Why Trying To Make Something Happen May Not Be The Best Idea


Saturday, 7.20pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The law that entropy always increases – the second law of thermodynamics – holds I think, the supreme position among the laws of Nature. If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell’s equations – then so much worse for Maxwell equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation – well these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the second law of Thermodynamics, I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation. – Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, in The Nature of the Physical World.

I am, it has to be said, quite lazy.

I dislike effort – if something takes effort then it seems like something that should be looked at quite closely – well before you start to think about considering doing it.

This is not the standard advice from most people.

Most people are can-do optimists who believe that they can overcome any obstacles as long as they persevere, apply themselves and never ever give up.

And there is a problem with this kind of thinking and to see why let’s look at diets.

I was listening to a talk by Dr Michael Greger introducing his new book How not to diet where he discusses the evidence around healthy eating.

Somewhere in there he talks about diets – which we’ve all been on.

And he says something like you can make anything happen when you apply enough of a forcing effect.

That made my ears prick up.

It’s probably not an actual term but that idea of applying a forcing effect to make something go your way probably resonates with you as well.

If you go on a low sugar, low carb, high carb, low fat – whatever diet – what you’re doing is forcing yourself to stick with a particular programme.

And when you do this two things happen – depending on how long you carry on.

In the first instance you start to see weight loss as the changes you make start to have an effect – one that shows up in the scales.

Let’s leave the debate around whether it’s fat, water or protein being lost to others – the point is that you see a result.

But then, when you come off the diet, the weight quite often comes back on.

That’s one effect.

The other is that if you stay on the diet it starts working less well – you eventually plateau and further improvement stops.

So what’s going on here?

In the first instance when you remove the forcing effect the system returns to normal.

In the second instance when you maintain the forcing effect the system adapts to the new reality and stabilises at a new normal.

Now imagine that a new CEO comes in and shakes everything up in your business.

For a while, things change – but if that CEO moves on and the people still stay – then eventually the old (bad?) habits creep back in.

If the CEO stays then the people start to change – some old, good people leave because they can’t work with the new person.

New people come in and a new stable configuration results – usually bringing with it interesting new organisational conflicts, issues and problems.

The system will always have its revenge in the end.

The quote that starts this post is about entropy – about how everything tends to disorder – and that is the natural state of things.

Which is why it’s strange that we spend so much time fighting entropy.

For example, if you do any kind of work it’s almost certain that you will be reporting on some kind of metric.

For example, if you send out proposals you probably have a spreadsheet where you list all the proposals you’ve sent and their value.

This takes effort – going through your documents and collecting the information – and it’s more than likely that the spreadsheet lags behind the actual number and value of proposals.

But this is normal – every month people ask for this and people do the work.

If your sales team don’t send in the numbers you crack the whip, change things around.

An alternative – in my perfect text based, Unix driven universe, would be to have all proposals simply processed by a script that pulled out the relevant numbers and sends an email.

Or even better – focus on the clients and let the proposals simply emerge from the conversations you have.


The point is that you don’t have to create an effort based system – you can create an effortless one.

But that also takes effort.

Some people live their lives and work like they’re always at the gym, on a treadmill, or pumping weights.

And if you’re always stood there holding up those weights, when do you get the time to relax, look around, and appreciate what’s around you?

Maybe, when you really think about it, forcing something to happen doesn’t work for diets in particular and life in general.


Karthik Suresh

What Should You Do When You’re Under Pressure To Deliver A Project?


Friday, 6.22pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Observe that for the programmer, as for the chef, the urgency of the patron may govern the scheduled completion of the task, but it cannot govern the actual completion. – Frederick P. Brooks, The Mythical Man-Month

It’s time to think about a better way to get things done.

If you have worked on any project you’ve probably come to a point where there is too much to do.

You’re overwhelmed with the amount of things that needs to be done, there just isn’t enough time, the client is insisting on the finish date and stress levels are climbing.

So what do you do?

If you’re like most people you talk to your manager because it’s their job to help you out.

And they do try and help – usually by looking around to see who else has some capacity and can spend some time on your project.

Seems reasonable, right?

But this is probably the single worst thing you can do to yourself.

