Creativity in Solving Complex Problems

The other day, at the end of my seminar on “Solving Complex Engineering Problems” a delegate asked me as to whether the entire process of solving complex problems can be automated in some way by means of a software instead of relying on human creativity.

Such a response wasn’t unexpected. In the corporate world the word “creativity” is often looked at with suspicion. They would rather prefer structured and standard approaches like “brainstorming” at 10.00 am sharp or team work or collaborative effort, which in my opinion do little to help anyone solve complex problems or even address complex problems correctly.

That might be the single most important reason why “complex problems” remain unresolved for years affecting profitability and long term sustenance of an organization. Failing to resolve complex problems for years often earns such problems the sobriquet of “wicked problems”, which means that such problems are too tough for “any expert” to come to grips with.

What they sadly miss out is the role of creativity in solving complex problems, which no automation or technology can ever replicate. They miss this because most organizations systemically smother or mercilessly boot out any remnant of creativity in their people since they think that it is always easier to control and manage a regimented workforce devoid of even elementary traces of creativity.

So, is managing creativity and creative people a messy affair? On the surface it seems so. This is simply because we generally have a vague idea of what drives, inspires and really sustains creativity?

Creativity is not about wearing hair long or wearing weird clothes, singing strange tunes, coming to office late and being rude to bosses for no apparent reasons. These things hardly make anyone creative or help anyone become a more creative person.

Actually, things like “being attentive and aware”, “sensitive”, “passionate”, “concerned”, “committed” and above all “inventive” just might be the necessary ingredients to drive, inspire and sustain creativity.


Though there are many ways of describing and defining creativity what I like best is – “creativity is the expression of one’s understanding and expression of oneself” – deeper the understanding better the expression of creativity.

When we look at creativity in this manner it is obvious that we are all creative though the expression and its fidelity might vary to a great extent. Clearly, some are simply better than others.

Further, if creativity may be thought about as a process, then the inputs and the clarity of understanding of ourselves are more valuable elements of the system than the outputs that the process anyway consistently churns out (remember the uncountable hours we spent in organization meeting, discussing and brainstorming to solve complex problems).

In these days of economic depressions, organizations can really do themselves a huge favor if only they pay more attention to facilitating such inputs to people rather than get overtly worried about control and management by conformity.


The Bird Bath And The Restaurant

As a student of Class III, my attention was more than riveted to a picture of a bird bath in my science book. I imagined: only if I could make one like that I would attract different birds to my bird bath. I would not only delight myself viewing a variety of birds but also help them in a way by offering them food to merrily feed on.  During the mild winters of Kolkata, migratory birds flock to the city from distant lands making it a very colorful event. Only an insensitive person would care not to notice and enjoy such an event in the city.

So, I designed a simple bird bath made out of a discarded pan lying in my mother’s store. I fixed a sturdy base plate and filled it up with water. Then I planted some grass and kept in our courtyard. That evening I came back from school with great expectant excitement to see birds flocking to my ‘bird bath.’ Unfortunately, when I saw none, my heart sank.

Thinking that I haven’t quite rightly placed the bird bath; I placed the bird bath on the top of a water reservoir at the back yard of our house. But still no bird arrived. This time, however, I thought of enticing them by placing some grains on the base of the bath, for them to feed on. Rushing back from school, I ran to the backyard only to find that my bird bath wasn’t visited at all by any of my feathered friends. The food was left untouched.

Though disappointed, I did not give up. Thinking that my beautiful bird bath wasn’t quite visible to attract birds, I painted it with some bright yellow color from my paint box. Still no birds arrived.

Then I again re-located the bird bath. This time, I placed it on a wall that hedged our courtyard from that of our neighbors. Lo and behold! birds flocked the place and happily twitted and chirped as they plunged in my bird bath; picking on the grains. It was a loud flock and a grand delightful sight to sink in.

But fair to say, I did not have an inkling of why birds chose to visit that place in preference to other places I tried out, which I thought were safer places for them to play and rest for a while.

Yesterday, I visited a small restaurant in our locality. The owner, Ganesh, was a chef of a more well know chain of restaurants in the city. He was known to me since I often visited his place along with my friends for an occasional cup of coffee with delicious peppered mushroom and baby corn salad and sandwiches. He was an excellent chef and turned out terrific dishes to relish. But what I liked about him most was his insatiable desire to take feedback about his dishes once I have had a few nibbles. He would then stand by to explain how he made this sauce or that and what went into making the ‘garlic fish’ which is one of my favorites. One day, we just came across each other in the local fish market where after exchanging usual pleasantries he informed me that he has had opened a small ‘take out’ or ‘sit in’ shop in a corner of our locality. Before saying goodbye, Ganesh  politely asked me to drop in some time.

As I savored the Chinese meal he dished out and enjoyed the company of a special friend who accompanied me, I noticed a glitzy eating joint, promising the most mouth-watering gourmet dishes,  right across the busy road; just opposite to Ganesh’s small makeshift one.  The shop was very well designed. Through its wide clear glasses I could feel the lights were just right for any romantic date and the place proudly flaunted a cosy ambience.  However, for the two hours of the rather lazy afternoon I spent at Ganesh’s, I just did not see any customer step in the well designed shop; while all along, customers just kept pouring in Ganesh’s improvised family run shop; keeping it animated.

That reminded me of the story of my bird bath.

Even with the most well-intentioned designs, we are never quite sure whether birds or humans would drop by – or whether a desired exchange would take place or not.

We are never quite sure.

Would Microsoft be better off with the new CEO?

Nadella is the now the new CEO of Microsoft. He replaces Ballmer who would be on the board of Microsoft with around 4% of its shares. Gates would now play a more active role in Microsoft by giving one third of his time. From 2008 Gates wasn’t involved in the day to day operation of the company. But now he would be involved. So Microsoft has one new CEO and two former CEOs on the board. This effectively means that the new CEO Nadella, would not only manage the company but also manage two of his former bosses.

The question is whether Microsoft would be better off with this structure?

What might be the Nemetic point of view?

To understand this let us assume for the moment that five top executives would now report to Nadella. Few weeks back the same executives were reporting to Ballmer.

Let us assume Ballmer and his subordinates were connected by strings/springs having equal stiffness of say, k (spring constant).

Now with the new CEO coming in, the same executives would be connected to both the new CEO and the previous CEO.

Let us further assume that the loyalty of the executives to both Nadella and Ballmer would be divided equally.

This means that the springs that connected Ballmer to the executives would have to be cut into two halves to form two springs. One half would be connected to Ballmer while the other half would be connected to Nadella.

So, the new spring constant for each half would now be equal to 2K.

This means the stiffness of the organization would quadruple .

This also means that the resonant frequency of the organization would increase by a factor of 2 times. So it would be now be more difficult for the organization to come into resonance or vibrate with the least effort.

With the new structural arrangements it also means that the force required to move the organization to resonance would simply increase by two times. It simply means that more effort would be needed to move things around the organization. Seen another way it informs us that the organization would lose its agility to stay relevant in a fast changing market place.

On the whole, Microsoft would tend to become more rigid. It would take more effort to make things happen within the organization. Effectively the organization would compromise on agility and resilience.

Therefore, from the Nemetic analysis, the new management structural design is not a good one and might not help Microsoft to be better off, both in the short and long term.

However, only time would tell whether the analysis is correct or not. Possibly in the next six months trends would be clear.

Contradiction and Nemetic View of Leadership

This is a video conversation between John Hagel III and John Seely Brown talking about negotiating fast paced changes in today’s world that does not even blink to throw surprises at us on a daily basis. They suggest that we look at underlying structures, sense changes and respond as best as we may. Great advice.

However, the Nemetic perspective about this phenomenon is similar yet different.

In Nemetics, the ‘ripples’ are events both helpful and unhelpful, that happen spontaneously. Such events are called R waves. Leaders need not focus much on such events to fix them but it is necessary to take note of those since R waves are just symptoms of deeper truths waiting to be uncovered.

The underlying structure that creates such ripples of the R wave is the G wave that denotes ‘behavior’. Leaders also need not focus too attentively on the G wave but take note of that too. This is because it is the best place to capture ‘signals’ to detect incipient traces of R wave events taking birth.

And the underlying theme that modulates G wave is the B wave, which stands for things like intention, management consciousness and public consciousness manifested as design, policies, rules, guidelines, etc. It is the source of all the energy that flows through any system causing it to evolve over time within authentic and/or inauthentic constraints. So, it is the B wave that calls for intense leadership focus. It is here that dramatic and long lasting changes can be brought about through minimal and effortless design interventions.

RGB is the Nemetic view of leadership to negotiate complexity.

