How Do You Know What’s Working And What’s Not?


Saturday, 9.16pm.

Sheffield, U.K.

Do you know how you learn? How does your brain work when it’s busy learning?

I remember watching a TED talk – can’t find the reference now – but it had a concept that stayed with me.

Our brains create new connections when we learn, literally rewiring our brains as we go through the learning process.

But, it doesn’t happen all at once. Learning or experiencing something for the first time lays a chemical trail.

Doing it more lays down more chemicals – more connections – more wiring that is related to what we’re doing.

This simple concept – the idea that how much we learn is linked to the amount of related wiring that’s built up in our brains – leads to certain logical positions.

1. Not everything in life is equal

When you’re young, you might have the time to do lots of things. You might be good at a sport, enjoy certain classes, be sociable.

Very soon, however, you start having to make choices.

At University, given the choice between playing competitive sports at a high level, achieving high grades and having a sizzling social life, you’ll end up picking any two.

And even that’s probably hard to do. You might end up putting one first.

2. Where you are is because of what you did

There’s a rule when you’re doing customer validation – trying to find out if your product has a real market or not.

Never ask someone what they would do.

For example – would you buy my new vegan rice cooker that also grills chicken?

You might say that you might…

But here’s a better question. What kinds of kitchen appliances have you bought in the last year?

That’s going to tell me a lot more about the kind of person you are and what you actually need in the kitchen.

What you’ve already done is the best predictor of what you’re going to do in the future. Once again, the trails you’ve laid down are the clue to the trails you’ll take.

3. It’s unlikely that things will work the same way exactly

Think of the last forest you visited.

Did you follow a trail? Several trails?

Were those trails identical to any other forest you visited? Were the trees obliging enough to be in the same places? The rocks situated exactly right?

The trails emerged – as a result of topography, footfall, perhaps plans drawn up by whoever was responsible for looking after it.

And the thing with lives and companies and organisations and countries is that they’ve been built up in this way.

In any company, for example, there is probably a general structure – a hierarchy of some sort – but the character and nature of the company is set by the unique people that make it up – and their lives and unique history.

And here lies one of the problems of organisational development.

Say you want to change something or do something new. Perhaps put in a new ERP system.

In many cases you need to change the entire way the organisation works to fit in with the new system. That’s easier than adapting the system to the organisation.

And it’s really hard changing the way people work. It’s easier to change the people.

So, if you really want to change the way an organisation works, throw out all the existing systems and install a new one. But if you want to succeed, you’ll need to get rid of the existing people as well.

It’s easier to just start from scratch.

And this is why startups work – the established paths and trails of organisations work for them where they are. But they’re the result of a unique set of circumstances at a period in time.

Some of the principles may be timeless but the methods and specific activities are less so.

4. It’s easier to build where it’s easier to build

I used to think that you could change things easily. Put in a new system or process and that would fix any problem you had.

That was naive. I know that now.

It’s like trying to change someones mind. You’re better off just not trying. The only mind you can change is your own.

When it’s just you – you can change things quite easily. Some of the time anyway.

When you’re part of a team it gets harder. The only way really is to spend a lot of time training people in the right way from the start.

And then you need to realise that they will adapt whatever you teach to their own way, so rather than expecting perfection, you need to make sure that they meet a minimum standard.

Working with others is often about finding the lowest common denominator rather than peak performance.

If you’re working with an existing organisation, as a new CEO for example, you need to spend most of your time first watching what’s going on.

What is happening right now. Where are the trails and how are they laid out?

Take the picture above. It’s pretty obvious where the activity is. Where things are working.

A wise CEO would look carefully at the existing situation. Then, instead of trying to put something new in, they’d look for a compromise – an accommodation – that improves things.

Like widening a trail that is used a lot to make it easier for visitors.

Big bang change is seductive in its simplicity. But it doesn’t work.

What works is building on what’s already there – whether it’s your own unique set of skills and experiences or that of an organisation.

That’s the way to keep growing.


Karthik Suresh

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: