Learning From My Second Book Project


Wednesday, 6.36am

Sheffield, U.K.

The first draft is just you telling yourself the story. – Terry Pratchett

Let me tell you a little bit about myself and what I am doing with this blog.

I have always wanted to write and I think if I were given the choice again I would choose to do something that involved writing and history and drawing as early as possible.

As it turned out I studied engineering instead and, while I learned little to nothing in school, I suppose I learned enough about computers to be useful and entered the world of work and made a living and learned about business and picked up some useful skills.

But there’s always been this hole, this thing nagging at me saying that I’m not really doing something that I want to do.

My first response to that was to go back to school to study business – and what I ended up being really interested in was how the theory I was learning in class could be used to explain the experiences I had during my first decade of working.

You see, most of the time we think that what we learn at university is going to help us do something in the future.

But there are two kinds of learning at least.

The first is learning how to do something – change a tap washer, use an application, make the bed.

The second type of learning is why we do something – why washers exist, who needs the application, what’s the difference between a blanket and a duvet.

In a sense, you can only do the second type of learning after you have spent some time doing the first.

It’s like going across a land with a guide or a group.

Initially, you look at what’s around you and start to pick up knowledge about the terrain and what look like easier ways to go.

Eventually, once you’ve done the entire route and then perhaps done a few other routes you come across a map of the land or perhaps draw your own.

That’s what going back to school did for me – the theory I learned was like a map that helped explain the experiences I had – the “aha” moments where I realized that a situation panned out the way it did because of these factors.

All this can be summed up in Kierkegaard’s pithy line “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

20 years after I left school, more or less, I decided that I wanted to write again.

But I also knew I wasn’t ready, I hadn’t done the apprenticeship necessary and really was starting from the beginning, going back a score of years.

I figured it would take ten years and I would need to write a million words before I started to do anything that was any good.

So I started.

After all, the best time to start is ten years ago.

The second best time is now.

And you know, time does go by and things happen if you do them one day at a time.

Let’s look at the statistics.

The first post on this blog was on 26 December 2016 and I thought I would write about my professional work.

From December 2016 to June 2017 I wrote sporadically, a few posts a month.

Then, in June 2017 I thought about setting the 10 year, 1 million word targets and decided to try and write every day.

Now, what counts as a million words?

I write in a two stage process.

First, I do a little freewriting, a few paragraphs of warming up just to get my fingers moving and the initial crud out of my brain.

And then I write about the topic – with a vague idea in mind and then starting at the first sentence and seeing where things go.

Let’s say that the words that count are the ones that are published, the ones that make their way onto the blog.

That total stands at 909 posts and 642,554 words.

So, three and a half years later I’m nearly two-thirds of the way there.

A point I think I’d make from this is that there are no shortcuts to skill, you have to take the time to do the work.

When I first started writing I was stiff, pedantic, trying to lecture and appear knowledgeable.

It took time just writing to relax and start to find a voice, get to a point where I could speak without feeling that I was trying to prove something or had to meet certain standards.

And that took years, not days, not months.

You can’t go to a course and learn how to do this, you have to do the work and then the work will change who you are.

After several hundred posts on individual topics I finally started, earlier this year, to try and focus on a subject at a time and try to build up content that might work as a book.

You find me now in the middle of that experiment – just finishing off the second book draft.

In 49 posts I have written just under 60,000 words.

My writing rate has crept up from under 500 words a post in 2017 to nearly 1,000 words a post now – which is a lot to read and I apologize to anyone who would like to read this stuff and finds it too long.

A friend once suggested that I should keep things short and another friend’s eyes just bounced off this wall of text and the look of polite boredom he gave me was interesting.

But here’s the thing – I’m not writing for anyone else.

I’m writing because I want to write, I need to write, and if what I write is useful to you then that’s a huge bonus but it doesn’t really matter whether anyone reads any of this or not – because it’s about the practice, about the work, about the experience of doing something that is, for me, worth doing.

So, about this book then.

Here’s how I write. I’m going to go over this briefly just to work through the process myself and perhaps I’ll be able to explain it better later if anyone wants more detail.

I spent some time cutting up used A4 sheets into A6, creating a pile of slips of paper with a blank side – a little like index cards.

When I start a book project, I begin with a title idea and start scribbling down questions and content ideas, one to a slip.

In an hour or so I can come up with 20-40 slips.

Then I take a break.

Then, I take the slips and sort them into three piles, ones that look like they should be in the beginning, the middle and the end.

A three part model – I’m going to try a five part with the next project actually.

Then I take the smaller stack in each pile and go through the slips, comparing each one with the others and putting them in an order that seems to flow.

When I’m finished I have an outline, something that can guide the next 40-60 days of posts – and I know now from the first two projects that I will end up with 45,000 to 70,000 words, ideally closer to 70,000 which I can then cut back to a book length.

Each evening I look at a slip and think about the kind of image that will capture the essence of what I’m trying to say and draw that.

In the morning I aim to get up at 5am and write until 6.30, doing any research that’s necessary to write the post.

Because I’ve now done this eight hundred and eighty two times so far I know that I can do it again today and tomorrow and the day after.

As an aside, I do all my writing in a text editor, ed for normal writing, emacs for the blog post because it has org2blog and that makes it much easier to send stuff to WordPress.

Write. Publish. Done.

Except I’m not.

I have to edit the stuff, the tens of thousands of words that I’ve created the first time around.

And that’s hard, very hard.

And I don’t like hard, I like to make things easy for myself – and so I have been trying to work through how to do that.

One thing is to write some small programs that help me reduce the complexity – if there is any interest in this I’ll write about it in more detail another day.

But it effectively lets me do the kinds of things I suppose you would use apps like Scrivener to do but in a console using an approach that was cutting edge forty years ago.

But it’s fast and works for me and will work for the next forty years without needing a subscription or upgrade, so that’s that.

Editing is @!%&$ hard and it’s because you need to think about the big picture and the detailed words as you go along, see if the bits fit together and if they work.

I haven’t solved this problem yet but I have a few ideas that come from my programming experience.

The first issue is that when you write a blog post, you tend to write in sentences, in bursts of words.

But you have to join these together in a book in paragraphs or it doesn’t look right – what works in a web browser looks rubbish in a book.

So I have to glue the sentences together and make them work in that larger chunk.

Then I have to glue the paragraphs together so they make sense in sections and chapters and so on.

And around each chunk is the meta-stuff – why is something here and why isn’t it there.

Now, one way around that is to use a literate programming approach where you weave comments and code into the same file.

In the case of a book you’d weave the editing comments and the book content together, something like this.

Write about a bear in this section.

