This weekend brought with it an opportunity to background-think over the contents of design thinker Manoj Kothari’s talk to my SLP class.
We understand and appreciate innovation thanks to its promise of improbable outcomes. Occasionally, an entrepreneur’s first attempt hits the mark as a wild success. The norm is that entrepreneurs wish to learn to repeat the innovation process through practice.
No one’s done more work to dispel the hero myth than Richard Bach. As I mulled over what I’d learned, I made an odd connection back to a parable* written by him. It is a parable I’ve enjoyed telling myself over and over again which adequately explains how innovation suspends existing beliefs, allowing the re-imagination of the old as new.
The story is a short story of a creature that lives in a colony at the bottom of the river bed. Through the story, I believe the author wishes the reader to observe directly the nature of change; pay as little attention to the emphasis on the apparent heroism and other words that bring with them the unknown, or mystery.
Once there lived a village of creatures along the bottom of a great crystal river. The current of the river swept silently over them all — young and old, rich and poor, good and evil — the current going its own way, knowing only its own crystal self.
Each creature in its own manner clung tightly to the twigs and rocks of the river bottom, for clinging was their way of life, and resisting the current was what each had learned from birth.
But one creature said at last, “I am tired of clinging. Though I cannot see it with my eyes, I trust that the current knows where it is going. I shall let go, and let it take me where it will. Clinging, I shall die of boredom.”
The other creatures laughed and said, “Fool! Let go, and that current you worship will throw you tumbled and smashed against the rocks, and you will die quicker than boredom!”
But the one heeded them not, and taking a breath did let go, and at once was tumbled and smashed by the current across the rocks.
Yet in time, as the creature refused to cling again, the current lifted him free from the bottom, and he was bruised and hurt no more.
And the creatures downstream, to whom he was a stranger, cried, “See a miracle! A creature like ourselves, yet he flies! See the messiah, come to save us all!”
And the one carried in the current said, “I am no more messiah than you. The river delights to lift us free, if only we dare let go. Our true work is this voyage, this adventure.”
But they cried the more, “Savior!” all the while clinging to the rocks, and when they looked again he was gone, and they were left alone making legends of a savior.
– From Illusions, Richard Bach.
When explaining a concept, a teacher’s intent is to share a complete understanding of the idea with the student. They often risk over simplifying it, or over exaggerating it and putting it out of reach of the student. I’d love to know how you felt about any insight that you receive through the parable.
* Parable’s are simple stories that I’ve found extremely useful in capturing wisdom and its context.
Contradictory thoughts appear to be cul-de-sacs, promising nothing of value. Counter-intuitively, the introduction of doubt is a key ingredient in evolving outcomes that are beyond simply predictable. Design thinkers are often encouraged to shift or overturn values in order to explore new outcomes*.
This weekend’s Startup Leadership class involved a discussion with Manoj Kothari of Onio Design. He touched upon this important point and highlighted how the mind is a natural synthesizer. Being with contradictory thought allows for the resolution of conflict with time. Time here could be anything from a single night’s sleep, a couple of days or more.
The key is recognizing the cessation of the background, mental ping-pong process on hitting a contradictory thought. At that point, motivation to investigate the thread further, to place your thoughts in a constructive framework, or to seek out additional stimulant is on the low end.
Take the intuitive definition of the word “problem”. It can vary dramatically depending on the specific outlook, or attitude at that given point of time.
In recent customer trials for a product I’m working on, I interviewed parents of students from local private schools that employ English as a medium of instruction. Interviews with two parents of overachievers nudged me towards a discovery. Before the interviews, it never occurred to me that overachievers might have a problem. My predominant thoughts stayed with the visual of class laggards struggling to keep up.
It turns out overachievers do have problems as well and might be more inclined to address them.
My interviews culminated in the following problem statement around second-language acquisition, a well-researched problem:
We acquire our first language by learning from our environment. During that time we’re literally exposed to over a million new words thanks to our parents and caretakers. Acquiring a second language is left to schools that can at best provide an abstract learning environment. For instance, learning to speak the word “water”, or “mother” wouldn’t be valuable if there wasn’t a recognizable, real reward attached. Overachievers who hunger for this same environment are bound to discover richer rewards through participation in debate and other social events in that second language.
Good designers typically seek satisfaction beyond that required by stakeholders in the problematic situation being addressed. By applying values or criteria not usually applied to a situation or experience, designers may find an unanticipated outcome. By shifting values, even contradicting those they might normally apply in a situation, designers can sometimes arrive at totally unanticipated and creative outcomes. Being highly independent in their judgment creative designers are not usually responsive to group standards and control; they often suspend or override judgment in their search for originality.
Downshifting is a noticeable worldwide trend, one that I’ve experienced with myself, in my own personal network of 30-somethings and fellow startup founders. The first principle for downshift thinking is to be eager to trade in money for time.
Listing out the classic traits I’ve directly observed in downshifters:
- Reducing the amount of time spent on apps, especially social networks such as facebook, twitter and trading that time in for face to face interaction and groups.
- Making it imperative to avoid long commutes. Staying close to your workplace.
- Investing time and effort in locating an irregular, or non-mainstream job position that may compromise on career growth but is rewarding in personal freedoms*.
- Paying greater attention to pressing social issues, especially those that most people would be apathetic to.
- Proactively investing time in kids, family, health, wealth, hands-on skills, creative endeavors.
- Seeking time-tested methodologies that allow you to address the stresses of city life.
- Making time and space to be with one’s self.
- Seeking wisdom, answers to existential questions, or lasting purpose.
I wouldn’t laugh at this trend. Its growing and the startup world has taken to it in a big way. The corporate world will in time learn to acknowledge what’s happening here.
A note of caution, startup culture still promotes the image of the hard at work, 24×7 working founder, or fast cash-burning startup that makes it seemingly incompatible with personal behavior changes that come with downshifting. As always, I’d say to that “go your own way”. There’s plenty of exceptions out there.
* I’ve just discovered an intriguing book on “God’s Own Office“, the story of James Joseph, a Microsoft professional who sets up his home-office out of Kerala while continuing to work for Microsoft. You can get it in hardcover here on flipkart.com and kindle edition on amazon.com.
Innovators cultivate rich networks for the purpose of harvesting ideas*. While there exist many solutions for harnessing ideas within an organization, there’s hardly any solutions for harnessing ideas from ‘outside the organization’. I stumbled upon this apparent gap when setting up a venture group around school alumni.
Here’s a concise, 2 min video introduction that explains the problem in the context of the organization.
* For more, I suggest get a copy of “Innovator’s DNA“.
A friend once described his version of intelligence to me as the ability to discriminate that which is improbable from the rest. This definition isn’t a precise dictionary definition, but it’ll serve the purpose of this discussion.
Imagine the future intelligently. Imagine improbable outcomes that question the future of status quo. Then in that case, failure is a failure of imagination – assuming the ability to execute to be equally available to all.
A viral cold has brought with it an opportunity to reflect. Going over all the events that dot the past year, I realize how challenging it can be to nurture an idea to fruition. Tangible outcomes, the ones you can feel or touch, those that are real to you and everyone else; they’re hard to create from scratch.
I’ve joined up this year’s Startup Leadership Program from Pune. Although I was greeted with initial questions on “what are *you* doing here?”, as I went through the program it’s helping me open up in many ways. An interesting discovery for me has been to learn that a significant number of startup founders had begun their own spiritual journeys. A friend called that leaning out as “downshifting”.
Through the entire year, I trialed three different ventures. One which I setup at the beginning of this year, another which I joined in Bangalore in June and the final one only recently which stuck and continues to evolve. The experience of teaming up with collaborators to solve a problem energizes me for weeks together, although I don’t explicitly seek it out, the rush is welcome.
An emergent sequence of circumstances brought me back in the saddle of running the community website – punestartups.org for startups based out of Pune. With it came the ability to contrast design habits around products for the desktop and for the mobile-first world. I’m now certain that India is going to be a mobile-only connected audience.
My son’s growing up. He’s interacting and racking up those inches. He isn’t putting on a lot of weight. He enjoys sharing his world with us and vies for our attention, especially on days when my better half and I are working from home. He’s devised infallible ways of interrupting whatever we’re doing. Crawling up to my desk on all fours, he barks a sweet puppy dog bark alerting me to his presence.
Apart from the usual routines I’ve made it a habit to run, build software and meditate whenever I get the chance. I’ve signed out off the many digital social networks and they’ve been replaced by other networks of a different kind.
I’m looking forward to the next year.
Over the past few weeks I’ve repeatedly come across instances where the ability to build out an idea and get feedback as an atomic action has proved to be a huge advantage. While this won’t prevent one from spending time and effort on bad ideas, it does protect you from the more likelier instance of having a good idea and then failing to act on it. In fact, if you believe the challenges facing a good idea are all rooted in bias – then you’ll know that pushing aside bias is a priority. It’s easy to analytically tear apart ideas on a whiteboard but that isn’t progress. On the other hand, it only takes a single experience of a user’s delightful response to gain the confidence to invest more.
Serial entrepreneur out of Pune – Karamveer Singh, CEO, Ayush Software shared his commitment to rapidly getting an idea out to his target audience. The method he uses to push aside bias is to talk about the idea in past tense, “it’s already done” pushes aside the bias of aimless encouragement; and “someone else has done it”, pushes out any bias that you personally bring into the picture. An instance of where he cited this works is when you ask your Mother- “Would you use this?”
In “How to Get Startup Ideas“, Paul Graham points out to the inherent advantage of fast feedback loops. He says it’s a huge advantage to be able to build your ideas out, especially if the idea is something you want, and something with an unexpected flavor to it.
May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser who shared 2014’s Nobel Prize for Medicine for their discovery of the Brain’s inner GPS cited another instance of a fast feedback loop. What sets them apart is that they’re married – working partners. They unabashedly revealed that their ability to quickly refine ideas over breakfast helped them immensely.
The above supporting evidence makes a compelling case to keep the build-ship feedback loop tight, true and quick. And yet under time pressure, I find startup founders turning to outsourcing the creation aspects of their ideas to employees, other companies and even overseas. In other cases, they’ll share an underdeveloped startup idea with an exacting audience. I myself am not exempt. It seems to be another fallout of the prevalent startup culture that puts results before the process of discovery. Paradoxically, growing economic efficiency with every passing age only serves to underscore the act of creation.
“What Did That Sound Like?”
Thomas Rhett on the Making of ‘It Goes Like This’. Photo credit Lunchbox LP.