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(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Life’s Work of a Thought Leader

With every book or major article I write, I start by looking for a logical structure. It must be as simple as Euclid: The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Once you have this logical framework, everything else, all the examples, are just illustrations.

S+B: How do you deal with the need for precision in your language?
You revise. I’ve never published anything that has not gone through six or seven rewrites. A lot of people hide behind math, even if their thinking is not very precise. I find that trying to say something in English forces you to be more precise. You cannot escape it. That is why, for me, the test of a good, powerful piece is when people say, “But it’s so obvious.” You agonize and agonize and then somebody says, “But it’s obvious.” When I was younger, I used to get so irritated by that. Now I think it’s the highest compliment you can get.

Learning to Think Independently

S+B: When did you first get interested in management?
I was trained as a physicist, and I started working as an industrial engineer in a Union Carbide factory plant at age 19. Industrial engineering in India at that time was a problem-solving discipline, very much in the tradition of Frederick Taylor. The unit of analysis was work, and the people were secondary. But I was intellectually curious, so I read every book I could lay my hands on and then, over time, tried to apply some of the ideas — everything from value engineering to modeling work processes with synthetic data.

I was very fortunate to have, as a boss, a Harvard MBA. He had been one of the first Indians to be a Baker Scholar [the top academic honor at Harvard Business School]. Now he was the plant manager. I was just a trainee, but for some reason Divakaran liked me, and he would give me books to read. He had a very simple rule: When I returned a book to him, I had to tell him whether it applied in India or not. I think he was trying to get me to think independently, and not accept ideas as valid simply because they came from the United States.

The first book was The Human Side of Enterprise by Douglas McGregor [McGraw-Hill, 1960], the book that introduced Theory X and Theory Y. It sparked my interest in the general question, What motivates people? I reflected on how we might apply this concept in our plant, which had communist labor unions.

I was already fascinated by the way work and people are interrelated. I knew how to conduct time and motion studies and break work down into its constituent parts. I was reasonably good at it. But I saw that when we broke down the work, it changed interactions among people — and more importantly, the skill levels that were required of individuals. This forced me to stop looking at a company or a factory as the unit of analysis, as industrial engineers did. Instead, I started looking at people and teams.

I struggled with this quite a lot because I ran the quality department for about three months while the chief of that department was away. At age 19, I had 60 people to manage, and I had to motivate them and make sure things were going right. That forces you to think about people and what makes them do good work. I also had to worry about improving the pattern of their work. In those years, the Taylorist industrial philosophers fought against the people who talked about human beings and motivation. Nobody was yet thinking about the interrelationship between work and people.

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