The Difference Between Hard And Soft Systems Thinking


Wednesday, 9.02pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Remember, always, that everything you know, and everything everyone knows, is only a model. Get your model out there where it can be viewed. Invite others to challenge your assumptions and add their own. – Donella H. Meadows

It is worth asking, every once in a while, where the ideas and opinions we have come from.

Take the word system, for example.

It’s a word that is used all the time in all kinds of situations.

We think of collections of things as systems – like computer systems and gaming systems.

We think of big, complex things as systems such as the justice system, the economic system or the financial system.

And thinking of things in this way causes us to come to a very simple, and very wrong conclusion.

We think of systems as being “real” – as existing for real in the outside world.

As real as flowers and ponies and tigers.

But, the thing is that the “system” only exists in your mind and in the minds of the people that you’ve shared your idea of the system with – or vice versa.

So, why is this important?

Many approaches over the last century have focused on our ability to create things that we call systems – and human beings have been very successful at making lots of cool things as a result.

People have made railways and rockets and medicine that actually works.

Now, having used such a way of thinking very successfully in certain situations – we often make the assumption that it will work equally well in any situation.

Which is why you get technical people who believe that they can build a solution to any problem because they have built a solution to a particular problem.

It’s an engineering mindset – and one that sits behind a number of approaches to problem solving – including AI and machine learning.

But history is also littered with failures of an engineering approach – what might be called a ‘hard’ approach to deal with problems that are not in its natural domain.

Problems that involve issues of politics and culture and belief, for instance.

Problems where it’s possible to prove that you can’t prove everything which, if you believe Godel, is the case with any system of logic.

So if you find you’re in a situation where you can’t “engineer” a solution – like how to deal with a problem like Brexit, or what to do about an ageing problem – you have a couple of choices.

The first is to plough ahead with a technical solution anyway – create a committee, set up a negotiating team, create backup plans and so on.

In others words – put systems in place.

Or you could look at the problem for what it is – complex and complicated or even, as Peter Checkland writes, mysterious.

The picture above is adapted from Checkland’s drawing of the hard and soft system approaches – and the basic thing to take away is that when a problem is complex what you can do is be systemic in the way you think rather than trying to make the world systemic.

This is a hard thing to wrap your head around, so let’s try an example.

If you are a manager and have an employee who is not performing what are you going to do?

Speak to HR? Fire the person? Go through a disciplinary process?

You’ve probably got a system – one that’s written out in the manual, one that can be defended if you have to go to court.

This rarely ends well for either party.

This system is also what makes it hard for women with young children to fully participate in work, for people who would like flexible work to get enough and for people to make the most of their talents.

You could argue that the system is broken.

Or you could realise that you just don’t know enough yet.

You don’t know enough about the employee – and why they are not performing.

You don’t know enough about yourself – the way you’re training, coaching and supporting your staff.

What you know is that you have a system and by gosh you’re going to follow it.

A soft approach is not a weak one – just one that realises that real world problems are almost always more complex than you realise.

How scary is the thought that you might need to actually sit down and listen and engage with the employee to understand what’s holding them back and how you can help them?

The thing about such an approach is not that you will get a result – but that you will, in the end, know you’ve done the right thing.

Not just done things right – the way the system tells you to do things.

But done the right thing for the situation you’re faced with right now.


Karthik Suresh

Are You Doing These Things To Develop Your Business?


Monday, 8.22pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Good luck is when opportunity meets preparation, while bad luck is when lack of preparation meets reality. – Eliyahu Goldratt

If you go to work every day and focus on what needs to be done then pretty soon you’ll start to lose track of what’s going on outside – what’s happening in the real world out there.

Guy Kawasaki’s book Reality check: The irreverent guide to outsmarting, outmanaging and outmarketing your competition is a collection of lists, Q&As and short pieces covering topics from starting up and raising money to making work less unpleasant.

At the end he has a reality checklist with ten points, out of which I’ve selected six (maybe seven) that are worth asking yourself regularly.

1. Do you make meaning with what you do?

I suppose this is a little like asking what value you provide?

It can be a slightly off-putting question – we probably all agree that teachers, police officers, first-responders and firefighters add value to society.

Every profession, in its own way will argue that it adds value.

Loan sharks, for example, make the argument that they provide credit where no one else will.

But it would be nice if it were possible to do more than that.

If you’re unsure about whether you make meaning right now, just think about it a bit more.

Maybe you just need to discover it for yourself.

2. What curve are you on?

A lot of people start things by looking at the competition – what else is out there?

That’s the red ocean strategy – the one you don’t want to follow.

It’s where there’s lots of competition and the sea is red with creatures fighting each other.

Where you want to be is the blue ocean where there is space and no competition.

Okay, not always.

If you sell a commodity product, you want to be where everyone else is so that people can compare and choose quickly.

This is the world of Amazon and Ebay.

If you do something a little more involved, then you should think hard about where you are on the innovation curve, and whether you can make the leap to an entirely new curve.

3. What’s your mantra?

Kawasaki asks if you have a three-word statement that sums up what you do.

I suppose it doesn’t have to make perfect sense – that’s the point of having time to elaborate on things.

Right now, if I were to have a mantra it would probably be Soft Systems Methodology – a useful approach to understanding and dealing with problematic situations.

4. Can you pitch or demo clearly and quickly?

The saying used to be publish or perish in the academic world.

It’s similar with marketing – you have to create content to explain what you do – with articles and white papers and presentations.

You still need to be able to pitch an idea – explain what you do in a way that people understand.

But even better is showing what you do – it’s now a demo or die world.

You’ll get a lot more enthusiasm if you show people stuff than if you tell them about the cool stuff you can do.

If you haven’t got a demo as part of your marketing package – build one.

5. Can you go to market with no budget?

In The Knack: How street smart entrepreneurs learn to handle whatever comes up Norm Brodsky writes about the business lessons he learned from his father.

Sell with a big markup, he explained. Make sure you can collect from your customer. Be fair – don’t take advantage.

And then the important one – “There’s a million dollars under your shoe; you just have to find it.”

Too many people wait until everything is right before looking for customers.

Start now – because it will take you time and you will be glad you did later.

6. Don’t ask people to do stuff you wouldn’t do

This is the basic rule of management – ask people to do only useful work.

Too many owners and managers ask people to do work that doesn’t create value for a customer.

Keeping timesheets, sending in status updates, form filling, follow processes – we need to ask which of these help with the central task of filling customer demand.

If the customer doesn’t need it doing then don’t do it.

If you own the business and wouldn’t do it yourself if you had a few minutes spare – then is it really worth doing at all?

Look around every once in a while

The point of this list, according to Kawasaki, is to act as a reality check – important points that will get you on the right path.

Because, as he quotes from Indiana Jones, “If you want to be a good archaeologist, you’ve gotta get out of the library!”


Karthik Suresh

Why Do Cathedrals Have The Same Basic Plan In Most Places?


Sunday, 9.00pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The bearing of a child takes nine months, no matter how many women are assigned – Fred Brooks, The Mythical Man-Month

I have finally gotten around to reading this collection of essays by Fred Brooks – not all of it but what I have read so far is already illuminating.

Take for example, how many people you really need to get a job done.

Say you have a project and you put one programmer on the job.

The task starts looking too big – so you look at adding a person to help.

This will make things go faster, no?


The first thing that Brooks points out is that you can only share out tasks between people when the tasks can be done without the people communicating with each other.

Picking cotton, sorting beads, moving pallets – all these tasks can be done in less time by fewer people.

Supermarkets, for example, get every employee in a store – from the top manager to the entry level clerk – to rumble the place – get every item on the shelf pointing the right way.

But, if you are doing a knowledge based project then communication is essential and communication causes two main problems.

The first problem is one of training. Say you add a person to help your programmer – the first thing the programmer has to do is train the person – and if that takes a week you’re another week behind schedule.

So, never get your existing programmers to train others unless you’re happy to fall behind even more.

Then, when people start to work together the increased need for communication scales exponentially with the number of people.

The more of them you have to talk to the less work gets done.

But you have to work with people – you need teams to get things done.

Here, Brooks points out that big teams with managers don’t work well.

Instead you need small teams and not just that – you need teams organised like surgical teams where you have a surgeon who does the work, an co-surgeon who is learning or can take over and support staff.

The way you work on a big project is by having lots of these surgical teams.

But the way you get them to work in a way that gets you moving in the same direction is to be very clear on the overall architecture.

A cathedral, for example, is pretty much the same wherever go in Europe because of the general design that Jean d’Orbais came up with.

Generations of builders can add their unique approaches and flourishes but within the overarching and coherent design that guides the development.

That approach – having a clear and coherent “what” allows experts to go ahead with the “how” in creative and inventive ways.

Just these three concepts – be wary of adding people to a project, organise yourself like a surgical team and work within an over architecture – alone can transform the way you manage knowledge work.

It goes beyond programming – and can be used pretty much across service industries that rely on using skilled people to deliver a benefit to a customer – it can even help you design a better sales process.

Because the whole point is to create a better experience for your user – your customer.

Wouldn’t it be nice if they looked at what you’d done for them with even a fraction of the wonder they have when they enter a cathedral?


Karthik Suresh

What Do You Do When You Can’t Be “Scientific” In Your Approach?


Thursday, 8.29pm

Sheffield, U.K.

It is the recoverability criterion, that is the crucial one in action research. If we imagine a spectrum of knowledge acquisition from experimental natural science at one end to story telling at the other, then along that spectrum will be very different criteria for judging the truth-value of the claims made. Traditional scientific experiments would be at one end and at the other, the weaker criterion that this (research) story is plausible. However, action researchers have to do better than simply settling for plausibility – Peter Checkland and Sue Holwell

I have a stack of books that fall into the genre of what Shawn Coyne calls “narrative non-fiction” and I’m starting to wonder whether they’re worth reading at all.

The problem is telling the difference between stuff that is true and stuff that just sounds true – the essential issue with anything that falls outside the remit of your basic set of physical sciences.

If you want to learn how people tick and how economies work what you need is carefully controlled experiments – from which you can figure out How Things Really Work.

The scientific method has been so successful at explaining the world around us that it now feels like the only way to create knowledge.

Except, a lot of time, there is a horrendous amount of noise in the situation you are trying to understand.

For example, let’s say you’re a consultant trying to come up with a marketing plan for a large organisation.

At one extreme everything you need to know is catalogued and figured out to two decimal places.

The Neilsen Norman group, for example, have identified 85 factors that go into making an About Us page to help your users.

It sounds very scientific – looking at over a hundred sites and observing 70 users – collecting data for the research that resulted eventually in this set of insights.

They write, with no trace of irony, that “Organizations that stood out from the crowd in favorable ways used tactics that helped them appear authentic and transparent.”

In other words – do these things and you will be able to fake being real.

Now, the point is not to have a go at the research – there’s nothing duller than trying to rubbish someone else’s work – but to understand how reliable this kind of research might be.

It’s likely that if someone else replicated the research they would end up with a different set of factors – none of the 85 on the list are going to be on the same level as, say, gravity.

The best you can hope for is that if you sat down and wrote a piece of copy that incorporated all the features it would outperform whatever was there already or “average copy”, whatever that is.

In a nutshell – it’s really hard to come up with an objective and neutral way of looking at things that involve people.

Systems that involve people are just plain messy.

So, when you read books that tell you how to solve problems that involve dealing with people you need to approach them with some scepticism.

And that’s because most of them make arguments that are plausible – but not much more.

What does that mean?

It means that if you want to write this kind of narrative non-fiction book what you do is collect a load of research, sift through it to come up with a Big Idea, search for stories that illustrate what is happening and put them all together in an engaging, conversational, easy to read package.

When you read these things the tips and tricks and hacks sound good – and you’re keen to try them out.

I try these out just as much as anyone else does – from David Allen’s GTD to Morning Routines from Tim Ferriss.

But these tips, while entertaining, do not help us move towards sustainable improvements in complex situations.

For those we need something a little more rigorous, something like action research – a process where we get involved in the situation as a participant AND researcher aiming to generate knowledge which is, if not repeatable, at least recoverable.

What this means, going back to our marketing example, way back when, is that the thinking and steps we follow to do what we do should be capable of being looked at and critiqued by someone else.

Which is a scary thing to allow – and so we don’t. Usually.

But, if you wanted to, just because it was the right thing to do what should you keep track of in the first place?

In a paper by Donna Champion and Frank Stowell called Validating action research studies: PEArL, they suggest that we should record five crucial elements to help us think about what we’ve created.

In the marketing project example – we might start with the participants. Are we satisfying the whims of the business owner or are we responding to a crucial change in the market?

Who is engaging with the project? Is it seen as something that is a one-off or do you have a team within the company that is interested and eager to make a difference?

What is the authority structure within the firm – is there someone who can make decisions or is this a project that is being done with no hope of taking action at the end?

What do the relationships look like? Are they collegial or based on power dynamics and politics?