A bear is different from a fish
in more ways than I can explain.

And then I’d extract just the book part for the publication – which is pretty trivial to do if you know your way around a terminal and some basic scripting.

Not that easy if you use Microsoft or an app or anything like that though, so it’s not for everyone.

I’m getting a little ahead of myself now, going past where I am with the writing to what happens next – which is fine and something I can do but let’s talk about that when I’ve done it.

Coming back to now.

The thing with doing anything is that you have to do it first before you can do it better.

A little more planning does help – my slips and piles of paper have helped me go from thinking about a post on a day to day basis to thinking of a collection of posts that could go into a book.

It makes the writing harder because you are constantly referring to the previous and next one and it probably makes reading it more confusing as well on the blog, which is not a good thing.

So, perhaps one improvement is to try and still write in self-contained post packets but keep in mind that you have to glue them together later.

Inside a post, however, rather than writing a sentence at a time it’s worth thinking about how each sentence relates to the one before and after – planning for the paragraphing that’s going to happen later.

If you’ve made it this far then here are some suggestions – as much for me as for you.

The planning at the beginning helps.

Keep it loose, the nice thing about slips of paper is that you can add new bits and rearrange as you go along if you need to.

Think in terms of structure and break up your piles of slips – it’s much easier to compare 10 slips that all look like they’re in the beginning than 30 slips that make up the whole book.

Now… I could talk about research and how I’m doing that but I won’t because this is long enough and I should start on my next project – the next book, which I’ll talk about tomorrow and get myself motivated to edit the first two before they overwhelm me.

But here’s the thing.

I’m still learning and practicing – working towards the million and all this is just what needs to be done on the way to keep moving forward.


Karthik Suresh

Do You Know Why You Are Doing What You’re Doing?


Tuesday, 6.08am

Sheffield, U.K.

The whole point is to live life and be – to use all the colors in the crayon box. – RuPaul

Many years ago, in another life, I used to teach dance.

You wouldn’t think it to look at me now but I was young and it seemed like something that I should learn – and I found that I was very bad so I kept trying and eventually I learned it and then I could dance it and teach it and then when I was done I left it all behind and moved on.

But during those years there was always one thing that puzzled me, one thing that still puzzles me about the way people approach things.

Getting serious about the thing

Why do you think people learn a social dance like Salsa?

If you look at dancers in a club you would be forgiven for thinking that the point is to go into the floor with a partner and then do your thing – break into some fancy moves and really show everyone else how good you are.

That’s what most people did – became really serious about how good they were at the moves.

They got good but they also missed the point of the whole activity.

The point of a social dance is to be social – to have a chat in an environment that allows you to talk to a range of other people.

It’s a place where you can meet a girl or a boy and have a dance and get to know each other – see if you get along.

And who knows where that will lead to?

But you can’t jump straight from not knowing how to do anything to being able to lead or follow around a floor while also talking about your favorite books.

You first need to get good.

Getting good at the thing

For the first six months you’ll be stepping on other people, looking down at your feet, trying to work out what to do with all the seemingly uncontrollable parts of your body.

And then, one day, you’ll start to get it – if you have a good teacher and access to resources and spend time practicing.

All that boring, basic stuff that you have to do to get to the point where you can participate in the first place.

At the same time, if you find it boring and basic then maybe you aren’t doing the right thing – you need something driving you.

Sometimes it’s easier to stick to things you find hard to do than those that are easy but which need you to spend time doing if you want to get better.

I think that’s the price of entry, being able to do something to a certain standard – to the point where you are pretty good at what you do.

And I think you know you’re there when you reach a point where you start to become serious about the thing – and that’s where you need to catch yourself and see if you’re still centered, if you still have a soul.

Why do you do this?

Over the last 47 posts I’ve been working through the content of my Listen book project and I thought I was at the end yesterday.

I’d talked about why listen, how to listen, how to make sense – there is material in there that I can work with and shape.

But I think there is a little bit that I still need to explore – and it has to do with the point of developing listening skills – skills of any kind really.

For example, if you’ve read this blog for a while, you’ll notice that I draw an image to start the post – it’s something that tries to capture the idea I want to get across in the text that comes later.

When it comes to drawing you have many options.

There is the direction of fine art – and I think art is perhaps something that someone presents as an object in itself – something that is an end.

It’s easy to see that with a painting or a drawing – you get that painting and hang it on your wall and it makes you happy.

Somewhere before that are the sketches, the preparatory work, the rough lines, the research.

And before that is the practice, the training, the learning.

Somewhere on the track that connects the rough stuff and the finished art is a branch line that leads away to a place where the stuff I draw helps me do something else.

For example, if you have come across sketchnotes you’ll know that there are some fabulous examples of sketchnote art – where people make really nice looking notes.

But if you really want to learn what those notes show you’ll probably need to create your own – and you can do that with a ball point pen.

You can draw images and create a scene and make something memorable with a few scratched lines – just as memorable as the really arty ones.

Watch children at work – they really get this.

I have one behind me right now, drawing away, seeing through the scratchy lines to the reality behind.

Their reality.

So why do you do what you do?

Making a difference

Somewhere along your journey you’ll realize that what you do makes a difference.

It first makes a difference to you – you get better, more confident, you’re able to produce something of value with the skills you have.

Reading and writing and math and drawing have helped me personally and professionally in ways I could never have imagined in the tedium of the classroom.

I use them in a particular way now – to explore situations with other people and figure out what to do.

And I watch other people do the same in their own way – I try and learn from them and I also try and avoid going down paths that don’t seem right for me.

The path that works for me is the one where what I do makes a difference to other people – where what I am doing is seen as a good thing to do, something that is helpful and valued.

I think the real end to my book project on Listening is to point out that the reason why you listen to someone else is to understand, and the reason you try to understand them is so you can help make a difference.

You can make a difference to one person or to many.

You can make a difference in a community.

And I think understanding community is going to be the next book I start to work on, after perhaps a wind up tomorrow.

Until then,


Karthik Suresh

The Difference Between Talking And Writing And Why It Matters


Monday, 5.38am

Sheffield, U.K.

If you were all alone in the universe with no one to talk to, no one with which to share the beauty of the stars, to laugh with, to touch, what would be your purpose in life? It is other life; it is love, which gives your life meaning. This is harmony. We must discover the joy of each other, the joy of challenge, the joy of growth. – Mitsugi Saotome

I am pretty much at the end of this Listen book project, nearly 60,000 words in the draft to work with.

I’ve also taken ten days off from writing, so I’m coming back to it with a few thoughts, and I need to get those out of the way before moving on.

So, this is part retrospective, part ending, and, in general, inconclusive.