Future of Manufacturing

“Industrial production contracted for the second consecutive month, falling 2.1% in November, as manufacturing activity slumped, raising concerns of a prolonged slowdown. …

While mining and electricity managed to stay in positive territory a 3.5% decline in manufacturing output meant that the overall index of  industrial production stayed in the red….

What will come as a bigger worry is that compared to October 2013, production across factories and power utilities was lower in November, resulting in a month-on-month decline in IIP. …

This reinforces the belief that fall in manufacturing growth has not yet bottomed out. Urgent and fresh thoughts are required to boost manufacturing, without which the jobs potential here will remain depressed — FICCI president Sidharth Birla said in a statement….”

Times of India, Kolkata edition, Saturday, January 11, 2014

However, as I see it, manufacturing in India and possibly in other countries too, would never be the same. No longer it would be about growth. No longer it would be about scaling up and mass scale automation. No longer it would be about maximizing production. It is quite clear that the earlier ways, models and management would no longer work well.

I guess it would be about:

– flexibility of meeting varying demands

– anticipation of demands to tune logistics and delivery

– simulation to frame strategies

– resilience to meet unpredictable circumstances with courage and fortitude

– innovation in every sphere of work extending to ‘daily management’.

– IT support to handle complexity

– higher discernment of management with regards to policies, rules and engaging people

– higher wages for workers

– easier but nuanced jobs that may only be done by people who are able to feel and ‘see’ their way through complex work.

Daily Management

The idea of Daily Management runs deep in any organization.

Most top managers believe that some amount of routine work must be performed to keep the organization running. At times, the attitude is ‘more the better’. And everyone must be loaded with some routine jobs to be done on a daily basis.

The belief is so strong that ‘Daily Management’ is institutionalized in forms of check sheets, various forms, ledgers, routines, repeated tasks, regular audits, etc.

Most managers take this way of working as equivalent of implementing a desired ‘system’.

Over time, such routines become so fossilized that bringing in desired changes appropriate to changed circumstances becomes difficult.

What is missed out is the essence of ‘Daily Management’.

Daily Management is not only about doing some prescribed tasks on a regular basis but also improving upon those every day.

And Daily Management must only be focused on core activities that produced desired long-term results that help build sustainability and resilience in an organization.

In this way change management, which most argue is extremely difficult to start and carry out, is easily embedded in the organizational culture enabling an organization to be sustainable and resilient.

General Principles and Methods of Rapidinnovation

The following forms part of the course notes for the workshop on Rapidinnovation I would conduct on 26th April 2013 at Indian Chamber of Commerce, Kolkata.

 General Principles and Methods of Rapidinnovation:

A) Management Perspectives:

1. Follow your aspirations but check the facts (failures are all around) and re-purpose if need be.

2. Aspiration shapes strategy; Strategy provides vision; Failures stop us from arriving at vision; Improvisation/innovations to eliminate failures pave the way to arrive at the vision.

3. Take failures of any system as the starting point of learning and leadership. Learn to face failures and fears through improvisation and innovation to balance both efficiency and effectiveness.

4. Through inventions, innovations and improvisations we can release the untapped potential of any organization for higher Productivity, Performance and Profitability simply free of cost giving on-going benefits.

B) Read on-going organizational stories:

5. What is going on?

6. What does it mean?

7. What might we do about it?

C) The nature of failures: Catching the snake

8. All failures in organizations are stories of tiredness & unhappiness of the human spirit. However, no management would like to fail. The Loss to the society is irredeemable. What might we do about it?


9. Whatever is visible would fail; whatever is invisible drives all failures.

10. Whatever fails is never the cause or culprit of the failure.

11. All failures are stories of interdependence.

12. Problems only appear when the necessary conditions to solve or resolve them are present.

13. The solution/resolution of any problem lies in the ‘motion’ of the problem itself.

D) The underlying process: PLS3D Awareness

14. Pay attention to a failure or problem or issue, called a point (Point)

15. Connect other points (Line)

16. Connect the lines to form surfaces (Surface)

17. Create a 3 Dimensional view of the failures and problems (3D)

18. Transcend the 3D view (Beyond)

E) What we might do:

19. Achieve balance of forces and fields through re-design

20. Balance contradictions

21. Eliminate imperfections within the interactions

22. Change quantity to improve or change quality

23. Allow ‘negation of negation’ to its natural conclusions.

24. Optimize time between negations.

25. Recreate a new story by changing the stories that cause failures.

F) Learning:

26. Learning is a personal responsibility. It is about personal mastery.

27. Collaboratively learn through self-study, observations, thoughts of others, interactions with peers and mentors and feedback from your own work since learning, understanding and gaining insights might not possibly happen in one stroke.

28. To learn continuously and deeply stop learning; do, think, reflect, experience deeply, bring your unique perspective into anything; be the discipline; arrive at wisdom

29. Use the stories of all failures in an organization to develop training and education within the organization.

30. Luckily, all of that happen in a blink through perseverance and patience, aided by the power of emergent complexity of our 800 MB human genome in a self-organizing way that can beat the best super computer of the world.

G) Measurement Criteria:

31. Productivity, Performance and Profitability (Effectiveness)

32. Reliability, Availability and Maintainability (Efficiency)

33. Health, Happiness, Creativity (Human Spirit)

Chance favors the connected mind!

The art of ‘noticing’ or ‘paying attention’ or ‘observation’ is the starting point for our Nemtical studies, Design Kata and Rapidinnovation.

Right observation is the basis of strategy formulation, innovation, decision making and possibly everything we do as humans. Much depends on our choice and power of discrimination of what to notice and what not to notice.

The following article brilliantly exposes the ‘Art of Observation’ in a very nuanced manner.

Indeed ‘Chance favors the connected mind’.


P&G’s Case in India: Aligning Strategy with Innovative Management

Aspiration driven consumption is unfolding with gusto in the rural markets of India.

For instance, take baby diapers. Today, rural sales of baby diapers are in excess of Rs 200 crores. Over the last two years, rural category sales have grown by over 150%, with rural diaper sales accounting for 15% of total value sales of diapers, which is Rs 1300 crores.

A key reason that could be driving such “aspiration driven consumption” is the lowest price of Rs 10/- offered by Procter and Gamble India.

Pampers (P&G’s diaper) has the greatest share of the baby diaper market across India and has also been growing value share consistently. It is a clear sign that rural consumers are choosing to buy branded diapers for their babies”, said a P&G spokesperson.

On the other hand, sale of rural sanitary napkins grew by 74% over the last three years, with sales now at Rs 366 crores.

In this case too P&G’s ‘Whisper’, which is the market leader across India, including rural markets, has also been made available at the lowest priced SKU of Rs 25 for a pack of 8s, which turns out to be Rs 3/- per unit.

(source of all figures & quotes: The Times of India, Kolkata, Friday, March 29, 2013)

The important thing to notice here is the deep relationship between company’s strategy, product design, manufacturing practices and marketing. They are all in sync. Else market leadership isn’t possible.

It does not come as a big surprise when we understand strategy formulation process of P&G.

In the book Playing To Win the former Chairman and CEO of P&G, A. G. Lafley describes the strategy formulation process as answering five important questions, which are the following:

1. What is our aspiration?

2. Where do want to play?

3. How do we play to win?

4. What resources we must have?

5. What management systems must be in place?

Answering these questions did three things for P&G in India:

1. The company matched their aspiration to the aspiration of their consumers.

2. The different management functions that generally run in silos were aligned and were in sync.

3. Helped them to be a market leader in a very short time.

It possibly serves as a clear case where strategy and innovation work together.

While strategy provides the direction and the energy of a vision, innovative management paves the way for achieving the aspirations of both producer and their consumers. And these must be in sync with the aspiration of their customers. Else efforts meet with inauthentic constraints to make operation meaningless.

What do you think about it? Do you think this should be the way to go in such tough economic times?

Other references:

1. Happiest People Pursue the most Difficult Problems:

2. Playing to Win: A.G. Lafley, Roger L. Martin, Havard Business Review Press, 2013

Innovate Your Own Cure!

Few days back my friend Dan R.D (@ddrrnt is his twitter handle) and I were having an interesting dialog over Google hangout.

Dan is busy researching on many management issues like strategy, innovation, leadership, ethics and simulation games on leadership and management.

Our dialogue was more focused on innovation with a special emphasis on Rapidinnovation as I practice it.

Our dialog went somewhat like this:

Dan: Do you see manufacturing companies take up innovation as their first choice?

Me: No. In fact it is usually the last choice.

Dan: And why is that?

Me: This is because companies first try out tried, tested and proven methods to achieve their aspiration. In that process they do achieve quite a bit. The focus is generally on operational efficiency and cut costs. When they don’t achieve what they set out for then only they take up innovation to achieve their goal. They generally take up innovation when they find their ‘magic bullets’ not providing them the needed relief or results.

Dan: Why do you think innovation is needed in an organization?

Me: Two things. First, while strategy gives direction to an organization innovation drives it. Strategy and innovation go together. Second, all organisations are unique in their own individual ways. This is because design of all organizations differ. These small differences create the uniqueness for each company. Hence there seems to be no common magic formula or bullets to bite. Each organization has its own story and those stories can only be improved by people within the organization through their innovative efforts.

Dan: What does Rapidinnovation stand for? Do you mean to say innovations are done quickly.

Me: Rapidinnovation is an acronym, which stands for Reliability, Availability and Performance Improvement through Design Innovation.

I agree with you that innovations are also be done quickly and effectively. If you see it that way you may call it RAPID.

Dan: Say more.

Me: People are generally afraid of innovation. And rightfully so. This is because there is always a risk involved in innovation. So there must be a decision making criteria to achieve a balance between risks and rewards. Rewards must be very clear in their minds, especially in the minds of the management. These are in terms of improved reliability, availability and performance – something that help them earn more by doing something better with lesser effort and earning more revenue in the bargain rather than only focus on producing things cheaply by cutting costs. Also innovation should be such so as to reduce risks to the minimum while maximizing the benefits.

Dan: How is that achieved?

Me: This is achieved through design innovation which is a type of minimal intervention that maximizes return on the assets.

Dan: What is the central idea in design innovation?

Me: Anything that we find in a manufacturing organization or for that matter in any organization is a result of design. It might be machines, their layout, their maintenance systems, product design, management systems, strategy and organizational design. So we find design everywhere. However, these are designed separately and also managed separately. But then these are also made to work together. This is precisely where the problem arises. When all these systems work together they intensely interact with each other. Small imperfections within these interactions produce failures, problems or issues that prevent any organization from achieving what they want to achieve.

[Additional notes – interactions within an organization is like different elements communicating to each other like people to produce an overall symphony. If there are imperfections within such communication links the symphony either turns into noise or stops. Design innovation aims to eliminate those imperfections to correct and regain the energy flow of the symphony]

The job in Rapidinnovation is to find or identify these hidden imperfections and then eliminate them through innovation thereby releasing the trapped or clogged energy within the organization to flow again smoothly and more productively. Thereby you achieve more with less. However, such innovations must be minimally invasive so that it not only uses the least amount of effort, resources and time to execute but also minimizes risk to the minimum possible extent. It must however ensure long term benefits to the company in terms of ROA (return on assets). Else innovations are meaningless.

Dan: How do we find out these imperfections?

Me: Start from failures an organization experiences. Start anywhere and soon one gets to see the whole symphony.

Dan: What makes it difficult?

Me: Labeling and placing things in silos. It is usual for us to label things. It is useful but not when trying to solve a problem. The issue becomes more acute when we attempt to solve complex problems for which answers are neither obvious or clear. So for example when we see a quality problem we instantly label it as a quality problem. Or for instance we observe a problem in customer experience we quickly label it as say a HR issue. Then we appoint appropriate persons to look at the issues. What is missed in the process is the links and interactions. The quality problem might well be an issue connected to machines and their performance and the customer experience issue might well be connected to manufacturing issues. So labeling and silo approach make things difficult.

Dan: What is the process you generally adopt?

Me: It is mainly through dialogues with people. They tell about their pains, shortcomings, challenges, problems and you soon get to see the patterns within those stories and narratives. You then help them see or notice the underlying patterns that are affecting them and off they go on their own creating their own cures. Seeing the affected patterns is the important thing. Once seen the rest follows. However, there is one problem. If you don’t get to see the pattern in a blink you possibly miss the pattern for a long time. Whatever it might be — at the end of the day, there is really no magic formula to apply. People must innovate their own cure to get rid of organizational diseases and keep them at bay.

With this the dialogue ended.

Later Dan beautifully summarized the outcome of our dialogue in the following paragraph:

“The inclusive and participation-driven approach in which his inquiries spark the needed interactions which then trigger change in organisations is awesome, to say the least.  What I found most appealing, is that we’re not offering magic formulas or proven solutions, but helping people come up with their own solutions.  We’re nurturing the emergence of patterns which can then be woven into a shared narrative, a shared strategy, a shared objective.  The harmonizing effects reduce imperfections and increase flow, so that exchanges carry more value and are RAPID with increased potential for innovation. “