Friday, June 16, 2017

Photo gallery: "Mindfulness on the go" at Agastya International Foundation, Kuppam

I got an opportunity to facilitate the 2-day workshop "Mindfulness on the go" for folks from Agastya International Foundation at the scenic campus in Kuppam on June 8-9, 2017. Here are a few pictures from the workshop. We had four long silent sitting sessions (between 30 minutes to 1 hour duration). Unfortunately, we don't any photo from these silent sittings because everybody had kept their phones away. We also had a silent walk around the campus on the evening of day-1 led by Mr. Nitin Desai.








We used following movies to illustrate the concepts, tools, practice / investigation process:

Some of the questions that got raised and discussed during the workshop are:
  • Why do we need to meditate?
  • How to control thoughts?
  • Is meditation connected with any religion / sect?
  • What is the difference between meditation, concentration and silent sitting?
  • How to differentiate between useful and wasteful thoughts?
  • What is the relationship between meditation and god?
  • How is this connected with enlightenment?
  • Isn't fear necessary for achieving our goals?
Photo credit: Subbu Shastri, Gauri Dabholkar

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

As Jeff Bezos says, are big ideas incredibly easy to identify?



In a recent interview, Amazon Founder Jeff Bezos made following statement (18:22): “The main job of a senior leader is to identify 2 or 3 important ideas and then to enforce great execution against those big ideas. And the good news is, the big ideas are usually incredibly easy to identify.” For anyone who has dabbled in innovation, this may sound like a strange statement. If identification of big ideas is really that simple, why isn’t everybody running with one? Is there a catch here? Or, was Bezos just joking? Let’s explore this in this article.

Here is the context. Bezos is answering the question, “Can you predict what Amazon will look like ten years from now?” He first points out that the observable Amazon could change quite a bit. Nobody could have predicted ten years ago that Amazon Web Services (AWS) would be a significant contributor to Amazon business. Then he mentions that hopefully the core approach involving customer obsession, willingness to invent and long term view (patience & accepting failures as a path to success) would remain the same. This is where he makes the statement that big ideas are incredibly easy to identify.

What are the three big ideas for Amazon consumer business? They are: Low prices, fast delivery and vast selection. Of course, that’s the dream of any retailer. And it’s known for a long time. Bezos stresses that “big ideas should be obvious.” Now, let’s de-layer this a bit.

First, let’s notice that when Bezos spells out these ideas, they get presented as questions. E.g. How do we always deliver things a little faster? How do we reduce our cost structure so that we can reduce our prices lower? etc. So what Bezos refers to as big ideas in this context, are actually big challenges. In fact, I would call them strategic challenges. And as Bezos says, they are usually stable over time. He is also quick to add following caveat: It is hard to maintain a firm grasp on the obvious at all times. Little things can distract from the obvious.   

I have been talking to senior leaders for the past decade. And I am not convinced that they know what their big challenges are. Or at least they haven’t been able to articulate them in a clear manner.  Perhaps, Bezos is right. Every senior leader knows the big challenges. However, the caveat, the little distractions, is creating a cloud of confusion. And leader is losing focus on the strategic challenges. I don’t know. What do you think?

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Why does U G Krishnamurti say, “Thought is your enemy”?

I recently read U G Krishnamurti’sThought is your enemy”. UG, as he is popularly known, is one of the blunt spiritual teachers. This usually means there is no apparent common ground between UG and the reader (or the person conversing with him). “Thought is your enemy” is a compilation of discussions between UG and various seekers in India, Switzerland, Australia, Netherlands and UK between 1985 and 1990. In “Thought is your enemy”, UG is consistent in his position that thought is not an instrument that can help us in solving our problems; on the contrary, it only creates problems. Why does UG say that? Let’s explore it through three claims he makes in the book.

Thought destroys sensitivity: UG says, “The function of the brain in this body is only to take care of the needs of the physical organism and to maintain its sensitivity, where thought, through its constant interference with sensory activity, is destroying the sensitivity of the body.” We might be able to observe this in our daily life. When we are really anxious or stressed, we tend to eat more or sometimes eat less. Body is sending signals about when we should eat and when we should stop eating. However, the constant interference of thought is obscuring those signals. Hence, our eating habit may become abnormal. What happens to eating also gets extended to sitting posture, sleep and various others habits because our sensitivity gets diminished due to interfering thoughts.

Thought can only create problems, not solve them: UG says, “Thought is not the instrument for achieving anything other than the goals set before us by our culture or society or whatever you want to call it. The basic problem we have to face today is this: the cultural input, or what society has placed before us as the goal for all of us to reach and attain, is the enemy of this living organism. Thought can only create problems; it cannot help us to solve any.” Thought comes with a built-in program to create the next goal to be achieved – be it an educational degree, a house purchase, a promotion, a start-up, poverty alleviation or even enlightenment. Once one goal is met, another is generated automatically. Thought makes sure that happiness lies in the future, not in the present moment. How can such an instrument help us live a peaceful life ever?

Thought is fascist:  UG says, “Thought in its birth, in its origin, in its content, in its expression, and in its action is very fascist. When I use the word ‘fascist’ I use it not in the political sense but to mean that thought controls and shapes our thinking and our actions. It has helped us to create our technology. It has made our life very comfortable. It has also made it possible for us to discover new laws of nature. But thought is a very protective mechanism and is interested in its own survival.” Just like a Hitler believes in an ideology and makes it non-negotiable, thought believes in a value system and makes it non-negotiable. Whatever I value, be it a religion, be it a scientific principle or a business principle, once I make it non-negotiable, fascist nature is born. UG says, “You see, the value system is false.”

“Thought is your enemy”, like any other UG book, is not a light reading. It has no prescription. It is not meant to be understood. However, if you are open to reading between the lines, contemplate and perhaps ready to experiment with your own value system, then it may be a powerful companion.

image source: amazon.in

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Gabbar Singh and self-deception

Growing up as a school boy in the late 70s, it was hard to miss the famous Gabbar Singh (Amjad Khan) dialogue from the movie Sholay – Kitney admi they? (How many guys were there?) It was popular among kids and a mandatory item during family gatherings. What I realized only recently about this dialogue is that it is a great example of self-deception, a phenomenon in which our thought process is fooling us and we are not even aware of it. How does Gabbar Singh dialogue demonstrate self-deception? That is what we will see in this article.

The dialogue has three of Gabbar’s gang men – Kalia and two others - sheepishly standing because they have come back empty handed – without any loot. Moreover, they were driven away by two young men. Gabbar is really upset. He tells them that the government has put up a huge prize for catching Gabbar. In fact, every mom living several miles away is telling her child to be quiet while putting her to sleep. “Otherwise Gabbar Singh will come,” she says. And these three men with their cowardly act had tarnished Gabbar’s image. The dialogue ends with Gabbar killing all three and finally proclaiming his team’s core value – “Jo darr gaya samjho mar gaya” – Once afraid, as good as dead.

“Living in fear is not worth living” is quite a profound statement. One can easily misattribute it to some spiritual teachers like J. Krishnamurti or a Zen master. However, Gabbar appears to be a living embodiment of that value. Or does he?  On a closer look, we can see that there is a self-deception going on. Actually, Gabbar is also a fearful man. What is he afraid of? Gabbar is afraid of his self-image getting damaged. In fact, deep down he knows that his image is not that secure. He can’t bear the thought of such a downgraded image. However, the most interesting part is that Gabbar is not even aware that he is also a fearful man. A man who goes to the extent of killing his team members for a value is not even aware that his own behaviour is contradicting the same value. That’s why this phenomenon is called self-deception.

What is self-deception? It is a process in which our thought process misperceives reality and mis-attributes cause and effect. For example, it perceives that the person in front has said something insulting and it has resulted in a feeling of hurt. Then it attributes the cause of the hurt feeling to the person in front. Thought concludes the person in front has caused the pain. Similarly, Gabbar concludes that Kalia and team are the problem and he needs to get rid of it. He doesn’t see that if being fearful is the real problem then he is infected with the same problem.

The real cause of the hurt feeling isn’t the so-called “insulting” words. The real cause is yet another thought stored in our memory in the form of a belief that insulting words are bad for us. Thought treats it similar to someone throwing dirt at us. This belief springs into action from memory when the insulting words get interpreted and automatically creates a feeling of pain. So the real cause of the pain is one’s own belief. If, for some reason, the belief is altered e.g. if somebody says, “I am bad” that doesn’t make me bad, the same insulting words would have a different effect.

When one pays attention to the thought process in situations which upset us, one may begin to see how thought is running the business of managing self-image. And it may unravel the self-deception. Perhaps one may be able to stay with the feeling of diminished self-image without reacting. And then a different reality might unfold. Until one experiments in real scenarios and sees the process in action, just the knowledge that there is self-deception, is really not of much help.

Hope you get to experiment with your negative emotions and see if there is any self-deception in action. Like Gabbar, you don’t want to end up “killing” the innocent guys, do you?

image source: rediff.com

Further reading on self-deception:

Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman talks about self-deception in his interview with Sam Harris “Thinking about thinking” (see the last question – To what extent do you think true self-deception, as opposed to simple bias, exists?)

Jiddu Krishnamurti talks about it in chapter 18 of “First and last freedom” titled Self-deception.

David Bohm has written as article titled “On self-deception in individual, in groups and in society as a whole”.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Before-and-after storyboard: A simple template

A storyboard may sound like a simple or perhaps kindergarten kind of tool. However, an idea depicted through a simple storyboard may evoke powerful emotions, gossip and constructive criticism. Moreover, a simple storyboard can be drawn in less than an hour, sometimes within half an hour. I call it a candidate for building 1-hour feels like prototype. In this article, we look at a simple template that may be helpful in creating a storyboard.

Example-1: An idea related to a cafeteria experience in IIM Bangalore.



A few checklist items which I find useful in the storyboard are: 
  •  Does the storyboard contain people? This may seem like a silly question. However, I have seen engineers drawing detailed architecture diagram with no people. Architecture diagrams are useful but not in storyboards. A story is typically human centric.
  •  Are thoughts expressed through cloud bubbles?  To the person drawing the storyboard, the story is in the head. However, when thoughts are expressed through cloud bubbles, they help the reader understand the story better.
  • Is the place of the events clear? In the second frame in the “before” scenario of the example above, the event is happening in the cafeteria. Context helps us understand the story better. Unfortunately, the context is missing in the “after” scenario. It is not clear whether the ready-to-eat chole are warmed up in the hostel pantry or in the cafeteria. That would have helped.
  •  Does the “before” scenario bring out a pain? “Chole tasted like sambhar” – this expression brings out the pain in this case.
  • Does the story bring out a unique feature of the solution? “Ready to eat chole in 5 minutes” is presenting a unique feature of the proposed solution. Note that this point could be debated. One may argue that such products are available. And this would be an opportunity for the idea author to elaborate in what way her solution is unique. Or perhaps re-think of the solution or even problem definition.

Example-2: Here is another storyboard where an intelligent tool might help a marketing manager launch a Black Friday promotion campaign. 



A room or a wall with storyboards can come alive and attract a lot of attention and responses. Try it out and see it for yourself.

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?

Sources:
For more information on implicit vs explicit order (or implicate vs explicate order), check out: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Implicate_and_explicate_order