Tuesday, March 8, 2011

PTV© on the Serendipity Road, Exploring the Unexpected?

Courtesy:Google's images further customized to suit our article

With us, already have covered the Power through Collaboration (PtC©) driven Portfolio-Thread View (PTV© with its EPP©, CPP© & PIP© frameworks) in detail - within the last few weeks, we conducted an informal survey among few strategy practitioners, with a simple question – “What is the single most important criterion they use to select the strategic view to solve their strategic problems?” While we received variety of answers – the single most common and consistent thread, we found across all the answers was – “the ability to come up with a proprietary and profitable insight, much ahead of the competitors”. Although this answer might sound like a no-brainer on the surface, beneath it, it is a three part answer -
  • The structure part of the view (with its set of frameworks, tools, techniques and templates) -must be flexible enough to be customized, depending upon the business situation.

  • The strategic insight development process part of the view- must yield proprietary insights, quickly much ahead of the competitors.

  • The strategic execution/measurement part of the view -must be able to monetize those proprietary insights within a time period.

It all comes down to CONNECTING THE DOTS!

As we further analyzed these three answers – we recognized a rhyming pattern emerging with the following key words – flexible, customizable, proprietary, quickly and monetizable. As we further synthesized the “spirit and essence” of these five words in one phrase – it all came down to “CONNECTING THE DOTS”. Simply put, “the view that helps strategists TO CONNECT THE DOTS is the winning view.

While this “connecting the dots” process might sound like a simple slogan on the surface, in reality – it is one of the most challenging tasks to do – and so, we as strategists, not only need to be equipped with a flexible view (i.e. structure part with its frameworks/tools/templates/techniques), but also, need to be talented enough to facilitate that “connecting the dots” process – for us to reap its benefit 100%. Put another way, the structure and strategy part of the view must work harmoniously together with a “doing both” mindset, for strategists to excel at this “CONNECTING THE DOTS” process!

PTV© on the Serendipity Road!

The next pragmatic question is - what does it really mean to “connect the dots” within a strategic planning scenario? As I was thinking about the best way to answer this question – “SERENDIPITY”, one of the most popular words in the English language, coined by the Linguistics scholar Horace Walpole (based on an Arabian poetry) popped up in my head - and so, we started our inquisitive literary journey in to the Middle Eastern poetry world, to learn more about this word!

The word Serendipity, although has been voted as one of the most popular words in the English language, linguistics scholars, until today, cannot absolutely define what this word really means!Part of the reason being is that, this word apparently depicts the intuitive process of “exploring and/or discovering orderly things from unexpected places (which is filled with disorderly things), especially when one is in not in serious quest of". As I started thinking more about this definition, I was struck with a light bulb moment- PTV©, like Serendipity, is also the process of discovering ORDERLY things from DISORDERLY - by just connecting the dots (or glues) existing within the business realities.

In other words, it is like a sculptor making an art out of the rock – and, all that the sculptor is doing is - just chiseling away the unwanted edges of the rock to give life to an “already existing art” that just happen to be buried inside the rock. Put another way, different variations of the orderly strategy are already buried inside the disorderly rock called the organization, and all that the sculptor is doing is just chiseling away the unwanted edges to give life to the already existing strategic path. Simply put, depending upon what edges the strategist chisels away, the rock turns in to that appropriate strategic path - that is already buried inside the large rock that is filled with disorderly paths – which by the way, was the primary driver, that made us to come up with PTV© - to help strategists to intuitively identify those winning paths!

Three Princess Story comes to life on the Serendipity Road!

As it turns out, the story behind this word has been told in the form of a poetry by Firdausi's Shahnameh in the year 1010, as part of his fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendipity – which is based upon the life of Persian King Bahram V, who ruled the Sassanid Empire. The poetic story goes like this (below) and as pictorially represented in the picture on the top of the page.

One fine day, three princes from a region called Serendip (Scholars believe it is a region from ancient Asia between India, China and Sri Lanka) were sent by their father on a prolonged journey to acquire practical wisdom as part of their training. They wandered through the Arabian deserts and apparently lost all of their fortunes including their ability to get back home. While trying to find their way back home, they ended up meeting a camel driver. The camel driver apparently was searching for his lost camel and inquired about the camel to the three princes. Though the three princes never saw the camel, they tried to accurately describe it to him using their newly acquired wisdom - to get his favor (or resources to get back home).

They start narrating the characteristics of the camel –“It was blind in one eye, and did not have tooth, and was lame as well”. Now the camel driver’s interest level started rising – and the princes continued – “the camel was also carrying butter on one side and honey on the other, and was carrying a pregnant woman”. Being so impressed by their description (as it so accurately described his lost camel), the camel driver unfortunately started ACCUSING the princes of having stolen his camel, and took them to King Behram V. The king in his wisdom recognized the fact that the three princes merely assembled (or connected the dots) various insights based on their observations of events and evidences they saw, as they were walking in the serendipity road!

Here is the factual account of their creative wisdom or insight of connecting the dots and king’s ability to discern the facts –

They thought that the camel was blind in the right eye because the grass had been cropped only on the left side of the road. They also concluded that it was missing a tooth from the bits of chewed grass scattered across the desert side. In addition, its footprints seemed to indicate that the camel was lame as they saw only three foot prints and a dragging footprint. Also, ants were one side of the road and flies on the other – which made them to infer that the camel was carrying butter on the ant's side, and honey on other. Finally, the hand imprints on the ground (in one of the resting areas) made them to conclude that the camel must have been carrying the pregnant women as it was the practice in those days.

Interestingly by God’s providence, as these princes were being inquired by the King, another person ended up bringing the camel to king’s court with the same description, and so finally, King Bahram V, in his wisdom discerned the fact that the princes were innocent and granted them FAVOR- and honored their wisdom of CONNECTING THE DOTS!

So much impressed by this story, Horace Walpole wanted one word to describe this “CONNECTING THE DOTS” type of wisdom exhibited by the three princes - and ended up choosing the word, SERENDIPITY, based on the place where they hailed from – Serendip. What a great poetic insight!

Their edgy helping gesture- is nothing but, Purpose Innovation!

As we take a deeper look at this story – it is interesting to recognize the fact that these three princes indeed were charting multiple core paths (road ride, camel ride and/or chariot ride) including the edge option of helping the camel driver (to find his lost camel), as part of their “GET BACK HOME” goal. Out of those paths, the edge option of helping the driver, on the outset, although, looked like a distraction from their traditional core paths (i.e. finding their way back to go home to Serendip), later turned out to be the winning path. In other words, the edgy path of “HELPING THE CAMEL DRIVER” – although, got them in to trouble in the beginning (i.e. false accusation part), later turned out to be the path that won them the favor – which eventually helped them to perform many more adventures in the future as well!

As it turns out, the three princesses put one of their precious “cultural capital asset” called “collaboration and/or helping each other” skill to work and created their “out of the box” path, in collaboration with this camel driver who, by the way, happen to be from a place, totally outside of their network. Although it sounded like a risky path in the beginning, later turned out to be the most profitable path! The insight here is, while companies are well justified to chart their winning paths within the constraints of their four walls (or within their industry vertical boundaries), in some situations, they must also, go out of their industry networks and start collaborating with partners from those other industry networks to win in this 21st century– as we learn from this story - and as promoted by our Purpose innovation concept within our PTV.

Their edgy helping gesture and Ed Schein’s “helping culture” mindset!

Interestingly enough this “inter network collaboration” or the so called “cultural capital behavior” driver called “HELPING EACH OTHER” has been getting lot more press lately – as it seems to be the one of the important, emerging cultural capital assets, that is going to revolutionize the organizations of next decade – in the words of Ed Schein. Ed calls this as "the humble inquiry that equilibrates the relationship between the vulnerable person asking for help and the powerful helper" – which is further, amplified within one of my comments in the HBR Executive Education group discussion groups recently.

A newer internetwork collaboration driven insight - NESIGHT!

As I was further meditating this poetic story – we saw few other insights emerging, one after the other, in the form of a composite insight– and so, we thought of renaming this “uncommon wisdom/insight generating” process (or story) with a new terminology called NESIGHT – to refer to the intentional practice of creating composite insights, using “internetwork industry vertical cultural capital asset” or resource called “collaboration/helping each other”. How is it different from the regular insight generation process? Nesight generation process, apart from the typical self seeking insight development process, also, lets the “inter cultural industry vertical network” resources to germinate their insight generation part, before synthesizing them as a holistic nesight, just as in our lives, we sometimes, need to look beyond our close friends, colleagues, and relationships to the lesser rigid connections (or weaker ties) – as they might be the ones who bring the light in to our lives- as it happened in the life of these three princesses.

The Jewish version of the same story and Joseph, the first purpose innovator!

On a side note – there is also a Jewish version of the same story in the name of Rabbi Yochanan—the only difference being is that instead of three princesses the story revolves around two Jewish slaves and a master – but the rest of the story, by and large remains the same.Yet another resembling story in the biblical days is the story of Joseph – as he was also falsely accused in the beginning – and then later, not only, was vindicated of his false accusations, but also, was elevated because of his Nesight producing talent.

In our opinion, Joseph was one of the pioneers who put the “inter industry network collaboration” to work (perhaps in a rudimentary form) in biblical days –as he was the first one to come up with the “Harvest-Tax-Store-Consume” business model, much ahead of the famine (i.e. recession in today’s terminology) as opposed to the prevailing business model of that era (Harvest and Consume). The reason we call it as purpose model is that “tax and store” was the function of treasury department, that was managed by different organization of the kingdom, whereas harvest was managed by a different organization –and, this is where Joseph applied his nesight and combined/interweaved both of their functions in the form of a “inter organization business model”, thus, BREAKING AWAY the traditional organizational boundaries of those days for a noble social cause of “HELPING THE NEEDY”. The impact was that his business model (or PURPOSE MODEL in the words of PTV) saved all countries of the known world from starvation (i.e. recovery in today’s terminology) during the big famine.

Arjuna, the Archer - yet another CONNECTING THE DOTS story!

Yet another story from the epic of Mahabharata might be appropriate here as well – expounding, how an inquisitive, connecting the dots mindset, helps us to appreciate the key principle - “justice always prevails at the end”- very similar to how it happened in the life of these three princes and Joseph!

Arjuna, being the most favorite mentee of Guru Dronacharya, is being promised that his Guru would make him the best archer in the world. But then Ekalvaya, an equally skilled archer (but not fortunate enough to have a Guru like Drona) starts learning archery intuitively, by keeping a statue of Drona as his Guru. Over a period of time, Ekalavya starts performing better than Arjuna - and now Drona is faced with a dilemma – whether to keep his promise to Arjuna, or go by his consciousness and make Ekalavya to win. Drona, in the beginning chose to honor his promise and try to trick Ekalavya – asking his Thump as the Guru Daksha (offering or tuition fee), thus stopping him to perform archery forever.

At this point, the story gets interesting – although, it would appear as if Drona’s scheme would harm Ekalavya (for no fault of his own) – as the story unfolds, Drona, also asks Arjuna to defeat Drupad to pay for his Dakshina (perhaps to show fairness on his part). Now the defeated Drupad’s son who finally eliminates Drona, while Drona himself was also forced to kill Arjun's son, in the war – proving the point that the connection of seemingly unrelated dots within different parts of the story, at the end proves the point that JUSTICE ALWAYS PREVAILS at the end – as it happened in the life of three princes and Joseph.

Conclusion - PTV is all about CONNECTING THE DOTS!

Finally, in closing, if we could further synthesize the nesights from these three stories in one sentence - PTV© like Serendipity, also is the process of discovering ORDERLY things from DISORDERLY - just by connecting the dots (or glues) existing within the business realities – very much like, how the three princesses connected the dots within the Serendipity road, where the camel was lost. Yet another nesight, we garner from these stories is that we don’t reach Serendip, by plotting just one path - rather, we have to set out multiple paths in good faith and lose our bearings serendipitously- as echoed in the words of Warren Buffett –“We're prepared. Our elephant gun has been loaded, and my trigger finger is itchy" – and rightfully so, feel the same, based on the lessons learned from these stories and the words of Warren Buffett!


  1. Hello Charles,
    So much to praise this great post that I am bewildered where to start from. You have marvelously connected the dots by using stories to elaborate on path selection. Fantastic reading by all measure; I strongly propose to you to write an eBook with illustrations to make it even richer.

    I hope to read the eBook soon. I shall be willing to invest my time and money. I liked very much your observation "PTV© on the Serendipity Road". Go ahead and continue the journey of finding order in disorder. We know from complexity science that no matter how chaotic a system may appear; still it has orderly zones embedded in disorder.
    I loved this post, Charles

  2. Hello Ali, as always, I appreciate this insightful comment of yours as well– especially your suggestion of creating an eBook is a great idea. As time permits, I will venture in to that project as well, and keep you posted.

    It is equally satisfying to see that you have grasped the primary message of the blog in one sentence “no matter how chaotic a system may appear; still it has orderly zones embedded in disorder”.

    As I think about your statement within the context of today’s blog, the key lesson here is that solutions we may be looking for elsewhere, in most cases, may as well, just be existing closer to us – as it happened in the true story of a newly married couple of the 19th century – who finally, ended up finding the second biggest gold mine, right below their property, after searching for it all over the country!

    I am sure, I am preaching to the Choir! Thanks again for your thought provoking comment!

  3. Charles,
    Another insightful article!
    Accidental discoveries always played an important role in science but, it’s fascinating to read serendipity existing in business realities. Perhaps, there’s a reason we find value in the supposedly serendipitous. Maybe the relevance is unknown initially but, once fed by curiosity, maybe it’s a challenge to our ideas, maybe an answer to a question that has bugged us; it gains value to us; it becomes relevant.

    Serendipity now seems to play a most curious function, for it reconnects, in a strange way, the business world with the spiritual universe. I’ll look forward to more such wisdom.


  4. Surya, you bring up a great point of “relevance and value” within an opportunity identification process – as “relevance, access and value” are some of the key characteristics, in my opinion, that help us to discern whether an idea is a viable opportunity or not.

    Speaking of this opportunity identification challenge - I am also reminded of the “edges – fringes” dilemma – as most ideas, although happen to exist around us (or buried within disorderly realities of businesses as outlined in our blog today), folks prematurely reject it – partly because they have not discerned whether it is an edge or fringe!

    A quick definition might help here - edges are the peripheral scenarios within an environment where unmet needs intersect with unexploited capabilities by constantly redefining the rules of the game (i.e. redefining unmet needs, redefining the capabilities, markets and technologies etc) along the way. While fringes fit the same definition, the only difference is that edges score high when we filter them through this “Relevance, Access and Value” lens.

    The challenge though is discerning whether the given opportunity is an edge or fringe - as both edges and fringes share common characteristics. This is one reason, we as strategists end up looking for edges in wrong places – perhaps because we are tricked by the edge/fringe similarities - as it happens in the funny game, where friends trick us (or mislead us by hiding the car keys or throwing them in to the bushes or putting them inside the locked car etc etc. etc), to make the us to look for them in wrong places!

    With all the pun aside, a spinning wheel analogy might be relevant (in your words) here as well. Imagine the firm as a spinning wheel with three types of dices (core, edges and fringes) that are being rolled in to the wheel that is spindled on a common vision/mission axis - the core dices are the lucky ones (older businesses) that get plugged tightly in to the inner groove (wheel win region) quickly whereas edges & fringes are the chaotic roller dices trying to find a spot inside that spinning wheel that is being constantly spinned with varying speeds (i.e. changing the rules of the game). In other words edges and fringes are the “moving targets” that are spinning with varying speeds within the wheel (i.e. firm) with one difference - edges over a period of time transform themselves and find a spot inside the core with a centripetal force whereas fringes transform themselves towards extinction with a centrifugal force.

    Now, coming back to the edges-fringes dilemma - Like Edges, fringes, also exist on the periphery and that’s why we need some more solid guidelines (on top of the initial “relevance, access, value” filter) to decide/discern whether a new opportunity is edge or fringe. Some of the guidelines I can think of –

    1. Principle of Differentiation
    2. Principle of Purpose
    3. Principle of scalability
    4. Principle of Place
    5. Principle of Value/Relevance/Access

    If the answer is yes in all of these five dimensions – then in my opinion – the given opportunity is an edge and not a fringe. At the same time, as well know, staying the course on core is equally important (as it is the bread winner) as explained in one of my principle – “strategize from the core and innovate from the edge” as explained in one of my earlier blogs (http://strategywithapurpose.blogspot.com/2010/08/strategize-from-core-and-innovate-from.html).

    Again, I have received some great comments for this blog (your comment and the earlier comment made by Ali Annani, including few other informal/offline comments) – as these types of formal and informal feedback/comments always make us to expound on the topic more and learn from each other, - and so, let us continue to collaborate (which by the way is another point of our blog today) and keep the conversation going!


  5. High Charles,

    The discussion is soaring high. Let me quote a phrase of your response to Dr. Surya's great comment "moving targets” that are spinning with varying speeds within the wheel (i.e. firm)". Yes, I believe the old wisdom of one can't shoot a moving target is gone. The targets are moving and because of that old solutions do not work. We need new approaches based on trial and error to learn and adapt.
    Excellent discussions by all standards