Learning Quickly & Adapting Rapidly – A Simple View

If I were to make a very simplified understanding of our brain it would be this:

Our brain has three parts, which are: –

1. The Rear Brain

2. The Mid Brain

3. The Frontal Brain

The Rear Brain

The rear part of the brain is an alarm, which sets off as soon as it senses danger that can threaten survival and life. It works on the principle of ‘fear’ (the modern term is stress) that propels us to either fight or run away. When faced with anything new this part of the brain triggers first. Though for city dwellers, tigers and snakes are mostly not around to scare us to death, this ancient part of our brain sets off alarms by sensing anything which is unusual, uncommon, seemingly big for us to handle, new or doesn’t fit our regular routine or schedule. But isn’t learning all about embracing something new? So we have a big problem to learn quickly and adapt rapidly to changing situations.

The Mid Brain

This part of the brain stores all our sensations and experiences as images including the lessons we learn. It is the memory section. It throws up information as and when we need those. So when faced with something new this part of the brain searches for something similar and prompts us to take note of what is already stored there for us to act. At times, it conjures up new images by combining existing images some of which can be illusory or false, which may create stress or delusion. Under stress, it communicates to the rear brain triggering fight or flight response. When deluded it induces us take actions without thinking of undesirable consequences. Now, these become big problems to learn anything new or different when faced with familiar objects or situations making it difficult for us to pick out something new or different from seemingly familiar patterns. The mid brain would say, “You know that. There is nothing new in the world.” This is because mid brain would force us recognize existing patterns only, which usually prompts routine or scripted behavior as a response. This then poses as a big impediment to learn quickly and adapt rapidly to changing situations.

The Frontal Brain

This is the new part of the brain that is responsible for learning from any situation and under any condition enabling us to create new solutions and new actions. However, this part of the brain isn’t powered up fully so long the mid brain and the rear brain dominate the show. That appears to be a big problem too for learning quickly and adapting rapidly to changes.

So what is the way out?

The way out of the mess may be summed up in a neat mantra — 3S which stands for Slow, Small and Steady.

Slow:

Slowing down offers many benefits. The most important one is relaxation of the body and mind. Once the body and mind are relatively relaxed, the rear brain, which is usually very alert lets down its guard allowing other parts of the brain to act fully. This facilitates learning something new.

Small:

When we notice small and subtle things; think in small pieces and connect those; and take small actions – the rear brain doesn’t interfere since it doesn’t consider small things to pose any danger to survival. Likewise, when we see, think and do small things the mid brain doesn’t quite interfere with the new experience either since it usually fails to conjure up an existing pattern to match the small experiences other than trying to judge by giving it a name and form . So, once we suspend our judgement while experiencing something new the possibility of new learning grows exponentially. However, once the small things are done the mid brain would faithfully store the lessons for better adaptation and survival in the future.

Steady:

So what happens when, over a time, we steadily exchange value through small actions? Obviously, the small actions accumulate, coalesce, combine and recombine in self organizing way to produce new learning, which usually grows wide and deep enough to allow us learn quickly and adapt rapidly to changing situations.

Go Slow. See Small. Engage Slowly, Think Small. Act Small. Go Steady.

That is perhaps the easiest way to learn new things quickly and adapt rapidly to changes promoting resilience and sustainability for organizations, groups, communities and individuals.

Note: This is a part of a forthcoming book — “Sleeping with a Stranger” — a new book belonging to the Nemetics series.

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Resilience through self renewal!

India is a case study of resilience through motion and adhering to one’s calling in life. The idea of ‘motion’ or nomadic life runs deep in our Indian culture. Our rivers flowing endlessly across the vast landscape, giving life to the parched lands, are personified as metaphors of creativity and serve as timeless symbols of state transformations. The timeless whirl of bhikshus and monks wandering for alms in exchange of advice and wisdom for better living, jhum cultivation obeying the rhythms of nature, continuous growth of clusters and settlements in steady flux of self organizing movements, people in search of work, sadhus (seers) and pilgrims, mobile fairs and haat bazzars (markets), itinerant pilgrims, performers, pastoralists, bards and tellers of myths all embody the notion of ‘motion’; all performing simultaneously on the thin veneer of our ancient but extremely flexible and adaptable ‘culture’.

