Understanding Sensemaking

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Tuesday, 9.42pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The Universe is under no obligation to make sense to you. – Neil deGrasse Tyson

I wanted to understand sensemaking as a concept and came across the work of Karl Weick, an American organizational theorist who started by talking about meaning and then moved onto sense-making (with a hyphen) before finally settling on sensemaking as a way to understand what happens in organizations.

A 2020 paper by Mary Ann Glynn and Lee Watkiss titled Of Organizing and Sensemaking: From Action to Meaning and Back Again in a Half-Century of Weick’s Theorizing introduced me to some of his ideas.

Let’s start with what we think happens in organizations and what actually happens in organizations. We’d like to think that people have a plan – they come together and set goals and then figure out what needs to be done and then execute and it’s all good.

That’s what they’d like you to think.

The reality is that in most organizations there is something else going on. It starts with people doing things – taking action – and then explaining what they’ve done to themselves and others.

Take how governments have dealt with the pandemic as an example. Do you think they had a plan and executed it or do you think they took action based on what they believed was the right thing to do and then looked back on what they did and talked about it as if it was the plan they had all along?

Take this collection of quotes from Dominic Cummings, which includes the following one: “It’s true that I hit the panic button and said we’ve got to ditch the official plan, it’s true that I helped to try to create what an official plan was. I think it’s a disaster that I acted too late. The fundamental reason was that I was really frightened of acting.”

In Weick’s work over a half century he starts with an idea that action leads to meaning and ends up with the idea that the two are interdependent – they both matter for sensemaking, which is how organizing is done.

There are a few terms there that are worth noting. If you and I work together, we engage in organizing. We do that because it makes sense to us. It makes sense because we can look at the actions we have taken and if they were good ones or bad ones – we can ascribe meaning to them, interpreting what’s going on.

The way in which we do all this is through communication. Communication is how we share what we think and what we understand and how we see things. And it’s a continuous, iterative activity that goes on for as long as we’re engaged in any kind of organizing activity.

Why is it useful to consider these things?

Well, for a start, things just seem to happen one after another. The financial crisis, Brexit, Trump, nationalism, Covid. There’s always something new that comes along and which needs to be made sense of.

It’s easy to say that the wrong decisions were made once something goes wrong but there are also lots of wrong decisions that we don’t know about because nothing has happened yet.

But perhaps if we become more aware that we have a tendency to act and then justify what we did even if it turned out wrong then we might try and think a little harder before we made big decisions.

Or, of course, you could not bother and simply run for Prime Minister or President.

And you’d probably win.

That’s what history seems to be teaching us anyway.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How To Scale Your Business

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Monday, 8.49pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Most mutations involve typos: Something bumps a cell’s elbow as it’s copying DNA, and the wrong letter appears in a triplet – CAG becomes CCG. – Sam Kean

In yesterday’s post I was looking at why it’s hard to copy what someone else does. But what if you want to make it easier to copy what you do?

If you have a process that works really well and you want to scale it then you’re going to have to show others how you do what you do. But what’s the best way to do this? Should you get them to copy exactly what you do or do you adapt what you do to fit the situation you’re in?

Gabriel Szulanski and Robert Jensen’s paper Presumptive adaptation and the effectiveness of knowledge transfer looks at this question and tests it with a franchising business, coming to the conclusion that you should copy things exactly first before you mess around with trying to customise it to your situation.

This can seem strange at first. After all, if you’ve developed a process in one country surely you should adapt it to the culture and preferred ways of working of another one?

It turns out that changing things too quickly means you waste time adapting rather than implementing and that slows you down, and you don’t get the results you should be getting. What you should do is copy the process exactly until you can get the same results as the original model and then start tweaking it to make it even better.

The image above, for example, is Keyhole Ken The cartoonist’s workbook by Robin Hall. If you want to learn how to draw cartoon figures Hall suggests that you should start by drawing page after page of Keyhole Ken, copying the elements that matter. Only start modifying features once you’ve mastered the basics.

