Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Articles are now on LinkedIn

As most of my professional network is on LinkedIn, I am posting articles over there. Please go to https://www.linkedin.com/in/arshadtanveer/detail/recent-activity/posts/ for my articles.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

On the Importance of "Idiots"

"I think we should build the platform in-house, instead of buying this expensive product", he said. He had some solid arguments, but they didn't stand much chance in front of the professional salesmanship, animated charts, and confident looking numbers presented by the product company's sharp executives. He presented several counter arguments, but in vain. After the meeting, I overheard someone say "I don't understand why he insists on building this in-house. What an Idiot!". Three years, many frustrated business users, and several million dollars later, the product was decommissioned and a year long development project to build a replacement was approved. The said idiot would have had the last laugh, but he had long quit the company.

idiot-imageOften, our definition of an idiot, especially in professional environment, is someone who doesn't see the world the way we do. They are too dumb to see our logic. They are the negative thinkers. They are the naysayers. They are the ones who we love to put down or ignore. However, sometimes, they are also the ones who, a few years later, pass by you and their eyes silently say, "I told you so".

1. Never ignore them: They may have a point, but not the presentation skills. They may speak from a certain experience and logic, which is different from your own, but equally valid. So, pay attention to naysayers and "idiots". If they had the motivation and (often) the courage to bring forth a different point of view, it may have some merit.

2. Understand their premise and motivation: What is driving their thought process? What have they seen before? What fears, hopes or prejudices are shaping their point of view?

3. Think, What if: Step back for a moment, and think. What if this "idiot" is actually right? Perhaps you don't want to take his opinion or suggestion at face value, but perhaps you could factor in some of it in your decision or plan.

4. Action is important: Convert each naysayer's response to a positive action. It could be a mitigation plan, or further analysis. But, try to end it on a progressive note instead of a negative, regressive emotion.

5. Bring about closure, but fast: Trying to please everyone, or go after every "idiot" is expensive and impractical. While completely ignoring them is not advisable, learn to be quick in analyzing and bringing about a logical conclusion. This would require a fair bit of speed in your thinking, but also a good amount of assertion. However, there is a big difference between putting down someone's view point and properly closing it - and that is quick. mindful analysis.

A few years ago, when WhatsApp was launched, I remember arguing with a friend. He thought it was a game changer and I thought it had nothing much to offer when we already had SMS, Facebook Messenger etc. When he didn't agree, I remember saying to myself "what an idiot". Well, all I can say is that I learnt my lesson. So, each time you find yourself calling someone "idiot", take a step back. Don't react. Don't judge. Try to understand. When comparing conflicting ideas, look beyond the proverbial silver cloth. While it is important not to answer every voice in a noisy room, or get into a never-ending analysis paralysis, remember that too many "idiots" have had the last laugh.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Program / Project Management Styles

Effectively managing programs or large projects is about choosing the right people, tools and style depending on the situation, or the environment. I have seen a lot written and taught about managing people in a project team, and about the tools and methodologies of managing the deliverable. But, I haven't come across a whole lot of practical, useful literature about understanding and aligning management styles to project situations. So, I put together a few points from my experience in the 2x2 matrix below:

There are several factors that contribute to a project or program's situation, but two big impact ones are the scope and the stakeholders (here is an excellent article on stakeholder management).

Please note the following pertaining to this particular article:

  1. The words scope and requirements are sometimes used interchangeably in this article 
  2. Stakeholders include all major decision makers, including clients and end-users. However, project execution team (including Project/Program Managers) are not included in its definition for the purpose of this article 
  3. While we speak about these quadrants, please note that in reality it is a continuum on both the axes. So, you will not only have to assess which quadrant your situation belongs to but also to what extent it falls in that quadrant. And tweak your style accordingly 
  4. Please note that Passive Stakeholders or Fuzzy scope are not necessarily evil, though they make the project a lot more challenging. All I am saying is that the Project Manager must pay heed to these parameters and adopt accordingly. 

Alright. Coming back to our topic, when you consider a situation to be a function of scope and stakeholders, four distinct management styles emerge:

1. Contractual 
This style come into play when you have very well defined scope and requirements, but stakeholders are not actively involved. Almost like a client who gave you a fat requirements document and said "here, take this, do as requested, and don't bother me much". A few salient points of this quadrant:

  • Usually, Schedule / Cost Management takes priority
  • Important to agree upon and enforce a well defined communication strategy 
  • Need to develop subject matter expertise in team 
  • Conforming (ask-do-adhere) execution strategy: Not only is it important to adhere to the defined requirements of the project, any innovation, modification needs to be explicitly signed off by the stakeholders before implementation 
  • Difficult to build relationships in this situation 
  • Strive to move to the Clockwork quadrant, if possible

2. Cautionary 
When you have a situation where the scope is not clear enough, and the stakeholders are not present enough, then you have a very risky project at hand. So the following salient points define this particular quadrant: 
  • Project Risk Management takes priority
  • Over communicate. Every minor detail needs to be communicated in whatever channels are being used (email/ IM/ review meetings etc.)  
  • Develop subject matter expertise in team. This is important because they can help guide and give direction to the team instead of waiting for the stakeholders  
  • Adopt an Exploring rather than Conforming execution strategy. An exploring strategy means that the team can explore options, and propose solutions instead of waiting for someone else to define them. In the absence of clear definitions and adequate involvement from the stakeholders, proactively taking control of the situation is important so as not to derail the entire project in the long run 
  • Politically dangerous situation: Whenever there are blurred lines of responsibility, and unclear decisions, the situation is rife for finger pointing, CYA (Cover Your Assets) behaviour and dirty politics 
  • If you are in charge of the project as a Program Manager or Product Owner, strive to move to Contractual or Nimble quadrants. This can be done by helping to define scope well enough, or by motivating the stakeholders to get more involved in the project. 
3. Nimble 
Imagine that you are working with a client to build them a bespoke business platform. They are very well invested in the project in terms of their time and involvement, but the requirements are not all defined because they themselves are discovering new things as the project progresses. In this situation, it is important that the project team understands the situation and adopts a nimble approach, instead of labeling the clients as "indecisive" or "ignorant" and forcing them to write requirements that they don't themselves understand yet. 
  • Use Iterative Methodologies, like Agile  
  • Scope / Requirements Management takes priority. This might be achieved, for example, by agreeing on the larger vision and nailing down detailed requirements only in each of the iterative cycles 
  • Agree upon success criteria and operating strategy. This is especially important when the scope is unclear and you can't have a 1 to 1 map of requirements and deliveries 
  • Record decisions and action plans. As the project team keeps reacting to changes, it is very easy to lose track of decisions and inflection points. Hence, make sure accurate change records and meeting minutes are maintained 
  • Show thought leadership, if possible, to gain trust. In a changing situation, clients appreciate partners who show knowledge, credibility and sense of ownership. 
  • Project team can adopt Exploring at macro, and Conforming at micro level execution strategy. So, the team would work with stakeholders in exploring options and requirements and then deliver as per the agreed scope 
4. Clockwork
A very well defined scope and an actively involved client- seems like a dream situation. But, it can also be perceived as an unnecessary micro-management by the project team. It is important to define roles and governance framework even in a project that can be executed like a clockwork. 
  • Quality Management takes priority, because a client who has invested in detailed requirements and attending to the project team as and when necessary has every right to expect nothing less than what was agreed upon 
  • Avoid surprises, as each unexpected event nibbles away at the bridge of trust between the project team and the stakeholders  
  • Challenge assumptions and seek clarifications 
  • Team can follow a largely Conforming execution strategy, as scope is well defined and stakeholders are available to address concerns or challenges in time 
  • Try to over deliver, innovate and build credibility, but not deviating from the agreed scope  
  • Keep stakeholders “warm”, or risk sliding into Contractual quadrant. I have seen a few projects that started with stakeholders being actively involved but then they slowly reduced their presence as the project was progressing smoothly. To avoid this, make sure you have adequate formal and informal touch points with them and you maintain the communication as well as the relationships 
I must emphasize once again that the above axes and quadrants are not crisp but rather a continuum. So, some projects are better defined than others while some times that stakeholders are more active than at other times. It is important for a PM to understand the styles required in each situation and act accordingly. And it is also important for a PM to watchout for times when a project can shift quadrants. For instance, I once worked in a team developing a mass market software product that was predominantly a Clockwork project. But then, we were told that a competitor had just launched a similar product so the offering had to be re-jigged to remain attractive. It required us to move to Nimble phase and make the delivery in a phased manner, over a slightly longer period of time. 

Friday, March 11, 2016

Terry's Life - 6

Freddy, the man-eater, series

After being "terry"fied, Terry realized that this was a softer version of his man-eater boss. And we all have different sides to our personality, some of which dominate others, given the circumstances. Unfortunately, we are brought up on stories and fables where we have a hero, we have a villain, we have a saint, we have a devil, but in reality we are saints and devils, heroes and villains, all bundled into one. Which side of our personality shows up in a given situation is dependent on which side have we fed to be dominant and what our own beliefs are. Freddy believes that he can't be soft to be effective in a tough situation. He is right, but taking it too far he equates toughness to ruthlessness, to the point of being inhuman. Only if he understood that in a team environment, which every modern business is today, he has far better chances of success if he gets his people to align with his direction and work towards a shared goal. All this with positive motivation, not fear or repercussions or punishment. 
Anyway, having understood his boss a little better, our man Terry seems to have an idea. What could it be? What ideas come to your mind? 

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Terry's Life - 5

Freddy, the man-eater, series

One of the simplest ways to connect with people is to talk about themselves. Even just a tiny little bit helps. By our very nature, we are all interested first in ourselves- we love the sound of our name, we get nostalgic about our past, we love to talk about stuff we are good at, and our needs generally come before others' requirements. Terry is trying to create a bond, a rapport, with his difficult manager by finding out something interesting about his past and using it to start a conversation. This usually helps in dropping defenses and makes way to a good conversation. 

But, what is this thing behind Freddy? What kind of paranormal activity is going on here? To be revealed in the next episode of Terry's Life. Stay tuned. 

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Terry's Life - 4

Freddy, the man-eater, series

Good leaders hire and celebrate people who are different and better than themselves. This furthers diversity of thought, promotes creativity, fosters a positive environment for healthy debate, makes people feel valued, and ensures that the team operates at a high level of effectiveness. Submissive yes-men, and women, working for an authoritative boss like Freddy are collectively very toxic to an organization. How will Terry deal with Freddy? Or, will he disappear like Lucy? 

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Terry's Life - 3

Freddy, the man-eater, series

Yes. Tough times call for tough leadership. But, no matter what the situation, a leader is nothing without his team. As a leader or a manager, if you act in a manner that intimidates people, alienates the team, or breaks down relationships, any initial success is bound to be blown up in catastrophe. In short, be good to your people and they will take care of any business that you need to be taken care of.  

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Terry's Life - 2

Situational awareness is a loaded term, but it is an important skill for leaders. While one must recognize the fact that leaders can't always be reasonable, it is important to be practical. Never try to use a one-size-fits-all model to solve real world problems. Ensure that you understand the ground realities, the environment, the pressures and the people. Because, any decision taken or direction set without these inputs has a high probability of eventually going wrong. 

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Terry's Life - 1

If you are a Manager with responsibilities for even one person, which of the following have you not done lately?

1. Patted somebody's back for accomplishing something, even though there might have been better ways of doing it
2. Clearly yet politely highlighted what those better ways might have been
3. Gave prompt, yet complete and constructive feedback, while staying within the confines of professional conduct
4. Strived to understand the enabling and limiting motivations, specific to the person
5. Made sure that the environment was clear, in terms of expectations, consequences, uncertainties and work load
6. Offered a helping hand when troubles arose, and didn't use negative motivations (like shouting or calling names)
7. Discussed professional growth and career, with genuine intent and without prejudice
8. Treated the person like a fellow human, with life outside the office and preferences different from your own
9. Ensured that you were approachable, not just physically but intellectually and emotionally
10. Tried to gather feedback about yourself, directly and indirectly, with a genuine intent of improving yourself

If there are a few that you haven't been doing, now is probably as best as any other time to start.

(Cartoon made at bitstrips.com) 

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Exercises in Mastery Part 2: Them

Self-Mastery is the corner stone of success. It gives you control over yourself, instead of you being a passive result of your environment and situations. It is almost a necessary condition before you can achieve mastery over others. As a master who commands respect and exerts meaningful influence, you:
  • carry a certain credibility and respect with the people
  • can easily and quickly build rapport
  • are a master of empathy, which together with rapport, helps connect with people  
  • can steer people’s thoughts and emotions in a productive direction
  • instinctively know what to say, when to say, and how to say something to make an impact, and equally important, you also know when you remain silent  
  • pull together different people and align them towards a common goal
  • can help your friends, family and colleagues realize their full potential

This Mastery over Them happens in three dimensions:
  1. Coaching, to help people realize their best
  2. Communicating, to make sure the messages sent and received are as desired, and
  3. Collaborating, to maximize the effectiveness of a group of people working together

Let’s explore each of these dimensions and look at some of the activities and exercises you could do to build mastery in each of these. As with the previous part, these exercises are not prescriptive but meant to demonstrate possibilities. It is up to you if you want to customize them or do them as suggested.


In an earlier article on Coaching, I defined it as “…a forward looking, co-creative process where the coach helps fully realize an able coachee's potential towards a well defined goal”. I strongly encourage you to go through the article to understand what is coaching, as I won’t cover its meaning here.

Coaching is not one skill, but several skills applied in certain impactful manner. And the ability to quickly build rapport is fundamental to all coaching endeavours. Let’s explore it further.

Rapport is a state of understanding, trust and openness between two or more people that “connects” them at a subconscious level. There are several aspects which influence rapport, but they almost invariably lead to “sameness” of one thing or another. For example, you have the same goal, speak the same language, have the same attitude towards a problem, have similar jobs, went to the same school, and so on. Naturally, a way of explicitly establishing rapport would need you to look at similarities between you and the other person. Mirroring (read about it here) is a technique often prescribed to increase rapport, but I believe it is important to understand real, deep, natural commonalities before trying to mirror postures or gestures. Find out as much as possible - which companies or departments did the person work for earlier? What is his favourite pastime? Does he follow sports, and if so, which one? Where do his passions lie? How does he normally like to dress? Food? Fashion? Philosophy? … the list can go on. Look for similarities with yourself- do you follow the same sport? Did you go to the same school? Do your hobbies match? May be, he travels a lot and so do you. Use the knowledge to break ice at the very beginning of any conversation. It establishes instant connect. And then you might use subtle mirroring techniques to enhance or maintain the rapport.

Another important connect-factor is priorities. If you share the same priorities in life or work as the other person, you will build rapport quickly and easily. You may not share all the priorities but you can certainly find some overlap. 

Exercise 1

  1. Think of someone in your professional or personal life with whom you would like to develop better rapport. Could be your demanding client, your tough manager, a difficult colleague, an uncertain boyfriend, or anyone for that matter.
  2. Now, close your eyes and focus on this person. Vividly, imagine him or her present in front of you.
  3. With whatever knowledge you have of this person, think of as many things as possible which might be common between the two of you. You might not be absolutely certain about everything, which is fine.
  4. Think of specific things you would say or do to show the similarity if this person was physically present.
  5. If you know this person well enough, think of specific mannerisms, like the tone of voice, body language, eye contact duration etc.
  6. What can you mirror, without making the person feel awkward or inconvenient? 
  7. Repeat the exercise with more people.
  8. You don’t have to do this every day as a religious routine, but you must do it often enough that it comes naturally to you when you meet someone in a party or a conference


