Carl Sagan once told the story of early astronomers who looked up into the sky with their primitive telescopes and observed the planet Venus. It puzzled them greatly because Venus had no observable surface. Not at all like the Moon or Mars, it appeared just like a featureless, flat disc in the night sky.

“What on Earth could possibly explain that?” they asked.

“Well, suppose it was covered in clouds.” “Yes, that would explain it, since clouds obscure everything beneath them.” So they continued, “What surface conditions are needed to make clouds?”

“Well, heat, which we know Venus has because it’s close to the sun, and water.”

Clouds of orchids at the Singapore Garden Festival, Gardens by the Bay. 21 Jul- 3 Aug 2018

That made sense, so they continued, “What kind of surface do you get when you have heat, light and water?” “Well, tropical rain forests, for one thing.”

That made perfect sense, so they concluded that the surface of Venus was covered with tropical rain forests

As it turns out, the temperature on the surface of Venus is 900 degrees Fahrenheit and the clouds are made of sulfuric acid.

Which brought Carl Sagan to his point. “Observation: featureless disc. Conclusion: tropical rain forests.”

How far wrong we can go — in just a few short steps! The conclusion of those astronomers may seem silly to us, now that we know more about the conditions on Venus. But the process they followed in making their mistake was one which most of us easily follow. In the study of logic, the process is called inductive reasoning.

Observe particulars, derive generalities from them.

Source: Quoted from John David Hoag


How do organisations train employees for contingency? Does the star person at the top matter more for your company brand or the employees?

On 26 Nov 2011, the unthinkable happened at the Taj Mahal palace hotel in Mumbai when terrorists attacked the hotel, where 31 people, including 11 hotel employees died and 28 injured.

Some of the staff who were evacuated returned to man the phones, calling each room and instructing hotel guests. Efforts by employees who were empowered to make decisions saved the lives of 1,500 guests who were in the hotel.

In an article “Ordinary Heroes” which appeared in the Havard  Business Review and a TED Talk, Prof Rohit Deshpande and Anjali Raina attributed the exceptional behaviour to organisational culture.

The multimedia case study ‘Terror at the Taj Bombay: Customer-Centric Leadership’ by HBS professor Rohit Deshpande documents “the bravery and resourcefulness shown by rank-and-file employees” during the attack. “Not even the senior managers could explain the behaviour of these employees,” Deshpande is quoted as saying in HBS Working Knowledge, a forum on the faculty’s research and ideas. According to Deshpande even though the employees “knew all the back exits” of the hotel and could have easily escaped, many of them stayed back and helped the guests. “The natural human instinct would be to flee. These are people who instinctively did the right thing. And in the process, some of them, unfortunately, gave their lives to save guests.” 

Can organisational culture play a part in how employees handle situations/crisis they can never be ready for?

The authors suggest that the unusual hiring, training and incentive systems of the Taj Group combined to instill an extremely customer centric work ethic.

For instance, Taj prefers to recruit from smaller cities such as Pune rather than metropolitan like Mumbai.

Criteria for selection include traditional Indian values such as Respect for elders, Humility, consideration of others. Traits such as respect for elders, cheerfulness and neediness.

Trainees go through 18 mths (instead of industry average of 12 mths) of training in  one of 6 residential Taj Group skill certification centres.

At the managerial level, company recruits from lower tier B schools as MBAs who prefer to build careers with a single company are better suited for customer centric environments.

liáng qín zé mù ér qī

Excerpts from “What the CEO really wants from You” by Gopalakrishnan