Monday, December 9, 2013

Joseph Schumpeter and the principle of indeterminateness

For most of his life, Joseph Schumpeter, the prophet of innovation, was seeking an exact science. It would be a science that would precisely predict the economic developments including innovations. However, Schumpeter’s quest for exact economics ended quietly in the penultimate year of his life in 1948. How did this transformation happen? Let’s look in this article.

“Despite all his pioneering work of integrating other disciplines into economics, Schumpeter in the mid-1940s was still looking for a key to ‘exact economics’ in the sense of a determinate and predictive science”. Thus begins the penultimate chapter (Chapter 27) of Schumpeter’s biography “Prophet of Innovation” written by Thomas McCraw. What, according to Schumpeter, was the key hurdle in creating such an exact science?

One hurdle Schumpeter felt was mathematics. He performed daily exercises in calculus and tried to master advanced techniques such as matrix algebra. In fact, he thought that a new type of mathematics may be needed for the exact science. However, as Schumpeter delved more into the business history, he started discovering a completely different barrier in creating a predictive science.

As Schumpeter studied business history he asked the question – “Who was it that acted, how and why and what may be the effects that may be traced to such actions?” As he analysed various innovations he realized that a creative response which is “outside the range of existing practice” can never be predicted and is therefore indeterminate. He called this insight – Principle of Indeterminateness. He announced the verdict of his quest in his presidential address at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association on December 30, 1948 (see the picture above).

Schumpeter had realized that social location of individuals plays a significant role in shaping their intuition which in turn determines their creative response. In fact, he felt that psychology is at the heart of all social sciences. And he noted with regret that economists did not consult or work with professional psychologists. Instead they preferred to invent their own assumptions about the mental processes of producers, consumers and people in general.

It would take another half a century before a psychologist (Daniel Kahneman) would get a Nobel Prize in Economics. Incidentally, the first cognitive illusion Kahneman would discover – the illusion of validity – would be closely linked to the principle of indeterminateness. Kahneman writes in the chapter titled “The illusion of validity” in his book “Thinking, fast and slow” – The main point is not that people who attempt to predict the future make many errors… it is that the errors of prediction are inevitable because the world is unpredictable.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Is “8 steps to innovation” approach predictive or non-predictive?

“The Black Swan” fame Nassim Taleb calls authors of books with titles such as “8 steps to innovation” charlatans1. It means people practicing quackery or similar confidence tricks in order to obtain money, fame etc. Taleb has two main objections to n-steps-to-xyz-approach: One, such an approach tends to be predictive in situations which may be inherently non-predictive. Two, it gives positive advice and only positive advice exploiting peoples’ gullibility and sucker-proneness. As a co-author of “8 steps to innovation” I thought, let me reflect on how we fare as charlatans. More specifically, I would like to explore following two questions: Is “8 steps” approach predictive or non-predictive? Does it give positive advice only?

Predictive vs non-predictive approaches:  A predictive approach tries to predict the future and based on the prediction arrives at a response. Imagine you run an educational institute. You may analyse the trends using a predictive approach and come to a conclusion that video-led online learning is going to be an important part of the education system five years from now. As a result, you may decide to explore various platforms available in the market which enable online education.

In an alternate scenario, you may ask yourself, “What do I enjoy doing?” And your answer may be “creating short animation videos”. So you end up creating one-or-two minute videos and upload them on the Internet. Over a few weeks you realize that your videos related to Physics are getting watched more often. Slowly you focus on Physics related animation videos. You narrate this story in one of the parties you attend. A week later you get a call from a guy you met in the party and he offers to sponsor your video series. Your business has started – without predicting anything about the future.

A non-predictive approach has three characteristics: (1) It has means-driven rather than goal oriented action (2) it uses affordable-loss rather than expected return as an evaluation criterion (3) it treats each surprise as a potential sign-post2.

8-steps, a soft-predictive approach: Here is how 8-steps approach typically gets used. An organization that has intent to become more innovative does a self-assessment on the 5-levels of innovation maturity. Depending upon its current level, it decides its course of action in terms of building pipeline, improving idea velocity or enhancing batting average. Similarly, it identifies whether the problem primarily that of Rider (lack of direction) or Elephant (lack of motivation / habit). For example, here is how a bunch of managers assessed the situation in their groups using the navigation matrix.

While building the pipeline, the ideas may come as a response to a wave like Big Data (predictive) or it may come from an employee’s passion for data visualization (means-driven, non-predictive). 8-steps approach doesn't prescribe any policy using which ideas should be selected. However, 8-steps approach puts emphasis on low-cost experimentation. This makes 8-steps approach soft-predictive. It suggests that you can start with a prediction but not to take it too seriously. Build confidence only through experimentation.

Negative advice: Step-8 in the 8-step approach is “Margin of safety”. It is only about what can be done so that you don’t get crippled when you fall. Throughout the book, we use the Elephant-Rider model to warn the reader of slippery slopes of our decisions making process.

In summary, 8-steps approach is soft-predictive. It says, “By all means, predict. But don’t take your prediction too seriously. Perform low-cost experiments to validate your assumptions. And make sure you build a margin of safety”

2.     A good source for the comparative study of predictive vs non-predictive approaches to strategy is: “What to do next? The case for non-predictive strategy” by Robert Wiltbank et. al., Strategic Management Journal, vol. 27, 2006, pages 981-998.
3.     Image source:

Saturday, November 2, 2013

My 3 take-aways from Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile

“What do you do if you cannot predict?” is the title of chapter 13 in Nassim Taleb’s bestseller The Black Swan (TBS). Antifragile expands the 10 page chapter into a 500 page book. I find the question important and its exploration useful in my work on improving innovation effectiveness. And hence I turned to Antifragile.  But I am allergic to fat books, notwithstanding the kindle versions. Fortunately, the essence of the approach to the “What do you do?” question is presented in four of the twenty five chapters (chapter 9 to 12). Rest of the book is about the definition and the importance of antifragile and equally about ranting against Harvard Profs, bankers with black tie, Alan Greenspan and loads of philosophy. It wasn’t difficult to skim and skip through most of it. In this article we look at my 3 take-aways from Antifragile on the “What do you do?” question. But before that let’s look at the definition of antifragile.

What is Antifragile? Wind extinguishes candle and energises fire. Thus fire is benefited from the wind and candle is harmed by the wind.  Anything that has more upside than downside from random events (or certain shocks) is antifragilie. The reverse is fragile. In economic systems, fiscal deficit is a source of fragility and innovation is the source of antifragility. In personal life, corporate employment is fragile (to downturn) while tenured-prof-cum-fiction-writing is antifragile. A bestseller and your life may change.

1. Fragility is measurable, risk is not: Can you predict the chance of you getting fired from your job? No. But can you imagine the consequences of you getting fired? Yes, you can. Fragility is about the potential impact of rare events and not about predicting the occurrence of the events. As we saw in an earlier article, Ken Cox, Technical Manager of the control systems program of Apollo 13, didn’t have the foggiest idea of the probability of command module failure. However, it wasn’t difficult to imagine the consequences of such a failure.
One way to measure fragility is to calculate acceleration of harm due to unit change in something. For example, you may check additional harm from Fukushima reactor when tsunami goes beyond certain level. Similarly, you can check the additional delay in traffic when the number of cars on the road increases by certain percentage. If we detect acceleration of harm, it means the system is fragile.

2. First step is to reduce fragility: Taleb says – the first step towards antifragility consists in decreasing downside rather than increasing upside. To make profits and buy a BMW, it would be a good idea to, first survive. In the movie, Million dollar baby, the boxing coach Frankie (Clint Eastwood) tells Maggie (Hilary Swank) following during a coaching session:
Frankie: You forgot the rule. Now, what is the rule?
Maggie: Keep my left up?
Frankie: Is to protect yourself at all times. Now, what is the rule?
Maggie: Protect myself at all times.
Frankie: Good. Good.
Unfortunately, one can never know all such harmful events or create a full-proof protection. However, one can reduce one’s exposure. For example, adding redundancy helps. Commercial aircrafts have redundancy built into almost all aspects of their design – engines, autopilots, instruments, pumps, generators, air and hydraulic systems, controls etc. Another way to reduce fragility is to keep a system as simple and small as possible.

3. Optionality is the key lever to antifragility: Thales, a Greek philosopher from Miletus in pre-Socratic era (perhaps a contemporary of Buddha), is one of the heroes of Antifragile. According to a story, Thales reserved olive presses ahead of time at a discount. The harvest turned out to be good and Thales rented the presses out at a high price when the demand peaked. What Thales bought was an option – right but not an obligation to use the olive presses. Options which allow you more upside than downside are vectors of antifragility.

In an earlier article we saw how Paul Buchheit spent 6-7 hours building a Gmail prototype involving content-targeted ads. In fact, he himself didn’t believe that the experiment would work. But he didn’t lose much in doing the activity and it led to the most successful business model for his employer – Google. Taleb says that low-cost trial-and-error activity like that of Paul can be seen as the expression of an option. The tricky part is to recognize the favourable outcome.

It was a pleasant surprise to meet Seneca, a Roman philosopher, in Antifragile. Seneca’s method to counter fragility was to go through mental exercises to write-off possessions. So when losses occurred you don’t feel anything. Anything you gain is a bonus! For example, Seneca started his journeys with almost the same belongings he would have if he were shipwrecked – a blanket plus a few things. Taleb calls this antifragility in its purest form. Isn’t that similar to Krishna’s advice of non-attachment to Arjuna?

