Why Movement Matters Big Time

Reflections on three stories from my past

In our heads, there is an idea highway where there are no speed bumps, no tolls, no roadblocks, no detours and no bad weather.

Reality is very different.

There is a big stumbling block right at the start of any meaningful project in general. It seems like we want to start only when everything is clear from takeoff to landing. So we hesitate and hesitate and hesitate to begin the journey. The stalling act continues throughout the journey at various other stumbling blocks that we encounter. The temptation is to stop and get our bearings together before we take the next action.

The problem?

Your DNA gets rewired to stop and not take action for prolonged periods of time. To make it worse, we can always find some super-logical-looking excuse for our inaction.

Over the years, I have found that movement in the right direction matters big time.

Here, I will share three instances from my past to highlight the above.

1. The Magic of the Fourth Book

I shared the story of my 1,000-day journey to the publication of my first book here. The story began when I was ten years old and sort of concluded when I was thirteen. It was a long journey riddled with rejection followed by a rejection. At some point, it seemed like I would soon be awarded as the most rejected (potential) author on Guinness Book of World Records.

But being very young at that time, I had other ideas. I never thought I would have to go through that many rejections so I was making plans for my next few books treating every rejection as an aberration.

Six months after completing the first book, I was on to writing my second book. Not surprisingly, it was easier to write the second book and for the same reason, I was able to write it in a shorter duration. As I was writing my second book, I could also see the flaws in the first book so I went back and revised the contents of the first book. As you can imagine, it was a lot of work as at that time forget about computers, having a typewriter was a luxury. Everything was written by hand.

I followed it up next year with a third book and you guessed it right, I had to go back and re-write parts of the first and second book.

I followed that one up with a fourth book in the next year and by this time, I was thinking what the hell I had written in the first book. It seemed like kindergarten stuff now. It seemed OK when it was written but several re-writes later, it was clear that it would have been a mega miracle if that book had been published.

Finally, the book that got published first was my fourth book.

While I would have probably got an award for the highest number of rejections at an young age, it is unlikely that the first book would have seen the light of the day. I am glad about the approach I took. For whatever reason, I continued to write one book after another. For obvious reasons; the writing in my fourth book was far better than the writing in my first book. I also had better help by the time I was thirteen. Even that help would not be sufficient if the quality was missing.

Movement mattered big time then.

2. A Six-week Documentation Project That Shifted My Career…

This was 1997. Kavitha and I had relocated to United States. Before coming here, I was running large software development teams on big projects. However, I was told that people start here as consultants again and grow from there. Without questioning much, I came over in the role of a consultant.

The company that I was working for had a long-standing relationship with one of the leaders in CRM software at that time called Vantive Corporation. Peoplesoft later acquired Vantive and now both companies are part of Oracle Corporation.

I was in one of the consultants who would be trained in Vantive and to be part of teams that would implement that software. I went through the 2-week training and totally fell in love with the software, CRM space and also the warm and friendly people at Vantive.

It was common for trained consultants to wait (be on bench, as they would say) for a few weeks until the right project came along. So, I was on bench waiting for my turn. A few weeks passed by and there was no project in sight. While I was sharpening my skills and reading something or the other, it was not really something that I enjoyed.

The company also had a large implementation project going on with HP which was right across the street in Cupertino. The project was fully staffed so there was no room there. However, my then Boss Alok came to me one day and said there was a documentation project that had opened up at HP and asked me if I would be interested in undertaking it.

When I asked for details, he explained that it was to document some implementation guidelines for the global rollout of Vantive for HP. All I had to do was to interview the various teams and document guidelines. Little did I know that a few other people in the team had “escaped” from this documentation project. Documentation seemed like a low level task for most people and I don’t blame them.

I thought for a while and told myself that whatever be the case, it is better than sitting here and twiddling my thumbs waiting for the “right” project. I might as well be busy documenting something. I said yes and I was on the project in the same afternoon.

Movement was what I was looking for and boy, did I get movement…

The project was fascinating as I got access to anyone and everyone that was involved in the project. The solution was being rolled out in multiple countries and there were dozens of nuances that needed to be taken care of in each location starting from currencies, default values and all kinds of setup that was different from one location to another location.

The team was big and people were split up into groups to work on specific modules. Nobody had all the time in the world to talk to every other group to understand the big picture. Lucky me, it was my JOB to talk to all the groups and get the COMPLETE picture.

I started documenting what I learned and in four weeks, I had written more than hundred pages. What they were expecting was eight-page document covering some guidelines. What they expected from me was an Implementation checklist and what I had come up with was an Implementation Cookbook. I created a 12-page executive summary out of my 100+ page book and sent it out to the leadership team.

I got an invitation to present my findings at a group meeting of various teams. They asked me to print 60 copies of my report and bring it to the meeting. I got everything printed and was ready.

On that meeting day, I went to the meeting, with 60 books on a handcart. The Big Boss there asked me what I was bringing in that cart. Only then I realized that they had assumed the executive summary to be the final report and they had a ton of questions on details that were missing. When I distributed the books with all the details and more, there were ZERO questions. The leadership team had not expected anything remotely close to what they saw. The meeting ended with an open appreciation for all the hard work.

Word went out to Bill Morton who was heading Professional Services for Vantive with several hundred consultants from within and partner companies. He asked me to come and meet him. The meeting was short and he asked me a few questions about my background and my approach to come up with this Implementation Cookbook. I answered all his questions.

After a brief pause, Bill said, “Rajesh, you are not a consultant material, I think you should be managing projects for us.”

A well executed documentation project happily led to landing a leadership role in six weeks flat.

3. The Challenge that Gave Birth to a Publishing Imprint

At one of my speaking engagements in early 2009, I shared one of my favorite quotes from Teddy Roosevelt. It goes like this:

“Far better to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory, nor defeat.” — Teddy Roosevelt

A young man came to me at the end of the talk and we were discussing a few things related to something specific to his situation. In the middle, he made a comment something like this — “I loved the quote from Teddy Roosevelt but it didn’t cut it..really.”

I was now curios and asked him — “OK, what didn’t cut it?”

He said in a cool fashion — “I mean it was 130 characters more than the limit. Couldn’t you make the same point in less than 140 characters?”

I was silent for a few seconds. Remember, that I was not using Twitter at that time and I was very skeptical about using Twitter to do anything. I realized that his main complaint was that what I told was not tweetable.

I wanted to tell him that Twitter was not around when Teddy Roosevelt was around Twitter was not around.

The point is that I could see how much Twitter had influenced at least a small sub-set of people.

In my mind I was thinking that this was all crazy. What is this 140 character limit? What could one possibly write in 140 characters. Just to give you some context, I have been telling stories since I was thirteen when my first book was published. In my mind, I was thinking of a typical story that has an exposition, conflict, resolution, rising action and denoument. For those of you who remember studying you know that these are the parts of the plot mountain which is the basis of storytelling. I mean you can’t even narrate the exposition in 140 characters…. Come on…

However, I kept hearing about Twitter again and again and some of my friends thought that I was so old school because I was not on Twitter. Millions of people can’t be wrong which means that I must be wrong…Sad, but true.

On a related conversation about the “time-wasting” nature of Twitter, my classmate Navin Nagiah (currently the CEO of DNN Software) asked me a question back — “Raj, is it that Twitter is a waste of time or you don’t have what it takes to make the most of what the platform provides?”

It made me think a lot. I remember another favorite quote of mine — this one from Mark Twain:

“I wrote a long letter because I didn’t have the time to write a short one.”

Yes you could write something long quickly. Try to express the same point in less than 140 characters and you need to take the time to think and write. Sorry I am not talking about tweets like

“Just landed at Los Angeles, pretty excited about it”

“How is everybody doing this morning?”

“My cat did a double flip for the first time. Woo hoo!”

Twitter with its 140 character limit was the ultimate test for creativity. So if you really took the time you could tweet some insights that was a combination of “clarity” and “brevity.”

So, it was clear now. There was nothing wrong with Twitter. It was all ME — trying to resist change. I had brilliantly manufactured a good excuse for lack of movement on this front. I was guilty as charged. Rather than expecting the Twitterverse to change, I was supposed to make the change.

Over the next few months I got used to what millions of people had already gotten used to –

To share and consume information in bite-sizes.

In fact, after a while I thought this is a method that provides the highest ROII or return on investment for an interaction. It takes less than a minute to read a tweet but if you learn something important, you get a huge return for that fraction-of-a-minute interaction.

I decided to do some more work to make a solid case to create a book based on the Twitter format.

There were 11,000 books published in 2007. That is about 211 books per week. If you are reading one book a week, you are reading less than 0.5% of all the books published in a year.

I did a quick survey of more than 100 people about their reading habits just to get the pulse. My survey had only two questions:

How many books do you have on your nightstand?
Of the books you have, how many have you read completely in the last thirty days?

I got a variety of answers but the summary is that people had anywhere between 2 and 10 unread books on their nightstand. Only a handful of them had completely read a complete book in the last thirty days.

My first book published in 2005 titled Beyond Code (foreword by Tom Peters) had 119 pages. My next business book Upbeat (foreword by Russ Fradin) has 93 pages. Yes,it’s better than the 119 pages but it’s still too long for those that are now in the bite-sized communication format.

Jokes apart, the need for knowledge has not gone away. If not anything, it has increased not decreased. The world is moving at a breathtaking speed and if we have to catch up and stay ahead, we need to get all the insights we can get.

In summary, people are looking to spend “as little time” as possible to “get as many insights” as possible. In other words, people are looking for the highest ROII — again ROII = Return on Investment for an Interaction.

The questions that that were popping up in my mind were:

What if we create the best of the best insights in the form of tweets and take 140 of them and put them in a book?
What if each one of the tweet takes fraction of a minute to read but makes them think and see how they can apply the learning in their own personal or professional lives?

Rather than just having this as a dream my publisher friend Mitchell Levy and I chose to partner on a publishing imprint to create the first ever book in a brand new format. This was what led to the creation of a new kind of book called ThinkTweet (foreword by Guy Kawasaki). This is a generic book and covers a number of topics. The litmus test for this particular book was simple — you open any page of the book and at least one of the tweets in the page have to make you think!

As of this writing, we have over 75 books on various topics in the same format as the first book.

Lessons Learned:

Here are a few lessons learned:

1. We are masters at coming up with “believable” excuses

Just being aware of the above has helped me catch myself when I was conveniently avoiding paying the price for making a change that I know I HAD to make. I am not fully “cured” with the above disease as it keeps cropping up every now and then. So, I do have mentors around me that will catch me when I am trying to slip away using my own “brilliantly manufactured” excuses

2. Having a mindset of the river helps

A river rarely stops because it encountered a boulder. It also rarely gets tired because it keeps encountering boulders along the way. In fact, it might encounter a thousand boulders and it does not stop. It just smilingly keeps flowing without whining or complaining about all the twists and turns that it has to take along the way to reach its destination. That’s the mindset that helps you and I to make meaningful progress.

3. If you act and fail, people may laugh at you. But…

If you act and fail, people may laugh at you. However, if you choose not to act at all, you are silently announcing that you are playing it safe and not going anywhere. You can sit there and avoid the risk of failure but whether you want to believe it or not, you have made yourself someone that can be easily ignored. The only people that will give you company are the ones that are in the same boat. Fast forward a few years and imagine your own life. It won’t be pretty.

Movement is where all the magic is.