Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Infinite vision and the questions that shaped Aravind Eye Care system

India is a land of paradoxes. On the one hand, we have sixty people losing sight in an eye camp and thirteen women losing life in a sterilization camp in the last two months. On the other hand, we have Aravind Eye Care system – overlooking 1000+ sight-restoring surgeries every day with world class quality standards, serving poor and rich with compassion, and in a financially self-sustainable way.

The canvass that Aravind covers is so vast that any narrative that tries to present Aravind story will be incomplete. But some are less incomplete than others. “Infinite Vision: How Aravind became the wold’s greatest business case for compassion” by Pavithra Mehta and Suchitra Shenoy is perhaps the least incomplete and lucidly written tale of Aravind, its founder Dr. Venkataswamy and many others who shaped the infinite vision. Here are two things that I found most interesting in the book.

1.      Questions behind the answers: If Aravind is the extraordinary answer, what were Dr. V’s questions? This is the core riddle the book aims to address. Through the personal journal Dr. V kept over the decades, the authors get a peek into the questions. “How to organize and build more hospitals like McDonald’s”. Reads a journal entry from 1980s. Notice that there is no question mark (?) at the end of the sentence, a peculiar characteristic of Dr. V’s writing. It is as though each question contains a seed of the answer. Another entry reads - “How was Buddha able to organize in those days a religion that millions follow. Who were the leaders. How were they shaped.” At Frankfort airport Dr. V watched a plane land and the process that followed and said to his friend, “This is how we should run our operating theatre.” In 1978, Dr. V visited 40,000 square-foot training facility at University of Michigan School of Medicine. After seeing the training centre, he mentioned to Dr. Suzanne Gilbert, “One day, I would like to have a centre like this one.” She was baffled by this remark of the Indian doctor who at that time ran an 11-bed eye clinic.

2.      Light behind the spirit: Dr. V was deeply influenced by the teachings of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. The spiritual quest got translated into questions like – How do I become a perfect instrument? (1980 journal entry). The book beautifully weaves the thread of Dr. V’s spiritual journey towards becoming a perfect instrument in the narrative. However, a question arises - What did it mean on a day-to-day basis to Dr. V? Following excerpt from a journal entry gives a glimpse:

You feel drawn to a patient because he’s from your village, known to you, and then you try to do your best for him. But at times, a patient is aggressive and demands some privileges. He says, “Could you see me first?” This upsets you, and with that feeling of annoyance you treat him. You are not able to disassociate him from his mental or emotional aggressiveness. … To do this [treat him well] you must bring into your own being silence, calmness, and quietude. It needs enormous practice to realize the experience of silence in you.

“This man’s spirituality wasn’t incidental to the story. It was what everything else hinged on,” says Prof. V. Kasturi Rangan of Harvard Business School who wrote the case on Aravind that became popular world over.

Personally, “Can spirituality be integrated in organizations?” is a question I have carried with me for some time now. The book gives a ray of hope. Kudos to Pavithra and Suchitra for bringing out such a wonderful story. Hope it reaches out to more people.

I would like to thank Mr. Thulsi for giving a copy of the book to me. He is playing a key role at Aravind in shaping the “Infinite vision” and inspiring many.

Book image source: flipkart.com. 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

How to build curiosity stamina?

Stefan Hawking, the famous Physicist, in his first Facebook update in October said, “Be curious. I know I will always be.” That’s not very different from what Einstein said, “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” Most of us may not be passionately curious about anything. Is there a way one can build curiosity stamina systematically? Let’s explore it in this article.

Many times we confuse curiosity stamina with what kids demonstrate. They keep asking “Why?” questions one after the other. That is a useful start. However, that is not an indicator of curiosity stamina. Jamsetji Tata took a soil sample near Nagpur for testing in 1882. He wanted to check if the soil is right for steel production. The result was negative. He continued to perform such tests whenever a soil showed promise and kept a journal to keep track of the results. For how long? 17 years! That’s curiosity stamina. It is remaining curious around a single question or a topic for sufficiently long time. Not jumping from one question to another question from moment-to-moment. Ask yourself – how long do I remain curious around one topic? For most of us, the topic is over once a quick-fix is given.

Here are a few more examples of people demonstrating curiosity stamina:

·        Andrew Wiles: Remained curious about Fermat’s Last Theorem for more than two decades before committing to the problem for another decade. (See the story).
·        Rahul Bhatia: Remained curious about starting an airline in India for more than two decades before starting Indigo. He and his friend Rakesh Gangwal first discussed the possibility in 1985.

Is it possible to build curiosity stamina systematically? Here are a few tips:

Start a curiosity diary: One way to get started is to maintain a curiosity diary. That is what I do. It contains links to articles or newspaper cuttings which have aroused my curiosity. For example, see the clipping of the Rahul Bhatia article and highlighting of the part that made me curious. Most of the themes will be forgotten over time. Some themes will recur mostly because they resonate deeply within. They are good candidates to pursue further.

Identify the core challenge: Frame the challenge differently. For example, see “5 ways of framing a challenge”. Ask, “Why is the problem not solved yet?” See how others have tackled the challenge. Ask, “Can I make progress here?” Andrew Wiles was suggested not to work on the Fermat’s Last Theorem for his PhD because he was told, “You could spend years getting nowhere”. It is only after a new mathematical result was published in 1986 which suddenly created new hope for proving Fermat’s Last Theorem. The new result had created a linkage between Fermat’s Last Theorem and an area in which Andrew was already a known expert (called elliptical curves). It meant chances of progress were now higher.

Perform low-cost experiments: Prototyping is a great way to get to know an area. It tells you whether some aspect of an idea works and it also demonstrates whether you have the skills to make progress. It allows you to get quick feedback. You may want to try what others have already tried, just to make sure it doesn't work. Don’t forget to re-frame the challenge as you learn new things.

Look for collaborators: Many times things don’t work out the way we would have imagined. Pressure from your day-job mounts and you really feel drained. Where do you get your energy from? In such situations, it helps to have a buddy who shares your passion. It is not easy to find one. However, you increase your chances of finding one if you socialize your idea. Write a blog / paper, join a community / forum and share your thoughts / challenge / ideas. You never know from where your collaborator may come from.

These are a few things I do to keep my curiosity alive. Perhaps you may have your own ways. Please feel free to share your thoughts.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

4 reasons why innovation programs in India flounder

Over the past five years, I have been fortunate to have witnessed several dozen innovation programs. I have seen the journey of some innovation programs over 3 to 5 years. In this article, I would like to present 4 reasons why I believe innovation programs in India flounder.

Before I present the reasons, let me share the point in the journey where the programs struggle. Here is a simple and useful 5-level maturity framework that I have used to map various programs.

Most of the programs struggle around level-3. The parameters where the difficulty starts are typically: participation (difficult to sustain at 30%), review process (maintain the rigor and rhythm), prototyping (ideas don’t move) etc.

The four reasons why the programs struggle are: (1) Poor program management (2) Lack of emphasis on experimentation (3) Lack of rigor and rhythm in innovation reviews and (4) No champions. Let’s look at each one briefly.

1.      Poor program management: Any serious program needs a person or at least a function that holds the roadmap. Innovation program is not a one quarter project. It runs over multiple years. You need people who are constantly watching what is working and what is not working, trying to remove the hurdles which are holding things back, deciding quarterly targets, publishing a dashboard, holding events, running campaigns etc. If you tell someone that management of innovation program is 5% of his KRA, chances are high things will not move. Most innovation programs need a full-time or at least a half-time program manager.

2.      Lack of emphasis on experimentation: Ideas by themselves are of little use. You need people to build prototypes and validate some of the assumptions behind the ideas. Many organizations don’t acknowledge experimentation as a legitimate activity. Hence ideas don’t move forward.  Some organizations (e.g. Ericsson) offer sponsorship in the form an experiment week to good ideas. In some places, it is considered acceptable to spend part of your work time (say 15-20%) in experimentation (e.g. Google, 3M). Some places organize events such as hackathon or prototyping workshops where ideas take shape.

3.      Lack of rigor and rhythm in innovation review: Small ideas can get implemented at team level. However, big ideas need attention, review and investment from business leaders. Moreover, funded ideas need to be reviewed regularly to see if they are stuck somewhere or need to be dropped etc. Many times innovation reviews are not given a priority. They get postponed due to priority scheduling of other meetings. Many times the reviews are too lenient. No criterion is used to kill unviable projects. Sooner or later they run out of oxygen. That creates a lot of bitterness. It is much better to systematically kill non-working ideas so that more fresh ideas can be funded.

4.      No champions: I strongly believe in the saying - An idea either finds a champion or dies. A champion commits to a challenge long term and puts his weight behind it. An idea may get stuck due to lack of resources, lack of connections to right people or a narrow vision. A champion pitches in any or all of these areas. This is what George Fernandez did for Konkan railway, what Einstein did for Satyendranath Bose and what Mike Markkula did for Apple. If your organization doesn’t have any champions, then it is going to be difficult for big ideas to move beyond prototyping stage. You should be asking your senior managers, “Which idea are you championing?”

Friday, November 14, 2014

“Thought as a system” by David Bohm: A book review

David Bohm’s “Thought as a system” begins with a bombshell. He says, “What is the source of all this trouble (that humanity is facing – war, corruption, conflicts etc.)? I’m saying that the source is basically in thought. Yet it looks as if the thing we use to solve our problems is the source of our problems.” It feels as though Bohm is pulling the rug under our feet. What is wrong with the thought?

Imagine you cross your boss in the office corridor and you see that he is looking particularly unhappy and avoiding eye contact. Then you recollect that he would have seen your email that your teams’ delivery will slip this time as well. Now, it is clear to you that he is really going to take some action this time. You go to your seat and immediately start browsing job market sites. Soon you are convinced that boss is going to fire you. You start sending mails to your close friends looking for help in finding a job. You are not able to focus on your work and you come home worried. A couple of days pass in this state. And then you get a mail from boss for a one-on-one meeting. Boss says, “Why are you looking so tense these days? I strongly suggest you should take some time off. And don’t worry about the slippage. I know how the customer requirements changed last minute. You have done a good job in making sure the schedule doesn’t go out of hand.” And you say to yourself, “Oh! My boss is really not mad at me. I suffered unnecessarily past few days.”

