The Laggard's Lock

'The Laggard's Lock' appeared in the May 2010 issue of 'Indian Management', the Journal of the All India Management Association (AIMA), published by the Business Standard.

By Anand Kurian (with Nitin Borwankar)

The Laggard’s Lock is a name that I am particularly fond of. It reminds me of various things, from the world of Harry Potter and his spells, to the Indiana Jones adventure movies, where a giant gate grates to a halt blocking everybody and everything (I can almost see the blonde heroine, in my mind’s eye, shrieking and falling into the hero’s arms).

In actual fact, however, its use is a little more prosaic. I conceived of the term to describe how our mindsets do not always keep pace with new technologies and, locked in as we are, we fail to use these new developments to their fullest or their optimum potential.

A laggard is a straggler, a dawdler and the term here refers to a mind that is trailing behind.  The lock is appropriate because we find ourselves trapped and boxed in by the parameters set by our old way of thinking.

Nitin Borwankar is an old friend of mine. Like many of my friends from Bombay Scottish School, he’s an IITian and in love with all things scientific; here, he describes how the lock operates in his own area of expertise – engineering.

“I once saw a drawing that has stayed with me and is applicable here and at every stage where a new more powerful and flexible technology comes along. It demonstrated how the users of the older technology continue to use the new one only in the modality that they are used to, i.e. a degenerate mode of the older technology. 

The drawing I saw was about the maritime use of the steam engine. It showed a huge rowing boat with a steam engine at one end connected to a set of oars with a complicated assembly of rods, shafts, linkages and pulleys so that the energy of the steam rowed the oars instead of human beings doing the rowing. Usable and clearly understandable but only in a backward-looking rear-view-mirror kind of way. 

Clearly, the inventor of this gizmo did not, and possibly could not, immediately think of the steam turbine on a ship. The inventor was possibly an owner of a fleet of "oar driven boats" and was possibly looking for incremental benefit when in fact massive order of magnitude larger benefits were latent in the new technology and waiting to be had. But more importantly, qualitatively different, richer and as yet unimaginable ones.

But for that the old modalities had to be given up...”

I have named the mindset that Nitin describes as The Laggard’s Lock. Interestingly, even while Nitin was writing this, I was describing (at lectures that I did at IIM & FTII) a similar pattern of events that happens across cinema, the world-wide web, advertising and life in general.

It happens to all of us, doesn’t it? I remember, from long ago, a story about an uncle of mine; it’s an oft-repeated tale in the family. TV remotes had been recently introduced and everybody was quite thrilled with this new toy. My uncle was very happy with it too – the only drawback was that every time he wanted to change a channel, he continued to walk to the TV set, pick up the remote, adjust the channel, put the remote back on top of the TV set and walk back to the sofa to watch his programme.

We laugh at this today; it’s so obvious that my uncle (who was nicknamed as ‘Remote Uncle’ after that) was trapped in a time warp, which prevented him from using the new technology to full advantage. But when we ourselves fall into the trap of the Laggard’s Lock, it is more difficult to realise that we have done so and it is even more difficult to change our behaviour.

To take an example that’s again literally close to home: most of us grew up at a time when there were no video cameras, there were only still cameras to use at home. Of course that was long ago; since then, home video cameras and handycams have become commonplace – and yet, even today, when someone holds up a camera, we pose and stand stock still, moving only after we feel the camera has done its job – we have been programmed in our childhood for the still camera and we find it difficult now to unlearn that.

At the cinema

When cinema first came along, the creative people who had worked in theatre till then, saw some of its potential and fell in love with it – but the Laggard’s Lock was still at work and, in their mind, they saw cinema as an extension of plays, stage shows and drama – all of which had been around for hundreds of years.

So people saw it as a branch of the theatre – their mind and their imagination were limited by that framework. And, as a consequence, they placed the camera where the audience would traditionally sit and enacted the entire play before it.

They didn’t realise, until later, that with the camera, you could now zoom into the character, track along with him, and even move around him... you could transport the crew and the audience from location to location –  the possibilities were infinite but it took time to comprehend this.

But once that happened, a whole new world opened up. In the new medium, an actor could twitch his brow during a tight close-up and convey his emotions. An entirely new language of telling stories had been discovered, with a rich new grammar and syntax that was all its own, and it owed almost nothing to the traditions that had prevailed before it.

Today, the story is repeating itself once again. There are so many new developments in the technology of cinema that it is difficult to enumerate them all.

Cinematographers of the old school are grappling with the thought that great camerawork doesn’t happen just during the shoot. One can now sit with a digital colourist and paint each frame in post-production.  The old style purists, who graduated from film schools many years ago and were never taught to do this, are uncomfortable with the thought of it and shaky with the process. But this is, quite simply, the Laggard’s Lock kicking into operation.

It is important to remember that the lock works not just through the mind, but through our emotions as well. The old style cinematographer – tied to the traditional way of shooting a movie – is trapped by his emotions too. He associates the old way with his youth at the film school, with the teachers whom he still respects, and the great cameramen who were his mentors. None of them ever digitally corrected the colours of their movies; it almost seems disrespectful now to embark on a new way that they did not teach him at all. So the lock is both in the mind and in the heart, intellectual at one level but emotional and psychological at another level.  

The emotional side is the more difficult to confront because we will never admit it (not to others and not to ourselves either); we will never confess that we are tied to the old way by sentimental cords that are difficult to break.

The world-wide web

The wonders of the internet and the world-wide web are still unfolding before us. It took us from emails and video conferencing to banking and parties in cyberspace.

And yet, I have this nagging feeling that we are still not using it right and not using it enough. For instance, I know for a fact that in advertising and marketing communications (which will form the financial backbone of the web), we are not exploiting the new medium to its fullest at all. Let me modify that statement – we are not using it to even a tiny portion of its potential.

Here, where we are offered a media with infinite possibilities for interaction, all that we do is to put our thirty second commercials (that were made for television) on the net. This is as classic an example of the Laggard’s Lock as one could ever find.

Hot shot advertising Creative Directors, who are charged up and excited at the thought of shooting a TV commercial in Bali, are tepid in their reactions to working on campaigns for the internet. Account planners rarely recommend spending money on the web because they don’t know what to do with it. And clients, even the best FMCG companies, are not hauling their agencies up, because they feel equally lost in the virtual spaces of the world-wide web.


This is not to say that other industries are utilising the web to best advantage. That would not be a truthful statement at all.

In the past few years, I have travelled to the country’s most illustrious academic institutions. It always amazes me that in these, our best educational institutes, professors still need to be always physically present in the classrooms to lecture, and examinations are written on answer sheets that were around in days gone by. It’s almost as if computers and the web hadn’t been invented at all and we are all living in a bygone era.

Educational institutions are traditionally short of funds but the miracle of the web is that it makes everything possible almost for free. And professors and strategic thinkers at these institutes (some of whom, ironically, teach about innovation) are almost letting this innovation pass them by.


Some part of the responsibility for the Laggard’s Lock lies with the systems we have created. As mass production proliferates and spreads across the world, managements have been working on creating idiot-proof systems that can operate around the world. This is necessary – whether we are talking of the production of cars, soaps and burgers, or whether we are talking about cinema and education. Mass production and the systems required to make that possible have become all pervasive; the inevitability of this is something that we must accept.

But it is equally true that these systems, as they are now, will creak, groan, initially resist change and then respond at snail’s pace to the rapid innovations around us. What I call the JCI, the Joint Corporate Intelligence, and the systems within it, fall easy prey to the Laggard’s Lock.

Reverse mentoring

Reverse mentoring is invaluable in situations where the lock operates. Take the case of using the web at academic institutions – yes, it may be true that professors are slower on the uptake in this area. (This need not be embarrassing at all to admit – it is just that the students of today have grown up using their laptops and the web, it’s akin to the way an earlier generation used gas stoves and electricity.)

So we need to tap expertise wherever it exists – where the web is concerned, in academic institutions, the expertise will probably be with the students; in corporations it could be with the junior trainees who are just out of college. And the transfer of that knowledge and those skills need to be channelized through Reverse Mentoring in a continuous and systematic fashion.   

This, then, is the challenge we constantly face today; as individuals or as corporates, we need to constantly break out of the Laggard’s Lock. We must build systems that are created and designed to make best use of changes as they occur – that is the key to the present as well as to the future.

Of course, knowing that the lock does exist and learning to recognise it, is the crucial first step in that process. Otherwise, there is the danger that we will be left behind as pre-historic relics, and, obviously, we wouldn’t want that. We wouldn’t want to be known as ‘Remote Uncle’, would we?

Anand Kurian is a writer and marketing communications professional; this article is adapted from his lectures at the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), the Film & Television Institute of India (FTII) and the National Institute of Design (NID).                                                                                                                                                                           

Nitin Borwankar is the VP of Business Development at Couchio, a next generation database company.