Sunday, December 10, 2017

Why does Ishiguro say Stevens the butler is a monster?

Remains of the day” is this year’s Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro’s one of the famous novels. It is about a buttoned-up British butler, Stevens, looking back at his life towards the end of his career. The character is beautifully depicted by Anthony Hopkins in the movie also titled “Remains of the day”. Throughout his work as a butler, Stevens had placed higher value on professional duties than on personal feelings and served his employer faithfully. Hence, I was surprised when Ishiguro referred to this mild mannered character as a kind of monster in a conversation with a fellow writer. Why would Ishiguro say that? Let’s see in this article.

Ishiguro’s comment comes in a conversation published in New Statesman (June 2015) with the writer Neil Gaiman titled “Let’s talk about genre”. Here is what Ishiguro says:

Creating an incredibly stuffy English butler in The Remains of the Day, I was very aware that I was taking something that I recognised to be a very small, negative set of impulses in myself – the fear of getting hurt in love, or that urge to just say, “I don’t want to figure out the political implications or the moral implications of my job, I’m just going to get on with my tiny patch”; those kinds of little urges we all recognise in ourselves – taking those and exaggerating them, and turning them into a kind of monstrous manifestation. The butler doesn’t look like a conventional monster, but I always thought that he was a kind of monster.
He then quotes a line from a fantasy novel by Neil Gaiman:

I’m reminded of something Lettie says in The Ocean at the End of the Lane: “Monsters come in all shapes and sizes. Some of them are things people are scared of. Some of them are things that look like things people used to be scared of a long time ago. Sometimes monsters are things people should be scared of, but they aren’t.”

In case of Stevens, the butler, Ishiguro is referring to the last category – monsters are things people should be scared of, but they aren’t. Now, what does Stevens do that qualifies him as a monster of this kind? This is 1920s and 30s. Stevens’ boss Lord Darlington doesn’t like the way the Germany gets treated after the defeat in the First World War. Hence, he is sympathetic towards Germans. He wants to help them. In the process, without fully aware of what he might be doing, he ends up supporting the Nazi movement. Stevens is the central character when it comes to taking care of all the guests at the Darlington Hall. He is not bothered what kind of political meeting is taking place at the Hall; he is doing his job with utmost faith. In fact, he believes that the real dignity of a butler lies in doing the job well by paying attention to every detail and keeping his employer happy. Of course, his boss is supporting a monstrous act and Stevens consciously ignores it. That makes him a supporter of a monstrous act and hence a monster himself.

In another interview titled “The texture of memory”, Ishiguro explains that butler is used as a metaphor here. There is a butler in each of us. Here is how he explains it:

In some political and moral ways, most of us are butlers (2:30). By that I mean, even in democratic countries, we find ourselves oddly far removed from the real power. Most of us do jobs – good jobs, little jobs. But most of us don’t run countries or multinational corporations. We fit in somewhere, if we are lucky, and we learn to do a little job and try to do it to the best of our abilities. Usually we offer up our contribution to somebody upstairs. We hope that the contribution is going to be used well. But we often can’t be sure. We offer it up to a company, or an employer, or may be a cause or a country. But in that sense we are all rather like butlers. So I was attracted to this figure who wanted to be so good at being a butler; everything was about serving his employer. But he thought it was beyond him to question how his contribution is being used. That leaves us all open to discovering at some stage that perhaps we contributed to something we don’t particularly approve of. But for most us that is our fate. We live in small worlds.

Once we get busy polishing up our image to fit into a system, we are lost in our small world. We systematically, without being aware of it, are ignoring to see the bigger picture. And once we are lost in our small world, the world made up of a set of beliefs and values, we are a victim of self-deception. We are creating stories, elaborate stories, to justify our acts and our existence. People trapped in self-deception are potentially monsters. Who knows what they may end up supporting? Be careful, you may be a monster too.

image source: en.wikipedia.org

Friday, December 1, 2017

Why does Daniel Kahneman refuse to advise individuals?

I have been a big fan of Daniel Kahneman and his work for over a decade. And the admiration has only grown over the years. However, there is an aspect of his position that puzzles me. Kahneman has been consistent in saying that his work on biases, beautifully captured in “Thinking, fast and slow”, is not of much use to individuals. Because, he feels, his thirty years of research hasn’t helped him become better at decision making. And yet, I find Kahneman demonstrates high degree awareness of potential biases in his thinking while answering interview questions. Isn’t that awareness an important element of good decision making? And could that be a result of internalizing his work? So, why does he refuse to advise individuals? I would like to explore it in this article.

 First, let’s see Kahneman’s position – Here is an excerpt from his interview for Council on Foreign Relations streamed live on April 18, 2017  (video embedded at the end of the article) – he was asked (15:41):
Q: You have people in this room who make a lot of important decisions, consequential decisions every day. So tell them how to improve their own decision making. We are going to do a little self-help here. How do they improve their own decisions?

Kahneman: When you talk to an individual, I refuse to answer that question. Because how little studying this problem has done for the quality of my decisions.

Q: You don’t think you make better decisions after the last thirty years?

Kahneman: No.
And then he turns to discuss organizations and how they can improve their decision making. And leaves the question of helping individual decision maker unaddressed.

Why does Kahneman refuse to advise individuals? We get some idea as he explains how he sees our thought process works in the beginning of the same interview (1:10). He says:
The claim in the book is that we are conscious of our conscious thoughts, we are conscious of our deliberations. Most of what happens in our mind, happens silently. And the most important things in our mind happen silently. We are just aware of the result, we are not aware of the process. The processes that we are aware of tend to be deliberative and sequential. But the associative network that lies behind all that and that brings ideas forward into consciousness, we are not really aware of.
Since we are aware of only the result and not the process, how could we ever improve our decision making? The cognitive biases that we carry are perhaps so deep rooted and intertwined with our memories in such a complex networked way that we have no access and know-how of improving them. Having said that, I find Kahneman himself extremely conscious of his potentially biased thinking process. For example, when someone asked him (26:20), “Do you feel good history is possible or are we doomed to confirmation bias?” Kahneman begins his answer by saying, “It is hard for me as an outsider to define what good history would be like.” That’s accepting ignorance of the definition of good history upfront. When someone else asked him (42:50), “Does diversity make for better decision making?”  He begins by saying, “Well, I really have no expertise in that and I am relying not even on primary sources…” and then gives a view. That’s admitting lack of expertise upfront. Later on while addressing a question on climate change denial (50:30), he admits that he believes in climate change because he believes in National Academy of Sciences which, in turn, believes in climate change. So his belief is based on what people he trusts believe in. It is an example of a Nobel Laureate scientist explaining the non-scientific manner in which his belief system works.

Now, this self-doubt is evident in not just one interview but all of Kahneman’s interviews that I have watched. And I have watched at least half a dozen hour long interviews. This kind of checking the quantity and quality of information before giving an answer is a hallmark of his thinking process. His intuitive answers may be susceptible to biases but his alertness about the possibility of a bias is very strong. And it is hard to believe that it is not influenced by his work.

Of course, interviews may not be a stressful situation for Kahneman. And, as he says in his book, the real test of your alertness is in stressful situations. He mentions in the book – “Questioning your intuitions is unpleasant when you face the stress of a big decision. More doubt is the last thing you want when you are in trouble.” So perhaps I am generalizing about Kahneman’s thinking process based on how he answers interview questions. And that may not be correct generalization.

I differ from Kahneman in following way. I feel that I may not be aware of the exact biases taking place in my fast, automatic, intuitive thinking process. However, if I carry awareness that it could be wrong due to inherent biases, that’s enough for creating an opening to listen to other views. And “Thinking, fast and slow” carries the potential to send that message to individuals. And it’s possible to cultivate alertness even in stressful situations. At least, that’s my experience. And, of course, I could be wrong!



Image source: YouTube video embedded above

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Testing a mindfulness hypothesis #1: Why does he always lie to me?


I feel that mindfulness is more of an investigation through the medium of awareness than just a practice. If so, then the question is: investigation into what? This is where mindfulness hypothesis comes to picture. Perhaps there are several versions of hypothesis that can be investigated. In this article, we take one version of the hypothesis and explore how it can be tested. The hypothesis is: Behind every sustained negative emotion, there is a cognitive illusion.

Let’s see if we can understand the terms in the hypothesis first. What’s a negative emotion? Anger, frustration, anxiety, stress, blame, guilt are some of the forms in which a negative emotion manifests. Whenever we carry a negative emotion, it feels heavier. In the absence of negative emotion, we feel lighter, we smile more etc. What’s a cognitive illusion? It
is a sustained gap between perception and reality. We are all familiar with optical illusions e.g. see the picture of Necker cube on the side. It has two ways in which it protrudes out – to the left and to the right. At a time, you can see only one of the two – not both. And whichever way you see, that’s what feels real. This is an example of an optical illusion. Similarly, we may feel one person right and the other person wrong in a situation and it could also be, like Necker cube, an illusion. You feel, one person is right because you see it only one way. A cognitive illusion typically involves misattribution – an incorrect cause-and-effect relationship created by thought process.

Let’s take an example that came up in my workshop. Whenever someone close to me (spouse or a close friend) lies to me – then I get upset. And when the person lies repeatedly, then I get mad. Now, mindfulness hypothesis says that since there is a negative emotion involved here (getting upset and mad), there is a cognitive illusion lurking behind. How would one begin to investigate into this situation? Note that before any such investigation can begin, a doubt should be entertained first, “Could I be wrong?” In the absence of this doubt, there is no beginning.  

Perhaps it would help to see how we learn about a magician’s magic. If you watch a YouTube video of a magician, and see the comments from viewers, many times, you will see people pointing out specific time e.g. 2:29 where the magician is doing some sleight of hand (e.g. see this blog on Penn and Teller Fool Us). Of course, if you watch the video in regular speed, it is difficult to see the trick. But if we run the video in slow motion then it becomes easier to see. Similarly, is there a way we can run the story in slow motion and check the “sleight of hand” of the thought?

One way to do this is to simulate the situation – in this case – spouse or friend lying to me – when I am seated in a cosy environment – say drinking a cup of coffee at home and see if the anger still simmers up. Watch how the tape of how he is doing this on purpose is playing again and again and how that still upsets us. This happens in spite of the fact that it is coming purely from memory. This simulation may help us see that springing up of a negative emotion may be an automatic process – almost mechanical.

Once we see this automaticity (if we see it), then we can ask the next question: Can the thought that led to my friend’s behaviour of lying to me be also an automatic response? How do I know if there was a choice involved? Some of these questions might lead us to observe the compulsions under which all of us are trapped. And we may see the futility of holding him responsible for the behaviour.

Of course, the crux lies in identifying such situations that upset us and carrying out these tests through run-time observation. Just carrying out an intellectual exercise would not help. One needs to pay attention to the train of thought as it moves around in these situations.

Monday, November 13, 2017

3 responses that hinder learning from the book of life


This year I got an opportunity to facilitate a two-day workshop on “Mindfulness on the go” in three different places – Kuppam (Andhra), Bangalore and Mumbai. The workshop follows an approach which is broadly called “learning from the book of life”. This means learning from one’s own life rather than according to a scripture or textbook. Many of the participants are open to this approach or at least curious to know more about it. However, some are not able to digest it easily. Here are three responses I have received from those who find this approach not so palatable.

1.      What about my favourite book of wisdom? Some people believe that the most profound wisdom is captured in some book such as Bhagavad Gita or Upanishads or some such scripture. In fact, some of them know such books by heart and they are able to recite several stanzas. However, when it comes to integrating any of the wisdom in their daily life, not much would have happened. Some have it in their to-do list to study their favourite book of wisdom, but haven’t got around to doing it yet. In any case, since they carry such a strong belief that real wisdom can only come from their favourite book of wisdom, they are not so open to learn from the book of life. There is nothing wrong with learning from a religious scripture. However, that’s different from learning from the book of life. And because of their fixedness on one particular book and its content, they are unable to appreciate learning from the book of life.

2.      Lost in the story in the book: Some people are interested in learning from the book of life. In fact, they are eager to narrate a story from the book e.g. how a close friend or spouse  lied to him consistently and how it is his right to be upset about it etc. Now, when you are learning from a book, before you get into the story, it is important to pay attention to the structure of the book. E.g. the book may be torn and may have lost a few pages, or the book may have loose pages which are jumbled up or the book may be translated and the translation may have errors etc. In fact, in case of book of life, thought process may be playing the role of a translator and a shorthand writer combined into one. And the story about which you are getting upset may be a result of some error in translation. Hence, it is important to pay attention to the process of how the book is being put together and presented to you. Getting upset about a jumbled up story has no meaning.

3.      “Touch me not” pages: Some people are interested in learning from the book of life. And they make a beginning in paying attention to the process and structure of the book. Until, the subject matter turns to something they are very protective about e.g. religious beliefs or political ideology or a relationship that has gone sour or some idea close to their heart. These pages become “touch me not” pages. There is no room for investigation because the story is frozen and the book is believed to be in perfect order in those pages. This limits the learning because perhaps some of the greatest nuggets of wisdom may be hidden in that area of the book.

In short, there are three responses which hinder learning from the book of life: One, a belief that real wisdom lies only in certain scriptures and nowhere else. Two, getting lost in the story (content) of the book and as a result losing track of the errors in the process and structure of the book and three, treating some of the pages as “touch me not” and refusing to investigate that area of the book.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Progress, process and possibility: 3 words and their new meanings


Self-investigation is a process that involves testing some of the long held beliefs. If some of the beliefs are seen to be false then that results into old words acquiring new meanings. In this article, I would like to present three such words: progress, process and possibility – which have acquired new meanings for me through the process of self-investigation.

Progress: Right from school days the word progress carried significance. Initially, it meant gaining height and weight and getting good marks in exams. Later on it meant getting into a good college, getting a good job, getting married, owning stuff like a house, a car etc. Somewhere along the way, I came across books by two spiritual teachers – J. Krishnamurti and Ramana Maharshi. JK said – root cause of human suffering is the process of becoming. And Ramana said – there is no separate entity there to progress. I don’t know why but I took them seriously – at least treated these as serious hypothesis to be tested. This was twenty years ago. And I haven’t found any evidence to disprove them so far. As a result, the word progress has acquired a new meaning – progress, to me, is a cognitive illusion – a thought created gap between perception and reality. To get a glimpse of how this could possibly be the case, it would help to look at the new meaning of the second word – process.

Process: Be it history or science, it was about understanding the interaction and relationship between various entities. Physics involved large bodies like planets and small particles like atoms and electrons and the forces among them. History involved kingdoms, nations, their leaders and the wars. In either case, objects were primary and their interaction was secondary. How does the earth attract the moon? Did Gandhi help India win freedom from British? In short, objects were primary and the process was secondary. Somewhere along the way, came a doubt: what if the process is primary and everything else secondary? This investigation takes a new turn when you question whether I am primary or the process of perception and meaning making is primary. Here is how I see this currently: All there is – is the Unknown which is a process of meaning getting expressed into matter, thoughts and actions and simultaneously getting compressed back into the Unknown. Every moment there is a perception and meaning making. If perception is with clarity, then the meaning is harmonious and gets expressed accordingly. If there is misperception then the meaning is conflict-ridden and gets expressed accordingly. Every object is only a relatively stable structure in this process flow – similar to a vortex in a river – never separate from it. Desire for progress comes out of misperception when the relatively stable structures (such as this body or the nations) are taken to be independent entities. And the meaning making process tries to make the entity (e.g. this body) more secure making progress (e.g. by getting a better job). How does a conflict-ridden meaning begin to change?

Possibility: Every conflict has a notion of impossibility inherent in it. Every anxiety involves imagining a future – a what-if scenario – say of losing a job or a breaking of a relationship – and also carrying a rigid belief that the imagined scenario should be impossible (must not happen). However, sometimes perception undergoes a shift and clarity emerges in the process. This is called an insight. And through insight there is a perception of the futility of the process of becoming. Then the rigidities which lead to impossibilities dissolve and turn into possibilities. Then every opinion, every meaning is seen as a possibility and nothing as impossible. In the worst case scenario of someone telling, “You are stupid!” may also involve a possibility of learning something new about oneself. Perhaps there is an opportunity to say “Sorry” if one has inadvertently hurt someone. This is when the meaning making process becomes creative. This understanding results in a living where every moment comes with several possibilities and enriches life.

In short, I see currently that progress is a cognitive illusion when meaning making process misperceives reality and begins to treat relatively stable structures as independent entities. Sometimes, through insights, the meanings undergo a shift and that melts its rigidities. Then every moment brings several possibilities and makes life is a continuous learning process. Who knows? The meanings might change tomorrow.

References:

1.      J. Krishnamurti’s reference to process of becoming as the root cause of suffering is in “Ending of time” Chapter 1.

2.      Ramana Maharshi highlighting that there is no separate entity to make progress can be found in multiple discussions in the book – “Talks with Ramana Maharshi”. E.g. talk 380.

3.      Seeing every object as a relatively stable structure like a vortex in a river is a metaphor I came across in David Bohm’s writing and interviews. E.g. “Wholeness and implicate order” Chapter 1.

Monday, October 23, 2017

3 ways a metaphor helps in challenge framing


Around forty years ago, Dr. Venkataswamy asked a question – “Why can’t eye care service be offered with efficiency similar to McDonalds?” People found it an odd analogy. How can you compare a cataract surgery with a hamburger? But the metaphor did help create one of the most efficient eye hospitals in the world, Aravind Eye Care System. Framing the challenge is arguably the most important step in innovation and metaphors play a key role in that process. Here are 3 ways in which metaphors help in challenge framing.

Makes it more concrete: Dr. V could have said, “Let’s build world’s most efficient eye hospital.” Perhaps it might have worked. However, words like efficient and others like innovative, world’s best are abstract. They mean different things to different people. When you say – as efficient as a McDonalds – suddenly it makes the concept more concrete. There is a common image for all the people who are involved in the venture.

Brings out uniqueness: While Aravind took inspiration from McDonalds in building process efficiency, it was significantly different from McDonalds in its business model. Aravind is a not-for-profit organization in which paying customers cross-subsidize the poor patients. This was a case when Aravind was eleven bed hospital and it is the case when the size is several thousand beds. Metaphor can also help in bringing out the uniqueness of the idea. You could say it is different from McDonalds in its business model in the following way.

Generates new questions: Anybody who has been to McDonalds especially in the US would know that it has drive-through. So, one  could ask, “How do we provide a drive-through for Aravind?” Of course, the question may or may not be relevant. However, it may take you in a direction not thought before. In fact, Aravind did end up creating a service where they prepare an prescription eye-glass in thirty minutes. This idea may or may not have been inspired by drive-through. But the point is, metaphors can be generative. i.e. They can help you raise questions not thought before. McDonalds customizes the taste of its products and services to local taste. You could ask, “How do we customize eye care to local culture?” This might lead to new ideas.

While Aravind was partly inspired by McDonald, now Aravind is inspiring other hospitals in India and abroad. I won’t be surprised if Narayan Hrudayalaya was partly inspired by Aravind. It is does to heart-surgery what Aravind is doing for eye care.

In short, metaphors make the challenge concrete, bring out uniqueness of the challenge and generate new questions. Thus metaphors help enrich the challenge.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Adopting Design Thinking in organizations, one step at a time


One question that I often get is, “How do we integrate Design Thinking in our existing processes?” Many organizations have well established processes like Agile, Six Sigma, Business Excellence framework etc. It is both impractical and unwise to establish design thinking as yet another parallel process. Instead, what works better is to take a step or two of design thinking and pilot it within the existing processes. Let’s look at a few options.

There are multiple ways to view DT. One view, as advocated by the Stanford D-school, looks at DT as an iterative process consisting of five steps: empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test. Let’s see what it might mean to adopt only one of the five steps in an organization at a time.

1.      Empathy: If you were to emphasize empathy in your existing processes, here are a few options.

·        Journey map: This is a tool where customer’s experience is mapped through various stages of the journey. For example, one journey map could be about “Employee’s day-1 experience”. This would map out experiences of various new joinees as to how their day-1 experience was through the stages of – arrival, induction session, lunch, afternoon, exit etc. This might lead to a challenge statement such as, “How do we get a new joinee an employee badge by the end of day-1?”

·        Humble inquiry: Popularize humble inquiry in meetings and discussions. This is a form of inquiry where one requests the other person to elaborate the point. E.g. Please tell me more or please give me an example. Contrast this with the prescriptive enquiry where one asks questions like, “But, why don’t you try like this…?” or “Boss, this kind of stuff will not work in our organization?”

·        Bright spots: We are easy in finding what’s going wrong – the dark spots. However, in any situation, there is something working right in some corner. These are the bright spots. For example, in every situation where an organization faces high attrition, there are some people who have stayed long within the same organization. So exit interviews would give some information about the dark spots, staying interviews would tell more about the bright spots. Researching about bright spots naturally evokes empathy because you are trying to understand why certain things are working well in that context.

2.      Define: You may choose to focus only on define step – which means you will try to establish more clarity on which are the challenges a team is focused on addressing at various levels in the organization. You could check following:

·        Quality of challenges:  Many times organizational challenges are framed in an abstract manner – “We want to become an innovative organization”. Or They are concrete but don’t have hooks for imagination – “We want to be no 1 in our market.” This is a concrete goal but doesn’t contain any direction for exploration. Alternately, we could ask, “How do we organize knowledge in our project so that it can create Quora like experience?”

·        Internal bright spot-based challenges: You could encourage framing of challenges which are based on internal bright spots. For example, you may pick an innovation from last year – say a chat-bot integration into a customer service platform (BotServ) – and ask “How do we develop more innovations like BotServ which can excite customers and leadership alike?”


3.      Ideation: In all likelihood, your organization may not be new to ideation. However, you may want to ask how you can have more ideation sessions with cross-functional teams. Or you may want to check if you can organize co-innovation workshops with customers where you generate ideas together.

4.      Prototyping: In case you would like to build a prototyping culture, here are a few options:

·        Story-boarding: This is one of the least expensive ways of getting people to bring ideas alive. You can encourage people to create before-and-after storyboards and paste them in the corridors / brainstorming rooms. This can invite comments and may inspire other ideas.

·        Wireframes:  In the world of software this typically means drawing screens – either for PC or for a mobile phone. In the world of physical objects, it means drawing a floorplan or making a 3-D model like how an architect does for a house etc.

·        Hackathons: Conduct a full-day or two-day event focused on building rapid prototypes for a given challenge.

5.      Test: In case you would like to emphasize getting ideas tested, here are a few options:

·        Test Fridays: Allocate an hour on one Friday every month in getting prototypes reviewed by senior leaders. 

·        Customer testing: Pass on prototypes with customer facing people – sales, product managers etc. and get feedback.

Someone may argue that emphasizing a step like ideation without empathy or experimentation may be missing the main point of design thinking. And, I feel any step is better than no step. Hope you get to try out something.