This is an extrapolated version of a short story Bohm narrates in the book. It highlights the role thought plays in altering our perception. The thought “My boss is mad at me” muddles up our perception and we start seeing the world as if it is real. Our actions of browsing job sites, sending resume, not focusing on work result from that. When we persist with incorrect perception in spite of contrary evidence, Bohm calls it “sustained incoherence”. Thought doesn’t know it is doing something and then it struggles against the problem it is producing. In this case, thought doesn’t know that it has imagined that boss is about to fire me and it is struggling to overcome the “firing” problem. Taken to extreme, my behaviour at work might be affected so much that boss might eventually fire me confirming my belief.

Sustained incoherence may result into “seeing” every person from a particular nation or religion or community as a “bad person”. In its milder form, this might result into shouting at your daughter or student. In its amplified form, it may lead to mass killings. A thought such as “I am the greatest” may lead to building a twenty seven storied house for a family of five. More importantly, thought is responsible for significant portion of our suffering in our day-to-day life and incorrect action that flows from it. Bottom line is – thought affects our perception and we don’t even know it.

Why don’t we see that the perception is muddled up by a thought and doesn’t hold real ground? Well, thought is built to resist everything that weakens its role. Thought operates very similar to how a knee-jerk happens. You hit the bone and knee jerks automatically, reflexively. Similarly, you see boss’ frowned face and like a reflex a thought pops up saying he is mad at me. Thought is a system of reflexes all ready to be fired at the press of a button. And what presses the button? Well, it could be a word, an image, an emotion, another thought etc. A thought such as “I am the greatest” or “I am useless” can create a chain reaction that can last a lifetime. The reflexes are continuously being adapted by new thoughts and being strengthened by repetitive thought patterns. Thought as a system of reflexes is constantly creating a huge amount electrochemical smog in which we live and suffer.

What do we do then? Here is how Bohm offers hope. He points out to a bright spot we already possess i.e. our ability to see the relationship between our intention and the movement of our body parts.  It is called proprioception. Proprioception makes us aware that it is my intention that is moving my hand.  On the other hand, the car passing by on the road is not being moved by my intention. Good pianists, dancers, gymnasts have highly developed proprioception at least for some of the body parts. What happens when we lose proprioception? Bohm tells the story of a proprioception impaired woman who got up in the middle of a night screaming and hitting herself. Only when the light was turned on she realized her mistake. It was her own hand that had touched her and she thought it was someone else. Thus proprioception plays a crucial role in our daily movements.

Bohm feels that thought is a close cousin of our body parts. Hence, we should be able to see its movement just like we see the movement of our hand and feet and its relationship to our intent. And we should be able to see how the story the thought is spinning is muddling up our perception. Most of us have lost our ability to see the movement of thought just like the woman who has lost it for the entire body. Can we build the ability of proprioception of thought? If so, how?

Bohm suggests we make a note of “boss is mad at me” kind of repetitive stories that lead to our suffering and identify the buttons which get them started. A button could be a word or an image (say of an ice-cream or french fries) or a thought. In an earlier article I had mentioned one of my buttons – someone cutting the line in which I am waiting for my turn. First thing is to observe how the button press and story spinning happen like a knee-jerk – automatic and reflexive. The next thing is to invoke the word that presses the button voluntarily and see its mechanical reflexive nature starting from your own intent. This helps us drop those stories which are not getting validated e.g. “boss is mad at me and will fire me”. This weakens the reflexes. Eventually, it may reduce the interference of thought substantially leading to a more coherent perception and more meaningful living.

“Thought as a system” is my third David Bohm and it was published in 1992 the year Bohm died. I read "Wholeness & the implicate order" in 1997 and "Science, order & creativity" a couple of years back. “Thought as a system” is clearly my most favourite among the three. It is an edited transcript of a seminar Bohm conducted in 1990 in Ojai, California. It is not a light reading and is in the form of a dialogue. I have a special liking for a dialogue / interview narrative as compared to a single person narrative. Hence, I was able to appreciate it even more. I am thankful to my dad and his friend Harshad Shah for suggesting and making it available to me.

Bohm talks about the worst thing a reader can do with a book like this. He tries to understand the concepts with thought and says, “I got it.” That’s where you lose the game. The concepts get incorporated into the system of reflexes and that adds further fuel to the electrochemical smog producing engine. In Bohm’s words, “Thought can deceive us about anything and everything. There is no limit to its power of deception.” Watch out for the thought-trap if you read the book and even if you don't read the book.

Related articles:

The limitations of thought” - David Bohm explains the basic concepts in the book in this interview by Michael Mendizza done in 1978.

Video coverage of some of the sessions in the 1990 Ojai seminar on which this book is based are available on 
YouTube. Check out Friday evening session and Saturday morning session.

"The Matrix as a system vs thought as a system", compares "The Matrix" from the movie to thought, Jul, 2015

I am thankful to my dad Padmakar & my wife Gauri for giving inputs on the first draft of this article.

Image source: seekaftertruth.com

Saturday, November 8, 2014

9 ways of losing oneself in egoic thought patterns

In an earlier article, I presented the three practices from Eckhart Tolle’s teaching that I find useful – Attention, Alertness and Acceptance. The second practice, Alertness, involves catching oneself losing in an egoic thought pattern. The question is: what kind of behaviour is indicative of egoic thinking? Here is an excerpt from Eckhart Tolle’s book “A New Earth: Awakening to your life’s purpose” in which he articulates 9 ways of losing ourselves in egoic thought pattern. (page 254):

---Start of excerpt---

Here are some ways in which people unconsciously try to emphasize their form-identity. If you are alert enough, you may be able to detect some of these unconscious patterns within yourself (Note: the book doesn’t have the numbering. But the wording is Eckhart’s):

1.      Demanding recognition for something you did and getting angry if you don’t get it
2.      Trying to get attention by talking about your problems, story of your illnesses, or making a scene
3.      Giving your opinion when nobody has asked for it and it makes no difference to the situation
4.      Being more concerned with how the other person sees you than with the other person, which is to say, using other people for egoic reflection or as ego enhancers
5.      Trying to make an impression on others through possessions, knowledge, good looks, status, physical strength, and so on.
6.      Bringing about temporary ego inflation through angry reaction against something or someone
7.      Taking things personally, feeling offended
8.      Making yourself right and others wrong through futile mental or verbal complaining
9.      Wanting to be seen, or to appear important

---End of excerpt---

This list helps me as I play "catch me if you can" game from time to time. Perhaps you might find it helpful. I found it useful to focus on one or two patterns which are dominant in those days. For example, I have played with no 3 (giving opinion when nobody has asked for it), no 5 (trying to make an impression through knowledge). As a trainer I become alert on "creating an impression" part. It appears as though "creating an impression" is necessary to have an impactful training. No 7 (taking things personally) is a slippery area too. Sometimes I just smoothly slide into it especially during the conversation with my wife. No 8 (I am right, others wrong) provides ample of opportunity for doing the experiment.

What happens when you catch yourself in an egoic thought pattern? You create a momentary gap in egoic thinking. How long is this gap? I don’t know. Perhaps the gap is tiny – less than a second. In fact, I don’t have any control over the duration of the gap. Hence, Eckhart suggests that one should try to catch oneself in the egoic thought pattern as often as possible.

Image source: goodreads.com

Monday, November 3, 2014

Is innovation really about progress?

I show this picture to the participants of innovation workshops and ask, “Is this an innovation?” There would typically be a silence for a few seconds before someone would say, “No” and then a “Yes”. What is your answer? My answer is “It depends”. From the perspective of Mumbai city, 26/11 terrorist attack is not an innovation. However, from the perspective of the terrorist organization which masterminded the attack, it would be a radical innovation. There is an idea, its implementation and a huge impact indicative of a successful mission.

In the current times, innovation has acquired a positive connotation. When we look at the technology breakthroughs that has permeated our lives, it becomes obvious why. Electricity, telephone, TV, computer, Internet, new life-saving drugs, automobile, aeroplane – these innovations have made our lives productive and enriching. It is no surprise that many for-profit companies are considering innovation as an important lever to achieve their growth agenda. Countries such as India have also put innovation as an important element to improve their GDP growth. So, where is the problem?

Nothing in life is that positive. Twentieth century witnessed killings of over 150 million people in wars and other conflicts. The primary instruments used for these killings - Atom bomb, guns and war planes are also examples of innovations. Production and consumption of guns have also contributed to GDP growth. In fact, there is nothing like a bad GDP growth. If Taj hotel is damaged in a terrorist attack and needs to be rebuilt, the construction work contributes to GDP growth. In fact, a lot of growth has happened by consuming non-renewable resources and adding toxic chemicals to the environment. None of this damage is reflected in the GDP.

I feel, innovation is a tool, just like a hammer. It is value-neutral. You can use it for the good of the world and for the bad of the world. However, there is the catch. Most of us have good intent when we begin a journey and unknowingly it leads us to a wrong place. I am sure Hitler was trying to make the world a better place – according to his perspective. When Chahattisgarh Government mobilized and deployed Salwa Judum movement to counter the Naxal violence in the region, it had good intentions. However, it resulted in human right violations. Unfortunately, ideas don't carry a tag saying "good" or "bad".

Innovations in India and elsewhere will most likely create growth. But at what cost? That is not clear. Perhaps pollution is the other side of the same coin. I guess, I don’t understand what progress means. I prefer to remain curious about its meaning.

Related article:

Role of value system in innovation: An insight shared by Dr. Gururaj (Desh) Deshpande in a talk in 2012 in Bangalore.

Image source: deccanchronicle.com

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Uncommon Wisdom from J Krishnamurti, Heisenberg, Fritz Schumacher and Indira Gandhi

Fritjof Capra became famous for his bestseller book “Tao of physics” published in 1975. It was one of the first books that tried to show the connection between Modern physics and Eastern Mysticism and succeeded in grabbing peoples’ attention. Who influenced Capra on this journey from a particle physicist to a no man's land? What kind of conversations did he have with these remarkable men? That is the focus of his book “Uncommon wisdom: Conversations with remarkable people”. What appealed to me about these conversations is that the questions that got raised in them are still quite relevant and the wisdom still uncommon. The book contains conversations with a dozen people spread across 8 chapters. Here I am summarising the nuggets from four of these conversations.

First you are a human being (Jiddu Krishnamurti, 1968): When Capra met the spiritual teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti in 1968, Capra was on the runway of his career as a physicists and it was about to take off. JK was giving a series of talks at the University of California, Santa Cruz where Capra was a faculty. Capra recalls, “I remember that I was fascinated as well as deeply disturbed by Krishnamurti’s lectures. After each evening talk Jacqueline and I stayed up for several hours more, sitting at our fireplace and discussing what Krishnamurti had said.”

JK had created a major confusion in Capra’s mind. He didn’t know how to marry his career ambition with JK’s advice of going beyond thought. Fortunately, he got an opportunity to meet JK the morning after one of his talks. “How can I be a scientist,” Capra asked JK, “and still follow your advice of stopping thought and attaining freedom from the known?” JK answered immediately. “First, you are a human being,” he said, “then you are a scientist. First, you have to become free, and this freedom cannot be achieved through thought. It is achieved through meditation – the understanding of the totality of life in which every form of fragmentation has ceased.” According to JK, once one has this understanding, he would be able to work as a scientist without any problems. Capra recalls, “Krishnamurti answered my question in ten seconds in a way that completely solved my problem.”

Find pleasure in the process not just the results (Werner Heisenberg, 1972):  Capra met Werner Heisenberg, one of the fathers of Quantum Mechanics and Capra’s hero, at the Max Plank Institute in Munich, Germany. By then Capra had published the first article on the new theme titled “The dance of Shiva: The Hindu view of matter in the light of Modern Physics”. Heisenberg had sent him encouraging response to this article.

During this meeting Heisenberg recalled his India visit in 1929. He stayed as a guest with Rabindranath Tagore and had long conversations with the poet. “After these conversations with Tagore,” Heisenberg said, “Some of the ideas that seemed so crazy suddenly made much more sense. That was a great help for me.” In 1972, Heisenberg was 71 years old, way past his prime time as a scientist. Capra asked him what kind of results he was working towards. Heisenberg explained him the goals of the research program and added that he found as much pleasure in the process of research as in achieving those goals. What a profound statement!

Take a small step, wait for the feedback and then proceed (Fritz Schumacher, 1977): When Capra met Fritz Schumacher at his Caterham house near London, Capra had published “Tao of physics” and Schumacher was famous for his book “Small is beautiful”. Unlike Capra, Schumacher, the prophet of sustainability movement, was not very optimistic about Physics creating the new world view. However, unlike Capra, he carried a vision of an alternative future, a sustainable future which was influenced by, among others, Mahatma Gandhi and Buddhist monks in Burma.

How does one work in this alternative world? “Because of smallness and patchiness of our knowledge,” Schumacher said, “We have to go in small steps. We have to leave room for non-knowledge. Take a small step and wait for the feedback and then proceed further. There is wisdom in smallness, you see.” What a humble approach!

How to introduce technology without destroying the culture? (Indira Gandhi, 1982):  Capra met Indira Gandhi at her office in the Parliament House in Delhi. She was back in power after the post-emergency debacle and had experienced untimely death of her younger son. Capra had various images of Indira Gandhi e.g. strong willed, autocratic, tough and arrogant, spiritual person etc. After exchanging the pleasantries, Gandhi asked Capra, “My problem is, how can I introduce new technologies into India without destroying the existing culture? We want to learn as much as we can from the Western countries. But we want to keep our roots. Today, it seems much easier and cheaper to buy plastic than to spend time with these crafts,” she said with a sad smile, “What a pity!”

“The people in India,” she said, “no matter how poor they are, have a special quality of wisdom, an inner strength which comes from our spiritual tradition. I would like them to keep this quality, this special presence, while ridding themselves of poverty." As Capra started giving a few suggestions, Gandhi started taking notes.

Images sources: goodreads.com, inner-quest.org, notablebiographies.com, practicalaction.org, wikipedia.org

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Pain-multiplier effect: My key insight from a 10-day Vipassana course

Gita says, “Act without expecting returns”, Upanishads say, “This is whole, that is whole”, Buddha says, “Every form is impermanent, don’t cling to it”. As I was growing up in India, I heard these pearls of wisdom at home, in school, in movies & plays and from beggars in the Bombay local trains. The question is: “Was any of that my personal experience?” The answer is, “No”. I like the way Eckhart Tolle puts it: You may know the molecular structure of honey, you may have done a PhD on honey, but have you tasted honey? I got an opportunity to practice “tasting honey” in a 10-day Vipassana meditation course earlier this month held at Dhamma Pafulla on the outskirts of Bangalore. If you want to know what Vipassana is about, there are various Vipassana experience diaries available on the Net (e.g. here is one). In this article, I would like to focus on my key insight, which I call “pain-multiplier effect” and the events that led to it on the 7th day of the retreat. Note that Vipassana doesn’t promise any specific insight and experience & learning of every individual is unique.

During the first three days, we had practiced a type of concentration meditation called Anapana. The objective here is to develop the faculty of awareness to feel subtle sensations. This involved feeling the incoming and outgoing breath at the tip of the nostrils. It also involved feeling any sensation on the nose and seeing it arise and pass away etc. On the fourth day, the primary tool of Vipassana, body scan, was introduced. It involved scanning your body part by part by putting attention on each part separately. While the attention is on a part, say the right shoulder, you need to observe any gross sensation (shirt touching the shoulder), or subtle sensation (vibrations, tingling, pain etc). You need to do this with equanimity i.e. without craving or aversion for any type of sensation. If the faculty of awareness is the left leg of Vipassana, the faculty of equanimity is the right leg.

For me, things went relatively smoothly until the fifth day of the course when Adhitthana (meditation with strong determination) was introduced. We were told that during the three group sittings – 8-9am, 2:30-3:30pm and 6-7pm, you need to sit for one hour without changing the leg and hand postures and without opening the eyes. Halfway through the first Adhitthana session, a pain fight began between legs and upper back. Whoever was winning, say legs, would grab all the attention and the body scan went for a toss. The last fifteen minutes became really painful hence I changed the posture a couple of times.

By the seventh day, I had learnt to zoom into the pain area (primarily upper back) since the hour appeared like several hours long and you had to pass it somehow. So I thought I might as well see what this pain is all about.  The pain had two distinct components – one, the physical pain and two, the mental build up due to the resistance to the pain (“When the hell will this session end?”) On the seventh day, I got tired of resisting and gave up. To my surprise, the overall pain reduced substantially. The physical pain in the upper back still remained. But it was quite insignificant compared to the overall pain I had experienced earlier. From then on the Adhitthana sessions ceased to be a problem. During one of the evening discourses, Goenka-ji referred to this phenomenon as the “multiplier effect”.

Back pains, then the body reacts to this sensation with aversion – I don’t want this pain. That starts a chain reaction which builds a reactive pain which amounts to a large portion, say 90%, of the overall pain. If we are able to reduce or drop the resistance, the pain reduces substantially.

What Goenka-ji mentioned during a discourse is that all types of pains (and pleasures) share this property. It may originate from a physical pain, a remark from the boss, a friend or spouse that hurts or revival of an old painful memory. The multiplier effect is common and it is responsible for the major chunk of the suffering. I had heard of the theory part, but never experienced it with this clarity. Now, I would like to observe this phenomenon in other day-to-day situations. Let’s see how it goes.

Do you have to go through the 10 day course to experience the multiplier effect? I don’t think so. However, the course provides a great laboratory environment for experimentation on self-observation.

PS: My wife Gauri attended the same course in December 2014. She has shared her experience before and after Vipassana.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Four approaches to problem solving

Car breakdown? Internet not working? Boss or spouse upset? Garbage everywhere? Long commute times? Corruption? Poverty? Everyday, we experience problems at different levels and of varied complexity. Some, like car problem, appear solvable, some like, commute time appear more difficult to solve and some others like corruption / poverty appear hopeless. Nevertheless, problem solving has fascinated mankind for centuries. From Francis Bacon who championed inductive methods to Buddha who championed meditative methods various people have proposed different approaches to solve problems. Here is an attempt to classify these approaches into 4 categories – system centric, problem centric, solution centric and solver centric approach. I will argue at the end that as human dimension associated with the situation gets more complex, we need to use more of solution and solver centric approaches.

To simplify things, I have considered the process of going from problem definition to hypothesis generation (or solution creation). And hence, I have kept the steps of problem definition and the hypothesis validation (experimentation) out of scope. Most of the times, problem solving is an iterative process where problem (re-) definition, solution creation and experimentation get repeated until one is satisfied. Thomas Edison epitomized this method by running tens of thousands of experiments to get his light bulb right.

Four approaches to problem solving:

System centric: Tata Nano is the result of questioning the position, material and various properties of car’s components. For example, engine’s position has moved back from front. Plastic was given a serious consideration as a body material before abandoning it because it didn’t fit in the budget. In the early stages of conceptualization the role of doors was questioned.  In the systemic centric approach, a system is looked upon as a combination of various sub-systems. And then the arrangement of sub-systems (and its sub-systems) gets questioned and changed to meet certain constraints like cost, performance etc. TRIZ methodology and its variants like Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT) are examples of system centric approaches. For further study, SIT’s five thinking tools (subtraction, multiplication, division, task unification and attribute dependency) is a good place to start.

Problem centric: Malaria has been one of the deadliest diseases for mankind. It may have contributed to the decline of Roman Empire. However, once it was known that it is spread through mosquitoes, its arrest became easier. Bed nets and insect repellents are low cost and yet effective measures to reduce the risk of malaria. Root Cause Analysis helps us find the root cause of the problem and then address it. Techniques like fishbone or Ishikawa diagrams and asking five-why’s have been developed to help analyse root causes. This site shows how root cause analysis is applied to various famous failures in various industries like aviation, healthcare, business, environmental, legal etc. For example, this article presents the application of repeated “Why” questioning to arrive at root cause(s) of devastation due to Hurricane Katrina.

Solution centric: By the time Gyanesh Pandey realized that Jatropha based biodiesels based approach won’t be a viable approach, he had already spent significant portion of his pension fund and five years in iterative experimentation. He was struggling to hold on to his dream of electrifying rural India and had run out of ideas. In a chance meeting, he came across a gasifier based electrification technology being used in forty villages in Bihar. He spent a month-and-a-half at one of the plant studying it and improved it further. This led to Husk Power Systems, a venture Gyanesh co-founded that sells gasifier based power generators that supply electricity several off-grid villages in North East India. Note that Gyanesh’s breakthrough happened when he looked at a solution rather than the root cause of the problem. Hence this approach is called solution centric approach.

As the social system becomes large and complex (like rural India), it becomes more difficult to do root-cause analysis. Nassim Taleb calls such systems high causal density systems. The number of variables which are affecting the system is very high – perhaps thousands, perhaps millions. Hence, to solve a problem, it makes more sense to start with “what is already working in the same setting” (a solution). These are referred to as “bright spots”. The idea is to focus on scalable bright spots. The psychotherapy method called Solution Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT) focuses on bright spots as a starting point. Similarly, an approach called Positive Deviance advocates solving social problems by scaling bright spots. Chip & Dan Heath advocate “Follow bright spot” approach in their book “Switch:  How to change things when change is hard”.

Metaphor (or analogy) is another powerful solution centric method of solving problems. A metaphor tries to create an equivalence between two seemingly disconnected concepts by asking, “Why can’t this be more like that?” For example, McDonalds and an eye hospital (Aravind Eye Care), moon and apple (Newton & gravity), water in the tub and water in the stream (Hellen Keller’s first breakthrough concept) etc.

Solver centric: In 1993 when Dr. Kiran Bedi became IG(Prison) of Tihar Jail, she asked an interesting 
question – Why can’t a jail be more like an ashram – a spiritual retreat for prisoners? Soon, an experiment was conducted in which 96 inmates and 23 jail staff participated in a 10-day Vipassana meditation course conducted within the jail premises. It was a success and since then it has become a regular practice at Tihar. Moreover, it has been introduced in other prisons in India and abroad.

What has meditation got to do with problem solving? A reason why a jail term may not reform a convict because the thought patterns which lead to a wrong-doing are stuck deep inside the mind. Similarly, we are not able to solve a problem because cobwebs of judgments / desire / fear prevent us from seeing the world as it is. The same tape of complaints and labelling is getting played again and again inside our heads most of the time. The only way out is to see clearly the futility of this wasteful involuntary compulsive thinking. All meditation approaches are intended to get one’s attention away from this compulsive thinking. Hence, meditative approaches are solver centric approaches. A practice like dialogue championed by people like David Bohm, Peter Senge and Edgar Schein is also an example of solver centric approach. In a dialogue, the emphasis is placed in clarifying one’s own assumption rather than judging others’ comments.

Which is the best approach? Of course, each approach is relevant in some context and you may need to combine them as well. However, I feel that as the social complexity of a problem increases, the role of solution and solver centric approaches increases. My limited experience of working with organizations over the past eight years tells me that solution and solver centric approaches are under emphasized and under-utilized. Hope to see more people using them in future.

Monday, August 18, 2014

An idea presentation template based on Steve Jobs’ iPod launch speech in 2001

This nine minute clip showing Steve Jobs launching iPod for the first time in 2001 is one of my favourite videos. I have watched it dozens of times, had several discussions on it in my innovation workshops, and referred to it in our book as well. Somewhere along with way a thought came – can we create a simple template from this video that others may find useful while presenting their ideas? In this article, I would like to present the template which came as a response to that question. Several of my workshop participants have found it useful and hence thought of sharing it.

To appreciate the template, let’s break the presentation into three parts: Why, What and How. In this presentation, they answer the questions (1) Why music? (2) What is iPod? (3) (Let me show you) How it fits into my pocket.

Why music? In the “Why” part, Jobs tells us why this space of digital music was important to Apple at that juncture. Through following table, Jobs communicates the options available, associated trade-offs and the position Apple had taken (to go for hard drive option).

What is iPod? In the “What” part, Jobs presents brief description of what iPod is – an MP3 music player, has CD-quality music and it plays all of the popular open formats of the digital music, holds 1000 songs and fits in your pocket. He unleashes the tagline – Your entire music library fits into your pocket. He articulates the three things unique about the iPod – storage, portability and design. He also highlights several user scenarios such as iPod running out of charge. Note how Jobs covered a few what-if scenarios. E.g. What-if I am on the road and my battery is dead? What-if I have to transfer CD to iPod?

Let me show you: The easiest way to build credibility is to showcase a key feature of your idea. Here Jobs shows the picture of iPod on the screen (design) and then shows how the iPod fits into his pocket (portability).

The three aspects of the this presentation: Why-What-How can be extended to any idea. Following picture illustrates the template.

The template incorporates three core communication design principles: curiosity flow, concreteness and credibility. Curiosity flow is introduced through Why-What-What-if-How questions. Concreteness is ensured through what-if scenarios, by showing experiential imagery like the deck of cards and by showing the demo. Credibility is enhanced by showing a trade-off analysis table and by showing a working demo. Note that unlike Steve Jobs establishing credibility is the most difficult of the three aspects for most idea presenters.

Here is an example where the template is applied to an idea of starting “A Mexican restaurant in Sarjarpur Road area” (where I live). It is a fictitious example and hence used for illustration purpose only.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Three practices from Eckhart Tolle’s teaching that I find useful

On Guru Poornima, I would like to reflect upon three practices from Eckhart Tolle’s teaching that I find useful. First, let’s note that the domain of spirituality is full of paradoxes. For example, Eckhart says, “You will need time until you realize that you don’t need time to be who you are1”. Every practice inherently involves time and is useful only until you realize that you don’t need it. Looks like presently I need time and also a practice. Here I present three practices corresponding to 3 A’s: Attention, Alertness and Acceptance. They are inter-related but each one carries a different flavour.

Shift attention away from thinking: I find this the simplest of the three practices to get started. It was a great joy to discover that I can shift my attention away from the stream of thinking - at least some times. Where do you put the attention? In the current step, whatever that is. For example, sometimes, I am able to put attention in the feet while walking, in the knees while jogging, in the gums while brushing etc. One thing you are certain to be doing at any moment is breathing. Hence, that is another place where I put my attention. There are times when I close my eyes and shift attention to all the sounds I hear – kids playing, construction work, truck honking, cooker whistling, birds singing etc. Many times when the attention is shifted away from thinking, I am able to hop off the train of thought. Until, of course, I jump on to another train later.

How often should we do this practice? Ideally, all the time. No matter how important your goal is, Eckhart says, “Give your fullest attention to the step you are taking at this moment.2” Overall, this practice works fine for me when the voice in the head is relatively light. But it doesn’t work in situations where the reaction takes off suddenly. That is when we turn to the second practice: Alertness.

Be alert in separating situation vs response: There are situations in which you are more prone to get anxious, angry, irritated etc. For me, a situation that ticks me off is when I am standing in a queue and someone cuts in. It is almost like the person cutting the queue is pressing a button in my head. Each of us has buttons which get pressed in certain situations and that triggers a strong negative emotion. Interesting part here is that we are already aware of some of these situations which make our buttons active and ready-to-be-pressed. If not, like me, you can keep a diary and make a note of them. The idea is to become alert and watch out for the emotion to arise when we enter these button-pressing situations.

What does the alertness do? Well, it creates a gap between the situation and its response in our head. Note that the person cutting the queue is not actually pressing the button. The thought which comes as a response to the queue-cutting presses the button. The alert attention separates the situation from the response and that weakens the response. Eckhart says, “The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thoughts about it. Separate thoughts from the situation which is always neutral.3

Accept the situation - then act: No matter how alert you are, there are going to be times when you are caught off-guard. Like it happened when a store keeper told me that the fifty rupees bill I gave him was fake. It meant someone had duped me. Immediately a commentary started running in the head, “How did you get fooled so easily? Why didn’t you pay attention while receiving the change?” – mostly useless thoughts. At this stage, it helps to pause and accept the situation first and say “I have a fake fifty rupees bill.” And then ask, “Is there anything I can do to change the situation, improve it or remove myself from it?4” If so, take appropriate action. If no action is possible then just surrender to the situation. In this case, I didn’t remember where I got the bill from. And hence I decided to just move on. That slowed down the commentary and eventually stopped within the next few minutes. Without the acceptance the commentary carries a power of running for a long time.

I feel acceptance is the hardest of the three practices. We realize it when we try to accept the loss of our job, a relationship or a loved one. We put ourselves into a “loser” or a “victim” role and the internal resistance engine fires full steam. It sucks the energy from our attention. Acceptance slows down the resistance engine and releases energy for more useful purposes.

Eckhart says, “Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it.5

In summary, I find the three practices corresponding to Attention-Alertness-Acceptance very useful in day-to-day activity. I am grateful to Eckhart Tolle for making these insights accessible to us through his books and videos.


1.      “Stillness speaks”, page 54
2.      “Practicing the power of now”, page 36
3.      “The new earth”, page 96
4.      “Practicing the power of now”, page 120
5.      “The power of Now”, page 29

photo source: wikipedia.org - photo by Kyle Hoobin