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.


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.


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.