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These shoes were made for walking: Part 2 of shoe-eating behaviour

In Part 1, http://www.thinkanarva.com/so-whats-your-shoe-eating-behavior/ we discussed the difficulty in harnessing real insights and what blinds managers during the process of searching for insights.

So with the problem well defined, this post focuses on 4 solutions to overcome shoe-eating behaviour, and put those shoes where they really belong: back on our feet.

1. Identify and burn your cozy sweaters: A few years ago, a friend gave me a sweater as a gift. A green pullover with a horizontal gray stripe, it was cozy and just right for the chill winters of Bangalore. I’d wear it day after day after day, and before long it became the most comfortable item to hang around in from November to February. However, during one post-winter wash, the sweater shrunk. I noticed it was smaller, but blithely put it away, hoping to salvage the situation the coming winter. At that point, I squeezed myself into the pullover, stretching the seams every time I wore it, pulling at the sleeves, which extended to just below my elbows. To no avail. However, in denial, I continued to pull and tug and force myself into it for two whole, consecutive winters. Only then did I give up, seeing my denial for what it was, and regretfully get rid of the sweater.

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So here’s the thing. I often meet accomplished managers who are very good at doing what they do. And yet their products, services and brands are just chugging along at a steady pace in the market. They move from position to position, building their resumes and expertise, yet over time, they really have nothing new to offer. And because they are getting by, they are comfortable in their cocoon of cozy, shrunken sweaters, beyond the capability or the will to question or challenge the status quo. For such managers it is not innovation or performance that is key, but survival till they retire.

I remember in contrast, my meeting with C.K. Ranganathan of Cavin Kare, over 17 years ago. Ranga is one of the most reflective leaders I’ve ever met. Whether in going over the history of his business or in trying to carve out the future, he is constantly asking, “Where are the blind-spots: whether mine, the organisation’s or the industry’s? What can I do to challenge current ways of working?” Ranga told me then, he’d spend every morning between 5.30 and 6.30 a.m. reflecting on the previous day regarding his approach to work, his thinking behind his approach and what he could modify for the better. So he has put into place a process to become more aware of his cozy sweaters. It is a good idea to pick a leaf out of his book. You may not have the means to do it every single day, but once a quarter is a very good start. Take out half a day; map your cozy sweaters with deep candour, (usually a task to do alone, however, if you need help do ask a trusted colleague for feedback) and then deliberately question each of them.

Wearing shoes

2. Extend your networks: Sometime last year, I got a call from a well-known leader of Indian industry, one who needs no introduction. S.Sivakumar (Shiv) from ITC-ABD; he conceived of e-chaupal, which has transformed farmers’ lives. Of and on, our paths have crossed on work and otherwise, in a period of 18 years. He was in Bangalore, and wanted to meet for dinner, without any agenda. As we caught up and discussed a large variety of topics, he said, “I always make it a habit, when I am in other cities to reach out and meet people beyond my area of work, young, old etc. These are all exploratory conversations with no agenda, who knows what will come of it.” Most managers I know stay within their agenda, viewing every meeting with an eye to ‘What’s the juice to extract’. Shiv however, makes a critical point; innovation seldom comes at the core of your ecosystem, where ideas and initiatives often become startlingly similar. At the core, the system is petrified and slow to change. Interesting things are always happening at the periphery, and that’s where the seekers ought to look. E-chaupal started as a venture because, after being prompted by YC Deveshwar (the Chairman of ITC), Shiv went beyond commodities trading to ascertain how IT (Information Technology) could help create a new proposition. This, at a time when there was no visible connection between commodities and IT. So extend your networks, meet people outside of your comfort zone, who don’t think like you do. They will challenge your cozy sweaters and new ideas are likely to spark new initiatives.

3. Become intimate with emotions: Often, when considering how best to go out and conduct insight dialogues in the market, one of the first things that strikes me about managers is how distanced from emotions they’ve become. In practice sessions, when a sensitive topic emerges, the room often grows quiet with awkward silences, as we are unsure of how to deal with strong negative emotions. We cover up the silence with relentless chatter or instant solution finding, which actually distances us even further from the person in front of us. One young manager was discussing how having twins made it difficult for him and his wife to have a social life of any sort. Rather than listen to the underlying need, the team jumped into immediate problem solving: hire a maid, or have their mother/ mother-in-law to stay with them. It turned out that his real issue was a boredom with the ‘same old/ same old’ social activities with the same old friends.  He was now looking for something fresh and new that would engage the entire family, including the babies. But in the noise of problem solving, the team missed the reality of his emotions, which were a window to his unsaid needs. These needs didn’t emerge until the team stopped problem solving and started listening to the meaning and emotions behind his words, instead.

When we don’t engage with emotions, we don’t understand the human. If we don’t understand the human, we can’t understand what drives their decision-making. Science has long proved emotions to be a fundamental driver of all decision-making, so it is artificial and detrimental to continue with the old school belief of ‘leave your emotions at home’. The more we become comfortable with all shades of emotion, without judging them to be positive or negative, the more likely we are to become insightful leaders. A team that practiced this, was actually surprised to discover how central a theme it played in their product insight quest. When they met families stricken with diabetes, they had to deal with the  tears and fears of anxious spouses, who worried incessantly about the eating habits of the diabetic. In engaging empathetically with these fears, rather than shying away from them, or swerving into superficial conversations, they returned with an enriched worldview into the life of diabetics, and possible ideas to enhance their lives.

4. Polish your antennae: A belief that in this fast changing world, the future comes out of nowhere, and therefore all we can do is react or cope when we are blindsided by it, is only an indication of how cozy our sweaters are. There are always weak signals, which if we are able to pluck out from the noise around us will point to new trends or ways in which the world is progressing. For example, early warning signals of increasing pollution levels, traffic jams and a decreasing quality of life have been around for quite some time. This has led to the banning of cars in many European city centres in the near future, like Paris, Dublin, Madrid and Oslo. Beijing has a number plate system of allowing only certain cars per day on the road. It was only a matter of time, before New Delhi, the most polluted city in the world, chose to restrict cars on roads with an odd-even number plate rule. The future is without doubt, going to restrict carefree car drivers greatly. Likewise, other industries have future indicators: how we consume electricity, or enjoy our entertainment or source our news. What opportunities lie here for an intrepid innovator? Similarly, it does help to look around your area of work, and pick up the weak signals to craft future directions, rather than wait for the future to come to you.

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While this list is in no way meant to be substantive, I’ve found that innovative leaders leverage most of them as they walk with their shoes on their feet on the long and uncertain road to success. The rest of us, we’re still eating shoes. :)

Tell us what you think! What are your principles or tools to identify and burn your cozy sweaters? How do you get to breakthrough insight? 

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