Interview
David Allen is a renowned business coach and is on his third visit to India.

Backed by a strong entrepreneurial ecosystem, India is surging ahead as far as the number of startups in the country is concerned, as per a report by Nasscom. Cementing its position as the world’s third largest startup base, India has witnessed the addition of over 1,000 startups in 2017, taking the total number of tech startups in the country to 5,200. It now stands behind only the US and UK. Verticals like fintech, healthtech, aggregators and e-commerce are in demand. The key startup hubs in India remain Bengaluru, Delhi and Mumbai, while 20% of the startups have emerged from tier II and tier III cities, the report says. 

In this context, talking about the challenges facing Indian startups, renowned business coach David Allen who is on his third visit to India, said that issues are the same everywhere. You got young people who are relatively inexperienced about business who want to be successful in business. So, they are out there banging their heads and trying to figure that out. They are good at something but not necessarily at everything they need to be good at in order to make it happen. So, those are universal startup issues, universal entrepreneurial issues actually for everyone, he said.  

David Allen is famous for his book Getting Things Done: the Art of Stress-Free Productivity (popularly known as GTD), which has been a perennial business bestseller since it first came out in 2001. It is now published in 28 languages with TIME magazine hailing it as “The defining self-help business book of its time.” It was re-published in 2015. 

He says there is a larger audience of people that now know of his book Getting Things Done. “I mean this is not a small country. And, the Indian culture I would assume is hungry for stuff to stay on top of the world and compete in the world markets.”

He is also a consultant, international lecturer, as well as Founder and Chairman of the David Allen Company, which is a productivity training and consulting company. They count among their clients some of the world’s most prestigious corporations, including over 40% of Fortune 100 companies.

In an interview with TNM, David Allen spoke about how his best-selling book Getting Things Done came about, his company and his message for budding entrepreneurs among other things. 

Here are excerpts. 

How did the book Getting Things Done which went on to become a bestseller happen? 

I had some advice from some smart people who said, what you figured out seems to be unique and you need to write the book. So it took me four years from 1997 to 2001 when the first edition of Getting Things Done was published. Once I did that, again I had no idea how popular the book was going to be. But it turned out to be a bestseller and pretty popular. So, the world started knocking on our door. 

Ok well how do we scale this? How do we meet the interest or demand out there or take advantage of it anyway? So then began a big exploration, how do we grow a company. Since 2001 when the book came out, I have been trying to figure out how to leverage that because the world just knocked on our door once the book got translated into lots of languages and spread around the globe. And the last four of five years, we’ve developed partnerships now to help us promote, distribute and deliver this methodology, both in coaching and training. 

What were you hoping to achieve with this book? 

This methodology I had devised is bulletproof. I said I need to get this into a manual. I never had enough time to give everybody all the implications or applications and subtleties and power of what this really was, no matter how much I coached or trained them. So I wanted to be able to just get all my thinking into one place and write the manual in case I died. Somebody would figure it out at some point but I wanted to make sure that I left a legacy of defining what this methodology is. 

How did the David Allen company come about? 

Well, over the years, I had my own consulting practice. After all those professions and all those jobs, I said I am probably best fitted as a consultant. So, I developed some good techniques and best practices there that I began to put together into a kind of programme that worked very well. And then I got invited into the corporate training world and that was a lot of my business. I had a couple of partners and we just developed various versions of a small company to do both coaching with this methodology as well as training in the corporate world.

And then, at a certain point, I bought out my other two partners. Basically, I shrunk the business to me and my wife. And then, took advantage of the fact that I had a good bit of reputation myself out there. So that’s when I created the David Allen company as my name had more weight than the process or the previous companies did. This is about 1995-96 when I created a sort of new version. I had been doing this work since around 1981. That was when I started to develop this, got involved in training with this work. It was slow. I wasn’t very entrepreneurial or aspirational. I wasn’t trying to make a million dollars and I just wanted to keep a good job and keep doing the work that I was doing. 

What are the three most important things that you would tell a company that wants to improve its productivity? 

If you had to tell a company, if you said what are the three best practices that people in the company need to have to be most productive, I would say they need to externalise all of the commitments. Keep track of them, clarify exactly what the work is and be willing to engage with everybody else in a conscious, objective way with what all the agreements are. Clarify them and have a trusted, systematic way to keep track of all that. So that you have got much clear communication, much clearer roles and accountabilities about what you are doing with clear outcomes in terms of what you are trying to produce. And accountabilities for action which is the execution piece. 

Is there one instance you can recount where you made a significant change to a company’s outcomes or to an individual?

Well, the most dramatic one is a personal one. I had a woman call me one time. She said David, you don’t know me and she was almost in tears. She said the reason I’m calling you is my husband died unexpectedly of a heart attack. He was only 45 or 46 years old. He was coaching on a basketball court and his kids were in the basketball team and he was coaching them. She said the reason I’m calling you is because he came across your methodology two years ago and it so cleared up and cleaned up his life. It gave him time to spend with his kids which he’d wanted to do anyway. And he was able to coach, he was able to all kinds of things and that was really fabulous. Not only that, after we died I walked into his office and all of his affairs were so in order. I did not have to try to figure anything out. It was all set up.

Between India and US, do you see a greater partnership between companies? 

Well, I think it’s becoming a much more global world. So, I think everything is flattening out and becoming more transparent. And because the speed of change is speeding up, everybody is having to figure out who do I partner with next. They can’t do everything and so how do I create relationships that are appropriately win-win kind of relationships. I think that is speeding up. It’s becoming such a virtual world. I think building collaborative partnerships and relationships I guess, it’s always been true. We could all extend and expand what we’re doing by partnering. In a global world, you don’t have all the resources you need. You have to get them and you either have to buy them or find someone who is doing it better than you and create a win-win relationship. 

What’s your message for any budding entrepreneurs who want to make it big? 

Relax and keep it all out of your head. Focus on outcome and action. What are you trying to produce, what’s the next step. Understand the pieces and have an action step on anything that you need to improve and fix. Anything that you know you need to handle but are not not necessarily an expert at, have a next step to find out. How you need to get there and what you need to do. 

Finally, anything about India that fascinates you? 

Fascinating is how big it is and what the opportunities are. How successfully some components that have been and yet there’s huge amount of opportunity and lots of problems to be dealt with. That’s pretty much true anywhere but I think the scale is probably the most fascinating thing about India. And I think the DNA of the Indian culture has so much spirituality built into it that a lot of the interest is in being more productive and at the same time, probably maintaining a quality of life or quality of internal life. I get from little bits and pieces I read and people I meet that it’s much easier to talk about mediation here than in China. And, Indian food is fabulous.