Saturday, July 09, 2005

Odd ends; and a dilemma

I wrote a guest column for the "University Week", published by the University of Washington press, as something for the post 4th of July issue. It was a column on prejudice and racial abuse, and is an extended version of what I had written earlier. If you are interested in reading it, the article (along with an ugly mugshot) is available online here. Blogging might be slow as I'm currently overwhelmed by the response to the article, and am slowly responding to a flood of emails from faculty, staff and students.


Here is a hypothetical query, and some of you with a deeper understanding of human nature and people might be able to come up with some ideas or solutions.

Let's say there is a someone, say A, who founded, heads and drives an organization. This A is completely committed to the cause of the organization, and works incredibly hard at it. Now, over time, this organization has grown to take up a diverse number of issues/problems. Each of these issues requires a huge commitment of time and effort. This A is completely involved in ALL of the issues. This is clearly more work than one person can handle, and this work overload is causing a lot of stress, and also physically affecting A. In addition, issue X is also beginning to suffer, since new problems are constantly creeping in, and A cannot handle all the issues. Additionally, A is also not an expert in problem X, though A started working on the issue (for the organization) years ago, before it grew to the present size. Now, A is definitely the expert on another issue Y, which A is anyway currently looking into. Y also now requires more attention, since it has grown to a large size, and A's expertise and greater time commitment will do wonders for issue Y. However, there are some problems with trying to get A to focus more on issue Y and less on issue X.

1) Issue X was actually started by A, so there has been a tremendous amount of work and effort put into it by A.
2) If A's asked by some outside person (involved peripherally with the organization) to come out of issue X, and focus on issue Y, A feels her/his integrity and commitment is under question. This is clearly not the case, since integrity and commitment are of the highest order, and it is rare to find such dedicated individuals.
3) It has also been extremely hard for the organization to create a good second rung of leadership, mostly because such people haven't been found. So, A is scared of what might happen if he/she pulls out of one effort. The issue X cannot be allowed to flounder.

Any wise heads out there with ideas?


Michael Higgins said...

Hi Sunil
I am really sorry that you have been subjected to so many racial incidents. My wife has lived in the U.S. for 15 years and I don't recall that she had so many incidents, (there may have been one before we meet).

That is a nice picture of you. It's always nice to place a face next to a well-known writer.

As for A and his issues of X and Y, it is clear that A has to delegate. This a problem with any organization, including businesses, that the founder will tend to try to do everything. At some point, the founder has to let go, and let others take some responsibility.

Many people aren't any good at delegating. They think, "By the time I tell B what to do, I could have done it myself." But maybe B could have figured it out on his own. And maybe A needs to let go a bit and allow things to go in a direct not of A's choosing. That can be hard, but necessary.

Of course, it be helpful to know more details. What is the organisation and what are the tasks X and Y. Why can't A appoint a VP for X and a VP for Y?

Vikram A. said...

Hi Sunil,

Nice piece you wrote for "University Week." It is really unfortunate how ignorant some people are. I went to a Catholic High School in California, and the school was 95% white. There were a couple Desi kids and a couple kids of Middle Eastern descent. The day after 9/11, a kid went around collecting money to "kill the terrorists." I have no idea what his objective was. Anyway, my group of friends consisted of another Indian guy, an Iranian guy, and a Pakistani guy. The terrorist-killing fund raiser came up to us and literally threatened to harm us if we "didn't watch out." This kid was soon expelled from school for other idiotic behavior, but it certainly rattled my friends and I. Prior to that, I never experienced such blatant racism in my life.


Sunil said...

Michael...calling me a "well known" writer would be an exaggeration even by your polite standards.

I don't want to give the name of the organization. But it is a small, tremedously dedicated NGO in rural India. Two problems faced are that (like most NGO's) this one works on a shoe-string budget, so actually hiring someone who's really good is almost out of the question. Also, it is pretty far away from any real city, so "city" talent is hard to find. The type of skills required for the project X requires someone with atleast a bachelors degree......

Additionally, it's been really hard for A to find reliable people who will stick (the reliable ones work for at most a year before using this as a platform to move to a different, higher profile org).

Vikram...I think your story was scarier than any of mine! I came to the states in sept 2000, and never once faced any kind of abuse till sept 2001. After that, sadly, it has been frequent.

Anonymous said...

Sunil, good article at Uweek - and the ugly mug shot as a bonus! as Michael says, is good to put a face to a voice... (er, are you a 'native' of India - the word somehow seems very pejorative to me! very Raj, if you know what I mean - but this is just an aside...)

And Sunil, it would be good if you can share some of the rsponses that you have recd to this piece - esp the more polarised ones...?

Also, I keep thinking of what is going to happpen in UK now...? Is multiculturalism going to take a severe beating - will chicken tikka masala no longer be favoured?

Anonymous said...

your other query is unfortunately about a very typical management problem...
since it is an NGO, I assume that you mean social issues / problems when you talk about new issues cropping up and not organisational issues. I think it is best to stick to a focus area - problem X or Y and work on it creating some sort of system that an less-capable person / team can take over, with A getting more stretched...

It seems to me A is getting very attached to the organisatoin that he/she has created - since s/he is not an expert in the issue, it would be wise to get more heads working on this issue - even if none of them is an expert...
'letting go' should ease things out surely - and A can still work on issue X with the team, more at a concept / thinking level and not actual execution...?

Sunil said...

Charu....almost every mail i've received is mostly of outrage. Many apologize for "ugly American" behavior. Some say i've done a good thing by writing in the week, others tell me to write to the Seattle Times or suchlike. But two emails I got stand out. One is from a Japanese-American woman who writes about her parents' internment, way back when, when Americans segregated the Japanese.
The other is from an Afro-American woman, who writes about constant, subtle abuse, and some severe ones, like being run off the road while driving!

As far as the NGO goes...."letting go" will be what needs to be done. Working on A.....slowly....

Suhail said...

Congrats! Nice article. Thankfully, all I saw on July4th weekend was some great fireworks.
As for your NGO query, I agree: "let go". That's the only solution that comes out.

Suhail said...

Oh and forgot to tell you, nice mugshot :) But tell you what, I belong to the category, who don't like to see the writer's face, until I meet them. Same disappointment came when Jabberwock recently unveiled his cute, cherubic pose.
(sorry, but you see, my mugshot says, "candid opinions" :p)

Anonymous said...

>> the article (along with an ugly mugshot) is available online
I think that is a bad compliment to the photographer, for the subject is far from ugly. :)

As for the NGO issue, I do not have a deep understanding of human nature. Somerset Maugham would have been a good person to talk to, but since he is out of town, I shall give it a shot.

While it is clear that A has to let go and delegate, the issue is how to convice A to do so. I think this is also what you have tried to articulate in your post.

In the org, you probably have meetings on a weekly/monthly basis to discuss to-do's and plan them out. What you could do is try to draw up time estimates for the tasks. Now since we now have an idea of the effort required, (and based on what you say, this should be a pretty big number) it might dawn on A that it may be impractical for one person to do everything. As you rightly observe:

"If A's asked by some outside person (involved peripherally with the organization) to come out of issue X, and focus on issue Y, A feels her/his integrity and commitment is under question."

A should not be openly asked to stop working on non-Y issues. But what might be suggested is that someone work on X under his guidance, while he focusses on Y. This would indicate that his contribution on X is valued and important.

In addition, as a kind of subliminal persuasion, I suggest that in your mails to A, your signature should look something like this:

Sunil Laxman
[Fill here a quote or proverb on the importance of delegating, and not trying to carry the whole world on one's back]

Whether the proverb should be subtle or in-your-face should be decided by your knowledge of how sensitive A is to cues.

amr said...

Having worked in a tech start up, I'm familiar with the kind of organizational issues you're talking about.

Several thoughts:
1) "A" wanting to be involved in ALL issue is fine in a small setup, but as the organization grows, this simply doesn't scale. My experience has been that founders who insist on controlling everything have a deep-seated insecurity that they will be sidelined if they let go. So they hold on, even if it means hurting the organization or even their own health. They justify this behavior by developing a rather strong belief that they're the ONLY ones who can do this or that task, and if they don't, all hell will break loose. "A" seems to have that mindset.
2) The absence of a second rung leadership is partially explained by A's insistence on control. How does A expect to have strong second rung leaders when his/her every action suggests that the organization revolves around him/her? There are two possible scenarios: The organization does have potential leaders who're ready and waiting to be groomed into positions of responsibility or the hiring profile has been such that they've hired only individual contributors. The bottom-line is that second rung leadership has to be found and groomed. As a founder/leader, it is A's responsibility to do this. Otherwise, the organization will fall apart.

"A" definitely needs help here. The ideal person to have a heart to heart chat with A is someone who A respects and views as a mentor. It would help if this person is familiar with the organization and the troubles within. "A" needs to be told that:
i) You're going to have to change or risk everything that you've worked so hard for.
ii) You will always be a big part of the organization and have a big say, no matter what. No one doubts your commitment or your integrity, and you have nothing left to prove to anyone.
iii) That having been said, you're going to have to delegate down so that the organization can scale.
iv) One of your big jobs moving forward is to mentor and groom second rung leadership. Without them you're toast. This takes incredible amounts of time, and it necessarily means that you can't deal with issues as you're used to doing right now.
v) In the short term, focus 80% of your attention on issue Y. Hand off primary responsibility for issue X to a strong subordinate, but stay engaged in the project 20% in an advisory role. However your subordinate has the final say/accountability for issue X. Right there, you're taking a step towards developing second rung leadership.

This is always a hard problem, and there are no easy answers. You just have to hope that A is smart enough to adapt his/her behavior to the evolving needs of the organization.

Sunil said...

Suhail...can't say i disagree with you.....i haven't put up a single pic of mine on the blog! But the article unfortunately had my mug :-((

Michael, Charu, Srikanth, Amr, thanks for those insights. Very perceptive, and superb insights and suggestions......and it has just made some of my own thoughts more concrete......

Will see how they can be put to action........

Tabula_Rasa said...

Dropped by,
Your blogs make for a nice read.

Amrit said...

Hi Sunil.

Just read your article and saw your pic :-). It was disturbing to read what happened, and although this is not particular to these incidents, whenever I read such things, I wonder what the immediate feeling is. Do you want to book the next plane ticket to India? I don't mean it in the "running away" sense.

About the organization, as most have already advised, A should certainly delegate responsibilities if she/he wants both X and Y to continue meaningfully. I have had experiences with a few NGOs and I have seen how people get attached to various issues and don't want to let go of them even if the issues have grown beyond their capabilities. I know finding the right people as not very easy, but unless you start giving them chance, you're never going to find out who is right and who is not. There's a risk but this is the only way to go about it. No cause can die if it has a real purpose. It can be delayed, but it cannot die.


Sunil said...'re right about letting go.

I certainly don't want to book the next flight home yet :-)

Such incidents are rare and not something that happens everyday. By and large, people are indeed warm and friendly. Cannot judge a place by its bad apples. India too can throw up such incidents.....we don't judge it by just that....

gawker said...

I've been in the US for 6 years and the only time I have been racially profiled is in downtown New York. Couple of firang kids walking by very late at night, started chanting "hare krishna hare krishna" when we walked by. Actually they might even have belonged to the Hare Krishna cult, who knows. But the best thing to do in these times, I think, is to be on the offensive. Thats why nowadays, I actually open all my windows and play Arabic music pretty loudly. I want to see if anyone's gonna come by and say anything stupid to me, cos by god, I am craving for an argument. For now, nothing's happened, but I'm still hoping.

Suhail said...

Gawker, for all you know, the kiddos who indulge in such acts of racism don't even know what is Arabic music :(, unless you are playing some popular ones like "Diddi..diddi..". I have myself purposely indulged in such small provocative acts, just to test the reaction. Especially after reading so many post 9-11 stories, of passengers on flights. Like reading Urdu poetry books on a flight. Sadly, when you are waiting for it nothing happens - or maybe it's happening behind yr back, but you never come to know.
Must try a full-fledged Osama style 'saafa'(turban) some day, to get the genuine racists out :-)

D said...

presently there are enough youth in india who would volunteer for work on weekends atleast. find one such dedicated group and delegate either x or y. we both know that it isn't quite as simplistic.

since there is but one life, try and do justice to one issue. if i were A, i'd pick X regardless of what public say and let go of Y to some dedicated group, unless my own focus had moved from X to Y.

if you can discuss A, X and Y offline, we could perhaps thrash out the details. for ex, if either X or Y was primary education, i am interested.

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