Sunday, February 28, 2016

3 flavours of mindfulness

In the past few weeks, I ended up answering the question, “What is mindfulness?” a few times. I realized that my answers have 3 different flavours. So I thought, I might as well pen them down and invite inputs. Here they are:

Present-moment-awareness: This is perhaps the most commonly used definition of Mindfulness. To quote the widely cited paper “Mindfulness: A proposed operational definition” by Bioshp et. al. from the journal “Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 2004”1 – Mindfulness involves two things (1) observing and attending to the changing field of thoughts, feelings and sensations from moment to moment and; (2) with an orientation that is characterized by curiosity, openness  and acceptance. For example, as I type this, I hear honking of cars, chirping of birds, clicking of the keyboard, I feel the movement of the breath, movement of the abdomen; I observe thoughts about mindfulness etc. It is a Sunday morning, no hurry and that makes the environment conducive for being mindful. What about a Monday morning while stuck in traffic? That is what one should try and see. The key resource here is attention and it can be completely hijacked by thoughts and emotions to the extent that no attention is left to observe.

A variant of this flavour is “Mindfulness is attention to the movement of thought” or “Mindfulness is attention to the train of thought as it moves from one station to another.” Just like we are aware of the movement of body parts like hands and legs as they move, we can be aware of the movement of thought which involves subtle material movement of chemicals, electrical signals through the neural network. This definition is advocated by Jiddu Krishnamurti2 and his collaborator David Bohm. Bohm called it proprioception3 of thought.

Seeing false as false: Mindfulness is being aware of the possibility of a cognitive illusion while thinking. Kahneman’s “Thinking, fast and slow” shows us that a large part of our thinking is automatic. It is also subjected to cognitive biases especially when we navigate the uncertainty around us. The fast and automatic thinking mode creates what is called cognitive illusions4. For example, when we read the Google story, we feel that we know what caused the success of Google. Kahneman calls this “illusion of understanding”. We are subjected to many such illusions – like “illusion of skill”, “illusion of control”, “illusion of time” etc. We are mindful when we are aware of the possibility of these illusions while we are thinking. It is similar to the awareness of being fooled while watching a magic show5. For example, as I write this blog, I might be under the impression that the three flavours of mindfulness will be useful to the reader. But I may be currently subjected to the “overconfidence bias”. Who knows?

I first encountered the term “seeing false as false” in the book “I am that” by Nisargadatta Maharaj. In answering the question, “When do I know I have discovered the truth?” Maharaj said, “Truth does not assert itself, it is in the seeing of the false as false and rejecting it. It is useless to search for truth, when the mind is blind to the false.”6

Notice wasteful thoughts: Mindfulness is noticing that the current thoughts (or train of thought) are wasteful or not serving any useful purpose. “Will readers like this blog?” Dwelling on this thought may lead to some changes that may improve the blog. However, an excessive and repetitious thinking like this is not going to serve any useful purpose. I might as well do my best in writing the blog and leave the rest to the readers. Moreover, if I get a specific comment about some sentence or a paragraph not being clear or even incorrect, it will be good to be open to modifying it. To quote Nobel Laureate John Nash who recovered from schizophrenia, “It is a matter of policing one’s thoughts trying to recognize paranoid ideas and rejecting them, just the way somebody who wants to lose weight has to decide consciously to avoid fats or sweets.”7 For Nash, the recognition started with ideas related to politics as wasteful.

Eckhart Tolle often uses the term “thoughts that serve no useful purpose”. For example, here is what he said during a conversation with Oprah Winfrey, “[Worry] It serves no purpose, because it doesn’t get you anywhere. It’s similar to the complaining. It has no useful purpose. It doesn’t bring about change in any situation.”8 

In short, we looked at the three flavours of mindfulness: present-moment-awareness, seeing false as false and noticing wasteful thoughts. They are overlapping. And none of them involves a specific posture, closing of eyes, a quiet room etc. It is a state you can be in anytime, anywhere. Hope you find some of these flavours useful.


2.      For Jiddu Krishnamurti’s comment, see the blog “Listening, looking and learning: 3 ways of ‘knocking at the open door’”. His instruction to the author Mark Lee is, “Now, watch your thoughts, how they move but don’t finish”. It is from Mark Lee’s book, “Knocking at the open door – my years with J. Krishnamurti
3.      David Bohm explains proprioception of thought in the book “Thought as a system”. Check out a summary in my blog and also in site.
4.      I have written about 3 cognitive illusions from Kahneman’s “Thinking, fast and slow” in this blog: 3 powerful illusions created by thought.
5.      Check out my blog: Learning mindfulness through “Penn and Teller: Fool us” magic show. The concept of illusion is prominently present in Hindu scriptures as Maya and in Buddhist Mahayana literature as Vipallasa.
6.      I am that” by Nisargadatta, chapter 66 (All search for happiness is misery), page  314.
7.      For Johan Nash quote, see my blog: A beautiful mind and 3 acts of creativity, madness and awakening.
8.      Eckhart Tolle’s quote is from his interview by Oprah Winfrey on the third chapter of A New Earth. Check it out on youtube here.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Organizational Innovation Ecosystem: A re-look after five years

It has been over five years since I first wrote about various elements of an organizational innovation ecosystem (see the picture above). In this half a decade I got opportunities to meet people from several dozen organizations – from various types such as for-profit, not-for-profit, Government, NGO etc. What did I find? Which elements seem to be in place? Which elements are hard to find? Which elements would I replace today? And which new ones might I add? Let’s explore in this article.

Let’s start with those elements which organizations serious about innovation seem to be putting in place:
  • Idea management process: Many organizations are making serious efforts in improving their idea management process. Some are also trying to bring various disjoint processes under one broad umbrella – e.g. kaizen, Quality circle, Idea portal, R&D, Internal VC process etc.
  • Rewards & Innovation day: HR department has been playing a role in putting rewards & recognition process in place. I got an opportunity to visit the stalls put up on the innovation day in organizations like Titan.
  • Training programs: L&D department has been playing a key role in rolling out training programs that raise awareness on innovation.
  • Laboratory & corporate venture fund: In terms of structures, I see investments in labs and even in putting a corporate venture fund together.

Now, let’s turn to areas where there are challenges:
  • Challenge process: Taking ownership of top business challenges and keeping them alive in a challenge book is something that I don’t see much. Managers who take up this role of owning one or more key business challenges are called champions in our book “8 steps to innovation”. A live and prioritized challenge book can bring focus to innovation efforts. It might also contribute to the strategy.
  • Success stories: Like Master Shifu follows a bright spot to train Kung Fu Panda, there is an opportunity in digging deeper the success stories and finding scalable approaches. Unfortunately, managers are so busy with problems, that they don’t have time for studying the bright spots – be it the people who give ideas regularly, prototyping etc.
  • Partnership network: This is perhaps the toughest asset to build and manage. It takes years and very few people have the patience to look that far. However, it is an extremely potent asset for building innovation capacity.

Any new element I would add today? Perhaps an element titled “innovation sandbox” – structures where experimentation capacity is massively increased in a specific area. Also I would replace the element “Immersive Research” with a more commonly used term “Design Thinking”. And replace “Success stories” with “Bright spot focus”. (See the updated picture below).

Overall, I still feel that the ecosystem view can provide a useful perspective while building innovation capacity systematically.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” turns 80

This month Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” turns 80. It was first released on Feb 5, 1936. That makes it roughly as old as my parents. It is one of my favourite movies. Here are a few snapshots from the movie and what they trigger in me.

Monotonous work: This is perhaps one of the classic moments which depicts the life of a typical worker – monotonous and boring. I began showing this picture in my workshops after my friend Akki introduced it in one of the innovathon workshops at ADP. Why does one innovate? At least one reason why people innovate is because they are bored of the routine.

Today we have more knowledge workers who sit in front of a computer screen instead of work on the assembly line. However, when I talk to my friends working in the Hitech companies in Bangalore, they also seem to be bored as they approach and cross their 40s.

Lack of empathy: “Don’t stop for lunch, be ahead of your competitors”. That’s the slogan of the feeding machine being presented. I use this part to show what “lack of empathy” looks like in Design Thinking workshops. After all, a lunch break is also a much needed break from work. How can it possibly be a welcome sign? After the laughter is subsided while watching the 200 rpm corn feeding process, someone points out “Perhaps it could be useful to bedridden / disabled people.” That’s exactly what products like E-Z Eat self feeding machine try to do targeting people with Parkinson’s.

Prisoner of the mind: “Can’t I stay a little longer? I’m so happy here.” That’s what the Tramp says to the jail superintendent who tells him “You are a free man!” There is unemployment outside while life is so peaceful inside the prison. At least the food and shelter is taken care. Is Charlie Chaplin metaphorically hinting that we are the prisoners of our own mind and we could be at peace anywhere, even in the jail?

Creative confidence: The Tramp is going through all the struggles – a job here, a job there. Here he gets an opportunity to do song and dance. And he forgets his lyrics. At that moment, his girlfriend tells him “Just sing, forget the words”. And out comes a spontaneous creative performance. A person who would have never imagined himself to be creative while fixing the bolts on the assembly line, suddenly develops an ounce of creative confidence. 

Don’t we all need such moments? Just watch out, perhaps such moments are passing by and you are ignoring them.