Financial Daily from THE HINDU group of publications
Tuesday, Jan 07, 2003
Problems and ideas on context
IN HIS powerful book, The Tipping Point, author Malcolm Gladwell refers to an experiment conducted by two Princeton University psychologists, John Darley and Daniel Batson. They meet individually with idealistic seminarians and ask each one to prepare a short, extemporaneous talk on a Biblical theme, then walk over to a nearby building to present it. Along the way, each seminarian runs into a man slumped in an alley, head down, eyes closed, coughing and groaning. The object of the study is to learn who would stop and help.
To find out, the seminarians are divided into two groups. After briefing them on the structure of their talk, and looking at his watch, the experimenter would tell one group, "Oh, you're late.
They were expecting you a few minutes ago. We'd better get moving." To the other group, he would say, "it will be a few minutes before they're ready for you, but you might as well head over now."
Of the group that was in a hurry, only 10 per cent stopped to help the groaning man. Of the group that had time to spare, 63 per cent stopped. Gladwell concludes that it is the "power of the context" that determines human behaviour, not the convictions of the heart or the actual contents of thought. The words, "Oh, you're late" had the effect of making someone who is basically compassionate into someone indifferent to human suffering.
The lesson of this experiment can be extended to our national affairs too. Many aspects of our environment are distressing, analogous to the groaning man in the experiment abject poverty, female illiteracy, and communal prejudice, among social issues, and frictional administrative processes, inadequate infrastructure and power cuts, among economic. Citizens and organised groups find it very difficult to change the context, so they walk past the "groaning man" convinced that they just cannot help. Let us consider one example: electricity.
Why electricity? Because it is a segment that impacts everybody farmers, industrialists, investors, housewives, and even software professionals. A recent study by MAIT (Manufacturing Association of Information Technology) estimated that it costs Indian industry Rs 20,000 crore annually in direct losses due to poor quality power. It is also critical because after food, power contributes the most to GDP, at 8 per cent. Lastly, the electricity consumer regards it as essential like water and air its inadequate or irregular supply could lead to civic problems. And we could do without adding more items capable of creating civic problems!
The CII recently brought out a report on electricity called IDEAS Initiatives to Develop Electricity Availability and Supplies. IDEAS is a cleverly done kit there is a report, a 15-minute videotape containing interviews with consumers and policy-makers, and a set of transparencies with speaking notes which enable a lay person to explain the crisis to a wider audience.
What is clever is not the report itself, because there are numerous reports on how to fix electricity issues, as indeed there are reports on how to fix many other problems. IDEAS seeks to create the motivational climate to fix the electricity problem. It attempts to use the power of context in solving the problem. The report is not a scathing criticism of current government actions, rather it seeks to complement and strengthen the agenda unleashed by the redoubtable, 1000 MW former Power Minister, Mr Suresh Prabhu.
It is quite remarkable that in the history of independent India, never has a survey been conducted of the electricity consumer's satisfaction level. The survey of 3,200 consumers in various segments and spread over 15 States was done by ORG-MARG. The market survey company has coined a Quality of Power Supply Index (QuOPSI) which is a simple ratio of the consumer segment's satisfaction to expectation. Thus, QuOPSI cannot exceed 1. In reality, it is a measly 0. 5 with the poorest score coming from the farmer at 0.38. How paradoxical that the very segment whom politicians seek to appease is the least satisfied?
So, is the politician the fly in the ointment? Simplistically yes, but that knowledge does not solve the problem. The politician is petrified of rationalising tariffs due to bad experiences in Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and other States.
Various bodies exhort the political class to take bold measures, but the latter hesitate because, ultimately, they carry the can. Many objectors do not understand the ridiculous economics with any clarity, that is, our country produces 540 billion units at a cost of Rs 3 per unit and realises only Rs 2 per unit. So somebody has to bear the loss of Re 1 per unit which amounts to Rs 54,000 crore in the economy as a whole! The communication package in IDEAS explains the electricity riddle in such simple terms. What is needed now is to carry this message to a wider audience through chambers of commerce, Rotary Clubs, NGOs and others. The State-level CII offices have geared themselves up to do such presentations locally. IDEAS calls the crisis a crisis without mincing words. Leadership would be a safe task if organisations and communities only faced problems for which they know the solutions.
Where such solutions are known, Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky (Leadership on the Line) call them technical challenges. But there are a whole lot of problems that are not amenable to standard operating procedures. Solving them requires changing attitudes, values, and behaviours, referred to as adaptive challenges.
In mobilising adaptive work, one has to engage people in adjusting their unrealistic expectations, rather than try to satisfy them as if the situation were amenable to a technical remedy. One has to counteract their exaggerated dependence and promote their resourcefulness. This takes an extraordinary level of time and artful communication. The country needs every resource which can sensibly advance the simple messages packaged together in IDEAS.
The leadership challenge requires disturbing lay people but at a rate they can absorb. Dr Manmohan Singh achieved a good measure of success in reforms because he would set up a large number of committees and expert groups which permitted the time for an external debate and for the bureaucracy to come to grips with an issue. Thereafter, he would announce a time-frame for the reform. In the same way, the country needs to debate the issues relating to electricity and announce a time-frame to implement the reforms. Whichever way the nation approaches it, the solutions would take at least five years to show strong results. The time to act is now, and IDEAS provides a useful tool kit to undertake the exercise.
(The author is Executive Director, Tata Sons Ltd. The views are personal.)
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