Sunday, December 26, 2021

Ramana Maharshi’s self-inquiry through Upadesa Saram verses

I have been reading Ramana Maharshi (RM) for the past twenty-five years. However, Upadesa Saram (The essence of the teaching) is special because it is the only text which I am able to read currently in the same language that Ramana Maharshi wrote in – Sanskrit. It was originally composed in Tamil (1927) and RM himself translated it in three other languages – Telugu, Malayalam, and Sanskrit. Ramana Maharshi championed the self-inquiry approach and suggested that “Who am I?” is the most important question in spirituality (and perhaps life itself). Upadesa Saram has 30 verses. In this article, I have selected four that highlight the self-inquiry approach. For each verse, we will see it in the Devanagari script and English, followed by my English translation (hence, all errors are mine). Then I have given some text sourced from “Talks with Ramana Maharshi” which I feel is relevant to the verse. Finally, I have added my comments to each verse based on my limited understanding. There is a beautiful rendering of Upadesa Saram on YouTube (verse 16 starts at 2:50).

Verse 16:

दृश्यवारितं  चित्तमात्मनः   

चित्त्वदर्शनं तत्त्वदर्शनं ॥16॥

drsya-vaaritam cittam-aatmanah

cittva-darshanam tattva-darshanam

Translation: By turning attention away from external objects towards the mind, the Self is seen, the essence is seen.

RM comments: “Because your outlook has been outward bent, it has lost sight of the Self and your vision is external. The Self is not found in the external objects. Turn your look within and plunge down; you will be the Self”. (talk 238)  “The Self is giving rise to the mind, sustaining it, and resolving it. So the Self is the underlying principle.” (talk 97)

My comments: In self-inquiry, turning the attention inward to watch the mind and associated movements, is arguably the most important and perhaps the most difficult step. For most of us, the story of self (the limited-I) is extremely important and attention-grabbing.

Verse 17:

मानसं तु किं मार्गणे कृते        

नैव मानसं मार्ग आर्जवात् ॥17||

Maanasam tu kim maargaNe krte

Naiva maanasam maarga arjavaat

My translation: When explored, “What is mind?” (One finds) there is no mind; that is the most direct path.

RM comments: “Continuous search for what the mind is results in its disappearance. This is the straight path” (talk 222).

My comments: What does RM mean when he says, “There is no mind”? It is a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are seen to be not separate from the Self. “They (the body, the mind, and the world) do not remain apart from the Self.” (talk 97) So, "there is no mind" means, there is no separate mind like a wave is not separate from the ocean.

Verse 18:

वृत्तयस्त्वहं वृत्तिमाश्रिताः       

वृत्तयो मनो विध्द्यहं मनः ॥18||

Vrttayastvaham vrttimaashritaah

Vrttayo mano viddhyaham manah

My translation: The self (limited-I) is a bundle of thoughts. These thoughts spring from I-thought as the source.

RM comments: “The sense of body is a thought; the thought is of the mind, the mind rises after the ‘I-thought’, the ‘I-thought’ is the root thought.” (talk 244)

My comments: Here “thought” means both thoughts that are currently active as well as latent predispositions. RM says, “The mind may be latent and it must necessarily rise up again; after it rises up one finds oneself only as ever before. For in this state the mental predispositions are present there in the latent form to remanifest under favourable conditions.” (talk 465)

Is this I-thought a subject or an object? RM says, “Inasmuch as it witnesses all other objects in the waking and dream states, or at any rate we think that it does so, it must be considered to be the subject. On realising the Pure Self, however, it will be an object only.” (talk 323) I feel watching the nature of I-am-the-body disposition spring up and subside just like how other sensations and emotions arise and pass away is an important aspect of self-inquiry.

Verse 19:

अहमयं कुतो भवति चिन्वतः       

अयि पतत्यहं निजविचारणम् ॥19||

Ahamayam kuto bhavati cinvatah

Ayi patatyaham nijavicaranam

Translation: When reflected, “Where does this I-thought come from?” this I-thought vanishes. This is self-inquiry.

RM-comments: “The ego is itself unreal. What is the ego? Enquire. The body is insentient and cannot say ‘I’. The Self is pure consciousness and non-dual. It cannot say ‘I’. No one says, ‘I’ in sleep. What is the ego then? It is something intermediate between the inert body and the Self. It has no locus standi. If sought for it vanishes like a ghost. You see, a man imagines that there is something by his side in darkness; it may be some dark object. If he looks closely the ghost is not to be seen, but some dark object which he could identify as a tree or a post, etc. If he does not look closely the ghost strikes terror in the person. All that is required is only to look closely and the ghost vanishes. The ghost was never there. So also with the ego. It is an intangible link between the body and Pure Consciousness. It is not real. So long as one does not look closely it continues to give trouble. But when one looks for it, it is found not to exist.” (talk 612)

For the limited-I, a typical question is, “How do I know if there is spiritual progress?” RM answers, “The degree of absence of thoughts is the measure of your progress towards Self-realisation. But Self-realisation itself does not admit of progress; it is ever the same. The Self remains always in realisation. The obstacles are thoughts. Progress is measured by the degree of removal of obstacles to understanding that the Self is always realised. So thoughts must be checked by seeking to whom they arise. So you go to their source, where they do not arise.”

My comments: Instead of judging whether the I-thought has vanished, I feel it is important to seek the source of thoughts as RM suggests in the first line of this verse. This requires learning to watch the movement of thought while thinking. If this feels too difficult, it may help to learn to watch the movement of breath and/or body sensations which are subtler than the body movement but not as subtle as the movement of thought.

Interestingly, the Sanskrit word “nija” in “nija-vicaranam” (last words of the verse) means both self and constant or continual. Hence, “nija-vicaranam” can also be interpreted as constant-inquiry in addition to self-inquiry.  As RM says, “The sadhak (seeker) must remain as the Self. If he cannot do so, he must ascertain the true meaning of the ‘I’ and constantly revert to it whenever other thoughts arise. That is the practice.” (talk 647)


  1. “Sri Ramana Maharshi’s way: A translation and commentary on Upadesa Saram”,  D. M. Sastri, Sri Ramanasramam, 1999.
  2. Upadesa Undiyar of Bhagavan Sri Ramana”, word for word translation by Sadhu Om and Michael James of the original Tamil version, 1980.
  3. Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi”, Sri Ramanasramam, 2006.
  4. A Sanskrit dictionary
  5. Image source:

Friday, December 24, 2021

David Bohm’s matter-energy-meaning equivalence proposal through six examples

Mind-matter duality vs non-duality has been debated by philosophers and mystics since antiquity. However, scientists entered the discourse only recently. Hundred and fifteen years ago (1905) Einstein proposed matter-energy equivalence in a rigorous manner. It took thirty years to verify it experimentally. A few years ago I came across an extension of this equivalence that includes meaning along with matter and energy in a book “Unfolding meaning” (1985) which is an edited transcript of a weekend dialogue with David Bohm in 1984 in England (See the above figure). Bohm’s proposal of matter-energy-meaning equivalence was not a rigorous scientific presentation. However, it used scientific results as metaphors to explain it in an intuitive way. In his proposal, Bohm also puts meaning as more fundamental than matter and energy. A few years later (1990) John Wheeler, a towering figure in theoretical physics, proposed “It from bit” i.e. “All things physical are information-theoretic in origin”. Since then, over the past thirty years, this paradigm i.e. everything is meaning (or its close cousin - information) has gained momentum among the scientific community (e.g. check out Robert Kuhn episode "Does information create cosmos?"). In this article, I would like to briefly present Bohm’s proposal in his own words through six examples from his article “Meaning and information” (1989). And in the future, I hope to look at how others have explored this paradigm.

