Monday, February 19, 2018

Raise your hand if you have worked with an empathetic manager !

Business writers, academics and consultants periodically talk about the role of empathy in managing teams. Management gurus draw evidence from data and research on business leaders succeeding by demonstrating empathy, compassion, and humility. The argument is rather straightforward: organizations and teams are made up of people; and people - even high performing individuals - continually struggle for a work-life-balance.

Microsoft's CEO, Satya Nadella, begins the first chapter of his book “Hit Refresh” (my review) by exploring how his upbringing shaped some of his personal views on management. He briefly talks about empathy, and how the birth of his son Zain, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy shaped his world-view.

Such candor from an accomplished tech-leader is refreshing, but is still rather rare. Most of us in the corporate world are motivated to downplay references to personal life and challenges or risk being seen as 'soft.' While the rare business leader like Nadella might be willing to talk about 'softer' aspects of management like empathy, the business world downplays it. Business operations, efficiencies and success criteria are measured in hard numbers and not by softer criteria.

Case-in-point: reflecting on a couple of instances

Years ago, I was managing a team of developers and engineers for a large project. One day, a young engineer, Raj*, came to me and said his father had passed away. He wanted to request vacation to leave immediately for his hometown. Raj had recently completed his programming-bootcamp training and had been assigned to my team. I called our HR business partner to check on the company's policies and benefits for 'bereavement leave,' and was surprised by the answer: “sorry, we don't have a bereavement leave policy.” On probing further she replied that it was not customary for Indian companies to offer such leave, and hence our management hadn't formulated such a policy (yet).

Raj hadn't accrued a lot of vacation time, and the 'official' response was to ask him to take an unpaid-leave. I knew the guy wasn't in a state of mind to bother about policies and was going to take such leave regardless. The performance of my team's goal was measured on the success of the project delivery and client feedback. And Raj's absence did not impact our timelines or deliverables; hence I did not feel the need to seek 'help' from senior management.

While the policy around leave was rigid, I knew managers had some leeway when it came to compensating time off against overtime , which I decided to extend to Raj. I continued to voice the issue of “bereavement leave policy” in internal forums in the company till it finally got institutionalized a few years later. No brownie points for sticking my neck out or an 'Atta boy' for showing some empathy.

Years later, I worked for a multinational that was undergoing transformation in light of an impending M&A. Teams were stretched, and busy working on a number of large 'strategic' programs – a number of ERPs were being consolidated while a sizable part of the portfolio was moving to the cloud. A senior member of our team in Europe, Jack*, had a severe bout of flu, that led to other complications including pneumonia. He was hospitalized for a few weeks and was advised bed-rest for a couple of months.

Jack reached out to the line-manager, offering to work-from-home or part-time for a couple of months while he recovered. The manager was under pressure to deliver on the ambitious goals that the CIO had committed to. He worked on a plan with the HR partner, and offered Jack a 'generous' severance to enable him to 'focus on his personal life.' He reasoned that he was showing empathy for a colleague dealing with personal issues in the way he was conditioned and motivated to do so. With that baggage shed, the manager was able to on-board an un-encumbered member and 'motivated' team to deliver on the promised goals; and some.

So, why is it hard to find empathetic managers?

There is a phrase from an interview with the business leader, Ratan Tata that jumped out when I was reflecting on this topic (link: The Economist). He is quoted saying

“I want to be able to go to bed at night and say that I haven't hurt anybody”

People and managers are inherently good intention-ed, and want to contribute and be valued. However, companies are not structured to recognize or reward such 'human' attributes. Business leaders across the corporate hierarchies are measured on their performance and targets that are generally aligned with 'corporate goals';

  • The targets for Public companies are measured quarter-by-quarter, and the (stock) market rewards or punishes them by pushing up or pulling down the stock price. Most companies reward their executives, and employees of a certain cadre, with long-term-incentives tied to stocks or stock options; and such incentives are easily tracked. 
  • Executives ensure that the line of sight to corporate goals – maximize shareholder value - is generally clear down the org-chart. They work with mid-level-managers and supervisors to define production, sales or other operational measures aligned with their targets  
This topic has been especially hard for me to write about though the concepts are rather straightforward, and one can easily find a lot of management literature, backed up by research. While thinking about the topic, I could easily see how some examples in the business world are really quid-pro-quo, masked as empathy:

  • Team-members bending backwards to source an expensive gift for the boss' silver-jubilee-anniversary 
  • The vendor offering a plush guest-house for you to recover from jet-lag after a cross-continent trip 
  • The manager prompting his team members to use all their vacation time at the end of year to get back refreshed (perhaps gently nudged by leaders who don't want folks to carry forward vacation on the books) 
  • The VP of a global team stating "none of the American members will work or take calls on the 4th of July," (a week before the CEO's photo-op with Mr. Trump in Davos)
Corporate goals and targets are generally unforgiving, and don't have much room for 'softer' measures. Not surprisingly, managers who stick their neck out by trying to practice softer aspects like empathy risk being seen as soft. Those who do, might fear they will lose out in the corporate-race against their 'go-getter' peers. 

Thanks for reading! Please click on Like, Share, Tweet and Comment below to continue this conversation | Reposted from LinkedIn pulse blog

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Enterprise Architecture 101: Keep your Architecture Repositories – KISS-S

Viewpoints on Architecture repositories are topics of perennial discussion in digital forums and communities (eg link). Such discussions are the tip of the iceberg, bubbling up some of the frustration over time and energies that Architecture and Design teams spend on evaluating and managing Architecture Repositories. The focus of discussions range from What information to capture and document, to How-to manage the repositories, and includes debates on tools, technologies and platforms to use.

Architecture frameworks like TOGAF have captured the first part of the question well, explaining the need for repositories to operate mature Architecture Capabilities at large enterprises. TOGAF references (link) describe
“An Architecture Repository that allows an enterprise to distinguish between different types of architectural assets that exist at different levels of abstraction in the organization. This Architecture Repository is one part of the wider Enterprise Repository, which provides the capability to link architectural assets to components of the Detailed Design, Deployment, and Service Management Repositories.”

Why don’t organizations just adapt Frameworks like TOGAF that are obviously well documented? Just a couple of reasons why:

  • While the documentation in TOGAF is rather extensive, it is also rather generic, and needs to be tailored to meet specific requirements of your organization. Like a Swiss-Army-knife, not all aspects of architectural information may be required or applicable for all organizations. 
  • Architecture documentation and processes don’t operate in isolation. They need to exist seamlessly with your enterprise's change management and governance processes. 

In an earlier write-up (link), I highlighted my experiences in establishing and running an Architecture Review Board (ARB). To succeed, the architecture governance had to be embedded with the existing processes, and ways of working.

The same holds true for Architecture Repositories too. Architecture and design teams in large organizations spend a lot of time and energy documenting the current and future state capabilities. The translation of such strategies and ideas into workable solutions - capability realization - is enabled by business funded projects and programs. Large programs also generate a tremendous amount of documentation to adhere to existing governance processes and project management and operational frameworks.  

It is fair to assume that large organizations will have extensive collaboration and team management tools and platforms including enterprise portals, wikis, blogs and even social media tools used by teams across the organization. Therefore, it is important to keep the design of any Architecture Repositories KISS-S. 

Architects should recognize the capabilities of existing organizational tools and platforms, and either extend them to include architectural repositories, or ensure that any additional tool integrates seamlessly with existing platforms. The additional S at the end of the common acronym KISS is to emphasize the 'S'eamless integration and ‘S’earchability of the artifacts in the repository. For example, if your organization uses a Sharepoint based intranet platform, you are better off designing a simple repository and workflow extending that platform. 

Those searching for "Design document for SFDC XYZ program" or "Solution Design template" should be easily discoverable using a simple search on your enterprise’s intranet without having to search for a member of your team who can help find that document. 

Bottomline: All your relevant non-confidential architecture references should be searchable across the enterprise and not 'guarded' behind a firewalled repository. Only then they will serve the purpose: to educate, inform and influence organizational design.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Reflections on palliative care in India: a long goodbye

Those who read the papers regularly will notice two kinds of obituary messages. “Mrs. So-and-so passed away peacefully in his sleep. She was 82, and is survived by ….” or “Mr. ABC succumbed to Cancer after bravely battling it for over 6 months. He was 79 and is survived by....” If a detailed article is written after the passing of the latter, it may eulogize their life, and make a brief mention of “the brave battle with cancer” and that they were hospitalized for months. Such an article may or may not make a mention of the “brave battle” the family and caregivers undertake.

My dad has been bedridden at home for the past six months, requiring constant care and attention for his daily needs. While caregiving has certainly been at the forefront of my daily routine, it sometimes takes an outsider to notice the pace of decline. A couple of weeks ago, an uncle of mine stopped by to visit my ailing dad. He later took me aside and quietly sobbed, and remarked about the “unfairness” of life. He simply said “we are praying for his peaceful passing.”

To be fair, my dad has led a rather eventful and fruitful life, rising from humble beginnings before retiring as a proud Officer in the Indian Air Force. After retiring from service, my parents continued to live on their own and traveled to scores of temples across South India well into their seventies. This rather active retirement gradually came to a halt after we found out that my dad had stage-4 Prostate cancer, which had metastasized, but by itself was not debilitating. Only subsequently after he was diagnosed with Parkinson's that his movements gradually slowed. What started as a gradual tremor in the hands progressed to the rest of his limbs. In a span of the following year, a combination of these and old age eventually knocked him over.

About five months ago, my dad got feverish and had to be hospitalized. Turns out he had a mild stroke, after which he lost the use of his right arms and both legs.  After a battery of tests and reviews, a panel of doctors said they had exhausted available medical options and that “palliative care” was the next course of action. I was a bit surprised by this in-your-face advice, more because it was delivered matter-of-factly, without sugarcoating. When I asked for further clarification, the senior resident was just as cryptic “We are just medical professionals, not gods. Just pray for some peace moving forward, and continue to provide him comfort.”

Every few weeks, dad's condition seems to take a dip, making us scramble while we come to grips with the new reality. His slow, slurred speech has reduced to a few gurgles, and he spends most of the time motionless in a slumber. Feeding solids have given way to semi-solid gruel supplemented by baby food. Perhaps the only redeeming factor here is that he seems to be cognitive and responds in a low gurgle or squeeze of hands when spoken to.

[ Counting one's blessings: video of little Vijay with his grandpa ]

The Philosophy

The Hindu philosophy that I loosely follow talks about Karma : actions, and the spiritual principle of cause and effect where intent and actions of an individual influence the future. Even without a deeper  philosophical reflection, many of us recognize that caring for an elderly parent is a part of one's Karma; after all they were there to nurture and guide us when we were young and impressionable. Paying that 'debt' back is the least we can do. If an extended palliative care before passing is in an elder's 'Karma,' who are we to argue?

The Hindu philosophy also makes fundamental assumptions of Saṃsāra, the theory of rebirth and "cyclicality of all life, matter, existence." When the body dies, the Atma (soul) leaves the body. In a tacit acknowledgment of the finality of death, Hindus cremate the body since the soul doesn't come back in the same form. It does not require a philosophical grounding to acknowledge the obvious: all who are born, must eventually die. The philosophy and scriptures, are however intentionally vague about the 'process' of death and dying which will be unique to an individual.


Even a generation or two ago, extended families in India lived under a roof, and caring for an elder, perhaps even palliative care was a non-issue. As urban Indians move towards 'modern' nuclear family structures, family-support for caregiving can be a trying experience, especially when it comes to extended palliative care. Those of us who can afford to, hire caregivers to assist with day-to-day needs, but even with such help, palliative care overwhelm the extended family.

Caring for a sick and infirm person takes a lot of emotional resilience, more so when the prognosis is a  terminal-end, and one is facing a downward slide that follows a textbook pattern (link). When a terminal patient suffers, caregivers and family suffer in equal measure. Caregivers may find it hard to sometimes suppress thoughts, of a peaceful and speedy end.

One sometimes reads of people in dire straits occasionally contemplating drastic actions by 'taking things into their hands,' although such thoughts and actions are unthinkable for most of us. A living will, and Euthanasia are things one reads about, though one generally does not encounter in real life.
A few weeks ago, social media was buzzing over an elderly couple's plea to the Indian President seeking permission for 'active euthanasia' (link). While that appeal made headlines. and will almost certainly be ignored by the President, it just highlights the reality that the couple are confronting as they grow older.

In most cases, the caregivers and families bottle up their emotions, and focus on the present and try to make the little time left with the loved one comfortable.

Dad with caregiver

It takes a village to care for an elder... but not all think alike

I sometimes reflect on my dad's inner strength to continue to bravely fight the fight, and the utter lack of self-pity that he has demonstrated. Of course, his resilience is reinforced by the resolve around him. My aging mother has taken her marriage vows “ sickness and in health,....” quite literally; dedicating her time and energy to caring for him. Her initial prayers to 'get him back to normal' have been replaced by a more pragmatic prayers for continued peace and comfort.

Needless to say, not all families or even members of a family will react to these circumstances in the same way. For instance, my brother who lives thousands of miles away in England has been trying to stay updated on dad's condition. Although not in denial after a quick trip to visit dad, he harbors optimism. He perhaps believes that a miracle might just occur.

Our 8 year old, on the other hand, is a bit overwhelmed by the life-lesson unfolding in front of him. He has mostly been keeping his feelings to himself. The other day, he opened up a bit, and began telling Suja about his latent feelings for Thata (Grandpa). He said he was finding it really hard to go and greet Thata, "lying in his bedroom in this condition.” adding, “It is hard to see him like this. Even a few months ago, Thata used to ask about my school-day. Now he is only able to make some grunting sounds. I wish he were at least able to speak again.”

A redeeming factor in the gradual decline is that it has given us enough time to sit back, observe, reflect while we continue to provide the best care and comfort one can. The extended nuclear-family – mother, dad's caregiver, my wife and our little son - are involved in various aspects of the planning, logistics and care-giving. While dad goes through the gradual stages of withdrawing from the world, we continue to be around, although we continue with our daily life.

Paraphrasing an old adage; it still takes a village to care for an elder.


Related post : A review of cottage industry around ‘elder care’ in India