Mahabharatha @ Work: My “Ashwathamma Hathaha Kunjaraha” moment

Most of us who have grown up in India, would have definitely grown up knowing the great Indian epic Mahabharatha. Are there parallels between what happened in  Mahabharatha and in today’s corporate world?

Are there learnings from Mahabharatha that are applicable in today’s work place? Or do we inappropriately apply them and claim that we have only applied the principles from time immemorial?

Skip this part if you are aware of Mahabharatha

Mahabharatha is too big an Indian epic to cover in totality. The gist of it is below (with regard to this blog).  There were two sets of cousins – Kauravas and Pandavas. There were 100 brothers in the Kaurava clan. There were 5 brothers in the Pandava clan (Yudhistra, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva).

The differences between them reached the climax and the mother of all battles was called for between the Kauravas and Pandavas. There were innumerable number of wrong acts committed by the Kauravas.

They were all trained by the same teacher (guru) Dhronacharya.  When war was called, Dhronacharya decided to participate in the war on behalf of the Kauravas. His battlefield skills were exemplary and he could not be defeated in the normal course. He however knew that he was fighting on behalf of the unethical group, but was constrained to do so.

Yudhistra, the eldest of the Pandavas was known to be the upholder of truth and integrity. In the face of even the most difficult circumstances, he had never lied. He had a clear 100% record of being truthful.

Krishna, an avatar of the Hindu God Vishnu, took part in the war – not in a battlefield role, but as a charioteer for Arjuna and a guide for the Pandavas. His goal was to ensure that eventually what’s good for humanity will win over the bad forces.

Dhronacharya’s son Ashwathamma was blessed to be immortal.

We are in the middle of the war, when this event happens…

In the Mahabharatha battlefield

The Pandavas and Krishna were well aware that as long as Dhronacharya was armed and alive, there was no way they could defeat the Kauravas. During the planning for the next day’s battle – Krishna makes it clear to Yudhistra that he has to make the call – what’s more important to him – his personal track record of integrity or the bigger cause of humanity.

Bhima, a Pandava brother, slays an elephant (named Ashwathamma) and cries out loudly in the audible range of Dhronacharya that he had killed Ashwathamma. Guru Dhronacharya does not believe him, as he’s aware that his son has been blessed with immortality. He knows Yudhistra will never lie (even when he’s fighting against him). So he goes out to Yudhistra and asks him to confirm the killing of  Ashwathamma. Yudhistra, with a sense of anguish,  then replies “Ashwathamma hathaha (and mutters inaudibly kunjaraha)”. [Translated from Sanskrit into English – “Ashwathamma (mutters inaudibly, the elephant) is killed”.

On hearing Yudhistra say that, Dhronacharya drops his weapons on the battlefield and gets into a state of penance. He’s immediately killed – as he’s unarmed. The war now takes a decisive turn in favour of Pandavas. Krishna was after all guiding the forces that would uphold humanity and hence anyone who actively supported the other cause, had to die, as needed.

Did Yudhistra do the right thing? Did he violate his own values? Did he mislead his guru Dhronacharya by muttering the key word inaudibly? Or did Yudhistra do the right thing by standing up for the larger cause of helping humanity – by helping bring the fight against the bad forces to a closure? Was it Dhronacharya’s mistake in relying on his opponent for getting to know what happened?

My first “Ashwathamma Hathaha Kunjaraha” moment

One day my GM, VS called me to his table. He told me that there was a new opportunity coming up in Africa. I had to go and demo our product. I had to leave the customer convinced that we had a good product.

This product was developed in three waves – The Wave 1 modules (which was the core and the basic services) had an user interface that was obsolete even in that generation. The Wave 2 modules – were not state of the art, but neither obsolete. The Wave 3 modules – were designed to be state of the art.

VS told me that the customer, to begin with is interested in the Wave 1 modules only. I said “VS, you know that Wave 1 is not worth talking about. You still want me to leave the customer satisfied that it’s worthwhile. How can we do this?” (My conscience was working on me). VS said “Srini, I know it well. MA is the leader who will come with you. He will do the majority of the talking with the customer. However it’s your job to leave the customer convinced that this product is good for him.” He then added, “Srini, you know it’s only Phase 1. The customer will soon follow through with implementing the other modules – which you know are absolutely good. Also this will open up a new market for us.”  I nodded. I knew that the other modules were really good and valuable to the customer. I told VS “I am not comfortable doing this. However, I will do my best. I want to speak to MA and need his agreement on how we go about.” VS sighed a relief (I guess he felt happy that I was convinced  – though I felt it was my duty and was not personally convinced).

This was how MA and I orchestrated the show on the D-Day.

I started with the transaction XXIN. I input the values and explained to the customer what I was doing. I told them that this was a transaction that should be rejected. At that point MA, casually came in front of the screen and started speaking to the customers, keeping them engaged. (Note – The system actually accepted all inputs, with no validation except for numeric values. So you had to go to another transaction to see if what you input was an accepted transaction or rejected! Well a long bygone era isn’t it!!)

In the meanwhile I quickly cleared and moved to the transaction XXER. It had displayed the transaction back with an error code. I still remember the code vividly – it was 007! (Note this screen would not display the actual error in the information. It only gave a code. So you had to have the Codes Manual open to decipher the error in the transaction. Now you can understand why I was uncomfortable to say that it was a good system!!). I had the Codes Manual opened on the page that was showing up 007.

At this stage my good friend MA, walked away as if he was holding up the demo. I had everything lined up and showed the customer the error with the Code Manual in hand.

I heaved a sigh of relief – when I could handle all the customer queries and the customer did not realize all that behind the scene act! I had completed my first “Ashwathamma Hathaha Kunjaraha” moment.

Having completed the Wave 1 part of the demo, I did demo a part of the Wave 2 – saying what the future implementation was like. This time I did it without a skipping a beat!

Was I right in over-riding what my conscience told me was clearly an obsolete module as something of value to the customer?

Did I do it right, because after all it was for the larger cause of the customer getting into automated systems and this was a small price he had to pay at the beginning?

Was I right in orchestrating that  with MA? Or did I deliberately mislead the customer? Or was it the customer’s issue that he did not bother to notice the changes?

Another “Ashwathamma Hathaha Kunjaraha” moment

My colleagues in Europe had worked with a customer to close a good business opportunity. Initially we were in the pole position, and almost getting into a sole source state. That’s
any sales person’s delight. However, some complacency on the part of my European colleagues soon resulted in a competitor jumping in. A couple of more mis-steps by them further resulted in the customer now pushing us on par with the other vendor! In 45 days we managed to mess up a good opportunity.

The sales lady had called me up to say that we need to host the customer. I was looking forward to it. On the day of the visit, the sales lady and the regional sales director landed up an hour before the customer came in. I got the low down on what had happened in the last 45 days, only then.

I said we will do our best. After all over the years I have hosted several hundred (maybe around a thousand plus) visits. My team and I rallied around with a quick tweaked plan for the day, after I had heard the sales folks. [Another blog on the visit itself, sometime].

Well, we had won over the customer, by the end of the day.

A couple of weeks later, the customer told the sales director and the sales lady that he was willing to do the deal. There was one commitment he wanted. He wanted me to personally be fully dedicated for delivering the deal. The account team created a structure with my name straight and centre.

I was surprised. I am running the business unit. So I have the ultimate accountability for what my managers and their team delivers. I am not shying away from that for sure.  However, I told the sales lady it was not a fair representation to the customer. I reminded her that it was my team that made the visit successful. Yes, I was the orchestrator. But the symphony for the day was delivered flawlessly by my team. So we need to trust my team to deliver eventually too.

The regional sales director and the sales lady said “Srini, I understand what you are saying. You and your team turned it around. Please understand this customer is not going to sign, if we don’t have you present as the person-in-charge. We don’t want a slip between the cup and the lip ,do we!”

The sales lady said “look, once the delivery starts you are not going to be on the hook for everything daily.” But, I don’t think anyone would have interpreted the org chart for delivery that way.

So in the call with the customer, the customer asked if I was in. I said I was committed fully to the opportunity and would take full accountability for my manager and team. [Well, I interpreted it as follows – As the business unit head, I am accountable for everything that my managers and the team does.  I would do everything to make them successful.] The customer, most likely, interpreted that I was now going to be “full time” committed to this delivery.

I could not with all my conscience say yes to the full-time committed. So did I mislead the customer deliberately with the choice of my words – “fully committed” instead of “full-time committed”?  To me this was another “Ashwathamma Hathaha Kunjaraha” moment in my career.

If the customer did not clarify that, was it my mistake?

Or as I always believed that I was eventually accountable for what my manager and their teams delivered, so I met the broader objective of the customer isn’t it.

In conclusion

Did the Mahabharatha tell  us that while personal values are important, it can be sacrificed for a larger cause?. However, when confronted with a larger purpose (beyond the need for oneself), should we do things that make the larger cause successful, even if you have to sacrifice your personal values.

In the Mahabharatha, Lord Krishna was there to remind them of the true larger purpose. Who’s there in our corporate world, who truly reminds us of the larger purpose?

How would you define the larger purpose?

Can the wrong application of the larger purpose – quickly degenerate into something that’s self-serving (may be a group of people or an organization!).

Let me know what you think.

So what’s ethical then? Where does your personal values come in? Where does the larger cause come in?

[My sincere apologies to those of you who are not exposed to Mahabharatha. My abbreviation of Mahabharatha does not do true justice to the epic. So you may not be able to sometimes understand the entire picture of the  Mahabharatha–  to compare and contrast.]

IMHO, you should not drop your personal values. If the “value system” of the larger cause is truly higher than your personal values, there could be a need for you to accept that. However, we have to be guarded against using this argument frequently or to our convenience.

What do you think?

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