Monday, February 15, 2021

My 4 takeways from Dr. Pavan Soni’s “Design your thinking”

Dr. Pavan Soni is a friend and I have seen his journey from innovation evangelist at Wipro to IIMB Ph.D. program to an accomplished consulting career. I am happy to see Pavan adding yet another feather to his colorful cap with the book “Design your thinking: The mindsets, toolsets and skillsets for creative problem solving”.  The book is packed with inspirational stories – several of them from India and suffused with the optimism that Pavan embodies. The book also helped me question some of my deeply held assumptions. And sometimes the questions are more valuable than the examples. Here are my 4 takeaways.

First two are stories in the book that stood out for me.

Power of metaphors: In the “Inspire” chapter Pavan invokes Aristotle’s quote “To be a master of metaphor is a sign of genius” and cites several examples to illustrate it. One of them is Mahindra XUV500. A market survey of a couple of thousand customers across the world got translated into a design brief – to build a car that offers aggressive styling, muscular looks and a macho stance. And then the team adopted the metaphor of cheetah indicating speed, agility, aggression, and muscle. The design team visited Masai Mara, Kenya to watch the beast in the wild terrain. So much to internalize the metaphor!  The design cycle also involved testing 250 prototypes across half a dozen terrains in the world.

Perils of “just do it”: Pavan is also careful to bring out stories from innovative organizations that highlight leadership admitting to mistakes. For example, he illustrates the principle that “just do it” without an appropriate pilot or prototype can hurt badly with two big decisions from Flipkart that backfired. In the first case, Flipkart went for a Big Billion Day sale in October 2014 without doing any prototyping. The site couldn’t withstand the heavy traffic and became dysfunctional for some time. In the second case, leadership decided to take Flipkart towards app-only mode by forgoing desktop customers without any pilot. They had to revert the decision after backlash from employees and customers.

Now we turn to questions that got raised in my mind that rubbed some of my long-held beliefs. It means I need to explore them further. 

Can empathy be engineered? Pavan suggests in the chapter “Empathy and define” that empathy can be engineered. This section builds on the work of several reputed thinkers like Daniel Goleman (self-awareness), Thich Nhat Hanh, and Dalai Lama (mindfulness). And then suggests that with the tools like mind mapping, stakeholder map, and customer journey mapping, empathy can be engineered. If listening with openness and deferring judgment are important for empathy then it is not clear how using tools will cultivate empathy. “Engineering” carries a sense of control and precision in the design process and I don’t know how empathy can be controlled. But maybe I am seeing engineering and empathy in a narrow sense.

Can biases be overcome? Citing research from Francesca Gino, Pavan mentions that confirmation bias can be overcome through curiosity. The solution is hiring and cultivating curiosity. My limited understanding of biases is that they are deep-rooted and extremely hard to overcome. Daniel Kahneman who has researched biases for fifty years keeps saying in the interviews that it is difficult to overcome biases at an individual level. After writing the bestseller “Thinking, fast and slow” Kahneman feels he hasn’t changed much and he is still overconfident. It is possible that the study of Kahneman’s work has biased me. So I need to study this further.

The book contains a comprehensive collection of toolsets associated with creative problem-solving. Personally, it has helped me learn new examples and raise/revive basic questions related to design thinking. I wish Pavan and the book a great success.


Book image:

Daniel Kahneman’s quote “I don’t think my intuitions have significantly improved and I am very overconfident,” see his interview with Sam Harris, March 2019 (18:57-20:25)

Friday, January 29, 2021

Innovation maturity, level 4 challenge and sandbox hesitancy hypothesis

My co-author Prof Rishikesha Krishnan and I have been presenting the innovation maturity mirror (see the picture above) to executives for close to 8 years. We feel many organizations that begin their innovation journey reach level 3 and then struggle during the next leg – to reach level 4. In this article, I would like to first spell out what the level 4 challenge looks like through the innovation maturity mirror. And then propose a hypothesis that hesitation to build a sandbox in a strategic opportunity area could be at the heart of the challenge.

What’s the main difference between level 3 and level 4? Level 3 indicates that the organization is engaged in experiments and reviews. 1 in 10 ideas get prototyped, incubation pipeline gets reviewed quarterly and 1 in 3 employees participate in innovation activities. That is, if you walk around the corridors or shop floor, innovation is palpable. Level 4 indicates that, in addition to the above things, the organization now has a balanced portfolio of small, medium, and large impact ideas. On average, the organization generates 1 idea per employee per year, and projected impact of the big idea pipeline is greater than 10% of the revenue and there is at least one operational innovation sandbox.

The run rate of 1 idea per employee per person is not easy to sustain. However, with the momentum of the experimentation and challenge campaigns, it is achievable. It is also not difficult to generate big impact ideas. Ask this question in a leadership meeting and you could get a few ideas. Your favorite search engine could also help you get a few. Things get tricky when the rubber meets the road for the big ideas – a champion, typically a CXO, taking a strategic bet, allocating resources, building experimentation infrastructure, put a dedicated team around a focus area. Sandbox hesitancy hypothesis says that organizations either hesitate to set up a sandbox or don’t give enough attention to it.

Organizations tend to be secretive about their sandbox setup and that is understandable. Amazon was secretive about the Kindle effort and Apple was secretive about iPhone. But many times organizations end up acquiring new resources – people/technology to build the sandbox. For example, in 2007 Google acqui-hired a team for starting its self-driving car sandbox which eventually became Waymo. The VueTool team was working on a digital mapping project and some of its members had won 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge related to robotic self-driving cars. Mahindra acquired Reva to strengthen the electric automobiles sandbox and Flipkart acquired an AR/VR company Scapic last November. In all these cases, in all likelihood, there was a champion at the top level (Bezos for Kindle, Sergey Brin for self-driving car, etc.)  

Is innovation sandbox applicable only for large companies? I don’t think so. I feel that even an SME would need to build a sandbox with all its characteristics – a champion, focussed challenge area, experimentation infrastructure, dedicated team, and failure protection.

If the sandbox hesitancy hypothesis has any merit, then a number of questions can be asked. Why do organizations hesitate to build an innovation sandbox? Is it a lack of ideas? Or lack of confidence? Or lack of clarity on the strategic bet? Or lack of resources? Or lack of urgency? Or lack of sandbox management experience?

I and Rishi hope to explore these questions in the coming months. If you feel you have some useful input, please let us know.