The Slightly Unexpected Secret To Power

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Sunday, 7.32pm

Sheffield, U.K.

That was how you got to be a power in the land, he thought. You never cared a toss about whatever anyone else thought and you were never, ever, uncertain about anything – Captain Vimes in Terry Pratchett’s “Guards! Guards!”

I have rediscovered Terry Pratchett recently, and realised something – or at least had it pointed out by Neil Gaiman in another book.

Pratchett is a hard to pin down writer, combining the wit of Douglas Adams with the output of P.G Wodehouse.

His writing is funny and clever, which means that clever people probably look at the funny bit and assume that it’s not going to be something they will get into while funny people don’t perhaps get just how clever some of the stuff is.

And there is lots of it, buried within the funny bits.

Let’s leave out the physics – just focus on the social observations he makes.

For example, in one of his books he says that when people ask for advice they don’t really want you to tell them anything.

The sort of want you to be around while they talk about it.

It’s taken me a while to realise that – but having done so it’s created a rather interesting line of business so far.

And then you have his observation about power, which is in the quote above that for me, anyway, is a complete eye-opener.

Let me explain.

For a while, I have been observing people that I term born business folk – people who have a certain something about them.

It’s their ability to look at a situation and make a decision.

Now, that decision may be based on facts and opinion, some of which I agree with and some of which seem wrong, and some of which I know to be wrong.

But it’s not just a decision – it’s a sense of certainty they give out when they make that decision.

As if they’ve just said, “Here I stand!”, they’ve planted a standard and there is no moving them.

You wonder sometimes whether they realise just how badly things could go… and come to the conclusion that they do not.

And so you scuttle back, step into the shadows, and wait and see what happens.

Perhaps with a touch of schadenfreude, waiting for the inevitable downfall.

Now clearly, to any right thinking person, that way of operating – certainty until the fates prove you right or wrong – has a range of outcomes.

We remember the wins and forget the losses – heroes are created by selecting winners after all.

And eventually there seems to be a link between confidence and certainty and success.

We follow the leader that sounds confident because in the past such leaders led others to victory.

Hitler, Stalin, Churchill, Joan of Arc.

It’s the other observation of Terry’s that starts to balance things out.

Do you care what other people think?

If you do, then you’re in a different game – one where politics is important and keeping up appearances is crucial.

In such a world it’s far more important not to fail than it is to win.

It’s the “No one ever got fired for buying IBM” sort of world.

Certainty in a world where success depends on what other people think can lead to odd results.

Take painters, for example.

Many have been certain in their art but less successful in a market.

What matters as much is knowing your business – knowing what needs to happen regardless of what other people think.

So, how do these two things relate?

Imagine you’re building a product because you think someone else is going to need it – then your chances of success are probably the same as most products that are brought to the market – perhaps 5 percent or so.

If you build something because you need it – because you’re scratching your own itch – then you’re starting to tilt the odds in your favour.

Let’s say you’ve done your research and you understand the approach you need to take and how viable your product is – how are you going to market it?

If you are diffident and balanced about the pros and cons of what you are going to do – then you’ll find that people will be equally circumspect.

They will note your lack of confidence and instinctively move away.

It’s just what happens.

But, if you can marry research and a thorough knowledge of your business – if you’re operating in what Warren Buffett calls your circle of competence then you need to – you must take decisive action when the time calls for it.

You must be confident that you are right and you will prevail.

What got the ancestors of old their portraits on the wall was because they brought this combination of skills to their battles.

If they were green, untrained, able only to fight on paper – but confident in their approach and holding power, they probably sent their soldiers to their slaughter.

But if they knew their field, their tactics, their people – and then they led the battle, their army followed and they probably won.

And ended up with the loot and the castle and the portrait.

What this means for us is this.

If you want power temporarily, you can get it through politics.

If you want real power, the kind of thing that lasts for generations – you get that through your work.

And power does not have to be money and jewels and castles.

These days power has more to do with what you have in your mind.

Which is why your work matters.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

What Would You Do If You Could Do Anything Right Now?

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Friday, 8.21pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The thing I love most about my job is watching people age backward, becoming more lively and energetic as they free themselves from situations that are toxic to their essential selves. – Martha Beck

One of the exercises psychologists ask you to do is the perfect day exercise.

Imagine you could do anything – you had no limits or constraints at all – and you had all the resources and money to do whatever you could possibly want.

What would you do?

If you’re interested, take a minute and write down your perfect day – go into detail and be as imaginative as you want.

You can do the same exercise with your business or your job role.

What would a perfect day at work look like, a perfect business trajectory – how would you describe that to someone else.

Now, when you’ve done this you have an opportunity to learn more about yourself.

Many of us think that we would like to do something – be a famous singer, a racing car driver, a President.

When you look at your perfect day the thing you should ask is how much time you spend doing the thing you think you want to do.

For example, does your perfect day include practising for three or four hours?

Does it include doing to track days?

Or does it involve actively getting involved in local politics?

If your idea of a perfect day is to spend your morning in bed with several attractive members of the opposite sex and then take your private jet to Paris for breakfast, followed by lunch in the Riviera while your chauffeur waits to take you to a private dinner with the Queen followed by an exclusive nightclub – then perhaps what you want is to be famous and have lots of money – not actually sing or drive or lead.

When it comes to your business the same considerations apply – do you want a passive income generating machine that gives you money for doing no work at all – or are you pursuing a calling that means a huge amount to you?

The chances are that what we think we want is often what we think we should want – or what others want for us.

How do we know what we really want – what’s the thing that would drive us if we only knew what it was?

What are the possible selves we could have?

Do you think you would like writing poetry or painting?

Is being a good parent the thing you want to do – know that your children will look back on their childhood with happiness and gratitude?

Do you want to tinker with things, invent or make stuff that helps people – or do you want to be a good friend, someone with strong, deep relationships?

Or do you want to be the life and soul of the party – the person who is in charge of happiness?

Here’s the thing.

If you can’t do anything you want in your imagination when there is nothing holding you back – how will you do it in real life with all the constraints and excuses around you?

When you have a job that drains all your energy, when you have children and a mortgage and car payments and holidays and no money – how will you find the time to create or learn or be who you want to be?

And there’s no easy answer to that – because all the things you have bought over time – the things that you own now own you and your life.

You’re loaded down – just imagine yourself like a mule weighted down with all the possessions in your life.

When you were young and carefree you didn’t have a care in the world and the time seemed endless.

When you’re older time passes more quickly and you move more slowly – because of all the baggage you’re carrying.

So, the first step to making a change, especially later in life, is to jettison some of that load – get rid of everything you don’t need and most of what you do and keep only what is absolutely crucial to your existence.

Your family, friends and passion for what you do.

And then maybe you can start working on making life just that bit more perfect.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

What To Do When You Feel Like You’re Getting Nowhere

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Saturday, 9.40pm

Sheffield, U.K.

It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop. – Confucius

Saturday, 9.41pm

Sheffield, U.K.

If we regret anything in life it’s probably the things we didn’t do when we had the chance.

If you did do it and it didn’t work out – well, at least you tried.

But in most cases it’s the things you haven’t tried when you were still able to do so that come to mind.

I was listening to a YouTube talk by Kurt Vonnegut when, rather inexplicably and right at the very end, they inserted an advert for an online course by a writer.

I was a little startled and it took me a while to tune in – mainly because when that sort of thing happens I tend to reach for a sketchbook and start doodling until I can press the skip ad button.

Anyway, somewhere in there the author said that he wrote every day for fifteen years before writing his first book.

And then I watched a TED talk by Andrew Stanton, the writer behind Toy Story, Finding Nemo and Wall-E, as he went back through the timeline of events and experiences that brought him to where he is today.

And then another TED talk on humour – and all these talks had one thing in common.

It takes time to get to where you are.

Okay, that’s obvious, time passes whether you do anything or not – inexorably, unforgivingly.

Slight sense of deja vu as I write these words because this morning, for some reason, I had Kipling’s poem running through my mind.

“If you can fill the unforgiving minute; With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it…”

Time is, when you look at it, simply the most vital non-renewable resource in your life.

So what you do with it matters.

We know it takes time to master anything.

You have to start by learning to see, to deconstruct what the thing you want to do.

Then you have to practice, learn how to do each element and get better and better at the parts.

Then you have to reconstruct the pieces, put them together so that they make something – first something that looks like the things other people make and then a new thing – that you’ve made and brought into the world.

These three steps – deconstruction, practice and reconstruction – are the way to learn things.

And it’s frustrating and sometimes it feels like you’re not getting anywhere, you’re stuck and it’s impossible to break through.

But what that also tells you is that you’re at the edge of what you know now – and there is something else for you to find – as long as you keep working at it.

I feel, for example, that my writing is all over the place – there is no theme, structure, focus, goal, objective, plan, story or technique.

There is just the practice of trying to draw and write something daily.

I have a book by Natalie Goldberg called Writing down the bones and she talks about how she was finding it hard to understand Zen by doing sitting meditation and her teacher said, “Why do you come to sit meditation? Why don’t you make writing your practice? If you go deep enough in writing, it will take you everyplace.”

Goldberg writes that this idea of a “practise” can be applied to everything, to business, to comedy, to exercise – because there are many “truths” out there for you to consider.

And that is what I find as I write about the topics that interest me – about strategy and management and you career – there are so many “truths” and they could even be true.

But you can’t approach the truth head on – just like you can’t really approach yourself head on.

You sort of have to sneak up – keep doing things and looking around and then, if you’re lucky, you might spot the truth that works for you – or get what you really want to do with the rest of your life.

What you need is faith – not in a god – but in yourself.

Faith that if you do the practise everything will work out.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How Can You Intentionally Make Your Life Better?

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Friday, 6.58pm

Sheffield, U.K.

A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

I watched Bill Burnett’s talk, Designing your life, which is worth sitting through and reflecting on.

I took away a few points – adapted slightly, perhaps, from the original message – but perhaps more useful to me.

The first thing that’s interesting is the idea – how to design your life.

The important word is design – what you’re trying to do when you design something is to make it better – not worse.

And it’s very easy to make things worse – think of the outcome of nearly every meeting you’ve been to.

Burnett has five points to keep in mind when it comes to design – but I find four useful, and one of those in a slightly different form.

The first one is to connect the dots.

Burnett argues that meaning comes from connecting dots – dots like what you believe, what you do and who you are.

The idea is that these things are three separate elements within you – and it’s by aligning, connecting, resolving these points that you find meaning in your life.

I’m not so sure.

I see the dots as elements of a system, the parts that need to be in place and that also need to work together for something to happen.

This does have to do with what you do, but also where you do it, what others do and the culture and environment in which you find yourself.

In other words, you have to look at yourself as a system – do all the parts actually work together, like a car driving along on the road, or are they just parts, like the bits of a car dismantled and laid out on a lawn.

Meaning, I think, is an emergent property – it comes out of the system that you have created through choice – and without choice.

It’s only when you connect the dots that you get a line.

And all the dots you need have to be there to get the line you want.

The second point is to avoid gravity problems.

Gravity problems are ones that you really have no choice over – problems that you can’t affect or influence or change.

Either accept them or find a place where they don’t exist.

Which is clearly hard in the case of gravity – but less so when it comes to bosses who you don’t get on with or people who hold you back.

The third point is to try things out before you buy.

Before you quit your job to start a flower shop, try selling flowers at a market to see if you like the experience.

If you can’t try it yourself ask people who do it now – ask a surgeon what the life is like before starting a 14 year programme of study.

Don’t watch enviously, or hide behind your desk.

Get stuck in – trying something out is often cost free or very low cost – which is a cheap price to pay for the learning you get.

There is a missing point here – one about prototyping – thinking about the thing you want to create.

I’m not that sure about that – mainly because when it comes to life I feel that we’re so encrusted with societal views, parental expectations and our own justifications that any design we come up with is likely to be encumbered with elements of those things.

Instead – just try things out that you can try out – keep your eyes open for opportunities and when you see them put your hand up.

Eventually you’ll find yourself doing more of the things you like and less of the things you don’t – as long as you bear the fourth point in mind.

Don’t be afraid to let go and move on.

A sure fire way to make yourself miserable is to keep your options open or be able to reverse a decision.

Choices cause us angst – and having the option to change our minds makes us worry whether we did the right thing in the first place.

Traders know this – it’s too easy to worry about the trades you’ve done and whether they will work out.

You can’t look back – you just need to look at the next trade – the next deal.

And that’s the case with life as well – try something out and if it doesn’t work or you don’t like it don’t hesitate to quit and walk away.

You have nothing to prove to anyone else – the only thing that matters is whether your life is better after you make your choice.

And it always is – your brain is wired to make you feel good about a choice you have made when there is no turning back.

For most of us the essential elements for a good life are in place or accessible to us – it’s often the system that doesn’t work.

But that’s the point of design thinking – there is no best.

But there is better.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

What Kind Of Work Should You Focus On Creating?

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Wednesday, 9.39pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The world always seems brighter when you’ve just made something that wasn’t there before. – Neil Gaiman

I rarely have a plan when I begin the process of writing one of these posts.

I do have a ritual, however, a ritual that means I never have to start with a blank page – a ritual that makes it possible to eventually post something in an hour or so.

A blank page can be a forbidding, fear inducing thing.

Those first words, that first scrawl – it doesn’t look like anything and it probably won’t be anything and you’re best off just throwing it in the bin now.

You see this happening early on in life – first your children scribble and draw without fear.

And then they start school and learn that things are good or bad, perfect or imperfect, and they worry about getting the spelling right, or the spacing right, or the pronunciation right.

And in trying to get things right we slow down, we spend less time practising and more time correcting – and eventually controlling.

And eventually correction and control kills the thing you started doing because you liked doing it.

How many children continue to draw into adulthood?

At around six, seven, eight, nine, ten – they start to leave behind childish things and childish scrawls – they grow up.

An organisation is similar to a child in that respect.

When you’re running a startup what you’re focused on is creating something – something that you believe should exist or something that a customer needs you to create.

That’s exciting work, creative work – and you’ll get on and do it.

And then your startup grows, you add people – and calls start for training, and quality and management.

You start creating processes – which go out of date almost instantly if you do any kind of innovation at all – so in order to keep the process moving you stop innovating.

Richard Feynman had this story about the space programme where mechanics had to count a number of holes across a rocket body to work out where the fasteners should go.

Feynman suggested that they paint four marks on the quadrants, because that way you would only need to count a quarter of the holes.

“Too expensive,” he was told.

Too expensive to paint four little marks?

No – too expensive to revise and reprint all the manuals.

And so children stop drawing, companies stop innovating and everyone gets old and miserable.

But it doesn’t have to be that way – if you keep a few pointers in mind.

These particular ones come from the mind of Neil Gaiman and his famous keynote address at the Philadelphia’s University of the Arts.

What you should do, Gaiman says, is make good art.

Art, I think, is anything you do – and it includes writing, programming, sculpting, steel-making.

Because there is an art to doing almost everything.

Everything that adds value, that is.

This is where we should keep in mind that there are things we do that add value – things that customers need.

Then there are things we do that are as a consequence of failures in a system somewhere – things that have gone wrong.

It’s easy to see why working on the first type of demand on our time – value demand – is worth doing.

The second kind of demand – failure demand – is easy to get wrong.

Failure demand is the time you spend dealing with the consequences of a problem rather than fixing the system so the problem stops happening.

Fixing things is also an art – as Pirsig pointed out in Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance.

So, the first thing to remember is to make art – and make good art.

The second thing, Gaiman says, is to make your art.

Make the stuff only you can do, the stuff that excites you, the stuff that emerges as you lean make art – first copying, then adapting and then innovating – all the while creating.

But, the will to make good art or your art is not enough.

I suspect even trying to do it will actually throw you off.

What you need instead is a ritual – starting work on your art at around the same time, using the same approach, and getting on with it.

On some days your work will be rubbish.

On other days it will be good.

But at the end of a year at least you’ll have a body of work.

And you’ll know yourself better.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

What Kind Of Professional Do You Need To Be To Succeed In The World Today?

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Formal education will make you a living; self-education will make you a fortune. – Jim Rohn

Saturday, 9.35pm

Sheffield, U.K.

If there’s one thing that matters to you it’s probably your career – whether you’re an employee or run your own business.

What you do to make a living is right up there on a list of the most important things in your life.

So, do you have a plan for how to build and develop your career?

When I look around one kind of approach is very “Rah Rah”.

This is the kind of talk where someone is on a ladder and they’re going to get to the very top – they believe and they want you to know that they’re unstoppable.

It’s the approach that’s drilled into us – maybe not literally but at least it’s the image that we have from popular culture – which after all is mostly American.

It’s sort of summed up in that quote from the football coach Vince Lombardi that “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”

Now that’s all very well if you really believe that personal performance – grit, hard work, perseverance – is what leads to success.

But is that really the case?

I came across the book Globality: Competing with everyone from everywhere for everything by Harold L. Sirkin, James W. Hemerling and Arindam K. Bhattacharya and it makes for interesting, even eye opening reading.

Here’s the (recent) history of the world in a nutshell.

In the middle of the last millennium China and India were the world’s largest economies.

In the second half of the millennium Europe started to emerge – it had an industrial revolution and set the foundations for a modern world.

Then in the last century Europe blew itself to pieces and America found itself with a large population, abundant resources and no competition.

And it prospered.

And then the rest of the world started doing business again, picking itself up from the aftermath of war – hungry to learn and develop and grow and modernise.

And we’re here now – with developed economies and developing ones – more people living longer with better healthcare and more stuff and trying to figure out how we can all live on the planet without ruining it in the process.

And, of course, trying to find jobs – do something useful.

Now what you will know if you read this blog or are generally interested in the topic is that success is often down to the environment more than the people.

Success has moved from continent to continent over the last thousand years.

Is it possible that people were successful because they were lucky enough to be born on the particular continent that was taking its turn at being successful?

Now clearly we don’t know – and to some extent we don’t care.

We don’t care about all those other people – we care about us and where we are right now.

And it’s probably fair to say that you are competing with more people in more places than anyone before you.

Now, hidden in the book on page 101 is perhaps the secret of career success you need for this new world – a secret set out in the image that starts this post.

Established companies are led by what the book calls operators – people who keep things going and make small improvements.

But when it comes to challenging the status quo you need individuals who are builders – part entrepreneur and part team captain.

These people look for opportunities and take risks to go after them – personal risks.

And they are good at finding people to get on their team, developing and training them and inspiring them to act.

They’re also good at finding partners to work with.

This kind of individual doesn’t need a ladder – they’ll get wood and nails and make one themselves – or find something else like a rope or cannon to get them where they need to be.

That skill – being a builder – is not one you’ll find easily.

And because that’s the case perhaps developing it will help you get ahead in your own career.

After all waiting for someone to get out of your way so you can get ahead is a strategy from the past – a “dead man’s shoes” approach.

It doesn’t work so well in a world where we’re all living longer.

You need to make your own shoes.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Are You Where You Should Be Mid-Career If You Are A Technologist?

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Wednesday, 9.50pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The biggest mistake that you can make is to believe that you are working for somebody else. Job security is gone. The driving force of a career must come from the individual. Remember: Jobs are owned by the company, you own your career! – Earl Nightingale

Do you ever wonder if you are at the right place in your career – whether you’ve made the right choices along the way?

If you have, you’re not alone.

People have wondered about this for a while.

Which is why Living with technology: Issues at mid-career by Lotte Bailyn is an interesting read.

It caught my eye because it had the name Edgar H. Schein associated with it who, you will remember, is sort of a granddaddy of organisational development.

It’s a study of the MIT graduates from 1951, 1955 and 1959, over 2,000 in all with 22 women – so it’s skewed in all kinds of ways.

But here’s what matters if you have a technical background.

Unless you’re an academic or working in a firm that highly values engineering you’re unlikely to be in a good place if you’re still working an engineering role.

That is, if you’re an employee in a firm.

If you’re independent then things look better for you.

The image above shows how things tend to go for technical people working jobs by the time they reach mid career.

The first distinction is whether they are still technically focused or whether they have moved to more of a human focus – management in other words.

They might have also stopped trying to climb the career ladder and focus on other things that are important to them – like family.

The second distinction is whether they are high or low performers.

For high performers the route to follow if they want to stay technical is academia or professional engineering where their experience and doctorates will count for something.

In non-engineering companies they will not be recognised in the way they might want to be.

In those companies the high performers stop doing work and start ordering others around instead.

What matters is your place in the hierarchy – the higher up the better.

The corresponding roles for low performers is working as a technician or doing low level supervisory or line management roles.

That, then, is your unfortunate lot if you put work first.

If you don’t – then there are a couple more options.

If you’re good at what you do you could be kept on for your expertise – as a consultant to add value that isn’t in house.

If you’re less of a performer you might still be a useful pair of hands attached to a brain that can help out some of the time.

If you look at this image from an employees point of view it looks pretty depressing.

And actually, that’s the point.

As the quote that starts this post says you are in charge of your career – what you do at work is just a job.

If you aren’t recognised for what you do, or worse, you’re prevented from showing what you can do then you’re in trouble.

And need to spend some time thinking about what you could be doing.

The responsibility, however, also rests with employers.

The fact is that all the people in the various quadrants have something to contribute – but you have to be able to accommodate them.

And if you’re in a position where you make decisions about this kind of thing it’s worth remembering that the people this study is based on graduated sixty years ago.

This type of situation should be obsolete – but it’s still the norm.

Even that last quadrant – “part timers”, which to be clear is something that I put in and isn’t in the book, could be seen as dismissive and disrespectful of the work someone does.

I suppose if you were a good employer you would try and work with your people to help them figure out where they are, where they want to be and what would make them happy.

Or you could complain about how hard it is to get good staff.

Either way the world moves on.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

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

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Friday, 7.44pm

Sheffield, U.K.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What makes you unique?

This is actually quite a hard one to answer.

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

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

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

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

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

How well do you know what your customers need?

This is something that is very easy to forget.

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

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

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

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

Who then move on.

Are you obsolete?

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

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

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

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

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

Is there a mega competitor out there?

Amazon anybody?

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

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

Does anyone know what you do or did any more?

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

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

Is your market going nowhere?

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

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

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

The time to act… was some time back

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

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

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

I’m not so sure about that.

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

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

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

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

Train and learn and learn and train.

And, as the Scouts would say, Be Prepared.

What Are We Losing By Trying To Be Adults?

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Sunday, 8.58pm

Sheffield, U.K.

How do I know what I think until I see what I say? – E.M. Forster

I assume, if you are reading this, that you are an adult, someone who has left behind childish things and is now seeking Wisdom or Riches or both.

If that is so, you probably have the education system to blame – the system that systematically strips us of creativity and abandon in order to prepare us for a world of order where we must find our place.

Although that’s probably not fair – I didn’t have that kind of education and neither, probably, did you.

When we look for the reasons why something is not working as it should we tend to swing towards to extremes.

We either look at individuals and try and assess whether they’re performing well or poorly.

Or we look at the system they’re working in and ask how well it’s supporting them in delivering what they should be doing.

In most cases it’s the system’s fault.

And, in most cases, we look to blame the people.

But it may be that, when it comes to teaching, the teacher you have does matter.

Teachers who believe their job is to “Teach” – that knowledge is something they force into a child have one way of approaching their lessons.

On the other hand, teachers who see their role as putting students in situations where they can discover what they need to know are the ones you remember as being truly great.

These sorts of thoughts are the ones Keith Johnstone, a director, teacher and writer on theatre craft, explores in his book Impro: Improvisation and the theatre.

He reminds us that children of all kinds are deeply interested in things they are interested in.

If you try and force a child to read something that she finds boring then how can you be surprised when she stops when the timer goes off?

On the other hand the same child, when engrossed in a task that interests and engages her, will spend hours working away at it.

In this witty TED talk Sir Ken Robinson argues that schools kill creativity because “Truthfully, what happens is, as children grow up, we start to educate them progressively from the waist up. And then we focus on their heads. And slightly to one side.”

In the beginning, as children, we’re excited by almost everything – drawing, singing, running, playing – it’s like we’re a growing bush with leaves everywhere.

As we get older, the leaves drop off.

We stop singing, we put away the paints.

We focus on something that we can do that will bring in money.

And we end up older, bigger – with a set of skills.

But have we lost all the leaves in the process?

Johnstone writes that he “began to think of children not as immature adults, but of adults as atrophied children.”

What his book is about, then, is about getting that childlike state back again.

For example, right at the beginning, he suggests an exercise that you can do with your children.

Look around at things and call them by the wrong names.

Keep going, naming around 10 things.

We did this, the kids got quite excited, although they didn’t know why they were doing it.

The idea is that this exercise acts like sandpaper on your surface, getting rid of all the stuff that’s been collecting and stopping you seeing things like a child for the first time.

Suddenly one of the kids pointed out a towel holder on one wall – and I have to honestly say that in four years of walking in and out of this room, I have never seen that thing before.

It’s clearly been there all this time – I’ve just not noticed.

But I did – as a result of this exercise I saw the things around me clearly for the first time because we called them by the wrong names.

That’s a very different approach to taking an inventory – tabulating and checking what’s in there.

Much more exciting, lively, engaging, interesting.

Not a very grown up thing to do.

Johnstone’s book promises to deliver more interesting ideas – so I might come back to it in subsequent posts.

Until then.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

What Are The Characteristics Of Self Actualising People?

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Thursday, 9.43pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but … life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves. – Gabriel García Márquez

A useful skill to develop is the ability to use models from one field to inform work in another.

Or, on the other hand, to see the similarities in models with different names but common characteristics.

For example, you are probably aware of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs model, where after you’ve figured out the basic needs for life, you can get on with the job of being what you must be.

I was browsing through a book by April O’Connell called Choice and change: The psychology of adjustment, growth and creativity, when I came across a bit on self-actualisation – the thing that used to be at the apex of Maslow’s pyramid.

In a nutshell, there are four psychological processes, O’Connell argues, that you need to master if you’re going to be what you must be.

The first has to do with what is in your head – how you go about inquiring, learning and discovering day after day.

We’re so busy these days being stimulated by media and overwhelmed by work that we rarely have time to learn – after we finish formal schooling anyway.

Most people know that learning should be a lifelong thing – but do you think that you’re learning and developing doing what you’re doing now?

The next process has to do with your emotional development – whether you are able to go past the basic feelings of fear and joy and experience more complex ones like empathy, compassion and kindness.

It appears that the older we get the more some of us close ourselves off to such experiences – maybe we see it as childish or unnecessary.

But it’s important to develop that ability, if only because we need to be open to new feelings in order to avoid closing ourselves off – getting stuck in rigid thinking and authoritarian ways until, eventually, the world moves on and we are made obsolete.

The third process has to do with our ability to direct what we do – to have some control over what we spend our time doing.

We are often never completely in control – but the more control we have the more likely it is that we will steer ourselves in a direction that works for us.

This process has to do with taking responsibility and taking action – not waiting for others to tell us what to do, give us what we deserve or push us in the direction we ought to be going.

The last process has to do with understanding and accepting that we live in a world with other people and that means we need to think about more than just what we can take for ourselves.

It has to do with the relationship we have with others and our environment – and what we do to live better together.

I thought it was worth thinking about this four part model for two reasons.

First, it is very simple and you can figure out pretty quickly how much of your time you’re spending developing yourself in each area.

I’d say I work on two of the four most of the time, and perhaps spend a tenth of my time on a third.

Self assessment: could do better.

The other is that this simple model of a self-actualised person has echoes of a systems thinking approach called the viable systems model, although the latter is expressed using language that is so much harder.

But why might it be useful to compare the two?

Well, if you’re trying to build any kind of system – a business, for example, what is it you need to do to make the business viable?

Well, you need to constantly learn how to do your business better.

You need to have empathy with your customer – understand what they need you to do.

You need to execute effectively – directing your resources to get things done.

And you need to have good relationships with suppliers and partners to support and grow your business.

The four characteristics of well-developed people seem to map well onto well-developed businesses.

And they seem worth trying to develop.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh