Monday, September 3, 2018

Why did Prof. George Sudarshan say, “I am quite good at deceiving myself”?

Prof. George Sudarshan was an eminent scientist known for his contributions in theoretical physics. He passed away a few months ago. He was 86. Sudarshan attended a seminar of scientists at Brockwood Park Educational Centre in Southern English countryside between October 14 and 19, 1974. Brockwood Park was founded by the spiritual teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti who was also a participant in this seminar. During this seminar, Sudarshan said, “Like everybody else, I am quite good at deceiving myself.” Why would an eminent scientist say such a thing? What did he actually mean? Does it mean all of us are also deceiving ourselves?  Or was Sudarshan wrong in generalizing it to everybody? These are the questions I am hoping to explore in this article.

Let’s begin by understanding the context in which Sudarshan made the statement. The week-long seminar was facilitated by Krishnamurti’s friend David Bohm. The theme of the seminar was the question, “What is the role of knowledge in the transformation of man and society?” The participating scientists were specialists in various areas such as physics, biology, psychiatry, neuroscience, philosophy etc1. The audio recording of the seminar is available on YouTube in the form of 12 videos. The format of the seminar included each scientist giving a short talk on the theme and it was followed by a discussion.

Sudarshan’s talk and subsequent discussion are captured in session 5. It contains the following dialogue2: Sudarshan: There are times when there are tensions. And I say, “I don’t want to read Dr. Shainberg’s paper because he was not nice to me. And I am not really interested in him and I am reading his paper. But I can’t read his paper without thinking of the person. And I say, I have better ideas than he has, so why should I read his paper?” To which JK commented, “To sustain (the state free of anxiety and tension), I am just asking, you have to have a great deal of self-knowledge, a great deal of understanding of your own nature, your tricks, your fancies, your deceptions and so on?” Sudarshan responded, “I wouldn’t want to put it that way because I don’t have that much knowledge about my ability to deceive myself. Like everybody else, I am quite good at deceiving myself.”

To illustrate further what he means Sudarshan gives following example3.  He says, "A few days ago in an American supermarket, I saw a book about God by von Daniken. The book says that the transport of people from other planets and other civilizations is now not only possible but feasible. And it says that physicists are talking about the possibility of propagation faster than the speed of light. I don’t think Daniken is a particularly good critique of physics. But I found that a person who is referred to there as having initiated this hypothesis (of transport of people) was a man who simply plagiarized my work six years after it was published in an American journal. Now, I don’t really expect that somebody is going to disapprove of me if this (reference to my name) is not there. But it took all the pleasure out of me. I had spent $1.25 to buy this book. And I didn’t read the book further. I hope to read it when I have more strength. May be after this conference."

Now, Sudarshan would have come up with a good excuse to not read the book further. Perhaps he would have said, “Oh, this is not a good book, anyway.” But he is indirectly admitting that the real reason for abandoning the book is not because of the content of the book but because it referred to an idea he published first and it didn’t give him any credit. And this is self-deception.

Self-deception typically involves two things. First, it involves feeling a pain in some form – we may feel anxious, sad, stressed, irritated, angry, guilty etc.  And two, it involves misattributing the pain to some entity – a person or an object or a situation. In this case, Sudarshan was pained because the book he was reading didn’t give him credit he felt he deserved. And then perhaps he attributed the pain to the quality of the book and made a decision of not reading it further.

Both Krishnamurti and Sudarshan are suggesting that this self-deception is going on with all of us. And it is happening in a subtle way and fooling us. Sudarshan seems to have done a good job in observing the process of self-deception post-facto. That doesn’t seem to prevent self-deception from happening again. What JK is suggesting is that there is a need for an alertness to catch oneself red-handed while deceiving oneself.

Is it possible to catch oneself red-handed during self-deception? How would you know unless you experiment?  Next time, when you are upset and holding someone responsible, ask yourself, “Could I be deceiving myself?”

Notes:

1.      JK’s personal assistant Mary Zimbalist gives an account of this seminar in her memoirs here. http://inthepresenceofk.org/issues/issue-33/
3.      Sudarshan’s example related to the book he purchased in a supermarket is at: Audio | J. Krishnamurti & Scientists – Brockwood 1974, Seminars – 5: Transformation, feeling responsible, being attached at 42:37.
4.      Source of Sudarshan’s image: By Tabish q at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47701717

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Revisiting an obsession checklist after a decade

By August 2008 (a decade ago), my independent consulting practice was less than two years old. And the economic downturn was in the air. Perhaps the worry related to questions like, “What would happen to my business? Will I have to shut the shop?” was visible on my face. It was pointed out by my wife and friends. This is when I reflected upon the signals that might indicate that my passion has turned into an obsession. Obsession and anxiety are two sides of the same coin. Hence, I thought of making a checklist that might help me observe my own anxiety. I wrote the article “Thin line between passion and obsession” (Aug 24, 2008) in which I published an obsession checklist. I thought a decade is a good time to revisit the checklist and look at its usefulness.

If I answer the checklist today, what do I see?

1.  Did I jog in the last week? (Yes, this morning)
2.  Did I go for a walk / watch movie / play / concert with my wife? (Yes, went for a walk with her last evening, watched a play – “Photograph 51” with her a couple of weeks ago)
3.  Did I listen to Hindustani classical music in the past 2 weeks? (Yes, listened to my flute teacher play raga Durga last Saturday after my class).
4.  Did I practice flute in the last 2 weeks? (Yes, today and went for a flute class last Saturday)
5.  Did I go cycling with my son in the last 2-3 weeks? (Yes, our son doesn’t live with us anymore. But I went cycling last week alone. We visited our son in Pune last week and went for a walk with him on lush green Panchwati hills).
6.  Did I get out of the city in the last 2-3 months? (Yes, returned from a visit to Mumbai-Pune a few days back and visited Coimbatore 2 weeks ago).
7. Did I read any fiction, especially a Marathi book in the past 2-3 months? (Yes, read the play Atmakatha (Autobiography) by Mahesh Elkunchwar a few days ago).

So, looks like I am doing ok as far as the checklist is concerned. Question is: is the checklist still relevant today?

To answer this question, let’s first ask, “What does this checklist represent?” If I understand correctly, this checklist represents little joys as I saw them a decade ago. It so happens that all these activities continue to give me joy even today. But the list of little joys has grown significantly in the last decade. What does it contain now?

Well, a number of small things seem to give joy – cutting vegetables, making tea, watering plants, making home compost, juggling, playing cricket in the corridor with a 5-year-old neighbor etc. But perhaps the most significant addition to the list is – doing nothing. I could be sitting in my house or in a bus or at an airport or in a reception area and just watching the movements – sounds, thoughts, people, breath etc. and just enjoy being there.

What about the original anxiety of not getting any customer and not making any money? Well, in the last twelve years, there were some years in which I made less money. And? Nothing happened. In fact, I don’t remember anything special of those years. I am sure, all the basic needs – food, shelter, clothing even travel weren’t affected. And that’s where the main point may be. That is, over the years, my needs have shrunk significantly. There is no goal to be achieved. Journey seems to be primary and destination secondary.

In short, the obsession checklist isn’t obsolete. However, there is no dearth of small joys every day.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Is “design thinking” old wine in a new bottle?

I co-facilitated a 2-day design thinking workshop at IIM Bangalore a week ago. One of the questions that came up from a participant during the session was – “Is design thinking old wine in new bottle?” My short answer is “May be”. This blog is an attempt to elaborate on the short answer.

To check whether design thinking is something that you already know, I suggest looking at three dimensions: empathy, experimentation and experience. Let’s look at them one by one.

Empathy: “We have been in services business for decades. Empathy is ingrained in us.” This was a remark from a senior manager at the opening module of a DT workshop in an IT services firm. Later when the participants went through an empathy exercise involving interviews with new joinees the team discovered that the new joinees had to submit their personal documents three times during the joining process. Moreover, during the induction program they would get a lecture on the core themes of the organization, one of which was ‘Connected world’. New joinees were smart enough to see the irony of the situation. The senior managers who were open enough realized that empathy wasn’t as ingrained in them as they thought earlier. Empathy is a dimension with endless depth. Cognitive illusions may be hindering seeing the others’ perspective. DT creates an opportunity to explore the empathy dimension more deeply than what one would have done so far.

Experimentation: Prototyping is an important element of DT. Many people are familiar with building prototypes or proof-of-concepts. However, when participants are asked build a working prototype in one day, they are typically lost. They are not sure how to identify a small part of the overall idea which they can build in a day. They are not used to thinking in terms of available resources at low-cost to validate assumptions. How do we design low-cost high-speed experiments? How to test some of the critical assumptions early? These are some of the questions DT nudges you to address. DT offers an opportunity to learn to pay attention to cost, speed and sequence while designing experiments. DT urges you to consider the possibility that your core assumptions could be incorrect. This requires a degree of openness which many participants aren’t familiar with.

Experience: This is a picture of a government school from the Udupi district in Karnataka. Principal of the school saved Rs. 3000 every month for a year to get the school painted like a train. This has resulted in attracting more students and ex-students to see the new look of the school. Principal’s efforts are certainly noteworthy. However, when I ask: What could be missing in this innovation? Not many participants are able to see that the outward appearance of a school may be a small part of the overall end-to-end schooling experience of a child. Unless the experience inside the classroom is changed, not much may have changed for students. What the principal did could be a good first step, however unless it is extended inside the classroom, its value may be limited. DT offers an opportunity to look at end-to-end experience of various stakeholders.

If you have explored these dimensions already, DT could very well be old wine in old bottle. However, after the design thinking workshop I facilitate, that is generally not the impression participants carry. Perhaps they discover that there may be one or more dimensions which they haven’t explored at a sufficient depth.

image source:
wine bottle: uidownload.com
school: thehindu.com

Monday, June 25, 2018

Paying attention to the two roles we play: listener and story-teller

The 13-minute film “Listener” (2018, directed by Tarun Dudeja) highlights the two roles we play all the time – listener and story-teller. Both roles have a place in our day-to-day life. Unless we listen, we won’t know what others are saying, and unless we tell, we can’t communicate our views. However, the story-teller role dominates our life most of the time. And that puts us off-balance. That’s what the short film Listener shows. How does one balance between these two roles? Let’s explore in this article.

In “Listener”, the protagonist (Kumud Mishra) gets paid to lend an ear in a restaurant. Hire a “listener for Rs. 1495 per hour” is how one of the entries in the menu card reads. “First time?” asks the listener to the stranger who has hired him to listen for the next hour, “You can speak your heart out, whatever is bothering in your mind. Trust me, you will walk out of here as a much lighter person.” And the other person starts to tell the story.

The listener listens to an old man complain about how nobody at home listens to him, a young lady talks about her successful driving experience through crazy roads, a boy cries over the breakup with his girlfriend and how her status change on the social network got 56 likes. Through this process, we see that the listener is just listening, not judging or commenting. At the end, we see that the listener is also a good storyteller, especially to his daughter.

We have a need to be listened to and in a hyperactive world, listening has become an expensive currency. On the face of it, a large friend circle on Facebook and WhatsApp creates a feeling of connectedness. However, sooner or later we realize how superficial it is. How does one balance between these two roles?

“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak” This quote supposed have come from the first-century Stoic philosopher Epictetus. It is suggesting us to follow a 70-30 rule – Listen more than 70% of the time, talk less than 30% of the time. Perhaps that’s a good start. However, there is more to it than just the time spent on listening vs talking.

As one begins to experiment with listening, one realizes that the act of listening itself might involve deception. As we are listening, we might be simultaneously generating a story – a kind of running commentary in the head – on what is being listened to. And the internal storytelling is hampering the quality of listening. Thus storytelling might be a major part of listening itself.

How does one curtail the internal storytelling? Perhaps there is no formula. However, a good place to start could be to start paying attention to the story in our head. And ask, “Is this serving any useful purpose right now?” Perhaps one may realize that the continuous judgments may not serve any useful purpose. And the recognition itself may subside the commentary.

Try and see if it works for you.

Note: There is a twist at the end of the film "Listener". I feel that the twist is not relevant to the essence of this article. However, happy to hear your views.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Electromagnetism: My favourite metaphor from Salman Rushdie’s “The golden house”

I decided to read Salman Rushdie’s “The golden house” (2017) after reading one of his interviews. He was asked to explain what he meant by the line in the novel – dirt is freedom. That sentence jumped out at me and I added the novel to the to-read list last year.

In “The golden house” the story is being narrated by Rene’ who is attempting to write a movie script based on the life of a family staying in the neighbouring house called the “Golden House” in Lower Manhattan. The family – father and three sons – have migrated to the US from Mumbai after 26/11 terror attacks and they are behaving as though they didn’t have a past. The novel is choke-full of metaphors, a large portion of them from Greek mythology. Here I would like to focus on the metaphor which appealed to me the most: Electromagnetism. I felt that this metaphor runs through all the major characters of the novel including the narrator.

Until the mid-nineteenth century, electricity and magnetism were two totally unrelated concepts. Later, Faraday, Maxwell, and others showed that it is one thing, not two different things – electromagnetism. “Can a man be a good man when he is a bad man?” Nero Golden, the father of the neighbouring family asks the narrator. He is saying that he is goodandbad – similar to electromagnetism.

Petronius alias Petya, the eldest son of Nero is on the extreme side in the autism spectrum. He is making millions of dollars from the computer games he builds. He has agoraphobia which results in him carrying a fear of outdoors, manic depression, inability to socialize and heavy drinking. In short, Petya is saneandinsane.

