Nothing is impossible

21 10 2016

“Nothing is impossible” is perhaps the most popular cultural dictum in recent times. It propounds how we can and should push ourselves ahead and beyond our imaginary boundaries. The belief in the potential of an individual to achieve anything and everything is so empowering.  “Growth mindset” propels one to break through all the obstacles and overcome all challenges, both real and imaginary,. “Be Positive” is the all-encompassing mantra eulogized by all motivation and self-help gurus.

It is important that you believe in yourself; believe that you can do something in order to be able to do it. You are what you think you are.  “The mind is everything. What you think you become.”, says Buddha. It all makes perfect sense, because it’s all in the mind.

But. Yes, there is a “but”.

Let me stretch this idea a little bit.

Believing that nothing is impossible is a great start. Once you believe that you can, all you need to do is work hard and smart enough to achieve whatever it is that you set out to achieve. The individualistic culture and the motivation space does not underplay the need for “hard and smart work” anywhere but it doesn’t explicitly call out and emphasize it “enough” either. There is certain misguided sense of entitlement that is being propagated here. And this sense of entitlement also implies that not realizing our dreams is a big failure.

Even if all these cards are played right, things may not fall into place always. We are operating in a space with too many variables at play, the interactions of which are way too many to make sense of, let alone measure and track. The bottom line is, we live in an uncertain world. To expect and believe that a certain intention and effort will definitely and always lead to a particular outcome in the midst of so much variability (both internal and external), seems to me, like naiveté at best. On the surface, such assumption doesn’t seem unreasonable at all. Because we succumb to “survivor bias”. When all we hear about is stellar success stories, and not hear so much about failures or all that in between, our perception becomes skewed.  But when you actually look at the entire picture and get the right statistic, you suddenly see the trees instead of just the forest.

A natural corollary to the slogans “nothing is impossible”, “you are the creator of your own destiny”, is the implication that you are responsible for everything that happens in your life.  These also espouse the idea of “free will”. In this complex world, how much can you be really in total control of what’s happening to you  and around? How much can you steer as per your will? It depends, I would say. A great deal, for certain things, to some extent for others. But I don’t think anyone can have total control of or can take total  responsibility for everything. While the sense of control is exhilarating, the feeling of responsibility is acutely burdensome. “With great power comes great responsibility”, says Uncle Ben. One cannot separate those two.🙂

So, what happens when, due to the very nature of life and/or as a result of complex interactions of myriad components and variables, things don’t work out and you fail or you fall short. If the culture dictates that “nothing is impossible”, how do you explain the failure? Is it all your fault now? Are you resigned to conclude that your best is not good enough? These are some very unpleasant thoughts. You see where I’m going with this?

The happiness research has a technique to handle setbacks – “self-compassion”. Treat yourself with the same compassion that you would provide to a near and dear one in a similar situation. But in my opinion, it doesn’t address the issue completely. It’s just a dressing to alleviate the pain, not the medicine that will cure the wound. So, what else do I think will help?

Humility. Shedding the skin of self-importance and realizing that you are just one element in this giant complex interconnected system makes it easier for you. Am I implying that you be complacent and shirk the responsibility for your life, for what you become completely? Hell, no.

I would resort to The Gita: “Do your duty and be righteous. Don’t worry about the fruits (results).”. There is a lot of wisdom in this philosophy. Sometimes, no matter what you do, you can’t make things happen. There could be several reasons. Should you give up, or just prod along refusing to accept the reality? How do you know when to give up? With all these cultural notions, how  can you make yourself give up and still be at peace with yourself and with life? Alas,these questions are not always easy to answer, irrespective of your guiding philosophy!

Agile – fragile?

19 10 2016

“Agility” is the mantra these days. We want all our processes to be agile to be able to deal with the fast changing environment. We want to see the outcome, even in a primitive shape, as soon as possible and then iteratively adjust/improve it taking the changing landscape into account. It all sounds very exciting. And the methodology may also be working very well for organizations. No more “being in the dark” until the end of the project to see and experience the end outcome. Users go along with the team (Scrum team)  in this journey. From organizations’ point of view, it all makes sense. The perpetual alignment among business user, product owner, developer and tester is the key.

But what does it mean it to people? Not the roles, but the actual people. Let me comment based on my observations and experiences. There is a frenzy of activity for every member of the team throughout the sprint. And there is the planning/grooming for the next sprint. On the surface (aka ideal world) it may seem that not all members are involved in each of the sprint activities and things can go on in parallel. Nevertheless, there is significant overlap in practice, especially if things are a little murky. As soon as you are done with one sprint, the next sprint starts and the cycle continues. It seems like you are on a continuous roll. It’s taxing and stressful. As far as I have observed, people in Bay Area generally seem over-worked. It is almost a norm. Speak to anyone, it is the same story. Too much work. Too much agility.🙂. Well, this maybe mainly because of unmanageable scope and too few resources.😛

Ideally, “agile” doesn’t intend to be stressful. It all comes down to how we plan and orchestrate it. Understanding the methodology is one thing, and putting it in practice in the most efficient way is another thing. As with any change, shifting from Waterfall to Agile is a big deal. I didn’t realize how big of a deal it is until when my team has finally started embracing the model. To be frank, we are going through a lot of growing pains.

Traditionally, BI is notorious for its huge turnaround times. Given the underlying architecture, any BI deliverable – usually a standard or analytical report – takes a long time to deliver (2-3 months). The entire DW project is of course a monolith which may take 12-18 months. And hence we approach it incrementally, business process by business process as advocated by Kimball. But each business process may also take 3-4 months on average. And it is usually implemented as Waterfall.

Applying software agile development methodology to BI needs a little tweaking at best. There exist some sprint planning guidelines and best practices that can be leveraged and used as a starting point. And we made mistakes. And still are. First thing, in an attempt to provide business quick results (as is the tenet of agility), we took on too much and attempted to achieve too much in too little time. Consequences: burned out team and inefficient implementation resulting in a lot of after the fact corrections and technical debt. And so we changed tactics and decided that we take in only manageable scope, and approach things more methodically. Consequence: No quick results. Business may need to wait for a couple of release cycles in order to see the output. Sounds familiar? Yeah, sounds so much like Waterfall. So, we are indeed doing waterfall in the agile setup.

This brings up the question as to what “agility” means in the BI space and how Agile BI is different from the agile software development approach. The recent trends in BI world extol the need to transform the underlying architecture and integration patterns in order to achieve true agility., which is of course a much bigger discussion topic for another day.🙂.

But the point is, unless you change the way you think about BI and how it should be implemented, (which needs more agile architecture and framework), mere changing the project development methodology will not truly help and the whole attempt at being agile ends up making everything fragile.🙂

Disclaimer: These are strictly my own personal views and do not reflect my team’s or company’s perspectives.

The “no kids” decision

5 09 2016

It never occurred to me that parenting could be a choice (like many other conventions of course). When I first heard about it from an acquaintance , the idea of choosing not be a parent was truly shocking to me, to say the least. I couldn’t comprehend the reasons behind the sentiment. But that was 8 years ago. My perception, view, and understanding of world and people has widened to a non-trivial extent since then.😛 And now besides being curious about the phenomenon, I can totally understand the decision.

I, like most, have been led to believe that raising offspring is the most meaningful aspect of one’s life. What about happiness? Of course, having and raising kids is the source of unsurpassed happiness. Isn’t it? But academic research had not been so conclusive about it. In fact, several research studies suggest that young parents are far unhappier compared to non-parents. The happiness benefits rather seem to roll in much later for the parents – when the kids are grown up. Hmm! Such a dismal outcome!😦

That parenting is an ordeal is undeniable. It is exhausting physically and emotionally. And the expectations of “modern parenting” only add to the anxiety. According to Jennifer Senior, the concept of parenting and childhood as exists today is only about 70 years old. In the past, kids used to work and were treated as economic assets. Now, kids are economically worthless but emotionally priceless, as sociologist Viviana Zelizer puts it . Jennifer, the author of All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, says that the happiness of our kids is an unfair burden both for parents and kids. We should instead focus on creating circumstances in which they become productive and confident. Happiness can only be a by-product (Listen). Despite the parenting crisis, parents usually vouch for the contentment it brings along the way. Nevertheless, when someone decides not to have kids due to the above or any other reason, they need and should not be judged.

I would think this particular phenomenon has been on an increasing trend in recent times. But maybe not universally. It is mostly seen in advanced/developed societies. This observation brings up many interesting questions.  Where is it most prevalent? It is in individualistic  societies or collectivist societies? What other cultural and social factors are correlated to this trend? (Adding to my to-read list: Japan: The Childless Society?: The Crisis of Motherhood.) Is it because people have become selfish, shallow and self-absorbed?

SelfishMeghan Daum tried to probe the question through “Selfish, Shallow and Self-absorbed” a collection of essays from 16 writers who “chose” not to have kids (a few decades ago). I don’t know what I hoped for, but the reasons they cited for their decision are not very dramatic. The simplest and most straight-forward reason is that they never liked kids, never felt any emotional attachment to any kids, and hence did not envision themselves raising any. Other reasons included: not ready or up to take on the huge responsibility; didn’t think they could do a good job; to focus on career passion etc. Whatever the reason, the decision was not always an easy one,  given the social expectations and personal dilemma. But this may be changing recently and the practice is gaining wider acceptance. A 2012 statistic states that 22 percent of women in 40-44 age bracket are childless by choice. (Source).

To choose to be childless, especially for a woman, is largely perceived as very unnatural. This is due to the pervasive notion that women are mothers first and people second. But as Laura Kipnis explores in her piece in the above book, the mother-child bond is highly overrated and has evolved only more recently. She questions and explores the so called “maternal instincts”.

Another interesting observation made in the book was the possible implications of this decision. If a significant proportion of a particular segment of people, say for example, highly educated white people, decide not to have kids, will it not result in an imbalance in the genetic mix of the next generation? Well, maybe that’s ok. Maybe that’s part of the grand scheme called the “human evolution”!🙂 Also, of course there could be economic implications – lesser workforce, greater social security costs, school enrollments, vaccine demand etc. (See here).


27 08 2016

We all judge people. To some extent or the other. Almost compulsively. We tend to compare behavior and/or traits of others with our own understanding or standards of excellence as a quick way to approve or disapprove a person with regards to that behavior or trait.  The urban dictionary defines judging as quickly forming a bias and/or personal opinion about someone or something.

I like to think that judging is related to stereotyping. Stereotypes typically guide our judgments, to the extent that we believe in those stereotypes, that is. “Stereotype”  as a phenomenon has its own place and serves distinct purpose in our lived. It provides mental shortcuts to form quick decisions in the absence of any discernible information. Of course, like many of our other instincts, stereotypes will not serve us well in all circumstances and have to be exercised with caution, and taken with more than a pinch of salt.

Stereotypes are like statistics. Just like a statistic such as “70% of population favor x”, will not tell you for sure  whether the one person you encounter in the middle of the road favors x or not, stereotype may not be applicable to each individual or instance. Of course, it is always possible that a stereotype could have become obsolete or in the process of becoming obsolete what with the ever changing cultural and social picture and hence shouldn’t have been relied upon. Of course judging goes beyond stereotypes. It’s based on our own perception of things.

So, stereotypes can be good or bad.  Following this, it can be argued that judging can also be good or bad. But I would typically associate judging  with a negative feeling, even in the case of a positive judgment.   As per negative judgments, even as you try to feel superior to others in the process, in the end it won’t result in any positive feeling/emotion.

This brings up the question as to why we judge in the first place.My theories:

  • When you seek validation for your own behavior, you judge others who deviate from your own behavior as inferior.
  • When you are insecure about your own behavior
  • When you are unable to appreciate and accept different perspectives. Not open to new or different standards or ways of life.
  • You want to quickly determine whether you like or dislike a person and so you judge them as good, bad, or not good enough as a proxy based on your likes, dislikes , and expectations.
  • People like to be custodians of their positive traits/behavior

It’s amazing how much prevalent judging is, despite our best efforts. Some of the common things that are judged widely:

  • Parenting: I feel that this one trumps all others. Almost everyone have at least a few things that they do absolutely right and look down on others who fail to do so or do them differently.
  • Significant other: You got to be perfect spouse, BF/GF. How can you not be this or not do that?
  • Weight: If your BMI is perfect, you may judge overweight, obese , or underweight people.
  • Fitness: if you have got it right, you may not able to empathize with those who lack the self-control or will power to eat right and/or hit the gym.
  • Homemaking: If you are an efficient and skillful homemaker, you may judge others’ homemaking skills which don’t measure up to yours
  • Efficiency: If you are super-efficient, you may judge others who are less efficient.

Whatever your strengths are (or what you think your strengths are), you may judge people based on them.

Will non-judging help? Will the world be a better place if no one judges others? I like to think so.  Even without delving into the root cause of this phenomenon and its ultimate purpose, the simplest reason why I work on curbing this is to avoid the negativity it breeds.

But how to go about it? The first step is always awareness. Once you are self-aware and catch yourself being judgmental, it’s just matter of letting go. It takes a little self-discipline and management. But once you let go, there is freedom. You got to experience it to understand the uplifting feeling that non-judging results in. Here are some helpful tips on becoming less judgmental: 10 Reasons to Stop Judging People.

When you do not judge, you accept. Acceptance is the key to peace and harmony.

Team psychology

26 06 2016

Every now and then you come across a concept or idea that strikes you unawares, opens up a new train of thought, enlightens you, or makes you look at things differently.

When I started listening to the chapter on Teams in Charles Duhigg’s latest book – Smarter, Harder, Better I was only expecting to hear more on the age-old wisdom on groups and teams, and all that I learnt as part of my Organization Behavior course in business school. But then I heard about Psychological Safety. It kind of blew my mind off. When he explained what psychological safety means and how it can be a key differentiator between the more productive, efficient teams and the rest, it made perfect sense.

Apparently Google, in its attempt to figure out the recipe for a perfect team, has researched teams and their effectiveness through a project named Aristotle over several years and discovered this. It is such a beautiful concept, which may simply be dubbed as “be nice”.😛  As per Wikipedia, “Psychological safety is a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. In psychologically safe teams, team members feel accepted and respected. ”

Psychological Safety has found to be a statistically significant factor associated with high-performing teams. However, it does not mean that it alone can make a team perfect.  As per the scientific research, other things like number and quality of social interactions between team members,  the existence of Shared Mental Models within the team, shared expectations regarding behavioral norms, as well as organizational issues such as the leadership and management culture all contribute to team effectiveness. Moreover, as Chris Alexander of Aglx Consulting points out, this insight is not actionable by itself as Psychological Safety is not a team skill. Read this enlightening article offering practical advice on how to build psychological safety in teams: Psychological Safety is just one piece of the larger puzzle

Another concept relevant to workplace that I happened to hear about in a recent event as part of a meetup is “Imposter Syndrome”. It’s such an eye opener.  The talk  couldn’t have been more timely for me personally. It was a very rewarding experience and the speaker, Lauren Jackman of Medallia, who is a PHD from Stanford, was very engaging.

According to Wikipedia, Imposter Syndrome refers to  high-achieving individuals marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. Despite ample external evidence to their success, people succumbed to this syndrome have a tendency to think that they are not smart/talented etc. as others think they are.

One prominent internal cause for imposter syndrome could be complete access to our own fears and knowledge gaps.

As per the speaker, among the many factors contributing to the Imposter Syndrome phenomenon, is the “Duck Syndrome”. The Duck Syndrome is Stanford’s take on stress – be stressed out, but don’t show it! This relates to the culture of brilliance/performance, which underplays the hard work behind any success. In fact it may involve hiding all the work that went into something and projecting only the result.  It creates a misguided perception that success comes from being smart or a genius, and working hard to achieve it is a sign of weakness or failure. In fact, it’s rarely true that any success can be achieved without hard work. This can result in a fixed mindset which puts undue emphasis on “what is” rather than “what can be”.

This leads us to the concept called “growth mindset”, which refers to the belief that success is based on hard work, learning, training and doggedness. Carol Dweck in her 2006 book “Mindset” has elaborated on the fixed mindset – growth mindset continuum as part of her key contributions to social psychology on implicit theories of intelligence.

When we think about other team settings that can contribute to this imposter syndrome, the following emerge:

  • Under-representation
  • Stereotypes based on culture, age, race, gender etc.
  • Lack of belongingness
  • When others are watching

Leadership should make sure to watch out for the above pitfalls that can adversely impact team’s performance and effectiveness. Normalizing failure can be a powerful strategy to help combat imposter syndrome, instill growth mindset, and even develop psychological safety and bring out the best in teams.

I like my current team and I think it has reasonable levels of psychological safety.🙂

Sense of humor

26 05 2016

I know many people in my circle believe that my “sense of humor” is mythical in nature at best and non-existent at worst. Well, I can’t truly say they are entirely wrong about that. In fact I myself am dubious about its existence sometimes.😛 Do you know that Panchatantra tale in which a Brahmin carrying a goat is fooled by four thieves who, intent to rob him off the goat trick him into believing that he is carrying a dog instead of a goat (You can read it at Brahmin and the Crooks or watch it here.) ? The moral of the story is -“Untruth spoken repeatedly appears to be truth.”  I kind of feel like that Brahmin sometimes (many times??)😛

I know it’s not much, and also it can be little weird sometimes. Nevertheless, it exists – a tiny speck in the deep recess of my personality which springs up occasionally, mostly when I’m among those few people with whom I feel comfortable with. And what’s more, people do resonate with it too. Believe it or not! (Melody, please vouch for this! :))

I just finished listening to Mindy Kaling’s Why Not Me?. And I loved it. I don’t know who she is and I never watch any shows on TV. Despite my ignorance and indifference, her memoir-like book engaged me. Her narration was absolutely delightful and I’m find myself repeating her phrases to myself long after I finished that book. I liked it right from the beginning, when she declared that it’s a feminine book. I like her humor. I like her style. I’m chuckling at some of her anecdotes even as I’m writing this. This doesn’t happen to me often but when it does, I totally appreciate the experience and the opportunity. I think her book is honest. And to the piece at the end on “confidence”, I say –  Mindy, you nailed it!

My first infographic

9 05 2016

Being a bit technical this time😛 . My all-time favorite topic – Business Intelligence.🙂




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