What Are The Steps To Take To Fill In The Story In Front Of You


Wednesday, 5.33am

Sheffield, U.K.

It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story. – Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind

In the last post in this Listen book project I looked at tools for taking notes in order to understand a situation and start to work towards creating methods for doing this effectively in the situations we face.

A field that has much to offer when it comes to understanding how this is done is ethnography – the branch of anthropology that studies a people, society and culture from their point of view.

At the heart of an ethnograpic study is fieldwork – you must go out and immerse yourself in the society you are studying, become a part of it and try to experience it as they do, while remembering that you are also there are an observer and must eventually describe what is going on.

These two roles can be tricky to manage.

And that’s because your ability to use tools and methods will first depend on the environment you’re entering.

Your environment determines your options

Let’s look at some situations where you might need to listen carefully to make sense of what’s going on.

Your children or other family members might be distraught, wanting something or worrying about something.

You might be preparing for a sales meeting with a prospect you really want to land.

You may be dating someone from another culture and this are about to experience your first family festival.

You’re researching inner city gang culture and have arranged a meeting with a leading local gangster.

In some of these situations you’re not going to be able to bring along a notebook or a computer.

People will think you’re rude if you stop in the middle of festivities to take notes on what’s going on.

Or your gang member will have conditions on what you can record or say because they don’t trust you yet.

In these situations all you can take away is what you see and hear and remember in your head.

In many other situations, however, it is helpful and even expected for you to take notes and even co-create a record of what is going on.

For example, when my children were young and were really upset about something I found that trying to talk to them through the flood of tears didn’t really work.

Instead I would start drawing pictures of what had happened – something we called “drawing a story” and use that to talk through the situation.

But before we look at co-creation let’s look at how an ethnographer might go about entering and listening to what is going on.

What should you notice and when?

In their book Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes, by Robert M. Emerson, Rachel I. Fretz and Linda L. Shaw, the authors describe the kinds of things you should be jotting down as soon as possible.

The model below tries to describe the approach they’re recommending.


The first thing you have to do is tune into your sense impressions, see what is there for what it is and rely on all your senses for information.

For example, in a business context you can get a feel for culture – you’ll face different approaches if you are in a boardroom filled with suits than if you’re in a plantroom talking to operators.

What’s around you has a huge impact on what is happening.

With your children, for example, before you react to what they do you should probably tune into how tired they are, how late in the day it is, whether it’s before or after school.

All these things will affect how resilient they are and how much or little it will take for them to get upset about something.

From a cultural context are you entering a quiet, sober affair or is it a noisy, joyful thing?

Now, it’s worth focusing this on situations where you are trying to work with someone else or a team of others – perhaps you’re trying to do business together or work on a strategy to solve an issue you are facing.

What you’re going to do is focus on events and happenings – the flux of every day life that the people in face in the situation that you’re jointly exploring.

For example, if you sell digital commerce solutions you want to explore what they’re doing and facing when it comes to online sales.

And that means talking through their experience, the events they remember and how they see things as happening.

Now, if you spend all your time talking you’ll miss something important – which is what they see as important.

What you want to do is get the people involved to pick out what they see as crucial.

For example, if you’re trying to sell your solution you may spend most of your time talking about technology and features and benefits.

But the important thing you’d have learned, if you had encouraged others to tell you what they saw as important, might have been that the people who control the budget are not at the table and you really need to persuade them that you can guarantee payback within a year.

And here’s the crux of the skill you need to have to listen – you have to let people tell you what they see as important but you might have to infer it from what you see them seeing, what they talk about and how they seem to feel about it.

The questions you ask and the connections you make will help you make sense of what’s going on – they will help you see what kind of meaning the people involved are making of their situation.

Now, why is this crucial.

It’s because no one cares what you think – they’re immersed in their own worlds thinking what they think.

If you want to work with them or understand them better you have to start with where they are, not where you are.

You have to truly see things from their point of view.

Making a change

Now, when you are at a point where you are able to appreciate someone else’s world from their point of view – that is when you can add your own perspective to the picture.

For example, if your child is upset and you tell them what to do you’ll be astonished to find that you haven’t helped at all.

Instead, encourage them to talk to you – listen to them describe what’s in their minds and what’s upsetting them.

Listen without interrupting, except to ask questions and don’t deny their feelings by saying things like, “That’s not the case now, is it?”

You’ll find that the process of talking with you and seeing that you are really listening will help to calm them down and then eventually, when they’ve got everything off their chest, that’s when you might be in a position where you can add what you think, make suggestions that they could consider for how to move forward.

This process is no different when you’re dealing with adults – bar perhaps the crying and tantrums.

Although those can happen as well.

The point is that before people will be ready to listen to what you have to say they first need to know that you care.

And one way of caring is to give people the time to talk through things with you, to get it clear in their own heads how they think and feel about something.

If you listen to them then they will, eventually, be ready to listen to you.

Now, I’ve spent a lot of time so far in this series of posts talking in general terms about listening and how important it is.

For this to be useful I think we need to look at a number of specific cases and the kinds of issues you might face, and I’ll need to draw on my own experiences over time.

Let’s look at some of those situations over the next few posts.


Karthik Suresh

How To Help Your Brain Cope With Managing Information And Complexity


Tuesday, 5.42am

Sheffield, U.K.

The two offices of memory are collection and distribution. – Samuel Johnson

I came across a book called Mental models: Towards a cognitive science of language, inference and consciousness by P. N. Johnson-Laird that makes a few interesting points about the way we think.

The first point has to do with the way in which we see the world.

As human beings we build internal models of what is out there in the real world and then we manipulate these models in our minds to figure out what might happen before we make a decision.

One example is your model of a TV set.

In your head, perhaps you think of a TV as a box with a remote and menus to select the things you want to watch.

If you’re more technically minded, however, perhaps you understand how liquid crystals work and the way in which they affect polarized light and how they are arranged in a modern display.

You don’t need to have a model in your head of how liquid crystal displays work in order to operate your TV – you just need a model of how the remote and TV interact.

Many of us take this process of modeling and reasoning for granted – it just works.

Johnson-Laird’s book tries to look at this in more detail, digging into the computational structure of thinking.

At times, however, it feels like he is trying to understand how to work a TV by starting with the chemistry of how you build a TV – and I’m not sure that is as helpful as you might think.

Not for you and me trying to think more clearly, anyway.

You don’t necessarily need to understand the grammar and semantics of language to express yourself and understand something.

What gets in the way, assuming you can read and write, are the limits of how much you can hold in your memory.

Johnson-Laird suggests that the limits of working memory is the main obstacle we face and what we need to do is increase those limits, but seems to discount tools that can help you do that.

Which seems odd – after all, the most powerful tool we have for increasing our memory is the humble pencil.

The thing that lets us write stuff down.

Once we have something on paper we no longer need to hold it in memory, we’ve freed up space to think about other things.

It’s the equivalent of RAM and a hard disk in computer terms – we store stuff on paper so that our brains can take in more stuff.

For a few thousand years we’ve used writing as a way to increase our memory capacity but the actual processing is still done just in the brain – we haven’t increased capacity there at all.

Which is where computers come in.

There are a few places where they increase our capacity for thinking.

The first big benefit is in mathematical modeling – they’re perfect for creating models that involve numbers.

If you learn how to build effective spreadsheet models, for example, you can do things like scenario analysis and work out what might happen under a range of conditions.

The next benefit is that you can use them to represent what you do in your brain when you listen and understand – but in a more easily retrievable way.

You may have heard of the memory palace technique – where if you want to remember many things you think about them in specific locations, combining the memory of the thing with a spatial memory to bind it more closely in your brain.

Over the last few years I’ve spent more and more time taking digital notes – sketchnotes, concept maps, cognitive maps and so on.

And what’s become clear as I do this is that being able to take notes in a way that spreads out all over the page makes it easier to remember what’s going on because you have the geography of the thinking working for you in addition to the words that represent the thinking.

For example, here are some notes I took while listening to a conference.


They’re not necessarily useful in themselves to anyone else but me – but they’re an extension of working memory.

All the things in there are things that I would have to either strain to remember or accept as forgotten over time.

And that brings us to the third benefit of using tools to think which is that we can take something like the picture above and express it in a form that we can talk about with others.

Johnson-Laird talks about this as a “procedure” and there are overlaps with what Peter Checkland called a holon, “a set of activities connected together in such a way that the connected set makes a purposeful whole.”

I like the idea of using a programming approach to lay this out – a set of statements connected in a flow like in the example below.


What I’ve described in this post is an emerging way of working with situations that I use.

It’s very me-specific, based on tools that I like using, flows that work for me and in situations that I face.

It’s contingent on my context.

You may need or prefer or use different tools but the map above is one way to ask questions about how you do what you do.

For example, an alternative to the concept map picture I’ve put above is to use a Zettelkasten – a slip box full of notes.

Niklas Luhmann is the sociologist who made this famous – but historians of his material wish that he had put dates on them, because they can’t easily work out what order he wrote stuff down.

The modern equivalent – a blog or wiki – is different because it is time-stamped, but of course they are also different because they’re not just for taking notes but also for presenting thoughts… but that’s going to take us down a different track.

Now, as I continue to work on my Listen book project I need to see if I can use the methods I use to make sense of the methods suggested by others in other disciplines to make sense of situations.

And perhaps the starting point there is to look once again at ethnographic field notes in the next post.


Karthik Suresh

Do You Have To Understand Everything About A Situation Before Acting?


Monday, 5.42am

Sheffield, U.K.

There comes a stage, however, as the system becomes larger and larger, when the reception of all the information is impossible by reason of its sheer bulk. Either the recording channels cannot carry all the information, or the observer, presented with it all, is overwhelmed. When this occurs, what is he to do? The answer is clear: he must give up any ambition to know the whole system. His aim must be to achieve a partial knowledge that, though partial over the whole, is none the less complete within itself, and is sufficient for his ultimate practical purpose – W. Ross Ashby

Many of the comments I see on social media relating to Systems Thinking talk about something called Viable Systems.

I’ve come across this a few times and found it quite hard to get to grips with, so I’m going to spend a little time working through what’s out there to see if it makes sense this time.

The reason for doing this is to see if it’s a useful way to think about the situations we face all the time – the everyday choices, both big and small that we have to deal with.

And the place to start, it seems, is with Ross Ashby.

Understanding variety

It’s pretty obvious that there are a lot of things out there in the world – and there are a lot of ways they can be.

What does that mean?

Take a lightbulb, for example.

From one point of view, a light in your house can be in one of two states – it’s on or off.

The day before yesterday, the bulb in my dining room was off – but that was because it was broken.

That’s a third state.

I replaced the bulb, but the new one was broken as well – for some reason I had carefully stored the last broken one in its box, presumably so I could order a new one but had forgotten to do that.

A fourth state.

I replaced the bulb, a halogen one with an LED – so a different type of bulb.

A fifth state.

Yesterday, the bulb didn’t work again, and that was because the power had gone off.

A sixth state.

In this example you see something that initially looks simple – something where you believe you can understand everything about it starting to increase in complexity, increase in the possible states it can take.

A state, really, is a particular situation, something that is possible.

And if a lightbulb can be in so many states just think about everything else in life – just how many variations are possible in the way things could be.

This is variety – and Ashby’s argument is that if you really want to be able to deal with something you have to be able to deal with its variety.

And that’s something your brain is designed to do, it will figure out how to survive when the lightbulb fails without going through an existential crisis.

We’re looking for the main things, not the one thing

Now, we just can’t deal with everything out there, every fact, every bit of information – we’d simply explode.

And so our brains are very good at doing to things – filtering out stuff that doesn’t seem to matter and focusing on stuff that does.

In the wording of systems thinking in this area you have attenuators and amplifiers.

I’m going to stay away from the jargon, actually, because it doesn’t really help apart from giving your new words for things you already know happen.

Essentially, in any given situation, you have to get your head around what are the main things.

Now that’s easy if your situation is a point – a dot, a single thing.

For example, if you’re playing basketball and you have to take a free throw – there’s nothing in that moment except you and the basket and how you take the shot.

Shortly after, things will explode in complexity, but at that moment the world stops and waits for you to get done.

But most situations are more like the shape in the picture above, all blobby and with bits poking out everywhere.

And if you want to do something that involves working with that kind of shape you can’t focus on just one bit, you need to understand it in all its messy complexity.

And how much of that you need to do depends on what you’re trying to do.

As the quote that starts this post explains you need to know enough to do what you want to do.


I said some of this was obvious.

So, where do we go wrong?

Understanding regulation and control

Warren Buffett wrote that a management that always makes the numbers will at some point be tempted to make up the numbers.

What does that mean?

The way we monitor things these days is through numbers – the number of sales, the number of calories, the amount of billable time on a client.

That’s because we have learned what numbers do – we need profit to be positive, we need to take in fewer calories than we need a day to lose weight.

In Ashby’s mathematical treatment you look at this from the view of set theory.

There a set of things that can happen.

And for each of those things there’s a set of responses you can take.

The responses you take result in outcomes – that can be good or bad or near or far from a desired value.

For example, there’s a virus going around at the moment.

You could choose to go to a party or you could choose to stay at home.

In one case you could meet friends and have a great time and maybe catch the virus.

Or you could stay home, be safe from the virus and maybe get pushed out of your friends group because you aren’t engaging.

What happens will depend on what you do.

Unless you have a peek into the future.

Understanding requisite variety

Now, this is where things get a little hazy so you might want to consult original sources for exact definitions but here’s my take on this right now.

Doing something and then waiting to see what happens is a very good and scientific and experimental approach but it’s useless with people.

People don’t do things in the same way all the time, they act with purpose and don’t follow the rules of physics in the way that balls dropping from a height do.

With people you can try and make a call on what they will do in a situation.

In the virus example above, if you think your friends will stop talking to you because you don’t do stuff with them, then perhaps they aren’t very good friends – but maybe you need them because of the situation you’re in more than you fear getting ill.

Or, in an organization change project, you need to think about what different people will do to get your plan approved – how the board will think, how managers will react, what IT will say, what facilities will say.

If you want to come up with a plan that has a chance of working you’ll need to engage with the main players and understand how they will respond and then work out what will work in that situation.

Still seems obvious right?

But how many times do people start with a single message or get given a target and then set off hell-bent on achieving that target without really understanding the system they are operating in, the complexity of their environment?

Don’t you see that happening again and again?

Then again, you can’t understand everything, maybe you just need to focus on the next thing, but try and get ahead of the information.

Use your eyes and ears

Later on in Ashby’s paper on Requisite variety and its implications for the control of complex systems he puts aside the math and starts talking sense.

You’ve seen those bugs that are programmed to move around and when they bump into something move backwards and forwards until they bump their way away from the obstacle and head off.

In the real world if the obstacle is a tiger and you repeatedly bump into it your odds of surviving that encounter go down dramatically.

Which is why if you can see and hear the danger before you bump into it you have a chance to climb a tree or run away.

When it comes to your life and your business what this means is you need to look beyond what is immediately in front of you.

For example, you can look at your bathroom scales every day and see the weight changing, perhaps in the wrong direction.

But if you want to control that what you have to do is focus on what causes the change in weight, where you take in and burn energy rather than what the result is in weight.

Rather than focus on the thing, look at what causes the thing in the first place – use information to your advantage.

And here’s the point that I think I’m getting to after some time.

The way for you to get ahead of things is through the better use of information, through the better use of understanding.

If you have a behavior that is affecting your life you can try stopping that behavior or stop the things that give rise to the behavior.

Like snacking.

You could decide to have fewer snacks, and then you get stressed and the crisp packets get attacked.

Or you could avoid buying crisps at all and then you reach for fruit as a stress-reliever instead.

Or instead of doing a huge amount of work evaluating a possible software solution and then finding that IT will not approve it – you work with IT in the first place to find out what kinds of things they will approve and then decide the best way to respond.

Which might include doing things like outsourcing the task if you can’t get it done internally.

Here’s the takeaway.

Computers may be able to collect and process all the data out there but they still find it hard to deal with variety, to deal with patterns of complexity.

But your brain is designed to do just that.

Together you’re stronger.

So maybe it’s time for us to have a look at how we can use technology and computers to help us understand complex situations better.

Maybe that’s the thing for the next post.


Karthik Suresh

Don’t Make These Mistakes When Listening To A Prospect


Saturday, 5.41am

Sheffield, U.K.

So the universe is not quite as you thought it was. You’d better rearrange your beliefs, then. Because you certainly can’t rearrange the universe. – Isaac Asimov

We’ve all had our share of conversations that just didn’t work – where somehow what needed to be done was lost in the middle of everything that went on.

Why does that happen and what can we do to avoid such an outcome?

Perhaps it has to do with common problems with the way we listen in the first place, so let’s look at some of those.


The first mistake we make is when we don’t really listen at all.

This often happens in meetings or lectures where someone is talking about something and we drift off, thinking about something else.

Some people aren’t subtle about it, doing their emails during the meeting itself – or you get very little engagement from the group.

It can happen in relationships or with your children, when you are busy doing something and they are trying to talk to you and you throw in the odd grunt hoping that will sound like you’re paying attention.

Now, sometimes it isn’t worth paying too much attention – something may not be relevant or impact what you do.

On the other hand, perhaps it does and you’ve not noticed because you haven’t put in the time to think through what it means.

For example, budget meetings can be boring and perhaps the fact that you’re going to miss your forecasts as a company is something you’re not too worried about – your focus is on making sure you do your job and your area of responsibility is well managed.

But, if your area isn’t making money then you might find that you’re seen as an area that needs dealing with – or getting rid of.

The big risk, then, is you don’t see what’s actually going on – the information is there but you’re not in the right position to see it.

Selective listening

The next kind of problem is when you do listen – but for your own reasons.

Think back to a sales call, perhaps when you were cold-called by someone who wanted to sell you something.

They have a goal and an agenda, probably wrapped up in a script.

This script tells them how to talk to you, how to go through a process that will get you to buy what they have to sell.

Now, the thing with this setup is that there is conflict everywhere anyway.

You probably didn’t want to take the call and start by being mildly irritated at being interrupted.

The salesperson has to try and build rapport with the initial questions, asking how you are, for example and then move onto getting time from you to make their pitch.

The thing both of you are really trying to do is work out quickly whether this conversation is worth continuing or not.

I think that if you get to a point where you know that this is something you’re never going to buy you might as well say that to the person calling and end the call.

A few times the person on the other end has gotten stroppy – irritable – because this means he (and it’s been only he’s) wasn’t given a chance to finish his pitch.

That makes it even less likely that he’ll actually make any sales.

Now, arguably, the world of cold calling has been changed entirely – you probably get calls only when you’ve opted into something.

Or if it’s a scam, which appear to be most calls these days.

Some time back I wrote about how a problem from one point of view is often a solution from another.

And selective listening is one of those.

From one point of view, if you don’t listen to the other person and instead just look for ways to advance your own agenda you’ll find it difficult to really connect with someone.

On the other hand, if you make it easy for them to figure out whether they want to learn more or not – if you put in the effort to make it easy for them to select you, then that can be a positive thing.

And that’s one of the reasons why you might shift from cold calling to investing in content marketing – attracting people who are looking for what you do, rather than trying to call and persuade people to listen to you.

Critical listening

Another problematic approach to listening is where you listen but interrupt to add your own views and judgment on what is going on.

I read a post recently where someone talked about doing a pitch where they were constantly interrupted and belittled.

There are several reasons why that could happen – perhaps one person feels like they need to show they have something to contribute during the meeting, or they’re just the kind of person who believes that confrontation is important, showing who’s the boss matters.

There is a tendency for many of us to jump to creating solutions before we fully understand the problem in the first place.

For example, you may have a technical solution to a particular problem.

The question is whether you have a solution to the problems faced by the company, because there will be more than one.

Your software may help with managing a particular data flow but how does it help the buyer deal with their manager, or talk to their board or help negotiate with the supplier.

But that’s out of scope you say – we just do this thing here.

But the thing you have to understand is that the thing you do fits within the thing they do – and unless all the issues they face are addressed your solution can’t really work to its full potential.

It’s important to practice slowing yourself down, stopping being critical too quickly without taking the time to understand why that thing you think is being done wrong may have been created in the first place.

Listen to understand

All too often we approach conversations with a conflict based or confrontational mindset.

We need to change someone’s mind.

We have something to sell.

We have to make them want it.

In sales, especially, people are taught to build rapport, to effectively pretend that they want to know all about you and what you need.

The overt, the open reason for doing this is because they want to understand your business so they can provide you with the right answer.

The implicit, the hidden purpose is that they have something to sell and been given a script and targets and need you to buy from them.

Now, that’s all very well, but it’s a tiring and unfulfilling way to have to be.

A much better approach, in my view, is to take the time to listen and understand what someone really needs.

When you understand that you’ll be able to see how you can help.

And if you do this in the right way there’s a good chance that the person you’re talking to will see that as well.

They’ll see the value in the help you’re offering and can work out if they can afford to have you on their team.

The challenge here, then, is for you to understand everything they’re facing – but how do you go about doing that?

After all, that’s an infinite amount of information – where do you start and where do you stop?

We’ll look at that next.


Karthik Suresh

How To Start Spotting Patterns In The Conversations You Have


Thursday, 5.33am

Sheffield, U.K.

From where we stand the rain seems random. If we could stand somewhere else, we would see the order in it. – Tony Hillerman, Coyote Waits

One of the things it took me a while to understand is that you never experience the same situation twice.

For example, let’s say you develop a solution for a particular situation – you have a client who needs something doing and you create something that solves their problem.

If you now want to go out and do that for other people the temptation is to scale it, to standardize, to duplicate.

That seems like the sensible thing to do – after all, if you’re making cups you might as well make them all from the one mold.

Now, that way of thinking works fine with products, where a cup is a cup is a cup but it’s less useful when it comes to services.

And the reason for that is that services involve people, and the people in one situation are going to be different from the people in another situation, and the first challenge you will face is that the new set of people will want to know how your solution will work for them in their situation.

With services, then, rather than having a standard approach where you do the same thing for everyone you need to have an approach that is able to cope with variety – which can adapt to the kinds of things people ask for.

That doesn’t mean that you have to start from scratch every time – there are patterns that you can look out for, patterns that you will see again and again and you need to develop the skill to see these patterns by asking questions that reveal them to you and the people around you.

What kinds of patterns will you see?

Virtuous and vicious loops

Loops are things you will see all the time.

They have a variety of names but really it comes down to one thing after another in a circle.

The question is whether the circle is doing well or poorly for you.

For example, if you do something that compounds over time – put money in a savings account, follow a daily routine, go for a walk every day – then you’re probably going to end up better off, achieving more and healthier over time.

And the opposite is going to happen if you keep spending more than you earn, lounge on the sofa all day and chain smoke.

Now, studying loops can take on a fascination of its own, especially when you start looking at interacting loops.

The idea there is that some loops reinforce things while others balance them out, so you end up with this constant, dynamic interplay between things.

And if there is a delay in the process – something happens, you wait, and then something else happens you get oscillations, swings and lots of noise in what’s going on.

Being able to see a loop can take time – which is why you should never react to the first thing you see, but instead follow what happens next and what happens after that.

If you start to see where the connections are and where things go round and round then you’ll be more likely to figure out the point at which intervening is going to be most useful.

Choices and dilemmas

Another thing you will see often is choices and dilemmas – what road to take when you come to a fork.

You perhaps have few truly life changing situations like this – I can remember only a few anyway.

And it does help to have a way to think through the options and complexities and select the best path.

I did use an approach involving decision trees when I made a big choice – whether I should go and do an MBA or stay at work.

I went back to my files to find that decision tree and you can see it in the image below.


What’s interesting is that the actual monetary difference between doing and not doing it is very small in the analysis.

But the process of thinking it through helps you work out which road you really want – but with a clear view of the risks you are taking.

With dilemmas you have a different problem – when both roads lead to problematic outcomes.

In that case you have to take the least worst path and that does involve difficult decisions.

Feedback loops

Another kind of situation you might face is feedback loops, where the output from one thing is fed back into the input of a previous thing.

You’ll often see this in how your manager works with you – when they ask you to rework something because it doesn’t work for them.

But you’ll also see it in your own work – when you do research, work on a paper or a presentation.

You’ll have a first pass and then refine your material based on what you think of the output.

That iterative, feedback led approach is crucial to getting a good piece of work done – no one ever gets it perfect the first time.

You have to build in time for feedback, for review, time to digest and consider and come back and change.

All too often we rush into things, try and get stuff out quickly.

I know I’m one for that – I like writing and creating and then I Want it off my desk,

Re-reading, revising, editing – all those are things that are much less interesting, that take up more energy and that I find hard to do.

But you have to find ways to help yourself do the things you find difficult to do too.

Risk and reward

And that takes us to another pattern, one where we may have more than one way to do something and we have to figure out which one we’re going for.

Or, more importantly, when we’re going for one.

A good example here is the popular idea of a side hustle – where you have your job and you also have income generation on the side.

There are many examples of entrepreneurs who keep going with their main job while working on their own projects in their own time.

You might feel like you have to quit your job and devote yourself entirely to your idea but that’s a big risk.

You’re probably better off trying to get it off the ground while still bringing in an income rather than putting yourself in a that situation where you jump off a cliff and have to build your parachute on the way down.

If you can do both things then you can shift from one to the other when it’s the right time, when you have enough income coming in from your business so that you can give up your job.

That’s a case of balancing the risks you take and the rewards on offer.

Doing this in practice

When you’re exploring a situation or listening to someone you need to start looking out for these patterns.

Where are the loops, the reinforcing or destructive patterns of behavior?

What are the dilemmas – what’s stopping them from moving forward?

Where is the learning and feedback, what should they pay attention to so that they can improve what happens earlier?

And how can they balance and navigate between options?

You won’t really see these things unless you are listening carefully and completely – so it’s worth taking a look at when that doesn’t happen in the next post.


Karthik Suresh

Why We Need To Get Better At Waiting Rather Than Doing


Wednesday, 5.39am

Sheffield, U.K.

Waiting is a period of learning. The longer we wait, the more we hear about him for whom we are waiting. – Henri Nouwen

As a reminder, I’m writing these posts to come up with a first draft for a book project, as I described here.

So far I’ve got 19 posts, 20,000 odd words, jumbled together, spilling out.

And maybe it’s time for a little bit of reflection, some angst, a look back at whether this is working at all.

You see, what I’m trying to do is make sense of thing – first for myself and then in a way that makes sense to others.

But that’s a difficult process, more difficult perhaps than many of us realize.

Maybe it’s because we are brought up to think that we have to be active, always moving, always working, always driving ourselves as hard as we can because…

That kind of thinking does seem to have resulted in the world we have today – none of it is the result of passive acceptance of the status quo.

Animals, after all, do just what they have to do, nothing more – and you don’t see them going around inventing writing or going to the moon.

So, in principle, doing stuff is a good thing.

Is doing too much a good thing as well?

The picture above shows you a wave form – it’s been a while since I did physics and I’ll need to look up the exact words at some point – but you’ll get this if you imagine a puddle or a pond.

Drop a stone into it.

Now you’ve done something, made a splash.

That act, the energy you’ve transferred to the water by dropping a stone into it sets off the wave.

But then, what do you get?

You get ripples, the wave moving further and further away, getting smaller over time until finally the energy is dissipated and the water returns to being smooth and undisturbed.

To get the full sense of what you’ve done you need to let the ripples happen.

If you throw in stone after stone and stir the waters with a stick for good measure, the waves overlap, the forces are different and you get a mess, a churning, a roiling, your own little storm.

What does this have to do with listening.

Think of any news interview you’ve seen on TV – does the reporter ever give the interviewee a chance to say something fully?

Often questions are posed in a way to force an answer that is hopefully headline material and the reporter interrupts, pushes to try get something newsworthy.

Experienced interviewees, knowing this, ignore the question that is asked and simply say what they want to say.

This dance is not about listening, it’s about performing.

What would listening look like?

You start with the initial disturbance, which is your first question.

That’s the stone that starts it all off.

But then, when you get an answer to that question, you need to watch for the ripples, but to make them visible you may need to ask for something more.

For example, let’s say you sell a technology that halves the cost of doing something for your prospect – you pitch your idea and ask what they think.

They’re enthusiastic – anything that saves money is worth considering.

That’s your first response.

Now, if you have ever actually gone through the process and tried to get them to sign, you’ll know that it never is that simple to get the deal done.

Why is that?

One reason that comes up again and again is that the people involved didn’t take the time to see the big picture – they went from the first positive reaction to trying to close a deal – and there’s often quite a few other things that you might not see.

For example, the technology may cut your costs but you have to spend money up front.

So the impact on cashflow may be a concern.

Now, the technology is sold on the basis that it cuts your costs – but the investment you make will add something to your accounting costs for the year – so that does mean net profits will be down by the cost of the technology.

That’s ok, you say, you’ll more than recover that because of all the savings you’ll make on the projects you have with clients.

But, if the person selling you the technology is also selling to all your competitors then someone is going to try and win business by passing the savings on to the customer by lowering their costs, and so to compete you will need to drop yours.

The person who benefits from more efficient technology is usually the customer, in the form of lower prices.

Not much sticks to the ribs of the person buying the technology.

Now, none of this will be said explicitly – most managers haven’t looked at the theory around these issues.

What they have are rules of thumb, things that protects them from the rippling consequences of a decision.

And that’s one of two things – either they don’t make decisions until they absolutely have to or they ask for huge, quick and guaranteed paybacks.

So, you will find people asking you for 1 or 2 year paybacks.

Nobody wants to take a risk on your bright idea.

Now, you’re not going to find out any of this unless you take the time to listen, to ask questions, to find out which projects have worked at the company you’re talking to and which ones haven’t.

It’s by following the ripples that you’ll get a sense of where the dilemmas are, where conflict rears up, where misunderstanding lies.

All too often sales people think sales is about them talking.

It’s not – it’s about getting your prospect to talk through their situation, their problem and, most importantly, the kinds of solutions that might work for them.

Once they tell you that you know what they’re looking for and you know what you need to deliver.

The questions for you are – can you do that and can you do it well and can you prove that to them?

It’s when you’ve seen the ripples die away that you will be invited to say your piece and that’s really when you should do your bit of talk.

Here’s a model of what that might look like.


The thing you really have to get is that it’s not about you.

It’s about them.

And to really help someone else you can’t just throw what you know at them.

You have to first understand them and, in particular, understand what they’re up against.

Let’s dig into how to do that in the next post.


Karthik Suresh

How To Listen And Build A Map Of What You Hear


Tuesday, 5.32am

Sheffield, U.K.

A map does not just chart, it unlocks and formulates meaning; it forms bridges between here and there, between disparate ideas that we did not know were previously connected. – Reif Larsen, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet

It seems that the act of talking is intertwined with the act of thinking.

The only time when someone delivers a logically connected set of statements, flawlessly working through an argument is when they are presenting something they’ve prepared earlier.

Think of a lecture or, even better, a TED talk.

TED talks are all about delivery.

The presenters practice for months, getting every word right so that they can make an impact during the brief period they are on stage.

But the thing you have to recognize is that something like a TED talk is a performance, a carefully choreographed sequence of memorized actions.

The rest of the time, when you’re talking to someone, they’re often working things out as they talk.

The act of talking helps them work through what they think.

But the thing about being human is that what people say tends to be connected to the things they say just before and just after.

You don’t speak in disconnected, random sentences.

You have clusters of ideas and then more clusters of ideas and there are connections between some ideas and other ideas.

What anyone has in their head appears to be best represented by the concept of a graph.

A graph, in this context, is described in the image above, and essentially has nodes and links.

There are different words for these, but it comes down to things and things that connect things.

Now, you can go down a bit of a rabbit hole when you start looking at graph theory – and there are lots of mathematical applications.

What I’m interested here is how graphs relate to the way in which we think about things.

The terms you will see used to describe this include concept mapping, cognitive mapping, semantic webs and knowledge graphs.

If you want to understand someone else’s point of view you start by asking questions – select something to talk about and begin a conversation.

That’s the first node, your starting point.

If you think about how such conversations go, all you have to do is keep asking questions and following the links and nodes as they are uncovered through the process of talking.

One thought leads to another which leads to another and then you take a step to the side start with a new thought and follow it along and at certain points you see connections between one thought and another that was expressed a little earlier and you make a note or draw a line from one to the other.

Does this approach seen familiar to you?

It should, because it’s just what happens naturally when we have a conversation.

The thing with talk, however, is that it’s ephemeral, words are said and then they disappear into the air.

What helps us preserve them is writing, the act of taking things down.

And that is where the tools we use also constrain us in how we do this.

If you want to get better at listening it’s crucial that your tool kit helps you capture the nodes and links that come out in conversation and that help you make the connections between them.

The first step is making the shift from linear notes, one after the other, to a map of notes, connected to each other.

Here’s a small example.


Now, just looking at this note from a while ago – it’s about thinking about risk.

If you’ve ever had to think about risk management, it’s an interesting exercise in frustration.

And since it’s topical, let’s take this note from 2014 and update it for use in a pandemic.

This might look something like the following.


Let’s take the response around the world to Covid as an example.

The first line is a particular form of showing how people thing about things following Kelly’s personal construct theory.

What this says, in essence, is that you tend to think about things in a bipolar way, somewhere between two extremes connected by a line.

For example if you’re President, you could think about a whole range of risks or focus on the ones that are really important right now.

That’s a construct, so back in late 2019 you could focus on growth and GDP or think about a small virus risk somewhere in a province far away.

You could either fail to analyze certain risks or you could analyze them.

Reports of a virus have started circulating, maybe you get sent a briefing that there are cases increasing.

It’s still far away, so you could fail to take action or take a particular course of action.

If you fail to take action you end up with infected people entering your country and the number of cases rising – you’ve stumbled into a situation and have to deal with that now.

But, if when you first heard about the virus, you had shut down all the airports, then what would have happened?

There were no cases in your country, no infections, nothing to show there was a problem and yet you closed everything down.

How can you possibly know if you saved lives?

You’ll probably be criticized for the economic damage but no one will see what you’ve avoided because it’s just not visible – it didn’t happen.

So, what governments have done is take a route that goes from 1 to 3 – they tend to analyze risks, but they don’t take action until they’ve stumbled into situations and are forced to do so – because now it’s clear that things are going wrong.

The problem really is that you get more credit for fixing something that’s broken than for doing unpopular things that avoid breaking things in the first place.

That’s just life.

But it’s interesting how mapping what happens helps make it easier to understand why policy is the way it is – why we have to lose all the ice in Greenland before we take action on climate change.

It’s a little depressing.

But at the same time if you can see it, if you can make the knowledge map here explicit and overt you have something you can show and talk about, perhaps something you can use to change how we naturally go about doing things.

Something that helps us balance points 3 and 4 and 6 in the picture above so that we go from analysis to action sooner with more justification.

After all, if we can see what’s the problem with the thoughts we have, perhaps we can do something about it.

Let’s look at some of those things in the next post.


Karthik Suresh

Is The Way We Go About Asking Questions All Wrong?


Saturday, 6.35am

Sheffield, U.K.

ÔÇťAlbert grunted. “Do you know what happens to lads who ask too many questions?” Mort thought for a moment. “No,” he said eventually, “what?” There was silence. Then Albert straightened up and said, “Damned if I know. Probably they get answers, and serve ’em right. – Terry Pratchett, Mort

I have always thought that a question is part of a duality, if you ask a question you expect to get an answer.

Perhaps this comes from school and our exposure to a testing system – which is really where we first come across questions and answers in a formal sense.

Clearly, we know how to ask questions before that – if you have children you know that they don’t stop asking questions.

Often unanswerable ones… like “Why can’t I have more time on the telly?”

Answers like, “If you watch too much TV your eyes will go square…” only work for a certain amount of time.

What seems to happen in school is that we’re introduced to exams – where for each question there is a “right” answer.

And over ten to fifteen years of school we’re probably conditioned to expect that questions have answers – that’s the natural way of things.

So, when we grow up and enter the world of work we take that approach with us – we expect a universe where questions and their answers exist together and all we have to do is discover them.

I wonder if this starts to lead us down decades of problematic reasoning.

For example, when you think about your career or you think about a personal problem – do you start with an assumption that there is something that will solve that problem?

Something that will answer your question?

The idea that you can set out goals and a mission and a vision are all attempts to answer questions around what you’re trying to do, what your purpose is, what makes you happy.

And we often miss much that is important along the way.

For example, if you ask someone what is the purpose of a business – there’s a good chance you’ll get an answer along the lines of it’s to make money.

But there are very few businesses where the actual purpose is to make money.

Far more often the business is around doing something the founders want to do, that they have the skills to do, that they like doing.

Money is something that enables them to do it or the lack of money is something that stops them from doing it.

It’s also a byproduct of doing it well – but it’s rare that money is the only motivator.

And when it is – when you focus on the money you can make – you suddenly find that the whole idea of money gets complicated pretty quickly and you spend most of your time trying to make the numbers work.

And sometimes that involves making up the numbers.

So, after some time we should probably change the way we think about questions.

Rather than using questions as a way to find or discover answers, we should think of questions as a tool to help us understand something better.

It’s not the type of question that’s important here – it’s how that questions helps us explore something we don’t yet know.

And closed questions, which give us an answer or open questions that lead us to other questions can both help us to do this.

But why would we do this – why is the world not full of set questions and answers?

To appreciate this we have to understand the law of requisite variety, coined by Ross Ashby.

From Wikipedia: If a system is to be stable, the number of states of its control mechanism must be greater than or equal to the number of states in the system being controlled. Ashby states the law as “variety can destroy variety”

This is not a great set of words – and I never really got to grips with it until I started reading Stafford Beer and his introduction to cybernetics.

One way to understand this issue of variety is to think a football team, which Beer used as an example.

If you have 11 people on the field with a ball they’ll dribble the ball down the field and score – again and again – getting hundreds of goals.

If you try and stop them by putting, for example, a big boulder in the middle of the pitch, then they’ll go around the boulder as a team.

If you try and wire them all up and measure what they’re doing and put individual rocks in front of each of them, or put fences around them, they will either go around again or you can stop their movement all together.

What happens is that as you try and put some kind of control in place to stop what’s happening from happening then you find that people work around that control.

And they do that because they’re people – not machines – they have purpose and think for themselves and go around obstacles – and what they’re trying to do is play a game.

Now, what you do is throw away all those rocks and instead put 11 other people on the field to play against the first team.

Now you have a match and a game – and there’s something happening that emerges from the arrangement of players and field and goals.

Fun and excitement and sport.

Now, if one team had 11 players and the other team had 5, which one would win?

This is Ashby’s law in action – you need to match the two up.

If you have a certain number of things on one side then the other side needs to have the same amount for you to be able to manage it, to control what’s going on.

That’s the “variety” in the system that you need to think about.

Now, what does this mean for you and me?

What it means is that there is always variety in our lives, many things pushing and pulling us in different directions.

There is your job and the pressures at work, your family, your health, your money situation, what you want to do with your life, the kind of things you enjoy doing, friends… all the things that make up life.

If you just focus on any one thing – put everything into your job, for example, or go out every night partying then you’ll have really maximized your performance in one area of your life while letting everything else fall apart.

And this works at every level – in your company if you focus just on bonuses and targets then things that aren’t covered by those targets fall apart.

It happens in institutions and governments – if you try and focus on something then something else happens somewhere else so while you think things have improved you’re simply not seeing all the other places where things aren’t working.

And the purpose of questions, I think, is to first make the variety in the system clear – as you talk to yourself or to someone else what you’re trying to do is see the whole picture, see all the places where things are bulging and popping and straining and apply a matching force to all of them, not just one.

But before we start thinking about answers and control, we first need to explore how asking questions that lead to understanding works in the first place.

After all a question that leads to an answer is simple, you can just write both down one after the other.

But questions that lead to understanding are different – they lead to a conceptual map, a neural network – and that’s something we should explore in the next post.


Karthik Suresh

How And Why Do People Use The Words They Use?


Friday, 5.52am

Sheffield, U.K.

A few observation and much reasoning lead to error; many observations and a little reasoning to truth. – Alexis Carrel

In my previous post I looked at the physical elements of note taking – especially the difference between linear notes in a notebook with pages held together and notes on loose sheets of paper that could be filed later – and briefly looked at how writing words and drawing pictures might be more useful than either on its own.

But regardless of method, what is it we’re trying to do when we’re listening to someone and taking notes?

There are two things I’ve come across as I look into this – the idea of memory as storage and the idea of memory as reconstruction.

Let’s look at these in a little more detail.

Memory as storage

A storage model of memory sees the brain like it’s a hard disk, a place where stuff is stored and later retrieved.

The way it’s stored is different, you have neurons and chemistry rather than magnets and circuits – but in essence you put stuff into memory and then access it later.

The kinds of things you put into this memory include facts, experiences and concepts.

In particular, it contains your word bank – all the words you know and can draw on when you talk to someone else.

The only thing with this model is that it leads you to believe that what goes in is what comes out – but is that really the case?

Memory as reconstruction

Another model of memory is one that sees what you remember and being modified and changed over time.

In the book, “Stumbling on happiness”, Daniel Gilbert talks about how there are many things we wouldn’t do again if we truly remembered them as they were.

Childbirth, for example, is hugely painful – but after a while what women remember is the joy of having their child – to the point where they consider going through the pain again.

People who go through a traumatic incident – losing a limb or bodily functions are no less happy than others after a period of time – their brain rewires itself to cope with the situation.

Now, this is something you can check for yourself.

How often do stories change over time – when incidents or events are told and retold and in the telling change their form?

Do you remember something more kindly over time or have you fanned the flames of indignation and still burn with anger over a perceived slight from years ago?

Talking it through means thinking it through

Now, given those two approaches to memory: storage and retrieval, and construction and reconstruction, what happens when we listen to someone?

The interesting thing there is as humans it seems that we need to talk it through to make sense of it at all.

If we aren’t allowed to speak we can’t actually think.

Now, many of us are probably guilty of this, especially with the people closest to us.

Do we give them time to talk or do we cut them off, jumping in with our own ideas?

The irony is that if you really want to get someone to understand something you probably need to lean back and ask questions that will help them discover it for themselves rather than telling them about it.

Asking and answering questions is the way we work out what we think about something.

For example, many business pitches and presentations are structured around “telling” – here’s everything about us in order.

A different approach to presenting, set out by Andrew Abela in his book on the extreme presentation method is about doing your presentation by asking the questions your audience has in their mind and then answering them as you go along.

You know it’s worked when your audience doesn’t keep questioning you when you stop but start discussing what you’ve said among themselves.

They start to put it in their own words.

That’s important – when they restate things, say it in their own words – that’s when they’re really starting to understand the ideas, when they begin to “get” it.

And you’re on your way to a sale.

Letting people talk is crucial – right now as you read these words, you aren’t reading polished, finished prose – my thoughts aren’t complete, coherent and structured.

Far from it.

I use writing as a way to think through these ideas for myself – I try and write in the way I would speak to someone and my choice of words and the way they come out is helping me understand this topic as I write.

I suppose in many cases this stuff is done in private and people don’t show you how they came to an idea – they just show you the finished product.

But if you want to work with someone else you have to recognise that they probably need some time to work through what they’re thinking and if you can help them do that you’re probably going to be selected to work with them later.

Questions are important

Clearly, what makes the difference is not what you say but how you ask questions and how they are answered.

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


Karthik Suresh

p.s. The image above is shorthand, Teeline for the following

This is why I speak to them in parables: Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand. – Matthew 13:13

How To Take Notes Such That You Can Think About Things Better Later


Thursday, 5.29am

Sheffield, U.K.

I’m a compulsive note-taker, and I used to feel self-conscious about pulling out my little notebook and taking notes during a casual conversation. Then I noticed that people really seemed to enjoy it; the fact that I was taking notes made their remarks seem particularly insightful or valuable. Now I don’t hold myself back. – Gretchen Rubin

In my previous post I said I’d look at some approaches to capturing information.

This is going to be a first pass, a non-exhaustive list, to help me see it too.

The diagram above lists a few approaches and I think three categories started to emerge.

First, there are the notes you make when you capture raw material – the stuff directly from the source.

Then there is what you do when you start to process and make sense of what you’ve collected, although sometimes you can try and capture and organize for sense-making at the same time.

And then there are notes that are really meta-notes, notes about how to take notes and these are more akin to computer programs, where you have inputs and outputs and, most importantly, feedback.

Let’s look at these ideas in some more detail and see if some sense starts to emerge.

The world of graphemes and phonemes

One of the consequences of the pandemic has been that I had to spend time learning what is taught in primary schools and I came across the idea of graphemes and phonemes.

A phoneme, in case you don’t know, is a sound you make – what you say.

It’s sort of there in the root of the word – its about the phonic, the sonic element.

A grapheme, on the other hand, is a mark you make to represent that sound – graph as in draw.

So graphemes are literally representations of sounds using drawing.

Now, if you start to look at how writing has developed over time you might come across Irving Finkel, a curator at the British Museum.

To give you a flavor of the person, have a look at this talk, in which he tells you about the evolution of writing and says, “The shift from pictographic use to writing sounds was the only real giant leap man has ever made apart from the development of the Electric Guitar.”

Writing started with drawing – if you wanted to represent a bird you would just actually draw a simplified bird form.

The sort of thing you get with Egyptian hieroglyphics.

But there are lots of words that you can’t just draw, where there isn’t a physical equivalent – words like “word”, for example.

So you end up developing alphabets and if you look at their history you’ll see how the letter “A” has its roots and shape in an ox.

Look at an A upside down and you’ll see the horns and head – but rather than the “A” representing a literal ox, it starts to be used for the sound.

So, you first had pictographs which were useful for quantities and physical things and then you had the alphabet, which lets you capture all the words you can say.

This little digression is important, I think, because writing is really a form of drawing – and I think you can do something quite useful when you combine the power of the two approaches.

On to taking notes

The first function of note taking for many people, then, is to capture the words people say – the sounds they make.

In many cases chronology is important, you capture notes in a linear fashion as the words come at you.

For example, think of what a police officer or a journalist does.

They have a pocket notebook and they ask questions and take down facts and direct quotes.

A police officer’s interest is in the timeline and the facts – what happened first, what happened next, what did you see, what evidence is available.

A reporter is interested in the facts, but is also looking for the story, which you will usually find in the feelings people have about the situation.

As a reporter, then, you will also take notes about the situation, the surroundings, the feel of things – the sort of details that add context and flavor and bring a touch of reality to your story.

With police officers and reporters your notebook is also a legal record, which means that you have to preserve those documents and show that they haven’t been tampered with.

And because you’re taking notes in a bound notebook they are necessarily linear and chronological, you write down things one after the other and the pages stay in place.

A different kind of linear notebook approach is taken by people who need to record thoughts and ideas rather than spoken words – the kind of work engineers and research scientists do.

They use laboratory notebooks, bound and numbered pages and again record things chronologically, with results and ideas and experiments.

A linear approach works when you have to do one thing at a time but there are several situations where you the restrictions of the bound notebook gets in the way.

If you’re a lawyer, counselor or business person, for example, you’re probably going to have several meetings where you’re taking notes.

You could have all that in a single notebook but you rarely ever see a lawyer using that approach.

If you picture a lawyer you’ll probably see them using a legal pad – and that’s simply because once you’ve made your notes on a particular case what you want to do is tear off the relevant pages and add them to the case file.

Using individual sheets of paper to take notes comes in useful when you have to maintain a filing system – when you’re building up notes on many subjects over time.

This approach is also useful when you’re collecting research in addition to recording spoken words and your own thoughts and ideas.

If you’re reading and making notes on what you come across then loose sheets help you organize that by topic later.

Now, most notes, whether linear or non-linear, are probably word based but what you can do to help improve understanding and retention is add pictographs to your graphemes – use the power of drawing and writing.

That’s what you do with sketchnotes – bringing in visual elements that capture concepts and things more effectively than words alone and that also help you emphasize or indicate relationships between the notes you take.

The transition from simply recording what is said, what you think or what you read to analyzing what you are putting down is an important one.

Sketchnotes are a first step to making that shift – as you move from a vertical arrangement of words on a page to arranging concepts in space, like in the image below.


This is the kind of thing I use in my own work which combines traditional note taking with sketches and an infinite sheet of digital paper to leverage the power of spatial note taking.

As someone who primarily works with organizations, where systemic approaches are important, this kind of note taking approach is more helpful when you’re trying to work out what’s possible and achievable in the situation you face with the resources you have rather than what’s the task, case or story.

That’s the difference between what a manager or entrepreneur does and what a professional typically has to do.

Moving on

I think this post is long enough and really only covers the areas that aren’t circled in the picture at the start of the post – the elements of note-taking in the raw.

The other two elements are really about analysis and method – ways to help you think better once you’ve taken down your notes and I think we’ll look at those in the next post.


Karthik Suresh

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