Fishing: A personal reverie, systems simulation, and sustainability challenges

blue fishing boat
Gone fishing

As we entered the lecture hall today, we saw ten placards spread around the class. The twin professors were already there to usher us in. They asked us to form teams of three and sit behind one of the placards. Blue Lagoon, Salmon Fry, Atlantic Crew, Brave Sharks – some of the names on these placards.

When all of us were seated, the professor asked us to guess what we expected to be doing today based on names on these placards. I looked around and found that the names on these placards had a common theme relating to ocean and fishes.

“Are we Pirates?” a classmate asked. The professor denied.

A few more guesses later, it was revealed to us that we were fishing companies. We were going to fish.

Fish, fishing, fish markets, the ocean – these are magical to me. I could observe them with awe for hours. In Chennai, one of my most favorite activities was to walk through the little fish market that ran parallel to the beach. In the evenings, you’d see women seated on both sides of the road with fishes of different sizes and colors brought in from the sea by their menfolk only a little while earlier. You’d feel the cool breeze of the sea and your nose would tingle from the ocean smell of fresh fish. You’d hear the names of fishes crooned by the sellers to attract buyers. Just beside the sellers would be the other women who cleaned and sliced the fish that the customers had bought, an additional service that you have to pay for. People ambled from vendor to vendor, wide-eyed, and all along pregnant with the excitement of a delicious fish dinner later in the night.

I think the certain thrill is because fishing is the only act and fish is the only food that still retains the primeval adventure of hunting-gathering that is no more in poultry or meat or other common food. Most food is domesticated and raised in captivity, while most fish still comes from the untamed sea.

With this elevated mood, I was all set for the simulation. We owned ships which we used for fishing. We would be competing with the other teams in the class. Our task was to increase our net worth by the end of the ten rounds. Our revenue came from our catch. Our decisions were limited to two things. One, we could buy and sell ships; two, we decided where to send our ships – deep ocean, coastal ocean, or keep them in the harbor. Each had its own cost. The decision on where to send your ship rested on the expected catch per ship which was determined by where our competitors chose to send their ships.

One of our team members who knew a little about this game warned that this was about sustainability. The teams would buy a lot of ships initially to rake in the revenues but they do not account for the fact that the stock of fish depletes as every team indulges in over-fishing. The average catch per fish then drops to a nadir that it is not economically sustainable to operate the business.

From this insight, we tried to formulate our strategy. While we understood the perils of owning too many ships, we also understood the need to have enough ships in the initial stages to rake in some revenues. The broad idea was to buy more ships initially and auction the ships when there is still demand for ships in the market. If we’re too late, the competitors would figure out that low fish stock and would not be interested in buying the ships. We debated what would be ideal time to start selling the ships. One said it shouldn’t be before the sixth round, another said that it might be too late. The professor leaned in to listen as we discussed our strategic options.

The game began. It was year one, the catch was good. Both coastal and deep ocean were equally attractive. We bought a few ships. And then, into the fourth round, a gap developed between the profitability of coastal and deep ocean based on what the other teams decided. We had to play a guessing game about where the nine other teams would send their ships. Being overly rational, we started to simply assign our ships equally to diversify our risk. A round later, we managed to sell a couple of our ships. One team which had too many ships on its balance sheet was desperately trying to off-load it. It came to a point when they were tried to sell their ships at a price lower than the price of a fish!

The game came to a close. The team with the most ships was at the bottom of the table. We were in the middle. It was expected. We followed a risk-averse strategy, we couldn’t have hoped for more returns.

We then played another cycle of the game. This time with the addition of an ‘association’ formed out of one member from each team. The association met after every three rounds to discuss matters regarding industry regulation. However, the decisions made are not binding on the members. But the association did not have any impact on the game, in fact, no decisions made. The association was hijacked by a few loud voices who believed they understood what was happening in the industry and also had the solutions to it. Much of it was targeted at the player with the highest number of ships who was raking in a lot in revenues. No one spoke about the need to protect the resources.

Soon, the fish stock in the ocean went to zero. The industry crashed.  Everyone, along with the player that owned the highest number of ships lost. Self-regulation did not work. Everyone was a loser in the end. Even nature. It was a tragedy of commons.

It was half past ten in the night, well past the scheduled class time. We had to break for the night, quite reluctantly. The simulation was surprisingly effective in demonstrating the tragedy of the commons, and self-preservative decision-making that leads to this outcome. When we discussed in our team if we should propose a rule of alternating between coastal and deep ocean fishing for the whole industry, we dismissed that reasoning it would hamper our revenues.

But it is not just a game. This situation is too close to reality that it is terrifying. Over-fishing is a danger that is imminent. Today, there are parts of the ocean that are wiped out of fish population. How the world’d oceans could be running out of fish is an interesting BBC feature that narrates the danger we face. Meanwhile, countries like China, who have exhausted their own fishing resources are now subsidizing and sending large fishing carriers into African waters, hitting the livelihood, the food source, and the marine resources of the African coastal nations like Senegal. This could be the next biggest geopolitical tension.

Last year, I had picked up an interesting travel book on a related theme. In Following Fish: Travels Around the India Coast, author Samanth Subramanian chronicles how fish intertwines with the history and the culture of the coastal regions of India. He explores it through food, religion, history, fishing communities, sport, ship-building, and many more. It is a riveting read. Recalling the book reminds me of the smell of the ocean.

A couple of days from now, we will return to class to apply systems thinking to the fishing simulation and do policy analysis to tackle issues of tragedy of the commons and sustainability. It is all very important and critical to our world. If we continue to do business as usual, my enjoyable walks in the little fish market, the livelihoods of many a people, the fascination of the ocean, and the above-mentioned author’s chronicles would become a thing of the past. It would be a shame to lose our blessings.

.  .  .

The simulation is MIT Sloan School’s Fishbanks: A Renewable Resource Management Simulation. It can be accessed by anyone. Try your hand at it.

This is what I’ve been up to

Finding a way out

I’ve been quite a drag over the last couple of weeks. I shall jot down what I’ve been up to during this time. Maybe it’ll help me feel better about them.

Our merger and acquisition classes have begun. M&A is fascinating. For one, there is a lot of drama involved in M&A’s. The period of courtship is often the most interesting phase, and of course, a majority of well-intentioned M&A’s turn sour. We’ve been going over some interesting cases in the healthcare and media space. With every new concept, I look to find a similarity in the dating and relationship domain. It is astonishing to find this closeness. Should there be a ‘break-up fee‘ in romantic relationships too?

My negotiation classes have been going steady. We’ve been foraying into multi-party negotiations. Selling my company to a big form, bagging a massive deal with a critical client, and negotiation salary – some of my accomplishments over the last few negotiation sessions. The roleplays and mock negotiations in every session is exciting. But I’ve begun to doubt the effectiveness of these roleplays.

I was a participant and a firsthand witness of a private protest. It was a live demonstration of organization, negotiation, conflict resolution, and leadership. I was as wrong as I could’ve been on predicting the trajectory of this protest. I have some enduring lessons to take forward. In fact, this event will be among my greatest learning moments at b-school.

I’ve finally completed the two books I started a few weeks earlier –  What they teach you at Harvard Business School and How Stella Saved The Farm. The later was a wonderful little management parable about innovation, leadership, organization, and change management.

We have been working on a marketing strategy simulation this term. We run a beauty product firm with a few brands. We are tasked with launching and positioning brands, determining the pricing, the promotion, and the distribution, while also investing in research and development for future launches. We did quite poorly in the first half of the simulation due to poor positioning and spreading resources thinly across too many brands. Last night, we made some amends.

I’ve also been working on a sourcing strategy for a ferrochrome producer in India, as part of a corporate competition. Too much reading about mining leases, chromite ore, and South Africa.

Catch up soon.

Day 106: Test run wisdom, meaningful motivation, and my first systems simulation

city cars road houses
A nice little town

“If you were to test a product that is to be launched in the metro cities, where would you test the product?” Our marketing strategy professor threw this question at us.

“In a similar metro city. It will have similar characteristics to that of the launch market.”

“In a city with a diverse set of population. The capital city of New Delhi would be a good fit as it has a wide range of demography.”

“In a tier-II city. No one might notice my product in a metro city.”

After three or four responses from the class, the alternatives saturated. The professor explained his logic. It would be wise to test the product in a tier-I or a tier-II city for two reasons. First, it ensures that there is not much hullabaloo and the competitors do not notice the product. Second, in the event of a failure, the brand is less affected as there is less visibility in these cities.

.  .  .

The more we are in real situations of leadership the more we understand that building and caring for our teams are immensely critical than any strategic operational plan we may come up with. Just a couple of days ago my colleague in the student-run committee brought up the issue of too much work, no fun, and the junior members feeling unappreciated for their effort. I felt exposed. Getting great output from the team is not enough, it is important to keep them motivated. These skills are called upon in various situations – in student-run organizations, in one’s learning team, or in competition teams.

As I wondered about this, the power of analytics seems to have figured what I needed. This HBR article on motivation showed up on my LinkedIn feed: What Not to Do When You’re Trying to Motivate Your Team

The author begins with a startling question: “How many of you have ever received a compliment from your boss that actually offended you?”

I ran my memory to recall the kind of compliments I had paid my team members. Could I have offended someone?

The author then lists the kind of motivation techniques that could have a negative effect – high praise, insincere compliments, effusive expressions of public appreciation as compensation. Then, in a helpful manner, suggests a few ideas that model meaningful expressions of recognition – asking for the story behind their work, let them know how the person’s work has contributed to the larger goal, acknowledge their personal costs behind their accomplishments.

I have unknowingly used these better ideas of meaningful motivation at times, but it was not conscious. Now that I understand it better, I’m determined to be more meticulous about the recognition I give to those working with me.

.  .  .

In the Business Dynamics class today, we built our first simulation model using Vensim. We modeled the beer game. The system behaved the same way as the graphs we plotted after our game. This is extremely cool. But I need to spend time with the reading material and examples to get a good hold of it.