Learning & Change

The Song Of A Neo-Generalist

When you have been humming a favourite tune for a while and then to have it sung to you by the singer who sung it in the first place, is rare. To put it mildly. “The Neo-Generalist” has several tunes that have stayed with me.  And then, Kenneth Mikkelsen one of its authors came to Mumbai.  We have exchanged notes and followed each other’s work for a while now. So to catch up with an original neo-generalist and hear the context behind the points of views, was fascinating.

I read “The Neo-Generalist” co-written by Kenneth Mikkelsen and Richard Martin months ago. I was then in the eye of a personal change storm myself. Busy trading cartons of corporate experience for a flimsy backpack-wielding walk across the big wide world. The first tentative steps towards discovering what it meant to be ‘boundaryless’ were fulfilling and occasionally overwhelming.

‘The Neo-Generalist’ had held me together as I read stories of several others who had gone on this path before. Clutching a bunch of interests, sharing a worldview that was broad and most importantly, acting on their beliefs. The book fascinated me and has served as ready reckoner many times since. ( Richard and Kenneth and share their thoughts and work and do take a moment or two to follow their work).

The book tangibalised my meandering ways. Wrapped in the assurance that emerged from stories of different people, curated with care and laid out with brilliance, my ways found my feet. It taught me the importance of ‘serial mastery’. The importance of hybridisation in a world that favours labels and specialists. To specialise multiple times and to see the vastness of potential that resides within every person was energising beyond liberating.

Several aspects of the book have kept me unwavering company.  Am going to state two here. One, an image. Another, a phrase that morphed into a couplet. The image is that of an ‘infinite loop’. 

Pic from Hackernoon.com

An infinite loop of seamless movement through life that made the pathways credible. The seamless movement offering much energy and life to careers and life, that have become limited by labels, functions and designations. Through a rich array of examples, powerful metaphors, and flow, the richness of what it means to be a ‘neo-generalist’ emerged.

Now for the couplet.  “Jack of all trades and master of none” is pretty well known. Often spoken with an undertone of negativitiy and dismissal.  This morphing into a couple was unknown to me. The couple was “Jack of all trades, master of none, though oftentimes better than master of one”. Pretty neat. I thought. 

As much it was personal, there were other aspects too.  After reading and debating with friends, mentors, colleagues and other experts across the board, it was becoming clear that the ‘Future of Work and learning’ was going to be quite different than our present ways.  It was obvious that broad perspectives coupled with possibilities of dialogue and convergence were important. Linear thinking and limited ways has brought frayed success and deep residual issues.  Polymathic ways of thinking and living needed a shot in the arm and the book was precisely the remedy the doctor ordered.

That’s about the book. My good friend Tanmay’s sketch note in should give you a drone’s eye-view of the book. ( Read his blogpost here).


Neo-Generalist Sketch Note

It is one thing to read a book and it is another to spend a few hours with the author. It is quite something else to do both! We shot the breeze, exchanging ideas and experiences from the roads that we have trodden. Similar roads and different pathways and here we were, talking to each other.  Exploring the neo-generalist in each other and relishing the intensity of our current multi-disciplinarian pursuits.

Cut to Tata Institute of Social Sciences ( TISS ). Heres some context.

Amongst the things I do, I am a visiting faculty at TISS and teach Advanced Learning & Development to a bunch of enthusiastic students who are pursuing their masters in Human Resources.  We are trying our hand at mirroring the modern world with its tools and tackles in the classroom. It has challenged our collective imagination but the class is doing good.

The class has its own slack channel where there is a continuous conversation that’s on. A fledgling hashtag ( #Tisslabs ) on twitter, the class is often punctuated by bursts of hard reflection and active conversation online. Much of it is under the hood. We recognise that we are just about warming up and have all the excitement to go a long distance. If you have a point or two about what we should be doing in class, or if you are interested to participate,  please do give us a shout.

So, when I proposed the idea of interacting with Kenneth and learning from conversations with him, the class took it to the next level. They proposed that the stage must be that of the Centre of Social and Organisational Leadership ( C SOL ). A body that is working to advance global and local thinking and practice of Organisation Development, Change and Leadership. Working with Prof. Vijayakumar, Chair and Professor at C SOL, the class made an interaction possible.

odX invite - TISS - Leadership futures

The evening was special. Kenneth drew from the book, his experiences, his India story, research, anecdotes from around the world and such else. Students, professors, practitioners, research scholars were in the audience. The thoughts elicited discussions, questions, and dialogue. Much to the curiosity and surprise of the chai vendor for people forgot about a chai break!

