Sunday, December 17, 2023

Learning from innovation dashboards visible through annual reports

Innovation means different things to different sectors and these differences get reflected in how they present their innovation dashboards. For the past few years, several listed companies in India have started presenting their innovation dashboards either explicitly in the form of a table sometimes titled “intellectual capital” or implicitly through various parameters like new product launches, pilots, kaizens, new initiatives, automations, etc. How do these innovation dashboards look? Let’s look at 4 such dashboards as visible to us through their FY23 annual reports. These companies are Tata Motors, Asian Paints, SBI Life Insurance, and Zomato, and their sectors are automotive, building materials (paints, coatings, and home décor products), insurance, and online food ordering. Please note that the innovation dashboard that gets presented in annual reports is likely to be a subset of what is tracked internally. Disclaimer: Some of these companies are my clients, but here I am restricting myself to data available only through annual reports.

What can we learn and not learn from these dashboards?

  • Despite being from different sectors, all four companies had something to report on new products/programs launched in the financial year.
  • Intellectual property especially patents and designs are relevant to Tata Motors and Asian Paints but not to SBI Life and Zomato. Tata Motors in India may be learning the nuances of the game from JLR.
  • Digital transformation is an important focus area for SBI Life while for digitally native companies like Zomato, it is part of the DNA.
  • Automation is an important focus area for all four companies. For SBI Life, underwriting process automation provides a good opportunity for improvement.
  • Partners – insurance agents for SBI Life and delivery partners for Zomato play an important role in their business. Improving partner experience is happening through digital transformation for SBI Life while for digitally native Zomato providing offline experience through resting places with drinking water, washrooms, charging stations, WiFi, helpdesk, and first-aid is important.
  • R&D expenditure as a proxy for experimentation capacity is visible through Tata Motors and Asian Paints reports but not from SBI Life and Zomato. Tata Motors report mentions they have 11 technology hubs/R&D/engineering centres while the Asian Paints report mentions the strength of the R&D team. Zomato report mentions various pilots like Intercity Legends, Zomato everyday, and reusable packaging. These are experiments which may or may not become successful.
  • Continuous improvement must be important to all players. However, systematic efforts are visible through kaizen reporting in Tata Motors and Asian Paints but not in SBI Life and Zomato.
  • Automation through bots is visible in the SBI Life report. However, the efficiency of bot usage can come at the cost of customer experience. Currently, the quality of automated responses to customer support queries is poor in most cases. This trade-off is not visible.
  • Platform is an enabler of innovation and all four players leverage different types of platforms. Tata Motors has vehicular platforms, Asian Paints has chemical technology-related platforms, SBI Life has digital servicing platforms, and Zomato has an order management platform. However, platform-related metrics are not visible in these reports. We can infer that platforms would have played a role when Tata Motors launched 150 variants in a year.
  • Open innovation is an enabler of innovation. Asian Paints report mentions having a technology council with four external members with diverse expertise in various technology areas relevant to the business. Tata Motors must collaborate with other Tata and non-Tata companies, especially in the electric mobility space in creating the ecosystem. However, the related metric is not visible.

In short, there is a lot that can be gathered about innovation from the dashboards available in the annual reports. Innovation dashboard reporting is not a statutory requirement. And yet, it is a good source of input for students of innovation.

Thursday, November 30, 2023

Journey mapping tips from Tony Fadell, the father of iPod

Journey mapping is one of my favorite tools to capture customer, employee, partner’s experience journey and identify gaps to enhance it further. Tony Fadell, the father of iPod, has given excellent tips on how he and his team at Nest used journey mapping for experience design in his book “Build: An unorthodox guide to making things worth making”. Here is an attempt to capture some of Fadell’s tips related to journey mapping.

“You should be able to map out and visualize exactly how a customer discovers, considers, installs, uses, fixes, and even returns your product. It all matters,” Fadell says in the book. When people come to him to show a new product they have built, he asks, “Tell me what’s so special about the customer journey”. If the customer journey is that important, why does it get ignored? Fadell points to the cognitive bias we tend to carry – “We’re wired to focus our attention on tangible things that we can see and touch to the point that we overlook the importance of intangible experiences and feelings.”

