I was born in 1957. A long time ago. And that meant I grew up in the Sixties and early Seventies, in an India that was teenage in its independence. [In fact, when I was born, Goa still belonged to Portugal, albeit only since its annexation over four hundred years earlier.]
They were times of tumult and of transformation, of triumph as well as tragedy. Change everywhere. Change at incredible speed. Change with long-lasting consequences. Women entering parliament and even becoming heads of state; racism being tackled head-on for the first time; valves being replaced by transistors; man going into space; man landing on the moon; computers beginning to be exploited commercially, the mouse and the pointer being invented, personal computing becoming a possibility, the internet beginning to take shape. Mobile phones entering the fray; e-mail rearing its ugly head. Protest movements everywhere, people fighting to be heard, people fighting for their rights. Fighting against colour prejudice, against gender inequality. Fighting for the right to choose and for the right to live. Affordable international travel, leading to greater mobility across the world. Assassinations, hijackings, the beginnings of modern terrorism. Entire countries dying, and new ones coming up, as the last vestiges of five hundred years of European colonialism came to an end. War. And peace. And some of the finest music ever produced.
By the time I was 14 years old change, and rapid transformational change at that, was a constant in my life.
I’ve spent the next 40-odd years observing change, being part of that change, changing myself. And sometimes even trying to change some of the world around me.
For some reason, quite early on, I began perceiving each wave of change, regardless of its locus and coverage, as something separate in itself. Compartmentalising the change in order to make sense of it. Seeing each change as an individual thing, with something I could identify as a start, something I could identify as an end, some people involved in making the change happen, some people involved in leading that change. Starts and ends, reasons and goals, resources and costs and times and outcomes.
Yes. I confess. I viewed much of the change around me as a set of projects, sometimes interwoven, sometimes overlapping, sometimes gloriously isolated.
All projects involve change. All change meets inertia. And there’s always some risk as a result. A lot of the time, changes begin without everyone really knowing what the desired end-state is. Which means you have the skills and knowledge for the start of the project and, in all likelihood, you have to figure things out as you go along. Discover stuff. Learn, usually from mistakes. Adjust, refine. Move on. Sense and learn and respond. Again and again. Iterating until you reach where you need to be. The persistence of Robert the Bruce. The perspiration that lubricates inspiration. If you keep on at it, learning as you go, then, in Yoda fashion, you get to there-is-no-try-only-do.
That’s what projects are. Each project is a try that becomes a do as you iterate and refine and adjust and learn. Most of the time, change takes you to a place where you’ve never been; sometimes, it takes you to a place that nobody’s ever been. So discovery and learning and iteration become critical.
As you scale from one-person projects to larger ones, some sort of governance model becomes necessary. A process for agreeing priorities, for allocating resources to the tasks, for monitoring progress and getting feedback, and for intervention in the event of problem or conflict. [I chose not to use the word “failure” in that set. I have not failed, I have found ten thousand ways that do not work…]
Most projects start with constrained resources. Anecdotally speaking, the projects I’ve enjoyed the most have been those with hard constraints. Such projects tend to attract people-who-want-to-govern-inspect-or-otherwise-give-their-opinion in droves. Droves and droves. Advice and support and help are always useful, provided you know how to use them. There’s a serenity prayer in there somewhere.
Some people may come to praise the “project”, some to bury it. You can’t do anything about it, it’s a hazard of business. But what you can do is this: you can figure out whether the person in question could help you decide on the right thing to do, or about doing things the right way.
In my own experience, there are many many people who can tell you how to do things the right way.
But a rare few who can help you work out the right thing to do. They’re keepers.
George Gilder used to say that every economic era is characterised by its unique abundances and scarcities, and that a successful business is one that makes use of both the abundances as well as the scarcities.
So that’s what I’ve tried to do in projects. Corral together the people who can help me do things the right way, convert their energy into repeatable process, build bureaucracies around them as and when needed, just to contain the sheer numbers and make things efficient. A QWERTY keyboard approach to prevent logjam.
And then I’ve tried to spend as much time as possible identifying, nurturing, developing the people who can tell me the right thing to do. The rare and the scarce. The keepers.
Which is why, when I look at governance models in companies, sometimes I have to smile wryly.
Startups tend to be hungrily looking for people who can help them ensure the right things are done. And they call them mentors and coaches and advisors.
Established companies tend to be looking, somewhat less hungrily, for people who can help them ensure that things are done the right way. And they call them NEDs.
Abundances and scarcities. It’s important to know which is which.