How To Transform Your Business – Slowly


Saturday, 7.25pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Doing your best is not good enough.You have to know what to do. Then do your best. – W. E. Deming

We live in a world of soundbites and quick responses.

In case you haven’t noticed there is currently an election campaign going on.

One of the parties has come out with a pledge to offer free broadband for all.

When I first heard this I wasn’t sure what opinion I ought to hold.

My first reaction was that it sounded strange, weird – what sort of thing is that to worry about?

The response of almost everyone else seemed the same.

The leader of the other party called it “a crazed communist scheme”.

At which point I started doubting myself – because that particular chap is not known for his grasp of the truth – and I have personally heard him say something on the lines of we’re going to give everyone gigabit broadband which “I understand is a good thing.”

I am not convinced that he would know the difference between a broadband connection and a can of baked beans.

And, after seeing a couple more tweets I’m starting to think the whole proposition is actually quite a sane one – everyone should have access to broadband – not just people like us who can pay for it.

Now, the purpose of this post isn’t really about the politics of this one issue but it is about what it means to improve something – your business, public policy or your personal life.

And the one thing that’s worth understanding is that it’s not a quick fix – none of these can be simply improved by having the right goals, working harder, buying more stuff or throwing money at the issue.

So, where should you start?

W. Edwards Deming, writing in Out of the crisis, describes how the chain reaction above “became engraved in Japan as a way of life” and how every meeting with top management had this in front of them.

If you have one aim for yourself, or for your business, aim to improve quality.

And that’s quality without caveats – quality at any cost.

Only quality matters, nothing else is worth tracking or studying or having an opinion about.

Okay, maybe that’s too extreme.

The chain reaction describes what happens when you don’t give the customer defective products – you get to keep making a living.

And, weirdly, when you improve quality – when you make fewer mistakes, get things right more often – the customer stops paying for all those mistakes and gets more value.

Maybe you can lower prices and be more competitive – make them even happier.

It’s a strange way of thinking to many – what we think we should do is raise prices for the same stuff all the time.

But what if you could provide better stuff AND reduce prices?

Would you, as a consumer, like that?

Or does that sound like another crazy communist idea?

This post doesn’t really have the full solution to transforming your business.

This blog has parts of it, however, in different places.

But really it’s not that hard – because while the detail depends on what you do and the situation you’re in – you know that transformation is going to take time.

And you now also know where to start.

Start by improving quality.


Karthik Suresh

How To Master The Art Of Writing Advertising Or Direct Response Copy


Thursday, 8.50pm

Sheffield, U.K.

If you are in need of truly world-class copywriting… You Are Probably Going To Have To Learn To Do It Yourself! – Gary Halbert

I’ve had a few conversations recently that reminded me of the work of Gary Halbert.

You’ll find his stuff all over the Internet and it’s well known amongst a tribe of direct response marketers.

I’ve found the work of Halbert and his friend John Carlton always readable, direct, in your face and really what’s needed when you need to come back to earth every once in a while.

As you probably know, if you read this blog, I like theory – ideas and approaches and models and possibilities.

I like theory because a good theory has the ability to explain what has happened – it helps you make sense of the past.

A theory is not the same as a method – it doesn’t tell you what to do but why things are the way they are.

So, if you talk theory with people they will often look at you with polite puzzlement – wondering why they should care.

After all, when you need to get something done you need some rather more hardboiled advice.

And that’s what you get from the likes of Halbert.

Take, for example, his approach to writing copy.

It’s all laid out here, almost – but here is the nutshell version.

Start with the quote above – if you really want to explain what you do, then you’re going to have to spend some time working on it yourself.

Start by creating a fact sheet that lists every thing about you, your business and your product or service.

Write down as many points as you can – the idea is to go on and go on and then go on some more.

Create pages and pages if you can.

Then, when you’re wiped out start restating the facts as benefits.

Go through each point and explain it in a way that make it clear why it’s a good thing.

For example, some time back I was looking for a way to capture what I spent a lot of time doing – something that is described by a particular approach called Soft Systems Methodology.

Using this term is stating a fact – it’s a tested methodology with a modelling language and useful characteristics.

Do the last two paragraphs, however, really explain anything to you?

The benefit of using this approach is that you can “make good choices”.

That’s the benefit.

One benefit, anyway.

Moving on, once you’ve got your list of benefits the next thing to do is craft an offer.

An offer has two components – price and value.

Price is what you pay and value is what you get.

For example, pay be $1,000 and I’ll give you half a day’s consulting.

That’s a starting point.

Now, you need to make the offer a strong one – something that pulls together the benefits you’ve identified with a commercial deal that gives the prospect a huge amount of value at no risk whatsoever.

This takes some thinking – because you have to deliver REAL value, not just some made up stuff, and really get rid of any RISK – because without doing that your prospect will stay scared and refuse to buy.

The next thing to do is go through your swipe file – your collection of headlines and advertisements and editorials that you’ve saved – the examples that remind you how things are done and where others put their money.

If you haven’t got a swipe file then create one.

Once you’ve filled your head with all this information it’s time to take a break.


Step away for a day or so.

Have a long nap, go for a walk, do anything else.

Give your subconscious time to work.

At this point, frustratingly, Halbert’s letter ends and he talks about writing copy the next time.

So, let’s borrow from the end of this letter about editorial style ads.

Find and read some rave reviews of products and services.

Wouldn’t it be nice if a reporter wrote up one of those for you?

But that’s unlikely so you’re going to have to do it yourself.

Write it like you’ve just discovered this fabulous product or service and just can’t wait to share what you’ve found with the world.

Talk about the benefits starting with the most powerful and work your way down.

And, at the end tell the reader where they can find and buy this amazing thing.

And write it in a way that an editor would be happy to see in their paper – something that is fact checked and robust and strong and verifiable and authentic and truthful.

If your business isn’t any of those things, you’ve got some more work to do first.

You know that saying about polish and it’s effect on a turd.

But if you do have something that a customer needs – then this is the way to tell them about you.


Karthik Suresh

How To Get Better At Listening And Understanding Without Judging


Wednesday, 9.17pm

Sheffield, U.K.

I remind myself every morning: Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So if I’m going to learn, I must do it by listening. – Larry King

I’ve been thinking for a while on how to get better at listening – and what kinds of models might help.

But first, why bother with something like that at all?

There are a few reasons.

Let’s start with Zig Ziglar’s maxim that “You can get everything in life you want if you will just help enough other people get what they want.”

But understanding what other people want is not as easy at it sounds.

Many situations we end up in are actually quite complex – they have multiple stakeholders with multiple points of view, a range of pros and cons that need to be evaluated and often a choice between a worse outcome and an equally bad one.

What we’re trying to get at is what Peter Checkland called a “rich appreciation” of the problem situation – a picture that is “as rich as can be assembled in the time available.”

And this is something different professionals have much experience doing – although from their own specialist points of view.

A journalist, for example, wants to know more – wants to know the detail and the back story and they’re looking for what is new, what is newsworthy.

They ask questions to do this – questions that probe and push and all too often stop being useful.

For example, I heard an interview the other day where a reporter was trying to show that a leader of a major political party would not use the armed forces under any circumstances.

He pointed out that the person in question had always voted against military action.

He then went on to ask whether the interviewee knew differently – quoted the various wars that the person had voted against and generally suggested that the person’s approach was “A Bad Thing.”

But is that really the case?

Is it so bad to believe that war is absolutely bad, that sending people to die should be avoided – that wars often make things worse rather than better?

Is it always better to have a jingoistic leader who is happy to send your son or daughter to fight and die in a far away land while their own children sip champagne by the sea?

The person being interviewed didn’t really have any good responses – but the point really is that the whole thing was shoddy journalism – something that was stretched out to make an unnecessary point rather than to critically examine the issue itself.

So we probably shouldn’t look to journalists for best practice here.

What about therapists – people who listen professionally?

I had a look through Learning ACT : an acceptance & commitment therapy skills-training manual for therapists to see how they go about it.

The problem with our common sense approach to problems, the authors write, is that we try and “fix” things.

When something bad happens we try and avoid the events that started everything or push away the bad thoughts that come with them.

Doing this, unfortunately, often makes things worse.

If your friend let you down when you were a child and as a result you stopped trusting people and never made any more friends that is probably not the outcome you had hoped for in the beginning.

The book talks about an approach that is more about looking without judgement at what is going on and accepting it – to then move on.

What a therapist will do listen to you – listen to your presenting problem, the thing you say you have.

Imagine you’re a small business owner and want to grow but are struggling to win new clients – that’s your presenting problem.

The therapist will then ask what you’ve done so far – what solutions you’ve tried.

As you talk through these she’s trying to do two things.

The first is to divine the purpose behind your actions.

What is it you want from this growth?

Is it more money? The ability to sell? Thoughts that you can employ people and free up more time for your family?

The second is to understand how well things are working or not working.

Have the things you tried worked?

Have the things you avoided helped?

Have you tried joining networking groups?

Have you tried cutting down on TV and spending more time connecting on social media?

The thing is that you wouldn’t be in therapy if everything was working.

But the therapist has to listen to you talk about your solutions and how they’ve panned out until you realise for yourself that they’re not working.

All the things you’ve tried, the bag of tricks, the hacks and shortcuts and routines, the investment, the sales teams, the email campaigns – none of them are getting you the results you want.

It’s hopeless.

Creatively hopeless.

That’s a good point to reach.

Because that’s when you can open up to new possibilities, new approaches that are perhaps more in line with the purpose that sits underneath what you do, a purpose that might not have been fully visible to you until it was pointed out.

The thing is that any response by the therapist during this process that gets judgemental, argumentative – that tries to fix things will backfire as the other person stops, gets defensive and attacks or retreats.

They don’t make it through to that all important point where they realise that things have to change – where they have to be done differently to move on.

And they stay stuck.

That’s a kind of stuck that keeps you in place – things just haven’t worked again.

Creative hopelessness has a chance of getting you moving.

And the possibilities can suddenly be endless once again.

And you made that happen.

Because you listened.


Karthik Suresh

Some Very Good Reasons To Show Your Work


Tuesday, 8.08pm

Sheffield, U.K.

A lack of transparency results in distrust and a deep sense of insecurity – Dalai Lama

I was working on a presentation when I came across Austin Kleon’s commentary on a HBR article by Ryan w. Buell on operational transparency.

Kleon points out that the overall message from Buell resonates with his idea of “Show Your Work”.

It’s worth looking at why, however, in a little more detail.

The image below is an extract from the presentation and shows what Buell found when he looked at how people reacted to different levels of operational transparency.


When you can’t see what someone is doing for you then you tend to think that they must be putting in less effort.

For example, you probably don’t think that Google works all that hard to get you a result – but behind that microsecond response is a gargantuan machine.

You don’t get appreciated that much when you’re invisible.

Let’s say you’re locked away in a backroom beavering away on a client’s account – if you spend a week doing something and no one knows about it how much are they going to appreciate your service?

How much are they going to value what you’re doing?

Buell found that people who couldn’t see what was going on were less satisfied with their suppliers.

But things get worse.

When what you do is a black box, when it’s opaque then people trust you less, are less loyal to you over time and don’t really want to pay for what you do.

Now, how many times have you heard service professionals moan about how their clients don’t want to pay them.

It’s especially common in sectors where there is a hard-charging, sales-driven mindset.

Although, arguably, all sectors have that to some degree.

Let’s take a few examples.

How many of you think that estate agents or recruitment consultants are worth what they’re paid?

The chances are that you get messaged every so often by a recruitment firm – someone who wants to charge you 20% or more to find you an employee.

What do they do for that money?

In my experience few agencies actually take the time to explain what they do.

The ones that do are more likely to be given a chance.

Many service professionals are, however, reluctant to give away too much – seeing value in their secret or proprietary methods.

But the days of such approaches is perhaps behind us.

Before the Internet perhaps you listened to people who claimed to have knowledge that no one else did.

Now, that’s unlikely.

Having secret knowledge, that is.

What Buell found is that showing people what you did – increasing operational transparency – helped improve the score on how customers thought and acted about you.

And this fits in with an emerging trend in the world of work and business.

If you get better at designing your service around the real needs of your customers – and if you collaborate with them in an open and transparent way they are more likely to want to work with you.

The value of things like trust and loyalty cannot be overstated.

In today’s world whether your business survives at all will probably depend on whether you get that.

Maybe we should refer to the old days as BI – Before Internet.

AI is here to stay.


Karthik Suresh

Why You Should Spend Your Time Looking At The Real World


Monday, 7.32pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away. – Philip K. Dick, I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon

I caught a bit of a conflict resolution podcast and what caught my ear was how the same principles lie at the heart of defusing an argument, whether it’s a hostage negotiation or a dispute between children in school.

In addition, some much overdue tidying uncovered a copy of the Psychologist which had a special collection on how people communicate.

The introduction to the papers, by Elizabeth Stokoe, introduces you to how powerful words can be.

In a hostage negotiation, for example, the objective is to keep talking until the situation can be resolved.

Each “talking” encounter is like a pass in a football game – a series of successful passes is needed to get the ball to where it needs to be to score.

When Stokoe and her her colleague, Rein Sikveland, looked at the recordings they found that when the negotiators used the word “talk” the negotiation often broke down – the bad guys didn’t want to “talk”.

But they would “speak”.

One explanation, perhaps, that the word “talk” has been so overused over time that people have become resistant to it.

Parent’s want to “talk” to you, teachers bring you up to their desks for a “talk” and managers set a time for a quick “talk”.

You often don’t end up feeling better after that.

“Speak” has fewer of those associations, so maybe people react less poorly.

The thing, Stokoe points out is that you’d never have seen this if you hadn’t listened to the real thing – the actual recordings of the encounter.

Too many people study things that describe the real thing – what Stokoe quotes Roy Baumeister as calling “proxies” – surveys, questionnaires and the like.

What we should be doing is spending more time pushing through the force field that separates us from the real world and looking around.

Doing what’s called “naturalistic observation.”

It’s not easy to do, clearly, and it’s hard to pass off as science.

But it is – it’s anthropology, action research, grounded theory and gemba.

Think of it like this.

You could look at any place on earth now and probably find a picture and descriptions and videos and recommendations.

But would you still learn something new if you went for yourself?

I think the answer has to be – almost certainly.



Understanding Variety: The Key To Delighting Customers


Tuesday, 7.15pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Indian religion has always felt that since the minds, the temperaments and the intellectual affinities of men are unlimited in their variety, a perfect liberty of thought and of worship must be allowed to the individual in his approach to the Infinite. – Sri Aurobindo

If I were to pick out one book that has affected the way in which I have analysed problems over the last decade or so it would be Understanding Variation by Donald J. Wheeler.

Wheeler is an expert on statistics – especially the bits that tell you how to figure out when something is really happening and when it’s just random – where there’s a signal and where there is just noise.

Having a framework based on understanding variation helps you in two specific areas.

One is when you’re trying to understand whether a particular sequence of numbers is telling you a story or not.

Is it possible to figure out when you should do something and when you should just wait and sit on your hands?

The answer is, arguably, yes.

For example, it’s quite useful knowing how to use technical analysis or being able to have an approach to trading cryptocurrencies.

If you have an understanding of what is sometimes called a mean-variance framework you can make decisions that, over the long term, will probably deliver good results.

The second area where understanding variation helps you is when you make things.

Things like bread and cars and keyboards.

Everything you see, really – all the products that help you live the way you do.

The key thing to understand here is that the people who make products want to minimise variation.

If you go to the supermarket and pick up a loaf of bread you want to know that it’s the same as every other load of bread with that packaging.

For example, a Kingsmill 50/50 loaf needs to look like the love child of white bread and brown bread.

It can’t have seeds in there, or decide that some slices should be longer than others or perhaps triangular.

That sort of variation is not going to make you happy.

This is something that’s so obvious and taken for granted that we don’t really think about the thinking behind this.

Once upon a time you went to a tailor and had clothes made for you.

Now you go to a shop and pick up a size that fits – and you expect that there is an order to things – a waist size of 36 means just that – not 40.

Although that said – it looks like manufacturers have realised that they sell more jeans to men if they label the ones that have a waist of 40 with 36 – but the point about consistency, whatever the measure, still stands.

Now, variation is all very well when you’re dealing with impersonal things like things and numbers but it’s very different for situations that involve people.

It’s just that no one told us that.

If you go into any office there will be someone trying to standardise and writing policies and procedures and insisting that a System be used to record everything.

New managers think that this is their role – to monitor and control and structure and tell.

Administrators and auditors and support services try and make things follow a Process – creating forms and templates and libraries of things.

All of which sounds very sensible when you come from a world where managing variation leads to good things.

Surely, if you all do things the same way then you’ll deliver great service and the customer will be happy?

It will not surprise you to learn that the answer is no.

Which is why in the next few decades I expect to increasingly draw on the work of Professor John Seddon and the books and papers he has authored in which perhaps the most important point is the one he makes on variety – leaving the world of variation behind.

When you’re making things you want everything to be the same – you want to reduce variation.

When you’re serving people what you want is to be able to deal with variety.

Now, this is something that is hard to explain to people who aren’t ready to hear it.

People who want control, who want to install a CRM, who want a sales process or who want to create job roles and descriptions – these people aren’t going to listen to you.

Because they know they’re doing the right thing.

Even though they aren’t.

Now, here’s the extreme version of this argument.

Think of a society that once wanted everyone to confirm to a particular idea of the perfect.

Anyone who didn’t fit was eliminated.

Remember what happened?

The thing about people is that they are different – individual and unique.

If you want to serve them then you need to understand them – deeply.

And that’s difficult to do.

But all the literature has the same underlying message.

If you want to talk to kids, first learn to listen to them.

If you want to help someone going through a tough time listen to them.

But more than that – learn not to judge and correct and direct.

But to see.

What they see.

And it’s probably the hardest thing to do, for some of us anyway.

But if you do it’s like going from seeing films in black and white to colour – it’s not something you’ll ever go back from.

You won’t put people in boxes or processes or structures or roles.

Instead you’ll collaborate with them, work with them and learn more together.

It’s a big shift, moving from selling boxes to understanding your customer in their full technicolour dreamcoat variety.

But if you take the trouble you’ll have no problem delighting them with what you offer.


Karthik Suresh

How Do You Really See Things From Another’s Point Of View?


Sunday, 9.24pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth. – Oscar Wilde

I’m in the closing section of Keith Johnstone’s book Impro: Improvisation and the theatre and he has started writing about masks.

Children delight in masks – they are make believe and wonder and magic.

As we get older, we retreat from masks – and perhaps for good reason.

Johnstone writes that in many cultures masks were seen as having power – those who wore them stopped being themselves and instead took on the spirit of the mask.

Remember Jim Carrey and The Mask? That sort of thing.

Now, these sorts of ideas very quickly make people nervous.

It’s a pagan thing, Johnstone writes. “The church struggled against the Mask for centuries, but what can’t be done by force is eventually done by the all-pervading influence of Western education.”

Now, the idea of the Mask in this section of the book is really Johstone talking about how actors can use the power of the Mask to transform into their characters.

And that is fascinating if you’re an actor but what I’m interested in is its application to the more mundane world of the here and now.

Because here’s the thing.

Even if you haven’t got a real mask on right now you’re still wearing one.

The thing people see when they look at you is your Mask.

You call it something different – your Brand, perhaps.

But in essence, the part of you that you show to the world is the public face of your personality.

What lies underneath is what you think the world sees – what you think of yourself and that is your Identity.

I can’t remember quite where I read about this particular way of describing Brand and Identity – but it’s different from what you will get with a quick search.

Now, let’s say you want to understand how someone else thinks.

Take a child, for example.

How can you understand what a child wants right now?

If you have kids you’ll know this isn’t easy.

Mostly because you want them to do something and they don’t want the same thing.

So, you try and get them to comply, using incentives, threats and force.

Have you noticed how hard it is to see things from their point of view?

How you insist on seeing what’s happening through the eyes of a forty-year old rather than a six-year old?

One way of getting round this is by literally putting on a Mask.

Put on a Batman mask and see how it makes you feel – try the Hulk on for size.

There is a sense of freedom that comes with being anonymous – even though you know you aren’t you can play a new part.

Could this work to understand what your prospect might want?

Many people suggest that you create personas – detailed psychographic profiles of people you want to sell to.

If you just look at those profiles then you’ll still see things from your point of view – and find it hard to empathise with that person.

Why not try and see what happens to the way you think when you put on a mask and act like that person?

You might find that you start to think and feel and act differently – you step into the mind of that person and perhaps start to see what they see when they look at you and your product – perhaps you’ll see what turns them off and what needs to change to get them interested.

The thing is that the Mask unleashes behaviour that you don’t see when it’s not on.

For an example of how it makes things worse read the news reports of political activism anywhere in the world – once people cover their faces they are free to do bad things.

But a Mask can also reveal the real character, the real motivation and the truth that lies beneath the surface.

This time of year a Mask is probably not too far away.

Perhaps it’s worth trying on – for business research, of course.


Karthik Suresh

What Emotion Do You Need To Inspire Before People Will Listen To You?


Saturday, 7.25pm

Sheffield, U.K.

I think of myself as quite a shy person. But when I’m curious about something, I’ll go quite far to satisfy my curiosity. – Alain de Botton

The answer is curiosity – and it’s a bit of a surprise to me why I haven’t used that word before to think about this.

I was browsing through LinkedIn when I came across a post by Jess Cunningham that makes this point – before you spill out everything about what you do to someone check if they’re interested in what you’re selling or are interested personally in seeing you succeed.

If not, you need to first make them curious.

Now clearly this is Marketing 101. The AIDA model, which talks about the stages of marketing as Attention, Interest, Desire and Action, goes back to 1898 or earlier.

The words Attention and Interest, however, don’t do justice to what’s actually happening.

Even variants like Awareness or Comprehension are words that have had all the life sucked out of them – a word vampire has come along and left just a desiccated husk of meaning.

Too strong?

Well, to see how this works imagine taking your dog for a walk.

Let off the leash a dog will dart from bush to bush, sniffing and nosing and moving on.

Dogs are curious – they’ll pause longer to check out something new or if there is the scent of another dog.

Curiosity, however, is also a dangerous thing.

If you watch animals or little children they are naturally wary – they have to be to survive.

If you want to get a squirrel to come over to you or a cat to allow you to stroke it you have to first get it interest in a nut or show that you aren’t a threat.

Everyone needs to feel safe in the moment before they will venture towards something new.

Because, if they didn’t, something bad could happen and there might not be enough time to react.

When I drew the picture above I was trying to capture this idea of animal curiosity – the need to investigate that lies in us all.

The dog in the picture walks past three identical rocks until there is something new in the last one, where it stops and sniffs.

If you think of what is happening as getting attention – then the leaflet pusher or beggar on the street is doing the same thing – getting your attention.

In most cases you push past, because the attention is unsolicited, unwanted, undesirable.

So sales people are taught to force forward – get attention by any means and then force people to listen in order to create interest.

If you think about what is happening as inspiring curiosity, on the other hand, then different images come to mind.

What do you stop and look at?

Something pretty? Something fun? Something musical? Something you’re already interested in?

The quote from Alain de Botton above should probably be running in your mind as you think about marketing your product.

Most people are wary – that comes across as shyness.

But, when they’re curious they’ll spend a lot of time to assuage their curiosity.

The question you have to ask yourself is why they should be curious about what you do.

It’s too simplistic to say that there’s nothing interesting.

There is almost always something interesting about stuff that exists and that you’re marketing – because someone had to be interested enough to create it in the first place.

Maybe that’s a circular argument and actually there are lots of things that should never have been created in the first place.

If you’re selling those then maybe you should consider something else.

But for the 80% of stuff for which there is a market out there, however niche, your marketing plan should begin by asking, “what is it about my product or service that is going to make a prospect curious?”

Curiosity is the tip of your spear.

Get it as sharp as you can.


Karthik Suresh

The Wrong Way To Manage A Service Business


It is easier for a tutor to command than to teach. – John Locke

I was recently given Professor John Seddon‘s book Beyond Command And Control.

The concepts articulated by Seddon make a lot of sense but are still very far from being mainstream.

I suppose that is the problem with much of what we take for granted as true.

If you think something is true that’s probably because it’s been around for a long time – so long that we’ve forgotten that it was once a theory that was put forward by someone as a new way to look at something.

Take modern management, for example.

It should more properly be called ancient management.

If you talk about time management and keeping time sheets you’re echoing the thoughts of Frederick Taylor – born in 1856 – who would time workers how long it took them to do different jobs.

If you talk about the processes involved in management as involving tasks like planning, organising and coordinating – you are echoing words uttered by Henri Fayol – born in 1841.

There was a time, we must remember, when management did not exist.

People had trades, professions – they did their thing by themselves and had an apprentice.

The start of modern management came with the growth of industrial economies and the need to organise large groups of people to do manual work – their brains were not required.

Two components of Fayol’s work made this possible – command and control.

The concept of command has to do with hierarchy, authority, responsibility and the ability to make decisions.

Managers issue commands and their subordinates carry them out.

Control has to do with checking that what has been commanded has actually happened.

That involves inspections, checks and audits.

All very sensible, you might think.

Perhaps even obvious.

But it isn’t – it’s just a theory that someone came up with two hundred years ago so that a group of people would push and pull big heavy things into the right place.

It’s a mentality that was created for a world of strong systems – big and heavy machines.

We don’t do that kind of work these days – most of us don’t anyway.

But we’re trapped with a nineteenth century mindset that we default to even as we start making a dent in the twenty-first.

The fact is that this approach is outmoded and ancient and wrong – for today anyway.

Mainly because what we do now is increasingly service work – which involves meeting customer needs rather than building things because you can.

The cornerstone of the command and control process is the practice of budgeting – something created by James McKinsey – founder of the global management consulting firm that bears his name.

But command and control has been out of favour even at McKinsey for some time now.

But it’s still very much alive everywhere else.

Which gives you only a few options.

Change your mind – and live like it’s 200 years ago.

Change the minds of those around you and bring them into the present.

And if all else fails, change where you work.


Karthik Suresh

Why Structure Beats Content When You’re Trying To Get A Message Across


Wednesday, 8.39pm

Sheffield, U.K.

What we observe as material bodies and forces are nothing but shapes and variations in the structure of space. – Erwin Schrodinger

It’s funny the things you forget as you go through life making assumptions about reality.

I am still working through Keith Johnstone’s book, Impro: Improvisation and the theatre.

In the second chapter he talks about being spontaneous and the main message that I take away is that in the beginning, as children, we see things as they are.

We see for the first time – and so what we see is original.

As we grow, we see by imitating what others seem to see – and that originality fades away.

Then, one day we perhaps try and see things as they are again and rediscover what it means.

As an adult we are surprised and delighted when someone simply talks about what they see – as they see it.

That’s why we like comedians – people who make fun of the great and powerful and point out the real, human side of what they’re doing.

The third chapter is about narrative and here Johnstone says something that reminded me of what I had forgotten.

“Once you decide to ignore content it becomes possible to understand exactly what a narrative is, because you can concentrate on structure.”

The image above is one example of how this works.

Most people think that you must write sentences like the one on the left to be understood.

It turns out that it’s surprisingly easy to read the sentence on the right because your brain has the ability to create meaning from structure rather than content.

This sentence has the first and last letter of each word in place but all the other letters are scrambled, where possible.

But what your brain does is look for patterns, not individual characters – and so the shape and structure of a word matters much more than the arrangement of characters inside them.

In the same way when you tell a story what matters isn’t how well you describe your characters or how clearly you explain what they do or say but in what happens.

One of the challenges I have in interesting my children in old stories from India is that so many of them seem to have content but no structure – and that’s because the intention is perhaps to deliver a moral message.

But that moral lesson does not always make for an engaging story.

So, what are the elements of structure you need to know if you are trying to tell a story or craft a message, for example for a business presentation?

The first thing is that the ideas you introduce need to be linked back to ideas you’ve introduced previously.

For example, if you simply recount events as they happened – you are telling a story but you “havenn’t told a story.”

Johnstone’s book gives you a few examples but the key thing is that you need to link up what is being told.

All too often you’ll see presentations that are like a list of things – one after the other you hear point after point but only a few presenters are skilful enough to link the points together.

If you want to persuade, to involve, to motivate people as a result of what you’re saying you need to get better at composing stories.

And Johnstone says that one way to do this is to stop thinking about making a story but instead of “interrupting routines”.

You create drama and tension when something happens to interrupt what’s going on.

The example he gives is about mountain climbing.

If you describe two people climbing up a mountain and then climbing down you’ve not really said anything interesting.

But if two people climb up a mountain and discover a plane crash then all of a sudden you’ve interrupted the routine.

The three things to remember if you want to keep your audience engaged is to construct your story as a series of interrupted routines, make sure you focus on what is happening right in front of you and avoid having things just fizzle out.

For example if you were to use this approach in a presentation it means that you need to create a series of linked ideas that keep breaking routines, focus on what matters to the audience and end with something that gets them talking and engaged.

It’s not easy to give examples of this kind of thing in business because it’s sort of like the case of “you just had to be there” but you’ll recognise it in any story you see or read – without these elements you’ll simply get bored and walk away.

Let’s finish by restating the importance of the last point.

Johnstone calls this “cancelling”.

The example he uses is the following sort of dialogue.

A: “How do you feel”

B: “Not very well at all”

A: “Do you want a glass of water”

B: “Yes please”

A: Gets the water. “How do you feel now?”

B: “Much better, thanks.”

Now, at the end of the last sentence B has just cancelled things.

The story started by introducing a need for water and then took the need away – cancelling it.

There’s nowhere to go from here without introducing a new element.

On the other hand, if B had done something else like –

B: drops glass, “Oh no, it’s gone all over me.”

The action continues.

A story works when it keeps the audience hooked.

A presentation works the same way.

And the tricks you need to learn turn on using structure to your advantage, not content.


Karthik Suresh