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.

Friday, April 15, 2016

4 metaphors from David Bohm’s “Unfolding meaning”

Unfolding Meaning” is an edited transcript of a weekend dialogue with David Bohm that occurred in May 1984 in a small country hotel in England. It is similar in spirit with the other seminar Bohm held in Ojai in 1991 and is published as a book “Thought as a system”. However, it is very different in its content especially the dominant metaphors used to communicate the abstract and subtle aspects of our true nature. In this article we look at the 4 metaphors from the book which appealed to me and what they mean.

Thought as a source and the simulation of a program: This is the most dominant metaphor Bohm uses throughout the book. Every thought we have gets stored as a program in a peculiar sort of encrypted form. Unfortunately, our brain doesn’t have the capacity to see that the thought made a program and its subsequent actions are determined largely by that program. Thought is a program that is programmed to conceal itself. When we are thinking, the results of the simulation shows up in the body (hormonal changes, blood pressure, heart beat etc.) and the emotions (anxiety, anger, happiness) but the connection between that and the thought is concealed. In fact, thought attributes the actions of the program to the ‘self’ – a mistake. Bohm says – the attempt to watch one’s own programs is the beginning of a kind of meditation. The picture on the side is from the movie "The Matrix" at a point when the protagonist Neo, for the first time, begins to see the world as a simulation of a program.

Why do I still kick the cat? One of the participants observed, “You can get excited about things like this and then go home and still kick the cat.” Bohm replied, “Why shouldn’t you kick the cat?” If one were really cruel then one would kick the cat and not bother about how it hurt the cat. For those of us who regret the act later, there must be a tacit connection between the cat and oneself. Then the question is – how to see the connection even before I kick the cat? Bohm suggests that it requires attention to your thoughts. When you feel the impulse to kick the cat, you should suspend that impulse. And then you should attentively watch the thought behind it. The thought could be that of frustration (boss shouted at me) or something is not working out (I am doomed). Whatever it is, one should follow that thought and see how it triggers the program of “kicking the cat” automatically.

What to do when I miss the mark: Suppose I am an archer and I miss the mark and I say some evil spirit made me miss the mark. That would never get me anywhere. You have to be attentive as you practice to how you are missing the mark. If you don’t do that then you won’t learn. Every time we have sustained fear or worry or anxiety, it is similar to an archer missing the mark. At that time, if we identify a situation or a person as the cause then it is an incorrect attribution like identifying evil spirit as the cause. Instead what we need is to pay attention to the program that is getting triggered by some thought. 

Seeing beyond Las Vegas lights: Why don’t we see the vastness beyond the world of thoughts? Bohm says following: If you go to a place like Reno, Nevada or Las Vegas and we turn on all these electric lights then you don’t see the stars, and you say that all these lights are the main thing. And there is no universe. They blot out the universe. So when you turn off the lights, then the universe comes through. At first, it seems something very faint, but that faint thing may represent something immense, whereas the very powerful bright thing may represent nothing much.

In short, every thought we have makes or adds to a program which, in turn, determines our subsequent actions. When we kick the cat or when we miss the mark, it is the program that is in action. And we are mostly unaware of it. We are so lost in the thought-world that it blinds us like the lights of Las Vegas. Only when the “lights” are off, do we see the vastness beyond thought-world. When we pay attention to the program in action, it is a kind of meditation.

Related articles:
Matrix as a system vs thought as a system, July 22, 2015 (a presentation)
Metaphors from "Thought as a system", Nov 15, 2015 (a presentation)
Image source: Program snapshot from movie "The Matrix", Archer pic is from

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The spinning dancer, fast and slow thinking and the reflective mind

A few months back I came across this spinning dancer. This visual illusion was created in 2003 by the web designer Nobuyuki Kayahara by combining 34 frames. At any point of time, you will see the dancer revolving either to her right (clockwise) or to her left (anti-clockwise). Sometimes, as you are watching, the dancer switches the direction. It looks as though you don’t have any control either on the direction of movement or on when it will reverse. Can I do the switch in the direction voluntarily? That is what I tried to explore past few weeks. The other question that came to mind was: To get convinced that it is an illusion, do I have to see the reversal?

Here are my observations when I watch it on the spinning dancer Wikipedia page on my laptop. My dominant direction is clockwise. However, when I watch the picture by almost closing my eyes when the picture becomes blurry and I see the movement of legs as almost two dimensional, I am able to switch the direction. It is almost voluntary though not guaranteed. When I copy the image on PowerPoint slide or on phone, the speed of rotation is slower compared to the laptop. And there I find it harder to do the voluntary reversal by blurring my vision. When I scroll the image up so that only her feet below knee are visible, then sometimes I perceive the dancer dancing like a pendulum – little to the left and then little to the right but not going full circle. But as soon as I scroll the picture down, the dancer starts rotating full circle. Again, all these changes are involuntary. You can see how other people perceive this by reading the comments on this New York Times article “The truth about the spinning dancer”. Can we explain this using Daniel Kahneman’s fast and slow thinking modes?

One of the hallmarks of fast thinking is that it is involuntary – automatic. When I look at the dancer, I see the rotation either in clockwise or in anti-clockwise direction. I don’t have a choice here. This is a case where fast thinking mode is at play. Moreover, there is no direction inherent in the images that pass by. The three dimensional perception of the two dimensional images is created in the brain automatically. Certain set of neural circuitry is firing automatically, resolving the ambiguity of direction one way or the other and showing the rotation. This type of illusion is called a bi-stable visual illusion where there are 2 stable states – clockwise dance and anti-clockwise dance.

The fast mode of thinking is doing two key substitutions here. One, the direction of dance where none exists and two, the 3-D depth of the vision from 2-D images. Doing such substitutions to suppress ambiguity is a key characteristic of fast mode of thinking. They are happening all the time and we are not even aware of it. That’s how we are enjoying the movies on TV. Now, imagine a political party whose leader sees this lady dancing only clockwise. Never sees it anticlockwise. And then he declares those people who see it as clockwise as pure-blood and those who see it as anti-clockwise as mud-blood (to borrow Harry Potter terminology). And soon a fight follows which results in the flow of blood which has only one colour – red.

You might say that’s stupid! How can people fight over an illusion like this? Question is, how can you know it is an illusion if you don’t see it any other way (only clockwise)? Enter the second mode of thinking – slow thinking. As the fast mode of thinking is creating impressions and judgments like a mental shotgun, the slow mode of thinking can create a doubt and unbelieving. It can ask: could this impression be wrong? Then it can mobilize attention to gather more evidence (e.g. ask other people) and then make a more informed decision. The part of slow thinking which raises this doubt, is sometimes called the reflective mind.

Keith Stanovich a major advocate of the reflective mind theory, explains “Why do smart people do stupid things?” He says sometimes a person with high IQ (e.g. SAT score, education from top university, top rank in an organization) may still have a weak reflective mind. In that person’s mind, the question: Could this impression be wrong, never gets raised. In fact, Stanovich’s research on confirmation bias (or Myside bias) shows no correlation between SAT score and the bias tendency.

In short, fast mode of thinking is doing a fantastic job of automatically supressing ambiguity. But in the process it can also be creating illusions which are sustained (like the direction of the dancer). Reflective mind is an element of slow thinking whose job is to doubt the impressions and ask, “Could this be wrong?” We don’t need this as we go about our daily routine of brushing, driving etc. But perhaps when we are labelling somebody wrong, it is worth stretching the reflective muscle.


Spinning dancer image is from the Wikipedia page:

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Sustaining participation in innovation initiatives

I got an opportunity to write an article on “Sustaining participation in innovation initiatives” which appeared in NHRD Journal, Oct 2015 issue. This was a special issue on “HR in innovative organizations” edited by my friend Rishikesha Krishnan. In this article, I would like to summarize the paper in brief. You can read the full paper here.

Key hindrances: One of the key challenges that organizations face in running innovation programs is sustaining participation. People participate enthusiastically in the beginning. However, the energy is slowly dissipated and is replaced by apathy or cynicism. What are the key hindrances in sustaining participation? The paper presents 3: (1) Big bets only approach – i.e. organizations insisting that innovation is only about big bets. This limits the scope of innovation to a few people and most others feel “It’s not for me”.  (2) Lack of help for idea authors: Idea authors especially novices need help while taking their idea from a crude form to an attractive business proposal. The help could be being a sounding board, suggestions regarding prototyping, finding a collaborator, in preparing a business plan etc. If no such helps is available then idea authors may feel frustrated. (3) Absence of dashboard: A simple dashboard can communicate a lot about the progress of innovation activity. On the other hand, a lack of dashboard leaves people clueless. This includes those people who are running the innovation initiative in the first place.

What to do? Core elements: The paper suggests that any innovation initiative should have two core elements: (1) A program management function and (2) A focus on spotting and scaling “bright spots”. Program manager (full time or part-time) would maintain a roadmap and run various interventions which may include running a challenge campaign, training workshops, hackathon event, blogging contest, publishing a newsletter, calendarize reviews etc. “Bright spots” are evidences where things may be working in pockets. Program managers should be constantly on the lookout for such bright spots and see if they can be scaled.

More elements for “Continuous improvement”: If the primary focus is building creative confidence, then it helps to define what an acceptable idea is. Keeping the bar very high will be demotivating and keeping the bar too low will not generate an interest. Moreover, the review of small ideas needs to happen as low in the hierarchy as possible. Otherwise it can become a bottleneck leading to long turnaround cycles.

More elements for “Incubation process”: If the primary focus is on the incubation process, then it helps to run campaigns focused on specific business challenges.  Also management needs to give attention in the form of regular reviews and maintaining a rigor for the reviews.

Hope you find it useful and I would love to hear your comments / suggestions.