Friday, December 9, 2016

Empathy as understanding the assumptions behind the rigid reflexes

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 article.

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, that’s all.

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?”

Thought as a set of conditioned reflexes is explored in detail in David Bohm's "Thought as a system"

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Plastic paradox and brain’s business of building highways

 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.

image sources:

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Reflections from Rishi Valley on responsibility, corruption and rural education

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:, thanks to my wife Gauri for the sunset picture

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.