I belong to the generation called 'Midnight's Children'. We are the generation, which, in my view, has had the best stay on this planet. Our parents fought terrible wars and gave us the opportunity to spend our lives exploiting the wealth of the planet in relative peace, mostly indiscriminately, for our comfort. We then quietly passed on the mess to our children to clean up as we headed towards retirement.
In the corporate world, where I spent close to thirty years, life was pretty simple - job security, several job opportunities, a less stressful environment and enough learning for those who sought it. Liberalisation changed all that. We went through all the stages of trauma -denial, anger and eventually acceptance. So, many of us are back in the new world, repackaged.
And, yet, not entirely so. There were some good things in the world we left behind.
I wish to write about my anathema to deadlines in the corporate world and share my experiences on the harmful effects, which I have observed in the new performance-driven world in the Indian context because of deadlines.
The first thing that comes to mind is that deadlines smack too much of American culture and the Indian psyche is not in tune with this concept. Don't get me wrong - I am not saying we should not adapt what's desirable from a different culture just because we have a different psyche.
The American work ethic is worth emulating - we seem to have a terrible work ethic. All I am saying is that in the process of assimilation we should not throw out the baby with the bathwater.
What bugs me is that, in my experience, under the pressure of deadlines, we compromise on quality, which is bad for the organisation. And worse, we end up telling lies, which is bad for the self.
A dramatic example of this is the recent launch of Reliance Infocomm, for which a deadline had been set. The launch was a disaster and Mukesh Ambani was candid enough to admit as much in print (it must have been a real disaster for Mukesh to do that). The grapevine has it that those who were working on its roll out within the organisation had expected this looming disaster, but no one had the guts to forcefully challenge the deadline. This is the result of the Indian psyche. The probability of the deadline having been challenged would have been much higher in the American culture. In India many lies would have been told.
Another painful example in my experience is the disastrous implementation of SAP in companies. SAP is a very powerful enterprise resource planning software and extremely costly.
Implementation is usually driven from the very 'top', and under pressure from the top, the launch schedules are decided and the deadlines fixed. However, usually, the new software makes life tougher for most people and many processes, which the system was supposed to replace, continue in addition … leading to additional costs instead of saving costs.
So what do we do in India since no organisation can function without a planning process and planning entails time targets? I have some ideas from my experience.
Challenge the deadline.
This again is a cultural issue. At a fundamental level the Indian psyche venerates the boss as an 'elder' and our culture instills in us the need to be circumspect with elders. We may, at best, in a very 'respectful' manner point out disagreements with the boss but are unable to forcefully confront the deadline.
It is up to the boss to communicate that he welcomes rational challenges to his viewpoint. This is easier said than done. I have seen that direct communication does not work. "Gentlemen, please feel free to disagree with me" will carry conviction only when the indirect communication, over a period of time, establishes his credibility.
Emphasise the deliverable - not the deadline.
It would be the most wonderful thing if we could deliver on the deadline but if a choice has to be made, which happens ever so often, the deliverable is more important than the deadline. I have experienced a great job being done and the team feeling low just because it missed the deadline. I have more often seen that the deadline is emphasised and the deliverable is compromised, as in the examples above.
Review progress frequently and if necessary shift the deadline.
There is a manic touch to the leaders of the new world - if it is possible to work 24 hours, then do it but deadlines are deadlines. 24 hours of work driven by passion is productive but driven by deadlines is counterproductive.
Throwing the baby with the bathwater
We may culturally be unable to challenge the deadline but let us not forget that we are also very creative people. I have often seen great new ideas coming up when the project is midway. This creativity, in my view, is far more valuable than the deadline and it comes from being a little disorganised - we might lose out on this aspect if we try being too American in the pursuit of deadlines.
I guess it's all about balance, though in my experience, companies have delayed projects and created unnecessary stress in the system because of faulty deadlines.
This is where I must end this column - you guessed it… I am about to miss a deadline!