Business Sutra – a Very Indian Approach to Management
(this review first appeared in The Asian Age on 21st April 2013)
After 3 weeks with Devdutt Pattanaik ‘Business Sutra’ as my reading companion, I have reached page 185 (the book is 400 plus). And yet I venture to write this review because i) I am way past my deadline and ii) that is the nature of this book.
‘Business Sutra’ is simply brilliant. So different from any other book on business or management that you cannot digest it all at once. Each morsel has to be broken off, chewed and savoured. Often, I find myself going back to an earlier section to reabsorb what is being said.
At the crux of this book lies this argument: “Despite the veneer of objectivity and logic, management science is itself firmly rooted in a cultural truth, the subjective truth of the West, indicated by its obsession with goals.” The author attributes this to the fact that the purveyors of management science are mostly engineers, bankers and soldiers from twentieth century North America, which is deeply entrenched in the ‘Protestant work ethic’ – a unique blend of Greek and Biblical beliefs.
Devdutt’s contention is that “as is belief, so is behavior, so is business.” And that India’s belief system is very different from the West. A simple example is that India celebrates both the rule-following Ram and the rule-breaking Krishna. Indian thought yearns for accommodation and inclusion – there is room for multiple beliefs.
All this is well and good (and known to us) but hey – what’s the application to business? Devdutt’s real skill lies in linking up philosophy and abstract ideas to concrete day-to-day management issues. For example, he explains the difference between a karta (a proactive decisionmaker) and a karyakarta (one who simply follows decisions taken by others). To do this, he uses a mythological story which goes like this:
One day, the sage Narad asked Vishnu, “Why do you insist that the image of Garud be placed before you in your temples? Why not me? Am I not your greatest devotee?”
Just then, a crash is heard outside the main gate of Vaikuntha. Vishnu asks Narad to investigate. Narad reports that a milkmaid has tripped and fallen.
“What is her name?” asks Vishnu.
Narad runs out again to ask.
“Where was she going?” asks the Lord.
Each time Vishnu wants some further detail and Narad dutifully goes to find out. Then, Garud walks in and when he is questioned, he already has the complete details. In fact, he has even anticipated that Vishnu would want to buy the remaining pot of milk and knows the price the milkmaid is expecting.
Garud always anticipates situations and takes calls accordingly without checking with his boss – this makes him a ‘karta’. Narad has the same freedom but does not make use of it, making him a follower or karyakarta. Finally Vishnu – who allows Garud to be a karta is a ‘yajaman’.
This entire mythic sequence is followed by a six-eight line modern business ‘case’ – this one involves Arindam (Vishnu), Meena (Garud) and Ralph (Narad). Almost every page has beautiful line drawing (by the author himself) which depicts the idea in visual form and also breaks the monotony of text.
And yet, let me reiterate – it’s not an easy read. Terms like yagna, yajaman, tathastu and svaha in the context of business take some getting used to. But they are necessary, as the English word ‘leader’ does not bring out the subtle difference between a yajaman and a karta (both leaders in their own way). A glossary is provided at the end of the book with the conventional context and business context of every non-English word.
Devdutt has astounding depth and breadth of knowledge as well as clarity of thought. He does not have any formal qualification either in management science or Indian mythology and that’s probably a good thing. He did grow up listening to stories of sales and marketing from his father, who did his MBA from New York University in 1960. The passion for mythology was something Devdutt discovered when he was studying at Grant Medical College.
As a qualified doctor, he chose the unusual path, joining the pharmaceutical industry rather than clinical practice. This was in order to give himself the time and the funds to pursue his study of mythology. Having worked with big pharma, a dotcom, a cultural organization and Ernst & Young, Devdutt finally came into his own as ‘Chief Belief Officer’ at Kishore Biyani’s Future Group. A role and designation which helped him flesh out the ideas that resulted in this book.
What I take away from ‘Business Sutra’ is that there is no objective reality or ‘truth’. Every individual sees the world according to his or her own imagination. The most important quality a human being can develop is the ‘gaze’ or ability to ‘see’ others as they see themselves. ‘Growth’ happen when we include those whom we once excluded and stop seeing people as villains.
The duty of every yajaman is to create more yajamans within the organization. Yes – talent management, but when you look at it the business sutra way, you understand that by helping others grow, we grow ourselves. Whether or not you believe in physical rebirth, you cannot argue with the idea of mental rebirth which is most possible and desirable for us all.
The last line of the book states: “When the mind expands, Lakshmi follows.” Expand your mind by reading the book and see what happens. You owe it to yourself.
The book will also look great on your bookshelf - it has excellent design and printing quality. The only issue is the size and weight (not the kind of book you carry to read on a flight). I hope an abridged and simplified paperback edition is released soon to solve that issue and also, to help these ideas reach a much larger audience.
Business Sutra - published by Aleph