Sunday, May 26, 2019

Empathy tips from Kahneman’s “Adversarial collaboration”

(Reading time: 5 minutes)

Empathy is one of the core elements of Design Thinking. It is easier to empathize while dealing with people we care about. However, things get more difficult when we are dealing with people whom we don’t like or who hold opposite views. It could be a family member or a colleague with whom we get into an argument regularly. It could also be a friend on the social network who holds exactly opposite religious or political beliefs than yours. How do you empathize with people holding exactly opposite views? I feel Kahneman’s idea of “adversarial collaboration” gives us a few clues even though he himself feels that this idea may not even survive. What is this idea of “adversarial collaboration” that Kahneman has proposed? Why does he feel it may not survive? And how could it help us build empathy muscle? This is what I would like to explore in this article.

“I have always hated quarrelling,” says Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman in this 2-minute video titled “Adversarial Collaboration”. “I have always despised scientific controversies,” he adds, “Because they become very personal and people very quickly get into a point-scoring mode where the truth is unimportant. That has struck me as quite destructive.” For those who genuinely seek the truth, he has proposed “adversarial collaboration”. And he admits, “It is not widely used and I am not sure that this idea would survive.”

Over several decades, Kahneman studied cognitive biases and concluded that human intuition is biased and not trustworthy. Gary Klein, on the other hand, studied expert intuition from people such as chess masters and firefighters and concluded that it is a marvel. Kahneman and Klein decided to work together to answer the question: In what context is expert intuition trustworthy and in what context it is not trustworthy. This collaboration lasted for 6-7 years. At the end, they published a joint article titled, “Conditions for intuitive expertise: A failure to disagree”. In short, they had found common ground.

What is my biggest takeaway from “adversarial collaboration”? It is the importance of context curiosity. The key hypothesis here is that every view is meaningful in some context. A drug addict, a terrorist, a money launderer – everybody carries a world-view which is meaningful in some context. In the extreme case, that context is limited to only one person. Understanding that context is empathizing. Hence, context curiosity forms an important element of empathy.

Understanding context would require a willingness to listen with openness. Listening to people who hold views opposite of yours is not easy. And hence perhaps Kahneman feels this idea of “adversarial collaboration” may not have takers. Listening with openness implies a willingness to say, “I could be wrong”. That’s harder than one can imagine. In Kahneman’s words, “People who think poorly of your work and your ideas, get on your nerves. And you have to overcome that.”

In a world where the polarization of views is increasing day by day, it is easy to encounter people who hold views exactly opposite of yours. I feel that is an excellent opportunity to build your empathy muscle. Are you willing to listen with openness? Alternately, are you willing to say, “Let me find out what is the context from which this view is coming from”? Please try it out and see for yourself.

Image source: YouTube video “Daniel Kahneman: Adversarial collaboration

Kahneman's video “Adversarial collaboration”: (duration: 1:52)

Another video: Daniel Kahneman: Adversarial collaboration (duration: 2:14)

Friday, May 17, 2019

MoT-chat #1: Interview with Zunder Lekshmanan, CTO, OpenTurf Technologies

I am teaching a course at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore starting next month titled “Strategic Management of Technology and Innovation”. The course has motivated me to interview technology managers, academicians, consultants and get fresh perspectives on the Management of Technology (MoT). Hence the series MoT-chat. Here is the first interview on MoT-chat series – of my friend Zunder Lekshmanan, Chief Technology Officer, OpenTurf Technologies.

In this interview, Zunder talks about what it means to run a VTO’s Office(2:05), how he monitors, tracks and assesses emerging technology trends (7:38), how he performs experiments (10:34), builds use-cases (19:46), makes build-vs-buy decisions (30:40), How he builds partnerships (32:42), What strategic bet means to him (36:26), His experience in starting a technology company (38:48), Role of Under-The-Carpet (UTC) R&D (43:04), His style of motivating senior engineers (45:06), Role of structured learning (47:06) and the meaning of being a “Cracked Pot” (50:45).

The audio in AMR format is available here (5MB) and in MP3 format is available here (25MB). The transcript of the interview is available here.

Here are a few nuggets of wisdom from Zunder:
  • In my view, technology, whether it succeeds or not, it’s the ability to get things out and feel it in the hands of customers.
  • I rely on the fastest time to market.
  • (On an interesting technology trend) I first see if there is an application area where I want to use it.
  • (Apart from experimenting myself) I also go to experts, people who have worked with me and still are in the industry, I take their views.
  • The success of the use-case is based on consumption.
  • In my books, CTO has to meet customers.
  • (In my start-up) I made the same mistake as many people, saying, “Build it and they shall come.”
  • UTC (Under-the-carpet R&D) was so successful for me that business guys used to ask, “Zunder, what’s cooking?”
  • Just don't be satisfied with the status quo.
  • You should have a sense of indiscipline somewhere.
  • “Cracked Pot” means don’t hold anything, don’t take permanent positions. Let the water flow.
Here are a few things Zunder refers to in the interview:

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Understanding self-deception through “Nayantara’s necklace” (Part-2)

In the previous article titled, “Understanding self-deception through Nayantara’s necklace – Part-1” we looked at a cyclic three-stage process of self-deception. The three stages are (1) Feeling “I am imperfect” (2) Identification of object causing imperfection (3) Striving to acquire the object. The process is deceptive because it creates an illusion that I am progressing towards perfection. Many of us may be trapped in the cycle of self-deception most of our life. Of course, one needs to investigate and find out. Does life offer opportunities to step out of this cyclic trap? Yes, all the time. Let’s go back to the short film “Nayantara’s necklace” directed by Jaydeep Sarkar and see how life created opportunities for Alka (Tilottama Shome) to reflect and step out of self-deception at least for a little while.

Questioning absoluteness:

Alka has dinner with her school friend Girish (Gulshan Devaiah) who is now a CEO. During their conversation, Alka projects the image of a “perfect Alka”. She says she travels abroad two-three times a year, loves five-star hotels and they are planning to visit the US the following year etc. In her image of perfection, these travels, five-star hotels, etc. are absolutely essential. Girish, on the other hand, admits that he feels exactly the opposite. He finds the five-star hotel ambience superficial. In fact, what he likes are mundane things like watching TV at home, sitting with kids who are doing homework, etc. Girish’s job demands that he live in five-star hotels and he does that under these circumstances. However, he doesn’t consider this lifestyle absolutely necessary.

Interactions like these where we meet or read about people for whom what we consider absolutely essential is not so important are not uncommon. And they create opportunities for us to reflect on the absoluteness of our necessities.

Questioning perfection:

When Alka returns home from the dinner, she discovers that Nayantara’s (Konkona Sen Sharma) husband has shot his wife, son and himself. They were in huge debt and bank guys were after them. Alka learns that Nayantara, the person whom Alka idolized, was subjected to physical abuse all the time. Seeing all this, Alka’s image of perfection gets shattered and she returns the borrowed necklace back in Nayantara’s car. Nayantara and her family perhaps at one point could afford a lavish lifestyle. Circumstances had changed. However, the necessities didn’t. Perhaps it created conflict resulting in extreme action.

The image of what is perfect is governed by absolute necessities – be it religious rituals, political ideologies, scientific theories or spiritual states. Once we see that there is nothing which is absolutely necessary, everything becomes context dependent. What then is the meaning of perfection? Every moment the context is different. What is meaningful in one moment could be different from what is meaningful in the previous moment. It demands openness every moment.

To summarize, we are saying that self-deception consists of constant striving towards an image of perfection which is a collection of absolute necessities. The illusion of progress is powerful and deceptive. However, the absoluteness of each of the necessity is questionable. And life creates opportunities all the times for us to question the absoluteness of these necessities. It needs openness to listen and observe.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Understanding self-deception through “Nayantara’s necklace” (Part-1)

Mindfulness involves an investigation into self-deception. Hence, learning to recognize self-deception is crucial while experimenting with mindfulness. In this article, we explore the process of self-deception using the short film (20 minutes) available on YouTube titled “Nayantara’s necklace” (2014) directed by Jaydeep Sarkar and co-written by Aparnaa Chaturvedi and Ankur Khanna. It features brilliant performances by Konkona Sen Sharma and Tilottama Shome. Spoiler alert: The article reveals the plot of the film.

Let’s begin by looking at a bit simplistic three-stage cyclic model of self-deception. The three stages are (1) Feeling “I am imperfect”. (2) Identification of the object causing imperfection and; (3) Striving to acquire the object. At the heart of this cyclic process is an image of the self (self-image), which is getting updated all the time. Let’s see how this works through a few scenes in “Nayantara’s Necklace”.

The film presents the anxieties and aspirations of two friends living in the same apartment complex – Nayantara, who is more stylish, has just returned to India from Dubai and Alka who hasn’t been outside the country, hasn’t visited a five-star hotel etc.

1. Feeling “I am imperfect”:

During a conversation, Nayantara tells Alka, “Babes, you’re damn na├»ve!” which is perhaps not new to Alka. She believes that she is not smart and stylish like Nayantara. In all likelihood, such a remark shrinks Alka’s self-image and makes her feel “small”. In fact, Nayantara doesn’t have to say it explicitly. All she needs to do is to flaunt her style and say, “It is natural”. That’s enough.

If we look at Nayantara as a metaphor for society, then we hear such remarks all the time from our family members, friends, teacher, boss, colleagues, etc. “You are stupid”, “You don’t even know this?”, “You are a below average performer” etc. The net effect is a feeling “I am imperfect” and it hurts. The hurt is real i.e. we feel pain similar to how we would feel during a headache. 

2. Identification of the object causing imperfection:

When Alka asks, “You must have travelled the entire world, right?” Nayantara answers, “Usually two-three trips abroad happen every year”. Through this Alka identifies an object that is the cause of imperfection – lack of trips abroad.

An object causing imperfection could be skin colour, weight, social status, position in the company, salary, car model, size of the house, strained relationship, net worth, etc. I guess you get the point. For a scientist, it could be peer recognition and for a spiritual seeker, a scripture such as Bhagavad Gita could say – To be perfect, you have to get rid of ALL desires (verse 2.55) or acquire a state of no-desire.  In short, everyone can find some object as a cause of imperfection.

3. Striving to acquire the object

Once an object is identified as necessary to become perfect, one automatically strives to acquire the object. For Alka, the efforts begin by acquiring the looks and manners required to dine at a five-star hotel. During a dinner with her school friend, she begins to project an image of perfect Alka, the one who spends her life in five-star hotels and travels abroad two-three times a year just like Nayantara.
Where is self-deception in this? One, the conclusion that “I am imperfect” is premature. And two, the cause of the hurt is questionable. The deception lies in perpetuating a story of an "imperfect me", misattributing the cause to an external object and then justifying the striving for a "perfect me".

Here is an alternate hypothesis. The hurt is real. However, the hurt is caused because there is an assumption of absolute necessity neurophysiologically embedded in the brain that says, “It is absolutely necessary to be perfect”. Hence, whenever I hear or imagine anything that damages my perfect image, it hurts. The neural reflexes fire automatically. I misattribute the pain to an object outside.  The real cause is the absoluteness of necessity embedded in my memory. 

What’s wrong with dressing well, five-star dining, trips abroad? Nothing. Question is: Is it absolutely necessary? That’s the question. If one can afford it or if the job demands it, why not? And even if one can't afford it now, one can work towards it. However, when we assume that these things are absolutely necessary no matter what the context is, then it may involve deception. That’s the suggestion.

Unless the absoluteness of these necessities is seen to be meaningless, the feeling of imperfectness will continue to hurt us. And the cyclic process continues. In part-2 we will see how life offers opportunities to learn about the nature of self-deception and how learning might take place.

Nayantara's necklace:

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Could the feeling of everyday monotony involve self-deception?

“How to overcome everyday monotony?” is a question that surfaces in my workshops in different forms and from participants of all age groups and positions. Some of them are just a year or two into their career while some are at leadership positions in their organizations. The question gets expressed differently but the essence is the same. They feel that their everyday life is not creative and it has become monotonous or routine. Could this feeling of monotony involve self-deception? That’s what I would like to explore in this article.

Let’s take an example of an activity which many people hate – long commute. And then let’s see if we can generalize the learning to other monotonous activities. Let’s say I end up spending two hours every day on commute. I may carry a feeling that I don’t have any choice but to endure this boring activity. I start building a story involving I as a victim of the situation and how I am suffering every day. I complain every day about my commute to my family members and friends. And that doesn’t change the situation.

As the complaint gets repeated multiple times, the story gets solidified. And the story prevents me from seeing any other option which might be there that might make the commute more peaceful or at least less boring etc. This is an example of self-deception because it involves misperception of reality and misattribution of cause. It is true that the two-hour commute every day is a fact. However, is it necessary that it should generate a feeling of boredom? In fact, we see so many people listening to music or podcasts, watching movies, reading books, talking to friends during their commute. Thus, we can see that the situation does not necessitate boredom. I am deceiving myself by building this complaint that in this situation feeling bored is inevitable. Thus, it is possible that this boredom could involve self-deception. What needs to happen to come out of this self-deception?

Let’s assume leaving the job and working from home are not options right now. Then the first thing that needs to happen is to accept commute as a fact. i.e. stop resisting it or hating it. Then, I could raise a curiosity question: How do I make my commute more interesting? As I observe other people, talk to them about their commute, I find out that different people use different ways of making their commute interesting. Of course, I need to observe and listen with some openness. Because my complaining voice would try to reinforce itself by saying that what works for them won’t work for me. This may be true, but unless I try, I won’t know.

If you don’t like talking about your problems to other people, you could still find ideas if you observe your own commute over a period, say for a week or two. You may find out that it is not equally boring on all days. Say, the commute on Wednesday was better than the other days. Then you may ask, what was different on Wednesday? And, you may see that you had a friend with you in the car or on the bus. Then you may ask, how do I get to travel with friends more often etc. Slowly, you may discover multiple ways in which your commute can become more interesting.

Now, what was done for boredom associated with commute can be done for other activities you find monotonous. There were two things crucial in addressing commute challenge: (1) Raising the question – How do I make it more interesting? And; (2) Observing bright spots – things that are working for others as well as for me. In fact, I keep two diaries (1) Curiosity diary: A list of questions related to thing I am curious about and (2) Bright spot diary: A list of things that have worked well for me. For example, entry no. 57 in the curiosity diary of 2019 reads, “Is reading overrated?” dated 1st March. And there are 94 entries so far the curiosity diary this year. Similarly, entry no. 15 in the Bright spot diary on 24th February reads, “In-class interview model worked well in design thinking workshop”.  With both the lists, there is plenty to experiment. How can there be boredom?

In short, complaining about the feeling of boredom doesn’t help. Instead, if we are curious about the source of boredom and question its necessity, then something else may happen. Similarly, if we observe and listen to what is going on within my context as well as others’ context, there will always be ideas worth experimenting.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

How Carlo Rovelli dismantles the order of time

Time is so fundamental to our perception of reality that it is hard to imagine that it could be similar to Santa Claus – just an abstraction. And this is exactly what physicist Carlo Rovelli attempts to show in his lecture titled “The physics and philosophy of time” delivered at the Royal Institute in April 2018. In this process of dismantling the notion of time, Rovelli takes five properties of time and tries to show how each of them could be an approximation relevant in a context and meaningless beyond it. Here are the five properties:

Synchronized clock-time:  (9:35) We know that clocks measure time. And in our business meetings with participants from different continents, our clocks are usually synchronized. However, that is an approximation. Rovelli says we live in the “Netherlands” of space-time region – which is very flat. And even in this region, atomic clocks with an accuracy of 10-17 second show that one atomic clock placed 40-50 cm above the other runs faster than the one below.  The conclusion is staring at us: Our head is older than our feet. And there is no such thing as synchronized clock-time.

We both have the same NOW: (14:00) When we watch a live telecast of a match, we know that everybody is watching the same thing. But are we watching it NOW? No. We are watching it with a delay of a few seconds. If you are visiting Mars and I am on Earth, our NOWs are separated by 3 minutes. And we have not even taken our relative speeds into consideration. In short, Rovelli points out that there is no universal NOW. We all live in a local NOW bubble which has a length given by the speed of light.

Disorder grows in the future: (20:45) Second law of thermodynamics says that entropy which in layman terms means disorder grows in the future. For example, if we have a box with green balls on one side and red balls on the other side, we would call it order. And then if we mix them, we could say that the disorder has increased. Rovelli asks, “But, what if a colour blind person watches this transition? Would he say that the disorder has increased?” Perhaps not. Rovelli points out that if the universe looks more ordered in the past, it doesn’t mean the perceived order is a property of the universe. It just means we, the observing sub-system, has chosen a set of variables that makes us see it more ordered in the past. What could be that perspective from which disorder may not grow in the future? That leads us to the next property.

Time is continuous: (33:05) What Rovelli’s research in Loop Quantum Gravity (LQG) suggests is that if we look at the time at sufficient granularity i.e. divide time in small intervals, say of 10-44 second each, then time is no longer continuous. Every unit of this granular entity is independent. If a stone seems to carry the same structure over a long period, then it means the quantum process at each event of this granularity is expressing itself in a similar way at least as far as our perception is concerned.

Experience of time flowing: (44:15) Towards the end of the talk, Rovelli turns to the question, “All this is fine, but what about the flow of time I experience?” He considers the possibility that perhaps all these properties physicists study don’t capture something about time which creates a flow of experience. This is where he steps outside his field of expertise to neuroscience. He suggests a possibility that the flow of time is an outcome of neurological processes. Perhaps the human brain is a time machine which creates an emotional fog around the memory traces it weaves and calls it life and that fog doesn’t allow us to see the real nature of time. In fact, he interprets Buddhism’s second noble truth which emphasizes impermanence as “time is the source of human suffering”. After all, we lose things because of time. And what we are most afraid to lose is oneself – i.e. death.

As a student of mindfulness, the illusion of time has been an important area of exploration for me. The talk shed light on some aspects of time which were new to me especially I found the perspective on the second law of thermodynamics insightful.

Image source:

Watch the talk on YouTube: 

Saturday, March 16, 2019

My 3 takeaways from “Metaphors we live by” by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

Metaphors we live by” by George Lakoff and Mark Johnsen was in my to-read list ten years ago when I read about metaphors in Chip & Dan Heath’s “Made to stick”. However, I never got around to reading it until recently. During last decade metaphors, for me, went from being a useful communication tool to a dominant ever-present lens. “Metaphors we live by” was published in 1980 and it explores the roles metaphors play in shaping our thinking process. Here are my three takeaways from the portion of the book I have read so far.

Our thinking is metaphorical: Traditionally, we look at metaphor as a linguistic concept – perhaps more relevant to poets and writers. The book makes a bold claim quite different from this belief. It says, “The most important claim we have made so far is that metaphor is not just a matter of language, that is, of a mere word. We shall argue that, on the contrary, human thought processes are largely metaphorical.” That means metaphors are deeply ingrained in our thought process. For example, if we believe “life is a journey”, then we would use expressions like – This is an important milestone for me, I am stuck, It has been a long bumpy road, I am at a crossroad etc. However, if we believe “life is a gambling game”, then the expression used could be – We’ll have to take our chances, I am betting big on this, The odds are against me, Play your cards right, He is keeping it close to his chest. Lakoff and Johnsen write, “The way we think, what we experience, and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor”.  

Metaphors provide experiential understanding: Lakoff and Johnsen say that the primary function of a metaphor is to provide a partial understanding of one kind of experience in terms of another kind of experience. My favourite example is the way Dr. Venkataswamy, founder of Aravind Eye Care, framed the challenge while starting an eye hospital in Madurai more than forty years ago. Dr. V asked himself, “How might we make eye care delivery as efficient as McDonald's?” Many of us have some experiential understanding of the efficiency of McDonald's. We don’t associate a hospital visit to a visit to McDonald's. But by asking this question, you start associating a known experience to a new experience you want to create. This example also highlights how we use metaphors – by highlighting one aspect of the experience (efficiency) over other aspects (say, product, business model or marketing).

Metaphors can create a new reality:  “Time is money” is how most of us think. We invest time, waste time, save hours by working from home, spend time judicially, run out of time etc.  The authors say that the Westernization of cultures throughout the world is partly a matter of introducing the TIME IS MONEY metaphor into those cultures. Some of the tribal cultures even today don’t think in terms of investing, saving time etc. Perhaps for some “Time is a river” – ever flowing, ever new. When I first considered “Human life is like a wave in the ocean” as a serious possibility more than twenty years ago, I was deeply shaken. It had serious implications on some of the core concepts like progress, success, death etc. I had to explore further to see what emerges as a new reality. Hence, some metaphors are called “generative metaphors”. They help you ask new questions you hadn’t asked before and they help you see a new reality not perceived by your senses.

To summarize, we looked at three aspects of metaphors. Our conceptual system is permeated with metaphors, metaphors try to express one experience in terms of another, and metaphors have the power of creating a new understanding. The book is concept-heavy. However, it uses plenty of examples to illustrate the points. “Metaphors we live by” is potentially an eye-opener.

image source: