India needs a Debating Culture (Part 4)

The Importance of Debate

“It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it.” – Joseph Joubert

Why is a debate important? Here is an excellent introduction from University of Washington’s Department of Communication:

Debate is the activity that brings the art of reading, thinking and speaking together in one place. When medieval scholars set out to establish the curriculum of the world’s first universities, they considered three liberal arts essential for leadership and promotion of the best ideas: grammar, logic, and rhetoric (reading, thinking, speaking). When they sought to test the depth to which these skills had sunk in, medieval faculty demanded students participate not in exams or papers, but in disputations—in other words, debates. Although much has changed in the world since the 19th century, scholars laid out these basic elements of the artium baccalaureus degree. The ability to conceive, articulate, and evaluate arguments remains not only the lifeblood of democracy and society, but essential to the development of an engaged and ethical individual living in contemporary technological democratic society.

More from Stanford’s National Forensic Institute:

Debate is a valuable activity for students of all skill levels.  Debate teaches useful skills for other academic pursuits and life more generally.   Most obviously, debaters build confidence speaking in public and expressing their ideas eloquently.  That comfort speaking in front of others is useful in so many areas of life, from interviews to school presentations to discussions in college seminars.

But the benefits of debating are not limited to the skills built while students are speaking—the preparation for competition teaches critical thinking and research skills, as well.  As F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”  Debate tests and builds that ability by forcing students to see both sides of issues.  Debaters flex their analytical muscles, learning to find the weak points in opponent’s arguments.  They learn to explain their own ideas and assess different viewpoints, whether in a debate round, a political discussion, a classroom, or a written essay.  And debate requires students to research their ideas and support them with evidence, teaching them to conduct research and assess sources.  According to Arne Duncan, then-Secretary of Education, debate is “uniquely suited” to build skills required of a modern citizen, including critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity.

Debating is clearly a very powerful skill to have. The ability to put one’s ideas across succinctly, rebut the opponent’s points in near real-time and do so in front of an audience – these are what makes debates critical in schools, colleges and civil society. And yet, in today’s India, it was a lost art form. But that was not always so.

Tomorrow: Part 5

India needs a Debating Culture (Part 3)

London’s Debating Societies

“In all debates, let truth be thy aim, not victory, or an unjust interest.” – William Penn

I had heard about London’s debating societies. That is where I began my journey. This is what I learnt from Wikipedia on the origins:

Debating societies emerged in London in the early eighteenth century, and were a prominent feature of society until the end of the century. The origins of the debating societies are not certain, but by the mid-18th century, London fostered an active debating culture. Topics ranged from current events and governmental policy, to love and marriage, and the societies welcomed participants from both genders and all social backgrounds, exemplifying the enlarged public sphere of the Age of Enlightenment.

At the end of the century, the political environment created by the French Revolution led to the tightening of governmental restrictions. The debating societies declined, and they virtually disappeared by the beginning of the nineteenth century. However, a select few societies survived to the present day, and new societies formed in recent years have been boosted by promotion via the internet and social media, giving debating in London a new lease on life.

It was the late 18th century that saw debating societies rise in popularity:

[D]ebating societies…were firmly established in London society by the 1770s. At this time, many of the societies began to move out of the pubs and taverns in which they had initially met, and into larger and more sophisticated rooms and halls. Tea, coffee, and sometimes sweets and ice cream replaced the alcohol of the taverns, and the admission fee also increased. The new setting and atmosphere contributed to an overall more respectable audience in line with the Enlightened ideal of politeness. Mary Thale notes that, while the usual admission of a sixpence was not insubstantial, it was considerably less than the price of attending a lecture or the theatre. The debating societies were therefore more accessible to members of the working, middle, and lower classes, truly bringing the “rational entertainment” so favoured during the Enlightenment into the public sphere. Questions and topics for debate, as well as the outcomes of the debates, were advertised in the many London newspapers that flourished during the time, again linking the debating societies with the public sphere.

…As the more respectable locales became a firmly entrenched element of the societies, the size of the audiences grew considerably. The move away from pubs and taverns likely contributed to an increased presence of women in the societies, and they were formally invited to take part in debate. In 1780, 35 differently named societies advertised and hosted debates for anywhere between 650 and 1200 people. The question for debate was introduced by a president or moderator who proceeded to regulate the discussion. Speakers were given set amounts of time to argue their point of view, and, at the end of the debate, a vote was taken to determine a decision or adjourn the question for further debate. Speakers were not permitted to slander or insult other speakers, or diverge from the topic at hand, again illustrating the value placed on politeness.

…Overall, the London debating societies represent how British society of the eighteenth century fostered open political, social, and democratic discussion, and exemplify the public sphere.

Eventually, the debating societies declined as the British government cracked down. But in the few years of their popularity, they left a mark on English society. From Wikipedia: “Debating societies were an important fixture of the London social landscape for the better part of the eighteenth century. Shaped by the initial tolerance of British politics of the time, and demonstrating a progressive, democratic, and equality-minded attitude, the debating societies are perhaps the best example of truly Enlightened ideals and the rise of the public sphere.”

As I read this, I realised that debating societies (or clubs) were exactly what India also needed – to foster open discussion and enrich the public discourse. Traditional and digital media had failed; we needed an alternative.

Tomorrow: Part 4

India needs a Debating Culture (Part 2)

What is a Debate?

“It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it.” –  Joseph Joubert

From Wikipedia:

Debate is a process that involves formal discussion on a particular topic. In a debate, opposing arguments are put forward to argue for opposing viewpoints. Debate occurs in public meetings, academic institutions, and legislative assemblies. It is a formal type of discussion, often with a moderator and an audience, in addition to the debate participants.

Logical consistency, factual accuracy and some degree of emotional appeal to the audience are elements in debating, where one side often prevails over the other party by presenting a superior “context” or framework of the issue. In a formal debating contest, there are rules for participants to discuss and decide on differences, within a framework defining how they will do it.

Debating is carried out in debating chambers and assemblies of various types to discuss matters and to make resolutions about action to be taken, often by voting.[citation needed] Deliberative bodies such as parliaments, legislative assemblies, and meetings of all sorts engage in debates. In particular, in parliamentary democracies a legislature debates and decides on new laws. Formal debates between candidates for elected office, such as the leaders debates, are sometimes held in democracies. Debating is also carried out for educational and recreational purposes, usually associated with educational establishments and debating societies.

Debating in various forms has a long history and can be traced back to the philosophical and political debates of Ancient Greece, such as Athenian democracy, Shastrartha in Ancient India. Modern forms of debating and the establishment of debating societies occurred during the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century.

A colleague pointed me to the ancient Indian (Jain) concept of Anekantavada. “In the classical Indian world Jains, Buddhists, and Hindus fiercely debated the nature of reality. The Jain position argues for a broad view called anekantavada (“no-one-perspective-ism”), resisting philosophical dogmatism and recognizing the good qualities of many different points of view… By this, Jains meant that in many cases the arguments espoused by the various participants in a debate all held some validity. Because the Jain position was able to overcome the apparent inconsistencies between the other views, however, it came closer to fully grasping the one underlying truth, satya.”

That is what a good debate does – bring out the multiple sides of an issue. Else, in today’s polarised world, we end up in an echo chamber – treating those with views different from ours as enemies.  A good debate can just be the tonic to open one’s mind and even be persuaded to change it.

Tomorrow: Part 3

India needs a Debating Culture (Part 1)

Among Friends

“We seldom learn much from someone with whom we agree.” – Mokokoma Mokhonoana

Four of us friends talk every Saturday night on Skype for an hour. We used to do this in 2018-19, primarily discussing how to transform India. We re-started our conversations in April as the coronavirus spread. We shared inputs each of us got and the impact on the economy. As time passed, the virus discussion receded into the background and the chats moved back to the topic of what we can do to make India free and prosperous. The discussions were free flowing – as was to be expected among friends who have known each other for many years. We even started a book club for a month.

The book club format turned out to be an interesting change. In regular conversation, we have the habit of interrupting other people or deviating from the thread to bring up an idea of our own. The book discussion kept us all on-point, and gave the person speaking an uninterrupted 30-minute window. The conversations started to have much more depth. A person could take an idea and explain it in detail without worrying about someone else breaking the flow of thought. For the listener, it gave a much better insight into the speaker’s mind.

In one of our conversations, a contentious topic came up in the flow. The interruptions grew as each one of us had strong opinions to air. I realised I was more keen to speak rather than listen. It was then that I decided we needed a new format for structuring our talks.

My mind went back to IIT-Bombay 1984. It was my first month. As a freshie, there were many competitions that were held to get the new batch to know each other. One of them was a debate. In  typical irreverent style, the topic was – “Should rubber slippers be made the cultural symbol of IIT?” I prepared my short talk – and won the debate! As I realised later, debates were a very popular format as part of the cultural scene at IIT.

In recent years, we have seen the raucous TV debates which have now become more about the anchors ranting rather than giving participants time and space to rationally put forward their reasoned views. On social media too, trolling takes away from sensible discussion. And we as a people have retreated into the safe space of not listening or wanting to be persuaded by the other side – we prefer the comfort of the echo chamber.

My mind also went back to the days of watching Vajpayee debate in Parliament. The words came out like poetry in his mellifluous office – cajoling, mesmerising, convincing, winning.

And that set me thinking: could a debate format work in our group to better structure our conversations so that each of us got the time to make our points, and then also rebut others? That set me off on a journey to understand the world of debating.

Tomorrow: Part 2

My Proficorn Way (Part 50)

Inflection Points

What a year 2020 is turning out to be! Coronavirus crept up on us and took over our lives in a way none could have imagined. Businesses have been upended – some have flourished while others have floundered. The health scare has changed buying behaviour of consumers. The switch to online has done in a few months what would otherwise have taken many years. In India, the banning of Chinese apps by the government transformed the fortunes of some overnight. 2020 will be seen as a year of inflection points.

Investopedia defines an inflection point thus: “[It] is an event that results in a significant change in the progress of a company, industry, sector, economy, or geopolitical situation and can be considered a turning point after which a dramatic change, with either positive or negative results, is expected to result. Companies, industries, sectors, and economies are dynamic and constantly evolving. Inflection points are more significant than the small day-to-day progress typically made, and the effects of the change are often well known and widespread.”

Rita McGrath, writing in Fortune in January 2020, says:

Strategic inflection points—changes that alter the taken-for-granted assumptions underlying a business model—can feel sudden. In reality, however, they tend to build up slowly, gathering momentum until a transformative shift becomes clear. Andy Grove, who coined the term, said it referred to change that was 10 times more significant than a typical change encountered by a business.

When these shifts occur, companies tend to fall into three categories. The first are those that have missed the inflection point entirely. These firms often shrink or disappear…The second group comprises those that realize an inflection point is underway and place a huge, last-minute bet on catching the wave…The third set of companies are ones that have placed a number of small bets over time to position themselves to take advantage of shifts when they happen. These investments are in effect options companies can exercise once the new landscape is more clearly in view.

The challenge for senior leaders is: How do they prepare to see an inflection point coming—so they don’t need to make a last-second turn? And how do they bring the organization along into the post-inflection point world?

The Internet in 1995, Apple’s iPhone in 2007, the launch of Jio in 2016 can all be seen as inflection points which led to a 10X change in our lives. And 2020 perhaps upends them all. As entrepreneurs, these are moments of great disruption and opportunity. The impact of inflection points plays out over time, but entrepreneurs who have made the small bets, created options and invested in tomorrow will have a disproportionate advantage over others.

Will be continued soon.

My Proficorn Way (Part 49)

The One Number

I was recommended William Thorndike’s book, “The Outsiders”, by a friend about 18 months ago. It is one book that I wish I had come across much earlier in my life. The book answers a simple question: “What makes a successful CEO?” Thorndike’s answer: “it is the returns for the shareholders of that company over the long term.”

Explains Thorndike: “The metric that the press usually focuses on is growth in revenues and profits. It’s the increase in a company’s per share value, however, not growth in sales or earnings or employees, that offers the ultimate barometer of a CEO’s greatness. It’s as if Sports Illustrated put only the tallest pitchers and widest goalies on its cover…In assessing performance, what matters isn’t the absolute rate of return but the return relative to peers and the market. You really only need to know three things to evaluate a CEO’s greatness: the compound annual return to shareholders during his or her tenure and the return over the same period for peer companies and for the broader market (usually measured by the S&P 500).”

The book discusses why this is the most important metric of a CEO’s performance and tells the stories of eight of the greatest CEOs as measured by this number. And key to long-term success is to understand capital allocation. More from Thorndike:

CEOs need to do two things well to be successful: run their operations efficiently and deploy the cash generated by those operations. Most CEOs (and the management books they write or read) focus on managing operations, which is undeniably important.

Basically, CEOs have five essential choices for deploying capital—investing in existing operations, acquiring other businesses, issuing dividends, paying down debt, or repurchasing stock—and three alternatives for raising it—tapping internal cash flow, issuing debt, or raising equity. Think of these options collectively as a tool kit. Over the long term, returns for shareholders will be determined largely by the decisions a CEO makes in choosing which tools to use (and which to avoid) among these various options. Stated simply, two companies with identical operating results and different approaches to allocating capital will derive two very different long-term outcomes for shareholders.

Essentially, capital allocation is investment, and as a result all CEOs are both capital allocators and investors. In fact, this role just might be the most important responsibility any CEO has, and yet despite its importance, there are no courses on capital allocation at the top business schools.

What I like about Thorndike’s idea is that it distils success down to a single, measurable number – with a focus around capital allocation. This is something I have been thinking a lot about in recent months. It is not something I did earlier – because we never had enough capital to invest. Profits made through the years have now given us money beyond the margin of safety which we can consider deploying for growth.

So, spend a day reading Thorndike’s book – even for early-stage entrepreneurs there are many good ideas to learn as they seek to build their business.

Tomorrow: Part 50

My Proficorn Way (Part 48)

Today and Tomorrow

As a business leader, we have to take care of the present – revenues, customers, cashflows. And yet, if we don’t look ahead to the future, we risk losing out on the turns that the road can bring. We do this reflexively when driving a car. We are watching the car in front, the ones at the side, glancing at the rear view mirror to track movements behind us, and also observing the traffic movements much further ahead. This is what we need to do when running a business – focus on today and also build for tomorrow. As the business matures, the time horizon for the future will also become longer. Initially, you will look ahead a few months, then a few quarters and finally, a few years.

A new book by David Cote, “Winning Now, Winning Later” discusses exactly this. From the introduction:

If you run a team or an organization of any size, you face a seemingly intractable dilemma each day: Should you focus on making the numbers, often at the expense of the company’s future health, or should you prioritize longer-term strategies, your quarterly or annual performance be damned?

Most corporate managers and executives choose the first option, running businesses quarter-to-quarter to the detriment of long-term performance. Leaders might value broader objectives like sustainability, competitiveness, and growth, and wax eloquent about their commitment to these long-term goals, but when called upon to allocate scarce resources, they focus on the current year’s plan and do what it takes to meet their numbers. In their view, they have no choice: their job depends on pleasing bosses and shareholders today, not tomorrow.

The notion that there is no way to pursue long- and short-term goals at the same time, and therefore leaders have no choice but to embrace short-termism, is one of the most pernicious beliefs circulating in business today… Short-termism has become so rampant that influential leaders are speaking out against it, with some advocating that we relax the reporting requirements on public firms so that leaders don’t feel such intense and constant pressure to make their numbers.

We can’t regulate our way to long-termism—the problem is too complex and deeply entrenched. Instead, we need a comprehensive mind-set shift on the part of leaders and managers at every level. Somehow, we’ve convinced ourselves that we can only invest in the future if we let short-term performance tank. But that’s not true. Strong short- and long-term performance only seem mutually exclusive. As a leader, you can and must pursue both at the same time. Unless you do, you and your team or organization will never reach your full potential.

He then outlines three principles of short- and long-term performance: scrub accounting and business practices down to what is real, invest in the future, but not excessively, and grow while keeping fixed costs constant.

This is sound advice – and even more so for entrepreneurs. Think of the cars around as competitors, and the mountains ahead as the landscape. Even as you keep an eye on competition, make sure you are watching the changing scenery. In internal reviews, set aside time to discuss the long future. Some bets will not pay off immediately but need to be started now to make sure you are not caught unawares when the future arrives.

Tomorrow: Part 49

My Proficorn Way (Part 47)

Creating Options

I was talking to a colleague recently. We were discussing a particularly knotty business problem. I said, “We need to create more options. There has to be a different approach to problem. What are the different ways we can achieve the same end – ones that are not obvious and that we have not considered?” I told him a story from my past.

When building content portals during IndiaWorld (1995-1999), I did not know which verticals would work – I had a general sense, but wasn’t sure. During those years, I launched 13 properties – samachar, khoj, khel, bawarchi, indialine, dhan, itihaas, manoranjan, and so on. They covered many different verticals. 4 of them worked, 9 did not. I would never have known for sure had I not experimented and tried out the different themes. In a sense, I created “options” – the cost of doing each was low, while the upside of success was very high.

I have seen many leaders box themselves with pre-conceived notions of what will work and what will not. As a result, they constrain themselves at the early stage. This could be because they don’t want to waste resources. More often that not, they are worried about the consequences of the initiative not working. So, they take a defensive approach from the beginning itself.

An entrepreneur needs to do the opposite. Early life is all about experimentation in search for what is now called “product-market fit.” It is about trying a few different approaches to see what will work. Even now, I constantly think of how one can expand the options that are available. These can come through conversations with people outside our domain – people we would typically not speak to and whose worldview is very different from ours. So, keep the mind open to new ideas. It is this continuous search through creating options that creates the new openings and the big opportunities – but you will only know it when you actually do it.

Tomorrow: Part 48

My Proficorn Way (Part 46)

Work-life Balance

One of the questions I get asked often is how to maintain a balance between work and life. My short answer is – it is a continuum. There are no sharp boundaries between what we think of as work and what we call life, especially entrepreneurs. For me, work has been my life because I have loved what I do – even through the tough times. The mind cannot switch off if you are running your own business – the subconscious keeps thinking about the problems and solving them. At no stage does this mean that family is undermined – it is just that entrepreneurs look forward each day (weekday or weekend does not matter) to getting one step closer to success, or one step away from failure. The family needs to understand the entrepreneur’s life and passion. Without their support, a difficult job can become impossible.

It is for the entrepreneur to be able to work out the balance. Whether it is time with the spouse or the kids, sacrificing family for the sake of business success is not worth it. No amount of financial success can replace loved ones.

I was taught this by my wife, Bhavana, shortly after the birth of our son. Abhishek was born 12 years after marriage, after 5 years of IVF treatment. (I have written about this on my previous blog.) I was 38 years old when Abhishek was born. I had spent most of my life as an entrepreneur – and the long hours that came with it. Even after Abhishek’s birth, my office hours did not change – 9 am to 9 pm. One day, a few months after Abhishek’s birth, Bhavana sat me down and said, “I can raise Abhishek on my own; I don’t need you for that. Just because he is sleeping most of the day doesn’t mean that he cannot feel and understand. You can continue working the way you want. But one day when he grows up and you find that he doesn’t have the personal relationship with you, please do not blame him or me. These first years are very important to build that bond. Once he is older, you may have the time, but he will have moved on. It is the early years when that connection has to be forged. One touch at a time, one day at a time. The choice is yours.”

I changed from that day. I started coming home early. I stopped all discretionary travel till Abhishek was three years old. I created a new balance between work and family. Today, 15 years later, as I see the bond between Abhishek and me, I always remember Bhavana’s words that changed me and my approach to work.

Create time and space for family. They are not just another “meeting” to be scheduled in the calendar. They are the only ones who will also experience your highs and lows – perhaps even more than you. They are the ones whose unquestioned support will push you to greater heights. Make sure you are always there for them.

Tomorrow: Part 47