Patnaik focuses on questions, tackling problems of ambiguity


Dev Patnaik

Emily Perper | Staff Writer

Dev Patnaik, author and founder of hybrid strategy firm Jump Associates, will speak on the challenges of ambiguity in innovation at 10:45 a.m. today in the Amphitheater.

A pioneer in the revolution of empathy, Patnaik posited in his book, Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy, that in order to succeed, companies need to focus on the experience and perspective of their clients.

Patnaik said he looked forward to revealing some of his latest ideas during his Chautauqua platform.

“I’m going to try and (present) at Chautauqua something that is not a rehash of my book,” he said. “I figure it’s a good place to put out my latest thinking and do something a little bit more experimental.”

Like many of its patrons, Patnaik finds Chautauqua to be an extraordinary place. Patnaik values the forward-thinking nature of the Institution. He said he appreciates foresight — not only the ability to fulfill a need but knowing what needs to fulfill.

“Chautauqua was TED a century before TED, just in terms of a place that brings together people who are preternaturally curious,” he said.

He added, “There’s a word in Sanskrit that I love — jignasa. It comes from the same root … as gnosis, or knowledge. (Jignasa) basically means you need knowledge like other people need food,” he said. “I love going to places where … folks have that jignasa, that kind of hunger for knowledge. Chautauqua’s awesome for that.”

Patnaik brings a unique perspective to Week Eight’s theme, “Sparking a Culture of Creativity and Innovation.”

Rather than focus on answers, Patnaik will examine questions.

“How do you figure out the right questions to ask? How do you tackle the ambiguity?” he said. “That’s a big part of innovation.”

He distinguished between ambiguity and complexity.

“All of the problems that companies are facing, or government or social institutions — they’re problems of ambiguity, rather than problems of complexity,” he said. “Unfortunately, we just spent the last 75 years building all these social structures that are really good at solving complexity. If you want to put a man on the moon — that’s a really complex problem, but the goal is really clear. … The stuff that we’re dealing with nowadays, whether it’s fighting the war on poverty or having a nuclear energy system that doesn’t melt the planet … It’s something that we’re not set up to deal with.“

Patnaik worked in India for five years, and during that time, he experienced frustration with a company that struggled to look forward into the future.

“(The company) R&D was not allowed to make new products unless marketing asked you for it,” he said. “Marketing would only ask you for a product when the competition already had it.”

Patnaik explained that he thought, “There’s got to be a way to figure out what these guys were going to ask us for in a couple of years, so we can start to put it together now.”

He created his company, Jump Associates. Its mission is “figuring out where the world was going and getting started on it,” he said.

“The fact that we do all of this innovation and strategy work is kind of a front,” he said jokingly. “It’s a front for what’s really interesting, which is, how do you expand human potential?”

This mission starts with Jump Associates’ employees. Patnaik focuses on “creating an amazing place where folks love to come to work and where people feel like they think they’re capable of more than when they walked in the door.”

Jump Associates employs between 50 and 60 people in two offices, one in San Mateo, Calif., and one in New York City. In 2008, The Wall Street Journal named Jump Associates one of 15 Top Small Workplaces.

With a radical approach to empathic interaction, Jump Associates uses several methods to pop the “Jump bubble.” Patnaik described the company’s version of a foreign-exchange program.

“Someone from the client company will come and work at Jump Associates for six months, and someone from Jump Associates will go and work at the client company for six months,” he said.

He added, “We’re walking the talk about having empathy for our clients.”

Jump Associates’ clients include General Electric, Procter & Gamble, Nike, Target, Pepsi and more — companies that are “trying to do something big, trying to do something different,” Patnaik said. “(Jump Associates is) forming a relationship with the company and then helping that company to do something transformative.”

Patnaik’s personal fascination with ambiguity ties directly to his work with his clients. One of the company’s new clients, Pepsi, wants to promote healthy eating habits around the world. Patnaik accepted the challenge to accomplish this goal with a company notorious for selling salt and sugar.

Patnaik pointed to Target as a company creating community.

“It’s amazing how many parents take their kids to go walk around Target on a Saturday when the weather’s bad because it’s a place to hang out,” he said. “There’s a socially good impact in what these folks do.”