How To Be More Creative And Come Up With Better Ideas


No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world. – Robin Williams

An academic said to me recently that we are in the business of ideas, we exchange ideas. And that’s an interesting thought. which leads to a question – how good are we at coming up with ideas and, once we have them how good are we at sharing them with others?

In the literature, people have theorized that there are four elements to idea generation: fluency, flexibility, originality and elaboration (Guildford, 1957).

Fluency is a raw number – the volume and quantity of ideas you come up with. The more you have, the more fluent you are. This is the idea that no idea is a bad idea – somewhere in that mess of ideas you’ll find a good one.

This reminds me of copywriting advice on writing good headlines for a project. Before you start writing any content come up with 50 or so headlines – the act of working on this will help you come up with ideas that you perhaps might not have considered if you had stopped with the first one or two ideas that came into mind.

But it’s not enough to simply have a big number of ideas. You also need flexibility – the ideas need to be different from each other. If you come up with the equivalent of a hundred knock-knock jokes that doesn’t mean you can tell a story or move people’s emotions. You need variety in your ideas and need to try and come up with different types of ideas.

The next thing that matters is originality – how different are your ideas from other ones out there, or ones that other people working on the same problem have come up with. Originality is very important – it’s what gives you a competitive advantage. If you can show that you’ve done something different, something that hasn’t been done before – then you can lay a claim to that idea. You own it.

The last element that’s important is elaboration. Anyone can come up with an idea for the next YouTube – but it takes more than that to really get the idea across to someone else. A business plan is really an elaboration of an idea – showing how you’ve thought it through and that it’s something realistic and valuable. If you cannot elaborate on your idea then you won’t get people to buy into it.

Four questions – four guides when you’re coming up with your next idea.


Karthik Suresh


Guilford, J. P. (1957). Creative abilities in the arts. Psychological Review, 64(2), 110–118.

Why Bad News Rarely Makes It To The Top Before It’s Too Late


Friday, 8.14pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Bad news isn’t wine. It doesn’t improve with age. – Colin Powell

Argyris (1977) explores the question of why bad news doesn’t make it to the top of organizations – and comes to the conclusion that the problem is that it’s minimized at each stage. What starts off at the front line as a scary monster is restated as a mild problem by middle management and becomes a small issue by the time it’s presented to senior management.

The issue is that no one wants to be the bearer of bad news (remember the shoot the messenger principle) and so you’re asked for more information, more justification, to explain what’s going on. As a result by the time you know what’s really going on it’s too late to do anything about it.

This is something I hadn’t really realized about the news until recently. By the time something gets on the news it’s all gone horribly wrong. You don’t get a news item talking about how a government department comfortably avoided disaster. That’s not news. You get the failures, the shambles, the disasters. And you get a side order of blame, shame and excuses.

Now, you might argue that this is not the way things should be. Argyris argues instead that we should consider this as normal behaviour. These are human games that we play in societies and it’s as natural as anything else. And that’s why top leaders don’t trust anything their subordinates say because they know the truth is being hidden from them. Good leaders go and see for themselves rather than relying on reports and briefings. If you run a hospital, for example, you need to walk the wards to see what’s going on and what people really experience. Both staff and patients.

And this is where double loop learning comes in. If you have a heating system that comes on and turns off when the heating reaches a certain point you have a single loop learning process. If the heating had the ability to question whether its setting was the right one then you have double loop learning. In an organisation this means that you are doing single loop learning if you do your job. If you ask yourself what job you should be doing then you’re doing double loop learning.

Much of the time in organisations it’s not that people don’t want to hear bad news – it’s that they are worried about what pointing it out will do to their careers and relationships. That’s why it’s easier for an external consultant to come in and talk about what they see. It’s their job to be honest, in theory, and tell it like it is.

Argyris’s paper has a number of other ideas and I should really pull out a few more of them in the next post. So I’ll do that next.


Karthik Suresh


Argyris C, 1977, “Double loop learning in organizations”, Harvard Business Review.

How To Structure A Teaching Session


Thursday, 7.44pm

Sheffield, U.K.

I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit. – John Steinbeck

As part of my research studies I’m doing an introductory module on teaching. And, like most things that I do for the first time, I’m blown away by just how hard it is to think through and prepare for a lesson. You really have to put aside everything you know and start from the perspective of the learner and rebuild your content so that it makes sense to someone else rather than just yourself.

So how do you go about doing this?

The starting point is understanding the concept of learning outcomes – what you want your student to do after they have experienced the session. Getting the learning outcome down on paper has a focusing effect on your content structure – you keep in the stuff that helps to move your student towards the outcome and get rid of the material that doesn’t.

A useful way to structure your teaching content is to use the pyramid principle described by Barbara Minto in her book of the same name.

At the top of the pyramid is a statement that sets out what you want to get across to the audience or, in the case of a student audience, what you want them to achieve.

For example, if I were to teach you how to build a spreadsheet model the learning outcome or statement might be “In this session you will learn how to model, create and use a spreadsheet model to explore and illuminate a situation of interest.” That might be a bit wordy but it would be a start.

When you have an end result laid out in such a way the main bits almost write themselves. It’s a good idea to limit the first division of your core concept to three to five main points. I like three so with my spreadsheet example the three key steps are drawing an influence model of parameters and results, designing a spreadsheet model and then using the model to explore the situation and gain insights. Model, Build, Use.

The next step down is to create the material you need to explain each of those three concepts – gathering the talking points, examples and activities your student needs to understand the process.

And then it’s time to try it out and see how it works.

The pandemic has probably given all of us a new sense of respect for the work teachers have to do. There’s nothing quite as hard as trying to keep the attention of a six to seven-year old.

I have a number of questions about teaching that I might need to follow up and experiment with over the coming days and months. For example we’re often told not to put too much text into presentations. At the same time if you’re talking about something that the audience finds relevant and interesting then they’ll stay with you for the detail. It’s boring stuff that turns people off.

Another question I have is the difference between teaching a skill and teaching conceptual thinking. It’s the difference between learning calligraphy and learning how to write.

And then there is the question about what you teach – what’s the canon or collection of ideas that make up the body of knowledge that you’re trying to get across?

Even with a very short introduction to teaching I’m starting to realize that there’s much more to it than you might think at first.

And that’s a good thing. It’s hard to teach, and that’s why it’s worth learning how to do.


Karthik Suresh

The Route To Becoming Good At Something


As a general rule, when your child, or anyone in the work force, doesn’t know what he/she wants to do, they should instead always be developing skills and competencies that will qualify them for the jobs that companies are most looking to fill and increase their hireability. – Mark Goulston

I came across Martin Broadwell’s (1969) i consciousness-competence framework again recently while reading about teaching. The image above is based on this four stage model and is a good one to keep in mind.

It’s hard to appreciate a state of mind where you don’t know that you don’t know something. It’s more obvious to others than it is to you. For example, if you listen to someone reminiscing about the good old days when everyone had a job and things worked and how everything has gone wrong now – you can pretty much guarantee that the problem is not that things have gone wrong but that the world has changed and the person complaining has not kept up – the world they knew has been replaced and no one told them that was happening.

This is a trap we fall into all the time. Most of us have an area of competence – but for some of us we start to think that because we are competent in one area we must also be good at other things. And that’s not the case. It’s very easy to step outside your circle of competence and not realize that you’ve got it all wrong.

The only solution is to recognise that you’re a novice at this and start to learn. At that point you know that you don’t know something and you start to look for resources, for opportunities to learn and develop your skills. This is when you become a student – someone who is seeking knowledge to get better at something.

After a period of learning and practice you know that you can do something well – you’re consciously competent. I’ve called this stage being professional, because that’s really the point at which people hire you. They don’t hire you to learn on their time, they hire you to get the job done – which is what a professional does.

Then there’s a stage beyond that, one that some people call mastery. It’s talked about as unconscious competence – where you do something without really being able to tell how you do it. How do you read that room, see the way in which minds are flowing, how do you ask the right question, carry out the right analysis, look for the right clue? You can’t explain why you feel something is right or wrong but you know it is.

This is perhaps most obvious in physical skills – the unconscious competence that comes with playing an instrument or shooting the perfect 3-pointer – but it’s visible in trades and business as well. But I prefer the term artistry to mastery, because in many cases it’s not about being good without being able to tell how – but being so good that you can break all the rules the professionals live by. That’s what great artists do – they know the form and go beyond it.


Karthik Suresh

Starting Something Again After A While


Tuesday, 8.04pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Good, better, best. Never let it rest. ‘Til your good is better and your better is best. – St. Jerome

I haven’t written for nine days and that’s quite a long stretch to go without putting out a post. When I do that – stop for a while – I’m never quite sure what it’s going to take to get started again. What will it look like, will I still be able to write, have the ideas gone away, never to reappear?

The good news is that you can always get started even if you question everything you do. I still wonder what this blog is for, why do I spend time on it? I don’t write long pieces that are designed for a search engine and the short pieces I do write are streams of consciousness that follow trails of thought. Today, for example, I looked at other people’s work and wondered about mine – what made it different, how could I do it better, and was there value in it?

The reason I’m asking such questions is because I’m designing a programme of research that looks at the “art of thinking” – the way in which we use tools to help us make sense of things, solve problems, learn new things and innovate. In a world where machines seem to do everything where is the space for human thinking and creativity?

One of the things that I do, as you can see from the blog, is draw simple pictures to explore ideas. We can all draw but we’re afraid to draw bad stuff, make the kinds of lines we made as children. That’s not “serious” work and we don’t do that kind of stuff any more.

Can you learn to draw again? Yes, you can, but you have to put in the time to practice. And that starts with simple things like doing drills. When you use a drawing tablet, for example, it takes some time to train your brain to connect what your hands are doing with what your eyes are seeing. With a pencil on paper feedback is immediate – you apply pressure and see a mark appear under the point. With digital tools you move your hand in one place and a mark is made on the screen. Your brain needs to be trained to connect the two events – the pressure of your fingers on the page and the sight of the pixels being stained on the screen. It can take a few months to get comfortable doing this, doing drills like in the picture above.

Is it reasonable to expect that people should try and gain such a skill? No. What people need are keyboard skills, the ability to create spreadsheets and documents. The ability to work in an office. That’s what’s needed. Except – if you can draw your ideas then you will create better spreadsheets and better documents. You don’t need to do that digitally but if you’re able to create an influence diagram that identifies what you’re trying to understand and then models all the factors that influence the outcome you’ll create a better spreadsheet model. Being able to draw an idea is going to help you structure a better document. John McPhee, the New Yorker writer, always starts his writing with a diagram in mind. Developing the skills to show your thinking visually makes the products of your thinking better.

Or that’s my theory anyway.

The challenge is that it’s hard to prove. Any kind of structured thinking is better than random decision making, isn’t it? Does it matter that you draw things down or is it enough just to make a list. Is there a “right” way to do things or is what matters “your way?” The answer should be that you need to do what works for you. So should we worry about testing effectiveness or should we collect ways of doing things and let people decide for themselves?

I don’t know the answer – hence the research programme.


Karthik Suresh

What Is The Reason Someone Should Invest In Your Business?


Sunday, 7.19pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Nobody climbs mountains for scientific reasons. Science is used to raise money for the expeditions, but you really climb for the hell of it. – Edmund Hillary

I was talking to a friend the other day about being able to describe a business model in a single sentence, perhaps a single word, and started throwing out suggestions. I came up with money, momentum and mission. He suggested missing. And this is a good start.

A good reason to start something is because there is a clear route to payback. If you provide a product or service that has strong market demand, if you sell something people want at a profit then you’re going to bring in money and that makes sense. Many good, profitable businesses are ones that you don’t hear about in the papers – they’re the trench diggers, the utility businesses, the construction companies that get on and do the day-to-day work that keeps economies running and people fed and watered. These are the kinds of businesses that Warren Buffett dreams of buying – ones that have a competitive advantage and a long-term market.

The second reason to do something is because you’re on a roll, because you’ve got the timing right, because you have momentum. If you’re in a particular space and the stars are aligned then you can get on and build your business because you have the wind at your back. I wrote about a TED talk in my last post where the speaker decided to teach children how to draw during the pandemic and ended up with 10,000 children joining her first lesson. If you’ve spotted an opportunity and have luck on your side then you should go for it.

The third reason to do something is because you have a mission – a story that drives you and a desire to make things better. We all know people like this – some of them start social enterprises, others cooperatives or non-profits while others create purpose-driven for-profit firms. What matters is your story and how it resonates with others.

The fourth reason is to because you’ve found a gap in the market – because something is missing and you think you can fill that need. You can often only see the gap because you’ve spent a long time in that space and know what the problems are that people face and the kind of solutions that they need.

Those four Ms seem to cover quite a large number of cases.

Can you think of any more?


Karthik Suresh

Going Deep Or Going Quick – How To Decide?


Saturday, 8.51pm

Sheffield, U.K.

What is art but a way of seeing? – Saul Bellow

I watched Wendy MacNaughton’s TED talk about paying attention and it reminded me of a challenge we face all the time in situations. Should we go deep into something or should we quickly sort things out? How do we tell which one to do?

MacNaughton writes a visual column for the New Yorker and she started her talk with an exercise that I’ve seen in Betty Edward’s Drawing on the right side of the brain. Pick something to draw and then draw it, never lifting your pen from the paper or taking your eyes off the subject. If you’re drawing a leaf, for example, slowly follow every curve of the outline of the leaf and let your fingers follow your eye. You’ll end up with something that is rubbish – like my picture above where I drew an eye – but you also end up with something real because, perhaps for the first time, you’ve drawn what you’ve seen.

Let me explain.

Most of the time we view the world and see not what’s out there but what we expect to see. We are pattern recognizing machines, we have patterns for houses, patterns for trees, patterns for people. Our brains recognize patterns – that’s why a simple line drawing of a few essential features can tell us whether the drawing is of a person or a thing. We’re particularly wired to notice other people and expressions because it’s a vital survival skill to know if that person coming towards you is friendly or not.

That’s why when we try and draw the world we tend to revert to icons, to a visual shorthand representation of the things around us. We may think that’s because we’re bad at drawing – but that isn’t the case. It’s simply quicker to have a library of icons that can be expressed as simple drawings because we can get them done quickly. If you want to show the state of mind of someone else you can do that with a circle, two eyes, eyebrows and a mouth. That’s quite enough to convey quite a large range of emotions.

But although you can draw a general emotional state that doesn’t mean you understand what’s going on. You don’t see the other lines that tell you the history of the person, the unwrinkled lines of a young person or the leathery skin of a weatherbeaten outdoorsperson. To see that you have to take your time and draw the detail, to see what’s really there rather than the pattern you’ve imposed on the world in front of your eyes.

The same thing happens when you try and understand a situation. You can see people in organizations as roles engaging with each other or you can talk to a specific person and understand their point of view. It doesn’t take long to draw an office hierarchy. It takes much longer to understand any one of the individuals in that diagram and what their daily experience looks like.

Much of the time the efficient thing to do is ignore the detail – to just use pattern recognition to notice the general working of things. Being oblivious to most things is the way to go.

But when you are involved in a situation and you care about getting an outcome that improves what’s going on you have to be prepared to take the time to get into the detail of what’s going on – to see what’s really there.

What matters is deciding whether you’re an onlooker or a participant – and then doing the work that’s necessary to get things done.


Karthik Suresh

How To Get On With The Work In Front Of You


Wednesday, 7.54pm

Sheffield, U.K.

We think in generalities, but we live in detail. – Alfred North Whitehead

Tim Harford in his book Adapt: Why success always starts with failure has a section on the worm’s eye view – and that is a phrase worth exploring.

Much of the time we think that what we need is a bird’s eye view – we need to soar above the landscape and pick out what is important, see the big picture, work out where we’re going. Strategy is, after all, the art of figuring out which direction to head in.

And that’s all very well except when it comes to matters of people and action in daily circumstances. That’s because the landscape you’re thinking about is different for everyone, we have our own ways of looking at the world and making sense of what is going on. What’s the point in looking down at a landscape that’s hidden from sight or that changes all the time. The ways we use to find out what people want have significant methodological problems. For example, if you run a staff satisfaction survey how do you know if people say what they really think or say what they think you want to hear, especially if you’re in a small company and the results are something you want to talk about. Does the fact that a survey show that you have happy staff really mean that you have happy staff? How can you tell?

The way you tell what’s happening is by going to see what’s on the ground. The Japanese call this going to Gemba – the place where work is done. In the new series of Turner and Hooch there’s a line where Turner and his sister are sat in a car, doing what their Dad, a policeman, called doing a “look-see”. Turner wants to stay in the car and his sister tells him that they have to get out and walk around – otherwise it’s a look-sit, not a look-see. When the police want to search a crime scene they do a fingertip search, get down on the ground and let their fingers walk. That’s taking a worm’s eye view – that’s how you see what’s really going on, what the obstacles really are and how you get around them.

This is hard, mundane, detail work that most people don’t want to do. It’s much better soaring up in the air, free as a bird, looking at the big picture and telling people what to do. But what actually happens is down on the ground and if you don’t get your head around that you won’t be able to make a real difference. It’s also where you discover value – after all, you don’t fly around and find treasure. You dig for it. In the ground.

Whatever you do – if you find that things aren’t working, it’s probably because you aren’t looking at the detail of the work that’s in front of you. If your message isn’t getting across the problem is in the details, it’s that your product needs to be better, the pitch needs to be thought through more, your advertising needs to be on point. Getting it right is about getting the detail right.

This takes time and trial and error and learning. No one gets it right the first time. And no one gets it right by reading books and thinking about principles. They get it right by doing it, seeing what happens, working out what went wrong and what they could do better and trying again, going around that loop until it works.

There are no shortcuts. There is just the act of getting on with the work.


Karthik Suresh

How To Understand The Values That Drive You


Tuesday, 8.07pm

Sheffield, U.K.

It’s not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are. – Roy E. Disney

The way people think and what they believe in should drive the way they act – there should be a connection between values and behaviour. But before we can explore the link we first need to know what values are in the first place.

Shalom H. Schwartz came up with a theory of basic human values in 1992 that said there are 10 basic values people hold across countries and backgrounds – and these relate to the way they think, the beliefs they hold, what they do, their personality and the makeup of the societies they live in. In an updated paper (Schwartz et al 2012) the authors refine this list to create 19 values.

For the purposes of this post, however, let’s stick with the 10 values. In the theory the basic idea is that these values lie on a circle and the ones that are closer on the circle relate more closely to each other and ones that are further away are opposing ideas. In this post I want to look instead at the values using a bipolar construct – how does each one compare to the one that seems its polar opposite and does seeing that help you in any way?

Let’s start with security – the need for you and your family to be safe. The opposite of that might be stimulation. You could look at this as a choice to choose security rather than stimulation – a choice to go for a safe job rather than one in a different city, a choice to travel in safe countries rather than sail a boat in pirate infested waters.

What about hedonism – the desire to make the most of your life and enjoy everything, rather than settling for conformity and fitting in with what’s expected of you? Or opting for self-direction, deciding to do something that you enjoy for work rather than joining the family firm or going into a profession.

What about the need for achievement – to do the best you can, become the best surgeon, the best lawyer, rather than benevolence, working with Doctors without Borders or taking on a public defendant role. Which one would you go for?

Then there’s power, the need to get it for yourself, rather than universalism, feeling for, appreciating and working for the benefit of humanity as a whole.

These bipolar constructs, shown as X rather than Y, may not be accurate but they’re a good start to help you evaluate where you are in life and what’s important to you. You might be someone that values self-direction, security and benevolence – or you might be drawn towards tradition, power and conformity. It feels like you have to pick which values matter to you – some combinations work and others don’t – but you need to be clear on what you’re going after.

As important, perhaps, is knowing what others want. If you want to work with others and you know that they’re after one of these things then you can figure out how to arrange things so that they get what they want and you get what you want. There is always a conflict, for example, between power and self-direction. Terry Pratchett puts this nicely in one of his books when a character shows another some work he’s been doing that he’s interested in and the first says, annoyed, “In my time?” The implication is that the first person has bought the other person’s time and it now belongs to him. The second should have no thoughts that he controls his own time. How do you resolve this other than showing the first person how he benefits from the work?

Knowing someone else’s values tells you how you can work together – maybe it’s a handshake or perhaps it’s a iron-clad contract. You need what you need for the situation. And knowing how someone else ticks can tell you when it’s time to give up and go away – if someone you are with is far too interested in stimulation or hedonism for you then it’s worth knowing you can’t keep up as early as possible.

Values, it seems, are important. Knowing yours will help you make the right choices for you.


Karthik Suresh


Schwartz, S. H., Cieciuch, J., Vecchione, M., Davidov, E., Fischer, R., Beierlein, C., Ramos, A., Verkasalo, M., Lönnqvist, J.-E., Demirutku, K., Dirilen-Gumus, O., & Konty, M. (2012). Refining the theory of basic individual values. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103(4), 663–688.

What Are Problem Structuring Methods And Why Are They Useful?


Monday, 8.31pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Good management is the art of making problems so interesting and their solutions so constructive that everyone wants to get to work and deal with them. – Paul Hawken

Management as an art form is relatively recent. It was born in the United States to deal with the complexity involved in coordinating the work of increasingly larger organizations, like the continental railroads. The pioneers of management, like Frederick Taylor, dreamed of a scientific method that would reduce work to predictable elements. Taylorism made many improvements but didn’t quite realize that management is not just about the science of work – it’s also about the art of power.

This duel between work and power continued throughout the 20th century. The wars made it even more necessary to coordinate and organize large groups of people and things and managers of one kind of another were a crucial part of this process. Organizations got better at everything – mechanizing, optimizing, increasing efficiency – all amid a backdrop of power struggles between a group of European cousins – and the resulting loss of millions of lives.

The scientific approach works very well – so well that it seems like it’s the only way that works. So we try and approach everything using a science based mindset. But as history shows the one thing that science does not get is the way power works or what makes people tick. People and their feelings are irrelevant when it comes to scientific truth. But they are rather important when it comes to living.

Scientific approaches began to struggle in the 1970s with this issue of people and how they worked together. In wartime you can gloss over this because there is a clear objective – there’s an enemy and either we win or they do. In peacetime it gets more complicated and you have to get people to work together because they want to, not just because they have to. Managers, however, still operated like they had done for the decades before, using command and control strategies like generals commanding an army, not realizing that the battleground had shifted.

Problem Structuring Methods (Rosenhead, 1989), are a way to deal with the situations we are likely to find ourselves in these days. These situations have certain characteristics (Kotiadis and Mingers, 2006):

  1. They’re not clean and simple – they’re unstructured and messy situations filled with different kinds of problems.
  2. There are many actors.
  3. These actors have different perspectives or views of the situation and what they see as problems.
  4. The actors may have conflicts of interests.
  5. There are lots of unknowns – major uncertainties.
  6. You can’t put numbers to everything – many things are unquantifiable.

These kinds of situations send most people into a bit of a panic. They’re used to a world where there are clear goals – an objective that can be met. All you need is a plan and you need to work that plan and you’ll get there. In any real business situation, however, none of this is really that clear.

As an example consider the problem of home working that many organizations are grappling with these days. Some people think that you need to be in the office to do good work. Others have seen that being at home means they are more productive and provide better service. Do the people who want you in the office want you there because you work better there or because they feel they can control you better. Are some of the proponents the ones that own office blocks and shops that depend on occupancy? What about the reduction in emissions from commuting? Is your working from home policy helping productivity or damaging it if your people leave for a company that does let them work from home?

How do you go about considering such a problem space? Do you just go with what the bosses want or do you ask employees? What if you get the wrong answer? Should you try and arrange things so that you get the answer you want? And so on… the questions multiply and options diverge and converge and get entangled until you know that everyone will be unhappy whatever you do.

Problem structuring methods are a way of grappling with these situations. They are ways of thinking about these knotty problems and perhaps coming up with approaches that will make the situation better. They are, however, not general solutions – they are ones that can be used by a group of people in a particular situation to improve things. But a different situation will have different people who think differently and have different needs. And they will need a different approach and solution. And that’s ok. It’s about recognizing that life is complex and solutions have to deal with that complexity rather than reducing everything to a magic shortcut hack formula process.

Okay, you say, but what are these problem structuring methods?

Well, that needs a few more words and is perhaps one for another post.


Karthik Suresh


K Kotiadis & J Mingers (2006), Combining PSMs with hard OR methods: the philosophical and practical challenges, Journal of the Operational Research Society, 57:7, 856-867

J Rosenhead (Ed) (1989), Rational analysis for a problematic world: Problem structuring methods for complexity, uncertainty and conflict.