Monday, November 18, 2013

Management Lessons at the Second TC World Executive Workshop

The second executive workshop for tech comm managers was held at the Hyatt Hotel, Bangalore, the same location as the last year. The registration process included getting your picture taken for a Photo ID card. That's certainly a first. It's another matter that the picture wasn't very clear and some of it was because of a bright light in the background that made everyone appear like they just had an idea :) And it took some time for each registrant to complete the process.

One thing to appreciate about TC World conferences is their sense of time. They start on time, irrespective of who's come or not. After the regular welcome address, we jumped right into a talk show.

Breaking Glass Ceilings

The host was Peter Yorke (who recently celebrated 25 years in the profession) and the 'victim' was Kishore Mandyam, CEO of a Cloud and Mobile CRM start up called Impel CRM. It's another thing that by the end of the show, it almost seemed like they had switched roles. The outspoken Kishore has several years of experience in IT and was earlier associated with Infosys. He's associated with several startups. The talk show was called "How I broke the glass ceiling" and Peter started firing questions at our guest. When asked about entrepreneurship, Kishore said that though he wasn't clear about what he wanted to do, he was very clear about what he didn't want to do. He was clear that he didn't want to continue coding. He told us that soon, it would not be competitive to get work done out of India. Given the constant 10% increases in salary, year over year, while salaries increases were marginal in other geographies, he felt it was only a matter of time before reality hits home. To a question if large companies would be replaced by entrepreneurs who operated out of small one bedroom apartments, he didn't see that happening soon. He talked about the opportunities available to both kind of sectors. He talked about how technology was only an enabler and a contributor to a business. He also talked about the importance of selling and how life was all about selling. He explained how the decision was easier for him and his wife who both worked in the same domain and making choices was easy. Talking about mistakes he would like to correct or do differently, he responded saying that if he were to do it again, he would have first gone and raised a 'sh**load' of cash. Funding essentially happens very early in the process or very late when the investor is sure that the idea has taken off. He also realized that one shouldn't depend only on selling online. Those who sign up online, also sign off online.
Kishore sees that the engagement model with audiences will change. It is very important to know what content fits in what kind of delivery model.
On being asked if we had a problem with English writers in India, he narrated an example he saw in the newspaper just that morning. He saw a big opportunity for good quality writers. Of course there were disagreements from participants. There was one doc manager who has worked in the US and in India and felt that finding good writers was difficult there as well. So to the problem was not about good writers, they exist. But finding good writers is the challenge.

Creating Adaptive Content
Then it was a session on creating adaptive content using Adobe. I'm sure one of the attendees from Adobe could have done a much better session live, instead of it being a webinar. If it had to be done remotely, maybe they could have used Adobe Presenter? Any webinar with only a voice and slides (however innovative they might be) is still passing on only 30 percent of the message. The other 70 percent is non-verbal communication. Predictably, half the audience were in their own world and the other half found it difficult to concentrate. Murphy ensured that technology issues added to the confusion. The gist of the presentation was how more and more people were using different devices to access the Internet, and the strategies that could be used to create content that 'adapts' to different kinds of output devices.

3 Quarters Manager
I've never quite understood the Sardar stereotype. Every Sardar I've encountered so far (and I've had Sardar friends from the 4th standard) are all very articulate, highly intelligent, hardworking achievers. Brij Sethi is no exception. From being CTO at HP, a VP at Wipro, he's now managing talent development at the Azim Premji Foundation. Brij is also into cartoons and his presentation was studded with a few. He started off by clarifying that the title "3 quarters manager", had nothing to do with any sort of alcohol. :) He talked about how, often, you may not have thought a particular idea fully, but when you start to speak, it starts to build and you finally would have pulled it of. We had to all think of getting new skills and honing those that we already have. Skills are like muscles... if you don't exercise them, they'll soon be useless. Some skills make you strong, while others reduce your weakness. Learn from others who have tread the path, both from those who have succeeded and those who have not. He described how everyone was wired for praise and how habit was a friend. He compared habits to a thermostat. They neither increase nor decrease the temperature. They merely tell you what the status is. His request to all participants was to translate some of the learning into action. Brij talked about the need to constantly reinvent oneself. You can't do the same things and expect different results. He talked about various constants like customers, technology, teams, working styles, bosses, location, use of time, weak ties and strong ties. He asked the audience to pick up one of these aspect that if worked on, would result in the most impact. What would be the easiest to do? What would be the most important to do? He urged the audience to watch Daniel Pink's TED talk about motivation.
So what's missing in the title? It is simply this. All managers should be three quarters managers and the remaining quarter, should be doers.

Which brings us to our first management lesson.
A crow was sitting in a tree, doing nothing all day. A small rabbit saw the crow, and asked him, "Can I also sit like you and do nothing all day long?" The crow answered: "Sure, why not." So, the rabbit sat on the ground below the crow, and rested. All of a sudden, a fox appeared, jumped on the rabbit and ate it.
Management Lesson: To be sitting and doing nothing, you must be sitting very, very high up.
If you are not part of the solution...

You are probably part of the problem. Time for collaborative problem solving. The participants were divided into groups and then Akash listed down issues or challenges that were suggested individually. The top five challenges that were listed were change management, developing a sense of ownership, motivating teams, managing resource crunches, conflict resolution. There were 10 tables and each topic was given to two tables to discuss and come up with solutions and finally present them to the entire group.

Each group looked at the causes for the issue and suggested various solutions that could be tried. When it came to driving change, some of the solutions that were suggested to drive change were to promote open communication, to plan for change, proper training, encourage transparency, identifying experts and change agents, facilitating automation wherever possible, running pilot programs and sharing success at all levels.

The solutions to deal with resource crunches talked about having a mitigation plan in place, good retention policies, ensuring work life balance, using contractual help during peak times, automation, revisiting capability mapping, come up with productivity metrics and go back to management with engineer to writer ratios.

When it came to conflict resolution,each group first identified the possible areas of conflict. The conflict areas include within team, manager vs team, between teams, etc. Some of the things to try to solve conflicts are objective discussions, identifying the root cause for conflict and addressing it, using moderators, importance of an open mind, addressing communication gaps and using informal settings.

The groups that worked on developing a sense of ownership issues did an excellent job. The chart that displayed solutions was complete with infographics! They classified the issue into three areas, willingness, ability or opportunity. The solutions proposed were using a carrot and stick approach, starting with baby steps, hiring the right talent, delegating responsibilities, training when necessary and building trust.

When it came to motivating teams, the groups felt it was important to first identify what the individual factors were for motivation. Identify what were the demotivating factors. Solutions varied from being a good listener, to rewards and recognition, creating opportunities, job rotation, team outings and group activities, some amount of training, flexible work options and maybe even consensual decision making.

And the turkey has our second management lesson.
A turkey was chatting with a bull. "I would love to be able to get to the top of that tree," sighed the turkey, "but I haven't got the energy". "Well, why don't you nibble on some of my droppings?" replied the bull "They're packed with nutrients." The turkey pecked at a lump of dung and found that it actually gave him enough strength to reach the first branch of the tree. The next day, after eating some more dung, he reached the second branch. Finally after a fortnight, there he was proudly perched at the top of the tree. He was promptly spotted by a farmer, who shot the turkey out of the tree.
Management Lesson: Bullsh** might get you to the top, but it won't keep you there.
Understanding Financial Statements
And thus, it was time to learn how to understand financial statements. Kumar started his career as a cost accountant before moving into documentation. It's something he closely follows and it is perhaps his first love. Kumar made a few disclaimers before starting basically to state that technical communication interested him more and that a room full of hiring managers shouldn't get the wrong impression and not want to hire him. My take is that it's a good thing if a hiring manager doesn't hire him for this reason. If anyone doesn't hire Kumar, that person is most likely more than a little unstable in the head. Look at the brighter side. Why ruin your life working for a crazy boss!

Kumar took us through a typical business cycle from borrowing money to buying goods, making the product and then selling it. He showed us the difference between income statements and balance sheets saying the former summarizes activity (period of time) while the later looks at status (at any point in time). He showed us how Google was actually more of an advertising company because its revenues came from advertising. Kumar differentiated between direct and indirect costs and showed us the impact of each kind of cost in a service company as compared to a product company. We also looked at some financial ratios and what they meant. He also touched upon the concept of goodwill. His concluding slide defined accounting as a choice between being approximately correct or being precisely wrong. That could be one of the reason's why accounting is considered to be an art rather than a science. And, of course, there was an accountant joke to emphasize this.

Direction from Directors
Peter Yorke was back to facilitate this session as well. The panel consisted of Sandhya (Cisco), Gururaj (Oracle), Pavan (Adobe) and Michael (TC World).

To a question on how to get several teams aligned in the same direction, the response was by
  • listening
  • identifying challenges and establish baselines
  • making your own assessment
  • continuously communicating and checking to ensure message has been understood
  • knowing the strengths of your folks
  • taking inputs from the team, but making your own judgment.
How do you manage long distance teams?
  • It is important to know where the technology is going
  • Management happens at various levels, at the team level, 1-1s
  • Long distance teams includes managing HQ counterparts
  • Regular calls/meetings based on needs
  • Importance of building a sense of ownership in each individual and as a team
There was a discussion on managing perceptions and changing mindsets. Michael also talked about the importance of project management skills when it comes to documentation and the inability to find qualified folks in Germany.

There was discussion about career planning and how certain organizations created a career path for individual contributors. Senior individual contributors had titles like content strategist, principal TW, and information architect. The performance criteria and expectations were also changed accordingly.

To the importance of domain knowledge, the panel responded with
  • Domain knowledge helps when dealing with other stakeholders (engineering, marketing)
  • Helps you understand the big picture
  • You speak 'their' language and can add value to discussion. Can even question what they do
  • Provide useful feedback (PRD reviews)
Responses to "Who is an ideal manager?" included
  • Someone who can maintain a 'work-dream-balance'
  • Leads by example - from the front when the need arises
  • Motivates and stands in for the team
  • Must have project management skills
Reality Check
And the final session was more of a reality 'show'/check. Adapting to the New Realities and Economy (Indian technical communication industry 3.0) was an open house facilitated by Guru. Some questions that made the audience think were
  • Are there enough opportunities in the market for professionals who have more than 10 years in the system?
  • Is there really a cost advantage for these folks and the rest of the industry?
  • What are the other options organizations have when it comes to global locations?
  • What is the general perception about writers in India?
  • Can Indian companies continue to rely on the off-shoring business?
  • How do we create world class Tech Writing professionals?
and more questions for managers
  • How to increase value as a manager?
  • Do managers need to get hands on writing, editing?
  • How do you address issues like job hopping, training and quality?
  • Can we productize documentation?
  • Is there light at the end of the tunnel?
You'd be lying if you said yes to the first question (are there enough opportunities for 10 plus years of experience). The answer is clearly no. Guru talked about an interview with someone he met at the TC world conference in Germany. If that person had the option to hire a writer from India or a writer from the US, who would he choose and why? He'd would 'hands down' choose the US writer. And the reason is that Indian writers would anyway hop jobs after 2 years, while he was certain that US writers would stick on for a longer duration.
One of the participants talked about building one's network. It was always the network that helped during difficult times. Then there is value. Do you really have 10 years of experience, or is it 2 years of experience repeated 5 times? What is the value you would bring to the table as someone with so much experience. Continue to learn, get certified, update that resume. Regularly. You are not going to remember your achievements when you really want to. If you have them. 
Guru also talked about cultural issues. One person he interviewed found Indian writers to be very shy and that they don't ask questions. So it was evident that such writers will not really push SMEs for information. When push came to shove, if you are doing only writing, you will be easily replaced. Mexico, Bulgaria and Romania are fast becoming viable alternatives to getting writing work done out of India.

And whether you are looking for a job or not... here is our final management lesson.
A little bird was flying south for the winter. It was so cold that the bird froze and fell to the ground in a large field. While it was lying there, a cow came by and dropped a load of hot, steaming dung on it. As the frozen bird lay there in the pile of sh**, it began to realize how warm it was. The dung was actually thawing him out! He lay there all warm and happy and soon began to sing for joy. A passing cat heard the bird singing and came to investigate. Following the sound, the cat discovered the bird under the pile of cow dung. The cat promptly dug the bird out, killed him and ate him.
Management Lessons:
  • Not everyone who drops sh** on you is your enemy.
  • Not everyone who pulls you out of sh** is your friend.
  • And when you're warm and happy in your pile of sh**, keep your mouth shut! 

P.S: There are actually 4 lessons. Lesson 3 is kinda extreme to put on this post without offending some folks. But if you are still curious (you have been warned) and have studied biology in school, Google is your friend. Search for "4 management lessons + Bull".
... and don't shoot the messenger.


  1. Thanks for reporting on this. Interesting discussions for sure.

    1. It's been an interesting exercise penning this down. So the pleasure is mostly mine :) And yes there were some interesting discussions. Our group was discussing motivation and one issue that came up was recognition or the lack of it. Rewards don't seem to work as you would be rewarding one person and p***ing off the rest of the team. Or, it would be a round robin and the value of the reward is lost if everyone got it after a period of time. One suggestion that said if someone did a great job at editing something, you could motivate him/her by giving more of the same work.

  2. Thanks for writing in detail. very informative and interesting read..