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: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spinning_Dancer

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Sustaining participation in innovation initiatives

I got an opportunity to write an article on “Sustaining participation in innovation initiatives” which appeared in NHRD Journal, Oct 2015 issue. This was a special issue on “HR in innovative organizations” edited by my friend Rishikesha Krishnan. In this article, I would like to summarize the paper in brief. You can read the full paper here.

Key hindrances: One of the key challenges that organizations face in running innovation programs is sustaining participation. People participate enthusiastically in the beginning. However, the energy is slowly dissipated and is replaced by apathy or cynicism. What are the key hindrances in sustaining participation? The paper presents 3: (1) Big bets only approach – i.e. organizations insisting that innovation is only about big bets. This limits the scope of innovation to a few people and most others feel “It’s not for me”.  (2) Lack of help for idea authors: Idea authors especially novices need help while taking their idea from a crude form to an attractive business proposal. The help could be being a sounding board, suggestions regarding prototyping, finding a collaborator, in preparing a business plan etc. If no such helps is available then idea authors may feel frustrated. (3) Absence of dashboard: A simple dashboard can communicate a lot about the progress of innovation activity. On the other hand, a lack of dashboard leaves people clueless. This includes those people who are running the innovation initiative in the first place.

What to do? Core elements: The paper suggests that any innovation initiative should have two core elements: (1) A program management function and (2) A focus on spotting and scaling “bright spots”. Program manager (full time or part-time) would maintain a roadmap and run various interventions which may include running a challenge campaign, training workshops, hackathon event, blogging contest, publishing a newsletter, calendarize reviews etc. “Bright spots” are evidences where things may be working in pockets. Program managers should be constantly on the lookout for such bright spots and see if they can be scaled.

More elements for “Continuous improvement”: If the primary focus is building creative confidence, then it helps to define what an acceptable idea is. Keeping the bar very high will be demotivating and keeping the bar too low will not generate an interest. Moreover, the review of small ideas needs to happen as low in the hierarchy as possible. Otherwise it can become a bottleneck leading to long turnaround cycles.

More elements for “Incubation process”: If the primary focus is on the incubation process, then it helps to run campaigns focused on specific business challenges.  Also management needs to give attention in the form of regular reviews and maintaining a rigor for the reviews.

Hope you find it useful and I would love to hear your comments / suggestions.