Sunday, 27 December 2015

Book Review : Reforming Institutions

The current book under review deals with, among other things, change, and deals with the process of change in a running institution or organisation. That said, it is not meant for people who are on the lookout for a how-to book full of instructions, or even ideas. It has none of the first, and only a few of the second. The book also deals quite extensively with democracy, national institutions and development. If you are looking for a book that proscribes or preaches how these should change, and what form the change should take – look elsewhere.
Image result for redesigning the aeroplane while flying reforming institutions review 
If, on the other hand, you are asking yourself questions on how should I change; or if you are tasked with implementation of change strategies in your organisation or job and are open to new ideas, methods and challenges – then go for this book. If you are among those who are past wondering what is wrong with my India, or my company, or my job, or myself – and are beginning to question : how, what, why, where, when – to move forward and in what direction, if you are looking actively for answers on how to develop my own effort and thoughts rather than instructions – read this book.

The book is titled “Redesigning The Aeroplane While Flying : Reforming Institutions”, and is authored by Arun Maira, a professional with 25 years with the Tata Group, followed by long stints in Arthur D Little and was the chairman of The Boston Consulting Group. The icing on the cake is that Mr Maira was also a member of the Planning Commission  under Dr Manmohan Singh

The book is a treasure in more ways than one; but most of all, it is a work sheer class precisely because of what it doesn’t do- preach, instruct on what to do. Instead, you are treated to a deep and though-provoking insightful book that sets your mind racing, that analyses the background situation with commendable attention to detail and a superb finesse, leaving no stone unturned, challenging quite a few pre-conceived notions and and giving a complete picture in your mind of the challenges facing India.

It starts with an obvious premise – that institutions are under challenge; but, right from the first page – it takes a course of its own, stating, with examples, that this is almost a global phenomenon. The book uses India as an example throughout, although it is chock-full of other examples from across the Business and the Political landscape from across the globe.

The book looks at the 4 forces that are coming together in the new world : Free Markets & Capitalism, Equal rights for all Human Beings, The Environment, Information. These 4 can be readily seen to be coming together across the globe, to create what all of us ca notice : a confluence of 4 different but powerful winds that are redefining the way we live in the modern world. These 4 forces are putting pressure on the institutions of Demoracy, Capitalism, and Government – as we can see in the Climate change debate, or the CSR pressure on Corporates, Questions on the extent of regulation of markets etc that we have seen arising.

An aside :  the book also raises an interesting fact – that the first attempts at changing the Planning Commission and how it functions started under Dr Manmohan Singh, who apparently set in motion a study or two on how could India  make the planning process more relevant to the new challenges it is facing, and how to make it more effective. This, alongwith other data I have come across in other sources is leading me to an interesting possibility : we have all ignored the successes and reforms initiated by the UPA...

It has looked at the options before the Planning Commission, as  well as the road the nation can take, quoting no less than three extensive and deep studies undertaken across several years. The book asks the precise same questions here that we have been hearing and reading about in India : namely, Inclusion, Governance – Local or Centralised, Big Projects or Community Based Solutions and Enterprises. Then studies conducted both internally as well as by WEF / NCAER, involved a huge range of people from all walks of life

This, then is the scenario, the backdrop – Capitalism / Free Markets + Environment + Free Flow Of Information + Human Rights or Equality of all humans – creating a high-pressure challenge for Democracy, Government and Capitalism. In this backdrop, it can be readily seen by the rising discontent among the people that trust in these systemic institutions is either falling or is low. Questions are being of Organisations, Governments, Nations and Leaders alike.

The question arises : how does one change the institutions without causing a breakdown or anarchy? Or rather – how does one change a running organisation or department without compromising on the overall performance and outputs? This is a standard challenge that most middle and up managers are confronted with; and people can readily relate to the difficulties in driving a running and performing people towards a desired goal. You first have to decide that goal, ensure buy-in, and then craft a path towards that objective

Other books – predictably, management books – have dealt with this; the difference here is that this isn’t a management book. And this isn’t prescriptive, doesn’t give theories and instructions, a ready-to-cook recipe, if you will. It just analyses the situation in considerable detail – genesis of institution / scorecards and their pitfalls / options etc, analyses and presents all options in front of the reader, leading to thought-provoking questions and insights. This lack of a prescriptive approach is the ace of the book.

The basics are of course common and hardcore fundamentals of either organisation design and management  - or of basic Governance. For example, Direction and Goals with Aligned Aspirations, Organisation with Permeable Boundaries allowing free flow of ideas and information, Processes with Minimum Critical Rules and Resources that are Flexible / Should a Democracy be consensual or majoritarian; Supremacy of individual rights versus Rights of the community; Transations or Trust – as well as introducing the concept of Gross National Happiness versus GNP.

The difference is in how it comes together : driving the reader towards the conclusions slowly, by inference rather than by data and instructions. It delves deep into the processes and ways of operation – analysing how to take decisions, what decision to take in what situation {within the overall context of national growth}; it looks at the pitfalls of conventional economics versus behavioural economics – and more. It does all  of this in a non-prescriptive manner.

This is a deep and highly conceptual book that resides in the realm of core concepts behind a properly functioning and delivering Organisation – which is why it holds relevance for anyone in a function, organisation or job that involves changing ways, means and methods of operation. This is a deeply fundamental book that will reinforce the basics and fundamentals of practicing managers as well as bureaucrats, giving new ideas and paths to carry out your tasks.

While the overarching theme is deep and basic concepts in the backdrop of localisation and hardcore basics, it does manage to ask some very pertinent questions and think about some pretty damned hard choices. And, at the end of the book, it leaves you a fundamental and basic path and clarity, of how to proceed  and how to chart a way forward, at least on the individual level.


On the more important national level, this book does a commendable task of making us face the choices that we are confronted with as a nation in terms of our institutions, making us face as well as analyse the choices and various paths that confront us as a people : suggesting what should we be focussing on : Inclusive Democracy, Inclusive Economy – while at the same time being unabashedly capitalist. It does not give solutions – that part is for us, as a people, to craft...  after all, being a democracy – it is for us to choose. 

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