21 September, 2012

Challenges in expanding the pie

In this country, we face an acute problem of saturation. Just about anything has intense competition. Scarcity (natural or artificial) is rampant and it is not uncommon to see people fight desperately over stakes that are trivial when compared globally.

And hence, about a decade and half ago, when I started my career, I adopted a personal philosophy: expand the pie, don't fight for a share of it.

It was evident (to me) that unless we make the available pie bigger, any amount of competitiveness is eventually going to hit a barrier. And being literally resourceless and broke, the only option available to me for helping in expanding the pie, is to take up a career in applied research.

Several years down the line, looking back at a very turbulent journey so far, it is time to reflect.

Firstly, do I regret anything? Absolutely not! It has been an absolutely invigorating journey and even successful in bits and pieces. Second, do I think that "expand the pie" belief was untrue? Absolutely not, again. Time and again we keep seeing news stories of us getting into saturation mode (fuel, power, garbage, jobs, traffic, etc.) and unless we build a vast culture of pie expanding enthusiasts, we only stand to face huge crises in the future.

But then, expanding the pie is easier said than done. We cannot start looking at ways of expanding the pie after we are hit by a crisis. We should be well prepared long before. The best times to prepare for war are in times of peace, as the saying goes.

Here are some of my experiences and lessons learned in trying to expand the pie:

You will encounter vested interests 

We have all the technology required for providing voice telephony using the Internet as the backbone and reduce international telephone tariffs to a small fraction of what they are today. Yet, that does not happen.

When we expand the pie and create a new solution that threatens to obsolete some existing technology, expect to get your idea killed. Expanding the pie is way more involved than just creating new technology.

And before ranting against huge telecom corporations, ask yourself what would you do if you have painstakingly built a company over several decades, which employs hundreds of thousands of people and you are suddenly faced with the prospect of a disruptive new idea that can make your company collapse in no time?

Beware of the fear of the unknown 

Expanding the pie necessarily means venturing into the unknown. We may think we are adults, but we don't realize that we are adults only when we are in familiar mental territory. The moment we are in the unknown, our primal fears surface in ways that we cannot even fathom.

I have not seen a single researcher worth his salt, who has not been paranoid at some time or the other. Scientists may appear emotionless, and indeed you may even find several of them advocating dispassionate and objective thought. But, the process of development of science is anything but dispassionate and objective.

Also, the way people react to the unknown is very unpredictable. They may suddenly become unusually defensive or offensive, get into a closet and refuse to communicate, take big decisive actions rather on an impulse, and so on.

Your intentions will be misinterpreted 

Come to think of it -- the herd is moving in one direction and fiercely fighting over that little piece of bread, and here you are walking away in a different direction...

Of course, your intentions will be misinterpreted. You will be seen with suspicion, your integrity will be questioned, people will put up safety nets against you, call you weird, will secretly want to see you dead, and what not.

Expect it. At least then, you will not be hurt too much when you encounter it.

Remember the Gandhi quote without the last line

Remember this saying?

First they laugh at you
Then they ignore you
Then they fight you 
Then you win..!

Remember that well, except the last line. Replace it with, "And then you claim victory..!"

When you expand the pie, you will not necessarily get a share of it.

Gandhi himself did not live long enough to really see the independent India that he fought so hard to bring about.

When you develop good ideas that successfully question status quo -- it will eventually get adopted. But you will most likely not be in the picture there (even if you are alive and kicking..)

Expect to be muscled around, handed ridiculously one-sided contracts to sign, being told that your ideas are obvious and trivial, being sweet-talked while your students and coworkers are getting poached, the list goes on..

Be aware. Don't compromise. Be ready to lose what you have and always remember that your real wealth is within you -- your ability to think and develop ideas. Keep working on that ability and see to it that it never gets sidelined in all such worldly nonsense.