The Journey is the Purpose: An Inspiring Tale of Nek Chand Saini

Nek Chand Rock Garden in Chandigarh, India is a true marvel of creativity and innovation. Built by Nek Chand Saini, a self-taught innovator, Rock garden is one-of-its-kind sculpture garden in Chandigarh which almost looks like a miniature of an ancient kingdom spread over forty acres. What makes this truly unique is the fact that all the sculptures in this garden are made from recycled material like ceramic pieces, bottles, glasses, ceramic pots, earthen pots, bottle caps, sinks, electrical waste, crockery, broken bangles, dust, pieces of tar, rocks and pebbles. The garden comprises of twisted, narrow and walled pathways leading to large open spaces. These open spaces house plazas, pavilions, theatre and hundreds of sculptures of men, women, dancers, animals, houses, temples, wells and decorated walls. Seeing hundreds of statues filling the canvas is nothing less than a spectacle. Interlinked and cascading waterfalls nicely complement the sculptures and walls to extend a very soothing ambiance.

The description above may sound a bit like a travelogue but it is not just that. It is an intriguing tale of passion, suspense, drama and finally the triumph of creativity over all the odds. A story with an important lesson.

Many villages were demolished when Chandigarh, India’s first planned city, was being built according to design by French architect Le Corbusier. Nek Chand Saini worked as a road inspector for the public works department when he started collecting the discarded material from these demolition sites. A few years later, he secretly started working on assembling these recycled material to create a sculpture garden that depicted his vision of an Indian village life. This hobby expanded soon into a full-fledged work of art on a government conserved forest land in the foothills of Shivalik Moutain Range. Since his work was illegal, he kept it a secret for ten long years before it was discovered by city inspectors. As the word spread, people began flocking to see this work of a genius that was already spread in 12 acres of land by the time it was discovered. Amidst the looming threat and uproar of destroying this illegal work that occupied forest conservancy, Nek Chand was able to get public opinion and support on his side. In 1976, the Rock Garden was inaugurated as a public space. Nek Chand was offered a government salary and a staff of 50 laborers so that he can expand his vision and continue his expression of creativity. In 1996, Rock Garden was again attacked by vandals after which city administration took charge of managing the park.

Today, with over 4000 visitors daily, Rock Garden is the most visited folk art sites in the world. Statues made by Nek Chand Saini decorate some of the best folk art galleries across the globe.

It is an inspiring journey of personal transformation from mundane to magnificent. He created a sublime space of innovation and creativity just out of his imagination, creativity and sheer hard work. How many of us today would spend this amount of effort and creative energy in creating something just out of love for doing it? Will we do it without any expectation on rewards or recognition? Nishkama Karma (action performed without any attachment to fruits or results) is the central message of Bhagwad Gita and Nek Chan Saini truly exemplifies it.

Did Nek Chand Saini work with a goal of becoming famous one day? Did he plan to win all the awards that he has won? Clearly, he did it just for the joy he derived out of doing it. He simply enjoyed giving form to his ideas through sculptures. He built his legacy one statue at a time.

The story of Nek Chand Saini just tells me that our work may not always be a transaction. That if we are passionate about our pursuits, have lot of conviction to do the required hard work and derive joy from simply doing it then external rewards and recognition do not matter. They are merely by-products of doing something you love doing.

The journey then, is the purpose and the reward!

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P.S.: On 15 Dec 2014, Nek Chand Saini, the wizard of creativity completes 90 years!

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Quick Thoughts on Differentiation

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“How are you different?” – an important question that your prospective customer will first ask. Your prospective employer too. Your boss will. So will your team members.

Here are some quick thoughts on differentiation, as I thought about it during my recent visit to Helsinki, Finland (some pictures above).

It is obvious enough to understand that one has to build differentiation in all that one does. Difficult enough to actually do that. It is not just one action, but a series of actions consistently performed over a long haul.

There are no short-cuts in building differentiation. Differentiation starts from thinking and then gets into becoming a process. Differentiation is strategic in nature.

Differentiation is about bringing your DNA to the work. You are uniquely gifted with things only you can do. Key is to realize a few such skills which, when combined together offers a unique value. Key question then is: “What do you stand for?”

Differentiation is not just about talking smart and convincing people that you are different. If it takes long speech to prove that you are different, you are probably not. Differentiation should be felt, should be evident in the way you approach a customer and do things. Differentiation is what the other person defines. You think you are different. Key question is: “Does the other person/client/prospect also think you are different?”

Some ways to build differentiation: Focus on unique area of work and be the best there or do the routine work very differently or have world-class processes/methodologies to deliver excellence or have world class people or have fantastic set of tools that enable you to be different or constantly innovate new ways of work to push the envelope. (You can also replace ‘or’ with ‘and’ to create even more powerful differentiation!)

People who focus on being different get noticed. They grow faster and create new opportunities for themselves. Same applies to organizations.

Tom Peters said this many years back. I have also mentioned this on my blog once before. But it still needs to be told, because it is a timeless piece of advice. “DISTINCT or EXTINCT”. Seth Godin calls them “Linchpins” – people who you cannot do without. People who change things for better. People who are different. People who bring their art to work. (Bonus: Read this fantastic post from Seth on being different.)

If you are not on your way to be DISTINCT, you are on the way of becoming “EXTINCT”. It is easy to fit in, difficult to stand out!

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P.S.: You can also revisit my earlier post where I referred to an excellent list of 25 things to be different” created by my favorite NICHOLAS BATE.

Last week, I was also honored by inclusion of my post “Quick Thought on Leadership and sub-ordination to a Cause” in March 7 Leadership Development Carnival – Academy Awards Edition. My post won ‘Best Supporting Actor’ Award! 🙂

What NOT to do in Customer Service 7

I know I have been silent since long, thanks to hectic travel last week. I was in Helsinki (Finland) again in the past week where I met a few customers. What a learning experience it has been!

When you are in a meeting with customer, you have an opportunity to:

  1. Add value to them (so much so that they pull their notepad out and start taking notes)
  2. Learn about communication, what works and what doesn’t.

How you utilize these two opportunities makes a huge difference to the business.

Even my travel was a great learning experience. Here is a brief account of what happened – I was scheduled to reach Helsinki via a connecting flight from Frankfurt. I started for Frankfurt but because of bad weather at Frankfurt, the flight was diverted to Paris. Here, all the passengers were made to sit on the plane for 6 hours after landing, in anticipation that weather condition at Frankfurt will improve. Suddenly, we saw air-hostesses pulling out their baggage leaving all passengers wondering. Then we were de-planed and taken to airport. Flight was canceled and we had to stay in Paris for 1.5 days before resuming our journey. Lot of passengers reached their destinations (Chicago, Newark, Frankfurt and so on) on Monday morning; just about the time they were to start working. You can read more about this ordeal here.

Aviation is a customer service business more than anything else. Most companies have similar aircrafts, equipments and infrastructure available to them. It is only customer service that enhances quality of experience and makes an airline preferable over other.

This experience taught me some valuable lessons in what NOT to do in customer service. Here are the top 7 mistakes in customer service:

  1. Not smiling enough: The cabin crew team was very serious. They had an invisible message on their forehead which said “We are not interested in you”. Customer service is fun (for both the parties) when you smile a lot. It costs nothing to wear a smile, but goes a long way in building comfort.
  2. Not listening and not communicating: Cabin crew is the touch point for customers. When some of the passengers wanted to complain or express a concern, the cabin crew was inattentive. They would listen and do nothing about it. Listening to concerns and not doing anything about it is as good as not listening. Similarly, when passengers were waiting, no announcements were made. Communication was a mess.
  3. Lying to your customers and not fulfilling your promises: When we were made to sit in the plane for 3 hours, the pilot announced that we will fly in another 30 minutes. An hour passed and we did not fly. A few more hours later, pilot announced that since his 16 hours of flying time is over, the flight is cancelled. They kept on giving false promises to the customers.
  4. Sticking to your policy and ignoring problems faced by the customer:  Processes are tools that we use to serve our customers. Often, same processes can become a hurdle in solving customer’s immediate problems. Don’t let that happen.
  5. Going inaccessible when customer wants to talk to you: You know you have made a mistake. Go out and accept it. Hiding after making mistake can magnify the situation. When you make a mistake, you should have courage to call customer and say, “I screwed it up” and immediately work on solution. Imagine the frustration of customer when they want to know something and there is no one at the other end!
  6. Passing the buck to someone higher in the order: When someone started complaining to the air hostess, she immediately redirected the passenger to the pilot. Sure, there are people above you who can give comfort, but why not try doing it yourself?
  7. Forgetting the basic courtesies: Smiling, saying “Thank You” and “Sorry” does not cost a dime but it shows that you care. After a customer meeting, I replaced a normal “Thank You” with “Thank you so much for your time and I really appreciate it”. The idea is to make it more beautiful.

Each travel extends some learning, but this was of a completely different sort! Learning that came a hard way.

While I was away…

Last year was very hectic for me – work, travel, book, blog and a host of other things. I needed a good break to re-energize and spend quality time with my family and hence, last week, I took a one-week break to Goa – my favorite destination. Sandy and rocky beaches, palms dotting the skyline, overcast skies, the grandeur of vast Arabian Sea, Portuguese architecture (some of the world heritage sites), cathedrals and food has always enticed me. A week spent without cell phone, internet and connectivity helped me spend time quality with my family and myself. My batteries are recharged and I am ready to take on more work, more reading, more thinking and more writing.

In social media, a lot can happen in one week, and it did.

There were a number of interesting conversations on the blogs I follow and I am yet to catch up with all of them. I hope to read them all in the coming week and get back on track.

I wish you a wonderful and productive week ahead!

In the photo: Vagator beach in North Goa.

9 Random Things About Work Culture in Finland

This is my last week in Finland before I wrap up the priorities here and head back to India. Four weeks here have been quite an experience in terms of understanding a whole new country, culture and its nuances. The more you get to know the culture, the more you start respecting it. Travel teaches you to be open minded to understand and appreciate different cultures. By the time I am back, I would have visited three most prominent cities of Finland namely Helsinki (where I stayed and worked), Tampere and Espoo.

I wrote a post “8 Random Things About Helsinki, Finland” a few days back. In this post, I will attempt to mention 9 prominent things about work culture in Finland. Here they go –

  • There are many characteristics of Western working culture on Finland where individuality and independence are highly valued (and also highly expected). People take lead in their initiatives and too many instructions are not required to be given. Instead of typical hierarchical structures, Finns like to work out solutions in groups. Management loosely controls the teams and promote initiatives. Power and flexibility are well distributed.
  • Because of loosely controlled management, bosses respect their people and remain polite. (I actually saw the boss knocking the door before entering his sub -ordinate’s cabin and apologising for an impromptu appearance). Even if fully convinced, boss cannot take certain decisions unless people (who are impacted by that decision) are not convinced about the reasoning behind decision. Decision making is very democratic in nature.
  • People endeavor to use their time sensibly.  Most people in modern-day Finnish work culture maintain and adhere to calendars of meetings/tasks. If a meeting has to be scheduled between three people, one of them would access shared Outlook calendars of others and confirm if all are available. All formal meetings happen after meeting invites via Email/Outlook Calendars. Meetings are expected to start on time and also end on time. They keep their commitments in terms of time/deliverables and expect the same in return.
  • It is forbidden to work on weekend or sit back late hours unless there is an emergency situation at work. They try to pack more meaning in an 8 hour work day and avoid unneccessary activities where they don’t see value during the day. Impromptu meetings are avoided unless it is something urgent and needs to be addressed immediately.
  • Office timings are very flexible and one can choose to work around 7.5 to 8 hours a day. Most people start at 8:00 AM and end the day by 4:00 PM with around 30 minutes of lunch break. Working week is between 38-42 hours and timings are flexible.
  • Finns in general don’t like to talk much and are not very expressive. The day I started working here, I was told (or warned!) that Finns are generally reserve and I need not worry about it. As a rule, exceptions have to be there and I found some of the Finnish people to be very friendly and transparent.  But in general, it takes some time before you can break the ice with them and get comfortable. Once comfortable, Finns can be very open and transparent friends. They are very courteous too (e.g. if they take you somewhere in their car, they would open the door for you as a sign of courtesy.)
  • Communication from Finnish people is very clear and straight-forward. Since their primary language is not English, it makes a lot of sense to speak slowly and clearly.  When writing, they prefer brevity and do not appreciate long documents. Most of the times, they would prefer a powerpoint presentation with less than 10 slides over a 20 page document. Interrupting when someone is speaking is considered impolite (unlike US, where people wouldn’t mind, or rather appreciate  if you ask questions mid-way). 
  • For the dress codes, smart casual dressing is preferred. All Finnish work places have a special place where people can hang their long coats and jackets. In business meetings, a dark color suit with tie is preferred dressing. People wear light/pastel colors at work place and avoid very bright colors. Most people carry warm clothes/jackets because of climate. 
  • Work in Finland is governed by strict Labor Laws. There is a huge building in Hakaniemi area where lot of Labor Unions are located. Firing someone is not always possible. Once an employee is confirmed, it is very difficult to fire him/her because it has to be justified. If it is not justified, company has to pay the damages. So hiring is done very selectively with a long term perspective. People are also entitled to take 4 weeks of vacation. If a company refuses to grant holidays, employees can sue the company.

I am sure the above points would be of some help to those who may be scheduled to travel/work in Finland or may travel in future. I am sure there are other nuances that I may not have covered and hence I will try to keep this post updated with things-as-I-learn-them.

Have a good Sunday and a fantastic week ahead!

Management and Leadership Link Roundup – Best thing to do while Traveling

I am on a VR Fast train from Helsinki to Tampere as I write this. Trains here in Europe have amazing facilities to enable me to use the laptop and write something. Travelling is the best time to reflect upon and get inspired. Okay, laptop is on. What next?

I decided to meet my dear friend – the feedreader. I asked him to give me some great insights from the world of blogs as I travel. My friend never disappoints me you see, and here is what my friend has to offer:

  • Michael Wade has been one of my favorite bloggers since I started blogging. He shares a very insightful piece on striking a balance between action and thinking. Do you feel the need to slow down and really think about those important questions? Do it now. Strike a balance.
  • I really admire Nicholas Bate for amazing lists he creates. In this list, he stresses that sometimes less is more. My favorite from that list is – A bike-ride at the week-end with your daughter is much more compared to the full-on Disney experience. How true?
  • Gretchen Rubin runs this amazing blog named “The Happiness Project” where she has written very interesting post titled “Sixteen Tips for Feeling Happier at Work“. One of my favorite tips from that list is – Take care of difficult calls or emails as quickly as possible. Procrastinating just makes it harder; getting them done gives a big boost of relieved energy.
  • If you build the right organization culture, profits will follow – says Terry Starbucker. He gives example of Zappos and says – They just seemed to “get it” – making me happy was important to them. Zappos is led by someone who had the audacity to put the pursuit of happiness ahead of market share, inventory turnover, margins – heck, ahead of everything.  Happiness is Zappos “raison d’etre”. What are your key organizational values? Get them right and you will get your numbers right anyways.
  • Rosa Say very humbly asks – “Do you define your Leadership Greatness?“. She mentions a simple yet important rule that if you settle for good enough in your organization, so will everyone else. If you stubbornly insist on great and only great, so will everyone else. Another interesting insight – Sequential “Good” leads to consequential great.
  • Seth Godin -my hero, suggests that “Why am I here?” is a simple mantra that will change the way you look at every meeting, every conference and even organizations for rest of your life. It is also a great question to think about why you are where you are in your career? Very rovocative!

I am sure you will enjoy reading these blogs/posts as much as I do. And if you do, drop in a comment. On that note, have a great day ahead!!

Image Courtesy: Krish Tipirneni’s Flickr Stream

Selected Photos at my Flickr – Helsinki and more!

I have recently updated my Flickr Photostream with some new chosen pictures. Enjoy the photos at Your comments are priceless.

Here are some highlights:


This is a peepal leaf against light. The veins of leaf came so clear that this looks like roads of a well planned city.

This is a beautiful flower at Esplanade Park Helsinki Harbor. More pictures of Helsinki Harbor at my Flickr Stream.

Lutherian Cathedral – Dome View. Also called Helsinki Cathedral, this monument is like Taj Mahal of Finland. It looks even beautiful when viewed from the sea.

If you enjoyed these, I am sure you will enjoy the rest. So what are you waiting for? Jump on to Flickr to see more.

8 Random things about Helsinki, Finland

I am in Helsinki Finland for official reasons and the weather here gives me extra time to move around and explore the surrounding areas. This is spring season here in Finland with road sides dotted with vividly colored flowers. Temperature varies between 15 to 18 Degrees and day time lasts for 18 hours (Sun rises at 4:30 AM and sets around 10:30 PM). This means even after working for 8-9 hours, you still have 6-8 hours to explore the city in broad day light. Amazing, isn’t it?

Here are a few things I learnt about this beautiful Northern European Country:

  1. Being very near to polar region, Finland’s winters are extreme and there is no sunlight for three to four months in a year. It is called “polar nights”. In winter, the Baltic sea freezes to an extent that people can take a walk on the ice surface. This is called “Sea Walk”.
  2. In spring season (May-June), temperatures vary between 10 to 18 degrees and climate is pleasant. Finnish population relish this beautiful season. After an excruciating winter, they completely deserve the one month vacation they take in July to enjoy the Sun. Yearly temperature range is between -30 Degrees to +30 Degrees!
  3. In summer (July-Aug), it barely gets dark. Even when there is no sunlight, there is enough light for someone to be able to read at midnight! They call it “Polar Days”.
  4. Finnish people are very disciplined in terms of adherence to traffic rules, cleanliness, managing work timings. If you want to know what “being systematic”  looks like, visit Finland once. People are reserve but once trust is established, they can be great friends too.
  5. Total population of Finland is 55,00,000 and it is the fifth largest country in Europe. Most of the northern Finland is dense forests with little inhabitation. One can see very few people in most part of capital Helsinki. In fact, Finland is most sparsely populated country in Europe with just abour 17 people per square kilometer. Capital Helsinki has population of around 5,00,000 people! These don’t look like numbers when compared to Indian population where a small sleepy town would have population larger than Helsinki!!
  6. Finland has vast number of water inlets and around 1,50,000 lakes in the country. Finnish people buy land on banks of these lakes and build “Summer Cottages” from wooden logs. Finnish people are also very fond of having private boats which they maintain themselves.
  7. Helsinki was a port earlier – and the port area have now become major tourist attaction. Tallink Silja Line and Nordic Jet Line ferries take tourists from Helsinki to Talinn (Estonia). One can go in the morning and return in the evening.
  8. Finland was a part of Sweden in 12th Century. In 1809, Sweden lost a war to Russia and Finland was a part of Russia. Finland got independence in 1906 and then was able to maintain Independence in World War II. Finnish buildings are a fine mix of contemporary architecture and vintage Russian architecture.

In Spring and Summer, Finland should be renamed as “Funland” – that’s what it looks like with people enjoying the sun, relishing beer at the water’s edge, teenagers moving around on their bicycles, flowers blooming on the road side, clear skies and mild breeze.

I’m lovin’ it – as McDonald’s advertisement puts it!