What Does A Management Consultant Actually Do?


Saturday, 8.46pm

Sheffield, U.K.

My greatest strength as a consultant is to be ignorant and ask a few questions. – Peter Drucker

I call myself a Management Consultant – but few people really understand what that means. I don’t think I really do either, or at least, I don’t think I did.

There’s a thing called the Dunning Kruger effect that looks at the relationship between how confident you are in your abilities and how good you really are as judged by others based on your performance. It won’t surprise you to learn that people are sometimes overly confident when they shouldn’t be – but they don’t know yet that they aren’t as good as they think.

It’s only by immersing myself in the research in the field of Operations Research (OR) that I’ve learned that Management Consulting is really Operations Research by another name. It should be obvious really – OR is about making things work better – but not just machine things but people-machine things. People-machine systems if you will, although the word “system” will trigger some people into defining what a system is in the first place. If we sidestep around that point, however, Management Consulting and Operations Research are really about improving how organisations carry out their operations. So how do you go about doing that?

One way of approaching the question is in an “Expert Mode”. You bring in a titan of industry, an acknowledged expert, and you listen to his (all too often it’s a he) advice. That’s how it works or used to work or is the way some people wish it worked.

The world is much too complicated, however, to be solved by experts. There are too many factors, interconnected elements, intractable variables that do not allow for a simple solution. And that’s where Soft Operations Research (Soft OR) comes in. It’s where you’re asked to engage your humanity rather than your expertise.

This is a form of “Process” consulting, where you work with your clients rather than instructing them. And you can think of this as a four stage process – one that you won’t find in the literature but one that might help see what needs to happen.

The first thing is that you have to find a way to enter the situation – be invited in to help or offer your assistance. You can’t really work on something if you aren’t actually part of the team.

The next step is to get a rich appreciation of what’s going on. That means speaking and listening and seeing the situation from multiple perspectives – asking questions about the nature of the situation, and its context, including who wants what and who controls what – issues of culture and politics that surround every non-trivial situation of concern. It’s only through that appreciative process that you can get a sense of what needs to be done.

And then you do it – you propose a course of action and if it’s agreed, you go ahead and act.

You then reflect on the process, on whether you were able to appreciate what was going on, whether your action improved the situation or not – and what you learned from the process. And then you can go into the situation again or into a new one – with your purpose always being to make things better.

The thing with the world is that if you take the time to look and listen – what you need to do next will eventually become clear to you. You just have to have patience.


Karthik Suresh

The Takahashi Presentation Method


The entertainment is in the presentation. – John McTiernan

The Takahashi method is a minimalist approach to presentations. Named after its inventor, Masayoshi Takahashi, it’s a technique that uses only a few words on each slide in large text. The words are meant to capture the key point that’s being made – somewhat in the style of a newspaper headline.

It’s an interesting approach and contrasts with other presentation methods such as conference style presentations, as described by Andrew Abela, and inspiring presentations, in the style of TED talks. Conference style presentations are detailed slides, filled with content, but structured with headlines in a way that means the general story can be told and the detail read later. Inspiring presentations often have a picture or a few words dominating the page, and are used to tell a story and draw you into the narrative.

These approaches are better, it is argued, than the traditional use of slides filled with bullet points and dense text – that’s the whole death by PowerPoint approach.

But is the Takahashi method a simple visual technique, different only because of the way it looks or does it possibly have a deeper use that’s isn’t obvious at first glance?

In the book Index, a history of the by Dennis Duncan we are told about the character Lotaria in Italo Calvino’s novel If on a winter’s night a traveller who reads by feeding books into her computer and looking at the frequencies of repeated words – deducing from them the meaning in the text. This might seem like cheating, a shortcut – why should authors put all that effort into writing carefully constructed prose if you simply look at an automated analysis of the work instead?

For a start it’s faster than reading everything and sometimes you want to figure out what the key points are in a text. I fed a number of papers into a program that extracted bigrams and trigrams – repeated two and three-word combinations to see if they helped get a sense of what the paper was all about. And I found that it was a surprisingly useful technique. If an author comes up with a bigram that usefully encapsulates a concept then it tends to be repeated, and the repetition helps you pick out what the author considers important. These bigrams can then be used as a connected set of ideas, a “string of pearls” to step through and talk about the ideas in the paper.

Takahashi’s method seems perfect for this approach, a distillation of key points that support the telling of a story. But will it work in practice? I need to think about how to try it out.


Karthik Suresh

Trying The Two Pages A Day Theory


Tuesday, 8.20pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something- anything – down on paper. What I’ve learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head. – Anne Lamott

I have been writing less this year than I have in the last four years. The main reason for this is that I’m doing more research and reading and that leaves less time for writing. I’m also less sure what to write as the more you look into something the more you realise that there are many different ways to see and appreciate and understand what is going on and it all gets a little messy on paper. Clear, simple writing may read well – but it sometimes does not reflect reality.

The other, smaller reason, is that I’m also trying to draft content for a PhD thesis and that’s slowing me down – I haven’t written stuff like that before and I don’t quite know what to do.

One approach that I’m trying is to do something, anything, that gets me going. So rather than typing on the computer, which is the easiest way to get material out, I have a composition notebook and am drafting by hand. I’ve tried it for a couple of days and the material is starting to trickle out. Each page holds around 200 words and so at the rate of two pages a day it’s going to take 250 days or most of a year to get a first draft written.

Anne Lamott’s theory, in her book Bird by Bird, is that you should just sit down and write two pages a day. She calls it a shitty first draft and some people take issue with that – just call it a first draft they say, something you will revise and improve when you do the next round of edits. Writing is revising after all, they argue.

Many writers would agree with this. William Zinsser in On writing well, John McPhee in Draft No. 4 and Natalie Goldberg in Writing down the bones, all write about the practice and effort that goes into writing. The quotes roll on, from Gene Fowler, “Writing is easy. You only need to stare at a blank piece of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead”.

The secret to writing was revealed by Mary Heaton Vorse: “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”

I’ll let you know how I get on.


Karthik Suresh

How To Draw A Rich Picture – And Think About Why You Are Doing It


Monday, 8.11pm

Sheffield, U.K.

When you meet people, show real appreciation, then genuine curiosity. – Martha Beck

Before you can solve a problem you need to know what the problem actually is. This is harder to do than it seems. One technique for figuring out what the problem is in the first place is to draw a Rich Picture – one of the components of Soft Systems Methodology (SSM), developed by Peter Checkland.

In their 1992 paper, Towards an SSM toolkit: rich picture diagramming, Avison, Golder and Shah write that a rich picture may show processes and their relationships, clients, people involved, environmental features, problem owners, constraints, conflicts, flows of information and much else still. Rich pictures are complex to draw because they try and incorporate the richness that is unique to a particular situation.

A rich picture is often drawn on a whiteboard during a face to face meeting. Avison et al suggest that a way to start is by writing the name of the company in a box in the middle and then developing the picture from there, drawing people, things, processes, the relationships between them, thoughts that people might have and areas of conflict that suggest themselves. The picture is used to support a discussion and can be changed based on feedback and observations.

In my own practice and research I have been working on digital approaches to drawing rich pictures. I thought that is what I was doing in the examples described in this early description but now I realize I was doing something different. A rich picture, within the framework described by Peter Checkland, is much closer to something in the image that starts this post.

Some things are worth pointing out about this picture. First, it’s not well-drawn. Writing on a computer using a stylus is not the easiest thing to do. If you pretend you’re using a whiteboard and can’t zoom in and out of the picture it’s harder to make the fine movements needed to make good drawings or letter forms. But that’s ok. If you’re focusing on the visual aspect of the picture rather than its use as an object that supports a discussion you’re missing the point about a rich picture. It’s about appreciation, not art.

The second, less obvious aspect of a rich picture, is that it’s a window onto an inner world of someone’s mind – an image that looks to capture how things look from their point of view. Thinking about it like looking through windows is a useful metaphor. Let’s say you’re in a city and want to get a feel for the place – you look out of your hotel window and get one view. You get to your office and look out of that window and get another view. Both are views of the same city but both are different and both are partial. You know more than you did but you don’t know it all and what you know is limited by what you saw through the windows you had a chance to look through.

The third aspect of a rich picture is that what you see is not all there is. You can have a discussion with a group of people about their company and situation and all the other things and draw a rich picture but, as Avison et al point out, there are often politics involved, where “some facts about the organization cannot be acknowledged and cannot be published so that there is often a hidden agenda between the analyst and senior members of the organization”.

This last point is the one that really complicates things. A rich picture is a tool to help understand and improve situations. But it’s just a tool and it can also be used to do bad things, just like writing has done in the past.

I’m reading This is the canon: Decolonize your bookshelf in 50 books edited by Joan Anim-Addo, Deidre Osborne and Kadija Sesay. They write that “decolonizing insists on change regarding practices and responses that oppress others, notably those burdened by historical injustices…” In the 18th century writing was exalted as the “age of authors” but writing was also “a key tool of colonial domination”. At the stroke of a pen some people could own nothing, allowing those that could to take all they had, including the bodies of those no longer deemed human.

A rich picture is a tool, just like a hammer. And, just like a hammer, the results you get depend on how you wield it. It would be wise to do so carefully and thoughtfully.


Karthik Suresh


Avison, D.E, Golder, P.A, Shah, H.U. (1992), “Towards an SSM toolkit: Rich picture diagramming”, Eur. J. Inf. Systs. Vol. 1, No. 6, pp 397-407

Why Everything Is More Complex Than It Seems It Should Be


Saturday, 8.47pm

Sheffield, U.K.

My goal is to simplify complexity. I just want to build stuff that really simplifies our base human interaction. – Jack Dorsey

T.S Eliot write that the world ends not with a bang but with a whimper. That’s a generalizable observation – regimes end that way, patterns of thinking end that way, belief systems end that way.

It’s not that simple. Jack Dorsey’s quote above caught my eye – thinking about Twitter and the news that Elon Musk was taking it private. Something that Dorsey built to simplify the way we interact has turned out to have created unthinkably complex effects – some for the positive and some for the clearly negative. I assumed that having the platform under the control of a single person might be something Dorsey would oppose but it turns out, it’s something he suggested Musk do.

What happens when you dig into anything is that it turns out to be more complex than you think. Nothing is as it seems. Decisions are never simple. Everything has layers and layers and yet more layers.

Let me give you an example based on the concept of religion.

I come from a deeply religious part of the world – one where religion is as natural to people as breathing. It’s unquestioned, it just is, and it’s unthinkable to think that God does not exist.

I live in a different part of the world and there is religion there too. The small people in the house are taught about it at school.

One day I heard from one of these small people that they had been talking about God at school, and they were surprised that some of their friends didn’t believe in God. They were even more surprised when I said that there might be grounds for not believing that God exists. In fact, they didn’t like that much at all.

Eventually, one said, “Daddy, if you don’t believe in God then I will stop believing in God as well.” So I said “Do you want to believe in God?” The answer was “Yes.” So I said, “Ok, then. I believe in God as well.”

What is the right approach? Should you tell your children that you don’t believe in something because that is where you are in your life right now? Or do you tell them what they want to hear?

Some people might think that this is easy – one choice is true and the other is false and you should speak the truth. Of course, when it comes to the question of whether God exists or not, what’s true and what’s false is different for different people.

For a resolution to this we have to turn to Terry Pratchett and his approach to the problem.

Pratchett’s argument would be that if you take every grain of matter in the Universe and sieve it you will not find a single atom of a God anywhere in there. Grind everything up and pick through it and there will be no evidence that God exists.

That’s enough isn’t it, to say that God doesn’t exist? Isn’t saying anything else a lie?

But it’s more complex than that. If you pick through all the matter in the universe you will also not find an atom of truth, justice, mercy or love. Saying these exist is surely lying as well?

Pratchett argues that this is why we need children to believe in magic and fairies and bunnies and flying reindeer. If these are lies, then they are little lies, lies that teach children that there is more to the world than what is just in front of them, little lies that let them believe in the big lies – like truth and justice and mercy and love.

When you see what goes on in the world it’s hard to believe in anything. Layers within layers mean that what you see is not all there is, and every situation has to be looked at from multiple perspectives. Things like social media polarise us and seek to simplify debate – they ask us to believe without question in one position or another.

The one comfort we can take is that societies and people that stifle debate rot from within – they are so busy hiding from the truth that what they have left is not worth having. Maybe Musk will be good for Twitter – as a free speech absolutist he will allow everyone to use the platform. As a technologist he will look for solutions to the problems that beset the platform. As a rich and powerful person at the start of his reign, maybe it will all turn out well for him. Or not. Time will tell.

The only thing we do know is that it’s never as simple as it seems.


Karthik Suresh

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