No wonder India is home to the world’s largest nomadic population always on ‘motion’. Nowhere else is there such a variety of people herded and ceaselessly moving in a self organizing way giving rise to complex patterns nor can the diversity of peripatetic professions be matched.

Yet in our post modern times the sedimentary have increasingly come to represent the ‘civilized’. The mainstream (the sedentary) stands oblivious to the pull of the wanderers and the scribes and the worlds of the nomads have been circumcised’ to the odd curious enthusiasts. Little wonder, nomads are considered ‘strangers’ where ‘strangers’ in principle are ‘undesirable’ people.

And how does this ‘undesirable’ attitude surface? ‘Indifference’ is the shield used by ‘foreigners’ (the non nomads) when they meet nomads. Insensitive and aloof the foreigner seems deep down beyond the reaches of attacks and rejection that he/she nevertheless experiences with the vulnerability of a living and tortuous ‘medusa’.

Such a ‘medusa’ painfully brings on an ‘identity’ of ‘being’ something distinct from others with a fixed character of its own. What it fails to realize or let go is that our identity is changed in a nomadic style by the journey we undertake in life where both our ‘subjectivity’ and ‘objectivity’ towards ‘reality’ is recomposed, rediscovered, redesigned and evolved. What we fail to realize or give up or let go is that in this transformation every step forward is a step backwards too. Without this necessary stepping back I can’t go forward. The migrant (nomad) is here and there too at the same time. The exile from the ‘nomad’ life can be deadening with the lack of ‘stretching’ and ‘folding’, which every movement entails. Such ‘stretching’ and ‘folding’ is nomadic symbolizing ‘movement’ that is potentially creative through unleashing ‘chaos’. It can also be an affliction but can also be a transfiguration. Whatever it might be it is a vital resource to create the necessary movement from ‘being’ to ‘becoming’.

If that is so what happens to my identity of ‘being’. My ‘being’ existence is actually non-existent. Is my identity not with ‘being’ but ‘becoming’? Do I live always on the edge of a frontier – a place for separation, transition and new articulation of a state that I haven’t seen or enjoyed before? In ‘becoming’ am I relieved of the odd task of constantly creating a boundary and jealously guarding it against attacks or rejection by constantly stepping back to cross or transgress it?

I realize that I am stranger to my ‘becoming’ state. What would happen is not known to me. What I would do as a response is also not known to me. In the state of becoming I change myself physically, mentally and spiritually and nothing is known to me in advance or ever would.

That to me is the cyclical principle of resilience gained through the constant act of self renewal through ‘becoming’ leading to self transformation.

What helps me do that? Obviously the mind which itself is ‘nomadic’. I can use it the way I would like to evolve, change, be creative and change the course of my destiny and self transform myself. I know the ‘why’ and ‘whom does it serve’ but I still remain a stranger to the ‘what’ and ‘how’ in any given moment in my movement.

That allows me to develop the ability to concentrate or be focused & also keep up a defused state of attentive awareness of the contextual surroundings at the same time (integration of the left & right brains). It is the fine art of being focused on the part and the whole at the same time enabling me to flow with the dance of Shiva. That truly makes my mind & spirit nomadic, enabling flashes of fresh and original insights to act upon.

This video link below shows how we integrate our right and left brains in real situations and how such integration leads to ‘becoming’ rather than ‘being’. Though I would always stay a stranger to that ‘becoming’ I refuse to remain a stranger to my present moment that informs my ‘becoming’.

http://www.ted.com/talks/iain_mcgilchrist_the_divided_brain.html

One thing I am sure of — Nomadic life – physically, mentally and spiritually – is usually the most gainful and risk free mode of resilient survival as it allows freedom from the limitations of confined space and time – the final form of slavery & exploitation, created by seemingly rational concepts, ideas and notions.

Living the life of a nomad is fun too since I would always stay a stranger to myself. It is a practice I love. Rightfully it is the only way one hugs resilience since it helps me to create what I want to. The practice is through travel to unfamiliar lands with new eyes and minds, engaging in spontaneous dialogs, self-study, storytelling, expressing differently through various forms of arts, interactions, improving interdependence and meditative reflection where both the right and the left brains are not only integrated but allowed to come into play simultaneously as a contextual response to real situations.

A few days from now, India celebrates Deepwali — the festival of ‘lights’. It reminds me of a celebration of a nomadic journey, thousands of years back, taken down the southern path of India (one of the two main trade routes) by Rama the hero of the epic story of Ramayana. It represents lighting the inner lamp to ‘becoming’ and to be a lamp onto others. It also reminds us to wish everyone Health, Happiness and Wealth so that the best things in life come back to us manifolds by creating sustainability and resilience at the same time.

On this auspicious occasion I dedicate this post to the Health, Happiness and Wealth of all who care to read this post or don’t care to glimpse through it.

But the question is “would you like to join me in the fun of moving and enjoying Shiva’s dance by being a stranger to yourself in the nomadic way?”

Would eagerly wait for you!

 

 

 

 

Predicting Black Swans – Part II

In the earlier post we dealt with the concept of predicting a ‘black swan‘.

In this post, I intend to explore the concept a bit more: what exactly we monitor to notice a ‘black swan’ in time?

In doing so we would be forced to consider the natural response of a system.

The starting point of our exploration would be to understand how any system, as a whole, whether natural or engineered, would disturbed by a ‘black swan’.  A system is disturbed in three possible ways, which are as follows:

a) A system loses energy till it reaches a tipping point

b) A system gains more and more energy till it crosses the point of system resilience

c) A part of a system emits more energy than it is normally supposed to, that is going beyond the linear response of the part. 

So the natural way to watch a system to expect a ‘black swan’ in time, is to keep a tab on the ‘energy’ of a system in the following ways:

a) Monitor the entropy of a system. As a system functions the entropy of a system gradually rises till it hits a threshold limit indicating the appearance of a ‘black swan’ or an outlier. 

b) Monitor the energy gain of a system till it crosses the ‘resilience’ point to give birth to a ‘black swan’, outlier or a ‘wicked problem’. 

c) Monitor critical parts of a system for excess emission of energy till it goes beyond the linear response of a part. 

It is useful to remember that energy is transferred in ‘quanta‘ or in packets of energy. Therefore, it is natural to expect jumps of energy levels as we record by capturing the different manifestation of energy levels on monitoring trend charts. So when a ‘jump’ is big enough to cross a threshold limit or resilience point or linear response level indicated by its presence outside the Gaussian distribution range  we can be quite sure that a ‘black swan’ or an outlier or a ‘wicked problem’ would soon arrive on the scene. We call such an indicator as a signal.

Therefore, the central idea is to capture such signals in time, just before a ‘black swan’ makes it way to appear on the scene to dominate and change the system.

However, the question is how early can we detect that signal to effectively deal with the inherent ‘black swan’ in a system, which is yet to appear on the scene?

That would be explored in the next post.

Power of Visual Story Telling!

Few days back I submitted a written consulting report  to an owner of an NGO. This was to improve productivity of the process of making natural eco-friendly fertilizers. With rising costs he was increasingly finding it difficult to sustain the ‘bottom of the pyramid’ business. So improving productivity was his only means to not only save his business but also to save his customers – the poor farmers. The farmers use this eco-friendly product to improve farm productivity and also feed their live stock.

So the project was important to me. If I can help him improve productivity then I would also be able to contribute to sustainable and resilient rural communities.

I visited them. And clinically went through the present process. Then I wrote my ideas and recommendations in a written report and emailed it.

I quote the relevant extracts from the report:

Quote

A) Reduce the size of the batch being processed in the initial stage. 
Present:
At present a large quantity of raw material is processed in one go. It is slow, time taking and perhaps non-uniform. It suffers from all the 3 Mudas.
Suggested:
Break it up into smaller chunks.
For example a single batch may contain just the right amount of material that can be processed into finished product in a day. For instance if only 1T of finished product can be processed in a day then the batch sizes would be of 1T only.
A 1. Stagger 
 
Present:
The whole batch is processed in one go. That is the whole batch is left for fermentation for the next 7 to 10 days depending on the prevailing season of the year before it is taken out for further sorting and processing. It suffers from all the 3 Mudas.
Suggested:
Since it takes 7 to 10 days (varies between summer and winter) for the raw meal to be ready for further processing. The batches can be planned in such a way depending on the season of the year — where preparation and production are in sync and it can start after the first batch is ready. It means the first batch is taken out after the 7th day and the next batch (prepared a day later) is taken out on the 8th day from the start of the production and so on…
B) Combine Preparation and Fermentation 
Present 
The preparation is done in a separate area. This is followed by storing for fermentation which is carried out in a separate area in plastic drums.
Suggested
Combine the two processes.
Prepare the raw meal in the fermentation drum directly. It combines two activities in one stroke.
A suitable size of drum (used oil drums cut into halves) may be used for the purpose. The drums may be designed like the boiler drum available in the xxx office which would allow for stirring and mixing as well as act as air tight drums, which is necessary for fermentation.
The sprinkling of the chemicals that is required during preparation of the raw meal might be carried out in the way mosquito repellents are sprayed with the drum placed on the back of the sprayer. Similar drum containing the chemical can be strapped onto the back of the operator who sprays the required amount of chemical into the raw meal.
There is a need to constantly stir the raw meal during preparation. This can be done manually by means of a gear drive made of plastic or wood (so that heavy lubrication is avoided, which may spill into the raw meal – thus contaminating it).
After the meal is prepared the drums can be shut tight (air tight) by a similar mechanism used for the xxx boiler drum.
The same drum can be placed on a titling mechanism (similar to platform used for industrial gases) which can be lowered when needed to the required height for packing and weighing.
Such a jugaard (half drum, detachable and movable cover, gear driven manual stirrer, chemical spray dispenser,  air tight mechanism, mounting on a tilting table like the way industrial gas cylinders are mounted) might be created for processing smaller batches.
C) Filling up the packets by calibrated mugs. 
Present
At present the operator fills up the packets by haunch/feel. Then the right amount is adjusted after weighment. This is a trail and error method that entails a loss of productive time.
Suggested
The material can be filled by help of calibrated mugs that would contain either 1 kg of raw meal (for 1 kg packs) or 2.5 kg of raw meal (for 5 kg packs). This improves accuracy, speed of operation and minimizes time losses from the system.
Present 
Presently the sequence of the processing is bit haphazard. This cause time loss and motion loss.
Suggested
The entire process may be laid out in a orderly and logical sequence to eliminate motion loss, time loss and loss due to unevenness of loading.
The floor can be raised and leveled for that purpose complete with suitable and reliable electrical connections wherever needed. This would also prevent inundation of the work place by rain water during monsoon.
Unquote
I am sure you found it difficult to follow what I recommended.
The owner, though he knew about the process, also found it difficult to follow the report. He called me up to say, ‘Hey, my men and I did not quite get what you want us to do in your report. Is it possible for you to come down and explain? I would be obliged if you may.”
Coming from a man who passed out from one of the best MBA schools in the world rang a bell in my mind. So if he can’t get it surely others might also find it difficult. And clearly there was any story here.
However, I wanted to avoid a visit (I never love physical travel) and thought what else might I do to make it clear to him and his men.What followed was a pictorial representation of what I wrote, which is as follows:
process (1)
After he got the pictorial view of the story I called him up to ask how he liked it. “Simply brilliant story!’ he replied.
Note:
I thank my colleagues Rick De and T R Khan for creating this moving visual story.
A picture is worth a thousand words — surely!!