Before we look at 3 examples of how journey mapping was used for Nest, let’s look at a journey map template Fadell gives along with possible touchpoints in each stage:

Fadell’s point is that we tend to focus on the “product design” stage at the cost of the other stages. Here are three examples from the Nest learning thermostat design.

The app: In the early days of Nest, everyone was focused on perfecting the thermostat. It involved getting the design, AI, electronics, mechanics, colors, textures, right. The installation, feeling of turning the dial, the glow when you walk past, all this was thought through. Fadell points out that in Nest journey, 10% was website-ads-packaging-in-store display, 10% was installation, 10% was looking-and-touching the device and 70% was monitoring and control on phone-laptop. After the thermostat was installed and working, majority of touchpoints were through the app. And the team had lost track of the app. They had done initial prototypes when the project began but thought it to be the easy stuff they can come back to later. And it got pushed to the end. Fadell admits he became “really loud” to bring team’s attention to the app.

The box: “You should be prototyping your marketing long before you have anything to market,” says Fadell. And that is what they did at Nest. The cardboard box, its packaging, the product name, the tagline, the top features, their priority order – all these were printed on a cardboard box and constantly tweaked and revised. Two personas were created one tech-savvy husband and his wife, the decision maker, dictated what made into the house and what got returned. Nest team was asking questions like, “Why would they pick up the box? What would they want to know? What was most important to them?” There was no thermostat isle in Best Buy, Nest’s first retail partner. Thermostats were not bought by homeowners directly. Best Buy was not going to create a thermostat isle either. So, they collaborated with Best Buy and invented a Connected-Home isle.

The screw-driver: When prototypes of the actual thermostat were ready, they were sent out to people to test. Self-installation was potentially a major anxiety generator. Hence, it was a crucial test. Testers reported that the installation was smooth. Everything is up and running. But it took about an hour to install. That was way more than what the team thought. So they started digging into the installation experience and see where things are taking time. It turned out that the installation itself was not the culprit. The testers spent twenty minutes locating the right tools like the screwdriver. So Nest team decided to include a little screwdriver in the installation kit. And, to their surprise, the screwdriver served the purpose of a marketing tool because people had to use it more often than the actual thermostat.

In short, the app, the box, and the screwdriver are excellent examples of how journey mapping can be used to enhance the intangible touchpoints in a customer’s journey.

Related articles:

Journey mapping illustrated through Dunzo’s order-tracking experience

Image sources:

Nest screwdriver image source:

Nest app and thermostat image source:

Thursday, November 16, 2023

8-steps after 10-years: Why bother building participation?

It has been 10 years since the publication of our book “8-steps to innovation”. During this time, we got the opportunity to share the framework with various leaders. We also saw the framework being put into practice. Through this series of reflections, I will try to shine a light on situations where the framework might be weak. In this article, I will question the third step – building participation.

The 8-step framework suggests that if you want to build an idea pipeline, create a challenge book first (step 2) and then involve people in participative problem-solving (step 3). For example, if you have a brainstorming session around a specific challenge, you end up generating several ideas. Here are situations where this may not work.

Inventor’s challenge: I have met several inventors who prefer to keep their ideas to themselves. They have no interest in sharing it with their boss or colleagues because they feel they may steal their ideas. Perhaps they have had a bad experience in the past where others took credit for their idea. In my workshops, when we have brainstorms, these people suggest some ideas. And then meet me during the break or send a message to share their pet idea which they are not comfortable sharing with others. I understand the importance of secrecy until you have some form of protection. However, sometimes people end up carrying ideas with them for years without any form of validation. It helps to have a few sounding boards. Is ChatGPT a good brainstorming partner? Perhaps.

Manager’s fear: A few years ago, I wrote about 3 reasons why managers don’t throw their toughest challenge to their teams. The single biggest reason is fear of perceived incompetence. They feel they get paid to solve problems and if they share their challenge with the team, they might be perceived as incompetent. It gives confidence when you solve a problem and get your team to implement your solution. This works best when you have been in the system for a long time and know the domain very well. However, when you start managing an existing team, you may not be the domain expert. And this approach may not work.

Why care about small ideas? Continuous improvement as a systematic approach has been around for over a hundred years. Our book presents stories from Toyota, Titan, and TVS. Many organizations continue to highlight the number of ideas and the number of employees participating in continuous improvement programs in their annual reports. For example, the Asian Paints FY23 annual report says that there were 7000+ improvement suggestions submitted. Having said that I have met several leaders who don’t consider continuous improvement worth the cost. What matters to them are big bets. As a result, participation becomes unimportant. Participation thrives when small ideas are encouraged.

Participation in virtual teams: Virtual teams have been around for a while but their presence increased during and post-Covid era. As people started working from home, formal brainstorms and tea-coffee chats diminished. As video calls started taking time, initiatives focusing on not-so-urgent issues took a backseat. And participation in innovation-related initiatives went down. Getting people to participate in anything other than deliveries became a challenge at least in some organizations.   

In short, participation may be one way of building an idea pipeline. However, there are situations in which participation may not work or one may be uncomfortable sharing the ideas. Perhaps ChatGPT is your partner. Problems may be defined and solved by individuals and implemented through teams if they are the managers. So yeah, skip step 3 if you don’t need it.

Thursday, October 5, 2023

Strategic management of technology and innovation 2023: A reflection

Last June to August I got an opportunity to teach the course “Strategic management of technology and innovation” again at IIM Bangalore. I have been teaching this elective for the last five years. The class is a mix of part-time MBA (PGPEM) and full-time MBA (PGP) students. Every time I learn a lot through the process of preparation and class interaction. In this article, I present three things that stand out in my reflection and two questions where my gut feeling was significantly different from the class.

Starting a business, Dunzo, and the art of iteration: During the first half of the course, we explored the question, “How do I build innovation stamina systematically?” One of the frameworks we used was 2-loops of innovation – the idea-to-demo loop validated feasibility and desirability assumptions while the demo-to-cash loop validated scalability and profitability assumptions. We used the 2-loops lens to look at the starting of various businesses like Kodak, Dunzo, Ather Energy, Husk Power Systems, etc. For each iteration, we analyzed four parameters - speed, cost, quality of feedback, and cognitive biases, especially confirmation bias.

Dunzo turned out to be interesting on multiple fronts. It was more relatable as compared to Kodak (hardly anyone had used Kodak camera) and Husk Power (little experience with off-grid villages). For the first six months, until it grew to a few thousand customers, Dunzo was running on WhatsApp. Later it adopted mobile apps, cloud, and analytics. Dunzo also experimented with drone delivery. It was a good example of how a business can start low-tech and iteratively become more high-tech. Founders spoke the language of hypothesis testing and customer focus. Customer and delivery partner experience was also improved over the years. And yet, Dunzo remained in the news for cash crunch and market share erosion throughout the course duration. When asked, which is easier to fix – a broken customer experience or a broken business model? Almost the entire class felt a broken business model was easier to fix. However, we found it easier to find counter-examples for the latter – Dunzo, WeWork, Micromax, and Kingfisher – all had decent customer experience but struggled to fix their business model. In case you have any examples where a broken customer experience couldn’t be fixed, happy to learn from you.

Titan, smartwatches, and the surfing of technology waves: In the second half of the course, we shifted focus to enabling and management of innovation. We restricted ourselves to listed companies and used only secondary sources for discussion such as annual reports, CXO interviews, and quarterly earnings call transcripts.

