Thursday, December 22, 2016

Four hurdles in self-discovery

It is widely accepted in cognitive sciences (psychology, neuroscience) as well as in spiritual literature that our thinking process sustains various forms of illusions. Self-discovery is a process of learning through introspection about the process of thinking especially about how it creates and sustains cognitive illusions. It has been emphasized in some form or the other by various spiritual masters such as Buddha (Mindfulness), Jiddu Krishnamurti (self-investigation), Ramana Maharshi (self-inquiry) etc. If the learning process has been around for a few thousand years, why are most of us still trapped in conflicts, be it personal, religious, global? While it is easy to get started into self-discovery journey, anyone who has dabbled in this would know that the approach has several challenges. In this article I would like to mention, from my experience, what the top four challenges in self-discovery are.

Lack of urgency: Every day we are tackling so many tasks at home and at work that keep us busy.  In the midst of all this, self-observation doesn’t appear that urgent. At times, it feels as though it may be important but then something urgent comes up and self-discovery takes a backseat. Every day we are navigating life by evaluating dangers associated with various events – some real ones like a possible car accident while crossing the street or some imaginary ones like losing the job etc. We perhaps also sense a danger associated with cognitive illusions such as illusion of understanding. However, we don’t see that it the cognitive illusion is THE danger we are facing every day, perhaps every moment. To use Jiddu Krishnamurti’s words, we don’t see that it is like having your house on fire. He refers to it as a “skill” to see the danger. Unless we see the largeness of the looming danger associated with the cognitive illusions, there is no urgency in self-discovery.

“In order to” attitude: Every day we see unfairness around us – poverty, corruption, social injustice etc. We also see our own deficiencies or inadequacies – our inability to help or our mistakes that may hurt us or others etc. We are also busy safeguarding our interests – security, health etc. Every activity we do, we are doing it “in order to” improve things – my health, wealth, social inequality etc. We carry forward this “in order to” attitude to self-discovery and say that I want to pursue self-discovery “in order to” become better, perhaps enlightened. However, we don’t see that “in order to” attitude may be preventing us from learning about the thought process. It is like using an anti-virus software to locate the virus on your PC and not seeing that the anti-virus program is also infected with the same virus that you are trying to locate. If “in order to” is not the right attitude, then what is the correct attitude? The right spirit is that of “learning”. Learning for the sake of learning, not for improving or changing anything. However, the “process of becoming” is so deeply embedded in us that we easily slip into “in order to” mode.

Electrochemical smog: Imagine driving in dense fog. You can’t do it safely even if you are driving a BMW with all its navigation technology. Unless we see things clearly, it is difficult to get our act in order. Unfortunately, our thinking process is generating huge amount of smog – electrochemical smog – that is preventing us from seeing what’s going on. Why does the brain create this smog? Because it is operating on pain-avoidance principle and not on correctness principle. All addictions are of this nature. Overeating, anxiety or even addiction to positive thoughts is of similar nature. Positive thoughts secrete endorphins which cover up the pain receptors. “I will work hard, then I will get promoted, then I will buy that house… Aha…it feels good.” Even meditation may also generate smog, “I will meditate, then I will have an awakening experience, then I will reach a state of Turiya.” And that releases endorphins to cover up the pain caused by the sense of incompleteness. The first step is to learn to stay with the pain and say, “Let’s see if we can investigate the source of the pain.”

Fear of uncertainty: There are times when thinking process isn’t generating dense smog. The vision starts to get some clarity. But then what we see may be scary. For example, we may have lived all along with a self-image and its associated elements like educational degree (say a PhD) or the job title or the wealth etc. And suddenly the clarity of vision may show that these are not important. It may feel like somebody is pulling the rug under our feet. Out of fear from seeing “what is” we go back to the smog world. It needs some kind of resolve to see “what is” no matter what.

In summary, we need to see that our house is on fire (urgency), we need to learn about the thought process for its own sake and not in order to get somewhere, we need to stay with the pain and locate its source otherwise we are generating the smog and finally we need a resolve to see “what is” no matter how fearful it looks.

image source:

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Five minutes innovation manager

In my innovation workshops with managers, one challenge that shows up consistently is that of “no time”. Managers genuinely feel that their plate is full and they find it difficult to get time to do additional activities that might enable innovation in their teams. As a response to this situation, I started facilitating a short exercise a few years back which I call “Five minutes innovation manager”. The idea of this exercise is to suggest that you don’t have to dedicate a lot of time for innovation, just five minutes a week is enough. There are always a few participants in each session for whom this is the key takeaway.  What can you do in five minutes to enable innovation? Let’s explore in this article.

Here is what I tell the participants: Suppose you have to budget five minutes of your time every week to foster innovation in your team. What would you do? Mention What, When and Where. Their responses can be put into following categories:

1.      Publicize a challenge-book: One of the most effective interventions is to identify your team’s topmost challenge and write it in a prominent place – say the whiteboard in your office, the wall in your corridor, or the intranet page of your team. And do nothing else. A challenge which gets due attention has a life of its own. You can also solicit challenges from your team members which you can collate and publicize.

2.      Listen to ideas: You can budget five minutes a week to listen to at least one idea / proposal from one of your team members. If nobody comes to you, you can walk around and poke them. Make sure you don’t look at the watch while the team member is talking about her idea. Listening is hard, especially for managers. One response which helps the idea authors is, “Good idea, show me a demo.”

3.      Solicit ideas: In your weekly team meeting, you can dedicate five minutes for brainstorming on a specific challenge. You will be surprised how many ideas get generated in five minutes.

4.      Appreciate the effort: It doesn’t take much time to mention in the team meeting that you appreciate a prototype built (or demo shown) by one of the team members or a blog or white paper written by someone.  It can send a subtle message that these activities are appreciated.

You might think that activities like these done in five minutes may not make much of a difference. But you won’t know this until you try. Once you realize that it is not so difficult and doesn’t eat too much of your bandwidth, you may extend the time.

