Why one size should not fit all

Why one size can never fit one and all

By Roopen Roy Apr 23 2013

Tags: Op-ed

BIASED CHOICES: The problem with “tribal culture” is manifold. It is often the case that the leader himself did not rise by merit, but through intrigue and manipulation

Some business establishments in In­dia still preach and practice regimentation and confo­rmity in the name of consistency and uniformity. In these organisations, you are expected to dress, groom and behave in a certain way. In a diverse country like India, such an organisational outlook is a problem.

People in India come to the workplace from different backgrounds, faiths and ethnicity. They speak multiple languages. The demographic composition is varied and we have more women entering the workforce. If an organisation fails to grasp the impact of diversity, it fails. I would single out the “one-size-should-fits-all” mantra as a seed of unmitigated disaster.

Sometimes the drive for regimentation originates in the parent organisation’s diktats. When leaders at the headquarters are not wise or far-sighted, they attempt to transplant practices that neither create competitive advantage nor constitute the source of any unique value. Often it is a practice that is merely the product of a particular culture. If an Indian group buys a company in Alaska, would it make sense to mandate wearing dhoti and kurta in that bitter cold? Or serve only dhokla and thepla for lunch to American employees? Likewise, would it make sense for an American company to mandate that all Indian employees wear three-piece woollen suits in the sweltering summer of Chennai?

We have to look at successful global companies and learn how they adapt to the local culture. They mould themselves vis-à-vis their customers and talent. Go to fast food outlets of McDonald’s in Chihuahua, Calcutta or Chongqing. The outlets will have the familiar golden arch, the service will be as fast, the food will be as hot, but the menu will be vastly different. If you go to the canteens of Oracle in Redwood Shores or Microsoft’s in Redmond, you will have plenty of American fare, but you are bound to have a diversity of choices including Indian food.

Sometimes the quest for uniformity is driven not by the headquarter “playbo­oks”, but by the Indian lea­der’s own insecurity. These unsure leaders create a “tribal culture” where a disproportionate part of the leadership team originates from the same town, speaks the same language and, worse still, comes from the same coterie or “tribe”.

The problem with “tribal culture” is manifold. It is often the case that the leader himself did not rise by merit, but through intrigue and manipulation. He, therefore, prizes loyalty more than brilliance. He is generally a patron-saint of mediocrity. To him, a known devil is preferable to a stranger. In such organisations, new talent is not welcome, fresh ideas are banished, creativity is sn­uffed out and innovation is stifled. In a competitive wo­rld, such organisations slide and flounder.

Sometimes the obsession with uniformity springs from mindset. Akio Morita, the former CEO of Sony contrasted the western way of building an organisation with the Japanese way. He used the metaphor of constructing a wall. The western mindset, according to him, would first design the wall. The design would have a granular architecture defining the number, size and type of bricks. The brick in the wall would have to fit neatly and exactly.

The Japanese, he argued, prefer stonewalls. The Ja­panese managers would look for high quality stones without regard to pre-determined specifications of its size or shape. The Japanese manager, like an expert stonemason, would take high quality stones to construct a wall. This stonewall may not look as smooth or perfect from the outside as a brick wall. But it would be strong and long lasting.

In the Japanese mindset, there is no notion of an undersized stone or oversized stone compared with a plan. The wall will be designed and constructed to fit and accommodate all good st­ones. In the western way, according to Morita, bricks will be chosen to fit the pre-designed slots and oversized or undersized bricks would be rejected. Morita may have exaggerated, but he sure drove his point home.

I will end by remembering a story from Greek mythology. One of the sons of Poseidon, Procrustes had a st­range way with his guests. He was a generous host and invited one guest each night. After serving a hearty meal, he would invite his guest to sleep on his special iron bed.

As the guest lay down, Procrustes would begin his fitment. He would not adjust the bed. He would stretch the guest on the rack if he was too short for the bed. He would chop off his legs if he was too tall. This was Procrustes’s violent method of ‘one size fits all’. Procrustes continued this strange form of terror until he was captured by Theseus-the Greek warrior. To punish him for his misdeeds, Theseus made Procustes lie down and fatally adjusted him to fit his own iron bed. In the 21st century, there is no place for demons like Procrustes in our corporate workplace.

(The writer is managing director of Deloitte Consulting, India. These are his personal views)