Finally, is real learning being generated – not wishy washy marketing vaporware but real, reflective thinking that looks at things warts and all?

And a handy mnemonic for remembering these is PEArL – where the small r represents the importance of the soft relationships that exist within the group.

The chance are that if you look at the vast majority of commercial projects through the PEArL lens you will find all kinds of nasties and unmentionables hidden away.

Because in most organisations day-to-day life is about face and power and hierarchy and order – not about truth.

That’s the thing that “scientific” types need to understand about the real world.

It’s about people.


Karthik Suresh

The Easiest Thing To Forget When Starting A New Project


When one puts up a building one makes an elaborate scaffold to get everything into its proper place. But when one takes the scaffold down, the building must stand by itself with no trace of the means by which it was erected. That is how a musician should work. – Andres Segovia

Over the last couple of years I have drawn nearly 600 pictures, trying to find different ways to visualise and explore conceptual models.

There are some days when the models dominate – where the elements and relationships are the main things to get right and line and colour simply embellish the core message.

At other times it’s simply the visualisation of a metaphor – a literal depiction of what is going on.

Most of the time there isn’t much time to try and do detailed work – and that’s not really the point of the exercise anyway – As Dan Roam writes we’re aiming for communication, not art.

But every once in a while it’s refreshing to go back to the books and see how proper artists go about their work – and thing we need to remember is that nothing springs into existence perfect and fully formed but is instead built over time and in layers.

I thought I’d have a go at one of the exercises in Christopher Hart’s book Drawing on the funny side of the brain, which you can see in the animation above.

What also spurred me on was watching a few videos of artists using the software that I use to draw.

It’s called MyPaint and it’s only by watching someone else work, someone far more experienced than I am, that you pick up tips and tricks for making the most use of the tool.

It’s a similar situation with the software I use to create the articles I write – using groff to lay out the pages from marked up text.

The thing with these tools is that they’re becoming like favourite pencils and pens I once kept in a case (and still do).

The more I use them the better I get to know them – and they have their own quirks and peculiarities – but there is a sense of community and shared use that you don’t get with anything else.

For example, I use Microsoft reluctantly and with unease.

But, if you want to work with large companies – and they are the ones that benefit most from the kind of work I do – you need to be able to engage with their ecosystem.

Using those tools doesn’t give me the same sense of artistic freedom and shared history and community – I just feel resentful that it’s something I have to do.

That is perhaps the great illusion that underpins modern society – many people want to convince us that whatever they’re selling is perfect.

People who actually create things, however, know that the reality is much more complicated than that – they remember the twists and turns and wrong paths they took as they created something that was eventually useful.

The problem with thinking like a salesperson is that you think only of convincing someone to take what you’re offering.

Thinking like an artist involves starting with a blank page and creating something new – something that is created for one person – perhaps the artist themselves or for the person who will stand in front of the creation one day and take their own message from it.

The biggest mistake we make is when we try and jump to the end without going through the stages in between.

These are necessary – just as necessary as building up a drawing from simpler blocks.

Andrew Loomis in his book Fun with a pencil writes that “As you proceed to build all sorts of shapes out of simpler ones, it is amazing what you can do with them, and how accurate and “solid” the resulting drawings will appear. The surprising part is that, when the construction lines are erased, very few could guess how it had been done. Your drawing appears as complicated and difficult to the other fellow as mine might seem to you now.”

This principle could apply with very little modification to problems of operations, sales and technology development.

And it just needs one simple mental model to remember this principle – an approach that will help you work in a structured way, building from the basics to a finished product.

Start thinking using a pencil and, when you’ve got the outline you need, go over your final lines in pen.


Karthik Suresh

How Do You Select Tools If You Do Knowledge Work?


Friday, 9.18pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The Stone Age was marked by man’s clever use of crude tools; the information age, to date, has been marked by man’s crude use of clever tools. – Anonymous

If you had to set up in business tomorrow what tools would you need?

For most knowledge workers an office suite might seem like the most useful package – the trinity of Word, Excel and Powerpoint perhaps?

These tools each have a clear purpose: you write documents, do analysis and tell stories.

And get quite stressed.

If you have had the opportunity to work on a consultancy project of any magnitude you will be aware of how, as documents and spreadsheets and presentations get bigger and bigger, the difficulties associated with opening and working with them increase.

Even if you haven’t – but you have had to write a dissertation using Microsoft Word – you have probably experienced the frustration of losing work or struggling to get the file the way you want.

