I work as a catalyst in two areas: innovation and mindfulness. As an innovation catalyst I help organizations foster a culture of innovation. As a mindfulness catalyst I help individuals perceive the illusions created by their own thinking process.
Do you get upset about somebody’s behaviour? Say, a public
figure such as a politician or someone close to you, your spouse, kids,
parents, friends? Then that is an indication that you haven’t empathized with
the person enough. Well, that is the hypothesis I would like to explore in this
Easterine Kire Iralu’s book “A terrible
matriarchy” begins with a childhood memory of the protagonist, Dielieno, a
girl coming of age in Kohima, Nagaland, an eastern state in India. She
remembers an incident when her granny is serving chicken curry to Lieno and her
brothers. Lieno, who is four-five years old, tells her granny, “I want a leg
piece”. Granny says, “Who is asking you, stupid?” and serves the leg piece to
Lieno’s brother. Then comes the sermon from granny, “Leg pieces are for the
boys, girls should eat the other pieces.”
When Lieno is six/seven years old, she is sent to stay with
her granny who continues to make Lieno work hard, e.g. fetching the water from
nearby stream, getting the stove ready, feeding the chicken etc. Granny
believes that girls don’t need education or affection or time to play or even a
good piece of meat with gravy! They need to become docile and hardworking in
order to become good housewives. More importantly, on every opportunity, she
makes it a point to tell Lieno that boys are more important than girls. Naturally,
Lieno grows up hating her granny.
After Lieno’s granny expires, for the first time, Lieno talks
to her mom about granny’s tyrannical behaviour. Her mom feels bad about it but
also gives the background as to why granny would have become like that. Granny’s
mom didn’t have a brother and she had to lose all the ancestral property to
other relatives because only boys inherited property. That had a deep impact on
her and she favoured boys all her life. After hearing this story, Lieno felt
that she understood granny better. Her grudge turned into compassion. That is
the beginning of empathy. What exactly is happening here?
To understand this process of empathizing, it helps
see thought as a system of conditioned reflexes. A reflex fires automatically
when touched. When the knee bone is hit, it jerks. That’s an elementary reflex.
When the vehicle in front slows down, we break automatically. That’s a reflex. Our
thought process is governed by millions of such reflexes that help us carry out
our daily activity. As we learn new skills such as driving or form new
opinions, we form new reflexes and over a period they fire automatically.
Some reflexes carry a special property of “necessity”. For
example, we assume that the ground will hold firm as we walk or the cycle will
turn left when we turn the handle left. However, sometimes the result doesn’t
match our expectations. For example, a cycle may turn right when we turn the
handle left. And then we realize that we can’t ride the cycle (check out the
video “The backwards
brain bicycle” above). Because the reflexes fire automatically, we turn the
handle in the same direction where we want the cycle to turn. This happens in
spite of the knowledge that we ought to turn the handle the other way for this
cycle. Destin had to practice riding the backwards-brain cycle every day for 8 months to change the reflex. That’s
the power of a conditioned reflex.
Some of our beliefs and assumptions are far more deeply and
tightly ingrained than the cycling reflexes. For example, for Lieno’s granny,
boys are more important than girls is one such assumption that has become a
rigid reflex. So, no matter how much you try to explain to her, she will not
change her opinion. Granny has almost no choice in her behaviour in this matter.
Once we see that the behaviour of a person is a result of
almost mechanical and rigid reflexes, it becomes difficult to sustain grudge
against the person. You don’t get angry with a computer or a car, do you?
Empathy is that understanding of rigid reflexes. Empathy doesn’t mean you agree
or like the behaviour. When Lieno felt she understood granny better, she still
didn’t agree with her behaviour. She just didn’t feel the need to hold a grudge,
Whenever you feel upset about somebody’s
behaviour, you may want to ask yourself, “Could this behaviour be a result of a
rigid reflex? If so, what might be the assumption(s) behind such a reflex?” source: Thought as a set of conditioned reflexes is explored in detail in David Bohm's "Thought as a system"
For most of 20th century scientists believed that
brain develops during a critical period during early childhood and then remains
relative unchanged. However, in the last few decades it has been shown that many
aspects of the brain can be altered (or are “plastic”) even into adulthood. And
yet, we find it difficult to change our habits. We see that people don’t change
their views especially their core beliefs easily. This is what Norman Doidge refers
to as “Plastic paradox” in his book “The brain
that changes itself”. Doidge considers this riddle one of the most
important lessons of the book. If our brain is really like a play-doh, then why
is it so difficult to change? Let’s explore this riddle in this article.
One of my favourite stories from the book revolves around
the neuroscientist Paul Bach-y-Rita. In a now-famous experiment in 1960s he
demonstrated that vision can be substituted by other sensory input such as
stimulators touching the back. Bach-y-Rita published his result in Nature in
1969 and coined the term “You see with your brain, not with your eyes”. In this
experiment, he had a blind person sit on a dentist-kind-of chair. The back of
the chair was replaced with a matrix of mechanical vibrators. There was a
camera mounted on top. Depending on the object captured by the camera, certain
set of vibrators would touch the back. (see the picture) It was found out that the
visual cortex of the blind person’s brain began to process the input coming from
the skin (back stimulators) and the person began to “see” the objects. This demonstrated
that brain could reorganize itself.
Subsequently scientists have found that brain undergoes
massive reorganization when one falls in love for the first time and when one
becomes a parent for the first time. At the microscopic level, it has been
shown that every learning experience involves lasting changes to the brain. In
fact, every thought is changing the brain synapses at a microscopic level. Assuming
we have 50,000 thoughts a day, your brain is undergoing 50,000 microscopic
changes in a day. That’s a lot of change. Ideally, we should be in a good
position to change anything – quit smoking, follow a diet, stop worrying
unnecessarily etc. But that’s not our experience. What’s happening here?
To explain this “plastic paradox”, Doidge uses a metaphor originally
from the neuroscientist Pascual-Leone of Harvard. It says that the plastic
brain is like a snowy hill in the winter. When we slide down the hill for the
first time, we will create a small path. When we come down the second time, we
will find it easier to follow a path closer to the first one. And if we repeat
this enough, it would create a speedy track, kind of a highway. The highways
serve a useful purpose as we carry out umpteen tasks on auto-pilot such as
walking, talking, driving etc. However, the highways also pose a drawback. As
the brain gets used to using the highways, who wants to pave a new path? It is
too much of effort. That’s how we get stuck with our habits.
So what does one do? Well, Doidge doesn’t offer any solution
in his book. However, this is what I feel based on my experiments and I could
be wrong. A paradox gets resolved when attention is paid to the inherent
inconsistency. Perhaps a good place to start may be by paying attention to the
thinking process as it is sliding down the “speedy tracks” especially when it
is not serving any useful purpose such as the case of worry, guilt, blame etc. Who
knows? This might open up alternate paths. And that might take us to the
uncharted territory and lead to creative insights.
I found the book helpful in understanding various ways in which neuroscience is exploring the boundaries of brain's plasticity.
I got an opportunity to participate in the annual
gathering organized by Krishnamurti
Foundation India (KFI) at Rishi
Valley near Madanapalle in Andhra earlier this week. The school, started in
1931, is 3 years older than my father. It was me and my wife’s first visit and
my parents’ second visit to the campus. The gathering folks had organized walks
along the trails in the valley. Watching the sunrise, sunset and the green
valley from the hilltops every day was a joy. For nature lovers, Rishi Valley’s
serene campus was a treat.
The theme for this gathering was: Living responsibly in today’s world. Pofessor Samdhong Rinpoche was one of the speakers at the gathering. He talked about what it
means to live responsibly. Rinpoche highlighted that talking about responsibility and
rights without self-awareness is meaningless. Self-awareness i.e. understanding
“Who am I?” or “What am I?” is one's primary duty. Hence, a human rights movement
which comes out of ignorance (i.e. without an awareness of the true nature of
the self) invariably turns in the wrong direction e.g. becomes violent.
Each day there was a video presentation of one of J
Krishnamurti’s talks. One of the talks (Madras,
December 1980) focused on the nature of corruption. What is corruption? K
said, ”Corruption is not merely at the superficial level, passing money under
the table. But corruption is much more deep, corruption is in the mind, corruption
is the exercise of thought for its own benefit.” Then K further said, “When
thought is attached to a particular idea, experience, to a particular nation,
to a particular belief, dogma, such attachment must inevitably breed corruption.”This definition of corruption is
far more subtle than what we use generally.
So if attachment to an idea or belief is the root cause
of corruption, how does one remove the attachment? This is where K says
something strange. He says, “To remove the cause is to observe the cause, not
try to change the cause. If I am corrupt, I observe what that corruption is”. What
K is suggesting here is to pay attention to the train of thought as it is getting
attached to an idea or a belief. Perhaps it is easier to observe this when I
experience emotions such as hurt, anxiety, anger, pride etc.
Every day we also had small group discussions. One phrase
that caught our group’s attention during our discussion was “hard work”. K says,
“(Paying) close attention (to your train of thought) is hard work.” We found out from
participants what this “hard work” means to them. One participant said that he
needs to be attentive while eating while another one said he needs to be
attentive while sharing the kitchen with his wife. In the kitchen, he tends to
demand the same level of orderliness that he exhibits in his office. For
example, a spoon has to go back to its place etc. Watching all this is indeed
hard work. Perhaps this is a 17x7 job (assuming 7 hours of sleep). Perhaps that
is the serious way of tackling corruption.
We also got an opportunity to visit the Rural Education
Centre (REC) at Rishi Valley which is as old as independent India. REC is
currently championing a multi-grade methodology called Rishi Valley Institute
of Educational Resources (RIVER). While REC has implemented the methodology in thirteen
schools in and around Rishi Valley, it has been adopted in various countries.
After a 20 minute presentation we were taken to a primary school, Vidyavanam. It
was a multi-grade class (1st to 4th grade), teacher was a
facilitator (sitting with one group), black board belonged to the students and
each student was busy doing his/her activity which could be in any subject. Apparently,
Andhra Pradesh is beginning to roll out the RIVER methodology in all its
primary schools across the state. I feel there is a lot to learn from RIVER
approach and I plan to study it further.
I am glad I attended the Rishi Valley gathering and I appreciate the
organization of the retreat for the 250 odd people who attended it. image source: samdhongrinpoche.com, thanks to my wife Gauri for the sunset picture
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: bkconnection.com
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
comment on the lack of breakthrough is mentioned in this article titled “Gere
springs a surprise” from The Hindu, Dec 8, 2015.