No Alternative, No Problem is a Myth: Prof V L Mote

31 Jul,2019


By Sanjeev Kotnala


“When You Don’t Have An Alternative, You Don’t Have A Problem”. I love it. It is one thing I learnt at IIM Ahmedabad. I regularly use it in my workshops. When you have no alternatives to choose from, there is no problem. A problem has to do with alternative solutions. Just like a lock must have a key; otherwise, it is just a paperweight. It is possible, you may not have a solution, but the alternatives do exist even in the most constrained ecosystem.

The Class of 1987 credits the statement  ‘When You Don’t Have An Alternative, You Don’t Have A Problem’ to Prof V.L. Mote. My batchmates believe Prof Mote voiced this gem of knowledge while teaching decision tree in their first year.  The debate is on about when did Prof V.L. Mote say the famous line? What did he precisely say? And what did he exactly mean to say?

Sadly, we can’t check it with him, as our dear respected Prof V.L. Mote passed away recently (July 23) on the way to attaining Nirvana.


The No Alternative No Problem Guru.

Prof  Mote passing away, created a hyper debate in various IIMA groups on WhatsApp. The Class of 1987 was no different. His profound Jeevan Mantra was discussed in WhatsApp University.

The debate helped me correct and sharpen my understanding. I realised I may have misunderstood it all this time. The discussion was sharp. Someone in the group had to remind the two sides not to take the debate seriously. Another batchmate almost shouted, ‘Chill! Chill! You are no MBA. Just PGDM.”


Applying The Filters.

Now Prof Mote was no mere IIMA professor. He was one of the founding professors who has taught many industry stalwarts. He gave us one of the best fundas for life, “If You  Don’t Have An Alternative, You Don’t Have A Problem”.

I don’t expect everyone to agree with it. So, it was natural for one of the Gyani’s (GYANI-I) in the group differed. He countered, “If you do not have an alternative, you do not have a solution. You certainly can still have a problem”.

Another pious soul (PIOUS SOUL) interrupted. He added and questioned if whether Prof Mote did say, “no alternative. No Problem. Is Nirvana”.


Bringing You The Debate On Alternative.

The IIMA87 group is reasonably active.  They discuss global issues for breakfast. On this day, they conferred, among other things,  President  Trump freak ‘Mr Modi asked me to mediate’ statement, and how in a good economy he can be easily re-elected. Nearer home, they deliberated on Urjit Patel, pointing out what is wrong with banking.  But, the most engaging discussion took play on Prof Mote;s mantra. It has been a tough task to read through hundreds of screens and cryptic clues and bring you all a  reasonably well-articulated synopsis.


Listening To Alternate Point-Of-Views.

We have a  lady in the group who thinks differently.  She prides herself having facts for every argument she supports. She can take anyone in the group and debate any subject. She has strong views and a perfect way to present them.

The lady said: “Prof Mote fundas was, What’s the problem? And when he said that he was referring to the case. What are the solution alternatives? If it’s only one alternative as a solution, then there is no problem.  There is no decision making or evaluation involved. The only solution is a state of Nirvana. It is my understanding of what Prof Mote said, so many times.”

The penny dropped for me. I have been missing this crucial bridge.


The Debate On Alternatives And Problem Picks Up.

You can’t allow someone else’s points of view to win so easily. Not when the bricks of  IIM Ahmedabad have influenced you, and you are expert in raising counter-arguments. Some times just for the fun of it.  Sometimes, such discussion in the Whatsapp group goes long to productively add to groups collective learning.

So the GYANI-I politely disagreed with the argument. He pointed out: “for example if I am a homeless person and do not have money to rent or buy a shelter. And if there are no homeless shelters. Then, I may not have any alternatives and hence, no solution! Being homeless is a problem for me, and lack of alternatives does not prevent it from being a problem.  Just because I cannot escape homelessness, it does not make it a state of Nirvana.’

I understand there are always alternatives. Status-co itself is an alternative. But, I liked Gyani-I’s argument.

I smiled when the Lady went for the kill. “There are still ‘alternatives’, albeit ones that may not meet your’ objectives,’ e.g., sleeping on the footpath,  out on streets, forceful break-in  and more.”

Maybe she did get it wrong this time. Gyani-I was not going to give up so quickly, “Sleeping on the footpath and out on the street is NOT an alternative to homelessness!”

The lady relented a bit. She paraphrased her argument again; she said “Prof Mote said that, but I disagree. If you do not have an alternative, you do not have a solution. You certainly can still have a problem. And if Prof Mote said “If you have no alternative you are in a state of Nirvana” because you have no decision-making problem. I agree. However, it does not mean “you have no problem”.

Wow, I was getting re-educated.


The Crowd Provide Alternatives

The vagabond guru (VG) chipped in. “When Mote spoke about alternatives, pretty sure he was talking about legal alternatives and so forceful break-in does not qualify.”

A section of group uninterested in this academic debate wanted to leave the Professor in peace and stop the discussion. There were alternatives before the group. They could continue the conversation, stop it, take it one-on-one or open a new WhatsApp group for people interested in the debate.

Thankfully, before the group could engage in democratic debate on what to do, some said ‘Managerial Problems is always about the problem of choice’, and it reignited the discussion.

Gyani-I was still stuck at Nirvana, so he added “I do not agree with Nirvana. Just because one does not have a decision-making problem, does not mean he or she is at Nirvana. In the homeless example, I may not have alternatives and hence, no solution. Being homeless is a problem for me, and lack of alternatives does not prevent it from being so.’

The academician (ACAD) in the group jumped in with a fresh perspective. “See, This person’s problem is not homelessness, but pennilessness. Surely there are alternative solutions to that as a problem. I do agree with what Prof. Mote said. No alternatives do mean there is no decision to make and instead one should focus on something else”.

It seems someone in the group had his fundas right.

Gyani-I felt challenged with the way the discussion was shaping up. He pointed out, “I agree no alternatives mean no decision to make. I am responding to the comment that no alternatives mean no problem. I also agree one should focus on something else, but that is hardly Nirvana. Additionally, a homeless person may not be broke. He may have money for food but not for a home. So cannot say the problem is not homelessness but pennilessness”.

The lady decided to hedge her bets as the discussion was going no-where. “Did Prof Mote say: “No alternatives means there is no decision making and hence focus on something else’.  If he said it,  I have no alternative but to agree. However, If Prof Mote said “If you don’t have an alternative then you don’t have a problem’, I disagree with that. I have not heard him directly so depending on what he said, I either agree or disagree”.

I now understand why she always wins an argument.


Absolute Take On Alternative And Problems.

“If you have alternatives, you have a problem. If you don’t have alternatives, you are well and truly F****D! ”

Then the one who now lives innovating carpentering lives (ICL) in western India broke the rule. He reminded the Lady. “Yes, Prof Mote did teach section-A, your section. Remember, Prof Mote took the Western India pharmaceuticals case.  He threw duster at me! Maybe it was the introduction to the case method, but definitely, it was section A”.

He quoted  Prof Mote: ‘If there are no alternatives, you do not have a decision problem. There is no mention of the problem vanishing. It is in the context of the decision trees.  There, If you don’t have alternatives, you are in a state of Nirvana. You have only one path to follow. It does not say that the problem ceases to exist. It suggests you don’t have any  choice but to follow the only solution on hand.”

The above explanation sounded conclusive enough.  However, I am surprised at people remembering the cases they discussed in the early eighties.  Throwing the duster was irrefutable proof from Section A. The discussion should stop.

The lady further made her point, “I very clearly remember what Prof Mote said. If you don’t have any alternative, you are in a state of Nirvana. Then he explained that it means you have only one path to follow. It does not mean that you can do something else or that you don’t have a problem. It only means that you have no choice but to follow that single path”.


Discussion Thrives On Alternatives.

Another Gyani ( Gyani-II) woke up to provide his input to the discussion. “If you don’t have a problem, and don’t have alternatives, you have achieved Nirvana”. And in an authentic style added, “Time to draw a two by two. The problem, no problem, on the x-axis. Alternatives, no alternatives, on the Y-axis.” And I started thinking about what quadrant would be ‘No Problem. Many Alternatives’.

A Bird (BIRD) who keeps coming in and out of discussions chirped in “I think we should write a case study on this and develop a model. Its  Pucca HBR material. We can draw on the fields of psychology, epistemology, game theory, logic, sociology, and python programming”.

I noted, the group still holds  HBR in high esteem. Maybe the ‘H’ hangover remains.


Alternative Leading To Nirvana Gets Interesting.

Now the IIMA Alumni can never leave the discussion to die a natural death. So the promotors of the homeless angle brought it back. “Not escaping homelessness is still a sense of Nirvana.  Once you recognize, there is no way to solve a problem. It will merely unmask the problem (Zen &TAOMM). No decision or cause for exercising free will and the unhappiness associated with choice. Nirvana will descend. Decision making among choice is the root of all problems, symbolized by Adam’s apple”. I did not understand the last part, but I let that go.

The ex-academician (EXA) ring-side view and stated in his self-alluded magnanimity. “Prof Mote actually said “If you have no alternative you are in a state of Nirvana” because you have no decision-making problem. That does not mean “you have no problem”. No one had time to remind him. It has been discussed before.

The EXA made the ultimate CP. “If you have alternatives, you have a problem. If you don’t have alternatives, you are well and truly F****D! being well and genuinely F****D is Nirvana.”


Closing The Alternative Gap.

The initial propagator of the discussion Gyani-I was openly feeling ill at ease. He fired his last shot: “Just saying the situation without any alternatives is Nirvana. You can’t do shit about the situation, so accept it. It will help one make decisions on the next goal and the path to take. One can’t be in a defeatist mode. Apologies if I started something.”

The person from Allahabad (PFA) shot in like the hot iron, “You guys are talking about acceptance as if it is as easy as flicking a switch. So click, and Nirvana appears. There is no sensible alternative to live in. So every living being is in a state of Nirvana? Did you ever have a situation in life did you accept totally without any questions? The journey to real acceptance goes through hell. Because the barriers to real acceptance are your cravings and aversions, and it is difficult to eliminate them fully. Yes, you can mask them by playing tricks with your brain, but they do not become extinct and resurface stronger at the right time. So what’s the alternative?”

The batch of 1987 has to feel its age. So the  Gyani-III in the group had to remind them. “The alternative at this age and stage in life is gradual renunciation. Those hurdles go poof. Nirvana appears. As you say, renunciation seems like “going thru hell. If it is forced.”.

A rebuttal to it came immediately. “What you are saying is true.  If you understand  you are not renouncing, but with age, gradually your desires and aversions are running out of fuel.”


Smart Closures.

The academician tried closing the discussion. “It means if you have only one solution, in the absence of any alternative Accept and implement the only solution for the problem. Focus on other related aspects like how to improve/maximize the solution, perhaps. Applies to any life situation, both managerial or non-managerial, where one is facing a problem or decision-making”.

The final shot came from the Spiritual Guru (SG) in the group. “Out of clarity emerges confusion. After great debate and deliberation, Clarification leads to obfuscation, Which is the fodder for further discussion. Proposition, Interrogation, Elaboration, Disbelief, Clarification and  Confusion. Till the next thread starts. And everyone finds at least one more person who will agree with them:) So, everyone is happy. and the confusion wins!!! Respected Prof VLM is perhaps now confused too, not just about his clarity, but about what he even said”

When I threatened to share the content of this discussion in my next column, the conversation shifted to another subject. They had no alternative. That means there was no problem. And a state of Nirvana.


So once again Prof Mote by igniting this discussion, made me get clariety.  

1)    Lack of alternative solution does not mean the problem does not exist.

2)    The problem may continue to exist even if you do not have any alternative solutions.

3)    If you have just one solution. It is not Nirvana.

4)    If you have only one solution. Accept it. Focus on it and deliver it to the best of your abilities.


Prof VL Mote at the silver Jubliee reunion of Class of 1987. IIM Ahmedabad.



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