January 2004

Preparing for the future

Happiness is not a destination, it is in fact, a companion along the journey of life. In his speech on IIT-Mumbai's Foundation Day, R Gopalakrishnan, executive director, Tata Sons, shares some insights on how to build and sustain a successful career

R Gopalakrishnan
Every human being, every organisation is preparing for the future all the time. Some try to anticipate it, some prepare for every contingency, and most do a bit of both. One thing is for sure: the future is not going to be what it is supposed to be! The Indian institutes of Technology (IITs) are preparing for a stronger R&D focus. The students are preparing for a whole new professional future. Most of my speech is directed to my young friends, but a few comments first about our great institution.

Cumulatively, the IITs have turned out 125,000 graduates and postgraduates of whom a third are estimated to be overseas. IIT has become a powerful, globally recognised brand with huge connotations of excellence, merit and raising the bar. Such success has come due to exceptionally professional standards maintained for entry and a very high standard of pedagogy. Let us pay tribute to our professors and directors over half a century because they have created an island of world-class excellence within a society which has evolved on connections and favours.

In 1994, Peter Drucker wrote a seminal paper called The Theory of the Business. He argued that every organisation is built and run on a set of assumptions about markets, customers, competitors, value perception and so on. When those assumptions are in harmony with the external reality there are conditions for growth and success. When there is a mismatch, the seeds of crisis are sown. The IITs have had a terrific theory of the business, otherwise such huge success would not have been achieved.

It has been proposed that in the years ahead the IITs will be renewed in their purpose by revisiting their theory of business, by recalibrating the assumptions to match the new and emerging external realities. We wish the IIT leadership all possible success in this delicate, long-term change that is about to be accelerated. For example, I have seen a paper by Prof. Pankaj Jalote of IIT, Kanpur, where he has correctly articulated changes to faculty appraisal needed to better manage the faculty resources of the IITs, as they are the key assets for doing R&D. He argues the case for performance appraisal against pre-set goals, differential rewards for high achievers etc. Coming from the corporate sector, I cannot but agree with him, though I do recognize the delicate nature of implementing such an essential change. And this is only one example of the many changes required at IITs as they adjust to a new theory of their business.

I would like to share five lessons with the young students about the professional life that opens out ahead of them.

1. Become doers: endeavour and action lead to prosperity
Certain ideas seem to have gripped popular imagination. For example, that there is a pathway to quick riches and the challenge is to somehow find that pathway, or that rags to riches is very romantic, and such instant gratification must be pursued at any cost. Or that thinking jobs like strategy, consulting and design are somehow superior to jobs like implementation and operations, and so on.

IIT Kharagpur's motto, Yoga Karmasu Koushalam, teaches a different lesson. There is no substitute for endeavour and action in enhancing prosperity and wealth. It is easier to know what needs to be done than to actually do it. For example, the power sector in our country which is in a crisis. At independence, India generated 1,000 MW of power, today it generates 100,000 MW. It costs Rs 3 per unit to produce power, but the producer realises only Rs 2 per unit. Revenue is lost through political largesse, through theft and through inefficiency. Everybody knows how to solve the problem, but the endeavour and action required to implement solutions is missing. It takes intelligence to think differently, but it takes courage to act on that intelligence.

2. Challenge yourself constantly: assumptions and context influence vision
Under a certain frequency of the electromagnetic spectrum, and I look the way I am. Under another frequency eg. X-rays, you get a Roentgen view of me. I am the same, but you perceive me very, very differently.

Until his dying day in 1601, Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe believed that the sun and all other stars revolved around the earth. It wasn't that he lacked the data to understand the error of his thinking; in fact, it was Tycho Brahe's data that his German assistant, Johannes Kepler, used later to develop the current view of the solar system. The devil was in Tycho Brahe's wrong assumptions on the environment, so all his analysis too was wrong. So, you need to have some way to constantly question your assumptions.

Engineers in particular abhor ambiguity or grey, they tend to categorise things as black or white, good or bad, true or false. On the other hand, nature revels in grey. For example, engineers are trained to suppress turbulence in propulsion systems; for them, the shortest distance between two points is an efficient straight line. Nature leverages turbulence. For example, a wisp of smoke does not travel upwards in a straight line. Neither does blood flow in a straight path in your veins, nor the sap in a tree. They all travel in a logarithmic spiral. Engineers are beginning to learn from such observations, which challenge their traditional assumptions.

American novelist, F Scott Fitzgerald, observed that the test of a first-rate mind is the ability to hold two opposing thoughts at the same time while still retaining the ability to function. So you need to train your mind to suspend its existing set of assumptions to allow another set to also enter. Aristotle noted that carpenters who wish to straighten a warped board don't just put it in a jig that holds it straight; rather they put it in a jig that bends it in the opposite direction. We too must bend our minds in opposite ways to be able to constantly challenge ourselves in our context and assumptions.

3. Broaden yourself: technologists are enhanced by social studies
I used to think that science begat technology which in turn triggered social change. For example, scientists understood solid-state physics, engineers developed transistors and incorporated them into radios and televisions, and these triggered social change. Only partly true. It is not a linear or sequential process, there are feedback loops and complex interplays. My experience has taught me that the social systems influence the exploitation of science and technology. The idea among engineers that social studies are somehow an inferior subject of study is flawed.

Science is concerned with understanding the natural world. Its power has in the concept of falsification, i.e. any scientific theory is good till there is experimental evidence to the contrary. For example, in 1989, Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann announced that they had succeeded in producing nuclear fusion at room temperature. Its acceptance lasted only a few months as scientists found that the experiment was not replicable. Scientific opinion turned against cold fusion and the two scientists were greatly embarrassed and shamed.

Technology is the means to exploit the natural world. It predates the birth of science by centuries. Clubs, axes, textile fabrics, bronze and iron, all are technologies that were developed by trial and error. Bronze was made by mixing three parts of molten copper with one part of molten tin without understanding the science behind it. In fact, science and technology developed on near-parallel and independent lines until 200 years ago. Thomas Edison, a most prolific inventor, was openly contemptuous of scientists. The near parallel lines met because the cause-and-effect discipline of science actually delivered new technologies that the traditional trial and error method could not have — for example, the development of the transistor in the late 1940s at Bell Labs.

Social studies are about how people and society work, and about navigating the waters of social intercourse to our advantage. Economics and psychology belong here as indeed does management. Sigmund Freud proposed his theory of interpretation of dreams, a social study. His supporters presented it as a sort of science, but it could not be subject to falsification by experiments. It remained "true" until new developments in psychotropic drugs helped to challenge it. Likewise with management mantras — the rules of success are true until they cease to be successful.

4. Work incessantly: beware of success because it destroys
All of us work diligently and hard in order to get success and happiness. But it is quite often the case that once we have got success and happiness, we do not know what to do with them. The question then arises: should all of us be working for happiness or with happiness? Happiness is not the goal of our journey, it is our companion.

Aristotle said that whom the Gods want to destroy, they first send 40 years of prosperity. It is well proven from the history of men that success (prosperity and happiness) leads to complacency which leads to decline. That is why one must be most alert and watchful at the peak of success.

The Greeks have this story of Icarus and his father, Daedilus. The father was a creative engineer who acquired great fame. He and his son, Icarus, were failed after Daedilus helped the daughter of Minos, the ruler, to elope with her lover. In his incarceration, Daedilus hit upon the ingenious idea of assembling a large wing with feathers held together by candle wax. By attaching such wings to himself and Icarus, they were both able to fly out of the open sky jail in a dramatic escape. Icarus was so excited by this success that he flew higher and higher towards the sun until the heat of the sun melted the wax and poor Icarus fell to his doom. That is why the idea "beware of success" has been around for hundreds of years.

The mental model in our mind is of success being like a space station, a destination to which we can travel through hard work. In reality, the mere approach to that space station changes the trajectory of our space shuttle leading to uncertainty all over again. In the completely unrelated field of atomic physics, Werner Heisenberg propounded his Principle of Uncertainty for which he got the Nobel Prize in 1932. He said that to "see" the position of an electron, the physicist bombards photons on to the moving electron and this causes a change in the speed of the electron. Therefore, the position and speed of an electron cannot be determined simultaneously. In the same way, the position and speed of the space station 'success' cannot be simultaneously determined. Alertness and incessant work alone can be the true companions of that traveler.

5. Be passionate about your health
It is in the first 10 years after the work career begins that the greatest neglect of youthful health begins. Sportsmen stop playing sports, teetotalers drink alcohol, non-smokers smoke, active people sit on chairs, starving hostel inmates eat rich food and so on. These early years are the ones to watch. There is the danger of convincing oneself that one has not access to clubs / facilities or worse still, one has not enough time to do right things about health care due to the stresses of a career.

It is true that a managerial career can be very stressful but equally true that only one person can save you from the doctor's scalpel, i.e. yourself. You have the health you have like a starting balance in the bank. Grow it, maintain it, but do not destroy it. The penalty is very high in later years.

A related point is about good sleep. Neuro-scientists postulate that some brain cells work at night and are dormant during the day. That is perhaps why we sometimes say, "Let us sleep over the problem tonight and discuss it again tomorrow", in the hope there might be new insight on the next day. If you sleep well every night, you are in danger of being called smug or complacent. If you cannot sleep well on many nights, you are called an insomniac. I have a formula: if you lose sleep a bit on two nights a month it is probably a good balance between stretching to your full potential and working below your potential.

During your career you will face problems and issues, potentially sleep-disturbing, and whose roots lies in moral science. You need to resolve moral and ethics issues squarely and by yourself. Once you slip against your own ethical values, the descent is rapid. It is just not worth it.

Speech by R Gopalakrishnan, executive director, Tata Sons, at IIT-Bombay Foundation Day on March 10, 2003.

More Speakers' Forum articles:

Disruption and uncertainty: Knowing it is there but not knowing what it is: R Gopalakrishnan, executive director, Tata Sons, breaks down the concept of change in relation to today's business scenario
Sensitive chaos: R Gopalakrishnan, executive director, Tata Sons, explains the managerial view of how and why India works
Learning to live and living to learn: One must learn to manage oneself well before one can manage others well, says R Gopalakrishnan, executive director, Tata Sons