January 16, 2011

Baggage of Experience - Article by Sanjay Anandaram

The meeting ended with a list of “to-dos” for each of the startup team members. Everyone appeared charged and excited. Yet one of the members appeared less enthusiastic. Upon having a discussion with him, he said that he had the longest list of to-dos, with almost 15 specific items! More importantly, he felt that most of them would be a waste of his time as he was sure that executing them wouldn’t really benefit the company.

A few weeks later at a follow-up meeting where the status of these to-dos were being reviewed, it transpired that only 2 of the 15 items on this individual’s list had been done and that too only in part. He explained that he hadn’t followed through on the execution of the 13 items as “given my earlier experience (in another company), I was sure they wouldn’t work”; But what of the part execution of the 2? Ah, the completion of those items required inputs from others and since those inputs weren’t forthcoming, the work couldn’t be completed in full.

When the individual was asked if he was sure that the 2 items that were to be implemented would benefit the company, he said there was a “high probability”. In other words, there was still uncertainty. All of us carry baggage from our past experiences. Those experiences colour our decision making abilities in the present and future. The real issues to consider while arriving at decisions relate to the context, environmental situation and applicability of the past experiences to the present. And to give in to and stay with the temptation of applying the learnings from the past without appreciating the nuances. For example, certain marketing campaigns that didn’t work in say, the earlier context of a fast-food chain cannot be used as templates for decision making in another context of say, on-line travel.

In a startup and in the Indian context, it is very hard and indeed impractical to use the past as a predictor of the future in a vast majority of the cases. In most cases, the business opportunities and customer segments are brand new, are growing fast, and there are a slew of new companies with new approaches attempting to cater to these opportunities. For example, Airtel wouldn’t have been a successful brand if it had attempted to learn from the marketing efforts of BSNL. Or, if a Make My Trip had attempted to learn from the efforts of a P & G. Obviously, there are some high level learnings – at the level of universal abstractions – that are uniformly applicable but these are about as useful to a startup as saying that one is addressing the issue of world hunger or peace! The context, the details, the nuances, the model etc are where the devil lies.

If no one knows what will work, what should the startup do? Short answer: try out all possibilities! As fast and as smartly as possible. Learn from the experiments in the market, adapt and re-launch the campaigns or programmes. Some will work, most won’t. Those that work start becoming the fulcrum of the company’s “strategy”, the kind that provides material for 20:20 hindsight laden speeches that the CEO will make in the future, if the startup is reasonably successful. Given that speed is one of the great advantages the startup has, ensuring that all functions of the company operate at top gear and beyond is crucial. Mistakes will happen but then there will be enough time to rectify them if one moves fast enough. Technology is ensuring that cycle times are getting dramatically shortened, hence decision making and consequent action needs to be operate in tandem.

Waiting for feedback or inputs from some others in order to complete one’s task isn’t going to be helpful to the startup that’s focused on growing. In the example quoted above, the executive team member was harming the company far more by inaction and by mindless application of a past experience. It is crucial to learn to identify these behaviours and take suitable action – counseling, training, mentoring – to ensure that the culture of action and the consequent learnings are what guide the startup in today’s India.

Sanjay Anandaram is a passionate advocate of entrepreneurship in India; He brings close to two decades of experience as an entrepreneur, corporate executive, venture investor, faculty member, advisor and mentor. He’s involved with Nasscom, TiE, IIM-Bangalore, and INSEAD business school in driving entrepreneurship. He can be reached at sanjay@jumpstartup.net. The views expressed here are his own.