Connecting the dots looking forward is like looking into a starry sky, and from all the innumerable dots, seeing a coherent picture in a small group of them, and naming a constellation.
A few weeks back, I was speaking at the Indian Institute of Management at Bangalore to a group of alumni. We were speaking about something called “connecting the dots”.
Steve Jobs spoke about it eloquently when addressing students at Stanford University and showed how one thing in your life always leads to the other – how his biological Mother’s obsession led him to attend college, drop out, attend only the classes he chose, which led that to his interest in calligraphy, which in turn became a differentiating factor about Apple. When the events unfurled, he had little idea of how it would all come together. Each valuable step was a piece of the jigsaw puzzle of his life.
So, there is a larger meaning to everyone’s past and current situation – sometimes happy and sometimes difficult. Yet, it is all a run-up to something larger, something yet to happen. Most of the times, Steve says, we can only connect the dots looking backward. But sometimes, we come across people who can connect the dots looking forward as well. These are the ones who have a vision for the future. It may be a personal vision or an organizational one. Once they build that vision, it develops a life of its own; it attracts other people who commit to a shared vision and go on to build a vision community.
Here is a man I know who can connect the dots looking forward. I have written about him in my book, The High Performance Entrepreneur.
Captain Gorur Gopinath came out of the Army and wanted to become an organic farmer – he actually did that. During his farming days, he happened to meet an old buddy, an ex-helicopter pilot, who had quit the army and unable to find any job on the civilian street, had become a manager in a courier company. Dot. Then one day, Gopi was leading a delegation of farmers to China. On the way, he read about a young Vietnamese lady – she had fled the US occupation, migrated to overseas, grown up to become a helicopter pilot and one day, she came back to see her motherland, she cried upon seeing the devastation. She wanted to help rebuild. But what could she do? The only thing she knew how to do was fly a helicopter. But then a country like Vietnam needed infrastructure and access and there were hardly any airfields. So, she decided she would start a helicopter company there. Dot.
Gopi was very deeply stirred by the story and then it occurred to him that in many ways, India was no different than Vietnam – we had not been bombed but we had the same poor infrastructure and lack of access-ability; if Vietnam needed a helicopter company, so did India and you know what? His Army buddies, who had flown the choppers all their lives, were becoming managers in courier companies! Dot. Gopi connected them all and that is how Deccan Aviation was born.
One day, he was flying a chopper to Goa from Bangalore and asked the pilot to fly low so he could see the ground below. As the bird whirred over the vast land, Gopi saw something you and I easily miss. In every hamlet over which he flew, he saw television antennas.
Again, he was seeing the dots.
It occurred to him that a billion Indians were not waiting to be fed and subsidized. A billion Indians could fly! The dots were connecting one more time, of economic liberalization, surging middle-class and the capacity of the ordinary Indian, even those from rural India, to fly a plane at least once in a life time.
Gopi saw the connection between volumes and pricing, people’s latent aspiration and the power of business to transform. India’s low-cost airline was born. He took Deccan to where no one had gone before – Hubli, Dharwad, Belgaum, and beyond across the length and breadth of India.
Then came the acquisition by Kingfisher; the inevitability dawned on Gopi and he knew that he was a seer more than a doer. The baby had become adult; it had outgrown him. The best interest of the entrepreneur and the organization lay, not in a fatal embrace but in separation. Again, he was connecting the dots.
And now finally, to politics! There are several dots out there: a revival of middle-class angst against lumpen politics, visionless, partisan nation building and a wary nexus between bygone forces.
He chose to fight the elections as an independent. Now let us imagine a hung Parliament. Imagine parties seeking favor from elected independents to form a government. And imagine Gopi running the aviation ministry. Connect the dots, looking ahead.
When we look at the future, we do not always correctly connect the dots. That is how Columbus, who was trying to come to India, landed up in the richest land of the last century. Not a bad failure, if you asked me.
So, going wrong can not be the reason for not attempting to connect the dots.
When we do connect the dots looking forward, we build “memories of the future”. When we succeed, we actually live in them!
This piece here is dedicated to Madhuri, who asked me at IIMB how you connect the dots and waited so patiently. Thank you Madhuri.