Day 96: Public sector excellence and the importance of team disharmony

architecture booth buildings bus
The public sector presence

As b-schoolers, we are exposed to lots of corporate leaders from the private sector. Today, we met the more than ten leaders from public sector firms in India. Public sector units began with India’s socialist beginnings. While accounting for 2% of the firms listed on the stock market, the public sector units account for more than 15% of the total market capitalization while also contributing 20% of India’s GDP.

Such big drivers of the Indian economy, these public sector units seldom are in media’s limelight except when government talks of disinvestment. They are the silent workers of the economy. Despite the common characterization of the public sector as being inefficient all over the world, some of the most spectacular organizations in the world belong to the public sector.

While the salaries at the entry levels are relatively higher in the public sector, the wage gap between the public and the private sector increases as we move up the ladder. The government, as a model employer strives to maintain a reasonable ratio between the bottom-most and the top-most role. Despite the phenomenally low pay compared to similar roles in the private sector, especially at the top, some of the most impactful leaders in our society have come from the public sector.

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One of the speakers brought out an interesting point during the discussion. It is about how disharmony in teams enhance performance and the creativity of the team. This is something I’ve experienced over the last year and a half of working in different teams, but I had never thought about this in concrete terms.

The performance benefits of controlled disharmony are witnessed in the performance jazz bands, between Lennon and McCartney, between Wozniak and Jobs. What matters in the team is the psychological safety.

Read more here:

  1. Disharmony in your team? Encourage it!
  2. Can harmony hurt team performance?

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A little past midnight, seated by the steps beside the grass, in the blissful cold-breeze of pre-winter nights, over some tea and ready-to-eat noodles, my team and I pondered over our approach to a corporate competition. We had to give a solution to HUL’s bid to launch a ready-to-eat product in a particular city. First meetings are awkward and filled with pockets of silences. This was the same too. After a couple of hours, we had taken a one step ahead. Enough for the day. But for the first time in many months, I spent casual time with a bunch of people under the night sky.

Day 41: Being Amahuacas, handling frustrations, gazing at the sky

sport united states of america ball jump
It was like a basketball game, but for 72 hours

It feels like I just woke up but a whole day has passed. Every minute of this day was spent thinking and working on our Amazon Ace Challenge 2018. We were rushing against time that even a little music break was a luxury.

It’s over now. The challenge started 72 hours ago asking us to choose a category among furniture, fine jewelry, and tires and then give a plan a to drive the category growth to USD 1 billion in 3 years. We went for furniture. We’ve submitted our plan. These 72 hours were one of my productive days.

The approach. During one of our initial discussions, we agreed that in case of no clear path about which category to go with, we shall go with the one we understand well. We were sure that it was the structure and the understanding that the evaluators would look for in the submission. But later, we also had come up with an analytical framework that proved that the furniture category was more e-commerce ready than fine-jewelry and tires.

The team. The team dynamics play a crucial factor in such competitions, especially one as Amazon Ace, where the time is only 72 hours. It is akin to a mission. You cannot accomplish a mission with high skilled strangers. In addition, you need the right composition. A case competition needs at least three major skills – one to do solid data analysis and research, one to work on a logical structure to the solution with relevant charts that is convincing, and another, the creative one, to pitch in innovative ideas. When we were just two members looking for the third one, we realized that both of us were not the innovative types, so we chose the third team member based on culture fit and the need of the team. In hindsight, this worked out well.

We were team ‘Amahuaca.’ They are the indigenous people of the Amazon basin in Peru and Brazil. Indigenous people are at a threat of extinction, we wanted to bring awareness and attention to their problems. I’ve read with fondness the interactions of explorers with indigenous people. Interactions with indigenous people could lead to deep answers about ourselves. The great discovery would be that after all civilizational elements we’ve built, the fundamental human elements of love and kindness remain the same.

The frustrations. It is always that such a competition or challenge starts with a lot of promise and ideas. But when you get deeper into the problem and understand the issue better, one’s motivation tends to sap. We also reached a point where we realized that no big-bang solution was available. Every solution we would put up would reach a dead end. Or they have already implemented it. But then we had learned something from our previous case-competition experiences. So we decided not to let the lack of sweet findings hamper our effort. We moved onto build a structured solution to the given case. It comes to this in the end.

The lessons learned. We were too late to complete our initial draft. A little buffer time would’ve given us time to highlight a few elements we wanted to but missed out. In other matters, I wish we could’ve come up with a concrete strategy backed by analysis. I’m not dissatisfied with my approach to case solving. But the major lesson is this: when we focus and commit to doing something, it is possible.

The wonders of the sky. As we walked to the cafeteria, after an exhausting day, hoping to fill in for a foregone dinner, we saw a brightly lit dot in the sky, like a light bulb hanging far away from us. Some planet possibly. A friend was particularly enthused by it. I asked if he was stargazer. He said, he didn’t do it regularly, but only when he is completely down and out, like at the end of a party. I think I’d agree with him on that.

Day 39: Bonding with your furniture and the morning routines of world peoples

photography of woman sitting on chair near window
Bonding with your furniture

This was Amazon Ace Day 1. Our team of three had decided to split the three categories –  furniture, fine jewellery, and tyres – among us and then come back with research inputs to discuss with the team. We were to make a decision on which category to enter. My category was furniture.

Yesterday, I spent a chunk of my time understanding the furniture market in India. And some more about the online furniture market in India, which is just 1% of the overall furniture market in India. But the surprising fact was this: only 7% of the furniture market in India was organized. Later, I also understood the challenges in online furniture retail – lack of feel and touch and the delivery troubles.

We had to decide on a category. We tried to come with some parameters – market size and growth, ease of creating an online buying habit in that category, ease of penetration, and a few others. It was 3 AM and we weren’t decided. We broke off for the day, having tentatively decided that we will work on the furniture category.

In hindsight, I’m wondering if all three of us should have done some basic research on all three categories. it could’ve given us a better picture. Another suggestion my team member made was that we should meet more frequently during the day, so that we don’t spend too much time on the wrong track. Lessons!

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Furniture is an extension of our home, and furniture is an extension of ourselves. Recently, I came across an IKEA report titled, IKEA: Life at Home, with an objective to study the home lives of people. It is a kind of an ethnographic study. The first part of the report specifically studies the mornings of people across eight cities around the world, with beautiful pictures. not entirely surprising that IKEA is throwing focus on home. To understand furniture, we have to understand homes. If you’re a home enthusiast, I urge you to explore the various parts of the site. It has insights on minimalism, the need for ‘my space’, technology around home, and unfinished homes. It also has a section on home pioneers, who have unusual and creative home lives.

Emotions are bundled with furniture and homes. It is a wonderful area of exploration. It needs an unhurried day to explore them. Today is not one of them.

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I feel awful when I miss out on writing here for a day. I have not posted for the last two days and it makes me restless. I intend to go back to catch up soon on the ‘missing days.’ I hope I’m not called out on cheating on my 100 days writing project.

Day 24: Being Bill Ackman, Targeting Target, and midnight presentation making

two woman and one man looking at the laptop
A point being made

After my morning class on corporate valuation, we sat down in our team of four to prepare our analysis for a case in Financial Statement Analysis course. This is one of my favorite teams to work with. There is a lot of learning and they are some of the loveliest people I know.

During the term, we work in different teams for different courses. We learn to adapt, change working styles according to the team.

Today, we were working on the case, Target Corporation: Ackman versus the Board. Target was a discount store that differentiated itself by offering higher quality products as well. The case revolved around Target’s proxy fight with activist shareholder Bill Ackman. There are three major players in the case – Target Corporation, Bill Ackman, and the jury.

The teams in the class were allocated one of the three roles, and they had to come prepared to put forth their side of the argument.

We were to take the side of Bill Ackman.

Ackman had acquired 10% of Target’s stocks and had been pushing for some major changes in Target’s strategy to increase the value of Target’s stock to shareholders. In the economic downturn of 2007 – 2009, Target’s stock price had gone down and below Walmart, and its sales growth plummeted. Ackman proposed plans for real estate sale-leaseback, selling off the credit card business, and increased stock repurchase.

These major plans were rejected. This started Ackman’s proxy fight to have his nominations on the board. While Target put up renominations of its current board.

Our task involved making a good financial case from Ackman’s side. When we started our discussion, it seemed that there were more reasons on Target’s side. But then we deliberately tried to take a look from the other side. We decided to prove that Target’s ‘business as usual’ will lead down a downward path, Ackman’s proposed plan will save the company in the long term and is not short-sighted as many accused it to be.

It is always fun to go through financial statement elements and interpret, especially with a favorite team.

The analysis keep building on like a symphony. New insights are thrown around by each of us, then the significance of that insight is debated upon and then dismissed or built upon.

After spending a couple of hours, there may still be still nothing to show for it. But then the discussion itself is worth for having tested your skills to come up arguments and staying alert for other’s insights, creating new neural pathways in the brain.

We believe that we made a satisfactory case for Ackman. We eagerly look forward to the class to put forth our case. There are others who are going to have other points of view, and the professor is going to poke holes at our analysis. But this is what makes it interesting and learning possible.

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In the evening, I had to meet with another team to complete the strategic consulting presentation for submission next morning. The most interesting part of the exercise was doing the MECE issue tree for increasing the net transaction value of a digital payments company.

Hours passed and yet we found it difficult to arrive at a good structure. When the presentation reached its final state it was already 2:59 AM. We were unsatisfied with our work. But at that hour we couldn’t hope for anything more than completing the task.