Wednesday, December 30, 2020

No man can walk out on his own story


I watched this scene from one of my favorite animation films “Rango” perhaps for the 15th time (see the video clip below). The scene ends with Rango getting a piece of advice from the Spirit of the West – No man can walk out on his own story. What does it mean? Here is an attempt.

Rango, the protagonist, is a lonely lizard. He knows how to cook stories about his past adventures to impress people around him. Rango accidentally kills a hawk, becomes a hero, and eventually the sheriff. But deep down he knows that he was really scared during those heroic stunts and luck played a huge role in his survival. But the act of self-deception keeps the game going. Until one day, Rattlesnake Jake exposes Rango’s phony nature in front of everybody in the village. And Rango is asked to leave.

“I am nobody”, Rango admits to himself for the first time in his life. And finally arrives at a place where he meets the Spirit of the West. Here is the dialogue between the two in the scene:

Rango: I am a fraud, I am a phony. My friends believed in me. But they need some kind of a hero.

Spirit: Then be a hero.

Rango: Oh, no, no. You don’t understand. I am not even supposed to be here.

Spirit: That’s right. You came a long way to find something that isn’t out here. Don’t you see? It’s not about you, it’s about them.

Rango: But I can’t go back.

Spirit: Don’t know that you got a choice, son. No man can walk out on his own story.

Walking out on one’s own story is so tempting. Walking out of relationship, out of a job, leaving everything and going to Himalayas. Isn’t that a good recipe for a bestseller? But, what about the story? I am a hero, a phony, a consultant, an author, a mindfulness guru? How do you walk out of your story?

I like what Nisargadatta Maharaj told a visitor – “The dream is not your problem. Your problem is that you like one part of the dream and not another. Love all, or none of it, and stop complaining. When you have seen the dream as a dream, you have done all that needs to be done.”

An attempt to walk out of the story just changes the characters and scenery. So long as the story is seen as real, so long as the story is taken seriously, not much changes. There is no need to go anywhere, just investigate whether the story is real.

Image source: youtube.com

Nisargadatta Maharaj quote is from “I am that” chapter 29 titled “Living is life’s only purpose”, page 117 of third printing.


Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Perception as prediction error minimization

Perception is not just a kind of prediction but “prediction error minimization is all the brain ever does” says Jakob Hohwy in the book “The predictive mind”. The predictive processing paradigm inverts the traditional sandwich perspective of perception-cognition-action by bringing prediction to the center stage. And Hohwy’s book gives an excellent introduction to various dimensions of the predictive processing paradigm. In this article, we first look at perception as Bayesian inference. And then explore the question – what is prediction error minimization? We will use Hohwy’s favorite example – binocular rivalry to illustrate the concept.

Perception as Bayesian inference: How do we perceive the world? According to this framework, we keep a model of the world that predicts the generation of observable data. Based on this model, we have prior hypotheses about the causes of our sensory input. As we receive new sensory input, the brain computes the posterior using the Bayes rule – posterior is proportional to likelihood times prior. The winner, the hypothesis with the maximum posterior, is declared as the cause of the sensory input. Thus perceptual inference involves updating the internal model of the world consisting of a set of prior beliefs based on incoming sensory information. See 3Blue1Brown and Veritasium videos for more details on Bayes theorem. Now, let’s see what happens when we try to trick the brain.

Perceptual inference in binocular rivalry: Binocular rivalry is a phenomenon that has been documented for over four hundred years. If you show two different images to the left and the right eye – say a face and a house – then you don’t see a mixture of the two images say a face-house. Instead, you either see a face or a house. Moreover, what you see keeps alternating even when the images are held constant. The following picture from the book gives a possible explanation of this phenomenon using perception as predictive error minimization.

The likelihood of face+house (F+H) sending such sensory input is higher than just face or just house hypothesis. However, the prior probability of F+H i.e. we ever seeing such a thing as a mixture of a face and a house is very low. Hence, when you multiply the two – i.e. prior and likelihood – the face-only or house-only hypothesis wins over the face-house hypothesis. And that’s what you see.

Now, how do you explain the alternating images in the binocular rivalry? As you see one of the two images, say the face, the prediction error resulting from the sensory input from the house is explained-away. Over time, the prediction error builds up and the brain is not able to explain it away. And the brain chooses the competing hypothesis which is the house-only image. This is a hand-wavy explanation. It is heavy-duty mathematics at play. If you are curious, check out Hohwy’s paper “Predictive coding explains binocular rivalry”.

What if you are able to bias the prior in favor of one of the images? Hohwy talks about a variant of the binocular rivalry experiment in his book where one eye is shown text markers and the other eye is shown roses. Then olfactory evidence was added and participants smell roses. As predicted by the Bayesian rule, the participants consequently spent more time perceiving the role image. 

Isn't perception just one of the processes at play in the brain? What about action, attention, learning? And what about various biases? Well, the book shows that the predictive error minimization framework is quite ambitious in its goal and does a good job of attempting to explain various phenomena using the framework. 

To understand the free-energy principle, the core principle behind prediction error minimization, in its full depth, one would need to go into statistical mechanics, self-organization, dynamical systems theory, information theory. However, the book lays a good ground for the curious. And the theory is in its infancy and an active area of research right now.    

Image source

book image is from amazon.com, the binocular rivalry image is from Hohwy’s paper Predictive coding explains binocular rivalry” and it is very similar to the image in the book.

Resources:

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Doing the last experiment first: illustrated through Alex Honnold’s El Capitan free-solo


Last month, Reserve Bank of India issued an order to HDBC Bank stopping all launches of the digital business generating activities planned under its program Digital 2.0 and sourcing of new credit card customers. Reason? HDBC Bank suffered major outages in Internet banking and payment system due to a power failure in the primary data centre. These are temporary restrictions but such incidents could damage company’s brand. Question is: are such data outages avoidable? And could “doing the last experiment first” be helpful in such situations? Let’s explore these questions in this article.

“Doing the last experiment first” is one of my favourite levers of building margin of safety. We have mentioned the concept in our book “8 steps to innovation” and we borrowed the term from A. G. Lafley, ex-CEO of P&G. Doing the last experiment first involves validating the leap-of-faith assumption associated with an idea. What is a leap-of-faith assumption? An assumption that is (a) critical to the success of the idea, and (b) there is very little evidence available to support it. How does Alex Honnold’s El Capitan free-solo illustrate this concept? Let’s look at it next.

Alex Honnold is an American rock-climber. In 2017, he became the first rock climber in the world to free solo 3000-foot wall of El Capitan in California. If you want to get a feel of what that means, check out this 5-minutes video showing Alex’s free-solo climbing scenes. To us Alex’s endeavour appears almost like a suicide attempt. And Alex says the same thing in his TED talk, “Seems scary? Yeah, it is” (1:13). However, he says something strange immediately after, “But on the day that video was taken (i.e. his free-solo), it didn’t feel scary at all. It felt as comfortable and natural as a walk in the park.” Walk in the park? Was Alex serious or joking?

Alex explains in the TED talk his years of systematic effort in preparing for such a climb. But the part that is of interest to us is related to what Alex calls the most difficult part of the climb – the Boulder problem (8:06).  “It was about 2000-feet off the ground and consisted of the hardest physical moves of the whole route. (It involved) long pulls between poor handholds and with very small, slippery feet.” This manoeuvre culminated in a karate kick with left foot over to the inside of an adjacent corner. This required “high degree of precision and flexibility”. Alex had been doing a nightly stretching routine for this move for over a year (8:35).

Ability to navigate the boulder problem including the karate kick comfortably is an example of the leap-of-faith assumption in Alex’s climb. If he didn’t want to be a lucky climber, then he had to master the solution of the boulder problem. In this video, “What if he falls? The terrifying reality behind filming free-solo”, we see Alex practicing on the Boulder problem (6:00). And we see him practicing with a rope and actually falling in the process (6:07). What that means is that Alex would have experimented with his ideas to navigate the Boulder problem with rope first. And he would have failed in many of these attempts and learned valuable lessons on what may work. This is an example of doing the last experiment first.

Can Boulder problem be re-created in an indoor environment? Yes. You can see how an indoor wall climbing center VauxWall recreated the Boulder problem in this video. And see how Alex’s climb feels like a graceful dance on the wall here (10:50). I don’t know if Alex actually practiced in an indoor setup like this. But the point is it is possible to re-create a difficult situation in a controlled environment so that one can practice more easily, more often and at lower cost.

What would “doing the last experiment first” mean in the context of data centre outages in HDFC Bank? We can get a clue from what Dr. Werner Vogels, Amazon CTO says they do at Amazon. They started what was later called “Game days” where they pulled the plug from a data centre and see how their site held on. And like the indoor gym recreating the Boulder problem perhaps such experiments can be performed in a more controlled environment as well. At least it is worth considering it because the consequences of failure could be grim.

image source: youtube.com

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

My 4 takeaways from “Getting people to talk: An ethnography and interviewing primer”

Getting people to talk: An ethnography and interviewing primer” is a 30-min-long video created by two students, Gabriel Biller and Kristy Scovel, of IIT Institute of Design, Chicago, USA. For a student of design thinking, it gives a good perspective on what empathic interviewing means. Here are my key takeaways from the video. The timestamps give a reference in the video.

1.      Different types of interviews: The primer differentiates between different types of interviews – ethnographic interview, hypothesis-driven interview, extreme user interview, and expert interview. The key attribute of an ethnographic interview is – (5:51) – “Whatever knowledge I am going to gain from people, I am going to try to understand and represent it from other people’s perspective.” Sometimes you carry a framework or a hypothesis with you while interviewing. In which case, “The way I represent that (knowledge) is not from their perspective.” (6:50). I would call this hypothesis-driven interview and it would be relevant in validating your ideas.

In an ethnographic interview, the focus is not so much on what people are saying but who they are (8:45), their attitudes, behaviors, environments, artifacts that exist around (9:16).

An extreme user interview is a lot more about observing the extreme users doing stuff (10:25). You try to become an invisible observer, like a fly on the wall. An expert interview, on the other hand, is more verbal, sometimes happens even through emails. Here what the expert knows is more important than who they are (12:10).

2.      How do we actually do it? “It is not about asking the questions on your list, it is about the rapport that you establish.” (18:25) For example, check if they are comfortable with audio/video recording (13:50). The recording could be intimidating (15:00). Choose an appropriate location – ask them which location is comfortable (15:22). It helps if one is talking about jeans surrounded by jeans (16:00). In an environment with lots of artifacts related to the person being interviewed, you can ask questions related to the artifacts – “Tell me about your grandkid” (16:25). In such an environment, they are showing you stuff 80% of the time (16:35).

It is important that you are genuinely interested in what they are saying (18:31). It is about listening to 12 different levels so that they are going to answer you at least 8 of those 12. (18:38).

3.      What makes a good interview (24:30): In a good interview, good stories come out. They become open and carefree (25:10). They say, “Never told anyone that before”. Sometimes they are literally whistling and singing. Sometimes they get emotional – at a deep level, cry, narrate horrible stories (28:00). They get a feeling, “They can sing for you and not going to be judged.” (28:25).

“If you convey to that person that the moment that you are standing there, sitting there, interacting with them is the most important moment in the world, that makes everything happen.” (28:50)

4.      Common mistakes (19:00):  Showing a big surprise e.g. “You are 24?” (10:10) can be distracting. Nodding too much and saying phrases like “Aha, Yeah, Thanks a lot, That was great” could be distracting (23:10). Asking leading questions or compound questions are common mistakes (23:30).

I have watched this video at least half a dozen times and I have learned something new each time I watched. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in design thinking and learning empathic interviewing.



Saturday, December 12, 2020

Mindfulness on the go: Webinar series Sept 26 to Nov 14, 2020

I got an opportunity to collaborate with a number of friends to offer a webinar series "Mindfulness on the go" from September 26 to November 14, 2020. In each of the 8 sessions, I and my co-host discussed one of the 8 chapters from my book "Mindfulness: connecting with the real you". Video recordings of all 8 sessions are available on YouTube. Here is the playlist. Link to an individual session can be found in the table below.

No

Date

Session (videos)

Co-host

1

Sept 26

Balancing the bicycle of life (PDF of the first chapter)

Shalini Goel

2

Oct 3

Listening to the mental shotgun

Gauri Dabholkar

3

Oct 10

Stepping out of the train of thought

Dr. Kavita Desai

4

Oct 17

Recognizing wasteful thoughts

Vipul Mathur

5

Oct 24

Watching the dance of necessities

Vivek Dabholkar

6

Oct 31

Investigating the shooting game

Nitin Desai

7

Nov 7

Searching for the real hero

Ashwin Patil

8

Nov 14

Dying to self-image every moment

Padmaja Parulkar

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Design Thinking resources #2: Empathy

Three years ago, I wrote a blog “Design Thinking resources #1” where I presented a set of resources (articles, books, videos) related to the overall design thinking process. In this article, I would like to extend the list with resources related to an important element of design thinking – empathy.

1. Getting people to talk: An ethnography & interviewing primer (30 min): This video is created by two students of the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) Institute of Design in 2008. It gives a very good perspective on what it means to interview a stranger. It highlights the difference between an ethnographic interview and a hypothesis-driven interview. It tells you about extreme user interviews and expert interviews. It brings out the key aspects of a good empathic interview (curiosity, listening, establishing a rapport, narration of stories). It also points to the common mistakes during interviewing – too much nodding, saying, “Aha, Ya, Thanks a lot, That was great, That’s interesting” which could be distracting, compounding questions, leading questions. Overall, I feel this is an excellent primer for interviewing.

2.  How to do a user interview (from Google Ventures) (6 min): Many times you have a hypothesis about what the user wants. And you might have created prototypes (paper/plastic models or wireframes) and you want to validate the hypothesis. This video presents a good illustration of this process. It demonstrates 5 acts: Friendly welcome, context questions, introduction of prototypes, tasks and quick debrief. The video demonstrates that when the user actually uses your prototypes, the interviewer mostly just watches and only occasionally asks questions.

3.  3 essential elements of an empathic interview: In this article, I present 3 elements which I consider important in an empathic interview – listening, appreciation and elaboration.

4.  What is an empathy map? (5 min): Empathy map is an important tool to organize data gathered through design research (interviews, observations). This short video introduces us to a basic Say-Do-Think-Feel empathy map.

5.  Lego story: What the company learned from its mistakes (5 min): In this short video, the then CEO of Lego company, Soren Torp Laursen presents the difference between listening and really listening. He tells a story of how despite focus group interviews with kids, the company heard what it wanted to hear. This shows how the power of biases can act through the well-intentioned interviewing process.

6.  Sonu Nigam – The roadside ustaad (6 min): Try method – i.e. trying to live like another person is a powerful empathy method. In this short video, a popular Bollywood singer Sonu Nigam is shown to spend some time singing on the street walkway dressed like a beggar. The camera captures the responses of the passers-by. And Sonu also gives his perspective later in the video. Companies like Tesco make it mandatory for executives to work behind the checkout counter a few days in a year. I learn a lot while walking on the street with my 83-year-old mother who is severely arthritic. 

7.  Amazon CTO Dr. Werner Vogels highlights listening to customers: This is an hour-long interview of Amazon CTO Dr. Werner Vogels. However, the part that is relevant for empathy comes around 14:00.  Here Vogles articulates his role as an external-facing CTO. And he highlights the importance of listening to customers while evangelizing the technology they are developing. He says, “95% of our new features and services are a direct response to customer requests.”

Are there any empathy tools that are missing from this list? One is journey mapping. Let me see if I can find one or create one if I don’t find a satisfactory resource.

Monday, November 30, 2020

Innovation at Amazon: a CTO perspective from Dr. Werner Vogels

How does innovation happen at Amazon? There are many perspectives available on the Net including that of Jeff Bezos. In this article, I would like to explore the CTO perspective as depicted in Werner Vogel’s interview by Kyle Corbitt (Nov-2018). But before I present my takeaways from the interview, let’s set the context.

Dr. Werner Vogels has been Amazon's CTO for almost 16 years. That’s a very long tenure for a CTO position and perhaps very rare. He was a research scientist for ten years before joining Amazon. He says, “I was hired along with five of my former students to put academic rigor into scaling (the platform) orders of magnitude more” (7:12). Not only did Vogels and the team achieve that goal but also created a technology – AWS – that is enabling others to do the same world over.

Early on in the interview (5:30), Vogels mentions that CTO’s role is to “allow duplication and technical debt to happen as long as you know that you have to pay it off”. And he says this technical debt is built through “long pipeline of experiments.” Question is, what kind of experiments does he sponsor? Where does he get the big ideas from? Do he and his team approve of every idea at Amazon? Answers to these questions are my key takeaways from this interview.

Drive big programs: Vogels says, “Mostly the role of CTO is to drive big programs” (11:05). For example, he drove an initiative a whole year to address a single point of failure. It involved among other things pulling the plug out of a data center and see how the technology copes with the failure. As it became a practice, it got called “Game days”. Everybody is given heads up on what is coming. And still, it exposed holes in the implementation. Another year was spent on efficiency. (11:04)

Listen to customers: Where did the idea of AWS come from? Vogels says his role as an external-facing CTO “is to interact at a deep technical level with customers” and “look for bigger patterns among your customers, the bigger pain points they have” (14:40).  “We are in the business of pain management” (14:50). The idea of AWS came from such observations. There are many types of CTOs and an external-facing CTO is only one such role. However, I feel the importance of meeting and listening to customers isn’t generally emphasized enough for a CTO position. In this interview, Vogels goes into length in making this point.

Give autonomy to teams: It goes without saying that CTO will play a key role in managing the pipeline of big bet experiments. The question is, what role does he play in managing a relatively small bet pipeline? Vogels says that the teams such as “team for recommendation engine for shoes” are responsible for managing their own pipeline of experiments. The team would have a goal of minimizing the number of returns. He says, “95% of new features and services are delivered as a response to direct requests from customers” (32:55).

When asked to predict a future trend, Vogels says, “I think we all need to become extremely security conscious” (48:56). He feels that the kind of data breaches that are happening around “is embarrassing” (48:00). That is a good clue to young and established businesses.

Overall, I really enjoyed the interview and feel there are valuable insights especially for technical leaders.

Source:

A conversation with Werner Vogels, moderated by Kyle Corbitt, Nov 2018


Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Problem-solving approaches: clock-fixing vs cloud-fixing

 

“Car breakdown? Internet not working? Boss or spouse upset? Garbage everywhere? Long commute times? Corruption? Poverty?” How to solve it? Thus begins the blog I wrote six years ago titled “Four approaches to problem solving”. Today, we could add Covid to the list of problems. The four approaches presented in the blog are system-centric, problem-centric, solution-centric, and solver-centric. Which approach is applicable in which context? I suggested that as the social complexity of the problem increases, the role of solution-centric and solver-centric approaches increases. Recently, I came across a framework that sheds some light on this hypothesis. It involves understanding the difference between clock-fixing and cloud-fixing. Before understanding the fixing part, let’s understand what the analogies of clock and cloud mean.

Dividing the world between clocks and clouds is attributed to Karl Popper, the philosopher of science, who wrote the article “On clocks and clouds” in 1966. Clocks are predictable while clouds are unpredictable. When a clock malfunctions it is possible to dismantle it into smaller parts, diagnose the problem, replace the malfunctioning parts, and put it all back. In contrast, if a cloud doesn’t give enough rainwater, we don’t know how to fix it – at least not yet.

As a system, a cloud is considered more complex than a clock2. What makes a cloud more complex than a clock? One characteristic could be its degree of openness. A clock is a relatively closed system i.e. its behaviour doesn’t depend much on the environment while a cloud is a relatively open system i.e. its shape and content may be undergoing continuous change due to the interaction with the surrounding environment. A few more properties of complex systems are Non-linearity (Can a small change cause disproportionately big impact?), Emergence (e.g. a cloud can suddenly turn into a tornado but a clock can’t transform itself spontaneously). There is no precise definition of a complex system but we can get some idea by contrasting clocks and clouds (see complex system page from Wikipedia for more details). Could this distinction between cloud vs clock or clock-ness vs cloud-ness of the problem help us decide on the approach of problem-solving?

When a person undergoes hip-replacement surgery, the process looks closer to clock-fixing. A part of the hip-bone gets replaced and the patient is able to walk again with a high probability. However, when a depression patient undergoes a psychotherapy session, it looks closer to cloud-fixing. You don’t know how many sessions he might need and even after that, it may not work. When a few second long video goes viral on the Internet and mobilizes huge crowds across multiple cities into protests, it certainly looks closer to clouds turning into a tornado. When someone says I want to control thoughts through a brain-machine interface, doubts get raised as to whether a clock-fixing approach is being applied to a cloud-like system2.

Instead of putting each problem into a clock vs cloud bucket, how about if we look at different dimensions of the problem and solve it using an appropriate approach? Let’s take Covid-19 as an example. One could just take maximizing sanitizer usage as a goal, especially in shops and malls. And then apply a system-centric approach, break-down the process of entering a shop, and introduce a mandatory step of using sanitizer at the entry point. Alternately, one could apply the problem-centric approach, do the causal analysis, work towards the Covid vaccine, or in the interim find drugs with sufficient efficacy. Causal analysis can also be carried out through computer simulations of networks and infer probabilities of various causes in a regional cluster. 

We could move closer to cloud-like dimensions and ask questions like, “Why is certain population not even susceptible to Covid despite exposure?” And then one could look at bright spots “people who are tested negative despite sustained Covid exposure” and see if that data gives any clues. Finally, we could just look at the depression wave that is coming as a side-effect of the pandemic. And look at psychotherapeutic or introspective approaches. This is where the dimension gets closest to the cloud. Awareness of the nature of the problem may help us in predicting the chance of success.

In short, we saw that knowing the nature of the challenge – whether it is closer to a clock or a cloud, may help us follow an appropriate approach in creating the response. Alternately, we could look at the clock-like or cloud-like dimension of a challenge and try to respond appropriately.

Notes:

1. This analogy has been used by others to differentiate reductive vs non-reductive approaches of analyzing and fixing systems. For example, see Robert Sapolsky, Stanford professor of biology, neuroscience and neurosurgery use this analogy in his May 19, 2010 lecture “21. Chaos and reductionism” at around 44:18.

2. Karl Friston, Professor of computational neuroscience at University College London, compares brain-computer interfacing to solve psychopathic problems to satellites perturbing weather and changing it meaningfully in the interview “Karl Friston: Neuroscience and the free energy principle: AI podcast #99 with Lex Fridman” at 39:12.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Why does U G Krishnamurti ask, “Is there such a thing as enlightenment at all?”

U. G. Krishnamurti (1918-2007) was an author and a spiritual teacher. I recently translated one his interviews titled “U. G. Krishnamurti: Mystique of enlightenment – Part-1” by Jeffrey Mishlove to Marathi (available here). What appealed to me most about this interview is the intensity with which UG asks the question, “Is there such a thing as enlightenment at all?” (6:04) The question and the intensity reverberate throughout the interview. In this article, I would like to explore why UG might be questioning enlightenment in the interview. I have put UG’s words in quotes along with timestamps in the interview.

We have tremendous faith in thought as an instrument: “It (thought) is a very powerful instrument. That instrument has helped us achieve whatever we have achieved so far.” (21:50) This is not difficult to see. The scientific and technological progress of the last few centuries is evident. We believe thought can help us solve problems related to machines, medicine, and mind. And we extend our faith in the instrument to achieve a state of mind called bliss or enlightenment. We also have tremendous faith in the teachers who claim to have achieved such a state. UG is asking – Could this faith be misplaced? 

There is no such thing as understanding: UG says that our understanding is a result of the knowledge-experience vicious cycle. “We accept that knowledge is necessary for us to experience and the experience strengthens the knowledge.” (14:30) “So this vicious cycle goes on and on.” (14:20) Using the knowledge we feel we understand the world including the living organism. For example, we measure parameters like body temperature, blood pressure, EEG, MRI, etc. and claim that we understand the body. “So you are trying to use that knowledge and experience what you call a living being.” (11:52). While this understanding may help in certain diagnoses, it could never be complete. Even the experience of enlightenment is "a petty little thought induced experience" (18:50). "Without knowledge, you have no way of experiencing anything at all." (14:00) And hence UG is saying that “There is no such thing as (complete) understanding.” (22:44) And, "there is no such thing as enlightenment at all." (16:39). So, are we trapped in perpetual incomplete understanding? Isn’t there a way out?

There is no way out (14:52):  “We are trapped and the very demand to get out of the trap is really the problem.” (16:13) Thought maybe useful in solving problems related to machines – clocks, cars, and computers. But thought is not helpful in solving the “lack of happiness” kind of problems. Hence, UG says, “I question the very demand to be enlightened.” (16:39) However, he hints at a possibility that the demand to be enlightened may drop off with the insight of this trap. “So when the understanding dawns on you that that (thought) is not the instrument which will help you understand and solve your problems and there is no other instrument, the demand to solve problems ceases instantly.” (22:27)

For me, “Thought is not the instrument and there is no other instrument,” was the key takeaway. It could be different for you. Hope you watch the interview.

image source: youtube.com

Thursday, June 25, 2020

My 3 takeaways from “Experimentation works” by Stefan Thomke

I have been a fan of both systematic experimentation and Prof. Stefan Thomke for over a decade. Hence, it is not surprising that I enjoyed his recent book “Experimentation works: The surprising power of business experiments”. In this book, Thomke makes some of the core concepts from his earlier book “Experimentation matters” more accessible and brings out the increased scope and scale of disciplined business experimentation in the digital era. I have several takeaways from this book. However, for the sake of creating interest, let me highlight three of them.

Bad vs good experiments:  The book brings out characteristics of what makes a good business experiment. When a CEO of a retail chain J.C. Penney implements a bold plan of revamping the retail stores based on what worked in his earlier stint at Apple, the company is demonstrating HiPPO, a bias for Highest Paid Person’s Opinion. That is not even a bad experiment. When you tinker with rewards to see if it increases productivity, it is an example of trial-and-error or an uncontrolled or a bad experiment. Why? This is because you don’t know the counterfactual. i.e. How do you know that productivity would have increased even without the changed reward? Thomke dedicates a chapter “What makes a good business experiment?” to explain this which I found useful. The attributes of a good business experiment include falsifiability of the hypothesis, feasibility, and repeatability of the experiment among others.  

Scale of online experimentation: With the advent of online digital platforms, designing and running randomized control trials became cheap, fast, and scalable. Thomke dedicates three chapters to present various aspects of online, large scale experimentation. One chapter takes a peek into his favorite experimentation organization - Booking.com which runs more than one thousand concurrent tests on its website, servers and apps every single day. When it is designing a “Book” button, it creates two versions one with say, a yellow button, and the other with a blue button, and then it gets tested live with millions of customers. The color that attracts the most bookings gets used. David Vismans, chief product officer, says, “Our customers decide where to take the website, not our managers.” With millions of page hits every day, even a small one percent improvement in conversion can have a big impact on the business. Booking.com is not alone, LinkedIn runs between five hundred and one thousand experiments concurrently through the year. Goole, Amazon, IBM, and even start-ups have been using this approach to experimentation.

Ethical issues in business experimentation: What if you are testing a differential pricing rather than different colors of the button? Could it be unfair to the customers who pay more? While designing experiments, has care been taken to see safety and emotional impact on customers? In other words, experimenters carry ethical responsibility to test new ideas for integrity before running randomized experiments. Hence, some of the leading experimentation organizations are adding ethical guidelines and case studies as part of their employee training. In one chapter, Thomke looks at seven attributes of experimentation culture such as integrity.

One area which I wish the book covered more is – replication crisis. As of today (June 2020), it is a decade long ongoing methodological crisis in which it has been found that many scientific studies are difficult or impossible to replicate. It mainly affects social sciences and medicine. Since business experimentation is akin to social science experimentation, I feel it is relevant here.

In the epilogue, Thomke imagines future directions of business experimentation. With the advent of Artificial Intelligence (AI), could design, execution and analysis of experiments be automated – outsourced to experiment-bots like chat-bots? What if the business decisions themselves are taken automatically without human intervention? Thomke feels, based on the current research, that some of the required ingredients for this to work exist already today.

The book gives a number of pointers for further study which I find very helpful. I strongly recommend this book to managers who care about innovation and experimentation.

image source: amazon.com

Monday, June 8, 2020

Tap view vs map view of controlling one’s thoughts


“How do I control my thoughts?” That’s one of the commonly asked questions in my mindfulness workshop. The question comes from a deep-rooted belief that I should be able to control life situations which include my thoughts. That comes from the tap view – Once I can find the right tap, I can turn off the flow of unwanted thoughts. It is a matter of finding the right tap. And the hope is that mindfulness would help one discover the tap.

The map view is different. When we navigate our car with the help of a map, we are not trying to control either the flow of traffic or the road crossing pedestrians. We are just trying to navigate our way as smoothly as we can with as little delay as possible. The motivation here is not that of control but more of hassle-free navigation in the given situation.

Which metaphor is more useful for navigating through our life, tap view or map view? It depends on the context. If you are trying to control the output of a plant or trying to discover a drug for a disease, tap view may be helpful. Identifying and optimizing the exact control parameters may increase the plant yield and discovering the right molecule may create an effective drug which in turn would arrest the proliferation of disease. However, when it comes to controlling thoughts, tap view is not helpful, at least not yet. I don’t know of any tap that can switch the flow of thoughts off without harmful side effects. This is where the map view comes handy.
Map view suggests that each of us carries a map of the world in our brain. Using this map, the brain predicts the causes of its sensorium and the consequences of its actions. Map view comes with the following implications:

Map is not territory: Map is a representation of the world. But the map is not the world itself. In fact, a cyclist’s map could look very different from a truck driver’s map. The by-lanes which are most suitable for a cyclist are useless for the truck driver. Map is neither true nor false. It is either useful or not useful. It is useful when it helps you navigate the world. When the prediction of a map fails repeatedly, it needs updating.

No map is final: When can we declare that a map is complete? Never. Map needs constant updating based on the changing situation. When a major event like the COVID pandemic happens, a number of things that used to work before don’t work anymore. For example, you can’t shake hands, can’t go to the office or even stand close to another person. This makes it necessary to update the map. Instead, if we say that the world needs to change and go back to what it was, it may not work. That doesn’t mean you don’t try to change the world. It is just that the world may or may not work according to your map.

Re-routing is important:  When you feel you are stuck, you could re-route the journey. This may mean changing the destination, perhaps go back to where you came from or chill in the same area for some time by parking the car.  Or you could find another route to the same destination. Instead, if we keep cursing the traffic jam or driver’s mistakes, it won’t serve any useful purpose. This recognition is sufficient to reduce the flow of wasteful thoughts. This readiness to re-route any moment is an important aspect of mindfulness.

In short, map view is more helpful than tap view when it comes to the flow of thoughts. Rather than trying to control thoughts like a tap, we can learn to update the map or re-routing the journey. We should also learn to recognize the meaninglessness of cursing the situation or past actions or future accidents.

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Sunday, May 10, 2020

Bright spot diary: A source of ideas during challenging times



“Just surviving!” That’s the typical response I got from friends and family during the current ongoing Covid lockdown. Where does one find a source of creativity during such a gloomy period? In this article, I would like to present one such source which I find useful – bright spot diary. I have been maintaining this diary – more like a list in my diary – for over two years now. Let’s see how it helps me.

What’s a bright spot? It is anything that has (a) worked for me recently, and (b) was unexpected. Let’s look at 2 entries I made in this diary during the Covid period:
1.      Mindfulness webinar – 29 participants – 12-April
2.      Reading small chunks – Laplace approximation – 3-May

Entry no. 1 on 12th April is about the number of people who participated in an open webinar on mindfulness on that day. I didn’t expect so many people would turn up. Entry no. 2 is about a change I made while planning my day. For a while, I was writing in my todo list that I would finish a chapter from a book every day. And every day I would get stuck somewhere and fall short of the target. So one day I decided to allocate only one concept - more like a section – per day. And it worked much better. So I continued that way.

As you may have guessed, bright spots are well suited for asking scaling questions, “Can I do more of it?” Sometimes the answer is “yes”, sometimes “no”. But at least it creates options.

What does it mean for something to have “worked recently”? Well, it could be anything where things are not working out. So if days look boring, a bright spot would mean fun moments *in* the otherwise boring day. If exercise is not happening regularly, then a bright spot would be that situation where you went for a jog or did yoga. In fact, bright spot philosophy says that there is nothing universally dark. In every dark situation, there are bright spots lurking in the darkness.

I first encountered bright spots approach in the book “Switch” by Chip and Dan Heath. In fact, I wrote my first blog on the topic after reading Switch exactly ten years ago (May 2010). Then I followed the two sources from which Heath brothers borrowed it. One, psychotherapy called Solution Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT) and two, Positive Deviance approach championed by Jerry Sternin. So in a way, I have been sharpening my “bright spot” lens much before I began to write the diary.

What triggered the writing of bright spot diary for me?  Two years ago, in one of the guest lectures, a student asked me, “When everybody around you keeps pointing at your shortcomings, how does one get motivated?” and I suggested she write a bright spot diary. And then I asked myself, “Why not write one myself?” And that’s how it began. By then my bright spot lens – i.e. ability to notice bright spots in challenging situations had been honed for a number of years. And that brings us to an important aspect of bright spots.

Unlike the name suggests, bright spots are not necessarily very bright and shining and easily noticeable. In fact, they are oftentimes dim flickers in an overall dark and gloomy background. Somebody mentioned in my introduction in a panel discussion that I am an innovation and strategy expert. Wow! Strategy expert? Am I? Could I be? I noted it as a bright spot. And later asked me, “Could I develop this area further?”

Personal examples are always limiting. People say my life has been quite smooth. I never had major challenges. And that’s true. However, I feel that bright spots are present no matter how challenging the situation is. Apparently, people at the receiving end of the suicide hotline are trained to say, “Is there a part of you that doesn’t want to commit suicide? I would like to talk to that part of you.” There is usually a part that doesn’t want to commit suicide otherwise the person wouldn’t have called the hotline number anyway.

I hope you get to try it out and see if it works for you. Best wishes.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Improving idea velocity: A webinar May 15, 2020



(Watch the video of the webinar - filesize 54MB)

Improving idea velocity is arguably the most important imperative of the current innovation efforts. In a challenging time like Covid-19, the speed of innovation becomes even more pertinent as we respond to create novel and affordable solutions such as vaccines, ventilators, disinfectants, social distancing interventions, etc. In this webinar, we will step back from covid context and explore ways of improving idea velocity, in general. This webinar is meant for practitioners, educators, students, researchers, and whoever is concerned with the speed of innovation. Familiarity with 8-steps to innovation framework is helpful but not required. To register, please send mail to vinay@catalign.com. 

