Fusing Space-Time with Action: Alok Sinha, Author, Entrepreneur and Board Member, Forges a New Model
Alok Sinha: Records Memorable Experiences
Alok Sinha was only 30 years old, when he was part of a Tata Motors team that presented a business plan to Ratan Tata, the then Chairman. Tata’s critique spotlighted two key metrices: market share and net profitability. For most young executives, in their early 30s, such an instance might have dissolved into a hazy episodic memory, evoking traces only of the elation of such a rare encounter.
Sinha, however, had cultivated two habits that would shape his response differently. From early childhood, he had been a compulsive reader and writer. As an inhabitant of Chandigarh, in the late 1970s and early 80s, he frequented richly-stocked libraries in Le Corbusier’s artfully-planned city. He read avidly, his fecund mind roving from detective novels to physics books, from works in philosophy and history to engineering tracts. Besides, he was a “voracious diary writer” – jotting down learnings in the immediacy of such experiences – as well as anything else that stirred his consciousness, like particular songs or books that moved him.
More than eight years ago, when he embarked on authoring a book that would encompass lessons from an astonishingly wide-ranging career of over three decades, he already had what most fellow-writers would covet: “several diaries that were full of material.” Distilling his insights from trysts with companies and leaders over variegated geographies (“over 50 countries”), his own success at reinventing several businesses, his personal brushes with icons like Ratan Tata, Mukesh Ambani and Romesh Wadhwani, Sinha formulated an inventive and profound strategic model. His book, Achieving Successful Business Outcomes, published by Taylor & Francis, New York (2020), according to Steven Sonsino of London Business School, “is the missing manual for CXOs who want to understand the reasons their growth strategies are faltering and how to reinvigorate them.”
Alan Lightman: The Physicist Reimagines Time
Also operating across domains, Alan Lightman is a theoretical physicist, with a Doctorate in Physics from the California Institute of Technology and a novelist. One of his most renowned works, Einstein’s Dreams, evokes the young Einstein in Bern, Switzerland, as he was formulating his breakthrough paper on the Special Theory of Relativity. In the book, Einstein occasionally meets with his college friend, Michele Besso, even as his mind meanders into other fantastically imagined worlds, where Time breaks out of age-old Newtonian notions – and flits, flutters, circles, pools, retreats, accelerates, sticks or careens. In spare poetic language, Lightman evokes the effect of Time’s fitful humors on inhabitants, who head towards known apocalypses or into giddying uncertainties.
From Einstein’s Dreams: Time Repeats Itself
“14th April 1905”
“Suppose time is a circle, bending back on itself. The world repeats itself precisely, endlessly.”
The people inhabiting such a world do not realize that time loops in this manner, so each “emerald moment” is treasured as if it were to lapse forever. Lovers always kiss with the coyness and fervency of a first kiss, wares sold return to shop shelves in pristine condition, school lessons are learned with excitement and eagerness, as if they were being taught for the first time.
Whole lives are repeated – the woman who leaves her dying husband at the hospital, meets him again on a first date, lives through a peaceable marriage and then hears about his cancerous tumor – the rollercoaster of life’s ups and downs, repeating in brutal or mirthful circles.
Alok Sinha: Absorbs Careful Observations and Hands-on Methods from his Father
One of the ways in which time inscribes footprints on the sand, for future generations to retread, is by the transmission of parental values and habits.
Sinha’s father, Dr. J.K. Sinha, was a forensic scientist, who possessed both an academic’s and a practitioner’s zeal for his field. During his lifetime, he published more than 200 papers in Forensic Sciences, and is currently publishing a second book on the subject. (The current Chief Forensic Scientist of India was his doctoral student.) Their home held an abundance of books and manuals on the Forensic Sciences and related fields.
Intensely committed to his job, and understandably paranoid about every case, since the outcome could determine the life or death of a suspect, Dr. Sinha adopted a personal, hands-on approach to his investigations. He introduced the young Alok to a comparison microscope, that could compare the markings on the same bullet, when fired by two guns. Moreover, while sieving through photographic evidence, he developed his own negatives and prints inside a dark room. “I learned how to do things on one’s own,” says Alok.
Watching his father’s intimate approach with his own work, Alok ensured his own learning extended beyond books. Riveted by the workings of the IBM PC when it was first released, he dismantled it, board by board, and reconstructed it. He then wrote a guidebook for other PC enthusiasts on “How to Build a PC.” Soon as he turned 18 and was permitted to buy a bike (funded by his own odd jobs, like washing cars and teaching kids), he stayed insatiably curious about the way it worked. He disassembled and then reassembled the machine, lowering the handle bar to enable a more stylish ride.
Learning to solder from an Electronics expert, he built his own battery eliminator and amplifier. The latter was used to enhance his guitar playing, when he was the member of a band that played Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. Eternally fascinated by the ebbs and flows of time, a bemused Sinha watches his own son play the same songs on his guitar.
From Einstein’s Dreams : Time Surges and Slows Down
“16th April 1905”
In this world, time flows like a river or stream – with its currents occasionally disrupted by stones or obstacles. Sometimes people from the “future” are yanked back to the “present” and they are careful not to alter anything. Because they know nothing is trivial, not a lover’s glance at a partner, not a kite flying, not dough being kneaded into bread, because every tiny act leads to a particular, inexorable future.
“26th April 1905”
Time slows down as you move further away from the center of the earth. Most people, trying to eke out their lives for as long as possible, live high up in the mountains, on homes built on stilts. When they need to carry out their errands, they scurry to the ground level – to shop, to barter and trade – but then rush back to the heights. And like in any other society, in this world, there are inequalities. “Height” is status – while the lower beings live on the plains, whiling away their time beneath trees, swimming leisurely inside lakes, heedless of time’s relentless forward march.
Alok Sinha: Accelerates into a Strategic Level at TATA Motors
In Sinha’s case, the time taken to climb into strategic levels was significantly shortened. Armed with a degree in Electrical Engineering, he joined TATA Motors, a company that both offered him space for experimentation and self-discovery, and pitched him on an accelerated leadership path. Inducted into the exclusive Executive Selection Scheme, based on a one-year assessment of performance and potential, Sinha was forklifted, at 29, to a level that would have taken others at least 10 or 15 more years to reach. Reporting directly to Sarosh Jehangir Ghandy, the Executive Director, he was offered a rare window into the workings of one of the nation’s largest companies. As one of the first companies to rack up revenues of Rs.10,000 Crore in India, corporate meetings tracked 10 critical parameters across functions that spanned Strategy, Finance, Human Resources, Operations and so on.
When appointed as the Chief Strategic Information Officer of TATA Motors, Alok observed what it took to manage complexity across scale. His learnings leap-frogged between strategic and operational maneuvers. Moreover, given his personal obsession with technology, he also mastered collaborative platforms, networks, messaging systems and ERP, acquiring a SAP Certification in the process.
Alok Sinha: Learns to Manage Complexity in Various Terrains
Moving from Tata Motors to other companies, Sinha watched the manner, in which other iconic leaders managed complex environs with a few penetrative measures. When Alok worked directly with Lalit Jalan, the CEO of Reliance Infrastructure, he witnessed a meeting with Mukesh Ambani about the rolling out of Reliance Webstores. Ambani had only one question: “How much money have you spent?” Then, according to Alok, “he laughed, saying we should have spent that amount within the first 45 days. In Reliance, if you spend too little, you’re done.”
From Achieving Successful Business Outcomes: Steering Companies Through Crises
Even with the measures in place, companies can be misled by flawed warning systems. In his book, Sinha cites the erroneous moves made by the two co-pilots in the Air France Flight 447 in 2009, soon after the commanding pilot had just left the cockpit for his scheduled restroom break. Unfortunately, due to an uncommon occurrence (the formation of ice on certain tubes), the speed sensor readings were faulty. Not realizing that the plane was already exceeding safe speeds for the turbulence they were zipping through, the co-pilots “pushed the throttle stick further.” Incorrect data readings compounded by human errors drove the plane into its devastating, watery end.
Alok Sinha: Expertly Maneuvers Companies Through Turbulent Times
Alok, who has often steered vast organizations through such baffling and hazardous situations, offers the counsel of an experienced and intensely reflective practitioner. At Scandent Solutions, he worked alongside Ramesh Vangal, who was reputed for injecting the Indian market with Pepsi’s fizz and a Yeh Dil Maange More panache. Vangal also drew in Christopher Sinclair, the former Chairman and CEO of Pepsi. As a member of that heady team, Sinha was involved in driving the company’s exhilarating climb from “Zero to 350 Mn USD” over three-and-a-half years.
He was to use those learnings, later, as a Senior Vice President at Symphony Software (founded by the legendary Romesh Wadhwani) and as the CEO of Xchanging, which was in the midst of a treacherous nosedive, when Sinha came on board. The revenues had plummeted from USD 350 Mn to USD 15 Mn. In five years, he turned the organization around and grew the business eightfold as the stock price rose by a whopping twenty-one times. Later, after the sale of Xchanging, he joined one of its suitors, Capita Software, as the Managing Director for a period of three years.
From Einstein’s Dreams: Time Sticks or Freezes at one spot
“10th May 1905”
Time is sticky, so some parts of the village are stuck in the 16th Century (architecturally and socially) while others are stuck in the 18th, and only a few spaces flaunt contemporaneity. Some folks get stuck at certain phases of their lives – some in joyous pasts, others in deep anguish. A woman continues to correspond with her young son at a now-defunct address, even as she ignores knocks and cries from his now-alcoholic self. A man always lays a dinner table for two – recalling the last dinner with his father, where he never declared his love for him.
“14th May 1905”
Here, like in a black hole, time stands utterly still at one spot, and moves faster as you venture outward in concentric circles. Some folks choose to stand in the still center – like parents holding a child in an eternal embrace, or lovers in the thrall of a first kiss – while others prefer to usher changes into their lives, rather than becoming fossilized “like a butterfly mounted in a case.”
From Achieving Successful Business Outcomes: Modeling Space, Time and Actions
Sinha records another instance when time was compacted by reordering actions and space. When Reliance Industries wanted to set up its petroleum refinery in Jamnagar in less than three years, many experts warned that the “minimum” period required for such a complicated operation was five years. The undeterred Reliance team ensured that parts were not being passively transported by ship, but were being actively assembled en route. There was, however, a new bottleneck at Jamnagar, a small port city in Western India. The small inland port could not handle the huge pre-assembled parts that would be offloaded from the ship. Moreover, existing trucks could not transport such bulky materials inland. So, a new jetty was built, and new trucks imported to facilitate the seamless carriage of parts. As Sinha puts it, “the whole senior management camped in Jamnagar, closely directing the operations and the result was Jamnagar refinery getting commissioned in two years and eight months flat.”
Abstracting from such situations, Sinha’s model combines three elements that constitute reality, applied to business contexts – Space, Time and Action. He observes that when you look at reality from the perspective of duality, the only fixed parameter is time. This dimension again, can be cyclical, perceptible in the diurnal rotations of the earth, in shifting seasons over a year, or in a larger sense, wherein events seem to repeat themselves over history. From the viewpoint of Physics, one can move backward or forward in Time, but all through, the speed of light remains constant.
Translating these notions into a business context, he suggests that Space can be categorized into the “Own” (Your Current Market), the “Known” (a Market that you are aware of and plan to expand into) and the “Unknown” (a Market that you don’t plan to target or are unaware of). Time in turn can be categorized according to business cycles – into periods of Contraction, Stability and Expansion. Actions comprise of three transformative possibilities – to Add, Amend or Delete, which correspond to Create, Sustain and Destroy. Combining the three dimensions across various scenarios, the model sets out 27 possibilities in a 3x3x3 matrix. Like the I-Ching that describes 64 States in Nature, Sinha’s STA model lucidly captures the leadership levers that can be operated in varied contexts and periods.
Alok Sinha: Reinventing the Future
While also completing his book, he has recently founded another enterprise, Istakapaza (https://www.istakapaza.com/#/), which is creating a blockchain solution to boost farmer earnings and pare down their debts. The idea was inspired by a discussion with Gajendra Singh Shekawat, when he was in the Ministry of Agriculture. The platform, that consists of three layers – a digital identity, a smart contracting layer, a marketplace – can also be used to crowdfund books, movies, charities besides assisting farmers. He is also on the boards of Naidu Hall (https://naiduhall.co.in/) and YourGreenCanvas (http://yourgreencanvas.com/) besides mentoring startups and teaching at business schools. In all these positions, like Lightman’s Einstein, he reimagines futures where time is no longer weighted down by conventional notions of space and action.
Lightman, Alan, Einstein’s Dreams, Vintage Books, New York, 1993.
Sinha, Alok K., Achieving Successful Business Outcomes: Driving High Performance & Effective Transformations in a Continuously Evolving Business Environment, Routledge, Taylor & Francis, New York, 2020