From Ideas to Ideals – The Citizen-SBI Intervention

First published by the International School of Business (ISB) Hyderabad in the seminar proceedings of “Igniting the genius within”, October 2009.

First published by the International School of Business (ISB) Hyderabad in the seminar proceedings of “Igniting the genius within”, October 2009.



State Bank of India has undertaken a massive “human transformation exercise” – perhaps the largest of its kind – across its 200,000 employees.

The basis of this exercise is a recognition that individuals can and do operate from multiple states of mind such as a “victimized and powerless state of mind”, a “rule and process-driven state of mind” or a “positive and contributive state of mind”.

The goal of the intervention is to enable State Bankers as a community to live in and practice a positive, self-enabling, and other-enabling state of mind. This state of mind leads to enhanced personal and team effectiveness, ability to find solutions where others see problems, and creates the urge to be a better human being – both in the workplace and in one’s personal life.

This is where ideas alone cease to have the ‘power to change’. What is needed is the transmission of a new ideal of living that speaks to the heart and mind of an institutional collective.

How this is being done is the Citizen-SBI Story.


In September 2007, State Bank of India launched an envisioning exercise that spanned more than 1000 State Bankers across levels of hierarchy, across functional roles, and across various geographies in the country.

The purpose: identify the underlying value structure of State Bank of India, map out the deepest aspirations of its employees, and chart out a roadmap for renewal of its own two-century old identity as India’s largest bank and one of the largest employers in India’s public and private sectors.

Over the next 7 months, the picture that emerged from the study involving scores of envisioning workshops, one-one meetings, design sessions, and indepth interviews – was powerful: State Bank of India is both unique and universal, at the same time! Unique because of its size, scale, complexity as the largest financial institution in India; Universal because the values that  its 200,000 employees seek to live by represent a microcosm of Indian society in transition.

The story of SBI is about social values seeking to find equilibrium with modern commercial and business imperatives of a globalizing marketplace.

The story of SBI is also about deep-rooted mental models in conflict with the pressures of market share and customer responsiveness.

The story of SBI is, most important, about individuals seeking to find reconciliation between their own search for personal meaning with the deadening impact of organizational process.

The challenge before SBI and Illumine, the consultants who carried out the envisioning exercise, was: How to create/ discover a “living equilibrium space” where these dichotomies are fruitfully resolved?

The answer was not a set of concepts or ideas, nor was it a set of recommendations emerging from an external consultant group. The vision that emerged from the SBI collective was a target “state of living” that State Bankers sought. This “state of living” harmonizes meaning, purpose, and effectiveness, both at an institutional level and individual level.


What is a target “state of living”?

First and foremost a target “state of living” is largely non-verbal, and intuitive – a state is to be perceived and lived in, nor articulated and analyzed. Thus, the description of such a “state of living” comes from tacit (and often commonly held) knowledge of how role model individuals act and behave. (As an aside, an organization which powerfully role models individuals who seek only external effectiveness without inner fulfilment is likely to institutionalize disharmony in its people).

Second, the target “state of living” does not seek to condemn or praise individuals in their current “state of living” – it only provides a shared goal of “how to be and how to act”. To that extent, it is enabling, non-threatening, and capable of being inspiring more that being demanding in its impact.

Third, the target “state of living” inspires practice and experience – not words and analysis. Any conversation on values and ethics can lead to controversies and “theoretical vs. practical”, “should vs. could”, and “words vs. actions”. On the other hand, a conversation, if any, around “state of living” quickly leads to the question of how to practice and experience (anubhav) that “state of living”


This “state of living” we call an ideal. An ideal is a synthesis of a number of ideas as lived and practiced by individuals in a collective.

It is our experience that ideas and concepts prove to be deeply ineffective until and unless they are embodied in an ideal. When embodied in an ideal – the ideas take on a form and context that allows them to become “real” and “personally significant” to the individuals.

Why are ideals more effective than ideas in a change context?

  • Life requires us to reconcile and synthesize often conflicting ideas such as freedom and structure, boundaries and expansion, etc. An ideal allows us to find the equilibrium-spaces where these ideas are reconciled in practice.
  • Secondly, ideas can be endlessly explained, on the other hand, ideals demand commitment and choice. From the viewpoint of change, this commitment in central to success.
  • Third, ideals are necessarily centered around individuals – keeps the being and becoming of the individual as the basis for existence. Ideas on the other hand, can be centered around one of many dimensions at multiple levels of abstraction.
  • Fourth, and most important, ideas are assimilated through long periods of study and reflection; ideals can be assimilated faster by practice and imitation of role models.

Thus, ideals are far more effective as change enablers than mere ideas and their dissemination.


Ideals are of two kinds – personal and personal-impersonal.

  1. By personal we mean a specific individual- who embodies within himself or herself a cluster of ideas. For example, the concepts of satyagraha and self reliance were embodied in Mahatma Gandhi. In the Indian tradition, concepts of devotion and infinite courage are embedded in the ideal called Hanuman or Mahavira; the concepts of discipleship and personal competence are embodied in the ideal of Arjuna, and so on.
    In India, personal ideals have always been extremely powerful. However, they suffer from a phenomenon we call “idolization of an ideal”. In the process of idolization – a role model slowly ceases to inspire others to act. And instead becomes a solitary object of worship. The distance between the ideal and day to day life becomes a gulf that can be crossed only by blind devotion rather than conscious practice. Idolization, especially in the modern organizational context is dangerous because the gap between precept and practice goes on widening instead of narrowing.
  2. There is a second kind of ideal – the personal-impersonal ideal. This kind of ideal is not frozen or captured wholly in narratives, visual forms, and arguments. Instead, the ideal is kept open as a “state of living” that is practiced and interpreted in many different ways, thereby leading to great diversity in interpretation and multiple role-models using different strategies for realization of that ideal.
    Examples of such a personal-impersonal ideal include the “Brahminical Ideal” in ancient India, the “Samurai Ideal” in Japan, “the heroic ideal” in “scientific endeavors” manifest in lives like Pierre and Marie Curie, the “Bodhisattva Ideal” in the Buddhist tradition, etc.
    Each of these ideals was flexible and evolved for extended periods of time. It is true that some of them have become redundant in the past couple of centuries – but that merely points to the need for constant reinterpretation, constant reassessment, and most important, constant active practice by a diversity of role models within the collective – at any point in time.


State Bank of India needs such a powerful personal-impersonal ideal that meets the aspirations of not just its 200,000 employees but also, in some parts, the aspirations of 140 million customers across the country.

At this scale, the ideal that will inspire and engage individuals has to be one which has deep philosophical and spiritual foundations on one hand, and which allows for tremendous interpretability at the level of personal roles and shared collective identities.

The philosophical and spiritual foundation was discovered in the writings and talks given by Revered Swami Ranganathananda, who was the President and spiritual head of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission, worldwide from 1998-2005.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Swami Ranganathananda had given a series of talks on “enlightened citizenship”. He spoke of enlightened citizenship as a “state of living” where our inner being flows into our functional roles thereby transforming the quality and motivations of work – and leading us beyond narrow self interest and transactional success to a larger enlightened self interest and deeper fulfilment in life.

Enlightened Citizenship speaks of an intermediate state between man’s relationship (often empty) with external rewards alone and a final relationship (rich, but inaccessible to most) with the Divine. In between these two stages, lies a stage of comprehensive fulfilment – inner fulfilment and outer fulfilment – which is the target “state of living” for most individuals, particularly in the Indian context.


Keeping this philosophical and spiritual framework as the basis, the Citizen SBI Ideal has been formulated as follows:

This ideal is embodied in a “state of living” we call the Citizen State of Mind. This is the impersonal view of the ideal.

The personal view of the Citizen SBI Ideal is an individual – joyful, free, and capable of responding effectively to life’s challenges.

In the SBI context, this is embodied in the symbol:


In May 2009, State Bank of India with the help of Illumine – the designers of this change journey, embarked on a 24 month journey that will help State Bankers practice and realize this Citizen state of mind – both at an individual level, and at a collective level.

This journey is organized into four critical interventions. The interventions are architected towards enabling the shift from ‘employee to citizen’ at a personal and institutional level – simultaneously.

Intervention One: The Citizenship Orientation Program:focused on invoking the citizenship ideal within each individual and enabling each one to develop the strategy to climb the ladder towards citizenship in the warp and weft of his/her day-to-day work. This intervention puts in place the seed crystal for human transformation in the bank.

Intervention Two: The Customer Fulfilment Program – focused on changing the way the customer-facing units engage with customers, in order to deliver fulfilment to them. This will be achieved by building ‘solutioning’ capabilities and transforming branch managers into ‘change leaders’.

Intervention Three: The Market Engagement Programfocused on investing into ‘connecting with customers’ in the spirit of ‘contribution and enlightened self interest’.  This will be done by creating a ‘comprehensive market engagement approach’ for building deep-rooted relationships with local communities and sharing successful models with other regions.

Intervention Four: The Senior Management Citizenship Vision Programfocused on envisioning an enabling environment so that the change brought about by the previous three interventions can be sustained and strengthened in the system over time.

Together these interventions represent perhaps one of the largest and deepest ever human transformation initiatives carried out in a commercial organization.

Further Readings

Swami Ranganathananda. 1993. Eternal Values for changing society (4th Vol.). Mumbai: Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan.
Srinivas. V. 2004. Measuring success in terms of organizational purpose. Unpublished. Available on request.

Srinivas. V. 2004. Sustainable excellence: A model. Unpublished. Available on request.

Srinivas. V. 2004. Transformational Programs.

Srinivas. V. 2005. Collective aspiration.

Srinivas. V. 2006. Building one’s life in the ideal of fulfillment.

Srinivas. V.2009. Enlightened citizenship. Mumbai: Citizenship Series Publications; Illumine Knowledge Resources Pvt. Ltd.