Constructing Your External Memory System To Capture Knowledge


Saturday, 6.42am

Sheffield, U.K.

‘It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,’ says the White Queen to Alice. ― Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass

It never occurred to me to ask why I think the way I do, how I acquired knowledge.

Most people probably don’t – after all it’s equivalent to a fish stopping to ask what water is.

It just is – it’s all around you and its the way it always has been.

But, is that really the case?

I must be a product of my community, of a way of thinking that has been passed along through generations.

Attitudes and behaviors and stories – how we were at home, what we valued and what I was told by grandparents – all contributed to developing a world-view and set of values.

A culture.

And then I grew up and entered a different kind of culture – schools and curricula, shaped by vested interests and politics.

How do you start to make sense of all that – what kind of approach would you take to understand the bewildering mass of information that you find in front of you.

This was the challenge faced by the 8th Century Indian philosopher Adi Shankara.

I don’t know much about Adi Shankara – but my culture and community is inextricably linked with him and his work.

Adi Shankara was born in a time where the Hindu faith was splintered, with many schools of thought and competing approaches.

In his short life he brought together a number of strands of thought and established a philosophy, traveling across India, founding monasteries and spreading his ideas.

The community I come from is relatively non-materialistic – an ascetic approach, perhaps even monastic, is viewed as an ideal way to be.

It values knowledge for the sake of knowledge – learning is prized as an activity.

That, I suppose, is how culture works – ideas created more than a millennium ago affect the way whole communities think and act now.

I have been literally bathed in that culture – going through an initiation ceremony at Kaladi when I was around eight, the purported birthplace of Adi Shankara and the site of one of his monasteries.

But I have spent my life in a predominantly Western culture, at least intellectually.

What I received from that experience was first a positivist education.

Positivism essentially says that knowledge is derived from your senses and logical reasoning.

In other words, the truth is out there and you have to go and find it.

Later, I was introduced to an interpretevist philosophy – which says that people are complex and see things differently.

In other words, people construct their own truth and you have to try and understand what they see from the point of view of how they see it.

Now, if you are interested in this kind of thing – how do you help yourself make sense of it all.

Or, for that matter, make sense of anything big and complicated, with many strands of thought and competing, compelling arguments?

What did Adi Shankara do?

One of the things he developed was an epistemology, a means to gain knowledge.

And part of that was an idea that if you want to understand something – in his case a treatise – you need to understand six characteristics.

Let’s say you’re reading a paper.

The first thing you want to do is look at the introduction and conclusion – what’s the common idea in those two parts?

Second, look at the original message, see it as it’s written.

Third, look for what’s unique about it, what’s the novel concept in there?

Fourth, what’s the result, the fruit of that idea?

Fifth, what’s important about that point, about the concept?

And finally, sixth, can you verify this yourself – does it make sense to you and align with your reasoning?

These six concepts seem simple but they helped me make sense of some of the mistakes I was making as I tried to collect knowledge and make sense of it.

Take the idea of a copy of the original.

We are swimming in information now – you can find pretty much everything on the Internet somewhere.

If you tried to save it all it would be impossible – you just haven’t got the space.

You simply have to accept that everything you could possibly know is out there somewhere.

When you come across something worthwhile how are you going to keep hold of it?

One way is to make a copy and one of the oldest ways to do that is to keep a commonplace book.

Copy out the idea into your own book – perhaps by hand.

Now, that sounds a little crazed – why would you do that when you could just save the content?

Well, the increased effort will force you to filter, to keep only those things that you actually need to keep.

You can find anything you need later when you need it – but the point is to start keeping only what you want to study further.

Now, just storing it isn’t enough – you need to process that information and start to make sense of it.

That’s where sense-making tools come in, from diagrams and models that help you explore the concepts you’re learning to systems based on the Zettelkasten, a box of notes that help you to order and move ideas around until they fit together well.

In Adi Shankara’s time, one way of doing this was to create sutras, knowledge compressed into verses that could be memorized and passed on.

You had to unpack a sutra to understand it but the core of the idea was in there.

Then there’s the stuff you find yourself, through direct experience or reflection – which you can put into fieldnotes, a record of the stuff in your head, as jotted notes, short pieces or as longer, thought through articles.

The material you read and the material you generate are effectively secondary and primary research – and the first purpose of your external memory system is to help you collect them.

Then, the purpose of the other tools you have is to help you reflect and make sense of what’s in that stuff you’ve collected.

For me, what these ideas bring together is a system of working with knowledge that works for me.

I have a way of collecting relevant primary and secondary information – using fieldnotes and a commonplace book.

I make sense of that information with diagrams, models, and slips of paper – try to codify and compress it into forms that make it easy to remember later.

And, in doing so, I have the tools I need to generate knowledge and an empathetic understanding – supporting positivist or interpretevist approaches, depending on which one fits the situation best.

With this toolbox I am, hopefully, ready to listen and learn.


Karthik Suresh

On Taking Notes And Seeing To Learn


Friday, 5.44am

Sheffield, U.K.

He listens well who takes notes. – Dante Alighieri

I’m going to spend a little time on note taking.

Perhaps a couple of posts, because this is something I need to work through.

I was never someone who took many notes – I liked to read but the things I read went in and went out again.

It seemed to me that things I needed to know would turn up when I needed them – the right books seemed to appear at the right time.

And I think I can remember when I started to think about taking notes.

I was an average student at school, below average probably, perhaps in the bottom third of the class.

I made careless mistakes and didn’t really try that hard.

And at some point I started to struggle – with chemistry in particular.

I had some kind of block with chemistry – I just didn’t get it and it made no sense to me at all.

My parents sent me to stay with a friend, someone with a huge library and someone who introduced me to flashcards.

This person, I remember, had decided that he wanted to learn about stars and so he had a drawer full of cards with the names on one side and the characteristics on the other.

I went through my chemistry textbook and copied all the content onto small cards and then carried around the material, effectively memorizing the textbook.

I remember getting in trouble once – one of my teachers thought that the cards were a cheating aid rather than a study aid.

The flashcard method worked, for chemistry and other subjects.

I could memorize everything I needed and regurgitate it for the exam and that was fine – I did well in my exams as a result.

This method of taking the content and putting it into a form that made it easier to memorize the content changed my ability to study and pass exams.

But I wasn’t learning anything – I was simply getting better at cramming facts into my head for a purpose.

When I went to university the methods went with me and adapted to fit a new environment.

I used blank A4 paper and adapted my note taking system to the lecturing format and used a four color pen.

Each sheet had a code at the top – date/subject/page number – and that made it easy to add content in class and then drop the notes into folders, cereal boxes actually rather than carrying around a notebook for each subject.

I used red for main headings, blue for subheadings, black for content and green to circle or draw attention to points.

I carefully took notes all through the semester and at the end went through them and created a mind map using the headings.

I’ve always been slow at things like this but I never really realized that the teacher had a structure to what they were covering.

The content came at you day by day, like someone throwing a number of tennis balls at you and requiring you to catch them as they flew through the air.

The mind maps showed the structure and links between the concepts and made it easier to focus on the elements I needed to memorize – and that content then went onto flashcards and I went through the same process.

Read, memorize, write.

Once again, I did well in exams.

But I did no real learning.

My first work placement was perhaps the time when some learning really started.

I was introduced to the world of programming and I started reading all about how to do it better.

For the first time I had something to do and I could go and learn about how to do it, do it, look at whether what I had done worked or not and then try something different.

I still have some of the books I bought and, somewhere in my files, an article I wrote about this experience.

I think that was the first time I actually learned something – and I only learned it because I did something.

Then, there were several years of work where I learned how to take notes as a defensive art.

You have lots of meetings, lots of things to do and the only way to keep track of it all is to keep track of it all.

I filled notebooks with daily notes and lists and logs and actions.

I taught myself shorthand to keep up, first Greggs and then Teeline.

Greggs I’ve forgotten entirely but I still use Teeline from time to time.

Taking notes in the workplace was about accountability – about being able to look back and check what was said when and what was agreed.

My notes helped me move things on, and I experimented with methods like “Getting Things Done”, by David Allen – and spent a lot of time thinking about note taking and records for operational purposes.

The notes I took helped me manage large numbers of projects and make sure everything was captured and moved on – that decisions and next actions were clear and if anything went wrong it was demonstrably not my fault.

And it all worked – for a number of years until the diligent work started to seem a little pointless – why was I doing all this?

So, I went back to university and did some more studying.

The note taking methods I had from before were still just as helpful, but I had also discovered sketchnotes – a way to add visuals into my note taking.

This changed the structure of my notes completely.

Instead of lots of words that I was going to have to memorize I started drawing images that captured concepts that I could relate to other concepts.

It was hard to change – I was used to making sure I got absolutely everything down.

In fact, I had adapted my note taking to making sure I typed everything, got all the content down at the start of my course.

But there was something different about the situation I was in.

For the last 33 years I had taken notes either because I was trying to get a good score in an exam or because I needed to show that I was on top of things.

This time, when I went to university, I had nothing to prove.

I wasn’t there to get a mark or prove I could do anything – for the first time in my life I had chosen to do something because I wanted to learn about it.

The learning was what was important, not the grade.

I had no need to get a particular score or prove to someone else that I was competent – I could do that with other evidence.

This time, I just wanted to learn.

So, I relaxed, stopped trying to capture everything and tried to listen.

For the first time, really listen.

And I took notes of concepts and sketched them on the page and tried to link them together.

Here’s that first note – one that I made around a third of the way through the course.


I didn’t realize it the time, I couldn’t have, but this shift in thinking – from having to capture everything so I could reproduce it later to learning to listen in order to understand – would change everything.

The reason I had started drawing concepts in the first place was because I had a young child and I had started to use drawing as a way to communicate with him – an approach we called drawing a story.

You could use drawing to communicate with a three year old – but you could also clearly use it to communicate with thirty-year olds.

One of my lecturers saw one of my drawings – I had used it in a presentation – and introduced me to the idea of rich pictures and the work of Peter Checkland.

I learned about Soft Systems Methodology and used it for my dissertation.

Now, as we come to the present, these approaches to note taking, integrating drawing and connecting concepts have come together with some of the work I do, applying research-based methods to practical projects in industry.

A conversation with an academic introduced me to more work in this area, especially around concept maps and other methods of visual thinking.

The methods I have developed work well for me but then you have to ask yourself the question: why do they work well for me, and would they work for others?

And, of course, how does what I do now compare to what else is out there and how could I improve.

That question led me to anthropology as a discipline and writing ethnographic fieldnotes as a particular aspect of anthropology.

When you look at these disciplines you start to dimly perceive a model that can help you make sense of what is going on.

And in these posts I think what I have to do is try and illuminate that model a bit further – because I can’t see it clearly yet and maybe writing about it will make it visible.

I’ll have to start by going back a way and looking at one person’s way of thinking – but that’s for the next post.


Karthik Suresh

How Much Of Anything Can We Really Understand?


Thursday, 5.39am

Sheffield, U.K.

I never knew anybody . . . who found life simple. I think a life or a time looks simple when you leave out the details. – Ursula K. Le Guin, The Birthday of the World and Other Stories

There must be something built into us that looks for the easy route, the answer, the magic bullet.

I took the opportunity provided by a teaching moment to remind one of the small people in the house how to do long division.

At the prospect of having to do work there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth – surely it was just possible to arrive at the answer.

At least long division has answers.

Much of life is more complicated.

Life is complicated and mysterious

Is life simple or not?

I used to think it was simple – and then I started to read.

At the moment I’m browsing through old ethnographic studies written in the early 1900s that describe the places and communities I come from in India.

If you put aside the casual racism and focus on the observations you start to realize certain things.

For example, there was no technological innovation happening in rural parts of India.

The land was incredibly productive, the accounts wrote, but the people incredibly unproductive.

It took ten people to do the work in an Indian village that one person could do in England.

No one tried to change things because the attitude to life was fatalistic and there was a culture of abstinence – things happen because they happen and in any case we don’t need any more than we have.

These attitudes were barriers to progress, the ethnographies concluded.

At the same time they noted that there was no poor law despite the poverty.

In other words, you didn’t have a need for the state to look after destitute and hungry people.

The world they were describing meant that everyone had work – inefficient work but they were still able to sell their labor and the social system meant everyone was fed because of the mutual obligations in place between workers and employers and the way family ties and support worked.

In the 20th century, progress has brought us the things we see now – and life is different.

You could argue that it’s the opposite situation around the world – people feel more in control of their lives and options because they are better educated and abstinence has been replaced by consumer societies, where there is an abundance of everything at reasonable prices.

But in the richest of societies you have very poor people, including those who could not possibly live without state support.

In a world of abundance there is desperate poverty and decreasing opportunity to sell your labor.

Now, just making sense of those different times and people and places is going to be an exhausting endeavor.

The ethnographic studies are slices of a time and place – vital records of a past that has perhaps already disappeared.

And what we look at now is also in slices – perhaps we collect more data but I don’t know if we collect more value or insight.

After all, we know that people consume too much.

Is abstinence the answer?

Or do we need to make the same number of things and more but somehow reduce their impact on the planet?

Questions lead to questions and still more questions.

Perhaps the first thing we should accept is that our understanding is going to be limited in some way.

A small theory of something

When you’re trying to make sense of this mass of complexity facing you, then you probably have to start with a small bit.

To understand a people start by understanding a person.

To understand a person start by understanding how they think.

To understand how they think start by asking questions about a particular subject.

When you’re done you’ll get a thin slice of knowledge – an understanding of their world from their point of view.

Perhaps that knowledge will help illuminate more than just that point of view – it’s capable of being generalized into a broader statement about how that person will behave in different situations or how people like that person will behave as a group.

And people do this all the time – come up with a grand theory of everything – wrap these observations into general theory.

Then you run into conflict, into argument about method and how valid your generalizations are and what the evidence is for them.

All this can make thinking really quite difficult and it’s tempting to resort to gut feeling or shortcuts – rules of thumb.

Superstitions of one sort or another.

Or we can recognize the limitations of our thinking and try and adjust the way we approach the world to deal with the reality in front of us.

One person, one time at a time

I don’t think I am being particularly clear with my ideas in this post so far, but the purpose of having a blog is not just to put out clear and thought through ideas.

It’s also to work through the ideas in the first place – to collect them and see if there is something there or not.

And perhaps what it comes down to is something like this.

You have to learn to tell the difference between something that is emergent and the things that, when they act together, result in something emerging.

Take a company, for example.

You know there is a company out there – it has a name – let’s call it Elementary Industrials Inc.

But you don’t talk to a company, you talk to a person or people in that company.

It’s easy to think about Elementary Industrials behaving in a certain way – perhaps they treat their workforce badly.

But in reality, the bad treatment of workers is an emergent property – it happens because individuals within the organization work together in certain ways, influenced by the culture and behavior that has developed over time.

Individuals will have different contributions to make – people that are constrained by their situation have less of a chance to influence things than others who are less constrained.

In a very hierarchical society power is tightly controlled.

But even if people have more freedom they may put controls on themselves – worried about what others will think and how they will be judged.

If you really want to understand something, really see what that slice of life looks like from that one perspective you have to start by being willing to put aside the idea that things are simple – get ready to engage with the detail and complexity of real life.

And be willing to suspend judgment.

Start by seeing one person for what the are and listening to exactly what they have to say.

What I’m getting at here is that life is complicated enough in its own right without you getting your ideas and thoughts and judgments in the way.

To see what is really there you first need to get better at dropping your own interpretations and ideas about what is going on.

First you need to see and hear and taste and smell what is actually out there.

Terry Pratchett calls this First Sight.

Let’s look at that in some more detail in the next post.


Karthik Suresh

How Can You Start To See What Is In Front Of You?


Wednesday, 5.35am

Sheffield, U.K.

When we talk about understanding, surely it takes place only when the mind listens completely – the mind being your heart, your nerves, your ears – when you give your whole attention to it. – Jiddu Krishnamurti

Do you ever wish that life were simple.

Perhaps you actually believe that it is – that if you work hard and have clear goals the universe will make things work for you?

You just have to be positive.

On the other hand, has anything about the life you’ve lived so far actually been simple?

Think back to the crucial life decisions you made – what to study, where to live, who to marry – each of which have changed the course of your future.

Most of us, when we look back, will not see a straight line – important decisions made logically leading from one point to the next, always leading to success.

Instead, we will see a series of related choices, choices that emerge from and are constrained by previous choices and actions, and that are made in the light of potential future choices and actions.

For example, I grew up in India, a country where we are all told to become engineers.

Why engineers?

There are many reasons but the most important one for me was that studying engineering kept future choices open.

If you study something technical, something that is “useful”, then you can make a living.

Then you can figure out what you want to do with your life later.

This decision logic is shared, I am sure, by hundreds of thousands of other children right now.

And there is truth to this.

If I had studied something I really liked – like history or writing, then that would have been a different life.

How might that have worked out?

Perhaps well – with professional success and recognition.

Perhaps less well – with few prospects for jobs and a limited income.

But the real point is that looking at yourself, someone you know very well, and really understanding what you’re looking at is hard.

Really, really hard.

So how much harder is it to look outwards and see what is out there – really see it for what it is?

Tools for seeing

Mike Wesch in The art of being human writes about the basic tools of the anthropologist: communication, empathy and thoughtfulness.

These tools help you enter someone else’s world and look around.

You can’t tell what’s going on in someone else’s mind unless they tell you – and sometimes they don’t know what’s going on until they get the chance to tell you.

For humans thinking and talking is inseparable – the act of putting we think into words affects how we think about the things we’re thinking about.

The first skill we have to master, then, is how to communicate.

How, you might think that’s simple – communication is something you do all the time.

But it’s easy to do it poorly, it’s too easy to see things the way you see them and assume that others see things in the same way.

It’s easy to jump to conclusions, decide why people do things, assign motive to their actions and come up with explanations for why things happen the way they do.

For example, have you ever had to do a sales pitch that fell flat, that didn’t connect with the audience.

Did you walk away fuming, believing that the people in the room were clearly not intelligent enough to get what you were saying – they couldn’t see what was in front of them, what was obvious and true?

It seems natural in such situations to react emotionally, with anger and resentment when things haven’t gone your way.

And you could resolve to do things the same way the next time, double down on your message.

Or you could think about it – think about what just happened.

The second tool, thoughtfulness, is about reflecting – about going back over what happened and trying to understand it better.

Why did that pitch fail?

Is it possible that you assumed that the listeners knew something that they didn’t?

Is it possible that they didn’t know enough to know that their strongly held beliefs were flawed in some way?

For example, most people have no real concept of how their lives are affected by global markets.

If you buy something that has copper in it then the price for that copper depends on the trading history for that commodity – which so far this year has swung pretty wildly.

Now, if you understand markets but the person you’re speaking to doesn’t – they you might as well be speaking different languages.

Much of what you say will simply not be taken in.

But the person you’re speaking to may have strong opinions of their own.

For example, many people believe that house prices will always go up.

Perhaps that’s true in the long term, most things tend to see an increase in valuation if you look over a long enough period.

That doesn’t mean prices always go up in a straight line.

Just take a look at a chart of house prices and you’ll see up and downs, and whether the price goes up for you depends on where you enter and exist that cycle.

When you get away from things like markets, which are on the whole understandable, and get into other subjects like strategy or positioning or motivation – things get much harder.

And you’re only going to understand what’s going on by asking questions and thinking about the answers.

If you do this well then what emerges is understanding – an insight into how someone else sees what is going on.

That understanding is empathy.

Empathy is something that emerges from the way you talk to others and think about what they are saying.

Let’s to back to that sales pitch.

If you spend less time pitching and more time asking questions that help you understand how the people you’re talking to think and the kind of situation they are in, then you will be in a better position to work out how you can help them.

Being able to ask good questions is the starting point.


Karthik Suresh

The Three Challenges We Face When Trying To Understand Others


Monday, 5.46am

Sheffield, U.K.

Anthropology, n. The study of all humans in all times in all places – Mike Wesch, The Art of Being Human

What is anthropology?

Where do you begin when you need to understand how someone else is thinking?

What’s in their mind, what kind of approach are they thinking of taking, how can you work out what it means for them and you?

How can you make sense of what is going on?

The field of Anthropology gives us some clues.

Anthropology is about people, wherever they are, and understanding what makes them tick.

It is a very wide subject – you can think about people in terms of biology, archaeology, society and culture, or language – or all of them at the same time.

It is one of the very few sciences that look at societies across the globe, rather than focusing on Western culture.

But can it help us do better business?

Anthropology and business

You can think of any business, one you work in or are trying to work with, as a small society in itself.

A business is, after all, a collection of individuals who have come together.

Some businesses have a few members; they are a small tribe, while others have thousands, hundreds of thousands, and are like countries.

Each business will have a way of doing things that they have developed over time that works for them.

This way of doing things, this structure, may be almost invisible to them – it’s just the way in which things are done around here.

You can think about that structure in different ways – in the relationships, the politics, the economics and so on.

For example, think about your business – the way people are hired, the way decisions are made and the way money is allocated – and you’ll see how you’ve created your way of doing things that is going to be different from the business in the next building.

If you want to work with others, and you will have to do that as an individual or for your business, you have to realize that they are different from you and make an effort to understand them.

And there are three hurdles you will have to overcome – three tempting ways of thinking and acting that will stop you from being able to appreciate and understand the people you want to work with.

This is my way

The first of these is called ethnocentrism – being the center of your own world.

You know what you know and have beliefs and values that you hold dear – sometimes unconsciously.

You may have gained these because of your training and your experiences but, regardless of the source, they have a powerful hold over how you think.

A classic division in a business is the difference between engineering, accounting and legal.

If you have an engineer, accountant and lawyer in a room, each one will probably think that they have the most important job, the one that’s most vital to keeping the organization going.

Each professional speaks a different language, believes in different things and finds it very hard to see things in any other way than the way they see them.

What is a no-brainer for the engineering is a conundrum for the accountant and an impossibility for the lawyer.

What is an option for an accountant is impossible for an engineer and a loophole for a lawyer.

What you’re seeing in these situations is a clash of cultures, an inability to appreciate how someone else thinks and feels.

And that’s because they have to learn a particular way of thinking first.

My way is the right way

This way is called cultural relativism and comes down to being able to see things the way others see them.

You’ve heard of the golden rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

That’s an ethnocentric rule.

The platinum rules says do unto others as they would have you do unto them.

That’s cultural relativism in action.

Cultural relativism is taking the time to listen, to ask questions, to seek to understand what is going on from the point of view of the other person involved.

For example, one of the reasons engineers cannot understand why accountants don’t go ahead with an idea is because they don’t see how accountants look at ideas in the first place.

An engineer might think in terms of whether something works or not, and if they can make it cost effectively.

If something can be made better and you can make money by doing it then surely you should go ahead?

The accountant, on the other hand, may be thinking of things like the impact of the project on budgets and cash flow, and whether there is any room for a new expense at all.

How do these two individuals reconcile their differences?

You’re doing it all wrong

The most common approach people take is to try and get other people to change the way they do things.

This might be expressed in debates in meetings, in contributions to policy papers and in negotiations about calculation methods – but it comes down to one thing.

You’re looking at this wrong and it would be much better if you did it my way.

This approach almost inevitably leads to conflict as both sides dig in and nothing gets done.

Engineers carry on doing things the way they do them, looking for projects and creating business cases.

The accountants keep doing their thing, reviewing cases and rejecting them.

And nothing actually gets done or changed or improved unless someone else gets involved and makes the decision for them.

The way to change this behavior is by changing the way you interact with others – through something called participant observation.

When you look at someone else’s world from the outside then you can’t really understand it, it’s like standing on the beach and looking to see how fish interact in the water.

You get a dim view but to really see what’s going on you need to get your fins and snorkel and duck underwater.

If you’re an engineer the best thing you can do is spend a lot of time with accountants and learn how they see the world.

When you do that you’ll be able to go back to your own world and look at projects in the way an accountant would and put forward opportunities that they will see as attractive in the way they see them.

But you’ll never be able to do that as long as you persist in being an observer, at keeping at arms length.

This is something technology people find particularly difficult.

“Give me the specs,” they say, “And I’ll build you a system.”

The problem is that no one actually knows exactly what the specs should be and it’s only by getting involved that you will understand what people are trying to do and how you can help them out.

The first step to fixing a problem is understanding what’s causing it.

And the three things that stop us from being able to understand others are thinking that the world revolves around us, that the way we do things is the right and only way and what we need to do is change others to be more like us.

These ways of thinking lead to conflict and misunderstanding.

Now that you know what’s in your way the next thing to do is understand how you can fix this.

Let’s look at that in the next post.


Karthik Suresh

Can We Be Scientific In Our Approach To People?


Sunday, 6.52pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge – Carl Sagan

What does it mean to think scientifically?

One way of looking at this is to see a scientific approach as one that has a body of accepted knowledge and a collection of methods that are used by practitioners.

The difference between this and a non-scientific approach is something that only one or a few people believe in and where the methods are opaque or known to a few.

Or is it?

In 1962 Thomas S. Kuhn published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, an essay that observed that arguments around method were much more common among scientists who studied people than scientists who studied stuff.

Stuff is simple, you look at it, break it down, pour stuff on it, spin it, roll it, burn it… and all the time you learn more about it.

But that doesn’t mean stuff is easy to study.

Take electricity, for example.

Did you know that the battery was invented because people thought that electricity was like a liquid that moved through other things and so if you could bottle it then you would be able to store and use it later – like hot sauce?

The first batteries were literally built using jars, designed to hold liquid.

Kuhn argued in his essay that it was very hard to tell what was “proper” science – if you looked at it carefully you would have to accept that the way people looked at the world a thousand years ago was just as scientific as the way people look at the world now.

People don’t change when it comes to how they think – brains are pretty much the same design.

What happens is that the body of knowledge they take for granted is taken for granted for only as long as people agree it’s true.

Now, that is actually quite a revolutionary statement.

It means that truth is temporary – it’s the case until something better comes along to replace it – something that changes things fundamentally.

Kuhn called this a new paradigm.

Now, this approach works very well in the “hard” sciences – but when it comes to people the arguments about methods and paradigms have a habit of carrying on.

If you have a scientific mindset then you come at things from a view that there is a “right” answer.

And this doesn’t work with people.

Let’s look at how people who work with people deal with things.

Take lawyers, for example.

If you ask a lawyer a question, there will be a sucking in of the breath, a low whistle, as they contemplate all the ways in which things can go wrong and how you will argue your position.

If you have ever been in a commercial negotiation you will have seen how this “people” problem plays out in practice.

There is a temptation to get all “scientific” about your approach – to do lots of modelling and maths about what’s possible.

That’s why any venture capitalist wants your assumptions and five-year projections – that’s an attempt to make you apply the methods of science to your thinking.

In practice, however, people only follow the mathematical reasoning when you’re not worried if you lose or if the issues aren’t that important.

The people who are in the room when they make the decision are usually the ones who understand people.

But, hold on a second, you say.

Surely everything online is now about analytics – about the way in which people respond to A/B tests and isn’t that completely scientific?

If you look at it you’ll probably find that it comes down to people skills again.

If you’re selling something online then you need to answer people’s questions and put pictures on that look good.

It’s not that hard to do that, so now if you want to win you have to cheat.

People buy on price, but if you’re the cheapest you’re probably shipping straight from the manufacturers, probably from overseas.

It’s quite hard to tell from most listings where something comes from – people are trying quite hard to stop you asking the question – hoping you will buy the cheap option.

If you’re not the cheapest then you have to pay to climb the listings – to be “boosted” by paying to be higher up.

These techniques work when the item is cheap – a few dollars.

But when it comes to large items, a car for example, people are much more careful, but they’ll still go with impulse purchases.

Is this kind of thinking scientific?

From one point of view it’s a bunch of hypotheses that can be tested – you can try different things and see how people respond.

But it’s biggest application is when you’re buying stuff – we’re back to stuff again.

If you’re studying stuff or selling stuff then a scientific approach is very helpful.

As you get away from stuff and move into people’s minds, it gets harder – people can’t be broken down and studied like stuff.

Not their minds anyway – not what makes them them.

But obviously we have to try, which is where the arguments about method come into play.

What kind of methods should we use if we want to understand other people?

Let’s look at what the field of people has to say about this in the next post.


Karthik Suresh

How To Stop Being The Expert In The Room And Instead Be A Facilitator


Saturday, 6.32am

Sheffield, U.K.

I have a lot of empathy, and I think that’s where mothering starts. You are there to empathise and facilitate. – Viv Albertine

The world of experts is over – we just haven’t realised it yet.

Sometime in the last five hundred years people realised that knowledge was power and if you could bottle and control knowledge you could control others.

If you could make them believe that you were the expert and they were there to listen and follow what you said then you would effectively own them.

The problem is experts have a track record of making bad decisions.

Don’t treat people as things

There’s a great line in one of Terry Pratchett’s books that goes, “Evil begins when you begin to treat people as things.”

Just think about that in the context of a school, for instance.

Imagine you’re a teacher going into the traditional classroom many of us went to – the one where you stand in front of rows of students, and act as an expert, delivering information for the audience to quietly absorb.

Now, you may be the kind of teacher who knows the names of every student, knows about them and what they are good at and what they want to do with their lives.

Or you might be the kind that sweeps in, sees a sea of faces, delivers a message and sweeps out again.

Regardless of what kind you are the chances are that you have to think about students as statistics, as numbers, as things that have to meet certain standards.

If they don’t then you could get punished individually as a teacher or a school.

It’s clear to any observer that the education systems in most places have a problem – and well meaning people are trying to fix it – by treating everything they can see as a thing.

The buildings, the teachers, the students – they’re all things that can be measured and manipulated and moved.

Is it too harsh to say that has led to evil?

Perhaps – but you can hardly say that what’s happening to young people as they go through many education systems is good.

And “not good” is a step in the wrong direction.

What can we learn from teachers who are trying to do this better?

Help people learn the way they do best

In teaching there is a movement called “Flipping the Classroom”, which in essence is a shift from a lecture based environment where the teacher is an expert to a learning based environment where the teacher is a facilitator.

What’s the difference?

In a traditional classroom most of the time is spent delivering content – standing in front and lecturing to the students, with less time allocated for practice and discussion.

In a flipped classroom, less time is spent delivering content – and more time is spent on practice and discussion.

The details of how this is done can be found in other places – but I particularly like the material from Lodge McCammon about his approach to flipping the classroom.

We can also use this idea of flipping in our own professions.

Take consultancy, for example, a traditionally expert based profession.

Consultants get called in because they are the experts, or so they would like to think.

A consultancy sales pitch will often stress their expertise – try and get across their years of experience and superior knowledge of the subject matter.

This can mean they end up lecturing quite a lot during a pitch – spending most of the time talking about themselves.

How would you turn this pitch around.

You’d start by throwing out everything about yourself – the introduction and history and client list.

That will save you twenty minutes.

Get straight into the situation that you think the client is facing – and briefly describe what’s going on.

For example, let’s say your business is to help businesses sell better online, spend five minutes talking about what the key factors are that contribute to success when it comes to digital retail.

Then, open the conversation up – ask participants how easy or difficult each part of that is for them – let them tell you what is going on in their business.

With that simple step you’re moving from lecturer mode to facilitator mode.

What you’ll find is that people learn by talking things through – resaying things in their own words.

In any pitch you know you’ve gotten the message across when the participants stop talking to you and start discussing the idea themselves – putting it into the language of their business and using their terminology.

That’s when they really get it – really understand what you do.

The better you get at facilitating the conversation the better you will be at selling yourself.

Knowledge is worth nothing and everything

You can’t really charge for your expertise any more.

That’s because there are fundamental problems with the entire supply and demand economics of the knowledge business.

First of all, the supply of knowledge is endless – when you sell what you know you still have it.

Secondly, any one who doesn’t know what you have to tell them can’t tell whether it’s worth anything.

It’s like a book – you can’t tell if it’s any good until you’ve read it.

If you want to be paid for your expertise, then you will find that it gets harder in a world where you are not already the recognised expert.

And the experts get there by putting out lots of material for free – they show you everything before they ask you to buy anything from them.

It’s a strange thing, knowledge.

Its value comes not from giving it away but by helping others get it.

And when you move your way of thinking from seeing people as things to people as people it changes the way you help them get knowledge.

For example, the traditional language of marketing – funnels, prospects, hooks, leads – should make you very uncomfortable.

This kind of language dehumanizes people, it treats them as things, as objects that flow through your marketing system.

And this results in a huge amount of effort being put into manipulating people – and it’s done at every level – most obviously with the media and politics, as you can see if you simply read the news.

But that’s a different problem.

Here’s the takeaway.

When you help people learn, you’ll get paid in turn.


Karthik Suresh

Why You Only See What Is Really There When You Let People Talk


Friday, 5.43am

Sheffield, U.K.

…perspective is a lie. If I know a pond is round, then why should I draw it oval? I will draw it round because round is true. Why should my brush lie to you just because my eye lies to me? – Terry Pratchett, The Last Continent

Why do people get so upset when they feel that you aren’t listening to them?

It may be hard to spot this in adults as they maintain self control – but a child will always oblige and tell you quite loudly when they think this is happening.

But what are they trying to say?

Which comes first, the thought or the word?

When you see a finished product, a book, a film, you see it as a whole, as something that exists.

But, how did it come into existence – how did the writer work her way through the book before it existed?

A writer often doesn’t know what’s going to be on the page until it’s written down, the process of writing is also the process of thinking through the content.

A first draft is often the writer’s attempt to understand the subject herself – it’s in later drafts that it gets reworked so it makes sense to others as well.

In that sense, writing is a form of talking to oneself – a way to talk through an extended idea and figure out what it means.

That process, in miniature, is what happens almost every time we have an interaction with someone else.

We rarely enter situations with completed thoughts in our heads – with a clear model of what we think.

It’s the conversation, the process of finding words, that tells us what we think.

For example, let’s say your kids are doing something to make you cross – they’re being noisy.

You storm over to tell them off and they look up puzzled, they’re having fun and aren’t quite sure why you’re standing there looking angry.

Do you march over with a clearly formed idea – or does it emerge as you look around and speak your mind- noticing the messy room and the stuff that’s been thrown around and the fact that you went in just as one sailed off the sofa and landed with a loud thump?

Then, as the children get teary and talk back to you – do they have a perfectly formed idea of what they are going to say or does it emerge through the words, as they try and get across to you what they were doing and why you’re ruining their fun and are the worst parent in the world?

When you think about it the ability to verbalize – to talk about something – is one of the most fundamental things that distinguish us from animals.

It’s a strange thought – after all, you’d assume that first you think and then you say.

But is it possible that what you say actually tells you what you think?

Talking and tools

The sociological theory of Social Constructivism suggests that we learn things by interacting with others – which makes talking really quite important.

How we talk is also influenced by things like the culture we live in – which includes history and language.

Research from the 1930s talks about how you can see that very young children and apes act in the same way when they have to use a tool.

But once a child is able to speak what they do changes dramatically, as the ability to talk through what they’re doing lets them do things that we would see as uniquely human.

In fact, the more difficult the task, the more we have to talk about it to figure out what to do with the tools we have.

It turns out that we can’t move forward, not solve it at all, if we aren’t allowed to talk through the problem.

It’s like being able to talk creates a new, virtual world where we can experiment and figure out what’s possible and try multiple approaches before we select one to actually try out in the real world.

Now, this has huge implications for the way in which we do things – and explains why so much of our activity is wasted, especially in business situations.

Flipping the sales meeting

Teaching and sales have a few things in common – the most visible one being that one person stands up and talks for most of the time and then leaves a bit at the end for questions and discussion.

This “lecture” approach is the way we traditionally sell.

If you get a sales meeting you go in with a pitch – a deck you work through.

In a 60 minute meeting you might spend 40-50 minutes going through your presentation and then leave a few minutes at the end for questions.

The vast majority of presentations work this way with the salesperson doing all the “work” and with the rest being passive listeners.

This might seem like you’re working very hard but the fact is that the audience doesn’t really take much in.

And that’s because the lecture is an efficient way to deliver information – but it doesn’t really help the audience really process it.

In a school or university setting that’s ok – the teachers can ask the students to go home and do more work to get their heads around what’s been taught.

As a salesperson you can’t ask your prospect to now go back and study what you said and get a better understanding of what you just said.

The pitch was the opportunity – that was it.

If you didn’t walk out of there without getting the audience to understand what you were all about then you blew it.

And there’s one simple way to avoid doing that – pitch less and let everyone talk more.

Instead of walking in with a 50 minute pitch, spend five, ten minutes explaining what is really important and then help everyone to have a discussion.

Create an environment where people can tell you what they think, bounce off other people’s ideas.

If you create the time for people to talk through things, and refine their thinking as a group you end up with a much richer picture of what they actually need.

And now, when you walk out of that meeting you have a plan – something that’s emerged through the discussion rather than a pitch which you then need to follow up with increasingly desperate sales calls to try and move along.

Stop looking for what you think is there

It’s very tempting to enter a situation and apply your perspective – the way you see things – to the issue.

But the way you see things is not what they are – it’s the thinking you’ve brought with you, created by your own history and ways of being.

That results in you seeing things in the way you want to see them and, in extreme cases, it stops you seeing the world in front of you at all.

You have to open your eyes, and see what is really there.

And to see through someone else’s eyes you have to let them talk – that’s the only way to really understand their point of view – their perspective.

Let’s talk about how to do that next time.


Karthik Suresh

What Novels Show Us About The Way People Talk To Each Other


Tuesday, 5.40am

Sheffield, U.K.

An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind. – Mahatma Gandhi

What happens when two people talk to each other in a novel?

Take a detective story, for example – there are characters you will come across again and again.

There is the pompous, overbearing and arrogant superior.

And there is the fiercely independent protagonist, haunted by the ghosts of her past.

How do you build that story, show the conversation?

Dialogue in a story is built on conflict

A novelist throws away all the real-life words, all the “ums” and small talk and leaves in the dialogue that matters, which the characters shoot at each other like arrows from a bow.

Each line is meant to pierce, to wound, to provoke a reaction.

If the lines didn’t make you feel angry at one character and sympathise with the other the novel would be dull and lifeless – the conflict is what wakes you up and draws you into the story.

Behind every well crafted line, behind every armour piercing delivery, is an unspoken aftershock of implied intent.

The clueless person in charge, for example, has total belief in their own competence, has manoeuvred their way into a position of absolute power in that situation and acts with what they believe to be good intent towards others which, for them, is the same as what’s good for them personally.

The tortured hero, has a history of her own, with a background and experiences that makes her distrust people like the person in power – people who have betrayed her in the past.

And so she keeps things from the questioner, responding to questions with questions or carefully veiled answers, which in turn causes the person in charge to get angry and push further which in turn causes more resistance – and now you have conflict and the start of a story.

Does this mirror what happens in real life?

Making your point

Have you ever been in a meeting where a lot of people had a lot to say?

The topic was an important one and different people had different approaches and ways of thinking about it.

Each one barely listened to what others had to say, they were too busy waiting for their turn to say what they thought.

And, wherever possible, they were quick to point out flaws they thought they saw in the arguments of others.

This is perhaps the norm rather than the exception with meeting.

People often talk to win, not to share and listen and learn.

Decision is reached based on what the people who control the levers of power think, rather than what kind of consensus is reached.

The person with the loudest voice or the most dominating personality often carries the day.

This approach, it has to be said, is a masculine one, focused around the idea of winning.

But the opposing approach, a feminine one, has issues of its own.

A feminine approach may be better at talking and listening, letting people say their piece without leaping to conclusions.

But it’s not necessarily non-judgemental, politics and gossip and relationships will play their part in how the levers of power are distributed and how decisions are taken.

Unsaid or implied conflict is still conflict, whether aired in a masculine or feminine way.

Does this kind of conversation really help us understand each other better, or do we instead get better at arguing our own point of view?

Take your position and dig in

This conflict ridden approach to communication is the one we see most often all around us – from the home to the workplace to the people who run the country.

The process of debate and argument is supposed to lead to better, mutually agreed outcomes but all too often leads to simply showing you who is powerful and who is not.

Think about the last discussion you had with your child, for example.

Was it resolved through the peaceful use of a negotiated settlement or was it ended through exercise of power – with you imposing your will or them walking away and refusing to engage?

A refusal to cooperate is also a power play – one that people with less power can use quite effectively.

In fact, politicians these days have learned that their objective is not to do what is best for their people.

Their objective, as professional politicians, is to win.

So, they only talk to the people who will support them anyway, who agree with their views, and to people on the fence.

The other side is of little importance.

What matters is that you fortify your position – you dig in and stick to your guns, your arguments, whatever the attack.

But what do you do if you actually want to understand the other person’s point of view?

We’ll look at that next time.


Karthik Suresh

How Do We Tame Our Brains?


Monday, 5.36am

Sheffield, U.K.

Everything we do, every thought we’ve ever had, is produced by the human brain. But exactly how it operates remains one of the biggest unsolved mysteries, and it seems the more we probe its secrets, the more surprises we find. – Neil deGrasse Tyson

What do we know about our brains?

Dedicated people have spent and will spend lifetimes trying to understand that, working to generate science about what happens in the brain and how it works.

But there are some things that we can see for ourselves.

There is clearly something about the human brain that is different from most animals – we have extra bits that do things most animals don’t seem to bother about.

If we know there is a difference, how does that helps us understand the way we communicate?

Animals and their responses

The natural world encourages its inhabitants to focus their attention on developing the ability to stay alive.

In the wild most creatures learn to develop a healthy distrust of anything new.

They spend time looking for food, avoiding predators, marking and defending their territory and finding a mate.

Many species evolved to live in groups and some developed the ability to use sound to signal intent.

Birds sing to attract mates, monkeys call to warn others of approaching danger and lions roar to warn off contenders.

It’s tempting to superimpose human feelings – fear, anger, lust – onto animals but whatever it is they actually experience what we can see is that they use sound to express themselves.

And that sound making is not about reasoning and thinking but about making it clear what their feelings are about the situation – there’s danger approaching, I’m ready to mate, you’re in my space.

Realising that sound is first and foremost about feelings may help explain a whole lot about how humans miss the point when they talk to each other.

And you can first see this happening with children.

Children and their responses

A child’s brain comes with the newer components that make up a human brain, but at the beginning they’ve not been programmed yet.

A child responds instinctively from the moment it’s born – seeking food, crying when scared or hungry or tired, and quiet when it feels safe.

Once again, sound is inextricably linked to feelings in a baby and it that strong link remains as the child grows up.

If you have children you will know that you spend most of your time trying to help them get better at managing their feelings – and you know how they feel because their volume levels go up.

The few moments after a child wakes up, you as a parent wait for the first request to come in.

“Can I watch TV?”

If you say “No,” there’s an instant emotional reaction – a foot stamp, a frustrated outburst, maybe tears.

Children aren’t shy about showing you how they feel.

As we get older, these feelings don’t disappear – but we get better at hiding the way we feel from others.

Adults and their responses

We help our children and spend our time as adults working on taming our brains, managing our reactions to things that cause us to feel in certain ways.

We learn how to do this from others, from society.

We learn by watching what the adults in our lives do, modelling their behaviour.

Often, however, do we learn to manage our reactions or do we just learn how to hide them better under learned patterns of behaviour?

We learn, for example, that if someone attacks us we should call the police instead of fighting back.

That doesn’t stop us feeling angry and wanting to attack – but the layers of socialisation, the programs we have loaded into our brains over time help us respond differently.

As adults, we may learn how to mask our feelings with a veneer of behaviour – and the way we do that is often through language and habit.

Societies have developed habits over the years like having norms for what they consider good habits.

They’ve also come up with language that helps them express themselves more effectively.

But we still can’t control the kind of reactions and feelings people have when they see what we do or listen to what we say.

For example, you may have grown up with the idea that it’s good manners for a gentleman to hold a door open for a lady.

A modern, independent woman, however, may feel like she doesn’t need any man to open a door for her – that’s a patronising way of saying that she can’t do it herself – and gets angry at the gesture, which was intended to be good manners.

Or take a statement like, “Pass the salt.”

For a native English speaker, that’s rude – where’s the please?

People who speak languages where there is no separate word for please – where politeness is built into the structure of the language itself – find it hard to understand that they’ve caused offence simply by translating what they want to do into the equivalent English form.

With communication, feelings come first

If you want to get better at communicating with others and, in particular, getting better at listening, you have to realise that the sounds we make show the feelings we have first and foremost.

The thinking and rationalisation comes later.

The right word, the right reaction can cement a lifelong friendship while a stray word, the wrong gesture can permanently dent a relationship.

And the only way we can really understand the others around us, from our children to our co-workers is to take the time to listen to them.

And there are very few models that tell us how to do this effectively.

We should start looking for some.


Karthik Suresh

%d bloggers like this: