Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh

Last Sunday, Professor invited me for a workshop. The objective of the workshop was to come up with ideas to reduce waste reaching the landfills of Mumbai. You may know that there is hardly any space left for landfilling waste in Mumbai. We are not as lucky as Maldives where they could dedicate one or two islands just to dispatch and dispose the waste!

“Let me see Professor” I responded a bit hesitantly to his invite.

For the past several years, I have been attending such ideation workshops and I find that we end up with same suggestions and stories. Those vociferous attending the workshop dominate. Perhaps those who have something sensible to say keep quiet. Bureaucrats are generally negative and raise questions on anything that is said. Their motive in life is to question and keep questioning to make their presence felt – somehow. So at the of the brainstorming we end with same laundry list and leave with a pessimistic feeling that nothing is going to  change unless …(that list of unless is often longer than the list of ideas or what should be or could be done!)

Professor noticed in my tone a kind of disinterest.

“Dr Modak, this workshop is going to be different. I am conducting this workshop in a different format following the roles played by Lords Brahma, Mahesh and Vishnu i.e. the Trimurti”.

I never knew that Professor followed Indian mythology of the three supreme gods responsible for creation, destruction and preservation. I  decided to attend the workshop.

The meeting hall was full. There were around 20 participants. I knew most of them as they were stalwarts in the area of waste management. Some were experts in  waste processing technologies including subjects like waste to composting, waste to energy etc. Some were involved in policy formulation .Few were investors in in the waste sector. There were many community-based organizations working with the informal sector of waste pickers. And there were heads of solid waste management department from the Mumbai Municipal Corporation.

I thought of requesting the list of the invitees from Professor as I saw that composition of the participants was  very rounded to have a productive discussion. That’s the first important step for organizing a workshop, I said to myself.

I saw that the room had two tea/coffee makers with a sign” feel free to make – there will not be any servings”. I liked this idea. Its good to get up and make your own coffee or tea yourself during the discussions. It loosens you a bit instead of sitting stuck on the chair all the time.

There were four A0 size white sheets with three sheets on the walls of the room with a number of color pens placed on the center table.

Professor introduced the challenge of no more space for landfills. He was brief and flashed just one slide that had picture of chocked and smoky landfill of Mumbai. That picture spoke a thousand words.

I noticed that the participants were not asked to introduce. I decided to ask Professor later why this ritual was not followed. May be he did not want to create a bias by participants  disclosing the identity.

He divided the participants into three groups each with 7 members. I saw that he did use some logic to ensure that each group had participants with different expertise and perspective. Oh that is also important, Good job Professor. I said to myself.

Professor stated the first rule.

Rule # 1

Let us generate ideas first to solve the problem. But no one will question each other. Each idea will be accepted by everybody, and gracefully so even if you feel that the idea is stupid.

I could relate this rule to Lord Brahma – the Lord who creates.

Professor explained that the ideas were to be drawn on A0 map using the color pens. The structure to be followed was like a mind map

(I am sure you heard about mind map and done yourself exercises on mind mapping.

A mind map is a diagram used to visually organize information. A mind map may be  hierarchical and shows relationships among pieces of the whole. It is often created around a single concept, drawn as an image in the center of a blank page (like waste to landfill in our case) , to which associated representations of ideas such as images, words and parts of words are added. Major ideas are connected directly to the central concept, and other ideas branch out from those major ideas. In workshops, mind maps are generally drawn by hand)

Professor showed an example of a mind map prepared for the “plastic waste detox” for a city.

The mind map looked amazing.

Professor asked each group to create such mind map over one hour.

I saw that all the three groups got involved in ideation and started creating the mind maps around the problem of focus i.e. “reducing waste going to Mumbai’s landfill”.   No one was arguing as Professor had earlier warned. But still, I saw some participants having a smirk on their face when a stupid idea (according to them) was suggested.

After an hour of creation, Professor asked the participants to stop the work and assemble back in the “plenary”. He then announced the next step of ideation with Rule #2

Rule # 2

“Now let us question what was ideated. Question the science, data or evidence behind the idea. A destruction when ideas cannot be defended”

I could relate this rule to Lord Mahesha or Shiva– the Lord of destruction.

Now Professor did one cheeky trick. The three groups were swapped but only partially. So 4 members out of the 7 in Group 1 were moved to Group 2. And 4 members of Group 2 were shifted to Group 3. Similarly, 4 members of Group 3  were moved to Group 1. So essentially, mixed groups got formed in this process.

“Oh, so now each group has idea creators and idea killers. This is going to be fun”, I said to myself.

And indeed, the groups were more volatile questioning some of the “stupid” ideas and in the process “rationalizing” the mind map. The links that were “weak” as they could not be defended were chopped off and those ideas that were solid like a rock, stood the test of science, evidence and assurance of intended outcomes survived. Lord Shiva (Nataraja) was performing his “tandava” dance. I saw that many participants were doing several rounds of coffee/tea perhaps because of the anguish.

After another hour of “destruction”, Professor asked all participants to stop and come back to the plenary.

He examined all the three mind maps that were now rationalized by the groups. Oh, excellent work friends, he said in an encouraging tone.

“Now we move to the finale” Professor said in a solemn voice. Let is now build one single mind map from the three you all created. Follow Rule # 3 “

Rule # 3

“Harmonize the three maps to make a balanced and robust single mind map. Nurture and preserve all the good”.

I could relate this rule to Vishnu –Lord who preserves and administers

And lo and behold, this harmonization work was done collectively by all the three groups to come up with solutions that were rounded, robust and creative. The strategy reflected the perspectives of all the key stakeholders, their interests while tapping their expertise. More importantly, the action plan was agreeable to all  and all had a sense of ownership. The process took another hour.

The workshop ended with thanks to my Professor friend. And I was happy that I participated in this novel methodology.

Don’t you think that this approach will make our workshops more productive, in finding better solutions and more participatory? And instead of the usual rut, often leading to a chaos or “noise”.

When I went to thank Professor in his room, I couldn’t miss the picture on the wall of Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh. That picture was a new realization for me!

Brahma Vishnu Mahesh


  1. I recall “ZOPP” concept by GIZ, or equivalent “GOPP- Goal Oriented Project Planning”. Nice but limitations are “Poor Resource Pricing” and “Extreme low Liability Cost” when it comes to “Waste Management – be it Water, Emission, Solid & HW”

  2. Nice one. But I am curious to know whether in reality the solution was found. And if yes where is it implemented?

    Some years back I had visited the Gorai dumping site to find out the structural solution to the problem of the waste and the liquid flowing to the sea. I do not know whether it was implemented or not.

    Ashok Paranjape

    1. It was a fictional story to present how ideation workshops should be conducted. I have however applied this methodology in real life in india and other countries, for planning eco cities, designing policies for industrial pollution abatement and climate change. Results have been very good especially on implementation.

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