Murderer within us



For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so – Hamlet, William Shakespeare

It’s a murder that has caught the nation’s attention like never before. A woman supposedly murdered her daughter whom she bandied about as her sister. How can a woman, a mother kill her own daughter? Yes she was ambitious, nothing wrong with that. That she was more ambitious than others with an inclination to be rich and powerful overnight does not support or indicate a murderous trait. A trait that is so heinous that drives her to kill her own daughter for money, power or to suppress daughter’s freedom is unpalatable to us. A word and prayer about the victim. A young life nipped in the bud for faults unknown and may never be known. RIP Sheena Bora.

Everyday incidents of road rage, honour killings and crimes of passion, catch the headlines. As we read the details we wonder with a sense of superior morality, “how can somebody do this? Are they not human beings?” The question that needs to be asked is, “are the perpetrators of this crime different from us, the normal standard human beings?” Society is not a laboratory nor are we lab animals to experiment and test for standards and traits of good and evil.

Wait. Such an experiment has been undertaken. In 1971, Stanford Prison Experiment was conducted by Philip Zimbardo, a psychology professor of Stanford University. The experiment and the results both were shocking.

A group of volunteers and students of psychology school of Stanford created a prison in the university’s dormitory. Randomly chosen, some ended up being the prison guards and some the prisoners. Participants adapted to their roles of guards and prisoners beyond the professors expectations. Guards quickly turned authoritarian and prisoners turned submissive or rebellious. Such were the excesses of the guards and such was the effect on the prisoners, that the experiment was called to a halt within six days against the planned fourteen days.

Guards and prisoners were given their roles by chance and not choice but their behaviour reflected otherwise. Psychology students of a marquee university were behaving like a Nazi camp in-charge. Normal good human beings turned into dictators and suppressors -knowing that it is just an experiment- in just a day! Is there a fascist, a Satan in every one of us?

As per Old Testament Lucifer, Michael and Gabriel were the three Archangels of God, each vested with a responsibility. Lucifer was head of the angels of worship of God and slowly believed that some of the worship should come to him as well. God cast him from heaven to hell where he resides by the name of Satan. If an archangel appointed by the God himself could not carry the strappings of power with grace, what about us, the mortals?

We judge in extremities. Murderers, terrorists, rapists, thieves, corporate swindlers are some of the buckets into which we have categorised and dumped those who have deviated from the norm. True, but they are the exceptions, the outliers. There is another person who is as vicious and potentially dangerous as those above. You know him. Its you.

None of the terrorists or dictators were born that way. In fact most of them were loving family members. Their failures shock not just the public but also their near and dear ones. What fails us? Power, authority and money are the three ingredients which turn the good in us towards the bad. We misuse power bestowed in us forgetting the responsibility that comes with it. For money we sell our soul and transgress borders of integrity. Authority is more complicated.

As employees we need to work, act and behave in a certain way for the growth and success of the organisation. Norms of business and rules of work are the guiding force. These are humanised into an individual – supervisor or the boss. Following the instruction of your boss (which in turn is that of the firm) is the expected norm. When you are confronted with a situation where you believe the firm is being compromised by the boss or even worse, the firm is compromising the customers’ or the society’s interest, what should you choose – obeying the authority or being a renegade, a whistle blower? Sometimes, the violations are very minor – an inflated expense bill, misuse of office equipment, ill-treatment of colleagues and you etc. What should you do?

It depends on your moral compass. Higher and better the settings, faster will be your disconnect with such individuals and firms. You will one up in moral status but few down in success ladder and money. What you want to give, to be what in your life, is what makes you what you are.

Dr.APJ Kalam or Indrani Mukherjea. Both are within you. What you choose to be, is your choice.



PS: Read Philip Zimbardo’s “The Lucifer Effect” about this experiment (SPE) and also to understand psychology of power.


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Perception of reality



Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know – Keats

You are given a hypothetical choice of a job in two organisations. Below is the profile of the two organisations.

Firm 1: It is the envy of its peers. It has won the organisation of the future award from a leading business magazine not once but 7 times in a row. Its share price made it a darling of Wall Street and the wealth it created for its shareholders is amazing. Its business practices have been studied and researched by the most venerable of the business schools. The leader of the firm believes in sharing his wealth with the needy and he is one of the most respected men in the corporate world, who seeks and gets the attention of the heads of state with ease.

Firm2: It is the perpetuator of one of the greatest accounting fraud in the business world. Seven deadly sins were at play in its offices every minute of every day. Its leaders splurged the ill-gotten wealth on decorating their offices, luxury aircrafts, personal expenses were billed to the company… the list is endless. All that can be wrong in an organisation was with this organisation. Eventually when the truth was revealed, shareholders lost money and its leaders were put in jail. Its excesses were the subject of a best-selling business book.

It does not matter which firm (of course firm 1) you choose to work with. You will end-up working with the same organisation. Firm 1 is the perception and Firm 2 is the reality.

Welcome to the age old debate of perception vs reality. Let me announce the results of this debate. First winner is perception. The ultimate winner is reality. Why do we fall for perception and accept the bitter pill of reality later?

Because we are plain lazy. Our brain is what psychologists call, a cognitive miser. Thinking logically, analysing and concluding with a decision based on facts is an energy sapping activity. Why the effort? Just decide with the easiest of the options and get on with life is the logic of our brain. For all the progress humans have made, our instincts are still a copy of the nomadic tribes who were our ancestors thousands of years ago. Survival is the first instinct, reasoning is the last.

Perception is not bad, in fact it is essential. While driving you need to perceive the gap to overtake, slow down or take evasive action to avoid an accident. You cannot physically measure the gap, apply formulas and then arrive at the decision to overtake, slow down or take evasive action! Perception helps you in this with the dictum, “safety and survival first”. When perception is used or applied for decisions that are larger in life, our problems start.

When we use the phrase ‘great minds’, it is with a reason. They looked beyond perception to realise the truth. Perception is a ‘physical’ activity of the brain. To go beyond perception is the activity of the mind. The effort which they put in to realise the truth is what is called as knowledge. What happens when perception meets knowledge? A frontier called intuition emerges.

In 1986, J. Paul Getty museum in California bought an ancient Greek artefact for nine million dollars. It was supposed to be dated about 530 BC and the museum was naturally proud of it. As one archaeological expert after another studied the artefact, doubts emerged about its authenticity. Was it a prehistoric artefact from Greek era or a brilliant modern forgery? What guided the experts was not just knowledge but their intuition. The authenticity of the artefact is still in doubt.  Its status remains undetermined: today the museum’s label of the statue reads “Greek, about 530 B.C., or modern forgery”.

Intuition is the game changer in our progress. However intuition does not emerge from ignorance but from knowledge. As the old saying goes, ‘intuition comes to the prepared mind’.  Apples (not the phone!) did fall to the ground since time immemorial and gravity was there since the world was made. It was Newton’s intuition – based on great knowledge- that shaped the theory of gravity which coincided with the fall of an apple. Great leaders are those who go beyond perception and see the true potential of a product or a team member. Great investors are those who find the intrinsic value of a company they invest in. “Buy on rumour, sell on news” is an oft repeated advice in stock markets. Rumour is perception, news is the realty! Perception thrills, reality bites.

Perceptions can be managed, not reality. Great advertising (the most vivid example of perception management) never sold a bad product for a long time. Greater the difference between perception and reality, greater is the disillusionment. Recent of fall of God-men and God-women clarified the debate – God was the perception, the man/woman was the reality.

Perception is good and it should be the guiding force in our day-to-day life. However, when judging individuals and managing relationships, going beyond perception to search for the truth might make the world around us a better place. Perception should be replaced with intuition which can come only with knowledge.

Firm 1 and Firm 2 are the same. Enron.




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Slaves of freedom


The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion – Albert Camus

Two monks were walking back to their monastery. They were celibate monks on an oath never to touch a woman in their life. They had to cross a small stream which was not deep and were quite familiar with it. When they reached the spot they noticed a young woman standing there and was clear that she was afraid to cross the stream. Immediately the senior monk picked up the woman, crossed the stream, dropped her on the other bank safely and proceeded on his way to the monastery along with the junior monk. Few days later the junior monk approached the senior monk and expressed his feelings troubling him about the action of the senior monk in touching a woman which happened few days ago. The senior monk replied, “I dropped the woman at the other bank of the stream. Looks like you are still carrying her in your mind!”

Freedom is thus an act of our mind and not of our body. As we celebrate our 69th year of independence, we need to reflect upon the aspects of freedom and what it means as an individual. As a country, as a society, as an organisation we are more clear what freedom means. Freedom is more about individual rights and our right to apply those rights. There is a universality of our thought regarding what rights as enshrined in our constitution and laws. Thomas Paine details those rights eloquently in his book Rights of Man published just before the French Revolution. Constitutions and laws have evolved in many countries since then to ensure that a respectable living is ensured for all humans. As it has been written in black and white by learned men and women, are we then free and have all the freedom we need? Far from it.

Funnily the objective view of freedom is easier than the subjective one. Where does my freedom start and more importantly where does it end (does it?). Who sets the limits and how much freedom one requires? Your right to rotate your walking stick ends at the beginning at my nose is a simplistic measure for simple freedoms. In a world besieged with terrorism and mistrust, individual freedom is under threat. Assange and Snowden are being witch-hunted by USA, the country that prides itself in individual freedom. Orwell’s’ big brother is more real than imaginary.

In 399 B.C. a man called Socrates was executed in enlightened Greece. He was tried on two charges – corrupting the youth and impiety.  Specifically the charges were detailed as “failing to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges” and “introducing new deities”. Freedom of expression, then as it is now, is a strict no, no. Fall in line, says the system – society or organisation – or else the punishment is severe – ostracism, financial loss and more. Even in a free society how do you define your freedom? Constitutions and laws do not define our day-to-day life. Our perceptions and acts do. In a free environment, all do not behave equally free. Essence in us defines the existence of our being.

Freedom, thus exists, between the two ears. Freedom is linked with the power in us to manage a situation (a tool or a language). If you know something, you will not ask the other and hence you are not dependent on others. Thus where knowledge ends our freedom ends. Rightfully then knowledge is power and higher the power (of knowledge) more is your freedom. The outside environment does not matter. In any revolution the first seeds are sown by writers, artists and thinkers who set the tone for change. You need to think and dream before you act!

Money, power and similar such trappings shackle us from our mental freedom. Excesses of financial world and corporate scandals are a testimony to the power of money in diluting our essence in search of more luxurious existence. Stooping to conquer is a rule and way of life of corporate life and political power centres. If the mind is not free even your spine cannot support you.

Freedom is something we need to define for ourselves. From exchange rates to petrol prices to driving directions, we want everything to be set by others – an authority, a government, HR etc. Because being free is not easy as it calls for questioning norms and standing up to being what you are, clash is inevitable. To get, we need to give. Free thinkers and independent people are surprisingly not an agreeable lot as they do not kow-tow to the ways of the world.

Procrustes was a wicked inn keeper in Greek mythology who invited every passer-by to stay and offered them an iron bed. Every guest had to fit the bed exactly. If you are short you are stretched and if you are tall, your legs will be amputated to fit the bed. Our freedom is such a Procrustean bed in which we set the standards of ours and behaviours of others. Our thoughts and feelings control our acts; only knowledge can refine and make it better.

True freedom is when we can live as we are with right thoughts, right words and right actions. One can lock you physically, but never your mind. Freedom like happiness is an inside job!

Happy Independence Day.

Jai Hind!


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Yes. No is positive!


“No” is a complete sentence – Anon

December 1,1955 Montgomery, Alabama, USA. A small, unassuming black woman in her forties got into the bus on her way back home from work in the evening like any other day. She sat in an empty seat and was engrossed in her thoughts. Few minutes later she was asked to vacate her seat to another man, a white. She was asked to vacate her sea as whites get the priority in seating in the bus. Rosa Parks uttered one word that ignited one of the most important civil rights protests of the twentieth century that changed social fabric of USA forever. The word is “NO”.

Such is the power of NO. These two letters when used rightly have changed the course of history and created new products. Sadly the NO sayers have been brandished as negative, non-team players and much else in a not too complimentary way. “Don’t say Yes, When you want to say No”, goes the title of a famous self-help book. Our heart says no but our tongue says yes much to individual peril and corporate losses. Why?

Conformity to the crowd, the desire to belong and to be seen as all knowing drives our response than our judging skills. The world’s most difficult phrase to say is not, “I Love You” but “I don’t know”. It takes a lot to express your ignorance than display false knowledge. The analysts who come on business channels predict the future with certainty that borders more on arrogance than on rationale. If they know the future they should be making a killing in the market and enriching themselves rather displaying their altruism on television! If everybody knew so much, why markets crash and the world is engulfed with economic disasters with such frequency? We know that nobody knows (NO’s)!

Saying Yes to everything leads to defocus in personal and corporate life. You can’t have everything in life. You need to give-up a few (even good ones) to build upon and enjoy what is there. Steve Jobs built or rebuilt Apple not by saying yes, but by saying no to many ideas. To quote him: “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.” Steve Jobs slashed the Apple product line from 350 to 10. That’s 340 No’s for 10 Yes’s! Yes said the world to the 10 good things.

Saying ‘No’ is the basis of strategy advices the Harvard strategy guru Michael Porter. It will be oversimplification to assume that saying no is the easiest way ahead. Nokia said no to Android and opted for Windows operating system. Nokia and Microsoft both lost. When and what to say no to is also critical. Analyse, develop the options and make a judgemental call. Success rate of ‘Yes’ is as much ‘No’. There are other aspects in life and markets that determine the outcome of your Yes or No. Point is that no is not a negative option just as much as yes is not a positive option. Replace the no with yes in the phrases “No to drugs, No to alcoholism” and you can guess the world around you!

The seven deadly sins can be overcome with one simple word, NO. A successful mutual fund retains its success not by saying ‘yes’ but saying ‘no’ to fresh investments after a point. Even God is susceptible to the power of yes. Lord Shiva has been a giver of boons to the wrong ones, earning him the jibe ‘Bhola Shankar’, leaving the job of cleaning up his ‘yes’ to Lord Vishnu! In life and work we need to factor in all the outcomes before a decision is taken. Not considering the ‘no’ may lead to harm and hurt to many around you. Provide for the worst, the best will save itself is the sage advice from an Italian proverb.

Saying ‘No’ is confused with negativity which is a different narrative. Not accepting the facts, giving up the fight (by saying yes!) and choosing against life is negativity. ‘Yes men’ have done more harm than good to a leader and lead him on a garden path to failure. A good leader encourages a few ‘no men’ to balance the views and obtain a better overall perspective. If there has not been a ‘no’ opinion from the team often it means all alternatives and perspectives were not considered.

In 1983 Quaker Oats, the venerable food company, bought Gatorade to expand its product range. Using its distribution reach, Quaker Oats built Gatorade into a multi-billion product in a decade by expanding it to many countries taking the sales to $3 billion. Buoyed by the success of Gatorade, Quaker Oats bought Snapple, a trendy drink for an eye popping $1.7 billion in 1994. 27 months later Snapple was sold away by Quaker for just $300 million and became a case study for mismanagement of mergers for business schools and students. William Smithburg, CEO, Quarter Oats, had to bite the dust and stepped down. He later reflected, “there was so much excitement about bringing in a new brand, a brand with legs. We should have had a couple of people arguing the ‘no’ side of the valuation”. Gulp it!

Good & bad, yes and no, positive & negative and similar such dichotomies do not provide the complete perspective of life and work. To consider all alternatives and perspectives based on knowledge and experience will lead to balance in life and work. Stand up for what is right and say the right word, even if the word is no. Don’t say yes when you have to say no!




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Change please


People don’t resist change. People resist being changed. Richard Beckhard

In 1714 Henry Mill invented the first typewriter and has been reinvented since for another 150 years. In 1873 Remington’s Sholes & Glidden with QWERTY keyboard pattern was launched. Most inventions are made to increase speed of work, this one was an exception. QWERTY keyboard was designed to ‘reduce’ the speed of typing so that the mechanical levers of the machines do not get entangled. However, in the era of computers and smartphones speed is the essence, not a liability. There are 3 different and highly efficient options for QWERTY- Drovak, Colemark and Capewell . Drovak keyboard for example is 4 times faster to use and will increase efficiency of your smart phone use. After 150 years we refuse to switch from QWERTY given other efficient options. Why?