The problem we have is impatience. All too often we think that we know better and can improve something without even trying it out first as we’re supposed to. It’s a function of the “Not Invented Here” concept and I know I’m guilty of doing this.

But companies who know what they’re doing, like Intel with a new fabrication facility or Xerox insist on a “copy exact” approach. And I think this has a biological basis too. Organisms replicate themselves. They don’t experiment with huge changes like swapping legs for fins from parent to child. Instead the changes are tiny, one mutation at a time and the ones that improve fit are kept.

Perhaps this is why the apprenticeship model of education works better than more modern alternatives. Apprentices learn how to do things in exactly the way their superior does until they’ve mastered what they need to know. And then, perhaps, they make changes to improve on their ability.

If you want to get better, then, or grow your business or scale a model or roll out a franchise – your starting point should be to figure out how you can replicate your existing working model and make sure that it’s transferred unchanged. That means the people adopting it need to understand that they can’t change it unless they can show that they can perform as well as the existing model does.

I think this has wide applications to almost everything we do. And it comes down to a simple principle.

Build what you already know works.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Why You’re Safer From Being Copied Than You Think

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Sunday, 7.37pm

Sheffield, U.K.

“Tell me, Ms Sumner, what exactly does a behavioural psychologist do?” “Monitor observable behaviour for signs of internal psychology. We read people.” – Johnny English Reborn

A lot of academic reading is about looking at big words and trying to figure out if they say anything new or if they say anything at all.

One of the hallmarks of a good academic is that they can list the essential elements of any concept pretty quickly. What most people do is pick the things they like but it takes some thinking to look at all the elements (or as many as you can) and then decide which ones matter.

It’s also possible that you get concepts that are not well thought through if you are under pressure to publish. And if the way you’re marked is on the quantity of papers you publish rather than the contribution you’re making then you’ll do what counts rather than what matters.

The point I want to make, however, is that it’s hard to tell from the outside what’s going on on the inside. Is this paper you’re looking at – this one in a reputable journal – something that’s going to be useful or something that’s going to be a waste of time?

This question can be generalized to pretty much everything that you face in day to day life. Is that salesperson trustworthy or a shark? Is that product good or a hazard? Is that idea good or a reheated ripoff?

The difficulty we face is that what you see is not what makes it work. For example, you’ve seen big machinery at work digging and excavating and bulldozing stuff. But do you have any idea of what’s involved? Can you just jump in and push earth around or are there questions about the kind of earth or the kind of machine or the gear you should be in? Just because you’ve taken a course and can drive one of these machines doesn’t mean you know what to do.

Realizing that doing something well is more about doing it the way it looks like it’s being done is important – and it’s something that’s easy to forget. For example, people assume that what makes a democracy a democracy is the vote – that every citizen has a vote. But there are lots of countries where citizens have votes and are notionally democracies but somehow people don’t seem to get the benefits that one expects to get from democracy. So what’s going on?

“That’s obvious,” you might say, “There’s more to doing something than what you see on the surface.” And you’d be right – and that’s what one of the papers I’m reading says using much longer words. There’s the stuff you see. And there’s the stuff you don’t. And if you want to do what you’re seeing someone else do you need to be able to do both – but you’ll have to do them your way to be any good.

This is why watching someone’s course or using the same pencil as someone or the same setup will not give you the same results. It’s what you don’t see that makes the difference – the secret sauce that makes something amazing.

The good news for you and me, however, is that it’s this same thing that makes what you do hard to copy. People can do the stuff on the outside but it’s the inside that makes the difference.

Of course, you’re left with the problem of telling the difference. What’s the difference between an expensive cereal and an own brand one? Sometimes there’s nothing. I’ve been in factories where the same product is called high-end in a fancy package and low-end in a cheap cover. But it’s the same thing. In other examples brand matters – you can tell the real deal from a copy.

The question you have to ask is whether what you do is truly different or whether it’s just the same as everyone else.

And if you’re different – you have something that’s valuable.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

What Is It That You Really Want To Work On?

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Thursday, 8.12pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity. – Charles Mingus

If you could write a letter to anyone in the world, who would it be? And how would you feel if they responded?

On an tangential note I’m looking at my new copy of The Go Programming Language written by Alan Donovan and Brian Kernighan. I’d write to one of them.

In the preface, the authors write, “Only through simplicity of design can a system remain stable, secure and coherent as it grows.”

And I think this is a useful lesson for the rest of life as well.

Take your profession, for instance. How simple is the design for your job, for what you do day to day? Do you things that are necessary, that add value or do you spend most of your time trying to sort out problems?

Sorting out problems looks just like work but it’s really a waste product, like heat. If a machine gets hot that is often a sign that it’s inefficient. When you feel under pressure, is the same thing going on

The difficulty for most of us is twofold. First we have to figure out what’s the way to do what we need to do in the simplest and most effective way possible. Then we have to stop other people from making our lives harder.

And this is not easy.

Not because it’s done intentionally but because of entropy. Everything decays. Everything gets worse over time. Whatever is done becomes encrusted with changes that often make things worse.

It’s like having a house or a car or a briefcase – the longer you use these things the more rubbish accumulates in them and the harder it becomes to sort things out.

The way to keep on top of this is to be ruthless – to keep out anything and everything that does not help move you closer to the objective you’ve set yourself.

For example, I want to write better. So I draw simple pictures that help me think more clearly and I use short words to say what I want to say. And I practice that day after day.

It turns out that I still have much work to do. 36% of my sentences are passive and nearly all of them can be improved.

There is tremendous value in simplicity.

Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to do.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How To Do Hard Things

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Wednesday, 9.57pm

Sheffield, U.K.

A brand for a company is like a reputation for a person. You earn reputation by trying to do hard things well. – Jeff Bezos

If you’re trying to come up with an idea for an application that will make you rich how should you go about thinking about the problem? What kind of strategy will help you select an approach that has a good chance of working?

The simple answer is to try and give people what they need or want. To make it simpler for them to get what they want done.

When you think in this way you come up with ideas to make life easy – better todo lists, easier document creation, simpler interfaces, and so on.

But when you really think about it when was the last time you used anything other than Word to create a document? How much simpler can you get than the interface on an iPhone?

When you think of some of the applications out there – Google for search, YouTube for video, LinkedIn for business networking – is there really a choice other than the ones we can all think of? Is there any competition in these spaces or are these companies effective monopolies, even though they probably aren’t trying to be?

I think there are two things here and the underlying logic is summed up in a quote from an old newsgroup that says that graphical user interfaces (GUIs) make simple things simple and complex things impossible.

Let me explain.

If you want to go anywhere these days you’ll probably go onto airbnb and have a look. We used this for the first time recently and it was good – we got a room where we needed and life was fine.

Now, the simple thing, from my point of view, was looking for a place to stay. It might have been a hotel in the past, or I might have run an agent. The user interface, in this case, whether a human agent, a hotel website or a rooms aggregator all solve the same problem – which is to find a space for me to stay the night. The interface helped me solve my simple problem.

You may counter that the problem airbnb solves is not simple – it essentially uses clever software to match supply with demand. To which I say that problem was solved a long time back and it’s called a market. Airbnb simply implements a market in its own way. It’s successful because it’s well known like the other big players in this space.

Some years back we wanted to take a trip to Slovakia and decided to go by train. That was a difficult problem. It required taking six trains and booking on a number of websites in different countries and arranging hotel stays in multiple cities on the way back.

This problem is not something that airbnb appears to solve. At the time there was a website that set out the steps to follow and the websites of the train companies with booking instructions. We followed that and it all went fine.

If you can solve really hard problems that the simple solutions people are currently using can’t address then you may have a market for your offering.

The point I’m trying to make is that an application that is designed to make it simple for you to do one thing usually makes it hard for you to do anything else.

If you do make it simple and you are the best known application then you are onto a winner. But everyone else trails far behind – the winner-take-all network economy means that all the simple stuff gets dominated by the company that happens to get the most attention.

But there are still hard problems out there that need to be solved. The Internet addresses a hard problem – the ability to create, curate and share knowledge.

What’s the takeaway here?

You can solve a simple problem with your application – but if you want to win you are going to have to be the best known product in the world.

Or you can solve a hard problem and be useful.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Are You Consistent In The Way You Present Your Business?

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Tuesday, 7.33pm

Sheffield, U.K.

When you look at people who are successful, you will find that they aren’t the people who are motivated, but have consistency in their motivation. – Arsene Wenger

When I’m not sure what to think I go back to the words of people that have been consistent in their approach to their field.

I have made the mistake, perhaps, of reopening the social media floodgates. And stuff pours in, stuff that sounds good but which I’m not sure is worth remembering.

For example, one set of posts was all about how sales are important. Another talked about returns on invested capital. A third, well written piece, essentially said that of business was a game you’d have to keep all the pieces of the game in play.

So then I wonder, should I be trying to write like these writers. Is a short, punchy piece that is a list of short sentences the way to go? Or is it a longer piece that tells a story? Is there a “right” way to do this.

The obvious answer is that there isn’t. Warren Buffett, for example, writes a single letter a year to his sisters about what’s happened in the business. Others write powerful passages that tell a story and aim to provide “actionable” and “proven” approaches to the kinds of problems you will face. However they approach the topic, they show consistency in their approach.

One of the things I’m trying to do is figure out what my kind of consistency looks like. It’s not in the graphics and the look – given my interest in hand-drawn images and a forty-year old approach to text processing. It’s not in a persuasive story or emotive message. It’s a sense-making approach that uses models a lot.

For example, I’ve been working on building knowledge graphs recently and the extract below is from one of the papers I’ve been reading.

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This gets across the dilemma I’ve hinted at so far. If you want to acquire knowledge you have to understand that knowledge can range from natural science to storytelling. Knowledge in the natural sciences has to meet the test of public repeatability so it meets a high standard of truth. Stories, at the other extreme, may only be plausible. And plausibility is a weak thing – it’s not enough to rely on. If you rely on things that are plausible you end up joining mobs storming buildings. Not always, but that seems to be the end result all too often.

Life’s too short to believe in stories. But if you’re going to tell one for your business, make sure it’s one that you can live.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

What’s The Real Reason You Should Start With Why?

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Monday, 7.44pm

Sheffield, U.K.

He who has a why to live can bear almost any how. – Friedrich Nietzsche

“Why?” is a powerful question. Maybe that’s why children use it so much. They know instinctively that they shouldn’t accept things at face value, that they should question what they see and hear. It’s a survival mechanism – to be wary of everything. To only accept that which you are sure won’t hurt you.

As I read papers and books I look at statements and note which ones have references. And then I wonder about the nature of references. If you slow down and really read what is on the page, are you sure that what you’ve written accurately reflects what you read?

Words are slippery things. They come loaded with assumptions and contexts and unspoken ideas. It doesn’t help to use more words – that often confuses things even more. A mission statement that you write, one that you think is crystal clear may thoroughly confuse someone else. A statement by itself is rarely enough to make sense of a particular situation.

But you can’t always check everything, can you? Or perhaps you can – that’s Wikipedia’s policy. Nothing in there that’s not referenced, where you haven’t got a published source. That’s the idea of an authoritative source. Your own opinion doesn’t count.

But how do you know that your authoritative source has got things right? Well, that’s the idea of peer review – that what’s being said has been looked at by someone else who’s said it’s all ok.

But what if the thing that’s being looked at is a few levels of abstraction away from the real thing? How do you compare the abstract idea with the real-world data that’s been collected unless you can see what happened?

That’s the idea of recoverable research, your ability to show what you did rather than just the results of your work. It’s the recoverability, or at least the ability to go through what was done that adds some credibility to the process.

Now, all this seems like hard work but it’s not really. It was solved a long time back using ideas like literate programming. You think stuff and you do stuff. People see what you do and that’s good. But it’s better if they can also see why you did what you did and why you thought what you thought.

Better for the world of knowledge anyway.

But perhaps the most important thing is this.

It’s easy to fool yourself.

It’s easy to assume that you know more than you do.

But if you sit down and try to write down why you have done things the way you’ve done them you’ll have a record of your thinking.

One that will be of use to others.

Or, more importantly perhaps, useful one day to yourself.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Why Your Past Is Not A Good Indicator Of Value

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Sunday, 9.08pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The future influences the present just as much as the past. – Friedrich Nietzsche

I’ve been thinking about valuations and how they work. And it’s not that easy to get your head around the kinds of things you need to value these days.

Take “traditional” businesses, for example. Ones that absorb capital – like building houses or setting up a factory.

There are only a few numbers that really matter. The price at which you sell. The rate at which you borrow. The margins you make. And the risk-free rate.

For example, let’s say you want to invest in a rental property. You have an income from the market rental value and an increase in value over time due to property price inflation. You need to put in a deposit and borrow some money and your return will depend on how these factors interact.

The important thing is that the yield you make, the total return over the investment in capital assets, is greater than your cost of capital under a stressed scenario. In that case, you’re in the black and will make money. Whether you’re happy with the final return you’re getting when it’s compared to the risk-free rate – long-term treasury yields, for example. The US 30 year treasury bond, for example, is at around 2% right now, so if you make 3% that’s good and if you make 1%, that’s not so good.

Anyway, the model itself is not important – because so many investments these days are not about capital but about potential.

Take yourself, for example. Is your value the salary you make or have made? Is a company’s value the money it has made?

When we look at past performance using easy to measure attributes like money we can write people and companies off because they don’t look good on paper. But perhaps that’s because we’re measuring the wrong things.

Let’s focus on companies for a second. Let’s say you want to build a venture capital portfolio, investing your own money in a set of early stage companies. What should you look for?

It’s tempting to ask for profits, for stability, for evidence of growth in the past. But a company that shows good profits may have helped to manage those numbers because they knew that was what you wanted. It’s easy to increase profits in the short term by raising prices and cutting costs to look good now – but that weakens your future, with customers and employees moving away when your changes bite.

Sometimes companies without profits are actually investing in their future, bringing in people and creating the capacity to do better work. In that case, despite the low profits now, you have a better foundation for future growth.

Which one would you prefer – a good looking now at the expense of the future or a less good now with a bright future?

Being able to recognize value comes down to being able to see your own beliefs and assumptions for what they are and ask the right questions. And have a framework where you can make mistakes without losing everything.

When you’re asked to look at the future and think about what needs to happen for a business to succeed – you can quite quickly come up with factors that matter. Are they working on something that customers are going to want – that solves a real pain? Does it grab your attention? What do they plan to do with the money they are asking for? And so on.

The point is that the past is priced in. The future is what you make of it.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How To Build A High Performing Organization Or Be A High Performing Individual

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Saturday, 8.20pm

Sheffield, U.K.

We must free ourselves of the hope that the sea will ever rest. We must learn to sail in high winds. – Aristotle Onassis

I’ve been reading the same paper again and again for the last week, trying to figure out how I should read. You would think I would know how to do that by now, but it’s harder than you think.

There is a passage in Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance where the main character, Phaedrus, is wrestling with the writing of Kant, the great German philosopher. Phadreus approaches each sentence like a chess move, testing, probing, looking for flaws, looking for a weakness he can thrust through. Trying to see if what is said is true, if it is worth knowing.

The difficulty with words is that there are so many of them out there. And not all of them are good. If you are serious about the work you have to get better at telling the good ones from the bad. But why would you do that?

It turns out that high performing individuals are rare, and so are high performing organizations. And this is because the way we learn new things and apply them vary in how effective they are.

Most of the time we try and do what we’re doing better. This is called single-loop learning. If you make an omelette day after day then you’ll get better at making an omelette. That’s the same with form filling or doing a task at your work – you get better over time.

Getting even better starts with taking a step back and asking if the task you are doing is the right thing to do. Is it helping you achieve your goals? For example, a lot of people spend up working on tasks that customers don’t really care about. You might send out detailed emails that they don’t read, for example. If you find out what customers actually want and then send them that instead you’re starting to engage in double-loop learning – going from a task focus to figuring out the right thing to do.

From there, it gets harder to improve. Higher order thinking, or triple-loop learning is something that high performing individuals and high performing organizations do but it’s not easy to get your head around.

The model that starts this post is one way to think about it.

It starts with being open to learning new stuff, from books and other resources and from others in your network who know more than you might. How much new knowledge have you gained since your last degree?

You need to be able to take that knowledge and move it into your own space – whether it’s to help you work better or to help your organization work better. And you often start with figuring out where the gaps are when it comes to doing the best job you can.

Getting to that working better part is a little like evolving, hopefully to something that adapts better to the situation you’re in. The variation-selection-retention cycle explains how this happens. Now that you’ve learned something new you pick something to try, a kind of experiment. Then you learn from that, and keep what works, what is best for you. It sounds simple, but it’s not easy to do, for a couple of reasons.

The first has to do with taking the time to think about and reflect on what’s going on. What are you trying to achieve, how well did your experiment work and what did you learn. What would you change? What would you keep?

This kind of reflection on what went well, what went badly and what you are going to do next is important if you want to be able to make a sustained improvements in your practice.

But there is always a problem, especially when you work with others. People don’t like change, especially change that they haven’t asked for. This will make them unhappy. It’s called adaptive tension, and you need to manage that. If you don’t then people will go back to the old ways of doing things as soon as they can because all your new ideas are simply a pain in the rear for them.

This is a big reason why large change projects fail, because consultants or leaders bring in new stuff without thinking through how the people affected will think and feel and react.

But if you can do these things then you’re engaging in higher order thinking, and you have the pieces in place to be a high performing individual or build a high performing team.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How Can We Make Sense Of What’s Going On

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Friday, 6.10pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The number one benefit of information technology is that it empowers people to do what they want to do. It lets people be creative. It lets people be productive. It lets people learn things they didn’t think they could learn before, and so in a sense it is all about potential. – Steve Ballmer

I came across the idea of graphs a few days ago and have been quite interested in their possibilities since then.

Graphs in mathematics and graph theory give you a rather stark definition – a graph has nodes that are connected by edges. That’s it really. Nodes and edges.

Except there’s more to it than that.

One of the biggest issues we have when we think about things is that we’ve been trained to think in parts, to look at pieces of things.

For example, if you want to study a paper you start by reading all the sentences and taking notes – breaking the paper down into the points that are important, that you think you need to remember.

If you need to analyse a problem you start by breaking it into parts, and looking at how you can solve each of those parts.

We’re not really taught systematically about how to put things together again – you’re expected to pick that up with experience. And some people get it and some of us struggle and time passes on.

A knowledge graph is an application of graph theory to the problem of understanding and developing knowledge. The thing about learning something is that it usually only makes sense when it’s put in the context of something else. It’s hardly ever useful just by itself.

When I started reading my first paper for my research I started to get stuck at the point where I was thinking about what kind of notes I should take – what did I need to understand and remember.

The problem really wasn’t one of remembering – no one is going to have to take an exam on this stuff. It’s more a problem of relating, of figuring out what goes where.

I’ve been playing with developing my own knowledge graph for the research I’m reading. It’s still a work in progress but when you visualise the concepts you might come up with something like this.

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Now this is a little hard to understand but you can start to filter the graph and try to understand relationships – like the different names writers use for things that are really the same thing. Like this.

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Now, you might ask yourself whether all this isn’t just making things more complicated.

And it sort of is, because when you look at the image it’s complicated and needs some work.

But, the important thing is that nothing makes sense without its connections – it’s the relationships that help you work out what’s going on and they are the way you build an understanding of what’s really there.

And if you have a sound graph that underpins your understanding then the work you create as a result will have solid foundations as well – whether it’s a strategy or a business plan or a book.

In theory anyway.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh