How To Start Pulling Together Everything You’ve Heard And Noted Down

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Sunday, 6.48am

Sheffield, U.K.

Indeed, while we might think of information technology as a newish field, in fact Information Technologist may rank among the world’s oldest professions. – Alex Wright, Glut: Mastering information through the ages

I’m at the third section of this Listen book project and what I’m going to have to work through is how to pull everything together.

I started this project with a vague idea of what I was doing and followed ideas as they emerged.

As a result, I’ve had to retrofit a structure as I’ve moved through the content and selected to go with a simple three-part one, which involves preparation, collection and sense-making.

We’re into sense-making territory now and I’m drawing on ethnographic approaches and management experience to work through this section.

Eventually the plan is that all these words can be put together in a way that makes sense and is readable – but I have to confess feeling that could be a long, hard slog which is never actually finished.

But I think that is the way a lot of artists feel and you just have to work through things a bit at a time and eventually something happens.

If you stop, it doesn’t.

So, in this section, let’s look at how to move ahead, starting with what you have.

What material have you collected?

We’ve discussed in previous posts that you need to take notes, lots of them, as you experience a situation.

People will tell you things, you’ll see things, you’ll have your own ideas or insights into what is going on.

You’ve captured all this somewhere – in your mind, in your notebook.

You’ve done this in private and no one has seen your notes or you’ve done it while being observed and effectively co-created notes.

What you’re looking at is a mass of material.

What are you going to do with that?

Before I go into that, some time back I was wondering about the essential futility of modern living.

I think it was sparked by a quote about how humans have transitioned from being hunters to farmers to clerks.

That seemed like a negative thing – why are we spending so much of our time on mundane, non-essential, clerkish duties.

And then I came across Glut: Mastering information through the ages and started to realize just how critical writing was in enabling the societies we have today.

It’s one thing having a thought or seeing something – but it’s writing it down and sharing it that gives it roots and life and longevity.

And writing down something means you first have to make sense of things – and that’s why it has been such a useful tool through the ages – and why being a scribe or a clerk is actually a rather important job.

I need to make it clearer throughout this book project is that the “Listen” title of the book is not about providing a sympathetic ear to someone going through a difficult time.

That’s what you might normally think of – and the objective there is to allow someone to have a cathartic experience – to talk through what’s on their mind and unburden themselves.

We’re often told that we just need to be there to listen, not offer solutions but instead a non-judgmental ear.

That’s not the kind of listening I’m really talking about here.

This is the kind of listening that helps you work out what course of action is best, what strategies you might take, whether you have options or if you’ve got your back to the wall and your only option is to fight your way out.

It’s the kind of listening that helps you understand a situation, the dynamics, the politics, the culture and get a sense of what could work given the people and relationships that are in front of you.

And what you’ve done, in whatever way works best for you, is scribed it all down, noted down everything you could using the resources and tools you had.

And now you need to do something with all that.

What analysis are you going to do?

The general word for starting to make sense of thing is “analysis” and we can use that to cover quite a large set of activities.

We’ll go into some of them in more detail in later posts, but analysis is the process of taking a pile of material and processing it – sorting it, categorizing it – putting it into buckets so that you can work with it.

In most situations the important information is qualitative – you’re trying to work through what people have said.

It’s tempting to reduce things to numbers, to surveys and spreadsheets, but in reality the things you measure are often not the things that matter – and the answers are hidden behind the words people have used to tell you what’s going on.

And so analysis is not just about what you’ve been told but about what lies behind the words – the hidden meanings of things.

When analyzing material what matters is stepping away from your own position on things.

You need to try and look at your material from multiple perspectives, not necessarily objective but critical.

The difference is that an objective approach reduces the role of the observer – you in this case – while a critical approach allows you to stay in the picture, challenging and questioning and coding and grouping and sorting the material in front of you.

What themes and ideas are emerging?

When you go through the analysis process you find that themes and ideas will start to emerge.

It’s tempting, of course, to stop at the first few, plausible ones but it’s important to keep going, to create multiple sets of ideas and themes and models.

There’s often more than one consistent and logical way to look at a situation.

If you want to make a difference you need to be able to appreciate all of them – or at least the ones that matter the most.

All of this can be hard, taxing work – and you might wonder why you’re doing any of this at all.

Who are you writing for?

And this is where you need to decide who your audience is and why you’re writing in the first place.

If you’re trying to create a business opportunity, then shorter is often better.

If you’re in business, you’re not interested in a book that tells you everything – you really want to know which direction to go in and what pitfalls to avoid.

You might have a short conversation and a fairly simple presentation or document that pulls it all together.

If you’re doing an extended study or writing a book or really trying to understand what’s going on in a way that can be generalized or commercialized then you will need to do more work.

One way of thinking about this is the container you’re filling – is it a memo, a presentation, a white paper, a presentation, a book?

We’ll look at how the choice of container affects they way you present your findings.

What’s the point at which you can walk away?

Finally, no piece of work is ever really finished – you have to decide what point you’re ready to walk away from it.

Some people will work on and worry something until the very end.

Some will get it to the point where it works and then move on.

It really depends on how you think of your work – whether it’s a transitional object or something that is permanent – words for the ages.

We’ll look at that as well, what’s the way in which what you create serves you and others.

And then, when you’ve put down your pen or closed your computer file, you’re done with the process.

But we’ll get to that as we work through these ideas in the next few posts.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How To Make Sense Of The Whole Thing Using Holons

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Saturday, 6.23am

Sheffield, U.K.

What I mean is that if you really want to understand something, the best way is to try and explain it to someone else. That forces you to sort it out in your own mind. And the more slow and dim-witted your pupil, the more you have to break things down into more and more simple ideas. And that’s really the essence of programming. By the time you’ve sorted out a complicated idea into little steps that even a stupid machine can deal with, you’ve certainly learned something about it yourself. The teacher usually learns more than the pupil. Isn’t that true? – Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

Most of the issues we run into with our lives can be traced back to one thing – we don’t look at all the factors that matter in a situation.

And that’s because it’s normal to look at the presenting problem – the thing that’s most obviously wrong.

For example, if someone makes a mistake at work a common reaction is to create a rule that aims to prevent that happening again.

Let’s say a person has to do a number of checks and some of them get missed.

One way to help is to create a checklist, something they tick off as they go along.

Now, what you’ll find over time is that someone will come up with the bright idea of adding signature boxes to the bottom of your checklist.

What that aims to do is add accountability – the person doing it signs it and then a person who double checks it signs it too – a sign of quality control.

What this always does is reduce quality because now you have two people, each of which is tempted to believe the other will pick up on errors and who both get more focused on whether they have followed a checking process than whether the right thing is being done.

One of the things people need to understand is that you cannot “inspect quality” into a process – you have to build quality in right from the beginning and a checklist is a tool to help, not a weapon for allocating blame.

But what is this quality thing anyway?

Quality is something that emerges from doing something well for someone else – it’s the experience they have.

So that’s something weird, isn’t it.

When you say a Rolex is a quality product, do you mean that every piece in there is machined to a particular tolerance or that the glass is a certain kind of material?

That’s one take on quality – an adherence to specifications – but that’s not what people think when they wear a premium watch – no one really oohs and aahs over the micrometer measurements of the product.

But those micrometer measurements matter too – without them you have something that feels cheap and poorly put together and you can tell the absence of quality.

Now, in the physical world of products, because what you use and how well it all fits together contributes to that feeling of quality, we associate quality with standards and tolerances.

So then when you come to services and concepts and dreams it’s tempting to use the same approach – we can improve quality through standardization.

For example, you do things like having a customer relationship management (CRM) system, set KPIs and targets, have service level agreements – which result in rules like we will answer the phone in five minutes or less.

But is that what you want when you call up customer services – a short wait – or do you want your problem solved?

Maybe the person who talks to you gets to you in two minutes, they update the CRM with all the information and create all the flows that are needed by the process – they follow all their standards and rules exactly – but if your problem isn’t sorted you still feel that it’s low quality work.

That’s one of the frustrations people have with government, where the overriding concern is about process rather than result – where people spend huge amounts of time inspecting and checking and measuring and reporting and scoring rather than actually doing the job well.

And that’s because they can’t see the big picture – the whole thing – because we’re trained not to.

We’re taught that if you can’t measure it you can’t manage it, so we focus on the things we can measure and completely miss the things that matter.

Maybe what we should be taught is that if you can’t model it, then you can’t understand it – and that’s why you can’t manage it.

Being able to model something is what matters, and some of the things in your model can be measured and that’s going to help you but other things can’t and you need to be able to tell the difference and live with the implications.

But how do you create a model that works for real-world situations?

Well, one way is to start using the word “system” in the right way, because it means something very different to different people.

Some systems might be seen as real and physical – like your IT system or your transportation system.

Others are more amorphous and complex – like the economic system or value system or healthcare system.

The crossover from real and measurable to conceptual and abstract is not always obvious but it doesn’t help that we use the word “system” for everything that we could possibly want to manage.

One solution is to use the word “holon” – a word that has been put forward for “the abstract concept of a whole which might then be used to understand or create real-world systems”

So, we use the word system to mean something in the real world, something we can point to and touch – while we use holons for concepts that we hold in our minds.

So what’s this holon thing then?

In “Soft Systems Methodology in Action” Peter Checkland suggests using the word “holon” for the “abstract idea of a whole having emergent properties, a layered structure and processes of communication and control which in principle enable it to survive in a changing environment.”

The basic idea that Checkland puts forward is this – we have these abstract concepts in our heads when we think about the world and the big issue we face is talking about these abstract things with others.

We can use holons to make those abstract concepts visible, and then by comparing your abstract concept with my abstract concept we can understand each other better and have a conversation about how we can live together.

The process of modeling a holon is shown in the image above – you have activities that are connected together – and there is communication and control between them.

These activities together make a whole.

And from that whole you have something that emerges that is not in any of the parts but happens because of how those parts work together.

A holon is something you can create pretty quickly – it’s there to help you have a discussion about what’s in your head.

How would you use this in practice?

I don’t know much about politics, so let’s ask Wikipedia what Republicans and Democrats are – what makes them them and see if we can quickly construct holons to compare and contrast the two.

Here are two holons – first a model of what republicans believe.

republican.png

and then a model of what democrats believe.

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Now, these are quick models, one interpretation of the words that are in the Wikipedia articles – they are selective and partial and reflect what seemed most obvious to me – the person constructing the model.

But now, instead of shouting at me from your point of view – whichever party you support – you can look at the two holons and correct what you see as errors.

Should the activities or connections be different, are there things missing?

Eventually, there could be a holon that you are happy with which, for you, allows the concept of being a Democrat or Republican to emerge

And then there are two holons which you can compare and discuss and use to understand what’s different about the two and where there might be room for discussion and where there is none.

Now, of course, there are layers under each activity, and that’s the idea of hierarchy, you can create more holons that express each of those nested ideas and that’s also the a feature of inquiry into real-world situations – models and emergence exist at different levels each building on the next.

You need to get your head around the idea that a holon is simply a way to model what a person thinks.

And where it matters is that if you listen to someone and then build a holon of what they think which they agree captures what they have said you’ve now created a useful model of that discussion.

That’s something you can build on as you move to the next step of whatever you’re working on – the project or product or process or business you’re trying to build.

So the next thing we should look at is bringing it all together, making sense of it all.

Over a series of posts we’ve looked at listening, tools and methods to do it better, and some techniques to help us model situations.

So what have we learned, what do we think and what are we going to do next.

We need to tackle some of these ideas in the next few posts.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

What Is An Influence Model And Why Is It Useful?

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Friday, 5.39am

Sheffield, U.K.

My dad used to say, ‘Just because you dress up in a coat and tie, it doesn’t influence your intelligence.’ Tiger Woods

A project can often be overwhelming – there are so many options, so many things that could happen.

How do you go about making sense of it all and coming to a point of view?

Most people are not trained to do this – I don’t remember going on a single course that formally taught how to think about situations and problems.

It seems to be the domain of specialized researchers, people who learn it in particular fields but we all really need to understand the basics of analysis, the chain of cause and effect and the range of things that can happen.

I was going to write this post from the point of view of mathematical modeling but I realized that it may also be useful with another problem I’m facing, so I’ll describe both – you never know, that might be useful as well.

Let’s start with modeling with spreadsheets.

You’ve all probably had to create a spreadsheet model – they are the universal medium through which business communicates information.

They are also, most of the time, wrong.

That’s because a spreadsheet model is really a very powerful programming platform that gives users access to capability without requiring any controls or good practice.

So you end up with monster spreadsheets that are poorly designed, hard to maintain, riddled with errors and that don’t really help you understand a situation.

And there is almost no information out there that tells you how to do this better.

Perhaps the most useful books on this that I’ve found are The art of modeling with spreadsheets and Modelling for insight and the most useful thing in the books is the idea of an influence model.

Now, if you’re interested in the process of modeling itself I’d suggest getting one or both of these but in this post I want to look at the influence model as an object of interest.

The easiest way to get started is with an example.

One of the things I’m interested in is the idea of daily profit – a measurement every day of whether you’re on the right track or not.

So, how would you work that out.

Well, there are factors that influence the calculation of daily profit, and an influence model helps you work out the factors that matter.

For example, you need daily income and daily costs to work out daily profit as the difference between the two.

Daily income and daily costs, in turn, have other factors that influence them.

What you do is draw the factors that you come up with in a chart, as in the image above, and keep working back and decomposing each factor until you can go no further.

