Hierarchies And Networks And Which Are Better When

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Thursday, 8.17pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Power is changing hands, from dying hierarchies to living networks. – Marilyn Ferguson

Matthew Syed’s book Rebel ideas: The power of diverse thinking reminded me of the work of Jordan Peterson, who popped up on the occasional YouTube video. Peterson is a “man’s man” sort of character – and what I caught from these brief videos was a sense of a “no punches pulled” character with strong opinions. It turns out that his views may be on the extreme side and perhaps wrong as well as dangerous, but let’s leave that aside and focus on one particular idea.

Peter suggests that dominance hierarchies are a feature of groups and go back hundreds of millions of years – lobster’s brains are wired in this way. I wrote about this previously here and we still examples of this in many aspects of our lives. The military is organized this way, some companies are too. Many public sector institutions have a hierarchy at their core.

Or do they?

It’s one thing looking at animals and saying the big, strong ones have all the fun – they get to lord over their territory and have their pick of mates. This idea of social structure leads to a “command and control” approach and is the sort of thing that comes to mind when we think of many social situations, and is not helped by stereotypes in the media and popular culture.

It’s also a particularly male point of view. Syed points out that when you really look at animal populations this idea of males being in charge starts to break down. Females have more choice than you think. Groups can be led by matriarchs rather than bulls. It turns out that things aren’t quite that simple.

Syed points to anthropological research that found that there is another kind of structure based on what he calls prestige. This is about connections, about the web of relationships one has.

A hierarchy works in many cases – when you have a clear objective, when you’re trying to fight a battle, when it’s important to get on with a task than argue about who gets to lead. But in a much larger number of cases we have to get on with daily life and sort out the things that need to get done.

It turns out that we can do this better when we harness the collective intelligence of groups. There’s a romantic notion that great ideas come from lone geniuses. In fact the vast majority of ideas come from teams that work in societies where they can share and access ideas.

There’s a special case of harnessing collective intelligence that has to do with day to day work. Every time you have a meeting, work on a project, get a team together – you have to make choices about who to include or exclude, who to talk to and who to ignore. They way in which you do this will determine whether you end up with a homogeneous group that has the same sort of ideas or a mixed group that can be creative and contribute something new.

But how do you get different people to get involved and participate – won’t it end up being lots of people arguing because they don’t really understand one another?

That’s where the concept of “procedural justice” plays an important role. You have to design a method of engagement that makes people feel like they have been included, allowed to speak and been listened to – been heard. This is when they will have trust that the process works for them.

Hierarchies are simple, but they may also be a thing of the past. The future needs us to understand one another, not dominate one another.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Who Is The Audience For Your Work?

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Wednesday, 7.49pm

Sheffield, U.K.

I can think of nothing that an audience won’t understand. The only problem is to interest them; once they are interested, they understand anything in the world. – Orson Welles

One of the most valuable things you can do is get market-product fit. People often talk about this in reverse – they talk about product-market fit – you have a product, like a better mouse trap, and your job is to find the people who need it.

The other way is to start with the market, go talk to people who you think have a mouse problem – and as you talk to them you realize that their real problem has to do with bears – so you build a bear trap. That’s market-product fit.

Understanding the market is not an easy thing to do and there are few shortcuts. There is a lot of well-intentioned advice out there but it’s not clear what is relevant to your particular situation.

One way is to analyze data to understand what people want. An early example of this is in the 1928 book The first hundred million by E. Haldeman-Julius. This tells the story of the Little Blue Books, mass-produced copies of very low priced books that covered a range of topics. They sold in vast numbers and provided an unequalled “test of reading tastes and desires.” The statistics told you what people wanted.

This approach is clearly at the heart of the modern economy that gets what people want to them as fast as possible. This is a world of things and market-product fit literally means just that, a particular product that you make and sell.

