“This story is about a family in Coleman, Texas. On a hot afternoon, the father-in-law, suggested that the family goes for a dinner at a place called Abilene. The proposal was mild and the family wasn’t very enthusiastic about it. Still they agreed to it and all of them went to Abilene. However, the entire idea proved to be a big disaster, right from the car ride to Abilene, which was 53 miles away, to the food and service in the restaurant. The family while returning back didn’t discuss it on the way. The arguments and accusations began after they reached home when each started blaming the other for the idea. Finally it came down to the father-in-law because originally it was his idea. At this point, he steered himself clean by saying that even he wasn’t too interested and had only made a suggestion to which everyone agreed.”
I came across this story in Subroto Bagchi’s book ‘The Professional‘. He used a term called ‘Abilene Paradox’ which refers to a situation where everyone in a group agrees to something which is counter to their own individual opinion. As a result of this, when things go wrong, no one is ready to take the responsibility and claims that he/she had simply followed the group’s opinion.
Subroto stresses on the importance of professionals assuming the responsibility of dissent when working in groups/teams. By responsibility of dissent, he means that a professional should be willing to voice his concerns and if required disapprovals also during the group’s decision making process. The goal of a group’s discussion should be to decide on the right things to do rather than achieve a consensus among the members. Otherwise, like in the story, when the group’s decision turns out to be not-so-correct, no one knows who is the responsible and a chaos reigns.
To illustrate this idea, Subroto uses the case of the financial fiasco of Satyam Computers. In December 2008, Satyam Computers had declared that it would purchase two companies for $1.6 billion. These companies were owned by the sons of Ramalinga Raju, the chairman of Satyam. The acquisition didn’t make much sense as the two companies were into real estate and Satyam was an IT company. Besides this, those companies were largely owned by the families of Ramalinga Raju and were valued at unreasonably high price for the purpose of acquisition. The surprising fact here was that the board of directors of Satyam agreed to such an acquisition and no one raised any concerns. The board consisted of eminent people like Dr. Mendu Rammohan Roa (dean and director of IIM Bangalore), Dr. Krishna Palepu (professor at Havard), Mangalam Srinivasan (adviser to JFK School of Governance at Havard), Vinod Dham (father of Pentium), V.S. Raju (ex-dean of IIT Delhi) and T.R. Prasad (an ex-cabinet secretary).
It is quite apparent that the members of the board, who were all accomplished individuals and who may not have not agreed to the deal if they decided individually, failed to exercise their responsibility of dissent when taking the decision as a group. The consequences of this was tremendous and widespread which not only left a black spot on the image of Indian software industry but also effected the thousands of shareholders, employees and families associated with Satyam.
“In approving the $1.6 billion deal, the Satyam board was on a trip to Albene”.
Disclaimer: The facts in this blog are based on the contents of the book ‘The Professional’.
2:30 AM Saturday: Phone rings and it was Hari PS “Dude it’s 2:30. Time to go”. I replied, “Thanks man! Yups! C u in 30”. After sometime I received a SMS from SR Hari which read “Good morning man. Reply me if you’re awake. If not, I’ll give you a call”. I replied, “Gud mornin.Thanks for checkin. I was never asleep :). C u soon”. I completed the last few minutes of an episode of “Two and Half Men”, got up, put on my jacket and shoes. I pulled out my gear and did a last minute check. Time to go! I walked out, stood by the street waiting for my pick up. The street was empty. There was a thick mist after last night’s rain. I looked up the sky. It was clear and starry. I smiled. But it was cold – I pulled my jacket tighter and waited.
12:30 PM Friday: During the post lunch walk, Hari PS said, “The plan is for 3AM tomorrow morning”. I said, “Ok. I am in. Do you have place in the car?”. He said, “Yups. Will confirm you the plans by evening”. I replied, “Gr8. Let’s do it then. Let me know once you confirm”.
8:45 PM Thursday: “We are a big group today”, said Tomas outside IMEC in Leuven. He continued, “But the sky doesn’t look very promising. May be we are lucky and the sky clears out by the time we reach the spot. Ok let’s go hikers”. 23 hikers – a few seasoned, a few first timers and rest rookies, set out on the hike through IMEC woods and then into Heverlee woods and fields.
5:00 PM Friday: Hari PS emails “Plans are confirmed. I’ll pick you up at 3am. Be ready. We’ll go to a place in Loonbeek.”
3:00 AM Saturday: A car pulled over and I got in. It was warm inside and welcoming. “Where is SR Hari?”, I asked. “I’ll pick him and Lei in second trip after dropping you guys at the spot”, replied Hari PS. We picked up Sandeep & Parvathy and drove out of Leuven. It took us about 15 minutes to reach the spot in Loonbeek. It was a fantastic drive with curvy and sloped roads. We passed by few small towns. Soon we left behind human settlements and drove through woods and fields and stopped in the middle of no-where. Hari PS announced, “Gentlemen the spot is on your left”. We got out and it was an open field. There were no lights except for a street lamp at a distance and the head lights of the car. On the other side was a thick wood and it felt like we are in a rain forest. Sandeep and I got down, Hari PS and Parvathy drove back to Leuven to pick up SR Hari and Lei. It was pitch dark after the car left. We looked around. There was heavy mist over the fields but the sky looked clear and full of stars. Perfect! We lighted up candles to have some light while Sandeep set up his tripod.
10:00 PM Thursday: The sky was still covered with heavy clouds. Hopes were diminishing! Although it was fast getting dark the sky looked red as the clouds diffused the city lights. The walking trails were sloppy due to the rains during the day. The hikers stayed together and walked still hoping that sky will clear out. Guru and SR Hari, two of our seasoned hikers, did not have proper hiking shoes and walked the trail in sandals and chappals. They wanted to test themselves for upcoming tougher hikes :).
3:50 AM Saturday: Sandeep’s tripod was set and he was taking long exposure shots of the sky. I didn’t have a tripod. The candles on the grass caught my attention and I took a few pictures. I had never done such a crazy thing before – with a camera, at 3am in the morning, in a field with two candles and a friend. Sandeep and I alternated between taking pictures and watching the sky. In the meantime, we heard a car approaching and saw the lights slowly fading out the darkness engulfing us. It stopped at some distance from us. When the engine stopped, we heard familiar voices… “Hairreee”… Ok that’s Lei and “Fantastisso”… Ok that’s SR Hari :). In the silence of the night, even their low and far off voices were loud and clear to Sandeep and me.
11:00 PM Thursday: As we walked further, the sky still looked red which meant the clouds were still there. We expected that the sky would get darker as we approach the planned spot but unfortunately not.Tomas then decided to divert from the planned route to change our direction with a hope that the sky would be darker and may be also clearer. But it did not help. We decided to call it off. Probably tonight is not the night :(. The weather Gods were not in our favor. Tomas pulled out the map and we decided to start returning back to Leuven but by a different route. Tomas said, “Let’s still go to the planned spot. We will take the final decision there”. Hope never dies, particularly Tomas’ :).
4:10 AM Saturday: We suddenly heard the excited voices of Lei, Parvathy & Hari PS, “We saw it, we saw it”. “Where, where?” was the simultaneous response of Sandeep, SR Hari and myself, all of us had our eyes glued to our viewfinders :). They pointed towards the northern or may be north-eastern sky. What they saw was a shooting star. So the first sight of Perseids Meteor Shower has been caught. “Wow! Yes!”, exclaimed all of us.
This had eluded us on Thursday night. The meteor shower was predicted to reach it’s peak on Thursday night (Aug 13th). Thus Tomas had planned a short hike on Thursday night to a spot where the sky was expected to be dark and from where we would have watched the meteor showers. But we were not lucky with the weather that night and could not see even a single shooting star.
11:30 PM Thursday: We reached the planned spot but the conditions were no better. We decided to take a break, rest for sometime and then walk back to Leuven.
We were now somewhere between Leuven and Brussels and about 7kms from Leuven. Thanks to Jing and Yemiao that an apparently uneventful break turned out to be a fun filled one. They were playing with light and long exposure shots, creating patterns in air. This caught SR Hari and my imagination too. SR Hari wanted a heart with an arrow :). We created hearts (with arrow), SR Hari wrote his name and made a smiley, and Jonny did a shooting star. It was lot of fun and we all wanted it to go on, but it was time to hike back!
4:45 AM Saturday: We then stood with our eyes fixed towards the sky with a hope to see more shooting stars. Sandeep and SR Hari set up their camera in the direction where the last shooting star was sighted. We did see a few more. They were very fast and difficult to photograph. They came like a flash of light and were gone within seconds. Also they came one at a time, nothing like a shower of shooting stars which we had heard about and were expecting. But nevertheless we were happy that we saw a few and our efforts paid off :). Just then we got a marvelous view of a star which was slowly falling down vertically. It was a bright star and gave us enough time to photograph it. This was the star of the show. SR Hari, in his trademark way, exclaimed, “Fantastisso!… Maatterrr Ooverr!…”
12:30 AM Friday: All the while, while returning, we would look at the sky with a hope of seeing atleast one shooting star. We didn’t even see normal stars that night, except for one bright star which could have been some planet. The return walk was pretty uneventful. We walked, talked and had some fun amongst ourselves. Just outside Leuven, we crossed a dark tunnel under the highway. We decided not to switch on our lights and cross it in complete darkness. Well somebody started and soon the tunnel was filled up with strange and all sorts of screams and sounds. To an onlooker it would had appeared a little scary – a big group of people emerging from a dark tunnel in the middle of the night.
We reached IMEC around 1AM. Well everyone was disappointed but also agreed that we had a nice and short night hike of about 13 kms, the 3rd one this year.
5:30 AM Saturday: The dawn was breaking in and the mist was also increasing. The stars in the sky dimmed and it was time to wind up. Hari PS made the first trip to Leuven and dropped Parvathy. In the meantime, rest of us enjoyed the breaking dawn and the misty morning. We wanted to wait for the sunrise but the mist was getting thicker and we dropped the idea.
We especially missed India this morning. It was 6am and had it been Chennai or Bangalore, it would have been perfect for a breakfast of hot idlis, sambar, vada and filter coffee :(. We packed up, loaded the car and drove back to Leuven, satisfied with our attempt as amateur sky watchers and enthusiast photographers. I sat in the car watching the horizon getting lit up with the sun yet to rise and beautiful colors that spread over the clouds and the sky.
Let us be friends for once,
Let us make life easy on us,
Let us be lovers and loved ones,
The earth shall be left to no one.
These were the lines with which Elif Shafak concluded her TED talk titled ‘The Politics of Fiction’. I randomly chanced to listen to her talk after I was intrigued by it’s description which read as follows –
“Listening to stories widens the imagination; telling them lets us leap over cultural walls, embrace different experiences, feel what others feel. Elif Shafak builds on this simple idea to argue that fiction can overcome identity politics.”
The poetry is a Sufi poetry and beautifully describes the essence of life. In our day to day living, we often forget that we have to leave behind whatever we earn and gather in our lifetime. So why not earn something as beautiful as friendship and leave behind something as pure as love.