Surfing a technology wave is not easy, too early and you might create technology debt, too late and you risk losing to the competition. We explored how various companies responded to technology waves – IBM-Internet, Titan-smartwatches, Vimeo-video marketing, Amara Raja Batteries-Li-Ion, Lego-sustainability, Amazon-speech recognition, and AMD-data centers. For example, we asked, “Was Titan late in responding to the smartwatch wave?” This was interesting because 75% of the class wore smartwatches and none had a Titan. So, on the face of it, the answer was obvious. However, as we dug into the reports, we found the answer to be much more nuanced and the game is far from over. We used the "real-win-worth it" framework to guess investment, no-investment, and divestment decisions. For example, we asked, “Was it real, win, or worth it criteria that may have led to Ford Motors divesting in Level-5 autonomous car startup, Argo AI?”

AI, creativity, and artificial insight: When the course began in June, ChatGPT hangover was still lingering. I didn’t change the nature of assignments or projects. However, referencing norms became stricter. The fact that AI is going to be a powerful force going forward was given. The challenge for me was to show how to see through the fog and hype. This is where guest lectures helped. Ravi Aranke showed how to use ecosystem tracking – users (individual and paid), startup investments, enterprise adoption, regulatory bodies, expert conversions (experts shifting their opinions), and professionals (marketing, lawyers, doctors, CAs, recruiters) to create one’s view. Sunil Mishra showed how one can build a local chatbot using Python’s langchain library and highlighted generative AI’s banking uses-cases.

We looked at the surprising move 37 during AlphaGo vs Lee See dol 2016 Go game and asked, “Was move 37 creative?” It was one of the moves which the professional Go players thought as a mistake at the first sight and then realized it was part of an intentional strategy. Almost the entire class felt that the move 37 was not creative. Personally, I felt the move was creative, but it also created an opportunity to learn about what creativity means to different people. I also tried to give a glimpse of how Karl Friston shows curiosity and insight can be simulated by synthetic agents using active inference framework. Of course, active inference is primarily used to explain natural intelligence but he and other researchers have also put forward a proposal for how it may lead to distributed super-intelligence.

A potentially game-changing emerging technology which I thought I could spend some time on was genetic engineering - CRISPR, prime editing, etc. Unfortunately, I fell short on my preparation as well as the availability of time. However, I managed to use fiction for the first time as a source of use cases. We looked at a short case prepared from Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel “Klara and the Sun” to classify use cases into current, near-future, distant future / impossible buckets. Ishiguro’s novel unfolds on the backdrop of AI, robotics, and genetic engineering.

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Tracing mindfulness word to its Pali/Sanskrit counterparts: Sati and Vipassanā

In my workshops on mindfulness, it is common to get the question, “How is the mindfulness you teach related to Buddhist practices?” So far, my answer has been, “Both involve learning to see clearly”. I know this is a handwavy answer so I decided to explore the question by looking at its counterparts in Buddhist texts to get a better understanding. In this article, I take two Pali/Sanskrit words which are translated as mindfulness, namely Sati (Smriti) and Vipassana (Vipaśyanā), and look at their meanings. But before we get to these source words, let us place the current usage of mindfulness in a broader context.

The word mindfulness means different things to different people, just like innovation. Four types of usages are common: (1) as a practice anchored in Buddhist texts (2) as a secular discipline with a loose to no connection to Buddhist texts/practices (3) as a clinical/therapeutic intervention for mental health issues such as depression; and (4) as a fitness tool like yoga also available on mobile apps and smartwatches. I have been a student of mindfulness of the second type (secular discipline with a loose connection with Buddhist practices) for the past twenty-five years and a teacher for the past eight years. My book “Mindfulness: connecting with the real you” came from this perspective.

As we look at Pali and Sanskrit words for mindfulness, we must note that these are not the only languages in which mindfulness can be traced. Chinese, Tibetan, Korean, Japanese, and perhaps other languages also offer rich sources of old Buddhist texts and would carry words that are translated as mindfulness. I am restricting the scope to Pali/Sanskrit due to my ease of understanding terms and texts in these languages. 

The two Pali (Sanskrit) words we will look at are: Sati (Smriti) and Vipassana (Vipashyana)

Sati (Smriti): In 1881, T W Rhys Davids, an English scholar of the Pali language and founder of the Pali text society, translated the seventh of the Noble Eightfold path sammā-sati as “right mindfulness, the watchful, active mind” [1].  Literally, the Pali word sati or Sanskrit smriti means memory, however, Rhys Davids knew the intended meaning in the Buddhist texts goes beyond just memory. He wrote, “In No. 7 (samma-sati) sati is literally 'memory' but is used with reference to the constantly repeated phrase 'mindful and thoughtful' (sato sampajâno); and means that activity of mind and constant presence of mind which is one of the duties most frequently inculcated on the good Buddhist."[2]

Satipaṭṭhānā Suttā is one of the most used Buddhist texts as a source for mindfulness [3]. It presents four establishments of mindfulness – cattaro satipaṭṭhānā [4].

Kāye kāyānupassī …vedanāsu vedānanupassi…citte cittānupassi…dhammesu dhammānupassi viharati ātāpi sampajāno satimā, vineyya loke abhijjhādomanassaṃ.

To live witnessing the reality of body as body…feelings as feelings…mind as mind…phenomena as phenomena, ardently, with clear comprehension, with awareness, keeping away from craving and aversion towards the world.

In this commonly occurring phrase, sati is translated as awareness. However, the word sati is always accompanied by anupassanā and sampajannā. Bhikkhu Bodhi translates them as observation and clear comprehension respectively while S N Goenka translates them as witnessing and wisdom of arising and passing respectively. In either case, when mindfulness is meant to capture the essence of Satipaṭṭhānā suttā, it makes sense for the word to carry the shades of sati, anupassanā and sampajannā.  

The following verse from Dhammapada (Pali verse no. 374) also brings out the close relationship between sati and wisdom of arising and passing [5].

yato yato sammasati, khandhānaṁ udayabbayaṁ, labhatī pītipāmojjaṁ, amataṁ taṁ vijānataṁ

Whenever he sees with insight the rise and fall of the aggregates, he is full of joy and happiness. To the discerning one, this reflects the Deathless. (Translated by Acharya Buddharakkhita [6])

Vipassanā (Vipaśyanā): Mindfulness is also used as a translation of the Pali (Sanskrit) word Vipassana (Vipaśyanā). It literally means seeing clearly or seeing in a special way. It is also translated as insight. S. N. Goenka defines it as [7]:

Paññatti ṭhapetvā visesena passati’ti vipassanā

Having removed the apparent truth, seeing things by their characteristics.

Vipassana represents a meditation tradition that got started in Burma (Myanmar) in the 18th century and spread among monks as well as laypeople in the 19th and 20th centuries in Burma, Thailand, and subsequently across the world [8].  These traditions use both samaṭhā (tranquillity) and vipassanā (insight) by placing varying degrees of emphasis on the two aspects [9]. However, many old Buddhist texts use these two words together. For example, in one of the discourses in Samyutta Nikāya (SN 43) Buddha says [10]:

Katamo ca bhikkhave asaṅkhata-gāmī Maggo? Samatho ca vipassanā ca.

And what is the path that leads to the unconditioned? Tranquility & insight…

If the objective of Vipassana is to see clearly, we can ask what is it to be seen clearly? The answer differs somewhat based on the tradition. However, three characteristics, tilakkhanā (trilakśanā) are common, especially in Theravada tradition: namely anicca (impermanence), dukkha (unsatisfactoriness), and anatta (no self). For example, verses 277, 278, and 279 from Dhammapada express this:  

sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā ti, yadā paññāya passati, atha nibbindatī dukkhe esa maggo visuddhiyā (277)

“All conditioned things are impermanent” - when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering. This is the path to purification. [11]

sabbe saṅkhārā dukkhā ti, yadā paññāya passati, atha nibbindatī dukkhe esa maggo visuddhiyā. (278)

“All conditioned things are unsatisfactory” - when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering. This is the path to purification.

sabbe dhammā anattā ti, yadā paññāya passati, atha nibbindatī dukkhe esa maggo visuddhiyā. (279)

“All things are not-self” - when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering. This is the path to purification.

For Nagarjuna, the father of Madhyamaka school, as he presents in MulamadhyamakaKarika verse 24.40, seeing just one characteristic that is of śūnyatā or essencelessness in everything is enough and everything else follows from it [12].

To summarize, we looked at two Pali/Sanskrit words – sati and vipassanā which have been translated as mindfulness. As we saw, in the Buddhist texts, these words are accompanied by other related words whose meanings are also incorporated in the meaning of mindfulness. Phrases like awareness of or seeing clearly into, with a calm mind, the characteristics of human existence such as impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, no-self, śūnyatā stand out.


[1] T W Rhys Davids, “Buddhist Suttas, translated from Pali”, Oxford at the Claredon Press, 1881, pg 107.

[2] T W Rhys Davids, pg 145

[3] Bhikkhu Bodhi, “What does mindfulness really mean?”, in “Mindfulness: diverse perspectives on its meaning, origins, and multiple applications at the intersection of science and dharma”, edited by J. Mark G. Williams and Jon Kabat-Zinn, 2015, pg 19.

[4] Achara S. N. Goenka, “Discourses on Satipatthana Sutta”, Vipassana Research Institute, 2013, pg 22.

[5] Anandjoti Bhikkhu, “A comparative edition of the Dhammapada”, 4th revised edition, April 2020, pg 221.

[6] Acharya Buddharakkhita (translator), “The Dhammapada: The Buddha’s path of wisdom”, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka, 1985, pg 80.

[7] Achara S. N. Goenka, “Discourses on Satipatthana Sutta”, Vipassana Research Institute, 2013, pg 4.

[8] Patrick Pranke, “On saints and wizards: Ideals of human perfection and power in contemporary Burmese Buddhism”, Journal of International Association of Buddhist Studies, vol 33, 2010, pg 453-488.

[9] Bhikkhu Analayo, “The dynamics of Theravada insight meditation”, Zhuang Guobin (ed), Dharma Drum Publishing, Taiwan, 2012.

[10] The Sri Lanka Buddha Jayanti Tripitaka Series, Digital edition, 1995, SN 43.2

[11] Acharya Buddharakkhita (translator), “The Dhammapada: The Buddha’s path of wisdom”, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka, 1985, pg 65

[12] Nagarjuna’s sunyata through Mulamadhyamakakarika verses, October 2022

image credit: Gauri Dabholkar

Sunday, July 16, 2023

Journey mapping: illustrated through Dunzo’s order-tracking experience

Whether you are eating, sleeping, gaming, commuting, or working, you are having an experience. And designing richer experiences is the core objective design thinking. Journey mapping is a tool that can be used to map the current experience and imagine an enhanced one. In this article, I would like to present journey mapping process using an example of Dunzo’s order-tracking experience. I will use the blog “Revamping Dunzo’s order tracking experience” by Divyanshu Nandwani as input to build the journey map. Divyanshu has nicely captured the thoughts and emotions of Dunzo’s customers from the time they place an order to receiving it. And he also presents how the experience was enhanced subsequently.

We will look at journey mapping as a 5-step process: (1) Gather customer inputs (2) identify journey stages (3) map customer experience (4) identify dark and bright spots, and (5) frame the challenge.

1. Gather customer inputs: The journey map needs customer or stakeholder inputs. In the case of order tracking, you will need what customers are thinking, at what stage of the journey, with what emotion, and with what kind of emotional intensity. You may use interviews, observations, input from the customer support department, data available through apps, etc. In the case of Dunzo, they got the inputs from support tickets, research interviews, and by looking at the data. Since customers reached out to the delivery partner directly, delivery partners also become an important source of input. If you are launching a new product or service, your input will come from your potential customers’ existing journey that you are planning to enhance. Here is what Dunzo folks have gathered as mentioned in the blog:
2. Identify journey stages: It helps to divide the journey into a few stages. For example, the order tracking journey can be divided into the following milestones: (1) Order received (2) Order accepted by the outlet (3) Partner assigned (4) Partner at the outlet (5) Parcel picked (6) Parcel delivered. These six milestones divide the journey into five stages. We could have made this into a 4-stage or an 8-stage journey by reducing/adding stages. 
The vertical axis of this journey map corresponds to the emotional intensity associated with the observation. The middle line denotes neural emotion. We place observations with positive emotions in the upper half and observations with negative emotions in the lower half of the map. When an observation has high intensity of positive emotion, say the customer is extremely happy, the observation will be placed on the top of the map. Conversely, when the customer is extremely annoyed, it will be placed towards the bottom of the map.

3. Map customer experience:  Once we have observations/thoughts gathered from customers and the stages of the journey ready, we can start placing the observations on the map. For example, observation 2 “Why hasn’t a partner been assigned yet?” is placed in stage-2 where the order is accepted by the outlet but the partner is not assigned yet. Since the customer is likely to be anxious while raising this question, the observation has been placed in the lower half. I have assumed that the anxiety is medium (not very low and not acute). Likewise, I have placed most of the observations listed in step-1 on the map below.

Note that map building can be an ongoing process and is best done by a team rather than an individual. It can be built over a period, say a month, and then looked at for patterns, particularly dark and bright spots.

4. Identify dark and bright spots: Bright spots are those observations where the customer is really happy/excited etc. They are located in the upper half of the journey map, especially towards the top side. For example, observation-13 “Oh yes! The partner is moving” is a bright spot. In contrast, observation-16 “Why is it taking time at the store?” is a dark spot. 

5. Frame the challenge:  The primary objective of journey mapping is problem discovery. Journey map offers multiple options for framing a challenge. For example,

  • Focus on one stage where you want to enhance the experience (e.g. it could be stage-4 in the journey map above which has two dark spots)
  • Focus on dark spots and ask, “How do we reduce/eliminate the anxiety of our customers?”
  • Focus on bright spots and ask, “How to replicate the joy across other stages?”
  • Frame a challenge around end-to-end experience?  For example, the dunzo blog presents following end-to-end experience framing, “How do we show that the order status is coming from the partner and not from the machine? How do we give a human vibe to the order status updates?”

It helps to identify a concrete metaphor or analogy while framing the challenge. For dunzo, the inspiration came from our friendly chat messages. They framed the challenge as “How do we deliver status updates as personalized messages coming from the partner in first person?” This was supplemented by adding animations.

Journey mapping is useful irrespective of whether you are in a B2B, B2C, or D2C business, whether you are offering a product, a service, or a solution. Hope you get to try it out.

Sunday, June 18, 2023

Becoming a zombie, one day at a time: A Kazuo Ishiguro depiction from Living (2022 film)

This is how Mr. Williams (Bill Nighy), a senior bureaucrat, narrates how he came to live like a zombie to his former colleague Miss Harris (Aimée Lou Wood). This Kazuo Ishiguro script from the film Living (2022) reads more like a poem.

What was your name for me?

Mr. Zombie, I wasn’t always

When I was your age what

I wanted was to be a gentleman


Nothing grand, just a rank-and-file

Gentleman, wearing a suit and a hat


Life just crept up on me

One day proceeding the next


Small wonder I didn’t notice

What I was becoming

Then I looked at you, and I remembered

what it was like to be alive 


You may not be wanting to be a gentleman. But it could be “a successful person”, “a leader”, “a famous person” or even “an enlightened person”. The burden of becoming can be very heavy. Watch out, you might actually become what you wanted. And also turn into a zombie.

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.

[2] Norman Farb et. al., “Interoception, contemplative practice, and health”, Frontiers in Psychology, June 2015,

[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:,

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 café? 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.