Image sources: and

Friday, October 25, 2013

How smart guys pitched their ideas to Steve Jobs, the prickly perfectionist

Steve Jobs looked at the world in binary mode. Either your idea was shitty or it was fantastic – nothing in between. That made the life difficult for people presenting ideas to him. How did they manage it? What tactics did the smart folks employ to get their ideas accepted? Let’s see in this article. Your boss or reviewer may not be as “binary” as Jobs, but the techniques may still come handy.

Show it privately: This is how Jonathan Ive, the key designer behind iMac, iPod, iPhone and iPad and Steve’s close friend dealt with the situation. Ive and his team were working on multi-touch technology for the MacBook Pro in their spare time. He knew that it could be a game-changer technology. Ive says, “Because Steve is so quick to give an opinion, I don’t show him stuff in front of other people,” Ive recalled. “He might say, ‘This is shit,’ and snuff the idea. I feel that ideas are very fragile, so you have to be tender when they are in development.” Ive demoed the multi-touch idea in a one-on-one meeting. Fortunately, Jobs liked it and said, “This is the future.”

Create a Fine-tune-It-Yourself kit: Chris Espinosa was a Berkeley drop-out and part of Mac development team. On his own he decided to design a calculator for Mac. When he showed the first demo to Jobs, he said, “Well, it’s a start, but basically, it stinks.” Jobs felt that the background color is too dark, buttons are too big etc. Espinosa started to refine the design based on Jobs’ feedback. But with every iteration came more criticism. After a number of iterations, Espinosa got fed up and created a brilliant solution - “The Steve Jobs Roll Your Own Calculator Construction Set”. It allowed Jobs to tweak and personalize the look-and-feel. Jobs spent ten minutes and fine-tuned it to his taste. This design shipped on the Mac and remained the standard for fifteen years.

Quietly disregard the comment and go ahead: During the Mac development, the team desperately needed a 5 ¼ inch hard drive. The one being developed in the Apple corporate office was buggy.  Belleville, head of Mac Engineering team, suggested two options to Jobs. One, sourcing it from Sony,  and two, sourcing a Sony-clone from Alps Electronics, a smaller Japanese supplier. Jobs and Belleville flew to Japan and saw both the products. Jobs thought Alps was great and Sony was shitty. Belleville was appalled as he felt that Alps could not deliver it within the required timeframe. Anyway, Jobs ordered Belleville to cease all work with Sony.

Belleville gave a go ahead to both the companies. One engineer from Sony, Hidetoshi Komoto, would work clandestinely at Mac engineering team. They would hide him whenever Jobs visited. Eventually, Alps folks admitted that they would need eighteen more months for production to start. At that point, Belleville told Jobs that he might have an alternative to the Alps drive ready soon. With a big grin on his face, Jobs said, “You son of a bitch!”

Source: “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson. Jonathan Ives story is on page 468, Espinnosa story is on page 132, Belleville story is on page 145-147. Photo source:

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Practicality of Gandhi’s vision of “education through the hands” today

“The old idea was… the craft was to be taken in hand wholy separately from education. To me, that seems a fatal mistake… The brain should be educated through the hands. Why should you think that the mind is everything and the hands and the feet are nothing?” Mahatma Gandhi said while addressing the teachers gathered in Wardha for a three week training program in February 19391. Is this still relevant today? Let’s explore.

Gandhi illustrated his point through the example of hand spinning. He said, “Take the instance of hand-spinning. Unless I know arithmetic, I cannot report how many yards of yarn I have produced on the takli… Take geometry next. What can be a better demonstration than the disc of the takli? I can teach all about the circle in this manner, without even mentioning the name of Euclid.” He said one could teach history through the history of cotton.

Gandhi’s address is more than 70 years old. So let’s first check if the basic claim still holds according to the state-of-the-art research. Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman writes in his best seller Thinking, fast and slow, “As cognitive scientists have emphasized in recent years, cognition is embodied; you think with your body, not only with your brain2.” For example, when you hold a warm cup of tea, you are more likely to think that the other person at the table is trustworthy after only a brief interaction. So looks like the basic claim still holds.

I feel that a more general principle underlying this vision is related to experiential learning. How do you create opportunities for students to experience the new concept through the body? In my lecture on introduction to design thinking at IIMB last week, each student re-designed a wallet for his/her partner. At the end, everybody prototyped their best idea using craft paper and got it validated from the partner. When students are learning about empathy, they actually interview shopkeeprs, people on the street or whoever is relevant to the topic. Case study method is another form of creating an experience, though it is somewhat weaker than “doing by hand” method.

What about literature? How do you create an experience? One low-cost medium is theatre. When you enact a literary piece, you are creating experiences especially for the participants. However, I am sure there are topics for which it may not be easy to create experiences, say for example, wave functions in Quantum Mechanics?

Gandhi held a strong view on this. He said in the same Wardha address, “I have said that all instruction must be linked with some basic craft. When you are imparting knowledge to a child of 7 or 10 through the medium of an industry, you should, to begin with, exclude all those subjects which cannot be linked with the craft. By doing so from day to day you will discover ways and means of linking with the craft many things which you had excluded in the beginning.” I feel that such exclusion is neither necessary nor practical.

For me the key take-away is this. For every concept that is being taught, I ask, “How can I create an opportunity for the student to experience the concept?”

1.     Gandhi’s address in Wardha is available online here. Also in “Mahatma: Life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi” by D. G. Tendulkar, Volume 5 (1938-1940), The Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Govt of India, pages 41-43.
2.     Kahneman’s statement is in “Thinking, fast and slow”, page 51.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Uncontrolled: A case for experimentation in social sciences including management

Imagine a company that operates 10,000 convenient stores of which 8,000 are named QwikMart and 2,000 are named FastMart. It is observed that the average revenue per store is $1 million for QwikMart and $1.1 million for FastMart. Will the company benefit by renaming all QwikMarts to FastMarts? One way to answer such a strategic question is to build an analytical model of a typical convenient store with several variables including the name of the store as one. And then perform the analysis under different scenarios. An alternate method is to actually rename a few dozen randomly chosen QwikMart stores and test the revenue impact against another randomly chosen QwikMart stores whose name is not changed. Author Jim Manzi argues in “Uncontrolled: The surprising payoff of trial-and-error for business, politics and society” that our current methods carry a huge bias for the former (analysis) and can benefit from doing more of the latter (experimentation).

Causal density – key challenge:  Experimentation hasn’t been a popular method in social sciences especially if you contrast it with correlation analysis. A classic example is presented in the bestseller Freakonomics where the authors argue that a significant fraction of US crime reduction can be linked to legalization of abortions in 1970s. The research involved rigorous correlation analysis. However, in subsequent analysis two Federal Reserve economists found a bug in the software model and with a small change in assumptions the result shows no correlation between abortion legalization and crime reduction. Back-and-forth has continued without any conclusive result.

Building analytical models in social setting where behaviours are involved has a significant challenge. The causal density of a social setting is very high compared to physics laws applied to large objects. That means the number of variables that can impact the observed outcome can be very large, very difficult to find out and hence building a reliable analytical model is difficult. If finding all the causes is too cumbersome, why not experiment and find out? That is the view Jim Manzi presents at least for those situations where experimentation is practical.

Experimentation and business strategy: In my earlier articles, I have observed that Strategy gurus like Michael Porter and Richard Rumelt don’t emphasize experimentation. They present analytical models through which you decipher the internal and external context and create a game-plan as an outcome. And then you implement it. It has been over a quarter of a century since Rumelt-Henderson-Porter started publishing frameworks. It hasn’t worked predictably.  It is time managers consider experimentation as a complementary method to successful strategy building. Note that Manzi is not denying the role of Porter-style analytical models in creating hypothesis. He is suggesting that it is worth checking if we can test the crucial assumptions behind the strategy at low-cost quickly. And do those experiments whenever possible.

A throwaway prototype of what later became AdSense was built overnight at Google. Within a week hundred Googlers experienced and assessed the usefulness of content targeted ads.  This eventually led to creating a successful monetization model for Google. Google today performs tens of thousands of experiments on search algorithm alone every year.

Experimental revolution in business:  Manzi cites companies like Capital One which has turned business into a scientific laboratory. Every decision about product design, marketing, channels of communication, credit lines, customer selection, collection policies and cross-selling could be subjected to systematic testing using thousands of experiments. In fact, Manzi’s own company Applied Predictive Technologies is helping 30 to 40 percent of largest retailers, hotel chains, restaurant chains and retail banks in America perform repeated standardized tests on its platform.

Whether experimentation really becomes a revolution worldwide is to be seen. However, if you want to understand how experimentation is pushing the boundaries in social sciences, Uncontrolled is an excellent place to start.

Note: I am thankful to Prof. Stefan Thomke of Harvard Business School for suggesting this book to me. Thomke himself is an authority on experimentation and has written an excellent book – “Experimentation matters: Unlocking the potential of new technologies for innovation”.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Four steps where “Frugal innovation” meets “8 steps to innovation”

When times are tough, anything frugal gains currency. “Frugal innovation” is no exception. Last week I attended a Tech Event of a global MNC where “frugal innovation” was the theme. CTO of the organization presented it as one of the key elements of his innovation strategy. Is there a process for frugal innovation? Perhaps there is no single answer to this question. In this article I would like to explore one such approach where “frugal innovation” meets “8 steps to innovation” - the framework in our book.

What is frugal innovation? Again there is no single answer here. However, it generally means creating products / services which cater to the needs of masses in emerging economies (check Wikipedia). That implies innovations which are affordable and accessible to a vast underserved population. Some of the examples of frugal innovation that I have come across are:  Low-end mobile phones, GE EKG, Tata Nano, Cisco cell-site router, Embrace infant-warmer, Aravind Eye Hospital, Vaatsalya Healthcare etc.

Now let’s look at the 4 steps which enable frugal innovation:

Challenge book (step-2): How you frame the problem significantly influences the solution you create. Vijay Govindarajan identifies an interesting characteristic of such products: 50% performance at 15% cost in his book “Reverse innovation”. However, that is just the starting point. If Jane Chen and team had applied the 50%-15% rule to their incubator project, they would have created a $3000 incubator. Instead they created an infant-warmer which costs $200 (1% of traditional incubator) and looks nothing like a traditional incubator. Jane & team visited villages in India and Nepal and met people like Savitha who lost her baby because she couldn’t travel to the nearest town with incubator facility in time (watch the TED video). After talking to several mothers like Savitha the team realized that they need a local solution that can work without electricity, simple enough for a mother or midwife to use, portable, that can be sterilized and used across multiple babies, and of course ultra-low-cost compared to the traditional $20,000 incubators.

Building the context into the challenge statement is extremely important and it is very difficult to do it without experiencing the situation in these markets first-hand. Govindarajan categorizes these aspects of the challenge as various gaps such as performance gap (50%-15%), infrastructure gap (e.g. lack of electricity), preference gap (e.g. usable by mid-wife) etc.

Experiment with low-cost at high-speed (step-4): Simple looking Embrace infant warmer has already helped over 22,000 low birth-weight and premature infants. However, during the design process the team had to iterate and test the solution dozens of time by going into the field and talking to doctors, moms and clinicians to ensure that it meets the need of the local communities. For a frugal innovation, doing each experiment at low-cost and with high-speed is highly desirable. Govindarajan calls this "focus on learning based on mini-experiments".

Iterate on the business model (step-6): Traditional business models may not work in these situations. Typically several iterations are required on who (customer), what (offering) and how (to reach and monetize). Vaatsalya healthcare, a hospital chain focused on rural & semi-urban areas, experimented on two business models for six months: full-service 20-bed hospital in Gadag and consulting mode no-bed clinic in Karwar. Gadag model worked and was replicated across 17 locations. Do you rent new space or do you partner with existing practitioners? Vaatsalya had to experiment to figure out that senior doctors whose kids are not interested in father's business are the ideal partners while entering a new town. You not only get a hospital but also relationships. Iteration of this kind is inevitable during frugal innovations.

Build an innovation sandbox (step-7): For Embrace infant-warmer the phase change material (wax-like substance) that melts at human body temperature and maintains it for 4 to 6 hours is the only non-trivial technological element. However, in a product like Tata Nano or GE’s low-cost EKG, the technological complexity is much higher. Hence, dozens of testing iterations are not enough. You need thousands of experiments. That needs a dedicated team and infrastructure investment such that experimentation goes from low-cost high-speed to low-cost high-speed high-volume. And you need to have this closer to customer base so that iteration with customer happens fast. Check out sandbox stories of Tata Nano and Wright brothers

Govindarajan calls such a dedicated team Local Growth Team (LGT) in the context of a global MNC. Companies like GE Healthcare & John Deere created LGTs in India and China for frugal innovation.

Photo source:

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Why does Ram Charan say “It is a myth that innovation is expensive”?

A couple of weeks ago I got following question during a webinar to senior managers of an IT services firm: “Isn’t systematic innovation expensive?” That reminded me of what Ram Charan, a leading CEO coach, said in an interview in Economic Times, “It is a myth that innovation is expensive”. I want to explore this quote in this article. Why does Ram Charan say innovation is not expensive? 

Let’s begin with Ram Charan’s complete response. He was asked, “Is innovation expensive?” And he answered:
It is a myth that innovation is expensive. We need to consider it in three parts. Part one is sourcing of ideas, which can be done inexpensively. The second part is the conversion of that idea to the point where you can scale it up and execute it. The third part is actual execution. The middle part needs very small amount of total revenues; the large amount goes to the final part. That is a business decision, not an innovation decision. So you have to ring-fence a certain amount of money, select a few projects, focus on it, fail more and fail often.

For the sake of simplicity let’s call the three parts Ram Charan mentioned as – idea generation, incubation and execution. After having facilitated / witnessed several idea generation sessions, I can safely say that generation of ideas is not expensive. I don’t recall any session where less than 3 ideas per person were generated no matter how hard the challenge is. With the advent of Internet and collaboration tools, the cost is further reduced.

Ram Charan doesn’t consider financing the third part – execution - as an innovation expense.  Perhaps that can be debated. But for now let’s focus on the middle part – incubation where innovation efforts usually falls through. Question is: Are you ring-fencing a few incubation projects expecting them to fail often?  As Ram Charan says, you don’t need a big army of people here. Even Tata Nano got incubated with a four member team.

Resources is just one part of the story. The second part is related to design of experiments in order validate assumptions of an idea. During a workshop last month where 11 startup teams applied our “8 steps to innovation” framework, many found out very inexpensive experiments (1 day to 1 week duration) to validate some of the crucial assumptions behind their ventures. The third part is related to the rigor and rhythm of innovation review. I feel that most organizations have a long way to go in their effectiveness with which incubation projects are run.

Irrespective whether you consider execution of new ideas as part of your innovation budget, you definitely need a small part for running incubation projects and in all likelihood you will benefit from understanding the design of “low-cost high-speed experiments” (step-4 in our book) and what it means to “do the last experiment first” (part of step-8). Moreover, it will help to do effective reviews of incubation projects.

Photo source:

Prof. Karl Ulrich’s classification of problem types

I watched the Hindi movie Satyagraha last night whose story revolves around a grass-root level anti-corruption movement in India. As I was watching the movie, following questions came to mind, “Is corruption as a problem similar to any other problem like e.g. fixing a car or a mobile phone? Or is it different? And can such a problem be solved in any systematic approach?” The first question reminded me of a lecture by Prof. Karl Ulrich of Wharton in the coursera course “Design: Creation of artifacts in society”. In this lecture Ulrich presents a classification of problems which I find simple and useful. Here is a summary.

Design vs system-improvement problems: Problems can be divided into two broad categories: Design and System-improvement. Design creates new artifacts from nothing and system improvement problems begin with an existing operating system. For example when Ulrich built a sleeping shack in Montana (mock-up shown in the picture) he was building it where nothing existed other than a patch of ground and hence solving a design problem. On the other hand, if you are trying to reduce infection in hospitals due to increased hand washing (picture on top right) you are starting with an existing practice in a hospital and trying to improve it. Hence, it is a system improvement problem.

Selection and tuning problems: If you are selecting a new accounting system for your organization, you typically don’t build it from scratch (picture bottom left). You select one from a list of a few well-known alternatives. So there is a special class of design problems like the selection of account system which Ulrich calls “selection problems”. Similarly when you at the problem of attracting more traffic to your website, tools such a Google Analytics help you with specific parameters such as placement of words, graphics, search terms etc. It is like setting a bunch of knobs in order to identify the best performance. Landscape is known and parameters are understood and your job is to fine the combination of parameters resulting in high performance. Ulrich calls such system-improvement problems “tuning problems”.

Crises and wicked problems: Ulrich presents two more categories of problems which cut across both design & system improvement problems. The first one is – crises problems – a set of problems where time is very critical. For example, when Apollo 13 crew had to build a system to get oxygen from carbon dioxide, it was indeed a design problem. However, it had to be solved under sever time pressure and hence some solution quickly weighs much more than a great solution slowly (picture middle right). Wicked problems are problems where stakeholders have conflicting interest i.e. they disagree on the criteria of a good solution. For example, problems such as India-Pakistan conflict, improving public education or healthcare, reducing poverty and of course, corruption are wicked problems. Unlike a “fixing a car” problem, a solution to a corruption problem will dissatisfy at least one party (say the politicians who benefit from corruption).

Now that we have looked at what kind of a problem corruption is, let’s come back to the second question: Can wicked problems be solved in a systematic way? Or are there at least some good practices in solving / making progress on wicked problems? We will explore this in a separate article.

Lecture 8.2a – “Problem solving and Design” by Prof. Karl Ulrich in the coursera course “Design: Creation of artifacts in society”. This is based on chapter 2 of Ulrich’s book with the same title.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

2 dimensions of innovation maturity: creative confidence and incubation effectiveness

A couple of month’s back I presented a 5-level assessment framework based on our book 8-steps to innovation. It depicts characteristics of an organization as it goes from level-1 (Jugaad) to level-5 (Excellence). One question that I got asked on this was, “What are we trying to improve in the first 2-3 levels? And then in the next 2-3 levels?” This article is a response to this question. It presents a two dimensional view of innovation maturity – the first dimension being “creative confidence” and the second dimension being the “incubation effectiveness”. I believe it provides a simplified and yet useful view of innovation maturity. Let’s first understand the two parameters and then the sequence of focus.

Creative confidence: Creative confidence represents the capacity of the organization to identify and frame problems and create responses (ideas) to the problems. One popular proxy parameter for creative confidence is “idea per person per year” and another one is “participation” typically measured as a percentage of employees giving at least one idea in a year. An ultimate test of the creative confidence is, “Does janitor submit ideas to improve things?” Of course, creative confidence for a senior manager or a Product Architect would involve different type of problems and solutions than that of a fresher.

Incubation effectiveness: This parameter measures the effectiveness with which not-so-small ideas get incubated and selectively implemented to create business impact. Organizations create a separate lab to incubate typically large impact ideas. Sometimes an incubation team sits within a business unit and another team sits outside the business unit – under corporate umbrella. A lead indicator for incubation effectiveness is the total value of ideas under incubation and a lag indicator is “percentage of revenue coming from ideas incubated in last 3-5 years”.

Kaizen vs Lab corner: If you are in the kaizen corner, it means you are generating & implementing lots of small ideas. However, you are doing a poor job of incubating big ideas. If you are in the Lab corner it means you are doing a good job of incubating big ideas but doing a poor job of improving existing products / services. In the Daily-rut corner you are doing neither. Ideally you want to be in the Excellence corner.

An innovation journey could begin in any of the two directions. However, I feel that helps to build a critical mass of people (say 30%) confident of innovating. This increases the chance of sustaining the initiative. We have looked at how organizations like Cognizant build creative confidence. In the next few articles I want to explore what it means to run incubation centres effectively.

Friday, August 23, 2013

My 3 take-aways from “Design Thinking, Creative Thinking and Innovation” workshop at SPJIMR

 I got an opportunity to participate both as a student and as a co-facilitator in a 3-day workshop “Design Thinking, Creative Thinking & Innovation” held on Jul 18-20 2013 at S P Jain Institute of Management and Research, Mumbai for teachers of Management schools in India. 57 teachers across India – from Schillong to Udaipur & from Kashipur to Trichy participated in the workshop. The workshop was co-lead by Prof. Srikant Datar of Harvard Business School & Prof. Rishikesha Krishnan of IIM Bangalore. Prof. Vidyanand Jha of IIM Calcutta was also with us as a co-facilitator. The workshop provided a perspective on challenges and opportunities on how creativity and innovation can be introduced in MBA curriculum especially in Indian context. Here are my 3 take-aways:

Creativity and innovation as a horizontal: At the end of each day, there was a discussion on how relevant such a course would be for MBA curriculum in India. This involved experience sharing from the participants and facilitators who have been teaching this course in some form or the other. Would there be a demand for such a course? Does it add value for the placement? Questions like these were raised and discussed. One thought that emerged out of this discussion was that various aspects of this course – be it design thinking or creativity or innovation – can be inserted into existing courses. In fact, some of the participants were doing this already. Prof. Atanu Ghosh (IIT Bombay), Prof. Bhaskar Bhatt (IIT Gandhinagar), Prof. Cedric Serpes (Goa Institute of Management), Prof. Dwarika Prasad (IIM Kashipur), Prof. Parag Meshram (School of Planning & Architecture, New Delhi) and Prof. Rajat Agrawal (IIT Roorkee) shared their experiences on how they had modified their marketing / strategy / design related courses to include tools and methods related to creativity & innovation. For example, Parag’s students had re-designed toilets for extreme situations such as Kumbha-mela, Dwarika’s retail marketing course involves running a café in the Kashipur campus, Rajat’s students improved the design of cycle rickshaw in Roorkee.

Experiential learning techniques: We learnt many creativity techniques by doing fun exercises. I particularly liked two exercises. In the first exercise, we had to tie our hands with a rope and the partner would do the same except that the rope would be chained with my rope. Our job as a pair was to get ourselves untangled. It looked so difficult until you know the solution. That brought me face-to-face with the knots in my thinking and highlighted the importance of framing of the question. The second exercise involved making as tall a tower as possible using 20 spaghetti sticks and a masking tape. The condition was to have a piece of marsh mellow on the top of the tower. Less than half the teams had any tower standing – let alone a tall tower. This exercise beautifully brings out my favourite principle “Doing the last experiment first”. (See the winning team and their tower of spaghetti in the picture).

Becoming an innovator & an enabler of innovation: The workshop ran two threads – one on “How to innovate effectively?” and the other thread on “How to enable innovation?” Both threads complemented each other. When you try to innovate, you appreciate the role of an enabler. And when you are trying to enable an innovation, it helps to understand the mind of the innovator. When a teacher is trying to introduce a new course, it is a form of innovation. There will be resistance to change from various stakeholders. I had a better appreciation of the complementarity of these two threads after the workshop.

Kudos to SPJIMR folks for making this workshop happen. They did an impressive job on the organization front. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Schumacher’s Burma visit and the birth of Buddhist Economics

Professionally, Fritz Schumacher’s Burma (now Myanmar) visit in 1955 was a failure. Hardly anyone from Burmese Government paid any attention to his advice. However, on a personal front, it was one of the most insightful projects in his life. It resulted in arguably the most influential essay Schumacher wrote viz. Buddhist Economics – which redefined the concept of progress. What happened in Burma? What did Schumacher learn? Let’s see in brief.

Fritz Schumacher got an invitation to visit Burma as an Economic Advisor in 1955. By this time, Schumacher was trying to synthesize various seemingly disparate strands – Gandhi, Buddhism, energy supplies of the future, industrial development and “war on poverty”. The visit provided a great opportunity to experience the East and feel some of these elements first-hand – especially Buddhism. One of the core questions Fritz carried with him was, “Can one really help Burmese without harming them?”

After a few days in Rangoon, Schumacher wrote to his wife Muschi, “There is an innocence here which I have never seen before”. Pretty soon he realized that poverty and backwardness weren’t the real issues Burma was facing. It was the way the West was altering the aspirations and concepts of “development” of Burmese people which he found scary. Burmese people had few wants and they were happy. He realized that the wants make a man poor and that made the role of the West very dangerous. He urged Burmese government not to pay excessive attention to industrial development as advised by the Western experts. He felt that focus on self-sufficiency especially rural development was crucial. Nobody paid any attention to this.

What might have been a discouraging experience was more than compensated when Schumacher got an opportunity to learn meditation in a highly respected Buddhist monastery of Burma. His first exercise was only to watch the rising and falling of his abdomen sitting in a monk’s cell. The monks taught him how to cope with the distractions; merely to note them but not to follow them. The next stage was to walk up and down the monastery garden concentrating on each movement of his body as he walked. The stillness he experienced towards the end of the course was something he had never felt before. He wrote, “I came to Burma as a thirsty wanderer, and there I found living water.”

Schumacher felt that the economics as defined in the West was based on materialistic progress. It encouraged expansion of wants. In fact, big car, big house, big salary were indicators of progress. He felt economic progress is good only to the point of sufficiency, beyond that it is evil, destructive, uneconomic. Secondly, he felt there is a need to make a distinction between “renewable” and “non-renewable” resources. He looked at development activity robbing earth of its non-renewable resources as regressive.

It has been over forty years since Buddhist Economics was proposed. The GDPs of India and China have soared since then. The wants of the countrymen represented especially by the scale of scams in India have soared too. Robbery of non-renewable resources is progressing well. Net-net, have these countries become richer or poorer?

Photo source: , A severely burnt Buddhist monk receives treatment after clashing with police while protesting against Chinese backed copper mines in Northern Myanmar (Nov, 2012)

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

At 41, Fritz Schumacher learns how to think

Economist Fritz Schumacher is famous for his bestseller “Small is beautiful: A study of economics as if people mattered” first published in 1973. His daughter and biographer Barbara Wood has titled chapter 16 of his biography Alias Papa: A life of Fritz Schumacher, “Learning how to think”. Schumacher wrote to his parents in 1953, “I have a feeling that I will look back to my forty first year as a turning point for the rest of my life.” The transformation was so dramatic that within a short time rational & scientific thinking Schumacher was writing to his mother asking for the exact time of his birth so that his friend can create his horoscope. What happened? How exactly did his thinking change? Let’s see in this article.

For the first two decades of his career, Schumacher was paid to think. In 1953, he was employed by National Coal Board in England as an Economic Advisor. His primary job was to study the demand & supply of energy and recommend policy changes. As a rational thinker he would consider any argument not based on facts as sub-standard. Intellect was his primary weapon and he took the job of sharpening the weapon very seriously. It meant tracking facts and figures, reading & commenting on theories from Marxism to Keynesianism and making predictions and policy recommendations. However, his faith in his intellect was to get shaken permanently in his forty-first year.

The seed was sown in a rather harmless activity – gardening. Schumacher bought a house in Caterham in 1950 and began his experiments with organic methods in his garden. He joined the Coal Board gardening club and Soil Association. Their message was simple: look after the soil and the plants will look after themselves. He got up at 6am to work in his garden before he left for office and he worked at his compost after he returned from his office. Barbara Wood notes - His acceptance of organic approach rather than the conventional chemical approach was an act of faith. It had opened door to other acts of faith. Like which ones?

During his forty minutes train journey from Caterham to Victoria (NCB Headquarters), Schumacher read on varied topics. This included Indian and Chinese Philosophy. These guys, so called spiritual gurus, were also offering solutions to the questions that bothered him – like “How to prevent wars?” However, their approach was diametrically opposite. Instead of looking at structural changes or policy changes, they identified the root cause as the “crisis of human consciousness”. In fact, this approach regarded intellect as a hindrance in resolving the crisis. This was a “bombshell” for Schumacher because everything he regarded as sacred was being questioned. 

During this time, Schumacher was introduced to the teachings of George Gurdjieff, a spiritual master. On weekends Schumacher participated in a Gurdjieff study group. The group learnt to meditate among other things. Meditation was hard for Schumacher. He wrote to his mother, “I fear that it will be more difficult for me than many others, because I have depended on the intellect to such an extent that it now tries to push itself into the forefront at every opportunity.”  In April 1953 Fritz wrote to his mother, “The crux of the matter – is the method of allowing a deep inner stillness and calmness to enter – a stillness not only of the body, but also of thoughts and feelings. Through this one gains extraordinary strength and happiness.”  

It was the beginning of a new type of thinking that stops flaunting the intellect as the most powerful weapon the man possesses.