Change is a seemingly insurmountable barrier. We know we will not progress or even loose out without change but we resist change. But look around, the world has changed beyond recognition in the past few years. The smart phone on which probably you are reading this message did not exist even a decade ago. The way we communicate, transact, banking… the change is dramatic and everywhere. On the one hand we resist change, but we welcome change and even change for the better. No and yes for change! We adapt some changes, but reject others. What’s the rationale?

Standardised and patterned. That’s what our life is. Reflect upon your food, way you get ready to work, even where you sit in your house… we follow a predictable pattern. Anything that disturbs this pattern is change which actually is a psychological perception. Being cognitive misers, our brains opt for the familiar and comfortable against different and difficult. More things change, more we want them to be similar. Different but being familiar is the trick to bring in change.

Segway was a two-wheeled personal transportation vehicle that was launched in 2002. At the time of launch its inventor declared, “Segway will be to the car what the car was to the horse and buggy”. Investors and markets were excited and production capacity was increased even before the first Segway was sold. After launch Segway has the distinction of being one of the greatest product disasters the world has seen. In 10 years Segway sold about just 50,000 of its “two-wheeled phenomenon”. Why did Segway fail? Riding a Segway made an adult look like a child, rider was exposed to the weather and importantly you have ride solo taking the fun out of companionship in transportation. The idea was great but it was too radical a change to adapt to and was rejected.

Experts suggest that for change to happen successfully we need few conditions. Expectancy violation is the first step. You notice something that is different and out of the norm which attracts you. However, it also needs to be familiar (we resist change, don’t we?). A round computer may attract you but may make you uncomfortable. A slim computer in a different color is an agreeable change. Next it should do the job. Products and services exist so that we need to complete some jobs e.g. phones exist so that we can connect. If the new product is different but familiar and does the job better, we adapt and the product success is ensured.

Blackberry was the undisputed king of work phones. Success of Apple and Android phones (and decimation of Blackberry) can be explained through the above conditions. Non-blackberry phone shape was same, looked better in design and got the job done better. Importantly both these phones did the last step, the job, better. Stoic and stiff upper lip Blackberry was replaced with work and fun phones that Apple and Android phones dished out. No new skills were need to be learned to operate these phones and they the same job at same or lower cost. Everybody won – except of course Blackberry.

Change extracts costs- physical, psychological and monetary. Mental accountants that we are, we develop an equilibrium among all these (and other) factors to adapt or reject a change. Microsoft Windows OS has never won over the critics. But is on 9 out of 10 PC’s and laptops in the world. Surprising Apple OS (MAC) is a better product and you have a free option, Linux. Contrary to the perception, people are ok with ok products at ok price. The trick is in finding this ‘ok’ point/s which is not easy. No wonder the success rate of new products is so dismal.

Social change- environment, gender, equality and such are even more complex issues. Economic man that we are, we are driven by our self-interest. Suppose 10,000 less cars on the road make the city better. Will you be the one among the 10,000 to give up your car? If you do, what is the benefit you will get? Unless you are driven by objectives beyond economics, you will wait for others to act before you follow. The same applies for others and eventually no change in society’s behaviour is noticed.

Gandhi is a perfect example of a change leader. Before he delivered the non-violent leave India ultimatum to the British, he ran a sustained campaign for communal harmony, un-touch ability and unity among Indian public. Swadeshi movement levied financial loss on British industries (India was their largest market) that was the proverbial last straw that realised India’s independence. All this work took more than three decades to achieve independence. Long time one might say, but less than what others took and failed to achieve. Its 25 years since Narasimha Rao government initiated economic reforms, we are still asking for more economic reforms!

Courage and conviction are the critical ingredients of any change. Agents of change – social, commercial or individual are priceless. Maverick, unpredictable, possessed… they stand out. It is to them we owe our progress and well-being. As Bernard Shaw said, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him. The unreasonable man adapts surrounding conditions to himself. All progress depends on the unreasonable man”. Don’t change the unreasonable man!



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