Monday, December 30, 2013

I rise from the Ashes....

Birds have fascinated human beings since a long long time.  One of the greatest inventions of modern times, aeroplane or airplane, was motivated by and a  result of man's umpteen efforts to fly in the air like birds.  Birds have been an inseparable part of our lives, dreams, imagination, stories and literature.

We were taught in schools that animals were classified in various categories and one of them was as Fishes, Amphibians, Reptiles, Birds and Mammals.  It is not known whether Lord Maha Vishnu also went to one such school or was the founder of this school of thinking.  He started his "DashAvatara" (ten incarnations) on similar lines - the first was a Fish (Matsya) followed by a Tortoise (Kurma), an Amphibious Reptile.  Amphibious since it can live both on land and in water but a reptile as classified by Zoologists.  He chose a reptile (Adishesha) for a bed and a bird (Garuda) as a vehicle. Then there was a Boar (Varaha) incarnation followed by a Lion-man, Narasimha.  While describing all other incarnations, Bhagavata uses the adjective "Adhbhuta Roopam" (fantastic form).  When it comes to Narasimha avatara, it uses the adjective "Atyadhbuta Roopam" (unbelievably fantastic form).  After Narasimha,  normal service was introduced with the next six incarnations in human form, Vaamana onwards.

Birds have been used as symbols in ancient philosophical literature to drive home complex tenets and principles.  Mundaka Upanishad's verse Dwa Suparna Sayujaa Sakhaayau is an excellent example of explaining the concept of "Atma and Paramaatma" through two beautiful birds sitting on the branch of the same tree.  One bird eats the fruits on the tree and is sorrowful; the other does not eat the fruits and is yet happy.  Many scholars have used this verse to further their own interpretation of vedic knowledge.  The beauty of this example, like many others in vedic literature, is that it is amenable to multiple interpretations and each one appears to be just right when you contemplate on it!  The earliest discourses on Bhagavata were given by a sage in the form of Parrot, a bird, Shukacharya, believed to be the son of Veda Vyasa.  Shukacharya, being a bird with a sweet voice was a perfect medium for giving discourses on Bhagavata to King Pareekshita, son of Abhimanyu.  Shukacharya was also chosen as the emissary of Srinivasa (Lord Balaji) to go to Asskasharaja, father of Padmavathi, to settle the marriage related issues as there were no matrimonial websites in those days.

Birds have been used extensively in ancient Indian literature and many of them could speak as human beings.  There were also birds using their own language in some stories, but there were expert men and women who could understand their language!  The earliest epic "Ramayana" had the two brothers, Sampaati and Jataayu. In fact, Ramayana took is birth itself due to a hunter killing one of the two loving "Krouncha" birds.  Mahabharata had many birds with the Swan of "Nala-Damayanti" fame again filling the role of matrimonial website.  Jataka Tales have their own bird stories, one of them being "Naagaananda"  where Jeemootavaahana prevents Garuda from killing snakes in future.  Panchatantra's Pigeon King Chitragreeva continued the tradition of the bird stories. Shukasaptati is a collection of seventy stories told by yet another parrot to a woman, one story a night, to prevent her from going to meet her paramour when her husband is away from her.  These are only some examples of how birds have made our stories and literature rich and interesting.

Western literature has its own complement of birds and bird stories.  Just as we have "Gandabherunda" (a bird with two heads, which is the official symbol of the Karnataka Government) and Sharabha (a bird-lion that can fly), it has the bird Phoenix, a bird that is a legend in itself.  (Picture shown alongside is taken from the internet).  Having its roots in Greek mythology, this bird is believed to die by fire and a new bird takes birth from the ashes of its predecessor.  Some versions say that the dead bird decomposes and a new one takes birth from the decomposed remains of the dead bird.  Hence the saying, The Phoenix rises from the ashes.  This bird is believed to be associated with the Sun and similar to the size and shape of an eagle.   

There is a small town by name Phoenixville in Pennsylvania, USA.  The town is about 30 miles north-west of Philadelphia and is situate at the junction of French Creek and Schuylkill river.  It was an industrial town some decades back with iron and steel factories, silk mill, hosiery and pottery units.  There is a tradition of Phoenix burning in this town.  Phoenixville has a "Fire bird Festival" every year.  A giant wooden Phoenix is constructed before the festival. The construction of the wooden bird takes several days.  The festival also provides an opportunity to local artistes to showcase their talents.  The festival has several shows and activities and is organized on a grand scale and is similar to our village fairs.  At the end of the festival, the wooden Phoenix is burnt down.  The picture given alongside, taken from the internet, shows the bird being burnt down.  The festival brings the memories of our own "Ramalila" and burning of the three statues of Ravana, Kumbhakarna and Meghanaada.

This years Phoenix burning was slated for 14th December and we were ready to go and enjoy the sight despite the biting cold and snow.  Unfortunately, snow turned into rain and we had to give up our plans due to bad weather as watching the spectacle in the snow and rain in an open ground was not suitable.  The festival itself went off very well though things were scaled down due to bad weather.  May be, we have better luck next time!       

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Of meeting or extending deadlines

The earlier definition of the word "deadline" was in relation to a prison.  In that context, a deadline was a boundary around a military prison beyond which a prisoner could not venture without risk of being shot by the guards.  Crossing the deadline was an invitation to death and the prisoner was well advised to stay within that boundary line to stay alive.  Death could not be prevented by staying within that boundary; death is a certainty of life.  Though death could not defeated by staying within the deadline, its coming could be ensured in due course without an invitation for early arrival.

Modern definition of deadline has entirely changed.  It is the time by which something must be finished or submitted.  It is the latest time for finishing something, usually an assigned task.  Not finishing the task before the deadline is considered as an indication of inefficiency or of being not serious about achieving the assigned task.  When life was proceeding at its own leisurely pace, things were done as and when they were actually completed and not when they were expected to be completed. In individual-centric tasks deadlines may not assume as much importance as work to be accomplished by teams.  This becomes all the more critical when the achievement of deadlines is linked to performance of organizations, like meeting customer expectations or reaching a sales target.  Unless all members of the team work with single-minded dedication, meeting the prescribed deadline may not be possible.

There are people who question the very rationale of having deadlines.  They may argue in favor of "natural way" of doing things and allowing issues to take their own course.  They may suggest that deadlines are not always necessary and it brings more mental pressure and blood pressure than working with pleasure.  But experience has taught us that adopting an attitude of "allowing natural way of doing things" often results in matters drifting and reaching nowhere.  However, there is a need to fix a deadline after evaluating the resources and reasonable possibilities.  Excellent teamwork can do wonders and the sum total of team's capabilities may exceed the arithmetic aggregate of individual capacities.  Fixing a realistic deadline provides a better chance of achieving it.  A reasonable deadline provides energy and enthusiasm to start the assigned work with the confidence of achieving it before the expected date.  Artificial deadlines tend to make the very effort of traveling the path laborious and painful.  A deadline arrived at after free exchange of views of the members of the team has a higher chance of being met than those imposed from above. Organizations have to often fix a deadline first and work backwards to plan and mobilize resources.  This is the reality of the given situation at times and finding additional resources to meet deadlines in the circumstances becomes necessary.

Attitude of different members in a given group to achieve deadlines makes an interesting study.  Some always believe that deadlines are there only to be extended automatically. They neither contribute their share of efforts nor allow others to proceed systematically. They act as an impediment in the progress of others as overall progress is impacted by individual lethargy.  Periodical review of the progress of the task becomes necessary in such situations and blocks have to be ironed out firmly in the interest of the team.  There are bound to be some weak members in the team.  The issue is not whether they are weak, but one of whether they are willing.  It then becomes the responsibility of the leadership to provide support to the weak but willing and carry them along.

There is also an issue about relevance of deadlines in creative assignments.  Creativity does not yield to deadlines.  There is a certain minimum time before creativity incubates and emerges.  But a very creative production which arrives after the time limit for its utility is past is also a waste.  Thus there is a need for achieving a golden mean between creative brilliance and practical schedule for delivery.

There are some who always achieve the deadline and there are others who never achieve it.  For the achievers, it is a sacred duty.  For the non-achievers, well, it is a way of life.  They often stay that way because they are able to get away with such attitude.  What should be done with such weak links in the chain?  Their continuance in the team is to be evaluated and suitable decision taken without hesitation.  Just as rewarding performance is important, punishing non-performance is also necessary.  Never leave out the failing man and do not put unnecessary extra burden on the efficient horse! Teams drift because performers are disheartened by watching non-performers get away easily. Leadership should also dispassionately watch individual performance in team tasks and ensure that true performers do not go unrewarded just because they are shy of blowing their own trumpets.

What should a member of the team do when he feels that he cannot deliver his share of output before the deadline?  It is advisable to frankly say so, with valid reasons, before accepting the assigned task.  This will provide the team leader to choose an alternate player or press additional resources to reach the goal.

Not meeting deadlines lead to time overruns.  Time overruns lead to cost overruns.  Cost overruns threaten viability of the projects and very survival of organizations.  There was an excellent cartoon by R K Laxman in which a senior officer is explaining about a project to a minister in a dilapidated project site.  The explanation goes something like this: "Finishing this project costs a big sum of money.  Abandoning the project will result in wastage of even bigger sum of money already invested.  We are, therefore, implementing it at a slow pace to keep the losses at a minimum".  Projects that do not meet deadlines probably belong to this category!