How To Get Better At Doing The Right Things


Tuesday, 9.33pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Hofstadter’s Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law – Douglas Hofstadter

Many people feel guilty when they’re not busy.

Part of this has to do with expectations – with what you think you should do with your time.

There’s always so much to do – from tidying up to sorting out the finances, and if you’re not doing all that you’re just wasting your time.

A different kind of pressure comes from managers at work who, not being able to see inside your mind, instead watch what you do with your time.

The reason managers like having employees in the office is not so they can help them work better, or coach them, or train them but so they can make sure they’re not goofing off.

How often, when you’re at work, can you put your feet up on the desk and just think before someone comes along and asks you why you’re not working?

But does being busy or working all the time lead to something good – or is there a different model that might be more useful?

Something I remembered reading that might help with this is in Gary Keller’s book The one thing.

He says that there is a myth out there – in fact a lie – that you can lead a balanced life.

Let’s take two things that matter to you as an example: life and work.

Life is a catch all for all the things that are not work: your health, your family, your finances and so on.

Keller has a few models in his book that I’ve adapted in the image above to explore this concept.

First, you could play things very safe and keep things close to the centre line – close to the notion of being balanced.

That means doing things like working your contracted hours and making sure you get there on time and leave on time so that you can spend time with your family.

It means being firm that you make no personal calls at work while at the same time ensuring you take no work home.

That may seem like a good approach but you’ll also end up living a life that is very much in the middle – one where you don’t get too far in work and not too far in life.

That may be just fine or you might end up, decades from now, wondering what might have happened if you had taken a few more risks or tried a bit harder.

Could you be a senior manager or a CEO or running your own startup rather than still working at the same role you were doing two decades ago?

Or you could take life or work to the extremes – you could pay so much attention to one that you completely neglect the other.

This is the life of the workaholic or the permanent party animal. You’ll get everything done and wake up one day to find your family gone or spend your time having so much fun that you find there’s no money in the bank.

Extremes can sometimes lead to fabulous things, but by their very nature they also tend to extreme failure.

This is the story of the people who overextended themselves when money was cheap and who then lost everything when it became expensive again.

This is the Wolf of wall street lifestyle.

Then there is a third way, what Keller calls counterbalancing.

It’s essentially multi-tasking, paying attention first to one thing that’s important and then moving to the other.

The thing is that if you want to achieve anything you have to give it time – you need to be single minded and focused.

Creating new things takes time – whether it’s a business, a new application or working on yourself or your relationships.

You can’t just hack you way to an enduring solution – it often takes time and attention to get things done.

So, if it’s important to you then it’s important enough for you to give it attention – and you need to choose which things you’re going to give your attention to, and then cycle between them.

That means, for example, working really hard at work and then taking a week off to spend with your family with no devices.

It means working a day solid at a hard problem and then taking a few naps the next day during work hours to recover.

The thing that isn’t in Keller’s model is the item in the bottom right, which is also paying less attention to the negative things in your life.

That includes thoughts that pull you down, people that are corrosive and making decisions when you’re low on energy.

If you want to spend time on the thing that are important you also need to decide to spend less time with the things that get you down.

As the quote that starts this post suggests, everything takes longer than you think, and then some.

If you want to get good at anything you need to be prepared to spend five years working at it – because that’s the only way you’ll build up the 10,000 hours of practice you need.

And that’s also why it’s hard to become good at a number of things – because there is only so much you can pay attention to without running out of time altogether.

Keller says that instead of aiming for balance what we should do is aim for counter-balance – the act of moving from one important thing to another.

It’s a dynamic state of balance rather than a static one.

And perhaps that’s the approach that’s more likely to help you build a life you look back on as a good one.


Karthik Suresh

How To Get Better At Doing One Thing Well


Monday, 10.03pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The only way to write complex software that won’t fall on its face is to hold its global complexity down — to build it out of simple parts connected by well-defined interfaces, so that most problems are local and you can have some hope of upgrading a part without breaking the whole. – Eric S. Raymond

I was watching a video of an Indian comedian from the southern city of Chennai.

Everyone in Chennai, he said, is an engineer.

That’s the default profession that your parents want you to go into.

You could choose to be a certain kind of engineer – say a mechanical engineer or a chemical engineer – but when you’re done only a software company will hire you.

