The Circle of Influence

Yes, we all are concerned about so many things. From economy, inflation, politics, our own health, our mortgages, future of our kids and the list goes on. In businesses where things are in a constant state of flux, things get worse. 

Acknowledging these concerns is important but constantly spending our scarce energy only on these concerns is futile. When faced with situations, challenges and concerns, it may be useful to ask the following questions:

  • Can I do something about it myself? Is it under my direct control? Is the onus of resolution or change on me? (Direct control)
  • If not, can I influence someone who can address/solve/change this? (Influence)

This is our circle of influence*. Anything outside this is a circle of concern. We can remain concerned about it but may not be able to do anything much – except for adapting to these situations and choosing our response in line with these concerns.

In organizations, a LOT of time is spent on discussing about things outside the circle of influence – and it is a waste. When the same energy is utilized to address things within our circle of influence, progress happens. As we do more within our circles of influence, the circle expands. We become proactive when we understand our circle of influence.

Focusing on circle of concern alone is negative energy that breeds scarcity mindset. But acknowledging concerns and then focusing on your circle of influence opens up possibilities and fosters growth. It is abundant.

“Try to Absorb what is useful, Discard what is useless, and Add what is essentially your own.” – Bruce Lee

Once you have identified your circle of influence, it is important to also act on it. When you can solve something, you must solve it without letting your worries and concerns interfere. Knowing that something is in your circle of influence and not doing anything about it is a real disservice (to yourself, your teams and your organization).

This is even more critical when people look up to you as a leader.

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* Stephen Covey defined circle of influence in his iconic self help book “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. (1989)”

Information is not Knowledge, Knowledge is not Wisdom

“Information is not knowledge.” – Albert Einstein

This is even more true in a hyper-connected world where access to information is abundant. Having more information can, at the best, make you look smart at the tea party but it does not move a needle, unless you do something about what you already know.

We need to move up in the DIKW hierarchy which attempts to define relationship between Data, Information, Knowledge and Wisdom.

Data is discrete collection of signs, symbols and letters. When described properly in a certain frame of reference, data becomes information.

The truth is – knowledge happens when information meets experience, values, contextual understanding about the specific situations, application, intuition and beliefs. Real knowledge is the synthesis of all these. The act of constant learning is the act of constantly synthesizing information with experiences. The act of constantly bridging the gap between what we know and what we do.

Knowledge provides a roadmap to address situations and contextual challenges. But are you solving the right problems for the right reasons?  That is wisdom – the “why” of things we do. Information is “what” and knowledge is” “how”.

Sandra Carey puts it beautifully -

“Never mistake knowledge for wisdom. One helps you make a living. The other helps you make a life.”

Knowledge looks at procedures, methods and application. Wisdom looks at objectives – it clarifies the purpose. And, methods are only useful when purpose is clear.

That is what we need more of – in life and in organizations. Without purpose and clarity, all the techniques, processes and knowledge that we have in our kitty will only add to complexity. What we need is exactly the opposite.

Commitment and Power of Daily Practice

In 2010, one of my goals was to publish on this blog thrice a week – on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. By committing completely  to this schedule, I eliminated the self-discretion associated with it. I did not have to think if I should write on a particular day, because I had to show up and write. No one would have punished me if I failed to write but I still wrote as if someone would. It lead me to read more, connect more and explore more.

What did I learn from this experience?

In situations where we have a choice of not doing  and no external penalties associated, we end up compromising. Isn’t this the reason why most people find it difficult to keep their own resolutions? We need an external force to be disciplined in areas that we ourselves feel are important!

One of the themes that occupies me is the power of daily practice. Can I do something everyday about things that matter to me? We grow in our careers and learn because we show up for the work and do it daily. We sleep everyday. We eat everyday and it nourishes us.

“People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing – that’s why we recommend it daily.” – Zig Ziglar

I believe that daily practice is as nourishing– it forms a pattern of activities and these patterns are powerful. They inculcate habits. They ‘train’ us. They help us focus. Whether it is writing, learning a new skill, physical exercise, eating right or pursuing your hobbies, there are few things as powerful as a commitment to do it daily. When we eliminate the choice of doing it, we create space for creativity. We can focus on “how” we do the thing. We can alter our ways. We can make it better. We can adapt and optimize. And then, we learn.

