Critical thinking

Be Nice, but also be Kind


Developing empathy, compassion and well-being for others is a skill that we all need to have but growing that skill is not easy. And one of the reasons why it’s not is that it those things were not taught to us in school at an early age. We learn much faster in our formative years when our brains are developing and forming new neural connections. Take learning language as an example. You probably use about 5000 words in your speech and most of them you would have learnt by the age of 7. Contrast that with trying to learn 100 to 200 words for an advanced language exam as an adult!

Given this backdrop, it is heartening to note that there is a global movement to teach emotional intelligence in schools. Approaches vary and different schools are adopting different models. One interesting model and more interestingly named one is ‘The Kindness curriculum’, thanks to a challenge by the Dalai Lama. (

It is developed by the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in which preschoolers are taught to pay closer attention to their emotions through games and stories. Some of the core principles of the program are:

a.      We can’t always control what is happening outside us. But the children learn that they can control how they respond. Not react but respond.

b.      Parents and teachers are always telling their children to be “nice.” Small children understand what “nice” is but often do not understand what “kind” is. They learn to define it not so much in words as through behaviours.

c.      The more aware children are of their own emotions, the better they are able to empathize with the feelings of others and to respond to them in a helpful manner.

d.      When a child is unkind to another child in the class, they learn that it’s usually about themselves and how they are feeling. They learn to be mindful through simple acts such as ‘take a moment and just breathe’ and thereby avoid acting out against others.

e.      Kindness to oneself or self-compassion is a key - When let’s say you do poorly in a test, you change your inner voice from ‘I’m stupid,’ to ‘I have more to learn’. This way the children start believing in themselves.”

All of the above skills are central to the concept of Emotional Intelligence. These skills are life skills which when learnt early will help those kids become more responsible adults when they grow up and lead more enjoyable and fulfilling lives.

#FC2E #EQ #EmotionalIntelligence #SumanInsights

A definition of Innovation


I came across this simple definition of Innovation

Innovation=Invention x Commercialisation*

*From Disciplined Entrepreneurship by Bill Aulet, adapted from MIT professor Ed Roberts’s definition

It has been modified from Roberts’ definition which was an addition but this one has a multiplier sign, i.e. it is Invention times Commercialisation.

We often think of innovation as invention and companies being innovative conjures images of cool stuff getting invented by them. But without commercialisation (Commercialisation = 0), there is no innovation (Innovation = 0 since it’s a product of the two terms). Similarly if there is commercialisation but no invention (invention = 0), there is no innovation.

"Hey, we've decided, let's move on..."

Consciously or subconsciously, we are constantly making decisions. Some of them small such as deciding what to wear for work that day or what to eat to lunch. Others are more important such as picking a candidate from a group of interviewees or choosing a software that meets the needs of the division. A few could have much larger impact or even life changing such as deciding which company to join or who to marry!

With respect to time, some are spot decisions while for others we take our time deciding depending on the impact the decision carries. This is extremely important and a prudent thing to do. Tony Robbins puts it nicely – he says “It is in your moments of decision that your destiny is shaped”. In an organisational context, when the decision is made in a group, different decision making styles are used depending on various factors such as time available, organisation culture and the potential impact of the decision. Sometimes, we do not the luxury of abundant time to take decisions and must do the best we can under the circumstances. Within that time, we need to identify all the possible alternatives to choose from, analyse them and then go ahead and choose the best one.  

But once a decision is made, the focus needs to shift fully from analysis to implementation. This probably explains why some people are excellent in analysis but not so good in decision making. When they continuously evaluate the alternatives to make the choice as perfect as possible, they are unable to take a decision. In other words, they develop “Analysis Paralysis.” When a group takes a decision and some members of the group continue the analysis, it severely impedes future progress for the group.

Something like this recently happened in our housing complex. Some key decisions impacting the larger community were to be taken which involved substantial time and investment. The Management committee (MC) evaluated the alternatives and brought it’s recommendation to the general body in an Extraordinary General Body meeting (EGM). The matter was discussed at length in the EGM and finally a decision taken on that matter. Unfortunately, some residents did not agree with this decision and felt strongly enough about the issue to take a legal route. Once the matter went legal, the MC also took legal opinion and of the different things suggested by the legal counsel, a key one was the principle of “Res Judicata.”

Res Judicata simply means “a matter that has been adjudicated by a competent court and therefore may not be pursued further by the same parties.” The notion is perhaps mostly to avoid unnecessary waste of resources in the court system. Res judicata does not merely prevent future judgements from contradicting earlier ones, but also prevents litigants from multiplying judgements, and confusion. I found the entire notion of Res Judicata pretty interesting because it is the legal equivalent of not opening up a decision once it has been made!

Organisations can benefit immensely through faster decision making and strategy implementation if the notion of Res Judicata gets embedded in its culture. While people have all the room to negotiate, sell their ideas and build consensus till the decision is reached, it needs to be binding once it’s made. For those whose ideas are not aligned to the final decision, they too need to move on by agreeing to disagree and showing commitment. Putting up roadblocks or trying to rake up the topic in other groups or forums is a strict no-no. Doing so, it can end up paralysing the entire organisation!

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Think 'Inside-the-box'

While being customer Centric is very important for innovation and product development, market research has its share of critics. Henry Ford once said “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” He was essentially referring to customers’ lack of imagination to think of innovative products to address their needs. There is some truth in this – studies show that in focus groups, people normally go for innovations that incorporate only small changes from the current version. This does not help since the incremental changes are not enough to change customers’ normal buying habits.

The other approach followed is out-of-the-box thinking which uses brainstorming. Since no idea is a bad idea, this often gives rise to ideas which are too far-fetched and may be beyond the technical capabilities of the organization or not aligned to its brand image. Even if it’s technically possible, the costs of doing so may prove prohibitive.

To help understand this better, let us say a new music band creates a hit song which goes viral. If the band keeps producing songs which are very similar to its earlier chartbuster, people will get bored of this repetitive style very quickly. On the other hand, if the band ventures into new territory by transforming its style or even changing its genre of music, its fans may be left confused and not able to relate to the new style or genre. What it requires is creativity in striking that right balance. But can creativity be learnt or is it some people just have it (and some don’t)!?

Among rock groups, one name that immediately springs to mind when it comes to creativity is ‘The Beatles’. Even after half a century from their formation, the four famous singers are almost immediately recognizable by most people around the world. They remain the best-selling band in history with 600 million records sold worldwide! What made the Beatles continue to churn out songs that were new and fresh yet retained their signature style? (Compare Hey Jude with Yellow Submarine or Love me do!!)

Paul McCartney, one of the 4 Beatles members once said when asked about how they did it over and over again “…John (Lennon) often had just the first verse, which was always enough. It was the direction, it was the signpost, and it was the inspiration for the whole song. I hate the word, but it was the template.” Hmm, interesting! Such high level of creativity through a template? Agatha Christie, best-selling novelist of all time also did it by using a familiar template. It made her more creative.

Template-based innovation sounds almost paradoxical, doesn’t it? Yet, it has worked for some of the most creative people of all time. It uses patterns and the key is to be able to spot these patterns.

Looking for patterns which can be reapplied to a product, service or process has given rise to what is known as Systematic Inventive Thinking or SIT. It helps channel the idea generation process and guides our thinking in a systematic way. The method grew out of research by the Russian engineer Genrich Altshuller who spent his professional life working to formalize the creative process.

SIT differs from the traditional innovation or problem solving process in a few fundamental ways. For one, it is product-centric instead of being customer-centric. It focuses on what could be called ‘Inside the box thinking’ as opposed to ‘Outside the box thinking’. The notion here is that innovation happens better when we work inside our familiar world using templates. Innovation can be difficult yet easy in hindsight – we often get surprised at a new innovation and ask ourselves “Why didn’t I think of that?” given how easy it seems.

Traditional thinking would take a problem, refine it and then try to find ways of solving the problem. In this method, this logic is turned on its head – we start with an abstract solution and then think of what problems it could solve. The logic here is that sometimes, we are better at searching for benefits for a product configuration rather than products which can solve a particular problem.

Let’s say we are asked the problem “How can we make sure we don’t burn a baby with milk that is too hot?” Now imagine that we were shown a baby’s milk bottle and being told that it changes color as the temperature of the milk changes. Why would that be useful? We would immediately recognize that such a bottle would help to make sure we didn’t burn the baby with milk that is too hot.

One example of a template is Subtraction. In subtraction, something has been removed from a product or service so as to create a new function or benefit for that product or service. What could be a pattern in these items: contact lenses, an exercise bicycle and powdered soup? In each of these, a component has been removed from a standard product to create a new product. The contact lens has had the frame of a regular pair of glasses removed. The exercise bicycle has had the rear wheel removed. A package of powdered soup has had the water removed.

There are other powerful templates such as division, multiplication, task unification and attribute dependency within SIT. Empowered with SIT templates, creativity is no longer reserved for the gifted or talented. It’s a skill that can be learned, mastered and applied by anyone. This is critical at a time when organizations have a compelling need to innovate in order to stay in business.

Ref: Finding your innovation sweet spot (HBR)

Inside the Box – A Proven System of Creativity for Breakthrough Results by Drew Boyd & Jacob Goldenberg

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The Magic of Simplicity

Less is More.png

I love simplicity. Einstein said “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”. If we speak in simple language, chances are more that we would be better understood. If products are simpler to use, it would make our lives easier.

Unfortunately, most often things are complex. Anyone who has gone through a contract written by a lawyer will agree with me. Try figuring out how to record a program in Tata Sky HD (I recently asked my just-turned-teenage daughter to help me record the Oscar’s!). Try calling your phone service provider’s helpdesk to understand what process complexity can be.

I have often wondered – why are things not simpler? I have come to believe the reason is simple – it is because simplicity is hard.

When we were children, our lives were simple. As we grew up, we forgot about the simplicity we grew up with. We started using jargons, big words, acronyms and almost this compulsive desire to overcomplicate things. Maybe it was to sound smart, maybe to look more credible.

Here’s a question – are today’s cars simpler than those of yesteryears? Well, technology is way more – the electronics, the anti-lock braking, active safety systems and the like. However, to a driver, it is simpler to drive a car today - easier steering (power steering), easier reversing (back camera) and no need to change gears (if it’s an automatic transmission car). So the ‘back-end’ is more complicated but the ‘frond-end’ is simpler.

This needs to be the case in organizations as well. We hear about the elevator speech. But try getting a 20 second answer from a business leader as what his company’s purpose is. Or what is he or she doing to stay ahead of competition? Or keeping his people motivated? You will hear a lot of the challenges, issues – essentially the ‘back-end’ stuff, not necessarily the distilled simpler ‘frond-end’ message which can be easily understood.

As leaders, it is our job to craft, articulate and communicate messages in simple language. 

Years ago, they ran a study of the speaking habits of three well known speakers who were all speaking at the same conference at the same time on the same afternoon. They run a survey and found that the one of the speakers, Bill Gates, speaks at a 11th grade level. The second speaker, Michael Dell of Dell computers speaks at a 9th grade level. The third speaker, Steve Jobs of Apple spoke at a 5th grade level!

True leaders understand the power of simplicity. This manifests in not only their communication, but in all facets of their organizations – the products per se, the range of products, the processes, the after-sales, the incentives, the organizational structures, the policies etc. etc. – put simply, simplicity becomes part of the culture of the organization.

I would love to hear your views. Kindly post your comments and feel free to write to me at Simplicity is one of Inroads’ core values.

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