Thanks AC4D and Mr. Miyagi

After 3 months of a dry patch where blogging disappeared into the horizon, I am back with a personal post about my AC4D journey and answers to some personal questions about why I am in this program. My break from blogging was a conscious decision resulting from some chaos and confusion about my expectations from the program, the divergence, the convergence and sense-making. I contemplated for a bit about posting this as this was more personal than being ac4d related. But, maybe, just a small maybe, it will help someone coming into the program when the number of questions prevail the number of answers.

When I started the program, I wanted to change the world. The passion was intense. I could see myself going out and doing several great things. I had figured out the mental visualization part of achievement. Thus, I began my journey with AC4D, hoping to change the world the way I saw it. The journey was sentimental and passionate. There is a great quote by Mary Aster –

“It's not good to make sentimental journeys. You see the differences instead of the sameness.”

I realized this very late. But, with every step I was taking,  I started seeing things were different than my expectations. I wanted to work on “information” because that is where my passion is. I did not get a chance to work on that. I was working on a different problem. The frustration caught me unaware. I questioned my reason for being in the program. I thought whether I was doing the same thing that led me into the program in the first place. Was I working on something that I didn’t want to be working on? Ah, the peril with a sentimental journey! I argued with my professors, my project outputs varied in quality. Not that I was bad or anything. It was just that, the sentimental journey was telling me that my goals were different than what I was being taught at school. It was chaotic. At some point, I started doing the assignments and projects because they were part of the curriculum. It had to be, because the emotion of not being able to work on what I wanted to work on, overpowered me.

Life was turbulent and chaotic. I had quit my full time job and was excited to work on some neat ideas. It just wasn’t to be. The Karate Kid story comes to mind. The Miyagis at AC4D were teaching me to wash dishes and scrub floors. I was not there for that. I wanted to learn Karate. There were moments where mind was messing with me and telling me that this was not what I was here for. Struggle and chaos had become part of my everyday project at AC4D. My biggest strength through this process was that chaos has always been my friend and I was familiar with it. There is another nice quote I read from ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra’ –

“One must still have chaos in one, to give birth to a dancing star”

I never ever realized how true this was. I persisted with chaos, stuck with my schedules and did the best I can. There were multiple epiphanies which gave a great insight into flaws of my own thinking, which could never have come if I had not questioned everything. I never stopped questioning the things I was doing but not for one instance I let the questions completely over power me and take a wrong step. And eventually, things started falling into place over numerous conversations (with Kat, Justin and Jon – thanks guys!). Today was one such moment. After a great guest lecture from Gary of Union Square Ventures (@gcsf), I went into Justin’s office and asked him what I was doing at AC4D. There were things I cared about that I wanted to work on, and I wanted to find out why I was not doing that. Then came the Miyagi moment. For me, Justin will forever remain as  Mr. Miyagi. He showed me how scrubbing floors (not literally) has made me a better person and entrepreneur. He gave me the famous talk about “leap of faith”. It was a great conversation that brings me back to my original quote that I referred to…

“It's not good to make sentimental journeys. You see the differences instead of the sameness.”

At AC4D, one is taught to be a better entrepreneur. The emphasis is on making you a better person. That is all it is. Every student works on this. It is not the project or idea that matters. It is the spirit. The biggest thing I have gained out of this experience is that, there is a great person (teachers or students) sitting at the other end of the table, listening with attention because they want you to succeed in your dreams. I learned more about myself. Like Steve Jobs said in his famous Stanford speech, “You can only connect the dots looking backwards”. There might be frustration and chaos but if you change the lens with which you view,  you will see a friendly Miyagi teaching you to become a zen master in Karate.

Any future student reading this blog post – Do apply for next year’s program. I guarantee that it will change your life. It has changed mine.

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Importance of client experience

This week’s take away from our project was the importance of client experience. When we synthesized our data, we found that almost everyone we talked to emphasized the importance of client experience on some level. Further, it was interesting to note that people who were associated with administrative activities cared about external perceptions (community awareness) while the people who were line workers didn’t care about it much. On the contrary, the opinions were reversed when thinking about quality control.

Matrix showing synthesis results

One question I keep asking myself is on the importance of client experience. Why is it important for these people? Is it because it makes their lives easier or is it because they carry empathy with what their clients undergo? If a design solution makes client experience easier but does not the lives of the employees, does the weight of this perception change in the above matrix? Don’t know..but will find out.

Is information the problem?

blockquote>The message is that through more and more information, more conveniently packaged, more swiftly delivered, we will find solutions to our problems. And so all the brilliant young men and women, believing this, create ingenious things for the computer to do, hoping that in this way, we will become wiser and more decent and more noble. And who can blame them? By becoming masters of this wondrous technology, they will acquire prestige and power and some will even become famous. In a world populated by people who believe that through more and more information, paradise is attainable, the computer scientist is king. But I maintain that all of this is a monumental and dangerous waste of human talent and energy.

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Imagine what might be accomplished if this talent and energy were turned to philosophy, to theology, to the arts, to imaginative literature or to education? Who knows what we could learn from such people — perhaps why there are wars, and hunger, and homelessness and mental illness and anger.

The above is from Neil Postman, who has a mastery in connecting society and technology. Over the last week or two, my team (Scott and I) has been talking to different people to understand the role of information in understanding and helping homeless population. Information is powerful. Information about homeless is required by the HUD (Housing and Urban Development) and the city to release grants. Information is required by donors to sustain funding. But, what information? Information that is required is more often than not at a superficial level like demographics, age, ethnicity, etc. It would be unfair for me to completely brand it as superficial because an effort is done to understand about mental illness, domestic conditions, financial struggles, etc. But what is done with this information? Can this be used to help the clients themselves?

The power (or information) of data will always come from an associated action. ARCH uses the information to generate reports that will help sustain funds. They seem to be understaffed to do anything beyond that. They are helping people by providing shelter and basic assistance and want to continue doing this. The city or HUD get the reports and are happy that the grants are being used to “help homeless”. Is that sufficient? Can we use the same information to restructure the processes to help accomplish more?

There were several process breakdowns we encountered in our short research phase. This is where can use the information to address these breakdowns. Unfortunately, one breakdown was the way information was gathered. These systems/software to gather information seem to have been built without a deep understanding of the problems faced by clients. There are various aspects of a system that needs to be considered while building any solution. In this particular case, we found out that the interaction and needs of the clients were not given deeper thoughts while designing. For instance, a new client who comes to ARCH has to fill some forms as part of a basic mandate. While the need for this information is super-critical for managing data, the way it is gathered can end to be a frustrating experience to clients, and in turn, the employees, for whom the system for designed in the first place. Information is critical, but a design method that enables seamless transaction of information is even more critical

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When products create a new ecosystem

he last several weeks in India have been very insightful and busy. There is a lot to write about when I get some time. This place is full of energy, stories of survival, entrepreneurship and wonders. Product development here will be successful if that product fosters a new ecosystem. It is even better when the same product helps tackle wicked problems (in the context of AC4D). The following product is a great example of a truly green product that also gives thousands of low income families employment – a clay disposable cup. Several places have started serving beverages in this.

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Three steps to executing ideas

n IDSE103, we learnt three steps to executing ideas. This video serves as a recap of the course and how ideas should be executed. This is also part of the final class project.

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Perception of Creativity

In 2005, chess grandmaster Vishwanathan Anand was part of one of the famous chess tragedies against Van Wely. Anand literally threw the game away from his grasp when he went against his instincts and chose a complex chess move instead of a simple one.

This following quote the next day from Anand summarizes a great deal about the nature of problem solving – “It is ironic that if I had played Re8+ and not won the game people would have all said that I was not working hard enough at the board, just going for simple solutions. Now they will be saying I had overworked the position, looking for a convoluted solutions where there is a simple, elegant win available”.

What is so interesting about this statement from Anand? If Anand had won the game instead of drawing, we probably would not have had a chance to take a peek into the complexities that domain expertise adds to problem solving.

Figure1: The Circle of Knowledge

Figure 1 shows a conceptual sketch of the circle of knowledge. Circle of knowledge is a hypothetical term being used in this paper to indicate the depth of domain knowledge. It is important that we associate knowledge depth with this circle and not breadth. The reason for this is that we want to associate the insight we can derive from the problem specification with this circle of knowledge. I believe that the meaningful insight is dependent to a large extent on intuition, which can only stem from having some sort of domain expertise. What does this translate to in case of domain experts like Anand?

In the landscape of chess moves, Anand’s superior understanding would translate to him seeing more possible scenarios towards his end goal. However, with the superior domain skills also comes the curse of knowledge. The term curse of knowledge was coined first in a 1989 journal on political economy meaning that when you become the expert in some subject, it is hard for you to imagine not knowing what you do [1]. Let us explore an expert‘s strategy at solving problems. In [2], Johnson-Laird dissects the shape of problems. Laird argues that creativity is essential to derive insight, a critical attribute to problem solving. He argues that five elements namely novelty, optional novelty for society, non-determinism, constraints and existing elements are essential for qualifying as a creative solution. As per Laird, novelty is not a mere regurgitation of a set/known process. The outcome should be novel to the person or optionally, to the society. The other attributes like the solution not following a deterministic trend and building upon constraints and existing frameworks seem to be a natural outcome of this process. I think the first two attributes are very critical in terms of how experts view problem solving. Let us go back to Anand’s example. In his game, he was at a stage where a simple move could have sealed the game in his favor. Instead, he chose to go for an off the beaten path and a more creative and novel way of solving the problem. If he had been successful, that very move which cost him the game could have resulted in songs of his glory, and expert analyses about an unconventional move in a crunch game would have been written all over the world. Did the novelty bug bite Anand? Was he blindsided by his own creativity?

In a seminal work [3], Herb Simon argues about the structure of ill-structured problems. According to Simon, any problem whose structure lacks in definition in some respect is ill structured. Simon makes a great point that the boundaries are blurred between well-structured problems and ill structured ones. In that context, majority of the problems can be perceived as ill structured. In Anand’s example, it very well appears that managing creativity is an inherently ill structured problem with a huge interplay of social and personal dynamics. Co-incidentally, Simon talks about chess in [3] and in the context of artificial intelligence, he positions it as an ill-structured problem. While this positioning is not central to our discussion, it is essential to note that the process of managing creativity when dealing with ill-structured problems is much harder. This can be observed in Anand’s post-match statement quoted in the beginning of this paper. Anand talks about the quality of winning as one of the decision-making criteria. This is a great insight into the mind of this genius. Summarizing, when managing creativity in ill-structured problem domains, perception of solution plays a critical role in qualifying to be creative. Then, is “perception” the missing attribute from Laird’s original list found in [2]? It seems ironic to add an attribute loaded with social complexities (thus, making it inherently ill structured) as a necessary qualifier for creative solutions, which are more personal than social.

What makes perception a challenging qualifier is that it cannot be easily quantified objectively. Our perception of how people perceive our work is inherently a flawed metric. When that factors into our decision-making ability to solve a problem, the outcome crosses the line from

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being non-deterministic to chaotic. Also, this detrimentally affects the process of relying on instinct to derive insight, which is in many ways critical to creativity [2].

Figure 2: Using the circle of knowledge to find a solution

Let us shrink the circle of knowledge through the aid of constraints to make the problem simpler. Let me elaborate on this point in the context of the example used in this article. While Anand’s circle of knowledge is huge owing to his extraordinary domain expertise, his constraint might be the analyzable depth of the move scenarios. For instance, let us say Anand can think up to a depth of 7-10 moves. In this case, his circle of knowledge would shrink to reflect that stage in his current problem solving abilities. Based on revised scenarios, like the moves played by his opponent, his circle of knowledge would change to reveal more possible solutions. This logical course of problem solving is indicated in figure 2. The final solution in this case is arrived through mere instinct. If perception of the solution at each step is factored in the decision-making, the process gets more chaotic as indicated in figure 3.

As seen from figure 3, at every stage, adding perception can lead an alternate course towards the final solution. I am not arguing for one over other in this article; my point is merely to illustrate the point that managing creativity through social complexities is extremely chaotic.

Finally, though Laird [2] would not want to add perception to his original list of qualifiers for creativity, in the current socially integrated world we live in, this metric would be hard to ignore when one quantifies a creative solution. For, when one is quantifying somebody else’s solution, he is already introducing the element of perception. Right, or wrong, it is clearly an indispensable metric.

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/30/business/30know.html

[2] The Shape of Problems, Philip Johnson-Laird

[3] The Structure of Ill Structured Problems, Herb Simon

Co-existence

Co-existence is the one word that defines the entire Indian social dynamics. It is the mantra to survive. Be it for an entrepreneur, an office goer, cricket mom (pun intended), student or a child. You need to learn to co-exist in this place. Rather, it should be the way of life. If you can do it, it is rather fun to live here. Every day there are new things to be observed and explored. You can choose to get amazed or frustrated. It is a choice. Lot of people stereotype a place like
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India to be chaotic. It is true. But, what chaos does is NOT MESS up the system but SHAKE IT up. This is a big difference. When things get shaken up, it looks similar to being messed up. It appears that the basic public services that we take for granted in United States appear to be broken in India. But, maybe it is not broken. It is just our perception. Maybe, we need to deeply plug ourselves into the chaos to see what the reality is.

Saranyan
http://twitter.com/saranyan

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Pitch the ball..literally!

hen I was in Dubai, in an unexpected turn of events I got invited to a party through my brother-in-law. The guests of honor were popular cricket players. Apart from it being an amazing experience to hang out with the cricket players I watched growing up, there was a particular moment I enjoyed most – Delivering an impromptu pitch!

I talked to Venkatesh Prasad, the former bowling coach for the Indian Cricket team. I had an idea in my mind that I had worked little bit on about an assistive sporting device. I pitched my idea to him. Just like that! Actually, I did a great job. Much better than what I did at class here at AC4D. The reason for that was, I had put so many hours on that project and synthesizing the idea. I had probably practiced the pitch atleast a 100 times in my mind at various stages in the past two-three years.

PS – And as Justin Petro says, “You never know who is watching. Be prepared”

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