Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Adopting Design Thinking in organizations, one step at a time


One question that I often get is, “How do we integrate Design Thinking in our existing processes?” Many organizations have well established processes like Agile, Six Sigma, Business Excellence framework etc. It is both impractical and unwise to establish design thinking as yet another parallel process. Instead, what works better is to take a step or two of design thinking and pilot it within the existing processes. Let’s look at a few options.

There are multiple ways to view DT. One view, as advocated by the Stanford D-school, looks at DT as an iterative process consisting of five steps: empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test. Let’s see what it might mean to adopt only one of the five steps in an organization at a time.

1.      Empathy: If you were to emphasize empathy in your existing processes, here are a few options.

·        Journey map: This is a tool where customer’s experience is mapped through various stages of the journey. For example, one journey map could be about “Employee’s day-1 experience”. This would map out experiences of various new joinees as to how their day-1 experience was through the stages of – arrival, induction session, lunch, afternoon, exit etc. This might lead to a challenge statement such as, “How do we get a new joinee an employee badge by the end of day-1?”

·        Humble inquiry: Popularize humble inquiry in meetings and discussions. This is a form of inquiry where one requests the other person to elaborate the point. E.g. Please tell me more or please give me an example. Contrast this with the prescriptive enquiry where one asks questions like, “But, why don’t you try like this…?” or “Boss, this kind of stuff will not work in our organization?”

·        Bright spots: We are easy in finding what’s going wrong – the dark spots. However, in any situation, there is something working right in some corner. These are the bright spots. For example, in every situation where an organization faces high attrition, there are some people who have stayed long within the same organization. So exit interviews would give some information about the dark spots, staying interviews would tell more about the bright spots. Researching about bright spots naturally evokes empathy because you are trying to understand why certain things are working well in that context.

2.      Define: You may choose to focus only on define step – which means you will try to establish more clarity on which are the challenges a team is focused on addressing at various levels in the organization. You could check following:

·        Quality of challenges:  Many times organizational challenges are framed in an abstract manner – “We want to become an innovative organization”. Or They are concrete but don’t have hooks for imagination – “We want to be no 1 in our market.” This is a concrete goal but doesn’t contain any direction for exploration. Alternately, we could ask, “How do we organize knowledge in our project so that it can create Quora like experience?”

·        Internal bright spot-based challenges: You could encourage framing of challenges which are based on internal bright spots. For example, you may pick an innovation from last year – say a chat-bot integration into a customer service platform (BotServ) – and ask “How do we develop more innovations like BotServ which can excite customers and leadership alike?”


3.      Ideation: In all likelihood, your organization may not be new to ideation. However, you may want to ask how you can have more ideation sessions with cross-functional teams. Or you may want to check if you can organize co-innovation workshops with customers where you generate ideas together.

4.      Prototyping: In case you would like to build a prototyping culture, here are a few options:

·        Story-boarding: This is one of the least expensive ways of getting people to bring ideas alive. You can encourage people to create before-and-after storyboards and paste them in the corridors / brainstorming rooms. This can invite comments and may inspire other ideas.

·        Wireframes:  In the world of software this typically means drawing screens – either for PC or for a mobile phone. In the world of physical objects, it means drawing a floorplan or making a 3-D model like how an architect does for a house etc.

·        Hackathons: Conduct a full-day or two-day event focused on building rapid prototypes for a given challenge.

5.      Test: In case you would like to emphasize getting ideas tested, here are a few options:

·        Test Fridays: Allocate an hour on one Friday every month in getting prototypes reviewed by senior leaders. 

·        Customer testing: Pass on prototypes with customer facing people – sales, product managers etc. and get feedback.

Someone may argue that emphasizing a step like ideation without empathy or experimentation may be missing the main point of design thinking. And, I feel any step is better than no step. Hope you get to try out something.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Mindfulness on the go: mini-podcast #1 and #2

Thanks to the suggestion from my wife, Gauri, we decided to chat together on mindfulness and experiment with podcast. So far we have created two mini-podcasts – each roughly of 10 minutes duration. The process has been fun for us and that is encouraging. One of the aspects I am exploring is how we can learn mindfulness through metaphors from movies. So expect mini-podcasts in future where we take up a movie and see what kind of mindfulness tips it presents us. If you have any suggestions, please write a comment on this blog.


Introduction by Gauri (0:00)
Vinay's background (0:35)
What is mindfulness? (3:55)



Introduction by Gauri (0:00)
What is "on the go"? (0:25)
If I practice mindfulness, will I become stress-free or peaceful? (3:30)
Is this connected with any God, religion or a guru? (7:00)
Why should we learn mindfulness? (9:07)

Five tips on mindfulness from “A beautiful mind” film

A beautiful mind” is a movie loosely based on the life of the Nobel Laureate John Nash. In an earlier article I have written about how it depicts the journey of a human mind through the three stages of creativity, madness and awakening. In this article, I would like to bring five tips on mindfulness that we can learn from this movie.

1.      You can’t reason your way out of suffering


Nash is arguing with his psychiatrist and asking, "Why can't I reason my out of this (schizophrenia)?" Psychiatrist is quick to point out the paradox, "Because your mind is where the problem is in the first place." Thought is distorting our perception. Hence, we can’t use thought as a tool to investigate the distortion. It is like dressing up the thief as a police in order to investigate the theft. Mindfulness suggests that we use attention or awareness as the tool to investigate what’s going on.

2.      You’ve got to keep feeding them for them to stay alive



Martin, Nash's friend, asks him if the hallucinations are gone. Nash says that they are not gone but he has stopped feeding them and as a result they have given up on him. Mindfulness is about watching how you are feeding your dreams and nightmares for them to stay alive. If the feeding stops, the dreams and nightmares lose their power.

3.      Being suspicious of your perception



Nash is approached by a person outside his class whom he has never met. Nash is suspicious of new people. So he double-checks with one of his students if she is able to see this new person as well. Only when she confirms does Nash proceed to have a chat with the visitor. Mindfulness involves being aware that the current perception may be a distortion of the reality especially in surprising situations. And it remains open for alternate views and opinions.

4.      Are you crazy? Yes, it’s possible!


Nash is sitting with a visitor, Thomas King, who has come to meet him on behalf of Nobel committee. Nash is being considered for the Nobel Prize and King is there to check if Nash is crazy. After all, the reputation of Nobel Prize is at stake. Nash says “It’s possible (that he is crazy.)” He further clarifies that he is still on medication for schizophrenia. Being mindful is about carrying a huge bias for “possible” as against “impossible”. Every belief or idea is tentative and open for validation even if the idea is “I am crazy.”

5.      Like the diet of the mind, choose not to indulge in certain appetite


Nash clarifies the situation to Thomas King. He still sees things that are not there but he chooses not to acknowledge them. Mindfulness is a process where one is alert and attentive all the time. This is similar to what Nash calls – a diet of the mind. If you are on a diet, you are alert all the time as to what you are eating. Similarly, here there is alertness to check if the thought or voice in the head is worth "indulging in". 

Friday, August 25, 2017

My 3 takeaways from the Krishnamurti Gathering in Murren, Switzerland


I got an opportunity to attend a week-long gathering of people interested in the teaching of Jiddu Krishnamurti last month. It was held in a picturesque little town of Murren located in Bernese Alps in Switzerland. My father, who has been a student of Krishnamurti’s teachings for a few decades, wished to attend this gathering and we went as a family – my parents, my wife and I. We attended the first week of the two week gathering. 

Like other Krishnamurti gatherings we saw videos of Krishnamurti’s talks, had panel discussions, small group dialogues and also had a space for people to share their personal experiences and insights. We also had guided hikes in the mountains. The gathering organizer, Gisele, a lovely lady, looked after each participant with great care. People came from a dozen countries mostly in Europe but also from the US and Australia. Many participants knew each other and had been part of this annual event earlier known as the Saanen Gathering since 70s and 80s.

A gathering like this creates a space for deep reflection and impacts each participant in a unique way. Here I am jotting down the three things I took away from this event.

1.      Role of silence in a dialogue: Our small group dialogues used to begin with moments of silence. The idea was that the dialogue remains anchored in silence. I knew this and yet there were moments when I was driven by the urge to speak. Our facilitator and other members were very helpful in pointing out to me and others that there is a need to slow down and let the dialogue flow through the silence. In fact, later I found it useful to imagine that each word was entering the pool of silence at the centre and new words were emerging from that pool. It was beautiful to experience it when that happened. Perhaps this is relevant to any conversation and I continue to experiment with this.

2.      What is my primary responsibility? This question was discussed over two days in our small group dialogues. One the one hand, it was observed that the world is in a mess and I am deeply connected with the world. In fact, there is one famous Krishnamurti quote which says – You are the world. Then I must share the responsibility for the mess.  And hence, my primary responsibility is to bring order to this mess. On the other hand, it was observed that it is not easy perhaps impossible to genuinely help anyone because the thought process that leads to conflict – anger, worry, frustration, is almost mechanical and reactive. In all likelihood, I am contributing to the conflict by being reactive too. Hence, my primary responsibility is my inner silence, non-reactivity or non-resistance. Perhaps my inner silence is the best help I can offer to the world.

3.      Nature as a teacher: Murren offered breath-taking beauty in myriad forms. We could see the majesty of the snow peaked mountains like the Jungfrau, a roaring waterfall like the Trummelbach falls, gentle streams, peaceful cows, bright flowers all in the same day. It is as if the nature is teasing our judgmental mind and saying, “You like to judge every situation, judge this scene” and it is humbling. One particular scene was insightful. I was watching the snow patches on the mountain and after a while I suddenly saw that a small patch of snow was not snow after all. It was a stream and it got misperceived as snow. It was a beautiful metaphor for how thought constructs solid objects in place of flowing things. Perhaps the solidity of “Vinay” is similar and it is a stream of thoughts getting misperceived as a solid “I”. Who knows?

Overall, the gathering provided a wonderful opportunity for self-reflection and created new possibilities to experiment in the self-discovery journey. It was made joyous by the serene surroundings and the warmth of the people around us.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

How is innovation related to mindfulness?

I work in two areas – innovation and mindfulness. I mention this while introducing myself. A natural question that I get after this is – are these two areas related? I see them as closely related. However, I could be biased. Hence, I thought of jotting my thoughts down and see if I get any inputs. This is an attempt in that direction.

Before exploring the relationship between innovation and mindfulness, it might be easier to see the relationship between innovation and mindlessness. Let’s take an extreme example – 9/11 attack masterminded by Osama Bin Laden’s organization. 9/11 attack has all the elements of a radical innovation – A novel idea creating a huge impact when executed. The impact was positive when seen from Laden’s organization. They were trying to make the world a better place – from their perspective. It so turned out – their perspective was quite contradictory to the perspective of many others. In fact, rest of the world labelled this act as mindless. Thus an innovation may be the result of mindless thinking and may result into mindless action – at least as seen from a section of society.  

Innovation is a creative response to the perceived challenge. And mindfulness is about perceptual clarity – seeing what is. If what you perceive is distorted or muddled up, no matter how hard you try, no matter how many geniuses you put together, the response will be muddled up. If you don’t have the ability to see if you are solving the right problem, then you may be hurting humanity even if you have the best of intentions.

Let’s take the case of Uber – a company that is known for its innovations and a company whose taxi service is running in 600+ cities across the world. I am a beneficiary of its service and perhaps you are too. Uber has had a rapid growth in a short span. However, things become murky when you ask the question – growth at what cost? It apparently fostered a culture where “back stabbing” of co-workers was encouraged and mistreatment of female employees was ignored. An investigation into sexual harassment issues led to the termination of 20 employees and eventually resulted in the resignation of the company CEO.

Uber is a case where the intent of treating all stakeholders fairly got into conflict with the intent of growing the business at a certain speed. And the intent to grow overpowered everything else. Perhaps Uber is not unique and that every organization that is chasing a quarter-on-quarter revenue-profit targets is undergoing similar pressure. To make sound decisions under such circumstances needs intense awareness of not only what is going on outside – in the meeting room, in the company, in the market but also inside one’s own mind – the anxiety of falling short of the growth target, the damage to self-image for not meeting the investor expectations etc. This awareness is mindfulness.

In short, innovation and mindfulness are connected deeply at the problem definition. Unless one is mindful of the distortions created by one’s own anxieties and aspirations one ends up solving the wrong problem. And nurturing a wrong problem is similar to nourishing a monster. You never know what shape it may take in future.

Image source: wikipedia.org

Monday, June 26, 2017

Mobile app upgrade as a metaphor for the virus in the thought process

Every time I turn on WiFi on my mobile phone, some application begins to get upgraded automatically. It doesn’t even ask my permission. Can this phenomenon help us learn about the virus in our thought process? That is what we will explore in this article.

When we buy a new phone, it comes with some default applications. For example, for an Android phone, Google Maps, Gmail etc. come pre-installed on the phone. We also download new apps e.g. Uber cabs as we see that they could help us in our day-to-day life. These applications are constantly getting upgraded. Sometimes these upgrades are fixing some problems with the apps, sometimes new features get added, other times the app gets a better protection against virus attacks etc. In short, these upgrades are trying to make our phone future-proof. 

In general, these upgrades should be happening when the phone is idle i.e. it is not being used for a call or a message or reading a mail or watching a movie etc.  Our phone, even when it is not busy making or receiving a call, is involved in checking if somebody is trying to call us or send a message. It also has many other sensors such as temperature sensor, accelerometer for speed / direction sensor etc. It is also constantly checking date and time and triggering alarms at an appropriate moment if they have been set.  In short, phone is a sensitive device, constantly engaged in scanning the signals and meaningfully responding to them.

Now, imagine a situation where the app upgrades become all important. i.e. the phone goes into a mode where all it is doing primarily is app upgrades and nothing else. It considers upgrading itself to be more important than everything else – even making / receiving a call etc. Even when somebody tries to call us, the phone rejects the call because it is busy upgrading itself. It is like the phone has lost its primary function. Who would like such a phone?

Now, let’s compare this upgrade mechanism with our life. Our attention is required to do what we are doing in the present moment – say eating, walking, driving, listening etc. However, these activities have become so automatic that the thought feels that it can do some upgrades while these activities are happening. So it starts running “What if” scenarios – “What if I don’t reach the meeting on time?”, “What if I lose this job?”, “What if people discover that I am really not that smart?” etc. We feel that these ‘what if’ scenarios help us take some actions that will reduce the probability of failure. In short, the thought process helps us in making our life future-proof, similar to a mobile app upgrade.

Now, imagine the thought process goes berserk perhaps due to some virus on the ‘what if’ simulations and grabs all the attention all the time for the simulation. Almost no attention is left for the present moment activities. We are eating our lunch but the attention is in the “upgrade” scenarios. We are driving a car but thinking about the upcoming meeting. When we are in the meeting, the thought is simulating the next activity etc. Effectively, we are not giving any activity its due attention. The future-proofing is happening at the cost of the quality of attention in the present-moment. In an overdrive mode, the thought process is also affecting the sensitivity to signals sent from the body such as hunger, sleep etc. and from surrounding such as feelings of the family members, team members, how we are treating nature etc. It is as though we have become insensitive to the reality and begun to live in the thought created future-proofing simulation.

Now, you might ask. OK, this is life, what to do? The first step is to watch this process and see if the upgrade simulations are indeed serving a useful purpose or they have become repetitive, compulsive and wasteful. You have been thinking about selecting the best school for your daughter for the past one month. How long do you want to keep thinking? This awareness can be powerful. Alternately, you can step out of the simulation for a few moments and bring attention to the present moment activity –breathing, eating, sitting, walking etc. Try it out for yourself.

Friday, June 16, 2017

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

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








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

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

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

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



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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

image source: amazon.in

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Gabbar Singh and self-deception

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

image source: rediff.com

Further reading on self-deception:

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

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

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

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Before-and-after storyboard: A simple template

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

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



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

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



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

Friday, April 21, 2017

3E’s of Design Thinking: Experience, Empathy and Experimentation

“Can you tell us what Design Thinking is in five-ten minutes?” I get this question often these days. Sometimes I am participating in a conference call and the participants want a gist of DT in a short time. In such situations I prefer to talk about the 3 E’s of design thinking: Experience, Empathy and Experimentation which address the three questions: What are we designing in DT? Where do we begin? And; How do we course-correct? Let’s look at each of them briefly.

Experience: Design Thinking is about designing experiences – ideally end-to-end experience. My father applied for a new passport a few weeks back as his current passport is about to expire. He was out of the passport office in half an hour. Before he could reach home, he began to get SMS messages telling how his application is progressing. His new passport arrived home in three days. This experience was radically different from what he had gone through when he applied for his passport for the first time twenty years back. Whether it is a movie, restaurant, grocery shopping, taxi, commute to work, performance appraisal, one-on-one meetings, we remember events in terms of experience they create for us. In particular, we tend to remember emotional highs and lows. Hence, design thinking focuses on the design of peak emotions – positive and negative. In my father’s case, the progress reporting of the passport application through SMS worked as an anxiety suppressing tool. And the delivery in three days of the new passport created a delight.

Empathy: Our emotional responses are strongly correlated to our anxieties and aspirations. In fact, a large part of our emotional response is supposed to be automatic – almost like a button press. Hence, DT suggests that we start with empathy, by understanding the anxieties and aspirations of our customers. This is not easy for multiple reasons. One, as Kiran Bedi realized on her first day as Director General (Prisons) at Tihar Jail in 1993, people may not trust you and hence they may not reveal what they feel. Second, people themselves may not be aware of their deeply held beliefs and Three, you may not know who your customer is.  Hence, DT suggests that we do immersive research, which involves observing potential customers them in action in their own context, focus on gaining trust before going further in the interview process and if possible, try to live like them – at least for a few days. This may lead to deeper insights which further help in framing the right challenge.

Experimentation: No matter how much one tries, one can never be confident that you have framed the right challenge. Moreover, a technologist may start with a solution – a mobile app or a new measurement device. In either case, DT suggests that you test your assumptions as often as you can by going back to the customers. This principle is called – fail early, fail often and fail inexpensively. In a complex environment, only rapid iterative experimentation can lead to the understanding of right problem and hence a better solution. Hence, rapid prototyping is given a lot of emphasis in DT. If you are thinking of a new mobile app, can you quickly design screen shots and show to a few people and get their feedback? The rate of experimentation is considered very important. Hence, we look at ways of doing 1-hour, 1-day and 1-week prototypes.

In short, Design Thinking is about designing Experiences, Empathizing with customers and rapid and iterative experimentation.

Monday, April 10, 2017

What if implicit order is more fundamental than explicit order?

We all carry some notion of order in our everyday life. For example, when our room is in a mess, we say that it is disorderly. Alternately, if the dinner table is arranged properly with the plates, spoons, glasses, we say, things are in order. When we refer to order (or disorder) we are mostly referring to only one type of order – explicit order – order perceived through our senses. There is another type of order which is called implicit order. When we see a seed sprouting, we assume that the tree-ness – with all its characteristics of the shape, color, size - was implicit in the seed. Otherwise, how would it know what kind of a tree it should turn into? That information about tree-ness which is embedded in the seed is an example of the implicit order. Sprouting of the seed is an example of how an explicit order (the tree) comes out of the implicit order inside the seed. When the tree bears a fruit containing a seed, the explicit order gets transformed into an implicit order. So in nature, things are going back and forth between implicit and explicit order. Traditionally, science has assumed that explicit order is more fundamental than implicit order. But what if implicit order is more fundamental? That is what we will explore in this article.

Let’s first try to get a better idea of what an order is. David Bohm defines order as similar differences and different similarities. For example, when we classify all living organisms into animals and plants, we are observing different similarities – animals and plants as different among similarity of living organisms. And when we see that one principle such as the law of gravity governing so many types of motions, we are observing similar differences – law of gravity as similarity among different types of motions.

When we fail to observe any order, we call it disorder or randomness or chaos. Sometimes, what appears to be random has some order implicit in it. For example, computers are known to generate random numbers. However, what is underlying this random sequence of numbers is a program that generates this sequence. Thus, if you know the program and the input it takes (called seed), then the sequence is no longer random. Similarly, when we observe a coastline in a map, say that of Mumbai, it may appear random. However, it is known to carry the property of a fractal dimension – an order, an example of similar differences, implicit in it.  Thus what is random in the explicit world, may have an order in its implicit counterpart. For a cool demonstration on how explicit order turns into implicit order and vice versa, check out this video on ink droplet in glycerin experiment.

For the past several centuries, especially since the scientific revolution of 16th century with discoveries from Galileo, Newton, Descarte and later Darwin, Einstein, Watson-Crick etc. science has considered explicit order as primary. But, what if the implicit order is really more fundamental? And the explicit order is just a reflection or unfolding of an implicit order – like the tree-ness in a seed unfolding into a tree? Science, after all, hasn’t cracked the theory of everything yet, has it? So, it is possible that implicit order is more fundamental. If so, what is its biggest implication?

The biggest implication is that knowledge is always incomplete. Why? Because, it is always based on explicit order. Any knowledge is similar to knowing some characteristics of a tree based on its outer features without knowing the underlying program that generates the tree from a seed. By design, we won’t know implicit order, EVER.

If you really see what this means - i.e. knowledge is always incomplete, then it may come to you as a rude shock. Because it would mean there won’t be a theory of everything, EVER. Moreover, EVERYTHING that you know or believe, especially values you cherish as absolutely true, in science, religion, arts, society, in family relations is incomplete. It is tentative. It may be relevant in your current context, but it may be irrelevant in some other context.  If you really see that every knowledge as tentative, why would you ever be upset about anything?

All this is true, if implicit order is more fundamental than explicit order. Of course, explicit order may indeed be more fundamental than implicit order. Then, fighting for my knowledge, what I value, may be really worth it.

Hope you at least consider the question open: What is more fundamental, implicit or explicit order?

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

Monday, March 27, 2017

“But, cats can’t tell time” and the human state of missing the main point

We are all busy solving what appear to each of us to be the important problems. For example, for some of us, making more money may be the most important thing, for some others, solving social problems like poverty, inequality, corruption, terrorism, lack of education and healthcare may be the most important thing. But what if, we are all solving the wrong problems?  What if, we are all missing the main point? That is the hypothesis I would like to explore in this article. And I would like to use an analogy mentioned by David Bohm of his dream involving two cats. Let’s start with the dream.

David Bohm was interviewed by Nobel Laureate Maurice Wilkins for American Institute of Physics in twelve sessions over a ten month period from June 6, 1986 to April 16, 1987. In the interview session 5 which took place on October 3, 1986, Bohm narrates following dream which he had during the last phase of his tenure in Princeton in 1950-51:

I was staying in a certain house where they had a cat, and in this dream, I came into the kitchen, and I saw the cat talking to another cat, and making a date to meet at a certain time. I said, there must be something wrong here. I wonder what it is. So I thought about it for a while, and I said, oh yes. I know (what’s) wrong. Cats can’t tell time. So I said to the cat, “You cats are not able to tell time.” The cat answered me back and said, Of course we can tell time. And I said, “Well, look at the clock. What time is it?” It was about three o’clock. It said, A quarter past eight, five past nine. So I said, there (you go). That proves that cats can’t tell time. And then I woke up laughing. 

And what did this dream mean, according to Bohm? He says - I simply took it for granted that cats can talk. And I said, “That’s very mysterious.” How in the world can they tell time? They don’t have the equipment for telling time. They never heard of time. So the meaning of the dream was that something similar must be happening in society, that people are arguing about small points, and they’re taking for granted some very obvious point that should be staring us in the face.

So, what Bohm is saying is that when we argue about or try to solve the problem of whether cats can tell time, we miss the main point. That is, cats can’t talk. Are we all arguing about “how cats can’t tell time”? We possibly are. Let me try to illustrate this using one of my recent meetings with a friend.

I met this friend; let’s call him V, last week. V was disturbed about the recent appointment of saffron clad firebrand Yogi as the Chief Minister of the largest state in India. Why should this disturb V? Because, he feels that events such as this are indicating that India’s secular image is crumbling and V is concerned. V has tried to convince his friends that India is heading in the wrong direction. But his friends haven’t bought his argument. So V is kind of lost. He doesn’t know what to do.

Is V’s argument a kind of “cats can’t tell time” argument? It is. So what is the main point V is missing? The main point is that the sustained disturbance in his mind is an indicator that his perception is muddled up. If V can’t see things clearly, how can he frame the correct problem? Even flights don’t take off when the visibility is low, in spite of the sophisticated guiding software.

So the main point is, are you able to see things clearly? Do you have perceptual clarity? If not, chances are high, you are solving the wrong problem, no matter how noble the problem is. How do you know if you have perceptual clarity? Well, every sustained negative emotion, be it anxiety, stress, anger, blame, guilt, envy, is an indicator that there is lack of perceptual clarity.   

So what should one do? Well, the first step is to recognize that I may be missing the main point every time I am upset. That creates an opening through which intelligence may flow through and it may show us what is going on that is muddling up the perception.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

3 surprises from Isaac Newton’s biography

Recently I finished reading “The life of Isaac Newton” by Richard Westfall. It is a fairly detailed account of Newton’s life. We study Newton’s theories from our school days. We would have heard the story of “falling apple” multiple times. Newton’s fight with Robert Hooke and his friendship with Halley was familiar with me. So I wasn’t expecting any major surprises from this biography. And yet, I realized there were several surprises in store for me. Here are 3 major surprises:

Systematic challenge book: Nineteen year old Newton left his hometown Lincolnshire to join Trinity College at Cambridge as a student in June 1661. Barring two extended visits during the plague years, this was to be his home for the next eighteen years. Soon Newton started reading the work of intellectual giants of his time like Descartes, Galileo, Boyle and many others. However, he didn’t stop at just reading. Sometime in 1664, Newton created 45 headings in a notebook under which he would categorize the notes from his reading. The headings included – nature of matter, place, time, and motion, cosmic order, tactile qualities such as rarity, fluidity, softness, violent motion, light, colors, vision etc. He titled the book “Quaestiones quaedam Philosophaea” – “Quaestiones” for short. His notes would not be just copies of the interesting lines from the books he read. They would have a questioning tone.  For example, he would ask “Whither ye rays of gravity may bee stopped by reflecting or refracting ym, if so a perpetuall motion may bee made of these two ways.” He considered “Quaestiones” important enough that he later composed an index.

By the winter of 1664-65, Newton made a list of “Problems”. Initially he put down twelve and then modified the list to make it twenty two problems put under five categories. This list would occupy Newton for the next year. What surprised me is the systematic manner in which Newton created and maintained his challenge book.

Universal gravitation as a slow hunch: The story of falling of an apple and how it led to the discovery of the universal law of gravitation is one of the most famous stories in the history of science. It shows how a simple observation can lead to a deep insight. Westfall goes to some length in the book to dispel the myth behind the story. Yes, Newton did possibly have an insight when he observed a falling apple in 1666. However, he worked on the theory of gravitation for almost next twenty years. In fact, he systematically extended the scope of gravitation to moon, then to other planets, then to comets and then to everything.  By 1680, Newton still held the view that the gravitational force is specific to the solar system which contained related bodies.  He corresponded with Flamsteed, Director of Royal Astronomical Society, and obtained data about the motion of Jupiter’s satellites, on the effect of the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn and also on the comets. For two years, between 1684 to 1686, he almost locked himself up to focus on the problem of gravitation. Eventually, he was convinced of the universality of the law and he finished writing Principia in 1686. What surprised me in this case is the way Newton step-by-step extended his theory to include more and more objects by using real data from observatory over two decades.

Obsession with self-image:  Newton didn’t like criticism. And he fought with almost everyone who questioned him.  Once he believed in an idea, he went all out to get whatever he can to show that he was right. If it meant stealing data so be it. Once he considered a person to be his enemy, he made life very difficult for the person. This became even more prominent once he became the President of Royal Society and the manager of the Mint. For example, he stole data from Flamsteed’s astronomical observations and didn’t let anyone else access it for years. During his later years, he became obsessed with getting his portraits done. As a President of the Royal Society, he established a practice that the mace (a spray) be placed on the table only when the president was in the chair. Newton’s obsession with his self-image surprised me.

Reading the biography, I wondered if Isaac Newton was a beautiful mind with creativity, madness and no awakening. Who knows?