Thursday, September 06, 2007

Synergy: Faulty Addition, Or When The Sum Is Greater Than The Parts

I used to watch the PBA at the height of the Crispa-Toyota rivalry, way back in the 70s and 80s, but with no real understanding of the game. It simply was fun to watch, and it was even more fun to pick a side and irritate the dickens out of those who picked the other side. Then Crispa and Toyota folded up, and that was the end of that.

Then came the 90s, with coach Tim Cone and his Alaska Milkmen – Johnny Abarrientos, Jojo Lastimosa, Bong Hawkins, Poch Juinio, and Jeffrey Cariaso. I was flipping through the channels, and I caught the tail end of a game between Alaska and some other team. I immediately became a fan, and a rabid PBA follower all over again.

Taken indivually, each Alaska Milkman was at best a solid performer capable of giving quality minutes. But none can be called a top-level superstar, in terms of skills and whatever other factors that the industry uses to tag a value to its players. The only exception would be Johnny Abarrientos, who is undoubtedly one of the best point guards to ever play in the PBA.

But Jojo Lastimosa was too small a shooting guard and too unorthodox a player. Bong Hawkins was a power forward with little leaping ability, and whose career was apparently on the sunset side. Poch Juinio did not provide the intimidating presence required of a center. Jeffrey Cariaso was a young, quick, and explosive small forward, but he was also error-prone.

Despite these limitations and perceived weaknesses, though, that Alaska team went on to win championship after championship. They beat the best of the best in a decade that will be remembered for the breadth and depth of talent available. How could a team with unimpressive component parts dominate a league during one of its best years?

I suppose the best word for this phenomenon is synergy. These boys worked together to produce an effect much greater than what everyone expected of the team. And this kind of thing happens a lot, not only in sports, but in many endeavors in all aspects of human existence where people need to work with each other. In the trade rags, I often read about how companies perform way better than expected. I read a lot about project teams delivering more output than they originally intended.

In my own life, I’ve experienced the power of synergy many, many times. One such time was back in college. My college fraternity, Gamma Kappa Rho (the Grand Knights of the Republic) was a small, rather nondescript organization. During the time I was an active member of the group, the main activities included populating the org hangout three afternoons a week, playing basketball as often as we could, and attending as many beer parties as we could.

During one particular beer party, the alcohol we imbibed caused us to become ambitious. One brother gave an eloquent and well-applauded speech about achieving. Another brother urged us to commit our dreams to action. Another round of applause. Then Gener whips out a poster he stole from one of the campus bulletin boards. On it was an announcement for this year’s Himigsikan, an annual music competition. Flush with alcohol, and emboldened by our brothers’ speeches, we all committed to joining the contest and making a name for our fraternity.

I wish I could now say that the following day we all worked hard and gave the endeavor our hearts and our souls. But no. When we sobered up the next day, we all went to our respective classes, and no more mention of the competition was made. Until a couple of days before the contest.

Gener had signed us up, and the group was committed to perform. We had a couple of days to come up with something. So we found a guy who had written a nice song (at that point, we had no other options, anyway, so whatever we got sounded nice). Then we slapped together some choregraphy, practiced a couple of times, then called it a day.

The next day, we gathered after classes, practiced a couple of times more, then headed off together to the auditorium for our date with destiny. When we got there, whatever bravado, whatever audacity we brought with us quickly dissolved with the warm evening air. Around us were all these people, so totally intense and seriousl resolute in their will to bring home the bacon that night. It was beyond frightening. There they were, in their specially-designed costumes, all made-up and sparklingly sequined as they warmed up their voices and went through the moves with their designated choreographers.

But by the end of the competition, we, the humble members of the humble Gamma Kappa Rho fraternity, in our humble jeans, t-shirts, and sneakers, with but a couple of days to prepare for the contest, and wishing we were elsewhere having a beer party… we had won the prize. We were the Himigsikan champions.

It wasn’t because we had incredible members who could belt out their parts with aplomb and gusto. It wasn’t because the song we sang was a potential hit. It wasn’t even because the words of the song were full of meaning and poetry. It wasn’t because of our sterling choreography, and it wasn’t because of our shining, shimmering costumes. It could have been because of our good looks, but that’s highly unlikely.

We won because at the moment we were onstage, when it was our turn to dish it out, magic just happened! Everything fell into its rightful place in the universe. Having nothing at all to lose, not even our pride, we just got up and did it. And we did it well.

Blame it on synergy.Each one simply put in what we all agreed we each would contribute, with no ifs, no buts, just pure, unadulterated participation. And each individual contribution resonated into an avalanche of positives, producing, well, a really nice result.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Evolution: The Art of Incremental Development

I first became truly aware of and fascinated by the concept of evolution during my freshman year in college. One of the required subjects for students in my batch was NatSci 3, which I suppose was basic biology (I never paid attention to these petty administrative details). Our professor was a scrappy little woman who (although she was probably only in her middle 30s at that time) seemed resigned to the inevitability that she would end up a spinster. Once, after a very spirited lecture on human sexual reproduction, which included a detailed elaboration of the male and female sexual organs, she ended the class with these words of encouragement for the ladies in the lecture hall, “So girls, don’t ever be afraid of the male penis. It’s just a muscle that tends to go out of control. Besides, your vaginas are designed to accommodate them.”

Anyway, this professor of ours one day lost her voice, right around the time we were taking up evolution. So instead of giving the usual lecture, she had the good sense to show us instead the entire “Life On Earth” video series of the renowned naturalist and broadcaster, Sir David Attenborough.

It took us three days to get through the 13-hour series, which presented evidences on how life evolved from simple, single-celled organisms to the rich diversity that we have today. At the end of it, my mind seemed to have been cracked open. It was an open dome, the restrictive ceiling lifted, and new ideas came gushing in like light flooding into its dark, empty recesses.

Evolution! What a beautiful word; what a marvelous concept! Until now I still get goose bumps at the thought that our very existence is driven by such a simple concept. It simply is amazing how the engine of life is powered simply by the need to improve and adapt. A few years later, my fascination was sort of dampened when I took up genetics, and saw firsthand that the simple engine of life wasn’t simple at all.

Nevertheless, I remained enthralled by the concept. I felt like I was holding the intangible key to something important, something big, something that truly mattered even in this day and age of shameless cynicism and uninhibited materialism. I just couldn’t put my finger on it.

The moment of epiphany came years later. I was reading one of these business publications (I forget which one), and there was an article on kaizen, that process of incremental improvement that was to catapult Japan to the forefront of business and manufacturing. At that moment, the years seemed to condense like a crumpling accordion until I was back in NatSci 3, gaping in wonder at Sir David Attenborough’s documentaries. Of course!

Evolution, the engine that spawned the multitude of species that define life on this planet, is the very same mechanism that drives kaizen, the engine that insures constant and continuous improvement of products and processes. It’s also what forces markets to change, or cultures to adapt.

Same trick, different animal. Same engine, different application. It’s the very same reality functioning on different levels of the human experience. And it’s a fundamental strategy for successful living: to thrive within your environment, you have to adapt, to evolve, to cope.
Seven Life Lessons I Have Learned

I just turned 41.

After thinking long and hard about it, I have finally come to terms with the fact that I am past my youth, and am at the doorstep leading into the next stage of my life. Hello mid-life, please welcome your newest member. I should have accepted this a year ago, but denial is such a sweet pill against reality.

Frankly, I don't know why I’ve been so averse to accepting mid-life. I think and feel exactly the same way as I did when I was 18. Well, except for the additional body mass. And the occassional gout attacks. And the occassional instance when I forget what word I should use to say what I mean. And the heightened cynicism. Well, ok… I’m worlds different from when I was 18.

I’ve been told that mid-life is the stage when one blossoms into wisdom, having acquired much life experience and having learned valuable lessons from these experiences. I also read somewhere that many people actually became successful once they reached mid-life, having burned out whatever store of youthful, hormonal zeal they carried with them, and so then can let their wisdom come uncontested to the forefront

I, too, have had my share of lessons from my own store of experiences. Today, I took some time to look back at what 41 years had taught me. Then I made a list of these general concepts, and came up with these seven keys to life, meaning, and the universe.

These concepts, imho, are so important, they apply to just about anything in nature, in life, in business, in relationships – in everything. They are so deceptively simple, I’ve taken them for granted, scarcely noticing that they form the very bedrock of existence (Here’s a word to roll around the tongue: ubiquitous, being present everywhere, at once).

They are:

  1. Evolution
  2. Synergy
  3. Division or Reduction
  4. Equilibrium
  5. Communication
  6. Process
  7. Cycles