  • Build on it, and ensure that your leaders get to truly understand the WORK these women and people of color do and the capabilities.

    What was achieved, how did their different perspectives and approaches to problems actually bring more innovative solutions to the table – THAT’s what’s compelling about these talented folks, not the color of their skin or the accident of biology
  • Coach your leaders on executive presence…and those talented folks as well.

    There is an amazing amount of research done by such thinkers as Sylvia Ann Hewlett on the narrow margin of error for women and people of color when it comes to what is deemed adequate on executive presence.

    Challenge your leaders to get beyond fashion decisions, presentation styles and how these folks “get things done.” Find ways to engage the talented diverse individuals on some of their blind spots.

    I know that waltzing into corporate America in ’99 from South India and grad school in UK, I’d have been a dead duck were it not for the lovely Stacy Palestrant who rather sweetly suggested a shopping trip out to Ann Taylor. Bless your soul, Stacey!! And thanks Alan Culler, for reminding me early and often that it’s skedool, not schedule!!
  • Get them to spend time with these people.

    In the case of internal candidates, find ways to have the diverse talent access to present on their work. Give the binder to the leader’s chief of staff, and have them set up skip-level meetings on key projects and priorities these folks may be leading.

    In the case of external talent, proactively set up open-ended breakfasts with some of the stand-out talent out there. No job offer needs to be on the table to get a leader to meet some of these folks. This is critical, because if you want to get beyond token gestures, you need leaders to get to see and experience what working with such talent might look like – that takes prolonged exposure! For the diverse talent, these sessions can prove invaluable windows into what drives senior folks in their company or in the industry, and it can help them get a sense of where they might direct their energies, position their achievements, communicate their aspirations and build out skill or presence gaps. 
So yes, the binder isn’t terrible, the trick is in embedding it in a more strategic and long-term effort that is focused on driving innovation and inclusion in your organization (and dare I say, your party!).

(IMAGE: Mike Licht, on Flick)

The Art and Science of Sponsorship

First posted on 15 October 2012

I was at the Center of Talent Innovation's event on sponsorship, Sponsor Effect: Multicultural Talent, at the gorgeous Bank of America Offices at Bryant Park. As always, the data that the center pulled together was striking, including the rather dismal statistic that only 3.8% of Fortune 500 CEO roles are held by people of color.

The panel was impressive, since it was constituted of senior executives who actively sponsored talented colleagues in their organizations. They were candid about their experiences, including the fact that their path to becoming sponsors was paved by their own experience of being sponsored by someone at various points in their careers. As Andre Williams, President of Amex's global merchant services said, his ability to be candid in guiding his proteges comes from his memory of coming into a workforce and not having anyone to help him navigate issues that included what constituted the right dress code for "casual Fridays." Let's be honest, how many of us have stumbled on just such innocuous workplace mini-minefield.

I was interested by the onus placed on the protege to deliver great work - at 110%; actively work to expose the great work done to sponsors; court the right sponsors; and be mature and loyal. Hard work, but well worth it.

Read more about Sylvia Ann Hewlett's excellent research and thinking on the Sponsor effect here:

Blog Launch: As I Plan for India....

Originally posted: 27 September 2012

A constructive mid-life crisis after a decade and a half of work in the Global Corporate world has resulted in my setting up a consulting practice that focuses on helping organizations deliver on their promise - whether it be helping clarify vision, define strategic options, drive innovation and support all of that with a strong foundation of talent, organization and culture. The journey through the the corridors of the consulting clients and companies I have worked with have surprisingly delivered some common needs and concerns - and my hope through this blog is to engage around some of these issues so we can push the thinking forward on some of them.
As I prepare for my trip to India, I have been talking to some of the movers and shakers - I expected to hear that CEOs were concerned about Innovation, Globalization, India's competitive edge over China...but no -- consistently, they talked about Talent. I plan to focus my time in India engaging with CEOs on the following capability spaces - what do you think?
Based on my work to date, Center10 helps build Strategic Talent Systems across emerging and developed market companies:
  • Having the strategic conversations: Where is your world now, and where is it headed?
  • Identifying critical capability gaps based on near term, medium and long term growth strategies of companies
  • Building a talent development culture, simple process and mindset within the company
  • Encouraging organizations to prepare for the unexpected
  • Implementing talent acquisition strategies, pipeline development and succession planning
  • Facilitating talent sessions at Division and C-levels to drive candid conversations and to achieve strategy/innovation/execution goals
Develop Strategic and Innovation Capability in your leadership through joint visioning and strategy, and establishing inclusive team dynamics
  • Do your leadership interactions bring out the best in your team, and address the company’s current and future needs?
  • Does your culture and systems allow for innovation, Growth and Opportunity Development?
Executive Coaching around Strategic Frameworks and Personal Insight: Yourself as Enterprise ™
  • Providing coaching and frameworks so individuals can use the same tools and approaches companies use to set themselves up for success
  • Looking at yourself as a dynamic combination of capabilities, skills, affect and preferences/ psychological drivers – what industry and culture will bring out the best in you?