Monday, April 13, 2020

Mindfulness webinar 12th April 2020


Audio of the webinar (MP3, 31MB)

It was a pleasure to facilitate a webinar on mindfulness last Sunday and interact with participants in this corona lockdown period. The topic was "Recognizing wasteful thinking", i.e. chapter 4 of my book "Mindfulness: connecting with the real you." Here are the topics/questions we explored:

00:00:00 Introduction to the webinar
00:01:10 Questions from participants
00:04:35 Wasteful thinking and 3 examples
00:11:39 The clue: observation can stop a movement
00:15:02 Observing the train of thought
00:18:00 Leave it, change it, accept it
00:19:54 Diet of the mind
00:27:24 How to control my thoughts?
00:37:50 Are there stages of maturity?
00:40:15 Is positive thinking helpful?
00:46:22 Would acceptance lead to inaction?
00:54:00 Does closing eyes help?
00:55:15 Is it similar to Karmayoga of Gita?
00:57:19 Relationship to meditation and samadhi state
01:00:31 Teenage interaction - feels challenging
01:07:53 Fear of missing out in corporate world?
01:18:30 3 quick tips

Hope you enjoy it!

Saturday, March 28, 2020

The short film “Being 97”: A humbler version of Katha Upanishad

Katha Upanishad is one of the important Indian scriptures where a boy Nachiketa has a dialogue with death.  The short film “Being 97” also presents a dialogue with death except that the protagonist here is a ninety-seven-year-old former professor of Philosophy, Herbert Fingarette. Unlike Nachiketa, Herbert is not at the doorstep of death such that he can return to life after the dialogue. He is about to step in. Moreover, the dialogue in the short film is humbler in its stance as compared to Katha Upanishad in trying to probe the terrain which lies beyond death. “Being 97” is made by Andrew Hasse, Herbert’s grandson and I am really impressed by the gentleness of his approach in dealing with this delicate subject. Here are my 3 takeaways from the film:

The illusion of understanding: Herbert had been a professor of philosophy at the University of California at Santa Barbara for close to forty years. He had written several books including one on death. I have written a couple of books myself, one as a single author and another as a co-author. I know how effortful the book writing process is. Moreover, you can’t write a book unless you really believe that you understand the topic of your book. Herbert believed that anxiety about death is not rational. And yet, he admits in the film that he was wrong. Whether rational or not he feels anxious about his death. This is not to suggest that Herbert was a poor or phony researcher. On the contrary, it demonstrates how powerful the illusion of understanding is. I look at it as a warning signal to all so-called experts including myself to be a little humble about one’s claims. At ninety-seven, Herbert is able to answer the question, “What’s the point of it all?” with, “I wish I knew”. I really admire his honesty.

Importance of acceptance: One thing the film brings out is the difficulty Herbert faces in doing simple everyday tasks. For example, it shows his inability to wear a shirt himself. There is a caregiver who assists him with his chores. He had been an independent person all his life and it must have been hard to accept that you can’t do these tasks yourself. And yet, that is what Herbert has been learning. To accept the situation as it is, without inner resistance. It is such a powerful lesson. The word “acceptance” is many times misunderstood as akin to doing “silent or passive observation”. I feel the real meaning of acceptance is “inner non-resistance”. It is seeing the futility of the inner voice that says, “This shouldn’t be happening to me. I have been independent all my life. I will fight it out.” This inner voice is typically accompanied by a sustained feeling of frustration and anger. Acceptance is associated with actions in harmony with the situation.

A clue on prototyping death: Problem of death “is not just a theoretical question for me,” says Herbert, “It’s the one thing central to my existence.” If one were to understand death actually, not just theoretically, where would one begin? I feel Herbert gives us a clue, without perhaps being aware of it, when he says, “Half of me is gone and her absence has been a presence.” He is referring to his wife’s death several years earlier and its continued effect. “We were very close. We were married for probably around 70 years,” he says and it feels as though he is half-dead. If it is seen from this perspective, death can be looked upon as dying to things you really consider part of you. These could be – family, friends, possessions – both material and knowledge, status, things you feel you belong to like country, religion, political party, etc.  One’s existence is a continuation of all these things. Sometimes these are collectively referred to as self-image. Now, I can ask simple questions like – Can I die to TV for a day? Or Can I die to my phone for a day? Or can I die to the office for a day? Or can I die to the family by going to a silent retreat alone? These are not theoretical questions. You can actually experiment and test which part of the self-image is really permanent – unshakable. The boundary of the self-image can get pushed when you experiment with something like a religion which one has inherited from generations and carried for several decades. I found these experiments useful and insightful. Perhaps you may find them useful too.

Herbert passed away shortly after the film was made in late 2018. And what a beautiful piece of art the grandfather-grandson duo created! Kudos to Herbert and Andrew!

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