Monday, October 18, 2021

Yezdi Lashkari’s insights on innovation in the Hitech world

It was a pleasure to have my classmate and friend Yezdi Lashkari give a guest lecture in my course “
Strategic management of technology and innovation” at IIM Bangalore last term. Yezdi is currently the Founder of Flexmoney, a leading Fintech startup based in Mumbai that is trying to disrupt digital consumer credit market. Yezdi has had an illustrious career spanning IITB, MIT Media Lab, Seattle, and Silicon Valley and 3 start-ups. Before I could grasp what Internet was all about, Yezdi had sold his first Internet-based start-up Firefly to Microsoft in 1998. He worked with bosses like Satya Nadella and Steve Ballmer at Microsoft. In his talk, Yezdi captivated the class with his nuggets of wisdom. Here are 3 of his insights on innovation in the HiTech world:

     1.      Failure is an option:  Yezdi’s second startup happened around the 2008 financial meltdown and it had to close down. Like many of us, Yezdi grew up in the “failure is not an option” culture in India. Until that point, he had not seen any failure. So this startup failure came as a big shock and disappointment. This is when he got good advice from his angel investors. They said, “You can’t blame yourself for this. The entire world is going down. Take a break. Come back and we will give you money for the next startup”. He realized that that was an amazing attitude. After more such experiences, Yezdi is convinced, “If you are not failing, you are not trying enough.”

2.      Listen from all directions: Satya Nadella was Yezdi’s first boss at Microsoft. He was not the most aggressive boss around unlike the Microsoft culture prevalent at that time. However, he was very good at listening and synthesizing different points of view. Over the years, Yezdi began to appreciate the importance of listening from all directions. Juniors are quite hesitant to speak up when the boss is around. And unless one cultivates the culture that anyone can speak up, ideas get blocked. In the hitech world, young people are likely to be in touch with the latest technology trends. And if one doesn’t listen to them, one may not catch these signals.

3.      Have fun: Corporate world today is extremely fast-paced. One needs to work hard and it also involves sacrifices. However, if you just focus on your career, you are likely to lose out on a lot of joy. Yezdi’s move back from Silicon Valley to India was motivated by his desire to spend more time with his parents. He feels it is important to take breaks and spend time with friends, family, and parents. And Yezdi walks the talk.

Thanks, Yezdi for sharing your wisdom with us!

Friday, October 15, 2021

My 3 favorite verses from Bhagavad Gita

Bhagavad Gita is an ocean and I am no expert on it. However, from time to time I come across a verse from Gita which makes me curious and I study it. Over the years, I have become fond of certain verses. Here I present 3 of my favorite verses.

      1.      This is verse 2.28.

अव्यक्तादीनि भूतानि व्यक्तमध्यानि भारत।

अव्यक्तनिधनान्येव तत्र का परिदेवना ॥2.28॥

avyaktadeeni bhootani vyaktamadhyani bharat

avyaktnidhananyev tatra ka paridevana ||2.28||

 

Before birth, beings are unmanifest;

between birth and death, manifest;

at death, unmanifest again.

What cause for grief in all this?

(translation: Bhagvad Gita, A new translation, Stephen Mitchell, 2000)

This verse is interesting to me because of its counter-intuitive proposal. We are all familiar with the forms in and around us such as mountains, trees, clouds, living beings, etc. This world is sometimes called the manifest. We also know of subtler forms such as programs present inside your smartphone or DNA code present inside every cell of your body or beliefs we carry in our memory. This verse suggests that the manifest world also exists in such a subtle yet unmanifest state. Now the question is, which is more fundamental, the manifest or the unmanifest or both are equivalent? This verse proposes that the unmanifest is more fundamental. It is from the unmanifest, the manifest emerges and after the form dissolves it goes back to the unmanifest again.

In the case of the software program inside the smartphone, this is not difficult to see. When you start an app such as a video player, the program for playing video gets activated and when you exit the app, the program remains in the inactive state. However, if you dismantle and open the phone or even break it, there is nothing in there that you can touch and say, “This is the video playing program.” The program exists in a subtle form that can’t be touched or felt. Programs not only drive smartphones but also drive giant airplanes and large plants.

Perhaps we could say the same thing for our beliefs. Every moment, according to what the moment means to us, certain beliefs get activated.  They give rise to thoughts, which in turn give rise to actions and when at another moment the meaning changes, these thoughts go away and those beliefs remain in an inactive state. Neuroscientists haven’t figured out a way of pointing to a set of neurons and say that this is the belief. The programs and the beliefs are examples of unmanifest and the video player, the airplane and the human body are examples of the manifest.

The verse suggests that each of us came from an ocean of the unmanifest and we would go back to the ocean after death. And then asks the question: Why worry?


2.     This is verse 13.29 

प्रकृत्यैव च कर्माणि क्रियमाणानि सर्वशः।

यः पश्यति तथात्मानमकर्तारं स पश्यति॥13.29||

 prakrtyaiva cha karmaNi kriyamaNani sarvashah |

yah pashyati tathatmanamakartaram sa pashyati || 13.29||

(My translation:)

All actions are performed by inbuilt tendencies

One who sees that self is non-doer sees

The phrase that first attracted me to this verse is यः पश्यति स पश्यति (yah pashyati sa pashyati, one who sees, sees). It is suggesting that seeing clearly is enough. It doesn’t say, “One who sees, does good” etc. Now what does one see? One sees that our tendencies are expressing themselves into various actions and that there is no independent self acting. Like the previous verse, this is counter-intuitive. It is not our everyday experience. It feels as though I am making decisions and acting. Of course, there are times when we feel overpowered by our tendencies – overeating, oversleeping, over-reacting, worrying, etc. But other than that it feels as though I am in command.

To me, a self-driving car is a good metaphor that may help us see what this verse is trying to suggest. A self-driving car driven by a shared program carries tendencies based on past experiences, not just of that car but other similar cars as well. And is there an independent entity driving the car? No. The program is shared and the map is shared. Perhaps we are like self-driving cars, there is no one in the driver’s seat.

3.     Verse 17.3

सत्त्वानुरूपा सर्वस्य श्रध्दा भवति भारत।

श्रध्दामयोSयं पुरुषो यो यच्छ्श्रध्दः स एव सः॥17.3||

 sattvanuroopa sarvasya shraddhaa bhavati bharat

shraddhamayo S yam purusho yo yachshraddhah sa eva sah ||17.3||

(My translation:)

Beliefs exist according to one's nature, Arjuna

An individual is a concoction of beliefs, whatever his beliefs, he is that

The phrase that attracted me to this verse is यो यच्छ्श्रध्दः स एव सः (yo yachshraddhah sa eva sah, Whatever his beliefs, he is that). It makes a very strong statement – You are your beliefs. Like previous verses, this feels counter-intuitive. I feel my beliefs are just one aspect of me. But beliefs are not me.

You could say, your body is not a belief. But neuroscience has revealed that one could feel pain/itch in a body part/limb that doesn’t exist. You could say, my breathing is not a belief, it is a fact. Alternately, one could say that necessity of breathing is a belief held by the body-mind for its survival that is just playing out. As neuroscientist Karl Friston puts it, “Each individual is a hypothesis or model of what should occupy this ecological niche, and must compete for selection under pressure from the environment”.

Perhaps you could see the connections between all three verses. We can look at a set of beliefs like a shared program that is getting updated based on new experiences. And life is just a play of that shared program in response to changing context. The shared beliefs or the unmanifest expresses itself into different forms including living forms. A form is nothing but shared beliefs in action embedded in a context.

Hope these verses made you reflect. You may not see it the way these verses suggest right now. But sometimes it is worth looking at them as hypotheses. Hope you give them a fair try.

image credit: iskondwarka.org

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

A peek into Bezos’ big bet review: Alexa example

Innovation review has been an important element in my consulting work for the past decade and a half. And I have seen that it becomes trickier when it comes to reviewing big bets. In “Amazon unbound: Jeff Bezos and the invention of a global empire”, Brad Stone gives us a peek into how Jeff Bezos reviews his big bets like Alexa, Go, Fire Phone, AWS, India, and more. I found it very interesting. Here is an example of how such a review went for Alexa.

On January 4, 2011, Bezos sent an email to a few select executives including his technical advisor or TA, Greg Hart, “We should build a $20 device with its brains in the cloud that’s completely controlled by your voice.” By then Hart and Bezos would have perhaps discussed the advent of speech recognition multiple times including once in late 2010 when Hart demonstrated Google’s voice search on Android to Bezos. Soon after the email, Hart was assigned the secret project to build such a device and he moved out from his TA role.

By early 2013 the product codenamed Doppler was in beta testing mostly from a few hundred Amazon employees. The data was noisy and it wasn’t enough. The device didn’t look promising yet. Bezos kept asking, “How will we even know when the product is good?” Rohit Prasad was leading the effort in building a far-field speech recognition engine, a core part of Doppler. Prasad and Hart prepared a graph showing how Alexa would improve as data collection progressed. For each successive 3 percent increase in accuracy, they needed to double the data.

