Thursday, February 27, 2020

4 attributes of strategic thinking

Strategic thinking has been a side topic for the past decade whenever I taught innovation. However, last year I got an opportunity to study it more during my course at IIM Bangalore on “Strategic Management of Technology and Innovation”. In this article, I would like to present my current view of the 4 attributes of strategic thinking. It’s my way of delayering strategic thinking. To illustrate the attributes I plan to refer to Andrew Grove’s book “Only the paranoid survive”. I found it useful not only because Grove presents many examples where these attributes are exhibited but also because he was vocal about the slippery areas associated with some of these attributes.

The four attributes of strategic thinking I would like to present are challenge clarity, bright spot awareness, metaphoric thinking and hypothesis thinking. Let me try to articulate each one with an example or two.

Challenge clarity: This is arguably the most important attribute of strategic thinking. Here is an example from “Only the paranoid survive” which illustrates what challenge clarity is. By then Intel had been losing money on memories, its core business, for a long time. Andrew Grove writes, “I remember a time in the middle of 1985 when I was in my office with Intel’s chairman and CEO, Gordon Moore, and we were discussing our quandary. I asked, ‘If we got kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO, what do you think he would do?’ Gordon answered without hesitation, ‘He would get us out of memories.’ I stared at him, numb, and said, ‘Why shouldn’t you and I walk out the door, come back and do it ourselves?’”1

I have been facilitating the exercise of identifying the topmost challenge with many executives for over a decade. And I feel many of them felt uncomfortable or lost during this exercise. We are comfortable articulating a plateful of challenges. But to say one is the most critical needs clarity. And without that clarity strategic decision making is difficult.

Bright spot awareness: By the time Intel management took the decision of exiting its core business of memories, a viable alternative was already present within the company – microprocessors. It was a profitable business and growing but it was not considered of any strategic importance. In this case, “microprocessor business” is referred to as a bright spot – something working in the same context where many other things like memories business are not working.

We have a huge bias for dark spots (things that are not working) and we spend disproportionate energy in removing the dark spots. For example, companies spend a lot of time on exit interviews – to understand why employees are leaving. And in contrast, spend little time doing staying interviews – why employees are staying long years (bright spots). 

In the 1770s Britain lost a jewel in its empire leading to the formation of the United States of America. During this crisis period Britain decided to shift its attention to a bright spot in its empire – a series of victories by a private corporate armed force led by Robert Clive in Bengal, India. It paid handsomely over the next century. Bright spot awareness is counter-intuitive and yet extremely important.

Metaphoric thinking: It is not sufficient to know a challenge and a response. Things need to be sufficiently concrete to give direction to oneself and especially a team. This is where metaphors become important. Andrew Grove tells the story about an executive staff meeting where they were discussing Intel’s new direction as a “microcomputer company”. Their Chairman, Gordon Moore, said, “You know, if we’re really serious about this, half our executive staff had better become software types in five years’ time.” Becoming “software types” was a good metaphor for a company where almost everybody is concerned with hardware.2

Dr. Venkataswamy who founded Aravind Eye Care asked, “How do we deliver eye care with the same efficiency as McDonald's?” And Dr. Kiran Bedi asked, “How do we transform a jail into an Ashram?” Metaphoric thinking plays a crucial role in establishing direction clarity.

Hypothesis thinking: This is perhaps the toughest of the four attributes to master. Andy Grove narrates a story of an exit interview during a podcast discussion. During this exit interview, Steve, a young employee said, “Andy, if I were you, I would take microprocessors seriously. We should learn how to use microprocessors and become an expert.” Andy said, “Sure” and never paid any further attention. In fact, Andy mentions that it was inconceivable to believe Steve. Hypothesis thinking is about treating the input as a hypothesis and not rejecting it outright like Andy. 

In the book “Only the paranoid survive” Andy calls people like Steve Cassandras3. Cassandra was a princess of Troy who foretold the fall of Troy. He mentions that there are Cassandras all around us giving us useful hints about the big changes happening around us. Hypothesis thinking requires a certain quality of listening. It requires being sensitive to receiving inputs contrary to one’s belief. It requires cultivating mindfulness.

Once you begin to treat every suggestion as a hypothesis then the natural next step is experimentation. Andy Grove mentions in the book, “Resolution of strategic dissonance doesn’t come about in the form of figurative light bulb going on. It comes through experimentation.”4

In short the four attributes of strategic thinking we looked at are challenge clarity, bright spot awareness, metaphoric thinking and hypothesis thinking.

References from: Andrew Grove, “Only the paranoid survive”, Currency Doubleday, 1999.
  1. Page 89 (Dialogue with Gordon Moore)
  2. Page 143 (Gordon Moore’s metaphor of ‘software types’)
  3. Page 108-109 (Listening to Cassandras)
  4. Page 129-131 (Experimentation for resolving strategic dissonance)

Friday, January 17, 2020

My 3 takeaways from Karl Friston's "active inference" framework

Seeing ‘What is real?’ is the central aspect of mindfulness and perceptual clarity is an important dimension of it. Hence, it is not surprising that I got attracted to Karl Friston’s “active inference” framework which sheds a fresh light on perceptual processing. Karl Friston, currently at University College London, is one of the world’s leading neuroscientists. This body of work – championed by Friston known with various names such as active inference, free energy principle, predictive processing, Bayesian brain hypothesis – has turned the dominant neuroscience view upside down. It proposes, to borrow Andy Clark’s words, that “We are not cognitive couch potatoes idly awaiting the next ‘input’, so much as proactive predictavores – nature’s own guessing machines forever trying to stay one step ahead by surfing the incoming waves of sensory stimulation.”1

I must admit that I haven’t looked at the mathematical formulation of “active inference” in detail yet. And I hope to do so in the future. However, there are sufficient non-mathematical articles by Friston & others available for us to get a gist of the concept. Please see the endnotes for further reading.

Here are my 3 takeaways from the “active inference” framework.

1. Perception is primarily a prediction: According to active-inference framework, the brain infers the causes of the sensory input. This predictive information flows top-down and meets the sensory data coming from bottom-up. What flows up are prediction errors. Based on the perceived reliability of the prediction errors, the prediction gets refined and/or the prediction errors get suppressed. In short, perceptual processing involves precision weighted prediction error minimization. Friston says, “Our percepts are ‘fantasies’ generated by the brain to explain our sensations. Quite literally, the brain is a ‘fantastic’ organ.”2

2. Perception-action is a unitary process: Is my action, say to lift my foot while walking, a response to the incoming sensory data? No, says Active-inference framework. It says, brain’s top level goal of walking is translated into predicting the position where my foot needs to be to touch the ground. My action of putting the foot forward is a way of testing this prediction. Thus action is just another way of minimizing prediction errors. Friston says, “Action and perception are facets of the same underlying imperative – namely, to minimize hierarchical prediction errors through selective sampling of our sensor inputs.”3 Another way Friston puts it is, “Perception is enslaved by action”.4

3. There is no “one” home: Is there an independent entity or agent or self, doing the thinking, making decisions and taking actions? No, says the active-inference framework. According to Friston, each individual is a model or a hypothesis of what might ‘work’ in its ecological niche.5 The model is unique in that ‘You can only see your own red’6 and is constantly being updated to adapt to the changing environment. However, the model is not independent of its environment. It is engaged in minimizing the surprise by increasing the accuracy of its prediction by selective sampling through appropriate action and also by reducing complexity by simplifying its model.

Then what about the sense of self I carry? According to Friston, self-consciousness is an emergent statistical property just like temperature and pressure.7 Friston calls this view – dual-aspect monism as opposed to Cartesian dualism. Consciousness is an inference process with material properties like mass, position, speed and emergent statistical properties like beliefs and self.8

Friston brings out the essence of active-inference through the following interesting example. He says, “In one sense, these ideas are also your ideas (however latent), because you have to know what you are going to see next before you can confirm it by reading these words – this is the essence of active inference  and how we sample the world to minimize surprise.”9

1.      Andy Clark, “Surfing uncertainty: Prediction, action and the embodied self”, Oxford University Press, 2016, pp. 52.
3.      Same as above (Picard and Friston, Neurology 2014).
7.      Same as above (Hobson and Friston, 2014).
8.      Same as above (Hobson and Friston, 2014).
9.      Same as above (Hobson and Friston, 2014).
Image source:

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

An interview with Swami Chidananda on aspects of J. Krishnamuti’s teachings that informed his journey of self-inquiry

I got an opportunity to catch up with Swami Chidananda at the KFI Study Centre in Valley School, Bangalore last Sunday. The topic was – Aspects of Jiddu Krishnamurti’s teachings that informed my journey of self-inquiry. In the 45 minute interview, Chidananda-ji articulated three phases of his journey of self-inquiry, influence of spiritual teachers like Swami Chinmayananda and Ramana Maharshi before he began to appreciate JK’s teachings, 3 aspects of JK’s teachings (1) throwing light on the structure of self (2) power of seeing and (3) importance of being oneself, how he integrates it into daily life, and finally a few areas where he found JK less precise.

Here are notes from the interview:

00:00 Introduction
01:50 Q: Give us a brief sketch of your journey of self-inquiry
2:05 Drawn to Swami Chinmayananda
6:00 Phase-1: Charmed by Vedanta concepts and Sanskrit Shlokas (verses), joined Chinmay Mission Ashram in 1984,
7:18 Phase-2: Study of Ramana Maharshi’s teachings especially “Teachings of Ramana Maharshi in his own words”, hunt the ego, “Who am I?” inquiry
8:24 Ramana Maharshi as an important bridge between classical Vedanta and JK.
13:50 Phase-3: San Jose – Chinmay Mission Ashram, exposure to JK’s audio/videos/books, Visit Ojai centre.
17:55 Tell us a few aspects of JK’s teachings that influenced you
18:10 Aspect #1: How he threw light onto the structure of self
25:10 Aspect #2: Power of seeing – flame of attention
30:00 Aspect #3: Importance of being oneself – outer lifestyle doesn’t matter - what position you hold, married-not married etc. don’t have any bearing, man’s sorrow is in wanting to become
35:21 How did you integrate it in daily life?
37:20 Two minutes going deep into the structure of thought
38:38 Seated meditation vs observing oneself at unexpected times
40:40 Aspects of JK’s teachings which didn’t appeal as much: statements like faith necessarily breeds violence, all gurus are exploiters which appear exaggerated.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Mindfulness book: Mumbai launch, 1st Dec 2019

Having grown up in the city of Mumbai, the book launch on Dec 1, 2019, created an opportunity to catch up with friends and family. However, we didn’t anticipate a full house. Padmaja Parulkar Kesnur did an excellent job as an anchor. Padmaja is a writer and photographer focusing on ecology, wildlife, travel and much more (check out her blog: Earth Letters). She had identified 20 different attributes of mindfulness that the book highlights and helped us explore many of them through her questions. In this article, I have given the link to the audio of the conversation between Padmaja, I and the audience. The questions we explored along with the time-stamp are given below.

00:00  Introduction by Padmaja
02:00 What is mindfulness?
02:30 Can you explain mindfulness through bookkeeping vs berry-picking metaphor?
09:30 You emphasize mindfulness on the go. Can you talk about that?
12:30 You have used the phrase “leaning forward”. Any tips on that?
16:00 Tell us through the movie “Hindi Medium” how overthinking takes us far
22:00 I like your example of watching the sky. There you talk about spaciousness. Can you talk about that?
25:23 Reading of a paragraph from the book on “watching the sky”
26:12 Is mindfulness like enlightenment as if once you are there, you are there.
30:30 Then you move on to self-image and self-deception. Especially in the age of social media where self-propaganda is so rampant and people are projecting what they are not. Can you explain what you mean by self-image and self-deception?
38:30 From here the book makes a big leap by bringing in studies from neuroscience and quantum mechanics to get into deeper realms of what is self and what is real. Do you think the reader might find it difficult?
41:15 I found that “Brain by David Eagleman” where you talk of perception & reality extremely fascinating. That turns the concept of self and reality upside down. Do you want to talk about that?
44:35 Normally we say that crisis drives you to self-inquiry, or to a spiritual quest. But you say that you have had a smooth life. So how did you turn to this field of study? How was your spiritual journey?

06:31 I have read Osho, Ramana Maharshi and they say that consciousness is the only reality and all of this is an illusion. Most of the Eastern philosophy is telling us to let go of the illusion and achieve some sort of spiritual transcendence. But what if I want to stay in this world of Maya and enjoy my illusions. How will mindfulness help me do that?
09:45 You said when you see reality, most of it is in our mind. You said      80% comes from the mind, can you please explain it?
13:45 To the extent that you talk of wasteful thoughts or being rooted in the present, I have you. Where I lose sometimes is where in some ways you discourage thinking itself. At a utilitarian level are you discouraging thinking and therefore mocking at innovation, ambition? You seem to have a diet for the mind, but exercise for the mind, you seem to be iffy about.
Secondly, at the cognitive level, the train comes and goes but the platform is never empty. So is it possible to stay on the platform throughout without getting on some other train?
20:14 Mindfulness is a lifelong practice of being in the present moment. And practice makes oneself perfect. Is this understanding correct?
23:35 An observation and appreciation from a friend.
25:00 Finally the whole intention of everything is to be joyful. That’s the basic purpose of all this. But to be joyful, don’t you think further intentional efforts are required to feel the joy?
29:25 They say – Ummid pe duniya kayam hai – Hope keeps the world going. I want to be with reality but I need to have some hope alive to take me further. How do I do that?
31:39 I believe whatever happens in life happens for a reason. And 99% time it happens for the right reasons. I don’t give so much importance to I. We should convert this I into we because there is always someone behind the individual effort. If we remain grounded then whatever I am achieving in life is not because of me. Then all the wasteful thoughts will not come into mind. Are we on the same bus?
34:30 Pasaayadaan song by Saint Dnyaneshwar by Gauri Dabholkar and Aditi More (sisters)
38:54 Shanti mantra from Ishavasya Upanishad

photo credit: Madhav Dabholkar

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Mindfulness book launch – Bangalore – Q&A

We had a launch event for the book “Mindfulness: Connecting with the real you” in Bangalore on 24th November 2019. The event took place at Higginbothams bookstore near M. G. Road Metro station. At the event, Dr. Kajoli Banerjee Krishnan and I had a conversation followed by Q&A. It was lucky to have Kajoli as the host. She is a medical imaging researcher, poet, blogger (blog: Unfold the wings) and carries a keen interest in the topic of mindfulness. She covered a lot of ground during the interview and also asked some probing questions. Many friends & family members joined the conversation and asked good questions.

The event began with Kajoli and my wife Gauri singing a welcome song – Yei akashe amar mukti – a poem by Tagore. You can listen to their version here (3MB, MP3).

Here are Kajoli’s questions:

00:44 You have three streams of interest: design thinking, innovation and mindfulness. Do you see a connection among all of these?
6:15 If I have a reaction, what should I do? This is a practical question.
8:00 If someone derives pleasure in arguing and does that in a sustained way, and such a person may not see himself as doing anything wrong. Is there a message from the Gabbar story here?
10:00 What is the connection between sustained negative emotion, absolute necessity and self-deception?
13:15 What if I do all of this and feel good. What could be the ways in which I suddenly realize that may be there is something wrong here? I may not ever figure it out in my lifetime, right?
15:20 One of the stories from the book that fascinates me is the “reverse bike”. Do you want to tell the story?
19:15 Could human species survive if we are all mindful?
22:20 Evolutionary biology implies that a large number of tasks we do, we do automatically with certain model in the brain and take quick decisions.
26:10 Do you want to talk about how we define ourselves with respect to culture or a gender, the dance of necessities?
28:50 Why made you call it a “dance of necessities”? Would you call it a “song of necessities”?
32:00 I worked for seventeen years in a multinational organization. The two things HR would say are: perception is reality and actions should be consistent with organization values. I felt perception is not necessarily reality. I felt actions are important but your belief system is somehow fundamental. Do we as humans set up simple models so that we take decisions more easily?

1:40 Have you been asked by organizations to come and do mindfulness workshops?
3:20 Has this idea of investigation something you thought of?
4:30 In the last part of your book, you describe experiments like the dancing droplet. And then on page 114, you say, “The idea is not to understand the science behind these experiments. It is to use them as analogies.”  Isn’t it inconsistent with the spirit of investigation?

Questions from the audience:

10:00 On page x you say, “JK says process of becoming could be the root cause of human suffering” and then later you say that mindfulness is an investigation of the process of becoming. I am not able to connect the two.
12:58 Human beings are supposed to have emotions. And if we are following an engineering approach for understanding the mind and taking the right decisions, we could be taking emotions, happiness away. The second part is, looking at the Padmaavat example, won’t this approach lead to inaction? There has to be a criticism if something wrong is happening. If everybody becomes mindful then people will be expressing less.

0:00 When somebody criticizes Prime Minister Modi, I am upset and I cut his friendship off. I don’t want to see the bad comment at all. Is it right or wrong?
2:19 Would you call mindful person a rational actor the way economics talks about? Isn’t the goal to become a rational person?
5:12 How do you connect mindfulness to meditation?
9:08 The seventh chapter “searching for the real hero” presents concepts similar to existentialism. Is mindfulness similar to existentialism?
11:03 How do I write-off expectations on the go? I realize it only after the event is over.
14:05 You have mentioned “do’s”, but are there any “don’ts” in this practice?
15:55 Have you seen the snake illusion? It is something to do with the rate at which eyelids move.
18:56 You say mindfulness is a journey. So there is no “What next?” right?

I would like to thank Mr. Ananda of Higginbothams for providing the space in the bookstore. Thanks to Mr. Shivendra Singh of HarperCollins for helping with the marketing activity.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

My 3 takeaways from Ken Kocienda’s “Creative selection” at Apple

“How does this process compare with Apple’s design process?” is a question that I often get in my design thinking workshops. I talk about a few anecdotal incidents I have gathered from here and there. But quickly admit that I don’t know how it works at Apple. Thanks to Ken Kocienda’s “Creative selection: Inside Apple’s design process during the golden age of Steve Jobs”, we get some idea how the software design process worked during the first decade of this century, at least in the iPhone project. Ken is the father of the autocorrect feature of the iPhone and the book is also a biography of the idea from challenge to release. Here are my 3 takeaways from the book:

Importance of demo-culture: If there is one thing that Ken is trying to emphasize the Apple design process, it is the importance given to building and reviewing demos from top to bottom. Demos would get reviewed at all levels all the time. Selected demos would get reviewed by Steve Jobs and Ken begins the book with a detailed description of the drama associated with one of his demos to Jobs. That time Ken was working on the iPad keyboard and he was exploring how to provide the user with an option of two keyboards – one with bigger but fewer keys and the other with smaller but more keys. He had used a zoom key to toggle between the two keyboards. He was proud of the flexibility he was offering to the user. And yet the 2-3 questions that Steve Jobs asked him during the review played an important role in simplifying the design. Ken calls this iterative design process – demo – feedback – next demo – creative selection, the title of the book.

Role of challenge campaigns: In 2005, Ken was part of a small team of engineers working on the secret phone project called Purple. At one point, all the engineers were called for a meeting and it was announced that from then on all of them were keyboard engineers. It meant that the issue of software keyboard on a touch screen had become critical enough for all the engineering effort to be focused on it. The tactile feedback of a Blackberry-type keyboard was missing in their phone and hence typing accuracy was low. All engineers began to show their demos of various types of software keyboards. This is when Ken invented the autocorrect feature and his keyboard demo was selected for further development. This is an example of how challenge campaigns can be used to solve critical business challenges.  Unlike the keyboard derby example, not all business challenges need to be solved by stopping everything else. However, like the keyboard derby example, they need to emphasize demos and prototyping. And at the end, promising ideas need to be integrated into the roadmaps.

The intersection of technology and liberal arts:  In the chapter titled “The intersection” Ken says, “Apple valued expertise in both technology and liberal arts”. Ken is a history Major and pursued photography seriously for a few years before starting his career as a software developer. “Working at the intersection” was a topic of discussion among Apple employees and there was a half-day course on this topic at Apple University. In the technology industry, I am familiar with, this is hardly the case. People like to hero-worship Steve Jobs, but how many are willing to explore what it means to “work at the intersection”? I guess worshipping has always been easier than exploration in human history.
Apart from these concepts, Ken sheds light on many more areas associated with the Apple culture of his time such as the role of DRI – Directly Responsible Individual, the relevance of empathy & focus, the role of collaboration, the importance of asking oneself, “What do I really enjoy?” especially in the context of individual contributor vs management etc.

In case you prefer listening to audio to reading, I recommend Ken’s interview “Inside the Apple factory: Software design in the age of Steve Jobs”. It covers almost all of these points. 

Image source:

Thursday, December 19, 2019

A systemic approach to participatory development: A short primer by Prof. Shireesh Kedare

In October 2019, I got an opportunity to interview Shireesh Kedare, my hostel-mate and now a Praj Industries Professor at Department of Energy Science and Engineering at IIT Bombay. Shireesh has been working in the area of renewable energy, sustainability, and participatory development for over two decades. In this short interview (28 minutes) Shireesh tells us what systemic approach to participatory development is and its roles in solving wicked problems such as farmers’ suicide etc.

Here is the MP3 audio of the interview (11MB) (The interview was done on October 21, 2019 at Sustainable Development Lab, Dept of Energy Science and Engineering, IIT Bombay).

The questions explored in the interview are:

0:00 Introduction

1:10 Why is participatory development relevant in a place like Indian Institute of Technology? Technology as a bridge between needs and resources on the pillars of science. What needs? Which resources?

6:30 What is participatory development? Who is doing to decide the needs? Centralized body? Elected members? Remote vs direct decision making, opinion-based vs study-knowledge based decision making, This has been done before e.g. Anna Hazare, Systemic approach of participatory development, Can we do this at the village level? City-level? Is it practical?

13:00 Can you give an example to illustrate the concept?  Identified 6 villages in Yavatmal district in Maharashtra state known for farmers’ suicide, didn’t go with any agenda, started developing a dialogue, team led by Dr. Vijay Honkalaskar on a period of 3-6 months along with NGO workers, met women-men-farmers-young of the village on a sustained basis, tremendous pessimism-depression, village suicide, noted 42 different loops affecting farming – family size, cattle availability, land quality, atmosphere, pesticides, seeds, govt schemes etc. Documented all this and went back to the villagers, showed them some connects are working, some are broken (family size has become small), complete picture started evolving, once the picture was clear they started suggesting solutions, economics, organic farming, tinted word, people have a phobia, small farmer 1-2 acre land feels this is not for him, changed lingo, identified basic processes, gap between practice of organic farming and people is too much, community action needs handholding.

23:00 Key elements of the approach: Don’t go with any agenda, Try to understand, assimilate the complete system, Go back and show it to them, get their reaction on it, Establish collective clarity, they decide what to do. It can backfire. Needs iteration. Need to prioritize – people may not understand what prioritization means and how to do it. People are wise, they should be given an opportunity to understand and solve their problems.

Hope you find it useful. More details about Prof. Kedare can be found on his home page