War games on the corporate whiteboard

The Forward-Looking Manager in a VUCA World
Vikram Bakshi
SAGE Publications
279 pages; Rs 450

The scene: The Kargil war. The task: An early morning assault on the mountaintop, where the enemy is sitting pretty. A young major in the Indian army orders his troops to start the climb, thinking he’s got it all made. However, he fails to notice the LMG on the side bunker until it’s too late. The result: Heavy casualties on the Indian side as the enemy open fire. Is the major able to hold on to his horses? Does he have a Plan B?

Now let’s transplant the same situation into the corporate world. A killer of a strategy you thought you had, suddenly come a cropper and brings to nought the several months you spent planning your road map towards finishing the project on time. What would you do?

Welcome to the VUCA world, an acronym for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. It is a concept that was introduced by the US Army War College to describe a complex multilateral world that emerged at the end of the Cold War. Although the term has its roots in military strategy, it began to be used as a concept in strategic leadership across several large companies, not-for-profit organisations and educational institutions.

Vikram Bakshi’s book, The Forward-Looking Manager in a VUCA World, examines the role of business disruption in impacting the fortunes of established players who couldn’t cope with the cost overruns involved in handling VUCA problems. New leaner companies, on the other hand, smartly improved the management of their RPVs (resources, processes, and values) and successfully pared operational costs, so that they could offer stiff price competition to established companies.

Mr Bakshi says VUCA problems stem from the inability of managers to engage in forward thinking, or anticipating obstacles that appear suddenly to halt work and disrupt the schedule of deliverables. His book aims to help such managers and companies cut costs and survive in a VUCA world by imbibing anticipation, and preventing and correcting VUCA issues. 

The author emphasises that planning is an iterative process moving from strategy to tactical planning to operational planning and must be executed relentlessly to RACE (an acronym for rapid delivery, absolute scope, class quality and economical cost) towards success. His focus is less on strategic planning and more on project execution, which is mostly ignored in the real world.

Mr Bakshi, a former Lt Colonel and currently a senior executive with Thermax, skilfully dovetails anecdotes and events in military and warfare with tricky corporate situations that require an evolved strategic mind to solve difficult and unexpected problems. The core qualities that a forward-looking manager must possess are leadership and organisational skills, attributes that he dwells on for the most part of the book. The author also cautions project managers not to lean too heavily on technology to overcome the obstacles they will invariably face. 

Mr Bakshi is emphatic people-centric strategies, such as that followed by Amul, work better in achieving corporate objectives. Amul started at the grassroots level, using an execution plan that gave birth to the country’s biggest co-operative and food brand, jointly owned by 3.6 million milk producers. He substantiates his people-centric argument by informing the reader that Mumbai’s ubiquitous Dabbawala, a case study that’s a regular at B-schools today, is a success story achieved sans the use of sophisticated technology such as GPS.

The author’s emphasis on organisational skills and the propensity to anticipate obstacles is well encapsulated in two interesting albeit unrelated anecdotes. One is the readiness of the military at the Line of Control (LoC) in the wake of General Pervez Musharraf’s visit to Agra for peace talks with India. The army got its act together to prevent another case of backstabbing like the Kargil war that followed the Lahore Summit.

The other example is the holding of the Kumbh Mela, the largest gathering of human beings on this planet. Mr Bakshi brings home the fact that an entire city had to be constructed to accommodate the swarm of pilgrims and dismantled after the mela got over. He points out that Kumbh had even made it to Harvard University as a case study and is a benchmark for engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) projects today.

The author effectively explains the nuances of disruption and disruptive thinking by citing cases of companies that failed to identify and act upon market disruption. These include Kodak, Blackberry, and Nokia, which had to face closure for failing to identify relative newcomers Apple and Samsung as threats to the very core of their businesses. The author also keeps reader interest stimulated by taking one to the strategies Kapil Dev and his boys employed to lift the 1983 cricket World Cup.

So what’s the downside? Mr Bakshi leans too heavily on the military set-up and doesn’t offer parallel events from the corporate world to prove his point. It would also be interesting to find out the kind of problems Mr Bakshi or his colleagues encountered at Thermax, and how they overcame them.

Still, the book is a decent offering for young managers and B-School students and academics who seek to acquire a greater understanding of why and how military strategy is applied in the contemporary corporate world. The target also includes military veterans and seniors in project and operations. 

If you fall into any these reader categories, pick this one up.

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