Friday, July 4, 2014

Transitions and Anchors

The last 8 weeks have been surreal, a blur.  From running all of SAP's products to being appointed the next CEO of Infosys, I've been through two extraordinary transitions within a period of time that feels like an instant.  And at the same time, these two transitions happened amid the backdrop of much bigger transitions, and transformations, that organizations go through, from companies to countries.  Transformations they must go through, to survive, to continue to be relevant, when the circumstances and contexts around them change dramatically.  Companies around the world, including mine, are going through these transitions, driven to a large extent by software and computing technology.  And as I write this over the fourth of July weekend here in the US, my country of citizenship, I join more than 300 million citizens in taking the time to celebrate independence and big transformative ideas, such as individual freedom, democracy and a constitution to guide a nation.  And at the same time, my maternal homeland India has just seen a great transition of its own, and more than a billion citizens find themselves hopeful and looking ahead to a great transformation under a new transformative leadership.  So I've found myself reflecting on both my own transitions and those of large organizations, and thought this summer weekend is a good time to write some of these thoughts down.

I was at SAP for 12 years.  More than a quarter of my life.  And we did a lot.  It was a great ride, a great wave.  After the news of my resignation and my sudden departure from SAP came out, there was at first the shock of the abruptness with which all this happened.  But such is the nature of waves.  A great  ride one moment and gone the next.  This was followed by an incredible outpouring of support from thousands of friends and colleagues, more than four thousand of them, deeply heartfelt emotions, and show of support, that made this transition so memorable and the 12 year journey so worthwhile.  It reminded me that we are defined not only by the work we do, but also by the deep and lasting relationships that we build during our journeys.

Among the tons of calls that I received in the aftermath of the news, there was one that was going to be very significant in shaping, in bringing about, another transition, both in my life and in that of a large company's.  This was from a recruiter leading the CEO search for Infosys, a pioneering Indian IT company. Within a couple of weeks I found myself  being swept by another massive wave.  The iconic nature of Infosys, especially in India, made it impossible to delay the decision any longer, and I was announced as the next CEO of Infosys on June 12, scarcely 6 weeks after leaving SAP.  As I write this, I am looking forward to taking the leadership responsibility on Aug 1, and looking forward to a great transition that must follow my little transition.  A great transition and its set of challenges and opportunities, that await my new company, as well as every company in our industry, and indeed as software reshapes the world around us, every company in the world.

Transitions at large companies are in many ways similar to personal ones.  Perhaps this is not surprising.  Doug Engelbart had compared organizations to organisms.  Companies, after all, are us.  No more, and no less, than us, the people within them.  So a transformation of a company, is really about the transformation of the people within, and around it, transformation of the contexts we form, the processes we have, and of the things we do.  So when I see the debate underway among Harvard professors about the Innovator's Dilemma, and when I look back on what we achieved at SAP, my fundamental conclusion is that there is no innovator's dilemma. There is only a desire, a willingness, a courage, to change.  To learn.  To understand new ways of working and being relevant.  The idea that there is some kind of a rule blocking an organization's ability to deal with disruption, makes no sense to me.  That these disruptors came and disrupted us and there was nothing we could do about it, is simply nonsense.  Disruption is not an excuse, a fait accompli, it is simply an opportunity to learn new skills and to develop new products and services, and processes and economics.  An opportunity to renew ourselves and our organizations.  And it comes down to having anchors that help us guide through such a change.  Anchors in these cases tend to be the deeply rooted principles, experiences, values and ideas/visions that companies are built upon.  Competencies and processes follow from these, and then the products and services delivered, and the relationships, the economics, etc. emerge.  But the grounding, the anchors, determine how the organization transitions.

Many people have asked me about how I dealt with such a large transition so quickly? I reflected on it, and realized that we too have our personal anchors that help manage these.  Our perceptions are relative.  In that, our ability to understand reality is based on observing and measuring change.  From our sight to our hearing, and even in deep silence, when our senses are asleep, our measures are all relative.  And so it is that we seek our solace in our anchors.  We measure how far we've drifted, or how far others have drifted from us, with reference to our anchors.  And I found myself in the comfort of my own anchors.  From my alma mater, to true friends who shared a deep sense of personal connection and roots and expressed their concern and pain and brought support.  Some long-time teachers whose wisdom, and clarity, was very welcome, to some newly acquired relationships, guardians of principle and regulation, who became friends and whose strength carried us forward.  To family who showed that blood is thicker than water, and to the spirituality that one finds solace in, within and without.  And then there is my wife, my V.  My companion, my compass, my anchor.  Her singular support, strength, dedication, selflessness and passion, have reminded me of what unquestioned support is all about, what love means and makes us do.  I can best evoke what John Nash said in his Nobel prize winning speech in 1994:
"...And I have made the most important discovery of my career, the most important discovery of my life: It is only in the mysterious equations of love that any logic or reasons can be found.
I’m only here tonight because of you.
You are the reason I am.
You are all my reasons.
Thank you."
Thank you V.

We often hear that with the right values within us and the right support beside us, we can deal with any transition.  But when we think about it, we realize that with these two elements guiding us, transitions don't even matter.  And perhaps that is the constancy that we seek, amid the chaos and the noise and the change.  The constancy of the stillness and purpose that is within us, the constancy of the love, support & strength that we derive from the relationships right next to us.  Great transitions happen because of the purposeful work done by everyone in an organization.  And purposeful work comes from unwavering purpose within us, and from the strength of the purposeful relationships all around us.  As we celebrate our independence, we, both as organisms, as well as the organizations that we form, owe our deepest gratitude to our anchor points.  The relationships, the lessons and the principles, that have kept us from going adrift, and provided us with the direction, the purpose, in our journeys...

-- Vishal Sikka