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'It is good to analyse failures'

June 01, 2005 13:12 IST

Kumar Birla shares his big lessons: 1 to 4

Aditya Birla Group chairman Kumar Mangalam Birla culls out for you the nine lessons that have been the key to the group's transformation. Read on. . .

Lesson # 5

There is something to be said about the virtue of organisations that are heterogeneous in their composition. Most long-standing Indian business houses like ours have tended over a period of time to become homogeneous.

This is apparent in the kind of people we recruit, in the patterns of behavior that we espouse, leading to a cloning impact of what, we believe, is the right kind of manager or leader who would be successful in our own organisational context.

Our experience has been that a heterogeneous mix of people, though very difficult to lead, helps in the process of change. You need the pacers, the spinners, the good wicket keepers just as much as the pinch hitters, to become a winning team.

It has been our experience that altering the genetic coding, albeit carefully, can be a productive exercise that can significantly improve the quality of constructive dissent and the quality of decision making, particularly in a period of rapid change.

Bringing in people from organisations with different cultures, who have different skill sets, a different pair of eyes, can be useful, so long as they all bond with the basic values of your work place.

So, moving away from homogeneity or creating a climate that embraces different cultures and gives them wings whilst keeping the organisation rooted in its core values, can be a productive exercise and a useful catalyst in the change process.

Lesson # 6

It has been our learning that it is good to analyse failures. We do this not merely to not repeat the same mistakes, but equally to showcase success. We have created a platform called the Aditya Birla Awards where team achievements across the organisation are recognised every year.

The genesis of these awards is that each one of us needs some-thing to be inspired by, more so, when we are being stretched in all directions in the process of metamorphosis.

Showcasing success does that for you. It inspires, it motivates, it has a ripple impact which cannot be accounted for numerically, but has hugely positive, qualitative returns.

Importantly, it has been our belief that whilst the individual stars, the sterling performers are important, it is the creating of star teams across the organisation that is most critical. Individual stars who cannot become a part of star teams, are of little value.

In fact, they can be disruptive instead of being productive. So, showcasing success and applauding it, is critical. It creates a surround sound that says we can do it, an ambience of an organisation in celebration and the impact of it can be quite astounding.

Lesson # 7

A considerable part of the change in our case reflects shifts in geography as well as a rapid pace of mergers and acquisitions. The result is that the organisation is faced with the challenge of having to integrate with a culture that is foreign to it and practices it has been unexposed to.

For example, in our group, an Indian manager who moves to Thailand on secondment takes time to adjust to the fact that the night shift has only women workers, something that is illegal in India.

Similarly, an Indian manager posted to our Australian mines can find the task of ferrying workers to the mine site by an aircraft, to and fro each day, a rather unusual experience.

I have to say that our long-standing presence overseas and the exposure it brought with it, has made the task of adapting to different cultures

a lot easier. All the same, an attitude of willingness to learn and assimilate from different cultures is an absolute must.

Lesson # 8

Tracking the organisational climate, especially in a process of catharsis, we believe is critical, simply because you cannot set a problem right until it is correctly diagnosed.

We have relied heavily on the organisational health study methodology. In 2000, the study covered 7,200 managers in fifty locations. By 2002, it had extended to 8,700 managers in 65 locations. This year we have covered 10,000 managers in ninety locations. For us the Organisational Health Survey is the barometer of the 'happiness at work' index in the group.

The revelation for us has been that the feedback from the surveys have been more honest and brutal than we had imagined. In the same unit, scores have ranged from very high to very low on different parameters. This indicates that the feedback is honest, should be taken seriously and worked upon.

Year after year, teams have worked with exactitude, attacking the specific problems of each unit in a way that involves people from across the organisation.

Tracking organisational health has become an institutionalized process for us and has paid immense dividends. So, the learning on this front has been that seeking feedback in an institutionalised way and acting on it is a huge positive in the process of change.

The underlying philosophy is that whilst it is the duty of the management to ensure that the company is a good employer, the responsibility for ensuring that it is a great place to work in is shared across the length and breadth of the organisation.

Lesson # 9

Today, every organisation puts a premium on speed. We loathe anything that is not fast enough, for obvious reasons. In a process of transformation however, one learning that stands out for us is that it is only infinite and indefinite patience that brings immediate results.

Different parts of the organisation respond differently to the change stimuli. It is unrealistic to expect the transformation process to take off at the same pace throughout.

Just the other day, I had a friend telling me that the only exercise his wife ever does is to jump -- jump to conclusions. In a change process too, people are quick to jump to conclusions as to the motive behind the process, how it will impact them and the shifts in the balance of power it would create.

Internalising the process of change takes its own course however fast one might wish to push it through. There is no getting away from it and therefore there is no substitute for consistency.

We have, I find when I look back, in some instances, tended to fall a prey to what one might call the 'last mile exhaustion'. It is that period in the journey of change where the novelty of the new ideas have faded, when sufficient ground has been covered, and the goal is near, but yet not quite so. It is sustaining the organisation's will power and stamina through that last mile that very often makes or breaks the process of change.

So, the ninth take away has been that one must guard against falling a prey to the 'last mile exhaustion' in the journey of change.

I want to end with a quote of Eric Hoffer, "In time of change, the learner will inherit the earth while the learned are beautifully equipped for a world that no longer exists."

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Published with the kind permission of The Smart Manager, India's first world class management magazine, available bi-monthly.