Some Thoughts On Getting People To Entertain Different Methods


Thursday, 9.07pm

Sheffield, U.K.

If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading. – Lao Tzu

My research area worries me. It’s a discipline called Soft OR and a paper I’m reading talks about how many people think it’s not real OR. OR stands for Operations Research, by the way, a field that tries to do things better.

It probably doesn’t help that I’m watching a series called “Scorpion” about a team of geniuses who deal with real-world problems. One of the characters says that there are only four subjects worth studying: maths and science, and science and maths.

I have some sympathy with this view. Maths and science are reassuring in their certainty – in their ambition to be right or wrong, true or false, good or bad. They are the disciplines that make it possible for us to understand and control the world around us.

The good thing about maths and science is that it’s easy to agree what’s the right answer, the correct approach. 2 + 2 has only one answer. Dropping a ball does not make it go up. Only one line can pass through two points unless you’re talking about non-Euclidean geometry where an infinite number of lines can pass through two points if they travel on a sphere. If you squint and ignore quantum mechanics it’s like the world makes sense.

Until you come to people. People are a special case – the one set of creatures that are teleogical – that have purpose. They have likes and dislikes, thoughts and opinions. And that makes it hard, perhaps impossible, to really know what they want or what’s the best thing to do or what’s true or false.

Trying to approach problems that involve people with maths and science is a hard thing to do. You can solve all kinds of things with maths and science but people and how they interact is not one of them. Many approaches have been tried and they do not work well.

That’s because maths and science are part of what is called a “positivist” mindset. They deal in objective truth. But people acting out their lives interacting with other people live in a different world – one that needs a “subjective” mindset to appreciate – one that takes feelings and tastes into account. More importantly, perhaps, people take a constructivist approach to life – they actively create a picture and narrative of what they see around they and why it is the way it is – and they use that mental construction to guide their decision making.

In short, what people think matters.

And what they think is a product of all the thinking and learning that has gone before – the methods and processes and tools they were exposed to over all their years of study and training. How they think is a process – a sort of tube that they go down – whenever they’re approaching a problem. We all reach for tools that we know when we’re trying to figure things out.

But this also means that we’re reluctant to move away from tools that work for us. And that’s reasonable – why waste your time trying a new way when the old one works just fine – or at least works sort of if you work it hard and you can live with that.

That barrier – that reluctance to move from one way to another – is a strength at the curse. It may make you very good at what you do, but it may mean that when what you do before obsolete or irrelevant you too head for obsolescence or irrelevance. Someone said it’s worse to be ignored than to be rejected.

The thing about methods is that they don’t matter as much as what they enable you to do. If you or your clients like the end result they will tolerate any method you use. If you don’t deliver it doesn’t matter how good your method was.


Karthik Suresh

How Do You Harness Collective Intelligence?


Wednesday, 7.17pm

Sheffield, U.K.

A peaceful world requires collective measures for the prevention of war, international cooperation to solve economic and social problems, and respect for human rights. – Goran Persson

I take a lot of notes – that’s the way I learn. Notes from books, notes in meetings, notes just because I have nothing else to do and I feel like taking some notes to remind myself what I’m thinking.

I’m interested in the power of notes to support collaborative discussion and decision making. The idea of one clever person having all the answers is a romantic illusion. Real work happens in groups and some groups work well and some work poorly. What is it that makes the difference?

1. Everyone needs to be given a chance to speak

Good meetings don’t happen by magic. All too often people get together without a clear idea of what they are going to do. Loud voices dominate and decisions are made quickly, with discussion rushed through. This is not a good thing.

A deliberative approach is different – it recognises that you need time to discuss points and work through what is needed. The idea goes all the way back to the story of the round table – and having everyone having their turn to speak.

2. What are you discussing?

It’s hard to start with a blank page – some people are comfortable there but many would prefer to comment, enhance, critique or develop an existing idea or model rather than start with nothing. Amazon takes this to an extreme. Meetings start with everyone reading a memo – a piece of writing that sets out what people need to know and what they are being asked to discuss. PowerPoints are not allowed, apparently – but the problem is not the technology – it’s that setting up a meeting without some sort of preparation is simply wasting everyone’s time.

3. Is it safe to speak?

It is very easy to choose suboptimal outcomes. Let’s say you want to rate something – applicants, books, strategies – on a scale of 1-10, that should be just fine, right? Well, if you want a good result you might want to ban people from choosing 7. 7 is an easy choice – it’s better than the middle, but not too good. But you want to be more decisive – a rating of 6 or 8 forces you to think more deeply about whether this thing is in or out. In the same way people should be able to voice their opinions without fear of retaliation – and that can be hard, depending on the context. Unless dissenting opinions can be heard, however, the group will probably make a decision that will, in hindsight, have turned out to be the wrong one.


These three points: enabling voices, having a basis for discussion, and a safe space for dissenting views, need to be in place to make collaboration better. If you want to harness collective intelligence you need to help people get the thoughts in their heads out in the open where you can listen and understand what’s going on – where they can listen to each other and appreciate different perspectives. A term that’s used in the literature is “procedural justice” – a sense that you’ve been treated the right way in the session and been heard.


Karthik Suresh

What Do Investors Look For In A Business?


Monday, 7.36pm

Sheffield, U.K.

As an investor, what we’re not looking for is ‘oh this is a cool app,’ it’s ‘is this something that can become a big business?’ You need to find those that can become real businesses. – Niklas Zennstrom

I came across a document by Elizabeth Yin, the co-founder and General Partner at Hustle Fund, about how to raise a seed round and started reading. And it reminded me about some very basic concepts that we should keep in mind when thinking about business models.

There are five things in particular.

1. The purpose of a business is to create a customer

Peter Drucker said this – your business needs to create and keep customers. An idea is not a business. An idea that serves a market can be. That’s why one of the most important things you can spend time on is getting market-product fit – understanding what someone needs so that you can build a product or service they will buy.

2. Think about the lifetime value of each customer

Lifetime value or LTV is the total amount of money you will make from a customer if they stay and buy from you again and again. It’s too easy to focus on the first sale but it’s the repeat ones where you make your money.

3. How much does it cost you to aquire a customer?

You are always going to have to buy your customers the first time they deal with you. You spend money on sales and marketing, on promotion and advertising, to get them through the door and do that first deal. The commission you pay is part of the price to acquire them.

How much should you spend to acquire a customer? Well, mathematically you should be willing to spend upto a fraction under the net present value of their lifetime value. For example let’s say you get a customer who spents $1,000 with you for five years on average. That $5k over five years is worth perhaps $3k in today’s money with a fairly aggressive inflation factor. So, you could spend $2,999 on getting the customer and walk away with $1 in profit. Not that good – but still a profit.

The important point is that knowing lifetime value will help you avoid making sales mistakes. For example, you might only be willing to spend 20% of your sale in advertising revenue. If you think of the sale as $1,000 that means you might spend $200 in advertising. If you see the total value of a customer as being $3,000, however, you might be willing to spend $600. And that extra spend might be what is needed to get your growth revved up.

Which takes us to the next point.

4. It’s all about speed

The faster you grow your customers the more interesting you are to investors. Growth is what matters. If you have a good product, well, that’s a start. If customers are grabbing it out of your hands – that’s great.

5. Have you got a moat?

A moat is the thing that protects you – it’s the barrier to entry that stops others who see you doing well coming along and copying what you have. Some moats are legal – such as copyrights and patents. Others are less tangible but still real – like brand or trust. Regardless of what it is the best source of competitive advantage is having an effective monopoloy – doing something that no one else can do like you.

Pulling it all together

These ideas make a good checklist to see if you should invest in starting a business. If you’ve identified a set of customers that will buy and buy what you sell again, if you can acquire them, if you can move and grow fast, and if you can protect the business from competitors who want your market – then you have something that investors will also want. And you have just increased your chances of creating something sustainable.


Karthik Suresh

Thoughts About Why We Do What We Do How We Do It


Sunday, 8.16pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Of course, there will always be those who look only at technique, who ask ‘how’, while others of a more curious nature will ask ‘why’. Personally, I have always preferred inspiration to information. – Man Ray

A number of papers I read talk about method and methodology. They are not the same thing. And when you throw technique into the mix you get a recipe for confusion. So let’s unpack these a bit.

I don’t like doing this, but let’s start with dictionary definitions, using Google’s English dictionary from Oxford Languages.

A technique is “a way of carrying out a particular task”, a method is “a particular procedure for accomplishing something”, and a methodology is “a system of methods used in a particular area of study or activity”.

I recently read Quentin Blake’s Beyond the page and learned about his particular technique – the one he has used for decades. It involves a light box. He works on the broad shapes and composition of his artwork on paper and then puts it on the light box with a fresh sheet of water colour paper on top and then draws with ink. That’s the way his compositions seem effortlessly fluid, the inky scratchings of dip pen nibs guided by what was done before.

A method is more than technique – while a technique gets one small part finished, method gets the work done. The world is full of methods, procedures, routines, processes and more. Some work better than others. Some are busywork, some are crucial. On a post shared on social media I read the slightly astonishing line that “no political system, no matter how venal, can corrupt a bureaucracy if it stands united and inflexibly committed to collective high standards of ethics and professional integrity.” A functioning bureaucracy, it would seem, is essential if things are to work. One might not think of a civil service in this way and perhaps it’s more important than we realize.

Methods, however, are chosen by individuals and groups – and methodology is the umbrella that hangs over the selected methods. If technique has to do with “how”, them method has to do with “what”. But methodology has to do with “why”. Take, for example, the creation of art – even something as simple as the picture that starts this blog. How would you go about creating something similar? Some people might reach for a pen and paper. Some might whip out their iPad or drawing software. But why would you choose one way over another? Perhaps it has to do with what you’re comfortable with, what you’re good at using. Maybe it’s the best tool for the job on the platform you use. That collection of reasons for why you do things the way you do is the methodology you follow – it may not always be articulated but it hangs over your approach. For all my work, for example, I prefer to use Free as in Freedom software – and that affects the tools I select and use. MyPaint for drawing. Groff for writing. GNU/Linux as a platform.

Understanding the difference between technique, method and methodology is important if you want to figure out why your work is different from everyone else out there. A key element of competitive advantage is inimability – making it hard for others to do what you do. Quentin Blake draws in a very particular way. If you try and do the same you’ll simply be copying Quentin Blake – and if someone wants Quentin Blake’s work they might as well go to him rather than come to you. You need to figure out which elements of your technique, method or methodology are inimitable – those are your unique contributions to the world – the things no one else but you can do in the way you do.

That’s what makes you you.


Karthik Suresh

What Is Needed To Make A Difference To The World Without?


Saturday, 8.02pm

Sheffield, U.K.

I am for doing good to the poor, but I differ in opinion about the means. I think the best way of doing good to the poor is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it. – Benjamin Franklin

I watched a TED talk called The “bottom billion” by Paul Collier where he summarised a number of big ideas well.

The problem he talks about is that a billion people in poverty around the world live in failing states. Why is this, and what can be done about it?

Something has been done already. He praised a country for taking the lead on designing how to pull a region out of poverty. The country was America and the region was Europe after the second world war. Four tools were used: aid, trade, security and governance. Money to rebuild, access to markets, security agreements and international institutions. The approach worked and has resulted in the world we see now.

So what stops this from happening in other parts of the world? There is plenty of aid, there is even plenty of money. So what is stopping all these countries from getting better?

The thing that’s stopping them is called the “resource curse”. Countries that have resources, like oil and gas, do well in the short term. In the long term they often fail. Why is it that their riches don’t result in better living standards for all their people? Many of these places are democracies after all.

The answer has to do with governance. Not all democracies are equal and those that live in functioning democracies often don’t know why their countries actually function. There are two parts to democracy. The first is the one everyone knows about – the vote. But the second is as important – the existence of institutions that provide checks and balances on the untrammelled use of power. If you think about democracies blessed with natural resources that have the vote but not governance you can quickly see which ones work and which ones don’t. Norway and Russia both have gas reserves. Which one’s people are getting the benefits?

Collier’s argument is that those who have must do something for those who don’t – for two reasons. The first is compassion – because it’s the right thing to do. The second is in enlightened self-interest. What one has can be taken away. Billions of people who have nothing, whose lives are changed by war and climate change will not stay where they are – they will move looking for safety and opportunity and walls will not keep them out. America’s instinctive view is perhaps a memory of the words of Benjamin Franklin that the best thing that can be done for those in poverty is to help and guide them out of it.

This is easier said than done, of course, but one way to start is to insist that good governance is a condition of aid, trade and security. This applies to countries and to companies. Firms should not be allowed to invest and operate in countries with poor governance, or at least have restrictions on what they can do that are lifted as governance improves. You can see this happening in corporations already and those with good governance should help others, trade with them and offer long-term contracts as long as they show how they are, or trying to achieve better governance.

This may seem like a thing that doesn’t matter to individuals like you or me but it does. In our neighbourhoods we need good governance. The pandemic has led to an increase in poverty, which leads to a lack of opportunity, which leads to crime, which happens on your street. Poor governance affects us all – and we have to do something about it at every level, before it’s too late.


Karthik Suresh

How To Build On The Work Of Others


Friday, 8.35pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Never become so much of an expert that you stop gaining expertise. View life as a continuous learning experience. – Denis Waitley

Many many years ago I picked up a textbook that had something to do with a social science – I think it was something like semiotics and I found it a disconcerting experience. The textbooks I was used to simply talked about facts, about known things, things you could observe and try and calculate and measure and weigh and program. They just were. A physics textbook didn’t talk about how different people viewed gravity – it was simply something you used in a calculation. Of course, we knew that once upon a time there was a guy whose path intersected with an apple and before that people thought there was something called an ether – but that was history – stories.

This other textbook, however, was full of things like Person A said this, and Person B said that and this is what another commentator said – and I found that very strange. Did they just not know? Why was there all this focus on who said what? Surely the facts were all that mattered?

It took several years before I realised that the complex areas are the ones that deal with people and social situations – the kind of areas that don’t lend themselves to a tidy equation. And you need a different sort of knowledge to deal with them.

Now, you could come up with something new but the chances are that there are methods out there that people have tried before. Ackerman et al talk about how its hard to get people to build on prior work rather than constantly creating new approaches. If you keep placing a single brick on the ground you never create anything, but if you lay bricks on top of each other you can create a large structure.

But leads to a catch-22 situation; you have to invest the time to learn different approaches before you can tell if they’re worth learning. Just reading about it or doing a course isn’t enough too – you have to spend time applying what you learn to really get a feel for whether it will work for you or not.

Keys (2006) writes about this issue about gaining expertise – how someone new to a field has to learn how to use existing methods and tools, think about their experience, reflect on their use of the tools, and work out how to improve them. In doing so they adapt and customise the tools to work for them, potentially creating a unique approach that is the way they do things – their signature.

These challenges are like opposing forces, do you stick with the old or come up with something new, do you create something anyone can do or do you have to find something special that only you can do. There are no simple answers – if something is so easy that anyone can do it then it may not be worth you learning it too. If something is so hard that only you can do it people need to be able to recognise the value or you won’t get very far trying to sell your service.

It’s a hard circle to square, this one – but if you manage to do it you’ll probably have a competitive advantage others will struggle to match.


Karthik Suresh


Ackerman, F., Franco, L.A., Rouwete, E., White, L. (2014), “Problem structuring research and practice for the next decade: looing back to go forward”, EURO Journal of Decision Process, Vol 2, pp 165-172

P Keys (2006), On becoming expert in the use of problem structuring methods, Journal of the Operational Research Society, 57:7, 822-829

Pick A Field That You Can Stick To


Thursday, 9.04pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The difference between involvement and commitment is like ham and eggs. The chicken is involved; the pig is committed. – Martina Navratilova

Some people are lucky enough to know what they want to do from a young age – and pursue their interests. The rest of us muddle along and try to figure out what works along the way.

An important barrier is having the freedom to do what you want – it’s much harder to pursue an interest when you’re under pressure to bring in money and meet basic needs. It’s no surprise that early modern scientists were often men of means – they had the time and space to work on what interested them, unlike the workers on their fields.

If you do have the freedom to study what you want then at some point you start being asked to choose what field you’re working in. Again, this starts early in school. Not doing biology rules out medicine. Not doing science rules out engineering. Yes you can catch up later, but it’s hard.

A sensible strategy, in the early days, is to preserve optionality – a fancy way to say keep your options open. It’s possible to study some subjects that are functional – that you may use to earn a living while keeping your interests going. Optionality, however, dilutes your chances of doing any particular thing. In essence, you sacrifice a win big/lose all bet for a set of possible outcomes having a 10-20% chance of coming off.

Making big bets may be easier when you’re young – there is less to lose, especially if you have a family safety net to fall back on. It gets harder to do later because you can’t walk away from 10-15 years of investment in a particular field.

This seems a little abstract but it does have to do with my research question. There’s a field called Systems Thinking, which has 20 or so methods and methodologies that range from quantitative, such as system dynamics, to cybernetic, such as the Viable system model. I entered the field through an exposure to Systems Thinking and then found a niche called Problem Structuring Methods, which is my area of research interest.

Now, the question that I need to answer is what field am I working in. Systems science overlaps with, but is different to problem structuring. That choice of one field or the other changes the way in which one looks at the literature – at the body of material that is considered relevant – given the conceptual ground you are ploughing.

Similar challenges will probably be found in other scientific disciplines. Arguably you have conceptual differences in the way you approach sales – from the numbers game of some proponents to the consultative approach of others. It’s like deciding which sport works for you – some like the speed of basketball, others go for the experience of cricket.

When it comes down to it there are only a few ways to decide whether one approach is going to work or not. You have to ask yourself whether you’re doing it because you’re intrinsically interested or if you’re attracted to the rewards. And then you need to look at people who are a few years or decades ahead of you and see how they live their lives and see if that’s a model that you want for yourself.

And then you make a decision – and stick to it.


Karthik Suresh

Why Being A Big Brain Is Not Enough


Tuesday, 7.4pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Genius is not perfected, it is deepened. It does not so much interpret the world as fertilize itself with it. – Andre Malraux

Hugo Mercier and Christophe Heintz in their 2013 paper “Scientists’ argumentative reasoning” write about how the classical view of science is that it is advanced by a lone genius – a big brain that works in isolation and emerges with monumental finished work.

The classical view is wrong.

Advancement happens as a result of connections. Matthew Syed, in his book “Rebel Ideas” says that the Neanderthals had bigger brains than modern humans but they lived in small social groups while humans lived in larger ones. The advantage of large groups is that ideas spread. It might take a big brain to first use a stick as a tool but once smaller brains learn about fire from each other, they’re more powerful as a group.

This is a hard thing for some of us to accept. We see ourselves as islands, independent entities that don’t need others to do what we do. But we do need others. Companies grow not because of the genius of their founders but because they recruit people – getting a motivated team together heading in the same direction is what you need for results in any field – science, entrepreneurship or sport, to name a few.

You have to make a case to convince others that all of you should head in a particular direction. That direction may be your company strategy or your plan to fight climate change – but success or failure comes down to two things. First, being able to argue your case and convince the audience that of your views. And the second is to evaluate other people’s arguments and see if they are reason to change yours or not.

If you come up with a better mousetrap you are going to have to be able to tell others about it – to sell it. And if someone does have a better mousetrap and you have a problem with mice, you’re going to need to be able to figure out whether it’s better or worse.

This may seem quite theoretical but it’s really of quite some practical importance. We’re faced with propositions these days that are really quite complicated. For example, how many people are really comfortable with the idea of cryptocurrencies or non fungible tokens (NFTs). I had a play with creating an NFT today and it’s pretty simple really – you need some bits and pieces but nothing seems particularly complicated.

Here is an example of a concept that’s new to people – and it doesn’t help that most explanations are bewilderingly technical. But advocates of decentralised technology keep talking about it – they keep putting forward “arguments” until some people try it out and then more and at some point it becomes something we all just do.

But the reason we try it out is because we’re evaluating the argument. An NFT is a way to prove ownership of a digital asset. Why would you want to do that – after all, if you create something you get copyright automatically. But to really understand the value of something that only exists digitally you just have to watch kids interacting with pretty much any game and getting excited about the artefacts they can collect or buy to realise that it’s very real for them – real enough to hand over money. And, of course, anything digital can be copied, so there’s some value in being able to say you own the thing – and being able to prove it.

The reason I had a look at NFTs is because of Twitter’s functionality where you can set an NFT as your profile picture. Accounts with NFTs show up as hexagons. And then you get this weirdness where people show you how you can use a graphic to mimic the same effect. And now you have people who have NFTs and people who are pretending to have NFTs. But here’s the point… only one set can actually prove it. So does that have value?

I think it might, at some point but I don’t know. But here’s the thing – over time things will get clearer as the group brain that is the Internet will help us figure it out. That is, perhaps, the real big brain out there now.


Karthik Suresh

Why It’s So Hard For One Person To Change Anything


Monday, 8.36pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Life it is not just a series of calculations and a sum total of statistics, it’s about experience, it’s about participation, it is something more complex and more interesting than what is obvious. – Daniel Libeskind

I saw a post on LinkedIn today that quoted from the IPCC report “Climate change 2022: Impacts, adaptation and vulnerability” and highlighted the finding that 700 million people in Africa could be displaced by droughts by 2030.

That sounds like a problem – it sounds like you and I should be doing something about it.

I had a look at the IPCC report, which is subtitled “Summary for policymakers”. This summary runs to 3,676 pages. It has around 2.6 million words – five times the number I’ve written in the last five years. And they call this a “summary”!

I wrote a program some time back to pull out bigrams and trigrams from a text file. A bigram is two words, a trigram is three words. If we look for repeated bigrams and trigrams the selections we see are probably concepts that are important. I find that trigrams often describe larger concepts while bigrams elaborate on those concepts. Identifying these word patterns can give you an indication of what is important without having to read through all of the text.

The bigram that repeats the most in those 2.6 million words is, unsurprisingly, climate change. But rather than telling you about word counts, here’s what my code distilled from the text in 13 seconds.

Human induced climate change is causing increasing global warming. Higher global warming will lead to extreme weather events and climate related hazards, like vector borne diseases, and affect people that have climate sensitive livelihoods. The solution is climate resilient development, including ecosystem and community based adaptation, nature based solutions and advances in sustainable development.

What you notice when you look at this distillation is that these issues are much bigger than any one person. We are stuck within systems – tied in a web of restraints connected to the world in which we live and operate. Most individuals don’t have the power to dictate where their food is grown, how their clothes are made or what they buy in stores.

These decisions are made by managers – the people in charge. In government, of course, these are politicians. They are the ones with the power to change things and therefore the ones with the responsibility to change the system – and if they do that you can get on and do your part. You can’t buy zero carbon products unless the government makes them better value than high carbon alternatives.

The post I saw ends with a call to action – one that says we must put pressure on leaders to act. And that is the starting point – once the system is changed by those that have the power those of us that live in it will respond very quickly. And that’s the only way the impacts of climate change can be addressed.


Karthik Suresh

How To Use Circles To Model Social Relationship Structures


Sunday, 8.12pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The whole universe is based on rhythms. Everything happens in circles, in spirals. – John Hartford

I’m still working through Rebel ideas by Matthew Syed and want to note an interesting way in which he uses circles to model the way social relationships operate.

Take two groups of people, reds and blues. Each one believes in different things. Each one is also convinced that the other is wrong. How can we model what might happen as a result?

The first model assumes that the groups don’t communicate – they have enough to talk about with people like themselves that there is no need to talk to others who are wrong.

This is the world of politics where what you say is meant to be heard by people who agree with you. Those who don’t won’t agree with anything you say away.

Now you would think that when these groups are in a situation where they can overlap with other groups that access to information that contradicts what they know would help them broaden their minds. But it doesn’t.

This is the second model, where the group is big enough to have diversity but somehow that doesn’t happen. The Internet is the widest grouping of humans there is and it’s full of little enclaves of people who think the same way and have found their “tribe”. Some of these groups are harmless, some nutty, some dangerous.

It turns out, that there is a Goldilocks zone for openness – when the group is big enough to have people with different views but small enough so that they overlap – they have to engage with each other. And that’s what changes minds, prolonged interaction with those others that you believed thought and acted in one way – but you really didn’t know.

While these ideas are interesting, what I’m musing about is the use of these circles for modelling ideas about organisations. Of course you have Venn diagrams, which are what these are. And then you have the idea of circles of competence – maybe it’s when you get a critical mass of people with overlapping circles of competence that startups reach a tipping point. If you’re too big, too much of a single circle with no connections, that’s a sign that you are heading for trouble.

Something to think about.


Karthik Suresh

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