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Curling freekicks and soaring GPAs

In blah, consulting, life, work on June 8, 2011 at 12:35 pm

Stereotypes. We debunk the idea publicly but cling to them personally and maybe feel guilty about it. Logic suggests that they are at best, exaggerated and at worst, misrepresentations. Think about it, it’s just not possible that every South Indian school-going kid excels at academics and sucks at sport or that every Brazilian kid can curl stinging free kicks around corners (actually am not sure about this one). In some cases we overcompensate to demonstrate the lack of a bias, which by itself proves the existence of one.

But any viewers of American late night talk shows would be led to believe that everyone in America is either progressive and open-minded (Democrat) or ridiculously close-minded and backward-thinking (Republican). Now, I know nothing of politics in general and so I think the idea of such clear and non-overlapping ideologies is convenient. Which means it’s impossible.

One of my work assignments was for a large company with it’s headquarters in North America. Since part of the work involved meetings in India, a senior big-designation type person from above company flew down. Over the course of the next few days, 3 specific interactions stand out:

  1. Within a few minutes of introductions, he had made clear his affiliation to the Republicans, and then went on to criticize the Obama-led government. I wondered at the wisdom of starting a strongly opinionated political discussion within 30 mins of having met someone from a different country but then put it down to him (rightly) assuming that I wouldn’t care about American politics
  2. During the course of the day, he kept going back to what turned out to be his favourite topic, politics. He started innocuously enough, by criticizing policies and went on to slightly dodgy territory, Gun control. He stated his opinion about how guns were a reason rural crime was low. “Any ***** person breaking into a home in rural America knows that the owner probably has guns”. Note that the ‘bleeped’ part of the statement was a reference to a colour. Yup, you read right.
  3. Meetings done, the team (3 of us) and the client executive drove back to the hotel. As is the unfortunate case with our higher-priced temporary accommodations, there was a security check process to get through that included a beautiful German Shepherd. The exec made a remark about how that was a happy dog who probably would think of a stick of dynamite as a chew toy. Polite laughter ensued from the team billing his company by the hour. Enjoying the mirth he caused, he went on to say “That dog doesn’t care if there’s a ****** in the car”. fill in the ‘bleep’, terrorist/criminal? nope, he mentioned a religion. And guess what, one member of our team did belong to that religion. I don’t believe my dropped jaw picked itself up till I got to my room.

For the remainder of the trip, I kept waiting for him to say “Gotcha!”  to say that his portrayal of the caricature of the hick Republican was a joke he’d played on us but to no avail. In fact, he only added to it later by asking me if I was from a privileged Indian background going by how I spoke ‘his’ language.

Not quite an ‘aha’ moment but it was one of the few times that a stereotype seemed to affirm itself.

Anatomy of a kickoff

In blah, consulting, work on December 5, 2007 at 5:05 pm

Engagement kickoff meeting. We’ll call the key participants Entity A (hint: starts with a P…ends with an artner) and Entity B (hint: John Grisham). There are others involved, and by relative importance, they will be called non-entities.

Why not just refer to them with their names? Three reasons; Client confidentiality, lest the managers of the ‘Unethical use of information for material gain’ department of every competing organization to our client is trawling the internet and other dark places to find information that they can use, two; this is only a representation of a gazillion similar meetings occurring all over the world and three; it would make the story less fun to tell.

Entities A and B arrive (within 4-5 minutes of each other, about 10 minutes past scheduled time) with non-entities in tow. It is important here to note that the number of non-entities could vary depending on the scope of the engagement. First few minutes are spent on one or more of the following: traffic (how they started from home/office at daybreak), weather (in proportion to how much rain there has been), work (making sure that no actual details are mentioned). Smiles and nods all around from the non-entities. One of the non-entities (usually the newest) has twiddled with the focus and sundry knobs on the projector to maximize graphic impact. (it’s a mechanism to soothe his frayed nerves not unlike when FBI agents, when in a potentially volatile situation, finger their coat buttons except they’re doing it to gain ready access to the .45 in their hip holster).

The meeting
The assortment of boxes, arrows, pyramids et al start their procession on screen as entity A waxes eloquent. The typical exchange goes along the lines of:

Entity A: I have been involved with 117 similar engagements and I’ll be closely monitoring every stage of the project (I’ll insist that every deliverable is sent to me atleast 2 hours before it is due none of which I’ll see coz my blackberry can not open attachments). Our approach combines the collective wisdom of three generations (of fruit flies) with the essence of all the information there is in the world that will be superimposed with our patented frameworks (that table in the Economist on the page I used to mop up my spilt coffee this morning looked good).
Entity B: Being a very a result-oriented CEO, I’d like to see atleast five generations and that other generation born after specialized in-breeding in the north of the Andes (read about it that morning in a google news sidebar…others read too you smug bastard)
Entity A: Not a problem, Only yesterday, I lunched with the senior scientist who supervised that particular generation (glanced and nodded briefly in a buffet line at a symposium on dog allergies when I bumped into him causing the elbow of his jacket to dip into my paneer makhani).
…67 slides later…
Entity A:…in summary, it would be safe to say that implementing our solution will increase topline by 467% and deliver you to the land of milk, honey and playmates (potentially if all planets line up just right, if elvis comes back and if other less likelier things happen, you might get more than just carpal tunnel from signing our invoices)
Entity B: 467% in topline growth sounds about right but we would also reduce the need for capital expenditure completely while achieving a 97% decrease in operating costs and as a natural extension of that exercise, ensure that someone walks my dogs – twice a day.

Sharp intake of breath from the non-entities but the sound is drowned by that of furious scribbling

Pleasantries exchanged as the group files out of the room…Entity A turns to the biggest non-entity and says with a smile “Don’t worry, I’ll ensure there is no scope creep…you only have to walk his dog once a day..also, don’t bother copying me on the emails henceforth, just contact my secretary to schedule for the final presentation”

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of frameworks and matrices

In consulting, work on July 26, 2007 at 9:22 am

Unlimited expense accounts, first-class travel, 7-star accommodation, fortune 500 CEOs eating out of the palm of your hand…those are the images associated with the most sought after profession on any B-school campus. No wonder that most other career choices pale in comparison. Combine that with the exalted Day-Zero status…and you have a heady mix. Nay…this is not a rant against management consulting or even against the <insert day 0 firm here> of the world, but a different perspective…from that of a management consultant with a firm, the mention of which causes the listener’s eyes to narrow as they do a mental search to make some kind of connection by way of reference but fail. Given the number of ‘day in the life of’ sessions conducted by the usual suspects and the fact that these guys are also the most articulate you’re likely to ever come across, it’d be an achievement for any B-school grad to not know everything that happens between the moment the sharply dressed MC shrugs on his Savile Row jacket to the power handshake with the client CEO as he and his team marvel at the slick ‘deck’ you just presented.

So, what’s the same profession like when shorn of its splendour? When you’re rooming at hotel Staywell instead of ‘The Oberoi’…ok I made the hotel up but you get the idea, when you have to convince your client that flying budget is just not the way to go and when you gotta stand in line to get into a beatup ol’ black-and-yellow to get home after disembarking from that hard-earned ‘full-service’ flight?

Do-it-yourself : Small clients => smaller budgets => (much) lower billing rates => smaller teams. So, a lot of grunt work that might otherwise have been smoothly delegated to that lower life-form know as analysts, you do yourself. This includes calling your respondent group to setup appointments to preparing that industry pack for the first internal brainstorm session with your principal.

Primary Research travails : small firm => lean staffing => lots of pillar-to-post. When one of the ‘key value propositions’ of the firm is in-depth supplier/buyer behaviour by doing in-person research, means umpteen 1-2 day trips to random-ass cities with meetings lined up (by you). Am only guessing here, but an MC from a top-tier firm could possibly get away with a ‘robust methodology’ applied to a ‘dipstick’ survey

Unassigned? what’s that? : You’ve huffed and puffed to send the report to the clients post the final meeting…with all those extras the client wanted (some that your client couldn’t care less for but your boss wanted)..including that sensitivity analysis on the financial projections that took into account armageddon. You hit send and even before the length of your back comes in contact with the backrest of your chair, a principal strolls in saying “you’re done with engagement xyz, right”…rhetorical question really…and you’re off…to the kick-off meeting for the next project. And then your buddy from <insert day 0 firm here> calls and says how he’s been home for the past week coz he’s unassigned…you start fantasizing about that last scenario you modeled

High-profile PIA (pain-in-the-ass): When a habitual consumer of MC services (read any multinational or Indian company featuring on any forbes list), all hell breaks loose. The story usually is that the company isn’t chuffed about their last encounter with <insert day 0 firm here> and hence is looking to ‘de-risk’. What it actually means is to have your happiness sucked out of you for the duration of the engagement….with review meetings aplenty, you work and rework your deck till the project folder has more versions than windows has bug-fixes

But all said, you’re still looking to answer questions that someone who runs a business has asked…and to see even a portion of your recommendations implemented is the high that makes most of the above worth it… of course, that doesn’t mean I have anything against travelling first class 🙂

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The art of profitability – Adrian Slywotzky

In Book Review, consulting, Strategy on March 7, 2007 at 4:41 pm

Written in teacher – disciple style, the book is a series of meetings between Steve Gardner, in his first job in the strategic planning function at a company that’s going downhill, and a veteran of the business world, David Zhao, consultant to the top-brass of several companies. The oriental last name of the teacher is a none-too-subtle parallel to Sun Tzu’s ‘The art of war’, which is a quoted a few times in the book. Over the course of 23 meetings (all held on Saturday mornings in Zhao’s office), they discuss different profit models successfully employed by companies.

There are 23 profit models discussed in the book. While that seems overwhelming, the book does not delve into the intricacies. I found some of the models; like Customer Solution Profit, to be simplistic. However, a few of the models are handy to have an idea about and while the examples help drive home the point, a few more would have helped. The models are also not mutually exclusive and I found it hard to distinguish between a few of them.
All said, the book is a light read and fitting for when one’s waiting for the boarding announcement.

Operation: Diamondrocket

In consulting, life, work on October 20, 2006 at 6:59 pm

Its amazing how little it takes for the market-leader’s offering to become an also-ran. About six odd months ago if someone asked me about the best domestic airline, would be an equivocal answer – Jet airways. Their flights (usually) left the tarmac on time, service was courteous – both on the ground and in the air, food was palatable. It helped that its closest competitors struggled to get their planes off the ground and had a hard time figuring out where the next flight was off to.
So, I did my first trip on Kingfisher, and all the signed assertions aside, they certainly have raised the bar on air-travel in India. The ground-staff just that bit extra-smiley, the seats just that bit wider, the personal video screen just that bit unheard of. To complete the comparison, the return trip was on Jet Airways and it was brought home to me that the industry-leader didn’t necessary have to be doing anything really wrong to be left sputtering in the dust clouds of a brash new challenger. Nothing that every marketing text hasn’t already said. But it brings home the fact that, for business, inertia, is death. Of course, it remains to be seen whether Mr Mallya’s patience outlasts the time for his airline to come out of the red.
Week spent in B’lore, this time however, not on endless primary research runs, but meeting the new client and getting a first-hand account of their processes. The assignment, to find scope as we go along, and a long one at that, six months. Looked at a few service-apartments to call home for the duration. Dunno how this fly-back thing every weekend is gonna work, guess having that aiplane smell in your clothes is when you call yourself a consultant? Am guessing its more when I can claim to reel off every strategy framework/matrix/pyramid/4D hexagonal holographic analyzer that there is. Have two books on the immediate agenda; Re-engineering the Corporation – Michael Hammer/James Champy and Better Change – PWC. Of course, they come a distant 2nd/3rd to finishing the contractions of shoulder muscles by mythological persons called Atlas.
For now, four days of happy diwali!
p.s: The title is apparently a Kannada blockbuster from the 70’s starring the inimitable Rajkumar as regaled to us by our driver as we navigated the parking lots that are B’lore’s roads.
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