But here goes.

This project has meandered along a little differently from the first project, Getting Started.

I started with a basic structure, a pile of slips of paper, with elements that I thought should go into the draft.

Then, I wrote day by day, picking up a slip and writing and then, some days, following a trail suggested by what came up in that day’s writing.

In that way the draft maps the territory of thought, illuminating spaces as I go along.

There is still uncharted land or water out there but you don’t know what you don’t know until you do.

Now I have a pile of words, the bricks of a structure represented by those slips of paper and I’m not sure what to do next, how to enter the editing process.

And maybe this is because writing has changed and there is something about what we do now that is worth recognizing for what it is.

I recently finished Glut: Mastering information through the ages by Alex Wright and there a few points in there that are relevant for this book project.

The technology we use mediates how we express ourselves

The way you communicate will depend on the technology you use.

Without technology of any kind, what you can do is talk to each other – that’s the essential quality of being human.

Once you start using technology – from the pigments used for cave paintings to what we have today – what you say and how you say it starts to change.

And there have been three great stages in the technology of talking – and by extension, thinking.

The first is writing, which developed from drawing images to represent what we saw to drawing images that represented sounds.

That, it turns out, was an invention of the Phoenicians, from whom we get the concept of the phonetic alphabet, which was enthusiastically developed by the Greeks and led to the way we write today, with characters that represent sounds.

When we wrote in scrolls and books we drew and wrote, with the freedom that comes from being able to wield a pen.

Then came the age of printing and the ascendancy of the printed word.

Images were harder to create in print and so people did what was easy and did everything using words, which became more complex and flowery as they tried to capture word images of what was going on.

And we learned that this was the right way to do things, to write in prose – that was what you got with a classical education and learned arguments were made in print.

And then the Internet and computers came along and we are starting to enter a world where you can use all kinds of media to express yourself, with the freedom of a pen with the mass production of print and the ability to use text and images and audio and video and augmented reality and virtual reality.

But what has all this enabled us to do?

Well, it’s actually brought us closer to being able to talk to each other even if we are far away.

And that is important – it marks a shift from fixed knowledge, fixed in print, to something more dynamic, discovered, co-created, re-created knowledge.

So what we’re increasingly doing is talking to each other through these technologies and that starts to affect how and what we write.

For example, we tend to think of books in that sort of fixed way, as containers of truth.

But, as the amount of information out there increases, no book can capture everything and their function changes from being containers for truth to being containers of useful material culled from the vast mass of stuff around us being produced every day.

And if you want to take things one step further the Internet seems to organise information in much the same way that our brains might do.

Instead of fixed, unchanging information the web has links to information, links that can break and links that build, where you get accretions and build up around some ideas and decay and disuse around others and where the more people think about things the more content they create and, just like a brain laying down chemicals in the brain, we develop a global memory and local communities.

The retrieval system is based around Google and the only problem is that it works on the basis of popularity at the moment – that will probably adapt and change to become more useful over time.

What this means for my projects and the editing process is that the technology I use, this way of writing blog posts to explore a space and then seeing if the content that I create can be encapsulated in a useful book form, is going to mediate the product that emerges and comparing it with existing print based approaches may not be the best way to think about what I’m creating.

Instead, each book is a collection of useful ideas explored with drawings and discussion, presented for the reader’s critical review and considered adoption.

It’s part of the picture, and the test it needs to pass is whether it is useful or not.

Is this useful?

And that brings us to a second line of thinking I’ve discovered in the last ten days.

Much of my writing is about understanding the big picture, the whole system, the requisite variety.

But it turns out that the whole is not necessarily all there is.

There are terms that capture the idea that a part of something can represent the whole of it.

Metonymy is when something is used to represent a related thing, and synecdoche is when a part of something is used to represent the whole of it.

For example, the image above shows the ways in which I have drawn representations of humans in this blog.

Some figures have fewer lines, others more.

Some are static, others dynamic.

None of them are exact representations, but they may be enough to get a point across, to make sense of something.

And that’s the same thing with listening to someone – trying to capture everything they say, record it exactly, does not mean that you’ve understood what they’ve said.

Making sense of things means being able to capture it with a minimum of lines – as much as you need and no more than necessary.

I could spend a lot more time trying to draw realistic figures without creating any more insight than can be found with a stick figure.

And when it comes to listening, the equivalent is capturing the stories people tell you at a level of detail that is sufficient.

All this is imprecise for a reason – the minute you start setting targets for what needs to be done then people focus on hitting the target and miss the point.

When you listen to someone the tools you use are there to help, and the point is for you to see how the person you are talking to sees the world.

In Glut, Wright refers to the work of linguist Walter. J. Ong who looked at the difference between oral and literate cultures – talking to each other versus writing to each other.

When you talk to each other and listen closely what you are doing is building on each other’s thoughts, empathizing with the other’s perspective and diving into the situation and context.

When writing you are stepping back, becoming more analytic and abstract and distancing yourself from the situation to look at the big picture.

And clearly it’s not a choice between one approach and the other.

You have to do both.

And you won’t get better by reading about how to do it.

You need to get some paper and a pen and get busy listening.


Karthik Suresh

What Do You Do When You’ve Made Your Best Argument And They Still Don’t Listen?


Thursday, 5.39am

Sheffield, U.K.

A man convinced against his will Is of the same opinion still – Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People

You know the old saying about how you can take a horse to water but you can’t make it drink?

Most people don’t need what you’re selling.

So, you have to ask yourself two questions.

  1. Are you selling the right thing?
  2. Are you selling the right way?

You can only get the answers to these questions if your prospect is doing most of the talking and you’re doing most of the listening.

And that’s the main point of this Listen book project – to step away from the idea that you need to be a super-extroverted, loud-talking, flashy salesperson to get results.

They might make good characters in films but I have yet to see a flashy salesperson that has actually delivered a worthwhile project.

In my experience, the best closers have been the professionals, the people who know what needs to be done to solve a client’s problem.

Then again, salespeople are also professionals, so that’s a little unfair.

Instead, let’s think of it as two extremes on a line.

At one end, you have someone who is entirely client focused – that’s the salesperson.

At the other end you have the person that is entirely focused on the work.

Salespeople who don’t really know how the work is done tend to be poor performers – they think their job is all about getting the client to the table and that’s it.

After that someone else takes over and does the boring stuff.

People who focus just on the work seem to end up spending a lot of time solving problems that aren’t really all that important.

And they get fussy if you ask them to do anything different.

Being a professional is about stepping away from these extremes.

It’s not necessarily about being in the middle either – about maintaining a balance between being client focused and work focused.

Instead, it’s probably about being able to switch from one mindset to the other.