“I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.” – Haruki Murakami (via Brain Pickings)

So, here are my first two steps in this journey of daily practice.

  • Identify (or acknowledge) things that matter the most.
  • Do them daily.

Sometimes, simplifying our lives is just about making things binary – either we do it completely with the whole heart in it or not at all. It is a commitment to overcome the first hurdle – our own resistance. A commitment to do, adapt and learn.

I am keen to see what lessons does this journey manifest!

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In the Photo: Graffiti art at abandoned factories in Tampere, Finland (Jan 2015). Artists use these dead walls as a canvas for their art to give them a new lease of colorful life.

Humanity in Customer Service: A Touching Tale

I recently stumbled upon a very touching story of what it means to adopt a human approach when dealing with others at work.

In 2011, Mark Dickinson was devastated to learn about the murder of his three years old grandson. Mark immediately rushed to Los Angeles airport to reach Tucson and see his grandson for one last time. At the airport, Mark saw long queues for baggage check-in and security that would keep him from making it to the flight. Mark could not hold back his tears as he kept pleading to the staff members of Southwest Airlines to expedite the process and no one seemed to care. Finally, after clearing security check a good 12 minutes after flight’s planned departure, he did not even wait to put his shoes on and literally ran towards the terminal where he found  the pilot and gate attendant waiting for him.

“Are you Mark? We held the plane for you and we’re so sorry about the loss of your grandson,” the pilot reportedly said. “They can’t go anywhere without me and I wasn’t going anywhere without you. Now relax. We’ll get you there. And again, I’m so sorry.”

Isn’t this amazing? How could a pilot – who is also an employee – take such a human call at the risk of delaying other passengers and violating corporate rules? Was this an individual decision OR outcome of a culture that Southwest Airlines has built?

I quickly visited their website to look for their values. Here’s what I found on their customer service page:

“We like to think of ourselves as a Customer Service company that happens to fly airplanes.”

Their purpose statement on website reads,

“To connect People to what’s important in their lives through friendly, reliable, and low-cost air travel.”

Most organizations have tall corporate values that are only confined to the plaque on the wall or a page on the website. They mean nothing unless they empower people to behave in line with those values.

It is an inspiring story about how corporate purpose (and culture) enabled an individual to connect a customer with his most important priority – to see the face of his departed grandson for one last time!

In an era when even brands are trying to project themselves as humans – can we, the real human beings, treat our customers and colleagues as human beings without trying to hide behind the layered corporate processes, rules and hierarchies?

This story exemplifies the importance of living the values and purpose. Of bringing your humanity at workplace. Of what it means to work in a new world.

Organization Life: Insights from Michael Wade

There are a few bloggers who inspired my blogging journey that started in 2006 and Michael Wade tops that list. His blog Execupundit offers a daily dose of  provocations, ideas, inspiration and links to great content on leadership and life.

Here are a few insights on organization life extracted from posts that I loved reading.

“Technique alone will not suffice because there will be moments when strong character must intervene.” – from the post More Than Technique

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“Leaders can talk about goals and missions as well as plans and techniques but until a single version of reality is established, effectiveness will be hindered or thwarted.” – from the post Getting Real

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“When problems make you want to withdraw from the world, usually the best strategy is to engage.” – from the post Random Thoughts

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“There are few things more powerful within a group than that which is understood but never spoken.” – from the post Random Thoughts

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“Poor indeed is the organization where there is a widespread lack of: Honor, Knowledge, Wisdom, Courage, Ambition, Humility, Humor, Fairness, Opportunity, Energy, Loyalty, Initiative, Caring, Cooperation, Flexibility, Imagination, Objectivity, Toughness, Decisiveness.” – the post titled Lack

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“The savvy employee studies the organization, both the people and the beast itself, and pays closer attention to what is done than to what is said.” – from the post Informal Rules

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There are times when we get more productive ideas on the drive to the office than in the office. – from the post Get an Idea

These are very astute observations that generally come from a wide and deep experience in navigating through the organizational jungle.

Podcast: Leveraging Social Media for Learning and Leading

I am thankful to Mike Wong of Business Insights Podcast for interviewing me on the topic “Leveraging Social Media for Learning”.

Talk about ‘social media’ and people quickly talk about tools like Twitter and Facebook. But like all other ‘tools’, social media tools don’t help much unless they are used for a purpose. In this podcast, I discuss the usage of social media for the purpose of learning and building thought leadership.

In this short podcast (18 minutes) interview, I share my ideas on the following three questions:

  • What are the fundamentals for thriving in a social world of work?
  • What techniques do you use for learning through social media?
  • Can social media help in generating thought leadership and influence?

Here are a few snippets from the podcast:

“Success in social media happens when you focus on ‘social’ aspect more than ‘media’ aspect (tools).”

“Being social means you listen first and care about what others have to say.”

“Generosity is the currency on social media.”

“It is vital to filter information that best suits your context. The best way to deal with information overload is to filter relentlessly.”

Please listen to the podcast here OR using the audio control below.


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On Simplifying Through Subtraction

I am on a mission to minimize. It started with this website which went minimal a few months back. It was hard to give up on all those fancy pages, content and images that I had created before. I kept adding more pages to this website till it started feeling like a burden. Now that clutter is gone, it feels so much better. I am now extending the same fundamentals in other areas of work and life.

Outside of mathematics, it is easy to add but far more difficult to subtract.

Adding more stuff at the home, more thoughts in the mind, more pages on the website, more services in business, more features in the product, more property assets, more tasks in the day and more everything else. That’s easy.

Try eliminating what you accumulated and it is way more harder. In a world that is getting more and more complex, we seek more and more simplicity. It seems to me that subtraction is at the heart of simplicity and hence effectiveness. Lao Tzu really got it when he said,

“To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day”

This may sound paradoxical but the act of subtraction is actually the act of addition in some other form. When I eliminated graphics, I added focus to the content. When we stop doing many things at a time, we create a room for more effort/focus on a few important things.

Methodologies like Kanban promote the idea of limiting the work-in-progress items. When you limit the “stuff on your plate”, you decrease distractions and increase the possibility of finishing what you started without compromising on quality.

“There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” – Peter Drucker

This applies in almost every aspect of business and life. I have seen senior leaders spending days (and nights) doing meetings to frame a grand strategy when it is really the small and basic things that they are really missing. What would happen if they trade grandeur of strategy with simplicity?

Further, what would happen if we simplify the meeting agendas and subtract the number of meetings from our work day? If we reduce the slack in each and every process to get the work done? If we stop trying to load up our teams for doing more work in less time and set them up to focus more on less number of active tasks?

These are all possibilities. To realize these possibilities, we have to actively pursue simplicity through subtraction.

You can’t juggle too many balls for long. What balls are you ready to drop? What will you subtract?


Note: I have learned a great deal about simplicity and subtraction from Matthew E. May’s blog and his book “The Laws of Subtraction: 6 Simple Rules for Winning in the Age of Excess Everything” is definitely on my reading list.

Measuring Right Things: Utilization Versus Efficiency

In manufacturing world, there is a direct correlation between how much machines are utilized and how much they produce. This works because machines do the work that is non-linear and there is very little variation in producing exactly same unit of work. Utilization is the extent to which installed capacity performs actual work. Less idle time means more utilization.

Knowledge work – where people find optimal ways to apply their knowledge to a given context in such a way that it produces the best possible business result – is very different. In this world of work, more utilization does NOT always equate with more productivity and efficiency. With re-usability, someone can churn a great deal of work in a short time whereas a tiny piece of work/defect may take up days to solve. Being busy, in this world, does not mean progress and when people seem to be sitting idle, it does not necessarily mean they are not working.

In HBR article “Six Myths of Product Development”, authors Stefan Thomke and Donald Reinertsen say -

Processes with high variability behave very differently. As utilization increases, delays lengthen dramatically. Add 5% more work, and completing it may take 100% longer. But few people understand this effect.

And when companies focus solely on measuring and improving utilization alone, people will respond to that expectation accordingly. People will seemingly remain (or report) busy all the day when nothing real is accomplished. More utilization without visible gain in efficiency is a waste.

Instead of focusing on utilization, we should focus on efficiency – how much real work gets shipped and how well. Efficiency encourages people to work smart, focus on quality and find best possible route to achieve the desired business results.

For this, we should focus on building a system where efficiency is more likely to happen. We need to engage our people to the purpose of our product/organization. We need to give them autonomy and promote self-organization. We need to share feedback early and often. Most importantly, we need to trust them.

And we need to monitor real progress instead of simply trying to occupy people for 8 hours everyday!

Hector and the Search for #Happiness

Hector and the Search for Happiness” is a novel written by Francois Lelord which was converted into a movie by the same name in 2014. I have not read the book but I am fortunate to have seen the movie last week while I was on the flight back home from Finland.

Hector is a psychiatrist who loves helping people but is not happy with his own mundane life. While meeting with his patients, he realizes that most of his patients are not really ill but just unhappy. Hector, unable to help his patients because of his own discontentment, decides to take a break and travel the world to do some research on what makes people truly happy. He goes on a solo trip since his fiancée has to stay at home and focus on work. What follows is a series of experiences that shapes Hector’s thinking about happiness while he experiences life and relationships more deeply and profoundly. He jots these lessons down in a notebook gifted to him by his fiancée. 

Here is what he writes in his notebook. (Emphasis added to the lessons that really struck me hard).

  • Making comparisons can spoil your happiness.
  • Happiness often comes when least expected.
  • Many people only see happiness in their future.
  • Many people think that happiness comes from having more power or more money.
  • Sometimes happiness is not knowing the whole story.
  • Happiness is a long walk in beautiful, unfamiliar mountains.
  • It’s a mistake to think that happiness is the goal.
  • Happiness is being with the people that you love. Unhappiness is being separated from the people that you love.
  • Happiness is knowing that your family lacks for nothing.
  • Happiness is answering your calling.
  • Happiness is having a home and a garden of your own.
  • It’s harder to be happy in a country run by bad people.
  • Happiness is feeling useful to others.
  • Happiness is to be loved for exactly who you are.
  • Happiness comes when you feel truly alive.
  • Happiness is knowing how to celebrate.
  • Avoiding unhappiness is not the road to happiness.
  • Happiness is caring about the happiness of those you love.
  • Listening is Loving. 
  • The Sun and the Sea make everybody happy.
  • Happiness is not attaching too much importance to what other people think.
  • Happiness is a certain way of seeing things.
  • Rivalry ruins happiness.
  • Happiness is not a destination. It’s a state of being.
  • Fear is an impediment to happiness.
  • Happiness means making sure that those around you are happy

In the movie, Hector meets Prof. Coreman who had written a book on happiness after studying the effects of happiness on brain. In one of the lectures, Prof. Coreman says something very important.

“People shouldn’t be concerned about pursuit of happiness, but with the happiness of pursuit.” 

Each lesson may look discrete at first but when woven into our experiences and situations, these lessons are profound enough. And for that, you must either read the book or watch the movie!


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3 C’s for Learning and Leading on Social Media

With advent of social media tools, our ways of learning, sharing and leading have undergone a sea change. Blogs, Twitter, Massively Open Online Courses (MooC’s) and a variety of other tools are nicely complementing books and classroom based learning.

Social Media is a great platform to learn, share, be a part of learning communities and build your thought leadership. Here are three C’s that can help you do just that.

  • Create meaningful stuff and add your unique voice to it. Share what you learn. Write regularly – it not only improves your writing but also helps in clarifying the thought process. Select your tools carefully. I use Twitter to share short bursts of insights and lessons which then expand in form of blog posts.
  • Curate ideas around what you care for. There is so much information out there and effective curation helps people find the most useful stuff. Curation assimilates and filters great ideas from others, gives them a new life and amplifies the reach. I use Twitter to curate useful ideas and insights that I come across.
  • Contribute to ideas of others. Take those ideas forward by adding your own unique and meaningful perspectives to them. Comment on the blogs of others. Participate in Tweetchats, online events, forums and share your ideas. Generous contribution is the currency of social media.

When you do this consistently over a period of time and keep doing it better, you get three more C’s.

  • Community of influential and generous folks that you can rely on for learning.
  • Credibility that you build around your work.
  • Confidence you gain through validation of your ideas.

So, the next time you use social media with an intent to learn, think about how you can put these three C’s to work!


In the pic: The Rock Garden of Chandigarh