Ten interesting things we read this week

This week we have a liberal (sic!) breadth of views, news, analyses and even pure facts — Management Psychology (Breaking the 4-minute barrier), Communication (How to disagree with your boss), Gender equality (Men afraid of mentoring women), Economy (Future shock in India), AI (Robots that can change the world), Fiction (Review of Fall, or How the flesh still matters in Internet utopia), Business (Why packaged goods fend off tech disruption), and Movies (Article 15 is part of the caste problem it attempts to portray).

Published: Jun 8, 2019 09:52:52 AM IST
Updated: Jun 8, 2019 09:52:30 AM IST

g_117107_reading_280x210.jpgImage: Shutterstock

At Ambit, we spend a lot of time reading articles that cover a wide gamut of topics from zeitgeist to futuristic. This time we have a liberal (sic!) breadth of views, news, analyses and even pure facts – Management Psychology (Breaking the 4-minute barrier), Communication (How to disagree with your boss), Gender equality (Men afraid of mentoring women), Economy (Future shock in India), AI (Robots that can change the world), Fiction (Review of Fall, or How the flesh still matters in Internet utopia), Business (Why packaged goods fend off tech disruption), and Movies (Article 15 is part of the caste problem it attempts to portray).

1)   What Breaking the 4-Minute Mile Taught Us About the Limits of Conventional Thinking [Source: HBR]

  • The article tributes Roger Bannister, the first human being to run a four-minute mile, and mulls on his legacy “not just as one of the great athletes of the past century, but as an innovator, a change agent, and an icon of success”. When he broke through a previously impenetrable track-and-field barrier, he taught all of us what it takes to break new ground, the author says. Bannister, on May 6, 1954, busted through the four-minute barrier with a time of three minutes, fifty-nine and four-tenths of a second. But how many know the story behind the story — and its lessons for leaders. The elusive four minutes had become a psychological barrier as much as a physical one. When Bannister broke the mark, even his most ardent rivals breathed a sigh of relief. Since then over a thousand runners conquered that barrier, which once was considered out of reach.
  • “What goes for runners goes for leaders running organizations. In business, progress does not move in straight lines,” says the writer. Two Wharton School professors analyzed it for business of the four-minute mile. In their book, The Power of Impossible Thinking, Yoram Wind and Colin Crook devote an entire chapter to Bannister’s feat and emphasize the mindset rather than the physical achievement. How is it, they wonder, that so many runners smashed the four-minute barrier after Bannister became the first to do it? “Was there a sudden growth spurt in human evolution? Was there a genetic engineering experiment that created a new race of super runners? No. What changed was the mental model. The runners of the past had been held back by a mindset that said they could not surpass the four-minute mile. When that limit was broken, the others saw that they could do something they had previously thought impossible.”
  • Most thinking about strategy, competition, and leadership emphasizes the intricacies of business models: revenues, costs, niches, leverage. But mental models are key to leaders to “try not just to be the best at what everyone else can do, but to do things that only they can do” so that others can emulate and in general raise the barrier. So, in outperforming their rivals, great leaders also stretch the bounds of what’s possible in their fields.

     

2)   Men, commit to mentor women [Source: Fortune

  • #MeToo shook up the workplace, it needed shaking up, and a safer workplace for women is a better workplace for everyone. But still, is the workplace truly equal? That is what the celebrated Sheryl Sandberg and Marc Pritchard set out to answer in this piece in Fortune. Men to support women’s careers, which means “hiring women, giving them the stretch assignments that get them noticed, and promoting them.” This entails other challenges - mentoring and sponsoring, which in turn mean spending time with them to help them progress. But the authors rue that, in fact, the opposite appears to be happening.
  • Research by LeanIn.Org reveals that 60% of managers who are men are “uncomfortable participating in common job-related activities with women, such as mentoring, working alone together, or socializing together”. The worrying fact is that a year ago it was 46%. Notably, senior men are becoming more hesitant to work with junior women than junior men across a range of activities. This is very worrying because the vast majority of managers and senior leaders are men. They have a huge role to play in supporting women’s advancement at work—or hindering it, the authors say. Reluctance to even meet women means they can’t get a fair chance at proving themselves. This is bad for business.
  • The article argues that men need to rethink what it means to be a good boss. Since #MeToo men have been eager to say, for the record, they “never did anything inappropriate at work and never would”. But what is needed is - deliberate action to support women and make the workplace better for everyone, celebrating women’s efforts at the job and investing in talent, ensuring hiring and review are unbiased. “If a new generation of women is denied that support because men decide that avoiding women is safer and easier than having their backs, it will be a major loss—for women, for men, and for the workplace as a whole,” concludes the authors. 

