Friday, January 31, 2014

5 ways of framing a challenge

How you frame a challenge makes a big difference in the kind of solutions you generate. “How do we reach more people in Hong Kong?” is how suit-maker Sammy Kotwani might have framed his challenge. Instead Sammy asked, “Which place on earth needs suits all year round?” One of the answers was Moscow where Sammy ended up moving his business. Today he boasts of many Russian ministers as his customers. How many ways can you frame a challenge? In this article, let’s look at 5 ways.

Min-Max: Any retail shop, be it a bank or a grocery shop, has to manage queues. One way the shopkeeper may frame his challenge is, “How might we minimize the waiting time in the queue?” This is a min-max way of framing. You minimize or maximize a parameter. When James Watt got a model of the Newcomen engine, he asked, “How can we minimize the steam getting wasted in this engine?” Any TV channel would be asking, “How do we maximize the viewership of this channel?” Before starting the Adhaar project, Indian Government asked, “How do we minimize the leakage to the $60-$80 billion subsidy?”

Emotional experience: Instead of minimizing the waiting time in the queue, a retail bank may ask, “How do we improve the experience of being served?” The solution may not only focus on the interaction while being serviced but also how you get entertained while waiting in the queue. Also, it might create a queueless solution. Similarly you may ask, "How do we make commute more fun?" Steve Jobs might have asked, “How do we build products which are so intuitive that users don’t need a user manual?”

Before-during-after: Some challenges involve critical events. For example, attacks in ATMs while withdrawing cash. One way to pose such a challenge is, “What can we do before, during and after an ATM attack in order to reduce the tragic impact?”  You can substitute “ATM attack” by “marriage breakup” or “road accident”.

Culture-sensitive framing: Jaipur foot is a low-cost prosthetic leg. However, the user with Jaipur foot is able to squat, a feature that may not be available with more expensive products. That is because many toilets in rural India require you to squat and hence the requirement is built into the design of Jaipur foot from the beginning. Indians have a tendency to jump into a queue. Hence, you may frame a challenge as, “How do we prevent (or dissuade) people from jumping into a queue?” Like you have regional or country-specific cultural norms, you also have cultures associated with sports (soccer, cricket), professions (engineers, musicians). Your challenge may take into account these norms.

Metaphor: Dr. Venkataswamy, the founder of Aravind Eye Hospital, asked, “How can we perform cataract surgeries more like McDonalds?” Metaphors are perhaps the most powerful and fundamental elements in creative framing. Newton might have asked, “Is a falling apple more like the moon?” Though not a successful innovation, Tata Nano has become a metaphor which people use in asking, “How do we build a Nano in our sector?” In metaphor-framing, you take two seemingly different concepts X and Y and ask, “Why can’t X be more like Y?”

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Three myths of innovation

My first attempt at video blogging in collaboration with our son Kabir. The three myths are explained further in the Introduction chapter of our book "8 steps to innovation" available free from here.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Book review: “Strangers to ourselves” by Timothy Wilson

“We take in 11,000,000 pieces of information a second, but can process only 40 of them consciously” – so what happens to the remaining 11 million minus 40 pieces? Well, they are processed by the unconscious mind. And we are not even aware of the filtering, selection and judgements happening within our mind all the time. This invisible entity – Adaptive unconscious – is the hero of the book “Strangers to ourselves: Discovering the adaptive unconscious” by Timothy Wilson. If you have read Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, fast and slow” then you are familiar with the hero already (Kahneman calls it system-1). However, I still enjoyed reading “Strangers to ourselves” because of its lucid style and fresh narratives.

The two core questions the book explores are: (1) Why is it that people often don’t know themselves very well? and; (2) How can they increase their self-knowledge? I feel that the book does a good job of answering these questions, particularly question-1.

When we returned to India in 1998 after a seven year stay in the US, it was customary to be asked, “Why did you come back?” I soon realized that my answers are not consistent and varied depending upon the situation, mood etc. When I asked myself this question, I realized that I didn’t know the real answer. Thanks to this book, I now know that it is not that uncommon to not know the reason behind your behaviour/action. The unconscious (intuition) takes the decision, the conscious (rational) mind creates stories that justifies the decision – which are sometimes not consistent. Jonathan Haidt calls this “The emotional dog and its rational tail” (see Haidt’s interview).

The main reason why we don’t know ourselves very well is that much of what we want to know about ourselves resides outside of conscious awareness.  So who is really in control of our life anyway – conscious mind or the unconscious mind? Consciousness as the CEO metaphor says that consciousness is in charge of major decisions and the unconscious mind reports to it. On the other extreme, consciousness is treated more like a child who “plays” a video game at an arcade without putting any money into it. He moves the controls unaware that he is seeing the demo program that is independent of his actions. The truth lies somewhere in between. The unconscious mind scans the environment quickly and detects patterns especially those that might pose a danger. The conscious mind provides a check-and-balance to speed and efficiency of the unconscious and plans about the future.

What is the implication? Let’s take the example of sexual aggression – a topic of attention in India due to several reports of rapes in the last few years. Wilson says that men likely to engage in sexual aggression are unaware that they have a nonconscious association between sex and power and unaware that this association is triggered automatically. This lack of awareness makes it more difficult to prevent sexual aggression.

Wilson gives an interesting example of how a real estate agent finds out the kind of house her clients want. When she meets with her clients for the first time, she listens patiently as they describe their preferences, nodding her sympathetically. Many people have a long list of things they would have prepared before they visit the agent. Then the agent ignores everything the clients just said. And she takes them to a wide variety of houses including type of houses which her clients told them they would never consider. On these initial visits she observes the clients’ emotional reaction. Based on that she infers what her clients really like.

What is the best use of consciousness? According to Wilson, perhaps the best use of consciousness is to put ourselves in situations in which our adaptive unconscious can work smoothly. Could this be the task carried out by my conscious mind when we returned to India? I don’t know.

Related article:
Thinking, fast and slow: A landmark book in intuitive thinking and decision making, my book review, Feb 22, 2012.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Killing an idea: Lessons from the destruction of Nalanda University

When Muhammad Bakhtiar Khilji set ablaze Nalanda University in the winter of 1193-94, he wouldn’t have guessed that he was uprooting the idea of “university” itself from the Indian subcontinent. It would take another 600 years before the idea of university got seeded in India again. It has been a couple of weeks since our visit to the ruins of Nalanda, but I still can’t get over the 600 years long burial. Is it really fair to hold Muhammad Bakhtiar responsible for the “killing”? History tells us that it is not. Then what else is responsible for the prolonged hibernation of the concept of college? Let’s see in this article.

Nalanda was established in 5th century and at its peak had 10,000 students and 1,000 teachers. For centuries it had been the most important seat of learning in Asia. It had three multi-storied libraries. Most of what we know of Nalanda comes from the travel accounts of the Chinese pilgrim and scholar Xuanzhang who spent a couple of years at Nalanda. Xuanzhang studied logic, grammar, Sanskrit and Yogacara school of Buddhism during his time at Nalanda. 

Nalanda is about 90km from Patna and we reached there by car in less than two hours. Archaeological Survey of India has done a good job in maintaining the site as well as the museum next to it. Our guide at Nalanda was a sixty year old gentleman and in this business for over four decades. He had picked up Japanese and was enthusiastic about his forty-five minute tour of the place. His version of the story of the destruction of Nalanda had an interesting twist. According to his story, when Bakhtiar arrived near Nalanda he asked the locals if this place had any loot. The Brahmins were prompt to point out that the place had something far more important than the loot and strongly advised him to destroy it. Apparently the smoke from the burning manuscripts hung for days.

If the act of commission – burning the place down – was an important cause of Nalanda’s destruction, an equally if not more important cause was the act of omission by Brahmins. Historian Charles Allen writes following in his book, “Ashoka: The search for India’s lost emperor” – The most striking evidence of Brahmanical hostility towards Buddhism comes in the form of silence: the way in which India’s Buddhist history, extending over large parts of the country and lasting for many centuries, was excised from the historical record.

Do you want to kill an idea? You can, of course, try to shoot it down by sheer power like Bakhtiar Khilji. Alternately, you can silently ignore it as if it doesn’t exist like the Brahmins. Neither approach is foolproof though. You never know when a Xuanzhang would escape and start spreading the word in a different corner. 

photo credit: Gauri Dabholkar