----Bohm’s words------

Meaning is the essence of reality. Meaning is inexhaustible. There is no limit to meaning. There is no fixed meaning. All meaning is ambiguous; it depends on the context, as the context changes so does the meaning.

Meaning is the activity of information. Any form to which meaning can be attributed may constitute information. This is generally potentially active, and may become actually active when and where there is a receiver which can respond to it with its ‘own energy’.

Six examples:

(1)    The form is held in silicon chips, which have very little energy, but this form enters into the much greater energy of overall activities of the computer and may even act outside the computer e.g. in a ship or an airplane controlled by an automatic pilot guided by the information in radar waves.

(2)    DNA molecule constitutes a code and the RNA molecules ‘read’ the code and are thus ‘informed’ as to what kind of proteins they are to make. The form of DNA molecule thus enters into the general energy and activity of cell. At any given moment, most of the form is inactive, as only certain parts of it are being ‘read’ by the RNA, according to the stage of growth and circumstances of the cell.

(3)    When the form of a road sign is apprehended in the brain and nervous system, the form is immediately active as meaning e.g. if the traffic sign says ‘stop’, the human being brings the car to a halt.

(4)    A more striking example is that of a person who encounters a shadow on a dark night. If this person’s previous experience is such as to suggest that there may be assailants in the neighbourhood, the meaning of an assailant may be immediately attributed to this form. The result will be an extensive and powerful activity of mind and body, including the production of adrenaline, the tensing of muscles, and an increase in the rate of the heart. But if on closer inspection, this person sees further evidence indicating that it is only a shadow, all this activity stops, and the body and mind becomes quiet again.

(5)    According to the quantum theory, a single particle such as an electron shows wave properties as well as particle-like properties. Hence, a particle must be understood in terms of both the particle and the wave field which always accompanies the particle. This Schrodinger wave does not act like, for example, a water wave on a floating object to push the particle mechanically with a force proportional to its intensity. Rather, a better analogy would be that of a ship or aeroplane on automatic pilot guided by the information in the radar waves. Similar to radar waves, the waves associated with a particle contain active information.

(6)    For a collection of particles, there is a common pool of active information. This can be most clearly seen in the superconducting state of electrons in a metal. This is state that may arise at very low temperatures, in which an electric current flow indefinitely without friction. In this state, the common part of information induces an organized and coordinated movement of electrons resembling a ballet dance, in which the particles go around irregularities and obstacles without being scattered.

As the temperate is raised, however, the state of the system changes in such a way that the property of superconductivity disappears. The explanation for this is that the Schrodinger wave field begins to break up into independent factors representing separate pools of information that apply to similar subsystems and eventually at high enough temperatures, to the individual particles themselves. It is as if, in the ballet, the dancers begin to break up into separate groups that are guided by different ‘scores’ until eventually each individual is doing his or her own dance, unrelated to those of others. The coordinated state of movement to disappears, and the electrons behave more like disorganized crowd of people than like an orderly group of ballet dancers.

Meaning for whom? Meaning is for itself. Ultimately there is nobody to whom meaning is “for”. Rather, meaning is the basic quality of reality.

Intelligence is part of the process of perception of meaning. Creativity is related to a constant discovery of new meanings.

---- end of Bohm’s words------ 

There is more to Bohm’s proposal than what is visible in these examples. For example, Bohm talks about how meaning flows from gross level in the matter to subtler levels and vice versa. For more information, please check out the references below.

I hope to explore how others have pursued this paradigm of treating information or meaning as the essence of reality. Your suggestions are welcome.


  1. Unfolding meaning: A weekend dialogue with David Bohm”, David Bohm, Routledge, 1985 (2005 digital edition). Chapter 3
  2. Meaning and information”, David Bohm, from the book, “The search for meaning: The new spirit in science and philosophy”, edited by Paavo Pylkkanen, Crucible, 1989. All the six examples given above are from this article.
  3. A change of meaning is a change of being”, Dialogue between David Bohm and Renee Weber, undated. This is one of my favorite interviews of Bohm.
  4. A new theory of relationship of mind and matter”, David Bohm, Philosophical Psychology, 3:2, 271-286, 1990.
  5. The philosophical and scientific metaphysics of David Bohm,” William Seager, Entropy, 20, 493, 2018. This article looks at Bohm’s metaphysics critically. It points out that Bohm’s “active information” is different from Shannon information commonly used in scientific literature.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

A response from Mark Jarvis on "Defining characteristics of five levels of innovation maturity"

Mark W. Jarvis is an innovation guru at UNO MINDA Group and Head of International Business Development at INITIA Design Studio. We met at an innovation management session at IIM Bangalore a few years ago. He has been extremely kind to give constructive inputs on my blog "Defining characteristics of five levels of innovation maturity". He has separated the characteristics into two categories - one for innovation managers and practitioners inside the organization and the other for stakeholders and innovation benchmarking outside the organization. Moreover, he has expressed his concerns on some of the metric parameters like the number of patents that bother him and suggested better parameters. Thanks a lot, Mark. Appreciate your input.

Hello Vinay,

I very much like your “Defining Characteristics of Five Levels of Innovation Maturity”.

I think it is important for any defining characteristic to be “easily” obtained … and distinguished by availability to the “inside the corporation” innovator or to the “outside the corporation” stakeholder.

Since I am always thinking of how to turn things into charts for PowerPoint slides … here is a chart summarizing your thoughts … with some added 
from me.

Inside Corporation  

(for Innovation Managers and Participants)  

Outside Corporation  

(for Stakeholders and Innovation Benchmarking)  

Level 1  




No Tracking  

Likely an authoritarian workplace riddled with confusion, panic, fear, or lethargy. 😉

No Published Evidence Of Managed Innovation   

(or Evidence Of Sustained Poor Market Performance)  

Level 2  




Innovation Dashboard In Use  


Pipeline, Velocity, and Impact (Process and Outcome) Indicators  

Company-specific Innovation Metrics are gathered and reviewed by management and shared with innovation community.    

Annual Report (R&D spend, Number of R&D centers, Number of patents, Number of new SKUs, Number of new product launches, etc.)  

Level 3  




Rigor and Rhythm of Innovation Review  

Rigorous Innovation reviews (feasibility, desirability, scalability, viability, etc) with consequences (for example, projects de-funded or extra-funded) that are well-communicated.   

Observe who attends, clarity of strategic challenges, innovation champion support, and resource re-allocations.  


Level 4  




Innovation Sandbox   

Innovation Sandbox(es) that is focused by a strategic challenge area, has experimentation capacity, dedicated (politically protected) resources and patient management.  

Press Release or other communications about Innovation Sandbox.    

(Note – it is difficult to gauge the quality of the Sandbox effort from outside the corporation)  

Another type of “Innovation Sandbox’ is a well-managed Outside Innovation effort.  

Level 5  




30%+ Revenue from Innovations in the Last Five Years  

Internal Innovation Dashboard metrics will explicitly include tracking of Revenue from Innovation in the Last Five Years and related long-view systemic innovation metrics.  

Annual Report Revenue Contribution (or Growth Contribution)  

Additional thoughts …

About counting the number of patents … this metric bothers me a bit … as I have seen it misused or misunderstood … but I agree it is a good place to start. As a quantity metric it is easy to measure and communicate. Much better would be a patent strategic quality measure … that tracks the business impact of a patent … or tracks the size of patent space covered … or tracks the quantity/quality of patents that reference your patent. But these quality metrics are not easy to come by … or are easily manipulated. I am optimistic that future innovators will have access to affordable software/analyzers to guide and assess a company’s intellectual property portfolio (including patent mapping (Clarivate’s Innography, etc) and patent valuation (Anaqua’s AQX, etc)). Note – one exception to my thinking on this metric comes to mind … perhaps the USA pharmaceutical industry … which seems to extract huge margins through the sheer quantity (sometimes hundreds) of slightly differentiated patents for a key pharmaceutical product.

About Innovation Sandboxes … It is extremely important that sandboxes be politically protected by patient and enlightened management. Typically, there are corporate jealousy, lack-of-cooperation, and unreasonable payoff time behaviors that distract and destroy Sandboxes. For “outside the corporation” folks … I added Outside Innovation as a “type of Sandbox” … since a company’s Outside Innovation efforts (by definition) are readily observed (Maruti-Suzuki’s MAIL, etc.).

About Level 3 Defining Characteristic To An Insider … In addition to robust Innovation Reviews, innovators will notice that leaders will innovate by walking around ("What new thing did you explore this week?") and have pleasant discussions about smart failure.

About Level 3 Defining Characteristic To An Outsider … I am wondering what this could be … to a company stakeholder (investor, financial journalist, innovation benchmarker, etc.)?

I am happy to know your (and others) additional thoughts.

Mark Jarvis

Sunday, December 19, 2021

2 ways of learning to fail with comfort

Failing can’t be a comfortable event. Or so I believed for a long time. Until I came across a suggestion from Nassim Taleb thirteen years ago (December 2008) which said, “Learn to fail with pride, comfort and pleasure”. My initial reaction was disbelief. And yet I decided to take the suggestion very seriously and kept on testing it as a hypothesis. Over the past decade, I discovered that I don’t experience pride and pleasure when things don’t work out. However, I felt it is possible to be comfortable with failing. And the experimentation involved trying 2 broad approaches: (a) protecting against the downside, and (b) subtracting expectations both of which came from Taleb himself. So here is a short reflection on what these approaches meant for me. But let me begin with the context.

Nassim Taleb’s interview was published in December 2008 issue of McKinsey Quarterly. It was related to Taleb’s book “The black swan: The impact of the highly improbable” which got published in 2007 and became a big hit especially during the financial crisis of 2008. In this interview he was asked, “What would your ideas look like in practice for, say a manufacturer?” And Taleb said, “If risk doesn’t cost you a lot, take all the risk you can. Do more trial and error. Learn to fail with pride, comfort and pleasure.” And then he added, “But try to have less downside exposure by building more slack into your system through redundancy, more insurance, more cash, and less leverage. Imagine a shock. What will happen if there’s a shock? How many months could you keep operating?”  

When I read Taleb’s interview in December 2008, I was self-employed for a little over two years. My consulting pipeline was dry and with the impending downturn there was failure written all over. I was uncomfortable and anxious, far away from being proud and pleasurable. We had moved into a new apartment and there was a burden of housing loan. And hence, I was both sceptical and curious about “learning to fail with pride, comfort and pleasure”. It didn’t take me much time to drop the “pride and pleasure” part as unnecessary and stick to just “learn to fail with comfort”. Here is what it meant for me to experiment with the two approaches:

Protect against downside: Over the next few years, I did following:

  • Paid off the housing loan and increased the cash position. I was lucky to have some stocks from my previous employer that helped in this process.
  • Wore helmet while cycling and seat-belt while driving 😀
  • Took data backups seriously and it became a ritual. Laptop crashed a few times but never became a big issue.
  • Took protecting customer’s confidential information very seriously. Similarly, while building on others’ ideas, I made sure I attribute credit to the source of ideas. Learned to make modest claims about what management of innovation can achieve in an uncertain world.
  • Took low-cost experimentation very seriously. This meant offering different open workshops in hotels and testing which ones are more attractive to customers. Many of them didn’t last and it didn’t hurt at all. Started presenting my ideas through blogs which was and is free and I find it to be a good platform for early testing of ideas.

Subtract expectations: No matter how much one tries to protect oneself, with helmet, cash, insurance or a vaccine, an accident or a virus can spring unexpected surprises. And the setback could feel like a failure. This is where we turn to the question: Why expect at all that life will be smooth? In fact, can one routinely anticipate disruptions?

Seneca, a first century Stoic, is one of Taleb’s heroes in the book “Antifragile: Things that gain from disorder”. Seneca used to mentally write-off all his possessions before going to bed as if he were to be in a shipwreck. If he still had them when he woke up, it was a bonus.  Seneca was a shipwreck survivor and perhaps he had experienced the fragility of life first-hand. Taleb quotes Seneca, “He is in debt, whether he borrowed from another person or from fortune.”

Thus expectations or desires are also a kind of debt which turns into obligations to be fulfilled. When not fulfilled it feels like a failure. “Oh, I couldn’t buy the car I wanted so badly.” But subtracting expectation debt is not as easy as paying off monetary debt. Expectations can be deep-rooted and subtle. We can’t just subtract the waves on the ocean, can we? So this is what I learned from spiritual teachers like Jiddu Krishnamurti, David Bohm and Eckhart Tolle that I could apply it my context.

An expectation gets subtracted when it is seen as meaningless. And to see expectations in action one needs to learn to watch the movement of thought while thinking. This movement is subtler than the movement of breath. Moreover, expectation per se is not bad. It is the force behind the expectation turning it into an absolute necessity that makes failing dreadful. Over the years, watching the movement of thought has become a second nature for me. However, thought is a sophisticated process and it is extremely good at creating self-deception. So watching the movement of thought is a lifelong learning process.

Does it mean I have no expectations? No. I do make plans – some short term (course teaching plan) and some long-term (consulting focus for the next few years). Earning a livelihood is still important. However, if things don’t go as per the plan, and they invariably do, it doesn’t surprise me. In fact, I anticipate and watch out for surprising signals, both positive and negative and course correct if necessary. And failing has felt normal and comfortable for the past several years.

To summarize, protecting against downside exposure and subtracting expectations are two ways of learning to fail with comfort. Subtracting expectations needs alertness to watch the movement of thought and recognize the meaninglessness of expectations when they don’t make sense anymore.

Thursday, December 16, 2021

Defining characteristics of 5 levels of innovation maturity

Eight years ago, we proposed a 5-level innovation maturity framework that can be used as a mirror to quickly assess the innovativeness of an organization and help the managers in deciding a future course of action. Earlier this year, I wrote about the level-4 challenge and how organizations struggle to go from level-3 to level-4. In this article, I would like to take a step back and propose a defining characteristic for each of the five levels so that the assessor can generate an initial hypothesis about where the organization stands very quickly – say in five to ten minutes. This is an initial proposal and inputs are welcome.

[Level-2] Defining characteristic: Innovation dashboard: Every organization that is serious about innovation, tracks it in some form or the other. Of course, outsiders may not know it because innovation dashboards are not published, unlike the accounting statements. Then how do we know this? Well, over the last decade many organizations have begun to publish a part of their innovation dashboard in the annual report. For example, many listed companies in India like Voltas, Amara Raja Batteries (ARBL), Titan, Mindtree, and TCS disclose various parameters of their innovation dashboard under the section titled “Intellectual capital”. A manufacturing company like Voltas reports (AR2020-21) R&D centers, R&D strength, no of new SKUs, and no of 5-star energy efficiency SKUs. Mindtree reports (AR 20-21) parameters like innovation hubs, centers of excellence, No of patents, etc. And even for organizations like TVS Motors (AR 20-21) which doesn’t present “intellectual capital” in a separate section, one can find parameters like “New product launches”, R&D expenditure, and expenditure on technology imported in the last 3 years etc.

I feel a good innovation dashboard should have indicators for pipeline (small, medium, big bets), velocity (e.g. experiments, champions, hackathons, reviews, dedicated teams), and business impact. It should be a combination of process (e.g. hackathons, reviews) and outcome (no of ideas, prototypes, revenue, saving) parameters.

The main point is a simple innovation dashboard is a defining characteristic of level-2 innovation maturity.

[Level-3] Defining characteristic: Rigor and rhythm of innovation review: You could use an innovation dashboard like a status reporting tool for years. And that might not be very effective. The question is what kind of decisions and resource allocations are you doing after reviewing your dashboard and innovation projects?

Over the past decade, I have had the opportunity to sit through a number of innovation reviews. Moreover, I have had discussions with many executives on how they conduct an innovation review. Good innovation reviews are rigorous despite the uncertainty surrounding various aspects like feasibility, desirability, scalability and viability. It questions the speed and quality of hypothesis testing. As Ken Kocienda, the father of auto-correct feature in iPhone points out in the book “Creative selection”, Steve Jobs used to review prototypes of major features himself. And Ken gives a detailed account of how such a review happened in the book. Jeff Bezos’ big bet review seems to be rigorous and yet mostly doesn’t involve return-on-investment language and cash flow projections.

If I were to pick only one thing to observe in the organization to gauge its innovation maturity, I would choose an innovation review. It reveals management seriousness based on who attends, the clarity (or lack thereof) on strategic challenges, showcases key innovation projects along with their champions and experiments, and kinds of questions asked, and reveals the commitment through resource (re-) allocation.

[Level-4] Defining characteristic: innovation sandbox: In our book “8 steps to innovation”, we identify three big bet enablers: innovation sandbox, platforms and open innovation. However, if I were to pick one big bet enabler, I would pick innovation sandbox.

Innovation sandbox: Unlike a lab that can start with a technology focus, a sandbox needs 3 to 4 constraints within which the experimentation capacity is to be built. For example, having an Artificial Intelligence lab is not enough. It needs to be combined with a strategic challenge area relevant for the company such as healthcare diagnostics for a broad customer category such as hospitals or end-consumers but typically not both.  An innovation sandbox combines strategic focus, experimentation capacity, and dedicated resources, all are crucial for big bet incubation. Amazon Go sandbox was built around image recognition and cashier-less offline retail idea while Alexa sandbox was built around speech recognition, display-less, cloud-connected personal assistant idea.

Many companies such as automobile, aircraft, and phone manufacturers and many technology companies have product platforms. These are used mostly to churn out newer product variants at a faster pace. They are valuable for variant generation at a faster pace. However, I wouldn’t consider them big bet enablers. Creation of a new platform would need a sandbox focus. Facebook has been a super successful platform. However, most of their subsequent big bets like WhatsApp and Instagram have been acquisitions. I am sure their most recent big bet Metaverse would have needed a lot of strategic focus and experimentation.

Sandbox hesitancy hypothesis says that management tends to be hesitant in building a sandbox due to their inability to identify those 3 to 4 constraints and commit resources to build experimentation capacity.  

[Level-5] Defining characteristic: 30% revenue from innovation in last 5 years: Philips annual report in 2020 mentions that “Around 60% of revenues from new products and solutions introduced in the last three years” under the “intellectual capital” section.  Instead of revenue, a company may look at growth contribution from innovation. For example, 3M mentions in its 2020 annual report that “For the full year, our priority growth platforms grew 7%, outperforming the markets they serve.” These priority growth platforms include indoor air quality, biopharma filtration, and automotive electrification from a list of close to 50 platforms that it has developed.

To summarize, innovation dashboard (level-2), rigor and rhythm or innovation reviews (level-3), innovation sandbox (level-4), and 30% revenue from innovation in the last 5 years (level-5) are defining characteristics for the 5 levels of innovation maturity respectively.

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

From digital disruption to SaaS solution at The Washington Post: A Shailesh Prakash perspective

It was a pleasure to have my classmate Shailesh Prakash, EVP & CIO at The Washington Post, give a guest lecture in my class at IIM Bangalore a few months ago. “Amazon unbound” author Brad Stone calls Shailesh Jeff Bezos’ technology partner at The Post. When Bezos acquired The Post in 2013, Shailesh and his team were developing a content management system called Arc Publishing to manage functions like online publishing, blogging, podcasting, advertising, and e-commerce. By the time Shailesh addressed us last August, Arc was supporting 1.5 billion user transactions per month and powering 1500 sites across 24 countries. It has become a separate business division with 300 employees offering a SaaS (Software as a Service) product to clients like Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Toronto Globe and Mail, and some of the leading newspapers in Spain, France, New Zealand, etc.

The key question Shailesh explored through his interaction with students is – How does a newspaper company founded in 1877, focussed on excellence in journalism, having a little bit of chip on the shoulder, with the brand and the success that has come along the way then end up offering a SaaS product which is now with every large newspaper and many broadcasters? It was an excellent primer on how intrapreneurship can happen in an established legacy business. Here are a few highlights from his talk:

The digital disruption at the publishing industry: Shailesh began by telling us that at one point, newspapers like The Post were monopolies, owned railroads, paper mills, printing plants, logistics and supply chains, and much more. And they were very profitable delivering 2 editions every single day with deep and wide moats. However, over the last twenty years, the Internet and subsequently mobile revolution disrupted the industry. Many newspapers made the mistake of offering the content for free on the web and couldn’t sustain the business based on advertisements. Many newspapers went out of business.

Excellence in journalism and engineering: The first step in this journey, according to Shailesh, was to accept that excellence in journalism is not enough. Google, Apple, and Amazon have spoilt the consumers and they are demanding speed, beauty, and ease of access in whatever they consume. The Post had to become excellent in the other dimension - design, product, technology, and engineering in order to attract and retain its consumers. With this realization, Shailesh was hired by Don Graham, the erstwhile owner of The Post, and given the task of making the newspaper digital-friendly. With the arrival of Bezos, this initiative got accelerated further and the culture was infused with the spirit of experimentation.

Crawl, walk, run story of Arc: “It’s not that we had everything figured out,” said Shailesh, “and then we did marketing and boom!” The journey has been relatively fast but very incremental. The first step was to say that the content management system can be built in-house and doesn’t have to be bought from outside. Once some aspects of the stack were built, Shailesh got curious as to whether it can be delivered as a SaaS solution. So it was offered for free to some university newspapers like the University of Maryland, Yale, Columbia, New York University, University of Southern California, etc. The idea was to learn what it takes to run a multi-tenant architecture. Could it be ensured that the content of Yale is not seen by the student journalists in Columbia? What is the cost of running such a solution?

The next step was to offer it to a small newspaper and get paid for it. The newspaper was trying to support blogging on their site and that worked. The next step was Toronto Globe and Mail – a big newspaper in Canada. They were willing to partner at an early stage of the product development and were interested in influencing the roadmap. This was the first time two large newspapers – The Post and Toronto Globe were simultaneously using the product.

And slowly, other papers like LA Times and then broadcasters started to come in. Once supporting online subscriptions became an important feature of the platform the commerce piece, payment gateway mechanisms had to be worked out. Were there non-believers? Of course, there were. Even analysts and respected journalists were skeptical of this “side business”. Fortunately, the parent company of The Post went private during this phase and that helped. Over the years, the journalist mix in the newsroom has changed too. It now has a number of TikTok savvy native digital journalists. Now, questions like “How does one deliver stories with speed and still stay true to the brand?” have become important.

As major competitors of The Post started to come in as customers, the business agreements and associated liabilities especially for data breaches started to become nuanced. Mutual Funds wanted an ISO audit. All this pushed the boundaries for the technologists but it also meant building competence on the legal, finance, and consulting sides.

Overall, it was an enriching experience. Thanks, Shailesh for sharing your insights! I learned a lot and I am sure students did too. Wishing Arc a successful trajectory ahead!

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.

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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).

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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?

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