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Saturday, November 26, 2011

Confidence is temporary and contextual

"Confidence is one thing, but that can be temporary and that can fade as quickly as it came really." 

Who do you think made this statement? It was made by Roger Federer, winner of 16 Grand Slams, a record in the professional tennis world. Roger Federer made this statement just after he had won the semi-finals in the year ending ATP Finals at London in November 2011.

Systems thinkers call such as variables as an 'emerging property' of a system.This means that confidence is not inherent in you; it emerges out of your engagement with that system. That is why, Roger Federer can be confident in playing tennis, but he could be very nervous and jittery while 'investing his money' or 'helping his children to find the best school'.

As Confidence is an 'emergent property' of the system, it is not a 'time-less' trait; it is a time-dependent trait that is true only for that 'time' or moment.It can fade as easily as it emerged. For instance, if Roger Federer stops improving his game, his capability will not match with the demands of the game and he will feel less confident. In other words, constant improvement in the activity is not just necessary, but is absolutely essential to remain 'confident' in the field. This is what Roger Federer had to say about his effort in tennis.

As Federer explained, "I used to have a weak backhand. But then everybody played to my backhand. So obviously I was always going to improve my backhand eventually." He further added , "I think the same thing kind of happened to many different players. I don't think Novak's forehand used to be a strength. Today it's a weapon. [With] Rafa, [it’s] the same thing. He used to struggle if you hit hard into his forehand. Today it's no problem for him anymore. 

In other words, remaining confident is not automatic; neither to Roger Federer, nor to you. It depends on your engagement with the  'system' and the actions you take to match your capabilities with the changing 'demands'of the situation.  

Therefore it is wrong to claim ' I am confident'. It is more appropriate to say " I am confident in doing xyz today'. Please remember this when you are giving your next interview, or when you are talking to your boss or your subordinates. 

At this time, I sadly remember an interview of Vidhu Vinod Chopra he gave on the TV when his movie "1942-The love story" was released in 1994. Vinod Chopra wanted R.D. Burman to compose music for his film. When Vinod Chopra approached R.D. Burman for composing music, R.D. Burman had not composed music for a long time. Vinod Chopra said, 'R.D. Burman's confidence was so shattered that he did not believe that someone would want him to compose the music'. And remember R.D. Burman was a music composer of more than 300 plus films over three decades ( 1960 to 1990), some of which have been memorable like 'Padosan'and 'Yaadon Ki Baraat'. 

Confidence is temporary and contextual. Because it is an emergent property of a system, one has to 'engage' with the system to remain confident. 

A puzzle for you: What are your other 'traits', which you think are yours, but which actually 'emerge' from your engagement with the system?  

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Misdirected effort only generates heat, not light

Our efforts to produce result are often directed towards visible systems* which are under our control, so to say. For instance, if a student is studying for a subject to score higher marks, he typically focusses on efforts that are in his control - understanding the chapters of the subject, trying to understand the difficult sections by re-rereading and careful dissection,  mugging the portions that seem long winding and so on.

Smart students, on the other hand, concentrate on the invisible systems that are under their influence, not control. For instance, they will find all the connected systems around the subject and exploit the 'interrelations' between them. Using their friends who know the subject better they will understand the 'subject better and faster', by understanding what 'questions' appeared in the last year exam they will focus their effort selectively, by knowing when the subject exam is amidst rest of the subjects, they will plan the study time given to the subject carefully.  

If you are balancing your efforts between the invisible and visible systems unconsciously, you are the lucky one. Now, with the clear articulation of invisible systems, you can work on invisible system consciously.

As a student you may afford to ignore the invisible systems that help you produce result, but if you are working, you just cannot afford to ignore. In a work-system, invisible systems in the work-life are much larger in proportion ( about 60-70%) than in study-life. 

Ignoring the invisible systems in work-life is an invitation for trouble. For instance, what do you think is impact of invisible systems on the result of a player who is playing an individual game ( like tennis)   and not the team game ( like cricket). As you will observe in a tennis match, even when a player wins the same points as other player, he may still lose the match, because he failed to influence the invisible systems of the match. Can you guess the invisible systems of a tennis player? 

In an organisational work-life, the invisible systems matter a lot, because of the dual effect of specialisation and 'team-effect'. We have seen how much supervisors impact the evaluation of knowledge work in organisations.  We have also seen how managing perception is important for senior bosses for whom time is always scarce. Impact of invisible systems is very high on the work-output of a knowledge professional.

I have seen a smart sales officer unable to produce the desired 'output' because he was given a 'difficult' territory that was spoilt by the earlier incumbent. I have seen a smart programmer spend considerable time than required to 'maintain' a program, because the earlier programmer did not 'document and design' the program properly. I have seen a talented R&D manager struggling to produce 'result', because his product is competing with a heavy-weight multinational competitor who is spending 5 times the budget than his company. Every day, in my coaching, i see numerous examples in organisational work-life, where the result of an employee's effort is determined by invisible systems outside his control.

And despite the huge impact of invisible systems,  many smart professionals continue to bury their nose in the sand and do what is in their control. They suffer from the 'under the lamp' syndrome and tend to search for the key under the lamp post because that is 'where the light is'. They concentrate on systems under their control, and ignore the invisible systems which they can only influence.

In 2005-6, Mckinsey consultants had published a report saying that 60-75% of the engineering graduates in India are not fit for working in a corporate life. I would venture to say that this is due to their lack of ability to 'see' the invisible systems that impact their output. And when they are not trained to see the invisible systems, how can they influence it? With their youthful exuberance and energy, graduates in their initial work-life tend to produce lot of heat, without producing light. 

* Systems are conglomeration of interacting elements that serve the purpose of the system.