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.

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