One of the important rites of passage for a young company has nothing to do with business. It has to do with culture. In MindTree, we were trying a create a next generation company that would work business backwards – blending high-caliber "local-feel" consulting with the discipline of off-shore software development. The two are inherently different animals. No doubt, the world was comfortably perched on the dichotomy between on-site and offshore software development and here was MindTree saying it was possible to forge a concept we coined internally as "OneShore". The teams that came together on the platform of that promise also brought excess baggage from their pasts. The more successful teams are in their past lives, the larger becomes the baggage. The challenge very often is not in dealing with people's inabilities – the challenge is in dealing with overly capable people. That was beginning to happen to us.
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The consulting world works in a 'business-backward' manner— many among us, who came from the software development world, were more comfortable working in a 'technology –forward' manner. The style of the consulting folks was one of authority and confidence, with the ability to articulate and be upfront. Consultants demonstrated high physical and mental energy. In their interactions, form precedes substance and they invariably look for intensity as a pre-requisite to commitment when looking at others in the team.
On the other hand, the folks who came from a software development background were understated and deferential. They had invisible but sustained energy. In their paradigm substance was everything. Finally, if they were Indians, intensity was a culturally unacceptable thing.
The folks who came from the consulting world were happier working with dynamic specifications and resources and their development counterparts were more content if specifications were cryogenically cooled and there was constancy of resources.
The former had a decisional style based on the here, now and today. The latter disliked all forms transitional.
The consulting folks were process led but collectively did not care about process formalism as we see in standards like ISO or assessments like SEI CMM. For instance, they were sticklers for time, their meetings were structured, they followed methodologies and closed each session with clear action points and these were followed up. But most had no idea of what software quality was all about. The folks who came from the other world knew all about software quality processes but in a personal sense, it did not jump out of them when they stood in front of an audience. The fusion of the two was key to our differentiation. The fusion was the essence of our brand. We realized that this was going to be the tough part, would take its own time and that there was work ahead of us. Our problem was made more difficult by the fact that we were people from nine different national origins. How on earth were we going to manage the fusion? How were we going to create the alignment?
In order to create alignment, we said to ourselves that we had to learn to "manage" our multi-cultural situation. We were spending a lot of time asking ourselves how to do it. In a fortuitous meeting with Professor Jukka Laitamakki of Fordham University, New York and Professor Vipin Chandra of MIT, we learned that our approach to the situation was totally wrong.
Finnish born Jukka Laitamakki taught at the Fordham MBA School in New York where Joe King had studied. Joe in turn had introduced Jukka to MindTree, and Jukka and Vipin came together to visit MindTree's Bangalore office one day. We asked the duo how we could "manage culture" in a rapidly growing organization such as ours.
To our surprise, Jukka said, "You do not manage culture, nobody likes his or her culture to be managed. You have to focus on building values and insist that people who work in MindTree, share those values. You leave culture alone as long as you have shared values". How true the statement was! Out here, we were mud wrestling with a pig while the answer lay elsewhere.
In a room full of MindTree's senior folks, Jukka asked us, "So, what are your values?" The room was silent. I walked up to the white board and wrote down the six values that we had articulated while conceptualizing MindTree. Those were:
Lower total cost of ownership for our customer
Shared wealth creation
The inability of the people in the room to recall these individual values deeply concerned Ashok. He saw the need to go back to MindTree Minds to seek their inputs on what the value system of the organization should be. He was of the opinion that as a less than 500 people company, we were all founders in some sense and every one must be made a part of the value creation process. Only then values would get internalized. In the following few months, we had several rounds of discussions at all levels, involving all our locations and finally had a new set of values articulated.
These values, after much discussion, were settled as Caring, Learning, Achieving, Sharing and Social Sensitivity.
Each value was expanded to convey an intended meaning and in turn, asked for certain behavior from each MindTree Mind.
Caring to us meant, caring for customers, employees and shareholder and what we called, organizational caring.
Learning was about development and innovation.
Achieving to us was accountability, action orientation and teamwork.
Sharing involved giving away knowledge and encouraging, appreciating others.
Social sensitivity was thought as commitment and integrity.
The new set of MindTree values were easy to remember as they lent themselves to the acronym CLASS. Far more arduous would be the task of creating a common dictionary, drive alignment and get these institutionalized. In parts we knew that. In some parts, we did not know what we did not know. Internalization of values is not about top management articulation and wallpaper. It happens one day at a time, one person at a time and does not come without moments of truth. One such moment of truth came when a very senior person in the company had left an audit trail of minor fiscal irregularities. As soon as it surfaced, we met as a management team and decided that irrespective of the person's seniority and the consequences to the business, we would ask the person to resign. The result was traumatic on many employees who had no idea why the person was asked to go. Some, who knew the background , felt that we were being unduly harsh. Only over time did people realize that we meant what we said and values were things that we did not take lightly.
After learning about the importance of values over culture from Professors Laitamakki and Chandra, we were much more at ease. The job of management is to set the values and walk the talk – you do not want to worry about culture. If people live the values, the culture can take care of itself. However, for a newly created organization that attracts talent from a host of different entities, the challenge can be significant as people invariably bring their own baggage and creating a common or shared understanding of the values can be a long and arduous process. Leaders need to budget for both.
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