On 2nd January last year, one of India’s premier airbases in Pathankot was attacked by terrorists. The post-mortem of the episode revealed that perimeter walls around our frontline airbase were not up to the mark and could be easily penetrated. However, what was astonishing is that a couple of months later, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) returned several thousand crores to state coffers as unspent funds. So on one hand, MoD didn’t have basic essential infrastructure in its premier airbase, and on the other, it returned funds; so clearly, this could not have been a challenge of resources.
In a similar manner, India wastes thousands of tons of food every year because the Food Corporation of India does not have adequate storage space. And while there is idle storage capacity in other ministries like Shipping, the right hand does not seem to be able to reach the left in time even when it knows exactly where it is and what it holds.
This is not a challenge unique to India. Take the United States for example, which arguably is the most resourceful country in the world. Yet despite its staggering defence budget, which is more than the next 20 countries put together, it was unable to prevent China from stealing blueprints of their next generation military technologies. It was unable to prevent the ISIS from leveraging social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter (all three of which are not just American companies but also signatories to the PRISIM program). And despite its resources and elaborate processes, the US was unable to prevent the largest leakage in the history of espionage, perpetrated by Edward Snowden, who was a civilian contractor working in the sanctum sanctorum of the US intelligence agencies. Clearly, these could not be a resource or a knowledge problem either.
Corporates are no different. As organizations grow, bureaucracy transforms agile, nimble and vibrant teams into cumbersome, slow monoliths entangled in red tape. Project timelines get delayed with huge cost overruns. Activities, like hiring of new talent or awarding of contracts etc., which were done on a handshake previously, start succumbing to torturous processes and validations stretching over months, often losing the very window of opportunity of the decision. Large organizations start to resemble massive super tankers sailing in uncharted waters whose lookout spots an iceberg in its path. When the lookout shouts a warning about the threat, another senior sailor is sent up to ‘validate’ what the lookout has seen because his assessment cannot be taken without cross checking. After confirmation by the validator, there is intense debate within the ship’s leadership, whether to turn right or left. Either direction has its own set of consequences and will impact agendas of different corporate factions. And while these fierce debates, reviews and squabbles continue, the tanker is getting closer to the iceberg and the window of opportunity to execute the turn is diminishing. Finally, in the eleventh hour, the supreme command of the organization gives a decision to take a hard right turn.
But since the decision was delayed, the front of the ship steers away from the iceberg but the rear hits it and the entire tanker shudders with the impact, which is felt by every member in the ship. Junior leaders scurry to assure seniors that they are on top of the problem, but a hold on the port side has been breached and vessel has started listing to the left because of the flooding. This tilt to the left is very palpable to the personnel on the boat, the onlookers (analysts), other stakeholders (shareholders) and so water is flooded into the holds on the right, to make the ship level. But that increases the drag of the vessel and slows it down, which is again visible to all the analysts and shareholders, and so more fuel is pumped into the engines to maintain the façade of the previous speed. This metaphor describes the single biggest risk to large organizations. They have to expend more fuel per kilometer of progress than their nimble competitors because they don’t have the latter’s “speed of trust”!
Many organizations try to solve the problem by introducing ambitious enterprise resource management systems or elaborate business re-engineering processes. But those initiatives by themselves do not solve the problem, for the simple reason that social organizations operate on relationships and comfort levels which cannot be replicated by processes and tools. Instead, organizations also need to develop a “speed of trust” between individual leaders, subunits and external partners. Speed of trust can be loosely defined as that state of relationship in an organization which enables leaders to call upon resources/assistance from other leaders without having to go through excruciating processes to obtain them. It is the ability to pick up the phone and ask for assistance in terms of a release of a certain resource, or funding - with an assurance that the paperwork would follow.
But “speed of trust” does not magically appear within an organization just because the senior management desires it.
Merely mounting words, slogans or vision statements about collaboration and teamwork is actually counter-productive because it introduces an element of hypocrisy within the organization. Instead, organizations need to invest in imaginative initiatives that build the speed of trust among its various leaders. Here are some examples.
Trauma training to create the ‘Speed of Trust’
It is an established fact that individuals who have undergone traumatic experiences together, emerge as a strong team. That is how the Army builds its regimental spirit and a sense of camaraderie. Forward looking organizations can adapt and create similar ‘trauma training’ programs for their high potential, next in line leadership. They could put multidisciplinary teams consisting of line and support functions through an arduous experience during which, the participants have to also develop a business plan that they jointly sign off on. And then, over the next appraisal period, they have to deliver the committed plan to get to the next level. This initiative has two advantages. Experiencing trauma together creates bonds of friendship, solidarity and a sense of belonging which creates a ‘one team’ ethos within the organizations. And secondly, this fluidity actually enables the success of the project as well.
The 10 percent punt — Creating a sense of empowerment
In this initiative, leaders are free to choose any course or training of their choice anywhere in the world with three conditions. The duration of the course cannot be more than two weeks and the cost cannot be more than 10 percent of the leaders’ CTC. The third condition is that upon return the leader has to conduct (an abridged version) of the same course two times internally in her organization which would be rated by the attendees anonymously; in a 1-5 scale. Any leader who attains a rating of 4 or above is allowed to pick another course of his/her choice, and for those who don’t, half the course fee and one week of the leave period is deducted from the leader’s CTC.
The key is to understand the importance of building ‘alternate circuits’ that are not based on reporting lines but on personal relationships forged under fire
Here is what this experiment does. Firstly, it necessitates the leader to put the money where the mouth is. Secondly, the leader is most likely to choose a course that has resonance with rest of the organization. Thirdly, the leader is more attentive and observant in the course because the leader has to come back and teach it; and fourthly, the benefit of an expensive training is imparted to a larger demography by one of their own ‘faculty’. And most importantly, such initiatives contribute to a sense of empowerment and trust with the organization.
There are hundreds of such low investment initiatives that can be leveraged to build an organization, which despite its size, can still retain the agility of smaller and nimbler competitors by developing ‘speed of trust’ within its leaders. The key is to understand the importance of building ‘alternate circuits’ that are not based on reporting lines. Instead these connects are based on personal relationships forged under fire. Because, all things being equal, people prefer to work with friends. In fact, even if all things are not equal, people still prefer to work with friends!