In one of the reviews with Bezos, Hart, Prasad, and team proposed to double the speech science team and postpone the launch from summer to fall. Bezos commented, “You are going about this the wrong way. First, tell me what would be a magical product, then tell me how to get there.” Then the question came whether the team had enough data. Prasad answered that they need thousands of more hours of complex, far-field voice commands.

Bezos factored in the team’s request for additional speech scientists and calculated how long the revised team would need to get the requisite data. He asked, “Let me get this straight. You are telling me that for your big request to make this product successful, instead of it taking forty years, it will only take us twenty years?” His math was correct and the team didn’t have a plan. Bezos ended the meeting abruptly say, “You guys aren’t serious about making this product.”

This review resulted in a serious introspect in the team and they came up with a plan of outsourcing the data collection. The new program called AMPED ended up renting neighborhoods first in Boston and later expanding it to 10 cities and recruiting contract workers. The rented homes and apartments were sprinkled with Alexa devices disguised as pedestal microphones, Xbox gaming consoles, TVs, and tablets. The contract workers worked eight hours a day, six days a week, reading scripts from iPad with canned lines and open-ended requests.

By 2014, the Alexa team had increased its store of speech data by a factor of ten thousand. When all this was presented to Bezos in the review, he said, “Now I know you are serious about it! What are we going to do next?”

Bezos’ comment, “First tell me what would be a magical product, then tell me how to get there” would get repeated in different forms. For example, in the review of another of his big bet, India business, Bezos would ask Amit Agarwal, Head of Amazon India, “Tell me how to win. Then tell me how much it costs.” It reminded me of George Day’s innovation portfolio management framework, “Real-win-worth it” (HBR Dec 2007).

image source: amazon.in

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

3 flavours of innovation strategy


For a business, does it matter what the innovation efforts are led by? I feel it does. For example, is it led by technology creation? Or is customer experience primary and technology an enabler? Or is the primary focus continuous improvement? I feel there is no right or wrong answer. However, having clarity on this aspect makes a difference in the design and execution of innovation strategy. Here are 3 flavours of innovation strategy depending upon what it is led by. This view may be a bit simplistic but I feel it gives a good starting point in establishing clarity on the design of innovation strategy.

Customer experience-led: Amazon spends a lot of money on R&D – both in absolute terms and as a percentage of its sales. In 2020, in SEC filing it reported an expenditure of $42 billion (11% of sales) which includes both technology and content (such as films and web series). Amazon also filed 2244 patents in 2020. However, innovation strategy at Amazon seems to be customer experience-led. Every concept proposal starts with a 2-pager “press-release” describing how the product/service would be useful to the customer. Even the CTO, Werner Vogels says his main job is customer pain management. Even a futuristic fully automated grocery store such as Amazon Go had to go through several iterations of the “press-release”. For Echo/Alexa Amazon did significant idea testing with potential customers to determine which features to be included and also launch worthiness. After having launched the product in the market, Amazon updates product roadmap based on customer feedback.

A. G. Lafley led P&G’s innovation strategy during 2000-2010 was also customer experience-led. As Lefley wrote in “The game-changer”, it meant strengthening the design capability, launching programs such as Living-it and working-it for teams to spend time with potential customers to gather insights, creating structures such as Clay Street and innovation gyms to prototype ideas quickly and get customer feedback. Technology development continued to be an important element of the innovation strategy. However, customer experience was clearly the driving force.

Like Amazon and P&G, if your innovation strategy is customer experience-led, then you need to design structures, processes and capabilities that put customer experience at the centre of the innovation process. It might mean design thinking needs to be a crucial competency in the organization.

Technology-led: When Google invests in moonshots like self-driving cars or quantum computing, its innovation strategy is being led by technology development. It shows up in the accounts, the R&D expenses for Google (Alphabet) in 2020 were $27B, 15% of revenue. Technology at the cutting edge is risky, highly competitive, and needs a talent pool that is not easy to retain. When will quantum computing start generating revenue? and when it does will it be significant? Nobody knows. Hence, only companies with deep pockets like Google, technology-focused start-ups, government funded research labs like National Chemical Laboratories (NCL) take up this route.

Many technology-led start-ups like DeepMind eventually get acquired. Companies like Bose Corporation who manage to do technology-led innovation on their own typically remain privately held in order to avoid quarterly performance pressure. To be a technology-led innovator, you need to build a war chest to fight legal battles. This means building a legal team in addition to building intellectual property.  In fact, Bose has been described by the audio industry as a “litigious company”.

Continuous improvement led: I remember one of my early consulting engagements with an R&D organization more than a decade ago. The then Head of R&D said, “We don’t have an insight right now to take a big bet. However, for the next couple of years, we would like to democratize continuous improvement.” And we did and we created a process of logging, selecting, encouraging, helping employees implement ideas. Idea catalysts from various teams met every month to share their experience and learn from each other. We circulated an innovation dashboard every month. And it helped build creative confidence in the organization. After a couple of years, the Head of R&D was ready to build an innovation sandbox around the challenge of cloud migration. 

The point is continuous improvement can be a strategic direction for innovation efforts at least for a while. Creative confidence across all levels of the organization can be a huge advantage. A look at Toyota’s “40 years, 20 million ideas” gives us some idea. Katsuaki Watanabe, the then President of Toyota has said in an interview in Harvard Business Review, “There is no genius in our company. We just do whatever we believe is right, trying every day to improve every little bit and piece. But when 70 years of very small improvements accumulate, they become a revolution.”

In a large organization, different businesses may be pursuing different innovation strategies. It is possible that in one business unit innovation is technology-led while in another business unit it is customer experience-led and in yet another unit it is continuous improvement led.  

What is the flavour of your innovation strategy?

Source: 
For Amazon's Echo/Alexa development, check out Chapter 1 of "Amazon unbound" by Brad Stone.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

My takeaways from “Strategic management of technology and innovation”

I just finished teaching a course “Strategic management of technology and innovation” at IIM Bangalore. This was my third time in the last three years. I enjoyed teaching the course and learned a great deal in the process. I have several takeaways, but here are three that stand out in my mind right now.

The title grows on you: I inherited the title of the course from Prof S Rajeev who had been teaching it for fifteen years. Thanks to the suggestions from PGPEM chair Prof Gopal Mahapatra and PGPEM program manager Sandeep Kudachi, I got an opportunity teach it. I initially thought the title had too many loaded abstract words and thought I could shorten it later. However, over the last 3 years I have begun to appreciate the three dimensions of the course – innovation management, management of technology and strategic thinking. And I hope to build on them further.

Process vs people/outcome: As the above image shows we ended up studying innovation stories of a number of innovators / innovation leaders. However, we kept our focus on the learnable process rather than people characteristics. This was a side effect of my process bias. While I understand how inspiring Steve Jobs or Elon Musk could be, I am not convinced one can become like one of them. In fact, we did study a case of Elizabeth Holmes who tried to become like Steve Jobs, at least outwardly. However, even in the Theranos case, our primary emphasis was “How to detect innovation frauds?” Along with success stories, we also studied failures (e.g. Fabmart) and work-in-progress (Vimeo) stories. In fact, the theme “learning to fail with comfort” was running throughout the course.

Culture friendly approaches: Taliban government came to power while the course was going on. We asked, “If you were hired as a consultant by department of education in Taliban government, what suggestions will you give?” If you suggest, “Empower women”, it may not go far. Our cultural biases influence our absorption capacity.  The same goes for every organization because each has a unique culture. And hence we played special attention to learning to design culture friendly approaches. One way is to learn from the internal bright spots – things that have worked within the same culture in the past. In case of Taliban, one such starting point could be to dig out bright spots in education from 1996 to 2001 when Taliban was in power.

Thanks to the amazing infrastructure IIMB has invested in, I got to experience the hybrid mode of teaching for half the course. In hybrid mode, half the students were in the class and the other half were online and they would switch the following week. Many students felt in-class interactions – with teacher but more importantly with other classmates – were far more effective than in the online mode. Especially for my teaching style where in-class group discussions are important, hybrid mode made a big difference.

Availability of the online mode also offered opportunities in inviting guest speakers from other towns (Mumbai) and countries (US). It was great to hear perspectives from a technology investor (Ravi Aranke, SVP, Cloudera), a serial entrepreneur (Yezdi Lashkari, Founder, Flexmoney) and an intrapreneur (Shailesh Prakash, CIO, Washington Post). All of them are my classmates and it was a joy to see them doing wonderful stuff in their field and inspire students.

Saturday, June 5, 2021

My key takeaways from Katha Upanishad

Investigating the “illusion of time” hypothesis is an important part of the mindfulness process and I explore it in chapter 7 of my mindfulness book. In Sanskrit and in many Indian languages the word kaal (काल) means both time and death. Hence, Katha Upanishad (or Kathopanishad) which contains a dialogue between Nachiketa, an inquisitive boy and Yama, the God of death has been of interest to me. I had read the English translations a few times. Last year, I tried to read it in Sanskrit. I used the Sanskrit online dictionaries and also listened to 30 of 47 discourses by Swami Tejomayananda of Chinmay Mission last year. Here are my key takeaways from what I have read so far and what my understanding is of these verses. I am sure, like any art form, I might find new meanings and nuances when I read it again.


1.      What is the state of the world?

Verse: 1.2.5

अविद्यायामन्तरे वर्तमानाः स्वयं धीराः पण्डितं मन्यमानाः ।
दन्द्रम्यमाणाः परियन्ति मूढा अन्धेनैव नीयमाना यथान्धाः ॥ ५ ॥ 
 
avidyāyāmantare vartamānāḥ svayaṃ dhīrāḥ paṇḍitaṃ manyamānāḥ |
dandramyamāṇāḥ pariyanti mūḍhā andhenaiva nīyamānā yathāndhāḥ || 5 ||

Living in the middle of ignorance and regarding themselves as intelligent and learned, the ignorant go round and round, in many crooked ways, like the blind led by the blind.

 

2.      Why is the world like this?


पराञ्चि खानि पराङ्पश्यति नान्तरात्मन् । (part of verse 2.1.1)
parāñci khāni parāṅpaśyati nāntarātman |

Sense organs are out-going. Therefore, one sees outside and not the atman within.

And the first line of the next verse (verse 2.1.2) 

पराचः कामाननुयन्ति बालास्ते मृत्योर्यन्ति विततस्य पाशं ।
parācaḥ kāmānanuyanti bālāste mṛtyoryanti vitatasya pāśaṃ | (verse 2.1.2) 

The ignorant pursue external objects of desire; they get into the meshes of widespread death.

 

3.      What is futile?

Part of the verse 2.1.2 tells what is futile:
ध्रुवमध्रुवेष्विह न प्रार्थयन्ते

dhruvamadhruveṣviha na prārthayante 

(Wise) do not wish for permanence from that which is impermanent.

 

4.      What to do? (1)

 

आवृत्तचक्षुः (āvṛttacakśuh)i.e. Turn eyes (attention) inwards (Part of verse 2.1.1)

And observe that (verse 1.3.10)


इन्द्रियेभ्यः परा ह्यर्था अर्थेभ्यश्च परं मनः ।
मनसस्तु परा बुद्धिर्बुद्धेरात्मा महान्परः ॥ १० ॥

indriyebhyaḥ parā hyarthā arthebhyaśca paraṃ manaḥ |
manasastu parā buddhirbuddherātmā mahānparaḥ || 10 ||

Meaning is superior to the sense organs, underlying tendencies or beliefs are superior to the meaning, discerning intelligence (vivek-buddhi) is superior to the beliefs and underlying essence (atman) is superior to the intelligence.

5.      What to do? (2) 

Verse 1.3.14

उत्तिष्ठत जाग्रत प्राप्य वरान्निबोधत ।
क्षुरस्य धारा निशिता दुरत्यया दुर्गं पथस्तत्कवयो वदन्ति ॥ १४ ॥
uttiṣṭhata jāgrata prāpya varānnibodhata |
kśurasya dhārā niśitā duratyayā durgaṃ pathastatkavayo vadanti || 14 ||

Arise, awake; having reached the great, learn; the edge of a razor is sharp and impassable; that path, the wise say, is hard to go by. 


My summary: Wake up, are you pursuing only external objects? Are you leading a meaningless life? Are you wishing permanence in impermanent? Turn your attention inwards and watch the subtle movement of thought. Are you reactive all the time? Is there any discernment i.e. questioning of beliefs? Be alert and watch.

Image source: karunagyoga.in

Thursday, June 3, 2021

3 types of thinking Harish Hande highlighted for social innovations


Last week, I finished co-teaching the course “From jugaad to systematic innovation” with my friend Prof. Rishikesha Krishnan at the Indian School of Development Management. In the last class, Rishi had invited Selco founder Harish Hande as a guest speaker. In a short span of half an hour, Harish managed to instill a big dose of creative energy in the class. He told us about the type of thinking he felt is required while innovating in the social sector. Here are 3 types of thinking Harish highlighted:

Holistic thinking: Harish said, “One of my biggest barriers is the ability of people to think holistically”. People tend to identify themselves with a particular discipline such as mechanical engineering, marketing, finance but nobody says, “I am a solution provider”. We get caught up in our degrees and don’t think of what it takes to bring the solution to the doorstep of the customer.

Selco has labs in Kalahandi in Odisha, Williamnagar in Meghalaya, Guwahati and Bangalore where new programs are designed. And every program design team includes an architect, an engineer, a doctor, a finance person etc. Sometimes it also includes an anthropologist and a Yakshagana artist. They have to answer the question, “Is the solution affordable in the long run?” A solution that is low-cost today could be unaffordable in the long run. For example, a solar-powered sewing machine may enable a woman to produce 8 shirts a day instead of 2. However, if she is not able to find a market for her products then we end up creating technology debt. Hence, program design teams are encouraged to spend more time exploring the problem and think long term before they think of solutions.

Cheat thinking: How do we cheat from other processes? That is, how do we copy the seed of an idea from other working examples? Harish illustrated this idea with the mid-day meal scheme. A mid-day meal attracts kids to school in order to get nourished. In a similar way, could kids be attracted to school in order to get portable batteries charged so that their houses get lighting at night? With this observation Selco’s “Light for education” program was born where a school becomes a hub for the solar infrastructure in the village, a go-to place to charge your batteries. If American Express comes up with a new financial product, could one see if there is a seed of an idea there that can be adopted? Or could we borrow something from the vocational curriculum in German schools? What Harish calls cheat thinking is similar to what I call metaphoric thinking, a solution-centric approach to problem-solving.

Open-source thinking:  A question was asked, “How do you see the role of competition in the development sector when it comes to innovation?” Harish said, “Social sector promotes collaboration on paper. But it is the worst collaborator. Competition in the social sector is much more cut-throat than in the private sector.” He added, “The aim of many of the non-profits should be to kill themselves, not to grow.” He felt we need open source thinkers whose end goal is how many people will get benefitted rather than how do I keep it to myself. There is hero-worship in the sector where people are recognized by the awards they amass. “Collaboration is far away,” Harish said. He hoped that program design with holistic thinking would promote collaboration from early stages.

It was a privilege to listen to Harish and thanks to Rishi for making this event happen.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Mindfulness on the go: A working definition

Mindfulness is an abstract term and it means multiple things to multiple people. Hence, a working definition helps in bringing out key aspects and contrasting them with other connotations. The suggestion here is to "work with" this definition and adapt it to one's needs. Before we look at the definition, let's first take a look at the "overconfidence trap" to which mindfulness is a response. 




Overconfidence trap: The picture above illustrates a bistable optical illusion and a related cartooned cognitive illusion. To quote Daniel Kahneman, "Your cognitive biases act like optical illusions". One way to understand how such an illusion is sustained is through the loop of an overconfidence trap (see the figure below). Here, we have two biases reinforcing each other: the confirmation bias (What you believe is what you see) and WYSIATI bias (What you see is all there is). Please note that not all biases are subjected to this trap. Typically, beliefs related to religion, race, caste, politics, culture, some scientific ideas if you are a scientist are susceptible to the overconfidence trap. Also note that there is nothing wrong with a belief, it is the confidence attached to it that creates conflicts. It is just fine to worship duck-god, but when you say duck-god is all there is, trouble starts.


A working definition:

The definition has 4 parts (1) a process of learning (2) to see clearly (3) despite fast, automatic, and biased thinking, and (4) anytime, anywhere. It is sometimes understood better when it is contrasted with what it is not (see below).


1. Process of learning vs state of knowing: This is a process-oriented definition and not a state-oriented definition.  

2. To see clearly vs to do rightly: It puts emphasis on seeing (or perceiving) rather than doing. Willingness to learn to see clearly implies the presence of some doubt about what you see. It means the WYSIATI bias is not very strong.

3. Despite fast, automatic, and biased thinking: The biases could still be operating i.e. I may still see only duck-god. However, I may now be open to other possibilities despite seeing only duck-god, especially when someone else says she sees a rabbit-god. 

4. Anytime, anywhere: This implies that this process of learning is not restricted to a specific time of the day when I sit quietly with my eyes closed. It could happen anytime, anywhere.

5. Absence of any goal: This definition does not assume any goal. Learning to see clearly not in order to get anywhere, but for its own sake.

How do I know I am seeing clearly? I don't know. All it means is to carry some openness about a possibility that I may not see clearly. If someone expresses a view different from mine (duck-god vs rabbit-god) or if I see that there is an expectation mismatch (I try to diet, but end up overeating), it is a hint that I may not be seeing clearly.  

Happy to receive your inputs.

Friday, April 2, 2021

Book review: L R Natarajan’s “The 9 nuggets of innovation”

It was a pleasure to read “The 9 nuggets of innovation: outsmart competition” written by my friend L R Natarajan. Over the past decade, I have seen LRN in action as a guest speaker several times at IIM Bangalore executive education programs. His powerful narrative style combined with his personal experience of democratizing innovation at Tanishq, the jewellery division of Titan was a big hit among participants. I am glad he took the pains to pen down these inspiring stories and weaved 9 nuggets of innovation in this book.

One of my favorite stories in the book revolves around the “3-day miracle” challenge at Tanishq. The idea was to bring down jewellery manufacturing time from 30 days to 3 days. The challenge was especially daunting because jewellery manufacturing at that time was an unorganized sector and the manufacturing process was believed to an art form.

In the chapter titled “Democratize innovation,” LRN presents how he and his team went about designing and executing a number of interventions from 2003 to 2011. It involved several multi-pronged initiatives starting from launching challenge campaigns each year with a specific theme such as putting up “What’s new?” board in each department, enrolling the vendor fraternity and goldsmith in the process of innovation, and many more. Anyone involved in the innovation process would know how difficult it is to sustain an innovation initiative. LRN’s grounded perspective is a testimonial of one of the finest such examples in the Indian context.

LRN was fortunate to have a visionary champion in the form of Bhaskar Bhatt, the then MD of the company. And Bhaskar Bhatt has aptly written a foreword to the book. Bhatt correctly observes that “India’s R&D investments and innovation lag far behind the world” and suggests that “every company needs to raise innovation as a Board agenda”. I couldn’t agree more.

One of the core messages, “anyone can innovate” is loud and clear in the book. However, another core message, “Innovation is simple” is not so clear. For example, the book presents how Titan Machine Building division went about developing robotic kit-marshaling equipment to automate the process. It is possible that the technology development involved Intellectual Property (IP) creation in the form of patents. And it is not clear that some of these technology development aspects can be characterized as simple. Perhaps “innovation can be simple” is more apt.

The book has plenty of pictures of real-life examples of innovations and their enablers especially in Titan. In the Indian corporate context where innovation stories are kept mostly within the four walls, this book shows a way for other innovative companies to publicize their innovation journeys. Recognition of smart failures plays an important role in cultivating experimentation. “9 nuggets” does talk about removing the fear of failure. It would have been nice to see some examples of smart failures too.

Overall, LRN has done an excellent job of synthesizing and presenting his learning from the Titan experience. I wish him and the book best wishes.

image source: amazon.in

Saturday, February 27, 2021

2 schools of mindfulness: journey-led vs destination-led

 


“What’s in it for me?” is not an uncommon question in a mindfulness-related discussion. The answer depends upon what mindfulness means. In this article, I would like to consider 2 schools of mindfulness – journey-led and destination-led and see how their response might differ to the “Why mindfulness?” question. Let’s begin with destination-led school:

Destination-led mindfulness: A response from this school could be, “You practice mindfulness in order to reach a better state”. A better state could mean a less stressful life (e.g. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction – MBSR1), or a state of nirvana or eternal bliss (e.g. in Vipassana2) or some other state. What is important for our purpose is not the particular destination but the “in order to” attitude. Mindfulness, in this school, is a means to reach a destination. Hence the term destination-led mindfulness. This doesn’t mean this school doesn’t give importance to the journey i.e. awareness at the present moment. It just means that there is an implicit or explicit emphasis on reaching a destination. The destination emphasis also brings with it a notion of progress indicating whether you are getting closer to the destination.

An assumption, sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit, in destination-led mindfulness is that it is possible to know when you have reached the destination. That is, it is possible to know when you have reached a state free of stress or attachments or desires etc. If the mind is anything like weather3 then this assumption is akin to saying it is possible to know if the weather has become still and in the future, it will not transform into and sustain its windy and stormy forms. The journey-led school does not make this assumption.

Journey-led mindfulness: A response from this school could be “Mindfulness involves learning to see clearly for its own sake”. The phrase “for its own sake” may appear puzzling. What do I mean by “learning for its own sake”? It means learning is not a means to get somewhere but an end in itself. Let’s use a metaphor and see if that helps. Why should a car have wipers? So that you see clearly while driving. Why should I see clearly? If I don’t see clearly, how will I learn about the situation on the road? And if I don’t see the situation clearly, how will I respond to it appropriately? Thus, seeing clearly is not important in order to reach a destination, but for learning about the moment-to-moment situation i.e. for its own sake.

How do I know I am seeing clearly? I can’t know for sure. But when there is an expectation mismatch that is repetitive, it could be a signal that I am not seeing clearly. A good proxy for repetitive expectation mismatch is sustained negative emotion. If I remain upset, anxious, angry, etc. then that means there is an opportunity to learn something new.

Note that journey-led school does acknowledge the relevance of a destination. However, it doesn’t place emphasis on it and it doesn’t attach any significance to the final destinations like a stress-free state or a blissful state. Such moments may come and go. According to this school, learning is a lifelong journey. A side effect of this attitude is that sense of progress doesn’t carry much significance. Once I declare, “I have arrived”, it may hinder the learning process.

Journey-led school tends to avoid using the phrase – the practice of mindfulness. How do you practice learning to see self-deception? It doesn’t always happen at 6 am in the morning. However, similar to the destination-led school, it does acknowledge shifting attention away from the current train of thoughts towards the present moment sensations. This can be practiced at 6 am every day but it can also happen at any other moment of the day as well.

Teachers like David Bohm4 and Eckhart Tolle5 have emphasized journey-led approaches. Some teachers like Jiddu Krishnamurti6 have emphasized journey at one time and destination at another.

Now, the human mind is conditioned to be reward-seeking. Hence, is it possible that one who claims to be part of the journey-led school actually belongs to the destination-led school deep down? Yes, it is possible. The desire for reaching a state could be deeply buried in the mind and not known. Is it possible that one starts with a destination in mind (say, stress-free life) and through the journey of exploration begins to see meaninglessness in reaching a state? Yes, it is possible.

I carry a bias for the journey-led approach and it is highlighted in my book “Mindfulness: connecting with the real you”. However, I feel it doesn’t matter which school you feel closer to. Perhaps you don’t have a choice anyway. And if you feel there isn’t much there in mindfulness that is understandable too.

Notes:

1.      Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is an eight week program developed by Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1970s. This is what the book “Full catastrophe living” by Jon Kabat-Zinn, 2nd edition mentions in the Introduction chapter – “Many of the people who come to the Stress Reduction Clinic have not seen much improvement in their physical condition despite years of medical treatment. <snap> By the end of eight weeks, when the program comes to an end, their smiles and more relaxed bodies are evident to even the most casual observer. <snap> They are less anxious, less depressed, and less angry. They feel more in control, even in very stressful situations that previously would have sent them spinning out of control.”

2.      Vipassana, a 10-day course designed by S. N. Goenka mentions the following in the “Day five discourse” in “The discourse summaries” by S. N. Goenka page 27 – “If you practice, certainly a day will come when you will be able to say that you have eradicated all the old sankhara, have stopped generating any new ones, and so have freed yourself from all suffering.”

3.      Mind is like weather: This analogy is explored by Prof. Karl Friston in the interview “Karl Friston: Neuroscience and the Free Energy Principle | Lex Fridman podcast #99” (39:15). Friston compares the attributes common between brain and weather – deeply structured, very non-linear, rests upon non-equilibrium steady-state dynamics.

4.      David Bohm: In “Thought as a system” (page 84) (Saturday seminar on YouTube, 57:30), Bohm is asked following question, “If you attack me negatively, I could hold my reaction in abeyance. Is that a way to deal with this process?” Bohm replies, “You could try that. But I’m suggesting that we’re engaged in learning about this. We don’t know yet what to do with it. We have to be interested in learning for its own sake, because if we have any other sake it’s going to enter the conditioning.”

5.      Eckhart Tolle: In an interview with Dr. James Doty of Stanford “Conversations on compassion with Eckhart Tolle” (57:15) Ekhart explores “Life is a journey” theme. He says, “Life is a journey. You want to go from here to there. Whether you will get there, we don’t know. Maybe on the way, you will branch out somewhere else. But at least you have a certain direction. It is good to have some direction in your life. But while you are traveling, if the destination takes up most of your attention, you miss all the journey. You can’t enjoy the journey anymore. And most of your life is the journey. The arrival is relatively rare. The wedding, the graduation, those moments are far and few between. The step you are taking this moment is the most important step.”

6.      Jiddu Krishnamurti: In the following paragraph from chapter 24, “Think on these things” (2007 Indian edition, page 232), JK says, “If you want to examine every thought, if you really want to see the content of it, then you will find that your thoughts slow down and you can watch them. This slowing down of thinking and the examining of every thought is the process of meditation; and if you go into it, you will find that by being aware of every thought, your mind – which is now a vast storehouse of restless thoughts all battling against each other – becomes very quiet, completely still. There is then no urge, no compulsion, no fear in any form, and in this stillness, that which is true comes into being. There is no ‘you’ who experiences truth, but the mind being still, the truth comes into it.” As you can see JK starts with the journey (examination of thoughts) and moves into a destination (state of no ‘you’, stillness etc.)

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.

Sources:

Book image: amazon.in

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 https://samharris.org/podcasts/150-map-misunderstanding/ (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.