"The cowards never started and the weak died along the way. That leaves us, ladies and gentlemen. Us."
- Phil Knight (Shoe Dog)
Early education and MBM Jodhpur
I wasn’t a terribly bright student. But hardworking, for sure. The real inflexion point happened on the night when the Class-X CBSE Board Exams results were declared. The typical practice at my school, Atomic Energy Central School, Rawatbhata, was that the results would be pasted right outside the school main gate, the soonest they arrive. Which was 10 pm. To my utter disbelief, I scored a 100 in maths. It took me a while to absorb it. In science, I was short by three marks. The rest were very much believable, mid-70s or 80s, but I got sufficiently redeemed that hard work pays.
Over the next two years, it was me, maths, and science, with some sports and friends, on the side. With proximity to Kota, then emerging hub for IIT-JEE coaching, a couple of my schoolmates opted to shift to Bansal Coaching Class and to continue their XI and XII from some school in Kota. The sole aim was to crack the coveted exam. This option never occurred to me, for scoring well in XII Boards was a priority, and additionally if I can crack the Rajasthan State-PET (Pre Engineering Test), or Roorkee Entrance Exam, or JEE, that would be a bonus.
I wrote all the exams along with my Boards, and secured ranks in each. Apart from an 84 percent in Boards, Roorkee offered me Civil Engineering, JEE offered me Marine Engineering, and PET gave me a choice between Metallurgical Engineering at MREC Jaipur and Chemical Engineering at MBM Jodhpur. Dropping for another year wasn’t an enticing option. I thought, what difference a college will make, what matters is time by your side (I was wrong then). Interestingly, one of the most crucial decisions of my life, the entrance exam counselling, I had to make in less than 60 seconds. A phenomenon that will repeat over and over again. I guess I lacked foresight then and was unable to look at the big picture, called life. [Insight: Life is long, early choices can be deeply consequential. Do your research and take your time]
So, there I was at Jodhpur. All of 18 years, first time away from home, away from the colony setup at Rawatbhata. It was a struggle right up. To begin with, there was no building for the newly introduced Chemical Engineering branch. So, I had to push for a branch change. And that would mean being amongst the top-three in a batch of 60. The first year is common for all the branches, where we are introduced to the basics of civil, mechanical, electrical, mining, maths, chemistry, engineering drawing, computer science, and all possible subjects.
The ragging was especially severe for me. Quite barbaric, to say the least, for I was a real home bred puppy pushed into the wild. I got sobered towards the end of the first year, while managing to top the branch. Being a topper, I could hop over a few rungs, and landed up in the coveted Electronics and Communications (E&C) branch. Frankly, it was a do or die situation for me, for if I didn’t manage to change my branch, I had all plans to drop from the college. [Insight: Give yourself steep targets and work backwards]
The scene at E&C was fairly competitive, which further invigorated me to amp up on academics. I loved the branch, especially the labs. However, the teachers left a lot to be desired. That’s one sour point. The political scene in the campus was ripe, and so was the state of cultural activities. But I was mostly to my books, much to my regret. I was so single tracked, that I continued topping the branch for rest of the three years, which, frankly, didn’t amount to much. The biggest upside of MBM was meeting my future wife, Nimisha.
Towards the final year, I prepared for both CAT and GATE, unsure of the future prospects. The campus placement scene wasn’t exciting either, though I had an offer from a mid-size Gujrat based chemicals company. I wrote CAT, which was forgetful and then GATE, which got me a decent score. Out of nowhere I discovered NITIE Mumbai and that it takes admissions through GATE and I filled the form in the nick of time.
A good academics got me an interview call, and there I was, at the sprawling NITIE campus appearing for a group discussion and an interview, that lasted for about ten minutes. My hopes were high, for I didn’t have much of a fall-back option. NITIE made an offer. It was just three months after my final year exams in 2003. I really wished I were well rounded at MBM, which I tried to overcompensate at NITIE. [Insight: Being academically excellent has few returns beyond paper. It pays to build a range.]
NITIE Mumbai and dimensionalities of life
Upon landing at NITIE (later IIM Mumbai), the first thing you realise is that your performance at the graduation level doesn’t matter anymore. You might be a branch topper or whatever, but when you are surrounded by other rank holders, you search for other worthwhile dimensions to assert yourself. And I didn’t have any. I was just a good student. And that had to change.
Mumbai gives you an exposure like no other city. The campus of NITIE was a home away from home. Small batches, great camaraderie, and a bitter IE-IM rivalry. IE (Industrial Engineering) and IM (Industrial Management) were the two flagship courses, with the former getting admitted through GATE and latter through CAT. Little doubt, the IM guys were much polished and that wasn’t to be veiled.
Over the next two years, I experimented with various clubs and committees, opened a few of my own on debating and public speaking. The net result, I became fairly presentable in public settings. Got stage confidence. Could hold the fort with or without presentations. The collateral damage? My academics. From being a branch topper, I was there, smack in the middle of the pack. But it didn’t hurt, for I got some real useful skills in the pursuit. I think my MBM performance made me feel infallible, and NITIE was a humbling nudge. [Insight: Be humble or else you will be humbled by life situations.]
An upside of NITIE was the interest I developed in reading and writing. Over the last few months at the campus, I was routinely at the library, reading books and periodicals, and even dishing out a few articles. Another lifelong habit formed there. Finally, the placement season approached. It was not much of a season, for the entire batch of 150 students (IE + IM) would get placed up in 24 hours.
It was 4 January 2005, and my first interview was with TVS Group, early in the morning. With no prior work experience, average academics at NITIE and an even more average summer internship, my prospects of getting interview calls were slim. But by the day end, I had four offers – Infosys, Wipro, Oracle, and Satyam. Our training and placement officer, Prof Pundir called me in at 1 AM on 5 January (we were on fasting for almost the entire day), opened a big physical sheet with a matrix of student names and companies, and asked me for my preference.
All four companies were offering similar packages, the locations of postings were unknown and I had 30 seconds to make one of the most crucial decisions (or so I thought). My colleague, Vikas Yadav, nudged saying, ‘Pavan, take Wipro. Or else they won’t come here next year!’ Out of all the companies, Wipro made the least number of offers and honouring that became a moral imperative (one for the college, shall we?) So, Wipro it was. At 2 AM, I broke the news to my parents, who were relieved on the thought that they don’t have to pay for my expenses anymore. And then came the big surprise. The winter internship. [Insight: Learn to surrender to the universal intelligence]
Winter internship and Titan Hosur
One of the standout features of NITIE is its winter internship program. Apart from the two months of summer internship, which is a staple at management schools, this additional four months makes you much more industry ready. The coursework is over by December and then from January till May, you are at your new employer taking up a project. Think of it as an early joining. Except that Wipro, my employer out of serendipity, had no such intentions. They categorically told me that I can only join with the regular MBA batch in June 2005. So, there I was staring at an abyss, with no internship at hand and a little over one week to vacate the hostels at NITIE.
Thankfully, my experience at the Alumni Committee and Placement Committee came in handy. I sifted through the alum database and started making some frenetic calls, begging for an internship. Most were cold. One gentleman, Yogesh Aphale from Titan, relented and asked me to come over to Titan’s Hosur factory with a mild promise to ‘figure out’. I took it as an offer. No formal invitation. No discussion. No talks about stipend, or any other matter.
Next morning, I took the Udyan Express to Bangalore. I stayed at my friend’s place in CV Raman Nagar, took a local bus and after 2 hours reached Hosur. My first day was uneventful. So were my first two weeks. I was given a desk, a computer and a set of documents labelled as TBEM (Tata Business Excellence Model). My task was to carry out benchmarking of various Tata Group companies on parameters of interest. My first experience as an employee, sitting in the corner. No questions or discussions on stipend, so far.
And then one day it all changed. I bumped into BV Nagaraj (BVN), the head of Design and Development at Titan watches and he casually asked me, ‘So, what are you doing these days?’. And I said, ‘nothing much.’ So, he offered me to work with him on his ambitious innovation project. I had time and I was all in. Over the next three months, I would get totally absorbed into innovation. Interviewing leaders at Titan, making cold calls, visiting various Tata Group companies, studying their R&D processes, pouring myself over HBR and EBSCO, researching, reading, and writing. That was the essence. And incidentally, I also got paid 10K for my work, monthly. That was the first time I travelled in a flight, stayed at a decent hotel, got myself some good clothes and inched up the social value chain.
Finally, the day came when the project presentation was to be made to the Titan Board, comprising the CEO Bhaskar Bhat, COO Bijou Kurian and a few from outside of Titan. The setting was the top floor of Titan HQ, Golden Enclave, Old Airport Road and it was 6 pm. My job was to keep the presentation ready with its notes and background work and BVN was to present the proposal. At the very last moment, BVN asked me to present. There I was, all of 23, making the pitch of my life to who’s who of Titan. The presentation went for over an hour, probing questions, which both of us fielded. Soon after, BVN was called into the CEO’s chamber and he emerged with the news that the project is approved, something that he dreamt of almost two decades back. It was called InnovEdge. The team continues to bring technology to watches. [Insight: Always be on the ready. An opportunity can show up at any time.]
The Titan story has several takeaways for me. I got introduced to the world of innovation, got to learn what power and politics is in a large setup, how to navigate your idea to the finishing line, and the importance of being ready, always. But the greatest takeaway is to take half chances. It pays to look at the upside rather than being drawn into the downside, especially when you are starting your career. How much wrong can stuff really go? Especially, since I had a job at Wipro waiting for me on the other side. An institution that literally made me. [Insight: Take half chances.]
Technology, innovation, and Wipro
I joined Wipro grudgingly. For a supply chain guy with a flare of marketing, the tech world of Wipro wasn’t really inviting. I joined the batch of MBA graduates that year. We were quasi-randomly allocated to various functions and divisions. I was assigned to the EAS (Enterprise Application Services) business of Wipro and within it to the CRM unit. I had no idea why that mapping. But again, you must surrender (tough when you are young and think you have a lot of agency). The first few months at Wipro’s MG Road office were depressing. I felt completely lost, spending most of my time at the library. And finally, I got a break.
I met Sangita Singh. One of the most charismatic and daring leaders Wipro had at that time. She was heading EAS and was on look out of young folks who would help her build the PDG (Proactive Demand Generation) team. The idea was to reach out to large customers and aggressively cross-sell ERP, CRM, and SCM solutions. Sangita asked me, ‘So, what are you doing these days?’. And I said, ‘nothing much.’ Again, I was hired. I knew nothing about technology then, but wanted to escape the misery I was subjected to at the MG Road office. I moved to the sprawling Electronic City campus of Wipro and, no sooner, was entrusted with some marketing activities.
Over the next three years, I would be rubbing shoulders with Wipro’s leaders, attending offsites, interacting with analysts, designing marketing collaterals, interacting with agencies, reading and writing. I finally got my Flow. I continued writing on creativity and innovation for both internal and external outlets. One such article caught the attention of Vikesh Mehta, then GM of Innovation at the CTO Office. Over a lunch meeting, Vikesh asked me, ‘So, what are you doing these days?’. And I said, ‘nothing much.’ Next thing I know is that I am at the CTO Office. The transfer wasn’t easy, for Sangita won’t let lose her resources. My mentor, GS Nathan had to take on the wrath of Sangita for which I am eternally grateful to both. [Insight: Continue sharpening your axe. Your time will come.]
Over the next three years, the CTO Office was a great home. It had some of the brightest and weirdest people cherrypicked from across Wipro to manage innovation projects and lead technology thought leadership. Headed by then CTO, M Divakaran, the CTO Office had a very broad mandate and an access to the leadership team. Every quarter we would get reviewed by the much-revered Azim Premji. I travelled widely, was cut lose by Vikesh and could establish my footings on innovation through various autonomous activities.
Throughout my Wipro’s tenure for over six years, I never wanted to be a manager. I liked being an individual performer, and luckily would always find something relevant to be busy with. Over time, the CTO Office morphed into a more number driven organization, but I Vijaya Kumar (IVK) could offer the bulwark against that commercialization by his sheer knowledge and perspective. I loved reading, writing and teaching so much that I thought why not invest in it seriously and decided to pursue a full time PhD program. Alongside my job (I got a lot of free time then), I prepared for GMAT and TOEFL, appeared for the exams, researched on PhD programs, appeared for interviews and was inching closer to exiting Wipro.
I applied to 25 colleges/ universities for the PhD program and was solemnly rejected by 24. That was a heartbreak, for I had some solid recommendations, a good academic and publishing record, and a decent employment. Incidentally, I applied to only one college in India, IIM Bangalore, as I was clear that if I were to stay in India, it would be IIM Bangalore, or else I will leave the country. And IIMB relented. [Insight: Be clear about what you don’t want, even if you are confused about what you want.]
Years at IIM Bangalore
In 2011, when I joined the PhD program at IIM Bangalore, I was pretty sure of what I am going to write my thesis on and who I would like to have as my advisor. It was to be innovation and under Prof. Rishi Krishnan. Then I discovered something called the ‘course work’. We were to undergo almost 20 courses over a span of two years, before we could get to start our research. For some of the courses we were to attend classes with the PGP (MBA program) students and the rest, a good 80 percent, courses were on research methods, classics on strategy, psychology, economics, philosophy, and other riches. I detested this whole idea reasoning that when I am so clear about what I want to do, why so much of a distraction. But anyways we all endured those two years before we got to write our qualifying Comprehensive Exam and only then we earned the right to pursue any meaningful research.
On the hindsight, the course work was the highlight of the program. It broadened my perspective to disciplines that I would have never pursued otherwise. It developed in me the endurance to read wide and deep, make meaningful connections, and get to write, a lot. What the course work did was to generate a genuine sense of ‘curiosity’ that has served me ever since. How else would I be exposed to the work of Karl Popper, Joseph Schumpeter, Ronald Coase, Herbert Simon, Henry Mintzberg, Thomas Kuhn, Albert Bandura, and the other greats? Certainly not through Amazon. [Insight: Depth follows breadth. Invest in developing a range.]
Only after the Comprehensive Exam did the research start in earnest. It was me, Prof. Krishnan and innovation capabilities till I got surprised again. One day Prof. Krishnan calls me and declares that he’s been appointed as the new director of IIM Indore and that we must now work remotely. Not that I was meeting him weekly, but your guide being away is tough. Anyhow I persisted, and somewhere got derailed. I got to work on something on big data with another faculty in the area and after almost one year, I realized that I wasn’t heading anywhere. I finally overcame the sunk cost fallacy, pulled the plug on the project and got back to working with Prof. Krishnan. One year lost is worth the lesson learnt. [Insight: It’s never too late to admit your mistake and make amends. A mistake is to not do what you love.]
Anyways, I got back onto my original research topic after almost a year of costly digression. Almost four years gone. I figured out the scope of my work, the methodology and the sample size. I was doing qualitative research, adopting a case study based method and seeking first-hand interviews along with site visits. Three industries and at lease two companies in each. I thought since my guide is a well-known person and that I am from IIMB after all, getting introduced to corporate would be super easy. I thought people would be more than willing to participate in my research. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I had to slog it out, pretty much on my own. I had to muster all my contacts, both personal and professional, to seek introductions. Once again, I reached out to over 20 companies and six relented. And this was my sample size. [Insight: It’s your career, own it.]
The experience of visiting companies, interviewing people, sifting through reports was the real deal. It was the very purpose I joined the PhD program. It was a humbling experience, and once again I was in the Flow. The experience parallels the one at Wipro. If you persevere enough, you will hit your zone. From there on, it took me little over one year to write the thesis, which was a 450-page monolith, before it was sent to external reviewers. It came back bloodied red with corrections and suggestions. Another three months to incorporate the suggestions and finally my public defence happened on 27 February 2017. While I was neck deep into my thesis, I had to figure out the career moves. Which itself was a discovery process—what am I best at, love doing and could get paid for. Thus, was born Inflexion Point Consulting. [Insight: Strive to find your Flow channel, for once you get there, you won’t need any external motivation.]
Inflexion Point, finally
As always, I was clear as to what I won’t want to do, more than what I wanted to. I was clear that I don’t want to go back to corporate, at any role, at any firm, at any compensation. Teaching full time was also ruled out, for it was too restrictive and I could see the plight of my batchmates and seniors as to how the administrative tasks are sapping the creative juices out of them. And managing and administering is something I always loathed, whatever may be the upside. I have always enjoyed being an individual performer, and I had to discover a profession that lets me be.
How about starting a consulting company? I can teach at 55, but I can’t start a company at 55. So, you do now what you can only do now. All through my five years at IIMB, I maintained a constant touch with the industry, through my talks, consulting, workshops and visits. That very network was calling back. And now that I had the legitimacy of a PhD, the reading and writing abilities, and a richer understanding of management as a discipline, the time was right. I also continued teaching, for it kept me in the B-School circuit.
So, in 2016 Inflexion Point was born in the IIMB library. The idea was to be an independent consultant, providing training programs on creative problem solving, design thinking, innovation culture, and strategy. This is what my training and interest entailed. Stick to the knitting, as they say. Clients came, initially through my contacts and eventually through the word of mouth and LinkedIn. I continued teaching regularly, for dependency on any single stream was risky. Over time, startup mentoring and personal coaching picked up. But the biggest draw was the freedom, and not just financial freedom. Freedom to choose the nature and extent of work that I would do. [Insight: Maintain a portfolio of careers. And strive for financial independence.]
For the first few years I worked out of a co-working space, as I thought that an office-like environment would bring discipline. But even that myth got busted with the onset of the pandemic, as I invested in a home office, and have been using it ever since. It further saves time and improves my productivity. Today, I work two days a week on average, and I am at home for rest of the time, working on myself and my family. It’s a bliss. But it’s by design, and not chance. It gives me time to read books, pen down my thoughts, prepare new content, and even pick up new hobbies and interests (like guitar, meditation, fitness, cycling, and chess, among others.)
This journey won’t be complete unless I share the story of how my first book, Design Your Thinking, came about.
Design Your Thinking, and the author in me
Writing is an interest I picked up at NITIE. It further got a boost during my Wipro days and IIMB was a turbo charger. I continued to write for magazines, newspapers, blogs, online portals, and even journals and book chapters, for I believe that writing is an enduring way of thinking clearly and influencing how others think. Curating the Inflexion Point newsletter, which I started at Wipro in 2007, requires me to sift through considerable amounts of material and that further helps me appreciate good writing.
I had no intentions of writing a book, let alone on the topic of design thinking. If anything, I wanted to turn out my FT-McKinsey Bracken Bower Award shortlisted manuscript of my PhD thesis into a book. It so happened that somebody from Penguin chanced upon my articles at LinkedIn and inquired if I would be interested in authoring a book on the emerging topic of design thinking. Now, you don’t say no to a Penguin.
I sent a draft chapter and in next two months they gave me a go ahead. We signed the contract, they paid me the bonus, and I was well on my way to write the book. Six months, over 100,000 words. It was all going smooth, till the pandemic hit us. It was a blessing that I didn’t have to bother about travelling and consulting and could keep writing. Nine months of writing and another six months of editing with the brilliant Vineet Gil and diligent Radhika Marwah at Penguin. [Insight: Look out for and always invest in high leverage activities.]
As the book was taking shape, it was time for me to secure some blurbs about it. I thought that my publisher would help me in this, but the IIMB experience jolted me back to reality. It’s my book and I must secure everything that goes into it. Once again, I mustered all my contacts, sent out mails to over 60 relevant leaders, 30 of them gave their blurbs.
The book was never formally launched, thanks to the pandemic. A blessing, for now it was growing organically and steadily. By making the book a companion of my workshops, there’s a natural and perennial market to it. The talks, videos, workshops further amped up the sales and towards the end of 2022, the book became a national best seller. [Insight: Own it up, entirely.]
So, here we are on the second book. With the business going well, I get enough time to indulge in my passion. Having no team gives me the freedom and lets me take only those assignments that I love and can honour. If I can continue this way, keeping my needs in check, I can write a few more books. Till such time, I keep learning.
Let’s wrap up the book with some frequently asked questions and not so frequently offered answers, and a section on quotable quotes. Hope you find these useful.