Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are: Business (Digital kiranas everywhere; Indian warehousing undergoing a rough patch; Tech workers fight burnout in pandemic), Productivity (Creativity can 'Zoom' even higher now!) and Psychology (Cognitive biases and how thinking goes wrong).

Published: Jul 18, 2020 07:51:56 AM IST
Updated: Jul 17, 2020 06:56:42 PM IST

reading_17th july_bgImage: Shutterstock

At Ambit, we spend a lot of time reading articles that cover a wide gamut of topics, ranging from zeitgeist to futuristic, and encapsulate them in our weekly ‘Ten Interesting Things’ product. Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are: Business (Digital kiranas everywhere; Indian warehousing undergoing a rough patch; Tech workers fight burnout in pandemic), Productivity (Creativity can ‘Zoom’ even higher now!) and Psychology (Cognitive biases and how thinking goes wrong).

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended July 10, 2020:  

1) Digital Kiranas - lot of local stores are going online [Source: Business Today]
As the lockdown in India was one of the solutions to combat Covid-19, many were worried about their jobs and businesses. Even local kirana (grocery) stores were worried. But not Wagadwala Store, a household name in residential complexes of Marol in suburban Mumbai. Just a call away, the kirana store delivers anything from a loaf of bread and eggs to monthly grocery list at a speed no ecommerce major can match. During the initial days of the lockdown, its owner, Samir Wagadwala, was the messiah of Marol. When most nearby stores downed shutters due to lack of supplies, he went from distributor to distributor to ensure that his store was well-stocked. He also continued home delivery.

He’s not stopped there. He started his online grocery platform, Wagadwala.com, two months ago. "I can see my entire inventory online, and when I run out of certain products, say Ashirvaad atta or Saffola oil, the website alerts me. It also notifies my customer when I get fresh stock. The online solution also has a billing facility," he says. Wagadwala Store may represent a fraction of the 15 million neighbourhood kirana store network (88% of the $800 billion Indian grocery retail market) which has online presence, but supply and distribution glitches due to the lockdown have compelled a large segment of such stores to look at new revenue streams via digital presence.

Arvind Mediratta, CEO, Metro Cash & Carry, says the once digital-averse kirana stores are beginning to lap up technology. So, why would a consumer go online and order from a kirana store and not from a more professional platform such as Amazon or BigBasket? The reasons are simple. The consumer trusts him. Then there is the speed of delivery by virtue of being present in the vicinity of the consumer. The kirana tech companies want to capitalise on these strengths. On the demand side, a kirana store caters to 1,000-1,500 households in all. It does 200-250 sales in a day. Online presence helped many kirana stores aggregate orders from particular residential complexes and fulfil them at one go during the lockdown. Store owners have started leapfrogging from a humble calculator to the cloud.

2) Nassim Taleb on the logic of risking taking [Source: Medium]
In this archaic piece, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a Lebanese-American essayist, scholar, mathematical statistician, and former option trader and risk analyst, explains ergodicity, ruin and (again) rationality. He says, you need a lot of intelligence to figure probabilistic things out when you don’t have skin in the game. There are things one can only get if one has some risk on the line. Unless one is a genius, that is have the clarity of mind to see through the mud, or have such a profound command of probability theory to see through the nonsense. Also, there is a “stop” somewhere, an absorbing barrier that prevents people with skin in the game from emerging from it –and to which the system will invariably tend. Mr. Taleb calls these situations “ruin”, as the entity cannot emerge from the condition.

The central problem is that if there is a possibility of ruin, cost benefit analyses are no longer possible. Beyond, in real life, every single bit of risk you take adds up to reduce your life expectancy. If you climb mountains and ride a motorcycle and hang around the mob and fly your own small plane and drink absinthe, your life expectancy is considerably reduced although not a single action will have a meaningful effect. This idea of repetition makes paranoia about some low probability events perfectly rational. But we do not need to be overly paranoid about ourselves; we need to shift some of our worries about bigger things.

Mr. Taleb’s Antifragile revolves around the idea that people confuse risk of ruin with variations –a simplification that violates a deeper, more rigorous logic of things. It makes the case for risk loving, systematic “convex” tinkering, taking a lot of risks that don’t have tail risks but offer tail profits. Volatile things are not necessarily risky, and the reverse. Jumping from a bench would be good for you and your bones, while falling from the twenty-second floor will never be so. Small injuries will be beneficial, never larger ones. Fearmonging about some class of events is fearmonging; about others it is not. Risk and ruin are different things.

3) Scientists say you can make teams more creative--even over Zoom [Source: inc.com]
One thing that you need to come up with new ideas is brainstorming. The latest research into how the human brain works, however, suggests that business meetings, whether intentional or accidental, tend to suppress rather than encourage creativity. It turns out that fostering creativity requires removing individuals entirely from the structures and processes that are common to most workplaces. According to an article published in the Proceedings of the Seventh ACM Conference on Creativity and Cognition, a group of neuroscientists used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of jazz pianists and free-style rappers while they improvised.

The researchers discovered that improvisation causes: increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), a brain area involved in introspective thinking [and] decreased activity in the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), a region involved with executive functions, such as planning and inhibition. Workplaces are also designed to inhibit or eliminate any behavior that's not related to organizational goals. Even activities in the workplace that are supposed to be "fun," like video games or in-house gyms, are provided and presented as ways to increase productivity or as team-building exercises.

To actually encourage creativity, leaders should probably be encouraging social interactions outside of the workplace and outside of the context of structured events such as brainstorming sessions. Creative thinking is more likely to take place when workers are alone with their thoughts or "improvising" within a small group. Fortunately, the work-from-home model provides plenty of alone time for creative thinking, while tools like Zoom allow for small groups to interact without worrying about being overheard or making noise that would disturb other workers. The result can be an uninhibited conversation, divorced from planning, that can actually spawn original ideas.

4) America’s huge stimulus is having surprising effects on the poor [Source: The Economist]
As the pandemic is becoming severe worldwide, countries are coming up various stimulus packages to the keep the economy afloat. The jobs report for June for America, published on July 2nd, showed that unemployment remained well above the peak of a decade ago. According to a new survey from the Census Bureau, since the pandemic began the share of Americans who “sometimes” or “often” do not have enough to eat has grown by two percentage points, representing some 2m households. An astonishing 20% of African-American households with children are now in this position. Meanwhile, the proportion of Americans saying that they are able to pay the rent is falling. Many more people are typing “bankrupt” into Google.

A new paper from economists at the University of Chicago and the University of Notre Dame, however, suggests that poverty, as measured on an annual basis, may actually have fallen a bit in April and May, continuing a trend seen in the months before the pandemic hit. Why? The main reason is that fiscal policy is helping to push poverty down. The stimulus plan passed by Congress is twice the size of the one passed to fight the recession of a decade ago. Much of it, including cheques worth up to $1,200 for a single person and a $600-a-week increase in unemployment insurance (UI) for those out of work, is focused on helping households through the lockdowns. At the same time, unemployment now looks unlikely to rise to 25% or higher, as some economists had predicted in the early days of the pandemic, thereby exerting less upward pressure on poverty than had been feared.

The upshot is that the current downturn looks different from previous ones. Household income usually falls during a recession—as it did the last time, pushing up poverty. But a paper in mid-June from Goldman Sachs, a bank, suggests that this year nominal household disposable income will actually increase by about 4%, pretty much in line with its growth rate before the pandemic. The authors of a recent paper from Columbia University show that poverty could rise sharply in the second half of the year, which seems likely if unemployment has not decisively fallen by then.

5) Indian warehousing industry is going through a rough patch. Can it bounce back? [Source: ET Prime]
Just like any other sector, the warehousing industry has suffered due to the ongoing pandemic. The January-March quarter was already looking grim for the Indian warehousing industry when the coronavirus struck. While e-commerce and retail have provided some relief, the warehousing industry is expected to remain subdued for the next few months. Sectors like autos and pharma have further deferred their plans to invest in warehousing given the current slowdown due to Covid.

Private-equity investors, who had been extremely bullish in the last couple of years, are exercising caution for the time being. Insiders say the industry will be waiting for a comeback, since the demand fundamentals are still intact. In the backdrop of what the sector has been through lately, what are the chances of this outlook emerging true? “Absorption has been slow in January-March primarily, as decision makers have not been able to travel and finalise deals. There were abundant queries in the first two months. However, March has been slow on (deal) closures,” says Aditya Virwani, spokesperson, Embassy Industrial Parks, a major player in the Grade A segment. “We believe the spillover will flow to the next quarter and the absorption numbers will reflect that.”

Operational challenges and delayed delivery of construction sites have also affected absorption. Warehouse construction is highly labour intensive. Because of the lockdown, labour reporting on sites has been affected, which will impact construction timelines. Warehousing and 3PL companies with clients in FMCG, grocery, food, and retail segments say one of the biggest challenges they are facing is to get workers and staff to the warehouses. Experts say even when the current demand surge across food, grocery, and FMCG averages out, the new normal for warehousing will be higher than now. The reasons to invest in technology and automation will become more apparent.

6) Lecture on cognitive biases & how thinking goes wrong [Source: skeptic.com]   
As the schools and colleges have been shut due to the current pandemic, many are going online. Michael Shermer teaches remotely his Skepticism 101 course on How to Think Like a Scientist from his recording studio in California instead of from Chapman University. The course covers a wide range of topics, from critical thinking, reasoning, rationality, cognitive biases and how thinking goes wrong, and the scientific methods, to actual claims and whether or not there is any truth to them, e.g., ESP, ETIs, UFOs, astrology, channelling, psychics, creationism, Holocaust denial, and especially conspiracy theories and how to think about them.

This is his second lecture, and he talks about cognitive biases & how thinking goes wrong. He starts with an audience participation exercise to set the topic in motion. Dr. Shermer explains how our mind processes the information with various biases. He explains the difference between conspiracies and conspiracy theories, who is more likely to believe which conspiracy theories, the social, political, cultural, and psychological conditions in which conspiracy theories flourish, and real conspiracies.

He gives ample examples to prove the all points. Some of the cognitive biases he touches in this lecture are: 1) Confirmation bias: We remember the unusual, and forget the usual. 2) Hindsight bias: Why did you end up doing this instead of that? That’s when you make-up stories to connect the dots. 3) Self justification bias: The tendency to rationalize decisions after the fact to convince ourselves that what we did was the best thing we could have done. 4) Intellectual attribution bias: We consider our own beliefs as being rationally motivated. 5) Emotional attribution bias: We see the beliefs of others as being emotionally driven.

7) Main reasons employees don’t speak their mind at work [Source: Fast Company]
Many a times, employees won’t speak to give solutions or suggestions unless they are asked. A study found out that there five reasons behind this. 1) People don’t think leadership wants their ideas: 41% of survey respondents said leadership doesn’t value innovation, and 67% said leadership operates on the notion that “this is how we’ve always done it.” If employees don’t think you really want their ideas, they won’t bother to offer them. Your best thinkers are still thinking, but not about your business. They’re starting a side gig, getting proficient at their hobby, or figuring out their next move. 2) No one asks: An astonishing 49% of employees surveyed said that they are not regularly asked for their ideas. You might think you’re asking for ideas because you have an open-door policy or your company has a sophisticated suggestion system. Asking well requires a cadence of regularly asking for specific insights and ideas.

3) They lack confidence to share: 41% respondents said they don’t feel confident sharing their ideas. Managers needs to be deliberate in understanding what’s crushing people’s courage and work to eliminate the real and imagined barriers preventing the humans on the team from contributing their best thinking. 4) They lack the skills to share effectively: In many cases, employees simply don’t know how to speak up in a way that can be heard. Even if you’re hiring experienced managers, chances are they haven’t been trained to think critically, solve complex problems, or encourage micro-innovation and problem-solving on their teams.

5) People don’t think anything will happen, so they don’t bother: One of the most significant issues, even in some of the highest performing organizations, is that people are convinced their ideas will be ignored. 50% of the employees surveyed said they believe that if they share an idea, it won’t be taken seriously. As an employer, you may be asking for ideas and even doing something with them, but if there’s no feedback loop, employees will assume nothing is happening. And no one wants to make contributions that aren’t recognized or valued. It’s human nature to stop trying and redirect energy where you believe it will do some good.

8) Infections in India are soaring, but increased testing will help [Source: The Economist]
The number of cases is rising every day in India. Now, even as the curve has flattened or fallen in Delhi and Mumbai, it is arching sharply upwards in satellite towns, and penetrating ever further into the interior. With more than 900,000 confirmed cases so far, India ranks third after America and Brazil in infections. The tally of Covid deaths, over 24,000, is relatively modest. It works out at fewer than 15 per million, a quarter of the world average and a fraction of the 651 per million in Britain. Unlike Brazil and America, India responded quickly and forcefully to the pandemic. Perhaps too quickly: two months of nationwide lockdown shattered the economy, but only slowed the disease.

“You flattened the wrong curve,” is how Rajiv Bajaj, a prominent businessman, puts it. One deadly error was to freeze all travel with no warning, trapping millions of migrant workers where they were no longer wanted, in big cities with the highest rates of infection, and then later to let them go, carrying the infection with them. Some Indian states, such as Kerala in the far south and Punjab in the north, have ably contained the disease. Dharavi, a sprawling slum in Mumbai whose density and poor sanitation seemed likely to create conditions for Covid to spin out of control, has instead proved a model of how thoughtful, local interventions in co-operation with residents can stem its spread.

From hundreds a day in May, new daily infections among the slum’s 850,000 people are down to a handful. With the price of tests dropping and restrictions on their use lifted, the country should soon be conducting more than the current 200,000 a day. Mylab, a company based in the city of Pune, says it alone has the capacity to process 2mn samples a week. This could be a big help, since testing allows a better understanding of the disease’s trajectory. Researchers at MIT recently suggested that India could have as many as 287,000 new infections a day by January, based on the old level of testing. That picture should now improve.
  
9) How tech workers are finding their footing in a pandemic [Source: jasonshen.com]
As the tech companies are working round the clock to delight their customers, these tech companies’ employees are feeling burned out. In fits and starts, the tech industry has finally begun to talk openly about burnout, mental health, and workplace culture, including toxic leadership and unhealthy work hours. A survey of 11,000 tech workers on Blind found that 57% were currently feeling burned out. While not an evenly distributed sample, Blind’s stat stands in stark contrast to the mere quarter of American adults who say they’re burned out at least some of the time, in a study by the American Psychological Association.

The current pandemic has worsen the situation. So in the current pandemic, how can the leaders help their teams fight burnout? 1) Provide mandatory planned leave: Barvely, an on-demand coaching platform, CEO Toby Hervey gave staff four straight weeks of half-day Fridays. “People feel like there’s no end in sight,” he said. Letting workers know in advance they have chances to rest can help them “ride it out for the long haul.” 2) Lean into pulse/culture surveys: It’s both difficult and important to stay on top of your team’s well-being during a pandemic and while working remotely. Products such as CultureAmp, Know Your Team, and Yerbo’s TalkIt can serve this purpose by offering weekly or semi-monthly surveys where employees can share how they feel about their job and their company.

3) Create a space to discuss difficult topics: Taylor McCaslin, a senior PM at GitLab, shared how the company’s #mental_health_aware Slack channel has been an important place to bond with her coworkers. More than 200 GitLab employees use it to share honest feelings and helpful resources around mental health. “It’s been so eye-opening to see the struggles that other people have and to see that I’m not alone,” McCaslin said. 4) Empower employees to take mental health days: Many companies offer generous sick leave, but managers should clarify that this can be used for both physical illness and mental well-being. As in every industry, tech has taken some hits during the pandemic, but we’re starting to pick ourselves back up.    

10) Bari Wiess – Standing up for your principles [Source: bariweiss.com]
Bari Wiess, an American writer/editor, and opinion editor at The New York Times recently quit her job. In a public resignation letter, she alleged harassment and a hostile work environment created by people who disagreed with her. She writes, “My work and my character are openly demeaned on company-wide Slack channels where masthead editors regularly weigh in. There, some coworkers insist I need to be rooted out if this company is to be a truly “inclusive” one, while others post ax emojis next to my name. Still other New York Times employees publicly smear me as a liar and a bigot on Twitter with no fear that harassing me will be met with appropriate action. They never are.”

She questions how the paper allowed this unlawful discrimination, hostile work environment, and constructive discharge. “Part of me wishes I could say that my experience was unique. But the truth is that intellectual curiosity—let alone risk-taking—is now a liability at The Times. Why edit something challenging to our readers, or write something bold only to go through the numbing process of making it ideologically kosher, when we can assure ourselves of job security (and clicks) by publishing our 4000th op-ed arguing that Donald Trump is a unique danger to the country and the world? And so self-censorship has become the norm,” she says.

She also has a few tips for young writers and editors. Rule One: Speak your mind at your own peril. Rule Two: Never risk commissioning a story that goes against the narrative. Rule Three: Never believe an editor or publisher who urges you to go against the grain. Eventually, the publisher will cave to the mob, the editor will get fired or reassigned, and you’ll be hung out to dry. As places like The Times and other once-great journalistic institutions betray their standards and lose sight of their principles, Americans still hunger for news that is accurate, opinions that are vital, and debate that is sincere.

Click here to see Forbes India's comprehensive coverage on the Covid-19 situation and its impact on life, business and the economy‚Äč

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