Do You Know What Kind Of Organization You Work For?


Tuesday, 10.05pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Politics is about the participation and engagement of the wider citizenry – to miss that point would doom us to irrelevance. – David Blunkett

In my last post I said I wanted to look at examples of participation – what really engages and excites people in a group. But before we get into that perhaps we should take a quick look at the nature of groups and of society – because the structure of the group will surely have some influence on the kind of things that happen.

Think about the social situations in which you find yourself. There’s work, probably. Home and family life. And then there are the various institutions that you participate in voluntarily and the society you live in by dint of where you are geographically.

Work, for many people in the private sector is really a form of monarchy, isn’t it? You have a ruler at the top and layers of enforcers – a hierarchy of one kind or another. Of course, the monarch no longer has untrammelled power but the vestiges of ownership, the feudal echoes of the people that own the land and the people that work the land are still there. Everyone between the ruler and the tiller of the land is there to make sure that the ruler’s wishes get done through the administrative machinery of the kingdom.

If you’re lucky you live in a democracy where the voices of the majority decide what is to be done. It’s not a perfect system but its better than the alternatives. But do you practice democracy anywhere else – at work or at home? Do you have a democratic system where your children have an equal say and you go with the majority? Or are you autocratic – enforcing the rules as you see fit?

And then there is this thing called a sociocracy – a body of people that have social relationships and have a way of self-organizing, deciding between themselves what to do rather than being organized – and told what to do. There’s a description of what this looks like in Buck and Endenburg (2012) and it essentially comes down to a few elements.

  • People are equal
  • Decisions require consent
  • Leaders are elected
  • Hierarchies are representative

Let’s imagine a meeting, a session where a group comes together. This is easy to do, just recall any boardroom scene from any film. The imperious boss strides to the head of the table and asks for a report. A halting and fearful employee makes their statement – is harangued in front of everyone, possibly fired, and then the boss moves on to the next victim.

Now imagine a board meeting, a collection of equals, the Executive Leadership. The atmosphere here is openly collegial, and, under the surface, bitterly political. But these are gentlepeople and they read their papers, listen to the proposals and decide on motions with a vote. Democracy in action, greased by favours and backhanders.

Power only defers to power, those without power are irrelevant, their opinions carry little weight. After all, the vote used to be restricted to people who owned land – no one else had any right to have a say in how things were done.

It is naive to assume that any other system is “natural” to the way we are as humans. A dominance hierarchy is built into our DNA – it’s in our bones. Our animal ancestors settled their differences on the basis of who was more powerful and that continues with us today. Our most basic instinct is to seek and get and hold and consolidate our power. It takes all our humanity to act in any other way.

And to act in any other way is the defining benefit of being human. It’s unfair, of course, to characterize most human excesses as animal instinct – no animal could behave in the way humans do. Or perhaps they could – I haven’t looked into it. Is genocide a trait of any animal? Apparently humans share this trait with chimpanzees and it comes down to competition for resources, with the chimps anyway. But it’s not, it would seem, something animals in general do. But humans are also capable of overriding that part of us through choice, by the choices we make about how to live and work and be together.

It’s not going to far, I think, to say that both a monarchy and a democracy are based on violence towards others. Is that too strong a word? Is violence – the extent to which apes can wreak havoc on others in a competition for resources – not something we see all the time? And aren’t the social institutions we have – the police, the courts, the media, the politics – tools and processes for avoiding the manifestation of that violence? And when we feel that things have gone to far don’t we take action, which ends up being violent? Isn’t that clear from the fact that you have to make it clear that you are going to protest using non-violent direct action?

Now, if you look at this from a systems point of view – perhaps using Deming’s formulation – you’d say that most of the problems have to do with the system rather than the people. In a monarchy you end up with people saying what the ruler wants them to say to avoid getting into trouble. In a democracy you end up speaking only to your own people and anyone on the fence because your only job is to get enough people on your side to win. The objective for all players is to gain power. Once you have power, you can decide what to do next.

If you truly want participation – if you truly want to exercise the extent of your humanity – you have to come to terms with the extent to which you are willing to cede your power. And this is a tremendously difficult thing to do. Think about it – are there any circumstances in your life where you are not in a position where you have power or where you don’t have power? You have power over your young children and your manager has power over you. Have you ever had that feeling when your child first rebels, refuses to acknowledge your power and starts to assert their own. Isn’t almost all of being a parent a power struggle with a few cuddles and love left over? Are you ready to give your young child the power to make their own decisions? Will you ever be ready?

If you are, then maybe you can be the change the world needs. It can be done. Remember the words from the film Gandhi?

Edward R. Murrow: [at Gandhi’s funeral] The object of this massive tribute died as he had always lived – a private man without wealth, without property, without official title or office. Mahatma Gandhi was not a commander of great armies nor ruler of vast lands. He could boast no scientific achievements or artistic gift. Yet men, governments and dignitaries from all over the world have joined hands today to pay homage to this little brown man in the loincloth who led his country to freedom. Pope Pius, the Archbishop of Canterbury, President Truman, Chiang Kai-shek, The Foreign Minister of Russia, the President of France… are among the millions here and abroad who have lamented his passing. In the words of General George C. Marshall, the American Secretary of State, “Mahatma Gandhi had become the spokesman for the conscience of mankind, a man who made humility and simple truth more powerful than empires.” And Albert Einstein added, “Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.”

If you want to take people with you then you have to start by being willing to give up power. What happens when you do that?

Let’s look at that in the next post.


Karthik Suresh


John A. Buck and Gerard Endenburg, The Creative Forces of Self‐Organization (2012).

How Can You Help People To Get Along?


Monday, 9.34pm

Sheffield, U.K.

I used to teach improv courses in Amsterdam where we would do team-building exercises, and they can go south very quickly. – Ike Barinholtz

I’ve been watching TED talks while putting the kids to bed again and I’ve been searching for something in particular – about drawing and it’s potential to draw out what’s hidden inside us. The things that get overlaid with the detritus and crud of life until we forget they exist.

I started with Ursus Wehrli and his talk Tidying up art. It’s funny because he takes modern art and rearranges it to make sense. And he’s serious because he’s taken out a patent and he gets the point because he is taking art and making art.

Ursus Wehrli’s talk led to one by Ze Frank called Nerdcode comedy which is again sarcastic and funny and serious and eye-opening. Around 14 minutes into the talk he talks about creating online spaces where people who don’t think of themselves as artists can come together and share the feeling of creation – of making things. He talks of living in a “culture of guru-ship” and that has only become more the case now. Every person you see, every video, everything that’s brought to you by the algorithms is polished perfection, experts telling you their expert stuff, perfect people with perfect bodies showing you how they live perfect lives.

That’s not participative or expressive so Ze talks about creating “meaningful environments for people to express themselves”, creating silly, fun things to do like competitions for photos of “When Office Supplies Attack” or “Toilet Paper fashion”. And then, in an offhand comment that is almost certainly perfectly rehearsed he says, “But it’s peripheral activities like these that allow people to get together, doing fun things. They actually get to know each other, and it’s sort of like low-threshold peripheral activities that I think are the key to bringing up some of our bonding social capital that we’re lacking. ”

Now that’s insight and I’ll tell you why.

I have, like you, attended lots of webinars and sessions where people tell you stuff, throw stuff at you. I’ve also attended workshop sessions and team building exercises and almost certainly hated all of them. I’ve developed my own approach for running certain sessions and I think people like them because what I do is ask them to talk and I ask questions and listen and try to understand and people seem to like that. But that’s not group work, not in the least.

So, I attended a session sometime back where we got put in small groups and had to work on a task together and I loved that, because I was doing something that wasn’t hard to do – I kind of knew it – and I was working with other people and we were creating something together – and that experience of making – in a small group – made that session memorable and exciting and something I’m writing about weeks later. So what made the difference? I think it was this peripheral activity, where we did something fun and got to know each other and that created social bonds.

Now yes, those bonds are built quickly and often short lived. We’ve all been to events where we do something together, learn more about each other and then go back to work and everything goes back to the mean, reverts to what was happening before and you might as well not have bothered with all that activity stuff.

But at least we have a model – an insight into how things work that we can use. And that is this – the peripheral activities are simply a way to loosen up, to get your head in the game and start to get to know and like the people you are with. Eventually, whether you succeed or fail depends on how the team works on a real project. And I remember a session with these dynamics as well – the first session went well because we worked as a team. The next, we changed partners and it all went south mainly because of one, rather domineering person who tried to control everything.

These activities won’t fix a team with the wrong people – but if you have the right ones and you get them to work together then you’ve got a chance of creating something good. But, how do you tell a good team from one that simply says all the right things and doesn’t really work well under the surface?

Eventually, it will show up in the results. We can go back to Warren Buffett, who said that the value of a business in the long term depends on how its earnings grow. A real team will eventually show real results – as long as it’s in a good business.

We’ve digressed a bit but that’s ok. The thing is that getting people to engage is hard – and we try and do it by getting them all in a room together. Maybe one of the benefits of the pandemic is that we will try and do more of these remotely and that means we need to figure out how to make shared experiences work online. There are lots of tools and I don’t know how well they work, maybe that’s something to explore actually. Get away from the stuff that’s in your face with Twitter and LinkedIn and go find the other stuff that actually works for real people.

Ze talks about online drawing, which was hard then, and is still not that easy now, although we are getting there. And an easier project called the “Fiction Project” where you can do collaborative fiction writing. That could be interesting for group “futuring” or planning exercises.

The thing that most experiments struggle with – in the social space anyway – is keeping things going. When does an exercise turn into a habit or create real change?

Maybe I need to go in search of these – get off the beaten track a bit and find examples of online community that are just plain different.

Any suggestions?

If not, I’ll start looking for the next post.


Karthik Suresh

Why It Makes Sense To Start Making Something


Sunday, 9.48pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art. – Andy Warhol

Many years ago I spent a few months with a technician, learning how to repair electronic equipment. This is not something people think about much now, I suppose – but I remember being patiently taken through the steps of disassembling and diagnosing VCRs and cassette players and a washing machine. I learned that the first machines are built with steel and redundancy and durability and then all the effort goes into making everything simpler and lighter and made from plastic because it has to be cheaper. And resources like Samuel M. Goldwasser’s repair notes were invaluable.

But I haven’t used them in twenty years now. Things work, and if they don’t you throw them away and get something new. When I got my first car I joined a mechanics course at the local college and learned how to fix it. When the course was done, I used those skills for a while on the old runabouts that I used. And then I got my first newish car and haven’t had to do anything for more than a decade.

Many of us don’t need to do manual work, not stuff like fixing and repairing anyway. There’s always stuff to do around the house but if you’re not a perfectionist then you’re best off leaving proper work to the professionals. I’m talking about just doing something practical, being able to make or mend or do something – use your hands for something other than interacting with a computer.

Now, of course, interacting with a computer is also valuable – it’s a skill you need to participate in the world as it is today. Running away from it all isn’t the answer. But doing something with your hands could help – as Matthew Crawford argues in his book The Case for Working with Your Hands: Or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good. Crawford walked away from a desk job and unfulfilling, pointless work to start a motorcycle repair shop – almost recreating the life story Robert Pirsig outlines in Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance – where he suggests that a young person who does not enjoy formal education should not carry on but should do something practical, like motorcycle repair.

It’s a romantic idea – walking away from those soulless office roles into the “real” world of machinery and men – it’s usually men… but I have another image too. I used to take those old cars to a mechanic and I went into his shop one day as he was wrestling with a fastener. It was dark, he was in his overalls, grimy and sweaty and clearly not enjoying his battle with the vehicle. As I walked in, it all got too much for him, and he turned and flung his spanner at the wall. This was not a person “in touch” with his manual self – it was a tired, fatigued person doing manual work and wondering why he was doing something so tiring and pointless. It didn’t surprise me when he closed his shop a few months later and went to work for someone else.

I’ve even been offered mechanics jobs – talked about it once when I took my bike in for a repair and another time when I asked for a repair kit for my car. Apparently people didn’t repair things these days, they just fitted new parts and when I talked to the owner about what I was trying to do he said to come back if I wanted a job. But I like the comfort of a desk, the clean air and lack of manual effort involved in machining words and images. I don’t enjoy manual work – but I’m happy to spend hours tinkering and fixing and tweaking my own stuff, but not for a job and not if it matters. For example, an outside door was swinging in the wind so violently that it tore off its hinges, breaking the door frame in the process. So, we put the door back in the opening and then used the other door for several years. We thought it would be a big, expensive job to get the door frame fixed.

Recently I wanted to get access to the door again. So I watched videos on YouTube on how to fix frames and eventually just went out and chiselled out the broken bits of frame and cut new pieces to fit and nailed them in and rehung the door. And it worked. It’s not pretty, but it’s a repair and it will work for as long as needed until we need to do a proper job on the thing.

Life isn’t really that complicated when you think about it. What matters is not whether you do manual work or mental work but whether you do work that you like to do. It’s very hard to tell what makes other people tick – but there are clues lurking around. In the science fiction programme “Farscape” a character says, “I am nothing if not a product of my upbringing” and that’s a big part of it and there is something else, if you are lucky, that you discover you are drawn to and if you are very lucky you can do that as a vocation.

How many of us can say that we are doing exactly what we wanted to do? Very few I reckon.

But, if you’re spending most of your time doing something because it’s a job, it’s something that brings in money and helps you provide for your family – there’s honour and respect in that. But if you get the chance to save a little time to do something that you want to do then that’s what’s in it for you.

That’s what’s going to fill the space in you that needs to make something, do something, create something, leave something behind.



Karthik Suresh

Should We Focus Or Should We Not?


Saturday, 6.38pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Focus on the journey, not the destination. Joy is found not in finishing an activity but in doing it. – Greg Anderson

Today is a bit of a reflective post, part way through a book project that I don’t feel very qualified to write. There are a lot of things that I’m wondering about, loosely put into a bucket called angst, and I think I might take this chance to talk through them.

First, why do I write in the first place? What’s the point of keeping this blog?

I’ve always written – to the point where I used to say that if something isn’t written down it doesn’t exist. I modified that statement in 2015 – because it felt like if something wasn’t online it didn’t exist. It took a few more years before I got to the point where I committed to keeping a blog – and very quickly discovered that the things that I thought I would write about were tedious and boring and I headed off in other directions that seemed interesting. Mostly just wandering, without focus or motive.


What happened then was that I discovered I could fuse drawing and writing and that was something not many other people did, at least not when it came to the kinds of spaces that I was exploring. And somewhere along the way I also figured that I needed to give myself time to get the hang of this writing thing. The best time to have started was 20 years ago but given that I was where I was I gave myself 10 years and a target of a million words to get the experience I needed – a sort of self-directed apprenticeship. I would try and write every day.

Three and a half years later I manage to write around 250 days a year – losing a hundred or so to late nights, tiredness and holidays. And I’m on something like 620,000 words. The words are accumulating, building, and along the way I’m getting less self-conscious, less worried about image and how you think about what I write and allowing myself to just write first – let the output happen regardless of whether it’s good or bad or anything.

The result is, however, that I’m not sure what I’m really writing about. I thought it was about management and that worked for a while and then earlier this year I started working on themes, book-length projects and that’s been good for giving me a structure to work from rather than random shots in the dark. So, I wonder, should I have a theme? Should I focus? Should I write here about one particular thing for a particular imagined audience? Or do I write about how we can get better at just getting along better together alongside my interest in computers and open source software and my most recent obsession with medieval writing technology? Are you interested in everything or something in particular and should I write for one of you or an imaginary many or for me and hope that it’s useful to you as well?


I don’t think there are clear answers to any of this. It’s hard to explain why I write to someone that isn’t familiar with my culture or hasn’t read Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance. Because the real answer is that I write for peace of mind. And much of this is focused inward rather than outward. Now, I’ve read criticisms of Eastern writing as not being descriptive enough, not focusing on the stuff around us – like I should write about the weather and the glint of evening light on tiled roofs and the opening of petals and how the dew sits on leaves. And I don’t know but all that stuff is there and you just have to open your eyes and look and if you close your eyes it won’t matter because it will still be there and if you tell someone else about it it won’t matter because if they don’t go there and open their eyes they won’t see for themselves and get the feeling that you had when you had it. I think what’s everywhere is there but what’s inside you is complex and unknown and far more mysterious than a flower – or perhaps it’s just as mysterious but it matters more to you that you know who you are.

There’s just a lot to write about and think about and document. Some of it is just writing, getting stuff out of your mind and onto paper and some of it is useful. And all of this is real life because nothing is nice and neat and clean in a model and if you learn the model all you learn is this abstraction, this thing that tries to say here is how it works and it never really works because the model tries to grab too much and ends up holding to nothing.

It’s like the joke about the cartographers who wanted to do a really detailed map of the Earth and the farmers complained because if it had all the detail it would cover the land and stop the sun getting through. Ironically we now have something that’s close to that detail with digital maps because we can zoom in and out and have that detail at different levels. So maybe I’m wrong, when it comes to maps you can now capture everything, that you can photograph and map anyway – and perhaps we can do something similar with the mind. Maybe that’s what’s going to emerge from the social minds that we are now creating. Each blog post, each tweet is, could be, an insight into a real human being or it could be reproducing or duplicating or recording the same old ideas but I don’t think so – social media is like a market for attention and, like any other market, in the short run it’s a voting machine and in the long run it’s a weighing machine and the stuff that lasts will very likely be the stuff that most people find useful. Or, to be more precise, that people find useful. Even if one other person finds what you do useful then you are creating something of value.

I suppose when it comes down to it what I’m really interested in is thinking – and how that whole part of our life works because it’s the thing that makes us uniquely human and also battles the part of us that has evolved to be what it is over time. When I think about the hundreds of thousands of words I’ve written, many of them are trying to approach the challenges of thinking better and exploring how using thinking tools might help – whether on paper, digital tech or programmatically.


When you look at what’s involved here there are so many words that describe what’s going on – and words are crucial – they are often the end result that matter. We compress meaning and understanding into agreements expressed in words. Everything else makes you feel – you look at an image and you feel something, you watch a video and it makes you feel something – a movie is no good if it doesn’t tell you a story that makes you feel something. But words, words are the things that mean you do something. Of course, feelings make you do things as well, but it’s the complexity in the choice of words that means you do the right things if the words are well chosen and based on a good understanding of the situation and what needs to happen to improve it.

I’m watching videos from artists and thinking that the way I draw hasn’t improved in six years. And then I tell myself that’s ok because I’m not trying to draw. My purpose is not to draw pictures but to write a million words to learn how to write – and so what matters to me is the words I get out and getting better at having those words say what I want to say. Wrestling with words is no different from wrestling with a paintbrush or with a lathe that makes the body of the dip pen that I use to make more words because I want to get a sense of what it’s like to carve them into paper in addition to tapping them into a computer.

This post is really a break, something of a rant because I needed to get clear once again what it is I do.

I write.

And I will get back to doing that in the next post.


Karthik Suresh

Why The Resource Based Theory Of Management Explains Everything About Us


Thursday, 8.26pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Since scarcity is the basic economic problem, if it does not exist then there is no reason for my economics course. Devoting time to the study of how people use limited resources to fulfill unlimited wants and needs should help us to discover how to best utilize the resources we have at our disposal. – Kurt Bills

I’ve been told I shouldn’t tell you this – but I’m going to anyway. And I bet you won’t guess what it’s all about.

At this time of year the holiday movies come out and at some point you will see Santa writing a list and he’ll be doing that with a dip pen, perhaps a quill. Certainly not a ballpoint or even a fountain pen. As I write everything with a decades old editor, the chance to experiment with centuries old writing technology was one that I couldn’t pass up. And as in our material age we have amassed everything in the world at one point or another, I found a crumpled bag in the loft with an assortment of calligraphy nibs, pen holders and ink.

Of course, it’s not enough to just use a dip pen – you also need to find out a bit about these instruments and their history. And in doing that I stumbled across Ted Bishop and his essay on Virginia Woolf and her inks. It turns out that you can make ink at home, Bishop has the recipe on his site, all you need are gall nuts, a growth ok oak trees, gum arabic, ferrous sulphate and wine and you’ll be writing using the ink of Shakespeare. The dip pen that you’ll use to write with is a symbol of the act and the seal of the US Copyright Office, which I have very loosely copied in the picture at the start, showed a dip pen lifting off the paper symbolising that your copyright came into existence the instant you fixed your idea on paper. It’s now been replaced with a boring “c” thing that has no history to it.

But history matters. But in what way – how do you go about studying the past and what is in it? In Bishop’s essay he talks about realizing that when he looked at Woolf’s work earlier he had focused on the literary aspects of it, without worrying about how it was physically constructed. He has a quote by Anthea Callen, from the book Bright Earth: Art and the invention of color by Philip Ball, that goes “Any work of art is determined first and foremost by the materials available to the artist, and by the artist’s ability to manipulate those materials”

Now this is a statement that is obvious and also very deep. I wonder if there is a term for that, something that is both intuitively right and carries the burden of huge meaning. If you generalise that statement and put it into management speak and you can bear the dilution of the language that comes with doing that you get something on the lines of, “Any work depends first and foremost on the resources available to the worker, and by the worker’s ability to work those resources.”

When you look at the world through this lens it starts to become clear that people who have achieved great things achieved them because they had resources and were able to work them. That’s obvious. Bill Gates was born at the right time to the right parents and had the right resources available to him and was able to work those resources to build the business that made him one of the richest men in the world. What’s less obvious is that Gates was also restricted in his options of what to do, he probably had little choice but to go on and get rich. He probably wouldn’t have fared well trying to be a basketball star or a local city counsellor on the fast track to becoming President. Unless he had the right resources and knew how to work them.

This rule applies to you and me. What are the resources we have and how do we work them? I have spent the better part of my life, three quarters of it so far, trying to do what is expected of me. As I said at the start of this post I’m still being told how to act and be. And that has worked, to some extent, but it’s also been a bit like swimming against the tide. It’s only when I stopped doing that and started working with the resources I had – the ones I knew how to work – that things have started to become easier and simpler and clearer.

And then, when you think about it, this observation applies to everything else. If you’re looking at your business, the options you have depend on the resources available to you and your ability to work those resources. Learning a new skill, trying a new method, experimenting with a new approach – everything you do comes down to resources and capability and you have to have both if you want to do anything. So, if you don’t have one or the other, the first job is to go out and get them and then you can start doing something and making something of your life and business.

That’s not the answer people want, is it? They want the shortcut, the hack, the quick way, the rocketship – not the long plod to Dullsville. But here’s the thing. When you slow down and stop trying so hard you might get the time to see what’s really important. And if you see what’s important you can focus on that and do it well and you’ll end up being successful, and if you’re not successful you’ll at least be happy; and if being happy is not being successful then I’m not sure you know what success really is.

Coming back then, to the dip pen, do you think it went out of fashion because it was supplanted by something better? I think you’ll probably agree that it wasn’t. The things that came later, washable ink, biros, cartridge pens, and all the other stationery we love, are more convenient, less messy, but really what’s happened is that we don’t really see the need for writing any more. We scribble notes to each other and type everything that matters into a computer somewhere. And that’s a loss – with all that choice we’re leaving behind the mark-making capabilities that marked us out as human. We’re leaving them for better, smarter stuff but for some of us the choice is really not about one or the other but both-and. Learn how to use computers and write your own code. Learn how to use a dip pen and make your own ink.

Because it comes down to resources and capability, and the more you have of those that matter to you the more likely it is that you’ll be able to do what makes you happy.


Karthik Suresh

What Is The Real Problem We Have In Understanding Each Other?


Wednesday, 8.42pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Literacy. noun. The condition or quality of being literate, especially the ability to read and write.

We forget just how hard it is to learn something for the first time. That steep learning curve, the one that seems almost vertical. Is it even really worth attempting? If you have never played an instrument and decided to pick one up today how long do you think it would be before you gave up and went back to doing the things you know how to do? Not very long, probably.

Maybe this gives us a clue as to why people find it hard to understand one another. Maybe it comes down to language. We know that a person who speaks only English will find it hard to talk to someone who speaks only Tamil. They probably end up creating an intermediate language, a mix of signs and sounds that help them get across what they mean. Now, this might seem obvious when you think of real languages – but you often find that the same kind of issues crop up when people speak the same language, but differently.

For example, engineers, accountants and lawyers might look at the same situation and think and say very different things. One might talk in terms of lengths and volumes, another in terms of costs and allocations and the last in terms of risks and liabilities. They’re each saying things that are rich and meaningful to themselves and only a little better than gibberish to the others. And the reason for that is we’re not born knowing how to understand each other. We’re also not born into some kind of sinister society that wants to control how we think. We’re just in a situation where the inefficiencies of language show up in day to day misunderstandings.

I figured the way to explore this was to find papers that looked at the problems people face with language learning and came across one by Ferguson et al (2011) that looks at how English is the dominant language of academic publication and whether this disadvantages non-native speakers. Is it just because the English ruled over much of the world and is this a result of linguistic imperialism, the transfer of an oppressor’s language to everyone else?

Not really, the authors argue. The thing about any language is that just being a native speaker doesn’t mean you’re any good at using that language effectively. Literacy is much much more than speaking a language at home. It’s about reading, certainly, but it’s also about writing. And the ability to read and write well is not something innate – you get it through a formal education and by spending a lot of time practising.

And it’s this point that is probably the one that matters most. If you want to be good at something you have to stop and ask yourself just how much time you’ve spent learning and practising this thing. You will naturally do that if you’re talking about Tennis or playing the violin. No one expects to be good at those things immediately. But if you’re asked about strategy, or invited to work through a brainstorming session you think you can jump in and do as well as anyone else. After all, how many times have you watched the telly and thought you could do so much better than the numpties on there?

When it comes to academic papers a lack of language skills is rarely the problem – it’s the lack of academic skills that results in your work being rejected. If you haven’t designed your study well, can’t tell your story and don’t know what readers are looking for, then it really doesn’t matter whether you’re a native speaker or not. Your work is still rubbish and will stay rubbish until you get better – which comes with time and practice.

Now, what the authors also point out is that if you’re a non-native speaker you do face additional difficulties writing in a foreign language. Your ideas may be sound but your expression may need some work. In the 1995 film A Walk In The Clouds, the character Alberto Aragon says, “Just because I talk with an accent doesn’t mean I think with an accent.” It’s easy for native speakers, however, to focus on the errors and not on the substance of what someone is saying. Conversely, I’ve noticed that speakers of one language are much more conscious of “getting it right” and strain to produce sounds that they think are authentic rather than just having a go and trying to talk to each other.

The difficulties people face with communicating in the same language and different languages parallel the challenges that come up when we ask people to use a method or approach that we’ve devised. For example, I’m interested in Soft Systems Methodology and have developed a method to work through a problematic situation and gain an appreciation of what’s going on. There are other people who have come up with approaches to visual thinking that use different techniques and ideas. What we’ve created is a sort of language, one that models ideas and relationships – related in the sense that drawing is at the heart of both languages but different perhaps in our approaches to sense making using drawing.

We will have some difficulty getting our points across if we try and use our methods to explain rather than trying to see how the other person is doing the same job. But it’s worse for the participants who are trying to get their heads around the intricacies of the visual language and the ideas they are trying to explore. You can see how these situations can very quickly lead to confusion. “We need a common language,” someone will say eventually, and that’s one answer. But it’s not necessarily one that improves things. For example, you might say we need a common metric that an engineer and finance person can use to talk about a project – something like a discounted cash flow that lets you work out a net present value. “Good,” says the engineer, and computes one. “Ah,” says the accountant and asks what answer you really want, because the value can be anything you like if you mess around enough with the assumptions.

I think the takeaway here is something like this. If you come up with a way to do something, think about it as if you’ve invented your own language. Maybe it helps you think better but eventually if you want to work with someone else you need to translate your thoughts into a language you can both understand. Or, if you want to be really forward thinking about this, translate it into the other person’s native language. But whatever language you use the fact is that you’ll need to spend time and effort getting literate at it, first being able to read and write, and then being able to do both well. There are no shortcuts.

Now, the actual point of the paper was to ask whether the global dominance of English was a bad thing. The conclusion they head towards appears to be that you do need a common language for scientific discussion and English happens to already be that language. You might not like it and you might want to change it but it’s simply so embedded into the way everything works that it’s just going to keep being used. It’s not really going to be British English or American English but just English and some people will get exercised about whether you should keep a “u” in or out of a word but it won’t really matter either way.

What that means for visual thinkers and methodology creators and engineers and lawyers and finance professionals is that you can do your thinking in whatever way helps you think best. If others are willing to play with you using the language you prefer, then great – knock yourself out. When you explain it to others, however, just do it in plain English.


Karthik Suresh


Ferguson, G, Pérez‐Llantada, C, and Plo, R, “English as an international language of scientific publication: A study of attitudes,” World Englishes 30, pp. 41‐59 (2011).

Why Should You Get People Talking And Thinking About Things?


Tuesday, 9.00pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The strokes of the pen need deliberation as much as the sword needs swiftness. – Julia Ward Howe

I am all for speed. Quantity counts. And it sounds like there is evidence that a strategy based on quantity is a good one. Why would fish lay millions of eggs otherwise? Why is the entire reproductive process based on the dispersion of far more seed than will ever find fertile soil? When you really think about it, is there anything more wasteful than nature itself?

Then again, maybe we’re at a point where we need to be the opposite of wasteful, where we need to think more slowly, take our time and consider all the options and look at things from multiple points of view. But that’s so ridiculously hard and takes so long to do and costs so much – surely we can just get on with it?

I came across a paper by Gregory, Hartz-Karp and Watson (2008) that talks about using deliberative techniques to work with a community and develop policy. So what are these? Well, it’s when you use techniques and methods that give people the chance to reflect on what’s happening, discuss stuff with each other, ask questions and think more deeply about the situation and problem at hand. But why would you do that? Because doing this is how people see things from different perspectives and perhaps even change their minds or adjust their positions.

The fact that much of the world, especially right now, operates in a completely different way, is so obvious that it doesn’t need pointing out. We jump to conclusions instead of reflecting, shout rather than discuss, stay silent rather than question and act rather than think.

Now, we know that we don’t use deliberative approaches in most situations. What you see, most of the time, is people sit down and come up with ideas. They they put these out to consultation and then they get responses from the public and then the people in charge agree or disagree with these responses and the policy gets made and published. It’s an efficient and low-cost way of doing things and that’s why it’s used a lot.

Gregory et. al (2008)’s paper tells you many of the things you need to think about. How do you get a diverse group of people to participate in your session? Select some or all randomly. How long does it have to be? Longer than you think – people need time to work on this. Do you do it every time? No – it depends on the situation. Is it meant for small or large groups? Yes. Do you do quantitative or qualitative evaluations? Yes. Do you involve experts or the general public? Yes. How much do you tell people? As much as you can. How do you get people to trust your process? Well, that’s hard. Have you been honest with them before? If participants start to feel like this is all for show then they’ll quickly get disengaged and sceptical about the whole thing.

Then, of course, you have the knotty problem of whether all this talking actually leads to anything, does it result in better outcomes? And that’s very hard to tell because you don’t know what would have happened if you didn’t do what you did. Maybe the consultation would have been quicker and cheaper and got to the right conclusion.

But then again, what’s “right”? Is there any real, objective “right” sitting out there, just waiting to be discovered. Or is everything contingent – depending on the situation and the people involved and the only thing that counts is making things better for the people that are there and affected by what’s going on.

Let’s look at the big example of this whole thing – the law as it works in most countries. We think of the “law” as a thing, as something absolute. But it’s really a bunch of rules worked out over decades argued over for centuries. The law seemed like an alternative to getting out your sword and fighting everyone else who disagrees with you. Instead you grudgingly make your case and try to get people to work with you. The law emerges out of all these interactions and the way a people think they should act and think is then written down in words that are rarely enough but that are better than the alternative, which is shouting and punching.

Now, you need to ask yourself whether the reason courts take so long is because they want to take time to deliberate or because they are lazy and don’t know how to do things quickly. And it’s probably six of one and half-a-dozen of the other. The courts have one thing in mind and lawyers have another and the whole thing is at one level a search for fairness and truth and at another level a game where the person with the best argument can try to win. Is there any real way to test whether a law does its job – whether it works and improves the situation?

Christian and Griffiths (2017) may ride to the rescue on this one. Old laws are probably better ones because they’ve lasted this long without being thrown out. And you can expect them, using Bayesian statistics, to last at least as long as they have lasted so far. In a rather nice example of this the oldest law on the statute books is the Distress Act of 1267 that essentially says that the only way you can get compensation for damages is through a lawsuit in a court. In a previous paragraph I thought that avoiding a fight might be the reason we have the law and it turns out that’s the case – the purpose of the law was to outlaw feuds. What this tells us is that in the year 2773 we will probably still have courts and lawyers and will file a lawsuit if we think we’ve been wronged. The courts will survive.

What this tells us is that old approaches that are still around and being used are probably good ones. New ones that haven’t been tested much will probably be around for as long as they have been so far. So that latest management fad – before you really devote yourself to following its every mandate ask yourself how long it’s been around. And if its a short while you have nothing to lose by waiting a little bit longer. On the other hand, if it’s been around for a while you can probably trust that it works.

History, it turns out, is actually a pretty good teacher.

I mentioned that I was planning to start a programme of research and that’s why my writing is now a little more formal when it comes to references and ideas. One aspect of this is that I’m trying to find a research question, something that I can look at a little deeper. And I think there’s something in this space – where you have lots of methods and ideas that people come up with and then a history of methods and approaches that are so ingrained in the way we live that we don’t perhaps stop to think about the fact that they were once new and different and something about them meant that they survived. Did they survive because they were lucky or because they were good? How can we tell?

I think I might want to look at history and community in the next post.


Karthik Suresh


Judy Gregory, Janette Hartz-Karp, and Rebecca Watson, “Using deliberative techniques to engage the community in policy development,” Australia and New Zealand Health Pol- icy, p. 5:16 (2008).

Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths, Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions, p. Harper Collins (2017).

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