When Do You Know Everything You Need To Know?


Friday, 9.02pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing. – Socrates

There is a series on Amazon Prime called Librarians – where a group of misfits rush around averting magical disasters.

Every once in a while one of the characters drops a line that has echoes of a paper somewhere.


“Reality is just a shared narrative we agree to believe”


“Architecture is just art we live in”

Anyway, in one of these episodes they’re rushing around and stop to discuss trees.

We’ll get to that in a second, but if you’re actually watching the series – SPOILER alert…

Someone once said to me that there will come a time when you’re working for someone younger than yourself.

That’s a bit of a transition point – a point when all of a sudden someone younger knows more than you or is given more responsibility.

I had a chat the other day with a developer – around the same age as me, perhaps younger and I asked what sort of environment he worked in.

I got an answer filled with words I had seen but didn’t really recognise.

I’m sure Kubernetes was in there, and some new programming languages – maybe there was a whisper that sounded like Java.

And there are others, hot shot whizz kids, doing magic with database queries and programming that I didn’t know you could do.

Not yet anyway – I like to think that if I spent the time I could figure it out.

At the same time, there are new and different things to figure out.

Like people and groups and organisations.

The thing is that knowledge of one type will only take you so far.

Take textbooks, for example.

Some writers are brilliant at using simple words to explain complex concepts.

Sometimes you need complex words to explain complex concepts.

But how often do you need complex words to explain something simple?

Often, however, the purpose of writing seems to be to obscure rather than explain – to demonstrate how clever the author is rather than help the reader understand something new.

Which is why, after a while, when you’re finding the path you’re on a little too much the same the thing to do is find a different path, one less travelled.

And find it before the motorway being built alongside your own path ends in yours being reclaimed by weeds.

Doing that has nothing to do with age and everything to do with attitude.

In the episode I refer to above, the baddie wants a branch from the tree of knowledge.

A huge, sprawling tree stands there, and the baddie breaks off a branch.

The hero destroys the tree and the branch rather than let it fall into the wrong hands and the baddie, thwarted, rails and departs.

The hero’s partner asks why he destroyed the tree of knowledge.

And the twist is that the huge tree wasn’t the tree of knowledge.

Knowledge is young, always growing.

It’s the small tree that is going to grow.

The young have an advantage – they are ready to learn because they don’t know stuff yet.

For those of us who are a little older, we may need to forget that we know so we can be ready to learn once again.


Karthik Suresh

If You’re So Smart Why Aren’t You Rich?


Sunday, 8.33pm

Sheffield, U.K.

I will tell you the secret to getting rich on Wall Street. You try to be greedy when others are fearful. And you try to be fearful when others are greedy. – Warren Buffett

I started my career as a geek – and I’m still one, really.

In 1997 and 1998 I was installing Red Hat Linux and Slackware and discovering the command prompt.

I did programming work for money and even though I disliked how slow and clunky tools like Microsoft Excel were that’s what most people used and what they paid you to use for them.

But what I also learned as I spent more time working was that the ability to do stuff using a computer had much less commercial value than it might seem at first glance.

Don’t get me wrong – computers are incredibly useful and I couldn’t do any of the work I do without the tools and hardware we have today – especially the whole world of GNU/Linux.

But they’re useful mostly for programmers and the things that make my life easy are not things you could or would wish to sell.

For example, are you interested in how to use awk to create an electronic index card program?

It’s pretty easy – but the answer to that is probably not.

The fact is that you don’t find many programmers running things – especially not programmers that are still programming.

At the same time many people believe that being smart and being technologically capable qualifies you to have a view on the best way something should be done.

You’ve got a model – a complex one, maybe one based on artificial intelligence. The model says you should do X, so there you go – problem solved! Pay up.

But there’s a weakness here, a weakness set out in the book Rational Analysis for a Problematic World edited by Jonathan Rosenhead.

This has the depressing line for those who believe that their technical capability is important.

For these people, Rosenhead writes, “…it offers a reliable downhill path to the role of minor technical auxiliary.”

In other words, if your skillset is based around being technically smart you might want to think about hiding that from other people.

And the reason for that is shown in the picture above.

There are two things to think about: what you want to happen and how you are going to make it happen.

That is, you need to think about the outcome and the method.

If you know what you want and you know the best method to get there then the task you have to do is a computation.

Do the analysis and work out the best option.

For example, if you need to route your truck through several cities and need to work out the best route – that’s a job for your technical expert.

The outcome is certain – the shortest route. The method is certain – a routing algorithm.

Now, let’s say your expert says that there are three different algorithms that produce slightly different results what do you do?

In this case the outcome is the same – the shortest route but the method to use is uncertain.

So, you go into bargaining mode and ask what the pros and cons are and what you can do to minimise the downside.

Eventually, however, you make the call on what to do.

Another situation you might face is when the method is clear but the outcome is uncertain.

For example, you might have a fund with money to invest but you’re looking at two different sectors – biotech and property.

One has stable returns but little prospect of explosive growth. The other has the potential for growth but you could take a big hit.

Computation is of limited use after a while in this situation. Decisions about markets often come down to a question of judgement – and it needs a person to make a call.

Yes, you can have algorithms that exploit differences for a while – but they will have to keep hunting because their own activity will start to close differences.

Which then takes us to the final quadrant – where the outcome is uncertain and the method is uncertain.

Should you study law or art or should you go to the local university or to one in a different country?

Should your company invest in marketing or in growth through acquisition? Should you start flexible working or rely on an office based staff?

Such questions have no clear answers – not ones you can get to on mathematical terms anyway.

Those situations need more than smarts – they need empathy, an ability to study situations and the skills to come up with a variety of solutions and decide which one to go with.

And they also need a big helping of luck.

The fact is that as you climb higher in organisations your smarts matter less and less.

It’s about politics and networks and deals up there.

And doing things differently from the herd.

It’s about managing uncertainty.

And the one thing that’s certain is that you’ll be paid more to sort out an uncertain situation than a certain one.


Karthik Suresh

p.s If you’d like to read an article about studying situations using ethnographic research methods take a look at How to study an organisation on my Articles page.

How To Round Out Your Thinking


Thursday, 8.49pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Abstract thinking leads to greater creativity… But in our businesses and our lives, we often do the opposite. We intensify our focus rather than widen our view. – Daniel H. Pink

We’ve all met practical people – people who want to get on and get the job done.

Perhaps you’re one of those people.

A no-nonsense, down-to-earth sort of person.

You know what you know and believe in the value of experience.

If you don’t know how to get it done you’ll find someone who does.

In the process, you’ll surround yourself with good people – a team – and your business will do well.

Or maybe you’re a restless risk-taker – some always looking for the next opportunity.

Someone ready to experiment and invest in the new. A Richard Branson type who starts an airline because he’s delayed on a trip and figures he can do better.

It can seem like those are your two options for how to go through life.

Either be someone who actively experiments and changes the world.

Or be someone who is solidly planted in the real world.

Be a river or be a rock. Those are your choices.

Or are they?

An article by Beverley Kaye in the book Learning Journeys is an interesting example of how to think about this.

Dr Kaye writes about her experience defending her doctoral dissertation.

She was a checklist sort of person, a get it done sort of person.

She was prepared and ready to check off the defence of her dissertation.

Except, she ran into trouble.

She was operating from her flat side, she was told and needed to get more rounded.

But what did that mean? And how could someone so practical and in the real world get their heads around that?

And it’s not an easy thing to do.

You know the story of the unreasonable person.

Reasonable people adapt to the world around them.

Unreasonable people adapt the world to themselves.

All progress, therefore, depends on unreasonable people.

Those hard-headed business folk, whether rock solid or fluid experimenters are unreasonable people and have given us products and services that have changed lives.

Externally anyway – not so much internally.

We’re stuck in a consumer society and many people, although they are technically among the wealthiest in the world don’t seem particularly happy.

What’s lacking is inner change.

The Kolb Cycle says there are four ways to learn: active experimentation, concrete experience, reflective observation and abstract conceptualisation.

The first two are easy to recognise – we all start with flat heads.

The ways that round us out are harder to understand.

Can you look back at your life, at the days you spend – just look at them without criticism or judgement and try to see them for what they are?

How did that last meeting with a prospective client go? What worked, what didn’t – was she happy, difficult, neutral?

If you were someone else looking at your life what would you see, what would you think?

And what would you think was going on – how would you conceptualise the situation?

Or, more simply, how would you explain what’s going on?

To see things for what they are and come up with an explanation for why they are what they are is an attempt to round out your thinking.

To try and see without filters, blinders or anything else in your way and to try and look for explanations that are clear and plausible is the way to get started.

And then, if Dr Kaye’s experience is anything to go by, then one day you’ll just get it.


Karthik Suresh

How Are You Going To Learn If There Are No Teachers?


Friday, 9.17pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Doctor Who: You want weapons? We’re in a library. Books are the best weapon in the world. This room’s the greatest arsenal we could have. Arm yourself! (from Tooth and Claw in Season 2) – Russell T. Davies

There are two things that I’m thinking about today – and they are sort of related.

The first thing has to do with knowledge – where it is, how to get it and who can help you.

And the second is what that help is worth.

The reason for this is that I’d like to find someone who is an expert on a particular research methodology – someone that can help guide me as I try and learn more about it.

The problem is we’d all like to learn from the best in the field- but what if that isn’t possible – you can’t afford them, they’ve retired or moved on?

In such a situation I’m always reminded of a story my grandmother used to tell.

It was about a boy – a poor one who wanted to be an archer.

His name was Eklavya and he wanted to learn from the best teacher in the land – Drona – the one who taught the royal family.

But he was too poor and Drona refused to take him on.

Eklavya was undaunted. He went into the forest and built a clay statue of Drona and practised in front of it – treating the statue as his teacher – as his guru.

And he became good – so good in fact that when Drona and the royal princes came across him practising they realised that he was better than them.

Things didn’t turn out too well for him, but before we get to that…

There is a concept in India called gurudakshina.

Teachers, or gurus, didn’t charge fees for lessons.

Instead, once students had finished learning they gave their teachers a gift – something that showed how they valued what they had received.

A pre-historic pay what you want pricing strategy, if you will.

It was a strong concept back then and Drona, when he realised that Eklavya was going to be better than the princes he tutored, was torn.

Should he be proud of the young archer? Or worried for the future of the kingdom when a poor peasant could be better than the royals?

Eklavya stood before Drona and asked him to ask for anything as gurudakshina – he saw him as his guru even though all he had done was practice in front of a statue.

Drona asked for Eklavya’s right thumb – and the boy severed it and gave it to him – ending his archery dreams.

I did say it didn’t end well…

Now there are more layers of story to this – but for that you need to read the epic.

The point is this – knowledge has no value when it is secret.

If you know something – then until people know what you know they can’t tell if it’s worth anything.

So knowledge is not an asset – not in the sense that you have to control it and use it carefully in case it wears out.

If it’s good people will value it – and value you.

In addition, when you put your knowledge out into the world you lose nothing.

You don’t know less – you haven’t had something stolen from you.

Unless you have a different point of view – one that sees knowledge as a business and something you can make money from.

Which, to be fair, is the foundation of the entire modern education system and the exploding number of courses out there.

Or you could read a book.

The educational business model that looks most appealing, however, is probably one that is closer to the gurudakshina concept.

The online MOOC provider Coursera, for example, lets you audit many courses. You can do the whole course for free – only paying if you want a certificate at the end.

If you’re in the knowledge business – and we all are to some extent – that’s an approach that might be worth adapating and adopting and seeing what that does for you.


Karthik Suresh

How To Figure Out Who You Really Are


Sunday, 7.34pm

Sheffield, U.K.

You can’t build a reputation on what you’re going to do. – Henry Ford

Choosing what you do with your time is one of the most important decisions you will ever make.

Yet many of us are required to make key choices early in life – from the point at which we choose what to study in school to the opportunities we come across when first looking for work.

How many of us started a job that was supposed to last a few weeks and then found ourselves at the same organisation a decade later?

What advice would you give your younger self, knowing what you now know?

This is a hard question to answer, for me anyway, because we don’t know what could have happened if we had made different choices.

One of the early contributors to career development theory was John Holland, an American psychologist and Professor of Sociology.

He came up with the idea that what you do is an expression of who you are – and came up with six types of personality – a formulation called Holland’s Hexagon.

These six types have the following characteristics:

  • Realistic people like to get things done.
  • Investigative types like to think and watch and understand stuff – working alone rather than in groups.
  • Artistic personalities are creative, inventive and more emotional than the others.
  • Social people are helpful and want to build supportive, caring relationships.
  • Enterprising types want to persuade and lead, be in charge and win.
  • Conventional types look for structure and order and want to do things the right way.

You aren’t, however, just one of the types – instead you’re probably a combination with three or so types that you could list in rank order.

For example, you might be primarily an investigative type, who likes getting things done and persuading people, who also likes creative activities.

The main application of Holland’s work has been in career development advice – once you select from the types and get an ordering that describes your preferences – you can then look for careers and jobs that match that list.

The idea is that there is a job that will work for every combination.

You just have to find the match.

The other way of looking at this model is to look at what you do right now – what you’ve been doing for the last month or year and see if your preferences describe your activity.

The chances are good that if you’ve been in work for a while what you do lines up with who you are.

If not, that’s probably why you’re not that happy at work.

Or, on the other hand, you don’t mind the work at all.

In fact, you enjoy it – but it’s the other things about the job that get you down.

The workload, the micro-management, the bullying, the pressure… perhaps a host of other factors.

The appeal of Holland’s model is its simplicity – you can relate to the divisions easily and have a quick view on how you might describe yourself using it.

What the model doesn’t take into account is important too – things like power dynamics, culture, the availability of resources, politics, and personal rapport with colleagues.

In the end, knowing who you are is a start.

A good one.

But very quickly you realise that what matters is who everyone else is and what game they’re playing.

So that requires us to develop the ability to constantly rebuild ourselves over time – to constantly learn and watch and observe.

Because the world is changing – like it always has done.

Our ability to prosper in that changing world will depend on how we see ourselves in it – how we create meaning and purpose and value for ourselves and others.

That means you need to be ready to recreate who you are, to match the needs of what is around you.

How Do You Make A Big Change In Your Life?


Saturday, 9.26pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Between the acting of a dreadful thing and the first motion, all the interim is like a phantasma, or a hideous dream. – William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

Many of us have been in a position where we are stuck in one place and want to get out of there.

It happens at an individual level and to corporations.

The fact is that change is hard, and the bit in the middle, between when we are one thing and when are finally another is the hardest bit of all.

Herminia Ibarra, in her book Working Identity calls this being Between Identities. It can take a long time but it’s important that you don’t rush it – that you take the time to work through the process because it is going to change your life.

So, let’s say you’re unhappy at work and want a change – what does that look like and how do you feel?

I’ve tried to draw Ibarra’s model in the picture above so we can work through that.

For starters. you’re in a little boat setting off in stormy seas – this is rarely an easy journey.

And it starts with the links between you and everyone else weakening.

You experience a disconnect – both socially and psychologically.

For example, if you’ve spent all your time in academia and want a change – you might start hanging out with business people instead.

That leaves you less time with your old crowd.

It’s the same if you want to leave a gang and try living a normal life.

What this starts to mean is that you withdraw from the group and they in turn from you.

If you’re less available socially and psychologically they ask less of you and expect less.

They also trust you less – and you them.

This often happens when people first start working remotely.

Their managers wonder whether they’re really working – because they can’t see them all the time.

These thoughts might start being expressed in words – with whispers ricocheting around organisations.

And that’s not a nice feeling for the person being talked about – and they in turn start to distrust their managers and co-workers.

This can lead eventually to a confrontation – perhaps a rupture with someone who was once important to you.

Once that’s happened, that increasing space between you and everyone else widens and becomes a chasm – the gap looks impossible to bridge.

And all this time the pressure and the changes mean you’ve been looking at other options and trying different things.

All this time you’ve been a square peg – perhaps happy and content for a long time – but not now.

Now you’re thinking maybe I’m a triangular peg or a round one?

And as you try these other options – perhaps you moonlight as a volunteer social worker or have a side hustle you listen to feedback.

Feedback can be internal – how you feel and what your gut says and external – what people say to you and the kind of reaction you get to this new you that you’re putting out there.

Eventually, by trying lots of possible new yous, one starts to emerge – one that has a stronger story that you can identify with and others can relate to and this becomes your new role.

You’ve created a substitute – something to take the place of that person you once were and replace the career you once had.

And now you’ve created a new identity.

Quite often people tell you that you shouldn’t quit your job to start a new business – first make sure that new thing makes you money before leaving a role that pays you.

What this model says is that it’s going to take you time to go from the role you have to your new role – in your head.

And you should take the time to work through this.

Trying to jump from feeling disconnected to a different career – like a chap who one day quits law school and decides to become a touring musician despite never having played an instrument in his life – probably means that you’ll go from one disappointment to another.

For real, sustainable change you have to change inside.

And that means taking the time to go through the change process.

But it’s easier to do that when you know what’s involved so you can prepare yourself for the long road ahead.

That way, you’ve got a good chance of making it.


Karthik Suresh

What Skills Do We Need To Have For The Changing World Of Work?


Tuesday, 8.46pm

Sheffield, U.K.

It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do. – Steve Jobs.

What do you think is the main reason why companies fail?

Is it because of the competition? The market? Costs?

Tempting as it is to blame external factors for failure, we all know that the root cause often lies within.

People and organisations fail not because of what’s going on outside but because they just can’t change inside.

And that’s something investors, in particular, understand.

Elephants, for example, don’t gallop.

You won’t get high returns from large companies – they’ll lumber on but the real action happens at smaller firms.

And this is something worth understanding.

Any increase in size has the potential to slow you down.

One extra person, one extra line of code or one extra meeting all add up frighteningly quickly.

But many places of work just haven’t figure out the cost of all that extra stuff they’re hauling around.

And a major drag is people.

People like you and me.

So what can you do to stay attractive as a new hire?

You could do worse than follow some rules laid down over the years.

Joel Spolsky pinched two rules from Microsoft, and looks for people that are smart and get things done.

He added the one about not being a jerk.

And then there is Matt Mullenweg and his creed where he writes about the importance of communication, in particular, written communication.

Now clearly, this not the most politically correct approach to hiring and there is value in diversity.

But the fact is that in the fairly narrow field of knowledge work where we spend a lot of time messing around with computers checking these four skills will make you a lot easier to work with.

And you’ll find working with someone like that so much easier as well.

Or maybe not.

The best thing to do with smart people is let them get on and do the job the best way they can.

Which means that organisations of the future should really figure out what remote working looks like for them.

Bringing people into the office is a waste – a waste of time commuting, a waste of time in meetings and a waste of productivity through interruptions.

The only reason to bring people together is to socialise – where there is no reason to work and the point is to get to know one another.

The rest of the time we’d be better off at home or in an office with a door – working.

The fact is organisations that want to attract the best talent are already doing this.

The ones that aren’t are dying – they just don’t know it yet.

Their disease is an internal one.

And one that they have the power to change without involving anyone else.


Karthik Suresh

The Surprising Reason Why Being Your Boss Is Hard Work


Sunday, 8.41pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’ – Martin Luther King, Jr

I’m reading Here Comes Everybody: How change happens when people come together by Clay Shirky and looking at things from a new point of view.

As is often the case once you’re shown a new idea it seems obvious.

For example, the society that existed before the Internet is obviously different from the one that exists now.

Once upon a time it was hard to publish anything.

You needed money and machines and technology to print books, make films and reach people.

Now, it’s effortless and virtually costless for any of us to be publishers.

In such a world some things change and others remain resolutely the same.

Take fame, for example.

We think of famous people as a special breed – these sportspeople, actors and celebrities – who are in the public eye.

But what is it that makes them famous?

At one time you might have said it’s the media.

You’re famous when you’re on television or in the papers.

Shirky argues that fame is actually a matter of counting links.

In theory everyone can connect to everyone else on the Internet.

In practice we can only do so much each day.

We might know 10, 20, 200 people well.

We might be able to send a certain number of emails or tweets, or make calls.

Whether we’re famous or not, the number of connections we can make with someone else is limited by our own cognitive limits – what our brains can do without blowing up.

You can’t talk to 2,000 people a day – not real one-to-one conversations anyway.

So, two people can have only so many outgoing links – red arrows in the picture above.

But, any number of people can link to you – to your material or follow you on social media or send you emails.

You can’t stop a million people all sending you messages on every digital channel you have.

You also can’t respond to them. It’s out of your control to do it personally.

You will need help to even think about trying to do that.

Fame then, according to Shirky, happens when there is an imbalance in links – more coming in than you can possibly handle.

Not more in than out – the point is that we can all have the same number of links going out plus or minus a few because that has to do with our own cognitive limits.

It’s when we’re simply unable to deal with the links coming in.

That’s when you know you are famous.

Which gets us to your boss and why he or she is famous.

If your boss is the kind of person who likes to be informed then you’ll copy her into every email you send.

It’s just one email, after all.

But, if she’s working with 20 people and they all send her emails – just one at a time – they build up.

And she can’t answer them all, or has to work very hard trying to keep up.

And the load simply gets worse the more people you have.

The problem, once again, is that there are more inbound links than you can physically handle.

It’s the problem of being famous.

Everyone knows you as the boss and tries to keep you informed and you’re deluged with information as a result.

So here’s the funny thing about fame that I get from Shirky’s observations.

If you think that by becoming famous you’ll have deeper and more meaningful relationships with more people – you won’t.

As you climb your career ladder and become more well known you’ll find that you simply can’t know and talk to everyone.

Not because you don’t want to but because you’ll start to reach the human limits of what you can do.

So where does that leave us?

With just the human realisation that you can have a certain number of meaningful relationships and if you’ve got more inbound ones than that – well, you’re famous and just can’t do anything about it.

What’s left is your work.

So make sure you enjoy that.


Karthik Suresh

What Do You Need To Do To Get Extreme Success?


Saturday, 9.44pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Charlie Munger, the Vice-Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, is well known for his views on the importance of mental models – concept that you can use to explain and understand why things happen the way they do.

Take extreme success, for example.

What is it that makes Walmart or Google so successful? And are these principles that can be used for smaller firms or even for ourselves as individuals?

Munger says extreme success is likely to happen when key factors combine in certain ways.

A. One or two factors – taken to extremes

When you think Walmart, you probably think cost. When you think Google, you think search.

These companies have taken a leadership position in a particular space – in their industry and in our minds.

If you want a prestige car, you’re going to think BMW and Mercedes first. Then there are the others.

Now, perhaps one doesn’t think of extreme success in the context of a local convenience store, but the factor that keeps them going is that they’re open late. Later than most others anyway.

So they thrive in their small niche, extremely successful in their own way.

B. Combining factors to get exponential results – the lollapalooza effect

This is the idea that 1 + 1 + 1 = 30, not 3.

Toyota have an ad out at the moment, showing a Hilux behind a glass panel and with the words in case of apocalypse, break glass.

You could argue that a Hilux gives you the ability to go anywhere and survive, has functionality that is world-class but is still something you can fix on the side of the road and is priced like a Toyota and not a Hummer.

It’s like the old joke comparing Land Rovers and Land Cruisers. If you want to go into the Australian outback, take a Land Rover. If you want to come back, take a Land Cruiser.

Scott Adams says that when he combined average skills at writing, drawing and knowledge of engineering the resulting comic, Dilbert, struck a chord with millions and took off.

It’s the combination that did it, not just any one factor.

C. Great performance over a number of factors

So here you need to look at organisations that get a lot of things right – and that’s not easy.

The more things you have to do, the more things that can go wrong.

Take Amazon, for example. It’s a company that does a ridiculous number of things – from providing a platform where you can buy almost anything to the support structures around your purchase, like recommendations and next day delivery.

Or take one of those survival watches. If you get one of them, you need to be confident that it will survive a plunge into freezing water, keep a signal going that can be picked up by satellite and looks good enough so you can wear it to an expensive fundraiser.

It’s hard to do a lot of things right. When you do, you’re going to get far.

D. Ride a wave

The final factor is that you’re lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. Bill Gates was in the right place when IBM kickstarted the personal computer industry. Google came out with search algorithms just as the web reached the point where Yahoo’s listings couldn’t keep pace with the growth in pages.

The waves might be large, macroeconomic ones like the transition to renewable generation or the invention of the shipping container.

Or they might be small ones, like coming out with a diet that catches the eye of an influencer and spreads.

The thing with waves is that it’s hard to predict when they will turn up. You just need to get in position and, if you’re lucky, one will come along and lift you up.

So, do these apply to small businesses and individuals?

Well… as a model, perhaps we can use them and see. As George Box wrote all models are wrong, some are useful.

For example, can you be a leader in a particular factor? Cost, for example. While all your competitors do things manually, can you automate stuff so that you can be cheaper, but offer much more?

Can you put things together so that they have an exponential effect. For example, it’s incredibly hard to recruit people who can read, write and do arithmetic (to a high standard!). If you can… then there are many consulting jobs waiting for you with high salaries.

Are you a superb generalist – someone who can walk into an industry and fix everything from sales to operations to R&D. If so, perhaps that’s your edge.

And finally – have you qualified in a field whose time has come? Neuroscience, perhaps? Or big data?

What’s perhaps clear is that if you want to succeed, it’s not just about working hard.

You also need to know why you have an edge.

And then work on the things that sharpen your edge.


Karthik Suresh

Why Do Some People Have All The Power?


Tuesday, 6.54pm

Sheffield, U.K.

It’s easy to assume the world is the way it is and that’s how it’s going to stay.

It’s hard to imagine an alternative to the status quo. Can you imagine Google and Facebook not being as big and powerful as they are now? Doing a search on any other engine?

Logically – it’s possible, even likely. Societies change, regimes fall and companies disappear. All the time.

But, when you’re in the middle of a situation, whether personal, business or political, it’s hard to see where the change is going to come from.

Which is where power theory may help.

This paper by Oliver E. Williamson says that you need to have three things to grab power in an organisation:

  1. You need to control critical resources.
  2. You need to have early access to information.
  3. You need to be strategically positioned to deal with uncertainty.

Technically – he argues that the most critical part of the organisation will get these assigned to them. So, for example, if marketing is the bit of the organisation that makes the most difference, then it will be given these three things to do.

He also says that power theory is not great at explaining things – it’s a bit of a pied piper – because if you have control, why would you give it up? Why wouldn’t you stop power being taken away from you?

Now… I’m not sure I agree with his dismissal of the concept, because it seems to be useful in explaining both how things are and how they might change. Bear with me.

Let’s say you run a big car company in the US in fifties and sixties. The rest of the world has been devastated by war but the mainland US is unaffected and starts to churn out stuff for the rest of the world, supported by natural resources, a big population and abundant industrial expertise.

You’re in control. You make plenty of money. People buy your cars all around the world. Gas is cheap, so your cars are big and comfortable. You’ve got plenty of political support because of all the people you employ and the politicians you support.

You’ve also got all the statisticians and data analysts and government reports you need to see about the industry. Plenty of information on sales and resources and competitors. Nothing really gets past you.

You have a perfect power triangle – you’re in the strongest shape of your life – and it looks like nothing can ever challenge your dominance.

Until it does.

The Japanese car producers, who you’ve dismissed as makers of small, cheap, tinny cars that the American public will never buy, start to make better cars.

More importantly, however, there is a oil crisis. The Middle East creates a cartel and sends prices sky high. And suddenly all your big cars are hugely expensive to run, you don’t know how to make small economical cars and the Japanese have an opening – and people start to try their cars and like them.

Your problem is that you weren’t strategically positioned to deal with this kind of uncertainty.

And that’s because it’s really hard to predict such a dramatic shift in circumstances, especially when things are going so well.

Let’s take another example.

Microsoft was unchallenged in the PC operating system world. It ran most machines. The rest hardly made an impact.

The thing that they weren’t strategically positioned for was the Internet – and that let Google in.

What this shows us is that power is temporary – it’s a function of control, information and positioning.

At a point in time.

There’s no point in controlling critical resources if they become irrelevant. Just ask the coal industry as it wilts in the face of renewables.

There’s no point in having early access to information, for example through leaks from the government, when the Internet doesn’t give a hoot what politicians think and lets anyone talk to anyone else in the world.

And there’s no point being positioned behind a big wall if there’s a big tunnel forming right under it.

However fixed something seems to be, however powerful the current people in charge appear to be, there’s another power structure forming behind them, invisible to them – but getting ready to replace them.

Let’s hope it’s a better one.