Heres a sketch note by Shilpa Srikanth, that captures the conversation.

Sketch Note by Shilpa Srkanth

The neo-generalist is perhaps ahead of its time said Kenneth in his talk. I think the neo-generalists have always been there. They are the ones who didn’t take the beaten paths but had it in them to weave a different warp and weft.  As the sounds of predictability, precision, clarity and definitiveness grows in the modern world, the music that a neo-generalist can create is of a different order. As we discovered with Kenneth.

Hearing him speak took me back to the book. The book is interlaced with some awesome quotes. One of them that I seek to mention here is this: “Nothing changed, except the point of view – which changed everything” – Nick Sousanis, Unflattering.  A new-generalist view of the world will change the way we approach ourselves. And our work too. That is precisely what the future needs.

Of Curiosity and exploration

A few weeks ago, I was tasked with curating Founding Fuel’s newsletter. I wrote there, “As new walls are coming up the world over, history points in the direction of bringing in diverse ideas and people to collaborate for new frontiers to get established.”

Diversity of thought, opinion and domains have been factors that I have been exposed on a regular basis over the last year. If there was one element that is central to this exposure, that would be curiosity. It is curiosity that has been central to all conversations that I have immensely enjoyed.  More on curiosity, later.  For now, allow me to let you rest you with this Zulu phrase that I spotted in this brilliant piece.

To drift into another area now. What does depth in a subject mean? The last year or so has been a pointer to have my own answer to this question has evolved. ‘Depth’ in a topic/domain is no longer a lonely chair in a unitary pipe at the bottom of an ocean of knowledge, but rather is a noisy couch at the intersections of disciplines.  Depth in a domain has now come to signify a deep knowledge and understanding yet a sense of not being bound by that domain alone. You know it well enough to think of how it relates and connects to other aspects around.

Depth in a domain, therefore, has leaned more towards the ‘connection’ and in the ‘relating’ to other domains and disciplines. You need to go beyond a domain to see how it relates to other domains. Needless to say, to go beyond one’s core domain and see how it relates to other domains requires a depth that is greater and much-varied depth.

Where better to see the interplay of disciplines in an airport and airplanes. They bring alive some of the best and worst behaviour in people. Some of my best travels have been with total strangers as co-passengers. People who are innately curious about my domains of interest and have had no hesitation in sharing theirs. I have had some fantastic conversation with doctors, scientists, traders and even a football coach. These have been people who did not hesitate to share or ask pointed questions on my work.

By the time the plane touched down at a new airport, I knew a thing or two about what it meant to be a doctor or a football coach. But more importantly, I knew a thing or two that I had to look up, reflect and dive deep into my own areas of work, based on our conversation in air.  These explorations have lead me to something else, triggering an infinite loop of search and discovery.

The other thing that I have now concluded is this: people are nice. Generally speaking! If you share a perspective, expose a vulnerable sleeve and are prepared to lend a patient ear, people share. There are the odd ones that are exceptions. But they are really the odd ones and yes, they are exceptions!

One more thing. I have met some true masters. Their mastery of their own craft that was belied by a simple demeanour but superseded by an innate infinite curiosity to explore other areas. It is this curiosity that held our conversations together. It is this curiosity that I hope to have by my side. To me, it is this curiosity that will surface the depths of what’s possible and what needs to be explored.

That brings me back to curiosity.

There is a ton of research that points to how relevant and important curiosity is to learning and growth.  There are pointers to how you could build curiosity in kids as well. I find it very easy to just ask questions and stay fully present to answers. It is as simple as that! And it is the best way to find others and in their answers find more of yourself.


Lasting Impressions

There are facilitators and facilitators. Not just the ones that have gone on a podium and facilitated a workshop, but the numerous other bosses, leaders, colleagues, partners and such else. When I look back and think of people who have left a mark on me and the teams that I was a part of, a couple of their attributes becomes apparent. First, lasting impressions have nothing to do with ‘striving to impress’. In fact, it can be counter-productive.  The second is this : It is futile to think of ‘control’ of a group. Especially so, using a position of a ‘boss’ or even worse, as a ‘facilitator’.

It is International Facilitation Week and here are some reflections on lasting impressions that a few global facilitators have left. I view both of these, ‘striving to impress’ and ‘seeking to control’ as memes that can interfere with success.

IAF #FacWeek

To try and engage in flamboyant (and ‘new’ ) action catches attention. The clamour for new ‘processes’ explains it well. But facilitation is more than ‘process’ and is very often diminished by a striving to impress. Some facilitators are natural on the stage. Others wear a new jacket. Dropping their voice, playing with intonation etc, cracking jokes to fill the silence, throwing in new tools etc. These by themselves aren’t bad. Just that, they stand out when someone who is not a natural at all these, attempts to weave it as part of a routine! The routine of trying to impress. Groups easily spot the incongruity between who the person is and the act the person is putting on.

To be comfortable with who I am as a person, with my biases and predispositions, is important for a facilitator. It makes a huge difference. Self-awareness and constant working on the self is perhaps one of the most underrated aspects of building a practice around facilitation. When we are comfortable with who we are, we don’t strive to ‘impress’! Inauthenticity is transparent.

The other meme that I frequently encounter is that of ‘control’.

Control for a facilitator has many inviting dimensions. Control over the participants is a non-starter in most cases. Unless you are talking of kids of yesteryears! With adults in the room, the best that can be done is to invite and create opportunities for them to voluntarily co-create and stay engaged.  Right from framing collective norms that help the group set the rules to working on arriving at cogent solutions.

Control over every minute of what will happen in a facilitated session is stuff that I have attempted early in my career. To disastrous results.   As a facilitator of a meeting or a program, of course, a facilitator needs to have a broad plan of action of how the day will flow. But it is just a broad plan. To be present to the needs of the group, and to stay flexible and ready in the moment to change course is important. Taking into account the energy of the group and its participants.

Facilitation at its very core transcends both of these memes. At its very core facilitation is less about the facilitator and more about the group. Less about the process that is ‘done to’ the group and more about what the group does with whatever that comes their way.

For a facilitator, there is great merit in standing away from the limelight and holding the space for the group to figure out a few solutions.  Some facilitators view that as an abdication. To me, that is hardly the case. In fact, that reinforces belief in the full potential of the group. In any case,a facilitative leader doesn’t see his position as a ‘throne’ to abdicate from. He or she sees his/her role as just another constituent member of a community., shifts the onus to the group, while the facilitator is also present. More channelising the conversation and ‘holding the space’ for it to emerge from the dark ridges of random argument to the possibilities the meaningful dialogue present.

Going past these two memes helps a facilitator to shift the onus to the group. The facilitator takes on another role. A higher order one. The one for channelising the conversation and ‘holding the space’ for new insights to emerge from the dark ridges of random conversation.  The possibilities that meaningful dialogue presents are tremendous.

The most effective facilitators that I have worked with blend into the group, yet stand apart. They listen to the conversations in the group and have little of solutions to offer to the topic of discussion. Yet, at the end of the conversation, people walk out with far more that mere solutions. They have new energy, meaning and purpose. For the energies from each one of them stands well woven into the solution.

Facilitation is a lot like sailing. The ace sailor navigates by the stars but adjusts the sails to catch the wind.  To act decisively and engage in reflecting on all the action.  To stay curious yet quiet. To seek people and conversation by listening with active intent. All these creates the space for success showing up at opportune moments.

The next time you are called in to facilitate, relax. Look at the field and catch the wind. The answers are blowing in the wind. Catch it. Its in fashion these days. Besides, it leaves lasting impressions!


Strategy. Alive and real!

The topic of building strategy that is alive and real, that is not an indulgent document that is a result of an annual ritual is a topic that stays on the minds of many. Be they entrepreneurs, social leaders, corporate executives and anyone with a set of objectives to move forward with. More on that in just a bit.

First, introducing Kimberly.

How do you introduce someone who has been making a difference to a growing community in a rather quiet, matter-of-fact manner? In a world where the decibel levels of raw marketing are perpetually set to ‘maximum’ examples of people who let their work do the talking is becoming rarer, Kimberly Bain and her work stand out. So when the opportunity of working closely with Kimberly Bain came up, we at the India Chapter of the International Association of Facilitators, we were delighted. To put it mildly!

Kimberly is an expert facilitator and works with both small and large groups ( 5 to 500) to help them reach consensus and achieve a common purpose amongst other things. She has a vast portfolio of experience, facilitating community groups, professional, volunteers, academics, hospitals, medical professionals, government departments and stakeholder groups. Her style is inclusive and works on building consensus. Something that our fractured times so need. Her innovative approach to strategic planning, expert conflict resolution techniques combined with her varied facilitation toolkit get her to work with varied groups across the world.

Her recent book the “The Reflective Practitioner : becoming a reflective ethical facilitator” made it to to the Amazon best sellers list is fast becoming a seminal resource for facilitators all around the world.

My conversations with her have been diverse, as she gets to do a bit of exploration of India.  Her thinking on strategy and her approach to conflict resolution perked my ear.  Read on. Am sure you will learn a thing or two.

Me : What are the components of strategy making and where do you see organisations / leaders struggle with?
Kimberly : Strategic planning is about focusing for success, this requires careful and insightful planning on how to develop the Strategy, who to involve, the processes to ensure best thinking is included and all options and opportunities are considered. Many thought leaders know that the Strategic Planning Process is almost more important that the resulting Plan itself. While most leaders understand this, they do not always have the background and information needed to design a planning process that meets their needs, the needs of the organization and the needs of the people who will be executing the Strategy. Utilizing the art and science of facilitation can provide the guidance needed to custom design a Strategic Plan that is based on collaboration to produce sustainable outcomes, therefore building the buy-in needed within the organization to move employees from thinking to action and from paper to implementation.

Me : How does facilitative style of leading people augment a business leader’s skillset? What must a leader do to bolster that?
Kimberly : In order to develop and utilize an effective facilitative leadership style, leaders need to understand behavioural analysis, group decision-making processes, individual communications styles and conflict handling styles. In order to bolster individual facilitative leadership we need to learn how to make the job of those who we lead “easier”, by facilitating their work, their relationships and expand their ability to innovate.

Strategy - Alive and RealMe :  A degree of conflict is inherently needed for progress and growth. Now is this true, from your experience? How do leaders get to foster this?
Kimberly : That depends how you define “conflict”. Creating an environment where individuals can voice and explore different opinions, alternative points of view and unconventional thinking does help groups and organizations grow and progress. But “conflict” often is a result of poor communication, negative assumptions of intent and lack of trust.

Me:  Inclusion (or the lack of it) can break the best of strategy. In a world where young people across the world want to participate in the decision making process and want to have their voice heard, what is the next frontier of strategy making?
Kimberly : Absolutely, engagement and inclusion are a central theme for effective strategic planning exercises. Not only is this necessary for social enterprises and community-based strategic planning, but it is just as important for profit-based organizations to include staff, shareholders, stakeholders, partners and customers in their Strategic Planning. This ensures all views are considered, all options are explored, and most importantly, champions and cheerleaders are created throughout the organization, making implementation smoother and more effective. When people feel like they have been involved in the decision, they will not only support it, but they will advocate for it!

Me :  Could you share an experience in helping a team with making of a strategy that has stayed with you.
Kimberly : I worked with a Government Agency in Canada. This was a new Agency that was created to help coordinate Cancer Control efforts across Canada. The Agency had no actual authority over health departments across the country, so they needed to develop a Strategy that would position them as the hosting agency convening crucial conversations to help coordinate effort and increase impact. Canada has 13 different provincial health departments and I assisted the Agency to design a Strategic Planning process that brought together each province, the various national and provincial cancer advocacy groups, agencies and thought-leading clinicians. The process took 9 months and was extremely successful. The 5 year resulting Strategic Plan was so effective that the Agency received a second 5 year mandate and is considered the main reason that cancer mortality rates have decreased across the country!

Kimberly is leading a two day session on Strategy Alive in Mumbai on the 26th, 27th of August. An opportunity for business leaders and facilitators to come together and explore. More details and FAQs are there on the Facebook events page as well. Dive in folks. It will be a fantastic investment of your time.

For those readers in Bengaluru, Kimberly will be leading a half day session on the Tao of Facilitation. The event page is here.

Future gazing

The few days spent in Washington DC attending the annual conference of the World Future Society was quite an experience. ( Detailed agenda and such else is here ).  I had curated a collection of tweets from the conference and was published by team Founding Fuel earlier.

The future has been a topic of interest for a long while and the new ideas and conversations with several other futurists has only deepened it even further. Our future emerges at a faster clip that we dont often get to see the resultant changes that envelope us. How will our lives change with all the technology around? Will we live longer? Will we be happier? What would we drive around in? How will we learn? What will be life like in the age of our kids? How do we prepare them for that future? And of course, how will the future of work shape up? These and more questions abounded when I went in.

I intend publishing a few more blogposts over the next few weeks and share some ideas, learning and experiences. As always, I seek your responses, comments and ideas.

For now, here is what got published at Founding Fuel earlier.

What does a coach really do?

The Indian cricket team’s dressing room sports a new head coach: Anil Kumble. The Indian head coach’s job is a prized one. Evidenced, if not by the frenetic minute-by-minute media attention, then by the sheer number of applicants for the top job: 57!

The Kumble coaching appointment saga took me back 10 years. It was 2006-07. John Buchanan was the coach of the Australian cricket team. The undisputed champions then, the team had earned a fearful reputation of clinically decimating opponents. Buchanan was a poster boy of sorts and I followed all what he spoke and wrote, and read all I could about his unconventional methods and the routines that he put the Australian cricket team through. It was another matter though that the team itself was star-studded: Shane Warne, the Waugh brothers, Ricky Ponting, Glenn McGrath, Matthew Hayden among others.

It was a random search fuelled by a liking for cricket, a passion for (and a job in) the people development domain and being a complete sucker for stories of “transformation” and success.  Buchanan and his boys kept reinforcing the stories that the media played out with success stamps from the cricket field. It was fascinating enough for me to decide that it was a success story that I had to get to the bottom of.

I remember reading and talking to other enthusiasts about his unconventional methodologies from pilates to public speaking. From prescribing Duncan Fletcher’s Ashes Regained as a mandatory read to dipping into Sun Tzu’s The Art of War for evolving the strategy he called “Everest”. And of course, the incisive deployment of data and analytics for team strategy. It was fascinating to say the least.

This is an extract from a piece that I wrote for Founding Fuel. Read the full piece here. 

The piece was published on 04 th July, 2016 and appeared in the Mint on the 5th July 16 and sported the above image along with the piece. 




Singularity University India Summit – Feb 2016

There is one aspect of Singularity University that has been on my mind for a while now. The very idea of it!

It is an idea that perhaps is ahead of its time. Maybe not, some would argue. For it is right here indeed. Perhaps it is an idea that is knocking on the high gates of the future, helping reimagine what lies ahead. Treating what we know with respect but not deference, in the quest for the seeking out a future that is beyond the grasp of linear minds.

So when Singularity University’s India Summit was happening here, and an opportunity to attend it presented thanks to Blogadda.com, I made it there. The India Summit happened in partnership with INK Talks and Deloitte.

Here is a summary of tweets. You will get to understand the summit, and hopefully will dig in a bit more about the idea of it all. In any case, I will write in more. I promise.

Mumbai, 26th/27th Feb 2016

Mumbai, 26th/27th Feb 2016




One of a kind

Facilitation. Now, that’s a much abused word. There was a time when anybody with a PowerPoint deck, platform and a set of participants came to think of themselves as great trainers. Gradually, as ‘training’ in itself became less ‘cool’ and perhaps as a need to distinguish themselves from others who had gotten on to the ‘training’ bandwagon, it became fashionable to call oneself as a ‘Facilitator’. So much so, in several circles, ‘training’ and ‘facilitation’ are interchangeably, and without the slightest of pauses!

That topic for another day.




It was in 2011 that I got to experience deeper insights into what facilitation is. Or can be. I recall, very vividly, how a bunch of committed people from Japan demonstrated their response in mobilising public support and action, after the Fukashima nuclear disaster. It was mind blowing, to say the least. At one level, it was facilitation skills at play. But at another level, it helped me see a coming together of people with passion, with a singular objective of wanting to make a difference to a population. There was no commerce. No forking of brands in the name of CSR. It was just a committed bunch of people wanting to make a difference and do their bit. It was deeply humbling.

Since then, I have listened to stories and understood designs about how Facilitation helped brokered peace between countries or between warring factions of an apartment complex to bringing change within corporate contexts.

‘Facilitation’, I realised, was more dynamic and had potency to affect larger communities and conversations. Far beyond corporate walls and narrow problems. It was action. Inclusion. Participation. Mutuality. And a respect for one another. The feeling that we are all in this together. There was no pedestal to stand on and ‘address’ the group. I was hooked to the International Association of Facilitators. It occurred to me that to be able to stand before a group of people (sometimes in the 100s) and getting them to do their work, helping them work through their dilemmas is as raw as it can get. And more importantly having fun in the process.

After playing with facilitation in different settings since then (here is a post from last year), I am more than convinced that if it is one skill that community leaders, entrepreneurs, development workers, business leaders, leave alone HR practitioners, need to learn really well, it is facilitation. There is a ton of material available about what it is and what more you could do with this.. The International Association of Facilitators is leading the charge worldwide.

This week, I am looking forward to hearing many more stories of facilitation and sharing a few of mine too. The Asia Conference of the IAF is happening in Mumbai on the 21st and 22nd of August. Check out the website. With facilitators from around the world coming in, this will be one heck of a carnival of learning and process design. If you havent registered yet, I am told there are a few seats left. Do come in. Would be an experience to remember. Do follow the hashtag #IAFAsia15

IAF Conferences are quite unlike any other conference. They are intimate participative experiences that draw the best out of people in a fun filled effortless way. Riding on a feeling of togetherness and community. Plus there is a committed bunch of people working relentlessly to help the community move forward.

I am really looking forward to this.

‘U’ turns

“The boss isn’t competent”.

“The job isn’t meaningful”.

“Colleagues / partnerships are insensitive”.

“My health is going downhill and I don’t have the time to work on it”.

“People resort to unfair means to get ahead and I don’t want to do the same”.

“I cant get to work on my passions. The turkdom of daily work is killing my soul”

One of these is bound to come up in conversations beyond that go beyond a brief while. Once the pleasantries are done and the weather is beaten to death so much, that anything said beyond that would get the weatherman come after with an employment letter.

I don the hat of a coach, at times.  Most other times, just being a friend and listening to people, which in any case is a key aspect of being a coach.

The ‘sadness’ that engulfs the conversation is only eclipsed by the seeming helplessness of the situation. “But what can I do? I have a home loan and kids need to go to school” are refrains. Many speak of wanting to throw it all away and pursue their passions. The room lights up by their frissons when they describe these. Darkness returns as they talk of their immediate circumstances.

Sitting there, I don’t do much. For there is nothing for me to do except listen. Only pausing to ask a question here or one there. Hoping it can be a flare in a new moon night. Perhaps showing us a patch that can become a pathway. A clearing that can lead to a path. Whatever.

I have never ceased to be amazed at the depth of what resides in each conversation and in every person. Every time I come back convinced that the world will be a better place if we can sit down and talk to each other. Listening without an agenda.

The other thing that I have learnt to trust in, and am always proven right is this : people have it in them to be better off with their lives. Sometimes all I have to do is to help them become present to the fact that their choices make the difference. Choices that they become aware of when they speak their hearts out. When they are in the flow.

The moment, choices and consequences are very clear to people, new possibilities emerge.  People begin taking the You Turn. First in their minds and then if you help them stick with it, in reality as well.

You don’t need to do much.  Ask a few questions. Listen with all you have got. Perhaps am making it sound a tad easier than it is.

Here is an invitation. Perhaps its a challenge. Can you sit back and listen to one person this week?  It could be your driver. Perhaps the boss. Maybe its a peer in another organisation. Or even your kids. Listening without agenda. Just one person.

It may seem like an exercise in waste. You have no idea what it does to the other person. I didn’t too, for a long while. And then, I experienced an ace coach help people take ‘U’ turns. It gave me a new lens and I have been working on my ears.


Small problems with big data!

Conversations on Twitter have a unique ability to set off reflection and propel further conversation and thought. This invariably builds and shapes our collective ecosystem of sorts.  Especially so, when the conversation is between people who you watched from a distance, making a difference! 🙂

This post is a thought assortment, after spotting a conversation thread on Twitter.

It went like this.