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Past Perfect

A maverick mythologist tailors ancient myths for modern managers.

By Kavitha Rao

"I am paid to think, which is unbelievable in India," Devdutt Pattanaik says. "I can’t believe how lucky I am."

Pattanaik is a trained medical doctor, author, illustrator, TED fellow and expert in Indian mythology. In September 2008, he took on a new and unique role—that of chief belief officer for the Future Group. Future is one of India’s largest retail groups, with more than 1,000 department stores in 71 cities and towns across the country, and more than 30,000 employees. Under its maverick chief Kishore Biyani, Future sells everything from groceries and clothes to electronics and home furnishings.

At the Future group’s Mumbai office, young employees work under colorful signs asking questions such as, "Why do I have so many pairs of blue jeans?" It’s not a place where you’d expect to find a mythologist, but then 39-year-old Pattanaik is not what you might expect from a mythologist. There’s no mystical chanting or orange robes here, just a down-to-earth man who talks fast and smiles easily.

"Mythology is not just about religion," he says. "It is also about ritual, customs and symbols, everything that makes us who we are. And the deeper you go, the more you find that mythology is fundamental to thought. Across the world, mythology reflects the human condition. When we are in denial, we reduce the extremes of human behavior to gods and demons. Using mythology in management allows me to create a framework that people identify with and that has a tag of tradition."

Pattanaik grew up in Mumbai, then qualified as a medical doctor, but wasn’t interested in clinical practice. He spent 14 years in the pharmaceutical business, and also worked as a consultant for Ernst and Young. He wrote a popular column for the Economic Times, India’s top-selling business paper, solving management problems with mythology. And he may be the only chief belief officer in the world.

"I have no clear job description and no targets," Pattanaik laughs. "At the beginning, this was unnerving. Why would a businessman from a business family, which has long been used to counting pennies, hire a mythology consultant? But Kishore Biyani wants the Indian business community ("India Inc.") to redefine its values, to be confident in its Indian-ness. My primary job is to enable people to open their minds. Essentially, I am a think tank."

"As Indians, we have different ways of doing things, which reflect our roots," says Sanjay Jog, chief people officer at Future, who works closely with Pattanaik. "Standard operating procedures don’t work here, given the huge diversity of India. Dr. Pattanaik has helped us develop a common vocabulary, to put into words concepts that we were familiar with but didn’t know how to express."

East vs. West
At the inaugural TED (technology, entertainment and design) India symposium in November, Pattanaik talked about how East and West approach problems in different ways, conditioned by their different mythologies. In Western mythology, people believe in one life and move towards an Elysium, a term from Greek mythology now used to represent a defined goal, Pattanaik says. Thus management in the West is process driven, linear and standardized. In Eastern mythologies, people believe in many lives, with no fixed goals, which breeds a culture of "fuzzy logic," as he puts it.

"Often Western people want everything in easy, definable steps but that doesn’t work in India," Pattanaik says. "Here, businesses are not run by institutions, they are run by individuals."

This is not to say that Pattanaik thinks cultural mores should be used as an excuse for inefficiency. He simply thinks that standard processes are unlikely to succeed in a country where nothing—and no one—is standard.

"In India, it is quite possible for employees to follow all the rules, yet not contribute in any way. For instance, we at Future are looking to root out Duryodhanas in our organization. These are people who clock in early and leave the office late, yet spend all their time surfing the Internet." (Duryodhana was a villainous prince in the ancient, epic tale Mahabharata. He defeats his cousins in a seemingly legitimate game of dice and usurps their kingdom). "Just look at our bureaucracy; they are masters of following the rules and getting absolutely nothing done," Pattanaik chuckles.

"Standard processes are fine in societies where both parties are comfortable with them," he argues. "In the West, for instance, shoppers want a supermarket where they can come in, pick up what they want and leave without talking to a soul. The typical Indian consumer thinks, 'Why should I go to a large store where no one likes me when I can go to a kirana (corner store) where the shopkeeper knows my name?’"

Agrees Jog: "For instance, our shops usually open at 10 a.m., but in some small towns store managers have told us there’s no point opening before 11, as all the shopping is done by women, and no woman can leave the house before finishing all her household chores. We leave it to the store manager to decide. I would love to lay down one standard rule for everybody but that would never work in a country as diverse as India. We don’t change processes that need to be standardized, such as our accounting methods, but we can and should change other things to suit local requirements."

Train the Trainer
In the little over a year since he’s been at Future, changing existing training methods is Pattanaik’s biggest achievement.

"Future hires people from all over India, many from small towns with only basic education and a limited grasp of English. Then, you put them in an air-conditioned training room, with a trainer at the podium talking to them about unfamiliar Western management concepts. They are intimidated; who wouldn’t be? Both managers and trainees believed training was a waste of time," he says.

Future has now introduced a more accessible system of training called the Vikram Vetal system. (The system takes its name from a mythical Indian tale of a king called Vikram and a ghost, or vetal. Every time the king tries to capture the ghost, it asks him a riddle. If the king answers correctly, the ghost escapes. If he doesn’t reply in spite of knowing the correct answer, his head will be shattered. The cycle continues endlessly). Under Pattanaik’s new method, the trainer (who symbolizes the ghost) compels the trainees to come up with answers by constantly asking questions, but he doesn’t tell them what to do. Most crucially, there’s no right or wrong answer.

"We used to show trainees PowerPoint slides in order to teach them the different types of milk available at our stores. Now we ask them to visit a store on their own and find out how many types of milk there are. They don’t always get it right, but they learn to think for themselves," Pattanaik says.

"It’s hugely liberating for young hires to realize that the trainer is not always right," Jog says.

"It is true that this method demands a lot of trainers, and some find it difficult to accept because it’s simpler to just parrot what they read in management textbooks," Pattanaik says. "But Indian philosophy sees divinity and potential in everyone from the doorman to the CEO. A teacher should help you realize that divinity."

Creating Leaders
This year, Pattanaik is trying to redefine leadership.

"Indian mythology is not about reaching the promised land. It is about transforming yourself. Indian people are motivated by a need for survival, but also by a need for significance and importance."

How does this work in practice? Jog says that relationships at an Indian workplace are of utmost importance, as is the joint family.

"So we created a definition of a store manager as a karta, or the head of a joint family," Jog says. "We told the store managers that their jobs were to create happiness, for both the employees and the customers, and to look out for the interests of the family as a whole. At every store opening, we have a ceremony appointing the karta, with his/her spouse and employees present. Almost every manager I have seen is in tears by the end of the ceremony, even the highly educated, hard-bitten ones. Rituals such as these may appear small, but they foster a sense of community."

Mythology in a Diverse Workplace
Does a largely Hindu mythology work in a diverse workplace with people of various religions? Pattanaik appears mildly annoyed by the question.

"Religion is an easy whipping boy. But if you remove religion, there will be some other kind of tyranny, based on gender, race or age. The moment you have emotions, you have a power struggle. Besides, in India every employee, no matter what religion, will have grown up with certain widely accepted customs. They get it, even if they are Muslim, Christian or Buddhist."

Jog adds: "We ask all employees to greet each other with a namaste, the Indian greeting which symbolizes the divinity within everyone. But if they want to use the Muslim greeting adaab, that’s fine too. What’s important is the message behind it. No employee has ever had a religious objection to our methods."

Staying Happy
"I like to define employee satisfaction by mentioning the three goddesses: Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth; Saraswati, the goddess of learning; and Durga the goddess of war, which to me symbolizes power," Pattanaik says. "The first two are well recognized by corporates, through incentives, pay slips, career growth and training. But the third is rarely acknowledged. The truth is that both employers and employees want emotional satisfaction from each other, a sense of comfort and respect, especially in these times of recession."

Change has been a big part of the Future group in recent years.

"I tell the story of Krishna and Kalia to help employees cope with change. Kalia was a venomous snake that lived in a lake with his brood, poisoning cattle and people. The god Krishna defeated him in battle and agreed to spare his life if he left the area. Kalia was afraid to move to an unfamiliar lake, but Krishna promised to protect him and his family. The moral: If you don’t move on and adapt to inevitable change, you poison the atmosphere for everybody," Pattanaik says.

The Future with Future
Pattanaik says his biggest challenge is people who want progress to be measured and quantified.

"What I do is not measurable," he says unapologetically. "Transformation can never be measured; it just happens. You can conduct surveys, but people only tell you what you want to hear in surveys."

Jog says: "People are always asking about whether these methods have boosted profits or helped attract more business, but that’s not the point. The day we measure everything in terms of money, that’s the day we cease to have soul."

As for the future, Pattanaik is confident. "I’d like to design a new framework for management based on ideas that emerge from Indian mythology. My job, after all, is to align beliefs. Once belief enters, business will happen. It has to happen," he says. One+

KAVITHA RAO is a Mumbai-based freelancer who writes on culture, the arts, people, current affairs and travel. 



Wooing the Right Way 
According to ancient Hindu legend, the gods wanted Lord Shiva—the destroyer of the world—to marry. If Shiva was not married, says the myth, the world would be destroyed. Shiva was an ascetic and uninterested in women. How does one get an ascetic like Shiva to change his mind?

A similar dilemma: How do we get a consumer to buy our product or an employee to stay with our company? Every customer—external or internal—is Shiva, with the power to destroy us through indifference. The most common approach is like that of Kama, the god of love, who tried to distract Shiva with beautiful nymphs. Offer gratification, lower prices, hike incentives and boom—you have instant consumer conversion! Instant employee satisfaction!

But for how long? Sooner or later there will be another nymph in the market—a competitor offering a lower price or a higher pay packet. Lust can never create loyalty. In the legend, for instance, Shiva opens his third eye and reduces Kama to ashes.

Then came Kamakshi, a maiden who meditated before him for years, in an effort to save the world from destruction. Shiva was impressed by her determination and agreed to marry her. Kamakshi thus got Shiva to open his eyes by appealing to his heart and mind.

Using the Kamakshi approach, there should be less talk about trimming cost and more talk about consumer insights and employee feedback. Cynics will argue that it all comes down to money, but the only reason they say that is because money is measurable. How does one capture the soul of a market on a spreadsheet? It can only be sensed. And so we fall into the Kama-trap and trust the wallet, rather than have faith in the head and heart like Kamakshi.

Yes, everyone wants a good deal, but deep down, we really want to feel good about ourselves. We want our purchases and our employment to bring forth our glory.

For more on mythology and management, see Pattanaik’s Web site at www.devdutt.com.