This method is inspired by a chapter called “Shrink the change” in the book “Switch” by Chip and Dan Heath. The Heath brothers give several examples to illustrate that a five minute regime can go a long way bringing about a change.

Why don’t you give it a shot and see?

Friday, December 9, 2016

Empathy as understanding the assumptions behind the rigid reflexes

Do you get upset about somebody’s behaviour? Say, a public figure such as a politician or someone close to you, your spouse, kids, parents, friends? Then that is an indication that you haven’t empathized with the person enough. Well, that is the hypothesis I would like to explore in this article.

Easterine Kire Iralu’s book “A terrible matriarchy” begins with a childhood memory of the protagonist, Dielieno, a girl coming of age in Kohima, Nagaland, an eastern state in India. She remembers an incident when her granny is serving chicken curry to Lieno and her brothers. Lieno, who is four-five years old, tells her granny, “I want a leg piece”. Granny says, “Who is asking you, stupid?” and serves the leg piece to Lieno’s brother. Then comes the sermon from granny, “Leg pieces are for the boys, girls should eat the other pieces.”

When Lieno is six/seven years old, she is sent to stay with her granny who continues to make Lieno work hard, e.g. fetching the water from nearby stream, getting the stove ready, feeding the chicken etc. Granny believes that girls don’t need education or affection or time to play or even a good piece of meat with gravy! They need to become docile and hardworking in order to become good housewives. More importantly, on every opportunity, she makes it a point to tell Lieno that boys are more important than girls. Naturally, Lieno grows up hating her granny.

After Lieno’s granny expires, for the first time, Lieno talks to her mom about granny’s tyrannical behaviour. Her mom feels bad about it but also gives the background as to why granny would have become like that. Granny’s mom didn’t have a brother and she had to lose all the ancestral property to other relatives because only boys inherited property. That had a deep impact on her and she favoured boys all her life. After hearing this story, Lieno felt that she understood granny better. Her grudge turned into compassion. That is the beginning of empathy. What exactly is happening here?

To understand this process of empathizing, it helps see thought as a system of conditioned reflexes. A reflex fires automatically when touched. When the knee bone is hit, it jerks. That’s an elementary reflex. When the vehicle in front slows down, we break automatically. That’s a reflex. Our thought process is governed by millions of such reflexes that help us carry out our daily activity. As we learn new skills such as driving or form new opinions, we form new reflexes and over a period they fire automatically.

Some reflexes carry a special property of “necessity”. For example, we assume that the ground will hold firm as we walk or the cycle will turn left when we turn the handle left. However, sometimes the result doesn’t match our expectations. For example, a cycle may turn right when we turn the handle left. And then we realize that we can’t ride the cycle (check out the video “The backwards brain bicycle” above). Because the reflexes fire automatically, we turn the handle in the same direction where we want the cycle to turn. This happens in spite of the knowledge that we ought to turn the handle the other way for this cycle. Destin had to practice riding the backwards-brain cycle every day for 8 months to change the reflex. That’s the power of a conditioned reflex.

Some of our beliefs and assumptions are far more deeply and tightly ingrained than the cycling reflexes. For example, for Lieno’s granny, boys are more important than girls is one such assumption that has become a rigid reflex. So, no matter how much you try to explain to her, she will resist changing her opinion. Granny has almost no choice in her behaviour in this matter.

Once we see that the behaviour of a person is a result of almost mechanical and rigid reflexes, it becomes difficult to sustain grudge against the person. You don’t get angry with a computer or a car, do you? Empathy is that understanding of rigid reflexes. Empathy doesn’t mean you agree or like the behaviour. When Lieno felt she understood granny better, she still didn’t agree with her behaviour. She just didn’t feel the need to hold a grudge, that’s all.

Whenever you feel upset about somebody’s behaviour, you may want to ask yourself, “Could this behaviour be a result of a rigid reflex? If so, what might be the assumption(s) behind such a reflex?”

Thought as a set of conditioned reflexes is explored in detail in David Bohm's "Thought as a system"

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Plastic paradox and brain’s business of building highways

 For most of 20th century scientists believed that brain develops during a critical period during early childhood and then remains relative unchanged. However, in the last few decades it has been shown that many aspects of the brain can be altered (or are “plastic”) even into adulthood. And yet, we find it difficult to change our habits. We see that people don’t change their views especially their core beliefs easily. This is what Norman Doidge refers to as “Plastic paradox” in his book “The brain that changes itself”. Doidge considers this riddle one of the most important lessons of the book. If our brain is really like a play-doh, then why is it so difficult to change? Let’s explore this riddle in this article.

One of my favourite stories from the book revolves around the neuroscientist Paul Bach-y-Rita. In a now-famous experiment in 1960s he demonstrated that vision can be substituted by other sensory input such as stimulators touching the back. Bach-y-Rita published his result in Nature in 1969 and coined the term “You see with your brain, not with your eyes”. In this experiment, he had a blind person sit on a dentist-kind-of chair. The back of the chair was replaced with a matrix of mechanical vibrators. There was a camera mounted on top. Depending on the object captured by the camera, certain set of vibrators would touch the back. (see the picture) It was found out that the visual cortex of the blind person’s brain began to process the input coming from the skin (back stimulators) and the person began to “see” the objects. This demonstrated that brain could reorganize itself.

Subsequently scientists have found that brain undergoes massive reorganization when one falls in love for the first time and when one becomes a parent for the first time. At the microscopic level, it has been shown that every learning experience involves lasting changes to the brain. In fact, every thought is changing the brain synapses at a microscopic level. Assuming we have 50,000 thoughts a day, your brain is undergoing 50,000 microscopic changes in a day. That’s a lot of change. Ideally, we should be in a good position to change anything – quit smoking, follow a diet, stop worrying unnecessarily etc. But that’s not our experience. What’s happening here?

To explain this “plastic paradox”, Doidge uses a metaphor originally from the neuroscientist Pascual-Leone of Harvard. It says that the plastic brain is like a snowy hill in the winter. When we slide down the hill for the first time, we will create a small path. When we come down the second time, we will find it easier to follow a path closer to the first one. And if we repeat this enough, it would create a speedy track, kind of a highway. The highways serve a useful purpose as we carry out umpteen tasks on auto-pilot such as walking, talking, driving etc. However, the highways also pose a drawback. As the brain gets used to using the highways, who wants to pave a new path? It is too much of effort. That’s how we get stuck with our habits.

So what does one do? Well, Doidge doesn’t offer any solution in his book. However, this is what I feel based on my experiments and I could be wrong. A paradox gets resolved when attention is paid to the inherent inconsistency. Perhaps a good place to start may be by paying attention to the thinking process as it is sliding down the “speedy tracks” especially when it is not serving any useful purpose such as the case of worry, guilt, blame etc. Who knows? This might open up alternate paths. And that might take us to the uncharted territory and lead to creative insights.

I found the book helpful in understanding various ways in which neuroscience is exploring the boundaries of brain's plasticity.

image sources:

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Reflections from Rishi Valley on responsibility, corruption and rural education

I got an opportunity to participate in the annual gathering organized by Krishnamurti Foundation India (KFI) at Rishi Valley near Madanapalle in Andhra earlier this week. The school, started in 1931, is 3 years older than my father. It was me and my wife’s first visit and my parents’ second visit to the campus. The gathering folks had organized walks along the trails in the valley. Watching the sunrise, sunset and the green valley from the hilltops every day was a joy. For nature lovers, Rishi Valley’s serene campus was a treat.

The theme for this gathering was:  Living responsibly in today’s world. Pofessor Samdhong Rinpoche was one of the speakers at the gathering. He talked about what it means to live responsibly. Rinpoche highlighted that talking about responsibility and rights without self-awareness is meaningless. Self-awareness i.e. understanding “Who am I?” or “What am I?” is one's primary duty. Hence, a human rights movement which comes out of ignorance (i.e. without an awareness of the true nature of the self) invariably turns in the wrong direction e.g. becomes violent.  

Each day there was a video presentation of one of J Krishnamurti’s talks. One of the talks (Madras, December 1980) focused on the nature of corruption. What is corruption? K said, ”Corruption is not merely at the superficial level, passing money under the table. But corruption is much more deep, corruption is in the mind, corruption is the exercise of thought for its own benefit.” Then K further said, “When thought is attached to a particular idea, experience, to a particular nation, to a particular belief, dogma, such attachment must inevitably breed corruption. This definition of corruption is far more subtle than what we use generally.

So if attachment to an idea or belief is the root cause of corruption, how does one remove the attachment? This is where K says something strange. He says, “To remove the cause is to observe the cause, not try to change the cause. If I am corrupt, I observe what that corruption is”. What K is suggesting here is to pay attention to the train of thought as it is getting attached to an idea or a belief. Perhaps it is easier to observe this when I experience emotions such as hurt, anxiety, anger, pride etc.

Every day we also had small group discussions. One phrase that caught our group’s attention during our discussion was “hard work”. K says, “(Paying) close attention (to your train of thought) is hard work.” We found out from participants what this “hard work” means to them. One participant said that he needs to be attentive while eating while another one said he needs to be attentive while sharing the kitchen with his wife. In the kitchen, he tends to demand the same level of orderliness that he exhibits in his office. For example, a spoon has to go back to its place etc. Watching all this is indeed hard work. Perhaps this is a 17x7 job (assuming 7 hours of sleep). Perhaps that is the serious way of tackling corruption.

We also got an opportunity to visit the Rural Education Centre (REC) at Rishi Valley which is as old as independent India. REC is currently championing a multi-grade methodology called Rishi Valley Institute of Educational Resources (RIVER). While REC has implemented the methodology in thirteen schools in and around Rishi Valley, it has been adopted in various countries. After a 20 minute presentation we were taken to a primary school, Vidyavanam. It was a multi-grade class (1st to 4th grade), teacher was a facilitator (sitting with one group), black board belonged to the students and each student was busy doing his/her activity which could be in any subject. Apparently, Andhra Pradesh is beginning to roll out the RIVER methodology in all its primary schools across the state. I feel there is a lot to learn from RIVER approach and I plan to study it further.

I am glad I attended the Rishi Valley gathering and I appreciate the organization of the retreat for the 250 odd people who attended it.

image source:, thanks to my wife Gauri for the sunset picture

Monday, September 26, 2016

My 3 take-aways from Edgar Schein’s “Humble Consulting”

Prof. Edgar Schein’s book “Process consulting” was published in the year I was born – 1969. Since then he has been refining the concept over the past five decades. I have found the concept very helpful in my consulting career. In fact, I have read all of Schein’s subsequent books in “processing consulting” series – Process consultation revisited (1999), Helping (2009) and Humble Inquiry (2013). The latest entry from this series is “Humbleconsulting: How to provide real help faster” published by Berret-Koehler Publishers (2016). Here are 3 of my take-aways from “Humble consulting”.

Humble questions may result in big impact: One of the key points Schein drives here is that carrying a humble attitude (being curious) towards the client is important in the helping process. And even a simple humble inquiry may lead to a big impact for the client. Here is an example Schein gives from his personal experience. Schein was having lunch with the CEO and his executive team of Alcoa Australia. The CEO pointed out that the VP Administration is retiring and proposed if Steve could be his replacement. VP Finance, VP Operations and a few others said that they were not comfortable with Steve as VP Admin but they were not able to point out the exact issue. At this point, Schein intervened and asked, “Sorry for jumping into the conversation, but I am curious what VP of Admin does.” CEO said that VP Admin heads a bunch of functions such as HR, internal accounting and finance and public relations. At this point, a VP jumped in to point out that Steve won’t be able to handle public relations. Others agreed. So another VP proposed that public relations could be separated from the VP Admin function and a new VP of Environmental Affairs and PR can be created. Everybody was comfortable with this idea and the issue was resolved. The point of this story is that Schein’s humble enquiry on the role of VP Admin led to a workable solution.

Beware of content seduction trap: Schein says, “The consultant must have empathy but carefully avoid content seduction because, as an outsider, he will never have the insider’s direct knowledge of what will and will not work in the client’s culture”. Empathy is understanding the client’s situation while content seduction is a feeling that I understand the client enough and can suggest a workable solution. This looks at odds with the traditional consulting wisdom which says that an expert consultant should be able to provide a workable solution to his client. Schein cites several examples where he and other consultants conducted several interviews with the client executives, formulated a problem and devised a solution. When the solution was presented to the client, he either ignored it or rejected it outright. If proposing a solution is not a good approach, what does a humble consultant do? Well, Schein suggests using adaptive moves which will help client diagnose the problem as well as see a solution.

Adaptive moves for simultaneous diagnosis and intervention:  To understand the philosophy behind an adaptive move, it helps to understand following profound statement from Schein:  There are no “real” problems, only a set of worries. Here, Schein questions the existence of problems as objective reality independent of client. According to him, a problem exists only as a set of worries in clients’ mind. Perhaps the client himself may be unaware of the real worry. A small step one can take in order for the client to see his real worry is what Schein calls an adaptive move. Let’s illustrate this using one of the examples Schein cites. He was trying to help a bunch of smart engineers at DEC in strategy meetings. The engineers were argumentative and would often interrupt each other and shoot down others’ ideas. Schein made several attempts to bring this unruly behaviour to their notice which they acknowledged but continued to behave as before. At one point, Schein got up, went to the flip chart board and started jotting down the ideas that were being discussed. While writing down an idea, if a person got interrupted, Schein would excuse the group and request the person to finish his idea so that he could write it down on the flip chart. That made sure all the ideas were captured and the group thanked Schein for being really helpful. It was a small gesture, but it solved the real concern in the minds of the engineers of losing out on ideas. What Schein originally thought to be the real problem – unruly behaviour – was not a worry as far as the group of engineers was concerned. Subsequently, other group members began to go to the flip chart and learnt to do similar facilitation themselves.

Schein uses 25 cases from his personal experience to illustrate the principles. In addition to presenting the conversation between him and his client, Schein also gives what went on in his mind, something like a mental commentary, before he replies to the client. I found this style very helpful. I am amazed by Schein’s productivity at the ripe age of 87 and wish him many more creative years!

image source:

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Empathy as accessing 3 kinds of ignorance

As a Design Thinking facilitator one of the key challenges I face is following: How do we create an experiential understanding of the concept of empathy? Participants do go through observations, interviews etc. However, how does one know if one is actually empathizing with the other? In this article, I am proposing a way of looking at empathy that might help in answering this question. The key is to understand empathizing as a process of accessing our own ignorance. What does “accessing ignorance” mean? And, what are the types of ignorance we need to access? Let’s explore in this article.

Accessing ignorance: After an hour of field research, a group of participants returned to the training room. The team had visited a nearby bus stop and were eager to share their findings. A team member explained how people are in a hurry to reach home and can hardly wait for the bus to come to a full stop before jumping into it. I asked him how many people he interviewed. He said he didn’t have to interview anybody because he is a bus commuter himself and knows their pain. This anecdote illustrates what it means to not access ignorance. Every situation can be approached with one of two attitudes – that of knowing or that of ignorance. The gentleman in the bus stop team, approached the empathy exercise from the attitude of “knowing”. Empathy demands that we approach a situation from the position of ignorance.

There are three kinds of ignorance that need to be accessed: content, intent and illusion. Let’s look at them briefly.

1.      Content ignorance: If one needs to understand more about bus commuters, one needs to ask questions like: Where do people travel to? How long do they have to wait for the bus? How long is the typical journey? How frequently do they use a bus? When do they typically travel? Etc. Answers to these questions begin to create a better picture about the bus commuters’ situation. This is what I refer to as “content ignorance”. If this conversation builds some trust and openness, it may help us access the next level of ignorance: intent ignorance.

2.      Intent ignorance: This ignorance is related to the anxieties and aspirations of people. Why do they travel by bus? Is it because they don’t like driving or is it because they can’t afford a car yet? Is it the long commute time that makes them anxious? Or is it the time taken away from family? Do people ever enjoy a commute? If so, under what circumstances? In short, intent ignorance tries to understand the emotional triggers and the intents that drive people to take up or not take up certain actions. Unless there is a level of trust and openness, a person may not reveal his anxieties and aspirations. For example, an auto drive may not tell you that his school going son is still ashamed of the fact that his father drives an auto.

3.      Illusion ignorance:  This is the toughest of the three kinds of ignorance to access. When the bus stop study team member mentioned that he didn’t have to interview anyone, he actually believed that he knows everything about bus commuters. This is called an illusion of understanding. Our deep seated beliefs are treated as truths and we are unable to question them. Unfortunately, many of these beliefs are not easy to access as they are buried deeply in our unconscious. Hence, it helps to ask oneself from time to time, “Could this be wrong?”

In short, if you are interested in learning to empathize, you should learn to approach a situation from the position of ignorance rather than that of knowledge. There are three kinds of ignorance that need to be accessed: content, intent and illusion.


I first read the term “accessing ignorance” in Edgar Schien’s book “Humble inquiry”.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Rapid prototyping: 1-hour, 1-day and 1-week prototypes

How rapid is rapid prototyping? This question evokes different timelines in peoples’ minds. And it is not uncommon to see that many of my workshop participants are thinking in terms of months. That makes sense if you are building high fidelity prototypes of complex solutions. However, that is not necessarily a good place to start. Hence, I suggest we think in terms of: 1-hour, 1-day and 1-week prototypes. Here is a brief description of each of these types:

Before we get into how to build these prototypes, it helps to clarify what I mean by a prototype. I like the Wikipedia definition of a prototype: A prototype is an early sample, model, or release of a product built to test a concept or process or to act as a thing to be replicated or learned from. In the early phase of an idea, the primary purpose of a prototype is learning – which assumptions make sense, which ones don’t.  

There are three types of prototypes: looks-like (user interface), feels-like (experience sample) and works like (working model). Each type of prototype has a 1-hr, 1-day and 1-week version. Let’s see in brief below.

1-hour prototypes: One of the simplest types of prototype is a before-and-after storyboard. It is a feels-like prototype. This storyboard is similar in spirit with the before-and-after ads on weight-loss or hair-gain programs – one picture of “before” and one picture of “after” scenario. A before-and-after storyboard depicts a scenario before the idea is implemented and a scenario after the idea is implemented. I have seen that once a storyboard is created with sufficient details, it creates a lot of discussion. People have a lot more things to say about your idea by seeing a storyboard than reading just a few lines of text. I have seen companies like Intuit have studios where storyboards are put up on the walls and you can take a walk around to see what you like.

Apart from a storyboard, we can also create wireframes – “looks-like” prototypes – in an hour. These wireframes can be created using paper and pen or even on PowerPoint. When built using cardboard or thermacol, they can also give a feeling of holding a phone in hand.

A works-like prototype may not be always possible to build in an hour. However, the skill here is to identify a small part of the solution and see if it can be built using basic / used components. For example, if your idea is to start a fresh menu fast-food restaurant, then going to kitchen and making a plate using fresh food items could be a 1-hour prototype. For an automation idea, it may be writing a rudimentary script that shows how a manual task can be automated. If your idea is to give Uber like experience for local buses e.g. BMTC or BEST then you can show the Uber App and explain that you might use a similar technology (tools, algorithms) for buses. The important thing for works-like prototype is some knowledge of the working of the solution.

1-day prototype:  “How long do you think it would take to make the first working version of Google Glass experience?” asks Tom Chi in this TED talk video. The answer is – 1 day. It had used components like a coat hanger, a netbook, a pico projector. It was a feels-like prototype but also involved bits-and-pieces of working models.

A feels-like prototype can also be created by doing a 2-act skit which shows before-and-after scenario for your idea. Looks-like prototype can include wireframes made through PowerPoint or using your favourite wireframe tool. In 1-day you can make multiple wireframes – each corresponding to a key scenario. 

The picture above shows an ice-cream scoop made by Prof. Karl Ulrich using a used baseball bat and it was made in a few hours (see this article for more details). The 1-day works-like prototype shown above is a games-room designed in a student hostel at IIM in order to help students relieve their stress.

Note that Gmail’s AdSense prototype was built overnight and even James Watt built the first working prototype of his steam engine in 3 days.

1-week prototype: Prof. Ulrich who designed 2-3 sample ice-cream scoops in 1-day, got one of them 3-D printed in a week’s time (see picture above). You can create a short video depicting the experience of your solution within 1 week.

The picture above shows a scooter modified using tent-wires to give protection from rain for the rider. This was done as a student project in less than a week.

In short, rapid prototyping can happen as rapidly as an hour. Of course, a lab or a studio / workshop helps speed up prototyping.

Monday, July 25, 2016

What’s wrong with practicing mindfulness to become better?

Hollywood actor Richard Gere visited Bangalore last year en route to a nearby monastery to meet Dalai Lama. He commented that he had been practicing meditation for more than 40 years and yet the wait in the immigration queue at Bangalore airport ticked him off1. He said, “I cannot claim to have had any breakthrough”. Forty years of meditation practice is a long time, isn’t it? But what if 40 years is not enough? Perhaps he is just joking? Or he may not be practicing it right? Or perhaps mindfulness involves something more than a practice? Perhaps this meditation stuff is a hoax? Any of these could be true. However, in this article I would like to explore the possibility that mindfulness involves something other than practice.
Let’s start from the first principle. Mindfulness is about seeing the reality as it is. But that definition is slippery because thought distorts perception and creates cognitive illusion. Hence, it is difficult to know if what I am perceiving is real or illusory. Suppose I see that my boss is stupid. Is it real or an illusion? I won’t know unless I investigate it further. Hence, an alternate view of mindfulness is – it is an investigation into potential illusions created by thought while thinking.
One name which is well known when it comes to investigation is Sherlock Holmes. Have you ever heard or read that Sherlock Holmes is practising something when he is investigating a case? I haven’t. Of course, he sometimes practices his violin. But we don’t say that violin practice solves mysteries. Investigation is a creative process. You can’t follow fixed steps in an investigation. However, you may build stamina by practicing various tools useful for investigation. Holmes practices in places like chemistry lab where he performs experiments to build diagnostic tools. Similarly, it may be useful to practice observing your train of thought when you are in a relatively undisturbed state perhaps seated with eyes closed in a corner of a room. That may build some stamina in retaining attention when it is needed most. Which is when?
Now, here is a hypothesis – every time there is a negative emotion – in the form of worry, anxiety, anger, guilt, blame etc., there is a cognitive illusion lurking behind it. Thus awareness of a negative emotion indicates the arrival of a case for investigation. Like Richard Gere, if I am in a queue and getting irritated of the wait and if I become aware of my irritation then that means in Sherlock Holmes’ language – a case has arrived.
One common reason why we become upset is when our self-image is under attack. For example, I may be mad at my boss because he has hurt my self-image. We value our self-image more than anything else and constantly seek to protect or enhance it. This process is sometimes referred to as the process of becoming. Becoming… a lean, wealthy, healthy, spiritual, famous, well-respected – pick your favorite adjective – person. Thus the original hypothesis leads to following – For every negative emotion there is a “process of becoming” lurking behind and in friction with the potential damage to the self-image. Hence, one can look at mindfulness as an investigation into the process of becoming.
In summary, we are saying that mindfulness is more of an investigation than a practice. Moreover, it is an investigation into the process of becoming. Hence, if you say you are doing it to become better, you are getting into a conflict of intent – kind of a paradox. How can you investigate the process of becoming to become better?


Richard Gere’s comment on the lack of breakthrough is mentioned in this article titled “Gere springs a surprise” from The Hindu, Dec 8, 2015.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

My 3 takeaways from Phil Rosenzweig’s “Halo Effect”

When I present the development of Tata Nano through the lens of the innovation sandbox process, some people say, “But Nano is a failure”.  Why do we find it hard to accept that Nano development might have followed a good process? Because, once we know that Nano is a failure, every attribute of Nano gets tainted by the halo created by the failure, kind of a dark shadow. That is what called “Halo Effect”. It is a cognitive bias in which observer’s overall impression of a person, company brand, or product influences the observer’s feelings and thoughts about that entity’s character or properties.
Once you like Narendra Modi, you start liking other things about him – his diet, his dress, his oratory skills, his exercise regime etc. I turned to “Halo Effect” by Phil Rosenzweig because it is highly recommended by one of my favourite experts on decision making, Daniel Kahneman. Here are 3 of my takeaways from the book illustrated through the examples also from the book:
  • Halo spreads through heuristic substitution: John Kotter and James Heskett from Harvard Business School did a study to find how corporate culture is related to the company performance. Their survey questionnaire had questions like: rate the strength of the corporate culture on a scale of 1 to 5, rate how the company culture fits its environment on a scale of 1 to 7, how much does the company culture values excellent leadership (scale 1 to 7) etc. In all these cases, Kotter and Heskett found high correlation between these attributes (culture, environmental fit, leadership etc.) and performance of the company. That, according Rosenzweig, is not surprising because when asked a question about, say leadership: How is the leadership of the company? We tend to answer an easier question: How is the company performing? This substitution happens without conscious awareness of the person answering the questionnaire. In effect, the variable such as leadership is no longer independent of the company performance. It is under the Halo of the outcome (in this case, performance). Thus Halo spreads through heuristic substitutions which are automatic. 
  • Big data can’t negate the Halo: “Good to Great” by Jim Collins is one of the bestsellers in management literature selling over four million copies since its publication in 2001. The book identified seven characteristics of companies that went from “good to great”. The research involved studying “6,000 articles, generating more than 2000 pages of interview transcripts and creating 384 mega-bytes of computer data in a five-year project”. The research started with 1,435 Fortune 500 companies then narrowed down to eleven which fit the criteria of “good to great”. The criterion was – fifteen years of stock market returns near the general average and then a transition to a period of fifteen years of stock market returns well above average. Then they thoroughly studied the eleven companies. Some of the parameters were free of Halo Effect – e.g. to manager turnover, extent of board ownership etc. However, they also interviewed managers at these “Good to great” companies and asked questions like – “How did the company get commitment and alignment?”
Rosenzweig says, “Interview questions of this nature, where managers are asked to look back and explain what happened, rarely produce valid data, since retrospective self-reporting is commonly biased by performance.” Does good leadership lead to good performance? Perhaps. But perhaps, good performance also leads to seeing the leadership as good. This gets muddled up with Halo Effect. “Good to great” does not even acknowledge that some of the data could be biased.
  • 9-point delusion checklist: If Halo Effect can creep in unconsciously and not go away in spite of large data collection, then what does one do to tackle it? Rosenzweig gives a checklist of 9 delusions which can be used to check if your approach is bias prone.  Some of these delusions are: the delusion of correlation and causality, the delusion of single explanation etc. Perhaps over a period these checks may become automatic. 
I feel that “Halo Effect” is an important book for both management researchers and managers. It might help you when you design a survey questionnaire or when you try to establish cause and effect relationship in a business context.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Learning Design Thinking: Is it more like learning cycling or cycology?

In the past few years I got opportunities to introduce Design Thinking subject to management faculty from various institutes. Some of these sessions were in teachers’ training programs held at IIM Bangalore, others were in the faculty development programs organized by institutes such as Christ University. One typical question that came up during these sessions is – How is DT different from what we are doing in Marketing, New Product Development or Operations Management? As a first step to explore whether there is indeed any difference, we can look at the following question: Are students learning the subject more like cycling or cycology? Let’s look at this question in this article.

To appreciate the difference, you may want to try drawing a bicycle. It turns out most people can’t get it right the first time (Here is a paper on science of cycology that shows it experimentally). But the main point here is not whether you can draw a cycle correctly. It is that your ability to draw a cycle correctly is independent of your ability to cycle. You could learn to draw it well in a classroom and still not know how to cycle and vice versa. When you learn to cycle, it is sometimes referred to as experiential learning which Wikipedia translates as “learning through reflection on doing”. I feel learning DT is like learning both cycling and cycology with an emphasis on cycling. However, for many faculty members in India, teaching / learning happens as a study in classroom i.e. primarily cycology.

There are at least three steps in DT where experiential learning gets emphasized. First is while learning to do immersive research. Students are expected to spend time outside the classroom and observe-interview-listen in the context they are studying. This could be a cafeteria, a classroom, a restaurant, a grocery shop or any context the team chooses to study. Second is when they are building prototypes. This is practiced in the classroom, in the lab / workshops with materials ranging from cardboard, play-dough to building physical models through woodwork, circuit boards, mobile apps etc. Third step where experiential learning is emphasized is when students test their prototypes with users and gather improvements areas. Sometimes user testing reveals not only a gap in the solution but also an incorrect assumption in the challenge statement itself. If all these elements are practiced through experiential learning in any course then DT may not offer new stuff.

What are the “cycology” elements in DT? Well, there are a number of tools, methods and principles which one can learn. For example, it could be about the kind of questions to be asked during an interview, or about different ways of framing a challenge or about ways of prototyping etc. It also involves learning about various cognitive biases that distort our perception, framing and testing ability.

In short, learning DT involves practicing both cycling and cycology – i.e. practicing the design principles and learning-by-doing. Doing one without the other may not be sufficient.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Henry Molaison and his “Permanent present tense”

Meditators do years of practice so that they can live in the present moment. Henry Molaison for most of his adult life had no choice but to live in the present moment. As a person with amnesia since the age of 27, he had no concept of yesterday and tomorrow. When asked, “What will you do tomorrow?” Henry answered, “Whatever is beneficial.” Henry Molaison also known as H.M. through the psychology textbooks and literature is the most studied subject in the history of neuroscience. The book “Permanent present tense” by Prof. Suzanne Corkin of MIT whose lab studied Henry as a subject for over 40 years, captures the story of both Henry as well as the neuroscience of memory.

I first heard of Henry when I watched the second episode of the six part PBS documentary “The brain with David Eagleman” titled “What makes me?” Henry underwent a brain surgery at the age of 27 in 1953 as the last option for his sever epilepsy. The surgeon removed both the sides of his hippocampus – a 3 cm component buried deep inside each side of our brain. Henry recovered from his epilepsy but the surgery took away his ability to form long term memories. If you walked out of a meeting with Henry and returned after a few minutes, Henry would greet you as though he is meeting you for the first time. In fact, when researcher Morris left and re-entered the room after some time, Henry said after greeting him, “There’s an empty chair. You go sit there.” That was, of course, the same chair Morris was sitting before he left the room. While being amnesiac Henry was intelligent, articulate and perceptive.

Did Henry lose all types of long term memory? No. One of the breakthrough results in understanding long term memory happened when researcher Brenda Milner administered the star tracing experiment with Henry as the subject in 1963. The procedure involved tracing a five point star by looking in the mirror and it was done multiple times over three consecutive days. The task was challenging and involved learning a new motor-skill allowing a reversed visual image to guide the movement of the hand. Every time Henry began the experiment he had no memory of the previous try. However, Henry’s error rate kept dropping as the first day progressed. His error rate at the start of day-2 was similar to where he left off on day-1. On the third day, He performed nearly perfectly, his pencil rarely crossing the boundary. On day-3, after one of the trials Henry observed, “Well, this is strange. I thought that that would be difficult, but it seems as though I’ve done it quite well”. This showed that Henry hadn’t lost all types of long term memory formation. He had lost what we call episodic memory (What did I eat for breakfast this morning? And with whom?) and semantic memory (What are the names of my friends? Knowledge of people, places). However, he had retained procedural memory (How to use a walker, remote, joystick etc.) When Henry passed away in 2008, he had been using a walker for over a decade.

Henry was mostly an “amiable, smiling” man, but did he ever get upset? Occasionally, he did get frustrated, sad, aggressive or uneasy but these negative emotions would typically dissipate as soon as he was distracted. There were no new associations getting formed that were binding the incident or person or object to an emotion. Perhaps there lies a clue to human suffering – storing a connection between an external situation or person with a negative emotion in the long term memory.  We can carry anger or guilt for years and retrieve it as soon as the link is activated. Henry’s story prompts us to pay attention as we form and retrieve these links every day.

After Henry passed away his brain was scanned in an MRI machine for nine hours. Later it was cut into 2401 ultrathin slices from front to back. These slices have been digitized and assembled into a three-dimensional image that scientists and the public will be eventually view on the web. I liked the way Prof. Corkin concludes the book – Although he lived his own life in the present tense, Henry had a permanent impact on the science of memory, and on the thousands of patients who have benefited from his contributions.

I recommend the book to anyone wanting to understand the development of neuroscience of memory, how experiments are designed in neuropsychology and the role memory plays in our day-to-day life as well as building a narrative called “I”.

Book cover, Henry’s picture are from the book “Permanent present tense”.
Mirror tracing image is from Psychology textbook by Peter Gray.

Friday, April 15, 2016

4 metaphors from David Bohm’s “Unfolding meaning”

Unfolding Meaning” is an edited transcript of a weekend dialogue with David Bohm that occurred in May 1984 in a small country hotel in England. It is similar in spirit with the other seminar Bohm held in Ojai in 1991 and is published as a book “Thought as a system”. However, it is very different in its content especially the dominant metaphors used to communicate the abstract and subtle aspects of our true nature. In this article we look at the 4 metaphors from the book which appealed to me and what they mean.

Thought as a source and the simulation of a program: This is the most dominant metaphor Bohm uses throughout the book. Every thought we have gets stored as a program in a peculiar sort of encrypted form. Unfortunately, our brain doesn’t have the capacity to see that the thought made a program and its subsequent actions are determined largely by that program. Thought is a program that is programmed to conceal itself. When we are thinking, the results of the simulation shows up in the body (hormonal changes, blood pressure, heart beat etc.) and the emotions (anxiety, anger, happiness) but the connection between that and the thought is concealed. In fact, thought attributes the actions of the program to the ‘self’ – a mistake. Bohm says – the attempt to watch one’s own programs is the beginning of a kind of meditation. The picture on the side is from the movie "The Matrix" at a point when the protagonist Neo, for the first time, begins to see the world as a simulation of a program.

Why do I still kick the cat? One of the participants observed, “You can get excited about things like this and then go home and still kick the cat.” Bohm replied, “Why shouldn’t you kick the cat?” If one were really cruel then one would kick the cat and not bother about how it hurt the cat. For those of us who regret the act later, there must be a tacit connection between the cat and oneself. Then the question is – how to see the connection even before I kick the cat? Bohm suggests that it requires attention to your thoughts. When you feel the impulse to kick the cat, you should suspend that impulse. And then you should attentively watch the thought behind it. The thought could be that of frustration (boss shouted at me) or something is not working out (I am doomed). Whatever it is, one should follow that thought and see how it triggers the program of “kicking the cat” automatically.

What to do when I miss the mark: Suppose I am an archer and I miss the mark and I say some evil spirit made me miss the mark. That would never get me anywhere. You have to be attentive as you practice to how you are missing the mark. If you don’t do that then you won’t learn. Every time we have sustained fear or worry or anxiety, it is similar to an archer missing the mark. At that time, if we identify a situation or a person as the cause then it is an incorrect attribution like identifying evil spirit as the cause. Instead what we need is to pay attention to the program that is getting triggered by some thought. 

Seeing beyond Las Vegas lights: Why don’t we see the vastness beyond the world of thoughts? Bohm says following: If you go to a place like Reno, Nevada or Las Vegas and we turn on all these electric lights then you don’t see the stars, and you say that all these lights are the main thing. And there is no universe. They blot out the universe. So when you turn off the lights, then the universe comes through. At first, it seems something very faint, but that faint thing may represent something immense, whereas the very powerful bright thing may represent nothing much.

In short, every thought we have makes or adds to a program which, in turn, determines our subsequent actions. When we kick the cat or when we miss the mark, it is the program that is in action. And we are mostly unaware of it. We are so lost in the thought-world that it blinds us like the lights of Las Vegas. Only when the “lights” are off, do we see the vastness beyond thought-world. When we pay attention to the program in action, it is a kind of meditation.

Related articles:
Matrix as a system vs thought as a system, July 22, 2015 (a presentation)
Metaphors from "Thought as a system", Nov 15, 2015 (a presentation)
Image source: Program snapshot from movie "The Matrix", Archer pic is from

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The spinning dancer, fast and slow thinking and the reflective mind

A few months back I came across this spinning dancer. This visual illusion was created in 2003 by the web designer Nobuyuki Kayahara by combining 34 frames. At any point of time, you will see the dancer revolving either to her right (clockwise) or to her left (anti-clockwise). Sometimes, as you are watching, the dancer switches the direction. It looks as though you don’t have any control either on the direction of movement or on when it will reverse. Can I do the switch in the direction voluntarily? That is what I tried to explore past few weeks. The other question that came to mind was: To get convinced that it is an illusion, do I have to see the reversal?

Here are my observations when I watch it on the spinning dancer Wikipedia page on my laptop. My dominant direction is clockwise. However, when I watch the picture by almost closing my eyes when the picture becomes blurry and I see the movement of legs as almost two dimensional, I am able to switch the direction. It is almost voluntary though not guaranteed. When I copy the image on PowerPoint slide or on phone, the speed of rotation is slower compared to the laptop. And there I find it harder to do the voluntary reversal by blurring my vision. When I scroll the image up so that only her feet below knee are visible, then sometimes I perceive the dancer dancing like a pendulum – little to the left and then little to the right but not going full circle. But as soon as I scroll the picture down, the dancer starts rotating full circle. Again, all these changes are involuntary. You can see how other people perceive this by reading the comments on this New York Times article “The truth about the spinning dancer”. Can we explain this using Daniel Kahneman’s fast and slow thinking modes?

One of the hallmarks of fast thinking is that it is involuntary – automatic. When I look at the dancer, I see the rotation either in clockwise or in anti-clockwise direction. I don’t have a choice here. This is a case where fast thinking mode is at play. Moreover, there is no direction inherent in the images that pass by. The three dimensional perception of the two dimensional images is created in the brain automatically. Certain set of neural circuitry is firing automatically, resolving the ambiguity of direction one way or the other and showing the rotation. This type of illusion is called a bi-stable visual illusion where there are 2 stable states – clockwise dance and anti-clockwise dance.

The fast mode of thinking is doing two key substitutions here. One, the direction of dance where none exists and two, the 3-D depth of the vision from 2-D images. Doing such substitutions to suppress ambiguity is a key characteristic of fast mode of thinking. They are happening all the time and we are not even aware of it. That’s how we are enjoying the movies on TV. Now, imagine a political party whose leader sees this lady dancing only clockwise. Never sees it anticlockwise. And then he declares those people who see it as clockwise as pure-blood and those who see it as anti-clockwise as mud-blood (to borrow Harry Potter terminology). And soon a fight follows which results in the flow of blood which has only one colour – red.

You might say that’s stupid! How can people fight over an illusion like this? Question is, how can you know it is an illusion if you don’t see it any other way (only clockwise)? Enter the second mode of thinking – slow thinking. As the fast mode of thinking is creating impressions and judgments like a mental shotgun, the slow mode of thinking can create a doubt and unbelieving. It can ask: could this impression be wrong? Then it can mobilize attention to gather more evidence (e.g. ask other people) and then make a more informed decision. The part of slow thinking which raises this doubt, is sometimes called the reflective mind.

Keith Stanovich a major advocate of the reflective mind theory, explains “Why do smart people do stupid things?” He says sometimes a person with high IQ (e.g. SAT score, education from top university, top rank in an organization) may still have a weak reflective mind. In that person’s mind, the question: Could this impression be wrong, never gets raised. In fact, Stanovich’s research on confirmation bias (or Myside bias) shows no correlation between SAT score and the bias tendency.

In short, fast mode of thinking is doing a fantastic job of automatically supressing ambiguity. But in the process it can also be creating illusions which are sustained (like the direction of the dancer). Reflective mind is an element of slow thinking whose job is to doubt the impressions and ask, “Could this be wrong?” We don’t need this as we go about our daily routine of brushing, driving etc. But perhaps when we are labelling somebody wrong, it is worth stretching the reflective muscle.


Spinning dancer image is from the Wikipedia page: