Wednesday, March 29, 2006

In praise of the right brain, TOI, 26 March 2006

Last year I was on the jury of the McKinsey Award for the best article in the Harvard Business Review, a monthly journal for managers. This wasn’t easy work because I was forced to read every single article in the magazine in 2005 when I would much rather have been reading a novel. Besides, I have always believed that business is more about doing and less about reflecting. I was amused to find so many of the best articles had Indian names attached to them, and I thought with a smile, India is not only producing spiritual gurus but also “business gurus”. But I am sceptical of this latter ‘guru’, and sometimes wonder if the acronym stands for someone “Good at Understanding, but Relatively Useless”.

In the December issue I came across an article called “Hiring for Smarts”, which argues that the old fashioned IQ test is still the best predictor of success at the workplace. I liked the piece, not only for its clarity and confidence but for its impressive data base. In the end I decided not to nominate it because it was counter-factual. I know too many bright people with very high IQs who have failed as managers. The reason is that they lacked the ability to implement, a far more important skill in the world of action, and more difficult to acquire than thinking ability. I have known too many companies with excellent ideas and strategies who failed because their employees did not have executional abilities.

Of course, one needs to apply intelligence in executing a plan--in priorizing tasks, for example. But I find that determination and persistence are more important in getting results. These qualities reside on the right side of the brain, whereas analytical abilities lie on the left side. Jim Collins’ study of outstanding CEOs (From Good to Great) has arrived at the same conclusion. When I was younger and went recruiting at the IIMs, I always sought persons who had willpower and resolve rather than those with sheer mind power. The irony is that our education system teaches us to think but not to get things done. You’d expect that business schools would correct this bias, but they don’t teach one to implement either.

Our brahminical bias in favour of knowledge in India creates an even bigger gap between thought and action. Many of our leaders who run the world of affairs—profit and non-profit organisations, colleges, cricket teams, hospitals—lack the same ability to deliver results. Millions of our government employees are smart, having entered via competitive exams. Yet they persistently fail to repair roads, provide drinking water in villages, get teachers to show up at primary schools, action an FIR at a police station. Perhaps, the IAS exam should also check out a bias for action.

We tend to blame ideology or democracy or our system, but the dirty secret is that Indians value ideas over accomplishment. Exceptions like Shreedharan at Delhi’s Metro or Kurien at Amul did deliver, after all, from within the system. Even Nehruvian socialism could have delivered more—it didn’t have to degenerate into “Licence Raj”. The “golden quadrilateral’ highway project made great strides when B.C. Khanduri set clear, measurable goals, monitored day to day progress, and persistently removed obstacles. He thus motivated NHAI employees, but also made them accountable. These are some of the implementation qualities of the right brain, which make ordinary people do extraordinary things.


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The reason is that they lacked the ability to implement, a far more important skill in the world of action, and more difficult to acquire than thinking ability.

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