Let me begin by wishing all of you good health, cheer, the joy of learning in the coming two years of your stay here. Let IIM Sambalpur not just be a great platform for you, may it guide you to your purpose as well. For my address to all of you today, I have chosen the subject of Focus.
All of you are children of focus. Focus comes naturally to you. Focus has brought you this far in your life. And since we are at an IIM, let me spew some data to explain what I mean by that. I am told that on an average, for the last 6 years, every year, more than 200,000 students apply for the Combined Admission Test (CAT). From amongst that number, around 180,000 take the test. At the end, depending on the year we are talking about, less than 2% of the applicants get selected. And that, many IIM faculty proudly tell me, makes it the toughest examination in the world! The 2% made it because of that one seminal idea: they focused ever since their high school days to be able to come here.
Let us admit. Focus has been your strength, your sword that has conquered over the 98% who couldn’t make it. And with this sword in your scabbard, now you find yourself in the same campus with fellow victors, that may be, at least as great as you are.
You may think, now you must focus even more so that eventually you run the race to your graduation ahead of them, sometimes for the glory and mostly for the cash. I do not blame you for that, the system quite often breeds you that way. It could be sometimes your natural, and sometimes, your acquired propensity. But I would fail in my duty if I did not draw your attention to its pitfalls.
The word “focus” has its origin in Latin. It means the hearth, the fireplace. In ancient times, deeply managed, sharp heat was needed, to be focused, to light the fire. But in today’s world, where you are headed, you may need to look beyond, you may need to learn as much, to de-focus. To rise to the top, you would need to constantly switch between the zoom view and the pan view. But first, let me give you the 9-pitfalls to consider.
1. Focus can fail your ability to see higher, loftier goals
Kiran mazumdar Shaw had started her entrepreneurial journey making enzymes. She was extremely successful at it. One day, much to the chagrin of her large customer who also was a shareholder, she decided to sell it off. She wanted to pursue her larger dream to be in drug discovery and research. It was a nebulous, high-risk idea. Her shareholder threatened to pull out and eventually did. At that point of inflection, conventional wisdom had indeed asked her to stay focused on the enzyme business; after all, it was her core-competence and it was doing so well. Thanks to her resolve not to focus, today Kiran is the bi-tech queen of India and Biocon is at the forefront of research and drug discovery.
2. Focus can impair your ability to see adjacency
There was a time when VG Siddhartha was only in the hereditary business of growing and selling coffee beans. Coffee is a cyclic crop. He struggled with alternative years of glut in production and scarcity. Either way, his international buyers haggled over few cents each time they came to buy from him. Siddhartha was getting exasperated. Then he saw what lay adjacent to coffee. His fellow growers, many of whom were closing in despair, did not see that adjacency. Next to coffee beans was the coffee brew. No body haggles with the price of a cup of coffee. You have greater margin when you sell the brew and not the beans. But beyond the coffee and adjacent to it, were sandwiches, juices, bottled water. Today, Café Coffee Day has become a household name, they serve billions of cups of coffee every year. While Siddhartha’s contemporary businesses were given to focus, Siddhartha was stepping out into the blur.
Just the same way, a “focused” Yoga Guru Ramdev would still be teaching Yoga on television and not selling you Ayurvedic medicines, ghee, atta, liquid hand wash and of all things, security services. Baba Ramdev, for whatever reason it may be, is a brand that does evoke blind followership: its innate appeal to his believers is purity. I can bet that soon organic manure and designer dresses would be launched by the Guru.
3.Focus can keep you away from creativity
Increasingly, research is seeing the link between being messy and creativity. Creativity is a child of clutter and critical to the process of Innovation. Steve Jobs was always interested in a wide variety of things and not just computing. This created the unusual ability to work in an outside-in manner, to intuitively feel how people may value a classy, albeit, higher priced product to enjoy their music. Where others focused on MP3 players of the day, he was seeing the Apple iPod, the iPad, apps and the App Store.
4. Focus can blind you out to the long view of time; to gauge the unstated needs of your unknown customers
Amazon was an on-line bookstore. But if Jeff Bezos would be focused on building a massive book business, he wouldn’t be delivering vegetables in Indian cities today. Just the same way Google would be still serving ads on its search engine and not be in search of machine learning, artificial intelligence and the driverless car.
5. Focus can hold down you to your small world such that you forget your larger responsibility towards the big planet
Paul Polman breathed a new life in the erstwhile stodgy, lost-its-shine Unilever of the last century, not by focusing on carbolic soap, shampoo and vegetable oil. He held up the idea that the corporation must become a warrior for the planet. In the process, he reinvented Unilever by reducing its carbon footprint evangelising sustainability and then he made very radical, structural changes that breathed new energy in the 100,000 employees.
6.Focus can keep you away from the quantum leap
There was a time when there were half a dozen leading household textile brands in the country and Reliance was one among them. It had a brand called Vimal that it famously reinforced with the tagline “Only Vimal”. If Reliance would have continued to focus on only its cloth business, it wouldn’t have gone upstream into polyesters, on to building refineries and certainly would not exploded into the telecom scene with disruptive designs, the way it has done today.
7. Focus can lead you to obsessive compulsive disorder
Moving on beyond the world of business, it can even heighten your threat perception, make you beholden to a subsequent false agenda and cause huge, downstream problems for everyone. If George Bush wouldn’t have gone Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) that didn’t exist with single-minded focus, today weld wouldn’t be in the throes of an undeclared third world war where nations must fight stateless forces and wars are no longer on national borderlines but in malls and tube stations and in places pf worship.
8. Focus can often make us selfish
As you move up in life, you may be chasing your own success but closing out on your neighbour ‘s needs, in the very next cubicle. Your eventual success may be deeply interlinked with his and lost in your own groove, you may not see the connection.
9. Focus can help me to pick up signals when you should be first listening to the chatter
We live in a world of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity (VUCA). In it, you may be deeply peering into the microscope when you should be grabbing the binocular, the periscope and wait a minute, the telescope.
You may find me opinionated, counter-culture and, if you like, inherently contradictory, but let me tell you one thing: I am not arguing against the idea of focus. I am severely cautioning against its downsides. In glorifying focus, you risk overtly embracing a societal behaviour that, in a neurological sense, is mostly acquired and quite counter to how we are genetically designed. And that, my friends, calls for a short discourse on neuroscience.
Simplistically told, we are fitted with the amygdala, the primitive, intuitive brain, the wordless brain that gives us our deep feelings like nurturing and makes us take all the critical fight or flight decisions. Then is the neo-cortex which again is divided between the left and the right brain. The left gives us the analytical, the logical capabilities. But it is the right brain that gives us the power to see the big picture, appreciate the interconnectedness among things. Modern management, an offshoot of 20th century science, veers towards, and is largely stuck with the left brain. This is happening at a time when statecraft to captainship of enterprise, leadership requires us to engage, simultaneously with all the faculties of the brain. But this requires awareness and practice of simultaneous acts of exclusion and inclusion in our lives. It requires us to take keen interest in many more things than just this syllabus, this semester and this whatever.
My friends, the Universe requires you to be inquisitive, sensitive, empathetic and constantly connected. True success comes our way when we don’t just focus but are able to interpret and appreciate the blur. The future, always arrives as a blur.
Subroto Bagchi co-founded Mindtree where he rose to be the Chairman. Presently, he works pro-bono but fulltime as Chairman of Odisha Skill Development Authority to provide employable skills for school dropouts.