You need to be able to listen to the prospect, to ask questions, to clarify what their problems are and what they’re trying to do and who is involved and how they do stuff and how they make decisions.

All this takes time – you have to switch off the part of your brain that’s jumping to solve the problem and take the time to really explore your prospect’s world view, their perspective on the situation.

If that horse doesn’t want water – well, that’s because it has something else on its mind.

Perhaps it’s wondering about that patch of grass, or looking longingly at a clump of nettles.

Or perhaps there’s a puddle of water on the track that’s reflecting the light and horses seem to get spooked by stuff like that.

It’s difficult and frustrating when people don’t do what you want.

And it takes effort and discipline to force yourself to calm down and ask “Why?” without judgment and follow the answers to where they go.

We do this all the time with family, with the ones closest to us.

When someone doesn’t respond in the way we want – when someone close to us says “No.”, our immediate response is one of aggression.

The word “Why?”, in that context, is more like “How do you dare to try and stop me?”

We don’t usually do that in a business context although I have had calls where the salesperson has become aggressive when I’ve said I’m not interested in what they’re selling.

Rejection is hard, but wouldn’t you rather talk to someone who said “No.” quickly than someone who strung you along for months only to then tell you that there is no opportunity here?

One of the benefits of spending more time listening than talking is that your prospect has fewer points at which they can say “No.” to you.

After all, they’re talking about themselves and what their situation is – and everything that comes up is important to them in some way.

Then again, is it important enough to take action – is the pain great enough to take some medicine?

Some people love to talk expansively and go off in all directions and pull in lots of related ideas and information.

And that’s fine – let them talk.

Some people will focus, get to the point and tell you what they think.

Which is actually less fine – get them to open up and talk around the issue in more detail.

The first thing you want to do is open up the conversation.

For example, I know that I will often say that this is what I want – put down a clear specification for someone quite early on.

A good salesperson will try and draw me out, ask for more detail on what’s happening, what I’m trying to do, what I’ve tried before, whether that worked or not?

It’s about getting the balance right – too little information and you might be heading in the wrong direction.

Too much information and you might be lost in the complexity.

In both cases you’re trying to get the right strategy to emerge from the conversation – understand what direction is the right one.

You might have a conversation that is rich and expansive and touches lots of areas but where the prospect gets skittish and nervous as you talk about specifics and what needs to be done and whether there is a budget for the work.

Or you can have conversations that start off with a very clear scope but as you ask questions the prospect starts to realize that perhaps it’s not as clear cut and they need to consider a few more options.

In both cases you’re looking for the tipping point, the point at which it makes sense to do something.

Sometimes you can’t reach that and you have to walk away and that’s okay – you shouldn’t expect to make every sale.

What’s important is that when you reach that tipping point you’re able to get the deal done.

That means you need to be flexible as well – you’ve managed to get the prospect to talk about and realize what they need and what they’re willing to pay for – and it might not be something you already have in your product stable.

If you only think of yourself as someone that sells what’s in the box then you’re going to be stuck.

As a professional, however, you should be able to work out whether you can make what the prospect needs – do you have the ability to create products in addition to selling them?

I started this post with two questions – about selling the right thing and selling the right way.

If you develop the ability to listen to your prospect then those two questions will evaporate away.

If you listen, you won’t have to think about selling.

The prospect will work out what they need as they talk through their situation with you – and then, at the point when they realize that they know what they want, you’re in front of them, showing them how they can get that thing in a way that works for them.

As Zig Ziglar said, “You can have everything in life you want, if you will just help other people get what they want.”

That’s what you will become great at doing if you just take the time to master the art of listening.


Karthik Suresh

How To Write Better Proposals And Win More Business


Tuesday, 5.38am

Sheffield, U.K.

I spent as much time writing proposals in ’98 and ’99 as I did writing scripts. – Mark Millar

In my last post I wrote about how you have to understand the way people do things and the way they make decisions in addition to understanding what they need doing.

As we come to the final stages of this Listen book project let’s briefly look at what the last 45 posts have been all about.

Many of us work providing services, not products – and when we provide a service we have to recognize that understanding people is an essential part of what we do.

If we don’t see their world from their point of view then we can’t really suggest how we can serve them in a way that will work for them.

The posts so far have been about developing that capability in you to listen to someone, to get to a point where you understand the situation they are in and what needs to be done to improve it and how you can help.

That last bit, how you can help, is almost always then wrapped up and presented in a proposal and we’re going to look at how you can be more effective at that last stage – because it’s the time at which a client accepts your proposal that you’re in business.

Why do you have to write proposals?

A prospect may have enjoyed spending time with you and talking through their problems but in order to engage you they will ask for a proposal.

We’re not taught how to write good proposals or what goes into them.

All too often, we start by thinking that we need to explain everything about us and make sure we tell the prospect about every single detail of our business.

I used to do a lot of this in the early days of my career, create long documents filled with information – the thicker the proposal the more value it contained.

Or so I thought.

But the thing I didn’t know or think to question was why the client was asking for a proposal in the first place.

No one is really interested in you and your problems and your point of view.

Not really.

What comes first is their own point of view, their own problem, and what they’re looking for is a solution to their problem.

The point of your proposal is to propose a solution – and any content that’s not related to that solution has to justify being in there.

That means you usually need to be ready to write two kinds of proposals, for different reasons.

A proposal that summarizes your agreement

After a few years of writing proposals that contained everything about everything, I was starting to realize that something wasn’t going well.

I was writing these documents but it was hard work and it didn’t seem to make a huge difference in our win rate.

It just means that every time we were asked for a proposal I had to set aside a couple of days to work on the document.

And then we had a project where I had to talk to a lawyer – we were thinking about a particular opportunity and we were considering engaging some legal support.

These lawyers were expensive, polished, professional.

They listened to what we said and asked some questions and then said they would send over a proposal.

And what they sent over astonished me.

The bit that mattered was extremely brief – a covering letter, a summary of our discussions with bullet point deliverables, fees and timescales and that was it.

They were lawyers, so you did have twenty additional pages of terms and conditions, but the important part of the document was short and to the point.

I liked that approach so much that I tried out instantly and found that clients really liked it.

After all, no one wants to read any more than they have to – your proposal is not a novel or bedtime read.

It’s a business document and its length needs to be only as long as it needs to be.

If you’ve had a good conversation, listened carefully and agreed the outlines of what needs doing and have a good idea of how the client is going to view your proposal and make a decision – then all your proposal has to do is summarize that information.

A single paragraph describing the scope along with a bulleted list setting out what you will do is often enough.

This is what you might call a short-form proposal, something that summarizes what you’ve already agreed and is used simply to formally accept your offer.

The beauty of this approach is that you can create a short form proposal in minutes rather than days.

And clients love it – it’s short, to the point, and they can say yes or no quickly.

And if you’ve done your job correctly, they’ve already said yes verbally and this proposal simply seals the deal.

So, when do you ever need to create a longer document?

A proposal that ticks the boxes

The only time you need to write more is when a prospect has to make sure they’ve followed a process of some kind.

For example, you may have a prospect that really wants to work with you but who has to go to tender, invite competing bids for the work.

In that case you have to make sure that the proposal you put in front of them is one that they can evaluate easily.

And evaluation almost always comes down to a set of questions that have to be ticked off and scored.

And that means you need to design your proposal to answer those questions clearly and in order.

In my early career I would look at a proposal and put everything into it – the more content the better, I thought.

I didn’t often think of it from the point of view of the person evaluating my proposal.

For example, let’s say they had twenty questions.

They have my 70 page document in front of me, in which I have included content that answers all their questions.

But, can they quickly work out what section of the content answers each question?

You need to take the time to make it easy for them to mark.

If they can go down each of their questions and see the corresponding answer material in your proposal then they can tick that off.

And if your answer is a good one, that has assertions and evidence they can give you a high mark.

But if you put material all over the place or just copy and paste in stuff that you’ve written before then you’re making them do work to find out what’s relevant and where it is.

And that means they’re doing more work and, more often than not, they’ll score you down.

So it makes sense only write long form proposals for opportunities where you think you have a good chance of winning.

In fact, because long form proposals take so much time you really need to ask yourself whether they are worth doing.

If the prospect you’re talking to is a client you really want to get and the business you’re bidding for is something you know you can deliver and that you have a good chance of winning – then go ahead and write your proposal.

But how do you know whether you should pitch at all?

Deciding whether to pitch at all

Now, if you’re using the methods I’m suggesting in this Listen book project then in many cases you’ll only need to write a short form proposal – which takes minutes and simply formalizes what you’ve already agreed to do.

But if you need to go through an evaluation process where you need to write a long form proposal then to decide whether to bid or not ask yourself two questions.

  1. On a scale of 1-10, how much do I want this client?
  2. On a scale of 1-10, how likely am I to win this business?

If you score over 8 to both questions that’s when you should go for the business.

Write a long form proposal and, in fact, you should aim to write the best proposal you can.

You are better off spending three times as much time on writing proposals for business with clients that you really want and that you really believe you can win than spending a couple of days on less attractive opportunities.

The point is not to write a proposal – the point is to win business and you need to focus your time on the projects you want and know you can win.

You are better off winning 90% of the 10 bids you put everything into than 10% of the 50 bids for which you do the bare minimum.

My preference, in almost all cases, is to go with the short form approach.

Use the long form only when you have to, and when you do, do it better than anyone else.

After all, if it’s not worth doing it’s not worth doing well.

Next steps

We are nearly at the end of this project – I think the next post or two will wrap things up and then I’ll put this draft aside and start working on the next project.

I’m also finally starting to edit my first draft, it needed some time and distance before I could work out how to approach that material and it’s probably worth reflecting on that sometime as well.

But for now, until later,


Karthik Suresh

The Key To Getting Your Ideas Approved – Understanding Culture And Politics


Sunday, 7.13am

Sheffield, U.K.

One of the penalties of refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors. – Plato

Whatever you do is art – it’s the thing you produce through your work.

Your art is an intensely personal thing.

You may not realize it, but it’s what you will do all your life and it’s what you will leave behind.

But your art is also created in a society, in a group of other people, and that constrains or amplifies your work depending on how you engage with that society.

So, how should you look at this situation and what can you do to deal with it in a better way?

There are layers at work

There aren’t all that many situations where it’s just you involved in the real world.

If you’re working on a book, painting a picture, sculpting – then yes, it’s you and the medium.

But in the world of business and commerce, if you’re working on a piece of marketing content, creating a spreadsheet model or designing a technical solution, you’re really trying to improve a situation where some people see that there is a problem.

So, we always start by trying to understand the situation.

A situation is a collection of things and relationships and people.

For example, you might have a number of manufacturing plants that operate as individual profit centers run by a team of managers that share technical knowledge and compete for resources allocated by a central senior management team.

Whether you work in the business or are brought in as a consultant, your initial focus is on understanding the things and relationships and the problems seen by the people.

For example, you may talk to a manager who is looking at upgrading a collection of aging equipment and is talking to you as a possible supplier.

so, you practice your art – you walk around, take notes on the equipment, ask about the infrastructure and support services and generally collect enough information so you can come up with a plan.

Is that enough?

Have you done what you need to do to get a sale?

Probably not.

How do you do things around here?

From a buyer’s point of view is not just about delivering a product – in any complex sale people are interested in the result, not just the delivery of a piece of kit.

And it’s vital that you also try and understand what the result looks like and what kind of organization you’re working with.

For example, in many large organizations, especially public sector ones, you have to go down a tender process to win any business.

You might have a great idea, amazing insights into just exactly how to resolve the situation quickly but you still need to go through a formal RFP and tender process so that the organization can justify engaging with you.

That’s the culture that exists and that’s what you have to work with.

In other organizations you will have a different approach – if it’s smaller, for example, managers may have more discretion in coming up with an approach.

It all depends on what you’re selling but it makes a lot more sense for you to do something that no one else can do rather than provide a commodity product that can be ranked on price alone.

But it’s not easy to show how you’re different.

You can’t just talk about why you’re different, you need to have a way of demonstrating that during the time when you engage with the manager to understand the situation.

Now, the culture is something you can pick up on, but it’s also something you can explore if you remember to ask the right questions.

Too many people look at the situation, the presenting problem, and then walk away to come up with a plan.

What you should ask is questions like, “What’s stopped you from sorting this out already?”

Some people are afraid to ask that because they don’t want to lose the chance to pitch their product.

But you’ll learn a huge amount about culture by asking about what’s happened and what’s not happened and why.

For example, why hasn’t this aging collection of equipment been replaced five years ago?

You might learn that the organization is cash rich but all the cash is siphoned off to pay for a new business or to pay dividends.

Or you might learn that there are very quick payback times required for project approvals and that tends to stop any suggestions from going ahead.

Take the time to explore these areas because if you don’t then when it comes to the time when you present your ideas you’ll run into the same blockers that stopped those other ideas in the past.

And it’s simple questions like, “What projects have been recently approved and what made them attractive?” that will give you an insight into the culture of the organization so you can see how things are done and tailor your approach so that you’ll have the best chance of success.

But that’s not enough, you also need to understand who has the power to say yes or no.

How are decisions made on projects like these?

Around the solid core of a situation you have the mesh of culture, people interlocked in a structure that tells them what they can and can’t do.

But all around the culture you have the air of politics, the unwritten, unsaid happenings that show who has power and who does not.

You can have the greatest idea the world but if you have a board member who is pushing their pet project or friend’s company you’re not going to get selected – and there’s nothing you can do about it.

And that’s why it’s important for you to understand, right at the very beginning, how decisions are made, who has power and decides whether to say yes or no to your proposal.

You see, you have your art and you can do the work but before you spend days and weeks working on your proposal you should spend fifteen minutes, half an hour, deciding whether this is worth doing or not.

It’s rare you come across bad people in business – truly bad ones.

Most of the time problems arise because of a lack of clarity, misunderstandings about what is possible and what is not.

For example, you will come across innumerable situations where a prospect wants to do something, but isn’t quite sure what and needs your help to work it out and then also needs your help to sell it to the business.

But, after you’ve spent all that time helping them out they have to go through a tender process because that’s company policy and they can’t do anything about that.

As long as you’re clear that that’s what you’re doing then it might be okay, but it can be very disheartening to spend weeks and months developing a conversation only to find that you are now competing for that business with ten others who haven’t had to do that but are bigger and better resourced than you are and are probably going to win the business.

You have a choice too – whether to work with this prospect or not and isn’t it better to spend fifteen minutes working out whether they can make a decision or not rather than spending weeks on your plan only to find they can’t?

Developing your proposal

Once you understand what needs to be done, how things are done in this business and how decisions are made, you now have enough information to pull together a proposal.

Let’s look at how to think about that in the next post.


Karthik Suresh

What Do You Do When It’s Your Turn To Start Talking?


Saturday, 6.54am

Sheffield, U.K.

When I get ready to talk to people, I spend two thirds of the time thinking what they want to hear and one third thinking about what I want to say. – Abraham Lincoln

I’m 42 posts and 51,000 words into this Listen book project – and it’s getting to the point where I need to wrap up.

This has been a less thought through approach than my first book project – and but a structure has emerged over the course of writing.

There’s a three part order to what you need to do – prepare to listen, collect and take notes on what you hear, and make sense of it all.

And we’re in the closing stages of the sense-making stage, where what you need to do is talk through your understanding of the situation and what you can do to improve it.

Seeing the big picture

Think of it like taking a long walk and finally getting to the top of a hill.

You’ve had a conversation with a client, talked through what’s in their mind and taken the time to explore and clarify their situation, constraints and needs.

You can now see the landscape – get a rich and full and wide picture of what is going on.

Now it’s time to add your bit, your point of view, your advice.

But, you have to make sure that you do this at the right time.

Wait. Wait. Hold it.

The single biggest challenge you will face when talking things through with a client is stopping yourself from jumping in too soon.

Think back to your last client discussion or, better still, watch a colleague in action the next time you have a meeting.

There’s you, your client and perhaps your star salesperson.

I can think of many, many first meetings where the salesperson, the person leading the presentation, opens up their deck and then talks, non-stop, for 45 minutes.

Let’s take all those meetings and put them to one side – we’re not going to learn much from them.

A better approach is to get into what the client is interested in as quickly as possible, and the way you do that is by getting them to talk as much as possible.

So, you ask questions, ask for clarifications and, at some point, they will describe a problem they’re facing and talk about why what they’ve already done hasn’t worked and you will know the answer and you will know exactly what to do and you will be unable to stop jumping in and saying something like “Have you tried doing this?”

Now, the next time this happens try and watch the client’s reaction.

They’re in full flow, describing a problem, talking through this thing that’s been a pain, really venting a little, letting themselves go.

And then you jump in with this point – this thing that’s your solution.

When you watch them closely, it’s like they’ve just run into a brick wall.

They’re going in one direction and your intervention throws them off – they stop in mid-flow, collect their thoughts, try to think about what you’ve said and, because people are usually polite, stop talking about their problem and try to address your solution instead.

You might not know it yet, but you’ve just increased the amount of time it’s going to take you to make that sale.

Instead, sit on your hands, pinch yourself, do anything but blurt out your solution.

This really hard to do – it’s like Wellington at Waterloo, saying hold, hold, hold.

Wait until you can see the whites of their eyes.

But why?

When is it the right time?

You need to wait until the speaker has exhausted themselves, when they’ve talked it all through, laid it out.

Any questions you ask should encourage them to continue, to draw them out, to get them to explain things more clearly.

And it’s when they’re done, when they have unburdened themselves – only then will they look at you expectantly and welcome your ideas on the matter.

Practically, I find this takes around an hour.

You need to allow that much time for a prospect to get through what they’re thinking and now you’re in a position where they’re open to hearing what you have to say.

In the next half hour, you can pull the strands together – describe what they’ve said to you, what the problems appear to be and the kind of approach you’ve taken to solving them in the past.

I’ve described my own method for doing this in this paper – and you will need to develop your own approach.

If you’re the kind of person that can keep everything in your head and talk it through, then great.

I need paper and pens and all the help I can get – either with a whiteboard or preferably with software.

But, however you do it, you’ll find that if you wait until your prospect is ready to hear rather than jumping in when they’re still talking, you’ll have a much better reception.

Because you’ve waited until you can see everything before you start talking about possible routes through the landscape, the discussion becomes one of what approach to take rather than whether you’ve got the right viewpoint.

The point is to agree the route to take

What happens at this stage is that you and your prospect agree what the plan is – what the path through the problem looks like it might be.

That’s what you should aim for at this point in your discussion – you’ve listened, seen the big picture, added your thoughts and proposed a way that the situation can be improved.

If you’ve followed the steps and taken your time your prospect should now be nodding and agreeing that, in principle, this is the way forward.

There are often two next steps.

One is that you’ve agreed that this is the approach to take but you need to get others to buy into it as well.

And the other is agreeing the commercials of the approach, what’s going to go into your proposal and how it will be judged.

At this stage you know what needs to be done – but still need to work out how.

I’ve already written about presentations for persuasion in other sections of this blog, so I might spend a post pulling those together, seeing if I can use that material to fill out a chapter on presentation approaches.

But the very next thing to talk about is how to construct a proposal that has a good chance of being signed off.

Let’s talk about that in the next post.


Karthik Suresh

How To Reconstruct Someone Else’s Point Of View


Friday, 5.41am

Sheffield, U.K.

Life is a painting, and you are the artist. You have on your palette all the colors in the spectrum – the same ones available to Michaelangelo and DaVinci. – Paul J. Meyer

What do we do when we listen to someone?

There’s a process of communication going on, where we first acquire the information, then code it, store it, recall it and finally decode it.

Now, it’s easy to understand that this takes place if you think of it purely in terms of recording and playback.

For example, if you record someone’s words using a digital voice recorder then the words they say – the sounds they make – are captured by the microphone, encoded in bits and bytes and stored in memory.

When you press the play button the bits and bytes are recalled from storage and decoded – and then used to drive a speaker to make those sounds again.

What you get is a relatively perfect replay.

But that’s not really listening, that’s a time shift or a replay of the original information.

So what are you doing when you really listen to someone?

Talking IS thinking

Do we have perfect thoughts in our heads or do we need to talk things through to get our heads straight?

There’s a line of argument that says that talking is the thing that really differentiates humans from other creatures – the fact that we use language as a way to help us think better about more complex things.

Think about almost every conversation you’ve had.

Isn’t it a process of discovery – don’t you find yourself discovering what you think as you say it?

How often do you go into a meeting and have perfectly formed thoughts that are simply put out there for others to marvel at?

Instead, it’s a process of give and take – you say something, someone responds to that, you respond in turn as that comment sparks a new idea or train of thought.

So, when someone talks to you what they’re doing is building a view of the world, and that’s the thing that you’re capturing, using whatever system of note taking that works for you.

Reconstructing a point of view

When you’ve listened and asked questions and clarified things you’re going to have a picture of what’s going on.

It could be a metaphorical picture, a collection of thoughts that you now think that you feel makes sense.

Or it could be a literal one, something that you’ve written or drawn that you can talk through with someone.

The thing to realize is that what you’re doing is reconstructing a point of view.

Someone has told you something and, unlike a voice recorder, you’re not just playing it back word for word.

Instead, you’re re-presenting what you’ve heard, re-constructing it in a way that makes sense to you.

It’s like being a artist who sees a beautiful scene – the sun setting over the mountains, the dying rays lighting up the water and a last flock of ducks flying towards the horizon – and then tries to capture it.

You could photograph it and get an exact image which is framed and misses everything outside the frame.

You could use words and capture the essence of what is going on.

You could draw it yourself and pick out the elements that you remember, the ones that captured your attention.

The point is that what you do comes down to you – your own approach and preferences determine how you see and listen to what is in front of you and how you reconstruct that image so you can make sense of it.

And your approach will be, it should be, unique to you – you need to develop a way of playing things back that works for you in the situations you face professionally and personally.

No two artists do the same thing in the same way.

You might copy someone else’s approach when you’re first learning but if you want to get good you’ll have to experiment, develop your own approach and style over time.

And that means what you reconstruct from what you hear has something of you in it as well – it’s not a perfect replica.

It’s a constructed world.

Agreement, accommodation and compromise

Now, when someone’s talked things through with you and you’ve listened and reconstructed what they’ve said, what happens next?

For example, you’ve had a sales meeting, you’ve listened to the customer and asked questions, you’ve clarified and represented what they’ve told you – now what?

Well, if you’ve done this right what’s going to happen is that you understand their point of view and what they need.

Now that’s different from what they want – people often talk about what they want but don’t realize what they need is actually something else.

For example, you might have someone come in and talk about wanting a website – they need a redesign and upgrade of their existing one.

That’s what they say they want – but what do they actually need?

I had an example of this recently where a friend asked for some help in sorting out a website.

When I actually talked through things it turned out that what was needed was very different from what was asked for – instead of creating a new version of the site, as others had recommended, what was really needed was maintenance, making the existing site more user friendly and putting what was important in places where it could be easily found.

The project was really about information architecture rather than graphic design – but that’s an easy thing to miss.

People think that slapping a fresh coat of paint makes anything look better but if the underlying structure is rotting away you really aren’t making a difference.

In my case the approach I take is one that has been described in other posts here – in particular rich picture building.

When you are able to share a common view on a situation then what comes next is a question of agreement, accommodation and compromise.

If we don’t share that view then it comes down to persuasion and pressure – traditional sales tactics.

But if I understand how you see the world and I try to contribute to your point of view with what I know – and you see that and we both see what needs to be done then we have a way to work together.

That’s the kind of working relationship that I aim for, something that works for both of us and helps us create something of value.

But often we aren’t all there is, there are more people involved who need to be taken through the story – but it’s a different kind of story.

When you’re first exploring a situation with someone else you’re traveling the path together, discovering what’s in front of you.

For example, if you have a meeting with a manager at a company, you’re both going to go through this process of discovery from which a picture will emerge.

Now, both of you are on the same page but to get the project away the manager has to convince other people at their company.

And that needs a different approach, one we’ll talk about in the next post.


Karthk Suresh

Why You Need To Let People Discover Contradictions For Themselves When You Listen


Tuesday, 5.35am

Sheffield, U.K.

He had very few doubts, and when the facts contradicted his views on life, he shut his eyes in disapproval. ― Hermann Hesse, The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse

What you see clearly may be completely invisible to the person you are talking to.

In my last post I wrote about the process of listening, of gathering information and starting to construct a model of what you were hearing.

Now, the process of modeling is something you are doing all the time, even as you listen.

You’re taking what someone is saying and interpreting it, recreating it in your mind and coming up with images, structure, relationships that help you make sense of it all.

When you start to lay it out using external memory aids such as index cards or concept maps it makes it easier to see what’s going on and one of the things you will start to notice is how often people hold views that appear to contradict each other.

And you have to watch yourself, be careful as you explore these areas because people get annoyed if you point out inconsistencies in their arguments – if you want them to engage with you then you need to learn how to help them see those contradictions for themselves.

For example, I come from a culture that is frugal and self-reliant.

It’s hard for me to spend money on anything.

Now, that approach has helped in certain ways – I’ve learned how to manage risk, how to invest and how to avoid irrational responses.

At the same time this approach has limited my ability to use leverage, to draw on other people’s money and other people’s time to create more value than I can on my own.

I am always happier when I don’t need to rely on other people.

But, of course, I have to.

In fact, I rely entirely on the work of others to do anything I do.

I rely on a community of free software developers who have created the infrastructure that means I can write and program and create without having to pay a giant corporation or hand over control of everything I do to someone else.

Every thought I have is derived from the work of other people – individuals who took the time to do and think and reflect and write.

So we have this tension between the individual, alone and self-sufficient, and a society which makes it possible for us all to do what we want by making it possible for us to cooperate through social and economic processes.

A few days ago I wrote about how you can use holons to model social processes or human activity and used the example of Republicans and Democrats.

The difference between the two, it appeared, came down to whether you worked to promote the rights of the individual or the common good.

But, as you can see from my discussion above, it’s not an either-or.

It’s a both-and.

The only way you can make it possible for individuals to be free is by having a “good” society.

The fact that people can believe in one thing and ignore the arguments and facts that contradict what they want to believe is a form of cognitive dissonance – a disconnect between what they think and say and what they are and do.

You’ll see this in sitcoms where you have a character that believes he (and it’s normally a he) is irresistibly cool and charming and is anything but – and it’s clear to everyone but him.

What examples of these do you find in business?

Well, they are all over the place – and you’ll see them once you start looking.

It’s there with people who say they want to collaborate but who plan in most cases to appropriate or recreate your ideas and methods.

It’s the person who says they want move fast but when it comes to decision time need to go through years of committee meetings and decision processes.

It’s the people who say they want to do things differently and encourage change and then get very uncomfortable when someone proposes modifying anything.

What’s important, as you listen to what someone is saying and collect information, is that you notice these differences and then, instead of pointing them out, you ask for clarification.

For example, if I was in a meeting where someone was talking about doing something in-house versus buying it from me then the question I would have is how open the person is to outside help.

Some businesses have a policy of doing everything themselves – which often stems from a founder’s fear of being dependent on anyone else.

And you’re not going to change that mentality, not quickly anyway.

But they’ll never tell you that, not up front, because it doesn’t sound like the kind of thing a modern, fast-growing business does.

So you have to dig, carefully, unearth what is likely to happen.

And the way you do this is through questions – like “can you give me an example of how you used an outside supplier?”

Not how will you use one, but how you used one in the past.

If you ask people about the future, you invite speculation and made up stuff about how they will act.

If you ask about the past then you’re on firm ground – if they haven’t done it so far that’s the best indication that they won’t do it in the future.

Or they’ll tell you the conditions under which they’ll work with you, which will probably be onerous and transfer a lot of risk to you and try and protect their position as much as possible.

That’s the thing you have to notice with ideas, they’re like glass and they’re like steel.

You might listen to an idea and see it as easily breakable and the person talking to you will see it as invincible.

You only have to look at some our current world leaders to see this in action.

Now, you’ve listened, you’ve heard what someone has to say, you’ve explored the contradictions and learned where people are – what next?

You have to decide whether you can work with this person or not – if the contradictions are too great you’re better off walking away and not wasting more time – unless your job is to help them work through those contradictions.

But you have to decide if you want to do business.

If you do, then you need to think about how you’re going to move forward, what’s your proposal?

How do you take everything you have and pull it together in a way that makes sense and allows you to do the next thing?

Let’s look at that in the next post.


Karthik Suresh

Making Sense – The Winding Road To Understanding Something


Monday, 5.39am

Sheffield, U.K.

At work here is that powerful WYSIATI (“what you see is all there is”) rule. You cannot help dealing with the limited information you have as if it were all there is to know. You build the best possible story from the information available to you, and if it is a good story, you believe it. Paradoxically, it is easier to construct a coherent story when you know little, when there are fewer pieces to fit into the puzzle. Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance. – Daniel Kahneman

When I look back over the last two decades it seems to me that what I thought of as obvious and true has changed over the years.

But that’s not something that happened naturally – it’s only happened because I’ve worked at it, tried to learn more and, in the process, seen different perspectives and approaches.

The biggest shift in my thinking has been going from seeing the world from my point of view to realizing that when it comes to the important things there are often multiple points of view and one of your jobs is to try and make semse of these other points of view and come to a critical understanding of your own.

So, how do you go about doing that?

Collect a mountain of material

In any project you will collect a heap of material – research, interview notes, jottings, transcripts.

This is the raw material you have to work with – the stuff that you need to work and knead and worry until you have something that you’re ready to use.

The amount of material you need depends on the project and what you’re trying to do.

In many situations the important thing is to figure out what your strategy is – what’s the right direction for you to move in next.

In other situations you might have a more complex problem, such as working out how to engage a number of stakeholders in a transformation project.

Now that you have your material, all these differently shaped pieces, what do you do next?

Build a model of the situation

It’s very hard to see clearly when you’re deep into the detail.

Every conversation, every strand, every note you’ve taken takes time to read and re-read and it’s impossible for you to keep everything you’ve got in your head.

That’s where modeling methods can come to the rescue.

A model is a tool that helps you work at a higher level of abstraction than the material itself and you can have models that work at different layers.

One approach that you’ve probably come across is the use of index cards.

In this paper John W. Maxwell and Haig Armen argue that an index card is indexical, iconic and textual.

What does that mean?

The indexical property relates to the fact that you can use an index card to point to a larger body of material such a book or resource.

For example, if you have a stack of business plans produced by the company you’re working with then you could use an index card to note that collection exists.

You write stuff on the card that tells you what you need to know – like where something is or a quick summary of a larger set of material – and that’s the textual part of it.

The middle point – about the cards being iconic – has to do with the fact that each card is a thing in itself – a thing that you can move around in space.

So you can move the cards around, sort them, rearrange them, restructure them in a way that you can’t do with the original material that the cards represent.

In this sense, a set of index cards that capture and summarize your material act as a three-dimensional physical model of what you have – a model that can help you make sense of the mountain of material that you have collected.

So, how do you get started.

Map your material to your model

You can begin at either end, with the model or with the material.

Writers like John McPhee have written about this process, the way the amount of material he had blocked him from writing and how he had to take a step back and create a structure first using index cards which then allowed the work to flow.

On the other hand, starting with a model may help you decide what you know and what you need to learn more about.

You might start with a set of cards setting out your plan and then work through each one, going and finding material when you realize you’re missing something.

This idea of having stuff and a model of that stuff and working with the two resonates with a number of approaches to problematic situations.

At one extreme you have the idea of a digital twin, a complete model of a situation that you can use to test and develop strategy.

At the other extreme, in a number of situations you have models as being transient, sense-making objects.

You don’t need the full power of an index card model, which can pull together material that needs a full book to understand.

Instead, you can use holons, simple models with five to nine elements that describe what is going on.

The decisions you make about the kind of model you build really depend on how big and complex your situation is and the level of abstraction you’re working at.

And then you go through all your material and map it to the model, using codes or references or links or connections or whatever you choose to show how they relate to each other.

When you have a model of your material you can start to move the pieces around, fit them together until something emerges that has an overall structure and makes sense.

You may need to add new bits, remove bits, fiddle with the model and the material, but that’s something you can now do.

And you constantly ask yourself – does this make sense?

Let’s look at what you do if it doesn’t in the next post.


Karthik Suresh

%d bloggers like this: