How to trick people using.. correct data!

Its unbelievable how easily we can be tricked! Even the most perceptive amongst us, even the rational amongst us, even the cautious amongst us.

I was reading an article that explained how hotels use different kinds of messages to get guests to reuse the towels. Most hotels place a well crafted message urging us to reuse the towels. Some message use environmental friendliness as their message while some others talk about how other guests reuse – hoping to create some social pressure. This article talked about which of these is more effective. They showed this graph that makes it clear that we respond better when there is a social pressure (description norm message).

There is no question about what this data is telling – that we respond far more to social pressure.

Only when I finished the article and read few comments did I realize how cleverly this graph has been manipulated to exaggerate the difference. I was stunned that even I – who works with presentations for a living, who sees hundreds of presentations every month, could be misled so easily.

I have been studying for a while on how our mind looks for a pattern when none exists. This is a classic example of how our mind can be tricked to see a story when none exists.

So, what’s happening here?

Typically, the way your mind reads a chart like this is to compare the sizes of each bar to figure out the relationship between each. In this case, your mind sees the chart like this. It mentally compares the sizes of the bars to figure out the difference. In the picture below, I have added the grey boxes to the chart:

So, its pretty logical to see that the bar on the right side is 5x taller than the left. The conclusion you’d come to is that message with social pressure is 5x more effective. That’s pretty powerful, right?

But the key difference is that your mind has been tricked about the scale of the difference. In typical charts, the height of the bar is the absolute height. But in the graph above, if you see the scale on the left hand side, unlike typical charts, it doesn’t start at zero. They are showing a zoom view where the graph itself starts at around 30 (not 0). The value of the left bar is 35 and the right bar is 44. The difference between them is a meagre 9. Its not 5x by any stretch of imagination.

You’ll appreciate this only when you actually see the zoomed out version of the graph. I made one up in excel. Here it is.

Now you can see that the difference isn’t as startling as it seemed.

In fact even this chart is misleading because the scale on the left goes only from 0 to 50. So, even though you can now tell that there is no real difference between the two messages, you are still tricked to think that both are pretty effective – both seem to almost hit the top.

The graph that tells the real story is the one below where the scale goes from 0 – 100.

Now we know what exactly is going on.

Less than half the guests even respond to either message – which tells that both messages are not effective. So, it really doesn’t matter how one is better than the other – both are pretty ineffective. And frankly between the messages, there’s isn’t much difference.

If you were a hotel manager, and you didn’t see this difference, based on the first graph, you’d be right now rushing to change the message to incorporate social pressure on your guests. But in reality, either message didn’t do well – so you should be coming up with some other idea.

Before someone sends me a nasty message, let me clarify that the author of the original article didn’t “hide” any information. The tampered scale is visible. But because it was zoomed in, our mind is tricked to see the cropped bars as the absolute bars and that exaggerated the difference. I believe that there was an intention to exaggerate this difference. Because, had they shown the last graph (scale going from 0-100), the whole point of the article would become invalidated.

Well, it really doesn’t matter in this article because readers are not going to make any important investment decisions based on this chart (unless you are a hotel manager), but I think there is a responsibility that each author must bear – and clearly, this one fell short.

PS: Here’s the original article

Sad, Sadder, Saddest

The HindusThe world doesn’t need another take on the unfortunate incident of Penguin India’s decision to recall and pulp Wendy Doniger’s book “The Hindu – An alternate approach”. My motivation to dwell on this topic is for posterity – to look back at this post few years down and see if I agree with it or not. Morality is not only subjective (changes from culture to culture) but is also temporal (changes within a culture from time to time). So, when you take a civilization as old as Indus and paint a static lens, you are bound to get pretty sub-optimal and unsavory output.

I read through 200+ pages (out of 800+) of the book. I am not going to finish it, but I have enough context to intelligently comment on the book. So here are my comments.

Wendy took a historical, mythological, cultural, psycho-analytical and western view on the civilization. In 800 pages, she mapped out pre-vedic (at least 1500 BCE) to present day. That’s a whole lost to chew. If I were to write a history of Hindus, I would just stick to subjective narrative and objective facts and that’s it. Keep it as neutral as possible. But she felt compelled to apply moral and cultural interpretations. That to me, is a different book. Now on top of it, she takes Valmiki and put his work under Freudian lens. That’s a third book. So, this book is not one but three different genres. The book doesn’t make up its mind on what it is. You can’t blame if readers get confused.

Now, on the writing style. This is purportedly a non-fiction (her acknowledgements . But the writing style vacillates between pedantic and pulp-fiction. In some paragraphs you see her asserting her historian authority and immediately followed by that you will see her psycho-analysing characters (which makes it for interesting read but not under the non-fiction category) and in the third paragraph she immediately resorts to pulp-fictionish satire.

“..the princess in exile is delighted to find that Tiffany’s has a branch in the forest..”

“..The text suggests that Rama might fear that Lakshmana might replace him in bed with Sita; it keeps insisting that Lakshmana will not sleep with Sita. It doth protest too much. (Recall that when Rama kicks Sita out for the first time and bitterly challenges her to go with some other guy, he lists Lakshmana first of all.) (page 259)”

When she is talking about Ramayana, she should realize that she is not talking about a dead mythology but a living symbol worshipped by 700 million people.

In the end even though she wasn’t trying to insult or denigrate, you come out pretty confused about the intent.

And that in my opinion is where the issue is. When people expressed their outrage, I think they were coming from different points of views.

Now to the reaction:
I felt that technology, globalization will make people more tolerant, open, and inclusive. Sadly, the world has become more belligerent, societies have cloistered into narrow enclaves, and nations have become more conservative. At every level of our society, we have developed a “selfie” state of mind. We want to impose our views and we want to obliterate anything outside of it.

“If you are not with us, you are against us!”

Why? If I am not with you, why does it mean I am opposed to you. Can’t we tolerate multiple opinions?

Practically, coming to this book, its ridiculous to assume that by pulping few thousand copies, the book will be gone. Its just one internet search away. Frankly, we have to give up this stupid idea that you can control, obliterate, censor things. Music industry is trying to do that for over a decade and finding it frustratingly impossible.

What could have been a better reaction? Write a rebuttal and make it available for free! If you think Wendy’s book is wrong, why not use the same medium to explain your point of view instead of trying to silence her voice. In fact, more people took interest and read the book because of this brouhaha (for example, I wouldn’t have read even those 200 pages).

Now, to the medium. Wendy is the creator and she exercised her freedom of expression by writing the book. Readers are patrons and they expressed by protesting or supporting. The medium is Penguin Books and they also have a role. They tried to paint themselves as victim here, but none of the parties see it that way. Penguin chickened out. Overall, the biggest blame (and responsibility) in my opinion lies with Penguin. They could have considered some creative options (beyond legal). They could have released the copyrights. They could have made it available as free ebook. They could have used social media to raise the debate at broader level. But, they chose to play victim.

Its sad that Wendy decided to write such a book. Fiction or non-fiction, given her literary stature, this was beneath her. If I were to write a book on a civilization, I would have exercised more restraint. The platitudes and sarcasm was unnecessary and inflammatory. Its irresponsible and its only defense is “freedom of expression”.

More sadder that the courts decided to censor it. The concern is, where do you draw the line? Courts can not decide moral standards. What’s written might be in bad taste for few but is definitely legal.

But its saddest that, of all the publishers, Penguin decided to play victim and chicken out. What a shame.

There are no winners here.

The disgusting lazy (bell) curve

GE’s Jack Welsh popularized it. The bottom 10% need to go. Every year, employee appraisal would bucket people in terms of their performance and the bottom 10% were asked to either shape up or ship out! This philosophy of people management later caught on the fancy of few others. I have personal experience with this kind of performance appraisal informally and formally at Oracle and recently at Mayer’s Yahoo!.  While this kind of management has its place, I think it is one of the laziest management tool a company can use. To its credit, it does produce quick and (bell) shapely results – if that’s the objective. Let’s look at how it changes the behavior and culture of a company

1) Gaming. The first thing you will notice is that people become extremely performance focused. Its good in a way but bad in another way. Performance is typically measured in terms of numbers – so, employees fervently game the system. Managers pad their teams with sacrificial goats. Employees game it by padding their goals/time/effort.

2) Like breeds like. There is a lot of subjectivity in building the bell curve. An employee doesn’t get to tell her story. Her manager gets to do it. So, a manager has a lot of discretionary power to determine where an employee falls in the bell curve. Guess what this breeds? – Yes, nepotism, and favoritism. If you were to give it a positive slant to it, it also brings in alignment faster. Less friction within teams.

3) Insecurity. Ultimately people become risk averse because they don’t want to be on the wrong side of the bell curve. They become insecure and that creates problems in leadership, collaboration and teamwork. We are all watching our backs.

What should be the intent of measuring and reviewing performance?

My personal view is that performance review should be done with the view of seeing what’s working and what’s not working and iterating on it until you get the right results. To do this, the fundamental tenets of performance appraisal should be

1) It should uphold your values. There is no better way to reinforce your company values than by measuring people on it. Most often values are watered down because we put revenue over principles. We fire people because they didn’t achieve quota, but we tolerate people who violate company values. Measure and reward values. That’s how you build a “Built to Last” company!

2) Employees should feel secure. The second important aspect is that employees should not feel threatened about performance review. Often employee and managers are on opposite side of the table. It should be the review of the situation, not of the person. Employees should know that they are not going to be fired on performance alone. There will be good and bad quarters. Don’t give them reason to hide the reality

3) Every performance review should build leadership. In my 2 decades of experience, I can cite may be one or two incidents where my manager’s review was truly transformational for me. Mostly its like cattle grading: “You get 3 on this, 3.5 on that. By the way, you should be happy that you are in the top 10% of the team here”. This is a wasted opportunity. I believe that performance is the result of the belief. Not the other way around. Change belief, and you will change performance. We don’t need managers today, we need leaders. Every employee should be a leader in her own way. And leadership is not possible without the right belief.

And why am I against the bell curve?

Bell curve is a statistical method to “manage” your talent. It doesn’t help you build leadership. All companies do have wrong hires and they get weeded out. You don’t need a bell curve for it. But for the majority of folks who have the potential to make critical contribution, bell curve is not the right way to manage them.  Focusing on getting the right people in the right place and creating the right belief should be the focus of the performance review system in a company. It should help employees grow and along with it, the company. Slotting them into a bell curve is short-changing them and the company’s potential.

Do we give up on the bell curve?

Bell curve has a place. But in the background. And maybe at the SVP level. Use it for workforce/talent planning. Use it as a diagnostic tool to see what’s going wrong and how to fix it. Just don’t use it as a lazy machete on your employees.


I don’t blame them!

WFH The first thing (invariably) that I get asked when people hear that I worked for Yahoo is : Why did Marissa Mayer stop work from home? Isn’t that stupid?

I don’t blame them for asking this question. I am sure if the person making this judgment were to be the CEO, they’d do things differently. And that’s the point. A CEO has a specific mandate. The buck stops there. And a good CEO does what she thinks is right for the company – not what’s popular with employees or people outside who have no skin in the game.

I was in Yahoo when this debate was going on in the media – and I completely support Marissa’s decision. Technically speaking no one is policing if a Yahoo employee is working from home or not. If you are not well, work from home. If you need to take care of something, its OK too. What’s not OK is if you make it an unwritten rule that you’ll typically work from home on Fridays – or you have a remote working arrangement that you’d come to office for 3 days and then work remotely for the rest of the week. Those arrangements were gone. Even though occasional WFH is OK, Marissa clarified that she discourages it as a practice. That’s a clear statement.

In my opinion, Yahoo’s environment needs a reboot. WFH is a privilege – not a right. What’s wrong if a company decides to take it away? It only means that employees get to work closer, move faster, deliver better products. Cycle times can be shrunk when people are in the same room. New ideas can be bounced quickly when you are sitting in the same cafe. Problems can be sorted out easily when you are likely to bump into each other more.

Why is this wrong?

In case folks missed it, before taking the WFH away, Marissa also made food free (all 3 meals), gave everyone iPhone 5, upgraded bus shuttles with better seats and wifi, weekly all-hands, free jawbones, full mac refresh, ensured that any issue with 75 votes gets resolved and many more..

I still hear some people mutter: that’s all ok, but why did she take away WFH?

*sigh* I don’t blame them!

PS: This blog talks about the issue of WFH. Obviously its very popular with employees. The article ambles around but finally ends up with a balanced view. You can make the research lean towards any opinion you want, but ultimately we should realize that WFH is not a slam dunk HR lever. It has a cost (and heavy one too) and extreme caution is required before using it. You can’t compare free coffee with WFH and club them under the heading of “employee friendliness”. In today’s knowledge economy and fast shifting industry/competitive landscape, WFH could have disastrous results. Tread with caution.

Life lesson #27

Why 27? What about the previous 26? Too many questions.. I chose 27 carefully. After much deliberation. I could have made it #1, then the argument would be if this merits #1. Another argument would be – isn’t it too late to learn life lesson?. I could have made it #100 but it sounded like life was teaching too many lessons to keep count of. Also it would sound bombastic that I’ve figured out so many life’s lesson. A perfect number like 25 or 50 would sound made up. Anything perfect doesn’t have the credibility it deserves.

This life lesson is important to me and it needs that warmth of attention and respect that it deserves. Because, frankly, its my #1. But I’ve decided to label it #27 – inserted into the middle – so it is unique but also blends with all the other numbers out there. Undistinguished but with its own identity. If it grows, it may become more confident and can thrive on the attention and can take kudos as well as hits. But until then, I don’t want to set it up.

So, coming back to the original question. What is the life lesson?. We seem to have digressed.

That digression is the life’s lesson. Much of what we do goes unnoticed but we crave for others attention and we feel frustrated. Life works the other way around. Magic usually happens in the moments when no one notices. Magic usually happens because only one person cares about it – the creator. Magic happens for the creator – not the audience. Acclaim comes because of magic. Acclaim is not the magic.

What is this magic?
– your child
– your art
– your hobby
– your business

Most artists (including parents and entrepreneurs) create not with a grand purpose seeking others approval, but as an expression of their joy, feeling or extended self. When that expression is in nascent stage, anonymity, or popular neglect protects it – so you can focus on that expression being pure – not clouded by critics. Relish the silence, the anonymity, the freedom. There will come a day when it grows confident and stand on its own. It should be ready for the harsh spotlights when it becomes #50 or #100 or (God forbid) #1. But until then, choose #27.

Leadership Signs

An interesting morning.

At my place, we drop our kids at the gate till the school bus. About 10 kids go in the same bus to the same school. Most days many parents are around and they ensure that all kids get on the bus. Sometimes (infrequently), I go there to drop my daughter. This day I happened to walk her, then the bus came, I got her in it and the bus left.

When I was returning back, I saw few kids still around – they didn’t get in. One of the parent (lets call him Mr.S – a very good friend of mine) was running back to his house to get his car to take them to the next stop. I found out soon after that this bunch of kids didn’t know the bus was there. And the bus left without them! The bus conductor should have waited or called for other kids – Its not just one kid but 3 kids didn’t make it to the bus. And that never happened before.

I was narrating this to my wife and we had a small argument about it. The incident became an argument because she had a different point of view than mine. She laid part of the responsibility on me (not the bus conductor) – and that upset me. How could I be responsible for it?

Some time later, I had a chance to reflect on the incident and I agree with her. Looking back, there were some tell-tale signs that I completely missed. In hind sight, those signs should have made me a bit more alert.

Here is the full version of what happened.

Usually there are multiple parents around – at least 5. Today it was just me and S. That was unusual. I could have been more careful.

Usually S is extra careful. But today, he was a bit distracted because his kids forgot some school stuff and he had to run back home and bring it. In all this chaos, looks like he didn’t notice the bus coming, neither did he notice that other kids (and me) were walking to the bus.

Usually my daughter is slow (and one of the last) to get into the bus. But today she was ahead. That’s unusual too. That could have signalled that other kids didn’t notice the bus.

To my defense, I didn’t know that these kids didn’t get in the bus. After my daughter got in, I went to the other side of the bus next to her window and couldn’t see the bus door from there. So I didn’t know that these kids didn’t get in.

Even after the bus left, had I seen the kids hanging around, I could have called for the bus to stop, but today it so happened that I saw another neighbour and we were chatting a bit. So it was a few minutes before I started my walk back into the gate – and only then I saw the kids who missed the bus.

Typically the conductor of the bus ensures all the kids are in.
Typically the gate security guard also checks.
Typically more parents are around.
Typically S is very alert.

But this wasn’t the typical day – and there were signs all around – and I completely missed it.

And that’s what happens in our work too. In your business or your job, typically things happen, but there are always tell-tale signs that as leaders we should be watching out for. People ask the definition of leadership. There are many, but one is to go beyond what is “typically” expected of you.

This day there was such a leadership opportunity, and I failed.

The monastery cat

meditation cat

A buddhist teacher was conducting his evening meditation class. A monastery pet cat was roaming around making noise. The teacher asked a student to tie the cat to a pole outside the room for the dura

tion of the class. Next day, the intelligent student anticipated cat’s disturbance and tied it to the pole before the class began. Few years passed. The cat died. So did the teacher. All the students graduated and moved on. The new students went to the market and bought a cat and tied it to the pole. There is a formal cat tying ceremony before the start of the class. A student is elected for this privilege. Other monasteries too followed this ritual. No one questions.

I understand that cows are valuable for humans. It gives us milk and butter, it is domestic, takes little to maintain, ploughs fields, its dung is used as fuel, and when dead, its skin is useful too. The economic value of the cow was what made it valuable to our ancestors in India. Somewhere down the line, it took on the position of the monastery cat. We started worshipping it. Few years ago, when visiting a south indian temple outside Trichy, I saw a formal daily ceremony where a temple cow is brought out and a priest worships the cow. This ceremony goes on for about 45 min. During this time, if the cow dared to move, the cowherd (who is a paid employee of the temple) beats the cow. The cow is forcefully restrained. At least a hundred devotees come daily to see this cermony. They prostrate in front of the cow. After the ceremony, the cow is packed off to some place where no one cares about it. The cow can’t roam around anywhere. It is sacred.

The only thought going on in cow’s mind, I surmise, is “Why me?”

How many things do we do in our lives out of superstition? We feel compelled to bring culture into everything. We don’t like nature because it is not in our “control”. It doesn’t follow our rules. It is free. And we invent God to tame nature. We invent rituals so Gods become powerful.

We want to master nature. And we invented God for that. But in God, we created another master. What a pyrrhic victory!


(PS: There are different versions of the monastery cat story. Another popular version is about the cat being brought into meditation because a teacher was fond of cat and generations followed without questioning this. Technical treatises were written about the critical role of cats for successful meditation. It took many generations to weed out this ritual.)

4 things for today’s world

As everyday, I got an email from a startup which claimed to change the way I get “informed” of the world. And when I clicked on it, again as usual, I got confused and underwhelmed. Its yet another portal trying to get my eye ball. Deja Vu. The whole world and my neighbor’s dog is trying to overlord my “way of getting informed”. Sounds so dotcom 1.0 with a social twist. I am sure there are good intentions and hard work behind their product and sincerely wish them success. But..

We live in a world where more is not more and better is not better. As prices plummet and the dam of information access burst, we live in a world of deluge – not of scarcity.

And in a world of deluge, clutter is the norm, commoditization creeps up faster, and your efforts gets lost and camouflaged.

And yet, this world is the world of the free and the brave. You are empowered – it takes little to get by, bold is favored, access is easy, the tail of power is so long, that you can pick any niche (make that super-niche) and make it big!

All it takes to make it in this new world is to do four things – but do it everyday..

1. Pay attention to where you pay attention

2. Think different and reject the norm

3. Create meaning – to you, your customers, your stakeholders

4. Relentlessly adapt

Rest should be easy 😉

Engineering Experience vs. User Experience

I had the most bizarre user experience today. After the last service, my Toyota Altis came back with the clock reset. It was showing a diff of 2hr 15min. For about a month I went along lazily with it. I would not have bothered to fix it but the 15 min calculation was getting on my nerves. If it was a square 2 hrs, I probably would never have touched it.

Anyways, here I was, waiting at a traffic light trying to fix it. Unlike other cars, Altis’ clock shows up next to odometer (along with bunch of other information). There is a black knob next to it and when you press it it rotates the info display. Ah, now I know how to do it – I just have to press and hold the knob and the clock should start blinking and I turn the knob to change the time. I tried but it didn’t work. After many failed attempts, I gave up and called Toyota service. The service supervisor, after making couple of intelligent guesses, gave up and told me that he will refer the manual and call me back (BTW, I am yet to get his call).

I felt the dare. I have to figure this out. After many attempts I found out the most bizarre user experience. Here is the solution:

You need both hands for this. First you hold the knob down with one hand while pressing another button somewhere else. Then the clock starts blinking. Now release both the knob and the button and press the knob to change the time.

The only way I figured this out is because I thought “what would the engineer do”. When I was a product manager this is how I too thought. For me, changing the clock is a “feature” – not an “experience”. I would look at specing the feature, implementing the feature, handling boundary conditions etc. For me, as long it works and I can put it on the brochure, I did my job and I was satisfied.

That’s not the world we live in today. Apple and Google has changed it. If things don’t work the first time, your product doesn’t have a chance. No one is going to refer your manuals. I may suffer through it because I may not have a choice right now, but the next time I am in the market for your product, I am going to remember my experience today.

I love Toyota. The car does a fine job and I may still buy it because reliability is more important in cars than user experience. But not for long. That’s becoming table stakes. Next time I look at a car, I expect it to automatically set its time using wifi. The product world is more competitive and demanding than ever before. And entrepreneurs and organizations need to wake up to it faster.



What flows freely?

Knowledge. Inspiration. Ideas. Creativity.


Because that is its nature (quality).

This quality/nature is referred in Sanskrit as “Dharma”. Dharma has multiple meanings in different context. The popular meaning given to it is “duty”. But I’d like to focus on the meaning of Dharma as the quality of the effort or thought. In Hindu philosophy, thought is equally important as action. Intention is as important as goal. Means is as sacred as the end.

What is quality. What is nature?

How much ever we wish, a mango tree cannot grow to be an apple tree. They may all look same when they are seeds but when it develops, its quality manifests. We are all born of undifferentiated stem cells. But each of our body part has distinct quality. Each of us have distinct personality. Such is the nature of material world. The same applies to the non-physical world. Knowledge has a quality – they flow. They flow freely. It is compared with water. It nourishes. Civilizations flourished on river shores. Rich and poor, healthy and sick, men and women : everybody universally benefits.

In vedantic philosophy, nature of knowledge is compared to that of water. We are just a vessel. We don’t own the knowledge. It flows through us. We are merely a channel. We give knowledge a shape. Romans have a word for this too – Genius. Genius is not a person but a spirit. It flows through individuals.

Today, we mistakenly compare knowledge to wealth (whose nature is fickle, unstable). We look at knowledge as “intellectual property”. We try to hoard it, we try to stop its flow, we try to hide it. We fight for it. But it flows nonetheless. You can dam it for sometime, but it will break free. That is its nature.

Your work is not of you, but from you…


PS: I was inspired when thinking about the meaning of “Saraswati” – the goddess of knowledge. Its literal meaning is “the one with flow”. Most Indian names have meaning behind it. They describe some quality.

PPS: About the image in this post – Hinduism is very symbolic and visual. I grew up with Raja Ravi Varma’s painting of Saraswati that you see above. Its burnt into my head. Even today, the word Saraswati evokes this image in me. As you can see, Saraswati has a confident and composed posture, is associated with the color white (symbolizing pure and neutral quality of knowledge) and is typically shown near a flowing  stream – symbolizing the free flow of knowledge.

PPPS: I took liberty to bucket knowledge, wisdom, ideas and creativity together. Obviously there are differences. Not all knowledge is wisdom and creativity has its own nature. I focused more on their commonality here.

PPPPS: There is a parallel between what I wrote here with the concepts in the beautiful book “Flow” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. That’s for another post. I bring this up here because it struck me that there is so much commanality of thought across civilizations, and across ancient and modern philosophy. It also brings up a point that once upon a time religion, philosophy and management were cut from the same cloth. It is only in the industrialization era that we started to disconnect them and my surprise to find this connection only highlights my ignorance of our past.

PPPPS: While thinking about the nature of knowledge being a flow and we being mere channels, I was reminded of this beautiful TED video of Elizabeth Gilbert – the author of “Eat, Pray, Love”. The author talks about the nature of genius.