Why You Should Spend Your Time Looking At The Real World


Monday, 7.32pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away. – Philip K. Dick, I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon

I caught a bit of a conflict resolution podcast and what caught my ear was how the same principles lie at the heart of defusing an argument, whether it’s a hostage negotiation or a dispute between children in school.

In addition, some much overdue tidying uncovered a copy of the Psychologist which had a special collection on how people communicate.

The introduction to the papers, by Elizabeth Stokoe, introduces you to how powerful words can be.

In a hostage negotiation, for example, the objective is to keep talking until the situation can be resolved.

Each “talking” encounter is like a pass in a football game – a series of successful passes is needed to get the ball to where it needs to be to score.

When Stokoe and her her colleague, Rein Sikveland, looked at the recordings they found that when the negotiators used the word “talk” the negotiation often broke down – the bad guys didn’t want to “talk”.

But they would “speak”.

One explanation, perhaps, that the word “talk” has been so overused over time that people have become resistant to it.

Parent’s want to “talk” to you, teachers bring you up to their desks for a “talk” and managers set a time for a quick “talk”.

You often don’t end up feeling better after that.

“Speak” has fewer of those associations, so maybe people react less poorly.

The thing, Stokoe points out is that you’d never have seen this if you hadn’t listened to the real thing – the actual recordings of the encounter.

Too many people study things that describe the real thing – what Stokoe quotes Roy Baumeister as calling “proxies” – surveys, questionnaires and the like.

What we should be doing is spending more time pushing through the force field that separates us from the real world and looking around.

Doing what’s called “naturalistic observation.”

It’s not easy to do, clearly, and it’s hard to pass off as science.

But it is – it’s anthropology, action research, grounded theory and gemba.

Think of it like this.

You could look at any place on earth now and probably find a picture and descriptions and videos and recommendations.

But would you still learn something new if you went for yourself?

I think the answer has to be – almost certainly.



How To Spot When Things Are Going Wrong Before It’s Too Late


Friday, 7.44pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Who lets slip fortune, her shall never find: Occasion once past by, is bald behind. – Abraham Cowley, Pyramus and Thisbe, XV.

Every once in a while it’s worth spending some time thinking through all the ways in which you can fail.

That might not be seen as a very positive thing to do – surely you should be setting big, hairy, ambitious goals and focusing on daily rituals and looking up and ahead to where you want to be.

Except that if something trips you up it’s probably going to be down there on the ground.

So, when you’re ready to actually do something and start a journey towards that distant, better future, you ought to consider taking a look at what the road looks like.

These ideas are explored in Adrian J. Slywotzky’s book The upside: The 7 strategies for turning big threats into growth breakthroughs.

The book is about strategic risk – the kind of thing that can sneak up on you when you’re not looking.

Slywotzky argues that we’re familiar with certain kinds of risk – risks like those from natural hazards, financial risks from markets and operational risks to our organisations.

We’re less familiar with strategic ones – things that change the game we’re playing.

I’ve selected six ideas that seem useful from the ones he presents in the book – ideas that seem worth testing against your business or even your career.

And the way to test them is to ask questions. Questions like:

What makes you unique?

This is actually quite a hard one to answer.

Lots of people come out with generic answers – we’re nice people, we are passionate about service.

But most people could say that, and most would find it hard to point to any evidence that they were unique.

What makes you unique might actually be that you are oddly passionate about – or you’ve worked for a long time and developed a certain skill.

Or it could come from combining two or three things that are themselves ordinary but together create something unique.

As Scott Adams did, combining cartooning, engineering and humour to create Dilbert.

How well do you know what your customers need?

This is something that is very easy to forget.

If you’re an employee your manager is your customer, not your boss.

If you don’t know what they need then how will you serve them effectively?

Too many people wait to be told what to do rather than finding out what their customers need and creating it for them.

And businesses do that all the time – they start by being interested and then, over time, get complacent and forget about customers.

Who then move on.

Are you obsolete?

The fact is that things become obsolete all the time – especially things you know.

Who needs cassette tapes in a world of on-demand media?

If you aren’t learning all the time then you’re in trouble – and heading for the scrapheap.

One of my favourite questions is “When do you stop being a promising young person?”

Hopefully you’ll still be one well into your nineties.

Is there a mega competitor out there?

Amazon anybody?

Retail is being shaken up by Amazon and Ebay in no small way – it’s transforming the way transactional business is done and how we get goods we don’t need at prices we don’t mind paying.

When someone like Amazon enters everybody selling tat has to shut up shop because Amazon can sell more tat 24/7 than you can.

Does anyone know what you do or did any more?

We’ve all got those people in the workplace – the ones who do something but we’re not quite sure what.

Some businesses are like that as well, they were once promising but now they’re fading – perhaps never to return.

Is your market going nowhere?

Are you stuck in a career or business that has no growth, no development?

You don’t make enough to invest and create new capability or get new customers – but you still have enough to get by and survive – but it’s a poor deal.

It’s no fun being trapped in a situation – one you can’t get out of.

The time to act… was some time back

The thing about risks like these is that once you can see what’s happening it’s often too late to do anything about it.

It’s going to take time to sort out the situation – dig yourself out of the hole you’ve unwittingly fallen into.

The solution, according to Slywotzky, is to get better at designing for risks – being aware of and preparing for risks – perhaps even being ready to profit from them.

I’m not so sure about that.

Often the risk that comes along and derails everything is not the one you’ve prepared for.

As they say, armies spend their time training to fight the last war.

What’s important, perhaps, is a healthy sense of paranoia.

Run scenarios where things go wrong – and think through how you would respond.

Train and learn and learn and train.

And, as the Scouts would say, Be Prepared.

Some Strategies To Deal With Frustrating Situations


Wednesday, 9.37pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Success is not built on success. It’s built on failure. It’s built on frustration. Sometimes its built on catastrophe. – Sumner Redstone

When I started this blog I described how it built on things that I learned trying to communicate with children.

As the kids grow older, the lessons become harder to learn – because how we, as adults, need to act may conflict with how we naturally act.

For example, we have thoughts about rules and discipline that we take for granted – we have views on whether children that act badly are doing it for attention or to manipulate us.

And we don’t question these beliefs.

But we should because it’s something that repeats not just with children but with coworkers, with politicians and society at large – after all, when do we stop acting like children inside?

Ross W. Greene’s book The explosive child sets out some ideas that are worth considering – and perhaps they will help in one situation or another.

One of the things Greene talks about is the need to understand how a request to a child progresses to a “meltdown”.

Let’s say the kid is watching TV.

You ask him to stop and come and eat breakfast.

The child is enjoying the show and enters an “early lock”, saying he want to finish.

Now you as the parent are at a crossroads.

Do you insist that he stop or do you leave it?

If you insist it goes into an “advanced lock” where the child is now frustrated and angry

You both go head to head with an argument – perhaps you shout and demand that he listen.

And then you have a meltdown.

This is something that many parents have experienced with their children.

And you don’t need to look far, especially among the current crop of global politicians, to see the same behaviour.

The problem that we face is that we are trying to get a child to move from his or her agenda, Agenda A, to our agenda, Agenda B.

And this change can be jarring, like changing gear from sixth to first – causing your engine to, as Douglas Adams out it, “leap out of your hood in a rather ugly mess”.

So, you need to figure out how you can get someone to shift agendas – and that requires working the gears in between the two extremes.

But how do you do that?

Well, there are two rules to remember.

The second, Greene says is to think clearly in the middle of whatever is making you frustrated.

The first rule, however, is to stay calm enough to do rule number 1.

These rules are not limited to parents.

How many managers have you seen fly off the handle at their staff – and how is that a useful way to act with other people?

Now, how can you deal with these situations?

The first thing to realise is that you need to be watchful – as a lifeguard you need to be looking out at the sea to spot someone that needs saving.

The earlier in the process you intervene the more likely it is that you’ll have a good result.

And that means working on the request, early lock and crossroads stages – to adapt and change your behaviour to empathise, distract and engage your child before the locks set in, engage and he loses control.

But clearly you can’t be perfect and understanding all the time.

That’s why you need three baskets.

A is for stuff that’s unsafe – you’ve got to do something about these behaviours, or at least change the environment to minimise the chances of them happening.

B are the things you choose to work on – the areas where you can actually work with your child to improve how they make choices.

And C – leave those alone – they don’t matter and you can come back to them when they are important.

Greene starts his book by quoting Brownowski who said you “master nature not by force but by understanding.”

The key to working with your child is developing understanding.

And that’s the key to working with everyone else as well.


Karthik Suresh

Understanding Variety: The Key To Delighting Customers


Tuesday, 7.15pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Indian religion has always felt that since the minds, the temperaments and the intellectual affinities of men are unlimited in their variety, a perfect liberty of thought and of worship must be allowed to the individual in his approach to the Infinite. – Sri Aurobindo

If I were to pick out one book that has affected the way in which I have analysed problems over the last decade or so it would be Understanding Variation by Donald J. Wheeler.

Wheeler is an expert on statistics – especially the bits that tell you how to figure out when something is really happening and when it’s just random – where there’s a signal and where there is just noise.

Having a framework based on understanding variation helps you in two specific areas.

One is when you’re trying to understand whether a particular sequence of numbers is telling you a story or not.

Is it possible to figure out when you should do something and when you should just wait and sit on your hands?

The answer is, arguably, yes.

For example, it’s quite useful knowing how to use technical analysis or being able to have an approach to trading cryptocurrencies.

If you have an understanding of what is sometimes called a mean-variance framework you can make decisions that, over the long term, will probably deliver good results.

The second area where understanding variation helps you is when you make things.

Things like bread and cars and keyboards.

Everything you see, really – all the products that help you live the way you do.

The key thing to understand here is that the people who make products want to minimise variation.

If you go to the supermarket and pick up a loaf of bread you want to know that it’s the same as every other load of bread with that packaging.

For example, a Kingsmill 50/50 loaf needs to look like the love child of white bread and brown bread.

It can’t have seeds in there, or decide that some slices should be longer than others or perhaps triangular.

That sort of variation is not going to make you happy.

This is something that’s so obvious and taken for granted that we don’t really think about the thinking behind this.

Once upon a time you went to a tailor and had clothes made for you.

Now you go to a shop and pick up a size that fits – and you expect that there is an order to things – a waist size of 36 means just that – not 40.

Although that said – it looks like manufacturers have realised that they sell more jeans to men if they label the ones that have a waist of 40 with 36 – but the point about consistency, whatever the measure, still stands.

Now, variation is all very well when you’re dealing with impersonal things like things and numbers but it’s very different for situations that involve people.

It’s just that no one told us that.

If you go into any office there will be someone trying to standardise and writing policies and procedures and insisting that a System be used to record everything.

New managers think that this is their role – to monitor and control and structure and tell.

Administrators and auditors and support services try and make things follow a Process – creating forms and templates and libraries of things.

All of which sounds very sensible when you come from a world where managing variation leads to good things.

Surely, if you all do things the same way then you’ll deliver great service and the customer will be happy?

It will not surprise you to learn that the answer is no.

Which is why in the next few decades I expect to increasingly draw on the work of Professor John Seddon and the books and papers he has authored in which perhaps the most important point is the one he makes on variety – leaving the world of variation behind.

When you’re making things you want everything to be the same – you want to reduce variation.

When you’re serving people what you want is to be able to deal with variety.

Now, this is something that is hard to explain to people who aren’t ready to hear it.

People who want control, who want to install a CRM, who want a sales process or who want to create job roles and descriptions – these people aren’t going to listen to you.

Because they know they’re doing the right thing.

Even though they aren’t.

Now, here’s the extreme version of this argument.

Think of a society that once wanted everyone to confirm to a particular idea of the perfect.

Anyone who didn’t fit was eliminated.

Remember what happened?

The thing about people is that they are different – individual and unique.

If you want to serve them then you need to understand them – deeply.

And that’s difficult to do.

But all the literature has the same underlying message.

If you want to talk to kids, first learn to listen to them.

If you want to help someone going through a tough time listen to them.

But more than that – learn not to judge and correct and direct.

But to see.

What they see.

And it’s probably the hardest thing to do, for some of us anyway.

But if you do it’s like going from seeing films in black and white to colour – it’s not something you’ll ever go back from.

You won’t put people in boxes or processes or structures or roles.

Instead you’ll collaborate with them, work with them and learn more together.

It’s a big shift, moving from selling boxes to understanding your customer in their full technicolour dreamcoat variety.

But if you take the trouble you’ll have no problem delighting them with what you offer.


Karthik Suresh

The Art Of Selecting, Studying And Analyzing The Facts


Monday, 9.01pm

Sheffield, U.K.

History is made every day. The challenge is getting everyone to pay attention to it. – Adora Svitak

I’m browsing through After the fact: The art of historical detection by James West Davidson and Mark Hamilton Lytle – an introduction to how historians work and how they painstakingly construct a story from fragments of fact.

What they do is dig – dig and dig and select and discard and keep – like archaeologists except in libraries and collections rather than in mud and dirt.

This idea of digging is interesting – something that applies to anything worth doing.

The more I read and learn the less I trust the idea of shortcuts and hacks as a way to do things.

Many people probably disagree and point to how they have successfully leapfrogged everyone else to become rich/famous/powerful using tricks and strategies they are willing to teach you as well for a modest fee.

But the truth is that to get good at anything takes time – it takes effort and it takes perseverance.

Which is why a culture that focuses on speed and movement may miss the point altogether.

In fact the whole thing has echoes of the Hare and Tortoise story.

As I write this election fever is gripping the nation.

And as it does the stories come out, the news and soundbites and revelations that affect how we think about what is going on.

For a few years now governments have been worried about interference in elections by other states.

People are concerned about rising levels of fascism, racism and antisemitism.

Environmental regulations are being eroded and pollution is getting worse.

Well, that’s what we get from the news and social media anyway.

Now some of this might be true and some might be false and much may actually be at some point in a continuum.

The problem is that most of us don’t know or don’t have the time to get to know properly.

So, should the ones who do know fight fire with fire – fight misinformation with misinformation?

Or should they counter with education and information – put the record straight?

It turns out that most approaches have their complications – and they aren’t really the answer to these problems.

The best way to prevent the extremes that result from shallow, fast thinking is to have an educated, literate population in the first place.

And this comes down to being able to critically analyse what is going on.

Davidson and Lytle give an example of how historians analyse text.

What is written, they argue, tells you as much about the person doing the writing as what’s on the page.

They suggest taking a text through four stages of analysis.

First, read it for what it is – for what it says on the surface.

Then, examine it for what it doesn’t say – something quite hard to do if you haven’t got the drafts that were created previously.

If, however, it puts forward a point of view without examining alternative ones you can question whether it’s balanced or not.

Anyone can put forward an argument but it takes someone who is very sure of their position to set out both sides of a case.

The next step is to look at the intellectual context of the document – what is the reasoning that underpins it.

Finally look at the social context of the document – who is the audience and what is it trying to do?

Right now, for example, there is a lot of focus on how the Liberal Democrats are using statistics in their campaign literature.

On the surface this says that they are running a two-horse race against the Tories – no one else is in sight.

What it doesn’t say is that the argument is based on responses to a rather tortured question – although the question is printed in small type.

What’s the intellectual context here – perhaps that they need to be seen as one of the larger parties rather than a tiny minority?

And what’s the social context – is it that they want the media and the public give them an elevated standing and status because of their position and stance on Brexit.

All the parties face similar issues – as they put out one sided material designed to shore up their core support and appeal to those on the fence.

At the same time who do we trust?

For example, with Labour constantly accused of antisemitism, can we trust the entry in Wikipedia that has nearly 400 sources giving you the facts but not a clear answer?

Or do you focus on a line that suggests that coverage like this is an attempt to use the media and “weaponise it against a single political figure just ahead of important elections”?

The thing with media today is that it’s tribal and fierce and raucous and vicious.

That doesn’t make it right.

Davidson and Lytle’s essays on slavery are especially hard to read – stories that remind you just how badly people can treat other people when they are given power.

Politics is, more than anything else, about power.

And the only thing that can defeat power is the truth.

Which is why you and I must get better at finding it among the facts.


Karthik Suresh