Adding people to a project, even experienced, skilled people is going to delay your project even more than it already is.

And Frederick Brooks explained why in The Mythical Man-Month.

Adding people only speeds thing up when those people don’t have to talk to each other.

If you’re picking rice then having more people picking rice will get the job done faster than having less people picking rice.

It doesn’t work that way with knowledge work.

And that’s because you need to get people up to speed with what needs doing – explain the data set, explain your design, train them in the stuff you’ve already done.

And by the time you do all that it’s past the deadline you’ve done less in the last two weeks than you did in the previous two when you were all by yourself.

So, say no to help.

The next thing your manager will suggest is whether there are any simple tasks you can hand over to an intern or a junior employee.

This again seems helpful and reasonable.

But it’s not.

Someone inexperienced working on something will suck up time and make mistakes – mistakes that you will need to fix in the now much less time you have available.

It’s far better to build a tool to get the task done – even if it takes you longer to build the tool and even if you have to throw it away.

This is wisdom from the Unix philosophy and it will help you immensely when you’re under pressure and the problem you have is a technical rather than human one.

One kind of problem you can solve – with the other, you can only hope.

The final thing your manager will insist on is that everything needs to get done – no cutting corners.

But then again if you’re up against it that’s what you need to do.

Not cut corners exactly but ruthlessly cut away at the scope of what you’re trying to do.

The point is that there will always be things that are more important and things that are less important.

Leave the less important ones for later – your client will be happier at getting core functionality that works than getting an incomplete product that doesn’t run at all.

Here’s the thing.

If you’re under pressure stay away from people – focus on the work.

Because that’s something you can actually do.


Karthik Suresh

Why Do We Overcomplicate Things?


Thursday, 7.16pm

Sheffield, U.K.

While humans tend to be conservative, sticking with what they like, children are utterly conservative: they want things as they were last week, which is the way the world has always been. – Neil Gaiman

Ideas and concepts live in many places and it is time to turn back to TED for some inspiration.

Inspiration like this talk by George Whitesides, Professor of Chemistry.

Professor Whitesides tells us that while a lot of work goes into looking at complexity very little is done on simplicity.

Which is interesting – you can write papers and get very excited about complex things – but simple things are hard.

They’re hard because you can’t get away with fuzzy thinking – it’s simple to see when something is wrong.

Now, I was wondering about this in the context of innovation.

We often think that innovation is about something dramatically different, something entirely new, something radical.

But there it is often hard to tell whether something is new and wonderful or whether it is crazy and outlandish.

Which is why the quote that starts this post by Neil Gaiman is worth keeping in mind.

Imagine having to sell your child on the idea of vegetables.

There’s something hardwired in children to believe that brightly coloured thing are evil – vibrant greens and red are poisonous.

It probably has a perfectly sensible evolutionary history to it.

Kids are often quite happy eating the same thing over and over again, the same cereals, the same porridge and fruit combinations.

Try and surprise them with a vegetable curry for breakfast and see what happens.

The point really is that people don’t trust change, don’t trust your fancy new fangled ideas and really want you to just go away.

So, what should you do?

Well, you could ignore everyone and create the next generation of incredibly complex and world changing software and hardware technology.

As long as you realise that the odds of success are stacked against you.

But, if you follow Whiteside’s advice, you need to ask yourself if what you do has four characteristics.

First, is it reliable – can you predict what it’s going to do most of the time?

If something works then that’s a good start.

Next, is it cheap?

If something is cheap, Whitesides says, someone will find a use for it.

Then, do you get a lot of value for the cost – is it something that is actually very useful?

And finally is it a building block – can you stack it to make things?

Now, the image that comes to mind – the simplest, cheapest thing that exemplifies this is a brick – a literal brick.

It’s reliable – you know how it works.

It’s cheap.

You can stack it.

And you can build a cathedral with it.

In the world of computing the Unix philosophy is based on pretty much the same principles.

The thing is that nobody starts with something simple.

We start with a mess – and in our first attempts to understand or build something we make it complicated.

And then we learn and start stripping away – refactoring and redesigning – trying to make it simpler.

But that’s easier said than done.

Often it’s easier to throw everything away and start again.

But with the benefit of the learning you’ve gained along the way.

The answer, perhaps, to why we overcomplicate things is because that’s the easy thing to do.

Ironically, it takes thought and effort to keep things simple.

And that’s what makes it more valuable to us as humans.


Karthik Suresh

Are You Where You Should Be Mid-Career If You Are A Technologist?


Wednesday, 9.50pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The biggest mistake that you can make is to believe that you are working for somebody else. Job security is gone. The driving force of a career must come from the individual. Remember: Jobs are owned by the company, you own your career! – Earl Nightingale

Do you ever wonder if you are at the right place in your career – whether you’ve made the right choices along the way?

If you have, you’re not alone.

People have wondered about this for a while.

Which is why Living with technology: Issues at mid-career by Lotte Bailyn is an interesting read.

It caught my eye because it had the name Edgar H. Schein associated with it who, you will remember, is sort of a granddaddy of organisational development.

It’s a study of the MIT graduates from 1951, 1955 and 1959, over 2,000 in all with 22 women – so it’s skewed in all kinds of ways.

But here’s what matters if you have a technical background.

Unless you’re an academic or working in a firm that highly values engineering you’re unlikely to be in a good place if you’re still working an engineering role.

That is, if you’re an employee in a firm.

If you’re independent then things look better for you.

The image above shows how things tend to go for technical people working jobs by the time they reach mid career.

The first distinction is whether they are still technically focused or whether they have moved to more of a human focus – management in other words.

They might have also stopped trying to climb the career ladder and focus on other things that are important to them – like family.

The second distinction is whether they are high or low performers.

For high performers the route to follow if they want to stay technical is academia or professional engineering where their experience and doctorates will count for something.

In non-engineering companies they will not be recognised in the way they might want to be.

In those companies the high performers stop doing work and start ordering others around instead.

What matters is your place in the hierarchy – the higher up the better.

The corresponding roles for low performers is working as a technician or doing low level supervisory or line management roles.

That, then, is your unfortunate lot if you put work first.

If you don’t – then there are a couple more options.

If you’re good at what you do you could be kept on for your expertise – as a consultant to add value that isn’t in house.

If you’re less of a performer you might still be a useful pair of hands attached to a brain that can help out some of the time.

If you look at this image from an employees point of view it looks pretty depressing.

And actually, that’s the point.

As the quote that starts this post says you are in charge of your career – what you do at work is just a job.

If you aren’t recognised for what you do, or worse, you’re prevented from showing what you can do then you’re in trouble.

And need to spend some time thinking about what you could be doing.

The responsibility, however, also rests with employers.

The fact is that all the people in the various quadrants have something to contribute – but you have to be able to accommodate them.

And if you’re in a position where you make decisions about this kind of thing it’s worth remembering that the people this study is based on graduated sixty years ago.

This type of situation should be obsolete – but it’s still the norm.

Even that last quadrant – “part timers”, which to be clear is something that I put in and isn’t in the book, could be seen as dismissive and disrespectful of the work someone does.

I suppose if you were a good employer you would try and work with your people to help them figure out where they are, where they want to be and what would make them happy.

Or you could complain about how hard it is to get good staff.

Either way the world moves on.


Karthik Suresh

How To Share A Business Between Founders


Wednesday, 7.25pm

Sheffield, U.K.

One goal of law – as we learn in law school from the first day of contracts – is to deter bad behavior. – Marvin Ammori

It takes skill to work well with other people.

I, for example, like having control over what I’m doing.

I like being able to write and publish this post without really having to involve anyone else.

And that’s fine – but as an old friend said “To go fast, go alone. To go far, go with company.”

And that is true, you will achieve more when you work with other people.

But which other people?

And under what conditions?

This is where a 2013 paper by Thomas Hellmann and Veikko Thiele called Contracting Among Founders may give us some insights.

It’s a fairly symbol heavy treatment of the topic and deals with founders that are equal – in terms of skills and resources – but it brings out some of the main points we need to consider when thinking about working with others.

Let’s start with a team thinking about working together – possible founders all.

They can agree an up front contract where they set out in writing what each one’s shareholding is in the business.

Or they can wait and see how they work together before signing anything – a so called delayed contract.

The ideal situation is that either option results in a “dream team”, a group that works well together and where everyone contributes something essential.

The drawback of an up front contract is that you tie yourself to someone who they doesn’t do any work but is still entitled to a share of everything.

This results in a “dud team” and you have to figure out how to get out of it – which usually means buying the other person out with your money or money you borrow – and people usually don’t like lending you money to do that sort of thing: they want it to go into and grow the business.

The drawback of a delayed contract is that you put all the work in and your partner, who is savvier and more ruthless than you steals what’s there or walks away with the business leaving you with nothing.

In this case you have winners and losers and lots of angst and unhappiness.

Maybe some lawsuits.

Hellmann and Thiele point you to the story of The Social Network.

Now, if you have a dream team then you get an optimal situation – equal shareholdings where everyone is happy.

An alternative option, if you don’t know each other, is to tie the shares to a vesting schedule.

This is something where your share is released as you hit milestones or spend time in the business.

The advantage is that it’s in proportion to the value you bring.

The disadvantage is that the milestones or value cannot always be measured precisely.

After all, were you lucky or skillful when you made that enormous sale and hit all your targets?

The other thing we need to remember, which isn’t really touched on in the paper, is that your shareholding is really a claim on profits – and those profits come from customers.

And they come because you do something of value – these days mostly using your intellectual property or IP.

And the value that you’re trying to hold on to is the asset value of that IP and the cash flows from those customer contracts.

As models go this is probably a fairly good first pass at outlining the issues you will face working with other people.

You can see this working with entrepreneurial teams, intrapreneurial teams or plain office teams – the dynamics of work and reward play out roughly the same way.

One question is whether in a postmodern world where you work with networks some of this ownership angst can be managed through radical openness.

For example, if the first iteration of work you did created all IP under very permissive licenses such as the BSD licenses then you would have the option to split later and have each of the founders take the IP created so far and make what they could of it.

And that would probably help early customers as well.

Later on, when you know the team is working you can arrange a more tied in sort of contract.

These days it often makes sense to live together before getting married.

Then again, if you know, you know and you might as well tie the knot.

Or perhaps you should see lots of people before you settle down.

But the real point is who knows what’s going to work – there is no perfect answer.

It all depends on the situation and opportunity.

And you can’t reduce all that stuff to a formula.


Karthik Suresh

How Do You Make A Meaningful Difference?


Monday, 9.44pm

Sheffield, U.K.

I don’t think we’re yet evolved to the point where we’re clever enough to handle a complex a situation as climate change. The inertia of humans is so huge that you can’t really do anything meaningful. – James Lovelock

I am sometimes asked what the point is of doing an MBA.

In fact, a recent Economist suggested that interest in the degree was waning.

I suppose that’s because it costs you so much to do one that you wonder if you will ever make the money back.

There are two reasons one might start a such a programme of study.

One is for what it can do for you in the future – help you progress in your career, getting a better job or run your business more effectively.

For me, what it did was help explain the past.

The early phase of study – school and a first degree is about learning something useful – something that is useful to other people – people who are willing to pay you for your time and effort.

Then, after a decade or so, you’ve experienced enough of the world of work to know get quite jaded with the whole thing.

And that’s where the next phase of study is so useful – it helps you understand the experiences you’ve had.

Of course, that only happens, if you actually start that programme of study.

These two approaches, doing things because they help you with a possible new future, and doing things because they help you make sense of the past seem diametrically opposed.

So which one should you use – is it either / or, or both / and?

Take, for example, the book The future as history by Robert L. Heilbroner, written around sixty years ago.

It’s written during a time of change, post war, the rise of communism and the liberation of the world’s people.

Heilbroner argues that optimism is a fundamental trait of Americans – who take it for granted that striving leads to success – but that for most of history that’s not been the case.

Equally important in the history of the world has been inertia – a predisposition to cling to old and tested ways and a reluctance to engage with the new.

The book seems to be a lament of pessimism – a view that things must get much worse before they get better.

And looking back, perhaps he was right – the second half of the last century has seen its fair share of misery.

Change is not easy – it takes generations.

The easy optimism of people today is a result of a few hundred years of change – after all it’s the time when we watch A Christmas Carol again and are reminded how different the world once was.

And still is in many places.

The fact is that there are two kinds of people – the optimists who push and push – seeking to overcome inertia and get moving.

And there are those who sit back content that there is nothing they can do – watching the strivers and predicting their failure.

Take an issue like climate change.

It’s not easy – even someone like James Lovelock can’t see how to sort it out.

Can we avoid a climate crisis?

Or are we so optimistic that we believe we can live with the consequences?

Or – at least those of us lucky enough to be less affected?

The fact is that unless those who have the ability to make a difference act nothing will change.

The management of a company cannot blame everything on the workers – they are the ones with the control and the knowledge – and therefore the ones who must act.

Making a difference starts with knowing how.

And if you’re not sure how – then it’s time to start studying.



Karthik Suresh

At What Point Do You Stop Trying To Fit In?


Friday, 4.22pm

Sheffield, U.K.

You gotta keep trying to find your niche and trying to fit into whatever slot that’s left for you or to make one of your own. – Dolly Parton

Life happens one decision at a time – and at any given day you wake up and you are where you are.

Because of those decisions you made.

One of the things I believe is that if something is well designed you don’t need to force it to do the right thing.

For example if you have a good product that the market needs then you will be able to find customers, especially in this day and age.

Of course such a statement is unprovable – and not particularly helpful.

There are many cases where very good products were ignored for a long time before they were finally adopted.

Like the clockwork radio invented by Trevor Baylis, for example.

The challenge we all face is whether we do things the way we are told or the way we want to.

For example, any job you start, any organisation you join, any club you belong to, will have goals and rules and targets.

If the contribution you make is measured in terms of these targets and they can becoming all consuming in some cases.

These goals are there for what seems like a good reason – to provide direction and motivation – but they can also change the purpose of the organisation they are meant to be helping.

But, you say, surely they are the same thing – the goals you write down must match your purpose?

Not always.

Let’s take a hospital, for example.

The purpose of a hospital is to treat sick people and make them better.

The primary purpose anyway.

Let’s say you set a target that every patient must be seen within four hours – then what happens?

People start to focus on the waiting time statistics – and they do everything to make sure it’s inside the target.

That includes sending people to different hospitals or creating an application process to be allowed to wait in the first place.

Very quickly the primary purpose of the hospital becomes the management of waiting times.

And that’s not the same thing as treating patients.

This is an admittedly simple example but it’s a fact that the purpose of organisations are often subverted without them realising.

Deming used to write of many organisations being stable systems for the production of defects, for example.

Now, the point I’m trying to make is that when you try and fit into a plan or process something is always compromised along the way.

In many cases, especially in the early days of your career it can seem like you have no choice – you do things the way the boss wants or you find another job.

You spend your time forcing yourself through square holes.

And this takes effort – complying with the rules and reports and structures and processes can be exhausting and unrewarding.

But the alternative is finding a you shaped hole to go through – and that also takes effort.

You need to find out what you’re shaped like – what’s unique about you and why you’re different and where you fit.

That takes time and experimentation and error.

But eventually, if you’re lucky, you’ll figure out what shape you are.

And then it will be easy to squeeze through a hole shaped like you.



Karthik Suresh

What Is Your Way Of Getting Things To Change?


Wednesday, 9.30pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. – Nelson Mandela

I was speaking with a friend the other day and we were talking about children and how to relate to them.

A couple of decades ago your parents, our parents, didn’t really have much training before they had children.

They worked things out through a mix of folklore and advice from those around us – advice that came from memory rather than from knowledge.

Now, you and I have no such excuses.

We live in the world of the Internet, where there is information everywhere and advice on anything, if you choose to look.

And one of the perennial problems we have is getting things to change – things that we believe are not working as they should.

Some of the earliest work in this field is by Chin and Benne who came up with three basic ways to change things in systems that involve humans – social systems.

The first way is what is called rational empirical.

This supposes that if you and I sit down and you explain all the reasons why I should change what I’m doing then I will listen to you and change my ways.

I take it you’ve had a go at that with kids at some point.

The second way is called power coercive and it has to do with using power to get your own way – forcing it through because you have authority or the ability to get what you want done.

That’s probably been something you’ve tried as well.

And these two approaches are just as widely used when it comes to organisations, societies and governments.

The rational approach assumes that if you put the science behind something in front of people they’ll make the right choices.

If you know that smoking harms your body and if the information is on the packaging then the rational thing to do is stop smoking.

Information and the dissemination of information is the way that the rational way makes things change for the better.

The equivalent of the power coercive approach is laws and regulation and policy – the things that try and set out what you should do and what will happen if you don’t comply.

So, you have rules on where you can smoke, for example.

You have laws that legislate for clean air or waste management – where you want people to literally clean up their act.

But then under the same umbrella you have opposition and protest, trying to get politicians to put forward your ideas through lobbying or using direct action to make your case.

Then you have a third way – the normative re-educative way.

This approach relies on you taking a walk, a journey with other people and examining what they think.

You try and look at things from their point of view and reflect back what you hear.

What you’re looking for is an experience where the right way emerges from the social interaction with others – where you start to listen, understand, compromise and change.

Now, all these ways can lead to change happening, although it isn’t always clear whether the change is because of the way that was used.

You have examples of this in books like Freakonomics – where a mayor might assume that the drop in crime during their tenure was because of their strict policies and investment in the numbers of police officers on the street.

It turned out, however, that the drop might have actually been because abortion was legalised and many people that might have been born into poverty and eventually become criminals were never born in the first place.

You might have heard the phrase “poor boys go to prison, poor girls get pregnant.”

So, it’s not always clear where change comes from.

This model is also old and should be used just as a starting point.

None of these ways will probably work in a real life situation if used in isolation.

In real life you probably need good reasons to do something, you need to be in a position where you can make some progress and you need to be willing to put the time into taking people along with you, and even examining some of your own thoughts along the way.

The point really is that change takes time – and learning, from others and by you.

So, if you are going to spend your life working on changing something – make it something you really care about.

Because it’s not going to be easy or quick.

And it may not happen in your lifetime.

And make sure that when it’s all pored over many years from now you’re on the right side of history.


Karthik Suresh

What Do You Really Need To Get Right In Your Business?


Monday, 5.58pm

Sheffield, U.K.

A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world – John Le Carre (Spywriter)

Perhaps you’re a sociable sort of person – someone who goes out and meets customers regularly for a drink and a catch up.

Perhaps you like golf days and sports events and having a good time.

Personally, I’m not good at that sort of thing – which is why reading Simply better: Winning and keeping customers by delivering what matters most by Patrick Barwise and Sean Meehan is a reassuring read – and a novel one.

The unexpected message at the heart of this book is that people don’t do business with you because of the unique and special things you do but because you do the basics better and cheaper than the competition.

That is, actually, a little surprising.

And that’s because we’re all so used to hearing about the Unique Service Proposition or USP.

If you do a business plan there will be a section asking for your USP

A USP is important – but not in the way you think.

We assume that the USP is the reason the customer buys from you – they’re so overcome by the awesomeness of that one thing they can only get from you that they rush to get their money out and sign up with you.

Barwise and Meehan argue that we have this wrong in their short book.

For example, it’s important to interact with your customers.

They find that customers of successful companies and not so successful companies spend around the same amount of time interacting with customers.

The unsuccessful ones, however, spend time socialising while the successful ones get down to business and talk about how the customer is getting on with the service and product.

During execution the successful companies focus on getting the basics right – proving the category benefits that are taken as for granted by the managers in the firm.

The unsuccessful ones focus on the exiting and edgy stuff they have – while the successful companies walk away with the business by doing the core things well.

Successful companies understand what customers need and build that.

The unsuccessful ones build cool stuff and wonder why no one buys it.

Now, you may thing tagging such approaches as successes and failures is a little harsh – you could think of examples that break the rule – and you would be right.

But it’s not hard to realise that people keep buying from you because you deliver the basics they need at a price they’re willing to pay.

Being different matters before they do business with you – being distinctive and having a USP matters when you’re advertising.

It’s not the thing you build operations and execution around.

It’s a simple message really.

Be bold and creative and distinctive in the way you promote yourself.

But when it comes to execution, get the basics right before worrying about frills or extras.

Simply be better.


Karthik Suresh

What Would You Do If Everything You Owned Was Destroyed Last Night


Sunday, 8.24pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Life is like playing a violin solo in public and learning the instrument as one goes on. – Samuel Butler

Things get messy quickly when you start digging into the details of anything.

In yesterday’s post, for example, I went back to Deming’s words on quality – and how that is the place from which a sustainable business springs.

But, as Deming writes, talking about quality isn’t enough and the next thing he brings up is a flow diagram – a picture of how things happen when you look at something like production as a system.

That seems pretty clear – but it can hide some fundamental issues.

One way of studying something – your life, your business, your relationships – is to map out whatever is going on right now.

For example, you could look at a function in your business and draw a flow diagram from start to finish of what goes where and what happens next.

But what do you have when you do that?

You end up with a picture of reality – what you already have in front of you.

Now, maybe that’s useful and you can start to question that reality and ask whether something should be where it is or not.

But what you do, when you do that, is tinker at the edges, smooth out the surface.

You don’t look deep.

A different way to look at things is to ask what you would do if the whole thing was destroyed last night.

What would you do if you came home and your house was empty – if burglars had come and taken everything you owned.

What would you do if your business was taken hostage – all your data was wiped clean and you had nothing left on the company’s servers?

What would you do if your operations burned down – every last machine gone and every part destroyed.

Would you build everything back exactly the same?

Would you restock your house with all those Christmas presents and toys that have been languishing for years in the loft?

Would you make the same products in the same way?

Russell Ackoff calls this kind of thinking Idealized Design and wrote a book with the same name.

In that he talks about the process you should follow.

There are two parts to it – idealization and realization.

In idealization what you’re trying to do understand the mess and figure out what you need to avoid doing in the future.

And then you figure out what you do want.

Then, in realization, you make it happen – with people, plans and controls and management.

And I find all of that slightly positivist and depressing – a little too structured and engineered to perhaps actually work in the real world without a huge amount of effort and stress.

Let me explain.

It makes a lot of sense to ask what should be here? rather than what is here?

If you describe reality then what you have at the end is a poor model of reality – after all, reality itself is the richest model there is.

If you describe what reality should be like now you have a useful model – one that can be compared to reality and used as a source of questions.

For example, if you think about your perfect day and it involves long stretches of writing at a beachside cafe and what you actually do is spend every day commuting four hours into a hellhole of a city – then you have a model and a reality you can contrast and compare.

That kind of investigation into a mess results in models and barriers – things that are stopping you from having your perfect life or business.

Ackoff talks about asking what you want right now – not what you want five years from now and that makes sense.

But in the first chapter of the book he also writes about possible futures and how to avoid future destruction.

These are tricky things because we are very bad at getting calls on the future right.

But we are quite good at short term thinking – surviving right now.

The challenge is to find a balance.

For example, you could carry on commuting and wishing you were writing on that beach – nothing would change.

You could quit your job and go spend a year on the beach – which might be a nice year but not go down well with your other half, children or bank manager.

Or you could take a holiday on a beach for a week and see if you actually enjoyed doing that kind of thing.

I suppose the point is that execution is not that hard once you know what you need to do.

Most of us are actually pretty good at execution.

Two things slow us down.

The first is not knowing what to do.

The second is being held back by all the stuff and crap that’s in your life right now.

But here’s the thing – if you can’t figure out the ideal way to do something when you’re working entirely in your mind’s imagination with no barriers how do you think you’ll do it when you’re in the real world and held back by all sorts of barriers?

Change is hard and it’s not as simple as following a process where you first idealize and then realize.

At the same time it is as simple as first understanding what should be and what is – and then working out what you need to do.

Sometimes prescriptions and processes are really checklists and reminders – they are there to see if you’ve forgotten to do something rather than rigid routes to follow.

Because the one thing that you’ll find is that your road has to be your own.

Once someone else walks their road – it vanishes behind them.

Leaving only a story.

Which might not be true.


Karthik Suresh

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