The significance of Contextual Thinking

This article is published in the January’2008 Edition of the magazine “Management Compass”

Unbridled optimism

Don’t confuse blind confidence with glass-is-half-full approach

One of the world’s top 50 management thinkers and an international authority on lateral thinking, Edward De Bono, while commenting on the difference between Intelligence and thinking, commented, “The power of the car is the potential of the car just as intelligence is the potential of the mind. The skill of the driver determines how the power of the car is used. The skill of the thinker determines how intelligence is used.”

He further specifies, “Many highly intelligent people take up a point of view on a subject and defend their point of view. Since they can defend the view very well, they never see the need to explore the subject or listen to alternative views. This is poor thinking and is a part of intelligence trap. One thinker may see a situation and instantly judge it. Another person sees a situation, explores the situation on other alternatives and only then proceeds to judge it. The highly intelligent person may carry out the seeing and judging very well indeed but if the exploring is absent, that is bad thinking.”

Much before and after I read this, I had some strange experiences with some “highly intelligent people” who conduct workshops to coach people in the corporate world. They may be deemed highly intelligent since only then can they be genuinely deemed competent to coach other people. The first experience I had in the mid-Nineties was during a stress management workshop with a gentleman. The speaker had some novel concepts in stress management, which I was quick to appreciate.

While discussing communication and presentation skills, somebody in the audience with a marketing background commented, “A salesman is one who is able to sell a comb to a bald man.” I was surprised when the conductor of the workshop stated that this was a wrong and unethical statement. I said that the gentleman concerned was only saying that in the context of presentation and not ethics. He defended his earlier stance that this was morally wrong. I had to clarify that one of the greatest Bollywood directors had said once, “You have to be a show off to be a show on.” That does not imply that the director is advocating that one should show off but only trying to convey strongly, the importance of presenting oneself well. However, that man gave a bland response, “We should not say things which are undesirable” which I found strange considering that all kinds of metaphors and analogies are used to convey a point of view.

While discussing goals and purpose in life, he started to tell how the purpose was the bigger picture and goals, like monetary rewards were just a means towards the ends and were bi-products. Then he said, “If you focus on the purpose, the goal is automatically achieved,” which was something on the lines of a book entitled Follow your heart and money shall follow. I found that a fundamentally incorrect statement. It was as if he was trying to tell us what we wanted to hear. I raised the example of actor Shashi Kapoor, who, in the late Seventies and early Eighties, tried to produce films which, according to him were meaningful cinema but which did not do well at the box office. According to press reports, he finally had do make a commercial film called Ajooba to recover his losses. I also pointed out the examples of Munshi Premchand, Shakespeare and painter Vincent van Gogh, who were all posthumous successes and lived a life of penury despite focusing on their respective purposes or occupations. He responded that I should not give negative examples. I replied that the focus indeed should be on the positive examples but that does not imply that one should not be aware of the negative factors. In MBA, one learns of SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats), which is obviously a balanced analysis since it also takes cognizance of weaknesses and threats.

Does positive thinking imply blind optimism? I met one person in Ahmedabad during the Harshad Mehta scam, who said that he was an “incurable optimist” and told how he was going to invest all his money in the stock market as it was likely to go further up. I told him that the market was going up artificially and was bound to come down sooner or later. He again repeated his statement of being an incurable optimist. I replied that in reality, his optimism needed to be cured but did not carry the discussion further. I heard later that he had suffered heavy losses when the market fell. Years later, while dabbling in professional trading when I told an acquaintance that professional trading had a 95 per cent failure rate even in the United states, pop came the reply, “So what? If one tries hard, he maybe among the 5 per cent to succeed.” He completely overlooked the fact that one had to be extremely talented as well. The failure rate would never be so high if it was not talent intensive.

Isn’t genuine pessimism when the situation calls for it better than false optimism? Some 20 years back, I had read in one of India’s most reputed magazines about how genuine business talent and leadership was more an exception than the rule. I read in a book on venture capitalists as to how they fund only two out of ten ideas because though many people came up with bright ideas, very few have execution and implementation skills which incidentally happens to be a major reason for Reliance’s phenomenal progress. They had a clear policy of funding teams and not just ideas. As they say, “There is a fine line between appropriate confidence and over-the-top arrogance, and the best breakout leaders understand that they can’t cross that line.” This is not to say that one should not have a positive bent of mind and not look at situations with the spirit of looking at the half-full-glass as half-full and not half-empty. It is to maintain what is called a “sense of proportion” in optimism. One has to choose one’s battles in life.

In the Indian context, the example that comes to mind is Ramesh Chauhan, who sold some of his brands when Pepsi and Coke reentered India. Optimism also brings to mind some of the self-help books that are available in the market which advocate the virtues of having the right attitude without specifying the other variables or the context in which attitude alone is predominant. I have even seen posts in HR discussion forums with titles like ‘attitude alone wins’ and ‘attitude alone matters’, which is a fundamentally incorrect statement, as other variables are also involved. It depends upon the type of businessman — whether he is a Kamaal (unique) businessman or the maal (happy go lucky) businessman. The kamaal businessman is more on the lines of Henri Ford or Thomas Edison, who want to achieve excellence in a particular or specific branch of knowledge or technology and see it as some kind of mission or their purpose in life. A recent example is google, which says it all in its mission statement “Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” It clearly indicates that google’s focus is on search technology. The maal businessmen is like a “paisa kamana hai” kind of trader, whose focus is more on the monetary gains. One does come across examples of people getting fed up in the rat race and trying to focus on a higher purpose; their focus switches from maal to kamaal in mid life or midway through life.

Talking of switches reminds me of another incident that happened at an institute which has the word education suffixed to its main name. This institute conducts weekend workshops where participants are supposed to attend all day and are cross-questioned on different spheres of life, career, relationships, family etc. On attending a trial workshop, I was asked what my problem area was. When I said career mismatch, he told me to be creative wherever I was. I replied that what he was saying was possible in some cases but in the stock market, trying to be creative in the short run could be like playing with fire. I also gave several examples of people who were much more creative when they shifted elsewhere and said that one cannot make a blind assumption of forced creativity. He did not know what to reply. Later, when I took this up with one of his topmost bosses, I was shocked by what he said “Oh ! Career just happens if you have the right attitude. You are making a mountain out of molehill.” Later I was to come examples of a child psychologist becoming a taxi-driver, a well established accountant wanting to be a carpenter, a very well qualified doctor becoming a nursery teacher, a dentist switching to wild life photography etc.

This is not to undermine attitude but to give everything its due significance. Just as in a diet, one has to have due proportion of fats though proteins and carbohydrates maybe more important, in a person, what is more important would depend upon his profile, his occupation, values and current life situation. Attitude books should be balanced by realistic HR books. This is what Sanjiv Bhamre, author of Five Great myths of Career Building, has to say about self-help books “Often, authors of self-help books avoid specifying the context in which the trait of rule is not applicable. Contextual intelligence — understanding the power of using one trait in a situation — is necessary to appreciate the exact impact of a trait in one’s life. Successful people find and work in systems where their good and bad traits become strengths, whereas unsuccessful people work in systems where their good and bad traits become weaknesses. Successful people spend time and effort in finding the context and use it. By appropriate contextualising, they avoid disappointment and consequent loss of motivation when things do not work.” The root lies in finding the right aptitude, which is far tougher than talking of attitude which is more relevant to stick in the mud jobs. Forced attitude can never match natural, spontaneous interest and consequent attitude which is also likely to last longer.


One Response

  1. Nice artcle. enjoyed readin it, whislt tryin 2 get thru my assignments..

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