3)   a16z Podcast: Who’s Down with CPG, DTC? (And Micro-Brands Too?) [Source: Andreessen Horowitz]

  • All kinds of commerce companies and consumer products have been disrupted or enabled by technology. But how is that for categories like consumer packaged goods (CPG), it seems like tech hasn’t changed things very much. This podcast sets out to analyse how the rise of so-called “micro-brands” (or emerging brands) playing out in CPG? How is it possible that “real” innovation isn’t really happening in the CPG industry despite the tremendous legacy of brand, talent, and more in the space? How are CPG companies tackling grocery, which represents the perfect end-capsule and case study of challenges — and opportunities — in going from offline to online, from online to offline, and more? As for grocery itself, stores themselves (in the U.S. at least) haven’t changed very much due to tech, either… is it a last-mile delivery thing; could we also possibly move to distribution-only centers in the future?
  • The CPG industry is definitely changing. People are looking for different products, have higher standards for food, and are paying more attention to what goes into their makeup and cleaning products. They’re also changing the way they shop. Consumers are buying CPG goods online, via mobile, at the office, through on-demand delivery, in meal kits and personalized services, by using smart home and voice technology, and more. Meanwhile, activist investors, startups, and VC firms are driving the industry towards change. Technology companies are controlling online and offline points of sale, intercepting shopper data, managing customer relationships in place of CPG brands, and more. They’re forcing CPG brands to rethink their entire marketing strategies and react to new trends.
  • Finally, while the holy grail of performance marketing and personalization remains elusive for the industry — let’s face it, most brands are still guessing in the dark (and forget trying to customize offerings!) — even going direct-to-consumer (DTC) hasn’t been shining as much of a light here as one might expect. Or so argue the guests in this episode of the a16z Podcast, featuring Ryan Caldbeck of CircleUp, along with a16z general partner Jeff Jordan, in conversation with Sonal Chokshi.
 

4)  How to Disagree with Someone More Powerful than You [Source: HBR

  • Your boss proposes a new initiative you think won’t work. Your senior colleague outlines a project timeline you think is unrealistic. What do you say when you disagree with someone who has more power than you do? How do you decide whether it’s worth speaking up? And if you do, what exactly should you say? Experts say it’s a natural to shy away from disagreeing with a superior. “Our bodies specialize in survival, so we have a natural bias to avoid situations that might harm us,” says Joseph Grenny, the coauthor of Crucial Conversations and the cofounder of VitalSmarts, a corporate training company. At the heart of the anxiety are negative implications – He’s not going to like me, I’ll get fired.
  • The author advises to realistically weigh the potential consequences of taking action. Is it best to hold off on voicing your opinion? What does the boss care about? Is it credibility of team or getting a project done on time? One should try to connect disagreement to a “higher purpose.” Contextualizing the response shows you are not a disagreeable underling but as a colleague working for a shared goal. “The discussion will then become more like a chess game than a boxing match,” says the author.
  • The idea is to Stay calm (speak slowly and deliberately), Validate the original point (lay a strong foundation for the discussion), Don’t make judgments (try honest disagreement, a worthwhile advancement of thought), Stay humble (leave room for dialogue), and Acknowledge their authority (respect the person while maintaining your own self-respect). The article analyses two cases to explain the above Dos and Don’ts.

 

5)   What India’s economy could look like in 2030 [Source: Livemint]

  • “Fast forward to 2030 and imagine a scene inside an apartment of say, Dhruv, a professional gamer somewhere in an Indian city. Even before he wakes up, there is a “system" planning his entire day for him. There are sensors checking whether his refrigerator is well stocked, or the food in his kitchen shelves is of the right quality. Or if, say, the box filled with rice has reached its minimum threshold as set by Dhruv, the sensors (based on his search history) pick his preferred rice brand at the lowest price available, and order as much as is needed to fill the box. And the order is delivered by a drone that lands on the roof of Dhruv’s apartment building in an area specifically designated for the delivery of packages.”
  • While this seems sci-fi, the signs are clearly there. New technologies, together with increasing interaction between humans and machines, have the potential to catalyze new, disruptive models of living. Who would have thought that, in India, technology could manage the health of cows? Firms like the Chitale Dairy show this is possible. Local farmers collect data about behaviour of cows (through radio frequency identification labels attached to their ears), scan and transmit this information to the Chitale data centre, which then sends them periodic text messages after analysing the data. This data helps farmers understand when they need to change a cow’s diet or when to arrange a vaccination visit, among other things.
  • This case is not isolated. Research by market research consultant Vanson Bourne shows 38% of Indian industry leaders agreed that humans and machines are already working together successfully as an integrated team within their organizations. Emerging technologies are poised to radically transform the bedrock of our economy, remove age-old frictions, and usher in new ways of conducting business. A recent report by Dell forecasts the “dawn of a friction-free economy in 2030”. Dell has partnered with the Institute for the Future (IFTF), an independent futures research group, to explore ways in which emerging technologies will reshape our economy in the next decade. The IFTF posits that to shift to a friction-free economy in which individuals, organizations and governments can collaborate more seamlessly, we will have to undergo three technical shifts. Shift 1: Autonomous commerce—machines as consumers. Shift 2: Anticipatory production—meeting demand on the fly. Shift 3: Leapfrog economies—unlocking inclusive opportunities. The larger question that this article leaves you with is this – does this ensure economic utopia?

 

6)   How to build a robot that wants to change the world [Source: Quanta Magazine]

  • Isaac Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics which first appeared in his 1942 short story “Runaround” and again in classic works like I, Robot: 1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. 2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. 3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. But is it so simple? In our age of advanced machine-learning software and autonomous robotics, defining and implementing an airtight set of ethics for artificial intelligence has become a pressing concern for organizations like the Machine Intelligence Research Institute and OpenAI.
  • Christoph Salge likes to treat it with a more bottom-up method – define “what a robot should do in the first place.” Salge explains that a Roomba programmed to seek its charging station when its batteries are getting low could be said to have an extremely rudimentary form of empowerment: To continue acting on the world, it must take action to preserve its own survival by maintaining a charge. But Salge wonders what might happen if an empowered agent “also looked out for the empowerment of another. Information theory offers a way to translate this mutual empowerment into a mathematical framework that a non-philosophizing artificial agent could put into action.
  • This interview with Salge sets out to answer key questions - Some technologists believe AI is a major, even existential threat. Is the prospect of runaway AI worrisome? How does the concept of empowerment help deal with these issues? What did testing ideas on virtual agents in a video game environment throw up? Did the virtual agents engage in any unintended behavior? You’ve tested this in virtual environments. Why not the real world? Do we need to create intelligent robots that act like really powerful service dogs? Is that probably a future we can all live with?

 

7)   Book review – The Mind-Body Solution [Source: slate.com]

  • Neal Stephenson’s Fall is a novel that explores higher consciousness, the internet’s future, and virtual worldbuilding in one mind-blowing adventure. In the 12th chapter, Princeton students set out on a road trip to visit the “ancestral home” of Sophia. They are 25 years in the future in Ameristan - a semi-lawless territory riddled with bullet holes and conspiracy theories, where a crackpot Christian cult intent on proving the crucifixion was a hoax (because no way is their god some “meek liberal Jesus” who’d allow himself to be “taken out” like that) literally crucifies proselytizing missionaries from other sects. Residents of Ameristan, unlike Sophia and her well-off pals, can’t afford to hire professional “editors” to personally filter the internet for them. Instead, they are exposed to the raw, unmediated internet, a brew of “inscrutable, algorithmically-generated memes” and videos designed, without human intervention, to do whatever it takes to “get the viewer to watch a little bit longer”. That is just one of the problems of this future world.
  • One of the ideas in Fall is that the human mind is shaped by our physical bodies. So even when liberated from those bodies, we’ll understand ourselves and our existence within the same framework — the same essential stories of creation and fall, similar tales of gods, goddesses, and heroes. The novel concludes with a Tolkienesque epic fantasy quest: “an eventful journey through a magical landscape, embarked on by characters it’s impossible to think of as mere processes.” Fall is a rebuke to prophets of the internet who saw cyberspace liberated from constraints of “meatspace.”
  • Fall sets out to show that the internet is not a brave new world built out of computers - it is made of people and all the glory and the nasty baggage that comes with our flawed selves. Wherever we go, there we are.

8)   How the world's inventory of nuclear weapons grew — then shrunk again [Source: Axios

  • There are 85% fewer nuclear warheads in the world today than there were during the peak of the Cold War, but proliferation continues to be a threat with newer, younger powers like North Korea adding weapons to their arsenals. This Axios special section show where the warheads are pointing.  Here are the facts. There are approximately 15,000 nuclear warheads in military stockpiles around the world —over 90% of them belong to the U.S. or Russia. But the U.S. and Russia have shrunk their respective arsenals by a combined 55,000 nuclear warheads since the late 1980s. About 6,000 of those have been removed from military stockpiles but are still awaiting dismantlement. Despite tense relations between the U.S. and Russia, the two countries have been successful in working together to reduce their stockpiles of warheads.
  • While the number of warheads has decreased, both nations are modernizing their weapons, making them harder to detect and more lethal than ever before. "The Pentagon envisions a new age in which nuclear weapons are back in a big way ... Russia has accelerated a dangerous game that the United States must match, even if the price tag soars above $1.2 trillion," the New York Times reports. The article points out that most recent nation to acquire nuclear weapons is the North Korean regime, which is estimated to have at least 15 warheads, though some experts say that figure could be as high as 80. Pakistan and India, as per the authors, have added over a hundred warheads to their respective arsenals over 20 years.
  • The story behind the numbers. The 1968 NPT was a turning point. Adopted by 190 states, the treaty is an agreement to stop the spread of nuclear weapons technology, while allowing the spread of nuclear power. "The NPT is the most successful public policy push of the 20th century," Jim Walsh of MIT's Security Studies Program told reporters at an event at Harvard's Nieman Foundation. While it has survived and gotten stronger, not every nation signed it. India, Pakistan and Israel opted out and recently North Korea violated the terms of the treaty by developing nuclear warheads. To Western observers South Asia and North Korea are the two most unstable regions. Deterrence has stabilized the mature nuclear countries, but what next…?
9)   Elites Unplugged? No Big Deal [Source: The Times Of India]

  • In this brilliant editorial, Bachi Karkaria argues - The overthrow of elites is not revolution, it is part of cultural evolution. Live with it. Post Triumphant Return, 2019, ‘liberals’ have descended into depression, battened down the hatches, or seem suspiciously like readying to jump ship, she says. The bigger question, have the people blown the conch shell to destroy the walls of liberal thinking? Does it signal the ‘end of history’ or even the end of democracy? This is not the first though. Karkaria cites historical precedents - Periyar humbled Brahminism; Jyotibabu laid the ghosts of the Raj which still haunted ‘Cal’ (as did Charu Mazumdar with a machete); Mayawati upended caste; Mamata brought down the Red Fortress.
  • Manmohan Singh’s reforms knocked the public sector off its heights. The ‘high wage island’ of banking surfaced then was swamped by the new kids on the e-block. Liberalisation indirectly shook up another power centre, dismantling hierarchies both in newsroom and on newspages. Lofty editors had to descend from their ivory towers, and take cognisance of the once-disdained ‘market’. The result was that broadsheets became more readable.
  • “The old Brahmins, print and then Doordarshan, had to make room for the no-holds-barred-and-all-TRPs world of satellite and then digital. Social media struck the final blow,” she reminds us. So, she argues that Modi is getting undue credit. “New India isn’t some revolution; it’s part of a continual process in which recharged public assertion cuts off the power supply of the prevailing elite”. The bad news is history shows that across the world what starts as People Power ends up as person power, generating a new set of elites.

10) Film Review – Is Article 15 a good film that misses the mark? [Source: ThePrint]

  • Within just a day of its release the trailer of Bollywood movie Article 15, directed by Anubhav Sinha, was watched by more than 8 million viewers. It was hailed as a film ‘exposing the horrors of caste prejudice’ and ‘uncloaking the reality of India’s caste system’. A ‘must-watch’. Sinha must be applauded, says the author, real political and economic reform cannot come in India unless you kill the “monster” of the caste system (B.R. Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste, 1936). But will ‘the monster’ be exposed by flogging the stereotypes that actually sustain the caste system? The reviewer highlights many complications to be mindful while watching this movie.
  • 1. Lead character, a Brahmin male IPS officer, played by Ayushmann Khurrana, fights the caste atrocity. The Dalits need to be saved by a Brahmin male who, according to B.R. Ambedkar in a paper submitted at the Columbia University’s anthropology seminar, is the creator of the caste system. Problem?
  • 2. Is the movie subtly conveying that caste is a rural thing? Is it the uneducated, boorish, poor people who practice caste?
  • 3. The lead character is casteless or caste-blind although he comes from a Brahmin family. Complication? To be casteless or caste-blind is a privilege that only upper caste can enjoy.
  • 4. Sinha ignores the fact that caste now resides in top universities (Rohith Vemula) and medical colleges (Payal Tadvi) and the persecution of Dalit students (AIIMS). In rural India, caste manifests itself in a crude form and is easier to identify and fight, but in an urban setting, it appears in a less-obvious but equally potent form.
  • 5. Is the movie right in equating Harijan with Bahujan – two different identities of Dalits? The opening dialogue of the trailer is – ‘Kabhi hum harijan bane, kabhi bahujan, kabhi jan nahin ban sake (sometimes we have become Harijan, sometimes Bahujan, but never citizens)’. Bahujan envisages making Dalits, OBCs and other minorities the rulers of this country. So, to equate Bahujan with Harijan seems a simplistic exercise in interpreting Indian society and politics.
  • In a nutshell, Article 15 can be viewed as a simplistic rendering of one of the most discriminatory social systems in the world. And, they continue to benefit from this entrenched system, knowingly or unknowingly. 

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