Infograph : Office Life is all about the tough choices

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10 things that need to disappear by 2300 A.D

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Here is a Thought experiment. Like the time traveler in H.G.Wells’ novel, you get into a machine and power it up. You suddenly land into a large empty lush field. Its pleasant and bright and sunny. you can hear birds. You know you are in the future but unsure how far into it from present day. Have you arrived at a good time ? Or is it dystopia ? It smells nice. You walk towards what looks like a well maintained, bright clean house.You know they are going to be surprised to hear your crazy story. But you are also hoping they are curious when you talk about these 10 things because they don’t know what the hell you are on about. See because if they are ignorant of these 10 things I have listed below you know you arrived at a fairly good time in the future. These 10 are really sociological and governance related questions, not tech related per se (ex. “what is a telephone/iPad/Car?”)

The 10 questions that future world citizens should ideally be totally ignorant of at a daily tactical level for the world to have truly progressed are :

  1. What is “RELIGION” ?
  2. What is “PASSPORT” ?
  3. What is “MILITARY” ?
  4. What is “FOREIGN” currency ?
  5. What is “A NATION STATE” ?
  6. What are “FOSSIL FUELS” ?
  7. What is “SALARY” ?
  8. What is “POLLUTION” ?
  9. What is “A BRIBE” ?
  10. What is “MALNUTRITON” ?

…..what questions would you think think portends the future ?

Thought experiment Inspiration :

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Ian Banks CULTURE novels

Foundation Series by Asimov

Kardashev scale

Book Review : “The Whisperers” – brilliant and supremely depressing

This 666 page tome has been a companion over the last few weeks.

 

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Back in 2012  I voted `Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea` by Barbara Demick as my favourite book of that year. It gave the readers a searing look into the life of ordinary people in the present day hell that is North Korea. Think of THE WHISPERERS, as `Nothing to Envy` on a much larger canvas and far more disturbing in its well researched details.

Some background : Growing up in the CBSE educational system in India meant you were invariably fed the bland sanitized Congress party approved version of global history and this invariably meant you were fed laughable lies that the `Planned Economy` , borrowed from the great USSR, was the ideal and only way for India to follow into its own destined utopia and that the USSR was already a well planned paradise. Nothing could be further from this appalling lie and it is exposed in excruciating detail in this book. The cost of following the corrupting ideology of Communism is scrupulously documented by Figes and reading the book helps you grasp the horrors that millions of Soviet citizens went through. It is frequently claimed that Winston Churchill once said “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”. Reading the book helps you understand what he was on about and how right he really was. The book goes a long way in explaining why Russians, even today, have only this barely tenuous link to a sense of civic duty, a moral compass and urban manners and why they are keenly reticent and mostly keep to themselves. And drink. Who can blame them after the horrors their parents and grandparents went through for almost 7 decades. And ow they are stuck with Putin.

There are so many sad tales well told here of families broken up, imprisoned, killed, tortured and dispersed. Roberto Benigni could make about another thousand ’Life is Beautiful’ movies from real life scripts. The one that most affected me was this gut wrenching story of a father, Nikolai, imprisoned for no reason really, because that is how real communism operates, who in the book, is writing to his young daughter, Alyonushka, from the Gulag, and trying to reassure her everything is going to be OK. He starts penning a tale, sent in parts, titled “THE UNUSUAL ADVENTURES OF SHAMMI” and the heart breaking details in the letters he writes to her are so depressing that I was forced to frequently stop reading and catch myself from giving up and just walking into oncoming traffic. That chapter, ironically titled “THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS”, ends with “…THIS WAS THE LAST LETTER. SHORTLY AFTERWARDS, ON 17 SEPTEMBER, NIKOLA WAS EXECUTED BY A FIRING SQUAD”.

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The October 1917 revolution consumed its children in the end. USSR became the biggest Standford Prison Experiment in history. The chapter THE GREAT FEAR brings to mind this stanza I once read :

The dogs of hell, my friend,

Will find you too.

Maybe after they tire a while,

Of the taste of Me

Joseph Stalin was a thug and what he did to USSR makes what Hitler did to Germany, Europe and the Jews look like amateur hour. It is shocking to realize even today Hitler has more publicity as THE EVIL MAN when Stalin was far far far more brutal on a far longer time scale. While Hitler was forced to commit suicide, Stalin lived out his day in regal comfort right till the end.

In summary why read `The Whisperers’?

  1. Understand the USSR in far better detail that you were allowed in the classroom
  2. Truly familiarize yourself with Orwell was attacking in `1984` and `Animal Farm`. Totalitarianism is just a word. The reality is much much more scary and painful.
  3. See how the best intentions of founding visionaries get corrupted by the subsequent thugs who follow inevitably in their footsteps. Farmers and Workers (histories inevitable useful idiots) are always taken for a ride by these villains.

All in all, this is a really good book that I highly recommend.

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‘The Iberian Inicident’ – the terror of losing a work laptop

All it took was 5 seconds of distraction on my part and I knew the word PANIC more intimately than I had in the preceding 34 years on earth.

On Monday, finished work in the client office in sunny Madrid and went straight to the airport. As I was going through security I dutifully took out my laptop. Had a small bottle of water in the bag and madrid airport security guy flagged it. Irritated, I asked if I could drink the water right there. Agent with room temperature IQ said NO. I angrily chucked it into dustbin, walked off in a huff. Boarded. Took off. Landed. Hello Lisbon!

LISBOA

 

Checked into the hotel. Went to my room. 10 PM. Decided to catch up on the never ending emails. Opened my laptop bag. NO LAPTOP inside!!!!

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6 months of client project work ….. GONE. The first 90 seconds of realization in that hotel room was me cursing pure unprintable curses. Calmed down. Googled. Found number. Called LOST AND FOUND in Madrid Airport. Was told to ring up at 7 AM. Most tense unsleepable ugly night of the year. Called airport at 7 AM sharp. Was told to call at 10 AM. This is Iberia afterall. Rush is a 4 letter word there. Called at 10 AM. Was told to buzz at 11 AM. Called around 11 AM and….anddddddddd……they had it.

Profound relief washed over me in sweet sweet waves.
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Booked a return flight for wednesday (today) to Madrid. Work up at 5 AM. Grabbed a quick breakfast. Boarded. Landed into Madrid at 9 AM. Went straight to Lost and Found. Lady was helpful. Collected the laptop. Wept happy tears on the inside when I was reunited with precious hardware. Never knew a shitty HP company issued laptop would ever make an employee so happy to boot it up. Immediately went back to Madrid office. Worked for a bit. Never ever ever wanted to go through the hellish experience again of lost data and panic. So learnt up on ROBOCOPY and created a BAT script for automatic daily laptop data backup (http://www.sevenforums.com/tutorials/187346-robocopy-create-backup-script.html). Had a delicious Spanish celebratory lunch at a hidden gem of a restaurant near the office. Huevos Rotos con Chistorra: A fried egg on top of fried potatoes with some fried Spanish sausage (how can something with 3 basic ingredients be so very delicious????).

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Wrapped up shortly. Went back the airport. checked in. Logged into the stingy 15 minute Wifi they generously offer at Madrid-Barajas airport. Looked up Yelp.com for a good Sushi option in Lisbon. Found it. Then wrote this blog up so I never forget what 5 seconds of distraction can cost me.

 

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Running (a third of) THE Greatest Running Route in human history

Most serious runners know the lame origin story of the Marathon. The fascinating real tale tells of how the Greeks repelled the Persians using superhuman grit to run from one battle to a potential one. So do yourself a favor and read this short but fantastic story of its true origins.

I knew of the story a while ago but until last month it was just that. A nice tale. Until it hit me recently that I am in Athens. In a hotel LESS THAN 2 MILES AWAY FROM THE ORIGINAL MARATHON ROUTE. Thankfully, like Forrest Gump, I keep finding myself in spots close to the action.

This had to be done right.

So first I went to Mapmyrun.com to dig up the original route run by the Pheidippides (in 490 B.C, the same year when it was last safe to walk about in Delhi). I overlaid that route on mankind’s second greatest invention after fire, Googlemaps, and then exported it to my present favourite running app ENDOMODO. So now I had real idea of the path start to finish here in modern Athens. But I was not sure if the path even had a decent running route along the way. You see Greece is the original EU nation that went tits up in the 2008 crisis and even now it is in bad shape. Think ugly love child of Patna and Brussels. The city has a very gritty feel to most of it and so nothing that you would take for granted in London or Amsterdam, example – decent pedestrian routes, you could never take for granted here. Luckily I am from India so I have been trained since birth to always start with low expectations. Still, there was only one way to be sure. Go and confirm it visually. Or in the immortal words of that Pakistani treasure Taher Shah, I had to see it EYE TO EYE.

So a few days ago I decided to incorporate a tiny 2k part of the route  into an 8K run. Then I noticed that the path was fully dedicated to traffic and pedestrians were a distant afterthought. This is what happens when a city and the state goes bankrupt. The inability to capitalise on so glaringly a treasure. The Athens Mayor could make this a tourist gold mine if he wanted to, with just a small investment on a 42K running trail. Running is becoming more popular by the year globally so I can imagine how a small investment in a trail and some good marketing could pull in the running fans. Esp since the Acropolis is a bit underwhelming at daytime.

The Marathon as a long-distance running event has an official distance of 42.195 kilometers. The maximum I have run non-stop in one session is 10 kilometres. So there was no way I was going to be able to run the full route without literally killing myself. That tradeoff is not worth the braggable. The current marathon world record time is 2 hours 3 minutes and 23 seconds (set in the Berlin Marathon by Wilson Kipsang of Kenya on 29 September 2013). I mashed numbers and set what I though I could just maybe attempt : Run AS LONG AS Wilson and see if I can finish a THIRD of the 42 kms route i.e 14 kms. That  distance is warm up to some friends of mine : esp TimTim Sharma who came second in the 2013 Bombay Marathon and Gopu who ran the Boston in 2012. As for me, this would be the longest non-stop run I would have ever attempted. I bet the entire original route was the same for Pheidippides. That one allegedly killed him so that was an ominous warning right there on the tin.

Last Sunday was the day I zeroed on. Sunny, minimal chance of rain and because it was a Sunday, lesser traffic than usual. which is important because the Greeks drive like Indians and look at pedestrians the way a mean Lion looks at a thin gazelle. As a challenge and dare.

Athens summer is not exactly balmy. In the afternoons it gets quite hot and uncomfortable so I decided to wait in my hotel for the sun to almost set (weather.com pegged sunset at 8:45 PM). I set off on the run at 8:01 PM, less than an hour before sunset since it was relatively cool and the light was still out. I needed that light to judge traffic and the route . The original route runs from the town of Marathonas and terminates at the Panathenaic Stadium in central Athens. Since the Panathenaic Stadium was close to my hotel, I decided to run the opposite route: From Panathenaic Stadium towards Marathonas. The advantage of running solo is you can do what you damn well want.

Gear :

  • Sweat friendly shorts, tee, cap and shoes
  • Hydration pack – filled with 2 liter of ice cold water and everything else below
  • Pedometer (after I quit smoking this is the one thing I always carry with me)
  • Polar Heart Rate Monitor strap and watch – this to ensure my heart BPM was within a set range (120-150 bpm )
  • Powergen battery juice pack for my Nexus – its battery life makes me miss my Nokia 3310
  • Bluetooth earphones because without music it is all damn boring
  • Vaseline to help with chafing that cripples me sometimes on a run
  • €50 to celebrate after the run and to get home
  • Some walnuts for energy boost if needed mid-race

Geart

The electronic heart of it all : my beloved Nexus 5

Software/Apps :

Endomodo that I use to track my route and run stats.

FIT Radio – music app that streams a playlist perfect for running

trusty google map to keep an eye on the entire route.

 

Run day nutrition :

90 minutes before the run I fueled up with some bananas and walnuts

I started at 8:01 PM, right at the stadium entrance, after 1 last viewing of the new amazingly motivating Dre Ad.

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Every time I felt too cramped or out of breath I slowed up considerably and took pics on my phone!

At the start, I was surprised to see no crowd beyond a few straggler tourists at the stadium.

The route initially  is pretty wide for running for the first 5 odd kilometers since it is in the city center, with just one very major traffic crossing.

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The route passes right by the American Embassy in Athens (“The NSA is pointlessly recording all this from your phone. You are welcome”)

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There was a cool museum of old Greek military vehicles that could still maybe defeat Bhutan or Maldives

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Some initial walkways were very wide and generous where in Bombay there would have been 4000 chat sellers

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Passed some cool bitter graffiti enroute

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Some parts of the route reminded me of CP in Delhi, but with less stray dogs.

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I passed probably the classiest bakery shop on earth. There was a live PIANO PLAYER in the place. At a Bakery!

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And in case people were horny before, during or after eating the cake there was a convenient sex shop next door

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Some parts forced you to run on the road since there was go gap to run on the pavement. Oh Greece..you should meet India

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Passed a cheaper version of the Erasmus Bridge in Rotterdam

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Passed a live board with the time an hour behind but a helpful readout of the current temperature

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and damn was there distracting temptations on the route..this one almost derailed the entire plan

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saw an encouraging iron sculpture

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And on and on.

Finally after 2 hours 4 minutes and 23 seconds of running I saw THE Sign telling me it was time to pack up

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14.16 kilometers were behind me and I was still in one tired sweaty piece.

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Race stats :

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So that was the end of that.

Rewarded myself with my favorite drink discovered while in Athens : Tequila flavored Beer!

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I loved planning for  and then executing this run. Happy with the not-so-impressive fact that I can run at the very least one third of a marathon in the time  the fastest runner can finish it. ergo I am 200% slower than the fastest marathoner in history. Reassuring.

Still…One item off my bucket list!

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BEST OF 2013 : 15 MOVIES THAT BLEW ME AWAY

As I promised myself in January 2013 (in one of my smarter resolutions of this past year), I saw 52 good movies.

I am going to recommend 10 from those 52 that are absolutely worth your time so add these to your 2014 Netflix or torrent list. I also saw 14 thoughtful documentaries and I am going to recommend 5 from those that are worth a watch. These 10 + 5 shortlisted titles below are in no particular order. I am now old enough to know ‘ranking’ the worthy arts in a mostly facile and futile exercise. Even this list below is tainted. If you see 100 movies in a year and your friends ask you to parse them into plain ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ you probably can as that won’t be too hard of an ask. But if you were asked to stack the ‘Good’ ones you chose  IN ORDER of ‘Goodness’ (and this applies to books, movies, games and paintings too) you are being asked an impossible task. A stack ranking if still attempted is nothings but a reflection of a deeply personal taste of the stacker and nothing more. It can never be a reflection of objective reality because there is none. Here is my opinionated subjective ‘best of’ list from last year.

Here is the ground reality of these 66 titles seen this year, that took me 120.6 hours to watch :

  • Not a single one of them was ‘bad’; as in something I thought was a ‘waste of my time’. This is both astounding and unexpected and a credit to the vast wealth of review information on the internet, which if you usewisely will reward you by making sure you don’t get blindsided by idiot flicks
  • There is only 1 Bollywood title in these 66, a testament to just how much of good cinema is out there once you start looking right and broadly
  • Some people and entities that guided me to these 66 titles : The late great movie critic Ebert, the website Metacritic.com and Mihir Fadnavis, a opinionated untainted honest film critic at MiD Day (based in Bombay)

OK. Now that the foreplay is over, here are the best 10 movies I saw in 2013 :

Movie 1 is [Gravity], directed by Alfonso Cuaron. A knuckle biting epic 3D sci-fi thriller worth seeing only on an iMAX. Released on Oct 2013
Movie 2 is [Before Midnight], directed by Richard Linklater. A beautiful drama romance for couples. Released on Jan 2013
Movie 3 is [Happiness], directed by Todd Solondz. A wicked comedy drama. Released on May 1998
Movie 4 is [Gangs of Wasseypur], directed by Anurag Kashyap. A brill drama thriller. Released on May 2012
Movie 5 is [The Pianist], directed by Roman Polanski. A rewatch of the moving ugly biography of what war unleashes on us and from within us. Released on September 2002
Movie 6 is [Flight], directed by Robert Zemeckis. A drama thriller that should rightly get Denzel an oscar nomination this year or there is no justice in this world. Released on Oct 2012
Movie 7 is [Blue Valentine], directed by Derek Cianfrance. A searing drama romance all couples, married or not, should watch. Released on Jan 2010
Movie 8 is [Zero Dark Thirty], directed by Kathryn Bigelow. The best thriller I saw this year. Released on Dec 2012
Movie 9 is [The Cabin in the Woods], directed by Drew Goddard. A wicked funny horror  mystery thriller. Released on March 2012
Movie 10 is [Dredd], directed by Pete Travis. Not the Stallone one. This is a real class A action sci-fi. Released on July 2012

And the 5 best documentaries worth your while are :

  1. Last Train Home, directed by Lixin Fan, released in 2009. THIS IS CHINA. The factory of our world. And it’s ugly.
  2. Afghan Star, directed by Havana Marking, released in 2009. If anyone wants to know what Afghanistan is beyond the CNN headlines, see this movie. I guarantee you will be moved.
  3. 56 Up, directed by Michael Apted and Paul Almond, released in 2012. What an epic UK project. Executed beautifully.
  4. Searching for Sugar Man, directed by Malik Bendjelloul, released in 2012. Did not see the twist till it sprung up on me.
  5. The Queen of Versailles, directed by Lauren Greenfield, released in 2012. This is what the downfall means for rich people.

Collage of best 10 movies :

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best 10

Best 5 documentaries I saw :

Best 5 Documentaries

And here is the full list of the 52 movies and 14 documentaries. Remember, I personally feel not one of them is ‘bad’ or ‘a waste of time’. Au contraire, you could randomly choose any one of these 66 and the odds are solid you will really like it. So have a brilliant 2014 and add some of these to the year to make it so.

Feature Films :

1st Movie 13 Assassins
2nd Movie 50/50
3rd Movie Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
4th Movie Arbitrage
5th Movie Argo
6th Movie Atonement
7th Movie Before Midnight
8th Movie Before Sunrise
9th Movie Before Sunset
10th Movie Blue Valentine
11th Movie Chop Shop
12th Movie Chronicle
13th Movie Collateral
14th Movie Compliance
15th Movie Django Unchained
16th Movie Dredd
17th Movie Excision
18th Movie Flight
19th Movie Gangs of Wasseypur
20th Movie Gravity
21st Movie Happiness
22nd Movie Hidden (Cache)
23rd Movie Hot Fuzz
24th Movie Hugo
25th Movie Infernal Affairs
26th Movie Jurassic Park
27th Movie Love & Other Drugs
28th Movie Love Actually
29th Movie Magic Mike
30th Movie Mary and Max
31st Movie Moonrise Kingdom
32nd Movie Pacific Rim
33rd Movie Pandorum
34th Movie Predators
35th Movie Punch-Drunk Love
36th Movie Rocket Science
37th Movie Safety Not Guaranteed
38th Movie Seven Psychopaths
39th Movie Shaun of the Dead
40th Movie Silver Linings Playbook
41st Movie Sleepwalk with Me
42nd Movie Star Trek Into Darkness
43rd Movie Ted
44th Movie The Cabin in the Woods
45th Movie The Loved Ones
46th Movie The Pianist
47th Movie The Way Way Back
48th Movie The World’s End
49th Movie Thor: The Dark World
50th Movie Timecrimes
51st Movie Zero Dark Thirty
52nd Movie Zoolander

Documentaries :

1st Documentary Indie Game: The Movie
2nd Documentary The Imposter
3rd Documentary The Queen of Versailles
4th Documentary Searching for Sugar Man
5th Documentary 56 Up
6th Documentary Afghan Star
7th Documentary Last Train Home
8th Documentary Riding Giants
9th Documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
10th Documentary TPB AFK: The Pirate Bay Away from Keyboard
11th Documentary Bobby Fischer Against the World
12th Documentary Baraka
13th Documentary Collapse
14th Documentary Chasing Ice