The next market to consider is the one of goals, aspirations and experiences. People want to achieve something, reach somewhere – whether it’s to get an education, lose weight, or get better at a skill. What they’re looking for is guidance, modelling, training, encouragement and mentoring.

It was never that clear to me who the audience was for this blog – who is interested in this content? It’s not really a product, and it’s not self-improvement advice. I didn’t start writing it for an audience anyway – I wrote it to help myself learn about concepts in the management literature.

And it’s that literature that’s pointed out that the market for the content in this blog is probably other practicing managers – which includes people in all kinds of organisations that have to deal with issues relating to the operations of their firms. It’s not about leadership and vision and big picture direction. And it’s not about style and brand and emotional appeal. It comes down to how we deal with the issues that exist in the world as we experience it – and what we can do about them. This probably seems obvious to you, but it’s the first time I’ve realized that in the last five years of writing.

Management, by and large, is a task that involves putting out fires. It’s not something that comes naturally and it’s not something we’re taught to do. We have to seek out knowledge and avoid getting trapped in quick-fix approaches or stereotypical images of what management should be or look like. It’s an important activity that helps us deal with the complexity of the economic world around us. So it’s probably worth learning how to do better.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How To Create A Rich Picture

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Tuesday, 7.32pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The history of the past is but one long struggle upward to equality. – Elizabeth Cady Stanton

In my last post I introduced the idea of facilitated modelling and suggested it was worth spending a little time exploring this. Facilitated modelling is a practice that helps to structure discussion through the use of a representation – a model of some kind that people can engage with.

Rich Pictures are a technique used in Soft Operations Research and particularly in Soft Systems Methodology (SSM). The idea is that getting people to draw a picture of a situation that matters to them is a useful way of getting at ideas and insights that are less easily expressed verbally or in written form.

I’m considering arguing that Rich Pictures should be treated as models – they have parts that can be related to make a whole. You can use the model to help you think and come up with observations and insights.

Take the concept of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) – a subject that is getting increasing interest in the corporate and public sector worlds. Wolbring and Lillywhite (2021) have 35 pages of prose about EDI in Universities.

I’ve selected one section to demonstrate how one might start to build a Rich Picture. People who work in Universities such as academics have career ladder to climb. Their ability to climb it depends on other people – on how they are accepted, how visible they are, how much support they get and who mentors and pushes them. Academics that belong to under-represented groups or that have less privileged backgrounds experience challenges climbing the ladder. They also experience implicit biases, microaggression and need those with power to help change things. Change can’t happen soon enough – the earlier it starts the more likely it is that it will make a difference for people that are affected by inequality. They need access, opportunity and active promotion to develop their careers.

Hopefully you can see elements of these points in the image above. Imagine using a picture like this or one you’ve drawn yourself to talk through these ideas with someone else, exploring the various elements together. You might add your own ideas. The hope is that it helps us have a better discussion about the important points.

This post isn’t really about EDI but about how creating a picture to act as a model can help us have a discussion. It’s not a perfect solution – just a method that you can use if it’s something that works for you. We know that we can’t prove that one method works better than another when it comes to engaging in social situations like group problem structuring and problem solving. We can only try and have a high-quality discussion – one that makes us feel like we’ve said what we wanted to say, listened and been listened to and that the ideas that were expressed have been captured in a way that lets us take the next action.

One observation with modelling is that if you want to do it with others it needs to be as simple as possible. You can’t beat the experience of pen and paper or, in my case, stylus and screen. The more complicated your modelling process the more likely it is that you’ll need to do the work away from the group and come to the group to present and test your ideas. The takeaway is to keep it easy to follow along.

A picture creates issues of its own – should I draw race or gender more clearly? Will that lead to a different kind of bias because the picture is seen as unrepresentative? Should I draw a wheelchair or is it ok just having “keyhole” people? But just using text is also risky. Using the wrong words can offend others and we need to be careful to follow guidelines on inclusive language.

If you want to try this yourself the best thing to do is start by trying to express the problem that you’re considering as a picture – the actors, the elements, the relationships and talk about what they mean to you – aloud, to yourself, or in writing. See if this helps to bring clarity and organise your thoughts. And if it works, do it some more.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

References

Wolbring, G.; Lillywhite, A. 2021, “Equity/Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) in Universities: The Case of Disabled People”. Societies, 11, 49.

Using Facilitated Modelling To Think About Marketing

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Business analytics or predictive modelling is a $100 billion industry, and $41 billion is spent on outsourced business analytics every year. I think that’s about twice the size of the movie industry – it’s really big. – Anthony Goldbloom

You’re probably familiar with the idea of facilitation – the art of getting people to talk about a situation of interest or concern to them. What’s less common is the idea of using a model to help with facilitation.

A model is a representation – some kind of thing that can be used to hold important ideas and talk about what’s going on without relying on remembering what people say. A model is different from a list of bullet points because it has elements and relationships – nodes and links. The picture above is an example of a causal loop model, something I’ve been trying to understand recently.

Causal loop models show cause and effect flows – plausible streams of activity that could explain what’s going on. They are simplifications that help us focus on important points and create a story, a narrative that explains what’s going on.

For example, if you run a business you can spend your time creating outputs that customers value. If they value what you do they will buy more time from you. That’s a positive loop – as you do more and better work you’ll get more customers.

If you spend time promoting and marketing yourself you’ll attract prospects some of whom will turn into customers. So that’s another positive loop.

The problem with spending your time marketing, however, is that it takes time and so you have less time to focus on output that customers find valuable. Spending all your time on marketing can end up reducing what you do, pulling down value for customers and causing them to spend less with you by going elsewhere.

This is a very simple causal loop that captures some of the considerations you need to look at when you’re coming up with a marketing strategy. You could assume that there is a limitless pool of customers out there and so losing some is ok as long as your promotion strategy brings in new ones. Or you could decide that your time is best spent creating your product and pay for promotion and marketing, either through advertising or by investing in a partner that does marketing for you.

Causal loops can be used to think through all kinds of issues – they’re the foundation of some of Peter Senge’s work on The Fifth Discipline about Systems Thinking. They are a subset of a wider group of graph models that show relationships between elements and help you deal with complexity.

Familiarity with facilitated modelling can help you deal with problems that are significant concerns to people and organisations – from business analytics to climate change. Al Gore, in a recent TED talk, described the sustainability revolution as all of the industrial revolution’s potential plus digital transformation.

The challenge practitioners face is that they have to be experts in facilitation and experts in the modelling process. This can be hard. Some modelling can be done in groups with people while other modelling needs to be done in the studio and then the results from the model shared and discussed with others.

This may be a topic that’s a little too niche for most people. But it’s a useful skill that could do with more attention. I might try and spend some time exploring the space in a few posts.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

What Is Good Work?

There is a remarkable amount of good television around these days. The huge investments that companies are making in streaming services seems to have led to smart, witty writing and engaging storylines that deal with important themes. As one of the characters in the series “Superstore” says, “We’re living in a golden age of TV.”

In the series “Space Force” the leading character, a four star general played by Steve Carell, talks about how “there are no small jobs.” What it says is that for the force to function what janitors do matters and what rocket scientists do matters – all these jobs need to be done to get things done.

That idea, that all jobs matter, has depth to it. Some people look at developing countries and thing that they need technology. They don’t. What they need are jobs, they need work that pays enough to live and school their children and change their fortunes over generations. Few people become rich in one lifetime. If they work at it, however, their grandchildren may have a very different life to the one they started off with.

Take the problem of dealing with insurgencies. We often think that the answer is to send in troops, to win a battle. You rarely hear about other approaches. I came across a story that described how troops in a region of India operated a program where people who surrendered their weapons were helped to set up businesses. They exchanged their guns and became business owners instead, starting things like small manufacturing firms. I don’t know if the story is true without spending some time verifying it – it’s social media after all – but the general principle is interesting. And one assumes it’s been tried in other places but perhaps successfully integrating rebels into an economy is not really news and so we don’t hear about it.

The idea that jobs matter is well understood in government. So you get targets to create more jobs – but what is the right kind of job? What is the right sort of work to do?

This is a hard question to answer because at one extreme any work is good when someone has little to offer other than labour. People around the world struggle to get an education for one reason or another, and that shouldn’t exclude them from being able to do meaningful work – or at least to get meaning out of work. Sometimes it’s may be wiser to forego a return to give people a chance.

Once you get beyond the struggle to survive, however, things don’t get much better. There appears to be a widening gap between the capability of the systems we have and the ability of people to produce using those systems. Cal Newport’s book A world without email suggests that we increasingly spend our time in a hyperactive hive mind allocating so much of our time to communicating that there is none left to do deep work. Doing work takes time – time when you need to get to your workspace and spend uninterrupted time on a project.

Another issue some face is that as they rise in their organisations they start doing less and managing more. A friend of mine who always has the perfect phrase to hand says, “first you’re paid for being the resource. Then at some point you start getting paid for allocating resource.” That second point, when you point to the work and get others to do it, is a disquieting time. There are people who are now better than you at doing things that you once did. I cope with it by having projects that still engage the technical and creative sides of me – this weekend was spent trying to program arduinos and figure out if the principles of junkbot robots can be used to design data collection devices.

One of the things I like about Action Research is this recognition of the interplay between theory and practice – between thinking and doing. Thinking deeply helps improve your practice and reflecting and learning from practice helps develop better theories.

Good work is the kind of work that helps you do both.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How To Manage Diversity In Thinking

Saturday, 10.56pm

Sheffield, U.K.

I’m reading Matthew Syed’s The Power of Diverse Thinking and you will not be surprised to learn that the basic thesis is that people with different perspectives may make for better decision making.

Syed describes how a team that’s made up of very similar people often have a great time working together. If you like having a drink with mates and enjoy a regular round of golf and all the people around you like doing the same sorts of things work life can be fun – you get deals done in the pub and on the course.

This togetherness, this camaraderie, this homogeneity is great if you’re part of the in crowd but it makes it harder for others who are not. This often means that people who don’t fit in learn to fit in – they learn to talk and act in ways that will be accepted by dominant group. After all, conformity is rewarded while being seen as different is often a career-limiting strategy.

For example, I have little, no, actually no interest in sports. I like playing them, but not in watching others. But many interactions in the business world start with a conversation about sports, one that I find hard to participate in – and so I usually don’t. I have tried to take an interest, but it is just so boring.

People who don’t fit in find it hard to get ahead. Sometimes they find it impossible to get started at all. Imagine you’re forced to move to a new country and you encounter a different language, a different culture, a different religion. Do you hold on to what you had where you came from, or do you change to be more like the new place in which you find yourself. Some people can’t do it at all, their children are the ones that are the natives in the new world.

Now, of course, there are arguments on many sides. If you want to join a company, a country, you should be willing to accept the values of the place you’re trying to join. But too much consensus, too much of the same kind of thinking has historically resulted in people making very bad decisions.

Syed argues that diversity in thinking is good but you would need to be a special kind of person to get the balance right. First you have to make an effort to get people in a group that are very different from each other. Then, you have to have a conversation where you may have very different points of view and make sure that it leads to consensus rather than argument. Maybe the only way to get started is by having targets and quotas, no more male only panels, for example. A truer reflection of society in politics and the media. Making sure everyone has a voice.

That kind of thinking needs a mature, grown up society, a liberal one – one that is increasingly rare in a world where it’s much easier to be parochial, tribal and nationalist. It needs rules of procedure and engagement that are seen to be fair to all.

It shouldn’t really be this hard to do.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

When Are Thinking Tools Useful?

Thinking is hard work. We can only hold a certain number of ideas in working memory at one time. Any large, complex problem will have multiple, interrelated, and conflicting elements that have to be worked through. Some people can do this in their heads. The likelihood is that they will do it badly.

This is because we’re prone to bias. We cling to ideas that we think of first. Things that are recent, memorable or vivid seem more likely to happen again. As a result we’re often surprised when things turn out differently than we expected.

Formal thinking tools are a way to avoid these biases. We take notes, create models and carry out analysis so that we really understand what’s going on and, more importantly, avoid fooling ourselves.

Using tools brings its own risks. We can get so involved in models that we can forget they are simplifications of reality, not a model of reality. A model should be used to help you think rather than replace thinking.

But what is a thinking tool anyway? We’re surrounded by them – every textbook will show a model of one kind of another. Models show entities and relationships. A map is a model – a simplified representation of key geographical elements in relation to each other. A 2×2 matrix is a model, as is a spreadsheet with a budget.

Some things look like models but are not entirely quite. A list of questions, for example, is not a model unless there is some underlying connective logic that is visible to the questioner.

One of the challenges that we face is that some models are simplified to the point where they are plausible but not necessarily usable. For example, it’s often said that you can’t manage what you can’t measure. And you’re also told that not all that matters can be measured, and not all that can be measured matters. So which is it – is measuring something good or bad?

More often than not it turns out to be bad. Take waiting times or sales targets. They’re both very hard to hit and so managers end up gaming the system, managing the numbers rather than managing the business.

But really, what makes one thinking tool better than another? Why do some things work for some people and not others? Some people are motivated by targets while others hate them.

There is a sort of Godelian incompleteness to all this. Godel showed that within any system of logic there are things that cannot be proved using the tools within the system. In other words you have to take some things on faith, and treat them as axioms, a principle that is seen as true without proof.

The unhelpful, to some, conclusion is that the utility of any tool depends on you and how you feel when you use it. If target setting and goal-seeking work for you then great. It not, there are plenty of other methods that might suit you better.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

p.s. Posted from a Pi400

Going Back To Basics

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Thursday, 8.03pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The secret of your future is hidden in your daily routine. – Mike Murdock

I haven’t written much this year and that’s because of a few reasons. The most important one, however, is that I changed my routine. At the start of the year I was researching different ways of organising notes and ideas using analogue methods. Basically, writing in notebooks.

Changing your routine, even slightly, has unpredictable impacts on output. Spending more time on paper means spending less time on the computer. It takes longer to write by hand but what you write has a different cadence and feel. It’s more physical because you literally carve words into paper but it’s harder to work with and share. Once you’re done with working on paper there’s less energy left over to do anything more on a computer.

Once you’ve reallocated time from one activity to another, the rest of the time isn’t enough to do everything you used to do. For example, I used to draw something, anything, to think through an idea and then I’d write it up. There isn’t enough time to do that now and so it’s easier not to write at all. Adding friction to your routine makes it harder to get started as easily as you used to before.

These two challenges – the limitations of time and the frictional costs of getting going can derail what you’ve worked towards. Five, maybe more years of activity, can come to a halt because you’ve changed something and not realised what that does to your process.

Sometimes you need something else to come along and get you out of a rut. In my case, that’s a piece of technology. I got a Pi400, the single-board computer in a keyboard, sometime back. I didn’t use it much but recently came across a Cyberdeck hat, a 45 degree angled mount that would hold an old TFT screen I had lying around. Coupling this with a power pack has given me a nice little system that does just one thing – it lets me write.

Having added friction to my process earlier this year I’m going to see if removing friction will help me get back into writing. So less of the drawing and more with words – although not too many of those either.

If you have been reading these posts I did mention that I was working on a notetaking book written by hand. I have done that – it’s very short and was probably a unnecessarily hard way to do something like that – but if you don’t try things out you don’t learn whether a way works or not. If you’re interested it’s here

On with the writing experiment then.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

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