Smooth Seas Never Made Skilled Sailors

The most effective leaders instill grit and grace in their team. Prof David DeSteno in his recent HBR article on “Managing People” suggested that the best way to do so is by cultivating three specific emotions: gratitude, compassion, and pride.

Cultivating three specific emotions: gratitude, compassion, and pride.

Inspired from how my program team brought back the ‘ship’ into a stable state, and how the leadership team instilled grit and grace in the team, I put my thoughts in a poem, if you will :).

Interestingly that is one such transformation that I am focusing on at the ISB’s PGPPRO program, which is focused on core Leadership and Strategy. While managing schedules between school and profession is truly challenging, what is more motivating is knowing “That the Smooth Seas never made Skilled Sailors”.

In an attempt to instill that grace, a few weeks back I led a SAFe Program Increment planning for my program, and I took the whole introduction session to another level by narrating a ‘motivational’ poem to the whole program team, and worth mentioning – appreciating the leadership team for their efforts in making the program successful.

Let us keep sailing!!!

The tides were high, and furious looked the sea,

Winds were strong, but so determined were we,

We hit an iceberg earlier, so we looked little pale,

With the will of a thunderstorm, you said – “Once Again! We Sail”,

We took on the hooks, not for a moment we were afraid,

Loosely coupled and strongly aligned was the principle we laid

An island of value for our customers, is what you envisioned,

And a promise to bring it for them, we made,

We will pave our way through the ambiguities that are dense,

For we all know, the purpose and support is immense,

This moment is ours and exciting times to scale,

Today we meet again, to strengthen our sail,

A lesson of life we learned from our leaders,

That the smooth seas never made skilled sailors.


A Lesson of Life on Agile Mindset: Tale of Two Washing Machines & Detergent Powder

On a Sunday evening, I was revising concepts in Corporate Finance, a course that was recently taught in my Exec MBA at ISB. I was immersed in a Net Present Value (NPV) calculation when I heard the doorbell. And then another call-out-loud, “Jeet, please check the door!”, from my wife who was in the kitchen. I rushed anxiously towards the door, while still crunching numbers in my head.

“Who is it?”, she asked.

“Grocery delivery man, from Grofers”, I said.

I collected the grocery items and thanked the person. While I was closing the door, what immediately caught my eyes was this packet, which had sachets wrapped in plastic. I unwrapped the packet and found detergent sachets, must be around 20-25.

Now that’s something I wouldn’t usually care about, but the MBA courses were playing a role I guess. Or maybe it was my recent read – Simon Sinek’s “Start with Why”. I recalled from the Marketing course, why companies still sell sachets along with big packets (like 2kg+) for detergents, and similarly for shampoos and other products.

But, with finance concepts revolving around my head, I thought let’s see what is the real difference in price of 10 sachets of 200g each, versus a 2Kg packet. Aha, I found she had paid 18% extra for those sachets. Then why buy sachets still?

Oh boy!! Typically an Indian husband waits for such an occasion when he thinks he can potentially win an argument over his wife (especially when the husband is an engineer and wife is a doctor!). I was smiling out of happiness, I peeked into the kitchen to see she was preparing tea.

I went back to my laptop, crunched numbers on excel about 18% extra cash outflow every 3 months for 5 years, and calculated what is the Future Value (FV) worth.

I couldn’t wait, “Twitter! (her nick-name for how much she tweets) You know you are really paying around ~20% more when you buy the sachets versus the bigger box of detergent”, I said. And continued, “Do you know if you save the 20% extra that you are paying now, you could buy lot more detergent in future? Go for the bigger box, save money :).” And then sarcastically I said “But you haven’t studied Finance right? How would you know?”.

I cleaned up the table in the balcony, and sat there with that feeling of “Yes, I won!!”, waiting for the cup of tea.

She got the tea. “Ahemmm… Why are you sounding so logical today?”, she said keeping the teacups on the table. And then kept one sachet too. I knew she is not going to let me win this time too :).

Handing over the cup to me, she said, “When I buy the big box of detergent, I always struggle to guess how much detergent should I put in the machine. 1 spoon or 2 spoons, I couldn’t get a better idea. You remember when I was doing laundry with the bigger washing machine, you always complained about water wastage. Even you couldn’t guess what would be the right water level, because every week the number of clothes was different. You were unhappy with the cleaning.”

 Yes, that is another story, she recently purchased a smaller washing machine (capacity – 2.5Kg). The bigger one I had was 6.5kgs. And she convinced me after arguing for weeks that we needed to purchase another smaller machine.

“You were always complaining about the cleanliness too, sometimes you said that we are running the machine overcapacity”, she continued. “Now, I do laundry 2 times in a week, I use the smaller machine. I exactly know in 1 sachet, how many clothes I can wash. I also have a better idea of how much water will be required, because every time I have an almost the same number of clothes”, she continued.

I interrupted, “But really you needed another smaller washing machine?”, trying to recall previous discussions.

“Yes, because with a lesser number of clothes, it takes lesser time to wash. Since I am doing laundry more frequently, you get to choose between the clothes you want to wear and you wear cleaner clothes now. We save water too, see even you have stopped complaining about water wastage.”, she responded immediately.

She continued, “And for bedsheets and bedcovers, I use the bigger machine and that is only twice a month”.

 I realized all I was doing was – DOING AGILE.

Now that struck a chord in my mind. I was actually hearing this:

  • Her focus was only CLEANER CLOTHES (Quality), even if that requires more investment.
  • With smaller machine and sachets, she had become better at estimation, even better at managing resources (Water).
  • Washing the clothes more frequently removed any ambiguities in scope (no. of clothes), it increased predictability.
  • I was getting to wear clean clothes every day (overall quality improved and responsiveness).
  • Tightly aligned to ensure I wore cleaner clothes, however loosely coupled to the machine (big or small).
  • She learned iteratively to get better, focused on being roughly right than precisely wrong.

What I heard from her opened my eyes to what is truly the difference in DOING AGILE and BEING AGILE.

Being a program manager at work, managing a multi-million USD project, I was perplexed to hear that argument. Day-in and Day-out at my work, I talk about Agile. I discuss team metrics, burn-down graphs and talk about being high performing teams. I collect data about iteration acceptance, and cycle time for global teams, and always push the teams for smaller user stories so that we are more responsive and predictable in our deliveries.

I realized all I was doing was – DOING AGILE.

What I heard from her opened my eyes to what is truly the difference between DOING AGILE and BEING AGILE.

Agile is a mindset, and we hear this every day at work, but what is that mindset is what I learned today.

To my surprise, she had got rid of her big shampoo and body lotion bottles. All that she had was sachets and smaller bottles.

Perhaps I was lost in thoughts, and I couldn’t hear what she said more. She finally snapped her fingers to wake me up.

“What do you think now?”, she said.

Without responding to anything, I just walked to her washroom and opened the closet. She followed me. To my surprise, she had got rid of her big shampoo and body lotion bottles. All that she had was sachets and smaller bottles.

She started laughing. “Buying small, I can try multiple brands and settle on the best. You see now the beauty of small things!”, she pinched my cheeks.

I couldn’t express to her how big a lesson that was to me.