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The Opposable Mind December 7, 2009

Posted by Nii Sai Sai in Opposable Mind, [Books] Ways of Thinking.
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Ever feel like you’ve got too much stuff going on in your life, and that you can’t think clearly any longer? In “The Opposable Mind”, Roger Martin points out the four parts of the thinking process:

Salience: what is important?
Causality: what relationships exist between the things that matter most?
Architecture: how can we approach the complex problem in an effective manner?
Resolution: how do we know when we’re done, and have a solution?

We all use such a framework for thinking and making decisions. Integrative thinkers just do it differently, and get better results. They define what is important and salient in a broader manner. The think bigger and better, and do not confine themselves to established boundaries. Integrative thinkers look for complex relationships between the salient points. They explore many more potential causal linkages, and can therefore come up with more scenarios for analysis. Integrative thinkers never lose sight of the big picture. In the midst of all the complexity, they keep their eyes on the ultimate objective. Finally, integrative thinkers don’t settle for conventional resolutions and trade-offs. They are comfortable saying no to a proposed solution, regardless of how much work has gone into it. They push the envelope, and come up with new, better ideas emerging from the synthesis of existing ideas.

We all THINK! Nobody can argue with that statement. It’s part of what we do everyday as humans. However, it doesn’t take much to prove that we don’t all think effectively. Next time you face a wicked problem, think about how you are thinking about the problem. Are you just trying to settle for trade-offs and non-inventive solutions, or are you pushing the envelope? Remember that unfamiliar alternatives are just that, novel. Also, you don’t always have to choose between options. Think about creating another option out of what exists.


Why should you care? December 7, 2009

Posted by Nii Sai Sai in Wired to Care.
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Why was the Xbox such a huge success for Microsoft? Why does Harley Davidson only allow motorbikes in the parking lot in front of its corporate headquarters? Why on earth did Michael Eisner agree to let Disney build Animal Kingdom in the middle of Florida? And, what do all of these questions have to do with James Carville?


There is no substitute for developing empathy through firsthand experience. Microsoft’s Xbox team was full of avid gamers who knew what a cool game would look, feel, and play like. At Disney, Michael Eisner was at first skeptical of the idea of spending tons of money to bring wild animals to central Florida. The turning point was when his team ‘surprised’ him with a firsthand encounter with an African lion. That was the best pitch, period. Eisner knew right away how thrilling the experience would be for Disney’s customers. Harley Davidson understands how passionate its customers are about bikes . . . and the disdain a lot of them hold for cars. Consequently, the front parking lot is strictly for bikes, while the ‘boxes’ (as they call cars) are relegated to the back. James Carville is known for his famous quote, “It’s the economy, stupid”. Well, he understood the power of affinity with voters, and used that to help Bill Clinton focus on the economy during his presidential campaign.  We all know the results.

I often make the mistake of thinking that I understand where other people are coming from. I like to believe that I can quickly hear someone’s story, and just like a superhero, throw on a cloak of understanding and appreciation for their situation. I tend to believe that I can figure out what people truly want, and do so quickly. And, I think you all make the same mistakes like me. Establishing a common reference point with another person or group requires significant work. We have to immerse ourselves in the other party’s experiences in order to develop the ability to identify with them. When it comes to developing products that truly address customer needs, we will only scratch the surface if we don’t spend the time observing, listening to, and engaging our customers.

Ethnographic research is essential for developing solutions which truly address customer needs because it fosters the development of empathy for the customer. A lot of market research focuses heavily on general trends and averages, and often misses the boat when it comes to specific customer pain points.

A reflection on “As the Future Catches You” September 30, 2009

Posted by Nii Sai Sai in As The Future Catches You.
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Talk about getting a rude awakening! This book has changed the way I look at the world around me, and how I will make decisions in the future. It’s truly amazing that there is so much incredible stuff going on in science, right under our noses, yet most of it still remains obscured from our everyday lives. Several thoughts raced through my mind as I read the book, three of which stood out from the rest.

–          Genetically engineered food is here to stay, and will increasingly become mainstream

–          It is crucial that my wife and I raise our 3 kids with an awareness of where science is headed – genomics, proteomics, nanotechnology, etc.

–          How can I help my home continent of Africa to be a player in the changes that are taking place, rather than simply an afterthought?


Of course I’ve been aware of genetically altered plants and animals, but somehow I had never seen myself as being highly dependent on them. Yet I’m more convinced now that feeding the world’s ever-growing population will be a gargantuan task which could be eased by applying new science to how we ‘grow’ our food. I’ve even gone as far as to  wonder whether we’ll be using land to grow food at all in the future. Far-fetched, maybe, but then nothing should surprise us these days.


After reading this book, I know that I need to seek out more information about what is happening on the cutting edge of science and technology, and how the amazing innovations from science are being woven into everyday life. My wife and I have great aspirations for our three young children. We hope to help them pursue their dreams in life with uttermost dedication. Cool parents, right? Yes indeed! But how can we effectively guide them to the most promising careers of the future if we ourselves do not know or understand which way the wind is blowing? I remember my wife’s reaction when I told her that scientists had built a fully-functioning car the size of a grain of rice. Total amazement! Yet it’s humans who are pushing the envelope here, which means our children should have every opportunity to dream such big dreams too.


This leads to my third main thought stimulated by the book. Africa has long been plagued with problems that seem insurmountable. With the pace of advancement in science and technology, it seems as though the continent is being left behind even faster. However, there was a time when Egyptians were at the forefront of technology. There were incredibly powerful empires of Ghana, Mali and Songhai. There was vibrant trade with partners in the Middle East and Asia. But the current Africa is in need of an urgent tourniquet because we are a rather pale shadow of our past glory. We have not gotten into the ‘Knowledge Business’ on our own soil. We have thousands of accomplished scientists who ply their trade everywhere except in Africa. Our governments do not seem to give a hoot about that. We hear complaints about brain-drain every day, and those cries are certainly warranted and well-founded.


A lot of the aid flowing to the continent is to keep the engine running, barely, but not to build a totally new vehicle for advancement. Personally, I see the greatest hope for the continent in its youth. Whatever we can do to help Africa’s youth dream audaciously bigger will be of immense help. They too can be absorbed with genomics, proteomics, and nanotechnology, and create new fields of science themselves. I am therefore thrilled to see institutions like Ashesi University and the African Leadership Academy take root and gain support. We need more of those in Africa very quickly, because a few sprinkles will not do the trick. I have been thinking about how to create an exploration-driven summer program for high school students in Ghana, and am even more motivated now to make it a reality, really soon.

Designing to please September 30, 2009

Posted by Nii Sai Sai in Design Thinking.
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Design Thinking


Ultimately, the most relevant test for a successful product design is how usable and consequently impactful the product is to the users who need it the most. Edison was very sensitive to the needs of the people he hoped would benefit from his inventions. I just bought an iPhone, and so far I’ve been a very satisfied customer. It is extremely intuitive, and is by far the best phone I’ve used to date. I am sure lots of perspiration went into creating such a ‘cool’ product.


This summer I built a prototype of a software system for my employer. While building the prototype, I constantly wrestled with how functional the prototype had to be before I presented it to potential users. It would have been a much more productive process had I focused more on getting regular feedback from people during the prototyping process.  Another lesson from my summer project is that enough time and focus must be devoted to the prototyping process, and iteration must be the rule of thumb. The right people who understand the need or problem should be actively engaged in the iterative process of designing a solution.


A valuable piece of advice I noted down from the readings is that as much as having first-mover advantage is great, it is more important to have a ‘first-pleaser’ product which is designed to meet the needs of the target user, as well as stimulate them emotionally. I kept myself from buying an iPhone for over a year, mainly because I was already under contract with my mobile carrier, but I was definitely eyeing the product because it appealed to me in both dimensions of functionality and coolness.


Finally, it is very important for design teams to be made up of people from different disciplines, and who have different approaches to innovation as well as styles of learning.

Nii Sai Sai on Back of the Napkin September 23, 2009

Posted by Nii Sai Sai in Back of the Napkin, [Books] Visualization & Presentation.
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Look See Imagine Show! Who/What Where When How/How Much Why? These are all part of our lives on a daily basis, but we do not know how they fit into a structured approach to problem-solving. Dan Roam does a great job of explaining how to use tools we already have to solve problems. The first big revelation for me was about my own comfort level with using pictures as tools for solving problems. I always thought my drawing skills were just average, but quickly realized that those skills could be a big part of my problem-solving toolkit going forward. The book provided me with a way to embrace visual thinking based on my personal ability to actually capture ideas using pictures.
The idea of using ‘active looking’ as the starting point to tackling a problem echoes a key observation mentioned in class about effective design thinking . . . identifying the problem or need accurately. Given the overload of tools, frameworks, best practices, etc. that we receive in school, our instinct is often to role up our sleeves and dive right into the fun of developing a solution to a problem presented to us. However, it is only when we can accurately pinpoint the problem that we greatly improve our chances of coming up with a solution which actually addresses the issues at hand.
In today’s world, information overload is a real problem. That makes is much more critical that we can look at a sea of data, identify very quickly what is there, notice patterns and groupings, and then figure out how to connect the knowledge we’ve gathered to the problem we’re trying to solve. That sounds much easier that is really is, but it is undeniable that if we can present the ‘story’ of the problem visually, we can convey the key messages to people much quicker and get everyone on the same page. Pictures are equally effective in showing people what the solution.
The 6 W’s that Dan Roam talks about really help in getting to the heart of an issue. As I mentioned earlier, most MBAs like to solve problems, right away. Taking a step back to first work through the who/what, where, when, how, how much, and why, helps provide clarity and direction. These questions can usually be answered using visual thinking techniques. The process of sifting through data to answer these questions could be tedious, but then the ‘aha’ moments along the way culminate in an end product which draws the biggest ‘aha’ because it hits the bull’s eye.