Tuesday, March 20, 2018

A journey from resistance to acceptance of “what is” in the short film “Afterglow”

Many times we are resisting the current situation. Perhaps something has changed; we have lost something we are fond of. Or thought has imagined a scenario where we are likely to lose something and we don’t like this imagined scenario. Or someone said something to us which has hurt us etc. This resistance to “what is” manifests itself in different forms – sadness, anxiety, fear, blame, guilt etc. This continues for a while until the resistance drops off. Perhaps the changed or imagined situation is no longer that threatening. This is also referred to as acceptance.

The award-winning short film “Afterglow” directed by Kaushal Oza beautifully depicts this journey from resistance to acceptance. The story involves a widow coping with the death of her loving husband. It uses two symbols through which this transition from resistance to acceptance unfolds – paaghri (groom’s headgear) and the lamp which is welcoming the departed soul.

Sometimes a question gets raised, “Does acceptance mean inaction?” That’s not how I understand it. Acceptance involves dropping off of inner resistance. In Afterglow, there was an inner resistance to letting go of the paaghri. And then at one point, it drops off and that results in an act of giving the paaghri away to someone who would find it useful.

There are a few YouTube comments on this video where they ask, “Did she die at the end?” That is not my understanding. She didn’t physically die. However, it is a different kind of dying. She died to the idea that her husband or his soul must always be with her. This dying is accompanied by inner peace.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Rango's "Who am I?" journey from "I could be anyone" to "I'm nobody"

I have been fascinated by the concept of self-deception. I feel understanding self-deception is at the heart of mindfulness. Hence, I keep looking for metaphors depicting self-deception. This is one of my favorites.

Rango is a lonely lizard. However, he likes to imagine himself surrounded by friends and he always plays the hero. As luck would have it, Rango accidentally kills a hawk and actually becomes a hero. The town makes him sheriff and Rango begins to enjoy playing the real hero. 

Luck favors him for some time and Rango begins to believe that he is successful due to his effort and talent - a classic case of self-deception. Until one day his coward self is exposed by Rattlesnake Jake and Rango is asked to leave the town. This is a turning point for Rango and it triggers a process of awakening for him.

I don't know about you but I have been in situations where people around you start calling you successful. And it is so tempting to attribute the so-called success to oneself. Hence, to carry an awareness and, like Rango, see that "I am nobody" is difficult. However, that awareness is an essential part of being mindful.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Does “fail fast” contradict with “first time right”?

“Fail fast” is one of the principles I champion in my workshops on innovation and design thinking. “First time right” has been popularized by the quality movement, especially by the Six Sigma methodology. Hence, it is not uncommon to get the question: Does “fail fast” contradict with “first time right”?

To explore this question, it would help to understand “fail fast” and “first time right” better. Let’s start with “fail fast”. Does “fail fast” imply failing in any kind of way? No. To understand this better, let’s see the difference between a failure due to checklist-oversight and a negative result during hypothesis testing. Let’s borrow an example from Jeff Bezos of Amazon. In an interview, he said that if Amazon goofs up the opening of 19th fulfillment center where an operational history exists, then that would be poor execution. Let’s call this checklist oversight failure. It means a prior learning has been consolidated into a checklist and the failure occurred because the checklist was not followed rigorously. “First time right” uses all the available past data in constructing the process to be followed for delivery of a solution.

In contrast, let’s look at the following hypothetical assumption: Amazon will be able to deliver a book size packet reliably on the terrace of a ten storied building in Bangalore via drone delivery. Let’s assume Amazon has experience of this kind of delivery in countries like the US but not in India. And if the first attempt at doing this delivery fails, then it would be a failure of the second kind – hypothesis test failure. Note that this failure would result in some learning which can be incorporated in the second attempt and so on. Depending upon the difficulty encountered, the cost of each experiment and the importance of this use-case for Amazon, more attempts would be made to learn more about this use-case.

When I say “fail fast” I mean fast testing of the assumptions associated with an idea. Now, we can see that “fail fast” is quite complementary with “first time right”. If Amazon were to launch the drone delivery on the terrace and get it right the first time, then it would help to do as many tests in different contexts – weather conditions, building locations, different building structures etc. Thus it would help to fail fast to get it right the first time you go live.

“Fail fast” assumes that there are certain unknowns / risks associated with achieving the goal. If all the steps in achieving the goal are well understood, then “fail fast” would not be required.

In short, “fail fast” helps you deliver “first time right”. The riskier your project, i.e. the higher the cost of getting it wrong the first time, the more important it becomes to “fail fast” in order to get it “first time right”. 

Thursday, February 15, 2018

3 reasons why managers don’t throw their toughest challenge to their teams

In my innovation and design thinking workshops, we end up running a short challenge campaign. Participants get to experience what it means to identify a challenge area important to them, frame a challenge around it, generate ideas, build low-cost prototypes and validate them with a few people. Then I ask them, “Why don’t you throw your top challenges to your teams?” Why isn’t it common to see top challenges displayed in organizations? Here are top three reasons I have gathered from them:

   1.      Lack of clarity: Managers are busy attending to a number of issues – some short term, some long term. In the process, they typically don’t get time to step back and reflect. As a result, they don’t have clarity on what could be their biggest challenge. I ask them a few questions like, “What is one pain point you would rather leave behind in the office rather than carrying it home?” Or “Which is one trend – technology or otherwise – that may make your business irrelevant in future?” This gives them a clue. Of course, many of them don’t need any clue. Time and space for reflection is enough to bring out their toughest challenge. Nevertheless, if you don’t have clarity on what’s your toughest challenge is then there is no confidence to take further action.

2.      Fear of perceived incompetence: Managers feel, “I am being paid to solve problems. How can I communicate that I can’t solve them?” There is a feeling that if I throw my challenge to my team, my boss and perhaps even my team may feel that I am not competent to do my job. Of course, what isn’t realized by managers is that taking a position on a challenge is an important element of their job. The focus it brings makes a huge difference in aligning the creative energies of the people around you.

3.      Solver’s bias: What is more important – defining the right problem? Or finding the right solution? Most of us carry a bias for the right solution. We like to say – It was my idea. Of course, idea could have meant the challenge. But mostly idea refers to the solution. Mathematics is an area where problems are known for the people like Fermat or Riemann who defined them first. In most other areas, solver is perhaps more famous than seeker. As a result, some of the key issues remain pending or stuck. When a manager throws a challenge to his team, it is quite possible that the team ends up making initial prototypes for free. Because they feel it is their idea. When a manager asks a team member to build a prototype of his or her idea, the outcome may not be that enthusiastic. Who wants to work on boss’ idea?

To summarize, Managers don’t open up their top challenges because of (1) lack of clarity (2) fear of perceived incompetence and (3) solver’s bias. And I feel they have a lot to gain if they can establish clarity on their topmost challenge and seek solutions from their team or even outside in solving it.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

My 3 takeaways from Kazuo Ishiguro’s class – My secret of writing

Last month I came across a session 2017 Nobel winner Kazuo Ishiguro held in Japan for budding writers titled “My secrets of writing”. It is available on YouTube in two parts: part-1 and part-2 (embedded below). I had read four of Ishiguro novels (some of them twice) when I watched part-1. Then I read his latest novel, The Buried Giant. And then I watched part-2 which refers to the novel. I am a fan of Ishiguro and I really enjoyed listening to the session. I thought the quality of questions was very good and that brought out interesting process Ishiguro follows for his writing. I am not a fiction writer (yet). However, I thought some of the elements Ishiguro mentioned could be relevant for anyone involved in a creative endeavour. Here are 3 of my takeaways from the session:

1.      2-3-4 sentence ideas: This is what Ishiguro said – “I try to make sure that the idea can be expressed very simply in 2 or 3 sentences. If it can’t then the idea isn’t very strong or it’s not yet mature.” And what criteria does he use for picking an idea? He said, “When I look at the idea on a page, I want to be able to feel a real potential, real emotion that comes from these sentences. I want to think that there is a whole world in there. I want those few sentences to trouble me and stimulate me. Then I feel I could build a whole novel on it.”

He gave an example of his most famous novel – Remains of the day. The idea can be expressed as: This is a story about a man who wants to be the perfect servant. And he is willing to sacrifice his personal life and many things to be an absolutely perfect servant.

The point is, the essence of an idea can be expressed in a simple way in a few sentences. And yet it may carry the potential to excite you, trouble you etc.

2.      Ideas can be re-located in time & space: Ishiguro says, “I made this discovery… The setting isn’t an essential part of the story. You can move stories to different settings, different places in history. And also I suppose different genres: sci-fi, gothic world, thriller world etc.” In fact, for his third novel, Remains of the day, he re-used his idea from his second novel - “The artist of the floating world” (location: Japan, time: 1950s, 60s) and relocated it in a different time and place (location: England, time: 1920s, 30s). This creates a huge canvas for his stories and also it creates a problem of “location hunting”. His last novel “The buried giant” is placed in 5th century Britain and belongs to a fantasy genre. It contains ogres, pixies and dragons.

3.      Metaphor as a criterion:  One criterion Ishiguro applies in selecting an idea for further development is by looking at its power as a metaphor. Ishiguro said, “As a writer, I am drawn to big metaphors that dominate the entire story. One of the ways I decide if an idea is powerful or not, is I ask - Is this a powerful metaphor for something important or something very big?” For example, he mentions his latest novel The buried giant presents a story where people lose memories very fast – in a day or so – because of the breath of a giant dragon living in the mountains. Some people want to kill the dragon to bring the buried memories alive, some others want to protect the giant because they feel it is keeping the society from going into a civil war. What is the right thing to do? Ishiguro feels that a story like this can be a metaphor for something all individuals and all societies face all the time. The metaphor is certainly relevant for the centuries old memories related to the communal conflicts and the caste conflicts in India which keep getting resurrected from time to time.

In short, writing the essence of the idea in 2-3-4 sentences, trying to relocate the idea in different time and space, using the power of metaphor as a criterion for idea selection are things any of us can try and experiment with. I certainly will.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Design Thinking Resources #1: Overall process

This collection of resources is a response to the following question I get in my Design Thinking workshop: Please suggest some articles / books / videos for us for further study. Hence, the list is biased by what I cover in my workshops. I also carry a bias for stories which highlight the iterative nature of the design thinking process and bring out learning from failures.

    1.      Stanford D-School Resources: I have been benefited by the Stanford D-school Resources site which contains a rich set of resources: For example, check out the toolkit called The Bootcamp Bootleg and also you can go through a 1-hour short introductory online course called a Virtual Crash Course in Design Thinking.

2.      ABC Nightline - IDEO Shopping cart: While this 8 minutes video is more than 15 years old, I feel it gives a good overview of the overall process. For example, the importance of going on the street and talking to customers / experts in actual context, fail fast principle, prototyping, testing with real customers etc. The video stops at 2 iterations and that’s too few to tell us more about what happened next. For example, it doesn’t tell us whether it reached a point of getting significant investment. Moreover, some of the aspects such as the diversity of the team involved and the open culture of the organization may not be replicable in your context. Despite these limitations it is still my favourite video for a beginner. IDEO folks like Tom Kelly, David Kelly and Tim Brown have also written books on Design Thinking which are easy to read, full of examples and pictures. E.g. The art of innovation by Tom Kelley, Creative confidence by Tom and David Kelley, Change by design by Tim Brown.   

3.      A watch for everyone including blind: Here is a good interview titled “How to build an end-user profile” of Hyungsoon Kim that highlights the importance of empathy and rapid prototyping in the journey of problem and solution disovery. In this interview, Kim gives more insights on the process he followed as the Founder of Eone in designing a watch for everyone including blind people. The interview starts around 1:42 in the video. You may also like Kim’s TEDx talk “Designing a watch for everyone”. Eone watch went through crowdsourcing process on kickstarter and is a successful product in the market. So if you like success stories, this is a good example. Kim has also written the product story in the article: How your product can benefit from user feedback.

4.      Husk Power Systems: In the Indian context, the story set in Bihar and narrated by Gyanesh Pandey is one of my favourites for following reasons: (1) It brings out the role of empathy in identification of a challenge area (2) It presents how the framing of challenge undergoes shifts as the awareness of the context grows – it is difficult to get the problem definition right when you are far off from the context (3) It highlights the role of experimentation in technology as well as business model (4) It shows how regulatory changes may have a huge influence on the business. The story of Husk Power is still unfolding after a decade of inception. Here is a 2015 NDTV interview of Manoj Sinha, a co-founder of HPS on how HPS is adapting to the solar energy wave in India and the creation of hybrid model.

5.      Addressing malnutrition in Vietnam: I feel that complex issues such as poverty, malnutrition, poor quality of education need an inside out approach. This means that the seeds of the solution need to come from the same context where the problem exists and the participation of the community plays a crucial role in experimenting, scaling and sustaining a change. This approach was championed by Jerry Sternin and highlighted by the story of how he and the local community addressed the malnutrition problem in Vietnam. Jerry Sternin has written a book, “The power of Positive Deviance” which presents the philosophy and the case studies.

6.      Infinite vision: “Eradicating needless blindness” may sound like an intimidating challenge especially in a country like India. However, Dr. Venkataswamy pursued this challenge for thirty years and created a world class hospital with empathy and experimentation deeply ingrained in its culture. The book “Infinite vision” by Pavithra Mehta and Suchitra Shenoy brings the Aravind Eye Care story to life. If you prefer a video, check out “Infinite vision: Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy”. (duration: 34:57). If you like a short introduction, check out: Aravind Eye Hospital (duration: 6:08). If you want to get an idea of how Aravind innovates, the book is the best resource.

7.      40 Design Thinking success stories: This is a collection of 40 stories related to Design Thinking collated by The Accidental Design Thinker. They are categorized into various sectors such as: Consumer packaged goods, Education, Financial Services, Heathcare, Journalism, Non-profits/NGOs, Retail, Technology, Transportation, Self-improvement. This categorization may help you find a story closer to your context. It is not clear what is the basis for calling a story successful and even if it is a success story, I would not jump to conclusion that the success was primarily due to Design Thinking. So please apply your own judgment.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

What is “Putting everything in its right place” according to Jiddu Krishnamurti?

I am currently visiting my wife in the beautiful campus of Sahyadri School located on top of Tiwai Hill about 70km north of Pune (The picture above is a view from the K-study center here). It is an ideal place to read, reflect and be with nature. This article is an outcome of reflection on one of the things Jiddu Krishnamurti (JK), the inspiration behind this school, said in a dialogue – the whole thing is “Putting everything in its right place. Once you put it in the right place, it is finished!” i.e. there is no more conflict in life. That sounds magical! How can conflict in all forms: worry, anxiety, anger, jealousy, frustration etc. vanish forever if one just puts things in its right place? There must be some catch in it.  Here is an attempt to demystify the magic.

I came across this conversation in “A dialogue between Krishnamurti and three scientists” from the book “A Jewel on a Silver Platter: Remembering Jiddu Krishnamurti” by Padmanabhan Krishna (PK). The dialogue occurred on August 28, 1977 between JK, and three scientists: PK, who was then a Professor of Physics at Banaras Hindu University, Asit Chandmal (AC) who was then working as a Computer Scientist in the US and David Bohm (DB) who was then a Professor of Theoretical Physics at Birkbeck College in London.

Here is an excerpt from the dialogue. I have omitted some lines and kept the necessary ones for brevity. For full conversation, please refer to the book.
AC: So, the whole thing is putting everything in its right place?

JK: Yes. 
AC: Thought in its right place, money, food, sex, - 
JK: Everything! Sir, look! If you put your socks and your trousers and your shirts, all jumbled up, it takes time to fetch the socks: but suppose, you put socks in the right place, coat in the right place and so on, you are free of the botheration. You go to it directly, you don’t waste energy. So, if you put everything in order inwardly, you conserve energy! 
AC: All such things have a tendency to go out of place and it’s only a constant clear perception of it which keeps it in its right place. 
JK: You don’t have to do it constantly. Once you put it in the right place it is finished! 
AC: Yes, but you put them on and you put them back in the right place. 
JK: Of course! Follow that up slowly. Not only physically, your handkerchiefs, your ties, your books, food, and all that, but also can you put everything in order psychologically? Put them in their place? You can’t! Because it’s such a vast jumble! So, as long as there is anything accumulated psychologically – hmm? – there can be no order inside, Right?
What is meant by psychological accumulation? Here is what JK says in another place (Ojai, 6th Public talk, 17th April 1977):
You know, our brain is registering almost everything, the noise, the words which are being used – it is registering like a tape. Now, is it possible for the brain not to register except that which is absolutely necessary? Why should I register your insult? Why? Why should I register your flattery? It is unnecessary. Why should I register any hurts? Unnecessary. Therefore, register only that which is necessary in order to operate in daily life – as a technician, a writer, and so on but psychologically, do not register anything else.
Now, imagine hangers in your wardrobe where you hang shirts, trousers, ties etc. What JK is hinting at perhaps is that there is an imaginary hanger called “me” in the mental wardrobe where we hang insults, hurts, flattery etc. A flattery would make the wardrobe look shinier and an insult would make it look duller. And that automatically triggers action that would keep the wardrobe shining in future. What if that hanger is more like a rainbow – almost like a holographic image of a hanger? Imagine hanging things on a rainbow. It doesn't make sense. It would end up triggering actions which are meaningless. 

Can you observe and check it for yourself? Can you observe your brain registering an insult or a hurt or a flattery? And if so, investigate if it is serving any useful purpose?