Some Very Good Reasons To Show Your Work


Tuesday, 8.08pm

Sheffield, U.K.

A lack of transparency results in distrust and a deep sense of insecurity – Dalai Lama

I was working on a presentation when I came across Austin Kleon’s commentary on a HBR article by Ryan w. Buell on operational transparency.

Kleon points out that the overall message from Buell resonates with his idea of “Show Your Work”.

It’s worth looking at why, however, in a little more detail.

The image below is an extract from the presentation and shows what Buell found when he looked at how people reacted to different levels of operational transparency.


When you can’t see what someone is doing for you then you tend to think that they must be putting in less effort.

For example, you probably don’t think that Google works all that hard to get you a result – but behind that microsecond response is a gargantuan machine.

You don’t get appreciated that much when you’re invisible.

Let’s say you’re locked away in a backroom beavering away on a client’s account – if you spend a week doing something and no one knows about it how much are they going to appreciate your service?

How much are they going to value what you’re doing?

Buell found that people who couldn’t see what was going on were less satisfied with their suppliers.

But things get worse.

When what you do is a black box, when it’s opaque then people trust you less, are less loyal to you over time and don’t really want to pay for what you do.

Now, how many times have you heard service professionals moan about how their clients don’t want to pay them.

It’s especially common in sectors where there is a hard-charging, sales-driven mindset.

Although, arguably, all sectors have that to some degree.

Let’s take a few examples.

How many of you think that estate agents or recruitment consultants are worth what they’re paid?

The chances are that you get messaged every so often by a recruitment firm – someone who wants to charge you 20% or more to find you an employee.

What do they do for that money?

In my experience few agencies actually take the time to explain what they do.

The ones that do are more likely to be given a chance.

Many service professionals are, however, reluctant to give away too much – seeing value in their secret or proprietary methods.

But the days of such approaches is perhaps behind us.

Before the Internet perhaps you listened to people who claimed to have knowledge that no one else did.

Now, that’s unlikely.

Having secret knowledge, that is.

What Buell found is that showing people what you did – increasing operational transparency – helped improve the score on how customers thought and acted about you.

And this fits in with an emerging trend in the world of work and business.

If you get better at designing your service around the real needs of your customers – and if you collaborate with them in an open and transparent way they are more likely to want to work with you.

The value of things like trust and loyalty cannot be overstated.

In today’s world whether your business survives at all will probably depend on whether you get that.

Maybe we should refer to the old days as BI – Before Internet.

AI is here to stay.


Karthik Suresh

Why You Should Spend Your Time Looking At The Real World


Monday, 7.32pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away. – Philip K. Dick, I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon

I caught a bit of a conflict resolution podcast and what caught my ear was how the same principles lie at the heart of defusing an argument, whether it’s a hostage negotiation or a dispute between children in school.

In addition, some much overdue tidying uncovered a copy of the Psychologist which had a special collection on how people communicate.

The introduction to the papers, by Elizabeth Stokoe, introduces you to how powerful words can be.

In a hostage negotiation, for example, the objective is to keep talking until the situation can be resolved.

Each “talking” encounter is like a pass in a football game – a series of successful passes is needed to get the ball to where it needs to be to score.

When Stokoe and her her colleague, Rein Sikveland, looked at the recordings they found that when the negotiators used the word “talk” the negotiation often broke down – the bad guys didn’t want to “talk”.

But they would “speak”.

One explanation, perhaps, that the word “talk” has been so overused over time that people have become resistant to it.

Parent’s want to “talk” to you, teachers bring you up to their desks for a “talk” and managers set a time for a quick “talk”.

You often don’t end up feeling better after that.

“Speak” has fewer of those associations, so maybe people react less poorly.

The thing, Stokoe points out is that you’d never have seen this if you hadn’t listened to the real thing – the actual recordings of the encounter.

Too many people study things that describe the real thing – what Stokoe quotes Roy Baumeister as calling “proxies” – surveys, questionnaires and the like.

What we should be doing is spending more time pushing through the force field that separates us from the real world and looking around.

Doing what’s called “naturalistic observation.”

It’s not easy to do, clearly, and it’s hard to pass off as science.

But it is – it’s anthropology, action research, grounded theory and gemba.

Think of it like this.

You could look at any place on earth now and probably find a picture and descriptions and videos and recommendations.

But would you still learn something new if you went for yourself?

I think the answer has to be – almost certainly.



How To Spot When Things Are Going Wrong Before It’s Too Late


Friday, 7.44pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Who lets slip fortune, her shall never find: Occasion once past by, is bald behind. – Abraham Cowley, Pyramus and Thisbe, XV.

Every once in a while it’s worth spending some time thinking through all the ways in which you can fail.

That might not be seen as a very positive thing to do – surely you should be setting big, hairy, ambitious goals and focusing on daily rituals and looking up and ahead to where you want to be.

Except that if something trips you up it’s probably going to be down there on the ground.

So, when you’re ready to actually do something and start a journey towards that distant, better future, you ought to consider taking a look at what the road looks like.

These ideas are explored in Adrian J. Slywotzky’s book The upside: The 7 strategies for turning big threats into growth breakthroughs.

The book is about strategic risk – the kind of thing that can sneak up on you when you’re not looking.

Slywotzky argues that we’re familiar with certain kinds of risk – risks like those from natural hazards, financial risks from markets and operational risks to our organisations.

We’re less familiar with strategic ones – things that change the game we’re playing.

I’ve selected six ideas that seem useful from the ones he presents in the book – ideas that seem worth testing against your business or even your career.

And the way to test them is to ask questions. Questions like:

What makes you unique?

This is actually quite a hard one to answer.

Lots of people come out with generic answers – we’re nice people, we are passionate about service.

But most people could say that, and most would find it hard to point to any evidence that they were unique.

What makes you unique might actually be that you are oddly passionate about – or you’ve worked for a long time and developed a certain skill.

Or it could come from combining two or three things that are themselves ordinary but together create something unique.

As Scott Adams did, combining cartooning, engineering and humour to create Dilbert.

How well do you know what your customers need?

This is something that is very easy to forget.

If you’re an employee your manager is your customer, not your boss.

If you don’t know what they need then how will you serve them effectively?

Too many people wait to be told what to do rather than finding out what their customers need and creating it for them.

And businesses do that all the time – they start by being interested and then, over time, get complacent and forget about customers.

Who then move on.

Are you obsolete?

The fact is that things become obsolete all the time – especially things you know.

Who needs cassette tapes in a world of on-demand media?

If you aren’t learning all the time then you’re in trouble – and heading for the scrapheap.

One of my favourite questions is “When do you stop being a promising young person?”

Hopefully you’ll still be one well into your nineties.

Is there a mega competitor out there?

Amazon anybody?

Retail is being shaken up by Amazon and Ebay in no small way – it’s transforming the way transactional business is done and how we get goods we don’t need at prices we don’t mind paying.

When someone like Amazon enters everybody selling tat has to shut up shop because Amazon can sell more tat 24/7 than you can.

Does anyone know what you do or did any more?

We’ve all got those people in the workplace – the ones who do something but we’re not quite sure what.

Some businesses are like that as well, they were once promising but now they’re fading – perhaps never to return.

Is your market going nowhere?

Are you stuck in a career or business that has no growth, no development?

You don’t make enough to invest and create new capability or get new customers – but you still have enough to get by and survive – but it’s a poor deal.

It’s no fun being trapped in a situation – one you can’t get out of.

The time to act… was some time back

The thing about risks like these is that once you can see what’s happening it’s often too late to do anything about it.

It’s going to take time to sort out the situation – dig yourself out of the hole you’ve unwittingly fallen into.

The solution, according to Slywotzky, is to get better at designing for risks – being aware of and preparing for risks – perhaps even being ready to profit from them.

I’m not so sure about that.

Often the risk that comes along and derails everything is not the one you’ve prepared for.

As they say, armies spend their time training to fight the last war.

What’s important, perhaps, is a healthy sense of paranoia.

Run scenarios where things go wrong – and think through how you would respond.

Train and learn and learn and train.

And, as the Scouts would say, Be Prepared.

Some Strategies To Deal With Frustrating Situations


Wednesday, 9.37pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Success is not built on success. It’s built on failure. It’s built on frustration. Sometimes its built on catastrophe. – Sumner Redstone

When I started this blog I described how it built on things that I learned trying to communicate with children.

As the kids grow older, the lessons become harder to learn – because how we, as adults, need to act may conflict with how we naturally act.

For example, we have thoughts about rules and discipline that we take for granted – we have views on whether children that act badly are doing it for attention or to manipulate us.

And we don’t question these beliefs.

But we should because it’s something that repeats not just with children but with coworkers, with politicians and society at large – after all, when do we stop acting like children inside?

Ross W. Greene’s book The explosive child sets out some ideas that are worth considering – and perhaps they will help in one situation or another.

One of the things Greene talks about is the need to understand how a request to a child progresses to a “meltdown”.

Let’s say the kid is watching TV.

You ask him to stop and come and eat breakfast.

The child is enjoying the show and enters an “early lock”, saying he want to finish.

Now you as the parent are at a crossroads.

Do you insist that he stop or do you leave it?

If you insist it goes into an “advanced lock” where the child is now frustrated and angry

You both go head to head with an argument – perhaps you shout and demand that he listen.

And then you have a meltdown.

This is something that many parents have experienced with their children.

And you don’t need to look far, especially among the current crop of global politicians, to see the same behaviour.

The problem that we face is that we are trying to get a child to move from his or her agenda, Agenda A, to our agenda, Agenda B.

And this change can be jarring, like changing gear from sixth to first – causing your engine to, as Douglas Adams out it, “leap out of your hood in a rather ugly mess”.

So, you need to figure out how you can get someone to shift agendas – and that requires working the gears in between the two extremes.

But how do you do that?

Well, there are two rules to remember.

The second, Greene says is to think clearly in the middle of whatever is making you frustrated.

The first rule, however, is to stay calm enough to do rule number 1.

These rules are not limited to parents.

How many managers have you seen fly off the handle at their staff – and how is that a useful way to act with other people?

Now, how can you deal with these situations?

The first thing to realise is that you need to be watchful – as a lifeguard you need to be looking out at the sea to spot someone that needs saving.

The earlier in the process you intervene the more likely it is that you’ll have a good result.

And that means working on the request, early lock and crossroads stages – to adapt and change your behaviour to empathise, distract and engage your child before the locks set in, engage and he loses control.

But clearly you can’t be perfect and understanding all the time.

That’s why you need three baskets.

A is for stuff that’s unsafe – you’ve got to do something about these behaviours, or at least change the environment to minimise the chances of them happening.

B are the things you choose to work on – the areas where you can actually work with your child to improve how they make choices.

And C – leave those alone – they don’t matter and you can come back to them when they are important.

Greene starts his book by quoting Brownowski who said you “master nature not by force but by understanding.”

The key to working with your child is developing understanding.

And that’s the key to working with everyone else as well.


Karthik Suresh

Understanding Variety: The Key To Delighting Customers


Tuesday, 7.15pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Indian religion has always felt that since the minds, the temperaments and the intellectual affinities of men are unlimited in their variety, a perfect liberty of thought and of worship must be allowed to the individual in his approach to the Infinite. – Sri Aurobindo

If I were to pick out one book that has affected the way in which I have analysed problems over the last decade or so it would be Understanding Variation by Donald J. Wheeler.

Wheeler is an expert on statistics – especially the bits that tell you how to figure out when something is really happening and when it’s just random – where there’s a signal and where there is just noise.

Having a framework based on understanding variation helps you in two specific areas.

One is when you’re trying to understand whether a particular sequence of numbers is telling you a story or not.

Is it possible to figure out when you should do something and when you should just wait and sit on your hands?

The answer is, arguably, yes.

For example, it’s quite useful knowing how to use technical analysis or being able to have an approach to trading cryptocurrencies.

If you have an understanding of what is sometimes called a mean-variance framework you can make decisions that, over the long term, will probably deliver good results.

The second area where understanding variation helps you is when you make things.

Things like bread and cars and keyboards.

Everything you see, really – all the products that help you live the way you do.

The key thing to understand here is that the people who make products want to minimise variation.

If you go to the supermarket and pick up a loaf of bread you want to know that it’s the same as every other load of bread with that packaging.

For example, a Kingsmill 50/50 loaf needs to look like the love child of white bread and brown bread.

It can’t have seeds in there, or decide that some slices should be longer than others or perhaps triangular.

That sort of variation is not going to make you happy.

This is something that’s so obvious and taken for granted that we don’t really think about the thinking behind this.

Once upon a time you went to a tailor and had clothes made for you.

Now you go to a shop and pick up a size that fits – and you expect that there is an order to things – a waist size of 36 means just that – not 40.

Although that said – it looks like manufacturers have realised that they sell more jeans to men if they label the ones that have a waist of 40 with 36 – but the point about consistency, whatever the measure, still stands.

Now, variation is all very well when you’re dealing with impersonal things like things and numbers but it’s very different for situations that involve people.

It’s just that no one told us that.

If you go into any office there will be someone trying to standardise and writing policies and procedures and insisting that a System be used to record everything.

New managers think that this is their role – to monitor and control and structure and tell.

Administrators and auditors and support services try and make things follow a Process – creating forms and templates and libraries of things.

All of which sounds very sensible when you come from a world where managing variation leads to good things.

Surely, if you all do things the same way then you’ll deliver great service and the customer will be happy?

It will not surprise you to learn that the answer is no.

Which is why in the next few decades I expect to increasingly draw on the work of Professor John Seddon and the books and papers he has authored in which perhaps the most important point is the one he makes on variety – leaving the world of variation behind.

When you’re making things you want everything to be the same – you want to reduce variation.

When you’re serving people what you want is to be able to deal with variety.

Now, this is something that is hard to explain to people who aren’t ready to hear it.

People who want control, who want to install a CRM, who want a sales process or who want to create job roles and descriptions – these people aren’t going to listen to you.

Because they know they’re doing the right thing.

Even though they aren’t.

Now, here’s the extreme version of this argument.

Think of a society that once wanted everyone to confirm to a particular idea of the perfect.

Anyone who didn’t fit was eliminated.

Remember what happened?

The thing about people is that they are different – individual and unique.

If you want to serve them then you need to understand them – deeply.

And that’s difficult to do.

But all the literature has the same underlying message.

If you want to talk to kids, first learn to listen to them.

If you want to help someone going through a tough time listen to them.

But more than that – learn not to judge and correct and direct.

But to see.

What they see.

And it’s probably the hardest thing to do, for some of us anyway.

But if you do it’s like going from seeing films in black and white to colour – it’s not something you’ll ever go back from.

You won’t put people in boxes or processes or structures or roles.

Instead you’ll collaborate with them, work with them and learn more together.

It’s a big shift, moving from selling boxes to understanding your customer in their full technicolour dreamcoat variety.

But if you take the trouble you’ll have no problem delighting them with what you offer.


Karthik Suresh

The Art Of Selecting, Studying And Analyzing The Facts


Monday, 9.01pm

Sheffield, U.K.

History is made every day. The challenge is getting everyone to pay attention to it. – Adora Svitak

I’m browsing through After the fact: The art of historical detection by James West Davidson and Mark Hamilton Lytle – an introduction to how historians work and how they painstakingly construct a story from fragments of fact.

What they do is dig – dig and dig and select and discard and keep – like archaeologists except in libraries and collections rather than in mud and dirt.

This idea of digging is interesting – something that applies to anything worth doing.

The more I read and learn the less I trust the idea of shortcuts and hacks as a way to do things.

Many people probably disagree and point to how they have successfully leapfrogged everyone else to become rich/famous/powerful using tricks and strategies they are willing to teach you as well for a modest fee.

But the truth is that to get good at anything takes time – it takes effort and it takes perseverance.

Which is why a culture that focuses on speed and movement may miss the point altogether.

In fact the whole thing has echoes of the Hare and Tortoise story.

As I write this election fever is gripping the nation.

And as it does the stories come out, the news and soundbites and revelations that affect how we think about what is going on.

For a few years now governments have been worried about interference in elections by other states.

People are concerned about rising levels of fascism, racism and antisemitism.

Environmental regulations are being eroded and pollution is getting worse.

Well, that’s what we get from the news and social media anyway.

Now some of this might be true and some might be false and much may actually be at some point in a continuum.

The problem is that most of us don’t know or don’t have the time to get to know properly.

So, should the ones who do know fight fire with fire – fight misinformation with misinformation?

Or should they counter with education and information – put the record straight?

It turns out that most approaches have their complications – and they aren’t really the answer to these problems.

The best way to prevent the extremes that result from shallow, fast thinking is to have an educated, literate population in the first place.

And this comes down to being able to critically analyse what is going on.

Davidson and Lytle give an example of how historians analyse text.

What is written, they argue, tells you as much about the person doing the writing as what’s on the page.

They suggest taking a text through four stages of analysis.

First, read it for what it is – for what it says on the surface.

Then, examine it for what it doesn’t say – something quite hard to do if you haven’t got the drafts that were created previously.

If, however, it puts forward a point of view without examining alternative ones you can question whether it’s balanced or not.

Anyone can put forward an argument but it takes someone who is very sure of their position to set out both sides of a case.

The next step is to look at the intellectual context of the document – what is the reasoning that underpins it.

Finally look at the social context of the document – who is the audience and what is it trying to do?

Right now, for example, there is a lot of focus on how the Liberal Democrats are using statistics in their campaign literature.

On the surface this says that they are running a two-horse race against the Tories – no one else is in sight.

What it doesn’t say is that the argument is based on responses to a rather tortured question – although the question is printed in small type.

What’s the intellectual context here – perhaps that they need to be seen as one of the larger parties rather than a tiny minority?

And what’s the social context – is it that they want the media and the public give them an elevated standing and status because of their position and stance on Brexit.

All the parties face similar issues – as they put out one sided material designed to shore up their core support and appeal to those on the fence.

At the same time who do we trust?

For example, with Labour constantly accused of antisemitism, can we trust the entry in Wikipedia that has nearly 400 sources giving you the facts but not a clear answer?

Or do you focus on a line that suggests that coverage like this is an attempt to use the media and “weaponise it against a single political figure just ahead of important elections”?

The thing with media today is that it’s tribal and fierce and raucous and vicious.

That doesn’t make it right.

Davidson and Lytle’s essays on slavery are especially hard to read – stories that remind you just how badly people can treat other people when they are given power.

Politics is, more than anything else, about power.

And the only thing that can defeat power is the truth.

Which is why you and I must get better at finding it among the facts.


Karthik Suresh

How Do You Really See Things From Another’s Point Of View?


Sunday, 9.24pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth. – Oscar Wilde

I’m in the closing section of Keith Johnstone’s book Impro: Improvisation and the theatre and he has started writing about masks.

Children delight in masks – they are make believe and wonder and magic.

As we get older, we retreat from masks – and perhaps for good reason.

Johnstone writes that in many cultures masks were seen as having power – those who wore them stopped being themselves and instead took on the spirit of the mask.

Remember Jim Carrey and The Mask? That sort of thing.

Now, these sorts of ideas very quickly make people nervous.

It’s a pagan thing, Johnstone writes. “The church struggled against the Mask for centuries, but what can’t be done by force is eventually done by the all-pervading influence of Western education.”

Now, the idea of the Mask in this section of the book is really Johstone talking about how actors can use the power of the Mask to transform into their characters.

And that is fascinating if you’re an actor but what I’m interested in is its application to the more mundane world of the here and now.

Because here’s the thing.

Even if you haven’t got a real mask on right now you’re still wearing one.

The thing people see when they look at you is your Mask.

You call it something different – your Brand, perhaps.

But in essence, the part of you that you show to the world is the public face of your personality.

What lies underneath is what you think the world sees – what you think of yourself and that is your Identity.

I can’t remember quite where I read about this particular way of describing Brand and Identity – but it’s different from what you will get with a quick search.

Now, let’s say you want to understand how someone else thinks.

Take a child, for example.

How can you understand what a child wants right now?

If you have kids you’ll know this isn’t easy.

Mostly because you want them to do something and they don’t want the same thing.

So, you try and get them to comply, using incentives, threats and force.

Have you noticed how hard it is to see things from their point of view?

How you insist on seeing what’s happening through the eyes of a forty-year old rather than a six-year old?

One way of getting round this is by literally putting on a Mask.

Put on a Batman mask and see how it makes you feel – try the Hulk on for size.

There is a sense of freedom that comes with being anonymous – even though you know you aren’t you can play a new part.

Could this work to understand what your prospect might want?

Many people suggest that you create personas – detailed psychographic profiles of people you want to sell to.

If you just look at those profiles then you’ll still see things from your point of view – and find it hard to empathise with that person.

Why not try and see what happens to the way you think when you put on a mask and act like that person?

You might find that you start to think and feel and act differently – you step into the mind of that person and perhaps start to see what they see when they look at you and your product – perhaps you’ll see what turns them off and what needs to change to get them interested.

The thing is that the Mask unleashes behaviour that you don’t see when it’s not on.

For an example of how it makes things worse read the news reports of political activism anywhere in the world – once people cover their faces they are free to do bad things.

But a Mask can also reveal the real character, the real motivation and the truth that lies beneath the surface.

This time of year a Mask is probably not too far away.

Perhaps it’s worth trying on – for business research, of course.


Karthik Suresh

What Emotion Do You Need To Inspire Before People Will Listen To You?


Saturday, 7.25pm

Sheffield, U.K.

I think of myself as quite a shy person. But when I’m curious about something, I’ll go quite far to satisfy my curiosity. – Alain de Botton

The answer is curiosity – and it’s a bit of a surprise to me why I haven’t used that word before to think about this.

I was browsing through LinkedIn when I came across a post by Jess Cunningham that makes this point – before you spill out everything about what you do to someone check if they’re interested in what you’re selling or are interested personally in seeing you succeed.

If not, you need to first make them curious.

Now clearly this is Marketing 101. The AIDA model, which talks about the stages of marketing as Attention, Interest, Desire and Action, goes back to 1898 or earlier.

The words Attention and Interest, however, don’t do justice to what’s actually happening.

Even variants like Awareness or Comprehension are words that have had all the life sucked out of them – a word vampire has come along and left just a desiccated husk of meaning.

Too strong?

Well, to see how this works imagine taking your dog for a walk.

Let off the leash a dog will dart from bush to bush, sniffing and nosing and moving on.

Dogs are curious – they’ll pause longer to check out something new or if there is the scent of another dog.

Curiosity, however, is also a dangerous thing.

If you watch animals or little children they are naturally wary – they have to be to survive.

If you want to get a squirrel to come over to you or a cat to allow you to stroke it you have to first get it interest in a nut or show that you aren’t a threat.

Everyone needs to feel safe in the moment before they will venture towards something new.

Because, if they didn’t, something bad could happen and there might not be enough time to react.

When I drew the picture above I was trying to capture this idea of animal curiosity – the need to investigate that lies in us all.

The dog in the picture walks past three identical rocks until there is something new in the last one, where it stops and sniffs.

If you think of what is happening as getting attention – then the leaflet pusher or beggar on the street is doing the same thing – getting your attention.

In most cases you push past, because the attention is unsolicited, unwanted, undesirable.

So sales people are taught to force forward – get attention by any means and then force people to listen in order to create interest.

If you think about what is happening as inspiring curiosity, on the other hand, then different images come to mind.

What do you stop and look at?

Something pretty? Something fun? Something musical? Something you’re already interested in?

The quote from Alain de Botton above should probably be running in your mind as you think about marketing your product.

Most people are wary – that comes across as shyness.

But, when they’re curious they’ll spend a lot of time to assuage their curiosity.

The question you have to ask yourself is why they should be curious about what you do.

It’s too simplistic to say that there’s nothing interesting.

There is almost always something interesting about stuff that exists and that you’re marketing – because someone had to be interested enough to create it in the first place.

Maybe that’s a circular argument and actually there are lots of things that should never have been created in the first place.

If you’re selling those then maybe you should consider something else.

But for the 80% of stuff for which there is a market out there, however niche, your marketing plan should begin by asking, “what is it about my product or service that is going to make a prospect curious?”

Curiosity is the tip of your spear.

Get it as sharp as you can.


Karthik Suresh

The Wrong Way To Manage A Service Business


It is easier for a tutor to command than to teach. – John Locke

I was recently given Professor John Seddon‘s book Beyond Command And Control.

The concepts articulated by Seddon make a lot of sense but are still very far from being mainstream.

I suppose that is the problem with much of what we take for granted as true.

If you think something is true that’s probably because it’s been around for a long time – so long that we’ve forgotten that it was once a theory that was put forward by someone as a new way to look at something.

Take modern management, for example.

It should more properly be called ancient management.

If you talk about time management and keeping time sheets you’re echoing the thoughts of Frederick Taylor – born in 1856 – who would time workers how long it took them to do different jobs.

If you talk about the processes involved in management as involving tasks like planning, organising and coordinating – you are echoing words uttered by Henri Fayol – born in 1841.

There was a time, we must remember, when management did not exist.

People had trades, professions – they did their thing by themselves and had an apprentice.

The start of modern management came with the growth of industrial economies and the need to organise large groups of people to do manual work – their brains were not required.

Two components of Fayol’s work made this possible – command and control.

The concept of command has to do with hierarchy, authority, responsibility and the ability to make decisions.

Managers issue commands and their subordinates carry them out.

Control has to do with checking that what has been commanded has actually happened.

That involves inspections, checks and audits.

All very sensible, you might think.

Perhaps even obvious.

But it isn’t – it’s just a theory that someone came up with two hundred years ago so that a group of people would push and pull big heavy things into the right place.

It’s a mentality that was created for a world of strong systems – big and heavy machines.

We don’t do that kind of work these days – most of us don’t anyway.

But we’re trapped with a nineteenth century mindset that we default to even as we start making a dent in the twenty-first.

The fact is that this approach is outmoded and ancient and wrong – for today anyway.

Mainly because what we do now is increasingly service work – which involves meeting customer needs rather than building things because you can.

The cornerstone of the command and control process is the practice of budgeting – something created by James McKinsey – founder of the global management consulting firm that bears his name.

But command and control has been out of favour even at McKinsey for some time now.

But it’s still very much alive everywhere else.

Which gives you only a few options.

Change your mind – and live like it’s 200 years ago.

Change the minds of those around you and bring them into the present.

And if all else fails, change where you work.


Karthik Suresh

Why Structure Beats Content When You’re Trying To Get A Message Across


Wednesday, 8.39pm

Sheffield, U.K.

What we observe as material bodies and forces are nothing but shapes and variations in the structure of space. – Erwin Schrodinger

It’s funny the things you forget as you go through life making assumptions about reality.

I am still working through Keith Johnstone’s book, Impro: Improvisation and the theatre.

In the second chapter he talks about being spontaneous and the main message that I take away is that in the beginning, as children, we see things as they are.

We see for the first time – and so what we see is original.

As we grow, we see by imitating what others seem to see – and that originality fades away.

Then, one day we perhaps try and see things as they are again and rediscover what it means.

As an adult we are surprised and delighted when someone simply talks about what they see – as they see it.

That’s why we like comedians – people who make fun of the great and powerful and point out the real, human side of what they’re doing.

The third chapter is about narrative and here Johnstone says something that reminded me of what I had forgotten.

“Once you decide to ignore content it becomes possible to understand exactly what a narrative is, because you can concentrate on structure.”

The image above is one example of how this works.

Most people think that you must write sentences like the one on the left to be understood.

It turns out that it’s surprisingly easy to read the sentence on the right because your brain has the ability to create meaning from structure rather than content.

This sentence has the first and last letter of each word in place but all the other letters are scrambled, where possible.

But what your brain does is look for patterns, not individual characters – and so the shape and structure of a word matters much more than the arrangement of characters inside them.

In the same way when you tell a story what matters isn’t how well you describe your characters or how clearly you explain what they do or say but in what happens.

One of the challenges I have in interesting my children in old stories from India is that so many of them seem to have content but no structure – and that’s because the intention is perhaps to deliver a moral message.

But that moral lesson does not always make for an engaging story.

So, what are the elements of structure you need to know if you are trying to tell a story or craft a message, for example for a business presentation?

The first thing is that the ideas you introduce need to be linked back to ideas you’ve introduced previously.

For example, if you simply recount events as they happened – you are telling a story but you “havenn’t told a story.”

Johnstone’s book gives you a few examples but the key thing is that you need to link up what is being told.

All too often you’ll see presentations that are like a list of things – one after the other you hear point after point but only a few presenters are skilful enough to link the points together.

If you want to persuade, to involve, to motivate people as a result of what you’re saying you need to get better at composing stories.

And Johnstone says that one way to do this is to stop thinking about making a story but instead of “interrupting routines”.

You create drama and tension when something happens to interrupt what’s going on.

The example he gives is about mountain climbing.

If you describe two people climbing up a mountain and then climbing down you’ve not really said anything interesting.

But if two people climb up a mountain and discover a plane crash then all of a sudden you’ve interrupted the routine.

The three things to remember if you want to keep your audience engaged is to construct your story as a series of interrupted routines, make sure you focus on what is happening right in front of you and avoid having things just fizzle out.

For example if you were to use this approach in a presentation it means that you need to create a series of linked ideas that keep breaking routines, focus on what matters to the audience and end with something that gets them talking and engaged.

It’s not easy to give examples of this kind of thing in business because it’s sort of like the case of “you just had to be there” but you’ll recognise it in any story you see or read – without these elements you’ll simply get bored and walk away.

Let’s finish by restating the importance of the last point.

Johnstone calls this “cancelling”.

The example he uses is the following sort of dialogue.

A: “How do you feel”

B: “Not very well at all”

A: “Do you want a glass of water”

B: “Yes please”

A: Gets the water. “How do you feel now?”

B: “Much better, thanks.”

Now, at the end of the last sentence B has just cancelled things.

The story started by introducing a need for water and then took the need away – cancelling it.

There’s nowhere to go from here without introducing a new element.

On the other hand, if B had done something else like –

B: drops glass, “Oh no, it’s gone all over me.”

The action continues.

A story works when it keeps the audience hooked.

A presentation works the same way.

And the tricks you need to learn turn on using structure to your advantage, not content.


Karthik Suresh