Monday, September 26, 2016

My 3 take-aways from Edgar Schein’s “Humble Consulting”

Prof. Edgar Schein’s book “Process consulting” was published in the year I was born – 1969. Since then he has been refining the concept over the past five decades. I have found the concept very helpful in my consulting career. In fact, I have read all of Schein’s subsequent books in “processing consulting” series – Process consultation revisited (1999), Helping (2009) and Humble Inquiry (2013). The latest entry from this series is “Humbleconsulting: How to provide real help faster” published by Berret-Koehler Publishers (2016). Here are 3 of my take-aways from “Humble consulting”.

Humble questions may result in big impact: One of the key points Schein drives here is that carrying a humble attitude (being curious) towards the client is important in the helping process. And even a simple humble inquiry may lead to a big impact for the client. Here is an example Schein gives from his personal experience. Schein was having lunch with the CEO and his executive team of Alcoa Australia. The CEO pointed out that the VP Administration is retiring and proposed if Steve could be his replacement. VP Finance, VP Operations and a few others said that they were not comfortable with Steve as VP Admin but they were not able to point out the exact issue. At this point, Schein intervened and asked, “Sorry for jumping into the conversation, but I am curious what VP of Admin does.” CEO said that VP Admin heads a bunch of functions such as HR, internal accounting and finance and public relations. At this point, a VP jumped in to point out that Steve won’t be able to handle public relations. Others agreed. So another VP proposed that public relations could be separated from the VP Admin function and a new VP of Environmental Affairs and PR can be created. Everybody was comfortable with this idea and the issue was resolved. The point of this story is that Schein’s humble enquiry on the role of VP Admin led to a workable solution.

Beware of content seduction trap: Schein says, “The consultant must have empathy but carefully avoid content seduction because, as an outsider, he will never have the insider’s direct knowledge of what will and will not work in the client’s culture”. Empathy is understanding the client’s situation while content seduction is a feeling that I understand the client enough and can suggest a workable solution. This looks at odds with the traditional consulting wisdom which says that an expert consultant should be able to provide a workable solution to his client. Schein cites several examples where he and other consultants conducted several interviews with the client executives, formulated a problem and devised a solution. When the solution was presented to the client, he either ignored it or rejected it outright. If proposing a solution is not a good approach, what does a humble consultant do? Well, Schein suggests using adaptive moves which will help client diagnose the problem as well as see a solution.

Adaptive moves for simultaneous diagnosis and intervention:  To understand the philosophy behind an adaptive move, it helps to understand following profound statement from Schein:  There are no “real” problems, only a set of worries. Here, Schein questions the existence of problems as objective reality independent of client. According to him, a problem exists only as a set of worries in clients’ mind. Perhaps the client himself may be unaware of the real worry. A small step one can take in order for the client to see his real worry is what Schein calls an adaptive move. Let’s illustrate this using one of the examples Schein cites. He was trying to help a bunch of smart engineers at DEC in strategy meetings. The engineers were argumentative and would often interrupt each other and shoot down others’ ideas. Schein made several attempts to bring this unruly behaviour to their notice which they acknowledged but continued to behave as before. At one point, Schein got up, went to the flip chart board and started jotting down the ideas that were being discussed. While writing down an idea, if a person got interrupted, Schein would excuse the group and request the person to finish his idea so that he could write it down on the flip chart. That made sure all the ideas were captured and the group thanked Schein for being really helpful. It was a small gesture, but it solved the real concern in the minds of the engineers of losing out on ideas. What Schein originally thought to be the real problem – unruly behaviour – was not a worry as far as the group of engineers was concerned. Subsequently, other group members began to go to the flip chart and learnt to do similar facilitation themselves.

Schein uses 25 cases from his personal experience to illustrate the principles. In addition to presenting the conversation between him and his client, Schein also gives what went on in his mind, something like a mental commentary, before he replies to the client. I found this style very helpful. I am amazed by Schein’s productivity at the ripe age of 87 and wish him many more creative years!

image source:

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Empathy as accessing 3 kinds of ignorance

As a Design Thinking facilitator one of the key challenges I face is following: How do we create an experiential understanding of the concept of empathy? Participants do go through observations, interviews etc. However, how does one know if one is actually empathizing with the other? In this article, I am proposing a way of looking at empathy that might help in answering this question. The key is to understand empathizing as a process of accessing our own ignorance. What does “accessing ignorance” mean? And, what are the types of ignorance we need to access? Let’s explore in this article.

Accessing ignorance: After an hour of field research, a group of participants returned to the training room. The team had visited a nearby bus stop and were eager to share their findings. A team member explained how people are in a hurry to reach home and can hardly wait for the bus to come to a full stop before jumping into it. I asked him how many people he interviewed. He said he didn’t have to interview anybody because he is a bus commuter himself and knows their pain. This anecdote illustrates what it means to not access ignorance. Every situation can be approached with one of two attitudes – that of knowing or that of ignorance. The gentleman in the bus stop team, approached the empathy exercise from the attitude of “knowing”. Empathy demands that we approach a situation from the position of ignorance.

There are three kinds of ignorance that need to be accessed: content, intent and illusion. Let’s look at them briefly.

1.      Content ignorance: If one needs to understand more about bus commuters, one needs to ask questions like: Where do people travel to? How long do they have to wait for the bus? How long is the typical journey? How frequently do they use a bus? When do they typically travel? Etc. Answers to these questions begin to create a better picture about the bus commuters’ situation. This is what I refer to as “content ignorance”. If this conversation builds some trust and openness, it may help us access the next level of ignorance: intent ignorance.

2.      Intent ignorance: This ignorance is related to the anxieties and aspirations of people. Why do they travel by bus? Is it because they don’t like driving or is it because they can’t afford a car yet? Is it the long commute time that makes them anxious? Or is it the time taken away from family? Do people ever enjoy a commute? If so, under what circumstances? In short, intent ignorance tries to understand the emotional triggers and the intents that drive people to take up or not take up certain actions. Unless there is a level of trust and openness, a person may not reveal his anxieties and aspirations. For example, an auto drive may not tell you that his school going son is still ashamed of the fact that his father drives an auto.

3.      Illusion ignorance:  This is the toughest of the three kinds of ignorance to access. When the bus stop study team member mentioned that he didn’t have to interview anyone, he actually believed that he knows everything about bus commuters. This is called an illusion of understanding. Our deep seated beliefs are treated as truths and we are unable to question them. Unfortunately, many of these beliefs are not easy to access as they are buried deeply in our unconscious. Hence, it helps to ask oneself from time to time, “Could this be wrong?”

In short, if you are interested in learning to empathize, you should learn to approach a situation from the position of ignorance rather than that of knowledge. There are three kinds of ignorance that need to be accessed: content, intent and illusion.


I first read the term “accessing ignorance” in Edgar Schien’s book “Humble inquiry”.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Rapid prototyping: 1-hour, 1-day and 1-week prototypes

How rapid is rapid prototyping? This question evokes different timelines in peoples’ minds. And it is not uncommon to see that many of my workshop participants are thinking in terms of months. That makes sense if you are building high fidelity prototypes of complex solutions. However, that is not necessarily a good place to start. Hence, I suggest we think in terms of: 1-hour, 1-day and 1-week prototypes. Here is a brief description of each of these types:

Before we get into how to build these prototypes, it helps to clarify what I mean by a prototype. I like the Wikipedia definition of a prototype: A prototype is an early sample, model, or release of a product built to test a concept or process or to act as a thing to be replicated or learned from. In the early phase of an idea, the primary purpose of a prototype is learning – which assumptions make sense, which ones don’t.  

There are three types of prototypes: looks-like (user interface), feels-like (experience sample) and works like (working model). Each type of prototype has a 1-hr, 1-day and 1-week version. Let’s see in brief below.

1-hour prototypes: One of the simplest types of prototype is a before-and-after storyboard. It is a feels-like prototype. This storyboard is similar in spirit with the before-and-after ads on weight-loss or hair-gain programs – one picture of “before” and one picture of “after” scenario. A before-and-after storyboard depicts a scenario before the idea is implemented and a scenario after the idea is implemented. I have seen that once a storyboard is created with sufficient details, it creates a lot of discussion. People have a lot more things to say about your idea by seeing a storyboard than reading just a few lines of text. I have seen companies like Intuit have studios where storyboards are put up on the walls and you can take a walk around to see what you like.

Apart from a storyboard, we can also create wireframes – “looks-like” prototypes – in an hour. These wireframes can be created using paper and pen or even on PowerPoint. When built using cardboard or thermacol, they can also give a feeling of holding a phone in hand.

A works-like prototype may not be always possible to build in an hour. However, the skill here is to identify a small part of the solution and see if it can be built using basic / used components. For example, if your idea is to start a fresh menu fast-food restaurant, then going to kitchen and making a plate using fresh food items could be a 1-hour prototype. For an automation idea, it may be writing a rudimentary script that shows how a manual task can be automated. If your idea is to give Uber like experience for local buses e.g. BMTC or BEST then you can show the Uber App and explain that you might use a similar technology (tools, algorithms) for buses. The important thing for works-like prototype is some knowledge of the working of the solution.

1-day prototype:  “How long do you think it would take to make the first working version of Google Glass experience?” asks Tom Chi in this TED talk video. The answer is – 1 day. It had used components like a coat hanger, a netbook, a pico projector. It was a feels-like prototype but also involved bits-and-pieces of working models.

A feels-like prototype can also be created by doing a 2-act skit which shows before-and-after scenario for your idea. Looks-like prototype can include wireframes made through PowerPoint or using your favourite wireframe tool. In 1-day you can make multiple wireframes – each corresponding to a key scenario. 

The picture above shows an ice-cream scoop made by Prof. Karl Ulrich using a used baseball bat and it was made in a few hours (see this article for more details). The 1-day works-like prototype shown above is a games-room designed in a student hostel at IIM in order to help students relieve their stress.

Note that Gmail’s AdSense prototype was built overnight and even James Watt built the first working prototype of his steam engine in 3 days.

1-week prototype: Prof. Ulrich who designed 2-3 sample ice-cream scoops in 1-day, got one of them 3-D printed in a week’s time (see picture above). You can create a short video depicting the experience of your solution within 1 week.

The picture above shows a scooter modified using tent-wires to give protection from rain for the rider. This was done as a student project in less than a week.

In short, rapid prototyping can happen as rapidly as an hour. Of course, a lab or a studio / workshop helps speed up prototyping.

Monday, July 25, 2016

What’s wrong with practicing mindfulness to become better?

Hollywood actor Richard Gere visited Bangalore last year en route to a nearby monastery to meet Dalai Lama. He commented that he had been practicing meditation for more than 40 years and yet the wait in the immigration queue at Bangalore airport ticked him off1. He said, “I cannot claim to have had any breakthrough”. Forty years of meditation practice is a long time, isn’t it? But what if 40 years is not enough? Perhaps he is just joking? Or he may not be practicing it right? Or perhaps mindfulness involves something more than a practice? Perhaps this meditation stuff is a hoax? Any of these could be true. However, in this article I would like to explore the possibility that mindfulness involves something other than practice.
Let’s start from the first principle. Mindfulness is about seeing the reality as it is. But that definition is slippery because thought distorts perception and creates cognitive illusion. Hence, it is difficult to know if what I am perceiving is real or illusory. Suppose I see that my boss is stupid. Is it real or an illusion? I won’t know unless I investigate it further. Hence, an alternate view of mindfulness is – it is an investigation into potential illusions created by thought while thinking.
One name which is well known when it comes to investigation is Sherlock Holmes. Have you ever heard or read that Sherlock Holmes is practising something when he is investigating a case? I haven’t. Of course, he sometimes practices his violin. But we don’t say that violin practice solves mysteries. Investigation is a creative process. You can’t follow fixed steps in an investigation. However, you may build stamina by practicing various tools useful for investigation. Holmes practices in places like chemistry lab where he performs experiments to build diagnostic tools. Similarly, it may be useful to practice observing your train of thought when you are in a relatively undisturbed state perhaps seated with eyes closed in a corner of a room. That may build some stamina in retaining attention when it is needed most. Which is when?
Now, here is a hypothesis – every time there is a negative emotion – in the form of worry, anxiety, anger, guilt, blame etc., there is a cognitive illusion lurking behind it. Thus awareness of a negative emotion indicates the arrival of a case for investigation. Like Richard Gere, if I am in a queue and getting irritated of the wait and if I become aware of my irritation then that means in Sherlock Holmes’ language – a case has arrived.
One common reason why we become upset is when our self-image is under attack. For example, I may be mad at my boss because he has hurt my self-image. We value our self-image more than anything else and constantly seek to protect or enhance it. This process is sometimes referred to as the process of becoming. Becoming… a lean, wealthy, healthy, spiritual, famous, well-respected – pick your favorite adjective – person. Thus the original hypothesis leads to following – For every negative emotion there is a “process of becoming” lurking behind and in friction with the potential damage to the self-image. Hence, one can look at mindfulness as an investigation into the process of becoming.
In summary, we are saying that mindfulness is more of an investigation than a practice. Moreover, it is an investigation into the process of becoming. Hence, if you say you are doing it to become better, you are getting into a conflict of intent – kind of a paradox. How can you investigate the process of becoming to become better?


Richard Gere’s comment on the lack of breakthrough is mentioned in this article titled “Gere springs a surprise” from The Hindu, Dec 8, 2015.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

My 3 takeaways from Phil Rosenzweig’s “Halo Effect”

When I present the development of Tata Nano through the lens of the innovation sandbox process, some people say, “But Nano is a failure”.  Why do we find it hard to accept that Nano development might have followed a good process? Because, once we know that Nano is a failure, every attribute of Nano gets tainted by the halo created by the failure, kind of a dark shadow. That is what called “Halo Effect”. It is a cognitive bias in which observer’s overall impression of a person, company brand, or product influences the observer’s feelings and thoughts about that entity’s character or properties.
Once you like Narendra Modi, you start liking other things about him – his diet, his dress, his oratory skills, his exercise regime etc. I turned to “Halo Effect” by Phil Rosenzweig because it is highly recommended by one of my favourite experts on decision making, Daniel Kahneman. Here are 3 of my takeaways from the book illustrated through the examples also from the book:
  • Halo spreads through heuristic substitution: John Kotter and James Heskett from Harvard Business School did a study to find how corporate culture is related to the company performance. Their survey questionnaire had questions like: rate the strength of the corporate culture on a scale of 1 to 5, rate how the company culture fits its environment on a scale of 1 to 7, how much does the company culture values excellent leadership (scale 1 to 7) etc. In all these cases, Kotter and Heskett found high correlation between these attributes (culture, environmental fit, leadership etc.) and performance of the company. That, according Rosenzweig, is not surprising because when asked a question about, say leadership: How is the leadership of the company? We tend to answer an easier question: How is the company performing? This substitution happens without conscious awareness of the person answering the questionnaire. In effect, the variable such as leadership is no longer independent of the company performance. It is under the Halo of the outcome (in this case, performance). Thus Halo spreads through heuristic substitutions which are automatic. 
  • Big data can’t negate the Halo: “Good to Great” by Jim Collins is one of the bestsellers in management literature selling over four million copies since its publication in 2001. The book identified seven characteristics of companies that went from “good to great”. The research involved studying “6,000 articles, generating more than 2000 pages of interview transcripts and creating 384 mega-bytes of computer data in a five-year project”. The research started with 1,435 Fortune 500 companies then narrowed down to eleven which fit the criteria of “good to great”. The criterion was – fifteen years of stock market returns near the general average and then a transition to a period of fifteen years of stock market returns well above average. Then they thoroughly studied the eleven companies. Some of the parameters were free of Halo Effect – e.g. to manager turnover, extent of board ownership etc. However, they also interviewed managers at these “Good to great” companies and asked questions like – “How did the company get commitment and alignment?”
Rosenzweig says, “Interview questions of this nature, where managers are asked to look back and explain what happened, rarely produce valid data, since retrospective self-reporting is commonly biased by performance.” Does good leadership lead to good performance? Perhaps. But perhaps, good performance also leads to seeing the leadership as good. This gets muddled up with Halo Effect. “Good to great” does not even acknowledge that some of the data could be biased.
  • 9-point delusion checklist: If Halo Effect can creep in unconsciously and not go away in spite of large data collection, then what does one do to tackle it? Rosenzweig gives a checklist of 9 delusions which can be used to check if your approach is bias prone.  Some of these delusions are: the delusion of correlation and causality, the delusion of single explanation etc. Perhaps over a period these checks may become automatic. 
I feel that “Halo Effect” is an important book for both management researchers and managers. It might help you when you design a survey questionnaire or when you try to establish cause and effect relationship in a business context.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Learning Design Thinking: Is it more like learning cycling or cycology?

In the past few years I got opportunities to introduce Design Thinking subject to management faculty from various institutes. Some of these sessions were in teachers’ training programs held at IIM Bangalore, others were in the faculty development programs organized by institutes such as Christ University. One typical question that came up during these sessions is – How is DT different from what we are doing in Marketing, New Product Development or Operations Management? As a first step to explore whether there is indeed any difference, we can look at the following question: Are students learning the subject more like cycling or cycology? Let’s look at this question in this article.

To appreciate the difference, you may want to try drawing a bicycle. It turns out most people can’t get it right the first time (Here is a paper on science of cycology that shows it experimentally). But the main point here is not whether you can draw a cycle correctly. It is that your ability to draw a cycle correctly is independent of your ability to cycle. You could learn to draw it well in a classroom and still not know how to cycle and vice versa. When you learn to cycle, it is sometimes referred to as experiential learning which Wikipedia translates as “learning through reflection on doing”. I feel learning DT is like learning both cycling and cycology with an emphasis on cycling. However, for many faculty members in India, teaching / learning happens as a study in classroom i.e. primarily cycology.

There are at least three steps in DT where experiential learning gets emphasized. First is while learning to do immersive research. Students are expected to spend time outside the classroom and observe-interview-listen in the context they are studying. This could be a cafeteria, a classroom, a restaurant, a grocery shop or any context the team chooses to study. Second is when they are building prototypes. This is practiced in the classroom, in the lab / workshops with materials ranging from cardboard, play-dough to building physical models through woodwork, circuit boards, mobile apps etc. Third step where experiential learning is emphasized is when students test their prototypes with users and gather improvements areas. Sometimes user testing reveals not only a gap in the solution but also an incorrect assumption in the challenge statement itself. If all these elements are practiced through experiential learning in any course then DT may not offer new stuff.

What are the “cycology” elements in DT? Well, there are a number of tools, methods and principles which one can learn. For example, it could be about the kind of questions to be asked during an interview, or about different ways of framing a challenge or about ways of prototyping etc. It also involves learning about various cognitive biases that distort our perception, framing and testing ability.

In short, learning DT involves practicing both cycling and cycology – i.e. practicing the design principles and learning-by-doing. Doing one without the other may not be sufficient.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Henry Molaison and his “Permanent present tense”

Meditators do years of practice so that they can live in the present moment. Henry Molaison for most of his adult life had no choice but to live in the present moment. As a person with amnesia since the age of 27, he had no concept of yesterday and tomorrow. When asked, “What will you do tomorrow?” Henry answered, “Whatever is beneficial.” Henry Molaison also known as H.M. through the psychology textbooks and literature is the most studied subject in the history of neuroscience. The book “Permanent present tense” by Prof. Suzanne Corkin of MIT whose lab studied Henry as a subject for over 40 years, captures the story of both Henry as well as the neuroscience of memory.

I first heard of Henry when I watched the second episode of the six part PBS documentary “The brain with David Eagleman” titled “What makes me?” Henry underwent a brain surgery at the age of 27 in 1953 as the last option for his sever epilepsy. The surgeon removed both the sides of his hippocampus – a 3 cm component buried deep inside each side of our brain. Henry recovered from his epilepsy but the surgery took away his ability to form long term memories. If you walked out of a meeting with Henry and returned after a few minutes, Henry would greet you as though he is meeting you for the first time. In fact, when researcher Morris left and re-entered the room after some time, Henry said after greeting him, “There’s an empty chair. You go sit there.” That was, of course, the same chair Morris was sitting before he left the room. While being amnesiac Henry was intelligent, articulate and perceptive.

Did Henry lose all types of long term memory? No. One of the breakthrough results in understanding long term memory happened when researcher Brenda Milner administered the star tracing experiment with Henry as the subject in 1963. The procedure involved tracing a five point star by looking in the mirror and it was done multiple times over three consecutive days. The task was challenging and involved learning a new motor-skill allowing a reversed visual image to guide the movement of the hand. Every time Henry began the experiment he had no memory of the previous try. However, Henry’s error rate kept dropping as the first day progressed. His error rate at the start of day-2 was similar to where he left off on day-1. On the third day, He performed nearly perfectly, his pencil rarely crossing the boundary. On day-3, after one of the trials Henry observed, “Well, this is strange. I thought that that would be difficult, but it seems as though I’ve done it quite well”. This showed that Henry hadn’t lost all types of long term memory formation. He had lost what we call episodic memory (What did I eat for breakfast this morning? And with whom?) and semantic memory (What are the names of my friends? Knowledge of people, places). However, he had retained procedural memory (How to use a walker, remote, joystick etc.) When Henry passed away in 2008, he had been using a walker for over a decade.

Henry was mostly an “amiable, smiling” man, but did he ever get upset? Occasionally, he did get frustrated, sad, aggressive or uneasy but these negative emotions would typically dissipate as soon as he was distracted. There were no new associations getting formed that were binding the incident or person or object to an emotion. Perhaps there lies a clue to human suffering – storing a connection between an external situation or person with a negative emotion in the long term memory.  We can carry anger or guilt for years and retrieve it as soon as the link is activated. Henry’s story prompts us to pay attention as we form and retrieve these links every day.

After Henry passed away his brain was scanned in an MRI machine for nine hours. Later it was cut into 2401 ultrathin slices from front to back. These slices have been digitized and assembled into a three-dimensional image that scientists and the public will be eventually view on the web. I liked the way Prof. Corkin concludes the book – Although he lived his own life in the present tense, Henry had a permanent impact on the science of memory, and on the thousands of patients who have benefited from his contributions.

I recommend the book to anyone wanting to understand the development of neuroscience of memory, how experiments are designed in neuropsychology and the role memory plays in our day-to-day life as well as building a narrative called “I”.

Book cover, Henry’s picture are from the book “Permanent present tense”.
Mirror tracing image is from Psychology textbook by Peter Gray.