Moral Intelligence- the remarkable trait for leaders

As a child during one of the summer holidays in our ancestral village, I remember a kid in the neighbourhood was being reprimanded by others for stealing. His mother pleaded innocence and covered up for him. I have no recollection of who that child grew up to be but I remember my father’s words after that incident. He had said, ‘a mother makes a thief.’ Sounded odd at that time but I realised it truly when years later after that incident, I had to talk to my less-than-5 year old to return a candy he had picked up slyly in a store. Recently, I was reminded again of the statement ‘a mother makes a thief’ when I had to take care of the teenager’s act of watching Netflix on her laptop during online school hours. Mothers have a knack of understanding a child’s behaviour and by virtue can either confront or cover up if there is wrongdoing. Mothers become the first moral intelligence police for the child. 

Right and wrong taught as values remain the compass for decisions that define moral intelligence. Moral intelligence was first developed as a concept in 2005 by Doug Lennick and Fred Kiel, Ph.D. They defined moral intelligence as “the mental capacity to determine how universal human principles should be applied to our values, goals, and actions” Michele Borba, Ed.D., in her book Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues that Teach Kids to Do the Right Thing defined seven essential virtues of moral intelligence as empathy, conscience, self-control, respect, kindness, tolerance, and fairness.

Moral Intelligence is a lesser known leadership trait but is an essential tool for a leader, actually for every person in the room, not just the leader. Watching Netflix during an online school time is not a crime, so are what seems as small trespasses of values in the course of business. Sometimes these small moves climax into a big one and backfire and sometimes a small harmless move comes under the radar of law and order.  It doesn’t matter whether an unethical practice comes under the law scanner or not, it definitely deviates the business and its processes from the path of competency. 

If you would wonder, consider some of these past news headlines:

Rajat Gupta’s Lust for Zeros

Videocon loan case: Srikrishna panel indicts Chanda Kochhar; what we know so far

Rajat Gupta. Chanda Kochhar. Big names. Bigger body of work. Yet, tarnished by what seems like deviation in moral intelligence. Some stories come out in the public domain. Some don’t. Yet, from time to time, leaders miss a step or two in moral intelligence. It leaves a hole not just in their lives but also in the company’s trust and value systems. Sometimes these small, unharmful yet unethical steps might look natural and acceptable in the value system. Like we have seen in the case of Harshad Mehta scam story, where many others were also following similar practices. Moral Intelligence is not rocket science but it is helpful to understand how it is defined by researchers.

Lennick and Kiel say that the construct of moral intelligence consists of integrity, responsibility, forgiveness and compassion:

  • Integrity: integrity are a) acting consistently with principles, values, and beliefs, b) telling the truth, c) standing up for what is right, and d) keeping promise
  • Responsibility: Responsibility’s three competencies are a) taking personal responsibility, b) admitting mistakes and failures, and c) embracing responsibility for serving others (Clarken, 2009).
  • Forgiveness: Forgiveness involves a) letting go of one’s own mistakes and b) letting go of others’ mistakes (Clarken, 2009). 
  • Compassion: compassion is actively caring about others (Clarken, 2009). 

Moral intelligence is separate from emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is about understanding and controlling one’s feelings and reactions. I have written about Emotional Intelligence in this article here. In today’s Habits for Thinking, we discuss how carrying the knowledge of moral intelligence impacts leadership style. 

The advantages of building Moral Intelligence: 

1. The compass of decision making

Moral intelligence though spoken less about as a leadership trait, is central to leadership. The beauty of this intelligence is that it can be acquired as a skill by practice. But this is a compass that needs to be the true north. 

2. The roadmap for the purpose:

Bringing the purpose, individual or a business purpose, depends on the moral roadmap. Moral intelligence paves the roadmap for continuing on the mission of purpose. It is the guide for why we do things and how we do things. 

3.The competitive edge: 

How many times have you been told that your team has earned the business because your team’s integrity stood over other competitors? We may be technologically enabled but business relations are based on human relations. The moral intelligence of an effective leader makes way for everyone in the business. The moral intelligence of the leader defines the right processes and functionality at the core of the business.

4. The tool for ethical design: 

We are governed by privacy policies. That is the law. But there is no law to suggest that as a brand when or how many times can you call the customer? In an another example, leaders that are employing Artificial intelligence have to make several ethical decisions. The more we are driven by technology, more we will have to be morally conscious and intelligent to drive technology. 

5. The responsible influencer: 

I sometimes wonder, if Elon Musk would not have tweeted about Gamestop, would less number of  redditors have made losses? I have no scientific way to prove it but there is a possibility that Elon Musk’s tweet would have influenced some more retail investors to jump in the Gamestop saga resulting in both gains and losses for individuals. Moral intelligence is not just for people with large following on social media platforms, it is with anybody who has influence over people around him. 

Moral Intelligence is not just a responsibility towards a team or a business. It is also a responsibility towards the community, our work communities, our social communities and the members of that community. This Saturday morning marks sixty five nights for Partho Dasgupta* (BARC scam case), under judicial custody. At some point, maybe in months or in years, the judiciary will define whether Patho Dasgupta had a moral intelligence lapse in his career or not. Events around us teach us lessons and make us reflect. As a member of the community, one could reflect on their own moral intelligence to see if they have been able to forgive and yet be compassionate enough to offer help. 

When a community comes together morally, it forgives and extends help. The compass for Moral Intelligence towards a community could be the one like this popular social kindness quote, –

We are all just walking each other home.”

Business leaders need to become mothers as they practice moral intelligence. They must remember, a mother teaches her child by not just preaching but by practicing.

She doesn’t say only “be kind”. She says, “let us be kinder today.”

Mothers are best teachers of Moral Intelligence!

*The author is an ex colleague of Partho Dasgupta. She has worked with him from 2005-2009.

Are you a choice architect?

Have you joined Koo? Or Clubhouse? Or both? Koo is the latest social media platform made in atmanirbhar India and is similar to twitter, I am told. Just the fact that it is in more languages than one, adds to its charm. On the other hand, Clubhouse is a platform for listening and talking that means only audio, no text, no video and no recording, again I am told. I have not joined any of these platforms. Not yet. I am worried that I may seem as rude to people who have sent me invites. I am very tempted to join Koo to read the conversations in Hindi. I am also tempted to join Clubhouse as I want to attend one chat around writing skills. Wait, to listen to learn about writing? Sounds odd. 

Some things do not come with a choice architecture. A choice architecture is the place that lays out boundaries for you to make decisions. Like, as a mother, I am laying boundaries for my children to make decisions for example late night boundaries or mobile app boundaries. For adults, there is no such thing like a phone that comes with a choice architecture. Something like you can only be on only two social media platforms? Sounds criminal. Suffocating may be the right word. Isn’t it? Lack of choice architecture in adult life makes us feel free, but that also means the onus on taking right behavioural decisions completely lies with us. 

What is choice architecture: 

Choice architecture coined by behavioural economists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein (2008) refers to the practice of influencing choice by “organizing the context in which people make decisions” Here is an excerpt from their paper:

Decision makers do not make choices in a vacuum. They make them in an environment where many features, noticed and unnoticed, can influence their decisions. The person who creates that environment is, in our terminology, a choice architect. In this paper we analyze some of the tools that are available to choice architects. Our goal is to show how choice architecture can be used to help nudge people to make better choices (as judged by themselves) without forcing certain outcomes upon anyone.The tools we highlight are: defaults, expecting error, understanding mappings, giving feedback. 

In this week on Habits for Thinking, and as a second part to last week’s write up on behavioural economics and nudge theory, I am bringing your attention to designing your own choice architecture. 

Choice architecture is exercised by policy makers and many businesses to influence your decision making. Policy makers’ role is to get behaviours that are good for the people like nudging bike riders to wear helmets for protection or demeriting a product that is not good for consumers like putting a cancer stricken person’s photo on the pack of cigarettes. On the other hand, businesses have to thrive in a highly competitive environment. Most brands and businesses turn choice architects to influence behavioural decisions by their consumers. The question is how do we, as individuals, as consumers become a choice architect of our own to protect our interests. How do we make conscious decisions that are not driven by someone else’s influence? 

The first step is to define our own behavioural rules. To become a choice architect, let us look at the framework designed by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. There are four tools in designing a choice architecture: 

1. Defaults: Padding the Path of Least Resistance

Thaler & Sunstein research paper suggests making certain behaviours a default option—an option that will obtain if the chooser does nothing—then we can expect a large number of people to end up with that option, whether or not it is good for them. They used these nudges for organ donation, for signing up for savings. 

How a company uses: when you sign up for a website registration you have to opt-out to receive promotional newsletters. If you do not opt-out, you will get all promotional emails by default. 

How can you use: when you want to spend unadulterated time reading to your child, or in a meeting, leave your phone out of the room for that period. By default, you will not have the phone to get distracted. 

2. Expect Error: Humans make mistakes

A well-designed system expects its users to err and is as forgiving as possible. 

How a company uses: If you draft a mail on gmail and have forgotten to attach the document that you have mentioned in your mail, gmail reminds you to add the attachment. That is a positive nudge. 

How can you use: You have put a task, for example to write to someone, on your to-do list. It has been there for the last few days but you have not been able to complete this task. That’s an error that you are making. To design a productivity nudge for yourself, write a rule – either attack or kill the task after two days.  This means that after two days of being on the list, any task should either be addressed first thing on the third day or get discarded from the list if it is not important enough. By expecting that you may miss something on your to-do list, you can design a choice to be more attentive and productive.

3. Give Feedback: 

The best way to help humans improve their performance is to provide feedback, writes Richard Thaler. Well-designed systems tell people when they are doing well and when they are making mistakes. 

How a company uses: iPhone users have the facility to control screen time. The phone reminds every time the limit, set by the user, is over. 

How you can use: You want to change a habit, maintain a log of new behaviour and this will become your feedback system. For example, maintain an entry for your fitness regime that you want to improve, write down your workout details and how you feel after the workout. This journal will become your own feedback. How you feel will be your personal assessment tool, your frequency of workout will work as a feedback score. 

4. Understand mapping: 

A good system of choice architecture helps people improve their ability to map and hence to select options that will make them better off. One way to do this is to make the information about various options more understandable, by transforming numerical information into units that translate more readily into actual use. For example: When buying apples to make into apple cider, it helps to know the rule of thumb that it takes three apples to make one glass of cider. 

How a company uses: Car sellers give comparative features and prices for models in similar categories. This information mapping helps the buyer to make informed decisions. 

How to use: before joining another social media, map the time that it would consume from your 24 hours in a day. Map your other engagements. Remember, there are only 24 hours and that you are your own choice architect. 

Choice architecture is not limited to only these four tools. Reducing choice overload, incentives and communication like advertisements to influence behavior, packaging and placement of products are also some other tools that are designed by businesses around us. Organisations design nudges to influence behaviour of their employees. Many organisations do not give a choice of accessing social media platforms on employees’ laptops thus restricting the choice architecture by default. 

I do not work with any organisation that restricts usage of sites and apps on my devices. I am sure one day I will join these platforms and behave like a fly on the wall, the way I do on other platforms. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I am mapping the effort needed to curate my own timeline for these platforms. The choice I have made to be on social media is to learn, to pick up trends, to have fun in my way, which means I curate my timeline, I am conscious of whom to follow. 

Being a choice architect takes efforts and failures. But, it is better to be a failure in your own choice architecture than to be a loser who has been influenced by others’ choices. So, are you a choice architect? 

Changing Behaviour – one mime at a time

Has it ever happened to you that while driving you had to screech and halt to save a pedestrian from getting hit by your car. It just happened to me this morning. It wasn’t screeching and halting but yes, it was a sudden, unexpected break. Short, stout, in a green sweater and a blue mask there was a middle aged man right in front of my car’s bonnet staring at me in bewilderment. Jay walking is considered a safe behaviour by many standing in the crowd. Now imagine you had to halt at a star painted on the road? That’s what a Colombian mayor did years ago to prevent deaths caused during jaywalking. Ok, you may argue we do not even have zebra crossing markings on many roads in our cities. That is another debate. But, we still have people dying in road and rail accidents. 

This Mayor, Antanas Mockus whose work is now published as a case by Harvard, used different strategies to change behaviour of people of the city, including painting stars on spots where pedestrians had died in traffic accidents.A mathematician and philosopher, Mr. Mockus was rector of the National University in Bogotá, Colombia, before serving as mayor of that city for two terms, from 1995 to 2004.  

In an opinion piece, ‘the art of changing a city,’ he wrote “Bogotá’s traffic was chaotic and dangerous when I came to office. We decided the city needed a radical new approach to traffic safety. Among various strategies, we printed and distributed hundreds of thousands of “citizens’ cards,” which had a thumbs-up image on one side to flash at courteous drivers, and a thumbs-down on the other to express disapproval. Within a decade, traffic fatalities fell by more than half.” 

Another innovative idea was to use mimes to improve both traffic and citizens’ behavior. Initially 20 professional mimes shadowed pedestrians who didn’t follow crossing rules: A pedestrian running across the road would be tracked by a mime who mocked his every move. Mimes also poked fun at reckless drivers. The program was so popular that another 400 people were trained as mimes. Traffic fatalities dropped by more than half in the same time period, from an average of 1,300 per year to about 600.  Mime artists idea was replicated in Peru Lima too to prevent road fatalities. 

In this week’s Habits for Thinking, we are circling back to a topic we have discussed earlier too – Behavioural Economics and Nudge. This is a two part article and will continue next week too. 

Behaviour economics uses psychology to understand decision making behind an economic outcome, such as buying of a product. The study refers to psychology, neuroscience, economics in understanding how people behave and act. The behaviour and subsequent decisions to act have an impact on people yet they continue to behave in an unsafe manner, like the man in the green sweater, who crossed the road more as a copycat behavior seeing others in front of him. 

Governments and policymakers recruit behavioural economists to change behaviour in the right direction. It has been done in many countries, including ours. “By knowing how people think, we can make it easier for them to choose what is best for them, their families and society,” wrote Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their book Nudge, which was published in 2008. Read more about Nudge and behavioural economics in my earlier article here. This is what the mathematician mayor of Bogota did. He used insights that influence behaviour and designed solutions that were not easy to miss, that were engaging to bring in change. 

Behavior Insights considers three factors that influence behavior: 

1.Individual factors : self image consciousness, fast and slow decision making or a person, biases, rewards and penalties, time factor etc. 

2.Social factors: How people think and act are many times influenced by people around them. Jumping a signal while driving because the one in front of you has jumped is an example or to litter in a public space like parking, roads etc is another example of copying behaviour. 

3.Environmental or design factors : Nudges and other design elements are chosen to bring a change in behaviour. These are externally designed like Mime artists on the streets to change behaviour or messages through voice on phone. 

While mimes were strategically placed to influence behaviour of pedestrians and car drivers, it worked on the self image of the individuals. Similarly, star painted spots became reminders as an environmental design factor to influence people’s behaviour. 

“The distribution of knowledge is the key contemporary task. Knowledge empowers people. If people know the rules, and are sensitized by art, humor, and creativity, they are much more likely to accept change.”

Antanas Mockus, ex Mayor, Bogota.

When there was a water shortage, Mockus appeared on TV programs taking a shower and turning off the water as he soaped, asking his fellow citizens to do the same. In just two months people were using 14 percent less water, a savings that increased when people realized how much money they were also saving because of economic incentives approved by Mockus; water use is now 40 percent less than before the shortage.

Mockus writes in his note: When the city faced a critical water shortage, I made a public commitment: There would be no traditional rationing to manage the crisis, no cutting of supply. Instead, we set a goal of voluntary conservation of 12 to 20 percent; ultimately we achieved savings of 8 to 16 percent. To inform people of this policy, we replaced the busy signal on people’s telephones with a public message, either in my voice or that of the Colombian pop star Shakira, saying, “Thank you for saving water.”

This sounds like a familiar territory. We still have Amitabh Bachchan’s voice reminding Indians to wear a mask and to maintain social distancing this year. Now, there are messages that talk about the safety of vaccines.  The governments, both central and state, were quick to inform people about the pandemic. Even before the announcement of the lockdown, Mumbai city had billboards with a message of safety. 

In behavioral economics, you design a nudge to bring change in behaviour of people. Like some of the examples  that are mentioned above and some in the previous article. As a project leader, or a marketing head or the cultural captain of your company, you can design nudges that bring the right behavioural change in the organization or customers. You can create a form where someone has to opt-out instead of opt-in to get more signatures. UK government used this to make people adopt pension funds. They saw an increase in sign up of pension funds when the default setting of the form was opt-in. It was an effort for people to opt-out.  Marketers of most websites use this as a marketing tool. You may have noticed that when you register on a site, it has a tick mark about receiving promotional material, you are given the option to opt out of it. Similarly you can design a change in communication and keep it EAST – easy, attractive, social and timely to make it effective as mentioned in the previous article. 

The thought that I want to leave you with is what do you do when you want to change your own behaviour? The article will continue next week with more examples on behavioral economics and ways to bring those ideas in our own lives. 

Cricket, Gamestop and the new rules of risk decisions

I am a fence sitter.Cricket, Stock Market and guess what Kitchen too. These are the areas where I sit on the fence and pay attention only when a major event unfolds. It doesn’t matter if the house routine begins with the market’s Ringing the Bell or the house comes to a standstill when India is batting. Despite the house being deeply involved and attentive in both cricket and stocks, I choose to sit on the fence. Last few weeks have been full of events in the areas I prefer to stay away from. Kitchen has been under repair, which means I can’t  be completely ignorant as ultimately it is the heart of the house. The great Indian Cricket team has created some magic in Australia that has left some men gasping for breath and some in a coma of disbelief. And the stock market, which is the most obscure one for me, delivered an event that even people who work in domains far away from our earth, in space, had to pause in their flight, comment and participate. I am told Gamestop- Hedge funds- Robinhood- Reddit created history and the saga is now an interview question for recruiting hedge fund managers. 

The repair work in my kitchen where I lost complete control, the historic win of Indian cricket team where I realised I didn’t know names of all the players and the business of shorting stocks, where I am still keeping an eye on the drop in the price of Gamestop has left a mark on me. This mark, I call it, is short on nitty gritties that are ingredients which went into the making of the respective events  but, long on mental models that shape our thinking routine. What I mean by short on nitty gritties is for example I learnt recently about Washington in cricket and about Gamestop in the stock market. I am also short on detailed rules of both cricket and stock markets. That’s not important for me. What I understand in detail is this: The NEW, REAL democracy. 

When I wrote on inversion thinking, a hedge fund manager from the US reached out asking for more recommended reading on risks, fear, leadership. I dedicate today’s article on Habits for Thinking to him. Risk frameworks and models that have been designed earlier do not include one thing anywhere in the world and that is the impact of democratisation. Here are five observations that we need to be mindful of in our lives. Because, rules have changed, a new democracy has taken shape worldwide, and this democratisation is here to stay across all walks of life, including cricket and stock markets. 

By dictionary: Democracy means the right of everyone in an organization, etc. to be treated equally and to vote on matters that affect them. And, democratisation: the action of making something accessible to everyone. 

In today’s habits for thinking, here is a framework of decision making around five aspects of democratization that can have an irreversible impact. One must remember that no one can estimate the power of democratisation  and therefore no one can estimate the size of its impact. It is like a spinning top that can stop within a few seconds of launch or continue for an unexpectedly long time. 

1. Democratisation of knowledge:

Even though I have been a fence sitter, I didn’t need to attend a classroom on how stocks can be shorted in financial markets. Knowledge is accessible at a fingertip. Knowledge is democratised in not just what you can search on the internet but also to access whatever you want to learn irrespective of your age or the college degree you have. For instance, my teenage boy learnt to configure an electrocardiogram machine under guidance of professors from Harvard and IIT through a summer course done by the upcoming Plaksha University. Everyone has access to knowledge in the areas one is interested in, irrespective of the field he is currently pursuing. Doctors, engineers far away from the financial field have access to knowledge about futures and options and other trading rules. And, they exercise this knowledge too. 

Impact: democratisation of knowledge means independence in decision making for individuals and redundancy of middlemen. 

2. Democratisation of Publishing:

“I am a classic concoction of method, skill and madness” 

Spinner Ashwin Ravichandran’s youtube page.

Ashwin has published several videos of team and coaches off the field, behind the game. Most of these are recorded with a fun twist during the mentioned cricket tournament and give a peek into the lives of cricketers.  Now read this excerpt from a Bloomberg article: “Welcome to the cutting-edge and cutthroat world of China’s 18.3 trillion yuan ($2.8 trillion) mutual funds industry, where traditional fund distribution networks like banks are overwhelmed by colorful and noisy livestreamers and globally renowned names such as BlackRock Inc. and Vanguard Group Inc. hold little clout among a young, tech-savvy investor class. ” In the world of trading, there are livestreamers hosting their own voice. Yes, everyone can publish. 

Impact: Democratisation of publishing means anyone with or without a celebrity status has the tools to publish his voice. 

3. Democratisation of influence and leadership:

We must understand the relationship between leadership and influence. Influence is an essential leadership skill and to influence means to impact behaviours, choices and decisions of others. In the absence of team captain, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane stepped in and demonstrated his influence on the team with ease. Rahane was able to lead the team into a high performance attitude. Influence is dependent on trust and if the trust is set in, it becomes easier for the leader to take charge of the right influence. Social media influencers demonstrate that leadership in their followers. Platforms take that leadership position too.. Like, Zerodha uses a powerful tool called Nudge on its trading app to help users with informed decision making. Nithin Kamath, Zerodha founder described Nudge as following in a post: “We’re trying to incorporate nudges to warn users when they’re about to break the basic trading rules.” 

Nudge on Zerodha App

Nudge. Coined by Nobel Laureate Richard Thaler is a behavioral science concept and you can read more about it here in my earlier article

Impact: Democratisation of leadership and influence means more and more people are empowered to influence people in decision making. 

4. Democratisation of power

Democratisation of influence and leadership leads to democratisation of power. Power is not wielded by one single force anymore. It now means a collective force of many small forces. This is what we have seen in the case of Gamestop when Redditors wielded a collective force against large, powerful forces like hedge funds. Something similar happened with the cricket team too where lesser known stars  stepped up as a collective force to demonstrate the power of performance. When collective forces come together, it is far more powerful than one big force. If you put two equal teams at the opposite sides in a tug of war, do you know who will win? The one where all members pull the rope exactly at the same time. This is the collective force and this is how democratization of power pulls down large forces with one coordinated effort. 

Impact: Democratisation of power means platforms that bring people together can create collective forces that can create a massive, unexpected impact. 

5. Democratisation of capital

In a podcast interview, Chamath Palihapitiya, founder of Social Capital, spoke about his Tesla investment made many years ago. He spoke about how a collective group of people created a pool of research work on Tesla. Some wrote research papers, some created youtube videos. Chamath shared that this group came from diverse fields- physicists, chemists, doctors and financial analysts. So by the time Chamath and his team took a decision on investing, they had detailed, multidimensional  information about the company, courtesy this diverse group collectively interested in one company. There are private associations that jointly work on a financial investment decision even though the money spent is personal. This gives every member of the association a multidimensional approach to investment decision making, something similar to what retail investors did collectively to outdo hedge fund capital. Crowd funding in startups and charitable causes is a similar process that is already seeing democratisation of capital. 

Impact: Democratisation of capital means being cognizant of this risk while making investment decisions, notwithstanding the size of the investment. 

This is a new framework to aid decision making. It is based on the behavioural changes that we are seeing due to growth of social platforms. Platforms bind people in communities and manage a democratic world in that domain. Democratisation is here to stay. It goes with my kitchenomics too, where the service providers have decided to place my sugar bowl in a corner difficult to reach. 

Why you must not call yourself an expert?

Q. On an American $100 bill, there is a portrait of which American statesman?

  1.  George Washington
  2.  Benjamin Franklin
  3.  Franklin Roosevelt
  4.  Abraham Lincoln

The answer is 2. You may know the answer but Jamal, the protagonist in the movie, Slumdog Millionaire had to revisit his childhood experience to dig for that answer. Jamal, a poor child, in the film had received a 100$bill as a tip. In the movie, Jamal is sitting in a live quiz studio where he stands chances to earn a million dollars. He has to answer all questions correctly. Uneducated, orphaned, spent childhood as a beggar, it is tough, nearly impossible for Jamal to be equipped with the knowledge. When the question is asked to him, he drifts back to a childhood event where he meets his beggar friend in an underground passage. The friend has been blinded and is singing to earn money through begging. Jamal recognizes him as his earlier camp mate, feels connected and hands him over the dollar note. The blind boy asks Jamal to describe the picture on the note. As Jamal describes, the boy answers Benjamin Franklin. And, back in the studio, in the present, Jamal gets the answer correct on the quiz show. 

Q. The other question that Jamal faces is Cambridge Circus is in which U.K. city?

  1.  Oxford
  2.  Leeds
  3.  Cambridge
  4.  London

Jamal had worked in a call centre and he had learnt about Cambridge Circus there. So it was easy for him to recall confidently. But how does he know the next question: 

Q. Who invented the first commercially-successful revolver?

  1.  Thomas Edison
  2.  Oliver Winchester
  3.  Samuel Colt
  4.  Daniel Wesson

A troubled childhood in slums had made Jamal face tough situations including facing a revolver that his brother had once managed to use to save themselves from goons. That is how he knew about Colt, the name on the revolver. 

That is a world of fiction. Where the slum boy becomes a millionaire by answering questions that he has experienced in his life. We may not win hot seats on quiz game shows and bring in experience to answer questions, but we do dig in to our experiences to sometimes solve problems at our end.  This is called adaptive expertise.  

Adaptive expertise is the ability to apply knowledge effectively to novel problems or atypical cases to find solutions. Adaptive experts are characterised as being capable of drawing on their knowledge to invent new procedures for solving unique or fresh problems, rather than simply applying already mastered procedures.

Hatano and Inagaki (1986) first coined the term “adaptive expertise”. They defined two types of expertise- routine and adaptive expertise. A routine expertise is mastering procedures to become highly efficient and accurate. Adaptive expertise involves the ability to understand a new problem with a new solution and even design new procedures. To explain in a simple way imagine two cooks in a house. One is a young lady who has learnt Japanese cooking and can roll the perfect sushi and second person is her mother who has cooked and served for years. They receive a guest at home and the young chef wonders how to serve food with limited ingredients while the mother calmly mixes up a few things and is able to serve some fusion food. The young lady is a routine expert while the elderly is an adaptive expert. 

Adaptive experts adapt and overcome uncertainty by displaying high levels of performance, while routine experts struggle with novel problems. Both types of expertise comprise the same extent of domain knowledge and the ability to perform flawlessly in familiar situations. However, the difference becomes apparent once confronted with an unfamiliar circumstance: a situation in which the task, method or desired results are not known in advance. Research studies have shown that adaptive experts are aware of the principles behind the process and they invest in learning not just what and how but also the why of a situation. 

In today’s Habits for Thinking, it is important to understand the strengths of being an adaptive expert. Driven by technology adoption by end users and technological advancement in work processes, the business behaviour changes rapidly. The only certainty that exists now is the uncertainty around the world. Last time uncertainty in businesses came from unexpected quarters of pandemic, but other than pandemic, there are several reasons for shaking stability. It becomes imperative to understand that adaptive expertise helps to navigate through uncertainty. 

Jamal, in the movie, had his troubled childhood to refer to while adapting to the circumstances. We have the understanding of knowledge and how to hone the expertise. It comes with practice in the routine. 

According to John D. Bransford, an emeritus professor of education at Washington University, “Adaptive expertise involves habits of mind, attitudes, and ways of thinking and organizing one’s knowledge that are different from routine expertise and that take time to develop.” While routine experts possess strong procedural knowledge, adaptive experts are likewise endowed with a strong conceptual knowledge base, allowing them to utilize their understanding to adapt previous mental models and frameworks to new situations.

Schwartz, Bransford and Sears, researchers, have graphically illustrated these two dimensions of expertise. On the horizontal axis, they plot efficiency of problem solving, and on the vertical axis they plot ability to innovate. In this graph, they identify four important regions: Novice (low efficiency, low innovation), Routine Expert (high efficiency, low innovation), Frustrated or Annoying Novice (low efficiency and high innovation), and Adaptive Expert (high efficiency and high innovation). They suggest that one should aim for a balance between innovation and efficiency. 

Adaptive expertise can be developed and practiced. This year, during pandemic, people including routine experts have been thrown out of their gear. Educators, medical professionals who have been experts in their fields, had to deal with a new way of delivering their duties. The journey of becoming adaptive expertise begins with thinking about thinking – called Metacognition. 

Adaptive expertise is honed through not by training of skills but by training of thinking. Metacognitive, means understanding processes and strategies on how we learn, plays a role in making one adaptive expert. Learning style assessments, self questioning, working in collaboration and thinking aloud are ways of metacognitive learning strategies. 

Jamal won the show in Slumdog Millionaire by demonstrating adaptive expertise. Our guiding principle needs to be:

  1. Think about thinking and our learning style – to be metacognitive is the first step. 
  2. Refer to mental models, develop knowledge in other domains to enhance critical thinking and innovative thinking. – these are ongoing learning steps. For example, learning about inversion thinking and applying it to your decision making is honing adaptive expertise. 
  3. Collaborate with others to listen to thoughts and ideas. Listening makes one reflect on our own thoughts and ideas. 

In the field of medical practice, there is ongoing work of helping doctors turn into adaptive experts, as they have been facing unique cases due to pandemic. The Master Adaptive Learner is a guide for how to train and teach doctors and clinicians to develop adaptive skills. The guide has these phases as steps to follow:

  1. Planning: The learner identifies a knowledge gap without which she would not be able to begin learning solutions.
  2. Learning: The learner must first appraise the resources she found—are they the right solutions to the problem?—then go about digesting the information so it sticks.
  3. Assessing: A combination of self-assessment and external feedback in which the learner determines if her findings would require her to change her practice.
  4. Adjusting: The learner applies any necessary changes to her practice while determining the scope and scale at which they should be implemented.

It is not just about being an expert, it is about being an adaptive expert. So before you call yourself an expert, think are you a routine expert or an adaptive expert? And, remember adaptive expertise is an ongoing process. 

3 must-know growth tenets from the prepaid success

Kaamta Driver. Kaamta New. Kaamta driver 20. Kaamta Jio. Kaamta is my parents’ driver. Last Sunday, he was there at the airport to receive me. Actually, he has been there every time I have gone back home in the last twenty years. New, jio, driver 20 are the names of his phone numbers saved in my contacts. He has a knack of getting a new number every time I feel I have cracked which one works. It is a routine between us, he gives me a new number, then I ask him – ‘aur, pehle wala?’ (and, the earlier one?) and he has an answer on the lines of ‘Hai, abhi bhai le gaya hai’ or ‘abhi discharge hai.’ (It is there but my brother has taken it or it is discharged). So you can’t delete the old number and you save the new one with a new code name hoping you have cracked it. The last one I saved was driver20, in 2020. It didn’t work. It seems nothing related to 2020 works. 

I had to call my mother to get his number for the pick up. Waiting for the pick up at the airport, I decided I am not going to save his latest number. What is the point, eventually I have to dial my mother to reach him. 

Kaamta is not the only one. There are many who change their phone numbers frequently. The reason could be many. But the most common factor is that these are prepaid numbers. So when I heard Nandan Nilekani in conversation with Haresh Chawla on the topic of All things digital, what stood out for me was Nilekani’s comment on prepaid phone strategy. His comment took me to the success story of prepaid, almost like that of sachet marketing in fmcg, when fmcg brands made inroads in rural markets through packaging of products in small, affordable, sachet form. 

Following is what Founding Fuel has published as an excerpt from the talk of Nandan Nilekani: 

The India opportunity in the next decade, where India will go from a “prepaid” economy to a “postpaid” economy. This will drive a huge cycle of consumption and growth, because credit will boost the system. (The prepaid model was built by the mobile companies in pre-Aadhaar times, when they couldn’t identify the user. It enabled them to reach every corner of the country. As people get to digital payments, build credit histories, they will now be ready for credit.)

Nandan Nilekani talked about the state of Indian economy and opportunities. He brought up the example of prepaid mobile reach in the country and talked about prepaid to illustrate democratisation of credit lending as an idea to drive the growth. Prepaid in the mobile segment is 95% of the market share. 95% is a staggering figure for one particular service in its space to rule the market. Imagine a train commute pass where you have two options – one where you get to use the pass for a month with unlimited rides, like in Chennai metro, and the second one like any prepaid mobile service, where you buy travel points and commute and the second one is so lucrative, like the prepaid mobile service, that it takes a bigger chunk of the two offerings. Similarly, if one looks at other services like education, credit lending, mutual fund investments, and the different offerings in the respective bouquet, there is no particular offer that outshines the rest to the same extent as prepaid mobile. Prepaid mobile is not only about the 95% share that it occupies as the share of services, it is also the only unique service that has reached the nook and corner of the country. And, mostly through offline mode initially. It has not only reached, it continues to be the bedrock of growth in the country. 

In Habits for Thinking, we bring focus on mental models. Mental models are how we understand things. It is our reference point, our understanding arranged in chunks in our mind. Mental models are our thinking tools, they help us form a web of frameworks which helps in decision making and problem solving. We learn mentals models from different fields like economy, from science for example read about entropy here, from sports, from business etc. In today’s Habits for Thinking, here is a mental model inspired by the prepaid mobile market, as a consumer strategy framework. The economy is moving towards a gig economy where a steady flow of income is changing to income in batches with some months to be good months and some to be slow-generating-income months. Understanding consumer behaviour behind the success of prepaid mobile adoption, is a lens to the evolution of current and future services. 

In this model, we look at three tenets that made the adoption of pre-paid mobile cards deep and wide.

The Tenet Of Convenience: 

Convenience is complex. It is not just about the convenience of shopping, but convenience is about the ease of decision making. Is the decision making convenient enough for one to make a purchase? What are the factors that impact decision making? First is the price. To make products affordable, FMCG companies introduced sachet as a packaging variant. Prepaid has gone to another level. They made many sizes of sachet available, meaning you can buy a small amount of mobile time too. Availability, the most visible convenience factor, is most talked about in the field of ecommerce. Let me bring your attention to the availability of prepaid cards ten-twelve years ago. PrePaid cards were not launched through e-commerce but the convenience was added through prepaid sale counters in every corner store in small towns and villages. Selling from the neighbourhood store killed two birds in one. The product was made easily available and the sale through a neighborhood store owner made it trustworthy and for some, available on credit too. The trust that a face to face sale generates is sometimes essential in adoption of a category. People know the neighbourhood store guy and are comfortable buying sim cards through him. Affordability of price, easy availability and trust made the decision making easier.  

Convenience of an offering is not  just about affordability and availability, but it is about the ease of decision making for the consumer

The Tenet Of Flexibility: 

You can recharge not just any amount, you can use it for as long as you want. It has no stopper on the calendar like an expiry date. So there is no pressure on your time. This flexibility over time and spend empowers the end user and therefore aids in quick decision making by the end user. Flexibility about time also takes care of the seasonality of spends. During festive seasons, income rises and therefore the power to spend. If we had a health insurance plan that would allow variable amounts to be paid in the bucket as against a fixed amount every month, it would possibly see more adoption of health insurance. In the gig economy, seasonal spending will only grow and so will the need to have flexible programs

The Tenet Of Respectability:  

It doesn’t judge you. It lets you be you. There is no shame in refuelling a Rs. 20 charge. It doesn’t ask why you recharge three times in a week when you could have done once in the week. It does not judge the irregular flow of liquidity. One day one can have Rs100 in cash and the other day just Rs 20. That’s reality. But no one is judging that. 

It often happens during a sales negotiation, that the buyer starts thinking about how the seller is perceiving him. Luxury brands thrive on perception marketing. Many purchase decisions get influenced by what others will think and these ‘other people’ could be friends, colleagues and sometimes even the sales guy. My years of observing consumer behaviour has noticed that a buyer may get conscious of what he is ordering in the restaurant influenced by people around him but he is never conscious of how much or how little he is paying for a prepaid mobile. The credit goes to building a category where there is no perception marketing. 

There is another advantage of prepaid mobile cards’ positioning and price point. It makes everyone equal. The office boy and the office boss both have access to the same. But health insurance is out of bound for the office boy. Not because he cannot afford it, but because the product doesn’t meet the needs of office boy.  

Prepaid cards are levellers, it not only makes everyone equal, it does not judge anyone for his/her irregular flow of liquidity.

As we move into a transactional economy, the convenience of decision making, the flexibility of the offering to suit needs and the respectability of the product will define the growth of any product or service. Nandan Nilekani brought up the fact that the consumer today has access to digital platforms and has aadhar identity card. He is ready to consume, if we are ready to sell like the prepaid mobile businesses. 

A leadership skill I watched in a thief

Have you been woken up around 7.45am by a burglar? It happened to me. I was away with family and friends for our prized winter break in the last week of December. We were sharing a holiday home, nestled in a residential colony and secured by a tall compound wall with only one main entrance to the house. It must have been around 7.45am, I heard someone push open the door with a force. I had secured the door with a latch the night before but it must have been easy for the barrel to slip down with the brute force applied on the door.  The first thought crossed my mind was of my daughter who was in the other room and I jumped out to check that door when I saw this man walking up the stairs to rooms. The holiday home has a couple of rooms on the ground floor and a lovely, wooden staircase going up to the rooms on the first floor.  The man paused in his steps, turned around and gave me a stare and I thought how rude this housekeeping guy was! 

Later, almost an hour after this, we slowly came to realise that the man was a thief, had walked up to the bedroom on the first floor and taken out laptops from one room and then stepped into the other room and took some more gadgets and a laptop bag. In one room one person was sleeping and another one was inside the washroom. In the second room two people were sleeping when their devices were swept off. Work and school from home means we travel with our computer devices. That man had a big haul of gadgets in a matter of a few minutes that morning. The irony is, he not only saw me briefly, he met another guest on the first floor who asked him for a housekeeping errand as she walked out of the house for her morning stroll. This guest had a few seconds of exchanges with the thief. CCTV cameras on the property have recorded him walking in through the main gate, towards the building with rooms, getting inside it, coming out with a water jug following the guest, walking back in, walking out again empty handed may be to check on the guest’s whereabouts and walking back again into the holiday home and eventually coming out with a laptop bag full of gadgets and walking out of the main gate into one of the narrow lanes. There was no vehicle waiting for him. He had come empty handed and walked out with a backpack full of devices. 

My memory said he wore a white shirt which the CCTV confirmed. The other guest’s memory said he was in red trainers, again confirmed through CCTV footage. He wore a mask, as expected during these times. 

I am not narrating this story to bring to your attention that uncertainties are an everyday phenomenon and that uncertainties come in various forms. I am also not going to talk about how we dealt or how one should deal with such events afterwards. 

Every time I think about the incident, it reminds me of this man’s courage. The courage to walk in broad daylight, the courage to continue on his mission after meeting two adults on the way. But courage doesn’t come alone. We don’t know how he would have reacted if the person would have come out from the washroom while he was packing gadgets in the bag. Courage doesn’t mean absence of fear. 

In the first week of 2021, I am bringing your attention to a leadership skill that Nelson Mandela spoke about in 1994. He said,

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

TIME’s former managing editor Richard Stengel outlined the world leader’s eight leadership lessons, starting with, “Courage is not the absence of fear–it’s inspiring others to move beyond it. Stengel wrote- 

In 1994, during the presidential-election campaign, Mandela got on a tiny propeller plane to fly down to the killing fields of Natal and give a speech to his Zulu supporters. I agreed to meet him at the airport, where we would continue our work after his speech. When the plane was 20 minutes from landing, one of its engines failed. Some on the plane began to panic. The only thing that calmed them was looking at Mandela, who quietly read his newspaper as if he were a commuter on his morning train to the office. The airport prepared for an emergency landing, and the pilot managed to land the plane safely. When Mandela and I got in the backseat of his bulletproof BMW that would take us to the rally, he turned to me and said, “Man, I was terrified up there!”

Mandela was often afraid during his time underground, during the Rivonia trial that led to his imprisonment, during his time on Robben Island. “Of course I was afraid!” he would tell me later. It would have been irrational, he suggested, not to be. “I can’t pretend that I’m brave and that I can beat the whole world.” But as a leader, you cannot let people know. “You must put up a front.”

And that’s precisely what he learned to do: pretend and, through the act of appearing fearless, inspire others. It was a pantomime Mandela perfected on Robben Island, where there was much to fear. Prisoners who were with him said watching Mandela walk across the courtyard, upright and proud, was enough to keep them going for days. He knew that he was a model for others, and that gave him the strength to triumph over his own fear.

Often, during business decisions, leaders crumble not because they do not have the courage to take the decision but because they get crippled by the prospect of failure. New project decisions, a new product design, a new market exploration, a new important hire… there are many decisions that the business leader has to make during his tenure. Most decisions require logical thinking and are supported by data but there are some decisions, decisions that have a consequential impact, that require courage to move forward. Sometimes it is not the data, it is the fear of failure that holds the decision from becoming a reality. 

Like intuition, fear is also an integral part of thinking like we face fear of failure, fear of being judged as indecisive etc. Fear is like a package offer with courage, buy courage, get fear free! Sometimes it is in insignificant form but sometimes it takes a larger space.  This fear takes the path to safe decisions instead of bold, courageous decisions. In business decisions, there are multiple paths that vary in degree of boldness and outcome. Some bold decisions have bigger chances of failure. Safe decisions are decisions that do not deliver spectacular outcomes but these also are not the reason for any failure or may fail only with limited damage. Leaders take safe decisions,well, to remain safe. That is why we see less change in culture, lesser innovations because staying in the safe territory requires less or no courage. 

Courage overshadowed by fear for any leader becomes visible to the team. Nelson Mandela was conscious as a leader that his expression of fear will have an impact on his followers. 

It is an important leadership lesson that while courage is an individual’s experience, it is being watched. So is fear. As a leader, it is important to remember the following:

1. Courage is not the absence of fear.

2. Bold decisions have chances of getting overshadowed by fear. If the decision maker is conscious of fear, he can address it logically and not let fear overshadow bold decisions. 

3. Leaders are watched by team members. At times, it is imperative to display courage and keep fear under wraps. 

If the man in the holiday home would have displayed any fear, maybe, one of us would have sensed misdeed. It is ironic that a burglar, in bright morning light, in a house full of people, brought our attention to the fact – ‘courage is not the absence of fear.’ He enacted it. It takes negative circumstances to show us lessons, it takes a pandemic to teach us many values, it takes a thief to remind us that courage and fear co-exist and managing the balance between our courage and fear is the key to our success. 

SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST, err, THE FITTER

Thirty Four is not an age to go but some people must go. No matter if they have to leave behind some friends, family and even a less than 5 year old son. They touch lives and go. This is how a friend went, all of thirty four, last month, when I was writing about entropy, ironically the ultimate entropy is death. And just the day prior to that he had liked my article on risks and decisions. Out of my many pieces of writing, this was the first time he had liked an article, as in clicked on the like button on Facebook. I will never know if he ever read this one or for that matter if he read any of my work, all I know is possibly this was the way of saying bye to me. Or, maybe this was his way of saying to me, ‘finally, you have started sharing your knowledge.’ He had said that to me ten years ago.

It was around 2010, while running my first entrepreneurial venture, when I met this person to strike some business. Working with an agency, he used to manage accounts of large FMCG brands. We did some business together but that’s not important, what is important is that he prodded me to give some corporate training sessions. He felt my thoughts and knowledge could enrich people at workplaces. I gave no importance to his idea ten years ago. His passing reminded me of those conversations and the fact that he had valued and practiced some of these ideas that I write about today. He was a part of my learning ladder. 

People say Twenty Twenty has been a mammoth learning ladder itself. They say we learnt not to just live indoors, we learnt to work indoors, play indoors, learnt to celebrate indoors and learnt to mourn indoors. Like pandemic, there are colossal events we were never warned about. Like a major technological advancement in one business driving out other companies completely out of the business. Or a simple social media post becoming a seed for innovation of a business idea and therefore creating a disruption in that space. 

The entire game of life has circled back to the theory of survival of the fittest. Now, we need not only physical fitness but also mental fitness. It is about looking inward and thinking on how to grow fitter. It is about the fittest, not the fittest amongst us, but a fitter version of our own. We are now competing with our own version. 

Mental fitness is the ability to grow in our thoughts to be able to make choices and decisions based on our own frameworks of work and life. It is about creative thinking, problem solving, decision making and most importantly, helping the mind grow stronger. And, like in physical fitness we dedicate time and attention to shape our fitness, in mental fitness too we need to dedicate time and attention to grow our thinking through a network of mental models. 

Athletes, sports persons are trained to think in a manner that becomes their driver. Training of mind is not unusual, it exists in pockets of performances like training for leadership or training for sports excellence. What is uncommon is commonly thinking about thinking. Here are three pieces from this year’s edition on how to grow fitter”

3 SIMPLE MIND GYM RULES YOU NEED TO KNOW

Excerpt: 

Abhinav Bindra had said:  “If you are competing in an Olympic final with the very best in the world, you ought to be physically drained. It is inevitable. You have already given it your best and that’s when the mind-body synergy comes into play. At one stage the mind goes numb and that’s when the body takes over. The hours of training that an athlete has put into getting to the top then takes centerstage.”

What Bindra is referring to is a kind of mind and body equilibrium seldom achieved in sport. It is a state where the mind can push the body and vice-versa. If one faculty is tired and fatigued, the other takes over and drives the athlete into a kind of robotic state of functioning.

Read article here

NURTURE A GROWTH MINDSET

Excerpt:

A growth mindset, in contrast, believes that intelligence can be developed. It creates a desire to learn and therefore develops a tendency to embrace challenges, persist in the face of setbacks and pick up learnings from their failures. As a result they reach higher levels of achievement.

If you are wondering which type of mindset you have, remember, we all have parts of both types. One type may be predominant in our behaviour and we need to, through our actions and thoughts, nurture more of the growth mindset. 

Read article here

THE MAMMOTH POWER OF DHONI’S ATTENTION

Excerpt:

Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings and actions of another person. It is about going out of your own perspective and stepping into the other person’s view. Being empathetic holds one from being judgemental and it helps in touching a chord.

This mental model of empathy helps us nurture the social nature of our mind. It is a powerful tool for innovation and creative thinking explained both in the course SHIFT and in Design Thinking. 

Read article here


Pandemic is just another reason that has brought in uncertainties. Technology acceleration, climate change, our expansive social network, they all disrupt our present sense of understanding of the space. To create better understanding, to navigate more efficiently and to keep growing and innovating, it is imperative that we have our focus on developing our thinking skills. And focus on the rule-

It is the survival of the fitter, the fitter me.  

The terrific value of inversion thinking

“It’s just a joke, I can delete it.” -Jacob

“That doesn’t mean it goes away.” -Andy

Have you seen Defending Jacob on Apple TV? Jacob is a teenage child who is accused of killing his classmate. Andy is his father and as the title suggests, the eight part series is about Defending Jacob. Jacob, like any other teenager, has made social media posts that direct the court’s discussions towards him being the culprit.  

Andy, when he discovers the mistake, confronts Jacob on his post to which Jacob replies that he can delete the post. Teenagers may not understand that deleting or undoing doesn’t mean that the damage caused by that act can be undone too.

Not just teenagers, even adults are not trained to look for negative space or invert their thinking. In this week’s edition, the last edition* for Twenty Twenty, I want to bring your attention to something which we do not see easily, which is thinking in inversion mode, thinking upside down. Andy can see that for his son, he can see the impact of those posts in courtroom discussions. 

Inversion or turning upside down is explained nicely in creative designs. Before I take you to Inversion Thinking, let us see what negative space means through visuals in design. 

Artists, photographers, painters, web designers understand the concept of negative space in their designs and in their creative work. Negative space, when given attention, makes the design unique. By definition, negative space in a design or in a photograph is the space around and behind the object. This is the empty or the blank space in the art form, be it in a painting, a photograph, a logo design or a page on the mobile app. The area is designed in the manner that the object stands out. Imagine a web page with a lot of images and text and no empty space in it? The page loses your attention. 

The negative space gives a form, a perspective, a proportion or placement to the object in the frame. The negative space exists only in relation to the positive space. There is nothing in design called a negative space in the absence of the positive space. It is like the Yin and Yang- without one, the other doesn’t matter. 

The negative space can actually be a designer’s strategy. An artist can focus on the negative space as the composition strategy and use the space to make the work stand out distinctively. Usage of negative space or the prominence given to it creates unique work as seen in some real life examples here:

Negative Space In Logos 

Fedex: The white arrow between the E and the X, once seen is never forgotten. The logo has won ample design awards and is constantly featured in ‘best logos’ lists. The logo was originally designed by Lindon Leader in 1994. 

Formula 1: This clever negative space logo, with a number 1 in white space, designed by Carter Wong studio, served Formula 1 well – it was in use

Negative Space In Book Covers

Testament: Noma Bar is well-known for his negative space imagery, and the cover he created for Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments is no exception. Look closely at the hooded figure’s robe, for example, and you’ll see another figure hiding

Negative Space In photographs 

  • Still waiting by Nathan Kendall 
  • New York City by Steve Kelley

Attention to the negative space is a necessity in design. Ill defined negative space leads to clutter and overload of information. As Aarron Walter author, Designing for Emotion, says, “if everything yells for your viewer’s attention, nothing is heard”.

Our thinking is like that. Sometimes, when there is too much clutter, there is no clear thinking. Like in designing, we need to value the negative space, similarly we need to pay attention to negative space in thoughts as well. It is called Inversion Thinking. And, like negative space can be a designer’s strategy, Inversion thinking can be used as a thinking model at times. 

I read about Inversion Thinking in an interview with Charlie Munger, Berkshire Hathaway Partner. He had said:

“Invert, always invert: Turn a situation or problem upside down. Look at it backward. What happens if all our plans go wrong? Where don’t we want to go, and how do you get there? Instead of looking for success, make a list of how to fail instead. Tell me where I’m going to die, that is, so I don’t go there.”

–  Charlie Munger

Tell me where I am going to die, that is, so I don’t go there. The maxim forInversion thinking. Apparently Charlie Munger picked up Inversion Thinking from German mathematician’s Carl Jacobi. Jacobi had expressed that hard problems can be solved by inverting them. His thought was, ‘Invert, always invert.’

Inversion Thinking is NOT setting up a goal and thinking backwards on how to achieve the goal. 

Inversion thinking is different. In Inversion Thinking you actually turn the situation upside down and completely reverse the equation. Like in forward thinking you think about how will you succeed, in Inversion thinking you think how will you fail. It is similar to the negative space in any design.  Inversion Thinking is when you actually use the negative space as the design focus, reverse the focus from what you want to attain to what you do not want to attain. 

In a crude way, if I have to ask you, How will one ensure getting infected with Covid? The answer would be by not wearing any mask, by mixing in a large, unknown crowd, by not following isolation rules etc. Somehow, this question has more power to nudge people who avoid masks than making a simple request to wear the mask. Asking this question is inverting the problem.  

By inverting the problem, you outline the results you do not want. This helps you plan your process to avoid those unwanted results. 

How and When to practice Inversion Thinking:

While Charlie Munger practiced and talked about Inversion Thinking in his investing decisions, in my view Inversion Thinking can be brought about while facing a dilemma. In situations of complex problems, or uncertain situations one can invert the problem and start from the end instead of starting from the beginning. 

Tip 1:  saying ‘No’ is one step towards Inversion Thinking. 

Sometimes, we do things we do not want to do and we regret later. Taking too many things on the plate is an example of creating clutter, whether in work life or personal life. Just a no, a simple decline to another work or another social gathering helps in removing the clutter. A NO is similar to the negative space in a design. It always exists with a yes like the positive space always exists with the negative space. We just have to learn to focus on that. 

Tip 2: Many times avoiding stupidity is a better option than trying to be smart and brilliant. 

“It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.”— Charlie Munger

Inversion Thinking helps one avoid being stupid. Like, in Defending Jacob, if asked what series of actions will lead to Jacob’s conviction? The answers could be media reports, what his friends said, his past behaviour, his social media behaviour etc. Therefore, his father is worried about the social media post. Jacob only wanted to look smart and made a funny post. Being stupid and keeping quiet would have been a wise step. 

Inversion Thinking also has the ability to make you hold two opposite point of views in your mind. These opposing views firm up your decision in the best direction. For example, if you invest in a company you are in love with, you should practice inverting your decision. How will the business, say a biscuit company, will have the lowest market share? By not focussing on distribution, by not marketing the products and by not having a sales team. If you can evaluate your investment decisions based on these parameters, you would have just practiced Inversion thinking. 

Inversion Thinking is an asset. All that we need to remember is “Tell me where am I going to die, so I will not go there.”


  1. *The next week’s edition will be a review edition, not a new column
  2. ** The cover design has Apple logo, an example of the negative space usage – this was a tribute made by Team Apple on Steve Job’s death. 

The magic of creative confidence

Eighteen minutes. That is all that you get to put across your story. Your life story may be thirty years long or fifty years long, you still get only eighteen minutes as an outer limit to present your story to a room full of people seated in ambient darkness anticipating to get enlightened though your TED talk. 

So when you get eighteen minutes to speak, you don’t tell them what you did when you were five or when you were fifteen, you tell them one slice of that life. Actually, it is not even a slice – it is a sliver of the slice. ‘In fact, some of our greatest TED Talks have been as short as 5 minutes long!’ Says TED Talks website. 

If you were to talk on a TED platform, what would you present? I asked this question to a group of friends last week. An accomplished circle, their bags full of stories but when it comes to sharing one, most had a common answer and that was – ‘Not my cup of tea, I am not so creative.’ The buck stops there. Not creative enough. 

This December, as you await new beginnings, give yourself a promise- a promise to nurture your own creative confidence. This December, as we spread light around us, let us rekindle the light of creativity within.

Creativity is a mindset, not just how we draw or paint or have an eye for art direction. It is how we think and create new ideas and how we find solutions to challenges are also results of creative thinking. What stops us from being creative is not how we have skilled ourselves over the years, but it is how we speak about oneself. Our language becomes the roadblock towards our creative thinking. When we say ‘not creative enough,’ we close all the windows and doors of our mind. 

Creativity, like playing, is equally available to all as a child. You play more and more and maybe  you will grow up as a sports personality. You paint more and more and maybe you will grow up as an artist. Everybody is born with a creative and playful mind. Creativity is not just about painting or being an artist, it is about thinking. Creative thinking gives birth to ideas. And ideas are necessary not only for business, but also important for day to day living. 

While a TED talk is a decent benchmark to introspect for your own creative story, ironically, the most watched TED talk is about how creativity gets killed by education.  

Researchers have defined the construct of creativity as the ability to innovate and move beyond what is already known. This involves the ability to consider things from an uncommon perspective, transcend the old order and explore loosely associated ideas. Creativity can also be defined as the ability to generate a solution to ill-defined problems.

The creative tag is not only useful at workplaces but is also needed in day to day life like as simple as hosting a party or raising a fund for your charity. The creative tag is not to show it to anybody, the creative tag is to nurture our own confidence. The ability to build and hone a creative mindset is not a standalone skill but is the ability to apply several inputs to the way we think and act. Like the ability to be a good leader who is a great collaborator and an empathetic listener, is actually an act of sharpening the creative skills. 

In today’s Habits for Thinking note, we bring the attention to nurturing our own creative confidence. To believe and nurture our creative mindset, it is important to build abilities around certain areas mentioned here: 

  1. The ability to keep a beginners mindset:

“Design thinking uses creative activities to foster collaboration and solve problems in human-centered ways. We adopt a “beginner’s mind,” with the intent to remain open and curious, to assume nothing, and to see ambiguity as an opportunity,” says IDEO founder David Kelley. He emphasises that “creative confidence is the belief that everyone is creative, and that creativity isn’t the ability to draw or compose or sculpt, but a way of understanding the world.”

The ability to take yourself on the path of nurturing your creative confidence is the first step. It is to be determined to make it happen. To nurture the creative confidence one has to believe that we are all born playful and creative and over the years our creativity has been underutilised and now we need to consciously make an effort to hone our creative mindsets. 

  1. The ability to collaborate:

Creativity fosters in an environment. It can flow more easily when you have people to bounce off ideas with. One can collaborate to just hear ideas too. A collaboration can begin by just being a silent fly on the wall in a room of creative people.

  1. The ability to empower:

In a room full of people of different age groups and experiences, a good idea can come from anywhere, only if the team is empowered to share ideas fearlessly. The ability to empower others is the ability to listen to other ideas. The ability to listen seeds your own creative thoughts. 

  1. The ability to get rejected:

A new project needed a name. The team was asked. Out of 12-14 people on the group chat, only two suggested a few names. The fear of your idea getting rejected is the bottleneck in creative thinking. The ability to get rejected is actually a skill. There is no ego here. One must learn that an idea getting rejected doesn’t necessarily mean that the personality is getting rejected, but it is the line of thought. 

But failure is a big word. Before failure, at a granular level, comes the acceptance of being judged and being rejected. In a creative process, one starts from a large pool of ideas. Sometimes a rejected idea strengthens the idea that finally got accepted. That is also important. 

  1. The ability to ask questions and reframe problems: 

Sometimes simply asking a ‘why’ gives us an opportunity to look into the details of the matter. Sometimes reframing a problem and asking it from a different perspective gets us to find a solution. Creative confidence sharpens with the ability to ask questions. Here is more on how to ask the right questions.  

  1. The ability to work in ambiguous situations: 

Not every solution that you come up with shows up a clear path and that is an ability that a creative mindset is willing to work within. To tolerate ambiguity is an ability that is needed to nurture and build creative confidence. 

Keep a beginner’s mindset, collaborate, empower, handle rejections, ask right questions, learn to navigate ambiguity are all work processes that sharpen a creative mindset.  

Here is an excerpt from the book, ‘Creative Confidence’ by Tom Kelly and David Kelley about Steve Jobs: 

Steve Jobs had a deep sense of creative confidence. He believed that you can achieve  audacious goals if you have the courage and perseverance to pursue them. He was famous for his exhortation to “make a dent in the universe,” which he expressed this way in an 1994 interview: 

“The minute that you understand that you can poke life and actually something will… pop out the other side, that you can change it, you can mold it, that may be the most important thing… once you learn that, you will never be the same again. 

He urged, “think differently.”

There is truly magic in nurturing our own creative confidence.