That point, the point at which the process stops, is actually your starting point.

Those factors are your parameters, the things you have to enter into your model to start everything off.

From those parameters come a series of calculations, as you work down your branches of the model.

For example, you have to add sales, commissions and investments in the model above to get daily income.

You have to work out the difference between daily income and daily costs to work out daily profit.

So, you have parameters and calculations that then calculate a result.

Now you have a what you need to build a spreadsheet model that you can actually play with – what happens if your sales go up 50%?

What impact does that have on profit.

Have you built a link between sales and costs – when you make a sale, have you calculated how much you’re going to pay in fees or extra hours for that sale?

If not, then create a link between those elements in the model and update your spreadsheet.

And, of course, if your end result is not the actual result, you can extend the model.

For example, your daily profit is a measure but how do you know if it’s good or bad?

You might need a target that is, in turn, calculated from other factors and that helps you work out a variance, which when you factor in time lets you get a cumulative variance.

Now there are two things to note.

The first is that once you have an influence model it makes the job of building a spreadsheet much easier.

You just need to have an input section for the parameters, a calculation section for the workings and a results section to show you the answers.

Read the books for suggestions on how to do this elegantly – but one tip is that if you put the input parameters and the results close together and the calculations below then when you change a parameter you’ll see the result straight away rather than having to go somewhere else.

And that will make your model more interactive – something you play with to see what happens and that’s going to help you think through the situation.

The thing that makes the influence model approach so powerful is that you work backwards from the result you want to the things that matter.

Doing the opposite – starting with what you have and trying to understand the possibilities is too hard to do – you feel like your model has to take everything into account.

Now, that’s useful in its own way, when you’re thinking and exploring and expanding your view.

But when you decide that you need to do something then you have to focus on only the things that matter so that you can get on and do the work.

Which is where this approach also might help.

I mentioned in a previous post that I was finding it hard to get into editing my first book project’s content.

This is because when I wrote it I was in expansive mode, I worked through topics and structure and wrote it all out, with a few diversions along the way.

Now, at editing time, I need to focus, to cut out anything that isn’t helping with the main message.

Which, of course, means I need to be very clear about the main message.

And the things that influence it.

I need to work out the factors that matter, structure those as an influence model, make sure my content maps to that structure and ruthlessly edit out anything that doesn’t contribute to the message.

Will that work?

Well, it might help me get over my first editing block and go from that “shitty first draft” to a version with a bit more structure.

And then, of course, there is the chipping away and polishing and finishing.

But here’s the point about using an influence model.

When you think about things in this way the one thing that you can soothe yourself with is that you’re thinking about things that matter.

What you’re working on is directly related to the result you want to get and so it’s going to help.

And that’s something that’s going to help you keep going, whether it’s a model or a project.

An influence model is intensely practical – it’s there to help you do a specific thing.

You need a different kind of model when you need to think about everything.

Let’s look at that in the next post.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How To Get The Richest Possible Appreciation Of A Situation

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Thursday, 5.51am

Sheffield, U.K.

A characteristic of fluent users of SSM is that they will be observed throughout the work drawing pictures and diagrams as well as taking notes and writing prose – Checkland in Soft Systems Methodology in Action, p.45

In my last post I looked at SODA – Strategic Options Development and Analysis as a way to understand situations.

In this post I want to start looking at one facet of another method, Soft Systems Methodology (SSM), and, in particular, how you can get a “rich appreciation” of what’s going on.

In many consulting or research projects we’re going to enter situations where prior work has already been done, where “stuff” exists.

And one of the things you have to do is understand that stuff – and this is something that SSM talks about in terms of gaining an “appreciation” of what’s going on.

And one useful technique to do this is to draw a rich picture diagram – a drawing of what’s happening.

Now, the literature in this space is contradictory and confusing – I know that my own understanding has changed over time.

For example you’ll find some examples of what I call rich pictures in this site are actually closer to cognitive maps.

What’s the difference?

In the last post I explored how you could build a cognitive map from what someone told you, the statements and links they talked through can be captured and shown on a piece of paper and the resulting image that emerges shows both of you a view of what is in someone’s head.

There is a question about whether this view existed already – did you discover it – or did the two of you construct or create it?

Now, once you’ve worked away to discover or construct a point of view – however you want to take it – then you want to try and make sense of it, look at it, talk about it, debate it and come to an agreement about how you all think about.

A rich picture is a little different – in that it is a representation of something that is probably already there – you’re just showing it in a different way.

For example, the Economist September 2020 issue has a number of features on the future of clean energy.

Now, you could read all the material in there – it’s been painstakingly written by experienced journalists.

That’s going to give you some information on what’s going on.

There was also a Financial Times article published in the same month about a dramatic fall in BP’s share price – because of fears that BP’s oil revenue would fall as the world shifted to clean energy.

Now, how would you start to make sense of these stories.

The rich picture in the image above is one way to draw what’s going on in a way that pulls from what’s being written and discussed in the media to help us make sense of what’s going on too.

Take a look at the picture.

Is it relatively self-explanatory?

If I tried to talk you through this in words, then I’d be saying something like for the last century different groups have tried to control the Middle East – the US and UK provide financial and military aid to Saudi Arabia while Russia supports Iran.

They do this because they want to control the oil in those regions – that’s why they supported leaders like Saddam Hussein in Iraq for a long time, leaders who repress their citizens.

You see this pattern often, where resource rich countries have this kind of setup.

And the countries and companies that control the people who control the land do this because they can then have access to the resources they need to supply rich consumers.

This has been the fundamental geopolitical issue of the 20th century – the battle to control energy supply.

But things are changing, the clean energy alternatives mean that the land which is valuable is not where there is oil but where the wind blows and the sun shines – different lands, owned by different people.

And so the companies that controlled the oil lands, like BP, are now having to scramble for the new lands and because they didn’t do this early enough their share prices are being hammered.

Now, the last seven paragraphs are a condensed view of what’s going on in writing – but there are still nuances – you could write entire books on this subject.

I have a few upstairs – thick volumes – close on 900 pages I think.

Now, if you’ve had the patience to read all these paragraphs, look at them again as objects in themselves, as artifacts of interest.

The rich picture by itself – is it enough, does it need more, could you make sense of it?

The words – were they enough, did you get it, was it complete or comprehensive?

What about both together – was that useful, did it help make sense, could you see the connections better?

Now, think about how you might use a rich picture diagram in a situation.

You could read all the background material available, make notes.

You might do some interviews, build cognitive maps.

If you do enough interviews you might find that things keep on turning up, you see patterns – of people, of objects, of institutions, of information flows.

So, perhaps you capture these in a picture – one you can point to and say this is what we see from our research, what do you think?

But there’s no hard distinction, rather a blurring – a cognitive map can have pictures too – and at some point you go from one to the other but what you call it, and when you call it one thing or the other, really depends on you and the situation and whether anyone cares what it’s called or whether they just want to get on and do the work.

But if you’re interested in this kind of stuff and want to become a better listener and have better conversations then knowing the difference and knowing what you do and how you do it is probably a good idea.

There’s no real prescription here – do it this way and it will work type of thing.

The point is that pictures can help you capture things that would take a long time to do in words – so it seems like a good idea to try and use pictures when that helps.

They don’t need to be art – it’s a thinking tool and you can do a lot with simple shapes and lines.

As you can see on almost every page of this blog, I hope.

Now, so far, I’ve looked at cognitive maps as a way to map out what people say – which focuses really on words.

Then we’ve looked at rich pictures as a way to show entities and people and patterns and connections.

We’ve talked previously about notes and jottings.

The next tools to look at are models, and there are two kinds of models – broadly speaking.

One is a mathematical, numerical assessment of a situation – an influence model – and I think it might be worth looking at one method for doing this well – because it’s hardly ever taught.

And then there’s a model for thinking systemically – holons.

I’ll cover these and how to use them in the next two posts.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Cognitive Mapping And Strategic Options Development And Analysis (SODA)

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Tuesday, 5.42am

Sheffield, U.K.

I had discovered that learning something, no matter how complex, wasn’t hard when I had a reason to want to know it. – Homer Hickam, Rocket Boys

Strategic Options Development and Analysis (SODA) is an approach developed by Colin Eden and Fran Ackermann to help consultants working on complex problems involving social processes – ones that involve people trying to deal with situations.

There is a tendency, especially among engineers, to ignore the people side of things.

We’re more comfortable working on hard problems – designing or creating solutions or trying to work out what software or technology will let us do something.

The world is out there, it’s objective, we can see it, see what’s wrong and fix it – in our view you just need the tools.

When people get involved, however, you have to start worrying about subjective stuff.

What this means is that instead of an objective world where are problems are of the type “how do we get this heavy block from here to there?” we have to worry about what’s in people’s heads – like “how will the position I take on this affect my chances of promotion and should I do the right thing for everyone or the right thing for me?”

Let’s go through some of the points the creators make about why and when and how to use the method.

Why and when to use SODA

SODA is an approach, a set of methods, that will help you manage and facilitate discussions about a situation.

People have to talk things through in order to understand what they think and what they are willing to do.

This is different from going into a room by yourself and collecting lots of data and writing a report.

This is about getting people talking, sharing, exploring their ideas and constructing a story, a narrative that captures what they think.

SODA is a good thing to use to start off a project because you’re starting with a blank sheet of paper rather than a preconceived framework.

It’s the difference between going into a meeting with a slide deck and saying “I’m going to spend the next 40 minutes talking about myself” and opening your notebook and saying “Let’s talk about what’s important to you.”

A lot of people are comfortable with the slide deck, they know they have to just get through it and answer questions and they feel like they’re in charge.

The second is far more scary – you have to know what you’re doing, be comfortable that you can cope with wherever the conversation goes.

But what are you actually doing?

How SODA works

The key thing to understand about a method like SODA is that what you create during the process – the notes, the drawings, the maps – are temporary things.

For example, at the core of the SODA approach is the ability to do an interview with your clients and create a cognitive map.

The interview and initial cognitive map

A cognitive map captures concepts and the links between concepts that the clients have in their heads, it’s simply getting down short sentences and links to other short sentences that capture what they’re saying to you.

If you’re going to do this on paper you just sit down with your client and have a notebook – A4 paper on a clip board is fine.

Start about a third of the way down the page and ask a starter question and note down what’s being said.

Make a few notes before you start connecting the ideas and then explore things further, go where it’s interesting, where the client wants to talk, follow trails and clarify things you don’t understand.

Your job is to interview the client – not with an agenda or a purpose – but in order to help them talk through and understand what they think.

What you’re going to end up with is something messy and with lines everywhere – but that’s ok.

The point is to see and learn and understand, not to make it pretty.

For example, here’s an extract from the way my maps look – there’s nothing neat or even readable about them at this point.

cognitive-map-2014.png

Extend and redraw the map

Once you’ve finished the interview then you need to sit down and write it up, preferably when things are still fresh in your mind.

This act of tidying up the map is an important part of the SODA method, and Eden and Ackermann have developed software to help with the task and you can get a free trial version.

At this stage there are a number of technical points that the creators of SODA suggest you should consider.

First there is the idea that concepts are bipolar, they form a range between two extremes.

The client is somewhere between those two extremes one that concept, which then relates to another, which is different.

For example, let’s take the concept of the attitude of employees who want to work from home.

One extreme that people take is that this is good and productive and saves time on the commute while the other extreme is that people who want to do that are lazy and just want to sit on the sofa while still being paid.

So, you have this concept of attitude to home working that’s then connected to the concept of safety practices at work.

Then you have the idea of trying to reword what you’ve heard in more action-oriented language.

In the sense that rather than simply whining about a subject you try and see where things are moving, where you might start and progress and finish.

What you might also find, during the process of redrawing the map, is that ideas fall into clusters, and you can see them as part of a larger set of ideas.

Discussion and action

What you’re doing is trying to create a structure, a hierarchy, a flow that suggests that you are moving towards a state of doing – a point at which you can agree on what the situation is what you’re going to do about it.

And the way you do that is to sit down and use the maps to have a discussion.

You’ve got the structure in front of you and now you can follow it, revisit the ideas, mark up things that work or don’t work and refine and redraw the maps.

The point about the approach is that rather than trying to keep all this in your head you’ve made it visible, you’ve created a map on paper that tries to capture the map in the client’s head and so it’s easier to talk about it and see if it makes sense or not.

Does it help?

The point about approaches like SODA is that you can’t really say whether they work or not – the question is whether they help you in the situations you face given the type of person and consultant you are.

People who crave order and structure may find that the free-form and blank page style initially scary and daunting.

Later, perhaps, when they’re doing the mapping, they might find it easier and more fun to do.

But, like the other tools that I’m going to go through, it’s not easy to do because you need to understand some theory, develop some craft skills and get some real-life experience messing up.

You have to pass your own test – which is whether you feel like you helped your client or not.

But the good thing is if you keep at it, you’ll work out a way that works for you.

But before we look at that, we need to consider another way to approach complex situations in the next post.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

These Principles Are Vital If You Want To Listen To And Understand A Situation

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Monday, 5.13am

Sheffield, U.K.

The first law of fighting evil is that it can’t stand the light. Even the Nazis went to extreme lengths to hide and disguise what they were doing to the Jews. When you shine the spotlight of publicity on evil it generally shrivels and dies. – Barry Clemson

Have you ever listened to a short interview on the news and been utterly dissatisfied by what happened?

The reporter asked questions that presented an opinion rather than starting a line of inquiry and the person being interviewed ignored everything and responded with the party line.

This is a game of verbal table tennis and the objective is to win points or at the very least, draw.

The interviews I like, on the other hand, tend to happen in long-form podcasts, discussions that take place over a couple of hours but, of course, we don’t all have many spare hours so we try and cram things into less time.

And that doesn’t really help, because time matters.

As do a few other things, some of which were explained by Barry Clemson and Allenna Leonard in a 1984 book on management cybernetics.

Clemson has listed the 22 laws here and I want to pick out four of them, and then two more that are relevant as we learn how to listen to others and better understand situations.

So, here goes.

The darkness principle

When you first enter a new situation, everything is dark – you know nothing about what’s going on.

As you listen to the people involved in the situation and ask questions, you start to see things, they shed a little light on what is going on.

Now, what’s clear is that you can’t know everything, understand the system completely.

You have to accept that some of it will remain in darkness, if only because you haven’t yet turned the light on that area.

Understanding this is important because it keeps you humble – you come to conclusions based on what you know so far and stay open to the possibility that new information may need you to revisit and even revise your opinions.

Of course, to shine a light as fully as possible, you must be willing to take your time.

Relaxation time

When you disturb a system – like throwing a pebble into a pond or brushing against a spider web – you set off vibrations, oscillations, waves.

These take time to settle.

You can’t force this, it follows its own schedule, its own timing sequence.

You can see this with children – if they’re in the middle of doing something and you want them to do something else how do you begin?

Perhaps you go in and tell them to stop what they’re doing immediately.

If they’re having fun you’ll get an immediate response, a negative, angry one.

How many of us have the patience to let the child finish before interrupting and escalating the situation?

Has that ever made things better?

If you want to stabilize a system what you need to realize is that the time that it takes for the system to relax has to be less than the average time between disturbing events.

In other words, wait till the child has finished and then start to say your piece.

It takes longer in the short term but if you interrupt before the child has finished and is relaxed, is ready to hear you, then you’ll simply push them again and they’ll stay angry and upset for longer – for the long term.

It’s the same when you’re interviewing someone and trying to explore an area – take your time, let the person talk about things until they’re done, until they’re tailing off or repeating themselves and then move on – give them time to answer before you disturb the situation with your next question.

Because what you’re trying to do is understand as much as you can or, at the very least, enough.

Requisite variety

How do you know when enough is enough?

That’s where requisite variety comes in.

Imagine you’re trying to pick up a stretcher with a person on it.

There are four handles.

Can you carry the person safely if you pick up only two?

How about three?

If you don’t get all four the stretcher is unbalanced and you could drop and hurt the patient.

Now imagine a more complex shape, one like the image above perhaps.

If this shape were a board, where would you hold it to lift it and stop whatever is on the board rolling off?

Holding only a few won’t do – you have to pick it up on all the points that matter, the ones that affect the balance and stability of the whole.

You won’t know what these areas are – the ones that matter – until you come across them as you explore the darkness and you will only find them all if you give yourself time – time to as questions and follow trails and discover them in the darkness.

But still, how will you know that you’ve got it all?

Multiple perspectives

That’s where you need to talk to more than one person.

As you carry out an exploration with more people involved in the situation you start to see things from more than one point of view.

And what then matters is how consistent the models you are coming up with are with these points of view, are you able to see commonalities or not?

Or perhaps the same thing can be expressed in more than one way – and those ways can be incompatible because of underlying fundamental differences in how people see the world.

And that’s ok – that’s what happens in the real world.

People disagree on things.

What matters is what happens next.

Surface and hidden meaning

This principle is not one of the 22 articulated by Clemson but it comes out in the quote from him above.

As I explored his website I came across his autobiographical fragment on the Mississippi Freedom Summer, the summer of 1964.

It’s harrowing reading, bravery, following a story of non-violent action in a society that had practiced violence against others for a century without fear of reprisal.

And it tells you a bit about surface and hidden meaning.

On the surface, you have the overt display of power, a police force that has sticks and horses and believes that one part of humanity is worth less, deserves less than another.

And that police force is drawn from that part of humanity which benefits from oppressing the other.

But what we have learned over time is that no police force can control a citizenry unless the citizens agree to work with the police.

Unless there is an overwhelming, unchecked abuse of power – which we also see, of course, in many parts of the world.

But, in the world Clemson is describing, you see what’s happening in a section where this power, this control, this superiority that one race seek to display and show on the surface also conceals fear and anxiety.

There’s an incident with an old farmer who seems “hysterically afraid” – worried that Clemson and his friends are “communist agitators here to destroy the Mississippi way of life.”

That’s not very different from now.

Every government is afraid – so afraid that they have to respond to or crack down on the light.

Whether it’s the developing nations, India or China with the challenges of their borders and minority populations or rich nations like the US and the countries of Europe, we live in a world where we cannot trust what’s on the surface because there is too much leaking out about the murky depths underneath.

Each of us has to choose how we act, whether we stand up publicly for the things we believe in or if we make better choices, through what we buy and do to reward those who do better.

It’s complicated and difficult so you need to have ways of understanding what you are really trying to do.

Bi Polar Constructs

In my last post I wrote about nodes and connections, concepts and links that you explore and that works pretty well most of the time.

The one refinement I have come across is George Kelly’s Personal Construct Theory which Eden and Ackermann talk about in their work on strategy and SODA – Strategic options development and analysis.

And this is the idea that what people think – their theories of how things work – are built from constructs.

Constructs can often lie on a range, they are similar ideas, but on either end of two poles, two opposites ways of being.

For example, take societies.

All societies are similar in that they are groups of people but you can have a racist society at one extreme and a multi-cultural one at the other.

No society is entirely one or the other of these, the sum total of the approaches and views of the people in that society will lie somewhere in between the two extremes.

And where they are leads to other points, where the construct is different from or leads to another point.

Like a multi cultural society faced by terrorist activity or a racist society where the oppressed section of that society decide they don’t really want to be oppressed any longer.

Now, of course, there aren’t simple solutions and it takes time to sort things out and understand what is going on and come to a compromise.

And the changes that happen on the way may not be for the better.

But they could… if you took the time to listen and understand.

Making sense of it all

If you were able to make sense of it all.

In the next couple of posts I’m going to explore two particular methods, one a top-down approach and the other a bottom-up one to see if they can help

Until then,

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How Searching For Knowledge Lets Structure Emerge And Vice Versa

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Sunday, 6.50am

Sheffield, U.K.

There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are. – W. Somerset Maugham

The question of what comes first can be paralyzing.

Where do you begin, how do you start, where’s the entry point?

I’m 38,000 odd words through this second book project and I think I’ve lost my place.

But that’s ok, it just means I have to take some time and think through what I’m trying to do again.

Start anywhere, but start

The thing I’ve learned over many years, many days of beginning with a blank sheet of paper is that you can start anywhere.

The trick is to start.

In fact, you can trick yourself into starting by doing something that’s a warm up.

For example, when I write, I always begin with three paragraphs of anything, whatever is in my head, whatever comes to mind even if it’s complete nonsense.

It’s like oiling the gears and getting the mechanism to move by hand – it’s the thing you do before you get going.

And then the first words start and flow and trickle their way onto the page.

Follow an idea where it goes

Once you have something, anything, you can develop that idea.

Now, imagine if you will, a blank page.

You’ve put down an idea and drawn a circle around it – it’s something to start with.

That idea leads to another one, or it leads to a fact or a point or a description of something that happened.

You write that down, somewhere near the first point and draw a line to connect them.

And then you keep going, perhaps that second point goes in the direction of a third point.

But it also sparks the creation of a fourth, which in turn sparks two more, one of which happens to be connected to the third.

What I find is that when you do this, you end up with a collection of related ideas.

You will have all done this kind of thing – perhaps even named it and done it intentionally.

If you’re brainstorming, or mind-mapping or concept mapping – then you’re doing something with nuggets of information and lines of connection, perhaps labeled.

A structure will eventually emerge

When you take the time to get those ideas down then inevitably a structure emerges from that mass of material.

It always happens – it’s the nature of things.

Or, at least, it’s in the nature of human beings to notice patterns and regularities.

So we look around at random masses of dirt and see valleys and hills and mountains and plateaus and volcanoes.

We see geography – we tell the story of the land and come up with words that describe the thing we see – and that’s what we do when we see the once blank page filled with notes – we see patterns and structure that we can express using other words.

The structure is not something that exists yet anywhere else but in your mind – it’s what you see when you see what you’ve done – but if you capture the structure, draw it out, now you have something that can guide you as you explore the terrain further.

Structure or a whole?

A structure is one thing – you can create a structure if you list a table of contents or create a hierarchy.

Your structure creates a form for your ideas – and that’s good – you’ve now got shape.

This is what John McPhee writes about, how all his publications have an underlying form or shape or structure underpinning them, a drawing or diagram that helps him put things in their place.

But you can make a structure out of a couple of twigs on the ground, but do they make a whole as well?

I suppose the point I’m trying to drive towards is the difference between scaffolding and a skeleton.

Scaffolding helps you put up a house but then you take it away and that’s it done.

You build the house out of bricks and cement and glass, those are the components that you place and connect, like you do with nodes and lines.

But you’re then left with a house – a single word that captures the whole structure, made up of walls and a roof and windows – more words that describe the structure.

The reason I think this distinction is important is because you can have structure without having a whole and that’s usually going to result in a problem at some point.

I think this is most obvious in how-to books, how to become more successful, how to do well at something, that sort of stuff.

They will have a structure, a framework, something that they promise will give you a result – if you do everything they ask you to do.

The thing that you will realize is that their structure is incomplete – it often covers much of what is necessary but not all of what is needed.

It’s like the 80/20 rule – that works in many situations.

You can get most of the way there if you do the most important things.

But there are many cases where you have to do all of the things that matter to make things work.

In your house, for example, you need a roof and walls and windows and doors and the other things that make up a house.

If you stopped with 80% you wouldn’t have a home – you’d have an unfinished project.

100% of what is necessary matters in this case.

I need to revisit my models

At this point, this many words into my project, I’m realizing that my structure is a little rickety – I need to go back to the plans and figure out what is going on, figure out the main parts and get some order into the process.

At the same time this period of reflection, this post itself, is helping make sense of what I need to do next.

One of which is making clear what is and what isn’t possible when you’re trying to understand a situation by listening to others and I want to pull that together in a model, perhaps in the next post.

Until then,

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How To Work Through And Present What You Now Think

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Wednesday, 6.02am

Sheffield, U.K.

The problems are solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have known since long. – Ludwig Wittgenstein

In the last few posts ( 1, 2, 3 ) I’ve talked about ways of collecting information, from the stuff you just write every day to quotes and passages that you note down for later reference.

We’re awash in information, however, so at some point you need to figure out how you’re going to make sense of it all.

But, of course, before you do that you should work out why you might want to do that in the first place.

Are you an artist?

The only right answer to that question is yes, you are.

Whatever you do is an art – it’s something that you pay attention to and work at and refine and improve.

Some arts need physical skills and dexterity and practice and some need you to empty your mind and just flow and others need you to use your mind and create.

And it’s the ones that need you to use your mind that we’re most interested in, the ones that involve thinking and concepts and arguments – the Art of Letters, for example.

Really.. just the art of writing.

If you want to explain something – to yourself or to someone else – you’re going to have to do some writing.

It’s unavoidable, it’s the only way to discover what you think – other than talking it through, of course.

But writing is permanent – you can look back on what you think and that frees you up to think around those thoughts and build on them some more.

Reading and taking notes

One name you will come across sooner or later when you look into this space is Niklas Luhmann, and the place to begin is with two translated essays where Luhmann talks about his method called the zettelkasten, or slip box.

First, Luhmann says, you need to read and take notes, “not excerpts, but condensed reformulations of what has been read.”

The next, and longer essay, is Communicating with slip boxes, which describes his particular setup for doing this work.

How Luhmann’s zettelkasten works

You start by taking notes on slips of paper, half a letter size, or A6.

Luhmann tore full size sheets in half for his system, and used normal paper rather than index cards to keep bulk down.

You then take notes on each slip of paper.

Each note is given an id based on its position rather than content or topic.

Luhmann’s system of numbering is interesting – you simply number notes in order 1,2,3 and so on.

If you later write a note that you think should be next to 1, you give it the code 1a, switching from numbers to letters and go 1b, 1c and so on.

If you later write a note that is related to 1b then you can insert it between 1b and 1c giving it a number of 1c1.

This way, you can simply branch and insert and extend your notes indefinitely.

And then you put your notes in your slip box.

This raises a couple of points for me.

One is that the original content is still important, where does this live?

One place could be in your commonplace book, where you copy out the extract itself, or of course you could have a stack of papers somewhere.

Luhmann tells us to keep a separate slip box of for a bibliographic references, so on the notes you take you can note down the source and then either go to the original or look it up in your commonplace book.

Two more things, then.

Because the slips have a number which you can’t just remember you need an index, a list of keywords and entry points so that you can go into your slip box and get the relevant slips later.

And the other thing you can do is have the slips refer to other slips, so while you might use the index to enter the box, the references to other slips will let you move through your boxes finding related information.

These elements – the notes themselves, a way to refer to each note, an index or register, relationships or links and a bibliography of original sources – are what you need to get started with your zettelkasten, your partner in research.

Thinking in systems

Creating a zettelkasten requires effort, and anything that needs effort will wear us out, so we have to make things as easy for ourselves as possible.

One approach that people like is to go digital – all the tedious numbering and referencing and linking can be done much more easily in an app – and so if we use software the mechanics of maintaining such a system become easier.

But the purpose of the slip box is not to accumulate and manage information – it’s to help us think and we know that thinking is done better when we use a pencil, when we can write and draw and dream and there is still nothing better than paper for that kind of work.

The thing with a system like the zettelkasten is that it needs to be fit for purpose.

Do you have to number everything, for example?

Probably not, as long as you number the main branches so you can get into the right section of your slip box to start searching.

I think perhaps it makes sense to take notes first and leave space for numbering later when you’re trying to work out where to file the notes.

Update 25 Sept 2020 I’ve realized after trying to file a set of notes that the numbering system is actually very convenient and lean – but you have to stop relying on memory to remember the numbering approach.

That’s because there are two ways to start working on something.

Either it’s something completely new.

You check your main index of subjects – the list of top level numbers – and if there isn’t one there that fits what you’re about to write you start a new number.

For example, if you’ve got 10 subjects so far and you’re about to start a new note on computing – a new subject – you’re going to start with 11.

If you’ve continuing work on something you’ve already done some work on – then the first thing you do is go and find the most relevant note or notes in your slip box and take a look at them.

Your next note will continue or branch off from one of these – and your numbering is easy from then on.

End of update

The important thing is not about following a system but making the system work for you.

Thinking in programs

A different way of looking at the collection of slips, or your collection of notes in general, is the program you follow when you use it.

So, your notes and slips may tell you how to work with the notes and slips, how you want to navigate through them.

For example, you could write a slip that tells you which slips to go to next, or has a comment on how two other slips relate to each other.

When you put together these simple elements you’ll find that there are interactions, unexpected links and discoveries.

Reading through your notes, you find a thought that links to a collection that sparks an idea which makes its way into a book.

Pirsig and Lila

Luhmann is famous for this method, but if you are interested in this it’s worth also reading a bit of Lila, by Robert Pirsig, where he describes his approach to research and writing.

He used slips of paper because they were better suited to organize information in small chunks, and provide random access.

Information came in so fast that the first thing was to simply collect it, and when things stopped coming in that was the time to process and organize.

And his approach to organizing is simple, you compare two slips and ask what comes first, and eventually the slips self organize into collections and topics and can be labeled as such.

You can see the overlap with Luhmann – who discarded the idea of labeling by topic in favor of a reference system and there are pros and cons to each.

The fixed reference means that things don’t move and you use your index to go where you need to go while the topics mean you can move things around but you could spent all your time reorganizing your notes rather than working on them.

There are two other things Pirsig talks about – one of which is the idea of a PROGRAM, slips that tell you what to do with the other slips.

The program is data, just like everything else.

The other bit that Pirsig mentions brings together this idea of extracts and notes, with the line, “He left the mountains near Bozeman with boxes full of slips and many notebooks full of quotations…”

Working out your flow

I think perhaps there is a progression, where you move from free form to a more fixed position as your ideas start to firm up.

Take notes, keep original material, keep logs of what you do.

Review what you have and summarize them on slips of paper, get out the core ideas, the thing you want to think about.

You might want to move slips around, put them in a loose order, reshuffle, rearrange, rethink, rewrite.

For example, my first book project, which I still have to edit, was structured entirely on slips of paper – which made it quite easy to write.

This project, the one I am working on right now, started the same way but the posts I’m writing have branched off somewhat, as I discover what I want to write about.

The fact is that pre-determined structures rarely work for all the complexity we experience in real life.

Rather than imposing references on every slip at the start, perhaps we should add them when we’re ready to file stuff and make things easy to do because the harder you make it to work with your system the sooner you will give up.

Making sense and making stuff

Now, what I’ve described in this post is a heavy duty system for making sense of things – it’s the kind of approach that will let you create books and papers throughout your life.

It helped me create 70,000 related words with a minimum of angst when I had a first pass at using it.

But you don’t need to wheel this out for every project you do, there are simpler and quicker tools for conversations and business meetings.

Let’s look at some of those next.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

What Happens To You Each Day And What Do You Do Next?

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Wednesday, 6.08am

Sheffield, U.K.

The feeling of being interested can act as a kind of neurological signal, directing us to fruitful areas of inquiry. – B. F. Skinner

What does a therapist do?

If you watch Anger Management on Prime, as I do every once in a while, you’ll see Charlie Sheen in his group, and he’s always sat there with a large folder, taking notes.

But what’s he doing, what kind of notes would you take in that situation?

Okay, notes of therapy and consultation are going to be private – but there’s going to be something that interests you, some kind of trail that you’re going to follow as you try and understand what’s going on.

But this isn’t easy, so you have to also watch how you follow, what you do, how you think about the process that you’re following.

And you can’t do all this in your head, so it makes sense to write it down as you go along.

Write down everything because you can then look at it as a thing in itself, and you can ask yourself what you were doing and whether it worked or not and why you think it did or didn’t.

And then, of course, you write those bits down as well.

Let’s look at a real psychologist’s notes – and fortunately we have some from the influential psychologist B.F Skinner – in his book called Notebooks.

What’s usually most interesting in a collection of someone else’s notes is not the notes themselves but the introduction to the collection – the way in which they are presented and analyzed in the first place.

Some people are interested not just in the fact that there are notes, but in the form of the notes – are they in a bound book or loose notes?

From the introduction it looks like they are on pads, pages that can be pulled apart and rearranged in binders.

There were stacks and piles of notes and they are about “Everything”.

But then he wrote essays on 7x8inch spiral notebooks – hundreds of them.

And there are comments on what they are.

Note taking, we are told, is a technique you can use to “discover what you have to say.”

It’s an exercise, the writer’s mantra – “Nulla dies sine linea” – no day without a line.

The notes hold ideas, suggest analyses and experiments, contain facts and thoughts and plans.

In the world of Skinner, “Note writing is behavior”.

What does that mean?

The act of taking notes is not separate from the business of living – it’s a way of living in itself.

The only reason to take notes is if the behavior of taking notes has a positive effect on your life, if it reinforces and helps you to live better.

If you’re someone who wants to work better with others, to help others, to be useful to others – you have to do more than just present yourself, willing and eager.

We spend too much time in introspection, thinking about ourselves, what we can offer, what we can do.

It’s also easy to stay quiet, to let others talk about what they feel like inside, be someone who listens to their introspective thoughts.

But here’s the thing.

Both they and you are far more influenced by your environment and context than you perhaps realize.

The options you have, the choices open to you, the paths you can travel are to some extent already laid out in front of you, determined by what happened around you and what you have already done.

Skinner talked about this in terms of free will being an illusion, what you do depends on what you have done.

And, I suppose, what you can do, what you are able to do given the situation you are in.

And that seems to fit in with systems thinking and quality and all that kind of stuff – where you start to realize that what matters is not how enthusiastic or driven or motivated or pumped you are – but whether or not the system allows you to do something or not.

The fact is that whatever happens right now is the purpose of everything around you – POSIWID stands for the “purpose of a system is what it does.”

Everything around you works right now in the way it does perfectly because that’s the way the system is.

We have the political leaders we have and the kind of information we have and the kind of technology we have and the kind of relationships we have and the kind of interactions we have and the kind of workplaces we have because that’s the way the world is.

And if you try and change one thing then other things change as well and things move around and settle into whatever the new approach is and people do what they can in that situation as well.

None of which means you shouldn’t try to change things.

The point is that what you can change will depend on the environment you’re in, and so you need to look beyond yourself to your environment, ask questions about that environment and work out what your options are including strategies and tactics to change or replace that environment.

Revolution is always an option too.

The point about your notebook is that it’s a place to try all this out – a place outside your head that lets you hold the information and models and concepts you need to play with, the kind of thoughts you have to manipulate in order to make sense of things and decide what to do.

You need a place for “everything” that life throws at you, you need to be able to put things somewhere.

I find that things come so fast, however, that I fill books and books with notes – a reporter’s notebook, for example, will probably last me a month.

And that feels like I’m going to be swamped with stuff, but that’s okay too, it’s just life.

The point is what do you do next?

For example, I remember a particular incident, decades ago now.

It was in the time of dial up Internet, I recorded everything in my notebooks including the numbers of dial up Internet providers.

At that time you could call a particular number and your modem would connect and give you access to the Internet.

And then broadband came along and we forgot about things like that.

A few years passed, and then one day the broadband broke – we had no Internet – and that’s when you start to realize that information is like electricity, it’s hard to do anything without it these days.

So, I went back to my notebooks, dug out the page with the phone numbers and got us reconnected until things went back to normal.

So, your notebooks are a place to keep stuff you might need later.

The other way they might help is as a tool to help you live better – as mine of material that you can later work.

Some people own silver and gold mines but each of us can create our own mine, a mine full of knowledge and expertise and thoughts and feelings and research and data and facts.

Unlike a physical mine that someone can take from you and work for themselves, these repositories of knowledge, these mines of lines, that you’ve collected over time are personal to you, unique to you – it is the labyrinth of knowledge you have constructed to which only you have the map.

And so we need you to work with us – the people on that chair want to work with that particular therapist and over time, their connection becomes stronger.

And I think that’s what we really want from work and relationships as well, stronger connections over time, a better understanding of each other and where we are so that we can do more.

And that folder seems critical, the notebook seems essential to the process, a way of holding all that, holding what you do every day.

But, of course, once we have the notebooks – the mines – we have to work them.

We have done something today – but what are you going to do the next day?

Let’s look at that process of working what we have in the next post.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How To Get Better At Living Each Day Every Day

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Monday, 5.33am

Sheffield, U.K.

I am tomorrow, or some future day, what I establish today. I am today what I established yesterday or some previous day. – James Joyce

Many of us have probably taken the opportunity afforded by this pandemic to reconnect with paper.

Digital is convenient.

When you’re traveling from place to place, commuting to work, it’s easier to keep everything in text files, in the cloud, so you don’t have to carry anything with you.

But when you’re in one place you start to see what’s around you again.

For example, I have a pot of fountain pens in front of me – seven pens in the pot, one that I am using, and a few more in the drawer.

I remember buying those pens, testing the nibs, looking for the smooth, frictionless movement over paper, the controlled flow of ink.

Here’s the thing.

The medium you use channels and constrains what you can do.

How you do something is as important as what you do.

For example, why is so much writing so excruciatingly boring – why did people, and why do they still, think that writing big words and going on for ages is the way to do things.

It probably has to do with the limitations of type setting.

If you write with a pen in a notebook there are no limits to what you can do – you can go in any direction on the page, draw and add text, put circles around text, connect different ideas with lines and arrows and go all around the page if you want to.

Text, on the other hand, is typeset, word processed – and it’s just that much harder to do anything other than write the next word.

And so we are given words – words, words and more words.

Don’t get me wrong – words are important.

It turns out there is an Art of Letters – which I guess is basically writing…

Now, where I am trying to go is continue with an exploration of methods to follow and record information – and today I want to look at the daily logbook.

In my previous post I looked at commonplace books – a way to keep notes and quotes by topic.

Commmonplace books are about content, not about time – but time matters to us as well.

After all, do you think about what you do each day – and how many days you have to do those things?

Your days will pass. Inexorably.

In my case, a few years back I realized that if I worked every day for the next 40 years I would have around 14,600 days available to me, ignoring leap years.

So, on the 15th of July 2017 I started a countdown – every day a small script calculates the number of days left and appends it to the filenames of specific files that I use for daily work.

Today, for example, is day 13,366.

But, being a digital way of looking at things, that number is easy to ignore – it’s just something else that’s there.

So, I’m going to try keeping a logbook for a while.

I already do, really, digitally, but I’m going to move back to paper.

If you want to see what that might look like in ten years time, Austin Kleon’s stack is a good example.

To start your logbook, buy a day to a page diary and at the end of the day or first thing the next day note down brief points about what happened the previous day.

A logbook is different from a diary or a journal, really, because what’s important to record are the facts – what happened, where you went, who you met.

A diary or journal may record more – your feelings, reflections, angst.

Whether you go with the brief jottings of a log or the longer entries of a diary, the point is to prompt you – to remind you of what happened so that your brain can pull up the memories that matter.

In fact, you should probably separate the two, because a logbook can help point you to when you did something – a chronological index of your life.

For example, for the second half of this year I’ve been experimenting with drafting content for book projects in these posts.

It means that I can weave together the thinking about what I want to write and the actual content, hoping that it will work its way through in the editing process.

The writing is easy, the editing, so far, has been less so – I need to work out how to get into it.

When you’re working through an idea, what matters really is the idea before and the idea after – and if ideas split and go off in different directions.

Corralling all these ideas might seem difficult, if you’re going down a narrow path it should be straightforward, but it’s less so when you start to wander off the trail or when the landscape opens up.

Still, you have to take things one day at a time and what I’m realizing is that keeping a log of where you’ve been helps you look back quickly and see the whole picture without having to go through the details.

For example, I could go through my blog to remind myself about what I’ve written, but wouldn’t it be much faster to page through the logbook?

We think of diaries as ways to schedule our lives, but if you really want to do creative work what you have to do is leave great, gaping holes in your calendar.

Leave time to fill with the work that matters to you, not the tasks you have to do.

If you spend each day doing something that matters – then over a lifetime you will have tens of thousands of things that you’ve done.

Isn’t that worth logging?

But, of course, you have to have something to log in the first place.

And that comes down to the work you do every day – the stuff you capture in your daily notebook.

Let’s look at that next.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh