management by matrices

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Enlighted Doership

My latest column for The Hindu Business Line: Enlightened Doer-ship

The presence of individual rewards in organisations presents an interesting problem. The ‘worker' in such a system is constantly drawn by two impulses, often at odds with each other — the first is the impulse to perform his duties effectively, and the second is to match his efforts towards the individual rewards on offer. This often leads to individual behaviours that are counter-productive to the larger goals and merely serve the short-term needs of individual rewards.
However, in reality all organisational accomplishment is possible only with the accomplishment of the collective, not an individual alone. Thus, an alternative view could be taken of the entire purpose of rewards, and the way to deliver them given the collective nature of organisational achievement. In this article, one such alternative approach is described.


The idea of enlightened doer-ship is based on two key ideas. The first idea is that the work is the primary reward in itself for the individual performing it.
In the absence of any individual reward other than the quality of work itself, one can expect people to focus purely on their creative energies being fully expressed through their work, and drop all other extraneous distractions.
The second feature of enlightened ‘doer'-ship is that results are measured purely on the basis of the achievement of the larger objective, and not individual contribution. This would ensure that detrimental behaviours such as credit seeking, unhealthy competition, and impression management would be eliminated. Success is defined purely at the level of a team, or a larger commune and not at the level of an individual. This ensures that all the horses drawing the cart, as it were, are doing so in the same direction and either everyone is rewarded or no one.
Enlightened ‘doer'-ship may at first sight seem to be an idealised state, where people believe the work itself is the reward, and constantly look at the larger organisational goal as a measure of performance. However, a deeper analysis will reveal that these are the two primary forces that lead to individual satisfaction.
The concept of monetary and non-monetary rewards for work is really a construct that admits that these two forces do not exist in the organisation.
And the reason why they don't exist is that the ‘design' of work and its rewards in complex, hierarchical systems places more importance on design simplicity, and management of egos than ideal solutions based on individual fulfilment.


While enlightened doer-ship may appear to be a feature of an ideal society or organisation, there are ways to create a system based on this principle. Four key drivers can enable this change.
The first is the effective design of roles and the mapping of roles to the right people. Here, the first step is to ensure that each role is essentially one complete creative unit of the larger picture. The second step is to map the ‘meta' creative actions underlying that piece of work, with the capabilities of the person selected for the role. Achieving this first step also has another benefit — namely, a reduction in free riding on the part of individuals, given that all notions of rewards and success are linked to team performance (not individual performance). Once the right person is doing the right role, that is in synch with that person's creative impulse, the tendency to free ride would be minimal.
The second element of designing an enlightened doer-ship system would be a flat, functional hierarchy. Hierarchy, as applied today, has essentially become a form of reward. Superfluous levels are created in many organisations for no purpose other than to act as a reward to keep people motivated in the short term. The hierarchy in an enlightened doer-ship system would be essentially functional and contextual, and ‘permanent' levels would be created only where unavoidable. This means that the role of a leader in a group could potentially be played by different people in different contexts or assignments.
The third element is to ensure that all variable rewards are linked to performance at the level of the team or commune. Among other benefits, this will also ensure that all stakeholders are working towards the accomplishment of organisational goals first, followed by individual glory.
The fourth element is, of course, a receptive culture that values the entire concept. This may be the biggest challenge, and the transition period may be painful for an established organisation, given the degree of “unlearning” of past habits that would be required. For a start-up with a clean slate as it were, creating such a system would be relatively easier.


Enlightened doer-ship as described above is not intended to disregard talent or individual flair. All it does is dissociate talent and individual flair from the reward process. In other words, unless the larger goal is accomplished, no one in the collective is rewarded. And the individual is constantly rewarded for his individual flair on a day-to-day basis through his own work content. The path towards achieving this ‘enlightened' goal is a difficult one, and one that is made more complex given the scale of modern organisations, but is a path that must be taken, from the perspective of individual and organisational purpose fulfilment.
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Building an Organizational Grammar

My latest column for The Hindu Business Line - Building an Organizational Grammar
Full text follows
The full potential of a language can be explored once a grammar systematises key patterns. The user can focus more on creating and communicating ideas and less on creating the structural means to do so.
Similarly, a formal grammar for organisations would enable them to focus greater energies on manifesting their purpose, without constantly reinventing the basic building blocks for doing so.
In this article an attempt is made to understand some of the conceptual units that could make up such a grammar.

Competencies and purpose

The first building block of the organisation is a collection of competencies or areas of expertise. This translates into an overarching purpose (or purposes) for the organisation. Purpose, as such, is an insight-driven discovery, but the insight is usually built upon the bedrock of manifest and un-manifest competencies.
Additionally, purpose is usually an overarching theme that may be able to successfully capture multiple dimensions of the competencies contained within the organisation. The glue that unites competencies with purpose is a shared vision.
The physical manifestation of competencies and purpose could take two forms. Firstly, it clearly influences the areas in which the firm will choose to operate in. Secondly, and, more importantly, it manifests in the choice of leaders who need to be fully aligned with both the competencies and purpose of the firm.

Platforms, Applications and Components

Platforms form the third building block of the organisational grammar. A platform essentially represents a market facing or internal facing proposition that the firm has to offer. A firm may have one or more platforms with possibly overlapping competencies and purposes. A product or service line is one example of a platform.
A platform is, in turn, a collection of one or more ‘applications'. Applications are fully functional, meaningful units, and can be replicated easily. For instance, an e-commerce application used by a firm in one service platform to distribute its products may easily be replicated across platforms.
A component would be small, repeatable units of competencies which may be contained within multiple applications. A component in isolation may not be meaningful, but creates value when it aggregates with other components. A collection of inter-related components would usually make up an application. Of course, components, in turn, may aggregate amongst themselves to form larger components. The linguistic equivalent of a component-application-component paradigm would be a word, sentence and paragraph.
In a really well-designed organisation, it will be evident that the very competencies and purpose that form the first building block of the grammar are found even in the smallest components, applications and platforms in the firm. This is not unlike a fractal, and its feature of ‘self-similarity'.

Applications of a Grammar

A clear understanding of the grammatical elements available in an organisation can become an important guide to actually designing the structure of the firm. Often, one finds firms where components are embedded so deeply into applications and platforms that they aren't well understood outside them, leading to frequent attempts at reinventing the wheel. Organising around grammatical elements will ensure that everything that is created in the organisation finds its full expression. Knowledge management would be a critical element in a ‘grammatically structured' organisation, in order to ensure that component level expertise is consolidated centrally and redeployed as required.

The second arena in which a grammatical element based approach helps is in the identification of talent to place into those elements. While some people are component level thinkers, others may think at a platform level, and still others may excel in conceptualising visions of future states.

A third area in which a grammar-based approach helps is the effective design of conglomerates which operate in multiple spaces, while operating within its overarching purpose or competency areas. Too often one comes across cases of destructive diversification that have nothing to do with the competency-purpose-platform skills of the parent firm. 

While this is only a brief attempt at visualising what a formal grammar for firms might look like, it is not difficult to see that a clear, well-tested grammar may have a lot of applications that help organisations fully utilise their creative energy, with both market-facing ramifications (increased revenue, etc,) and internal implications such as enhanced fulfilment.

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Organizational Culture Change

Check out my latest article at The Hindu Business Line - Organizational Culture Change. Full text follows:
The changing culture is a complex problem faced by many organisations. It's a lot like repairing the engine of a moving vehicle. While new firms have the luxury of gradually building the culture that best serves their interest, larger organisations tend to find themselves ‘stuck' with cultures that may be completely at odds with their stated vision or strategy. The big question then is whether it is possible to change culture mid-course. The answer may lie in understanding how culture is created in the first place.

Individual & organisational values

The crux of culture is values — in simple terms values expressed in the form of behaviours is what is perceived as culture. Values themselves may be of two kinds — individual and organisational.
The source of organisational values is usually the values of the founders. However, with time, as the firm transitions the values could change. This could be due to a lack of attention paid to the developing culture, particularly when meeting the demands of rapid growth. This takes the form of indiscriminate addition of individuals whose values may be at odds with the founding values. While organisational values may be documented formally, the ‘real' organisational values are informally “stored” in the minds of members of the organisation. 

Individual values may be of two kinds — expressed, and suppressed. Expressed values are those that members of an organisation choose to express in their behaviour based on their assessment of what is required in the organisation or ‘what works'. The other values possessed by an individual member may be suppressed, at least in the organisational context. It is this interplay between “stored” organisational values and individual values that develops into “culture” in the manifested form. The metaphor of an iceberg could represent this interplay. What is seen above the surface is culture, but what lies beneath is the cause — the complex, ever-evolving dynamic of organisational and individual values.

The right culture

The next question that arises is — what is the right kind of culture for a particular organisation. The simple answer to this would be — the culture in which there is no conflict between organisational and individual values, and where organisational values themselves are aligned to what the organisation seeks to achieve. It is important to recognise that the culture manifested at any time is indeed already the most appropriate culture for the current interplay between organisational and individual member values.However, this culture may happen to be completely counter-productive to the organisational goals, owing to degraded organisational values or high conflict between individual and organisational values. Any attempt to transform culture by simply manipulating the manifest dimension of culture will not succeed unless the underlying interplay of values is not addressed. 

Thus, culture transformation must address both organisational and individual values. On the organisational values front, one may first need to begin with an assessment of what the organisation's values really are. If the current state of values is a diluted version of the original intent, a fresh rediscovery or redefinition of values may need to take place in order to define an ideal state.

On the individual values front, the first intervention should be at the ‘input' stage, where new members are inducted. If a well-defined organisational identity or value is in place, it is not difficult to identify and add individuals who are in alignment. The bigger challenge is for existing members. Here, the solution is likely to be a more gradual one. It may involve a reassessment of all levels in the hierarchy to determine the “culture” icons best suited for leadership roles in the “new world” as it were. Leadership roles are the key fulcrums upon which culture is reinforced. This is because leadership behaviours typically tend to activate the relevant values in followers (provided the followers subscribe to those values at least partially). Over time, a culture transformation process would start to work on the organisation's memory, replacing negative versions of the organisation's values that are “stored” in the minds of members with fresh versions, till the new version becomes the new normal.

Setting right a malfunctioning or poorly aligned organisational culture is undoubtedly a complex process and may require an intuitive, right-brained mindset on the part of the designers, as well as multiple iterations to arrive at the right solution.Finally, culture needs to be an integral component of organisational strategy, as it is the foundational building block upon which the organisation's purpose can be manifested into reality. 
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