Wednesday, August 16, 2017

How is innovation related to mindfulness?

I work in two areas – innovation and mindfulness. I mention this while introducing myself. A natural question that I get after this is – are these two areas related? I see them as closely related. However, I could be biased. Hence, I thought of jotting my thoughts down and see if I get any inputs. This is an attempt in that direction.

Before exploring the relationship between innovation and mindfulness, it might be easier to see the relationship between innovation and mindlessness. Let’s take an extreme example – 9/11 attack masterminded by Osama Bin Laden’s organization. 9/11 attack has all the elements of a radical innovation – A novel idea creating a huge impact when executed. The impact was positive when seen from Laden’s organization. They were trying to make the world a better place – from their perspective. It so turned out – their perspective was quite contradictory to the perspective of many others. In fact, rest of the world labelled this act as mindless. Thus an innovation may be the result of mindless thinking and may result into mindless action – at least as seen from a section of society.  

Innovation is a creative response to the perceived challenge. And mindfulness is about perceptual clarity – seeing what is. If what you perceive is distorted or muddled up, no matter how hard you try, no matter how many geniuses you put together, the response will be muddled up. If you don’t have the ability to see if you are solving the right problem, then you may be hurting humanity even if you have the best of intentions.

Let’s take the case of Uber – a company that is known for its innovations and a company whose taxi service is running in 600+ cities across the world. I am a beneficiary of its service and perhaps you are too. Uber has had a rapid growth in a short span. However, things become murky when you ask the question – growth at what cost? It apparently fostered a culture where “back stabbing” of co-workers was encouraged and mistreatment of female employees was ignored. An investigation into sexual harassment issues led to the termination of 20 employees and eventually resulted in the resignation of the company CEO.

Uber is a case where the intent of treating all stakeholders fairly got into conflict with the intent of growing the business at a certain speed. And the intent to grow overpowered everything else. Perhaps Uber is not unique and that every organization that is chasing a quarter-on-quarter revenue-profit targets is undergoing similar pressure. To make sound decisions under such circumstances needs intense awareness of not only what is going on outside – in the meeting room, in the company, in the market but also inside one’s own mind – the anxiety of falling short of the growth target, the damage to self-image for not meeting the investor expectations etc. This awareness is mindfulness.

In short, innovation and mindfulness are connected deeply at the problem definition. Unless one is mindful of the distortions created by one’s own anxieties and aspirations one ends up solving the wrong problem. And nurturing a wrong problem is similar to nourishing a monster. You never know what shape it may take in future.

Image source:

Monday, June 26, 2017

Mobile app upgrade as a metaphor for the virus in the thought process

Every time I turn on WiFi on my mobile phone, some application begins to get upgraded automatically. It doesn’t even ask my permission. Can this phenomenon help us learn about the virus in our thought process? That is what we will explore in this article.

When we buy a new phone, it comes with some default applications. For example, for an Android phone, Google Maps, Gmail etc. come pre-installed on the phone. We also download new apps e.g. Uber cabs as we see that they could help us in our day-to-day life. These applications are constantly getting upgraded. Sometimes these upgrades are fixing some problems with the apps, sometimes new features get added, other times the app gets a better protection against virus attacks etc. In short, these upgrades are trying to make our phone future-proof. 

In general, these upgrades should be happening when the phone is idle i.e. it is not being used for a call or a message or reading a mail or watching a movie etc.  Our phone, even when it is not busy making or receiving a call, is involved in checking if somebody is trying to call us or send a message. It also has many other sensors such as temperature sensor, accelerometer for speed / direction sensor etc. It is also constantly checking date and time and triggering alarms at an appropriate moment if they have been set.  In short, phone is a sensitive device, constantly engaged in scanning the signals and meaningfully responding to them.

Now, imagine a situation where the app upgrades become all important. i.e. the phone goes into a mode where all it is doing primarily is app upgrades and nothing else. It considers upgrading itself to be more important than everything else – even making / receiving a call etc. Even when somebody tries to call us, the phone rejects the call because it is busy upgrading itself. It is like the phone has lost its primary function. Who would like such a phone?

Now, let’s compare this upgrade mechanism with our life. Our attention is required to do what we are doing in the present moment – say eating, walking, driving, listening etc. However, these activities have become so automatic that the thought feels that it can do some upgrades while these activities are happening. So it starts running “What if” scenarios – “What if I don’t reach the meeting on time?”, “What if I lose this job?”, “What if people discover that I am really not that smart?” etc. We feel that these ‘what if’ scenarios help us take some actions that will reduce the probability of failure. In short, the thought process helps us in making our life future-proof, similar to a mobile app upgrade.

Now, imagine the thought process goes berserk perhaps due to some virus on the ‘what if’ simulations and grabs all the attention all the time for the simulation. Almost no attention is left for the present moment activities. We are eating our lunch but the attention is in the “upgrade” scenarios. We are driving a car but thinking about the upcoming meeting. When we are in the meeting, the thought is simulating the next activity etc. Effectively, we are not giving any activity its due attention. The future-proofing is happening at the cost of the quality of attention in the present-moment. In an overdrive mode, the thought process is also affecting the sensitivity to signals sent from the body such as hunger, sleep etc. and from surrounding such as feelings of the family members, team members, how we are treating nature etc. It is as though we have become insensitive to the reality and begun to live in the thought created future-proofing simulation.

Now, you might ask. OK, this is life, what to do? The first step is to watch this process and see if the upgrade simulations are indeed serving a useful purpose or they have become repetitive, compulsive and wasteful. You have been thinking about selecting the best school for your daughter for the past one month. How long do you want to keep thinking? This awareness can be powerful. Alternately, you can step out of the simulation for a few moments and bring attention to the present moment activity –breathing, eating, sitting, walking etc. Try it out for yourself.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Photo gallery: "Mindfulness on the go" at Agastya International Foundation, Kuppam

I got an opportunity to facilitate the 2-day workshop "Mindfulness on the go" for folks from Agastya International Foundation at the scenic campus in Kuppam on June 8-9, 2017. Here are a few pictures from the workshop. We had four long silent sitting sessions (between 30 minutes to 1 hour duration). Unfortunately, we don't any photo from these silent sittings because everybody had kept their phones away. We also had a silent walk around the campus on the evening of day-1 led by Mr. Nitin Desai.

We used following movies to illustrate the concepts, tools, practice / investigation process:

Some of the questions that got raised and discussed during the workshop are:
  • Why do we need to meditate?
  • How to control thoughts?
  • Is meditation connected with any religion / sect?
  • What is the difference between meditation, concentration and silent sitting?
  • How to differentiate between useful and wasteful thoughts?
  • What is the relationship between meditation and god?
  • How is this connected with enlightenment?
  • Isn't fear necessary for achieving our goals?
Photo credit: Subbu Shastri, Gauri Dabholkar

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

As Jeff Bezos says, are big ideas incredibly easy to identify?

In a recent interview, Amazon Founder Jeff Bezos made following statement (18:22): “The main job of a senior leader is to identify 2 or 3 important ideas and then to enforce great execution against those big ideas. And the good news is, the big ideas are usually incredibly easy to identify.” For anyone who has dabbled in innovation, this may sound like a strange statement. If identification of big ideas is really that simple, why isn’t everybody running with one? Is there a catch here? Or, was Bezos just joking? Let’s explore this in this article.

Here is the context. Bezos is answering the question, “Can you predict what Amazon will look like ten years from now?” He first points out that the observable Amazon could change quite a bit. Nobody could have predicted ten years ago that Amazon Web Services (AWS) would be a significant contributor to Amazon business. Then he mentions that hopefully the core approach involving customer obsession, willingness to invent and long term view (patience & accepting failures as a path to success) would remain the same. This is where he makes the statement that big ideas are incredibly easy to identify.

What are the three big ideas for Amazon consumer business? They are: Low prices, fast delivery and vast selection. Of course, that’s the dream of any retailer. And it’s known for a long time. Bezos stresses that “big ideas should be obvious.” Now, let’s de-layer this a bit.

First, let’s notice that when Bezos spells out these ideas, they get presented as questions. E.g. How do we always deliver things a little faster? How do we reduce our cost structure so that we can reduce our prices lower? etc. So what Bezos refers to as big ideas in this context, are actually big challenges. In fact, I would call them strategic challenges. And as Bezos says, they are usually stable over time. He is also quick to add following caveat: It is hard to maintain a firm grasp on the obvious at all times. Little things can distract from the obvious.   

I have been talking to senior leaders for the past decade. And I am not convinced that they know what their big challenges are. Or at least they haven’t been able to articulate them in a clear manner.  Perhaps, Bezos is right. Every senior leader knows the big challenges. However, the caveat, the little distractions, is creating a cloud of confusion. And leader is losing focus on the strategic challenges. I don’t know. What do you think?

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Why does U G Krishnamurti say, “Thought is your enemy”?

I recently read U G Krishnamurti’sThought is your enemy”. UG, as he is popularly known, is one of the blunt spiritual teachers. This usually means there is no apparent common ground between UG and the reader (or the person conversing with him). “Thought is your enemy” is a compilation of discussions between UG and various seekers in India, Switzerland, Australia, Netherlands and UK between 1985 and 1990. In “Thought is your enemy”, UG is consistent in his position that thought is not an instrument that can help us in solving our problems; on the contrary, it only creates problems. Why does UG say that? Let’s explore it through three claims he makes in the book.

Thought destroys sensitivity: UG says, “The function of the brain in this body is only to take care of the needs of the physical organism and to maintain its sensitivity, where thought, through its constant interference with sensory activity, is destroying the sensitivity of the body.” We might be able to observe this in our daily life. When we are really anxious or stressed, we tend to eat more or sometimes eat less. Body is sending signals about when we should eat and when we should stop eating. However, the constant interference of thought is obscuring those signals. Hence, our eating habit may become abnormal. What happens to eating also gets extended to sitting posture, sleep and various others habits because our sensitivity gets diminished due to interfering thoughts.

Thought can only create problems, not solve them: UG says, “Thought is not the instrument for achieving anything other than the goals set before us by our culture or society or whatever you want to call it. The basic problem we have to face today is this: the cultural input, or what society has placed before us as the goal for all of us to reach and attain, is the enemy of this living organism. Thought can only create problems; it cannot help us to solve any.” Thought comes with a built-in program to create the next goal to be achieved – be it an educational degree, a house purchase, a promotion, a start-up, poverty alleviation or even enlightenment. Once one goal is met, another is generated automatically. Thought makes sure that happiness lies in the future, not in the present moment. How can such an instrument help us live a peaceful life ever?

Thought is fascist:  UG says, “Thought in its birth, in its origin, in its content, in its expression, and in its action is very fascist. When I use the word ‘fascist’ I use it not in the political sense but to mean that thought controls and shapes our thinking and our actions. It has helped us to create our technology. It has made our life very comfortable. It has also made it possible for us to discover new laws of nature. But thought is a very protective mechanism and is interested in its own survival.” Just like a Hitler believes in an ideology and makes it non-negotiable, thought believes in a value system and makes it non-negotiable. Whatever I value, be it a religion, be it a scientific principle or a business principle, once I make it non-negotiable, fascist nature is born. UG says, “You see, the value system is false.”

“Thought is your enemy”, like any other UG book, is not a light reading. It has no prescription. It is not meant to be understood. However, if you are open to reading between the lines, contemplate and perhaps ready to experiment with your own value system, then it may be a powerful companion.

image source:

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Gabbar Singh and self-deception

Growing up as a school boy in the late 70s, it was hard to miss the famous Gabbar Singh (Amjad Khan) dialogue from the movie Sholay – Kitney admi they? (How many guys were there?) It was popular among kids and a mandatory item during family gatherings. What I realized only recently about this dialogue is that it is a great example of self-deception, a phenomenon in which our thought process is fooling us and we are not even aware of it. How does Gabbar Singh dialogue demonstrate self-deception? That is what we will see in this article.

The dialogue has three of Gabbar’s gang men – Kalia and two others - sheepishly standing because they have come back empty handed – without any loot. Moreover, they were driven away by two young men. Gabbar is really upset. He tells them that the government has put up a huge prize for catching Gabbar. In fact, every mom living several miles away is telling her child to be quiet while putting her to sleep. “Otherwise Gabbar Singh will come,” she says. And these three men with their cowardly act had tarnished Gabbar’s image. The dialogue ends with Gabbar killing all three and finally proclaiming his team’s core value – “Jo darr gaya samjho mar gaya” – Once afraid, as good as dead.

“Living in fear is not worth living” is quite a profound statement. One can easily misattribute it to some spiritual teachers like J. Krishnamurti or a Zen master. However, Gabbar appears to be a living embodiment of that value. Or does he?  On a closer look, we can see that there is a self-deception going on. Actually, Gabbar is also a fearful man. What is he afraid of? Gabbar is afraid of his self-image getting damaged. In fact, deep down he knows that his image is not that secure. He can’t bear the thought of such a downgraded image. However, the most interesting part is that Gabbar is not even aware that he is also a fearful man. A man who goes to the extent of killing his team members for a value is not even aware that his own behaviour is contradicting the same value. That’s why this phenomenon is called self-deception.

What is self-deception? It is a process in which our thought process misperceives reality and mis-attributes cause and effect. For example, it perceives that the person in front has said something insulting and it has resulted in a feeling of hurt. Then it attributes the cause of the hurt feeling to the person in front. Thought concludes the person in front has caused the pain. Similarly, Gabbar concludes that Kalia and team are the problem and he needs to get rid of it. He doesn’t see that if being fearful is the real problem then he is infected with the same problem.

The real cause of the hurt feeling isn’t the so-called “insulting” words. The real cause is yet another thought stored in our memory in the form of a belief that insulting words are bad for us. Thought treats it similar to someone throwing dirt at us. This belief springs into action from memory when the insulting words get interpreted and automatically creates a feeling of pain. So the real cause of the pain is one’s own belief. If, for some reason, the belief is altered e.g. if somebody says, “I am bad” that doesn’t make me bad, the same insulting words would have a different effect.

When one pays attention to the thought process in situations which upset us, one may begin to see how thought is running the business of managing self-image. And it may unravel the self-deception. Perhaps one may be able to stay with the feeling of diminished self-image without reacting. And then a different reality might unfold. Until one experiments in real scenarios and sees the process in action, just the knowledge that there is self-deception, is really not of much help.

Hope you get to experiment with your negative emotions and see if there is any self-deception in action. Like Gabbar, you don’t want to end up “killing” the innocent guys, do you?

image source:

Further reading on self-deception:

Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman talks about self-deception in his interview with Sam Harris “Thinking about thinking” (see the last question – To what extent do you think true self-deception, as opposed to simple bias, exists?)

Jiddu Krishnamurti talks about it in chapter 18 of “First and last freedom” titled Self-deception.

David Bohm has written as article titled “On self-deception in individual, in groups and in society as a whole”.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Before-and-after storyboard: A simple template

A storyboard may sound like a simple or perhaps kindergarten kind of tool. However, an idea depicted through a simple storyboard may evoke powerful emotions, gossip and constructive criticism. Moreover, a simple storyboard can be drawn in less than an hour, sometimes within half an hour. I call it a candidate for building 1-hour feels like prototype. In this article, we look at a simple template that may be helpful in creating a storyboard.

Example-1: An idea related to a cafeteria experience in IIM Bangalore.

A few checklist items which I find useful in the storyboard are: 
  •  Does the storyboard contain people? This may seem like a silly question. However, I have seen engineers drawing detailed architecture diagram with no people. Architecture diagrams are useful but not in storyboards. A story is typically human centric.
  •  Are thoughts expressed through cloud bubbles?  To the person drawing the storyboard, the story is in the head. However, when thoughts are expressed through cloud bubbles, they help the reader understand the story better.
  • Is the place of the events clear? In the second frame in the “before” scenario of the example above, the event is happening in the cafeteria. Context helps us understand the story better. Unfortunately, the context is missing in the “after” scenario. It is not clear whether the ready-to-eat chole are warmed up in the hostel pantry or in the cafeteria. That would have helped.
  •  Does the “before” scenario bring out a pain? “Chole tasted like sambhar” – this expression brings out the pain in this case.
  • Does the story bring out a unique feature of the solution? “Ready to eat chole in 5 minutes” is presenting a unique feature of the proposed solution. Note that this point could be debated. One may argue that such products are available. And this would be an opportunity for the idea author to elaborate in what way her solution is unique. Or perhaps re-think of the solution or even problem definition.

Example-2: Here is another storyboard where an intelligent tool might help a marketing manager launch a Black Friday promotion campaign. 

A room or a wall with storyboards can come alive and attract a lot of attention and responses. Try it out and see it for yourself.