Friday, February 15, 2013

G-Lab Argentina: A New Argentina

While showing some of the analytical tools we created during our final presentation, one of our project’s sponsors interrupted saying in Spanish: “Esto es exactamente lo que necesitamos”—this is exactly what we need. More than excitement, I felt a sense of entitlement on her comment. She was looking directly towards the company’s CEO. The CEO, on the other hand, was quiet at that moment but his face expressions were clear—he understood the relevance and the urgency of the issue. Later during the presentation, the CEO asked a senior executive “Does this make sense to you?”—his response was clear: it was time to move forward and he was on-board to start planning the changes.

One of the reasons I came to MIT Sloan was the action learning programs. Some people describe them as consulting projects—but I disagree with this simplistic view. Having worked as an IT consultant, a management consultant and as a global manager who collaborated with consultants; I can clearly say the following: (1) the host company is not exactly a client, (2) our student group does not have the structure of a consulting team, (3) MIT does not behave like a consulting firm—and the most important difference for me—(4) we are not doing the job from an ivory tower: we are on-the ground and experiencing similar hurdles and excitements than the entrepreneurs and employees we work with. This is a laboratory. This is an experiment—a canvas; it is a unique opportunity to understand a “what if”… what if I decide to run a business in this environment.

Some of my former posts made references to either the development of my understanding of the Argentinian culture and business environment; or to the changes I experienced while living there; but for this final post, I would like to delve into one conclusion I am just starting to formulate:  without a historical context of a culture you are not part of, making political, social or economic assumptions could be very harmful for a foreigner entrepreneur.

I couldn’t really make sense of the political and economic decisions that the Argentinian government had been making for the last couple of years. This inward looking growth by currency-exchange control, import restrictions and tariff increases didn’t make much sense to me. I asked around; got some basic context—but it was clear I was missing many subtleties. I was missing the night stories passed from generation to generation that are so ingrained and ubiquitous that could be ignored during a summary. Why making the same mistakes from the past?

According to the general field of Economics, a liberal economic order can be seen as a public good. And although the liberalization of an economy should benefit all groups in society; special groups who enjoy sector-specific protections will attempt to maintain a closed economy in order to continue receiving these benefits. For this reason, the policymakers in charge of implementing a state intervention must be agnostic to current winners who may become losers. That does not seem ground-breaking knowledge. Nonetheless, as many of us are aware and based on human psychology, gains and losses are not weight equally. This is the reason why future losers have a bigger incentive to engage in collective actions against an open economy, while prospective winners, still uncertain about their payoffs, remain disorganized.

Argentina faced the deepest political crisis in 1976 after the Malvinas War, so it suddenly moved to a radical liberalization of the economy later that year. Argentina had a deep de-regularization of the banking industry in 1977 that resulted in high debt in the early 1980s, another hyperinflation, and a big crash. Why does this keep happening again and again? When would it stop?

I do not really have an answer and although I decided to take a class about Latin American Politics and Policy-making at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government to get a better understanding—it is still very early in the semester for me to make a conclusion. The only thing I can say is that even though Argentina is signaling a move towards an inward looking growth—it is important to understand two important factors: (1) the country does not have a high foreign debt and (2) its strong democracy could certainly repair the damages. It is true that current economic policies may not look very optimistic, but it also certain that there is a whole political and economic system behind those policies that as long as they get fixed, the engine will keep moving.

 “A new Argentina, a new age about to begin
A new Argentina, we face the world together
And no dissent within”
– From Evita, "A New Argentina"

Saturday, February 02, 2013

G-Lab Argentina: El Exprimidor

“The gap between the official rate and the blue gap rate continues to increase” said one of the
guests during the radio show “El Exprimidor”—one of the most acclaimed and respected news programs in Buenos Aires. “This trend is expected to continue as the supply of official foreign capital diminishes and the need to perform these transactions keeps increasing”. The insightful interview touched on the different economic and political causes of this phenomenon, it
delved into multiple data analysis required to understand the situation--and it discussed different plausible paths for the coming future—some were certainly not optimistic.

The taxi driver and I were following the arguments in total awe—the show was thought-provoking and funny, satirical but astute.  When we both started laughing after a joke about the president, I realized I was actually learning something about this country and that our taxi driver was deeply knowledgeable and very interested about the future of his country. We stopped a couple of steps behind the famous Plaza de Mayo, and walked towards Conexia’s office.

History can certainly teach us much about our present and our future. In 1976, a military coup took place in Argentina. Although the country had experienced different authoritarian regimes in the past, this new one was particularly coercive: it banned political activity, strike rights, and
it implemented policies that made market economics extremely difficult. The political climate of Argentina today is very different, the labor unions do have a place in the political arena and human rights advocates are not silent. Nonetheless, the discomfort of the Argentinians is evident with the path the country is taking and they are not shy to make it visible.

As we prepare for our final presentation, I ponder in the importance of learning and how to convey our message effectively.  We specifically wrote in our report: “One key component of our recommended sales process is to embrace continuous learning by formalizing steps to gather and share feedback. This will create an opportunity for Conexia’s sales process to constantly evolve as their needs change.”
Learning from the past
Learning by doing
Learning for the future

Monday, January 21, 2013

G-Lab Argentina: Nostalgia

I felt the breeze as I walked down the stairs. “Just say yes, just say yes”—it was a constant loop in my head, repeating: “Just say yes”. Nothing happened. Not a word. The actor couldn’t make up his mind. I kept walking. Just as in the play I finished seeing. Lights dimming. People clapping.


“The worst nostalgia is to mourn what never ever happened”. Sabines’s words suddenly appeared under my feet as I kept walking. As I closed my eyes, songs from Alejandro Sanz and Charly García surrounded me around the Rodriguez Peña Plaza. Love poems from Spain, Mexico, and Argentina. I waited. I wanted the Buenos Aires that flew away, the one that flew away from a dawn waving love around. I got it. I think I finally got it.

AMOR POR Buenos Aires

Somehow, the crooked streets and the city noises were charming, they had personality: they were even elegant. I was closer to home but I wanted to keep wandering. Somehow, I was starting to feel part of this city. “You’re becoming Argentinian”—a guy from work told me today when I told him I was having an empanada as a mid-afternoon snack. LOVE for Buenos Aires. For the paradoxes that surround me. For the pride I feel. For the baggage I am able to leave behind. Not for what I am but who I am.

I was asked this morning during a press interview: “What did you learn by doing business in Argentina?” I remembered at that moment the play and how conflicted I was: “Just say yes, just say yes”.

Monday, January 14, 2013

G-Lab Argentina: In Praise of Darkness

“Buenos Aires,
which once broke up in a tatter of slums and open lots
out toward the endless plain,
is not again the graveyard of the Recoleta, the Retiro square,
the shabby streets of the old Westside,
and the few vanishing decrepit houses
that we still call the South.”
Extract from “Elogio de la Sombra” by Jorge Luis Borges
translated from Spanish by Norman Thomas di Giovanni

Borges, one of the most acclaimed writers in history—and an Argentinian—loved to write about the paradox of self-discovery, and “In Praise of Darkness”, he excels in his ability. He once described Argentinians as if they live their lives as in a dream, without knowing who they were or what they were.

Buenos Aires, feels to me, like a troubled middle-age educated white man raised in a working family. Although he may have not had the most privileged childhood, his efforts and skills led him to attend a prestigious college and became a healthy handsome man. His family built high expectations around his future (their future), and blinded by his newly acquired self-confidence, he made a couple of reckless decisions that are still dragging him today. The problem with this man is that he still wants to believe that success is written in his fate—he looks at the mirror and still sees his dreamy blue eyes and that seductive smile who never failed him. He fails, though, to note his wrinkled skin and his also newly acquired receding hairline. Nowadays, his family is very divided on its admiration—so much potential and still, just a shadow of what they once hoped for him (for them).

He looks once more at the mirror—the one he bought in Florida Street when he was still a teenager. He starts hearing some music in the background and remembers her—she really looked beautiful that steamy summer night when they attended their first show at Teatro Colón. He looks once more and he’s afraid.
     Afraid to see what others see
     Afraid to let go part of his identify
     Afraid to finally become what he was destined to be
     What he must ought to be

“El día que me quieras
endulzará sus cuerdas
el pájaro cantor,
florecerá la vida,
no existirá el dolor...”

El día que me quieras (1935). Music by Carlos Gardel. Lyrics by Alfredo Le Pera. Based on poem by Amado Nervo

Monday, May 07, 2012

China Lab: The unbearable lightness of projects

Learning how to set and manage expectations is one of the most important skills in project management. Interesting enough, one never stops learning.

Before coming to MIT Sloan, I worked for more than four years managing global projects with over 30 stakeholders located all across the world--this is one of the few areas of knowledge where I considered having expertise. During the China Lab class, the experience of defining and freezing the project scope was not an issue for our team. In addition, thanks to the hard work of our Chinese teammates, our finished deliverable provided our host company with specific tools and sample documents to start the implementation of our recommendation—besides a list of next steps.

Nonetheless, there was not a milestone in our project plan to spend quality time with our teammates from China on their trip to the US—besides scheduled school work and group lunches. Additionally, that final week ended up being one of the most demanding times at Sloan during my first year and as it sometimes happens; lack of sleep and extra work knocked me down with fever during the weekend.

I set the expectations with my Chinese counterparts that my time was going to be very limited before they reached US ground and as a result of my sickness, they were candid and comprehensive with my even more limited situation. Nonetheless, this doesn’t remove the sense of guilt that they traveled literally half-across the globe and I couldn’t be the host I wanted to be.

So… what happens when the expectations are clearly set and defined… but the bitter taste doesn’t go away? My answer is simple: people are not projects--and setting expectations is not always the holy grail. On the positive side, people are not projects and deadlines are not set in stone. The fact that my teammates are not longer in American soil doesn't mean that our relationship cannot keep growing. People are not projects and I'm happy about having to deal with the heaviness of human relations.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

China Lab: Note From The Future

2012 was the year I visited China for the first time in my life. I was part of an action oriented course at MIT in partnership with Xi’an Jiaotong University and stayed in Xi’an for two weeks. Funny that I still remember some vivid details of that experience as if I had just came back from there.

There was so much hype about the economical rising of China during those days! The believers kept talking about its impressive infrastructure, its growing middle class, and the remarkable attention to detail of the Chinese government. The detractors, on the other hand, kept pointing out the social fractures, the political oppression, and the language barriers.

When I reflect back on those days, it’s impossible to dismiss the prevalent egocentrism of many westerners on this topic—sadly; I was one of them. There is a Chinese Proverb that says “Deal with the faults of others as gently as with your own.” I failed many times at this. Even though English is my second language and I have an accent when I speak, I couldn’t stop getting frustrated by the complexities surrounding our project due to language and cultural barriers. At that time, I was blaming “them”.

Yes, I was blaming “them” even though I argued with some of my classmates that China didn’t have to learn English and didn’t have to adapt their traditions for our own convenience in order to succeed. I agreed at that time that a transitional period may be required, but it was clear to me that the balance could go either way. Even then, I still didn’t believe the average Joe—I mean—Wei had to learn English. Making that assumption was egocentric, but that was our world. We traveled the world expecting the world to understand and adapt to us.

Knowing what we know today and based on the role that China plays in the world, these arguments seem laughable—but at that time, we still didn’t know. We were so far behind that the question was not even if China was going to succeed by adapting to the world or adapting the world to her—we were still questioning if China was going to succeed at all. As we learned in our time there, China in Mandarin has the name of Zhong Guo, which means the "Middle Country" or "Middle Kingdom"—or as our Xi’an partners preferred to translate it: “The center of the Universe”. I guess the egocentrism was already present from both sides of the coin. In those circumstances, I can see why it was still difficult to make a sound prediction, but that was our world. We lived our lives expecting to get notes from the future clarifying exactly what was in front of our eyes.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

China Lab: Creative Minds and Inquisitive Spirits

There were at least 40 people. I couldn’t see how big the crowd was as we were at least 50 feet away when we turned back. The protesters had multiple signs and were blocking a big intersection in Xi’an. Still in the car, I asked our iMBA partner if this was a common event in Xi’an. He told me if it were common, he wouldn’t know as news channels were not allowed to report on protesters. End of the conversation about this event. We were too far away to even know what the fuzz was about. No more questions were asked.
Experiencing the richness of a millenary culture has been a humbling experience for me. The food, the music, the architecture, the language and more importantly: the spirit and the resilience of people who are more than just past and present—they are future. There are over 1.3 billion people in China and among them—I believe—thousands and thousands of poets, writers, painters, thinkers, journalists, musicians: artists and intellectuals who live and act with no regard of conventional rules of behaviors. As we took a turn in our way to meet our client that morning, I couldn’t keep from wondering—Where are they? How long could this last? How long can these creative minds and inquisitive spirits be contained?

We arrived to our client and as we were presenting the initial data from our employee’s survey, something started bothering me. When we confidently said that 80% of the people agree or strongly agree with the statement “I feel comfortable approaching my direct supervisor when something is bothering me” as a highlight, I couldn’t keep but questioning our own data. Was this true? Were people comfortable expressing their opinions? We made sure the surveys were distributed and answered anonymously. There was no way to keep track of the answers to specific individuals. I had zero evidence to think otherwise. I decided not to bring the topic to the conversation and we kept the flow. The presentation ended and we started drafting our next set of goals for the project. No more questions were asked.