Sunday, February 20, 2011

Schopenhauer and Vedanta to explain Meetings and Innovation

Our company is back to doing excellent business now that the credit crisis has blown itself away. By that I mean it is again stepping back into the excellent mode of plugging in manpower at the lowest of low costs to take over the most mundane of client activities. And hence it is that period of time when one can hardly open one’s mailbox without being hit between the hapless eyes by mailers of numerous nasty innovative initiatives.

From the HR, to the administration, to the COE groups pathologically steeped in collective Narcissism, everyone is expected to bring in often Quixotic measures that squander hefty amounts in the name of instant innovation. As Plato had observed even in those ancient days, “Most changes arise from abundance, from an accumulation of wealth which makes dangerous experiments possible.

All this could have passed me by as the idle wind which bothers me not, but for the compulsion of the Senior Managers and Vice Presidents to come galloping in to the various locations and try to mould a motivating dough by sprinkling news-nuggets of innovation-initiatives over the time which lies heavy on their exalted hands.  These lead to meetings, meetings and more meetings, mandatory presence required, making the process of earning one’s daily bread more painful than one cares it to be.

Luckily, I have countered this into an answer to the age old question of finding time to stand and stare. Meetings are those periods which, with a suitably modified  point of view, can be retrofitted into a gift of time. A hour or two to do the much needed thinking that is increasingly difficult as life rushes us by in the modern manic speed.  It is a forum that can be tweaked as meditation, where the sole distraction is the painful inanity mouthed by the ridiculously high-positioned imbeciles who herd us in to the conference room. And using a technique taught by master Subramanium, I can get over the painful discomfort by concentrating on the very words of the speaker as if they are some ritualistic, repeated mantra for the mind to rest -  as indeed, thinking about it from some angles, they indeed are.

Subramanium is a master of tai chi, karate and yoga. And while my formal lessons with him have always been exhilarating sessions of tai chi chuan, time and again, he has passed on some excellent concepts of yoga.  There are people, many of them like me heralding from the Western way of life, who find it difficult to assume the sitting posture needed for Indian yogic meditation.  Whether cross legged in the lotus position or folded knees in the diamond or thunderbolt form, there is often painful discomfort which tend to get in the way of the calm mind. And this is where Subramanium taught me the method of concentrating on the pain to make it bearable, and also thus transforming it into a mind calming technique.

Today, the Senior Manager waxed eloquent on the numbers that showed growth in productivity like never before –  making him bullish about the future. He displayed some excellent charts and graphs on the whiteboard, beamed in by divine light of the overhead projector. All the figures had been accumulated by the new cutting edge tool – a novel landmark in the innovation culture of the organisation – which almost sniffed out the effort and output figures of the employees as they went about their daily job. This sort of tool made us the pioneers of thought-leadership, the forerunners among idea mongers who would eventually rewrite the industrial history in near future and lend a new proactive twist to the global thought-scape  with their futuristic brainwaves ... Well, judging by the extenuating excrement that was the man’s speech,  I had no doubt that he was indeed feeling bullish.

Well, a couple of weeks back, the team got the innovative shock that it had to install this cutting edge tool and fill up the time recording system before the proverbial Friday EOD. The catch was that the tool was a monstrous patchwork created in tearing hurry for the comfort feel of layers and layers of senior, regular and assistant managers, coded by a bunch of fresh, green, disinterested out of college developers eager to get away to the multiplex and disco bar, who were nevertheless the only ones cheap enough to indulge in unbilled in-house work.  As a result, it could not be installed on any machine without bringing notebooks, desktops and sometimes entire networks to a coma. If by heaven’s grace they managed to pop up as an executable icon on a fortunate machine, it refused to run - often necessitating the age old remedy of Ctrl, Alt and Del to enable normal services to resume reluctantly.

So, it was the time for quick workarounds, something our firm genuinely excels at. An office application was created in a hurry which directly plugged the data into the backend database of the tool. A spreadsheet was hastily drawn up which stated how many hours each employee had worked in the past month. This file contained ideal data, created in a secluded cubicle in an IT Park of Bangalore, with no input from or connection to what was actually being done in faraway Amsterdam.  All the employees shared their network password to an unfortunate soul who had drawn the short straw and was to spend a full day typing in the figures for everyone to ensure individual data ended up being submitted. Several security policies of the company were carelessly ignored and rampantly trampled upon, but the data was in place, showed improvement, made the senior manager bullish, and now was being presented to us as a remarkable demonstration of innovation.

 Painful, if you see through the facade. Our innovative attempt at confabulated crap thrown back at us as processed nuggets of senior management bull shit. Yet, by concentrating on this pain, I gained many insights that are possible only through contemplation and meditation.

The Senior Manager worked following the principles of Schopenhauer. The World for him was nothing but Will and Representation.  Reality was but a series of perceptions. These perceptions were not borrowed from the results of experience, but, au contraire, reality as represented depended on the will or desire or wishful thinking of the great man. The representation was the mental image of reality that he liked to believe in and had convinced himself of. Having reached that level of satori when the duality between truth and lies become fuzzy and non-existent.

The great Schopenhauer acknowledged the ancient Indian wisdom which called it Maya, the veil of deception which covers the eyes of the mortals, and causes them to see a world of which one cannot say either that it is or that it is not. It is like a dream, like the sunshine on the sand which the traveller from a distance takes to be water.

Schopenhauer does warn that if in the representation of perception illusion distorts reality, then the abstract error can reign for thousands of years, impose its iron yoke on nations, stifle the noblest impulses of mankind, through its slaves and dupes it can enchain even the man it cannot deceive. Replacing nation by industry and thousand by the short term corporate equivalent of ten, five or even one, we shudder at the resonance with which the words ring true in the cubicular world.

The wisdom of this great eighteenth century philosopher makes itself evident in the warped world of corporate existence full of Senior Management meetings in many other ways.
While these may be the subject of future blogs, I would like to leave the readers with a few striking thoughts.

Once my meditations ended with the ritual dance of meetings coming to an end (the shimmer of complying laughter, the rhythmic nods, the combined burst of laughter, the same earmarked virtuoso dancers getting into step, raising their hands, mouthing their stereotypical questions – and then the final words, the smiles in unison, the synchronised rise from the seats, the shake of important and privileged hands and then the departure followed by harmonious relaxation of postures)  I looked up some of the works of the thinker.

So many of them make sense when thought of in context of the Senior Manager.

“It is difficult to keep quiet if you have nothing to do”
“The more unintelligent a man is, the less mysterious existence (operations) seem to him”
“Will minus intellect constitutes vulgarity.”

And finally, I wonder how farsighted must have been a man to have penned this line without having had to endure any one of the Innovation Pandering Corporate Meetings

“Life swings like a pendulum backward and forward between pain and boredom”

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Simon van der Wiel is a fictitious character who appears in the novel The Best Seller by Arunabha Sengupta.

These lines are both collected from the novel and extrapolated from it - additional musings of the author through his alter ego

About Simon

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Amsterdam, Netherlands