FF Insights #694: The Freaky Friday management technique

July 14, 2022: Nilekani on the future; Indian English; The Uber Files

Founding Fuel

[From Unsplash]

Good morning,

We often talk about empathy, about the importance of putting ourselves in others’ shoes. Sometimes, to develop empathy we even go full hog, and actually do that. We have heard about restaurant CEOs playing waiters, and retail CEOs visiting stores as regular customers to get a sense of how the business runs. 

In The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers, Ben Horowitz shares an interesting example. 

“Many years ago, I encountered a particularly tricky management situation. Two excellent teams in the company, Customer Support and Sales Engineering, went to war with each other. The sales engineers escalated a series of blistering complaints arguing that the Customer Support team did not respond with urgency, refused to fix issues in the product, and generally inhibited sales and customer satisfaction. Meanwhile, the Customer Support group claimed that the sales engineers submitted bugs without qualification, did not listen to valid suggested fixes, and were alarmists who assigned every issue the top priority. Beyond the actual complaints, the teams genuinely did not like each other. To make matters worse, these groups had to work together constantly in order for the company to function. Both teams boasted superb personnel and outstanding managers, so there was nobody to fire or demote. I could not figure out what to do. 

“Around this time, I miraculously happened to watch the motion picture classic Freaky Friday… In the film, mother and daughter grow completely frustrated with each other’s lack of understanding and wish that they could switch places and, through the magic of film, they do. 

“Through the course of the movie, by being inside each other’s bodies, both characters develop an understanding of the challenges that the other faces. As a result, the two become great friends when they switch back… I knew that I had found the answer: I would employ a Freaky Friday management technique. 

“The very next day I informed the head of Sales Engineering and the head of Customer Support that they would be switching jobs. I explained that, like Jodie Foster and Barbara Harris, they would keep their minds, but get new bodies. Permanently. Their initial reactions were not unlike the remake where Lindsay Lohan and Jamie Lee Curtis both scream in horror. 

“However, after just one week walking in the other’s moccasins, both executives quickly diagnosed the core issues causing the conflict. They then swiftly acted to implement a simple set of processes that cleared up the combat and got the teams working harmoniously. From that day to the day we sold the company, the Sales Engineering and Customer Support organisations worked better together than any other major groups in the company—all thanks to Freaky Friday, perhaps the most insightful management training film ever made.”

Have a great day! 

Nilekani on the future 

Nandan Nilekani is a man we have watched with much interest and have stayed engaged with over the years. Our colleagues NS Ramnath and Charles Assisi backed by Team Founding Fuel, co-authored a book The Aadhaar Effect: Why the World’s Largest Identity Project Matters back in 2018. That was when Nilekani was chairman of UIDAI and had formed a crack team to implement Aadhaar and India Stack. Later, when he co-authored The Art of Bitfulness with Tanuj Bhojwani on how to use technology mindfully, we engaged with the both of them in a live conversation on Twitter Spaces. That is why when Nilekani spoke to McKinsey & Co on how he believes technology will evolve in the near future, we looked at the transcript with much interest.        

McKinsey: As you look to the future, what excites you about technology and what concerns you?

Nandan Nilekani: A lot of new things are coming down the pike in technology, which is exciting, whether it is cryptocurrency, the use of blockchain, or the metaverse. But our job is also to use technology to benefit people, which does not necessarily happen all the time. In my view, if a billion people can use something, then that’s a benefit. A billion people can learn using technology. A billion people can get better healthcare using technology. A billion people can move around and change jobs using technology.

Things like the metaverse and Web3 are all nice buzzwords, but the final test is how they benefit people, because all this stuff can also go the other way. We have seen that social media has a huge ability to polarise people. To get engagement, social-media platforms feed people things they want to hear, and that gets them into a filter bubble. A lot of these apps are also very addictive. Artificial intelligence can also have a lot of bias in it, so one needs to tackle the issue of responsible AI. There are lots of things in technology that are very disconcerting and troubling. Our job is to try to ensure it gets used in a way that benefits people and protects us from the inherent risks involved.

Dig deeper

Why Nilekani is urging leaders to use technology for social good (McKinsey & Co)

[Recording] How Nandan Nilekani learnt to use tech mindfully (Founding Fuel)

Indian English

The Browser is one of our favourite newsletters and that is where we found a pointer to a compelling essay by Akshya Saxena on the history of the English language in India. The professor had us hooked from the word go.  

“Take the adoption of English as India’s associate official language. In the early 20th century, with independence imminent, the Indian nationalist elite debated the future national language. Would English have a role in India after the British left? No, argued Gandhi, who considered it a language of slavery to the British. Instead, he favoured Hindustani—a language that shared Sanskrit’s Devanagari script while including Urdu words with Perso-Arabic roots, embodying the syncretic Hindu-Muslim history of India. But with the deepening communal discord and the subsequent Partition of India and Pakistan, Hindustani fell out of political favour. Hindu nationalists had already begun calling Urdu a ‘Muslim’ language and had engineered a rival Sanskritised Hindi to reject any Islamic inheritances. This newly Sanskritised language was useless for the day-to-day tasks of governance. It had no words, critics claimed, for the modern practices and institutions of a nation-state. In a multilingual country of about 2,000 languages and dialects, Hindi was also neither representative nor majoritarian. And, in its Sanskritised version, it helmed a particularly religious and casteist nationalist project.

“Amid bloody protests in non-Hindi-speaking parts of India, the Indian Constitution enlisted English for its potential to be something other than a language of slavery. English, the reasoning went, was equally foreign to all in India and thus politically neutral. Through translational projects, English could help create a governmental vocabulary in Hindi and mediate language conflicts. First temporarily in 1949 and then permanently in 1963, English was legislated as the associate official language, with Sanskritised Hindi as the official language of India.”

Dig deeper

How to read English in India (Los Angeles Review of Books)

The Uber Files

(Via WhatsApp)

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Warm regards,

Team Founding Fuel

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Founding Fuel

Founding Fuel aims to create the new playbook of entrepreneurship. Think of us as a hub for entrepreneurs- the go-to place for ideas, insights, practices and wisdom essential to build the enterprise of tomorrow. It is co-founded by veteran journalists Indrajit Gupta and Charles Assisi, along with CS Swaminathan, the former president of Pearson's online learning venture.

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