How To Reconstruct Someone Else’s Point Of View


Friday, 5.41am

Sheffield, U.K.

Life is a painting, and you are the artist. You have on your palette all the colors in the spectrum – the same ones available to Michaelangelo and DaVinci. – Paul J. Meyer

What do we do when we listen to someone?

There’s a process of communication going on, where we first acquire the information, then code it, store it, recall it and finally decode it.

Now, it’s easy to understand that this takes place if you think of it purely in terms of recording and playback.

For example, if you record someone’s words using a digital voice recorder then the words they say – the sounds they make – are captured by the microphone, encoded in bits and bytes and stored in memory.

When you press the play button the bits and bytes are recalled from storage and decoded – and then used to drive a speaker to make those sounds again.

What you get is a relatively perfect replay.

But that’s not really listening, that’s a time shift or a replay of the original information.

So what are you doing when you really listen to someone?

Talking IS thinking

Do we have perfect thoughts in our heads or do we need to talk things through to get our heads straight?

There’s a line of argument that says that talking is the thing that really differentiates humans from other creatures – the fact that we use language as a way to help us think better about more complex things.

Think about almost every conversation you’ve had.

Isn’t it a process of discovery – don’t you find yourself discovering what you think as you say it?

How often do you go into a meeting and have perfectly formed thoughts that are simply put out there for others to marvel at?

Instead, it’s a process of give and take – you say something, someone responds to that, you respond in turn as that comment sparks a new idea or train of thought.

So, when someone talks to you what they’re doing is building a view of the world, and that’s the thing that you’re capturing, using whatever system of note taking that works for you.

Reconstructing a point of view

When you’ve listened and asked questions and clarified things you’re going to have a picture of what’s going on.

It could be a metaphorical picture, a collection of thoughts that you now think that you feel makes sense.

Or it could be a literal one, something that you’ve written or drawn that you can talk through with someone.

The thing to realize is that what you’re doing is reconstructing a point of view.

Someone has told you something and, unlike a voice recorder, you’re not just playing it back word for word.

Instead, you’re re-presenting what you’ve heard, re-constructing it in a way that makes sense to you.

It’s like being a artist who sees a beautiful scene – the sun setting over the mountains, the dying rays lighting up the water and a last flock of ducks flying towards the horizon – and then tries to capture it.

You could photograph it and get an exact image which is framed and misses everything outside the frame.

You could use words and capture the essence of what is going on.

You could draw it yourself and pick out the elements that you remember, the ones that captured your attention.

The point is that what you do comes down to you – your own approach and preferences determine how you see and listen to what is in front of you and how you reconstruct that image so you can make sense of it.

And your approach will be, it should be, unique to you – you need to develop a way of playing things back that works for you in the situations you face professionally and personally.

No two artists do the same thing in the same way.

You might copy someone else’s approach when you’re first learning but if you want to get good you’ll have to experiment, develop your own approach and style over time.

And that means what you reconstruct from what you hear has something of you in it as well – it’s not a perfect replica.

It’s a constructed world.

Agreement, accommodation and compromise

Now, when someone’s talked things through with you and you’ve listened and reconstructed what they’ve said, what happens next?

For example, you’ve had a sales meeting, you’ve listened to the customer and asked questions, you’ve clarified and represented what they’ve told you – now what?

Well, if you’ve done this right what’s going to happen is that you understand their point of view and what they need.

Now that’s different from what they want – people often talk about what they want but don’t realize what they need is actually something else.

For example, you might have someone come in and talk about wanting a website – they need a redesign and upgrade of their existing one.

That’s what they say they want – but what do they actually need?

I had an example of this recently where a friend asked for some help in sorting out a website.

When I actually talked through things it turned out that what was needed was very different from what was asked for – instead of creating a new version of the site, as others had recommended, what was really needed was maintenance, making the existing site more user friendly and putting what was important in places where it could be easily found.

The project was really about information architecture rather than graphic design – but that’s an easy thing to miss.

People think that slapping a fresh coat of paint makes anything look better but if the underlying structure is rotting away you really aren’t making a difference.

In my case the approach I take is one that has been described in other posts here – in particular rich picture building.

When you are able to share a common view on a situation then what comes next is a question of agreement, accommodation and compromise.

If we don’t share that view then it comes down to persuasion and pressure – traditional sales tactics.

But if I understand how you see the world and I try to contribute to your point of view with what I know – and you see that and we both see what needs to be done then we have a way to work together.

That’s the kind of working relationship that I aim for, something that works for both of us and helps us create something of value.

But often we aren’t all there is, there are more people involved who need to be taken through the story – but it’s a different kind of story.

When you’re first exploring a situation with someone else you’re traveling the path together, discovering what’s in front of you.

For example, if you have a meeting with a manager at a company, you’re both going to go through this process of discovery from which a picture will emerge.

Now, both of you are on the same page but to get the project away the manager has to convince other people at their company.

And that needs a different approach, one we’ll talk about in the next post.


Karthk Suresh

Why You Need To Let People Discover Contradictions For Themselves When You Listen


Tuesday, 5.35am

Sheffield, U.K.

He had very few doubts, and when the facts contradicted his views on life, he shut his eyes in disapproval. ― Hermann Hesse, The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse

What you see clearly may be completely invisible to the person you are talking to.

In my last post I wrote about the process of listening, of gathering information and starting to construct a model of what you were hearing.

Now, the process of modeling is something you are doing all the time, even as you listen.

You’re taking what someone is saying and interpreting it, recreating it in your mind and coming up with images, structure, relationships that help you make sense of it all.

When you start to lay it out using external memory aids such as index cards or concept maps it makes it easier to see what’s going on and one of the things you will start to notice is how often people hold views that appear to contradict each other.

And you have to watch yourself, be careful as you explore these areas because people get annoyed if you point out inconsistencies in their arguments – if you want them to engage with you then you need to learn how to help them see those contradictions for themselves.

For example, I come from a culture that is frugal and self-reliant.

It’s hard for me to spend money on anything.

Now, that approach has helped in certain ways – I’ve learned how to manage risk, how to invest and how to avoid irrational responses.

At the same time this approach has limited my ability to use leverage, to draw on other people’s money and other people’s time to create more value than I can on my own.

I am always happier when I don’t need to rely on other people.

But, of course, I have to.

In fact, I rely entirely on the work of others to do anything I do.

I rely on a community of free software developers who have created the infrastructure that means I can write and program and create without having to pay a giant corporation or hand over control of everything I do to someone else.

Every thought I have is derived from the work of other people – individuals who took the time to do and think and reflect and write.

So we have this tension between the individual, alone and self-sufficient, and a society which makes it possible for us all to do what we want by making it possible for us to cooperate through social and economic processes.

A few days ago I wrote about how you can use holons to model social processes or human activity and used the example of Republicans and Democrats.

The difference between the two, it appeared, came down to whether you worked to promote the rights of the individual or the common good.

But, as you can see from my discussion above, it’s not an either-or.

It’s a both-and.

The only way you can make it possible for individuals to be free is by having a “good” society.

The fact that people can believe in one thing and ignore the arguments and facts that contradict what they want to believe is a form of cognitive dissonance – a disconnect between what they think and say and what they are and do.

You’ll see this in sitcoms where you have a character that believes he (and it’s normally a he) is irresistibly cool and charming and is anything but – and it’s clear to everyone but him.

What examples of these do you find in business?

Well, they are all over the place – and you’ll see them once you start looking.

It’s there with people who say they want to collaborate but who plan in most cases to appropriate or recreate your ideas and methods.

It’s the person who says they want move fast but when it comes to decision time need to go through years of committee meetings and decision processes.

It’s the people who say they want to do things differently and encourage change and then get very uncomfortable when someone proposes modifying anything.

What’s important, as you listen to what someone is saying and collect information, is that you notice these differences and then, instead of pointing them out, you ask for clarification.

For example, if I was in a meeting where someone was talking about doing something in-house versus buying it from me then the question I would have is how open the person is to outside help.

Some businesses have a policy of doing everything themselves – which often stems from a founder’s fear of being dependent on anyone else.

And you’re not going to change that mentality, not quickly anyway.

But they’ll never tell you that, not up front, because it doesn’t sound like the kind of thing a modern, fast-growing business does.

So you have to dig, carefully, unearth what is likely to happen.

And the way you do this is through questions – like “can you give me an example of how you used an outside supplier?”

Not how will you use one, but how you used one in the past.

If you ask people about the future, you invite speculation and made up stuff about how they will act.

If you ask about the past then you’re on firm ground – if they haven’t done it so far that’s the best indication that they won’t do it in the future.

Or they’ll tell you the conditions under which they’ll work with you, which will probably be onerous and transfer a lot of risk to you and try and protect their position as much as possible.

That’s the thing you have to notice with ideas, they’re like glass and they’re like steel.

You might listen to an idea and see it as easily breakable and the person talking to you will see it as invincible.

You only have to look at some our current world leaders to see this in action.

Now, you’ve listened, you’ve heard what someone has to say, you’ve explored the contradictions and learned where people are – what next?

You have to decide whether you can work with this person or not – if the contradictions are too great you’re better off walking away and not wasting more time – unless your job is to help them work through those contradictions.

But you have to decide if you want to do business.

If you do, then you need to think about how you’re going to move forward, what’s your proposal?

How do you take everything you have and pull it together in a way that makes sense and allows you to do the next thing?

Let’s look at that in the next post.


Karthik Suresh

Making Sense – The Winding Road To Understanding Something


Monday, 5.39am

Sheffield, U.K.

At work here is that powerful WYSIATI (“what you see is all there is”) rule. You cannot help dealing with the limited information you have as if it were all there is to know. You build the best possible story from the information available to you, and if it is a good story, you believe it. Paradoxically, it is easier to construct a coherent story when you know little, when there are fewer pieces to fit into the puzzle. Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance. – Daniel Kahneman

When I look back over the last two decades it seems to me that what I thought of as obvious and true has changed over the years.

But that’s not something that happened naturally – it’s only happened because I’ve worked at it, tried to learn more and, in the process, seen different perspectives and approaches.

The biggest shift in my thinking has been going from seeing the world from my point of view to realizing that when it comes to the important things there are often multiple points of view and one of your jobs is to try and make semse of these other points of view and come to a critical understanding of your own.

So, how do you go about doing that?

Collect a mountain of material

In any project you will collect a heap of material – research, interview notes, jottings, transcripts.

This is the raw material you have to work with – the stuff that you need to work and knead and worry until you have something that you’re ready to use.

The amount of material you need depends on the project and what you’re trying to do.

In many situations the important thing is to figure out what your strategy is – what’s the right direction for you to move in next.

In other situations you might have a more complex problem, such as working out how to engage a number of stakeholders in a transformation project.

Now that you have your material, all these differently shaped pieces, what do you do next?

Build a model of the situation

It’s very hard to see clearly when you’re deep into the detail.

Every conversation, every strand, every note you’ve taken takes time to read and re-read and it’s impossible for you to keep everything you’ve got in your head.

That’s where modeling methods can come to the rescue.

A model is a tool that helps you work at a higher level of abstraction than the material itself and you can have models that work at different layers.

One approach that you’ve probably come across is the use of index cards.

In this paper John W. Maxwell and Haig Armen argue that an index card is indexical, iconic and textual.

What does that mean?

The indexical property relates to the fact that you can use an index card to point to a larger body of material such a book or resource.

For example, if you have a stack of business plans produced by the company you’re working with then you could use an index card to note that collection exists.

You write stuff on the card that tells you what you need to know – like where something is or a quick summary of a larger set of material – and that’s the textual part of it.

The middle point – about the cards being iconic – has to do with the fact that each card is a thing in itself – a thing that you can move around in space.

So you can move the cards around, sort them, rearrange them, restructure them in a way that you can’t do with the original material that the cards represent.

In this sense, a set of index cards that capture and summarize your material act as a three-dimensional physical model of what you have – a model that can help you make sense of the mountain of material that you have collected.

So, how do you get started.

Map your material to your model

You can begin at either end, with the model or with the material.

Writers like John McPhee have written about this process, the way the amount of material he had blocked him from writing and how he had to take a step back and create a structure first using index cards which then allowed the work to flow.

On the other hand, starting with a model may help you decide what you know and what you need to learn more about.

You might start with a set of cards setting out your plan and then work through each one, going and finding material when you realize you’re missing something.

This idea of having stuff and a model of that stuff and working with the two resonates with a number of approaches to problematic situations.

At one extreme you have the idea of a digital twin, a complete model of a situation that you can use to test and develop strategy.

At the other extreme, in a number of situations you have models as being transient, sense-making objects.

You don’t need the full power of an index card model, which can pull together material that needs a full book to understand.

Instead, you can use holons, simple models with five to nine elements that describe what is going on.

The decisions you make about the kind of model you build really depend on how big and complex your situation is and the level of abstraction you’re working at.

And then you go through all your material and map it to the model, using codes or references or links or connections or whatever you choose to show how they relate to each other.

When you have a model of your material you can start to move the pieces around, fit them together until something emerges that has an overall structure and makes sense.

You may need to add new bits, remove bits, fiddle with the model and the material, but that’s something you can now do.

And you constantly ask yourself – does this make sense?

Let’s look at what you do if it doesn’t in the next post.


Karthik Suresh

How To Start Pulling Together Everything You’ve Heard And Noted Down


Sunday, 6.48am

Sheffield, U.K.

Indeed, while we might think of information technology as a newish field, in fact Information Technologist may rank among the world’s oldest professions. – Alex Wright, Glut: Mastering information through the ages

I’m at the third section of this Listen book project and what I’m going to have to work through is how to pull everything together.

I started this project with a vague idea of what I was doing and followed ideas as they emerged.

As a result, I’ve had to retrofit a structure as I’ve moved through the content and selected to go with a simple three-part one, which involves preparation, collection and sense-making.

We’re into sense-making territory now and I’m drawing on ethnographic approaches and management experience to work through this section.

Eventually the plan is that all these words can be put together in a way that makes sense and is readable – but I have to confess feeling that could be a long, hard slog which is never actually finished.

But I think that is the way a lot of artists feel and you just have to work through things a bit at a time and eventually something happens.

If you stop, it doesn’t.

So, in this section, let’s look at how to move ahead, starting with what you have.

What material have you collected?

We’ve discussed in previous posts that you need to take notes, lots of them, as you experience a situation.

People will tell you things, you’ll see things, you’ll have your own ideas or insights into what is going on.

You’ve captured all this somewhere – in your mind, in your notebook.

You’ve done this in private and no one has seen your notes or you’ve done it while being observed and effectively co-created notes.

What you’re looking at is a mass of material.

What are you going to do with that?

Before I go into that, some time back I was wondering about the essential futility of modern living.

I think it was sparked by a quote about how humans have transitioned from being hunters to farmers to clerks.

That seemed like a negative thing – why are we spending so much of our time on mundane, non-essential, clerkish duties.

And then I came across Glut: Mastering information through the ages and started to realize just how critical writing was in enabling the societies we have today.

It’s one thing having a thought or seeing something – but it’s writing it down and sharing it that gives it roots and life and longevity.

And writing down something means you first have to make sense of things – and that’s why it has been such a useful tool through the ages – and why being a scribe or a clerk is actually a rather important job.

I need to make it clearer throughout this book project is that the “Listen” title of the book is not about providing a sympathetic ear to someone going through a difficult time.

That’s what you might normally think of – and the objective there is to allow someone to have a cathartic experience – to talk through what’s on their mind and unburden themselves.

We’re often told that we just need to be there to listen, not offer solutions but instead a non-judgmental ear.

That’s not the kind of listening I’m really talking about here.

This is the kind of listening that helps you work out what course of action is best, what strategies you might take, whether you have options or if you’ve got your back to the wall and your only option is to fight your way out.

It’s the kind of listening that helps you understand a situation, the dynamics, the politics, the culture and get a sense of what could work given the people and relationships that are in front of you.

And what you’ve done, in whatever way works best for you, is scribed it all down, noted down everything you could using the resources and tools you had.

And now you need to do something with all that.

What analysis are you going to do?

The general word for starting to make sense of thing is “analysis” and we can use that to cover quite a large set of activities.

We’ll go into some of them in more detail in later posts, but analysis is the process of taking a pile of material and processing it – sorting it, categorizing it – putting it into buckets so that you can work with it.

In most situations the important information is qualitative – you’re trying to work through what people have said.

It’s tempting to reduce things to numbers, to surveys and spreadsheets, but in reality the things you measure are often not the things that matter – and the answers are hidden behind the words people have used to tell you what’s going on.

And so analysis is not just about what you’ve been told but about what lies behind the words – the hidden meanings of things.

When analyzing material what matters is stepping away from your own position on things.

You need to try and look at your material from multiple perspectives, not necessarily objective but critical.

The difference is that an objective approach reduces the role of the observer – you in this case – while a critical approach allows you to stay in the picture, challenging and questioning and coding and grouping and sorting the material in front of you.

What themes and ideas are emerging?

When you go through the analysis process you find that themes and ideas will start to emerge.

It’s tempting, of course, to stop at the first few, plausible ones but it’s important to keep going, to create multiple sets of ideas and themes and models.

There’s often more than one consistent and logical way to look at a situation.

If you want to make a difference you need to be able to appreciate all of them – or at least the ones that matter the most.

All of this can be hard, taxing work – and you might wonder why you’re doing any of this at all.

Who are you writing for?

And this is where you need to decide who your audience is and why you’re writing in the first place.

If you’re trying to create a business opportunity, then shorter is often better.

If you’re in business, you’re not interested in a book that tells you everything – you really want to know which direction to go in and what pitfalls to avoid.

You might have a short conversation and a fairly simple presentation or document that pulls it all together.

If you’re doing an extended study or writing a book or really trying to understand what’s going on in a way that can be generalized or commercialized then you will need to do more work.

One way of thinking about this is the container you’re filling – is it a memo, a presentation, a white paper, a presentation, a book?

We’ll look at how the choice of container affects they way you present your findings.

What’s the point at which you can walk away?

Finally, no piece of work is ever really finished – you have to decide what point you’re ready to walk away from it.

Some people will work on and worry something until the very end.

Some will get it to the point where it works and then move on.

It really depends on how you think of your work – whether it’s a transitional object or something that is permanent – words for the ages.

We’ll look at that as well, what’s the way in which what you create serves you and others.

And then, when you’ve put down your pen or closed your computer file, you’re done with the process.

But we’ll get to that as we work through these ideas in the next few posts.


Karthik Suresh

How To Make Sense Of The Whole Thing Using Holons


Saturday, 6.23am

Sheffield, U.K.

What I mean is that if you really want to understand something, the best way is to try and explain it to someone else. That forces you to sort it out in your own mind. And the more slow and dim-witted your pupil, the more you have to break things down into more and more simple ideas. And that’s really the essence of programming. By the time you’ve sorted out a complicated idea into little steps that even a stupid machine can deal with, you’ve certainly learned something about it yourself. The teacher usually learns more than the pupil. Isn’t that true? – Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

Most of the issues we run into with our lives can be traced back to one thing – we don’t look at all the factors that matter in a situation.

And that’s because it’s normal to look at the presenting problem – the thing that’s most obviously wrong.

For example, if someone makes a mistake at work a common reaction is to create a rule that aims to prevent that happening again.

Let’s say a person has to do a number of checks and some of them get missed.

One way to help is to create a checklist, something they tick off as they go along.

Now, what you’ll find over time is that someone will come up with the bright idea of adding signature boxes to the bottom of your checklist.

What that aims to do is add accountability – the person doing it signs it and then a person who double checks it signs it too – a sign of quality control.

What this always does is reduce quality because now you have two people, each of which is tempted to believe the other will pick up on errors and who both get more focused on whether they have followed a checking process than whether the right thing is being done.

One of the things people need to understand is that you cannot “inspect quality” into a process – you have to build quality in right from the beginning and a checklist is a tool to help, not a weapon for allocating blame.

But what is this quality thing anyway?

Quality is something that emerges from doing something well for someone else – it’s the experience they have.

So that’s something weird, isn’t it.

When you say a Rolex is a quality product, do you mean that every piece in there is machined to a particular tolerance or that the glass is a certain kind of material?

That’s one take on quality – an adherence to specifications – but that’s not what people think when they wear a premium watch – no one really oohs and aahs over the micrometer measurements of the product.

But those micrometer measurements matter too – without them you have something that feels cheap and poorly put together and you can tell the absence of quality.

Now, in the physical world of products, because what you use and how well it all fits together contributes to that feeling of quality, we associate quality with standards and tolerances.

So then when you come to services and concepts and dreams it’s tempting to use the same approach – we can improve quality through standardization.

For example, you do things like having a customer relationship management (CRM) system, set KPIs and targets, have service level agreements – which result in rules like we will answer the phone in five minutes or less.

But is that what you want when you call up customer services – a short wait – or do you want your problem solved?

Maybe the person who talks to you gets to you in two minutes, they update the CRM with all the information and create all the flows that are needed by the process – they follow all their standards and rules exactly – but if your problem isn’t sorted you still feel that it’s low quality work.

That’s one of the frustrations people have with government, where the overriding concern is about process rather than result – where people spend huge amounts of time inspecting and checking and measuring and reporting and scoring rather than actually doing the job well.

And that’s because they can’t see the big picture – the whole thing – because we’re trained not to.

We’re taught that if you can’t measure it you can’t manage it, so we focus on the things we can measure and completely miss the things that matter.

Maybe what we should be taught is that if you can’t model it, then you can’t understand it – and that’s why you can’t manage it.

Being able to model something is what matters, and some of the things in your model can be measured and that’s going to help you but other things can’t and you need to be able to tell the difference and live with the implications.

But how do you create a model that works for real-world situations?

Well, one way is to start using the word “system” in the right way, because it means something very different to different people.

Some systems might be seen as real and physical – like your IT system or your transportation system.

Others are more amorphous and complex – like the economic system or value system or healthcare system.

The crossover from real and measurable to conceptual and abstract is not always obvious but it doesn’t help that we use the word “system” for everything that we could possibly want to manage.

One solution is to use the word “holon” – a word that has been put forward for “the abstract concept of a whole which might then be used to understand or create real-world systems”

So, we use the word system to mean something in the real world, something we can point to and touch – while we use holons for concepts that we hold in our minds.

So what’s this holon thing then?

In “Soft Systems Methodology in Action” Peter Checkland suggests using the word “holon” for the “abstract idea of a whole having emergent properties, a layered structure and processes of communication and control which in principle enable it to survive in a changing environment.”

The basic idea that Checkland puts forward is this – we have these abstract concepts in our heads when we think about the world and the big issue we face is talking about these abstract things with others.

We can use holons to make those abstract concepts visible, and then by comparing your abstract concept with my abstract concept we can understand each other better and have a conversation about how we can live together.

The process of modeling a holon is shown in the image above – you have activities that are connected together – and there is communication and control between them.

These activities together make a whole.

And from that whole you have something that emerges that is not in any of the parts but happens because of how those parts work together.

A holon is something you can create pretty quickly – it’s there to help you have a discussion about what’s in your head.

How would you use this in practice?

I don’t know much about politics, so let’s ask Wikipedia what Republicans and Democrats are – what makes them them and see if we can quickly construct holons to compare and contrast the two.

Here are two holons – first a model of what republicans believe.


and then a model of what democrats believe.


Now, these are quick models, one interpretation of the words that are in the Wikipedia articles – they are selective and partial and reflect what seemed most obvious to me – the person constructing the model.

But now, instead of shouting at me from your point of view – whichever party you support – you can look at the two holons and correct what you see as errors.

Should the activities or connections be different, are there things missing?

Eventually, there could be a holon that you are happy with which, for you, allows the concept of being a Democrat or Republican to emerge

And then there are two holons which you can compare and discuss and use to understand what’s different about the two and where there might be room for discussion and where there is none.

Now, of course, there are layers under each activity, and that’s the idea of hierarchy, you can create more holons that express each of those nested ideas and that’s also the a feature of inquiry into real-world situations – models and emergence exist at different levels each building on the next.

You need to get your head around the idea that a holon is simply a way to model what a person thinks.

And where it matters is that if you listen to someone and then build a holon of what they think which they agree captures what they have said you’ve now created a useful model of that discussion.

That’s something you can build on as you move to the next step of whatever you’re working on – the project or product or process or business you’re trying to build.

So the next thing we should look at is bringing it all together, making sense of it all.

Over a series of posts we’ve looked at listening, tools and methods to do it better, and some techniques to help us model situations.

So what have we learned, what do we think and what are we going to do next.

We need to tackle some of these ideas in the next few posts.


Karthik Suresh

What Is An Influence Model And Why Is It Useful?


Friday, 5.39am

Sheffield, U.K.

My dad used to say, ‘Just because you dress up in a coat and tie, it doesn’t influence your intelligence.’ Tiger Woods

A project can often be overwhelming – there are so many options, so many things that could happen.

How do you go about making sense of it all and coming to a point of view?

Most people are not trained to do this – I don’t remember going on a single course that formally taught how to think about situations and problems.

It seems to be the domain of specialized researchers, people who learn it in particular fields but we all really need to understand the basics of analysis, the chain of cause and effect and the range of things that can happen.

I was going to write this post from the point of view of mathematical modeling but I realized that it may also be useful with another problem I’m facing, so I’ll describe both – you never know, that might be useful as well.

Let’s start with modeling with spreadsheets.

You’ve all probably had to create a spreadsheet model – they are the universal medium through which business communicates information.

They are also, most of the time, wrong.

That’s because a spreadsheet model is really a very powerful programming platform that gives users access to capability without requiring any controls or good practice.

So you end up with monster spreadsheets that are poorly designed, hard to maintain, riddled with errors and that don’t really help you understand a situation.

And there is almost no information out there that tells you how to do this better.

Perhaps the most useful books on this that I’ve found are The art of modeling with spreadsheets and Modelling for insight and the most useful thing in the books is the idea of an influence model.

Now, if you’re interested in the process of modeling itself I’d suggest getting one or both of these but in this post I want to look at the influence model as an object of interest.

The easiest way to get started is with an example.

One of the things I’m interested in is the idea of daily profit – a measurement every day of whether you’re on the right track or not.

So, how would you work that out.

Well, there are factors that influence the calculation of daily profit, and an influence model helps you work out the factors that matter.

For example, you need daily income and daily costs to work out daily profit as the difference between the two.

Daily income and daily costs, in turn, have other factors that influence them.

What you do is draw the factors that you come up with in a chart, as in the image above, and keep working back and decomposing each factor until you can go no further.

That point, the point at which the process stops, is actually your starting point.

Those factors are your parameters, the things you have to enter into your model to start everything off.

From those parameters come a series of calculations, as you work down your branches of the model.

For example, you have to add sales, commissions and investments in the model above to get daily income.

You have to work out the difference between daily income and daily costs to work out daily profit.

So, you have parameters and calculations that then calculate a result.

Now you have a what you need to build a spreadsheet model that you can actually play with – what happens if your sales go up 50%?

What impact does that have on profit.

Have you built a link between sales and costs – when you make a sale, have you calculated how much you’re going to pay in fees or extra hours for that sale?

If not, then create a link between those elements in the model and update your spreadsheet.

And, of course, if your end result is not the actual result, you can extend the model.

For example, your daily profit is a measure but how do you know if it’s good or bad?

You might need a target that is, in turn, calculated from other factors and that helps you work out a variance, which when you factor in time lets you get a cumulative variance.

Now there are two things to note.

The first is that once you have an influence model it makes the job of building a spreadsheet much easier.

You just need to have an input section for the parameters, a calculation section for the workings and a results section to show you the answers.

Read the books for suggestions on how to do this elegantly – but one tip is that if you put the input parameters and the results close together and the calculations below then when you change a parameter you’ll see the result straight away rather than having to go somewhere else.

And that will make your model more interactive – something you play with to see what happens and that’s going to help you think through the situation.

The thing that makes the influence model approach so powerful is that you work backwards from the result you want to the things that matter.

Doing the opposite – starting with what you have and trying to understand the possibilities is too hard to do – you feel like your model has to take everything into account.

Now, that’s useful in its own way, when you’re thinking and exploring and expanding your view.

But when you decide that you need to do something then you have to focus on only the things that matter so that you can get on and do the work.

Which is where this approach also might help.

I mentioned in a previous post that I was finding it hard to get into editing my first book project’s content.

This is because when I wrote it I was in expansive mode, I worked through topics and structure and wrote it all out, with a few diversions along the way.

Now, at editing time, I need to focus, to cut out anything that isn’t helping with the main message.

Which, of course, means I need to be very clear about the main message.

And the things that influence it.

I need to work out the factors that matter, structure those as an influence model, make sure my content maps to that structure and ruthlessly edit out anything that doesn’t contribute to the message.

Will that work?

Well, it might help me get over my first editing block and go from that “shitty first draft” to a version with a bit more structure.

And then, of course, there is the chipping away and polishing and finishing.

But here’s the point about using an influence model.

When you think about things in this way the one thing that you can soothe yourself with is that you’re thinking about things that matter.

What you’re working on is directly related to the result you want to get and so it’s going to help.

And that’s something that’s going to help you keep going, whether it’s a model or a project.

An influence model is intensely practical – it’s there to help you do a specific thing.

You need a different kind of model when you need to think about everything.

Let’s look at that in the next post.


Karthik Suresh

How To Get The Richest Possible Appreciation Of A Situation


Thursday, 5.51am

Sheffield, U.K.

A characteristic of fluent users of SSM is that they will be observed throughout the work drawing pictures and diagrams as well as taking notes and writing prose – Checkland in Soft Systems Methodology in Action, p.45

In my last post I looked at SODA – Strategic Options Development and Analysis as a way to understand situations.

In this post I want to start looking at one facet of another method, Soft Systems Methodology (SSM), and, in particular, how you can get a “rich appreciation” of what’s going on.

In many consulting or research projects we’re going to enter situations where prior work has already been done, where “stuff” exists.

And one of the things you have to do is understand that stuff – and this is something that SSM talks about in terms of gaining an “appreciation” of what’s going on.

And one useful technique to do this is to draw a rich picture diagram – a drawing of what’s happening.

Now, the literature in this space is contradictory and confusing – I know that my own understanding has changed over time.

For example you’ll find some examples of what I call rich pictures in this site are actually closer to cognitive maps.

What’s the difference?

In the last post I explored how you could build a cognitive map from what someone told you, the statements and links they talked through can be captured and shown on a piece of paper and the resulting image that emerges shows both of you a view of what is in someone’s head.

There is a question about whether this view existed already – did you discover it – or did the two of you construct or create it?

Now, once you’ve worked away to discover or construct a point of view – however you want to take it – then you want to try and make sense of it, look at it, talk about it, debate it and come to an agreement about how you all think about.

A rich picture is a little different – in that it is a representation of something that is probably already there – you’re just showing it in a different way.

For example, the Economist September 2020 issue has a number of features on the future of clean energy.

Now, you could read all the material in there – it’s been painstakingly written by experienced journalists.

That’s going to give you some information on what’s going on.

There was also a Financial Times article published in the same month about a dramatic fall in BP’s share price – because of fears that BP’s oil revenue would fall as the world shifted to clean energy.

Now, how would you start to make sense of these stories.

The rich picture in the image above is one way to draw what’s going on in a way that pulls from what’s being written and discussed in the media to help us make sense of what’s going on too.

Take a look at the picture.

Is it relatively self-explanatory?

If I tried to talk you through this in words, then I’d be saying something like for the last century different groups have tried to control the Middle East – the US and UK provide financial and military aid to Saudi Arabia while Russia supports Iran.

They do this because they want to control the oil in those regions – that’s why they supported leaders like Saddam Hussein in Iraq for a long time, leaders who repress their citizens.

You see this pattern often, where resource rich countries have this kind of setup.

And the countries and companies that control the people who control the land do this because they can then have access to the resources they need to supply rich consumers.

This has been the fundamental geopolitical issue of the 20th century – the battle to control energy supply.

But things are changing, the clean energy alternatives mean that the land which is valuable is not where there is oil but where the wind blows and the sun shines – different lands, owned by different people.

And so the companies that controlled the oil lands, like BP, are now having to scramble for the new lands and because they didn’t do this early enough their share prices are being hammered.

Now, the last seven paragraphs are a condensed view of what’s going on in writing – but there are still nuances – you could write entire books on this subject.

I have a few upstairs – thick volumes – close on 900 pages I think.

Now, if you’ve had the patience to read all these paragraphs, look at them again as objects in themselves, as artifacts of interest.

The rich picture by itself – is it enough, does it need more, could you make sense of it?

The words – were they enough, did you get it, was it complete or comprehensive?

What about both together – was that useful, did it help make sense, could you see the connections better?

Now, think about how you might use a rich picture diagram in a situation.

You could read all the background material available, make notes.

You might do some interviews, build cognitive maps.

If you do enough interviews you might find that things keep on turning up, you see patterns – of people, of objects, of institutions, of information flows.

So, perhaps you capture these in a picture – one you can point to and say this is what we see from our research, what do you think?

But there’s no hard distinction, rather a blurring – a cognitive map can have pictures too – and at some point you go from one to the other but what you call it, and when you call it one thing or the other, really depends on you and the situation and whether anyone cares what it’s called or whether they just want to get on and do the work.

But if you’re interested in this kind of stuff and want to become a better listener and have better conversations then knowing the difference and knowing what you do and how you do it is probably a good idea.

There’s no real prescription here – do it this way and it will work type of thing.

The point is that pictures can help you capture things that would take a long time to do in words – so it seems like a good idea to try and use pictures when that helps.

They don’t need to be art – it’s a thinking tool and you can do a lot with simple shapes and lines.

As you can see on almost every page of this blog, I hope.

Now, so far, I’ve looked at cognitive maps as a way to map out what people say – which focuses really on words.

Then we’ve looked at rich pictures as a way to show entities and people and patterns and connections.

We’ve talked previously about notes and jottings.

The next tools to look at are models, and there are two kinds of models – broadly speaking.

One is a mathematical, numerical assessment of a situation – an influence model – and I think it might be worth looking at one method for doing this well – because it’s hardly ever taught.

And then there’s a model for thinking systemically – holons.

I’ll cover these and how to use them in the next two posts.


Karthik Suresh

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