Monday, June 20, 2022

Design Thinking: articles at a glance


In this table, I have tried to organize my blogs according to various topics associated with design thinking. Hope this is helpful.

 Process step

Links 

Empathy

(Listening, observation)




Define




Ideate




Prototype & test




Idea communication,
Pitching your idea




Fail fast, learn fast





Sunday, June 12, 2022

Wasteful thoughts: From Nash's dieting to Rumi's welcoming

Wasteful thoughts – anxiety, stress, blame, guilt, etc – form a large part of our thinking process. It can consume a significant portion of time and energy in a day. Mindfulness involves recognizing wasteful thoughts while thinking and seeing them drop off, at least sometimes. The character of Nobel Laureate John Nash Jr. as depicted in the movie “A beautiful mind” advocates an approach to wasteful thoughts called “diet of the mind”. Jalaluddin Rumi, a 13th-century Sufi poet, suggests welcoming every thought be it “a joy, a depression or a meanness” in his poem “The guest house”. Are these two seemingly different approaches to wasteful thoughts, Nash’s dieting, and Rumi’s welcoming, related? What’s common between them? Could they be complementary? I attempt to explore these questions in this article.  

First, let’ see what is common between Nash and Rumi’s approaches. In Nash’s dieting approach, it is expected that one watches the thoughts while thinking to check whether they are useful at that moment. “Like a diet of the mind, I choose not to indulge certain appetites,” says Nash in the movie.  In Rumi’s poem, he says, “meet them (thoughts) at the door laughing”. Both these approaches assume a certain degree of attentional freedom such that one is able to watch the ongoing thoughts. Based on my experience, I feel this isn’t as easy as it sounds. And it is especially difficult when there is negative emotion accompanying the thoughts. However, I feel attentional flexibility can be built with practice by learning to hop off the train of thought.

Now, let’s turn to Nash’s approach. The best way to get a feel for this approach is by experimenting with it. Whenever you get a chance, watch the ongoing thoughts. And check if this train of thought is serving any useful purpose at that moment. Sometimes the answer would be “yes”, other times “no”. When we recognize a train of thought to be wasteful at that time, it drops off, at least sometimes. It may be replaced by another train of thought and so on. It is a wonderful experience to see a repetitive thought pattern drop off at least for a while. Like Nash suggests, the “diet of the mind” involves learning not to indulge in certain thought patterns by being alert and watchful.

Nash’s dieting approach may not work all the time. You feel you have recognized the train of thought to be wasteful and yet it persists. One possibility is that this recognition hasn’t touched the source that is fuelling the thought pattern. For example, I may be worrying about the impending recession and I recognize the repetitiveness of this thought pattern to be wasteful. However, deep down I may be carrying an assumption that it is absolutely necessary that I have a job. And this absolute necessity overpowers the thinking process. And this is where Rumi’s approach may be helpful.

Rumi says,

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

 

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

 

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.


The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing,

and invite them in.


Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

Rumi is challenging us here. Try meeting a dark thought laughing. It is not easy. I find the phrase, “each has been sent as a guide from beyond” very helpful. What is this place from beyond that the thought is coming from? Could it be a clue to a mystery? My suggestion is that this place is where assumptions of absolute necessity reside. And they are the doorways to self-awareness.

As mentioned in the earlier para, I may carry an assumption of absolute necessity that, “I MUST never be out of a job.” These assumptions of absolute necessities are held deep down somewhere. And yet discovering them reveals a lot about oneself. If I clearly see that there is nothing absolute about this assumption and it is quite possible that I might be out of a job. And several people I know have been out of jobs and many of them got back new jobs. And even if one doesn’t get a job, it is not the end of the world. Life is much more immense and mysterious than a job. If one sees all of this clearly then it stops overpowering the thinking process.

To summarize, both Nash’s dieting and Rumi’s welcoming approach assume a certain degree of attentional freedom. If you feel you don’t have it yet, then that is the first step. Once you are able to watch the ongoing train of thought, experiment with Nash’s dieting approach. Just like you watch what you are taking on your plate, watch the thoughts you are indulging in. If you recognize them to be wasteful at the moment, they will drop off. For repetitive thoughts that persist, learn to use them as a guide to explore the mysterious place “from beyond”. You may discover an assumption of absolute necessity hiding there which makes no sense.

And don’t be alarmed if you begin to see that there is no such a thing as an absolute necessity. It is possible that this is the place where Rumi wrote his poems. 

Sources:

“The guest house” is from “The Essential Rumi” translations by Coleman Barks, HarperOne, 1995.

Nash’s quotes are from the movie “A beautiful mind”.

Images: Youtube.com 

I explore wasteful thoughts and absolute necessities in my book "Mindfulness: connected with the real you".

Monday, May 16, 2022

Can we empathize through data without face-to-face interaction?

As a facilitator of design thinking workshops, I have held a view that face-to-face observation and listening are essential elements of empathy. Our body language sends powerful ques about our state of being, our approvals, disapprovals, comforts, discomforts, etc. And it is very difficult to capture these through data, graphs, analytics, etc. However, this belief is being shaken up over the past few years. Can we empathize through data alone? In this article, I present a few examples that have made me ambivalent.

