How to recognize talent? -6

Recognizing talent does take some efforts

Recognizing talent does take some efforts

It was 0800 AM and the entire office space on the seventh floor of the building was empty except a desk near the line of windows.  At the desk was Anna, a 28 year old software developer. She was furiously jabbing at lines of dense code in her monitor. The morning sun’s rays streaked in from the window at her left and hit the dancing lines of code occasionally highlighting them, as if to catch her attention. Anna was oblivious to those hints just as see she was unaware of her colleagues slowly trickling in. By 0845, the floor was buzzing with people.

096 redusedAnna looked away from her monitor to give her eyes a break and saw her program manager next to her. He asked her, “I pinged you about the delivery schedule while I was reaching here”

She looked blankly at him.

“Anna, we are reaching some critical milestones and we need to inform our management about them, so..” He paused. Looking at her monitor, he asked “Gosh, what’s going on here? Are you doing something else and not our project XL?”

“I am studying for a course on real time systems. I am working out an assignment in that. I think our programming needs to be much more optimized for speed for a proper real time response.  Since it is not done well, we end up in  writing patches to solve problems. I came early so that I could spend time on this”

He shrugged his shoulders and went away. On his phone he pinged Anna’s boss, complaining about not getting priority from her for the Project XL. Within minutes she saw a ping from her boss who was thousands of miles away. The ping read “??”

It would be great if her boss could take trouble to find out more about what Anna was doing. Talented people are restless and they try to improve their knowledge and skills all the time. They put in extra efforts for this. They do it on their own.  Anna was one such person.

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Importance of design philosophy and sticking to it

We all love things that look good, feel good and work well whether they are cars, mobiles, machines or toilets. So do the healthcare professionals like surgeons, doctors, and nurses. But when it comes to an operating room (OR) they are all focused on the patient and on the medical procedure.

A well known medical equipment manufacturer came to us with the above design challenge for their endoscopy video capture instrument. Their product was up for a revamp upgrade. Since the nurses assisting the surgeon in the OR were the main users, the design philosophy of ‘choice based on the context’ and ‘visual language of familiar control combinations’ was decided. The grey scale color palette of the outgoing version was junked in favor of bright but soothing palette of blue and orange.New Interface

Several discovery sessions were conducted with the R & D team to define the instrument’s operation in its various modes like setup, preparation& preview, operation, review and archiving. OperationA navigation tree and screen wireframe were developed. The visual language design was done in parallel.

Passive Wireframe mockups were used for user walk throughs and used for updating everything. The final designs and icons were integrated with the instruments revised software.

Field trials showed that the operating room nurses loved the new intuitive and brighter user interface.

The instrument’s sales went up considerably because the field demos were enough to win confidence of users and their orders.

It is very important to develop a design philosophy and sticking to it through right techniques and tools.

Hemant Karandikar

Brand strategy, Communications, and User Interface Design

Design Directions Pvt. Ltd


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How to recognize talent? -5 (After The Break)

Ashish was interviewing Daniel for the post of operations head in their fledgling e-commerce business. Ashish had summarized the job requirements as: understanding of end-to-end processes related to discovery (of and by customer) , narrowing down requirements, comparison & evaluation of alternatives, order placement, shipping, delivery and support.  Other processes related to supply chain performance also needed careful shepherding.  The operations head must also be comfortable with using e-commerce platform’s control panel with a bit of insight into its capabilities and limitations.

While it was relatively easy to assess Daniel’s knowledge of the above, Ashish knew that willingness to jump into detail, drilling down to key actions and directing right people to act swiftly were the key ingredients for success of their new company. Therefore, he announced a break interval in the interview session. During the break Ashish thought about his chief concern and about how would he address it after the break.

Recognizing talent does take some efforts

Recognizing talent does take some efforts

When Daniel returned Ashish asked him, “Please tell me, have you led any delivery process breakthrough project? If yes, can you tell me something about it?”

Daniel’s answer disappointed him. Daniel said, “No, unfortunately”. Daniel too was unhappy. But he continued” I never led such a project. But I got a chance to do work on improving delivery process of a retail chain where I worked. We used to have many complaints of stock-outs and irate customers used to call us often confounding our call desk people. Since no one was doing anything, I gathered data, talked to some of my colleagues to determine root causes behind the delays. I found that one of the root cause was that order confirmation would take unpredictable amount of time due to some system interlocks. This was in my area. So I discussed the issue and allowed that some interlocks can be suspended to allow checks in parallel. This was approved and implemented quickly. We could see major gains in delivery cycle times. ”

Ashish could see that Daniel was excited  and proud as he talked. He was passionate.  He had no experience heading operations yet. But he clearly had taken on a challenge. He had gone into details. He had identified root causes and solution to at least one of them by talking to his colleagues. He also got the solution implemented.

After the interview, Ashish sat down thinking about Daniel as the potential operation head in his company with two obvious shortcomings : He had brick and mortar experience but not e-commerce. He had not led as an operations head.

What do you think Ashish should have done? Did Daniel have the required talent?

