“Strategic direction is more important today. It's about providing a framework for managers to navigate through the fog of complex chokes. No company can avoid this."

– C.K. Prahalad –

PoS Apr 2014 | Camel carts and strategic thinking

Dear friend,

It was a strange question and it took me completely by surprise.

I was travelling in Rajasthan with the General Sales Manager of Hindustan Lever (now Hindustan Unilever). I was a young Area Sales Manager barely five years old in the Company, and he was a very senior manager who came to visit my sales area – Rajasthan.

The unexpected question

We were driving back to Jaipur from Sikar, a district headquarter town on the eastern edge of Thar desert, and 120 Kilometres northwest of Jaipur. That’s when he popped the question that floored me, “VN, why is it that the camel carts in this part of Rajasthan have two wheels and not four as we saw in Haryana yesterday?”

The previous day we had driven from Delhi to Jaipur, passing through a part of rural Haryana. We had seen camel carts with large decks on four old truck tyres.

In the Shekhawati region bordering the desert, camel carts were short and rode on two large reconditioned tyres.

I had noticed the difference on my numerous trips but had scarcely given it a thought. For God’s sake, what did it have to do with my responsibilities as the sales manager of the vast state? I didn’t know, I said.

But I was worried: senior managers in Hindustan Lever didn’t ask idle questions. Over the next couple of months I observed keenly, thought about it and finally figured it out.

The answer

Farms in Haryana were bigger. They were better irrigated. Farmers raised two crops and bigger harvests.

Shekhawati farms were smaller, fed by uncertain and scanty rain, and yielded much smaller output in comparison. To negotiate the softer sandy soil on eastern edge of the Thar desert, carts had to be smaller and lighter.

The significance

The question was asked to check whether I understood manifestation of the demography and economics of my territory. I knew we sold more of the cheaper detergent bars than the higher priced better quality one. Now I knew why camel carts were an indicator of that phenomenon.

As young ASMs we were schooled to prepare for unusual questions from bosses. The Company expected managers to think, to observe keenly, to question what they saw, and to apply insight to find innovative solutions to business problems. Senior managers constantly challenged us to ask Why and to think strategically.

Leaders as catalysts

Strategic thinking is an imperative in the hyper competitive world today where traditional means of competitive advantage are hard to sustain.

This vital skill can be taught but for it to take root and endure the organisation must encourage curiosity and challenge.

Leaders and senior managers are the catalysts to bring about this remarkable transformation.

For more on this theme read ‘Personality of Inquisitive Organisations’