Last year I read Brad Stones’ “Amazon unbound: Jeff Bezos and the invention of a global empire”. It is a story of Amazon’s transformation from a powerful force into the Giant over the past decade. The book highlights the data obsession at Amazon led by Jeff Bezos and percolated throughout the company. Decisions about whether to launch a new product such as Alexa, which private label products to launch and the locations of the warehouses were all based on data. Stones sometimes calls this “cold, hard data”. Given the size of Amazon’s customer base and its nature of ecommerce business where except delivery everything else happens online, it is understandable that Amazon doesn’t need face-to-face observation of customers. It is possible that the ecommerce business focuses on the 3 core customer needs, low prices, vast selection and fast delivery which don’t change much. Perhaps all other customer insights come through data without any face-to-face observation.

I thought the situation may be different for Alexa, the AI-enabled conversational device as well as a technology platform Amazon sells because building empathy is an important goal. It turns out the kind of effort that is being put in making Alexa socially relevant in a conversation, involves gathering a large amount of customer conversations with Alexa. This seems to be more of device-to-face interaction rather than face-to-face interaction. Customers who are helping Amazon evaluate newer ways of conversing with customers as part of Alexa Prize competition are interacting with the device and giving a rating on how likely they would be to converse with this “friend” again. No face-to-face interaction.

One would expect that face-to-face interaction is necessary in emergency psychiatry. However, Karl Deisseroth, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at Stanford, tells in the book “Connections: the new science of emotion”, how his belief has changed over the years and got further validated during Covid pandemic. He says, “Emergency psychiatry, I saw again and again, though it somehow surprised me each time, can be carried out with precision even over phone, through that lonely single line.” He feels, “Psychiatry and medicine broadly – though still constructed around interpersonal communication – can survive and operate well with much less social information than the traditional face-to-face interview provides.”

Earlier this year, I read Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel “Klara and the sun”. The protagonist of this story is an artificial friend, Klara. And one of the reviewers has aptly called this book “an absolute master class in empathy.” Ishiguro in his subtle and slow-moving style creates various scenes in which Klara, the robot, learns about human anxieties and aspirations through observation and conversation. If this fiction work is any indication of what could become a reality, then perhaps outsourcing empathizing to a robot is not too farfetched.

A few months ago, I joined a team of senior managers at an offsite in the outskirts of Bangalore. The team members have been working with each other for years and were meeting online throughout the pandemic. However, they were very happy with the face-to-face interaction and it came up multiple times during the conversations.  Video calls were dry and to the point. The physical presence, jokes, fun cooking activity, eating together in a relaxed atmosphere was no match to innumerable video calls.

Now you get some idea about my ambivalence. Can we empathize through data without face-to-face interaction? The answer seems to be a ‘yes’ at least in some contexts. But, can we eliminate face-to-face interaction in most contexts? I am doubtful but now open to the possibility.

Sources:

For Alexa related discussion, check out

Laura Stevens, “Alexa, can you be empathetic, all-knowing and funny?”, Wall Street Journal, March 7, 2019

“Rohit Prasad: Amazon, Alexa and Conversational AI”, interview of Rohit Prasad, Head Scientist, Alexa by Lex Fridman, Dec 14, 2019.

Friday, April 29, 2022

What does Ramana Maharshi mean by “All sciences end in the Self”?

Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi” has been my reflection companion for over two decades. It contains conversations with Ramana Maharshi (RM) (1879-1950), a spiritual teacher known for his emphasis on self-inquiry. The conversations in this book took place between 1935 and 1939 in RM’s ashram in Tiruvannamalai in South India and were recorded by one of the then residents of the ashram, Munagala Venkataramiah.

In one of the conversations with a visitor in 1937 (Talk 380), RM said, “All sciences end in the Self”.  What did RM mean by this? Science continues to unravel so many mysteries including the mystery surrounding the concept of self. Isn’t it an important path towards understanding reality and one’s own nature? Did RM underestimate the power of science? This is an attempt to explore these questions.

Let’s begin with an excerpt from Talk 380 where this quote appears. The visitor had come from Europe and most likely there would have been a translator.

V: I want confirmation of the Self.

RM: You seek the confirmation from others. Each one though addressed as ‘you’, styles himself ‘I’. The confirmation is only from ‘I’. There is no ‘you’ at all. All are comprised in ‘I’. The other can be known only when the Self is posited. The others do not exist without the subject.

V: Again, this is nothing new. When I was with Sir C. V. Raman he told me that the theory of smell could be explained from his theory of light. Smell need no longer be explained in terms of chemistry. Now, there is something new; it is progress. That is what I mean, when I say that there is nothing new in all the statements I hear now.

RM: ‘I’ is never new. It is eternally the same.

V: Do you mean to say that there is no progress?

RM: Progress is perceived by the outgoing mind. Everything is still when the mind is introverted and the Self is sought.

V: The Sciences - what becomes of them?

RM: They all end in the Self. The Self is their finality

Let’s note that “the Self” is a translation of the Sanskrit word Swarupa which could also be translated as “one’s nature” or essence. 

How ignorant was RM about sciences? In the same book where the above-mentioned conversation happens, there are a couple of places where RM refers to science. “Even the material sciences trace the origin of the universe to some one primordial matter - subtle, exceedingly subtle.” (Talk 199) And, another one, “There is no difference between matter and spirit. Modern science admits that all matter is energy.” (Talk 268) This implies that RM had probably heard of the implications of the special theory of relativity and the brand-new branch of quantum mechanics. Looks like he was not totally ignorant.

Then where does this confidence of “All sciences end in the Self” come from? Let’s look at one more elaboration of RM on this topic (Talk 388):

“There are no objects without the subject, i.e., the objects do not come and tell you that they are, but it is you who says that there are the objects. The objects are therefore what the seer makes of them. They have no existence independent of the subject. Find out what you are and then you understand what the world is.”

Empirical evidence is an important aspect of the scientific method. Scientific theories predict future observations for a given context. This implies the separation of observer and observed. Is observer independent of observed? What if the observer is the observed? It could be like one hand observing the other hand – having some relative independence but ultimately part of one whole. Perhaps what RM is trying to say is that science has relevance when the subject considers itself to be independent of the object and loses its relevance when the sense of separateness vanishes.   

And even if a branch of science (e.g. quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics, neuroscience) is telling that observer and observed are not independent, RM feels that having the mere knowledge is not the same as internalizing that knowledge. A scientist may champion a monistic theory and yet feel frustrated or get depressed because fellow scientists are not paying attention to his theory. RM brings it out in the following Q&A from Talk 27.

Q: Is the study of science, psychology, physiology, philosophy, etc. helpful for (1) this art of yoga-liberation. (2) the intuitive grasp of the unity of the Real?

RM: Very little. Some knowledge is needed for yoga and it may be found in books. But practical application is the thing needed, and personal example, personal touch and personal instructions are the most helpful aids. As for the other, a person may laboriously convince himself of the truth to be intuited, i.e., its function and nature, but the actual intuition is akin to feeling and requires practice and personal contact. Mere book learning is not of any great use. After realisation all intellectual loads are useless burdens and are thrown overboard as jetsam. Jettisoning the ego is necessary and natural.

This is like the difference between cycling and cycology. One may know the theory behind how a cycle works and how a cyclist balances his weight and yet may not know cycling. Cycling is a full-body knowledge also called embodied cognition and it is mostly implicit. Similarly, knowing that the self is not independent of and intimately connected with the outside world is not enough. It needs to be embodied and internalized to be effective.  

One implication of what RM is saying is that reading this blog itself is of very little use. Turning attention inwards, watching the movement of thought, and exploring the origin of I-thought is more important. RM says, “Change your outlook. Look within. Find the Self. Who is the substratum of the subject and the object? Find it and all problems are solved.” (Talk 331)

Related blog:

Ramana Maharshi’s self-inquiry through Upadesa Saram verses, Dec 2021.

Image source: amazon.in

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Is “8 steps to innovation” still relevant in the digital era?

It has been nine years since the publication of our book “8 steps to innovation: going from jugaad to excellence”. In a fast-paced world where technology becomes obsolete every two-three years, nine years is a long time. My co-author Prof. Rishikesha Krishnan has been nudging me and suggesting that we should re-look at the framework, especially in the context of the digital era. Is the framework still relevant? Here is an attempt to sketch some initial thoughts on this topic. The attempt is clearly biased and criticism is more than welcome.

Relevance of pipeline-velocity-batting average:  The framework addresses the question, “How to become more innovative systematically irrespective of strategy, size, sector, and culture?” This question is more relevant for organizations and teams and less relevant for individuals. The framework divides the main question into three sub-questions: How to build an idea pipeline? How to improve idea velocity? And how to enhance batting average? The pipeline problem addresses the generation of a constant stream of business-relevant ideas. Velocity problem explores validation of various assumptions associated with the ideas and finding relevant resources including investors for the promising ideas. Batting average problem looks at increasing the chance of success for big bets while building a margin of safety. 

Are pipeline, velocity, and batting average problems still relevant in the digital era? I have been presenting these sub-questions to MBA students and corporate executives. And nobody has questioned the relevance of any of these sub-questions. These questions were relevant when Thomas Edison was running his invention factory more than a hundred years ago and are relevant for the innovation engine at Mahindra today. Even a corner grocery shop if it plans to do systematic innovation would have to address these questions. So then, what has changed?

The eight steps are responses to these three questions. First three steps address the pipeline problem, the next three steps address the velocity problem, and the final two address the batting average problem. Let’s see how the relevance of each step changes in the digital era.

Pipeline problem: (Step-1, 2, 3)

Step-1: Laying the foundation: This step involves setting up the core processes like idea management process, buzz creation process, and learning and development process. It also involves establishing clarity on the scope, source, and sponsorship of innovations. I feel these things are not affected in the digital era. Any organization that is serious about innovation has these in place in some form or the other.

Step-2: Create a challenge book: This step emphasizes the creation of a challenge book and establishing collective clarity around it. The digital era has created new metaphors like Uber (marketplace), Tesla (EV, semi-autonomous, over the air upgrades), Zomato (home delivery), Amazon (shopping convenience), Paytm (mobile wallets), etc. In the past few years, we have seen new waves like the pandemic, sustainability-related regulatory norms, electric vehicles, cryptocurrency, machine learning, etc. gaining momentum. All these metaphors and waves contribute to building a challenge book. However, in my opinion, the relevance of challenge book doesn’t go away. In fact, it becomes more relevant because in a world of ever-increasing distractions, challenge book can bring focus to the innovation efforts.

Step-3: Build participation: This step assumes that navigating complex challenges may benefit from participation, the way it happens in a café or a conference. The assumption remains relevant in the digital era. However, the digital era highlights the importance of the customer experience dimension.  With steps like search, discovery, comparison, selection, payment, delivery, and returns associated with online shopping, end-to-end experience has become increasingly important. Moreover, this cuts across the shopping of products like mobile phones, grocery items, and services like blood testing and banking. Hence, a methodology like design thinking which puts experience design at its center and weaves empathy, participative problem solving, and experimentation in an iterative manner has gained significance.

Velocity problem: (Step-4, 5, 6)

Step-4: Experiment at low-cost with high speed: The digital era has seen the emergence of new tools – computational modeling tools, simulators, 3D-printers, etc. Many of these tools are now available on cloud making them easily accessible at low-cost. They are helping idea authors test their ideas or at least some assumptions associated with their ideas with less cost and at high speed. For consumer-facing digital applications, A/B testing – a form of randomized controlled experimentation – has become an important mechanism for testing ideas. No matter what the technology or tools, the relevance of low-cost high-speed experimentation hasn’t diminished over the years.

 Step-5: Find a champion: This step is based on the assumption – An idea either finds a champion or dies. Is the assumption still valid? Very much. Finding a strategic customer who endorses the idea or an investor who supports the development of the idea continues to be important today. Social media has helped ideas authors find champions by publicizing their idea through videos. Programs like Shark Tank are creating platforms for start-ups to find investors and/or mentors.

Step-6: Iterate on the business model: As the relevance of data increased, so did the importance of business models that leverage data. Dental insurance company Bento partnered with Philips which manufactures electric toothbrushes. This is because having the data on how many times a person brushes his teeth would help determine his dental insurance. EV companies like Ather Energy began to unbundle their product offering and started selling batteries separately as a subscription. Banks began to offer Buy-Now-Pay-Later (BNPL) payment option as an alternative to credit cards. Business model innovation continues to be an important lever for digital businesses.

Batting average problem: (step-7, 8)

Step-7: Build an innovation sandbox: Exploring big bets is inevitable for any company that is serious about survival. Google explores self-driving cars, Amazon experiments with Just-walk-out stores, and Facebook bets big on virtual/augmented reality. Small firms may have to consider automation and analytics seriously. The challenge is you can’t bet on all the big trends, you will have to choose. And even after choosing a trend, you may not know how this trend may lead to a new offering. You need to identify a few use-cases, invest in building experimentation infrastructure, and perform a large set of experiments to see what is both meaningful in your context and promising enough. In short, you need to build an innovation sandbox, unless you choose to acquire the innovation. Building an innovation sandbox is neither low-cost nor a short-term project. Technology platforms may speed up the process and open innovation may help in connecting ideas from remote corners of the world.  I haven’t seen its relevance diminished.

Step-8: Build a margin of safety: Big bets bring risky exposures. You can’t have one and not the other. Datacenter outages are a given once you adopt the cloud. If you are a bank and if you don’t worry about managing data center outages you will be in trouble sooner or later. HDFC Bank learned it the hard way. Shakespeare knew that a pound of flesh is a risky promise for the Merchant of Venice. And V G Siddhartha, the founder of Café Coffee Day was expected to know how much debt is enough. This step – building a margin of safety – could very well be the most challenging step to internalize. And it is evergreen.

In short, from my biased perspective, the core problems raised in the book – pipeline, velocity, and batting average are still relevant in the digital era. And 8-step responses are relevant too. However, your input is welcome and it is possible that I am missing something here.

Thursday, March 31, 2022

How does tradition-induced brain damage get healed?

Last month I explored the question “Can tradition cause brain damage?” in a blog.  The post was based on a dialogue between spiritual teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti and physicist David Bohm in the book “The limits of thought”. My blog ended with a brief mention of how the brain damage could get healed as per the dialogue. In this article, I would like to expand on the healing process as JK-Bohm discuss it in the book.

Can the damage be healed at all? JK says, “If it is completely damaged, you can’t do anything about it, you are ready for an asylum. But we are talking of a brain that is not too damaged.”1

What is the first necessity? JK says, “That is the first necessity, that I realize it.” What do I realize? “That whatever the damaged brain does, which is the result of thought and tradition and all the rest of it, will produce further damage.”2

Let me try to explain this part with an example. Let’s say the cultural tradition says that you must become a successful person otherwise your life is a waste or success is necessary for a secure future. So, the thought of becoming successful dominates my life. It involves identifying success parameters like wealth, position, fame, social contribution, etc. And I get caught in the measurement game. I constantly compare what I have (wealth, name, fame) with some gold standard of success, find something that is still missing and strive to get there.

We can extend this to religious tradition as well. JK says, “I have accumulated psychologically as a Hindu; another has accumulated as a Muslim; there are thousands of divisions. Therefore, accumulation in its very nature divides people, and therefore creates conflict.”3

What JK is saying is that the first step is to realize that my thought process is caught in a loop that is the result of the tradition-induced brain damage and it is making the damage worse.  The next thing that may happen is a deep insight which “acts as a tremendous shock or jolt”4 to the brain.

Deep insight into the movement of thought: JK says, “If I have an insight into the whole nature of control, which is measure, that liberates the mind from the burden.”5 “When there is this insight, the damage is undon.”6 However, JK warns, “It (the insight) cannot be invited. It’s like saying – I’ll be attentive in order to receive truth. That’s nonsense.”7

Now, insights are not new to us. When there is a shift of perception while looking at an optical illusion, it is an example of a tiny insight. Many of us also experience a small jolt when we realize a belief, we held for a long time is false. For example, Santa Clause is a fiction, or ghosts don’t exist. Could a deep insight JK is talking about bring a significant change in the brain? Yes, it is possible. Unfortunately, there is no formula or method for getting the insight.

Don’t be concerned with truth: Should I strive for such a deep insight into truth? JK says, “Don’t be concerned with truth, you don’t know what it means. Be concerned only with (thought-created) reality and its distortions. To be free of distortions, just observe the distortions, don’t resist them, just observe them. That observation needs (attentional) freedom and that freedom and the observation will give you energy to push away the distortions.”8 A distortion typically manifests as a disturbance such as fear, anxiety, stress, anger, blame, guilt, etc.

To summarize, we need attentional freedom to watch the movement of thought. It is important to observe the movement especially when there is a disturbance in the form of fear, anxiety, anger, etc. This observation may cultivate the ground for a deep insight to sprout into the meaninglessness of the whole nature of control and measurement thought is caught up in. The deep insight would heal the brain. There is no formula or method for the insight.

Source:

1.       “The limits of thought”, J. Krishnamurti and David Bohm, Krishnamurti Foundation India, 2013, page 94.

2.       “Limits of thought”, Page 94

3.       “Limits of thought”, Page 123

4.       “Limits of thought”, Page 94

5.       “Limits of thought”, Page 106

6.       “Limits of thought”, Page 108

7.       “Limits of thought”, Page 52

8.       “Limits of thought”, Page 26

Monday, March 28, 2022

A 10-point checklist for running a challenge campaign

You can solve a tough challenge by working alone in your garage or attic for years like how Prof. Andrew Wiles worked on Fermat’s Last Theorem for several years. Alternately, you can throw the challenge to a group of people and solve it collectively. The group can be a couple of friends or a large organization. The challenge could be an urgent challenge like the iPhone multitouch keypad accuracy problem to be solved in a matter of days. Or it could be an automation challenge Tanishq, the jewellery division of Titan, launched in 2008 which might have run for a few months resulting in inventing the diamond-bagging machine over the next few years.

I have been participating in the design of challenge campaigns in the organizations for over a decade and consider them to be a key element of innovation initiatives. Some of these challenges were more urgent like the iPhone multitouch challenge while others were closer to Titan’s automation challenge. Over the years I ended up preparing a checklist that I use when I participate in a challenge campaign design. Not all items in the checklist are useful in all challenges. Nevertheless, it helps to go over them to check if they are relevant in that context.

1.       Identify a challenge sponsor: It is important that a challenge campaign begins with a sponsor. In case of iPhone multitouch, the head of engineering was the sponsor while in Tanishq perhaps the business head of the Tanishq division was the sponsor. 

2.       Identify a challenge theme: The challenge theme may come from the sponsor. Alternately, he may invite challenges from his peers/team members. The theme can be loose like “simplify and automate” or it can be sharper like “get keyboard accuracy to 90%”. I remember themes like “half the time” for reducing the delivery time to half, “single-click cloud migration”. These days Zomato’s “10 minutes delivery” is in the news. The most important characteristic of a theme should be its business relevance. A good metaphor helps make the challenge concrete, enhance its emotional appeal and provide hooks for imagination.

3.       Prepare a project plan: Is the challenge expected to run for a few days, a few weeks, or a few months? Whom should we invite? Will there be one round, two rounds, or more? Will there be help in terms of resources for prototyping? Will there be mentoring for idea authors for clarifying their ideas and preparing a business case? Will we have a panel for the final round? How will promising ideas go forward? It helps to discuss these questions and possible options with the sponsor and create a project plan.

4.       Know Your Challenge (KYC) workshop: For a “simplify and automate” challenge you don’t need a workshop to explain it. However, for challenges related to emerging technologies or business challenges that are complex or nuanced, it helps to have a workshop where the sponsor and perhaps a few experts articulate what the challenge means to them. They may provide starting points for those interested in studying the topics further. These could be department heads such as sales, marketing, finance, R&D giving their perspective on a challenge area.

5.       Announce the challenge and invite ideas: This is the step where challenge is announced and ideas are invited. This could be done in multiple ways. If it is a small team, like in iPhone multitouch challenge, you could announce it in a team meeting. If you want to invite experts or members from outside your team or business, you may want to announce it to your team first so that they get some lead time to submit their ideas before others. If you feel subject matter experts (SMEs) from within the team can come in a week or two later that’s fine too. In the case of iPhone multitouch challenge, this step merged with step 7 of prototyping. Team members didn’t come out with ideas and waited for a go-ahead for prototyping. Ideas were demonstrated through prototypes. In most challenge campaigns I have witnessed, idea generation and prototyping were separate stages.

6.       Helping idea authors to clarify their ideas: When people get ideas, they are raw and many times unclear. If you ask clarifying questions it helps them to expand on their ideas. Sometimes people are not sure if their ideas are worthy of submission. Encouraging them helps. When one is playing this sounding-board role, it is important not to be judgmental at this point even if you feel the idea may not work. This is easier said than done and needs alertness. For a large campaign, volunteers may be needed to play this role of sounding board or catalyst.

7.       Idea selection:  If ideas are posted on a wall in your office, idea selection could mean just doing tick marks. Depending upon the number of ideas, idea selection may go through two or three rounds. For example, ideas posted on a portal may go through a social selection process similar to likes on a social media site. One could also invite a panel to select ideas. 

8.       Prototyping/experimentation:  Authors of the selected ideas are invited to build low-fidelity prototypes. This is a tricky stage because idea authors may not get time to do this work. One way to overcome this issue is by organizing an event such as a hackathon where the idea authors work individually or by bringing collaborators to build prototypes. Prototypes may also include storyboards, wireframes, paper models, CAD models, 3D printed models, scrap material demos, etc. This stage may require organizers to make relevant tools available to the idea authors. I typically get pushback from manufacturing companies saying that this is not practical. However, in most cases, this can be done with some preparation.

9.       Selection and preparation for final presentation: After prototyping, there could be another round of selection for final presentations to the sponsor and his panel. In the final presentation, the panel typically looks at return-on-investment potential for ideas. However, idea authors may not have the skills to make a business case. Hence, the idea authors may need mentoring. The campaign organizers may have to facilitate this process of identifying right mentors for finalists.

10.   Presentation to the sponsor/panel: This is the final stage. The most important aspect of this stage is the nature of sponsorship for the selected ideas. If you give gift coupons and end the show that sends a poor message. As mentioned in step-2, if the challenge is business relevant, then the sponsorship should reflect that. In the case of iPhone challenge, Ken Kocienda became the feature owner for the multitouch autocorrect function and began developing it further full-time. In the case of Titan’s diamond bagging machine, I am sure there was a dedicated cross-functional team that worked on it as a formal project. Note that the sponsorship doesn’t have to be for the complete implementation. Like a typical venture fund, it could be for a specific milestone of validating certain assumptions be it need, technical feasibility, performance, etc.

Hope you find the checklist useful. Happy to hear your input.

Sources:

Image: “Creative selection: Inside Apple’s design process during the golden age of Steve Jobs,” by Ken Kocienda page 147.

Titan’s diamond bagging machine story is also described in “The 9 nuggets of innovation” by L R Natarajan, page 16.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Is design thinking right-brain centric?

“Is design thinking a right-brain specialization?” or “Am I a left-brain person?” Questions of these sorts are not uncommon in my design thinking workshop. However, I have been unsure of my response to this topic so far. My ambivalence has been influenced by the literature that points to the myths associated with creative-left vs analytical-right brain classification (also check this article). But then popular authors like Daniel Pink have argued that abilities like design are right-brain abilities (Check his video 53:00). My friend and collaborator Prof. Ganesh Prabhu has been presenting this Daniel Pink view in our joint program at IIM Bangalore for the past few years. That kept on nudging me to look for more evidence one way or the other. Recently, I came across Iain McGilchrist's book “The master and his emissary: the divided brain and the making of the Western world” which has shed some light on this confusion. In this article, I would like to present my learnings from this book related to this left-vs-right brain topic.

Let me begin with a process view of design thinking and associated competencies that I present in my workshops. Note that this is not the only process view of design thinking and is borrowed from the Stanford Design School framework. The competency view is not exhaustive either. But it is useful for our purpose.



Now, let’s turn to McGlichrist's book “The master and his emissary”. McGilchrist is suggesting in this book that left (LH) and right hemispheres (RH) are different in not what they do but how they see or pay attention to the world. The LH sees the world through a map of objects it constructs separate from itself and its primary objective is to secure a better future by manipulating the world. In contrast, the RH sees the world as fresh, living, ever-flowing whole not separate from itself. LH sees parts first while RH sees the whole first. Originally, the RH was the master and the LH was a helper to carry out repetitive tasks. However, over the centuries, the map has become extremely sophisticated and the helper or the emissary has become the dominant master and it has made RH a subservient helper. Through the nerve fibres connecting LH and RH (corpus collosum), LH mostly sends the message to RH, “I don’t need you”. As the map gets solidified, one becomes more intolerant of alternate worldviews. The map begins to get treated as the territory and that creates all kinds of conflicts.

When LH becomes dominant, McGilchrist argues, certain functions where RH plays an important role weaken. He mentions many but here is a list relevant for us: empathy, metaphoric thinking, capacity for insight, and holding ambiguous possibilities in suspension. Here are a few quotes from the book on each of them:

Empathy: Self-awareness, empathy, identification with others, and more generally inter-subjective processes are largely dependent upon…right hemisphere resources. (pg 57, 2019 new expanded edition)

Metaphoric thinking: Metaphoric thinking is fundamental to our understanding of the world because it is the only way in which understanding can reach outside the system of signs to life itself. It is what links language to life…Only the right hemisphere has the capacity to understand metaphor. (pg 115)

Insight: Insight, whether mathematical or verbal, is the sort of problem-solving that happens when we, precisely, not concentrating on it, is associated with activation in the right hemisphere. (pg 65)

Holding uncertainty: The left hemisphere needs certainty and needs to be right. The right hemisphere makes it possible to hold several ambiguous possibilities in suspension together without premature closure on one outcome. (pg 82)

While empathy and metaphoric thinking map directly onto the process view above, insight is typically associated with define and ideation stages, and holding uncertainty is related to hypothesis thinking of the test stage. Thus, if McGilchrist’s hypothesis is indeed correct, then we might have a tendency where LH inhibits RH from either activating or passing on information related to empathy, metaphors, insight, alternate hypotheses. 

Of course, this doesn’t mean everything in design thinking is right-brain centric. For example, one can define a challenge without using a metaphor – improve sales by ten percent or reduce the turnaround time by fifty percent. Inventive techniques seem to, at least partly, belong to the LH domain. Similarly, prototyping would need LH resources to manipulate objects in building the prototype.

In short, McGilchrist’s book “The master and his emissary” suggests that design thinking is heavily dependent on right hemispheric resources. It is no surprise that learners who approach design thinking as purely a conceptual framework to be understood by reading a book or listening to a lecture struggle to grasp the essence.

Monday, February 28, 2022

Can tradition cause brain damage?

 

“Tradition is a form of brain damage” – is what physicist David Bohm and spiritual teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti agree upon in one of their dialogues in the book “The limits of thought”1. A few months ago I got an opportunity to facilitate a reading-and-reflection session on this dialogue and this sentence created discomfort among a few of the participants. They had valid points. Neither Bohm nor Krishnamurti was a neuroscientist. On what basis are they making such a claim? And neuroscience has advanced significantly in the last fifty years since they had this dialogue. Does it support it now? Let’s explore it in this article.

Let’s begin with the dialogue and then look at it through a neuroscience lens. Here is an excerpt from the dialogue:

DB: It occurred to me that tradition is a form of brain damage.

JK: I agree.

DB: Any tradition, good or bad, makes people accept a certain structure of reality, very subtly, without their realizing they are doing it, by imitation, or by example, or by words, just by statements. So very steadily the child builds up an approach in which the brain attributes things which are in the tradition to a reality which is independent of tradition. And it gives it tremendous importance. Tradition has real effects of all sorts, which may even be valuable in some ways. But at the same time it conditions the brain to a reality, which is fixed.

A person may look at that reality and say, “That’s reality, I‘ve got to keep my feet on the ground.” But this ground has been created by tradition, by thought; it is no ground, it has nothing under it at all. It is sustained and nourished by this damaged brain, which is unable to get out of that circle.

Now, let’s turn to a current neuroscience perspective.

Typically, we associate brain damage with some kind of lesion, some physical damage to the structure of the brain. However, that is a limited view of brain damage. According to Karl Friston, a leading neuroscientist, there are two kinds of brain damages2. One is anatomical and the other is functional. He uses radio as a metaphor to illustrate the difference. Anatomical damage is like cutting off the wires in radio, while functional damage is equivalent to transistors becoming dysfunctional. A transistor is dysfunctional when the message passing through the wires gets broken. In neurobiology, such a failure is called neuromodulatory failure when the messages passed through neural synapses are not gated and/or weighted properly. This results in loss of gain control meaning loss of control in excitation and inhibition of various signals.

As Friston articulates, when the gain control is broken, it results in strengthening false beliefs because the inferences based on the sensory information get compromised. For example, should I carry an umbrella today? This question would be answered based on the weather forecast and the likelihood of rain. When beliefs become rigid, the information passing mechanism becomes dysfunctional and incoming information related to rain is either suppressed or considered unreliable similar to a transistor malfunctioning. So I may end up carrying an umbrella no matter what.

Perhaps what Bohm-Krishnamurti are suggesting is that tradition has the capacity to make certain beliefs so strong that they are no longer amenable for update based on contextual information such as weather forecast. Beliefs related to what dress to wear or not wear, what to eat or not eat, what rituals to carry out, whom to marry or not marry may become so rigid that they suppress the passage of contextual information.  They are treated as true and fixed no matter what. As far as certain beliefs are concerned, the brain becomes dysfunctional, fixed, and context-insensitive.

Thus tradition may cause functional brain damage. What Bohm-Krishnamurti say in the dialogue is that the damage may or may not be permanent. What could heal such damage? Krishnamurti suggests that perception or insight into the whole belief structure, its rigidities and how it is operating, in the form of thought, being stuck in a grove, may heal the brain. I am not aware of any scientific research supporting such a claim. However, work such as that of Catherine Kerr, supports a milder form of this claim. That is, a practice of shifting attention away from thinking into body sensations and breathing may result in making the neuromodulation mechanism more flexible. That is, it may improve the quality of information flow through the neural pathways.

Source:

1.      “The limits of thought”, J. Krishnamurti and David Bohm, Krishnamurti Foundation India, 2013, chapter 5 “Tradition and truth”, page 84. This dialogue happened on August 6, 1975, in Gstaad, Switzerland.  Bohm suggests that “Tradition is a form of brain damage” at 6:13 in the audio

2.      Dysconnection hypothesis of schizophrenia”, August 10, 2017, In this video Karl Friston explains the nature of mental disorders and the possibility of a therapeutic cure of schizophrenia.

Friday, February 25, 2022

Neuroscience of mindfulness: My 4 takeaways from Catherine Kerr perspective

Catherine Kerr (1964-2016) was an American neuroscientist who made important contributions to the neuroscience of mindfulness. Her research was focused on the relationship between the material processes in the brain and the body awareness practices like mindfulness, tai chi and qigong. I found her work interesting because of three reasons. One, she had a cautious attitude towards the tall claims attributed to mindfulness. “Don’t believe the hype,” she said while also mentioning, “Behind the hype, there is some truth”. Two, I found her work on brain rhythms especially alpha waves and their relationship to mindfulness intriguing and relatable. And, three, she was trying to balance quantitative research from brain imaging studies with qualitative research from personal diaries and narratives. In this article, I would like to present my 4 takeaways from Cathy’s perspective. They are related to attentional freedom, brain rhythms, body-brain information loop, and existential reorientation.

Regaining attentional freedom: For many of us, attention is primarily consumed by repetitive thought patterns. Cathy calls this state of mind ungrounded. “Some people don’t even know that they can shift their attention in their body,” she says1. Mindfulness begins with learning to shift attention out of thinking into body sensations. This is what Cathy calls learning to regain attentional freedom2. “When mind lands in the body, you really feel it”3. This is the first step for many of us who tend to be dis-embodied. Cathy feels that people with chronic pain don’t have attentional freedom4.

When attention shifts from ruminating thoughts like “I am not good enough” to present moment sensations there is a different circuit in the brain that gets activated5. Anxious rumination activates the medial prefrontal cortex, also called the default mode network. And present moment awareness activates the lateral prefrontal cortex. Activation of these two circuits is found to be anti-correlated.

Alpha waves as volume control knobs: “How does a practice that begins by paying close attention to the toe reduce negative thoughts?” This is how Cathy introduces the research question she explored6. Her subjects, the treatment group, underwent the 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program. Her findings suggested that the thalamus and associated circuits act as a gatekeeper for various signals and alpha rhythms, brain waves of frequency around 10Hz, act as volume control knobs. For example, currently, as I am sitting in front of a laptop, there is sensory information coming in from my butt on the chair, visual input from the laptop screen, auditory input from surrounding sounds, thoughts related to this blog, etc. Alpha rhythms regulate these signals and block the signals it considers non-relevant in the current context.

When we become dis-embodied and attention is taken up mostly by thoughts, alpha rhythms become inflexible and tend to suppress bodily signals. What Cathy found out is that after 8-weeks of BMSR practice which involved paying attention to bodily sensations, alpha rhythms became more flexible in a statistically significant way. This flexibility extends to other signals as well. That is, learning to be mindful of the body teaches you to be mindful of the other sensations, thoughts and feelings7. Her research also found out that people with chronic pain have inflexible alpha rhythms and they lose access to body-space.

Cathy also mentions that meditators sometimes report feeling cortical rhythms and palpable sensations in other body areas. For me, feeling some kind of tingling sensation in the head, and in other body areas but especially in the head is common. Could that be alpha rhythms? Who knows?

Body-brain information loop: When we hold a cup or an egg in hand, the brain sends motor commands to the hand that moves the muscles. When the egg is held sufficiently tightly, the hand sends information back to the brain telling, “No more motor commands, I have taken in enough of information.” Thus, there is a circular information flow from brain to body and vice versa. This information flow from hand to the brain can be measured by looking at the beta rhythms which are stopping rhythms. Traditionally, scientists have studied these rhythms to understand what is flowing from brain to body. But Cathy’s research looked at the information flow from muscle spindle neurons back to the brain8

Her hypothesis was that when we are more embodied i.e. our awareness extends into our body, the quality of information sent back from the body to the brain is better. Apart from beta rhythms, Cathy also looked at clinical markers in fatigue called inflammatory cytokines9. For this research, Cathy decided to focus on distressed cancer survivors because many of them tend to be actively fatigued for years. They don’t have the energy to do exercise. However, they may be able to do slow body awareness exercises like tai chi and qigong. Cathy was a cancer survivor herself for two decades and a practitioner of these Chinese practices.

Cathy felt that mindfulness needs to be taken “off the cushion”10. Mindfulness is not only about doing a seated meditation. It can happen while you are moving. “Mindfulness on the go” has been an important aspect of my workshops and hence this aspect is interesting to me.

Existential reorientation: During her brain imaging research with the 8-week mindfulness program practitioners, Cathy also looked at the daily journal of some of the participants. And, she was surprised to find that most of them went through a lot of distress during weeks 4, 5 and 611. Participants experienced a feeling of insecurity. Some felt like quitting and moving to the Bahamas. Some of them felt like quitting the program. And in weeks 6, 7, and 8 participants began to settle into a positive trajectory. This led to a new hypothesis that perhaps somatic awareness in the longer-term leads to an existential reorientation i.e., re-construction of self-image12. Self-image has multiple dimensions e.g., bodily self, volitional self, narrative self, social self, etc. Self-image change includes changes to the body’s representation in the brain. She mentioned that this is just a hypothesis and yet to be tested.

From my personal experience and through the interaction with others, it is not at all uncommon to see existential reorientation. Am I an independent entity trying to be in control of the situation? Or am I deeply connected with the world with an illusion of control? Questions of these sorts are common in mindfulness exploration. Are there any associated mechanistic changes to the cognitive processes when the existential orientation changes? It will be interesting to see.

As you can see, many of the questions that Cathy asked haven’t been answered conclusively. However, I liked the questions themselves and I am sure they will have a life of their own.

Sources:

1.       Episode 56: Embodied cognition and its effects on health with Cathy Kerr”, a podcast interview by Brook Thomas, May 31, 2016 (time stamp: 13:40)

2.       Starting with the body: the neuroscience of somatosensory attention”, a talk by Catherine Kerr at Amherst College, Nov 11-13, 2011 (Cathy talks about attentional freedom at 28:53)

3.       Episode 56” (14:35)

4.       Starting with the body” (28:58)

5.       Starting with the body” (6:20)

6.       Mindfulness starts with the body: A view from the brain”, TEDx talk by Catherine Kerr, May 22, 2012 (3:00)

7.       Starting with the body” (16:40)

8.       Episode 56” (Cathy talks about beta rhythms and the information flow at 43:55)

9.       Episode 56” (Cathy talks about the clinical markers of fatigue in blood at 27:00)

10.   Episode 56” (17:50)

11.   Using qualitative methods in mindfulness studies to contextualize brain data”, talk by Catherine Kerr at UC Davis, May 21, 2015. (18:30)

12.   Using qualitative methods in mindfulness” (20:20)