Monday, May 13, 2013

“Anekāntavāda” and Innovation

Is it a phone? A camera? A GPS device? A movie player? A book reader? A gaming device?  When thinking of smartphones the answer could be one of these, a combination thereof or all of them. It depends on the perspective of the user. The phone is the same with all the attributes it has but what it is perceived as depends on the user and the attributes which are significant for them or they are aware of.

This essentially is the premise of the ancient Indian Jain doctrine of “Anekāntavāda” – doctrine of non-absolutism or non-one sidedness or non-exclusivity . A classical elaboration of the doctrine has been the parable of the Six Blind Men and the Elephant where each man depending on where they touched the elephant described it as a spear (tusk), snake (trunk), wall (side), fan (ear), rope (tail) and tree (leg), with none of them able to visualize the animal itself.

This has a bearing on all aspects of innovation where the breakthrough innovator or platform disruptor needs to exhibit the ability of  visualizing or grasping  all aspects and manifestations of a process or technology (the “elephant”) while all existing players have been caught up with the spears, snakes et al. This may well be the philosophical premise behind the – customers often don’t know what they want- quote attributed to Steve Jobs.

Also could be a precursor or corollary to what we are familiar of today as thinking out-of- the-box.

How can an Innovator develop the ability to see beyond what others are seeing? How can this approach be built into the innovation process as  a systemic and systematic component?

A potential solution lies in an integrated use of Anekāntavāda which encourages stepping back and seeing the big picture with two other related concepts from the same philosophical stream - syādvāda—the theory of conditioned predication and nayavāda—the theory of partial standpoints.

The theory of conditioned predication would require the innovation process to answer a series of seven questions which as an example  I am applying to the smartphone innovation I started the piece with:

  1. in some ways, it is  a phone, How? Why ?
  2. in some ways, it is not a phone, How? Why?
  3. in some ways, it is, and it is not phone, How? Why?
  4. in some ways, it is a phone, and it is indescribable, How? Why?
  5. in some ways, it is not a phone , and it is indescribable, How? Why?
  6. in some ways, it is a phone , it is not a phone, and it is indescribable, How? Why?
  7. in some ways, it is indescribable. How? Why?
Each of these seven propositions will help the innovator examine the complex and multifaceted nature of the innovation from a relative point of view of time, space, substance and mode enabling him/her to  see facets which can otherwise stay hidden.

The “indescribable” questions will help the innovator see beyond the current timeframe-  It may be indescribable now but what can it be described in the future. Could it be described as a payment transaction processing device, Voila, Square is born. Can it be described differently for different points of time – say night vs. day ? Voila, we get the flashlight feature for the phone.

If it is not a phone and is on my body can it measure my heartbeat or perhaps detect my mood or maybe detect how I react when I am served my coffee at a temperature I am not used to by a store which I frequent? What is it? What is it not? If yes, why? If not, why not?
Is it a guitar, No. Why not?......mmmmm sure it can be one, let’s build an app for it.

The theory of partial standpoints or viewpoints would then help to arrive at a certain inference from a point of view. A smartphone  has infinite aspects to it, but when we describe it in practice, we speak of only relevant aspects and ignore irrelevant ones. This does not mean it does not have other attributes, qualities, modes and other aspects; they are just irrelevant from a particular perspective. For example , when we talk of a "white iPhone" we are simply considering the color and make of the phone. However, the statement does not imply that the phone  does not have other attributes like volume, screen size, camera quality etc. This particular viewpoint – “white”  is  a partial viewpoint. Splitting up the attributes like this can enable the innovator to see the total picture part by part, functionality by functionality. This will help resolve design conflicts arising out of a confusion of standpoints since it clearly establishes where the standpoint is arising from.

There is nothing new with the precepts outlined here. They have been around for a few thousands of years and have generally just been viewed as philosophical doctrines. But as shown above they can very well still be leveraged to create breakthrough innovation in an organized, systematic way. Scholars have said “because anekāntavāda is designed to avoid one-sided errors, reconcile contradictory viewpoints, and accept the multiplicity and relativity of truth, the Jain philosophy is in a unique position to support dialogue and negotiations” which can very well be the cornerstone for a successful Innovation Process Framework.

Reference: Wikipedia: Anekantavada


markusfromherz said...

In my opinion, the analogy between the phone and the elephant story doesn't quite hold. The blind men only see one small part and thus can't conceive of the whole. People using the phone can see and understand all of the phone, but, this being a platform, there are many different applications for it. Just like there are several applications for the elephant, such as as a ride, a forest worker, and a war machine.

The other important characteristic of the phone for innovation is that it is evolving. As more components are added, users think of more applications, which in turn motivate more components to improve or enable new applications.

Deepak Seth said...

Excellent observation markusfromherz.

Yes, the physical object - elephant, smartphone is distinct from the actions it performs.

However the analogy may still hold true. People using the phone are still "blind" to many of its attributes.

Otter said...

Another way to talk about this is to say that any product is actually not a single idea, but a community of ideas. Innovation is a way of allowing some members of that community to depart with thanks and gratitude, and allowing new members to introduce themselves, then converse and form the relevant relationships with the remaining and sustaining community of ideas.

George Kamburoff said...

I think different folk organize the world differently. I believe there are gradations of linear thinkers and intuitive thinkers. Logical, linear thinkers go in a straight line, step-by-step, while those of us with more intuitive aspects (which I personally think has a parallel in sensitivities of all kinds), get fuzzy concepts of the entire thing, which must be mentally and laboriously refined in our minds before we express them.

We intuitive thinkers see the attempts of linear thinkers to "think outside the box" as intuitive thinkers do, but it is not natural for them and not possible for many. I was never in the "box", and it was maddening for me to have to plod along so others could keep up with an idea so foreign to them. It wasn't easy on them either, to deal with someone with those crazy ideas that seemed to come out of nowhere.

Bill Gates is a linear thinker, a step-by step plodder, while Steve Jobs was an intuitive thinker. Edison was linear, while Nicola Tesla was the visionary.

Linear thinkers do not understand how we come up with concepts and do not trust them, naturally. We cannot see how linear thinkers can be so unimaginative to not see the obvious connections, the apparent vision. We need both kinds of thinkers.

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