Irritation to #Innovation. The Complete Story
Imagine you are waiting for the green light at a traffic signal. There is a huge bus in front and an auto-rickshaw who is trying to squeeze in between you and the bus. The light turns green and it takes a few seconds before you can move. All hell breaks loose. There is incessant honking by the vehicles behind. You swear, you curse, feel like getting out and slap the driver in the car right behind you.
It happened to Anusha Jaishankar too. She too ‘ranted and raved’, ‘cursed and cribbed’, but one day she decided enough was enough. She launched an initiative called Positive Strokes to influence people’s on-road behaviour.
What follows is the story of how her irritation turned into an award winning innovation. It is a complete story of passion, patience, persistence and pragmatism. A dogged will to make things happen.
If you have anything to do with making innovation happen in your organisation, please read the complete story. You will be glad you did.
What is the genesis of Positive Strokes? What triggered it?
One of my favorite things to do is to drive. As a family, we’ve been on more road trips than I can count or even remember. I have some wonderful childhood memories from these. I got my license to drive, as soon as I could legally do so. My love for the outdoors and the road only grew when I moved to the US.
When we returned to India, just watching the traffic made me nervous. At the same time, I figured that being able to get around by myself was critical to my survival!
I found myself cursing initially, and then getting on with the current culture. Finally one day, I caught myself honking unnecessarily as soon as the signal turned green! Something had to be done!
What prompted you to leave a nice job and get into this?
Honestly I had no idea I was going to get into road safety specifically. I had spent over a decade and a half as an engineer and a happy, contented one at that. It would have been easy enough for me to continue to do the same thing once we moved back to Bangalore – India’s Silicon Valley.
But our move back to Bangalore presented me with an opportunity to sort of ‘rock the boat’ and try my hand at something new. In the US, while I balanced my full time job first with my Masters degree education and then with kids, I was involved in various community oriented activities. Volunteering at the reading clubs at my child’s school, helping the Indian Hindu community with website building and maintenance, singing with my company’s community team at convalescent homes during Christmas, putting together teacher training kits etc.
I decided that I wanted to do more community oriented projects. I figured that since I loved being a parent and since I knew a thing or two about education, these would be the areas that I’d work in – children and education.
But circumstances and situations made me get involved in civic issues and civic awareness and particularly traffic.
Let us start from the beginning- How did you get the idea? What did you do? Who all did you talk to?
I first heard about ‘Positive Ticketing’ at a management seminar organized by my employer while I was working in the US – this was way back – probably 7-8 years ago. I’m not even sure what the topic was – but I remember being struck by the beauty and innate hopefulness of the idea and mulling over it later. I may have been practicing the philosophy even before, but this exposure definitely concretized the idea.
In any case, at that point, it was just something I’d be conscious of when dealing with people, my kids etc.
A few months of driving in India were enough to make me feel like something radical had to be done to change drivers’ mindset. It felt as if people morphed into automatons when they got behind the wheel. I ranted and raved, cursed and cribbed.
By this time, I was consulting with an NGO with many hopeful people working on lofty and seemingly unachievable dreams – somewhere along the way, I guess I felt that I could go beyond cursing and try to do something about the pain I felt each time I drove.
Around this time, I enrolled in a program for social entrepreneurs and one of the staff there put me in touch with an organization that works with children on civic education.
My immediate family was and continues to be my first audience. At some point, the idea of reinforcing positive behaviour surfaced. I spoke with the director of CMCA (Childrens’ Movement for Civic Awareness) about traffic in Bangalore, ran the idea of Positive Ticketing by him. He suggested that I attend a road safety week being organized in Bangalore. Despite the dismal attendance from the public at that event, the meet was invaluable to me, since it was next to the campus of the Traffic Management Centre at that time. I had my first peek into the technology behind the traffic then and spoke to a police sub inspector who showed me around and told me how things worked there.
I also had an exploratory meeting with Mr. Praveen Sood – Addl. Director General of Police then, who had spent a lot of time and effort on traffic in Bangalore in particular. He was instrumental in setting up the Traffic Management Centre when as the Additional Commissioner of Traffic Police earlier.
How did the idea grow?
By now I knew I wanted to experiment with Positive Reinforcement to change road users’ behaviour. I visited the Traffic Management Centre several times and learned the capabilities of the system and technology there. I discussed with my circle and came up with a few good driving behaviors that could be caught on camera.
As part of the social entrepreneurship program, I decided to write a paper about a plan for a road safety awareness campaign based on Positive Reinforcement.
I presented this to a group of judges made up of the staff and past students of the program and an audience made up mostly of the current students of the program. This was the first time this was being presented to a group – albeit a small audience.
What were the initial reactions to your concept? Positives and negatives, how did you handle those?
Initial reactions were largely of intrigue and curiosity. I’ve sensed varying degrees of caution in people’s remarks to me. One very forthright friend told me there was no way something like this could work – not with all the infrastructure problems India was having anyway. A company I approached for funding the program told me that this is not for India – maybe in the developed world… – maybe in a few years from now.
I also heard from a renowned traffic expert that any lasting change could only come from systemic change. Behaviour change is near impossible to accomplish.
I know this about criticism. Two sorts of people usually give it:
- those who don’t understand the inner workings of the program and may or may not want to know more
- those who are trying to look beyond and see possible pitfalls and are trying to warn you
I took it upon myself to address each and every one of these concerns – generally by writing/email. Writing helps me consolidate thoughts and ideas. I felt that this process helped me strengthen the program, spell out certain details that otherwise may not have been clear to others, and sometimes even to myself.
What were some of the major hurdles you faced?
One huge task to get this program off the ground was funding. Companies, I found, are willing to invest in certain domains of non-profit work than others due to their operating frameworks/guiding principles etc. Many are generally averse to something that has not been tried before.
This was a chicken and egg problem. I couldn’t show any significant results if I didn’t have the funding to back the program and no one was readily willing to fund a new fangled idea.
Were there moments when you were seized by self doubt? Felt like giving up? Wondering whether you had done the right thing?
Oh sure! Many times. For better or worse, it’s been ingrained in me that I should finish what I start. Invariably, there would also be other motivators like a fresh discussion to contribute to or a new angle to work on. This provided the required push from time to time.
There were also quite a few people whom I regarded as leaders and experts. They had told me there was potential & power in the idea. That certainly helped.
What kind of team do you have? How did it get together?
Sometime after I made the presentation to my Social Entrepreneurship program group, I spoke to the organization I was involved with (CMCA) and over a period of time, convinced them that this was right up their alley!
For the first year of activity, CMCA agreed to incubate Positive Strokes. During this first year, the program was run as a joint initiative of CMCA and the Bangalore Traffic Police. At that time, this was my team.
Now, my team consists of Bangalore Traffic Police staff and the volunteers who have shown deeper connect and commitment to Road Safety and Traffic Issues – these people make up the larger team.
How did you motivate others to consider this initiative?
The critical players for the program to be successful were the traffic police and an entity that would fund and back the program. It took 18 to 20 months of discussions, persuasion, strengthening and tweaking the program, to get this. After that, the most important thing was to get volunteers to sign up.
To this end, I did lots of talking and writing to various groups. Friends from companies I’ve worked with before gave me opportunities to meet and address groups in their companies. Word of mouth passed on from people who attended a session of volunteering. Interviews and press releases got us some calls asking to be involved in our next campaign.
In addition to personal invitations to join, we reached out to the audience base of the Bangalore Traffic Police and interns looking to spend a week to a month working on social projects.
One of the key groups that benefits from this program is the volunteer group. So we try to reach out to new groups all the time. Having directly reached over 1500 people in the one year of activity helps now, because every one of these 1500 people can potentially call out to a brand new group.
Why did you focus on the youth?
A few reasons:
- Many traffic education programs involve children. While children form a great captive audience, youth are the people who are driving now and it is important to reach these people directly
- Most people driving or riding vehicles on the road are the youth
- More than two-thirds of the population of Bangalore is youth
- Youth are probably not yet set in their ways
- Positive reinforcement works wonders on youth
How did you arrive at your insight about the youth?
When I became a parent, I read a lot of books and magazines and shared ideas and thoughts with a number of mothers about parenting. Implementing these ideas on my kids helped me confirm what I intuitively believed.
Not just children, but I think that most people like to hear something they did well – consciously or unconsciously, I believe that we will repeat that behavior.
As far as driving was concerned, this program had to reach those who had recently started driving, were young, impressionable and able to make a difference by their own actions.
What are your measurement criteria to determine how you’re doing?
This is a long-term behavior change initiative. Our ultimate aim is to have a less stressful, more pleasant ride. There are a few metrics that we’ve identified to help us stay on track:
- Number of commendations handed out
- Number of people we directly reach
- Perceived enforcement levels
- Actual enforcement levels (reduction in number of violation notices handed out)
You must have been evangelising the idea – how did you go about it?
Mostly identifying and talking to experts in the field, reaching out to old contacts and new networks that are working on similar related ideas. This is still in an early stage, so there are still people within our networks that we have not reached out to yet.
How did the traffic police respond initially?
From the get-go, the police have been supportive of the idea. In fact after I first approached them with the idea – more than two years ago, there was a period of inactivity from my side (as far as they could see). I had actually been looking for sponsors, waiting for funding and talking to people who were experts in the field. During that time, they themselves took the initiative to run a campaign based on positive reinforcement. This involved the police handing out little prizes (roses, key chains) to people whom they had stopped to check for drunk driving and who had not tested positive for alcohol. Not exactly what we wanted to do with Positive Strokes – but it solidified our belief that the idea had potential.
How did you persuade people to re-look at the issue?
Well, it was clear to me that the traffic police were looking for more solid data about the value of the idea. So instead of focusing on getting a software developed for the monitoring and recording of good traffic behaviour, I decided to get the program started using other tools and methods. Things that I could devise myself using existing infrastructure, and available freeware. Having a system in place to start doing work was critical. Around this time, we were also able to secure sponsorship for the program from Fastrack. This was an important milestone in the life of this program.
How did the government, media & general public react?
The program has received a lot of positive media attention – especially the junction event. Right after the first campaign ended, the Addl Commissioner of Bangalore Traffic Police went on air on a local radio channel and talked about the program. This in turn brought us some calls asking to be involved in the next campaign. Some of the volunteers who attended a Positive Strokes event have written about it to the groups that they belong to. Others volunteered to spread the message within their companies and groups.
What is your next step?
There are a few different areas we are working on:
- To have colleges and companies get a group together to run a Positive Strokes activity at different traffic junctions throughout the year.
(During the last junction event, a group of colleagues got together, picked a traffic junction to monitor and commended behavior at that junction. We’d like to have more groups of people from companies and colleges do this – a bit of social good and a lot of fun.)
- To have groups of people, from schools, colleges and organizations volunteer at the Traffic Management Centre and engage in the unique opportunity to work alongside the traffic cops to watch traffic behavior for themselves and commend good driving behavior.
- To get the Traffic Police to take on this activity as their own and run it as they do the violation recording.
We are looking for individuals and organizations – both colleges and companies who would like to participate in a Positive Strokes program and/or partner with us. We invite readers to follow our blog (positivestrokesbci.wordpress.com) and Facebook page where all current activities are announced.
Will this be your cause for life?
Initially, I had decided to dedicate 2 years to this cause. Now at the end of the first year of activity and having already spent close to 3 years on this project from its conception, I think my engagement is bound to be longer.
I’m also currently working on another initiative to bring educated volunteers who love Math to tutor Government High School students in the 8/9/10th standards in the subject. I have another idea that I am looking to explore in the next few years. This is my first foray into serious work for a social cause I strongly believe in.
If you were to start on this project afresh, what would you do differently and why?
One of the things that I missed, especially early on, was a likeminded working partner who could work through the initial teething troubles. If I had to start over, maybe I’d spend a bit more time trying to find someone with the time, energy and conviction to partner with.
What would be your advice to some one who is passionate about a cause and wants to act on it?
I’d say, get cracking! Research your field, so that you don’t end up reinventing the wheel, see if you can collaborate with other established entities, find a like minded individual to share your trials and tribulations with, and act! Nothing is worse than simply reconciling to something that bothers us immensely.