Thursday, September 03, 2009

Nano lessons

Much has been written about the Tata Nano in the past few months. But while, it is very easy today to see where the Nano is, basking in its success, it is an interesting rewind to a few years back when the project was launched. And therein, lies an interesting lesson.

The Tata Nano was announced, in 2003 and almost instantly, the naysayers started off. Many said it could not be done - and they were being very charitable if they said only that. There were jokes that circulated on email citing possible contraptions - all deriding the idea itself. And then there was speculation - that it could be a quadricycle; it could be an autorickshaw with doors or that it would have curtains for doors. And these were the more gentler ones. There were many vicious stories too.

Here is a Ratan Tata quote from an early article that I found on the web, "They are still saying it can't be done," (Ratan Tata) he says, insisting that it can and will. "Everybody is talking of small cars as $5,000 or $7,000. After we get done with it, there will hopefully be a new definition of 'low-cost.'"

Needless to say, it did sound like an impossible target. The cheapest car that was available then, in India, was the Maruti 800 for a little over 2 lakh rupees and then again, it had long since fallen out of favour of urban audiences. And as for the world, there was no comparison. A car at USD 2500 - they sneered?

And then the car was launched in 2008 defying all conventional notions. The car was a regular looking car alright, but it had some "pathbreaking" ideas. Like the size of the engine - which was a tiny 623 cc. The positioning of the engine - rear engine - not tried for a long time in cars. The tyres were different sized - when was the last time you heard that in a mass market car? And its maximum speed was low - when was the last time you touched over 100 km/h in the city anyway? And quite a few others, not really pertinent to the point of this article.

And the test rides when they happened were encouraging too. The car was a performer, it was not an also ran. It could take in 4 adults and the car still vroomed along happily.

And then the opposition started at a different level. Cheap cars will pollute - they said - ignoring the fact that it is the most fuel efficient vehicle in the market. It is not safe they said and the car cleared the Indian crash test specifications. And then rival manufacturers kept up the tempo saying that it cannot be done. Another manufacturer unveiled their own plans for 5 years later. And a few did congratulate TATA for their effort.

And now, suddenly consultancies and journals alike are heralding the fact that there is, infact, space for a car like that all over the world. Guess where this fact was hiding so far. No prizes for guessing how many me-too brands will come about. And of course, India is now known as, apart from the land of snake charmers and elephants and laptop warriors, India is the land of the Nano.

Now of course, the latest tune is that a car like this sold under USD 2500 can never be sold in the US. Well, we will see...

The point being, that a car like this would have never seen the light of the day if the TATA team had listened to these naysayers. Indeed, if Ratan Tata had not stood by his team with his steadfast commitment and his team backed it with excellent delivery. Both very important components - one cannot exist without the other.

The Nano is one example, but you will find examples of this all around you. The Indian IT industry for example, was a non existent industry nearly 15 years ago. As was technology offshoring. The oft quoted iPod and iPhone example falls in the same category, but almost every remarkable business has come about because of a remarkable idea. Think online booking of train tickets or selling air tickets in petrol bunks. Or Netbooks or the Google cloud. Or the Golden Quadrilateral highways project in India. What is common to all of them? Breakthrough thinking.

As you go through your work life, if you have the chance to work on a Nano grab it with both hands, but believe me, it will not be apparent that you are working on a project like that since there will be so much opposition, so much resistance, that you would want to give up, run away, hide or even quit. There will be suppliers who will tell you it cannot be done, there will be employees who will revolt, there will be departments who will alert you on the risks and costs involved. And each time you fall or come close to failure, there will be many by the wayside telling you, "I told you so." But the lessons that you learn by working on a project like this, cannot be taught in any b-school anywhere, much less in an article like this. At other times, you might find yourself on a committee that is called to "evaluate" a radical idea. Think about whose side you will take - Ratan Tatas or the politician who ensured that his plant was shut.

And here is where the leaders vision sees you through. Regardless of whether you an MBA or not, as you go through your career, regardless of whether you are a leader or a contributor in a project, there will be situations where you cannot see a way out or where fresh thinking is required to get people out of the rut. And everybody will tell you it cannot be done. That's where you step in. You add value as a leader or you see your leader add value.

It is important not to let go of that vision. And who says it will be easy.

There is space for unconventional thinking at every place. Perhaps it is a function of time. Indeed, the world was once deemed to be flat and it was unconventional to think that the world was round, but today we know. It takes unconventional thinking to make something unconventional, conventional. (See the reports that say that there is space for a small car all over the world.)

The Nano and its story is a typical example of a "project" that breaks conventional norms or threatens to change the status quo. The opposition, the naysayers, the devils advocates and the "play safe" experts. And you will see it again and again. I only hope you are among the 'doers' and not on the other side. And of course, a Nano can never happen by "committee", it has to come out of one persons vision...

(An edited version of this piece was published in Advancedge - September 09)

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