Lucius Apuleius (Apu) is the middle son. He is a successful artist holding solo exhibitions. In contrast to his elder brother Petya who lives in the virtual world of computer games sitting in his room, Apu mingles with ease in the real world of undergrounds, clubs, prisons, subcultures, gamblers, dying factories, dancing queens. He has a vision problem on the left eye and he sees everything distorted and deformed. In fact, Apu sees ghosts. Thus Apu lives in a world that is realandimaginary.

Dionysus (D) Golden, the youngest son, is androgynous. He is “miserable in men’s clothes and too scared to go public in a dress, painted mouth, and pink hat”. Thus D is manandwoman.

When Nero Golden asks Rene’ the goodandbad question, he further adds, “If you believe Spinoza and agree that everything is determined by necessity, can the necessities that drive a man drive him to wrongdoing as well as right? What is a good man in this deterministic world? Does the adjective mean anything?”  

Today, we don’t differentiate between electricity and magnetism. We call it electromagnetism. Can something similar happen to the polarities of good-bad, san-insane, man-woman, real-imaginary? Is this the core question Rushdie is asking? And when we begin to see the logic of necessity behind every action, goodandbad, isn’t it also called – empathy?

Perhaps dirtandpurity belongs to the same category. In explaining his love of dirt, Rushdie mentions in the interview: “The moment people start talking about purity, other people start dying, you know? The moment Nazi Germany started talking about racial purity there followed a great massacre.” Hence to see that dirt is, in fact, dirtandpurity is freedom.

image source: goodreads.com

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

3 expressions of clarity


Last week I wrote about my favourite mindfulness principle: clarity is action. In this article, I would like to present 3 things I experienced which, in all likelihood, are the expressions of growing clarity. I am sure there are many more things than just three because clarity pervades everything in our life. However, let me start with these three.

1.      Universal empathy: Every day we encounter people whose behaviour appears crazy to us. These folks could be living with us or they could be random people we come across on the street or these could be people we read about in the newspapers. Some of these behaviours have the power to upset us. Why can’t she just listen to me? Why did he have to cut me on the road? How could this mining baron be a leader of this political party? How can they perform such a heinous act? With clear perception, we begin to see automaticity of thinking and actions. It becomes clear that this seemingly crazy behaviour is almost like a program working – mechanical stuff with little intelligence. Then the anger, frustration doesn’t arise. It becomes obvious that their behaviour is an expression of necessity. It couldn’t be otherwise. This is an empathic understanding extended universally to everybody.

2.      Ease of saying “No”: Many times we engage in projects without being clear why we are doing it. Then we end up putting half-hearted effort. With clarity, saying “No” becomes easy. This could be a response to an invite to a meeting or a request for a proposal or even business partnership proposal. Money is one of the major considerations in these decisions. When there is clarity about how much money I really need, then it is easy to say “no” to projects just to make more money. Another reason for saying “yes” to a request is to keep one’s image, perhaps as a friend, intact. “What will he say if I don’t join?” we think. Once this image maintenance business is clearly seen, decisions become easier. Lack of clarity can also create confusing notions of what it means to help someone especially poor. Sometimes underneath the urge to help may reside a desire to look socially responsible. Once the selfish fa├žade is seen for what it is, that clarity acts with ease.

3.      Comfort with “what is”: Most of the moments in an average day are ordinary. They may involve commuting, brushing, reading a newspaper, watering plants, eating, small chit-chat, cooking, doing dishes, reading/writing emails etc. If we carry a deep desire to reach somewhere financially, career-wise, spiritually, then many of these moments may be categorized as “waste of time”. They seem to be just delaying us in reaching the ultimate goal. That creates a nagging feeling of “I would rather be doing something else”. This results in a perpetual unfriendly relationship with “what is”. Once the process of becoming is clearly seen for what it is, then that clarity makes us comfortable with “what is”.

Image source: clipart.com

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Clarity is action: My favorite mindfulness principle

"What should I do now?" is a question that pops up every now and then as we navigate this complex world. Many times we find ourselves in tricky situations with respect to relationships, parenting, career choices, investment decisions etc. In this article, I would like to explore one of my favorite principles on mindfulness “Clarity is action” which might shed some light on this dilemma. It is counterintuitive and quite different from what we experience every day. Let’s begin with a visual example.

Imagine you are walking through the woods where the path is paved with dried leaves. And suddenly you sense slight movement a few steps ahead of you. Most likely, you are going to stop walking and watch the path in front more carefully. To get an idea, please check the image by enlarging it and try to spot a snake. In case you spot a snake while walking, you are likely to alter your path. Even if you are a herpetologist who studies snakes, you might slow down and trade your path slowly in order to study the snake. When you don’t even hear any rustle, however, you would continue to walk the same way.

The clarity about the presence of a snake in your path instantaneously results in a different action. This is what the principle “clarity is action” is trying to point at. When the meaning associated with the current situation changes, the new meaning expresses itself in a different action. In this walk-in-the-wood example, the new action may mean stopping to walk and looking around for something fishy. The action may involve new movements inside the body e.g. increasing the heartbeat, secretion of some hormones etc.

Now, let’s look at what the hypothesis is not saying. One, it doesn’t say, “Clarity follows action”. i.e. it doesn’t say that a certain action leads to clarity. For example, it says that in the image of the woods above, if you don’t spot the snake at first, there is no specific action which can guarantee you see the snake. Of course, certain annotations in the picture may help one see the snake. But that is not guaranteed. That is true of all the optical illusions. A shift of perception happens, you can’t make it happen. Second, it doesn’t say, “Action follows clarity” i.e. It doesn’t say that first, you should have clarity and then you should ask a question, “What do I do next?” Once there is clarity, action has already begun.

Now, let’s extend the snake example to the no-snake situation. Let’s say we spot a couple of snakes on our way and now we are paranoid about seeing a snake every now and then. In fact, we might start seeing a snake where there is no snake. But if we are constantly thinking, “What if there is a snake here?” Then that would make the walk very difficult. It might paralyze us. The alertness while walking is useful but the panic that every small sound creates is dysfunctional.

Well, whenever we worry about a situation, say about faring poorly in an exam, then our situation could be similar to the no-snake paranoia situation. The worry is ultimately associated with the damage to the self-image in case of a poor performance – what will my parents say? What will society say? etc. The imagined presence of a snake is similar to the impending damage to the self-image. Unless there is clarity about what this self-image really is, our action may continue to be dysfunctional.

Hence, mindfulness is a process of learning to see what is real and what is not. There is no formula for learning. Every “snake” that generates fear in our mind is an excellent opportunity to learn and see clearly. And once the self-image is seen clearly for what it really is, then nothing further is needed to be done. Because that clarity expresses itself through appropriate action. So one way to resolve the question "What should I do now?" is to go to the source of the anxiety which underlies the question and look for the "snake". 

Notes:
1.      Image source: Snake hiding in the jungle was sourced from huffingtonpost.com.au. The article attributes the photo to Twitter / @SSSNAKEYSCI / Jerry Davis.

2.      I encountered the phrase “clarity is action” in the book “Commentaries on living” by Jiddu Krishnamurti, volume 1, Chapter 71 titled “Clarity in action”. Another phrase similar to this phrase is “Meaning is being” used by David Bohm in the article “Meaning and information”. It is also explored by David Bohm's interview by Renee Weber titled "A change of meaning is a change of being".

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Reading, fast and slow

I read books regularly, but I don’t consider myself a voracious reader. This year (2018), I have read two books so far. That means reading one book in two months.  That’s not a lot. However, when I teach a class or facilitate a workshop, it creates an impression that I read a lot. Sometimes after my session, some participants ask me for book suggestions. Occasionally, I get a question, “Can you give some tips on how to increase the speed of reading?” This has triggered following question: Is it really important to read fast? This is what we explore here.

I first realized the difference in reading speeds when I started using in-class reading material. Most of my workshop participants are working professionals with 10+ years of experience. They find it difficult to read a 20-page case study as a pre-reading.  Moreover, my teaching style does not require recreating the market context so I create two-three page caselets which participants read in the class. When some participants finish reading the case, a few others would not have finished even half. There could easily be a difference of 2 to 3x in fastest and slowest reader in every class. So, in some sense, reading speed matters. But how much?

When I look at my reading style, I see two modes of reading, fast and slow. When I read Easterine Kire’s “When the river sleeps” last month, it was read in the fast mode. However, when I read Isaac Newton’s biography last year, it was read in the slow mode. What exactly is the difference between these two modes?

Actually, the difference isn’t much while reading. Since I read both these books on Kindle, the slow mode involves highlighting and adding notes, a feature kindle provides. But what happens after I finish reading makes a bigger difference. For some books, I re-read part of the book; I write notes in a notebook and sometimes create mind maps. I check out the interviews of the author especially in the context of the book. I read what other reviewers are saying especially to see which part of the book appealed to them. I typically try to pen down anything that surprised me.

In the past few years, the two books which resulted in “slowest reads” are Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, fast and slow” and David Bohm’s “Thought as a system”. I read Bohm’s book four times in a span of one year. For both these books, I created detailed mind maps. Bohm’s book is a transcript of a weekend seminar and the audio recording of most of the seminar is available on the Internet. I listened to the 4 or more hours of audio 3-4 times. I have been listening to Kahneman’s talks / interviews since 2008 i.e. three years before “Thinking, fast and slow” was published. I have listened to Kahneman’s talk at UC Berkeley “Explorations of the mind” published on YouTube 10 years ago at least a dozen times in the past ten years.

In short, the slow reading involves a fairly deep reflection on what the author is trying to say. It usually means creating a few hypotheses that are contrary to the beliefs I have held so far. It further involves creating experiments to test and re-test these hypotheses. Slowly some of this gets added as teaching material in the workshop. I also end up writing multiple blogs when I am reading slow.

The boundary between fast and slow reading is not always that stark. The novel that I read sometimes puts me in a reflective mode without being aware of it. When the story doesn’t go out of my mind, I usually end up writing something about it.

Have you read any book in the slow mode lately?

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Why do we have more exit interviews than stay interviews?


Most of us are familiar with exit interviews. But how many of us recall a stay interview? It is an interview in which someone is curious about why you have been staying with the company for so long. Why do we have more exit interviews than stay interviews? Could it because we have an inherent bias for dark spots (areas where things are not working) as compared to the bright spots (areas where things are working)? If so, are we losing out on a valuable source of ideas? That is what we will explore in this article.

I have owned a data card ever since I started my independent consulting practice more than a decade ago. Initially, it came in the form of a flat card that I used to insert in the PCMCI slot on my laptop. After a few years, it changed its form and became a dongle to be inserted into the USB port. I stayed with the same telecom operator for over a decade and the only time I got a call from someone was when I switched my operator a few months back. The person on the other end was curious why I was leaving. I had already bought a wifi hotspot from their competitor and had no interest spending time in explaining things. All I was looking for was a hassle-free exit. What use was the exit interview?

Of course, not everybody may be like me. I am sure some exit interviews do yield valuable information. However, stay interviews could also be at least as valuable if not more. This bias for exit interviews could be a manifestation of a more general bias most of us have towards dark spots – problem areas. Bright spot principle is powerful and yet counter-intuitive. It says that there is likely to be a seed of the solution in the same area where there is a problem. It would mean following:
  • If customer attrition is a problem, then paying attention to staying customers may give a clue.
  • If lack of individual student attention is a problem, then there are some classes or some teachers who are within the same environment and paying more individual attention. How? That may give a clue.
  • If you don’t like your job (a problem) then those moments in your office which give you a joy (bright spots) may give you a clue where you may want to focus.

Here is an exercise with science degree college teachers where they explored solutions to the problem “How to give individual attention in the class?” The class size was large – 70 to 100 students. Some teachers felt strongly that in a class of such size it is not possible to give individual attention. However, when they were asked to list bright spot – things they are already doing at least in some classes, at least on a few occasions, a number of ideas came up. One can see the ideas in the picture below. Teachers realized that there is so much to learn from each other.



Some of the ideas that are listed here are:
  • Asking questions to students
  • Walking around in the class
  • Taking suggestions from students in making the class interesting
  • Listening to individual students about their previous class

To summarize, following a bright spot is a powerful principle which nudges us to pay attention to what is working already. It brings attention to what is possible and moves attention away from a feeling that it is not possible. Who knows? Perhaps all that matters in moving from inaction to action is this “possibility”.

Notes:

1.      Bright spot principle is at the heart of the psychotherapy “Solution focused brief therapy” and also the community intervention approach “Positive deviance”. It is also highlighted in the book “Switch” by Chip and Dan Heath. You may want to watch this Dan Heath’s YouTube video (3:35 minutes) titled “How to find bright spots?

2.      “How to get individual attention in class?” problem was one of the challenges identified by science degree teachers of Government colleges at a design thinking workshop I facilitated in Agastya International Foundation’s Kuppam campus earlier this year.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

A journey from resistance to acceptance of “what is” in the short film “Afterglow”

Many times we are resisting the current situation. Perhaps something has changed; we have lost something we are fond of. Or thought has imagined a scenario where we are likely to lose something and we don’t like this imagined scenario. Or someone said something to us which has hurt us etc. This resistance to “what is” manifests itself in different forms – sadness, anxiety, fear, blame, guilt etc. This continues for a while until the resistance drops off. Perhaps the changed or imagined situation is no longer that threatening. This is also referred to as acceptance.

The award-winning short film “Afterglow” directed by Kaushal Oza beautifully depicts this journey from resistance to acceptance. The story involves a widow coping with the death of her loving husband. It uses two symbols through which this transition from resistance to acceptance unfolds – paaghri (groom’s headgear) and the lamp which is welcoming the departed soul.

Sometimes a question gets raised, “Does acceptance mean inaction?” That’s not how I understand it. Acceptance involves dropping off of inner resistance. In Afterglow, there was an inner resistance to letting go of the paaghri. And then at one point, it drops off and that results in an act of giving the paaghri away to someone who would find it useful.

There are a few YouTube comments on this video where they ask, “Did she die at the end?” That is not my understanding. She didn’t physically die. However, it is a different kind of dying. She died to the idea that her husband or his soul must always be with her. This dying is accompanied by inner peace.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Rango's "Who am I?" journey from "I could be anyone" to "I'm nobody"



I have been fascinated by the concept of self-deception. I feel understanding self-deception is at the heart of mindfulness. Hence, I keep looking for metaphors depicting self-deception. This is one of my favorites.

Rango is a lonely lizard. However, he likes to imagine himself surrounded by friends and he always plays the hero. As luck would have it, Rango accidentally kills a hawk and actually becomes a hero. The town makes him sheriff and Rango begins to enjoy playing the real hero. 

Luck favors him for some time and Rango begins to believe that he is successful due to his effort and talent - a classic case of self-deception. Until one day his coward self is exposed by Rattlesnake Jake and Rango is asked to leave the town. This is a turning point for Rango and it triggers a process of awakening for him.

I don't know about you but I have been in situations where people around you start calling you successful. And it is so tempting to attribute the so-called success to oneself. Hence, to carry an awareness and, like Rango, see that "I am nobody" is difficult. However, that awareness is an essential part of being mindful.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Does “fail fast” contradict with “first time right”?

“Fail fast” is one of the principles I champion in my workshops on innovation and design thinking. “First time right” has been popularized by the quality movement, especially by the Six Sigma methodology. Hence, it is not uncommon to get the question: Does “fail fast” contradict with “first time right”?

To explore this question, it would help to understand “fail fast” and “first time right” better. Let’s start with “fail fast”. Does “fail fast” imply failing in any kind of way? No. To understand this better, let’s see the difference between a failure due to checklist-oversight and a negative result during hypothesis testing. Let’s borrow an example from Jeff Bezos of Amazon. In an interview, he said that if Amazon goofs up the opening of 19th fulfillment center where an operational history exists, then that would be poor execution. Let’s call this checklist oversight failure. It means a prior learning has been consolidated into a checklist and the failure occurred because the checklist was not followed rigorously. “First time right” uses all the available past data in constructing the process to be followed for delivery of a solution.

In contrast, let’s look at the following hypothetical assumption: Amazon will be able to deliver a book size packet reliably on the terrace of a ten storied building in Bangalore via drone delivery. Let’s assume Amazon has experience of this kind of delivery in countries like the US but not in India. And if the first attempt at doing this delivery fails, then it would be a failure of the second kind – hypothesis test failure. Note that this failure would result in some learning which can be incorporated in the second attempt and so on. Depending upon the difficulty encountered, the cost of each experiment and the importance of this use-case for Amazon, more attempts would be made to learn more about this use-case.

When I say “fail fast” I mean fast testing of the assumptions associated with an idea. Now, we can see that “fail fast” is quite complementary with “first time right”. If Amazon were to launch the drone delivery on the terrace and get it right the first time, then it would help to do as many tests in different contexts – weather conditions, building locations, different building structures etc. Thus it would help to fail fast to get it right the first time you go live.

“Fail fast” assumes that there are certain unknowns / risks associated with achieving the goal. If all the steps in achieving the goal are well understood, then “fail fast” would not be required.

In short, “fail fast” helps you deliver “first time right”. The riskier your project, i.e. the higher the cost of getting it wrong the first time, the more important it becomes to “fail fast” in order to get it “first time right”. 

Thursday, February 15, 2018

3 reasons why managers don’t throw their toughest challenge to their teams

In my innovation and design thinking workshops, we end up running a short challenge campaign. Participants get to experience what it means to identify a challenge area important to them, frame a challenge around it, generate ideas, build low-cost prototypes and validate them with a few people. Then I ask them, “Why don’t you throw your top challenges to your teams?” Why isn’t it common to see top challenges displayed in organizations? Here are top three reasons I have gathered from them:

   1.      Lack of clarity: Managers are busy attending to a number of issues – some short term, some long term. In the process, they typically don’t get time to step back and reflect. As a result, they don’t have clarity on what could be their biggest challenge. I ask them a few questions like, “What is one pain point you would rather leave behind in the office rather than carrying it home?” Or “Which is one trend – technology or otherwise – that may make your business irrelevant in future?” This gives them a clue. Of course, many of them don’t need any clue. Time and space for reflection is enough to bring out their toughest challenge. Nevertheless, if you don’t have clarity on what’s your toughest challenge is then there is no confidence to take further action.

2.      Fear of perceived incompetence: Managers feel, “I am being paid to solve problems. How can I communicate that I can’t solve them?” There is a feeling that if I throw my challenge to my team, my boss and perhaps even my team may feel that I am not competent to do my job. Of course, what isn’t realized by managers is that taking a position on a challenge is an important element of their job. The focus it brings makes a huge difference in aligning the creative energies of the people around you.

3.      Solver’s bias: What is more important – defining the right problem? Or finding the right solution? Most of us carry a bias for the right solution. We like to say – It was my idea. Of course, idea could have meant the challenge. But mostly idea refers to the solution. Mathematics is an area where problems are known for the people like Fermat or Riemann who defined them first. In most other areas, solver is perhaps more famous than seeker. As a result, some of the key issues remain pending or stuck. When a manager throws a challenge to his team, it is quite possible that the team ends up making initial prototypes for free. Because they feel it is their idea. When a manager asks a team member to build a prototype of his or her idea, the outcome may not be that enthusiastic. Who wants to work on boss’ idea?

To summarize, Managers don’t open up their top challenges because of (1) lack of clarity (2) fear of perceived incompetence and (3) solver’s bias. And I feel they have a lot to gain if they can establish clarity on their topmost challenge and seek solutions from their team or even outside in solving it.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

My 3 takeaways from Kazuo Ishiguro’s class – My secret of writing

Last month I came across a session 2017 Nobel winner Kazuo Ishiguro held in Japan for budding writers titled “My secrets of writing”. It is available on YouTube in two parts: part-1 and part-2 (embedded below). I had read four of Ishiguro novels (some of them twice) when I watched part-1. Then I read his latest novel, The Buried Giant. And then I watched part-2 which refers to the novel. I am a fan of Ishiguro and I really enjoyed listening to the session. I thought the quality of questions was very good and that brought out interesting process Ishiguro follows for his writing. I am not a fiction writer (yet). However, I thought some of the elements Ishiguro mentioned could be relevant for anyone involved in a creative endeavour. Here are 3 of my takeaways from the session:

1.      2-3-4 sentence ideas: This is what Ishiguro said – “I try to make sure that the idea can be expressed very simply in 2 or 3 sentences. If it can’t then the idea isn’t very strong or it’s not yet mature.” And what criteria does he use for picking an idea? He said, “When I look at the idea on a page, I want to be able to feel a real potential, real emotion that comes from these sentences. I want to think that there is a whole world in there. I want those few sentences to trouble me and stimulate me. Then I feel I could build a whole novel on it.”

He gave an example of his most famous novel – Remains of the day. The idea can be expressed as: This is a story about a man who wants to be the perfect servant. And he is willing to sacrifice his personal life and many things to be an absolutely perfect servant.

The point is, the essence of an idea can be expressed in a simple way in a few sentences. And yet it may carry the potential to excite you, trouble you etc.

2.      Ideas can be re-located in time & space: Ishiguro says, “I made this discovery… The setting isn’t an essential part of the story. You can move stories to different settings, different places in history. And also I suppose different genres: sci-fi, gothic world, thriller world etc.” In fact, for his third novel, Remains of the day, he re-used his idea from his second novel - “The artist of the floating world” (location: Japan, time: 1950s, 60s) and relocated it in a different time and place (location: England, time: 1920s, 30s). This creates a huge canvas for his stories and also it creates a problem of “location hunting”. His last novel “The buried giant” is placed in 5th century Britain and belongs to a fantasy genre. It contains ogres, pixies and dragons.

3.      Metaphor as a criterion:  One criterion Ishiguro applies in selecting an idea for further development is by looking at its power as a metaphor. Ishiguro said, “As a writer, I am drawn to big metaphors that dominate the entire story. One of the ways I decide if an idea is powerful or not, is I ask - Is this a powerful metaphor for something important or something very big?” For example, he mentions his latest novel The buried giant presents a story where people lose memories very fast – in a day or so – because of the breath of a giant dragon living in the mountains. Some people want to kill the dragon to bring the buried memories alive, some others want to protect the giant because they feel it is keeping the society from going into a civil war. What is the right thing to do? Ishiguro feels that a story like this can be a metaphor for something all individuals and all societies face all the time. The metaphor is certainly relevant for the centuries old memories related to the communal conflicts and the caste conflicts in India which keep getting resurrected from time to time.

In short, writing the essence of the idea in 2-3-4 sentences, trying to relocate the idea in different time and space, using the power of metaphor as a criterion for idea selection are things any of us can try and experiment with. I certainly will.