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Evidently obscure

Mark Twain rightly warned us not to let our schooling interrupt our education! The kind of schooling most of us have had has shut our minds to possibilities. It has trapped us in the comfort of what worked in the past. Our academic attainments have been reduced to certificates and degrees at the expense of learning and discovering

We often become victims of an age old malady: ‘blinding glimpse of the obvious’. Simple solutions allude us just when we need them most. This realization came to me a few years ago, when I was stranded on a drive across Korang River on my way home to Banigala. The narrow concrete path across the river was approximately one hundred yards long. It’s surface was slippery, and it was hardly visible due to the muddy water flowing over it.

With recent rains, the current had more force than usual, thus rendering the crossing somewhat unsafe. Despite this fact, I took this route and on approaching the hidden path through the river, was encouraged to proceed by the sight of about a dozen villagers fishing and swimming. Water level was just above the ankles of those walking on the submerged concrete path. I attempted the crossing and slowly drove the car forward. Tyres were slipping as my Corolla moved precariously. After covering about 40 of the 100 yards, it slid sideways to the right due to the force of the current of water flowing towards Rawal Lake from my left, over the path. Luckily for me, a stone embankment at this point arrested the sideways slide. And there I was…marooned…the engine running…water gushing from left to right, just an inch under my car’s belly! I teach problem solving, and here I was with a looming crisis on my hands!

Villagers congregated around my car, barely managing to stand still, as they tried not to slip. We talked. They were bullish about my prospects of reaching the other end safely. They had faith in themselves and in the process. They were optimistic. They were willing to take the risk with me. They were ‘strangers’. They were pre-literates! While I – a western educated management consultant – was lost in analysis and filled with doubt and fear. I was not thinking with a clear head and was being overly cautious – concerned that my car might slide into the river, if I dared to go any further..

The only saving grace was that I had the sense of calling Lachi Khan, our driver, for help – and that too after 15 minutes of stalling. Thankfully, he was at home, and a few minutes later he appeared at the other side of this slippery and hidden path covered by flowing muddy water. He rolled up his shalwar and waded through the flowing water ever so carefully. On reaching my car window, he asked how I was and why I took this route, when it was obviously not the right thing to do. I replied, “I admit it was it was foolish of me, but now, how do we get out of here?!” He scratched his head and a few moments later said, “The car is light and so it was swayed by the gushing water….Let’s get some people in the car. It will become heavier and therefore grip the algae ridden surface under water far better. This way we will be out of here in no time!”

And this is exactly what happened. Thank God I listened to him. This simple solution was evidently obscure to me. Wisdom is all around us, if only we keep an open mind.

It is fascinating to see how mindlessly some managers go about their business. They largely perform tasks on the basis of what they have learned from tradition and their bosses; who have mostly done the same old things, without questioning the practices they have abided by all their professional lives. Mark Twain rightly warned us not to let our schooling interrupt our education! The kind of schooling most of us have had has shut our minds to possibilities. It has trapped us in the comfort of what worked in the past. Our academic attainments have been reduced to certificates and degrees at the expense of learning and discovering.

A friend of mine, who worked in J P Morgan Bank, described her experience there as ‘corporate heaven’. “How could this be?” I asked. She said that here, they practice what they preach. They have a clear set of values – values that many organizations profess, but rarely live. “What’s new?” I thought to myself. Then she shared with me a key message being communicated at the bank nowadays: “Love people – use things!” This apparently simple message acquired significance when a group of senior managers in a recent workshop heard it and said, “Now I understand what’s wrong with our culture. Here we use people and love things!” Why? Our environment has taught us to value ‘things’ more than ‘people’. This is so evident in some organizations in the public and the private sector.

For any company to function effectively, it needs: 1) people, and 2) tasks. ‘People’ perform ‘tasks’. Tasks performed achieve goals, objectives and targets. In this duo, ask yourself if tasks are the ‘means’ or an ‘end’. You will invariably say, “People are the means and tasks are the end! It’s so obvious!” But is it? Because if it is, then we are back to the same problematic paradigm which suggests we ‘use’ people and love ‘things’.

While any two elements in an equation are important, their particular sequence in the order of events can turn sense into nonsense. For example, prayer (namaaz) is essential and so is ablution (wudu). What if people prayed first and then performed ablution?! Such a sequence would make a mockery of this ritual. Try altering the sequence of any two activities and the result will become immediately obvious.

Organizations of all shapes and sizes that care about profitability, growth, sustainability, quality and competitiveness, are faced with the constant challenge of attracting and retaining talent. A regular inflow of competent people is vital for any enterprise to endure and flourish. Company’s where people are seen as means to an end will always struggle in their efforts to recruit quality personnel, let alone keep them motivated and inspired. Staff turnover will be inevitable, where talent would look elsewhere for better prospects. Its not just money that keeps people committed, it is the overall work environment and corporate culture that drives the business. US Army is having a hard time these days recruiting people! This is mainly because of its perceived role in Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of the world. It is being seen by many as an agency that uses people as a means to an end. People don’t fear dying for a cause; they detest being exploited while living.

Consider this: Managers normally seek more autonomy and authority to perform their roles efficiently and effectively. Both these aspirations are the ends. Without knowing the means, how can such liberating ends ever be achieved? For nations, as well as global corporations, unity would be a great end to achieve. What are its means? Such answers often escape our consciousness.

Our degree of autonomy is directly proportionate to the extent to which we exercise self-discipline; our level of authority reflects the amount of personal responsibility we take; and unity we seek is attained only when we truly understand diversity by learning to respect differences and focusing on what is common between us.

The essence of effective management lies in attending to things that are evidently obscure – essential factors that evade our radar. For example, understanding the concept of ‘means’ and ‘ends’ and getting the key elements to fit where they belong. It’s much like the ’cause and effect’ relationship.

Getting our ‘means’ and ‘ends’ right has immense implications for organizations and life in general.

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