2 Senior Corporate Roles that hurt a firm

Right now I am reading this book on innovation by Scott Berkun. ‘The Myths of Innovation’. A great little primer on debunking the many myths surrounding innovation. He uses the myths to help illustrate just how innovation happens. He also delves into some of the reasons for just why these myths are popular and then proceeds to provide some insights on how to approach innovation without falling prey to these myths. As Apple Inc and the rest of the mobile and PC industry demonstrate on the opposite spectrums, you can either live by innovation or die a thousand deaths by commoditization. I have long been a part of the Business Process Outsourcing Industry that is primarily based in India and I am also a standard product of the schooling system there. My industry needs innovation like a car accident victim needs blood. Which is very badly indeed. But the BPO industry is not alone in its desperate thirst for innovation. Many other industries across the board need fresh thinking and innovation to prevent themselves getting caught in a vicious race with China to the bottom, where the ugly margins start from the right of the decimal point.   While the reasons for this thin rain of fresh thinking are many, two people in most firms are currently and unknowingly aiding this aborting of innovation by just doing their jobs the way they are expected and trained to. These two incumbents hold enormous power over the firm, both overtly and in the mindset they instill among the people in their function. They meaningfully impact the results the CEO reports every quarter.

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These two culprits are (gasp!) :

  1. The Chief Technology Officer (CTO)
  2. The HR Director

How the Chief Technology Officer sabotages: The CTO is expected to, in the general bout of needless paranoia and overkill that we are prone to, lock the firm down informationally. It’s probably there in his Job description. This hermetically sealed pot is now expected to be a fountain of innovation. Because the mindset is that there should be no need for outside exchanges. ‘Innovation must and can grow from within!’ If that sounds like a plug from a cheap North Korea pamphlet, you’d be mistaken. This is the naïve juvenile socialistic philosophy that underpins most management mindsets. So everything is locked down. We proudly boast to clients just what a tightly walled garden it all is. But then someone needs to realize we have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Innovations do not breed in a walled garden. With all the firewalls and communication and access restrictions we are only sealing ourselves IN. Bathing in the same bathtub of ideas and people within your IT designed walls day in day out. Everything is jealously guarded and the ‘Not Invented Syndrome’ seeps from every pore. This is not the soil for innovation to blossom. This is 2013 AD. ‘Cooptition‘ is a actual word in the business world. There are a bazillion websites, apps and widgets, mostly free and publicly available, that can help any firm today be more efficient and fast and innovative in the way it functions and helps itself and its clients. But the KGB mindset that is instilled in the CTO downwards only helps ensure the tools are all locked out of the reach of all but the most senior politburo members. And there you’ll glimpse another fatal error in thinking. The thinking is that innovation flows from the top down on the great unwashed in the trenches because, ha!, who can believe the lowly front line staff are worthy of the unwalled freedom and so capable of innovation. The best firms on innovation have the exact opposite mindset. Read up on how 3M stumbled into post it notes or how amazon works to make its website so brilliantly convenient. I can assure it it’s not Bezos who is driving the innovations there.

 

How the HR Director sabotages: This party apparatchik is expected to play it safe for the firm in all her dealings. HR has, across the world, never been the function where the sharpest arrows in the firm aim to land. Those who can’t do, teach. Within a company, those who can’t do, HR. But that in and of itself does not overtly harm innovation (only covertly). The real cyanide it administers to innovation is in its hiring practice, by playing it by the book. And by the book is the opposite of innovation. The recruiters within the department are trained to weed out all and any résumé that remotely suggests a deviation from standard template. But then someone needs to realize : here again we have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. That résumé of that guy with the year gap that you just threw out. He wasn’t sitting all day in the couch watching The Wire. He decided to take a break year and travel the world or start his own firm. Something that has now made him very very good on the EQ front, just perfect for leading a diverse team tasked with coming up with an innovative idea. That guy who walked in with a tattoo and ponytail. He is a born contrarian and whip smart to boot, who will question each process and design something better from the ground up if allowed. Red Flags are not Red Lights 100% of the time. You need to proceed with caution. Not walk away. But then HR is trained to hire sheeple. And sheeple don’t challenge the status quo, challenge established authority and so tread new ways to doing something. HR is loath to take a risk on the hiring front and risk takers are what we need both in the function and in the hired pool. It is incredibly difficult to be an innovative firm when all the staff there are hired from a ‘safe’ template. Think how Will Smith was hired by Tommy Lee Jones in ‘Men in Black’. TLJ nailed it in his approach to hiring and got the best agent for the agency. That’s the mindset that needs to percolate down the line.

The bottom line is these two people have a tremendous opportunity to deviate from the herd and take the firm on a trajectory that can, just possibly, take the firm to the peak of innovation instead of the pit of being ‘just another firm that does it a bit cheaper’

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