Communication is crucial, and I have seen many people fail just because they couldn't communicate well. Or, well enough. Developing in this area is a lifelong endeavor, no matter how proficient one might get. And, like any skill, you are almost guaranteed to lose your magic touch if you don’t keep doing it. How to improve your communication skills is a very large topic in itself, so I will only touch upon a small but subset. For example, I won't talk about Listening skill, even though it is extremely important for effective communication.
As a speaker or writer, you must take responsibility for successful communication. If the other person misunderstood or misinterpreted something, well, don’t blame them and try to set your delivery straight first. In most scenarios, communication (both written and verbal) has to be
  • Comprehensive: covering all the items you wanted to cover
  • Concise: succinct, to the point
  • Clear: to the receiver, that is. Pay attention to your sentences, to ensure the message will be received as intended. So, pay attention not only to language accuracy, but also to content. For example, you shouldn’t use technical jargon when talking to non-technical people. And don’t use sentences that are too long. And so on
  • Timely: Most of the things you have to say lose their relevance, sometimes even meaning, if you don’t say it in the right time. Sometimes, that time is now. Sometimes, that time is later. But you must make a conscious decision on the timeliness of communication
  • Delivered right: Consider this simple word- “OK”. It could imply different things. Your tonality, and your body language determine if it is interpreted as a positive endorsement, or sarcasm, or even a subtle request for more information. So, pay attention to your non-verbal communication. Similarly, using ALL CAPS in a chat or inappropriate colours in a formal mail could change the way it is received. Pay attention to the “attitude” of your message, as it may alter the impact quite drastically

Exercise 2

  1. Take an email that you had sent to someone recently. Preferably, an important one with substantial content
  2. Critique it based on the above parameters, and any other criteria you deem necessary for effective communication
  3. What changes would you make to it now? Re-write the email (don’t send it, just rewrite it for yourself)
  4. Take another look at the re-written version. Can it be further improved?
  5. Iterate over this, until you are satisfied that the email is as perfect as possible
  6. Do this at regular intervals, using different email each time
  7. If you don’t have emails for this exercise, choose some other form of communication. You could reflect upon a verbal conversation, for example. Or an online chat. Or, a group presentation you made 


Collaboration is more than just working together. It is working together towards a common goal, resourcefully, amicably and keeping each other’s interests in mind. You don’t need to become friends to collaborate. You might disagree with each other. You may not physically sit in the same location, or country even, to collaborate. You just need to find a way to work together, productively and effectively. Effective collaboration is about three things done well:
  1. Clarify objectives, opportunities and challenges among each other
  2. Agree on a process that works for everyone concerned
  3. Communicate early, communicate often

If you don the leadership role of someone responsible for collaboration, then it is up to you to figure out how to get these three done. You also need to build rapport with the concerned people- something I covered earlier in the article.
So, how do you develop this skill? Well, honestly, experience is the best teacher. The more you work with different people, the better you get. But, here is an interesting exercise that I am sure will help:

Exercise 3

  1. Imagine that your task is to cross a deep jungle on foot, going through thick woods, a river and grassland
  2. You need to take three animals with you too- a carnivore (say, a tiger), a herbivore (say, a goat) and a bird (say, a parrot)
  3. Imagine that these are intelligent beings that can think and communicate like humans, but their basic survival instincts and dietary habits are intact
  4. You must ensure that all four of you arrive safely at the end of the jungle
  5. Cages and other physical constraints are not allowed
  6. How will you tame the carnivore’s temptation, the herbivore’s fear and the bird’s instinct to fly away to the destination by itself? What will you tell them? How will you keep checks? What systems will you create to force collaboration? Think creatively, and let your imagination run wild, making this an exciting and interesting game
  7. Repeat the exercise with different kinds of carnivores, herbivores and birds. Even assign human personalities to some of them (say, the goat is meek, a rabbit is clever, while both are herbivores; or an eagle is strong willed and adamant, an owl is wise, while both are birds...and so on)

This exercise is a lot more fun when done in a small group of friends or colleagues. If you can think of ways to make a vicious tiger, a meek-and-meaty goat and a flighty parrot work with you towards a goal, do you think you can now work with your team mates and co-workers, getting them to collaborate better? Once you are done with a couple of exercises, you will feel much more confident. Go on. Have fun. We will discuss mastering the environment next time.