The end result is, in many cases, late nights and angst and stress as you wrestle with the tools that are supposed to help you out.

One way to look at tools is to think of what happens when you use a hammer to help you during a project.

If you need to bang a nail into a wall so you can hang a picture the hammer works in a certain way.

If you need to bang in the last nail on your multi-storey construction the hammer will work in exactly the same way.

As tools go the hammer isn’t fazed by how complex your project is. It just does the job it’s designed to do.

If you are a craftsman or a tradesperson who has to rely on your tools for a living you will probably take some care in selecting them.

Many years ago I was introduced to electronics repair by a technician who took me to a store where we purchased some high quality kit – from screwdrivers and needle nose pliers to an analogue multimeter.

These tools are still with me today, a couple of decades later and although some have been used to stir pots of paint along the way by others who should know better, they still work as well as they did on day one.

And there is no way I would use a Swiss Army Knife or a Leatherman as my primary tool when taking apart a machine.

So why is it that knowledge workers spend their lives working on problems with the digital equivalent of a multi-purpose tool from a dollar store?

Or worse, we do everything through interfaces – web based or app based that suggest that you can create works of complexity and beauty by pressing the right combination of buttons.

There is something fundamentally wrong with this – and that’s probably why most people don’t actually get very good at using digital tools.

Perhaps what’s happening is that we are too far away from the thing we are working on.

With a mechanical tool you are right there with the job.

I remember once having to repair a motorcycle brake system – the calliper was stuck and I couldn’t work out how to get the thing off.

As Pirsig writes in Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance, I was stuck as well.

What is the equivalent of that kind of stuckness in knowledge work?

Is it perhaps not being able to work out what an algorithm does, what argument to make next in your essay or which font to select?

With physical problems the tools you use are designed to fix the problem.

With knowledge work the main tool you have is your brain – your ability to think about and focus on the problem at hand.

Digital tools don’t help you think any better.

In fact, perhaps the purest approach to carrying out great knowledge work is to sit quietly and think deeply.

The tools you select to help you should help you to capture, organise and communicate complex thoughts and ideas worth sharing.

Tools that encourage you to write one line emails, send out updates and log into portals should probably be seen as a form of entertainment.

But if you really want to get work done you should choose your digital tools with the same care with which a master craftsperson selects their tools.

But the tragedy is many people don’t even know they have that choice.

Do you?


Karthik Suresh

Why We Need To Understand The Difference Between Consensus And Accommodation


Thursday, 8.15pm

Sheffield, U.K.

How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese? – Charles de Gaulle

If you look at the vast collection of literature that is loosely categorised as self-help you’ll find lots of tips to make things better.

Life hacks, they are now called – as if you can find a clever route that will make all problems vanish.

I suppose there are hacks that help you in practical ways.

A quick search suggests that you could grow rose cuttings in potatoes – that’s pretty useful information for some people.

But there are other problems that are less well served by looking for a hack.

Especially problems that involve working with other people.

This is something that those of us that are technical find hard to learn.

For example, do you believe that for a given office based task there is an optimal solution?

For most real world tasks there is more than one way to do it – and the approach you takes sits on a continuum between doing everything manually and automating everything altogether.

Take a practical example like checking whether a bill is right.

You could get out a calculator and work through the numbers.

You could create a spreadsheet and recreate the bill.

You might create a script that processes a file with the billing data and gives you a result.

You might be comfortable with one or more approaches but others will start to struggle at different points based on their skill sets.

The optimal approach then, if you want to work with others, is not one that depends on the solution but one that depends on the people involved.

And this is something that is not always easy to appreciate.

Peter Checkland, in his book Soft systems methodology in action writes about the problem of getting different people to go along with a plan of action.

This is the basic issue faced in a large number of problems – from how you do a task with a co-worker to how you decide which projects to do in your company and how your government makes policy decisions.

The thing that underpins it all is a process of politics – the activity by which different people figure out how to get along.

Checkland talks about the importance of achieving an “accommodation” in order to make meaningful progress.

An accommodation is something that people can live with, something they are prepared to go along with.

It differs from consensus in that people don’t have to agree that something is right or that they like it – just that they can accept it.

The point Checkland makes is that if you want to improve a situation you don’t need to find consensus.

It might be nice to have a consensus, to be in a situation where everybody agrees that a particular course of action is the best possible one.

In reality, such situations are rare.

Real situations have more to do with culture, politics and power than they have to do with technical virtue.

And culture, politics and power influence the stand people take on a particular issue – and the challenge you face is one of getting them to go along with your idea – to ‘accommodate’ you.

And people who don’t understand that struggle to get their projects through organisations, big or small.

This may seem like a technical and fairly pedantic point.

But it’s important for any non-trivial organisational problem you might come up against.

If it’s just yourself you have to convince, then that’s easy.

If you need to get another person or a group to go along with you, you need to understand where they’re coming from – their interests and what they can live with and decide whether you can live with that.

And if you’re rigorous in the way you approach that need for understanding, you will probably make meaningful progress in whatever project you’re trying to do.

In short, learn how to do politics because it matters.


Karthik Suresh

What Does Your Product Deliver For Your Customer?


Wednesday, 7.21pm

Sheffield, U.K.

We aren’t in an information age, we are in an entertainment age. – Tony Robbins

In the book Just for fun: The story of an accidental revolutionary about Linus Torvalds, the inventor of Linux, talks about his three rules or basic categories of motivation.

He says people do things to survive, for their social lives and for entertainment.

And, actually, the things they do tend to follow that order.

For example, we once needed fire to cook food and stay warm – it helped with survival.

In many societies the number of chimneys you had started to signal status – in fact there were taxation systems built around the number of hearths you had in your house.

And now we have fireworks, firepits and arson – forms of entertainment for different folk.

It’s a loose categorisation – a sort of derivative of Maslow’s hierarchy – but is it simply an interesting point of view from someone who has a giant profile in a particular field or is it actually something useful?

You might find it surprisingly useful if you use it as an aid to thinking about the way you market what you have to sell.

Few of us can really claim that what we do is essential for survival.

If you live in a relatively modern economy everything you need to survive is found in a shop somewhere – or on Ebay or Amazon.

It’s unlikely that what you do is necessary for people’s social life either – unless you’re in the business of making BMWs or a dating app.

The majority of us probably don’t work in businesses that really address points 1 or 2 in the picture above.

That must mean that what we’re selling is entertainment.

How can that be? If you sell training courses on video creation, for example, how is that entertainment?

Is it not something to do with social life – something that means the person learning has status or an income from their content?

Linus seems to have quite a loose definition of entertainment – it’s not just limited to lounging on a sofa watching telly.

Instead, he counts doing work as entertainment.

Especially if you work on a computer.

The fact is that if you are affluent enough to own a computer or work on one at work you probably are ok on the survival side of things.

And really, whatever you work at needs to do more for you than suck the life out of you.

There’s a Dilbert cartoon that sums up that kind of life perfectly.

Dilbert goes to his manager to have a chat about his career.

His manager says, “My plan is to work you until your health deteriorates and your skills are obsolete. Then I’ll downsize you.”

Dilbert is ill at the thought – his manager has never had a plan work so quick before.

So, really, if you’re at work you need to enjoy what you do – you need to be entertained by what you do.

Maybe not laugh out loud entertained – but entertained in a this is good fun and I’m doing something useful with my day sort of way.

And if that’s good for you that’s good for your customer.

Which means that your marketing might need to focus on how you entertain your customer.

How do you make their day better, and how do you make it easier and more pleasurable for them to get their work done?

How does the thing you offer help them to do their job better and get the satisfaction that comes from being competent at their job?

Many of us don’t think this way – we think about savings and return on investment as being key drivers.

The key driver, however, is perhaps how you help someone be entertained.

Because that’s what they’ll probably put some money down for.


Karthik Suresh

How To Get So Good That People Tell Their Friends About You


Monday, 9.13pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Start copying what you love. Copy copy copy copy. At the end of the copy you will find yourself. – Yohji Yamamoto

On Twitter the other day Paul Graham, the founder of Ycombinator, retweeted this – “Be so good they can’t ignore you” can be adjusted to “make something so good that people have to tell their friends about it.”

So, how do you do that?

The bad news is that there are few shortcuts to getting that good.

Or should that be – there are no shortcuts?

There are a few books I’m working through that make this point in different ways.

Joel Spolky in his book Joel on Software starts by reminding us that “Life is just too short to hate your job.”

What you spend your time doing matters more than you realise.

We spend astonishing amounts of time in front of screens – and only some of that time is spent working.

The problem is that most of this time is not “good time” – instead it’s fragmented and disconnected bursts of work pockmarked by interruptions.

And in such a world it’s hard to get things done.

Cal Newport in his book Deep Work points to K. Anders Ericsson’s work which pulled together disparate ideas that were related in a field called Performance Psychology and came up with the term Deliberate Practice as the way to improve performance.

There are two core elements to deliberate practice – focused attention on a task and feedback on how you are doing.

I wonder how many of us find that we have the time to do the former and if we are given the latter in our working environments.

More importantly, do we consider these factors when we’re responsible for training others or even when we’re trying to help our kids get better at something?

The thing about focused attention is that it takes time – weeks are good, days are doable, hours are a minimum.

You are not going to get good work done if you have to rush doing it in five minute intervals.

You need time.

And that means dealing with the things that consume your time – which in this day and age is almost everything around you.

From phones and email to friends and family – they can all be time sinks.

Some of those sinks you want and need – but others do more harm than good.

If you listen to anyone who does work that you like you’ll probably find that they spent a long time getting good at what they do.

It’s clear that Joel Spolsky has spent a lot of time thinking about software.

But the trick, he says, is to start at the foundations of the machine and build up from there.

If you’re into Mr. Men books you should look at some videos of Andy Hargreaves showing you how to draw the characters on YouTube.

It’s hard, he says, to draw circles – and he prefers to draw squares.

You don’t get much more basic than that.

And if you like words there are always those from Churchill on which words to use – “Short words are best, and the old ones, when short, are best of all.”

There is an art to getting better at something – and that is to practice – but practice in the right way with focused attention and feedback.

And if you take the time to do that then what emerges, eventually, may be remarkable enough to share with your friends.


Karthik Suresh

How To Start Thinking In Terms Of User Personas


Monday, 9.17pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Too often, Buyer Profiles are nothing more than an attractive way to display obvious or demographic data. – Adele Revella

In one of his podcasts Jay Abraham tells the story of a friend of his who has trouble dating.

They just can’t find the right person – it seems.

So Jay asks whether the person’s friends know exactly what to look for – and it turns out they don’t.

And, once his friend makes it crystal clear exactly what kind of person fits the bill – dates are lined up very quickly.

Or so the story goes.

So, the lesson is that you should do the same thing when marketing – you just need to know exactly what your perfect customer looks like and you’re off to a good start.

If you do a search for “how to come up with a persona” you’ll find lots of advice that follows traditional segmentation rules.

To save you the trouble of going through the results here are some of the questions you might ask – assuming you’re doing B2B sales.

  1. What job do they do?
  2. What job do they want to get done?
  3. What’s stopping them from getting on with the job?

Or you can do something that looks more like a CV.

  1. Name
  2. Gender
  3. Age
  4. Marital status
  5. Ethnicity
  6. Job title
  7. Income
  8. Blurb
  9. Education
  10. Previous roles
  11. Job goals
  12. Skills
  13. Social media use
  14. Frustrations

That’s turning into a long list.

Most of the first page of results have some variation on the lists above – and the differences are usually about how they’re arranged on the page and whether you’ve got a photo as well.

When you’ve done all this you’ve described someone on the outside – in terms of what you can see.

An enhanced approach is described by Chip and Dan Heath in their book Made To Stick.

In addition to demographic data they look at a case where the marketers also try and build a psychographic profile – where they try and get into someone else’s mind.

What does this person care about? Buy? Do with free time?

When you pull together information like this you end up with what looks like a collage – pieces that make up a person that now exists in your mind.

The thing with these approaches is that you can spend a lot of time building up a detailed picture of a person.

The other approach is to use the Sherlock Holmes technique.

And that is to start by elimination.

Who is not someone who is in the market for what you do?

In a B2B context that probably rules out kids and retired folk.

When you eliminate the impossible, you can go after what’s left.

Now, would I use any of these approaches to develop my own personas for marketing a product or service?

Perhaps – but there might be another, more powerful way.

Two, actually.

The first is to look at people who have already bought from you – or people who have bought the things similar to what you’re selling and try to understand them better.

But better yet is to throw away the personas – and try to have a conversation with the people you haven’t eliminated as ones you could work with.

In the Robert Collier Letter Book, first published in 1931, the author tells you the secret of selling.

“Find the thing your prospect is interested in and make it your point of contact, rather than rush in and try to tell him something about your proposition, your goods, your interests.”

Start by listening and try to understand.

Everything else will flow from there.


Karthik Suresh