Then they’ll train you in a host of languages, get you ready to program in any way the client wants – and then you’ll end up doing everything in Microsoft Excel.

This is the reality of work in business – days, months, years spent doing stuff in Excel.

Lives spent doing stuff in Excel.

The thing is that it’s clearly very hard to get anyone brought up in a Windows environment to think that anything else exists or could possibly be an alternative.

Which is ok – the point is not to ask anyone to do anything they don’t want to do.

It’s to see whether there is something better out there and what that might look like if it were used more widely.

For example, in the unix world one of the core principles is to “write programs that do one thing and do it well.”

The idea is that if you have a number of such programs then you can make unexpectedly cool things happen when you also make them work together – especially if they communicate using a universal interface, like text files.

Now, how would you use such a principle in real life work?

Let’s take marketing, for example.

The biggest mistake people make when it comes to crafting a message is trying to say too much.

Any message should have one clear idea.

You might build on the idea, support it with facts, burnish it with credentials and make it engaging through story.

Through all of that, however, your message has to shine through.

That’s the point of an elevator pitch for your business – being able to concisely summarise what you do well.

The people I see doing well are the ones that have nailed that message – where it’s really clear what they do.

Not all professions or companies are like that, however.

Some do more complicated things that it’s hard to summarise in a nice, easy pitch.

Although that sometimes means that they haven’t taken the trouble to break it down so it’s simple.

It’s hard to tell whether something that looks complicated is actually just so big that no one really knows how it works anymore, or even whether it works at all.

When you think of the concept of doing one thing well there are echoes of the same concept in many different places.

Take the idea of lean service archetypes where what you want to do is work on single piece flow.

That means that one person tries to complete an entire task in one go.

If they can’t do that then they pass “clean” output to the next person to work with.

That’s almost exactly similar to a program that does one thing well and then passes output in the form of text that the next program can use as input.

Almost anything you do can be thought of in these terms, individual, self contained activities that can be connected through a common thread – just as you see in the picture.

The main result of this way of thinking is the possibility of emergence.

When you make something that is big and complicated it ends up doing what you want – hopefully – and is the sum of its parts.

When you make a number of things that are small and self contained and you connect them together, surprising things often happen – something emerges that is more than the sum of its parts.

It seems counterintuitive that doing one thing well may, in the long run, end up helping you do a surprising number of things better than you hoped to do.

And that might feel a little more fulfilling than spending a life trapped inside Excel.


Karthik Suresh

Is Storytelling Really A Programming Language For Our Minds?


Sunday, 8.24pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Myth is much more important and true than history. History is just journalism and you know how reliable that is. – Joseph Campbell

It’s can be a little dispiriting reading Isaac Asimov’s autobiography It’s been a good life.

This is someone who remembered everything he read or heard, through whom plot and story just flowed with ease and who never had writer’s block.

But he still had to serve his time – eleven years where he didn’t make enough to live off and years of rejections before he became known enough that he could just write and sell.

Asimov was a scientist, a proper one, who could also write science fiction. His fiction had real science in it and the stuff he made up also sounded like science.

He also liked history and his Foundation series is really the story of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire except set in a future galactic period.

As I write these posts I am conscious that there has been a change in the way I think about thinking.

In the very beginning I thought that what might interest people was technical information.

You might be very interested, I presumed, in the rate of glacier melting, the economics of battery storage or the intricacies of obesity-fuel ratios.

I quickly found that even I was having trouble staying interested.

I then moved to a much longer period investigating models – primarily ones around management.

There are so many heuristics, rules of thumb and conceptual models that people have come up with over time and some of them seem obvious and some of them make us stop and think a little.

After a while, however, they all run into the same problem – which is that although they give you a way to describe a situation they don’t really tell you what to do.

We are told that the goal is to be able to think critically, to look at everything and construct an explanation that works in a particular situation which is easy to say and very hard to do.

So, models are worth understanding but so what?

As the saying goes, they’re all wrong, but some are useful.

Now I feel like I’m entering a new phase, one where story and narrative are getting more important.

The reason for this is that I am coming to a belated understanding of the importance of story to our belief systems.

In a nutshell, the story you tell me about what you think is the best way I will get a understanding of what is your reality.

There is a bit (lot) more at this Sunday essay – but it seems to me that stories can be seen as programs we run in our minds.

If we want to understand others we have to understand their stories – not in context or in relation but as stories, unique and complete in themselves.

It’s like the quote I go back to from time to time that “Reality is a shared narrative we choose to believe.”

For many of us stories are reality.

And the way to change our reality is to write new stories.

I wonder if that is a line of thinking worth exploring.



Karthik Suresh

p.s. About the picture: Asimov said that to write you needed thinking time, time in front of your keyboard and the ability to see patterns of story.

How To Get Your Head Around A Pull System Of Working


Tuesday, 7.57pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Kanban is like the milkman. Mom didn’t give the milkman a schedule. Mom didn’t use MRP. She simply put the empties on the front steps and the milkman replenished them. That is the essence of a pull system – Ernie Smith, Lean Event Facilitator in the Lean Enterprise Forum at the University of Tennessee

When you have a conversation with someone the ideas can flow quite easily – you can think of any number of ways to do something or to collaborate.

How should you think about what to do – how can you work out what’s worth doing?

The idea of push systems versus pull systems seems a useful one to understand for these situations.

The easiest visual analogy is to think of moving a rope.

If you push it along, it bunches up and twists and generally remains stubbornly in place.

If you pull it, however, it will follow you to the ends of the earth.

So, that’s easy to say but how does it actually help you?

Well, one practical place to start is with todo lists.

A while back I wrote about my way of doing todo lists.

I write notes in plain text files and when there is an action that I want to remember I write it on a new line starting with [].

That makes it easy to search for all lines that denote actions and come up with a list of everything I need to do.

The actions list emerges from the notes I take over time.

My argument in that post was that lists get stale over time – especially if you keep them separate and have to manually update them.

The fact is that lists kept in the way I describe also get stale over time.

What I did was write a command to pull out all the actions and that list simply gets bigger and bigger until eventually I stop paying attention.

The point is that I’m still pushing actions onto my list.

And that’s ok – you need to capture the things that need to be done.

The obvious next fix is to figure out how to pull my attention to the tasks that need doing.

So, typically the default is to list everything and then tag things by priority.

Sort of like saying list to get everything and list A to get the ones tagged at priority A.

What if I turned that around so that list only shows me tagged items.

Get rid of all the priority codes and allow only a specific number of items that can be marked as priority at any one time.

Say 3.

That means when I list my actions the three that I’ve marked as ones to do turn up.

Those pull my attention and I spend my time either doing them or deciding that they can be deprioritised and taken off the list.

In a nutshell, what you’re doing every day is figuring out what should pull your attention.

And the thing that should pull your attention is the thing that most needs doing.

Sometimes that is urgent and sometimes that’s important – but that’s the decision you need to make from the mass of stuff that’s in your entire list.

When you stop thinking in terms of where you spend your time and start thinking in terms of what activities should pull your attention then you can start to choose between options.

Should you start work on a proposal or presentation before you first meet with a client?

Or should you always have a conversation to understand what they are thinking before you put forward your ideas?

Things like that are really hard to do especially if you have a boss who believes in being prepared or have a hard charging sales process where you need to talk someone into buying.

I suppose it comes down to having a very simple rules.

Do work for only one of two reasons.

First, do work if it’s something a customer wants you to do and is willing to pay you to do.

Or, second, do it if you want to do it.

Anything else is probably wasted effort.


Karthik Suresh

How To Understand Just-In-Time vs Just-In-Case In A Service Business


Sunday, 8.50pm

Sheffield, U.K.

how do you identify wasteful transaction costs or coordination activities? I believe that you ask yourself, “If this activity is truly value-adding, would we do more of it? When?” – David J. Anderson, Kanban

I was reading The Toyota Leaders: An executive guide by Masaaki Sato which talked about how the management there were introducing just-in-time (JIT) in the early fifties.

The idea of JIT makes perfect sense – don’t do anything until it’s needed by someone else for something they have to do.

It’s also fundamentally at odds with our human nature and how we think about things.

Imagine you wanted a coffee but had forgotten your wallet and suddenly say that there were two five pound notes in front of you – with no owner in sight.

Would you take one to pay for your coffee and leave the other one for someone else?

It’s ridiculously hard to stop ourselves hoarding things – from keeping things when we don’t need them to buying more than we need just in case.

The place where you see this most is in the weekly supermarket shop where the clever people who design the experience seem to have worked out how to make sure we always come out having bought 40% more than we had on the list.

So it’s ironic that the insights of JIT came to Toyota at the same time supermarkets came to Japan.

They saw that each customer at home had a small fridge and would make a trip to the supermarket to buy only what they needed.

And the reason the customer would only buy what they needed was because they could trust the supermarket to never run out of stock – so the customer didn’t have to hold any just in case.

In fact the ideal situation for a supermarket would be that whenever a customer took an item off a shelf a little factory right behind the item would make a new one.

So the main point about just in time was that if you could trust you could get what you needed when you needed it then you wouldn’t need to worry about keeping a stockpile just in case.

Now, the way in which you’d implement this is by having the people doing each activity ask for what they needed when they needed it.

This request was like an order form – and that’s where the term kanban comes from – from these order forms and Toyota saw that they could link activities together using these order forms and create a just in time system that pulled what was needed to where it was needed.

Now, as most of us don’t work in manufacturing what would that look like in a service environment?

In the model above everything starts with the customer.

The consultant’s job is to work with the customer, understand their situation until the customer is ready to sign a proposal asking the consultant to do something – that’s the first equivalent of a kanban or order form.

The consultant might need resources for the project – let’s say it’s going to involve an analyst, a subject matter expert and a programmer.

So now the consultant needs to engage with his or her colleagues to get them to work on the project.

Now, this is where it gets a little interesting.

Let’s say you’re the consultant and want the cheapest possible service then what you might do is go onto upwork or fiverr and try and get someone cheap.

The chances are, however, that you won’t get the kind of work you need because it’s a transactional relationship and the one thing that we know about customers is that they change their minds – which cheap outsourcers find has an impact on their costs.

What you probably need is to work with colleagues that you know, like and trust – people with whom you have a long-term relationship.

And that means committing to them, having one preferred supplier for that element of the service.

And, in return for always giving them the business, when you send them a signal asking for help they’ll respond.

But that doesn’t mean you can shortcut the time it takes to get them briefed and ready to start working.

For example, I sometimes use something like this to manage that process and, unsurprisingly, it does take a couple of hours to get everything going.


The thing is that you can’t simply fire off a request and forget about it – it takes time to understand what’s going on from the point of view of the client and the consultant’s job is to make sure the client gets what they need.

And, of course, we can’t forget the job of billing.

That’s another request through to accounts to send an invoice and get paid.

If you put this kind of model in place you’ll find that you have meetings only when you need to have them.

The point is to manage the client’s expectations, to explain to them how this process works.

If they take six months to agree a proposal and want a deliverable the next day you should probably suggest they talk to someone else.

Because no one can, and you shouldn’t, maintain the capacity in your business just in case a client walks through the door.

It makes much more sense to arrange things so that you can draw on the capacity when you need it.

As the quote that starts this post says – when you look at your day what would you do more of and what would you not do at all?

Perhaps you’ll find you’re most satisfied when you can take an hour off just for a nap or just because you feel like it – because you know that what you’re spending your time doing is what matters when you’ve awake.

If nothing else, you’ll spend a lot less time in pointless meetings.

And a lot more time getting your client results and keeping them happy.


Karthik Suresh

p.s. Another Sunday article on the same theme is How To Think About And Improve Service Design which may also be of interest if you’ve made it this far.

How To See What Is Really Going On In Your Business


Wednesday, 10:00pm

Sheffield, U.K.

All we are doing is looking at the time line, from the moment the customer gives us an order to the point when we collect the cash. And we are reducing the time line by reducing the non-value adding wastes. – Taiichi Ohno

I was lucky enough to attend a masterclass by the Vanguard team recently, led by Professor John Seddon about going beyond traditional command and control management and the insights in there are still sinking in.

So much of what we do can only be described as waste – time spent filling out forms, commuting, collecting figures for reports, filling in surveys or sending emails.

At the heart of the Vanguard method is learning how to see what is going on around you.

That’s something worth understanding how to do and it might make sense to work through an example.

I’m still learning this – so this might not be right, but it’s a start anyway.

1. Start with understanding purpose in customer terms

Do you really understand what your customer wants?

For example, if you’re meeting with a prospect what is it that he or she is looking for?

Are they looking for your product?

Or are they looking for a product that meets their needs?

It’s probably the latter so before you say anything about your product you should probably take the time to really understand what they need.

That might seem obvious but I have yet to see a salesperson who knows how to do that properly.

It’s an easier thing to appreciate if you look at it in the context of a break-fix archetype – a situation where something you have is broken and you need it fixing.

Essentially, you want it fixed, you want it fixed right and you want it fixed as soon as convenient.

Not it’s not as soon as possible – it’s when it’s convenient for you and that might be right now if it’s the middle of winter and your heating has broken down or in a week’s time when they’re back home from a holiday.

The reason why it’s important to get clear on purpose is so you know what isn’t contributing to what the customer sees as their purpose.

For example, none of the calls you make or reports you write or review meetings you have with your manager have anything to do with fixing the customer’s problem – from their point of view.

They just want things fixed right.

2. Understand the type and frequency of demand

The next thing you do in the Vanguard method is to study what’s happening in terms of demand.

That means starting at where the calls are coming in – a service centre for a break-fix system or anywhere else where customers call in and ask you to do something.

When they call in they usually want to talk about one of two things.

Either they want something – a product or a service – the kind of thing that makes them happy and that’s called value demand.

They want to buy something.

Or they’re calling to complain about something – because the fix hasn’t been done, the goods aren’t right or someone hasn’t turned up.

That’s a call about something going wrong and it’s called failure demand.

So, how many types of demand do you get and how many of each type come through?

3. Study the capability of your system

Now it’s time to start measuring how you respond to the demands on your system.

There’s all that demand coming in so how long does it take you to satisfy that demand?

For example, if a customer calls in wanting you to fix a problem how many days does it take from when they called to when the problem is fixed for good?

Or, how long does it take from when they place an order to get it to them?

The faster you get either of those things done the better the capability of your system.

Just think about how Amazon and Ebay have changed the buying process.

Amazon suggest that when someone buys off you that, even though you could take a couple of days to post something, you should get it in the mail as soon as possible.

For one thing, once the order is dispatched they can’t change the order.

But, more importantly you have a customer who expected to get something in three to five days getting it the next day and being delighted.

4. Map the flows and identify value work and waste

Now, if the customer isn’t delighted that’s because something is going wrong – you’re doing work that’s a waste.

Worse still you’re paying someone to first do work that the customer wants – value work and then if it’s not done right paying someone else to fix it – wasted work.

The thing to note is that in the Vanguard method you start mapping flows of work only after you’ve done the analysis of the types and frequency of demand and measured how your system responds at the moment.

After all, you need to know if you get better or not when you start to try and improve the system.

5. Start examining the system conditions

Most of the problems your customers are facing have to do with the system – not your people.

The system is almost always the problem.

The controls and structures and processes you have put in place are probably what get in the way of your employees making your customers happy.

What they’re doing is working to serve the system rather than the customer – working to meet targets, fill quotas, get bonuses and all the other things that either demotivate them or suck the intrinsic value of doing a good job out of what they’re doing.

The fact is you need to get rid of almost all that stuff that you use to control and monitor what’s going on.

In manufacturing at least you use that information to monitor the work.

In a service business all you’re doing is spying on your staff.

Instead – just help them do a good job and watch what happens to your failure demand figures and how quickly your team meets customer purpose.

6. Change management thinking

This is the hardest bit and you won’t get to it by telling the managers to change.

I learned about intervention theory at the masterclass.

This is the idea that there are two types of interventions.

Rational interventions are where you tell people why they’re being stupid.

And when you do that you shouldn’t be surprised that they get angry and offended and stop listening

The other type of intervention is a normative intervention where you help them to see what’s wrong for themselves and realise that they need to change the way things are.

That takes longer but it is a change that sticks – because they’ve decided it for themselves.

Hard to summarise, hard to do

The thing with this kind of systems intervention is that it’s a non-trivial task.

We’re so conditioned by a particular kind of goal oriented, target driven culture of organisations that it’s hard to imagine any other way.

Each step in the process is something that needs to be learned and practised and reflected upon.

And many organisations just don’t have the appetite or willpower to do that.

But if you can you could create an advantage – a competitive advantage that actually does endure.

Because if you have a business that meets the needs of your customers and your competitor has a business that meets the needs of the business – which one do you think is going to prosper?

Which one would you rather work in?


Karthik Suresh

How To Get Market-Product Fit


Wednesday, 8.46pm

Sheffield, U.K.

If your desk isn’t cluttered, you probably aren’t doing your job. – Harold S. Geneen

If you have a profession, are developing a technology, founding a business, creating a product or just living you probably spend a lot of time thinking about yourself.

If you were to take a minute and list all the things that are rattling about in your brain right now you’d quickly come up with a pretty long list.

How many things on those lists have to do with other people’s products or services?

So, looking at this from someone else’s point of view what are the chances that they’re thinking about your product right now?

A while ago I wrote about the concept of product-market fit and likened it to evolution – a way to survive and fit in.

But have we got the words the wrong way round?

If we start with the idea of a product then we have something already and what we’re trying to do is figure out who will buy it or whether they will buy it if we change something about it.

By putting the word product at the start then we are inevitably promoting it – marking it out as the important part – as the prime mover.

So what happens if you look at it from the other side – look at trying to get market-product fit.

In that situation, what is a market?

Well, it’s not a statistic or a demographic or a psychographic.

It’s a person.

More importantly, it’s the inside of one particular person’s brain – your potential customer.

And what does it look like in there?

If you look at the picture above it’s quite possible that a lot of people would say that’s what their brain looks like.

It’s full of all kinds of things – layers upon layers of thoughts and worries and frustrations and plans.

So, how do we make sense of all that stuff that’s in there – it’s not like there’s much room and all these thoughts are squished together and jostling for space and attention.

Your attention.

We make sense of things through story – through narrative.

A story links concepts together, creating a plausible whole that we can believe.

“Reality is a shared narrative we agree to believe”, said the librarian.

So when we talk about a market what we’re really talking about is a story that someone agrees to believe.

Maybe it’s a story you tell – a story that people choose to believe.

Or, best of all, it’s a story that they come up with.

When someone creates their own story about what their problems are and what they need to do to solve them – you have just found a market.

What’s emerged from that cluttered mess we call our minds is a story, a concept, a cluster of related ideas, first dim and then increasingly clear until it’s an obvious way to go forward.

And, if that story matches what your product does you’ve just achieved market-product fit.

Now, you would argue, if you were in an argumentative mood, that this is exactly what validation does in the lean startup / business model canvas world.

But, being pedantic, those approaches still put the product first and, in the guise of being open ended questions their primary aim is to determine whether you need the product or not.

If you put the market first, what you’re doing is putting the person in front of you first – and making your first task understanding what’s in their mind.

Or, helping them understand what’s in there.

One way to do this is by creating “rich pictures”, freeform drawings of ideas and thoughts as they come up in an interview.

There’s a little bit about rich pictures in this article and I’ll try and put up some examples at some point.

If you do this for long enough, you’ll find that patterns emerge – areas that you need to look at start to become clear and things that you need to do become obvious.

What happens is that a market starts to define itself as a result of your discussions.

Then all you have to do is see if you have a product that fits.

Or create one if you don’t.

And it’s possible that a market first approach is a little like shaping your environment to fit you rather than fitting yourself to the environment.

There’s a good change it’s an easier way to create something profitable.


Karthik Suresh

How To Construct A Program That Actually Works


Monday, 6.27pm

Sheffield, U.K.

There are two ways of constructing a software design: one way is to make it so simple that there are obviously no deficiencies and the other is to make it so complicated that there are no obvious deficiencies. – Tony Hoare

Too much in life is about compromise.

If you work in a business, for example, do you think you’ll get the best tools and finest training available on the planet to help you do your best work?

That question isn’t worth answering but it is interesting to ask why that doesn’t happen.

Take the practice of programming, for example.

A program, in its most general sense, is a plan, an algorithm, a set of steps which, if followed, reach a specified end.

And a good question to start with in any problem situation is to what end?

What end are we hoping for by following this program.

Perhaps it’s a program to help us lose weight, to become less anxious, to market our company more effectively or get a particular product to market.

Or, of course, it’s a program that does something – a web application, for example or a spreadsheet.

In all these cases what approach is going to help you construct a program that works?

Tony Hoare’s observation in the quote at the start of this piece can also be looked at as a matrix, as in the image above.

Some things are obviously wrong – obviously a bad idea.

Like stepping into a puddle on the road or leaning too far over a deep hole.

A small number of things are obviously right.

Given a set of choices about what to do next one of the options is often a fairly clear next step.

The fifth step or the fiftieth step might be harder but the next action, the next move can sometimes be obvious.

This situation where it’s easier to be certain about the short term and much harder to be certain about the long term means we can make the right decisions for right now – but they are also almost always compromises.

When we work in groups anyway.

That’s why so much business is done using spreadsheets when almost any other alternative would be better.

We use spreadsheets not because they are the best tool but because they meet the requirements for a lowest common denominator.

It allows the largest number of people to collaborate on a project that involves numbers where they can understand and manipulate both the tool and the data it holds.

In many software packages you can manipulate the data but not the software itself.

And, in a sufficiently complex package, your ability to change the data is also limited until eventually you grind to a halt, stuck in the equivalent of a digital swamp.

The approach many people take is to take refuge in complexity – creating more complicated programs that try and address their complicated needs.

The problem with this complexity is that it also makes what’s going on much less obvious.

You don’t know if this particular approach is going to result in your falling off a cliff or making a successful moon shot.

These two extremes – between obvious and not obvious – dominate our thinking and so we go for safe solutions because we don’t want to take the risk of doing something more ambitious.

Unless you’re working on your own, of course.

If you’re doing things your way – ignoring what is happening everywhere else then you have a chance to create something new.

Or fail, of course, but on the whole you’ll learn something whatever happens.

If you want to break through this the challenge is to get the right perspective.

And that really comes down to the number of lines in your program.

As humans we can really only hold five to seven things in working memory and think through whether the way in which they are connected works or not.

If your plan or program is a hundred items long you need to group them and keep grouping them until you can describe them using five to seven lines that cover the major things you’re trying to do.

That’s the point where you can differentiate the wood from the trees – where the big picture emerges from the detail.

Okay – those are cliches but they make a point.

But, if you want to go past the cliches and look at how you might actually do this this article has a go at distilling a long Wikipedia article into its main points and comes up with a model that you can look at for yourself and see if it meets the need to be obviously right or wrong.

I suppose the point is this – thinking in terms of programs is a very powerful approach.

Once you’ve written a program that sets out what you need to do to reach a specific end you can run that program and see what happens.

And you can change it if the results aren’t what you want.

Because the secret to constructing a program that works is not just about making a great design.

It comes from running it, testing it and debugging it.

And if you do that enough times you’ll end up with a program that makes a difference.


Karthik Suresh

What Is The Main Thing That Will Get People To Notice You?


Tuesday, 7.14pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The ball you need to keep your eye on here is the underlying principle that wealth is what people want. If you plan to get rich by creating wealth, you have to know what people want. – Paul Graham, YCombinator

I’ve been reading some of the older essays that Paul Graham, the co-founder of YCombinator, has penned over the years and one of them has answered a question that has bugged me for a while.

Why is it that companies that make no money are sold at such astonishing valuations?

Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Google, Snapchat, Instagram are all examples of billion dollar companies that were making no money at one time.

I grew up reading the essays of Warren Buffett, which in turn pointed me to the work of Benjamin Graham, the father of value investing who pointed to even earlier works that defined value in terms of the present value of future cashflows.

If you wanted to buy a company, for example, that made a good, steady product and you figured that it would keep selling for the next ten years, you might buy that stream of money at a discount today.

As a rule of thumb, for example, you might pay between 6 and 10 times earnings for such a business.

What if you thought that business was likely to grow?

Well, if you were bullish on that, you might go up to 20 times earnings.

And to protect yourself, you might actually work that out on the average of the last three years of earnings.

But the ideal, in those days of Graham and the early work of Buffett, was to pick bargains – to go shopping for discounts.

So I tried that first, when I was trying my hand at investing, and my picks turned out to have a disappointing tendency to go to zero fast.

Companies like JKK and Aquarius Platinum and Herbert Brown pawnbrokers don’t hold good memories for me.

Fast forward a few years and Buffett started listening to Charlie Munger and talked about buying great companies at a good price.

That tied in with the ideas of Peter Lynch, who suggested buying what you knew.

The increases I experienced buying into Superdry and Drax at particular times when they were cheap but still were good are a better memory of those times.

My early adventures at stock picking were more about the learning than the result really and so when it came to more serious investments I went with passive index funds – which have never really caused the kind of anxiety and euphoria that came with the active picks I made.

But in all that time one thing remained constant – the companies I bought made money.

So, how do you value a company that is making no money?

The answer, when you read Graham, is astonishingly simple.

Simply crowdsource the question.

What does that mean?

It means letting people tell you who the winners are.

Graham says that investors, venture capitalists and potential acquirers really have little to no idea of how good your plan is or whether your technology is really light years ahead of the competition.

So they turn to the market and ask what users think of your business.

They figure that users must have the good sense to select services and products that work for them.

When you tried to set up your first email account, for example, you probably tried rocketmail, hotmail, msn among others.

Do you now use gmail?

And if millions of people are making the same choices all you have to do is meet all the providers of such services and ask them how many users they have.

The most successful service will be the one that has the most users.

That’s why google pulled ahead in search, despite starting after Yahoo.

Now there is a danger in looking at large startups for all the examples of a successful approach because that makes you think only software businesses need to think of this.

It’s really about systems.

The question to ask is which “system” is most favoured by users.

McDonalds, for example, is a system, just like Google is a system.

And your construction business is also a system, anyone looking at your business can work out how successful you are by how many users you have.

And that means you need to ask yourself what your business is doing to get more users.

That’s a different question from selling – how many sales you’re making.

If you’re selling a service, for example, the price is immaterial – you could sell it for free and lose nothing but your time.

If you can’t get users, even if you’re giving it away, then you have a real problem.

If they’re signing up in droves, you can make money later on – you’ll figure out a way to do that because you’re giving people what they want.

Think about this for a second – what is the one thing you need to have if you want to persuade someone to work with you?

You need examples of work you’ve done with previous clients.

No one wants to be the first to try you out – most people are conservative and will pay more for something that is proven.

And there is no better proof than existence and growth of other users of your service.

And so, focus on users, because having them is the thing that will get you noticed.

And you can only get users by giving them what they need and want.

Which is why the number of users you have seems to have become the investment valuation rule of thumb for the digital world.


Karthik Suresh

What Is It You Want From Or For Your Customer?


Sunday, 8.38pm

Sheffield, U.K.

People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care – Theodore Roosevelt

I’ve been reading Seth Godin’s This Is Marketing and he has a very nice lime just hidden away on page 75.

It reads: “… what people want is to be understood and to be served, not merely to witness whatever you feel like doing in a given moment.”

I think that line is useful enough to stop and reflect on it for a minute.

Use it to think about how you execute your marketing strategy, for example.

If you’re putting out content is it because what you want is for your customers to give you their undivided attention?

In your head are the flows of attention coming from your customers to you?

I suppose if you run a successful YouTube channel that’s exactly what’s happening.

Or if you’re a celebrity that already has attention flowing in then it’s a logical enough approach.

If you’re not, however, if you sell electrical services or drainage or carpet cleaning does that make any sense?

Or are you better off focusing your attention on the customer and working with partners to meet the customer’s needs more effectively?

You’ve already worked this out but in the picture above Y is for you, C is for customer and P is for partner.

I think this simple model can actually go a long way towards helping us plan modern marketing, especially since everything is so focused on content.

How much of your content is about you – about your history, your products and your skills?

And how much of your content is about helping the customer with what they need.

After all, before you can help them you need to understand what they need in the first place.

And to do that you need to study them.

And I’m not sure it’s as simple as using segmentation and words ending in graphics – like demographics, psychographics and infographics.

And I’m not sure it’s just about personas either like smart susan and joker joe, which are thin stereotypes – carboard masks stuck onto cartoon personalities – that completely miss the real people they try to represent.

When it comes down to it understanding is about going deeper than that, doing research that is in-depth and thoughtful.

Because here’s the thing – the end result, the holy grail for marketers is having empathy with the customer.

And empathy comes from understanding.

Now, you can shortcut your way to empathy if you are the customer – after all, you would hope you understand yourself.

But it’s not really that easy to understand someone else – not for those of us with a technical background and fewer social skills anyway.

For us, we need to work at it.

Two papers from my collection that might help if you’re interested in doing this are How to study an organisation and Studying Organisations Using Soft Systems Methodology.

Both of these papers are about methods to have deep conversations with customers – and figure out what would make their lives better.

Because once you know that you can build a business around serving them.

And that’s probably a better strategy than waiting for them to realise how magnificent you are and follow you in droves.


Karthik Suresh