Learning About Writing Good Description


The advantage of writing from experience is that it often provides you with details that you would never think of yourself, no matter how rich your imagination. And specificity in description is something every writer should strive for. – Christopher Paolini

Geography is a subject I never connected with at school, although you could say that for most of my other subjects as well. Memorize the text, ace the test was my approach. And then forget it all.

I do remember drawing on and colouring in a sheet of paper with a border and symbols that represented things. Trees, roads, rivers, bridges. And contours – those lines that said you had come across a slope and the closer the lines the steeper the scramble.

Maps seem important to people. A book on the war in Burma described how a General would draw a map by hand of the terrain so he could understand where things were. O.G.S Crawford, in his book Said and done: The autobiography of an archaeologist writes about how “maps are an alternative mode of expression, a method of conveying information that cannot be conveyed by any other means.” In our world of global positioning we rarely use maps as they were intended – when did you buy your last map?

Perhaps having a map helps you find your way but making a map helps you see. I started reading the Journal of researches into the natural history and geology of the countries visited during the voyage of H.M.S Beagle which, if you recall, was published in 1846 by Charles Darwin.

Have a read of the following extract:

“The neighbourhood of Porto Praya, viewed from the sea, wears a desolate aspect. The volcanic fires of a past age, and the scorching heat of a tropical sun, have in most places rendered the soil unfit for vegetation. The country rises in successive steps of table-land, interspersed with some truncate conical hills, and the horizon is bounded by an irregular chain of more lofty mountains. The scene, as beheld through the hazy atmosphere of this climate, is one of great interest if, indeed, a person, fresh from sea, and who has just walked, for the first time, in a grove of cocoa-nut trees, can be a judge of anything but his own happiness.”

That is a map in words, and Darwin’s descriptions continue, intricate and detailed, using the right word in the right place to the right effect. Reading Darwin, one wonders whether modern writing will ever read this way – it’s hard to imagine anyone dedicating the time that’s needed to describe what they see to this level of detail.

They don’t need to, you might think. In those days all that people had were the words they put down and the drawings they made. Now we have photographs and video and everything is recorded. But although we have it this media we also have nothing at all. If you stood where Darwin stood on the 16th of January 1832 and took a picture of Porto Praya would anything in that picture have conjured up the image that the extract above brought to mind? Do we need the description, the map, to really see what is in front of us? Do we need to draw it for ourselves to really pay attention?

Good description is about attention. About seeing what is really there rather than what you assume is there. I walked up my road the other day and looked around and up and realized I had no words to describe the things I saw. There were gates – but what kind of gate, what sort of design, and what do you call those spiky spear like things they have? There are trees, but what kind of trees.

Of course, you don’t need to know. Google will tell you that pickets are the vertical rods, and finial tips are the spear points on the top. And there’s an app to find out what that plant is. But is being able to find out anything the same as seeing what’s around you and really appreciating it? Is the capacity to do something enough? Don’t you need the experience as well?

Learning how to describe what is around you is a process that starts with just looking and collecting data – noting down what you see, making sketches. No tools or devices other than pen and paper. And perhaps one should start even without that – just with what I’ve heard called a Mk I Eyeball. And from there it’s a matter of drawing, map making and vocabulary building. Draw what you see, draw maps that relate the features you observe and write word pictures. This skill is not just for explorers but for all of us in our daily lives.

Living is an exploration. Learning how to see what’s around you will help in the journey.


Karthik Suresh

What Does It Mean To Be Creative?


Wednesday, 8.27pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Creativity is not just for artists. It’s for businesspeople looking for a new way to close a sale; it’s for engineers trying to solve a problem; it’s for parents who want their children to see the world in more than one way. – Twyla Tharp

Do you remember what it was like seeing something for the first time as a child? Perhaps it’s easier to remember seeing a child see something. There’s a sense of wonder, something fresh and exciting and living. We were like that too. At one time, we see what is there – and then as we grow up and know more we start to see what we expect to see. And that changes everything.

Maybe it’s because we don’t have time – we do everything so quickly these days and want to get everything so fast that we miss out on the value of being slow, about immersing ourselves in the experiences, the detail, the richness of reality.

Let’s take a step back. What are the mental processes that go into being creative? What can we learn from, for example, the way in which children create.

In the book, Understanding children: Essays in honour of Margaret Donaldson [1, p154], the writers quote Johnson-Laird as suggesting that there are three things that go into being creative. You work with a set of building blocks, you work within a set of constraints or a genre and you surprise yourself, finding something novel. The last point is especially important. Creativity is NOT like pulling a rabbit out of a hat – the rabbit was in the hat all along and you knew that. It’s discovering something new that you didn’t know before and that’s where the value lies.

This idea makes a lot of sense and helps explain the way in which different disciplines work the way they do. It also explains why they find it hard to talk to each other.

In her book, Analyzing Children’s Art, Rhoda Kellogg says that she finds “a person responds to my findings according the implications they hold for his profession”. An artist is interested in her view that basic artistic talent is innate, a psychologist looks at her idea of a whole or Gestalt while a Jungian psychologist is attracted to the concept of pre-existing patterns or archetypes. We look at things for what they mean to us.

Children do that too. They make meaning through their art, engaging with the medium and material and making something happen. Splodges and shapes and lines may mean nothing to you but they tell an intricate and interwoven story to the creator.

This is what makes it hard when you look at a child’s work and ask them questions. Suddenly they stop doing what they do and have to think about your asking them about what they do. And it appears that they often answer in the way they think you want to be answered – the act of observing and questioning them doing something changes the doing and telling of what is done.

In other words the act of observing something has an effect on the observed thing – unless you are very careful. In Lynda Barry’s classes, as set out in her book Syllabus, one of the rules is that “we don’t give advice or opinions on the work of our classmates.”

What does that mean for creativity, then? Margaret Donaldson knew that “human beings, no matter what their ages, respond to the world according to how they define the situation in which they find themselves” [1. ix]. You’re in a place, a space, with conventions and rules and preferences. You have tools – the building blocks you need. And then you have to make, spend time making things and looking at them and wondering what you’ve done and making some more. Maybe breaking some of the rules, the conventions. If you have the opportunity you can go into other spaces and see how they do things there and bring that back into your own practice.

If you want to be creative you must be ready to not-know and to just do – where you are and with what you have. Just get on with it.


Karthik Suresh


  1. Grieve, R and Hughes, M. (Editors), 1990, “Understanding children: Essays in honour of Margaret Donaldson”, Blackwell.
  2. Kellog, R., 1969, “Analyzing Children’s Art”, National Press Books

The FRAME Model As A Thinking Tool


Tuesday, 8.04pm

Sheffield, U.K.

I tend to approach things from a physics framework. And physics teaches you to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. – Elon Musk

How do you make something useful – something relevant – something that’s so interesting it grips your reader or customer and draws them in irresistibly?

You do that by understanding them inside out – by learning and discovering exactly what they want and need and then giving them that. But how do you go about doing that? The FRAME model may help.

There are five elements, one for each letter of the word. You can start anywhere, but you need to have all of these in place to make progress.

Start by thinking about your Frame. Work out what’s in and out, what matters and what doesn’t. The tighter the frame around what you’re interested in the more focused you’re going to be – and the easier it will be to figure out what you need to do. Sometimes you can make the frame too small, and you don’t see enough of the picture. Getting the balance right is key. Think of it like taking a picture of your family – you need enough background to know where you are and what the context is but you need to be tight enough to see them in enough detail. There’s an art to framing – and that’s why it’s important.

The next two elements go together and that’s Actors and Relationships. Actors can be human or not – you might have a person in a role, a robot carrying out a function or an algorithm processing a data set. Actors do something – they play a part in the frame you’ve created. The way they interact with other Actors is shown by drawing the Relationships between them. These connections are what make things happen.

The next element is Meta – the helicopter view. Take a ride up and look down at the frame you’ve drawn, the actors you’ve placed in that frame and the relationships between them. Have you included everything you need to include? Is the level of detail right? Can you see the main features – the natural ones and the artificial ones? The Meta element is about seeing the big picture – knowing why the terrain below is set out the way it is.

The last element is Empathy. See your creation through the eyes of your user or customer – one of the human actors that’s living in your frame. You’re building this thing for them, so what do they experience, what do they go through and does it work for them? Does it deliver for them? Does it delight them? Does it delight you as you see the world you’ve created through their eyes?

Does this model work in practice? Apply it to a company you know – something like Amazon? Amazon does retail – it helps “consumers find, discover and buy anything”. It’s build a formidable logistics network, with a group of human and non-human actors bonded together with relationships in a remarkable display of engineering. If you take a helicopter view they’ve spread out across the landscape doing things ranging from technology to warehousing. And in the middle of all that they aim to be the “Earth’s most customer centric company” – they empathise with their customer’s need to get what they want, fast. And they deliver on that.

Is this model complete? No – it can’t be. Real life is too complex and we can’t capture everything. Is it useful? Try it for yourself and see.


Karthik Suresh

How Strategic Decisions Are Made


Wednesday, 7.47pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Control is the source of strategic power. – Noam Chomsky

Some decisions are strategic ones – the kind of decision where you don’t know what’s going to happen but it’s important you make the right choice.

Decisions like whether to go to university or straight into work, to let your kids choose what they study or encourage them to do a safe role, to stick it out at your job or start your own business. Strategic decisions are hard so it’s worth knowing what they look like [1] when they appear in front of you.

Strategic decisions have a high degree of uncertainty. You have to pick a road without knowing whether you’ll reach your destination or be lost on the way. You won’t know whether you’ve chosen wisely until you reach the end.

Strategic decisions have high stakes. The choice to stay at home and find a job with a local company rather than moving to the metropolis could mean the difference between being a CEO or staying in middle management.

Strategic decisions have long-term consequences. Money in the bank, health in your body, happiness in your heart – do you have them, are they compounding over time or are your balances declining or even negative?

Strategic decisions involve interconnected options. A decision may depend on another one which in turn depends on the first. Should you pick a school in one location or wait to see if your offer goes through in another? Do you quit and then look for a job or do you accept one and then leave the first? You may be unable to do anything until something resolves itself.

Strategic decisions involve resource allocation. You have to invest time and money into doing one thing or another or both or neither. Whatever decision you make there are opportunity costs – you will have to give up the chance to do something else.

Strategic decisions involve people who come together to talk about a situation and come to a negotiated agreement on the way to go forward. This is hard to do. Psychological and social constructivism is the idea that we create the culture we live in – finding meaning and creating things that reinforce and support the way things are done where we are.

Decisions we make on our own are difficult but not often strategic. Deciding your daily routine or what time you get up are important decisions – but they’re easy to make. You just need to have a chat with yourself and decide what you want to do. Strategic decisions involve other people and that’s where it gets complicated. You need to be able to work with others to get things done.

As the old proverb goes, if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.


  1. Montibeller, G. and Franco, A. (2010). “Multi-criteria decision analysis for strategic decision making”, Handbook of multicriteria analysis.

How To Discuss A Difference Of Opinion With Another Professional


Tuesday, 7.43pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences. – Ruth Benedict

At a meeting a few years ago a speaker described how a particular software development method, Agile, did not work. It was meaningless, a collection of rituals and there was no evidence that it improved the process of software development. An audience member challenged this statement, saying that the approach the speaker had presented, a customer centered way of delivering high-quality services was in fact the Agile way – others must simply be doing it wrong. This little vignette is played out daily in different fields and with different professionals as they try to figure out who is right or wrong, which is better or worse. Why does this happen and is there anything we can do to improve the situation?

The place to start is by redefining what we think of as “knowledge”. There’s only a small portion of knowledge that’s objectively true for everyone – and it’s limited to the natural sciences. Physics works the same way for you and me. The further you get from physics the less certainty you have about whatever you’re looking at. At the other extreme is religion – a belief in something that has no existence that we can confirm. People who believe in a religion instead have a set of ideas they hold, usually written down in a book. “Knowledge”, to them, is what’s in the book.

As we head from religion to the day-to-day work that we do we see the pattern of belief playing out again. A group of professionals or practitioners will point to a collection of books, a canon, that contain the set of ideas they consider as authoritative [1]. You have to know what’s in these books to be knowledgeable in that field. And the professionalisation of a field is done by centering its practice on a set of books – a “distinct knowledge base” [2].

This means you cannot have a discussion with someone else unless you acknowledge that what they think of as true is what’s in their books. You can’t come up with a new book and say, “Look here, this tells you why you’re wrong.” They’ll just point to their book and say, “No I’m not, and this is why.”

A wholesale shift from one point of view to another, then, is like asking someone of one religion to change to another. It’s not an easy thing to do. Evangelism is a full-time job for some.

Since we’re not talking about religion, however, but about professional practice there is a little more hope that better methods will carry the day. If you can show something is better then people will often listen.

In fact people are asking for “applications papers” [3]. What they want is information about ways that work, ways that are based on careful observation and underpinned by good-quality models and rigorous thinking.

But if you come up with a way that works how do you approach a group that thinks in a certain way? How do you make your case?

This is where you need to watch Larry McEnerney from the University of Chicago who talks about the way in which you enter a group and make your case. You have to first know the field, read their books and understand the way they see knowledge. Then you can say something like, “There’s a lot of good stuff here and I’m really impressed with the work. But have you thought about this one point here?” When you write in that way then people will listen, because you flatter them and then suggest something that they should consider. That’s the simple secret of getting new ideas into an existing group.

But of course you need to decide whether it’s worth the effort. Not all groups are worth entering. You can waste a lot of time learning stuff that is just wrong. But if you’re a professional you’re probably not in that kind of situation. You probably want to do better work. And that means balancing your approach – knowing your stuff from your books but being open to learning new things from your practice and also from other fields.

The takeaway is this. Before you argue with anyone take the time to read the books that have put their ideas in their heads. If you can’t be bothered to do that then just walk away.


Karthik Suresh


  1. Bazerman, C. (2012), “The orders of documents, the orders of activity, and the orders of information”, Archival Science.
  2. McLeod, J (1999), “Practitioner Research in Counselling”, Sage publications.
  3. Miser, H.J (1998), “The easy chair: What kinds of papers will contribute to a well-rounded view of the conditions and craft of OR/MS practice?”, Interfaces.

The Confusing Art Of Just Getting Along


Monday, 6.26pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Today’s tactical victory does not guarantee tomorrow’s strategic success. – Peter Pace

The return of the Taliban in Afghanistan in a matter of days following the withdrawal of American and Allied forces has led to interesting headlines. Some commentators, mostly right wing, suggest that the reason the Taliban prevailed is because they believed in something – values that sound conservative mostly, a religious conviction, absolute morality and so on. The tenor of the articles seems to suggest that if only the West was more like the Taliban it would have won the war in Afghanistan.

I’m not sure it’s worth linking to these articles because the point they’re making is not important. It’s the kind of point they’re making that we need to notice. It’s a simplistic narrative that you have no hope of changing – any evidence to the contrary will get them to dig their heels in.

The important point is this. It’s natural to feel threatened by others, to band together in your tribe and create a safe space for yourself. If possible it’s better to dominate others, to control more, to have more – because that shows you’re better. We know this is natural because we see it happening when we watch any nature show – tribes and territory are what matter. The creature with the most is the best – the apex predator.

Conservative viewpoints simply harness that natural urge – genetically etched into our animal brains. That’s the way we would be if we had been born a few million years ago. It’s the way we’re made.

An evolutionary way of thinking is one that is able to recognise that we share a planet with others, people with different beliefs and ideas and aspirations – and that’s ok. We can work out a way to live together. Terry Pratchett puts this well in his many books – as fantastic races of all kinds live and work alongside each other – doing business together. You get on with your work and don’t cause trouble – that’s all others ask for.

This kind of thinking is hard to do. Getting along with people who are not like you takes effort. You have to first overcome your innate suspicion of the strange and new. Then you have to fight against the resentment that comes from thinking that the new people are taking what should be yours. Then you have to learn to trust and work with and deal with others. All this takes time, generations in some cases. Democracy is not just about having a vote. Democracies exist because of the institutions that have been created over hundreds of years. Democratic countries now don’t know how lucky they are to have those institutions in place – they should watch and learn from how newer democracies struggle to maintain themselves.

Taking the liberal approach and getting on with everyone is the human way to act – and that’s why it’s difficult. We fall back on our animal instincts with ease. We have to remind ourselves to behave like good human beings.

What does this have to do with the war? The fact is that the United States can win any war in any location in the world. What they can’t do, what no army can do, is win the peace in a country without creating the conditions for liberal thinking – teaching people that’s it’s better to get along and do business together than to keep fighting.

And if you live somewhere where you can just get on and do that – you shouldn’t take it for granted. It’s a gift worth having.


Karthik Suresh

The Difference Between Living And Dead Practice


Saturday, 9.05pm

Sheffield, U.K.

An education is not so much about making a living as making a person. – Tara Westover

What does it mean to be knowledgeable?

To answer this question you have to first draw a boundary around what you think of as knowledge because people start to argue definitions very quickly. Take my field of interest, for example. I started with an interest in Sketchnotes as a way of taking notes in lectures. I was introduced to Soft Systems Methodology (SSM). I became aware of a Visual Thinking community that ranges from Scribing, which is creating a record of a discussion to quite complex forms of facilitation that use visual methods. Then you have a host of methods, frameworks and philosophies, such as Lean, Agile and Scrum. And we shouldn’t forget old favourites like Mind Mapping and lesser known techniques like Thinking Maps. I’ve then learned, as I started my research, that Operations Research encompasses many of these methods, unless you’re an Operational Researcher that thinks it doesn’t.

In a situation with this kind of complexity I ask again, what does it mean to be knowledgeable?

One explanation that I’ve found as very useful is to think of a knowledgeable person as being someone who is familiar with books that are seen as “authoritative” in their field [1]. For Sketchnotes that means the work of Mike Rhode and “The Sketchnote Handbook” while for Thinking Maps you need to read David Hyerle and for SSM your starting point is Peter Checkland.

An easy way to find out what is authoritative is to ask someone in the space what books you should read. The book list you get will help you draw the boundary between what’s considered as acceptable and what isn’t. A little like the books used by religions. This definition also helps you understand what it means to teach – teaching involves getting students to become familiar with the books in the list.

Being knowledgeable and being able to teach is a starting point – and it’s seen as the place to get to these days. Everyone who wants to be anyone writes a book, creates a course and starts a certification scheme, because these are the ways to get you to gain knowledge of their approach, to buy into their belief system.

But there is a problem with this. Once someone starts to teach something as their primary job you have to ask yourself why they are doing that. Can’t they make money doing what they’re teaching? This is most visible when it comes to providing financial advice. If someone knows how to make money in stock markets or crypto currency or forex trading then why aren’t they just doing that instead of wasting their time teaching you? Ah, they say, we’ve made our money. Now we’re giving back – but a cynic might wonder why so many gurus don’t actually seem to have all that much in the way of tangible assets. But that’s not my point.

The point I want to make is that you have to learn to tell the difference between archaeology and the present. Some knowledge is like a monolith – a perfect creation set into a landscape created by artisans from a bygone age – serving a purpose that might not be entirely remembered. Like Stonehenge. Sometimes I look at a concept like Mind Maps – created and trademarked and owned and protected by Tony Buzan. From what I can tell the instructions you get are to put an idea at the centre and draw out from there. The special thing is that there is one idea at the centre and only one – because that’s what makes it a Mind Map. If you had more than one idea then it would be closer to a cognitive map or a mental map and you’re treading on the toes of other researchers.

When you look at knowledge in this kind of way, enclosed within boundaries created by the literature, I think you’re dealing with ideas that are dead inside – ones where what’s important is protecting and profiting rather than using and learning. If you want to see where the real work is being done you have to go and look at living practice – at the work that people are actually doing rather than the work they’re teaching. And I wonder whether that’s something that’s worth exploring in more detail.

A living practice would look something like a tree. If you’re interested in using pictures to help you think and make better decisions you’re calling on a literature and practice that goes back to early humans drawing on cave walls to a bewildering array of techniques and methods across differing fields. If you want to learn what is being done in practice then you have to go and see – go to the place where work is being done and watch it being done. Not learn it from an expert or read it in a book – unless that books is one that describes how the work is being done. The way to understand archaeology, it turns out, is to go and watch living practice. You’ll learn more about scraps of pottery by seeing how people make and use it now – if they still do so, that is. This is ethnographic study – watching and learning.

The takeaway from this post is that we are surrounded by a social media world where people want to teach us the One True Way. Resist the temptation to buy into that idea and instead go and see real people doing real work. That’s where value hides.


Karthik Suresh


  1. “The orders of documents, the orders of activity, and the orders of information”. Charles Bazerman. 2012. Archival Science

What Is The Role Of A Manager In An Organization?


Thursday, 8.12pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls aren’t there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to show us how badly we want things. – Randy Pausch

I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about method – which involves asking questions like “How should we do things?”

This is harder to answer than it might seem. Often people think they know what they’re doing but you, yes I mean you, know they don’t. But you can’t say anything because they’re convinced they’re right. Until it all goes wrong. The issue really comes down to who has power – or the kind of power they have to move things in the direction they want to go.

The people with power in organisations are managers – they are the ones with the ability to change the system. They are therefore entirely responsible for the results, not their workforce, who don’t have the power to make decisions. The managers have to put in good systems and train their staff to do good work. You can have average people and great systems and be very effective.

Or, more precisely, that might have been very effective in the past. Maybe it still is in businesses where you don’t think you need people to bring their heads as well as their hands to work. What you really need now is good people, preferably very good people, who can work with clients and deliver high quality services. In such situations managers don’t have as much power – they may know a lot less about how to do a job well than the people they have working for them. Does that mean they have to change the way they look at things?

There are two things that come out from the research that I’ve read so far.

The first is that almost all work consists of a group of people acting together in a situation. Barriers build up quickly in such situations, with an “us and them” culture developing and being reinforced by the way people act and what they are responsible for doing. The ways in which people do things are going to be informed by what they see as “normal” behaviour – the values, norms and roles played by people in the organisation. It’s just what happens – people imitate those in power because that’s how they get favour. And you don’t talk back to power because that gets you excluded from the source of power.

If putting up walls is the natural state of people in organisations than breaking through them is the task of leaders and managers. You have to figure how to break down barriers and the kinds of methods and techniques that will help you do this. That’s a different task from the one that happened before – rather than putting pegs in holes you’re trying to get people to play nicely together. This can be quite hard.

The second thing is that problems exist everywhere you look. “The research agenda is, simply, everything”, according to White and McSwain in “Beyond method: Strategies for social research.” This is actually quite an important insight. You can study everything – in your organisation, in your life, in the way you do things. It’s all data for research. There is no “right” way – there is the way that is right for you in the situation you are in right now and given what you have to do next. And that makes questions of method even more important – because the only thing you can do is get as good as you can at the process of what you do.

The managers of the future, if we take these concepts as relevant, have to do two things. They need to figure out how to use their power to break down barriers between people, rather than just telling them what to do. And they have to figure out how to make sense of increasingly complex work spaces – ones where they are not in the same place as people who might know, who should know more than them about the best way to do things. That’s a hard thing to do – perhaps even disorienting.

What it also means is that you are best of getting involved in managing something if you really like doing what you’re doing. Otherwise it’s going to be an increasingly difficult exercise. A better option might be to design a business that’s based entirely around collaborating with single-person businesses – where each individual is self-motivated and wants to make a difference. A different networked model. I wonder how that might work.


Karthik Suresh

The Difference Between Theory And Practice


Tuesday, 8.45pm

Sheffield, U.K.

In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is. – Yogi Berra

I read an article recently about How McKinsey destroyed the middle class. The short version of the story is that once upon a time companies invested in their people, helping them grow and develop and have a career that could take them from an entry level position to running the company, filling a host of middle-management positions along the way, keeping expertise in getting things done in the company. This was a good thing. And then McKinsey came along and took aim at all those middle-managers seeing them as fat and lazy and a cost that could be easily removed. So they slashed and restructured until you were left with a small core of highly paid managers and a large workforce of poorly paid and unprotected staff who were simply there to do work that hadn’t been automated yet. And that’s why we now have this huge gap between the people at the top and the people at the bottom.

The resulting situation, whatever you think about the way history is represented, is that you don’t have the expertise within organisations to do all the things people at the top need to get done. So you have to bring in consultants to help – consultants like McKinsey and a host of others. So really many of those managerial roles are undertaken by smaller outfits and perhaps there are benefits in having consultants serve several companies than duplicating all that expertise. I am probably in favour of this state of affairs as I find myself, somewhat by accident, doing the work of a management consultant much of the time.

Which takes me to the work of Richard J. Ormerod and his 1996 paper on “Combining management consultancy and research”. How do we know if a consultant is doing a good job – how does the consultant know themselves, and are there better or worse ways to do the job of making a company work better?

This is more challenging to answer than you might think because of something called the Hawthorne effect. A study, possibly fictional, tried to find out if an intervention, for example changing the lighting at a plant, would improve or reduce performance. What eventually came out of this study is that if you go and watch people work they will try and work better – because they’re being watched. As a consultant, you could go into a business and find things improve – but that could just be because of the Hawthorne effect – people change how they act because you’re hanging around.

But you might argue that you’re doing something of value. If so, what is that? You probably can’t tell me because of the nature of the client-consultant relationship. A client asks you in because they need help. Imagine you went to the doctor and they helped you out and a few days later wrote a paper describing all your problems in glorious detail to the world and your competitors. You would not be amused. A consultant, like a doctor, has to maintain client confidentiality.

But, like a doctor, the consultant also wants to share their knowledge. So they share their insights, their techniques, their ways of doing things. They talk about process and method. And that’s fine – except you fall into a logical trap that says what you say isn’t reliable. That goes a bit like this, as Checkland explained. If you say something worked then I can say to you, “How do you know it wouldn’t work better if I had done something else?.” And if I try what you say and it doesn’t work, you can say to me, “How do you know it didn’t work because you didn’t do it properly?”

This paradox means that you can’t say anything about a particular way of doing something until you try it and even if it doesn’t work for you you can’t really say it doesn’t work. So if you’re a fan of any one of the methods that permeate the Internet, from Agile or SSM or Design Thinking – stop trying to prove they work. It isn’t worth your time. Pick the one that works for you and get on with your work.

But this means that your work is a reflection on experience – it’s what you think about what you did rather than a wider truth – a more generalizable set of ideas that can be wrapped up and presented as a THEORY. So does that mean that we can’t have a theory – or actually are there different kinds of theory and we just need to figure out what we’re saying. Ormerod’s conclusion in his paper was that he found that the publications he was creating were “weak in the sense of lacking theoretical underpinning. The were reflections on experience.”

This paper is from a while ago so the chances are that people have thought about this a bit more since then, and perhaps there is more theory around about how to create theory from reflection on practice. That’s for another post though.

I think the takeaway from this is that it’s very hard to tell whether someone was good or lucky. Two people doing the same thing can have very different fortunes. The thing to remember is the saying, “luck is when preparation meets opportunity.” We cannot dictate when opportunity knocks but we can certainly take the time to prepare. And the thing you want to do is become an artist at your work – display what Ormerod calls “professional artistry”. Forget about the theory – be brilliant at the practice – and the theory will catch up to you eventually.


Karthik Suresh

Learning How To Deal With Power In Your Business


Sunday, 8.39pm

Sheffield, U.K.

“And power is a game of smoke and mirrors,’ said her ladyship, reaching for the wine. ‘Oddly enough, Commander Vimes reminds me of that nearly every day. No civil police force could hold out against an irate and resolute population. The trick is not to let them realize that.” – Terry Pratchett, Unseen Academicals

The situations you find yourself in day-to-day almost inevitably involve an exercise of power. You need to understand how power works and the three types of power you will come across in order to deal with it effectively, When you don’t it’s easy to use a method that you’re familiar with in a situation where it will not work, leaving you worse off than before.

The first kind of power is based in natural laws. You can’t argue with gravity. The Coronavirus doesn’t care about your approach to border control. This is the kind of power engineers like – we make things and they work or they don’t. Your opinions don’t matter – but whether a bridge holds up or not under its designed conditions does.

The second kind of power is based in social structures. Sometimes they are set down as social laws, sometimes they are custom and practice. You need to recognise the power dynamics that exist if you want to get things done.

With these two types of power you have two strategies you can follow. With natural power you simply dictate what is to be done. The Coronavirus response provides an example of how this works. Left to itself, the virus will keep spreading. You have to do something. Politicians around the world felt they had a choice – they could ignore the science and bend nature to their will. They were wrong.

With social power, however, your only choice is to appeal to power. You have to plead your case, going to those who have power and getting them to buy into what you’re selling. And that means dealing with the reality of the situation you’re in, sometimes you’ll get what you want, sometimes you won’t – but the people with the power will make the decisions in either case.

Sometimes those people are wrong and that’s when the third kind of power comes in, the power of action. If you believe that those with power are doing the wrong thing you can undermine them, dig away at the ground under their feet. People that have been overlooked, repressed, unrepresented can take action. Power is a fragile thing – the people with it only have it because the people without allow them to. Action doesn’t mean rioting – it means shining a light on what is going on, showing things as they are.

The approach you take depends on the situation you’re in. As a scientist your focus is on the first kind of power. As a politician or businessperson it’s the second. And as a particular group of marginalised people it’s the third.

You can’t go into a business and dictate what must be done like it’s scientific fact – that will work against you. At the same time you can’t go into a business and undermine what’s going on, that will get you kicked out. In business you have to work with the people in power – appeal to them to make the change that you want to see. And it’s the same with the other groups. Scientists will not change their findings because you feel that things should be different from the facts on the ground. And politicians will do anything, regardless of whether it’s right or wrong in your eyes, to stay in power – because that’s their job – to stay in power.

In a nutshell, then, if you want to work with power you have to first recognise what kind of power you’re dealing with and then select a strategy that’s going o work in that situation.


Karthik Suresh