Research, Essays, Commentaries – Inspired by the Social-Cultural-Political Thought of Sri Aurobindo (PLUS a bit of photography too!)
As indicated in some of the opening quotes, when a company goes through a continued phase of growth and expansion, naturally more people are hired and systems are put in place, thus bringing in the needed bureaucracy and hierarchy. In other words, growth leads to the necessity of putting conventional practices and systems in place for an efficient working. This conventional stage, according to Sri Aurobindo, can have its golden period when the spirit and thought, though confined within the form of the convention, are still living, that is, while the formulated processes and procedures are being used effectively the underlying spirit behind them is also in force. This period “is often very beautiful and attractive to the distant view of posterity by its precise order, symmetry, and fine social architecture, the admirable subordination of its parts to a general and noble plan.”[i]
In our previous paper, we had presented as part of the author’s work-experience at his former place of employment where this “beautiful” and “golden” phase was marked by the development of best practices. During this phase the team had created several procedural documents pertaining to the operations, training, audit etc. The period was also considered golden from the point of view of the upper management which was happy because the revenues had increased and systems were organized.
But it is precisely the formulation and codification of such best practices and procedures that could eventually result in the problems associated with the conventional stage. This is described by Sri Aurobindo as the phase when the “form prevails and the spirit recedes and diminishes.”[ii] Once the focus of activities of the team in charge of developing and modifying best practices shifts elsewhere, the result could be a non-thinking conformity and adherence by the organisational staff to the established practices without being mindful of the actual spirit behind them. This is precisely the rigidity of the conventional stage.
The next stage in the evolutionary journey is the age of Individualism and Reason. This stage “comes as a result of the corruption and failure of the conventional…. Before it can be born it is necessary that the old truths shall have been lost in the soul and practice… stripped of all practical justification, they exist only mechanically by fixed idea, by the force of custom, by attachment to the form.”[iii]
For their bestselling business management book Good to Great (2001), Jim Collins, along with his research team, “began with a field of 1,435 companies and emerged with a list of 11 good-to-great companies: Abbott Laboratories, Circuit City, Fannie Mae, Gillette Co., Kimberly-Clark Corp., the Kroger Co., Nucor Corp., Philip Morris Cos. Inc., Pitney Bowes Inc., Walgreens, and Wells Fargo.”[iv] These eleven companies, according to the author “attained extraordinary results, averaging cumulative stock returns 6.9 times the general market in the fifteen years following their transition points.”[v] There were a few unifying themes about these companies. First was their continued initial dismal performance; several of them were on the verge of bankruptcy. Second, they all experienced what can be called as the coming of Individualism. This began with a realization that the existing dismal condition of the company was the result of following a conventional thinking, outdated processes and attitudes, which were no longer valid. To use Sri Aurobindo’s terminology, we may say that this realization happened because the “gulf between the convention and the truth becomes intolerable and the men of intellectual power arise, the great “swallowers of formulas”, who, rejecting robustly or fiercely or with the calm light of reason symbol and type and convention, strike at the walls of the prison-house and seek by the individual reason.”[vi]
The most important unifying factor in all the eleven companies studied by Collins was that they transitioned from being dismal to good to great during their individual-driven phase. This transition happened primarily due to the efforts of select individuals who had understood how the old standards and procedures had become meaningless and were no longer of much help. A few individuals in these companies had become discoverers, pioneers and searched out by their individual reason, intuition, idealism or desire appropriate means to transform their organisations.
The age of individualism has its share of roadblocks. The reasoning individual first discovers that under the conventional regime he or she is not allowed to search, test, prove, inquire, and discover. Independent pursuit of knowledge is not encouraged because of blind reliance on experts[vii] who because of their vested interests want to keep the status quo.
A good example may be found in the story of Amul – “the Taste of India.” Amul began when milk became a symbol of protest.[viii] The story goes like this: “Angered by the unfair trade practices, the farmers of Kaira, Gujarat approached Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel under the leadership of local farmer leader Tribhuvandas K. Patel. He advised them to form a cooperative and supply milk. The cooperative was further developed and managed by Dr. Verghese.”[ix]
Verghese Kurien (1921–2012) is best known for his “billion-litre idea” (Operation Flood) – the world’s largest agricultural development programme. This idea transformed India from a milk-deficient nation to the world’s largest milk producer, surpassing the United States of America in 1998, with about 17 per cent of global output in 2010-11, which in 30 years doubled the milk available to every person. Dairy farming became India’s largest self-sustaining industry.
Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC), Amul’s first major customer, required constant milk supply all year round. But the production of milk is not constant throughout the year; it decreases during summer and increases in winter. Typically, dehydrating the milk during winter and reconstituting it from dried milk during summer overcomes this situation. Dehydration of cow milk was a well-established procedure but buffalo milk (which happened to the major source of milk) could not be dehydrated as per the conventional wisdom. Dr. Kurien and his team questioned this conventional wisdom. His peers were highly critical of him, they even tried to discourage him from conducting trials to verify the validity of the conventional-expert opinion. But Dr. Kurien and his team went against the expert opinion and were successful in developing indigenous technology for dehydrating buffalo’s milk. This was one of the biggest reasons that Amul could supply the required quantity of milk to the BMC all year-round.
Another roadblock appears in the form of severe resistance an individual faces from the existing and potential competitors in the field. It is almost as if the established companies consider themselves to be privileged and armed with special repressive powers to discourage any new idea to enter the field and turn the scene around. For example, when Amul wanted to develop baby food, the boss of Glaxo (the then leader of baby food industry) is believed to have commented, “Amul will never be able to sell its brand of baby food and when their tins begin rotting on the shelves. I will have them collected and thrown into the African Sea![x]
Yet another difficulty may appear because of the fixed and rigid social order that results from the preceding conventional age. To quote from Sri Aurobindo, the individual pioneer challenging the existing social order may find “an equally stereotyped reign of convention, fixed disabilities, fixed privileges, the self-regarding arrogance of the high, the blind prostration of the low…. He has to rise in revolt; on every claim of authority he has to turn the eye of a resolute inquisition.”[xi] We find this trend reflected quite remarkably in the Amul story. “At the onset there was no dearth of cynics, renowned dairy experts questioned if the ‘natives’ could handle sophisticated dairy equipment? Could western-style milk products be processed from buffalo milk? Could a humble farmers’ cooperative market butter and cheese to sophisticated urban consumers? The Amul team – farmers and professionals – confounded the conventional attitude of the cynics by processing a variety of high-grade dairy products, several of them for the first time from buffalo milk, and marketing them nationally against tough competition.”[xii]
[i]Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Volume 25, p. 13
[ii]Sri Aurobindo, p. 14
[iii]Sri Aurobindo, p. 15
[v]Jim Collins, p. 13.
[vi]Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Volume 25, p. 14
[vii]Sri Aurobindo, p. 16.
[x]Verghese Kurien, 2005. I too had a dream, p. 72.
[xi]Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Volume 25, p. 17.