Business Growth is Veiled By What You Don’t Know

After spending almost three weeks navigating between India’s Golden Triangle of tourist cities and its villages in Rajasthan, it is clear that what will fuel growth—for them, for us, for you as a business leader– is understanding the why, rather than investing our time in the what.

We spend our lives focusing on the what—the practices, and policies that we have painstakingly put in place. We do what we do because we are supposed to do it. Our parents raised us to, or our teachers taught us to, or our leaders rewarded us when we did.  The danger is shared by Payal Kadakia, Founder and chairman of ClassPass, “Skills can become obsolete, products can be copied, we can do everything right and the market can change on a whim.”

India is focused on the “what”

In India, many of their present challenges are a result of their “whats”, perpetuated behaviors that began centuries ago for just reasons and have not found new solutions that reflect to changing times:

  • Their lack of sanitation infrastructure reflects a past when they lived off the earth and everything they consumed could be returned to it; now they have plastic and it has flooded their cities.
  • The veiling of their women came from a time when women were being stolen by invaders for their looks so hiding women behind walls and veils became a measure of security for them.
  • The population explosion is partly a result of religious practicesconverted to law enabling Muslims to have three wives and unlimited children while Hindus are restricted to one wife and three children.
  • Even the horses we rode, the fiery indigenousness Marwaris, are taught to dance not for entertainment per se but because of their heritage as warriors in which Hindu kings rode these horses in battle facing Muslim kings mounted on elephants brandishing swords in their trunks. Without “dancing” lithely and being able to mount an attack off their hindquarters, they had no hopes of winning the skirmish.

There is only one problem. Blind commitment to the what, without knowing the why behind it, limits the ability to challenge it and often perpetuates it past their usefulness. Payal Kadakia went on to say, “We can develop muscles, in the form of sustainable behaviors, that enable us to quickly recognize and adapt to change.”

Reports and operations; is that all there is?

For many of us, as leaders, we run our business through the management of two things: financial reports and operations. We are taught in business school these are important and it has been rewarded in our careers as we mastered them. Yet, neither of these generate growth; neither brings an opportunity to re-ignite a business but at best generate some incremental improvement. Studying these things does not question the fundamental foundation of a business which may have made sense a few decades ago but is being challenged by changing value systems, new technology, and the shifting of power into the hands of data users.

How do you manage your time? Are you looking externally at market change, the relevant why, and adapting to it, or are you managing the whats, the practices born of past whys no longer as applicable. Recently, a study revealed that focusing on growth initiatives that invariably challenge the status quo, yields much more return that focusing on fine tuning the whats and creating margin improvement.  In fact, a 1% improvement in growth returns 5x as much as a 1% improvement in margin.

Understand the “why” to make better choices

Indian womenBy understanding the why behind something, we can assess whether that rationale is still valid, useful, needed. Insisting women not be “seen” publicly is easier to understand when you consider its legacy. However, when the why is understood it is easier to question the present reality—that same threat no longer exists and more options for dress should present themselves. Some women may choose traditional dress because they have been taught it enhances their beauty or is the right thing to wear for a formal occasion. In the villages, it is how they dress because it has been passed down for generations. In my opinion women in saris have a beauty and elegance that is remarkable. It is not for me to judge whether women should or should not wear veils, rather by understanding the relevance of the “why”, they are freed to make the choice best for them.

So how about in business? What practices do we maintain because we believe them to be right even though we don’t know the why behind it? Pick your five biggest company challenges and ask yourself “why” it is done a certain way and is that commitment a limitation that needs to remain? Is it your location? Your technology? Your talent pool? As the world around us changes we must adapt to take advantage of the many possibilities in front of us and not just tether ourselves to the past.

Discovery and Growth

My recent trip to India was one of discovery. Most importantly, India is a land of contrasts. It has land and sea, poverty and privilege, color and barrenness, modern and antiquity. As shared by a local from Jaipur, it is assaulted by the four P’s: Poverty, Pollution, Pakistan, and Population. But after spending almost three weeks navigating between the Golden Triangle of the tourist cities and the villages of Rajasthan, there is a fifth P arising from the fork in the road that confronts India—Possibilities.

This isn’t an article about politics but rather about growth. Transcendental growth comes not from probabilities which are typically extensions of the past, a commitment to continue the legacy that has been the way of our forefathers and leaders, but from possibilities which suggest alternatives, sometimes disruptive ones that require a leap of faith or some discomfort in their pursuit.

Riding through IndiaAlthough still steeped in tradition, India may be better poised to make such advances. They have some significant issues so small steps and slow change will be a harder road. The possibilities for India are not seen by the western eye which focuses on the slums, the sewage, the veiling of women, the limits to modern transportation and so much more. India is a chaotic environment made up of a collage of moments generated by billions of people simultaneously rather than an orchestrated mass of shared accomplishment. But India is a country with much to teach if we are open to it. It’s history is long and it’s heritage rich. It is easy to judge from our comfortable upbringing and feel that the country is so far behind as to never catch up. But when you learn the stories behind their traditions it opens the mind to the reasons if not always the sense of their ways.