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How to recognize talent? -4

I was interviewing this guy for a technician’s post. The job would involve a lot of testing and troubleshooting. His name was Ashok. He answered most questions well. He just shook his head (indicating he didn’t have the answer) to some questions. He was to the point and wouldn’t say a word more than necessary. Then I asked him about a particularly difficult troubleshooting problem which he had solved, he started describing it. Soon he took a piece of scrap paper and drew a diagram to explain the problem in more detail. He didn’t wait for questions and volunteered information. For next ten minutes or so he apparently forgot where he was and so did we. We too were engrossed in what he was telling us. We confirmed his selection. He turned out to be very good in his job, often going extra lengths for solving problems.

Mitali had just joined the company as HR head. In her very first meeting she took everyone with surprise by straightaway  diving into the root cause of  he company’s key HR issue -attrition. The veterans around the table were stunned by her frankness and had no real points of disagreement with her. Just one managed to ask, “How do you know?” Her answer was even more surprising: “Sir, I can see the bored faces of people here. Most are well qualified. So I asked a cross section of them.  I guess they opened up because they knew that I am new here. Their answers indicated that they were helpless and were resigned to fire-fighting their way out of day to problems. They felt that they were underutilized”

Talented people are passionate about doing things which utilize their talents. They forget everything else when they get going. They don’t waste time. They don’t wait for formal instructions. They simply start doing things. Their passion can seen in the way they talk when they talk about their work, their unconventional methods when needed, and their speed.

Have you met such people? Did you recognize their talent? How did it all go?

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What I don’t mean by talent

I have been writing about ‘talent’. It is easy to go all the way and cover everything including ‘Einstein’.

This is not what I mean when I write about talent. We don’t necessarily exclude a genius, but don’t insist on a genius. So, it is nice to have a great ability to do out-of-box thinking in our people but it is OK even if a person’s thinking is not hugely innovative. What is far more important is the ability to do certain things really well and a passion for doing them again and again.

Without saying so explicitly, I write about talent in the context of needs of an organization. Most organizations can’t handle ‘Einsteins’ in meaningful ways. So we can safely exclude geniuses and artists of exceptional caliber whose worth takes decades to unravel.

This still leaves a large mass of people who can do some things exceptionally well and like doing them given opportunities for discovery, improvisation, and rewards. All organizations are looking for such people -not all get it right. I hope to discuss ways of getting the ‘talent’ thing right through these posts in this series.

Do write in with your ideas on the subject.

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Are you stuck? (How to recognize talent? -3)

In my previous posts I wrote about the following points

1. Need to look at talent needed for different time frames -immediate and over medium term to ensure certain mobility of people and flexibility.

2. Need to focus on basic skills like drawing, writing, painting, visualizing, selling, planning, organizing, developing algorithms, leading etc. and less on applied skills like use of computers, newer tools etc. This is because the basic skills are acquired over a long time as compared to the applied skills.

The above points can be used to design screening methods for candidates or for correcting imbalances in existing methods. For example, a very common mistake is to emphasize on domain knowledge and use of tools and overlook the basic skills and needs over medium term.

You can’t become a writer just because you know use of word processing software or just because you have good knowledge of English. You can’t become a software architect just because you know programming well and just by programming for years.

If you find that people in your team are stuck where they are and that you are stuck with them, it is quite likely that reasons will be anyone of the above two. Isn’t it?

Do share your experiences about the above.

In the forthcoming post I will put the spotlight on your ‘candidates’ for talent.

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How to recognize talent? -2

You wish to hire or nurture talent. But what is ‘talent’?

Look at these synonyms:

flair, aptitude, facility, gift, knack, technique, touch, bent, ability, expertise, capacity, power, faculty; strength, strong point, forte, genius, brilliance; dexterity, adroitness, skill, cleverness, virtuosity, artistry

All these words tell us about the quality of ‘doing’ something. It is less about knowledge or information (knowledge can be acquired or learned or transmitted). But there is more. Let’s take Jay. Jay sketches well.  Before he can be considered talented enough by a creative studio he will need to ‘work’ on his drawing skills -draw different subjects, use different media (paper, canvas, computer screen) and use different tools and techniques.

‘Talent’ in a professional context involves basic skills, practicing on platforms, and using a set of tools.  But in case of Jay, his future jobs may also need visualization of characters or landscapes. Therefore some jobs may involve additional basic skills.

Many recruiters focus mainly on ability to work on various platforms and ability to use tools.   It is easy to see that while platforms and tools can be taught and learned(assuming basic familiarity with computers and a will to learn),  it is almost impossible to develop from scratch a new skill like drawing or visualizing.

There are two kinds of skills:  basic skills like drawing, writing, painting, visualizing, selling, planning, organizing, leading and applied skills like using computers, using applications, using newer tools. It is easy to recognize applied skills  -one can ‘test’ people for applied skills and rate them based on their performance. One can even automate such tests for screening a large number of people. One can usually find standardized tests which can be purchased.

Evaluating basic skills of a person is much more complex. It requires some personal interaction. Therefore it is useful to write down such skills as the above types explicitly and plan your interactions carefully.  I will discuss this in my future posts.

In the meantime please do write about your experiences and questions on the subject.

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How to recognize talent? -1

Whether you are looking for talented people outside or surveying your organization for internal talent, you will need to be clear about what you are looking for and how to recognize it.

The first step should be to nail down what kind of work you expect the person to be doing  in near future and eventually, over next two or three years. Answering this question for short and long time frames will help in avoiding two extremes -expecting too little from the job holder or over-specifying your requirements.  You should get two different answers in most cases.

What do I mean by: “You should get two different answers”? Let us consider this case: You are looking for a team leader from a pool of engineers with relevant domain experience. You would expect that such a person should be able to plan the work of the team based on team’s goals defined by the project manager. Such a person should be able to detail out work activities in logical sequence,  decide what kind of resources would be needed, decide time needed etc.  You may expect a team leader should be able to develop such action plans in collaboration with team members and outside people. You may expect that a chosen person should start performing the above type of activities  almost immediately.

You may expect the person to grow into a project leader in next two three years. For this, he or she will have to grasp overall flow of the project execution, will need to develop good insights into needs of clients,  identify risks, and mitigate them through a network of resources within and outside your company.

From the above kind of job requirements, you can decide how to screen people and what to look for related to their potential learning & development.

We will continue our discussions on ‘how to recognize talent’ through some future posts here.

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Conversations with a young spark

I was having a tough time convincing Sumeet to start thinking about next steps in his career. Not that he was a lazy, laid back chap with an attitude. Sumeet was a guy with sharp intellect, a degree from a top engineering university, an engaging curiosity, and huge amount of stamina to put in hours in whatever he was doing. He defied the convention of the intelligent to be lazy. He defied the convention of the well educated to think that they know it all -he remained curious.

I saw in him potential for doing bigger things. So I was chatting with him.

“Please don’t start with ‘how do you see yourself with x years from now’ stuff. I have told you that I don’t see myself at all years from now”  Sumeet said peremptorily.

I was prepared for this.  I asked, “You write beautiful code. Today you are writing it on one platform, tomorrow it will be on another platform. Today you are writing your code in one domain, tomorrow it will be in another domain. You are a great code writer. Do you wish to be doing that always?”

“Why shouldn’t I? I like writing code.”

“Sure you like. That’s one reason why you do it so well. The other reasons are your intelligence, knowledge, curiosity, and zeal of going to the bottom of everything”


“No, you aren’t getting it!”

Sumeet looked genuinely puzzled. Soon enough a sheepish grin appeared underneath his stubble. I knew his mind was working furiously. I enjoyed the wait.

“Wait! Are you alluding to my yawns which appear even before it is noon? They are because of my late nights watching recorded TV episodes”

“Not quite. You also play games and keep cracking higher levels while you keep yawning”

“It’s OK to play games?”

“The point is not about your games. Let’s say you are of 28 years now. When you are 35 or even much before that you will have lost some of your curiosity and passion to get to the bottom of everything and to build everything up well”

“Why? Can’t I retain all that I have?”

“Look. There is only so much one can do all by oneself. After a while what you are doing so well today will become a routine for you. It already has. That’s the reason for your yawns. Aren’t you just coasting along?”

“But I can always crack tougher problems by myself”

“They don’t get much tougher for someone like you at the level of an individual, unless you are working on something audacious like finding theory of everything or unless you are on a quest to find who you really are and why”

“I am not convinced. There will be enough challenges ”

“When you have mastered writing code at individual level next challenges will come only from code written by tens or hundreds of coders. Sorry for the word. Hundreds of people can’t be good writers. And today you need so many of them”

“I hate to be a manager” I think he tried to second guess me.

“If you wish to handle technical challenges several orders of magnitude bigger than what you get to handle at individual level now,  you will have to get inputs from others, learn, develop ideas, influence others, and build and execute. Whatever you call doing all this, it is inevitable”

I continued, ” It may happen sooner or later, I mean hitting your wall. That’s for sure. The question is, how are you going to deal with when it does happen. Saying that I will cross the bridge when I come to it will not work because by that time you would have changed for worse. You would have changed because of lack enough challenges which put your abilities through a stretch. Even now you are finishing day’s work fast. Then you wait for others to catch up. By that time you would have seen some of your colleagues falling behind. You would have seen some of them shifting to new jobs, bigger roles, and handling complex challenges. You would have gone through such comparisons.”

Sumeet was in a deep thought. His sheepish and impish smile had gone now.

I added, “There is nothing wrong to continue to like coding. The question which someone abundantly gifted like you must answer is whether it is going to be enough even if it pays you well enough”

“By the way, there is shorter name for -to get inputs from others, learn, develop ideas, influence others, and build and execute. I call it leadership ” I finished.

Sumeet said, “I see your point. I will need to think about it”

Did Sumeet continue to stick to pure coding? How did his career develop? We will need to catch up with Sumeet’s story for answers.

But I think we must ask ourselves such questions. If we don’t and if we aren’t on a lookout for ourselves, sooner or later we are bound to hit a wall of boredom or frustration or despair or victimization or being unsung or being left behind, or any combination of such feelings. Don’t we owe it to ourselves to do much better?

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