Friday, April 21, 2017

3E’s of Design Thinking: Experience, Empathy and Experimentation

“Can you tell us what Design Thinking is in five-ten minutes?” I get this question often these days. Sometimes I am participating in a conference call and the participants want a gist of DT in a short time. In such situations I prefer to talk about the 3 E’s of design thinking: Experience, Empathy and Experimentation which address the three questions: What are we designing in DT? Where do we begin? And; How do we course-correct? Let’s look at each of them briefly.

Experience: Design Thinking is about designing experiences – ideally end-to-end experience. My father applied for a new passport a few weeks back as his current passport is about to expire. He was out of the passport office in half an hour. Before he could reach home, he began to get SMS messages telling how his application is progressing. His new passport arrived home in three days. This experience was radically different from what he had gone through when he applied for his passport for the first time twenty years back. Whether it is a movie, restaurant, grocery shopping, taxi, commute to work, performance appraisal, one-on-one meetings, we remember events in terms of experience they create for us. In particular, we tend to remember emotional highs and lows. Hence, design thinking focuses on the design of peak emotions – positive and negative. In my father’s case, the progress reporting of the passport application through SMS worked as an anxiety suppressing tool. And the delivery in three days of the new passport created a delight.

Empathy: Our emotional responses are strongly correlated to our anxieties and aspirations. In fact, a large part of our emotional response is supposed to be automatic – almost like a button press. Hence, DT suggests that we start with empathy, by understanding the anxieties and aspirations of our customers. This is not easy for multiple reasons. One, as Kiran Bedi realized on her first day as Director General (Prisons) at Tihar Jail in 1993, people may not trust you and hence they may not reveal what they feel. Second, people themselves may not be aware of their deeply held beliefs and Three, you may not know who your customer is.  Hence, DT suggests that we do immersive research, which involves observing potential customers them in action in their own context, focus on gaining trust before going further in the interview process and if possible, try to live like them – at least for a few days. This may lead to deeper insights which further help in framing the right challenge.

Experimentation: No matter how much one tries, one can never be confident that you have framed the right challenge. Moreover, a technologist may start with a solution – a mobile app or a new measurement device. In either case, DT suggests that you test your assumptions as often as you can by going back to the customers. This principle is called – fail early, fail often and fail inexpensively. In a complex environment, only rapid iterative experimentation can lead to the understanding of right problem and hence a better solution. Hence, rapid prototyping is given a lot of emphasis in DT. If you are thinking of a new mobile app, can you quickly design screen shots and show to a few people and get their feedback? The rate of experimentation is considered very important. Hence, we look at ways of doing 1-hour, 1-day and 1-week prototypes.

In short, Design Thinking is about designing Experiences, Empathizing with customers and rapid and iterative experimentation.

Monday, April 10, 2017

What if implicit order is more fundamental than explicit order?

We all carry some notion of order in our everyday life. For example, when our room is in a mess, we say that it is disorderly. Alternately, if the dinner table is arranged properly with the plates, spoons, glasses, we say, things are in order. When we refer to order (or disorder) we are mostly referring to only one type of order – explicit order – order perceived through our senses. There is another type of order which is called implicit order. When we see a seed sprouting, we assume that the tree-ness – with all its characteristics of the shape, color, size - was implicit in the seed. Otherwise, how would it know what kind of a tree it should turn into? That information about tree-ness which is embedded in the seed is an example of the implicit order. Sprouting of the seed is an example of how an explicit order (the tree) comes out of the implicit order inside the seed. When the tree bears a fruit containing a seed, the explicit order gets transformed into an implicit order. So in nature, things are going back and forth between implicit and explicit order. Traditionally, science has assumed that explicit order is more fundamental than implicit order. But what if implicit order is more fundamental? That is what we will explore in this article.

Let’s first try to get a better idea of what an order is. David Bohm defines order as similar differences and different similarities. For example, when we classify all living organisms into animals and plants, we are observing different similarities – animals and plants as different among similarity of living organisms. And when we see that one principle such as the law of gravity governing so many types of motions, we are observing similar differences – law of gravity as similarity among different types of motions.

When we fail to observe any order, we call it disorder or randomness or chaos. Sometimes, what appears to be random has some order implicit in it. For example, computers are known to generate random numbers. However, what is underlying this random sequence of numbers is a program that generates this sequence. Thus, if you know the program and the input it takes (called seed), then the sequence is no longer random. Similarly, when we observe a coastline in a map, say that of Mumbai, it may appear random. However, it is known to carry the property of a fractal dimension – an order, an example of similar differences, implicit in it.  Thus what is random in the explicit world, may have an order in its implicit counterpart. For a cool demonstration on how explicit order turns into implicit order and vice versa, check out this video on ink droplet in glycerin experiment.

For the past several centuries, especially since the scientific revolution of 16th century with discoveries from Galileo, Newton, Descarte and later Darwin, Einstein, Watson-Crick etc. science has considered explicit order as primary. But, what if the implicit order is really more fundamental? And the explicit order is just a reflection or unfolding of an implicit order – like the tree-ness in a seed unfolding into a tree? Science, after all, hasn’t cracked the theory of everything yet, has it? So, it is possible that implicit order is more fundamental. If so, what is its biggest implication?

The biggest implication is that knowledge is always incomplete. Why? Because, it is always based on explicit order. Any knowledge is similar to knowing some characteristics of a tree based on its outer features without knowing the underlying program that generates the tree from a seed. By design, we won’t know implicit order, EVER.

If you really see what this means - i.e. knowledge is always incomplete, then it may come to you as a rude shock. Because it would mean there won’t be a theory of everything, EVER. Moreover, EVERYTHING that you know or believe, especially values you cherish as absolutely true, in science, religion, arts, society, in family relations is incomplete. It is tentative. It may be relevant in your current context, but it may be irrelevant in some other context.  If you really see that every knowledge as tentative, why would you ever be upset about anything?

All this is true, if implicit order is more fundamental than explicit order. Of course, explicit order may indeed be more fundamental than implicit order. Then, fighting for my knowledge, what I value, may be really worth it.

Hope you at least consider the question open: What is more fundamental, implicit or explicit order?

For more information on implicit vs explicit order (or implicate vs explicate order), check out:

Monday, March 27, 2017

“But, cats can’t tell time” and the human state of missing the main point

We are all busy solving what appear to each of us to be the important problems. For example, for some of us, making more money may be the most important thing, for some others, solving social problems like poverty, inequality, corruption, terrorism, lack of education and healthcare may be the most important thing. But what if, we are all solving the wrong problems?  What if, we are all missing the main point? That is the hypothesis I would like to explore in this article. And I would like to use an analogy mentioned by David Bohm of his dream involving two cats. Let’s start with the dream.

David Bohm was interviewed by Nobel Laureate Maurice Wilkins for American Institute of Physics in twelve sessions over a ten month period from June 6, 1986 to April 16, 1987. In the interview session 5 which took place on October 3, 1986, Bohm narrates following dream which he had during the last phase of his tenure in Princeton in 1950-51:

I was staying in a certain house where they had a cat, and in this dream, I came into the kitchen, and I saw the cat talking to another cat, and making a date to meet at a certain time. I said, there must be something wrong here. I wonder what it is. So I thought about it for a while, and I said, oh yes. I know (what’s) wrong. Cats can’t tell time. So I said to the cat, “You cats are not able to tell time.” The cat answered me back and said, Of course we can tell time. And I said, “Well, look at the clock. What time is it?” It was about three o’clock. It said, A quarter past eight, five past nine. So I said, there (you go). That proves that cats can’t tell time. And then I woke up laughing. 

And what did this dream mean, according to Bohm? He says - I simply took it for granted that cats can talk. And I said, “That’s very mysterious.” How in the world can they tell time? They don’t have the equipment for telling time. They never heard of time. So the meaning of the dream was that something similar must be happening in society, that people are arguing about small points, and they’re taking for granted some very obvious point that should be staring us in the face.

So, what Bohm is saying is that when we argue about or try to solve the problem of whether cats can tell time, we miss the main point. That is, cats can’t talk. Are we all arguing about “how cats can’t tell time”? We possibly are. Let me try to illustrate this using one of my recent meetings with a friend.

I met this friend; let’s call him V, last week. V was disturbed about the recent appointment of saffron clad firebrand Yogi as the Chief Minister of the largest state in India. Why should this disturb V? Because, he feels that events such as this are indicating that India’s secular image is crumbling and V is concerned. V has tried to convince his friends that India is heading in the wrong direction. But his friends haven’t bought his argument. So V is kind of lost. He doesn’t know what to do.

Is V’s argument a kind of “cats can’t tell time” argument? It is. So what is the main point V is missing? The main point is that the sustained disturbance in his mind is an indicator that his perception is muddled up. If V can’t see things clearly, how can he frame the correct problem? Even flights don’t take off when the visibility is low, in spite of the sophisticated guiding software.

So the main point is, are you able to see things clearly? Do you have perceptual clarity? If not, chances are high, you are solving the wrong problem, no matter how noble the problem is. How do you know if you have perceptual clarity? Well, every sustained negative emotion, be it anxiety, stress, anger, blame, guilt, envy, is an indicator that there is lack of perceptual clarity.   

So what should one do? Well, the first step is to recognize that I may be missing the main point every time I am upset. That creates an opening through which intelligence may flow through and it may show us what is going on that is muddling up the perception.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

3 surprises from Isaac Newton’s biography

Recently I finished reading “The life of Isaac Newton” by Richard Westfall. It is a fairly detailed account of Newton’s life. We study Newton’s theories from our school days. We would have heard the story of “falling apple” multiple times. Newton’s fight with Robert Hooke and his friendship with Halley was familiar with me. So I wasn’t expecting any major surprises from this biography. And yet, I realized there were several surprises in store for me. Here are 3 major surprises:

Systematic challenge book: Nineteen year old Newton left his hometown Lincolnshire to join Trinity College at Cambridge as a student in June 1661. Barring two extended visits during the plague years, this was to be his home for the next eighteen years. Soon Newton started reading the work of intellectual giants of his time like Descartes, Galileo, Boyle and many others. However, he didn’t stop at just reading. Sometime in 1664, Newton created 45 headings in a notebook under which he would categorize the notes from his reading. The headings included – nature of matter, place, time, and motion, cosmic order, tactile qualities such as rarity, fluidity, softness, violent motion, light, colors, vision etc. He titled the book “Quaestiones quaedam Philosophaea” – “Quaestiones” for short. His notes would not be just copies of the interesting lines from the books he read. They would have a questioning tone.  For example, he would ask “Whither ye rays of gravity may bee stopped by reflecting or refracting ym, if so a perpetuall motion may bee made of these two ways.” He considered “Quaestiones” important enough that he later composed an index.

By the winter of 1664-65, Newton made a list of “Problems”. Initially he put down twelve and then modified the list to make it twenty two problems put under five categories. This list would occupy Newton for the next year. What surprised me is the systematic manner in which Newton created and maintained his challenge book.

Universal gravitation as a slow hunch: The story of falling of an apple and how it led to the discovery of the universal law of gravitation is one of the most famous stories in the history of science. It shows how a simple observation can lead to a deep insight. Westfall goes to some length in the book to dispel the myth behind the story. Yes, Newton did possibly have an insight when he observed a falling apple in 1666. However, he worked on the theory of gravitation for almost next twenty years. In fact, he systematically extended the scope of gravitation to moon, then to other planets, then to comets and then to everything.  By 1680, Newton still held the view that the gravitational force is specific to the solar system which contained related bodies.  He corresponded with Flamsteed, Director of Royal Astronomical Society, and obtained data about the motion of Jupiter’s satellites, on the effect of the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn and also on the comets. For two years, between 1684 to 1686, he almost locked himself up to focus on the problem of gravitation. Eventually, he was convinced of the universality of the law and he finished writing Principia in 1686. What surprised me in this case is the way Newton step-by-step extended his theory to include more and more objects by using real data from observatory over two decades.

Obsession with self-image:  Newton didn’t like criticism. And he fought with almost everyone who questioned him.  Once he believed in an idea, he went all out to get whatever he can to show that he was right. If it meant stealing data so be it. Once he considered a person to be his enemy, he made life very difficult for the person. This became even more prominent once he became the President of Royal Society and the manager of the Mint. For example, he stole data from Flamsteed’s astronomical observations and didn’t let anyone else access it for years. During his later years, he became obsessed with getting his portraits done. As a President of the Royal Society, he established a practice that the mace (a spray) be placed on the table only when the president was in the chair. Newton’s obsession with his self-image surprised me.

Reading the biography, I wondered if Isaac Newton was a beautiful mind with creativity, madness and no awakening. Who knows?

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Three characteristics of a good challenge book

Step-2 of our “8-steps to innovation” book is “Create a challenge book”. When I visit any organization, one of the first things I look for is a challenge book. Unfortunately, very few places that I have visited were able to articulate top few challenges clearly. Some of them discover in a leadership meeting that they don’t know what the top challenges are or at least there is no consensus on what the top challenges are. Without this clarity, it is difficult to focus innovation efforts. What are the characteristics of a good challenge book? Here are three:

    1.      Current-ness: What’s the point in making a list of challenges in an off-site and not updating it until the next one? In fact, a challenge book should be current like an airline arrival/departure list. OK, perhaps not that current. But it should be current within at least a few weeks. It is possible that the few top challenges may not change within weeks. It also helps to retire challenges which are not relevant any more.

     2.      Prioritization: Earlier this week, I got an opportunity to meet the manager of a new product development team of one of the largest e-commerce companies in India. The product manager was candid enough to articulate some of the tough challenges he and his team is focusing on. However, his team is relatively small – ten people. I asked him how he prioritizes his challenges. He said that he is still learning. The team used to change the priorities every day a few years back. Then they learnt to hold the priorities for at least a month. Now, the team is learning to set priorities for a quarter. Without prioritization or with rapidly changing prioritizing the team can be lost. Besides the toughest challenges don't vanish in a day or two, perhaps even in a quarter or two.

3.      Championing: This characteristic marks the difference between action and inaction on the challenge. A challenge either finds a champion or gets buried. A challenge is unaddressed doesn’t mean it dies. If a restaurant doesn’t respond to “home delivery through mobile app” trend, it may suffer its consequences eventually. But every tough challenge would need a person in a leadership position to champion it. This means she would put her weight behind the challenge, put a few resources together to study the issues and experimentation on the topic. A challenge book should indicate who the challenge is championed by in case it indeed has a champion. Number of challenges championed by people with senior positions is one of the important health indicators of its innovation initiative.

In short, current-ness, prioritization and championing are the three characteristics of a good challenge book. Hope this helps you to improve your challenge book.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Three symptoms of empathy deficit

“Please listen to me” or “Please let me complete” are common requests in our day-to-day conversations. It is not uncommon to be in a meeting where you feel that the other person is just not listening to you. In fact, you start wondering if anyone is listening to anybody else. But don’t be surprised if the person on the other side is also feeling the same way about you. All of us have an agenda and we are all focused on driving that agenda. Is it possible that we are witnessing an empathy deficit everywhere? I don’t know. But in this article I would like to present three symptoms which I feel indicate an empathy deficit.

Urge to label:  Whether it is the drivers on the street or the teachers in the school or the colleagues at work, we carry an urge to label them. We are convinced that they are doing something obviously wrong or crazy. However, one thing gets lost once we label someone or something – our ability to learn more about that something or someone. Empathy is primarily about accessing our own ignorance. And when we approach a situation from “I know it already” perspective then it leaves little opportunity for us to access ignorance. Thus urge to label indicates lack of empathy.

Urge to preach: Sometimes we take on a mission – say of sustainability. And then everybody whom we come across as careless about environment e.g. waste management becomes a candidate for preaching. We start giving sermons on A-B-C of sustainable living. If I am lucky, the other person listens to me. However, more often than not, these unwarranted sermons are received with apathy and pain-in-the-neck reaction. And that is not surprising because a sermon is being delivered without understanding the interest of the listener. Thus urge to preach indicates lack of empathy.

Lack of listening: Listening is such a common experience. However, quality of listening can be very different in different situations. Moment I hear something I don’t agree with, a voice in the head gets triggered and it generates so much noise that it is very hard to actually listen to the other person. This is especially true when the topic is close to my heart – say my religion or my favourite idea or even my car etc.

Urge to label or preach or lack of listening are easier to observe in others. However, it is quite powerful if one can observe it in oneself. This may be the beginning of accessing the illusion we have been living under all the time. Why don’t you try and test?

Saturday, January 14, 2017

From ocean-wave to dancing droplet: Comparing two metaphors for human existence

Ocean-wave is an ancient metaphor used to explain the nature of human existence especially in non-duality literature1. According to this metaphor human life is as independent as a wave on the ocean. Ocean is the invisible vastness and the waves are you, me, tree, table and every form that arises and goes back to the ocean of vastness just like a wave does. Most of us find it difficult to relate to this metaphor. In the past few years, another phenomenon called dancing droplets is creating ripples among two communities in physics: hydrodynamics and quantum physics. In this article, we will explore if this dancing droplet phenomenon does any better as a metaphor to communicate the non-dual nature of existence.

First, let’s see a few reasons why we find it difficult to believe the ocean-wave metaphor.

1.  As I walk around the room, there is a distinct sense that I am an independent entity called “Vinay” which is choosing to walk around. Wave, on the other hand, is so tied to the ocean, it hardly seems to have any independence.

2.  I remember past events. E.g. I can remember how I walked around in the house say from a sofa to the kitchen to the dining table etc. If I wanted I could retrace the path as well. It doesn’t appear as though wave carries any memory and I am not aware of any waves that can reverse their paths (go backwards).

3.  I am responding meaningfully (at least I am trying to) to the situation all the time. For example, if the doorbell rings, I go and open the door. This is going on all the time. It is not clear whether wave derives any meaning out of the situation and responds to the situation meaningfully.

In summary, lack of (1) independence (2) memory and (3) meaningful response seem to differentiate “Vinay” from a wave. And that is why it is difficult to believe that life is like a wave on the ocean. Perhaps there are more differences. But for now let’s stick to these three. Now, let’s turn to dancing droplet and see if it can do any better than ocean-wave metaphor.

To appreciate the dancing droplet metaphor, it would help to watch this video titled "Is this what quantum mechanics looks like?". It uses jargon from physics. But don’t worry, we don’t need the physics jargon to appreciate it as a metaphor.

In the video we can see that there is an oil bath which is vibrated by a speaker. Using a toothpick, Derek Muller is generating droplets. Now, these droplets don’t seem to recombine with the oil bath immediately and keep bouncing. This happens because of a layer of air between the droplet and the oil surface which doesn’t become small enough size for it to recombine. Here are a few facts about this experiment that are of interest to us:
  •  The droplets don’t seem to stand in one place but seem to walk around (under certain conditions). And they can do that for a long time, sometime for days. It is as though the droplets have a life of their own
  •  Every bounce of the droplet on the oil bath creates a wave. Thus, the droplet gives form to the wave and hence the wave can be called in-form-ation wave. And at any point of time, the resulting wave after a bounce is a combination of all the waves created by the previous bounces of the drop. Thus, the resulting wave contains the information of the previous bounces. i.e. it has memory. Does it mean the droplet can retrace its path? Yes. We can reverse the direction of the vibrating signal and the drop retraces its seemingly random walk. It is similar to I retracing my walk from the dining table to the kitchen to the sofa. Check out this video titled “Turing machine with wave memory” for how the droplet retraces its path.
  •  A droplet seems to walk around in a random manner. However, on close examination, it becomes clear that the direction of the bounce of the droplet is dependent on the slope of the wave where the bounce happens. If the drop bounces on the upward slope, it bounces backwards and if the bounce happens on the downward slope, it bounces forward. The drop seems to be guided by the wave. In other words, the drop responds to the situation which is determined by the shape of the wave at the bounce.

Note that the information field created by the successive bounces of the drop is active. It pushes the drop around. This notion is different from the situation when information is stored in memory but not active. In fact, we can say that the meaning of a situation at any point of time for the droplet is the activity of the information2. i.e. slope of the wave is the meaning.

Now, let’s ask, does this droplet have an existence independent of the oil bath?The answer is “no”. A droplet’s “life” is determined by the information field which, in turn, is created by the history of the bounces. However, if we magically make the information wave invisible then it may create an illusion that the drop has independent existence. Now, let’s see how this dancing droplet phenomenon compares with human existence.

When we respond to a doorbell, we are responding to the information field influenced by another person who pressed the bell, which in turn, could be result of an online order I made on the click of a button earlier. In fact, we can say that our daily activity is guided by the information field around us. Emails, TV, WhatsApp, Internet, newspaper, people are contributing to the vast information field and the field, in turn, is guiding us. This information ocean remains largely invisible to us except for the ripples which show up in the form of TV news, WhatsApp messages, cars passing by, doorbell ringing etc.

Now, let’s look at the similarity of meaning as the activity of information for the droplet and for us. Let’s consider our thought as a system of conditioned and shared reflexes. If the doorbell situation appears threatening to me then a set of reflexes are fired (say, of conversing across the closed door to find more about the visitor). On the other hand, if it means “not dangerous”, then another set of reflexes would be fired automatically to open the door. Thus what appears to be a “choice” seems hidden in the programmatic nature of the conditioned reflexes. Thus information field is constantly acting through a set of reflexes, which in turn, is conditioned by experiences. In short, each of us is bouncing and influencing the vast information ocean and that information ocean, in turn, is guiding us.

Now imagine that the droplet becomes conscious – i.e. it gets a sense of “I am”. Moreover, let’s imagine that the oil bath is largely invisible to the drop. And it mistakes this awareness of “I am” with its own boundary (a drop of 1mm radius). So it might “think” that it is independent and making “choices” about where to go next depending upon the situation. We are doing the same.


1. Reference to ocean-wave metaphor is found in Ribhu Gita, one of the ancient Hindu scriptures. Ribhu Gita was advocated by Ramana Maharshi, a 20th century spiritual teacher from South India. Reference to ocean-wave metaphor can also be found in “I am that” a compilation of talks with Nisargadatta Maharaj, a 20th century spiritual teacher from Mumbai.

2. If you want to read further on “Meaning is the activity of information” I suggest the article: “Meaning and information” by David Bohm.