Monthly Archives: May 2007

Leaderless groups – a case against hierarchy

My latest article in The Hindu Business Line – Leaderless groups – a case against hierarchy. Full text follows:

In his treatise Dastambu, Mirza Ghalib documents the events in Delhi at the time the revolt of 1857 broke out. He writes: “Band upon band of soldiers and peasants had become as one, and far and near, one and all, without even speaking or conferring together, girded their loins to their single aim… City after city lies open, without protectors, filled with men who have none to watch over them, like gardens bereft of their gardeners studded with trees stripped bare of leaves and fruit.” (Ghalib – Life, Letters and Ghazals; Ralph Russell; Oxford University Press 2003)

While Ghalib’s political leanings are not the subject of this article, what is interesting is his view that the men behind the mutiny were leaderless and hence not worthy of being taken seriously.

Are there any examples to prove that a leaderless group can actually lead to efficient outcomes? Can independently-deciding individuals help a group achieve its goal?

History suggests that in certain situations leaderless groups can indeed achieve a stated objective. Leaderless resistance movements such as guerrilla warfare are a good example of this. Terrorists too tend to operate in independent cells (and not hierarchies). This probably explains why they manage to escape from beneath the eyes of hierarchical intelligence agencies.

Key advantages of a leaderless group include the fact that there is no centralised command and control system, which is vulnerable to attack. Each small group or individual behaves independently based on some shared values. This means that the group is not burdened by traditional hierarchical chains of command, bureaucracy and red-tape in its decision-making. Additionally, affinity of group members towards the cause is likely to be much higher since there is no central authority who forces membership and neither are there any negative consequences of giving up membership. In other words, only truly passionate individuals would aggregate in such a group.

Clearly, leaderless groups are structurally efficient. Are they functionally effective too? In the best-selling book The Wisdom of Crowds, James Suroweicki argues that large, independent groups of people are smarter than an elite few (leaders/ experts). For instance, on Who wants to be a millionaire, audience polls got the correct answer 91 per cent of the time, while the `phone a friend’ experts got it right only 65 per cent of the time. He identifies four prerequisites for a `wise’ crowd — diversity of opinion, independence, decentralisation and aggregation. There must be a diversity of opinion within the group, which is independent of the views of other members. The group must not have any central chain of command and there must be some way of aggregating various individuals’ viewpoints.

The Wikipedia model

Wikipedia (a freely editable online encyclopaedia) is a good example of tapping into the wisdom of crowds. Individuals across the world collectively edit articles to produce content that is by and large of very high quality. There is, of course, the stray incident involving a writer editing an article to depict a deliberately biased point of view. However, Wikipedia does have a core team of editors who scan content for such anomalies. Thus, in effect, the people who contribute to the Wikipedia project are like a leaderless group, which is loosely monitored by a core team of editors.

An interesting thought experiment to conduct would be to evaluate whether such a model can be extended to other kinds of organisations. How could one structure an organisation to tap into the wisdom of crowds? Needless to say, leaderless groups are not suitable for certain kinds of organisations — for instance, a manufacturing organisation would clearly need a highly supervised environment. However, for organisations whose main output is knowledge (software, media) a leaderless approach does seem to be an interesting alternative. Open source software movements clearly show that people don’t have any hassles creating intellectual property free of cost — with little or no supervision — if they believe in the larger cause.

Purely from a human psychology perspective, a group with a `leader’ necessarily means that one individual becomes bigger than both the cause as well as the other individuals in the group. While this is good in a political cause (like apartheid) where it is important to truly inspire people, it may not be particularly useful in a more everyday cause, like a company that makes a product or service. In the latter, having overarching leaders can lead to harmful political behaviour and other efficiency-dissipating activities that can lead to drop in motivation levels. On the other hand, people are happiest when they work for causes (not people) much larger than their individual selves. In fact, offering work as a service to the Lord, without worrying about one’s ego or the end result, finds support in the Bhagvad Gita too. Maybe, it’s time organisations experimented more with leaderless set-ups (perhaps within individual divisions if not entirely). History certainly shows that it can work well in a number of contexts.

(The writer, an alumnus of XLRI, works with a multinational financial services company.)

Previously published articles of mine:

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Life in a… Metro – A review

Urban life can make you cynical, it can make you wonder if human existence, its gentle ebb and flow is being forgotten in the midst of all the motion and achievement. So, we need films like Metro to remind us to hope. In return we will forgive the fact that parts of this film look like Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna on steroids with practically every character cheating on his/her spouse/partner. If Madhur Bhandarkar had made this film, he would have called it Affair, in his great tradition of slice of life films like Page 3, Traffic Signal, Corporate etc. Luckily the film finds itself in the deft hands of Anurag Basu, who manages a crisp 2.5 hour flick that doesn’t suffer under the burden of multiple stories.

The theme of hope in the midst of all the insanity is represented through the refrain
Tu khwab saja, Tu jee le zara
Hai tujhe bhi ijazat, kar le tu bhi mohabbat
which represents the point of the whole film. It’s all about making choices that will make you happy, regardless of social strictures, peer pressure etc.

Metro follows a bunch of young people (and an old couple) in search of that elusive thing called love. Needless to say, all these characters are somehow connected to each other, though their stories progress separately. By now we are all used to the multiple narrative format and know that in the end all the tracks have to meet (and they do).

One of the most interesting tracks in the film is the story of Konkona and Irfan Khan. Irfan’s mysterious screen presence (defined primarily by his overall likable weirdness) is captivating. He is the eccentric man Konkona has been looking for all her life (while she outwardly claims to prefer a Mills and Boon man with a sense of humour, sensitivity etc). Equally unique is the story of Dharmendra and Nafisa who in the twilight of their lives make a brave choice to get together knowing that not doing so would leave them regretful forever. The approach to this story is quite courageous. Anurag Basu doesn’t shirk for even a moment from doing justice to this story including it’s intimate moments that would leave a young audience feeling a tad embarrassed. KK, Kangana Ranaut and Sharman Joshi are caught in a love triangle which manages to dampen the film a little bit. It’s here that Anurag resorts to caricatures of urban life that don’t gel too well with the overall realism of the film. Even here there are actually a few moments of brilliance. Shilpa Shetty is married to KK, and seeks companionship in Shiney Ahuja in what is a rather restrained and high quality performance.

Pritam’s music score deserves a special mention. Pritam’s band (physically) appears throughout the film at crucial junctures and actually belts out numbers while the characters go about their lives. In a way the band actually plays the role of a narrator that takes the story forward. For instance when Shilpa Shetty finally decides to befriend Shiney Ahuja realizing that her relationship with her husband (KK) is going nowhere, Pritam’s band appears with the melodious ‘In dino..’, a song that lets us reflect on what has just happened. [Is zamane se chupkar, poori kar loon main hasrat.] I do not recall many recent films that have managed more perfectly to mesh the score into the script.

The choice of Mumbai as the setting for this tale is not surprising. Mumbai allows all sorts of contradictions to co-exist and as one character points out, manages to take more from you than what it gives. The British Raj nostalgia of the Fort area, the unceasing rains during monsoon, its BEST buses and local trains all make for interesting settings in which our characters can look for love while the city benevolently looks at them.

Metro ends on an optimistic note [Kyon zindagi se ho shikwa gila etc]. Almost all the trains of narrative finally converge literally at a train station. And yes, most of our characters do find love in the end. It could end in no other way…otherwise we would have to walk out of the theater unable to bear the burden of living in a… metro.

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Disinvestment in Education

I read this article by Gurucharan Das on TOI- A tale of two numbers.

India spends a respectable 4% of GDP on education and even in this 2007 budget, spending on education (and health and rural employment schemes) has increased 35%. The failure is the result of deeper disease. Surveys show that one out of four school teachers is absent in state primary schools, and of those present one out of two is not teaching. …

Even though these private schools pay a third of the salary that unionised government teachers get, they deliver better results. Hence, 53% of urban children (and 18% of rural children) now attend private schools. This is very high by world standards. Even Chile, which privatised education in 1981, has achieved only 46.5% share of private enrolment after 25 years.

Clearly, market forces are in action here. If parents choose to put their kids in private schools, no one can stop them. So, instead of hiring another 200000 teachers for government schools where the inherent culture will ensure that teachers can get away with not teaching, why not start a process of selling off goverment schools to private parties? It’s a rather counter intuitive form of disinvestment, but I forsee that this would clearly make schools more competitive.

In most big cities, private schools vie with each other to bag the most number of ranks, the highest pass percentages etc. These performance metrics have a direct bearing on the number of applicants these schools receive, and the profits they make. Government schools on the other hand are not measured on performance. Teachers are unionized, and have no fear of losing their jobs. Clearly what we need is some sort of free market competition for these schools to get their acts together.

If the goverment does sell off schools to private parties, there is still a threat of fees shooting up to market rates. Here, the solution would be for the goverment to actually subsidize such public-private schools so that each such entity can be profitable in the long run. After all is government in the business of education? At most the role of the government should be that of a facilitator who creates the infrastructure and environment for educational institutions to succeed.

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Google’s Adsense Income – Is there a conspiracy?

Google Adsense follows a policy of making payouts only when a user’s earnings reach $100. Now, assume that Adsense (like everything else) follows a 80-20 rule i.e 20% of users make 80% of the revenue.

In other words, 80% of Adsense users would be making close to nothing. Assume that the average earnings of these users is about $50. Assume that Adsense has 10 million users.

Adsense users = 10 Million
80% of that = 8 Million
Average earnings of these 8 Million = $50
Total unpaid earnings = $400 Million (!!!)

Lets do some conservative math now
Adsense has 5 million users : $200 Million in unpaid revenues
Adsense has 1 million users: $40 Million unpaid
Adsense has only 500000 users: $20 Million unpaid
These are still large enough numbers to make us want to question what is going on.

Thus, Google could potentially be holding about $400 Million in cash that they probably never will payout because 80% of its users (like me) will never get enough hits to make $100 any time in the near future. Is this a deliberate strategy? Wonder if Google’s earnings statements reflect these numbers, but I’m too lazy to check that out!

The least Google should do is to at least payout interest income to these users in addition to what they have already earned.

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The importance of The Great Indian Laughter Challenge

Watching reruns of The Great Indian Laughter Challenge on Star One got me thinking about the impact that this show has had. I suspect that beneath all the fun and laughter, there is something that we can all learn about ourselves through this show. Here then is an attempt to deconstruct TGILC.

Defining Indian Humour
For long we thought that Indians did not have a sense of humour, and even if we did it seemed to rely a lot on slapstick comedy, physical humour and general stereotyping of various ethnic groups in the country. A good reflection of this is of course Bollywood which is a cultural indicator as good as any. The Great Indian Laughter Challenge changed all that forever. It proved that we are not only at good at laughing at others, we can laugh equally well at ourselves too. Why we can also laugh at ‘Seinfeld’ian observational humour (for instance Raju Srivastav’s wittily disguised social commentary on a typical Indian middle/lower middle class marriage function in Mumbai featuring an ensemble of characters like the bride’s father, the mandatory tapori etc all played by Raju ).

I have a feeling this show (now heading to a third season) will have an important role in defining the nature of Indian humour. After all these are defining times for India in a number of other areas too. With the world’s eye on India, it’s a good enough time to take stock of what it is that makes us Indian. This process of definition will no doubt be tumultuous as shown by the spate of protests we see every day (be it the Gere-Shetty kiss, or perceived disrespect towards the national flag). Defining a sense of humour for ourselves is not a new concept – one look at leading American talk shows like The Colbert Report, The Tonight Show etc and you know that the American sense of humour is one that focuses primarily on laughing at oneself. It’s not surprising that a nation that symbolizes wealth and abundance is secure enough to laugh at itself.

Small town ambition
Secondly, this show typifies to me the ambition of small town India. A country whose average age stands at 24.8 surely must have a lot of ambition bubbling in it (or as Sidhu would put it, youthful exuberance), and who says that this ambition should be restricted to urban India. A majority of the show’s contestants have been from towns in UP, Bihar, Punjab, Gujarat etc. They falter in their English, their pronunciation embarrasses us sometimes, but most of them still manage to make us laugh.

One reason why they make us laugh is the elementary fact that they are indeed funny. However, sometimes I find myself laughing out of admiration for their sharp insight into current trends, events, cultural differences etc. What makes them funny is that the point of view they present is often that of an outsider, a common man on the street who fails to understand the strange workings of that mysterious species – the urban elite. Interestingly, this ‘outsider’ is also comfortable in his own skin. He is no wannabe. He seems to be extending a hand of friendship to his urban elite counterpart, and saying ‘we are in this madness called India together’. He is glad to offer to us a peek into his unique world (Navin Prabhakar’s Pehchan Kaun routine about this Mumbai bar girl at a PCO comes to mind).

The urban response to small town India
Shekhar Suman and Navjyot Singh Sidhu seem to typify the urban response to small town India. While Sidhu is usually gung ho to the point of it appearing ridiculous, Shekhar seems to have a more patronizing response towards contestants. Don’t these two extreme responses remind you of how people in urban India react to the reservations issue (after all, the non creamy layer does refer to small town India)? Why, to stretch the argument a little bit, it is actually similar to the way Indian media treats this ‘other India’ – the Aaj Tak approach (no holds barred) versus the CNN IBN (staid, urbane) approach. Hmm.

This formation of identity hypothesis and small town ambition is not restricted to TGILC. They are equally applicable to other reality shows like Indian Idol, Fame Gurukul etc. So the next time you watch The Great Indian Laughter Challenge, pay attention to the cultural subtext that is playing out!

[Readers are welcome to point out flaws in my arguments above]

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Structured Procrastination

This is a very interesting article on procrastination that I found in my inbox. It’s apparently written by a Harvard Professor. Presenting it in full below.

Structured Procrastination
by John Perry
Version of April 25, 1995
I have been intending to write this essay for months. Why am I finally doing it? Because I finally found some uncommitted time? Wrong. I have papers to grade, textbook orders to fill out, an NSF proposal to referee, dissertation drafts to read. I am working on this essay as a way of not doing all of those things. This is the essence of what I call structured procrastination, an amazing strategy I have discovered that converts procrastinators into effective human beings, respected and admired for all that they can accomplish and the good use they make of time. All procrastinators put off things they have to do. Structured procrastination is the art of making this bad trait work for you. The key idea is that procrastinating does not mean doing absolutely nothing. Procrastinators seldom do absolutely nothing; they do marginally useful things, like gardening or sharpening pencils or making a diagram of how they will reorganize their files when they get around to it. Why does the procrastinator do these things? Because they are a way of
not doing something more important. If all the procrastinator had left to do was to sharpen some pencils, no force on earth could get him do it. However, the procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult, timely and important tasks, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important.

Structured procrastination means shaping the structure of the tasks one has to do in a way that exploits this fact. The list of tasks one has in mind will be ordered by importance. Tasks that seem most urgent and important are on top. But there are also worthwhile tasks to perform lower down on the list. Doing these tasks becomes a way of not doing the things higher up on the list. With this sort of appropriate task structure, the procrastinator becomes a useful citizen. Indeed, the procrastinator can even acquire, as I have, a reputation for getting a lot done.

The most perfect situation for structured procrastination that I ever had was when my wife and I served as Resident Fellows in Soto House, a Stanford dormitory. In the evening, faced with papers to grade, lectures to prepare, committee work to be done, I would leave our cottage next to the dorm and go over to the lounge and play ping-pong with the residents, or talk over things with them in their rooms, or just sit there and read the paper. I got a reputation for being a terrific Resident Fellow, and one of the rare profs on campus who spent time with undergraduates and got to know them. What a set up: play ping pong as a way of not doing more important things, and get a reputation as Mr. Chips.

Procrastinators often follow exactly the wrong tack. They try to minimize their commitments, assuming that if they have only a few things to do, they will quit procrastinating and get them done. But this goes contrary to the basic nature of the procrastinator and destroys his most important source of motivation. The few tasks on his list will be by definition the most important, and the only way to avoid doing them will be to do nothing. This is a way to become a couch potato, not an effective human being.

At this point you may be asking, “How about the important tasks at the top of the list, that one never does?” Admittedly, there is a potential problem here.

The trick is to pick the right sorts of projects for the top of the list. The ideal sorts of things have two characteristics, First, they seem to have clear deadlines (but really don’t). Second, they seem awfully important (but really aren’t). Luckily, life abounds with such tasks. In universities the vast majority of tasks fall into this category, and I’m sure the same is true for most other large institutions. Take for example the item right at the top of my list right now. This is finishing an essay for a volume in the philosophy of language. It was supposed to be done eleven months ago. I have accomplished an enormous number of important things as a way of not working on it. A couple of months ago, bothered by guilt, I wrote a letter to the editor saying how sorry I was to be so late and expressing my good intentions to get to work. Writing the letter was, of course, a way of not working on the article. It turned out that I really wasn’t much further behind schedule than anyone else. And how important is this article anyway? Not so important that at some point something that seems more important won’t come along. Then I’ll get to work on it.

Another example is book order forms. I write this in June. In October, I will teach a class on Epistemology. The book order forms are already overdue at the book store. It is easy to take this as an important task with a pressing deadline (for you non-procrastinators, I will observe that deadlines really start to press a week or two after they pass.) I get almost daily reminders from the department secretary, students sometimes ask me what we will be reading, and the unfilled order form sits right in the middle of my desk, right under the wrapping from the sandwich I ate last Wednesday. This task is near the top of my list; it bothers me, and motivates me to do other useful but superficially less important things. But in fact, the book store is plenty busy with forms already filed by non-procrastinators. I can get mine in mid-Summer and things will be fine. I just need to order popular well-known books from efficient publishers. I will accept some other, apparently more important, task sometime between now and, say, August 1st. Then my psyche will feel comfortable about filling out the order forms as a way of not doing this new task.

The observant reader may feel at this point that structured procrastination requires a certain amount of self-deception, since one is in effect constantly perpetrating a pyramid scheme on oneself. Exactly. One needs to be able to recognize and commit oneself to tasks with inflated importance and unreal deadlines, while making oneself feel that they are important and urgent. This is not a problem, because virtually all procrastinators have excellent self-deceptive skills also. And what could be more noble than using one character flaw to offset the bad effects of another?

Update: This is the source

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