Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Sensing and solving: two modes of mind and the solving mode bias

Whether you are driving on the road, walking on the pavement, or eating in a restaurant by the side, you are likely to be in the solving mode. You are most likely trying to go from your current state to a desired state. The desired state could be being in your office, achieving 8000 steps for the day, or being satiated with your favorite food. While eating, walking, or driving, which is happening without your conscious effort, you are also likely to be trying to solve more complex problems like project planning, hiring/firing, providing help to aging parents, etc. And yet could this tendency to be in the solving mode be a handicap to solving problems in challenging situations? If so, what is needed to balance things? We will explore this in this article.

Sensing mode and solving mode: Let’s begin with a simplistic yet useful perspective that says that the mind is iterating through two modes: sensing and solving. Sensing mode involves estimating the state of the world including the body state and solving mode involves mental simulation and action to change the current state to match a desired state. Underlying both modes is a model or a map with a set of beliefs guiding the navigation through the world. These modes are also known as being and doing modes [1] or perceptual inference and active inference [2]. The picture above depicts perspective.

The sensing mode uses a map consisting of a set of beliefs to estimate the current state and the desired state [3]. The gap between the current and desired state could be based on our primate homeostatic needs such as hunger, thirst, cooler shelter, etc. But it could also be based on higher-level beliefs regarding security such as a secure job, a secure bank balance, a caring circle of friends and family, etc.

Bridging the gap: Solving mode tries to find different paths to go from the current state to a more secure desired state. It does so by changing the current state through action. To maintain homeostasis, heart rate, blood pressure, and various other parameters may be changing without our conscious awareness. This is covert action. A subset of solving part gets expressed as overt action. If my job is insecure, an action may involve sending a resume to friends and posting it on job sites. It could also involve building new skills that may be more relevant in the changing scenario. It could also involve reducing discretionary spending so that there is a better saving for the rainy days.

The sensing mode can also reduce the gap between the current and desired state. It does so by updating existing beliefs resulting in a re-estimation of the current and desired states. For example, I may have a belief that I must have a job. Suppose this belief gets questioned and I entertain a belief that it may be good to try out freelancing or even taking a break for six months and traveling. Then the current state of an insecure job doesn’t look so bad and the desired state doesn’t need to have a job.

A key difference between solving and sensing is the presence and absence of time. Solving involves belief simulation over multiple time scales e.g. if I send a resume to friends, I might get a call for an interview after a few days. Sensing, on the other hand, involves belief updates e.g. Is a job necessary?

Solving mode bias: As the belief map gets more and more sophisticated, solving mode takes over. It feels it knows the current state, why waste time and energy in sensing? It begins to suppress sensing pathways. We begin to go through the motion smoothly without sensing any newness. Tables, chairs, rooms, roads, and even people begin to appear the same and predictable. There may be updates in lower-level beliefs such as a friend’s phone number or the color of the street light but the higher-level beliefs get frozen. These could be religious beliefs, political ideologies, or even scientific theories.

Sensing the limitation of solving mode: Solving mode bias can create an impression that the world is predictable and the map of the world as projected by the current beliefs is reality. It feels as if any problem or conflict can be resolved through more and more simulation and action of different options and scenarios holding the current beliefs tight. Sometimes it works, other times it doesn’t. A key turning point happens in this process when there is a sensing of the limitation of the solving mode. It is a realization that no matter how sophisticated the beliefs, a map is just a map never the territory. This insight may open newer sensing pathways that have been suppressed by the solving mode. And the quality of listening and observation improves. People with opposite beliefs don’t look morons anymore and the urge to “clean” the world subsides.

To summarize, both sensing and solving can reduce the gap between the current and desired state. We have a tendency to rely mostly on the solving mode which tries to change the current state to match the desired state. Sensing involves belief updates which may result in new current and desired states. Over-reliance on solving mode dampens the sensing mode. A good first step to rebalancing the solving-sensing imbalance is to observe the constant time travel and the urge to change the world. 


[1] J. Mark. G. Williams, “Mindfulness and psychological process”, Emotion, 2010, vol. 10, No. 1, pages 1-7. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20141295/

[2] Norman Farb et. al., “Interoception, contemplative practice, and health”, Frontiers in Psychology, June 2015, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00763

[3] Norman Farb et. al. June 2015 (same as [2])

Thursday, April 27, 2023

4 quotes from Prof Edgar Schein that are stuck with me


Prof Edgar Schein passed away on January 26 at the age of 94. His son and collaborator Peter Schein wrote, “He and I had just finished a work gig at about 5p and were chatting after and a few hours after that he passed away peacefully, no pain, no illness, no hospitalization. As he wanted it.”

Ed Schein’s work had a huge influence on my consulting career – both in the area of culture of innovation and my consulting style. It is no surprise that I have quoted him in sixteen of my blogs since 2008. Many of them were on topics that I found interesting in his books, articles, and interviews. As I added more areas of study like design thinking and mindfulness, I realized I had something to learn from Schein in each of them. In this article, I present 4 quotes from Ed Schein that are stuck with me.

Observation is an intervention: Schein says, “If I go into an organization to observe something, my presence there, what questions I ask, and everything I do is an intervention in that organization’s life.” And adds, “The notion that I can go there and ‘gather data in order to plan an intervention later’ is, I now realize, one of the most nonsensical ideas in the field of consulting.”[1] I have illustrated this in my blog Where does intervention begin? Story of Dr Kiran Bedi’s first day at Tihar Jail (2010).

Changing culture is a misnomer: Schein says, “I think changing culture is a misnomer. You change people’s behaviour, and you may eventually influence their beliefs,” he adds, “If you define culture as a common learned response, then it changes with success. If you impose a new way of doing things, and people try it and it works, then slowly they build a new culture.” [2] I wrote about this topic in my blog – Saying “We need a culture of innovation” is mostly correct and useless (2009).

Focus more on process than on content: When I am in a meeting arguing with a colleague, I may be focused on his argument and my counter-argument. That is the content of the conversation. Schein suggests that I should focus more on the process [3]. For example, can I observe the process of communication, “I am trying to compete with my colleague and showing to others that I am brighter and smarter?” This may lead to a reflection, “Why am I arguing here? Is it possible to appreciate the other person’s point and build a relationship that might lead to a better solution?” Focus on process involves observing how anxieties such as losing an argument and aspirations about one’s career are driving the thinking and behaviour. I wrote about this in – 3 tips on being mindful in the corporate world: An Edgar Schein perspective (2019). Another way Schein puts this is, “Listening to the other is secondary to listening to the self.” [4]

There is no “real problem”, only a set of worries: In the final chapter titled “Concluding comments – some final thoughts on how to be really helpful” of the book “Humble consulting: how to provide real help faster” Schein mentions the following: “To be really helpful requires locating what the real problem is, that is, what is worrying the client while accepting the fact that there is no ‘real problem,’ only a set of worries that may be all over the map. To locate what is worrying the client requires open and trusting communication between client and helper. The client has to feel secure enough to reveal what is personally bothering him or her.” [5] I wrote about this in the blog “My 3 takeaways from Edgar Schein’s Humble consulting” (2016)

In one of the online webinars in May 2021 when asked for final words, Ed asked this question, “Can we get to level-two relationships (i.e. beyond transactional) among countries and among larger units to develop ways of saving the planet and thereby saving ourselves?”

For someone like me who got to know about Ed and his thoughts only through books and interviews Ed’s passing away does not change much. It is such a joy to read/listen to Ed. Thank you, Ed.


[1] James Campbell Quick, “The next frontier: Edgar Schein on organizational therapy”, The Academy of Management Executive: Feb 2000, page 32.

[2] Tony Manning talks to Edgar Schain, May 2004.

[3] “Humble leadership: Edgar Schein: talks at Google”, interview by Karen May at Google, Feb 2, 2016 (Ed’s quote is at 18:50).

[4] James Campbell Quick, “The next frontier: Edgar Schein on organizational therapy”, The Academy of Management Executive: Feb 2000, page 32.

[5] Edgar Schein, “Humble consulting: how to provide real help faster,” Berrett-Koehler, 2016.

Image sources: amorebeautifulquestion.com, amazon.com

Thursday, April 20, 2023

4 modes of problem-solving applied to “reducing student anxiety”

Over the past decade, I have been using 4 approaches to problem-solving to give an overview of problem-solving techniques in my workshops and classes. In this article, I illustrate these 4 modes of problem-solving by applying them to the problem of “reducing student anxiety”. I did this exercise in my class last month at IIT Bombay while teaching a course on the management of innovation. Many of the ideas have come from students as we did the exercise together.

Student anxiety is a broad topic and we realized we could break it down into different sub-topics such as exam anxiety, anxiety due to parental pressures, anxiety due to peer pressure, placement anxiety, etc. This is an example of systems-centric thinking where we try to break down a complex problem into sub-problems and try to solve each separately. Of course, the sub-problems may be interlinked, and solving one sub-problem may exacerbate another one. Despite this possibility, we decided to focus on the sub-problem of exam anxiety.

1.  System-centric approach:

We looked at some of the Systematic Inventive Thinking techniques

a.  Subtraction:  Can we subtract the exam from the course?

b.  Division: Make attendance 100% weightage and exam 0% (Reduce weightage of exam and increase somewhere else)

c.  Multiplication: Give an option of multiple attempts to refine your score in the exam

d.  Task unification: 1. Keep self-assessment 2. Keep peer-assessment 3. Let every student set and answer her own exam

e.  Attribute dependency: Exam is offered at multiple difficulty levels. Student gets to choose the difficulty level of the exam

f.   Reversal: Instead of the teacher setting exam for the students, students set exam for the teacher 

2.       Solution-centric approach:

a.   Using metaphors: Can writing an exam be as stress-free as chatting with friends in a cafĂ©? Can exam writing be a group exercise?

b.   Using internal bright spots: A personalized app that keeps track of student’s stress level perhaps through biomarkers such as HRV (Heart Rate Variability) available on smartwatches. And when it senses that anxiety is rising, gives suggestions for activities based the past data that reduce his anxiety. Suggestions could be: have chocolate, go talk to a friend, read a book, listen to music, take a walk, etc.   

3.  Problem-centric approach: Through this mode, one goes into the root cause of the problem of “exam anxiety”. Why does it arise? What is the “virus” and what could be the “vaccine”? Is the fear of failure the root cause? Is this an evolutionarily deep-rooted tendency? If so, can it be dampened when it remains high? What does neuroscience say? Is there an anti-anxiety pill without any side effects?

4.  Sensing-centric approach: In this mode, one begins by saying, “I don’t know why students are anxious about exams”. Can I listen to and observe students as they prepare for and respond to exam pressure? Can I listen to and observe teachers and parents as to how they respond to exams? Is it possible for students, teachers, and parents to become aware of their own anxiety?

Hope this gives some idea of how the 4 modes of problem-solving may be applied to a given situation.

Monday, January 23, 2023

Building innovation stamina: 4 basic workouts

When it comes to building running stamina, workouts may include a combination of stretching, slow runs, sprints, strength training, etc. What kinds of workouts are involved in building innovation stamina? Let’s look at 4 key components of innovation stamina and identify a basic workout for each of them. The 4 components are curiosity stamina, experimentation stamina, communication stamina, and collaboration stamina. Innovation is a team sport and hence innovation stamina is more relevant for a team than an individual. However, let’s focus on an individual in this article.

1.  Curiosity stamina: This stamina depicts one’s ability to remain curious about one challenge area for a long duration.

Daily workout: Listening: Spending time listening to people who may be facing the challenge or have overcome the challenge or carry some expertise related to the challenge area. If you are curious about a technology trend, then the workout may involve listening to / studying what experts/friends have to say on the topic.

Listening may also happen by watching a video, reading a book, research paper, etc. Any serious study would need the discipline of taking notes, keeping recorded interviews, etc.

A typical by-product of this exercise is framing one or more challenges with additional constraints e.g. focusing on specific types of people, using different metaphors or analogies, etc. With input from people, the challenge statement may undergo changes. Keeping a diary of challenge statements along with assumptions and constraints helps.

2.  Experimentation stamina: This stamina represents one’s ability to perform experiments to validate one or more assumptions or hypotheses associated with an idea. 

Daily workout: Prototyping: A prototype can be feels-like such as a before-and-after storyboard, or it may be a looks-like prototype such as app wireframes or it may be works-like such as a simulation model. Building higher fidelity prototypes typically needs more sophisticated tools, specialized skills, and more effort. The key parameters to watch out for are cost and speed of prototyping. You want the cost to be as low as possible and the speed to be as high as possible.

Like how a gym enables workouts, a lab enables prototyping by providing access to tools, platforms, and coaches. Hence, serious stamina builders try to get access to a gym or build a low-cost gym of their own.

3.  Communication stamina: This stamina depicts one’s ability to communicate one’s idea effectively in a short time again and again despite unfavorable responses in the past.

Daily workout: idea pitching: Idea pitching can start with friends and family. And it gets extended to mentors, investors, potential/current customers, partners, etc. A key by-product is a feedback which may be used to improvise the idea, the prototype, and the pitch. Investment is also a by-product, not necessarily in the form of money but it could also be in the form of time from a mentor or an influencer opening a channel to potential customers. 

4.  Collaboration stamina: This stamina represents one’s ability to collaborate with and co-create new products/services with colleagues despite differences in opinions or priorities.

Daily workout:  Brainstorming: It is common to meet over a cup of coffee but not so common to meet with a specific challenge as agenda to be discussed. And it is even more difficult to retain an interest in the challenge for all the parties involved. Collaboration stamina is the toughest and trickiest stamina to build. Who is contributing more? Who should get the credit? Questions like these would pop up sooner or later and need to be resolved amicably.

A typical by-product of collaboration is a joint project. Many challenge campaigns make it mandatory for the submission to be teamwork. Quality of listening and mutual respect play a big role in cultivating collaboration stamina.

To summarize, we looked at 4 components of innovation stamina: curiosity, experimentation, communication, and collaboration, and 4 associated basic workouts to cultivate those components viz. listening, prototyping, idea pitching, and brainstorming.