Are You Trying To Give Or Teach In Your Business?

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Friday, 7pm

Sheffield, U.K.

A good teacher, like a good entertainer first must hold his audience’s attention, then he can teach his lesson. – John Henrik Clarke

There are consistent tensions that emerge when you create something that you think is new and valuable. While its an idea or a vision it’s just floating out there. But the minute you make it tangible, put it into the world in some kind of form you start to lose control – and so I suppose people try and exert control once again. If only to be able to exploit what they create – to monetise it. But in doing so you constrain the idea and it’s hard for it to adapt and expand until it stops, stuck where it is. At which point you have to go and start looking for another idea. You get a sense of this in the picture below.

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How do you find a balance between holding something so tightly that you crush it and so loosely that it flies away? I don’t know how to do that but I think it’s work changing the way we think from wanting to reach a goal to going through a process or a cycle. And there is just a small difference between the two things – but it has a big impact.

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That small amount of circularity in the process mindset means you can think about things for longer. You can take a bit more time because you get another chance to do it better. But there are lots of things that you have to do perfectly – you have to sing that song right, hit that ball straight – and the kind of approach you take depends on the kind of thing you’re doing.

For example, we will all probably be in situations where we have to figure out how to market what we do – and there are really two big choices in this day and age. You can give people something or you can teach them something. You can be a giver or a teacher.

The model below is a cognitive map that is meant to be read in a particular way. It’s full of bipolar constructs – which means that each sentence has two opposite poles separated by three dots. The three dots. “…”, mean “rather than”. So, in the first oval you read the sentence as “Get paid for your work rather than get paid to teach”. The second thing is that the tiny minus sign on the line linking “Teacher” to the next oval means that the second statement applies to that point. So, as you read down the model the “Giver” relates to the first pole of each construct and the “Teacher” relates to the second pole.

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Yes it’s complicated – bear with me – I’m trying to wrap my head around this way of thinking too.

The way I took “real” sketchnotes is like the image below – paper in a clipboard and a pencil. And it helped me learn – and now, years later, those concepts still make sense. It’s not pretty, but it helped me with what I needed to do.

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What this means really is that if you want to teach someone something like visual thinking – then making really lovely pictures that you need an art degree to be able to do is more likely to scare them off than help them. If you want to show your work and have people admire it – then do the best work you can. But that’s not teaching. Teaching is about showing people work that’s possible in the situation, in the heat of the moment. For example, if you google “Sketchnotes” you will see some amazing examples. But in practice most of us are not going to be able to create those works of art in a real classroom while learning.

So, the answer to the question of what matters – the message or how it looks is really to respond by saying that’s the wrong question. The right question is asking, “What are you trying to do – give or teach?” And the answer to that question will help you get the balance you need.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

The Two Marketing Strategies You Need To Know To Compete Today

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Monday, 8.05pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Let’s be honest here: Twitter, for me, is 90 per cent a marketing tool. – Ricky Gervais

The most useful marketing model I have come across in the last five years is the one above, by Neil Rackham, most famous as the author of Spin Selling. Neil’s work sparked a bit of a revolution in the art of selling – albeit one perhaps unnoticed by much of the world. Spin selling was about listening to the customer, understanding their situation, diagnosing their problem, understanding the implications of that problem and working out what they needed to solve it.

And then life moved on and the Internet appeared and started to change things. The thing with Spin selling is the implication that you as an expert add value – you’re the one that can come along and look at the situation, diagnosing a problem like a doctor prodding a lump and telling you what’s wrong with you. And being an expert in the days BI (Before Internet) had value – because you had knowledge and people trusted you to tell them what to do. As a car salesperson, for example, you could discuss the advantages and disadvantages of models with customers and if they trusted you and bought from you and found that you had told them the right things then they’d come back and buy from you again.

But in these AI (After Internet) days you know as much as any salesperson. I remember being a little surprised when using an agent to rent out our property that he came along with a printout of local listings – something I could have done myself. I expected him to add something extra – but what is there to add? Our doctor goes onto Google to check details like what a number should be. And why should that surprise us? No one is as expert on anything as the entire Internet – this hive mind that holds everything and that can be interrogated for answers.

And this has caught out a lot of people who have lived through the BI and AI transition and who depended on their status as experts to make a living. Everyone knows what they know now or can find it out with a search query. In the past, if a car salesperson helped you out with advice you were ok with paying a bit more for a car to cover that person’s commission. That’s the dashed line in the chart above – a little more service, a little higher the price. These days you double check what they say and then buy something wherever it’s cheapest. Expertise has lost its value. But what has replaced it?

It’s the other line in the chart. The middle of the market has been eviscerated and the pandemic has shown that more clearly than ever before. On the left hand side of the curve live transactional sales – where anything, whether cheap or expensive, can be described in a listing and put up for sale. The best listings get the most views and make the most sales. You need modern marketing skills – the ability to create content, craft ads, get attention, promote deals – all the things you had to do offline as well, but now even better online. If it can be understood and specified and described you’re going to go to a marketplace and pick it up. No humans needed in the delivery of the product – they’re all sat behind their computers crafting their listings.

On the other end of the chart is the world of consultative sales. This is where you don’t know what you need or want and need to work it through with someone. Not an “expert” – those are redundant – but someone who can work with you to figure out what needs to be done. A collaborator, a participant, a fellow traveller. On that side of the curve everyone is an expert at what they do. What you’re trying to do is work together to improve a situation. The difference is between asking a doctor to help you out and two colleagues working together on a particularly difficult case. It’s about working together to figure out what to do, not about “fixing” a problem.

I think that when you understand these two models you’ll start to see them everywhere. Transactional sales are what makes the Internet hum – and it’s going to steadily take over every product that relies on a description and listing. What’s left is collaborative problem solving – informed participants working together to make things better and sharing the value they create. And that’s it.

Right, now for something different. This particular group of posts started off as something around a book idea called “Community” and it has been hard and painful going. Mainly because, I think, I was trying to figure out what I was thinking as I was writing it. But that’s ok, that’s the nature of first drafts. The book’s probably somewhere in the last few tens of posts – there’s 70,000 words that must have something useful in there somewhere… But I think I’ve just run out of steam for this particular group.

Now, I think I might spend a few posts just reflecting on the writing process so far. I’ve learned a few things along the way that make things easier and I’m a fan of easy. I think hard work is pointless – you should make things so easy to do that there’s no point putting it off. If it’s hard the chances are it won’t get done. So let’s see where that takes us in the next post or few.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

What Are You Doing To Evangelize Your Product?

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Sunday, 9.23pm

Sheffield, U.K.

I think the only kind of acceptable evangelization is the evangelization of good example. – Andrew Greeley

You know the story of the person who built a better mousetrap and how the world beat a path to their door. You also know it probably would never happen that way. You’d build the better mousetrap and then spend ages trying to convince funders to give you the money to manufacture it and then ages persuading retailers to stock it and then more time appealing to shoppers to buy it. And then one day, you tip the balance and orders go through the roof and you’re hailed an overnight success and it only took two decades to get there.

If you do anything at all these days that doesn’t involve just working for someone else exchanging your time for money then you have to get used to the idea that you need to let people know about you. You need to do the equivalent of evangelizing – letting others know about the thing you believe in and care about and give them the opportunity to experience it for themselves. Or you need to find someone who believes in what you do enough to go out there and sound the message for you. But it’s better, if you can, to do it yourself.

But what’s the right way to do it? Do you rush out and get yourself on every channel there is? Do you shout very loudly, create lots of material, do crazy things to get attention? Do you try and sell yourself – persuade people to believe in what you say or do you create a message that you think they want to hear – manufacture a product that you think will sell or, easier still, manufacture a message you think they want to hear?

All that takes effort – too much effort – and while it probably works the question you need to ask is whether it’s worth doing. I remember meeting a person once – a person who worked in a different market and who described what he did in his business. What he was doing wasn’t right and I will always remember his thick lips – he licked them as he talked about what he was doing, with evident satisfaction, and it was repulsive. The wrong work with the wrong attitude. Don’t do that.

What works, in my opinion, is simply talking about what you do and showing your work – showing how you go about what you do. A thoughtful, reflective approach to your work, a critical appraisal of what’s working, what’s hard and what you’re trying to achieve will get you more credit in someone’s mind than any amount of hard selling. I think that’s what I think of when I think about you evangelizing your product – it’s being there, talking about what you do. Being discoverable by people who already know they’re interested in what you’re offering and those that aren’t sure but are willing to find out more. The others don’t matter – they aren’t your market.

So, assuming that you’re going to put yourself out there in the right way – in a way that is “authentic” – what are the elements of marketing that matter for you? I think I’ll look at that in the next post – what do we need to do to make ourselves discoverable?

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

What Kind Of Risk Do You Take When You Try Something New?

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Saturday, 7.18pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Make new friends, but keep the old; Those are silver, these are gold. – Joseph Parry

This is a bit of a reflective post – after a month of trying something different and wondering if I should stop – probably really thinking that I should stop. Or at least, do things a little differently.

At the start of the year I decided that I would try and spend more time drawing, working on getting my skill at making images up a little – given that it has barely improved in the last few years. It seemed to make sense to put images drawn on paper on my blog as a way to force that practice every day. For a month or so I’ve been sketching and taking photographs and scanning and fixing and uploading pictures and editing and cropping and getting them ready. And then I’ve been getting on with the writing.

I asked a question earlier this month as to whether the slowest way was really the fastest way. I was reading Lynda Barry who says this – she found it hard to write on a computer because it was so easy to delete the words and when she started writing with a brush, painting one letter after another, the words just flowed out and they were good. I tried to apply this to my drawings, slowing down and taking time and then doing the rest of the work to see if this might prove true for me as well. And I now have an answer.

The slowest way is the slowest way. I’m sorry, but there’s no way around that. It just takes longer to sketch with a blue pencil on paper, go over that with ink, scan it into the computer, trace the bitmap to get the dark lines and remove the background and then colour it in and get it ready for a post. That takes a very long time and I just don’t have that amount of time when I need to create a post in a set amount of time and then go and get dinner and help put the kids to bed.

The quality of the slow stuff may be better – but it’s not for the routine work of the everyday – for the thinking that helps to move things on. The slow is for when you need to reflect and create something that pulls everything else together. There are definitely cases when working slowly is the right thing to do for the situation you are in but for a daily blog post cadence it’s too slow, there are too many steps and too many points of failure – which means that more often than not you fail to get your product out of the door. And failing to ship is simply a fail.

The other thing that taking my eye off the fast way of doing things has done is that my old, trusty tools are gathering dust in the corner and when you don’t use them every day something goes wrong – you start to lose the feel you had for them. They no longer fit your hand, they feel a bit strange. The body of a digital stylus is unfamiliar and cumbersome after getting used to a pencil and pen again.

I suppose the point really is that the slow way is the slow way and the fast way is the fast way and what makes the difference is how you travel. Lynda Barry uses the delete key a lot. I hardly do. Her pencil makes sure and quick marks. Mine hesitates and trembles and makes weak scratches. Her way is fast for her and my way is fast for me. But I had to try her way to find out that my way is the one that works for me.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for analog tools in my world. I’m the kind of person who has to get all the kit and try it out to test and break the process before I make up my mind. And the analog stuff does help in certain situations when the slow approach adds real value and I will try and use it when it is appropriate.

What this month has also done, I think, is clarify what I want to look at from a research point of view in this space. I read a paper by Colin Eden, written in 1988 on Cognitive Mapping, which describes the experiences I’ve been having over the last couple of years when it comes to trying to get better at thinking and sense-making in complex environments. Simple formulaic solutions are easy to sell but reality is harder to wrap your mind around. Or easier sometimes – it depends on whether you can let go of the idea that you need to make it complicated.

I’ll explain this later – I’m probably going to be thinking about it for the next six years or so.

So, back to the plan for writing.

I feel like I’ve broken my process a bit and it might take a bit of time to get back on the right track – but you know, there’s no hurry. It’s about the journey after all.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Why Wanting What Someone Else Has Is Not An Advantage These Days

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Thursday, 8.06pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Envy is the art of counting the other fellow’s blessings instead of your own. – Harold Coffin

One of the things I realised pretty early on was that having a job came with all kinds of problems. The more senior you were, the higher your role in an organisation the more it seemed that people wanted you to fail, or wanted your job or had it in for you because of the decisions you made. Think of the leaders of any nation out there, free or not. Do you think they are happy, having reached the pinnacle of power. Or are they either harassed and overworked or insecure and cocooned away from people who might want to harm them.

Even if you’re not in the public eye – going after a “job” has other problems. Often people want you do to something that they know how to do but don’t have the time to do themselves. But they want you to do it the way they do it – and that’s really what training is. Following the agreed approach. Doing as you’re told. Sticking to the job description.

Except this isn’t really the case and when you see a “standard” approach being implemented what it should tell you is that the person doing the implementing doesn’t quite know what the right thing is to do. You can make machines work efficiently. You can line them up in the right way and sequence operations so that everything is ready when the next thing needs it. All that can be optimised and tweaked and tuned. And because it works so well with machines we think that we can use the same approach when working with people.

The problem with people, however, is that they have a mind of their own. They are “teleological” beings – with a sense of purpose about them – a purpose that often shifts based on how they feel. There really should be no such thing as a “job description”. Rather you should ask how a particular individual will go about working with others in your organisation to improve the way in which things are done. That might sound hopelessly woolly to us – but we need to realize that we have been conditioned to think of people like machines because our world has been so successful in using machines to make things better. But because machines do things well it does not follow that people should aim to be machines.

What this means is that these days you should really think about how you are going to create a job for yourself rather than what kind of job you are going to do. If you think of a role as being something that exists out there, independent of you, that anyone can fill – then you’re on the way to becoming a commodity – just the same as everyone else. You could have an amazing coat in the window but the fact is that there will be people who can wear that coat – more than one – probably quite a few. Individuality and character don’t come from what you do on the outside – those things can be copied. You just have to look at any subculture that makes a point of being different by taking the time to look the same. There’s no point looking enviously at what someone else has and thinking you’d be happy if you just had what they had.

Now, there are certain things that can be learned, that can be taught but you should think of those simply as hygiene factors, the cost of entry, the minimum standards needed. A long time ago I used to teach people how to teach dance – and we had a very structured approach to teaching them. You needed to know what to do, what to say, how to say it, when to intervene and correct something, how to only say as much as needed and only use your voice – all these little tips and techniques that helped you teach more effectively. But all that – everything we taught was simply to get you to the point where you could get in front of people and do a lesson. Making is a “good” lesson was up to you – and it depended on what you did with the time you had and how you came across and what your particular take on things was.

When you realise that you need to do something in your way – in the way only you can do it – then you’ll start to enjoy what you do because it flows from your centre, it is fully aligned with the way you do things. When you do things in the way someone else does – that’s ok when you’re learning but you have to eventually develop your own style, your signature, your way of doing this that is just you and no one else. That’s why I’m wary of systems that try to break things down and teach you exactly how to do something. What we should teach is methodology – the principles behind how something is done and we should teach technique – the skill of doing a particular activity. You need to work between those two extremes – between technique and methodology to create your own method – the way that works for you.

If you’ve seen the Mandalorian series you’ll remember the catchphrase, “This is the way.” What you need to get to is to the point when you can say, “This is my way.”

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How Do You Justify Learning Anything New?

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Wednesday, 9.16pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose. – Zora Neale Hurston

When you first try learning something new everything slows down, you know nothing and each element seems to take forever to learn. I think that’s what stops most of us from even bothering to try – that initial learning curve that’s so steep it seems like we’ll never master it. Or even get decent at it. Or better.

At the moment, for example, I’m trying to figure out what the purpose of the research that I’m planning on doing might be. So that’s one question – how do I articulate this in a way that’s going to make sense when I don’t really know how to do research yet.

What I do know is that I’m interested in this space where drawings and text and speech bump into each other. The idea of bumping into things was something that I picked up from the YouTube videos of Christina Merkley. She has an approach to classifying work as studio work – which is the kind of thing you do in the privacy of your studio with time to get it right and live work which you do in real time. I think you could overlay this with another axis that’s about doing the work either as an individual or in a group setting, which has a resonance with the work of Brandy Agerbeck whose books The Graphic Facilitator’s Guide and The Idea Shapers I’m currently going through.

The thing that happens when you read something new is that you want to experiment with different methods and that creates a challenge – because you want to be good but the chances are that you’re going to be more than a little rubbish. For example, I’ve been quite relaxed about drawing on the computer because it’s a bit different and people don’t really notice it because most of what I’m trying to think through is in the words. The graphic helps me to think about what I’m going to write but it doesn’t have to do any heavy lifting of its own.

I’m shifting my interest this year, however, to seeing if the graphics can carry more of the load – rebalancing the text and image usage. So then the pictures I draw have to make sense, they have to stand alone in their frames and make something of themselves. And that gets hard quickly. For example, do you draw and colour something entirely in analog or do you sketch it on paper, get the lines right, then scan it and do the colouring on the computer? What’s the right workflow?

Well, the obvious answer is that there isn’t a “right” workflow – there is the right one for you and what you’re trying to do and the best feedback you’ll get is how your customers respond to you when you put your new thing in front of them. If you are your own customer then fine – there’s nothing to worry about but if you’re putting something into the world that you’re hoping other people will use then you have to get this working well.

The good news is that it comes down to time. If you spend enough time working on the problem you’ll start to figure out what to do. If you give up too early that’s okay too – it just means that this thing didn’t matter enough to you. It’s okay to want something but not to want to do the work to get it. There’s plenty of other work to do as well.

The reality is that there is only so much energy you have that you can give to your projects. So focus that energy on the projects that mean the most to you. Even better, choose your projects so that they all support each other and make it easier for you to build on the things you’re doing.

Here’s the thing. Learning anything is hard. If it’s new – that’s even harder. And the first time you have a go is the hardest it’s going to be – except for the next hardest bit. Anything (sensible) that makes your life easier is worth trying out.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How To Create A Welcoming Environment For New Members

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Monday, 8.21pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Every movement, to stay alive – a very difficult thing to do historically – has to find a way to harness that initial surge of emotion and turn it to the hard, steady, un-sexy work of recruiting new members, strategizing, negotiating with those in power, keeping itself going. – George Packer

I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a member of a group – of a community or a business or of people that practise a hobby. It’s probably not something that many people have thought about since university but we do go through life being a part of circles and changing circles over time. As someone who went to boarding school I learned early about how groups form and how you can be inside or outside them. Ever since then I’ve seen the value of participating in groups but also been wary of them and their ability to draw you in and then keep you in, restricting your ability to move out again.

When you think about it those kinds of groups are everywhere. Religions use the methods of marking you as in or out. So do companies. Your country gets you to feel that way by stoking up feelings of nationalism. Sometimes these are good, as when people volunteer their time or donate their money to help the needy. Often they are bad as one community takes up a position and argues or fights against another.

I’ve been through a few groups in my time and I can think of quite a few that had a range of interesting problems. Perhaps you had a founder or leader who took everything personally. Perhaps you had differences of opinion and no way to resolve it other than the exercise of power, which you didn’t have. In such situations one group might leave and set up a competing group. I remember there being a cultural difference between people who preferred dancing in lines and those that danced in circles in one particular group. And now, of course, with online groups, you have a huge range of options – but what marks out the ones that seem to have a large and growing membership from the ones that struggle to get interest?

If we ignore the ones that are based around a celebrity – where the members are really there to follow what one or a few people do – then the thing that makes the biggest difference is how the group helps you to engage and participate in what’s going on. Most of us are lurkers and we just want to wait and watch and consume content. Some will create content. Others will engage with content, and perhaps curate it. I think curation is perhaps the hardest skill to develop – being able to critically but considerately bring together useful material that may help someone else.

In the olden days – when we used to meet face to face – what was important was having someone who would take on the responsibility for new members. These days it’s probably about content. We tend to follow individuals – either for their own work or for their community based work for a while before we try engage with them. Some of that content is going to be organic – the stuff you put out as you’re making everything else. But it probably makes sense for some of it to be meta content – stuff about you and what you do and guidance to how to get started interacting with your work.

The models of community that I think are important in this post-modern world are ones where communities can simply just get along – whether it’s a community of thousands or a community of one. We’re going to bump into each other and the question is whether that leads to conflict or not. Throughout history the default reaction has been one of conflict. What are the chances that things could be different now?

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Are You Finding It Hard To Get Everything Done?

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Sunday, 8.16pm

Sheffield, U.K.

To know the right means of getting something done is virtually to have done it. – Mark Caine

Do you ever wonder what you would do if you weren’t able to do the things you take for granted that you can do? If you lost the use of your dominant hand, or couldn’t see – do you ever wonder how you would respond and what you would do?

We know from books like Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on happiness that people generally overestimate how much of an effect this will have on them in the long term. Human beings are surprisingly resilient at coping with the things an indifferent fate throws at them. But what it would be like if you were proactive – if you thought through what you might do if the worst came to be?

I don’t think this can be dismissed as morbidity or pessimism. The idea of facing one’s own fears can help put things in perspective and show you what is important and what is not. Some thing as simple as being concerned about repetitive strain injury, something that I, as someone who tries to write every day, am starting to experience myself. What should I do, stop writing – take a break? Go on medication, surgery even? Perhaps the answer is in strength training. But what if that doesn’t help – what if I can’t write at all?

I find that when you think such thoughts it’s worth starting to consider what the worst case might be and what you might do. And you might find inspiration in the life of John Callahan who was paralyzed after an accident at age 21 but eventually created a career as a cartoonist and was the subject of the film Don’t worry, he won’t get far on foot. And if you’ve ever come across the application Dasher it’s a very good example of what technology can do to support people that have special needs.

The challenge, for most of us, is finding the right balance between the effort it takes to learn how to do something, the amount we have to do every day to keep the momentum going and what we’re trying to produce as a result of the work that we do. It’s easy to end up wishing we could do what someone else does. I watched a YouTube video today of an artist painstakingly crafting a Chinese bow using mostly hand tools – and while it’s beautifully made and the artist is elegantly pictured throughout – there must have been some sweat and swearing involved as well. We like the results that we see – but not all of us are prepared to put in the work needed to replicate someone else’s results.

That’s why it’s important that we find the thing that works for us – the particular way in which we can contribute. It takes time and patience to do that but you have to put in the time to find your way. You can’t do it all so you do have to try and select and work and stick at something and eventually you’ll work it out. It probably helps to have the chance to do an apprenticeship or craft your own apprentice journey. But when you do find it you’ll find that it asks a lot of you – especially of your body. There’s a scene in the series Mozart in the jungle where musicians talk about how they devote years to their art, pushing their bodies to the limit, and how much strength it takes to do that day after day.

But sometimes just being strong isn’t enough and if you can’t keep doing what you love to do in the way you love to do it what options do you have left? There’s always teaching – help others to learn how to do the thing that you care about – create an apprenticeship, a learning experience for others.

When it comes down to it – working out the options is really not that hard. It’s the fear of the unknown that stops us. Once the thing has happened we deal with it – that’s what our brains evolved to do – to help us survive. To carry on. It’s not over until it’s over.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

What Does Product Development Mean To You?

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Slow parents understand that childrearing should not be a cross between a competitive sport and product-development. It is not a project; it’s a journey. Slow parenting is about giving kids lots of love and attention with no conditions attached. – Carl Honore

One of the best images I’ve seen about product design is the one about the skateboard, created by Henrik Kniberg. It’s a simple picture that gets across the idea of a minimum viable product really rather clearly. In essence, the idea is that a product is not about delivering a wheel or a chassis but delivering an experience to your customer. I’m not sure I agree entirely with Kniberg’s use of the metaphor but rather than critique his description I think I’ll focus on the what I take away from it, which really is about the idea of the whole.

The “whole” is a concept from systems thinking which relates to the idea of emergence. If you have a wheel, you can’t do very much. If you have four wheels attached to a board then you’ve created a skateboard and you can do something that you can’t do with just any one of those elements. You can stand on it and travel. That’s a product right there and it makes people who like skateboarding quite happy and you can develop it and make it better and faster. I had a classmate at university who built longboards and ordered light kits and had a nice business going. Then, if you add elements, like steering or an engine, or a chassis and seats you end up with different products that help you travel when you’re younger, travel faster, safer and so on.

This idea of product design as something more than a thing is really quite important to internalise. Your product is ready when someone finds that they can do something useful with it – the useful bit emerges as a result of the product existing but it’s not found in it. And sometimes people don’t really get this. They see their job as doing one bit and doing that really well. But what matters is getting the whole thing done and that is where customers find that they get let down. Everyone you talk to probably has stories of poor products and service – from hassles with building an extension to returning items ordered from a website. At the same time, people are getting much better at doing this well, and many market sectors will be changed by entrants and incumbents who change with the process.

I remember the first time we needed professional carpet cleaners. One was in the Yellow pages and I rang up, got through to his wife and was told he would ring back. The other had a website with prices on there and you could book it in then and there. Who do you think got the work? And these days, with the pandemic, who gets your business? Probably Amazon.

When I think about this in the context of writing I am constantly reminded just how efficient a product writing is. It’s easy to create and fast to read. But a word isn’t enough to create a product, and a sentence usually isn’t enough either. You need enough sentences to capture an idea, an idea that you can then send on to someone else. But just because a medium is efficient that doesn’t mean it’s used efficiently. Many books, for example, are really one idea stretched out as far as it can go and then some – but it’s something you can summarise in a few words. On the other hand, some academic papers pack in so many ideas that you could spend an age unpacking them.

As you try and increase the number of elements in your product you run across the challenge of creating useful wholes. Take cartooning, for example. I draw simple images for my blog posts and for the last few years it’s something that’s done in a few minutes – a few lines that help to add some colour to the post. But when you try and create a cartoon you realize just how complicated a task it is to marry ink and paper when you’re trying to create more than words. What professional cartoonists do is make their lives easy – they create a few characters that live out a story. The characters often wear the same clothes and there are a limited number of backgrounds that are used again and again. Then again, you have cartoonists that create stunningly complex pieces like the work of graphic novelist Lars Martinson. It really depends on what you want to emerge from your creation.

What I’ve found challenging is finding a form of creation that words within the time that I have to work on stuff like this. Like most people that have a blog project this is not about followers or money or fame. It’s a place to practice an art – and for me that’s the art of letters and the art of sense-making with pictures. There are lots of things that I am naturally not – I’m not a natural artist or a writer or funny or insightful. What I’m good at is working on something day after day for a set amount of time and doing it without really caring too much about getting anything as a result of the doing. But there isn’t enough time so anything that uses the time better is helpful. With drawings, the fewer lines you need the better – and so cartoon like images are more achievable that realistic scenes. But cartoons are much harder to do than diagrams – which only need labels and not characters and dialogue and pacing.

And I’m not sure you start by knowing the shape and size of these pieces. You kind of have to start and then things start to make sense as you go about working on them. Going back to Kniberg’s skateboard – the point of his metaphor is to say that if you want to build a car you start with a skateboard as a minimum viable product and then you iterate towards the car. But the flaw is that quite often no one knows they need a car. When you had horse-drawn carriages, for example, do you think there were customers out there that knew they wanted an automobile? No, and they still don’t. Car, as you clearly know, is short for carriage and for a passenger it really doesn’t enter their heads that the horse in front could be replaced with a gas engine or a electric motor or a pack of huskies. It carries them and that’s the outcome. But, you build the horse-drawn one and then worry about the amount of dung and discover oil and things change. It’s the designer that makes the change possible.

Anyway, I do find cartooning hard and that’s why I think I’ll keep trying my hand at it and hopefully you will bear with me. Maybe we’ll both learn something.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

What Sort Of Contribution Can You Make To Your Community?

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Thursday, 8.50pm

Sheffield, U.K.

You never know whether the subject matter will click with the audience at that particular time. I wish there was a formula, you know, ‘That plus that equals success.’ – Michelle Yeoh

One of the words you learn when you go back to university is the word “contingent”. Contingent means something that depends on something else – the success or failure of an approach depends on what else is going on and the situation in which you happen to find yourself. This is a useful word to keep in mind when you try and reach for a simple answer to a complex situation. It’s possible that your simple answer will work if the situation is the right one for it. But what’s more likely is that you have to figure out what your situation is first and then the possibilities for what you can do start to present themselves.

Perhaps the most useful application of this word is to help us realise that what we can do depends on what is around us, the resources we have and the skills and capabilities we possess. And even if we have everything we also need a little bit of luck. We can’t control the luck but we can work on everything else.

The challenge we face, however, is getting the balance right between the elements we’re trying to master. I was reading a book called “Webcomics” and one of the artists, Shaenon K. Garrity talked about her “journeyman piece” called Narbonic. In 2004, this was supposed to be a six year project and it ran from 2000 to 2006. The point of the Webcomics book was to share the process that the artists featured had found effective in doing their own work – but there’s no suggestion that there is any perfect kind of work. What you can’t get away from, unfortunately, is the actual work of doing the work.

It’s obvious, isn’t it? If you want to get better at writing, you have to write. At drawing? You have to draw. At coming up with scripts? You have to come up with ideas. They are going to be bad in the beginning but as long as you keep going you’ll get better and that’s the only fact there is. You won’t get better thinking about it or reading about it or hoping something is going to happen. You have to get on and do the work day after day and eventually, you’ll find it starts to become easier. Perhaps it even gets better. And one day, maybe it’s useful to other people and that’s really when you’ve discovered a way to contribute that works for you.

This whole question bothers me, I think, because surely the point of living is to find some way to be useful, to help, to contribute, to do something good. We know that taking and having don’t really lead to happiness. We don’t need that much, really, and the more we have the more we need, and faster, to feel the way we did the first time. We’ve just gone past a holiday season and I remember, really quite vividly, the very first Christmas we had with our one-year old. He opened his first present and was totally delighted by it. He wanted to play with it straight away. And he was surprised when he was given another one to open. By the end of the pile, however, he had learned that more turn up and the next day we wrapped them up in newspaper so he could open them again. And the year after that, well, things kept being opened but that wide-eyed wonder and delight of that very first present – a Postman Pat red van – never really happened again. Not in the same way.

For me, anyway, I think happiness comes from doing something, learning something, creating something. And, if possible, doing that every day. And even if it’s really bad and you want to apologise for the poor quality of your work you have to do it – you need to just sit down or stand up or do whatever you need to do to get another day’s work done.

And I think I should point out that when I talk about work I don’t mean your job – what you are paid to do. I think your work is what you want to do, what you would do every day whether you were paid or not, whether there was any reward or not. And if you don’t have work to do like that, then it would be a wise move to take some time and find that thing. Because there is a very good chance that it’s what your society and community need most from you.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh